Jun 9, 2012

Close the US Education Quality Gap (By a faker)

Rheelink NOTE: This is NOT by Yong Zhao, but by Yukong Zhao. Was this intentionally misleading? I wonder.
Yukong Zhao is the Director of China Business Development of Siemens Energy Inc. Zhao is a father of two school-age children. They live in Orlando, Florida. (Note: This article only represents the personal viewpoints of Mr. Zhao, not those of his employer, Siemens Corporation.)

About two years ago, the National Bureau of Economic Research proclaimed the recession officially over in the summer of 2009.  But today, the US unemployment rate is still at 8.2%.  This high unemployment rate again illustrates our fragile economic recovery.  It also underscores the importance of closing our educational quality gap with high-performing economies.  Our economic troubles are rooted much deeper than just in the housing bubble before 2008. They are also largely attributed to rising global competition and declining US competitiveness, in particular educational quality.

In the middle 20th century, the US used to be the manufacturing center of the world, which created a robust and affluent middle class.  Starting in the 1970s, the US started to face global competition from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Mexico, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other emerging economies.  Over the last three decades, the US has lost 40%, about 8 million of its manufacturing jobs, partly due to global competition and partly due to productivity gain.  Moreover, in the last decade the advancement of telecommunication and information industries has created a borderless service platform. It leads to significant service job outsourcing: call centers, computer troubleshooting, etc., that exacerbate the loss of middle class jobs in the US.

We need to recognize that it is not viable for the US to regain most of these job back in particular those labor intensive ones. The right structural change for the US is to design and produce more products and services with high knowledge contents, such as iPhones, IT systems and engineering services. That is the only way for Americans to sustain and improve our living standard because these types of jobs create more value and are highly paid.

However, our educational problems are holding us back. Our public schools fail to produce students who are ready to compete in this global economy.  According to 2011 ACT test results, only one out of four participants (high school graduates) met four key benchmarks and is ready for college.  Internationally, U.S. students rank at the bottom of the pack in math when compared to their global peer and towards the middle of the pack in reading and science, far behind education leading countries including Shanghai, China, Finland, South Korea and Singapore.

In order to restore the American education leadership, it is essential for our policymakers, teachers and parents to understand and learn from the world’s leading nations in education.

Like many other first generation immigrants who have cross-culture educational experiences, I clearly appreciate strengths of the American education system but also see the urgency with which we need to make improvements in many critical areas.  It is imperative to close our educational quality gap with world’s leading nations in order to avoid economic decline.

Apr 5, 2012

Bringing Effective Teachers To Struggling Schools (Or, Yet Another Way To Ignore Poverty)

Rebecca Sibilia is the Director of Fiscal Strategy for StudentsFirst. She is a former state education Chief Financial Officer, and has worked with Congress, Venture Capital Funds, and community based organizations to create, fund and implement school choice programs.

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) (hyperlinked to: http://ies.ed.gov/) released a new study today on the US Department of Education's Talent Transfer Initiative (TTI) implemented in five states. This was an important pilot program related to techniques that districts can use to bring effective teachers to traditionally hard to staff schools. In this program, seven districts within five states participated in a pilot that offered $20,000 over two years to the district's most highly effective teachers willing to transfer to its lowest performing schools. The figure below illustrates the hypotheses regarding the impact of the program:
The report has three critical findings:
  1. Pay-based incentives work to attract quality teachers to low performing schools;

  2. The incentive program provided additional experienced and effective educators to low-performing schools that had historically relied on first year teachers to fill over one-fifth of all open positions.; and

  3. These teachers were more likely to provide mentoring to other teachers in their new school.
All students deserve a highly effective teacher. This is why StudentsFirst strongly supports the use of pay-based incentives to reward qualified teachers, particularly those willing to take on additional responsibility, such as serving in hard-to-staff schools, or in hard-to-staff subjects. The fact that this program is found to be successful in that mission should be a lesson to policymakers and district administrators alike--elevating the teaching profession through teacher salary incentives can better equalize the quality of education for all of our students.

Stay tuned for the next phase of the report, which will study the student achievement results of the program!

