Thursday, November 13, 2008

Michelle Rhee and teacher tenure

A story about Michelle Rhee, the reform-minded superintendent of Washington, D.C.'s public school system, made its way onto today's New York Times most-emailed list. It's a fascinating story about Rhee's attempt to do away with the tenure system in her district. Check it out here.

There are strong arguments for and against the tenure system, but I lean strongly toward scrapping the tenure system and replacing it with alternative (but very strong) protections for teachers against arbitrary or political firings.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Educator Profile: Eva S. Moskowitz

Earlier this week, the New York Times profiled Eva S. Moskowitz, the head of the fast-growing Success Charter Network in Harlem.

Check out the profile here.
“It is the accumulation of the hundreds of minute decisions that is the difference between mediocrity and true excellence,” read a recent 14-paragraph Moskowitz message to a senior Education Department employee that began about scheduling difficulties but became broadly philosophical. “We at Harlem Success literally go for perfection.”

This is the woman who, during four years of running the City Council Education Committee, agitated the bureaucracy and the teachers’ union alike with exhaustive hearings on the dearth of science classes, the restrictions of the union contract and, famously, the matter of why so many school bathrooms seemed perpetually to lack toilet paper. Now, with the zeal of a bureaucracy-busting superhero, Ms. Moskowitz has channeled her interests in matters mind-bending and minute into the Success Charter Network, which started in 2006 with Harlem Success Academy 1, added three more schools this summer and plans to expand to 40 over a decade.
These are also schools clearly run by a mother. Mindful of the time it takes to tie tiny shoelaces, Ms. Moskowitz mandates Velcro footwear. The fact that her son Culver barely spoke at age 3 but played chess by 4 is behind the school’s policy of teaching chess to every child.

She describes the Harlem Success educational philosophy as a mix of the liberal Bank Street College of Education approach and the traditional Catholic school model. In an age when kindergarten is increasingly academic, and many urban charter schools have taken a militaristic approach to learning, the Harlem Success kindergartens have dress-up corners, water-activity tables and Legos but also use the highly scripted Success for All reading curriculum and embrace standardized tests. Even kindergartners take TerraNova exams in literacy and math, in January and May.

(Hat tip: EduWonk)

Consenting to a challenging curriculum

The biggest problem with school voucher programs and other policy arrangements that call for a greater role for private schools at the K-12 level is that private schools can control who they admit. Entry restrictions through academic testing or high tuition bills allow many private schools to ensure their own success by restricting access to those students most likely to succeed. Such restrictions arguably subvert one of the main roles of education in a democracy - that is, K-12 education is supposed to provide excellent opportunities for all students regardless of the relative wealth and status of their homes and communities.

Of course, no one would argue that American public education, as it is currently organized, even approaches that ideal; but voucher programs that give public funds to schools that can restrict access to incoming students deemed unlikely to succeed cannot be a serious vehicle for reducing inequality of opportunity.

There may, however, be a way to introduce more choice and competition into the K-12 system (a conservative goal) while promoting equal educational opportunity for disadvantaged students (a liberal goal). Voucher and charter policies, where they are introduced, should require schools to accept applicants on the basis of lotteries rather than on the basis of interviews and test scores as a condition for receiving public funds. Differentiation between schools needs to be based on factors other than who gets in; curricula can be different, allocation of resources can be different, teacher pay can be different, and the aims of education (i.e., vocational preparation versus college preparation) can be different. But publicly-financed schools should not differentiate themselves by restricting access.

Over at the Noble Street College Prep network of charter schools in Chicago, students are admitted regardless of their previously demonstrated academic capabilities - just as they are in most public schools. However, students and their parents must consciously choose to attend a Noble Street school, accepting a longer school day, a longer school year, and college-level homework loads as a consequence. Incoming students and their parents must agree to make college admission the overriding goal of their high school years.

The consequence? Over 85% of Noble Street College Prep graduates attend college.

It is remarkable what students can achieve when they are asked to consent to getting a great education as a condition of high school admission. Students' consent to hard work - rather than their scores on a high-stakes test - becomes the method by which students are put on a college-prep track.

Is this the answer to the age-old debate about "tracking" students? Can it be replicated on a larger scale? I wonder whether providing middle-school students and their parents with extensive information about career paths, wage differences between jobs that require a college education and those that do not, and similar data and then asking them to place themselves in a vocational track or college-prep track might improve students' high school experiences and the likelihood that they will reach their educational goals.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Self-education through blogging

Blogging about a topic that interests you can be a useful method of self-education.

-The pressure to post at least a little bit every day or so is useful if you are trying to learn more about the topic of your blog; it's a fun way of imposing some discipline on your studies.

-If one of the purposes of your blog is to share links to articles and websites about your topic, the act of finding articles and websites to link to can serve as a useful reminder to read widely about your topic and keep up with the latest news and opinion about it.

-Becoming a blogger means getting into the habit of writing regularly and articulating your ideas in a compelling way; developing your verbal and writing skills is essential to your self-education regardless of what you study.

-The act of writing (and re-reading what you write) about a topic helps you better retain and recall what you have learned.

The qualities of great teachers

In the introduction to Sonia Nieto's Why We Teach, the author lists the qualities that she believes that highly successful teachers display:

"In general, such teachers:

-Connect learning to students' lives
-Have high expectations for all students, even for those whom others may have given up on
-Stay committed to students in spite of obstacles that get in the way
-Place a high value on students' a foundation for learning
-View parents and other community members as partners in education
-Create a safe haven for learning
-Dare to challenge the bureaucracy of the school and the district
-Are resilient in the face of difficult situations
-Use active learning strategies
-Are willing and eager to experiment and can 'think on their feet'
-View themselves as lifelong learners
-Care about, respect, and love their students."

Read more about Why We Teach at and at the Why We Teach website.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Studs Terkel and education via conversations

Studs Terkel, a University of Chicago alum (my alma mater) and one of the best interviewers of the 20th century, passed away today at the age of 96.

His work is an excellent example of one of the major principles of self-education and lifelong learning: you can learn something from everyone if you have the courage and discipline to ask the right questions and listen carefully to the answers.

His New York Times obituary can be read here.