Current Affairs

Teach for America: Effective solution or resume builder?

Just a few months ago, Teach for America (TFA) was one of many programs facing severe cuts in the federal budget. It was spared and then some—it also has received a $50 million “scale-up” grant through the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) competition and, in early June, announced that this year’s teacher corps is the largest in the organization’s history.

TFA places outstanding recent graduates as teachers in struggling urban and rural public schools in order to fight educational inequality. Acceptance to become a corps member is fiercely competitive—of the nearly 48,000 applicants this year, only 11 percent were selected. And recently ranked TFA in the top 10 for toughest interviews.

The program has been praised as a win-win solution for low-performing schools and students who need bright, hard-working teachers and for TFA teachers who want to make a difference. But TFA also has detractors who question the effects that inexperienced, possibly culturally naïve, and transient teachers may have on student learning. In the article, “Teach for America and Teacher Ed: Heads They Win, Tails We Lose,” Stanford University researcher David Labaree argues, “TFA’s approach to teaching reinforces an old and dangerous vision of teaching as a form of slumming, a missionary effort by the White middle class” (p. 52).

Studies from Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee have shown that corps members have a positive impact on student achievement, but a 2010 review of evidence by University of Texas researcher and professor Julian Vasquez Heilig found that “students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers” (Executive Summary). He also points out the high cost to schools of replacing TFA teachers, who tend to move on once they’ve fulfilled their two-year commitment, and suggests policymakers support TFA staffing only when certified teachers are not available.

What is your experience with Teach for America? Do you believe that TFA helps at-risk students receive a better education? Or is it more of a “stepping stone” for ambitious young people who know it will impress potential employers in other professions?

Maura McGrath is McREL’s knowledge management specialist.

What’s good for the body is good for the mind

First Lady Michelle Obama tours the country speaking of healthy eating habits, Dr. Oz answers your health questions on daytime TV, and the USDA recently updated the food pyramid. As obesity rates rise, healthy living is front page news. Then why are schools cutting physical education (PE) programs? That answer has also been front page news: budget cuts and falling academic scores. Schools need to do more with less, and cutting PE leaves more time and money for academics. In California alone, according to a policy brief released in May by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 1.3 million teens in California do not participate in any school-based PE classes.

However, research shows that PE may be just what students need to perform better at school. Researchers Kathryn L. King, MD, and Carly J. Scahill, DO, from the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital implemented a program among 1st through 6th graders at low-performing schools in South Carolina that incorporated academic skills into physical activity. For instance, younger children used scooters to trace shapes on the ground, and older children climbed a rock wall outfitted with changing numbers to help them solve math problems. Students were engaged in this program for 40 minutes a day, five days a week. At the end of the year, test scores improved from 55 percent to 68.5 percent proficient.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules (2008), cites a similar study that examined the brain power of children before they began an exercise program. The children began jogging 30 minutes two or three times a week and, after 12 weeks, their cognitive performance had improved significantly. Perhaps just as important, when the exercise program was taken away, children’s scores plummeted back to pre-activity levels.

Because students are expected to learn more and more information at an increased rate, they need all the brain power they can create. Scores keep falling regardless of the programs and strategies schools implement—not unlike a “check engine” light that keeps appearing because, no matter how many times you take it to the shop, the mechanic isn’t fixing the actual problem. Maybe the mechanic is even making the problem worse.

Have you noticed the academic effects of cutting physical education in your school? Is more academic time a viable reason to cut ancillary programs?

Georgia’s vision moving closer to reality

An earlier blog, The Power behind Envisioning, describes the Georgia Vision Project, one state’s effort to rally residents in support of a singular high-stakes cause—providing all children in the state with an excellent education so they can be successful in college, career, and life.

A risky endeavor, you say? You bet it is, but so far, the response to the 45 recommendations has been great, say the planners. That response could be sheer luck, but it’s doubtful.

