In a recent HuffPost piece, Liz Madans, an English teacher at Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Secondary School for Arts & Technology in Long Island City, writes about teaching poetry to high school seniors and what she learned at an eye-opening master class with poet laureate Billy Collins.
Mr. Collins is generous, knowledgeable and beautifully articulate. He says a poem should travel on the page the way we read an eye chart. Like the big E, the poem should start clearly to give a reader a solid footing, and then as things get smaller and smaller, the reader should have to squint and figure things out. “Good poems begin in Kansas, and end in Oz,” Collins told us. Give a reader a concrete place to begin: a walk in the neighborhood, a classroom, an image, and then that reader will follow you into the sky, into the dark, anywhere.
I am dazzled by Collins and by my peers and come away full of strategies, lists, resources and email addresses.
On the subway home, I begin to re-write my poetry unit.
[Editor’s note: Guest blogger Elaine Weiss is the national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.]
As many of us have long suspected, the impacts of popular market-oriented reforms are not as positive as their proponents would have us believe. Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and then-CEO and now-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who ran the school systems in New York, Washington, DC and Chicago, respectively, along with the mayors who controlled the school systems they led, all exaggerated their successes. In fact, the report I recently co-authored as National Coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, “Market-Oriented Reforms’ Rhetoric Trumps Reality,” discovers that using student test scores to make high-stakes decisions did little good and more than a little harm.
We found that across all three cities, student NAEP test scores rose less than they did in comparable high-poverty urban districts. In Chicago, reading scores, already below average, fell further. New York City students achieved the second-lowest average test score growth across fourth and eighth grade reading and math of the ten districts studied, beating only Cleveland. And Washington, DC students, who had been gaining ground in both subjects, saw that growth stop or even begin to fall. Moreover, what small gains did accrue went heavily to white and higher-income students, so many achievement gaps grew rather than narrowed. Closing schools neither helped students nor saved money, and drove teacher turnover, not teacher quality.
These would be terrible findings for any districts. They are particularly troubling, however, given these districts’ power (mayoral control), money (NYCDOE increased spending far more than other large urban districts, and DC Public School spending rose throughout the post-recession years), and the fact that they are held up as models by their own leaders and by philanthropists, policymakers, and organized advocates who advance their agenda.
The question, then, is not just how these three districts should change course, but how we can derive lessons from the findings that other districts, states, and the federal government can use to advance smarter policies.
We would say, first, look to the districts’ own small, less visible successes, which tell the flip side of the quick-fix reform story. New York City’s small schools delivered their best results by focusing on strong, sustained teacher-student relationships and hands-on learning experiences. Chicago’s multifaceted college-and-career readiness strategy contrasts sharply with test preparation that deprives students of real knowledge and skills. DCPS’ high-quality universal pre-kindergarten program nurtures all of children’s developmental domains and increases the diversity of the early childhood education setting.
Second, listen to teachers and principals. Stripping teachers of their morale and professionalism, and the teacher pool of the expertise that principals need to build strong teams, is a recipe for disaster. Montgomery County, Maryland’s Peer Assisted Review system, which leverages excellent teachers to assess and mentor novices, builds trust and promotes continuous improvement, not churn.
Third, pay attention to poverty. In urban, rural and, increasingly, suburban districts, student and community poverty pose impediments that, unaddressed, stymie even the best reform efforts. New York City and Chicago both house large clusters of full-service community schools that acknowledge, tackle and alleviate the effects of poverty. If the next mayor advances this supports-based approach, outcomes could look more like those in Cincinnati — more engaged, higher-achieving students, taught by satisfied and motivated educators.
Achievement gaps are driven by opportunity gaps: in kindergarten readiness, access to health care, qualified teachers, the capacity to navigate the college application process, and others. Only reforms that address those gaps in opportunity can deliver real change.