The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, March 31, 2006

Jim Collins enters the fray

The Center for the Future of Arizona has just completed a three-year study of schools in the state to determine what works, and what doesn't, in teaching Latino students. They used the methodology of Jim Collins' latest book, Good To Great: Why some companies make the leap...and others don't, to examine 12 schools that are "beating the odds" on math and reading scores. In addition to inspiring the methodology, Collins played an active role in the project.

This excerpt from
an article in The Arizona Republic reveals their findings:

When it comes to helping struggling Latino kids learn, success has little to do with money, class sizes, fancy reading programs, parent involvement or tutoring, a study released Thursday concluded. Those things can be found at both good schools and bad.

The report concluded a successful school in tough circumstances is not an accident, or a flashy miracle, and doesn't require a grand change in public policy. Here is what it reported makes the difference in a successful school:

• Disciplined thought: These principals and teachers admitted failure and changed their approach. Johnny Chavez, principal of Phoenix's Larry C. Kennedy School, said he judged himself and each teacher on the daily, weekly and monthly test results of each child. If a child wasn't making progress, Chavez and the teacher worked together in the classroom and consulted other teachers until they found a better way. "You have to have honest dialogue with your staff," Chavez said. "I'm not looking to make friends."

• Disciplined people: These principals pushed ahead despite roadblocks and used their entire staff to find solutions. They fought through children suffering from poverty, drugs and crime. They fought through bad reading programs imposed by districts, oversized classes, underpaid teachers and public mandates that created mounds of paperwork. Juli Peach, principal of Yuma's Alice Byrne Elementary School, said it's not just one hurdle: "It's hurdle after hurdle." For eight years, Peach has fought to keep every adult focused on making sure each child learns reading and math. "It's not anything other schools can't do."

• Disciplined action: The principal and staff select one program or plan, stick with it and make it better and better. Frank Terbush had been principal 17 years at Phoenix's Granada East School when the state labeled his school "underperforming." It was 1997, and Terbush said to himself: Well, that's the last time that's going to happen. "It's not the (test) data that's so important," Terbush said. It's teachers taking responsibility for every one of the 28, 32 or 35 kids in their class. "It's who is using that data and how they're using it."

What's fascinating is how the evidence demonstrated that the high-profile debates in education - about class size, money, etc. - were by and large red herrings when it comes to student achievement, at least within the studied group. We distract ourselves by choosing and defending sides in these arguments without the benefit of data - we believe these things are true and go forth as if that's enough.

This kind of research is overdue - education policy is so often established by conjecture and faith/belief/philosophical leaning/ideology, and far too rarely on hard data. While NCLB is not perfect by a long shot, the fact that it's forcing data gathering and disaggregation and holding schools accountable for their results is a critical step forward. As this research demonstrates, people are now starting to ask the next logical question: why are some schools are doing better than others, and how can we replicate those successes?

Bringing Jim Collins into the mix is inspired. He is known for not pre-judging the situation: rather than come up with an idea and see if the data fits, he dives into the data without any preconceptions and follows it wherever it goes. Reminds me of a great line attributed to David Ogilvy: "most people use research the way a drunk uses a lamppost - for support, rather than for illumination."

By asking the right questions, and by using hard data to find the answers, we'll finally be taking the critical and necessary step of casting off opinion in favor of evidence in setting education policy.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Followup on the portfolio model

Just weeks after Paul Hill's PPI paper came out, Education Week is running an article on growing interest in the portfolio model. Click here to read "Portfolio Idea Gaining Favor in Some Cities."

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Getting "unstuck" in education

Came across a great paper by Paul Hill, research professor at the University of Washington and director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. The paper, published by the Progressive Policy Institute, is titled "Put Learning First: A Portfolio Approach to Public Schools" (free pdf download here) and provides a clear look a the fundamental problem facing public education, along with his proposed solution.

The core problem, according to Mr. Hill, is that there is a need for dramatic change in education, but our current education system is designed for stability, not innovation, and as such inherently resists real change. From his paper:
Today's public school system tolerates new ideas only on a small scale and it does so largely to reduce pressures for broader change. The current system is intended to advance individual, community, and national goals, but is, in fact, engineered for stability. That is normally a good thing. We want schools to open on time, teachers to count on having jobs from one day to the next, and parents to feel secure knowing that their children will have a place to go to school.

Stability alone, however, is the wrong goal in a complex, fast-changing, modern economy. Students - disadvantaged students, in particular - need schools that are focused on providing them with the skills they will need to succeed in today's society, schools that are flexible enough to try a variety of teaching methods until they succeed in reaching these goals. The existing structure of public education, and most of today's schools, were not built to serve students with special needs and it does not work for them.

More on this resistance to change later in the paper:

The problem for reformers is that our current public school system is a lot like a building designed to withstand an earthquake. It has multiple, independent structural supports that flex and bend, dissipating outside jolts of energy. While this makes for a very stable educational system, it also diffuses pressures for positive change—most notably, efforts to reform schools to meet the shifting needs of students and society.