Take, for instance, the fact that the George Lucas Foundation has tapped Whitfield County Schools in rural northwestern Georgia (where 66% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) to be part of its new “Schools that Work” series. At first glance, Whitfield County, which includes five public middle schools embracing project-based learning, seems the polar opposite of the first school profiled in the series—San Diego’s High Tech High, a network of nine K–12 charter schools founded by a coalition of business leaders and educators and with an annual operating budget of about $27 million. Despite marked differences in school culture and resources, the schools share important principles: a common intellectual mission, personalization, and adult-world connections.

And herein is a lesson for us all.

Perhaps more school districts should be like Whitfield County, where educators are respected enough by the community to make decisions about what is and isn’t good for their kids; where supporting one another is a practice, not just an idea (e.g., administrators fulfill morning duties so teachers can meet and plan together); and where there is freedom to try and even fail at new ways to engage students in learning for today and tomorrow.

Recommendation 8.4 of A Vision for Public Education in Georgia is this: Develop a culture and climate that foster innovation and responsible risk-taking.  Whitfield County can check this one off the list.

Read why the George Lucas Foundation chose Whitfield County Schools as a “Schools that Work” school here:


Turning classroom instruction on its head

The classroom lecture. It’s been criticized, despised, even lampooned. An entire generation  can probably recite the lines to Ben Stein’s dead-pan, droning lecture in the 1986 film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (“Anyone?… Anyone?”)

But lectures aren’t necessarily bad. In fact , they can be an efficient way to help students acquire new knowledge. The problem with lectures, though, is often a matter of pacing. For some students, the information may come too slowly or repeat information they already know. Result: boredom.

For others, a lecture may provide too much information too rapidly or presume prior knowledge students don’t have. If students zone out for a moment, they may miss important content and be lost for the rest of the lecture. Result: confusion.

After a hit-or-miss lecture, teachers often give homework assignments, which students perform in what may be a private hell of frustration and confusion. What did my teacher said about cross-multiplying? Comma use in compound sentences? The Laffer Curve?

A new generation of enterprising teachers is beginning to turn this classroom model on its head, creating what are called “flipped” or “inverted” classrooms. Using simple web software, they record and post their lectures online, creating mini-lectures similar to what Salman Khan has created with his Khan Academy collection of more than 2,000 online lessons. (Click here to view Khan’s recent TED talk).

In these inverted classrooms, students watch the lectures at home, where they’re able to speed up content they already understand or stop and review content they don’t get the first time around (and might be too embarrassed to ask their teachers to repeat in class). The online lecture also incorporates visual representation, such as animated graphs or photos of important historical events.

Now, when students come to class, they can ask their teachers clarifying questions about the previous night’s lesson and engage in guided practice on problems they might otherwise have struggled with at home in tormented isolation. During class time, teachers can provide students with real-time feedback and correct misperceptions before they become deeply ingrained.

Jamie Yoos, last year’s teacher of the year in Washington state has created his own “inverted classroom” (see below).

Click here to view some of Yoos’ lectures on TeacherTube.

Similarly, two Colorado teachers, Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams, have also “flipped” their classrooms with vodcasting (i.e., online broadcasting of videos).

Students of these innovative teachers say they love the new format and are more engaged in class. Sure, there may be a few students out there who still delight in a 50-minute lecture, but for the rest, inverted classrooms just seem to make … anyone? … anyone? … perfect sense.

New review of McREL’s The Future of Schooling

Dave Orphal, over at the Learning 2030 blog, offers this nice review of McREL’s latest book, The Future of Schooling.

In his review, Orphal praises the book for its timeliness. He notes, for example, that one of the critical uncertainties identified in the book—whether the outcomes of education will be standardized or differentiated—is currently playing out in the “movement to national common core standards” being countered by critiques from “Sir Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink who argue that standardization is exactly the wrong direction to go.”

Orphal also praises the book for its balanced view on these issues, noting that the authors take “great pains to not reveal where they stand in some of the hottest educational debates raging the country.” He adds, “Neither pro-Rhee nor pro-union; neither pro-testing nor pro-authentic assessment; neither pro-charter nor anti-charter, there is plenty in this book to anger every side of our overly partisan educational reform circles.”

