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Archive for June, 2014

Closing the achievement gap by supporting teachers

Instead of pouring more resources into high-stakes standardized tests, those working to support low-performing students should focus their energies on supporting teachers, writes education professor Linda Darling-Hammond in a blog at the Huffington Post titled “To Close the Achievement Gap, We Need to Close the Teaching Gap.”

As evidence, Darling-Hammond points to the findings of the Teaching and Learning International Surveyof 100,000 teachers worldwide, which were released last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The survey, she said, revealed:

American teachers today work harder under much more challenging conditions than teachers elsewhere in the industrialized world. They also receive less useful feedback, less helpful professional development, and have less time to collaborate to improve their work.

Current education policies, writes Darling-Hammond, “ignore the facts that one in four American children lives below the poverty line and a growing number are homeless, without regular access to food or health care, and stressed by violence and drug abuse around them. Educators now spend a great deal of their time trying to help children and families in their care manage these issues, while they also seek to close skill gaps and promote learning.”

Darling-Hammond highlighted the survey finding that nearly two-thirds of U.S. middle-school teachers work in schools where more than 30 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. That is triple the average rate reported in the survey, and by far the highest rate in the world, she said.

To address these inequalities, Darling-Hammond suggests some important policy changes that would support teachers rather than penalize them:

  • Address inequities that undermine learning
  • Value teaching and teacher learning
  • Redesign schools to create time for collaboration
  • Create meaningful teacher evaluations that foster improvement

“We cannot make major headway in raising student performance and closing the achievement gap until we make progress in closing the teaching gap,” Darling-Hammond concludes. “That means supporting children equitably outside as well as inside the classroom, creating a profession that is rewarding and well-supported, and designing schools that offer the conditions for both the student and teacher learning that will move American education forward.”

Read the full post here.

Summer is for…

School’s out. But we know that many UFT members have busy summers ahead.

Many will still be working, including the members of our Federation of Nurses/UFT. Some others who work in the schools will teach special-needs students or summer school during the summer. Many others will use this time away from the classroom preparing for the next school year.

We all know that some people who have never worked in schools don’t understand the intensity of the demands on educators. These same people may also fail to grasp the fulfillment and gratification that can come with the job. And they likely misunderstand how teachers and other educators spend their summer breaks.

We work, take professional development courses, care for our families, prepare for the coming year.

Just as importantly, we try to find time to recharge. In our devotion to our students, we can pour so much into our work that we become emotionally and physically drained.

The UFT recently asked our Facebook followers to share their tips on how to have a productive summer. Some of the answers are on page 55. Here is one:

“Spend time building yourself intellectually and spiritually,” said Jessica Leung Rivera, an ESL teacher at PS 101 in Brooklyn. “Spend time doing what you love. But also do something new. Learning a new skill will remind you what it’s like to be a student.”

Whether you are working this summer or getting a much-needed break, find some time to relax and recharge. You deserve it.

A top-down plan for charters’ growth

[This editorial originally appeared in the June 26 issue of the New York Teacher.]

Over the last 15 years, as the number of charter schools around the country has multiplied, the movement has increasingly become dominated by charter school networks such as Success Academy and Uncommon Schools as opposed to independent or community-based charter schools.

That is no accident.

Researchers have found that large foundations are deliberately fueling the growth of charter school networks, also known as charter school management organizations. One recent study, described in our Research Shows column on page 17, looked closely at the explosive growth of charter school networks in California from 1999 to 2005. It found that four foundations had worked in concert to drive that growth: the Gates, Broad and Walton Family foundations along with the New Schools Venture Fund.

The Walton, Gates and Broad foundations are also the largest funders of charter school networks nationally.

Why would these foundations want to fund networks rather than independent schools? A main reason is that networks can grow. An explicit demand of the foundations in the California study was for networks to add more schools fast. Charter school leaders interviewed for the study said foundations told them that they would receive funding only if they had a plan to scale up.

Some of the charter organizations aimed to grow big enough within a particular school district to challenge that school system. One said that scaling up was akin to having an effect on “public education the way FedEx affected the Post Office.”

We know that the ultimate goal of many in the corporate education reform movement is to privatize public education. These foundations and the other billionaire funders of the corporate reform movement see building up charter school networks as a pivotal part of that work.

We must call out the orchestrated, top-down growth of the charter school movement. Studies show that charters perform no better and often worse than public schools. And an unbridled and unregulated increase in charter schools poses a threat to public education and our democracy.

Do decorated classrooms distract young children?

Picture a kindergarten classroom. What do you see?

Chances are, your mental image doesn’t include blank walls. But a new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that kindergarten students in a visually stimulating classroom tended to be more distracted than those in a comparatively sterile environment.

As reported in a New York Times article, “Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom,” this study suggests that elaborately decorated classrooms might distract from, rather than encourage, learning.

In the austere classroom in the study, the kindergartners — age-appropriately wriggly and restless — were inclined to be distracted by others or even themselves. In the decorated one, the visuals competed with the teacher for their attention. The children spent far more time off-task in the decorated classroom than in the plain one, and their test scores were also lower.