Nobody deliberately engineered this system. The complex set of laws, regulations, contracts, and established practices that now control almost everything in public education is an accidental result of many small decisions, each intended to accomplish a particular purpose. The process began 40 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education. That ruling ordered the end of school segregation, but also inadvertently began the process of turning publicly supported community institutions into government agencies. Since then, local, state, and federal governments have imposed more and more constraints on schools. Each of these requirements, on its own, has been fairly minor and most were in pursuit of desirable goals. But the cumulative effect has been to strip educators of the power to adapt instruction to the needs of students.

The solution, according to Mr. Hill, is a portfolio approach to public education, wherein school boards strip away constraints and actively manage a variety of school models, constantly evaluating progress and success and changing the schools in its portfolio according to demonstrated success. By giving real authority and budgetary discretion to school managers (both public and private), school boards will create an environment where people are encouraged to experiment in order to create and validate new models of success.

Could we ever make the great leap from the status quo to this new approach? Hill thinks so, and points to a partial shift to this approach in Chicago. He also notes that community and business leadership, supported with newly-available data thanks to NCLB, have the power to put outside pressure on school boards to change and pursue this model.

Is he right? I don't know - I certainly think his analysis of education today is dead-on, and I hope he's right about communities being able to apply enough pressure to force change. But that kind of community-building and degree of focus are extremely hard to achieve, and the current system is very strongly entrenched thanks to decades of regulations, contracts, and institutional habit.

Regardless, it's a fascinating paper - it will certainly add perspective as people consider the range of issues and possible solutions for education reform.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Tracking in the Carolinas

Good article in Myrtle Beach's Sun News on developing a career track program in South Carolinas ("Schools hope track plan will retain students," 3/13/06). From the article:

S.C. educators hope a new career track program being implemented this year will keep more high school students in school and better prepare them for college or work.

Gov. Mark Sanford signed the Education and Economic Development Act last May, and it should be implemented by the 2007-08 school year in every high school in the state.

As part of the program, students will learn about different career options starting as early as kindergarten, and that learning will continue through eighth grade when they pick a career cluster they are interested in exploring through specialized classes in high school.

Similar programs are already in place in other states such as North Carolina, where high school students choose from four diploma pathways that include college or university preparation, technical college preparation, occupational and career diplomas, officials said.

"The idea is we're trying to get students to think about what they're doing when they get out of school ... and that's a real positive thing," said Ed Curlee, Horry County Schools executive director of secondary education. "This is just a way to get students to focus."

Educators and district officials say the program will keep students interested in school and thus lower the high school dropout rate. They also say it will make those who choose not to go to college better prepared to enter higher-paying jobs after high school.

This is a great development IMHO - any effort to bring K-12 education into alignment with the real world, particularly in ways that prepare students for life after graduation, is a good thing. While it's laudable in theory to try to prepare every kid for a college education, the reality is that not every kid wants to, or can, follow that path, and it's a disservice to force them to get ready for something you think is important but that they don't need or want. There are a multitude of interesting, well paying careers that don't require a four year college degree, and we should expose kids to that wide world of opportunity and help them prepare for the life they want after graduation.

Friday, March 17, 2006

College and schools working together

Another great education partnership model, this one involving colleges, highlighted by NASSMC in their news briefs:

News Brief #3495 Category: Postsecondary Education
TITLE: “A Nevada County Shows That Schools and Colleges Can Work Together”

Schools and colleges in Washoe County, Nevada have stopped pointing the finger at each other for unprepared students and are instead collaborating on how to solve the problem.

The Education Collaborative includes 25 representatives from the county’s public schools, Truckee Meadows Community College, and the University of Nevada at Reno. Together, they work on ways to improve student achievement, keep kids in high school, and better prepare them for college.

The collaborative’s current focus is on improving math achievement. A recent public service announcement they developed for local television stations features Mark Fox, the university’s men’s basketball coach, who urges kids to stick with mathematics. Math is like basketball, Fox says, in that it’s “hard to take a year off and then be really good at it the next year.”

The county school district recently decided to adopt a more rigorous math curriculum. High school students will have to take a fourth year of math beginning with the class of 2009.

A collaborative-developed Web site ( attempts to draw kids in with fun math facts and educational games. Students can also take sample placement tests to determine whether they’re ready for college math.

“What we’re trying to encourage is that students take care of this remedial work before they get here,” said William Cathey, a vice provost at the university and president of the collaborative. Last year, 454 out of 2432 freshmen at the Reno campus had to take remedial math.

SOURCE: Chronicle of Higher Education (School & College supplement), 10 March 2006 (p. B24)
The NASSMC Briefing Service (NBS) is supported in part by the National Science Teachers Association, International Technology Education Association, Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education, and National Science Resources Center. Briefs reflect only the opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the source articles. Click to SUBSCRIBE, COMMENT, or FIND archived NBS briefs. Click for information about NASSMC. Permission is granted to re-distribute NBS briefs in unmodified form, including header and footer.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Is the PTA independent?

It's hard to think about community engagement in schools without thinking of the PTA, which has served as a way for parents to join together as a group and get involved in their children's schools. Which is why it was so surprising to read a commentary in the February 24, 2006 Wall Street Journal titled "Losing the 'P' in PTA: How a venerable organization became a front for teacher unions."