Our intent is not to anger anyone. Rather, it’s to provoke thinking about what the future may hold, to move people out of their comfort zones so that they can begin to prepare themselves for what may lie ahead. As we write in the book, “Some of these potential futures may capitvate and energize you; others may dishearten and frigthen you. Some may do all of the above. That’s the point.”

Read Orphal’s entire review here.

Teachers’ unions: Good for teachers, good for learning?

“Did you know that teachers in Wisconsin make $100,000 a year?”

“Maybe that’s why their students rank second in achievement.”

This is how rumors get started—and how public opinion is shaped. In the wake of the heated, national debate over the elimination of teachers’ unions’ collective bargaining rights, including bargaining for salary rates, many such “facts” have surfaced. However, a quick check on shows that $100,000 is not the average salary, but rather the total average compensation package, salary and benefits, for teachers in Milwaukee. The claim that Wisconsin ranks second in combined SAT and ACT scores is based on questionable data from more than a decade ago.

Much of the back-and-forth discourse in the media about teachers’ unions can distract us from what matters most: Do they help make teaching better for teachers? If so, does it translate into better learning for students? In a chapter from School Reform Proposals: The Research Evidence (Molnar [Ed.], 2002), Robert Carini of Indiana University Bloomington examined the effect of teachers’ unions on student achievement in 17 studies. He found that unions “modestly” raise achievement for most students in public schools, especially on math and verbal sections of standardized tests. However, Carini also found that unions were “harmful” for the lowest- and highest-achieving students.

Others, like Andrew J. Coulson in the CATO Journal article, “The Effects of Teachers Unions on American Education,” argue that achievement has stagnated while unions and the cost of schooling have grown dramatically. The value of unions for its members, he asserts, is protection from having to compete in the educational marketplace—essentially a “government school monopoly.”

Have unions affected your job, your teaching, and your students, for better or worse? Do you think they help or hold back education?

Maura McGrath is Knowledge Management Specialist at McREL.

Move over technology, make room for liberal arts

Americans always have been obsessed with time. In his book, Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything, James Gleick wrote over a decades ago that American society was moving ever-faster forward toward a pace that is so accelerated, we can’t slow down enough to realize it isn’t working. We are not saving time, using time more wisely, or creating more leisure time (although we like to think we are); we are just doing everything faster. And as author Nicolas Carr asserts in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, technology and other advancements are now crowding out time we might otherwise spend in prolonged, focused concentration. Carr writes that our increased dexterity with technology comes at the loss of our ability to spend time in reflective thinking, thus producing a country of shallow thinkers, which is a very scary thought, when you really think about it.

And that is why this recent headline in The Denver Post was so striking: “It’s old school—and it’s the future.” The article profiles Thomas MacLaren School in Colorado Springs, where single-sex classes, Latin classes, and reading the classics are the norm. All of the school’s 110 students follow the same liberal arts curriculum, including learning how to play a stringed instrument. This is not an elite school, curriculum, or group of students. One-third of students are on free or reduced lunch, and one-third belongs to a minority group. School leaders say they simply aim to attract and keep students for whom the curriculum and approach is a good fit.

Similarly, educator Mike Schmoker’s new book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, calls for a return to the essentials of providing students opportunities to engage in authentic literacy practices. This, too, sounds “old school,” but it’s hard to believe that today’s generation will be ready to lead globally until it has mastered the skills we most often need and use—not the ability to multi-task, but the ability to read widely, think deeply, and question courageously.

Read about China’s entry into the liberal arts arena here:

Making the case for bottom-up change in school reform

In President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, he called out the Bruce Randolph School, a turnaround school here in Denver. Once one of the worst-performing schools in Colorado, Bruce Randolph graduated 90 percent of its seniors last year—and 87 percent of them headed to college a few months ago. Obama attributed the school’s success to reform that is not just “a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.”

So how did they do it? According to a Denver Post article, then-Principal Kristin Waters first asked all teachers to reapply for their positions (only 6 out of 40 remained). Then, the school became the first in Colorado to be granted “innovation” status, a move that allowed it to operate more like a charter school, granting it autonomy from district and union rules and giving it more flexibility in terms of budget, hiring decisions, schedule, calendar, and incentives.