Click here for the full report: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20124051/pdf/20124051.pdf

Mar 28, 2012

Laser Focus On Students (Or, We'll Focus On Something Else, Actually)

StudentsFirst member Percilla Ortega taught middle school in East Palo Alto, CA before pursuing her goal to educate some of our most underserved youth on a larger scale. To take on the challenge, she founded DesignED, which works to educate students trapped in the criminal justice system.

March 23, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, Santa Clara County Board of Education Superintendent Charles Weis, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and StudentsFirst CEO Michelle Rhee hosted a discussion on education in San Jose as a part of the California Listening Tour - jointly sponsored by the California Mayors Education Roundtable and StudentsFirst.

The hosts began the night by describing the current state of education:
  •     Superintendent Weis described the dire need for innovation in Santa Clara County to ensure all students receive the education they deserve.
  •     Mayor Johnson described the urgency of reforming education to prepare our students to compete in a global economy, as California educates one out of every eight students in the nation.
  •     Former D.C. Schools Chancellor Rhee emphasized the level of expectations needed to put students first and reminded the community of her level of relentless commitment to transform the life trajectories of our students currently victimized by the atrocious achievement gap.
Michelle Rhee's laser focus on students - the idea that every decision and every policy must focus on what is best for the student - provided a clarifying framework for the discussion. The audience raised many topics including effective teacher retention, the importance of the social and emotional aspects of a student's development, and parent engagement. Rhee's responses demanded systematic change, requiring a need for a national movement to both close the achievement gap and to just always put students first regardless of their educational opportunities. Listening to Rhee engage with our community of students, parents, educators, politicians, and stakeholders reminded me of a quote: "Its not about what ideas and values you stand for. It's about where you stand and who you stand with." We all value excellent schools, but we must stand with the student and push for their interests as the primary focus.

Rhee inspired me to disregard the politics involved in the education reform debate and even within my own professional focus -- to educate the most underserved students in our country. I will keep Rhee's resilience as a reformer close to heart because, "Change becomes necessary when your present condition is unacceptable."

Mar 21, 2012

Examining Effective School Leadership (Or, We Still Think Poverty Is An Excuse, But Now At Least We Are Admitting Leadership Sucks)

Nithya Joseph was program analyst and manager in Washington, DC government before joining StudentsFirst over a year ago. In her current role at StudentsFirst, she is a senior policy analyst and writer.
Bookstores are full of texts about effective leadership and biographies of legendary leaders. This is no surprise - effective leadership is key to any successful organization; and schools are no exception.

Anecdotally, there is no end to the stories an educator or a parent can recount about the impacts, both negative and positive, a principal has on a school, its students, its culture, and its entire staff. We rarely see a great school without a great principal. But while there is a wealth of studies on the importance of teacher quality, until recently there has been very little written about the impact of principal quality.

Recently, researchers Gregory Branch, Eric Hanushek, and Steven Rivkin, released a working paper with the National Bureau of Economic Research, which looks into the impact of principal effectiveness on schools. Estimating the Effect of Leaders on Public Sector Productivity: The Case of School Principals presents three main findings that provide important implications for policy-makers.

A few quick highlights of the findings include:

Trends in teachers exiting a school are related to principal quality.
  • Teachers have a higher transition rate in schools with the least effective principals, no matter the level of school poverty.

  • More effective teachers tend to stay at schools led by high quality principals.

  • There are large levels of teacher turnover in grades with low levels of student achievement, when    there is a high quality principal.

In the highest poverty schools, both higher and lower quality principals are more likely to exit.
  • Many lower quality principals who leave positions at high-poverty schools transition to other schools.

  • The majority of high quality principals who leave high-poverty schools leave the profession altogether.
These findings have important policy implications. First, high quality principals are able to retain effective teachers. Principals should be evaluated on both their ability to raise student achievement across the school, but also their ability to attract, develop, and retain effective teachers.

Second, we must put into place programs to retain high quality principals at high poverty schools. Principals should be rewarded based on their effectiveness – their ability to develop and retain effective teachers and to raise student achievement.

Third, principal evaluations must identify and support ineffective principals. The research shows that while ineffective principals have a high turnover rate at high poverty schools, they are likely to move to another high poverty school. We have to stop this cycle of ineffective leadership.

Lastly, the findings support the argument that principals should have real decision-making power over the hiring and placement decisions of their teaching staff. High quality principals move ineffective teachers out of their schools. If we want more effective leaders, we need to give them the decision-making power to build their own effective teaching teams.