Teachers who agree with the study recommend starting the year with relatively blank walls and adding student work to decorate the room as the year goes on.

Yet teachers of primary grades often start the year with decorated classrooms to help create a cheerful and welcoming environment. And many teachers have had administrators who expect them to cover every inch of wall space with some kind of chart or poster.

Tell us: What’s your reaction to this new research? What works for you when decorating your own classrooms?

Report: Co-located schools may violate students’ rights

Many co-located city schools have inadequate facilities, oversized classes, restricted course offerings and insufficient student supports that violate state education laws, according to a new report by the Campaign for Educational Equity.

The campaign is calling for a full-scale investigation into potential violations of student rights at all co-located schools and for the Department of Education to impose a moratorium on new co-locations until violations are remedied.

Housed at Columbia Teachers College and headed by the attorney who brought the original Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, the Campaign for Educational Equity says the inadequacies found in the report are not only a result of budget cuts but also of the rapid expansion of co-locations.

The hundreds of new schools launched under former mayor Michael Bloomberg resulted in an explosion of shared facilities. By 2013, according to the report, 63 percent of the city’s 1,818 schools were co-located, most commonly in buildings that had not added any square footage to accommodate the additional school. One hundred and fifteen charters account for 10 percent of co-locations; the other 90 percent are district schools.

But co-location “often exacerbates resource inadequacies and further limits already under-resourced schools’ ability to provide a sound basic education,” the CEE charges.

In a closely examined sample of 38 high-needs NYC schools, the report found that:

  • Students in a number of schools had no access to a library;
  • They had limited access to an auditorium, gym or yard;
  • Some schools provided adaptive physical therapy or physical and occupational therapy in the hallway;
  • Specialized rooms such as pools, dance studios or weight rooms were off-limits to students in their own school buildings;
  • Many middle and high schools could not provide required art classes, much less a sequence of classes in arts, band or orchestra;
  • Schools lacked staff and space for science labs, foreign languages, AP classes or career and technology programs;
  • Closets or storage areas served as rooms for special education, academic intervention services or English as a Second Language instruction;
  • Some schools changed student IEPs for lack of adequate space and resources;
  • Without the available classrooms, class sizes rose above contractual maximums.

Principals of co-located schools told CEE they spend 20 percent to 80 percent of their time in any given week managing building-related issues, such as space-sharing, security, and managing tensions between students in different schools in the building.

The CEE said its report should spur a full-scale investigation into potential violations of student rights at all co-located schools. Among its recommendations, it calls for the Department of Education to impose a moratorium on new co-locations until violations are remedied.

The last public school

[This editorial originally appeared in the June 5 issue of the New York Teacher.]

This June, New Orleans’ Recovery School District closed its last five traditional public schools, making it the first all-charter school district in the country.

Some observers call the all-charter district a grand urban experiment. We see the unfettered, underregulated expansion of charters as a threat to children’s education and to democracy.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the state took over 102 of New Orleans’ 117 schools. More than 7,000 teachers and other school employees were booted out. Charter operators were invited in.

Charter boosters in New Orleans point to higher state test scores and graduation rates than before Katrina. But such comparisons are questionable because many families and students who lived in the city prior to the storm have left.

Other trends are clearer. A 2010 study by the University of Minnesota Law School found that while New Orleans remains a majority African-American city, 80 percent of its white students attend the most selective, higher-performing charter schools while children of color and lower economic status attend lower-ranked schools.

Similarly, advocates for students with disabilities say children with special needs are routinely denied equal access to educational opportunities and are often pushed out of New Orleans’ charter schools.

A similar lack of fairness can be found in the treatment of educators. While most of the fired teachers were African-American, many of the new recruits are white. The fired educators sued for unfair termination and won.

Unequal treatment can thrive more easily in a district of privately run, though publicly funded, charter schools. The privatization and decentralization of New Orleans schools have led to both a loss of community control and a diminished sense of community as neighborhood schools disappear.

At a time when public education is under attack, New Orleans should remind us that public schools offer both an equality of access and a sense of community essential to our diverse democracy.

“Public education isn’t important because it serves the public,” the late cultural critic Neil Postman said. “It is important because it creates the public.”

New teachers’ contract will benefit students

The new teachers’ contract is a win for students as well as educators, writes Greg Anrig in a blog post at the Century Foundation.

Calling the contract’s approach “the inverse of the top-down, improve-or-else philosophy pursued by former mayor Michael Bloomberg,” Anrig writes, “The new organizational practices embedded in the ratified UFT contract emulate strategies that have improved student outcomes, according to mounting research published over the past decade.”

Anrig identifies identify three central pillars, supported by a wealth of research on education, that will benefit students:

  • Enabling teachers and their union to be formally included in decision-making about most aspects of school operations
  • Creating opportunities for teachers to receive ongoing advice from peers and other instructional experts, much as athletes are coached on how to improve their performance
  • Strengthening connections between teachers and parents

“Those changes are intended to build trust among all the stakeholders in public schools, provide teachers with new opportunities to influence decisions beyond the classroom, and create systems for improving the quality of teaching day-in and day-out,” Anrig concludes.

Read the full article here.