Waters said the school succeeded, ultimately, because it created “the supports for students, teaching them to ask for help and giving them that help…It was all about best practices, holding teachers and students accountable and creating high expectations.”

These factors are also at the heart of ongoing school improvement efforts in McLeansville, North Carolina, at Northeast High School (NEHS), which has moved from the academic “watch list” to the county’s “most improved school,” having increased test scores sharply for two years in a row. Since 2007, the school has seen double-digit gains in the percentages of proficient students in seven subjects, including increases of 34.5 percent in physical science and 25 percent in geometry.

The school did it by getting all teachers and administrators on the same page in terms of its main goal: to improve student engagement. Now, teachers hold themselves accountable by creating criteria for engagement and collaborating frequently, and “focus walks” by teacher leaders and administrators ensure that students are not only engaged but also learning in all classrooms via the same research-based instructional strategies.

In both cases, improvement efforts started at the student level. The schools didn’t bring in new programs or overhaul their systems; they simply figured out what their students needed most and found the best way to systemically meet those needs.

How does your school ensure students are engaged and supported? Do you have other examples of bottom-up change that have worked?

A Sign of the Times: Yale pulls investment in urban education

Yale University is shutting down its teacher preparation graduate program in urban education—a small, focused, and intense program—as well as its undergraduate early childhood education and secondary certification programs by the end of 2012. The university plans to reinvest these funds in a Promise scholarship program offering full state college tuition for New Haven public school students.

Tara Stevens, a graduate of the soon-to-be-obsolete master’s program, considers the program a long-term solution to educational obstacles in New Haven, particularly the wealth-opportunity gap. She claims Yale is only throwing money at the problem by creating a new program. Others from the school have concerns that while the Promise scholarship program will help some, ultimately, because of its hard-to-attain standards, the “promise” for many area students will remain out of reach.

The university is not the first to go down this path. West Virginia instituted a similar Promise scholarship program in 2001. However, the “whys” behind their decision raise larger questions about the future of our education system. Can a scholarship program benefit the education system as much as a rigorous, high-quality teacher preparation program? The reality is attendance is down in teacher education programs everywhere. The Panetta Institute for Public Policy released survey findings stating that interest in becoming a public school teacher has fallen from 45 percent in 2006 to just 28 percent in 2010.

What do you think about replacing a rigorous teacher preparation program with a scholarship program? Why are college students less and less interested in becoming teachers? Will we be seeing many more cuts to quality teacher education programs?

See the full story on Yale’s decision here.

See full survey results here.

Details about the West Virginia program can be found here.

Worth is in the eye of the beholder

The simplicity of the idea behind the SAME (So All May Eat) Café in Denver, Colorado, is stunning—patrons pay whatever they want for a made-from-scratch, often organic meal. No one expected the restaurant to last six months, but it is now in its 5th year of operation and serving thousands every year.

The café owners, longtime volunteers in soup kitchens and driven by a passion to solve a problem that big government and big money hadn’t, unabashedly took huge risks with their life’s saving to do something they thought they should: feed hungry people in a dignified and respectful environment and get paid what it is worth. Although running a non-profit restaurant is not exactly like funding education, there is a similarity worth noting.

The “worth” of a good teacher is a much discussed topic in education. In Uri Friedman’s December 21 blog, he asks “Is a good teacher worth $400,000?” and sites the recent findings of researcher Eric Hanushek of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, whose new book Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America’s Public Schools cuts to the chase about the lack of significant improvements in student achievement, simply stating that the incentives today do not focus on improved student outcomes. Hanushek suggests a performance-based system directly linking funding to success in raising student achievement will work better. Ahhh, the beauty of that conclusion reminds me of Keats, but with a twist: Simplicity is truth, truth simplicity.

Is a good teacher worth $400,000? If students are learning what they need to be learning, then yes, paying the going market rate for high performance is logical. Too simple, you say? A couple of café owners might disagree.

See what $125,000 a year is getting students in New York City here.

Read an interview with University of Missouri-Columbia Professor of Economics Michael Podgursky about merit pay and teachers here.

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