An excerpt from the article:
Today the PTA supports all of the union's positions, including increased federal funding for education and opposition to independent charter schools, to vouchers and to tuition tax credits for private and religious schools. This "parent" group lobbies for teachers to spend less time in the classroom and to have fewer supervisory responsibilities like lunchroom duty. Moreover, they want a pay scale for teachers that is based on seniority, not merit. In November, the PTA even helped to defeat California's Proposition 74, which called for limiting teacher tenure by extending the probation period for new teachers from two to five years, a proposal designed to give administrators more time to weed out bad instructors.

With polls indicating that the union label is a liability with the public, an arrangement has developed whereby the NEA provides needed financial support for the PTA, which in turn bolsters union positions at the grass-roots level. As one union official put it: "[T]he PTA has credibility . . . we always use the PTA as a front."

Not only does the PTA support the NEA on issues that protect the public-school teachers' monopoly, the parent group also speaks up in favor of the NEA's more radical curriculum ideas, like sex-education programs that replace "don't" with
"how to" and that propose the inclusion of a gay/lesbian unit starting as early as kindergarten.

Pretty shocking stuff, and one would expect the PTA to fire back in order to refute these claims. They did respond; however, they chose not to counter any of the assertions, instead merely stating that they're a good group with a great history:

February 28, 2006
Dear Paul Gigot,

There is no substitute for the PTA. Rita Kramer’s commentary “Losing the ‘P’ in PTA,” (February 24) is a distorted depiction of the historical significance and contributions of millions. PTA is the nation’s preeminent volunteer member organization led, driven, and supported by parents and others committed to its founding mission. The issues have changed over the years, but PTA’s focus has not—to speak on behalf of all children; provide information to assist parents in raising and protecting their children; and encourage parent and public involvement in education.

The tradition and history of PTA lends a solid foundation and significant body of knowledge to parents and families nationwide. Today’s PTA volunteer has access to resources to help their children succeed academically, skill development to help them become better parents, learning tools to improve communication with teachers, training to speak out about public school needs, and support to keep the school campus and neighborhood safe.

Most schools have a parent group of one kind or another, but not all parent groups are the same. A parent group is not measured in dollars; it’s more than print and dot-com how-tos; it has a role greater than hosting bake sales. Ms. Kramer’s account overlooked the secret to PTAs success—the people. PTA volunteers connect everyday to improve their schools.

Parents hold a great stake in the future and support of children’s education. PTA is the path through which they can make the greatest impact. When a school community supports the decision to have parents organized as a PTA, the result is informed and engaged parents, a more supportive learning environment for students, and a better reputation for the school and community. That’s the PTA difference.

Anna Weselak President, National PTA

The article points out that PTA membership is down from 12 million in the 60s to half of that today, and that parents are instead creating their own PTOs (parent teacher organizations) without dues and devoid of political aims. If the assertions in the Journal article are true, and the PTA is not serving an honest and independent role in the mix, then that's a very good thing.

Schools are community institutions insofar as all of the stakeholders are represented, and this includes teachers (including union representation for labor issues as well as having a voice in instructional matters). But if an organization that claims to speak for parents is really serving as a shell, parroting the interests of a distinct and separate stakeholder group, then it's not playing an honest role in the process, and the voice of parents must be heard through more authentic channels.

Thanks to the Public Education Network's weekly email blast for the heads-up!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

An interesting business/education partnership model

Pasted verbatim (with permission) from Friday's News Brief from the National Alliance of State Science and Mathematics Coalitions:

News Brief #3481 Category: Business Role in Education
TITLE: “In Their Search for Skilled Workers, Big Employers Go to Summer Camp”

Major corporations are backing career-oriented summer camps, an investment they hope will bear a future return of skilled workers.

IBM, Texas Instruments and Exxon Mobil are funding a middle-school science and technology camp program that serves 500 kids in five cities. AT&T supports three science and math camps in Detroit and Chicago. Intel sponsors three science camps in Colorado and Oregon.

The employers hope to increase the number of American students training for careers in science and technology. The fields are particularly low on women, who, for example, account for just 14 percent of electrical engineering degree-holders.

Twenty women employees at Texas Instruments chipped in $5000 apiece to fund girls-only initiatives such as summer physics camps. “We want to make sure more girls understand the future opportunities in industries like ours,” said Melendy Lovett, a senior vice president at TI.

Initial results from the camp experiments are promising. More than a quarter of TI campers have gone on to take the AP physics exams. About 80 percent of middle-school participants in IBM camps say they intend to pursue a technology-related degree.

SOURCE: Wall Street Journal, 23 February 2006

The NASSMC Briefing Service (NBS) is supported in part by the National Science Teachers Association, International Technology Education Association, Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education, and National Science Resources Center. Briefs reflect only the opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the source articles. Click to SUBSCRIBE, COMMENT, or FIND archived NBS briefs. Click for information about NASSMC. Permission is granted to re-distribute NBS briefs in unmodified form, including header and footer.