Principals, just like teachers, are critical to student success; they are equally as essential to their school and teachers’ success. High quality principals have the potential to transform schools and communities. Let’s advocate for policies that will identify, retain, reward, and empower these leaders.

Click here to read the StudentsFirst Policy Agenda on Evaluating Principal.

Mar 20, 2012

What about principals? (Or, Let Me Make Some Unsupported Claims)

Michelle Jahnke is a 2011-12 StudentsFirst Teacher Fellow. She has taught for 25 years in a rural school district at the elementary, middle school and high school level and has focused on at-risk learners. She is now Dean of Students at a high school.

A conversation about school reform inevitably leads to a discussion regarding the importance of effective teachers. Research finds what many intuitively know -- that the teacher is the most important in-school factor in ensuring student learning. However, what is often not discussed is the role of an effective principal in relation to student achievement.

As an educator of twenty-five years, I’ve seen my fair share of principals. Like my colleagues, I have witnessed the transformative power an effective principal can have on a school.

A former principal of mine comes to mind when I think of an effective leader. This principal had a vision for our school and built a collaborative culture amongst the entire teaching staff that allowed us to develop goals together in moving toward that vision. He set up teams of teachers that would work together to attain a set of goals. He developed a timeline for when the teams were responsible for completing and turning in products that reflected our achievement. He was positive and supportive of our staff, finding solutions to problems when they arose. When the goals were attained, we celebrated our shared success.

Of course, when this principal first suggested changes, several of us were uncomfortable and skeptical. But through his clear expectations and collaborative approach, he managed to build a transformative culture within our school. In the end, the principal and the school were successful in large part because the staff felt that our school leader was committed to our school’s success and was supportive of us to make it through the changes that needed to occur.

Research has shown a correlation between an effective principal and student learning. Ask any educator or parent if this is true, and there would be no end to the number of stories they could recount about how essential a principal is to a school’s success. The leadership of a school affects its entire culture and influences the teachers, who in turn, impact student learning.

With the positive wave of accountability and focus on student achievement, the role of the principal is even more critical now than ever before. Teachers today are being asked to educate all students to high levels of learning. This requires a new way of thinking and a new way of schooling. Because no single teacher has all the knowledge and all the skills to reach all the students, teachers can no longer work in isolation, but instead need to collaborate to guarantee every child a great education. The principal is no longer a manager of learning, but an active participant in this new environment.

As we understand and appreciate the critical role a principal plays supporting teacher success, we have to develop accurate ways to evaluate and hold principals accountable, just as we do for our students and just as we do for our teachers. As these evaluations are developed, several important factors should be considered. We should measure the ability of the principal to set a culture of high expectations and to put into place clear procedures and support to make sure that all students reach high standards. Student achievement growth, as measured by standardized test scores, must be a significant component of any principal evaluation.

We must evaluate the principal’s ability to serve as an instructional leader. Principals must be able to support teachers by developing action steps and product outcomes. Along with each new step, the principal demonstrates his or her support by attending the meetings and working with the teachers to overcome any obstacles. This includes providing time during the school day for teachers to meet. The principal demonstrates the importance of the new procedures through ongoing communication and various checkpoints along the way. Teachers feel supported through the change process by a leader who communicates regularly, learns along with the teachers, and provides clear targets and goals and the support and resources to help.

Lastly, any evaluation measuring principal effectiveness must include a principal's ability to identify teacher leaders and work to build leadership capacity. The principal is no longer only a visionary or manager; today he or she must be both. Principals must be able to develop their teaching force through recruiting great teachers, supporting and developing teachers to continually improve, and utilizing excellent teachers to serve as role models and leaders in the school.

To help increase student achievement we do need effective teachers. However, we also need effective principals that will set the wheels in motion for sustainable change. The principal is a key factor in the school reform effort and no reform effort can survive a principal’s indifference or opposition.

Mar 15, 2012

I Stand With Connecticut (All Alone!)

Michelle Rhee is Founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, a national grassroots movement working to defend the interest of children when it comes to education policy. Prior to founding StudentsFirst, Michelle served as Chancellor for District of Columbia Public Schools were she implemented comprehensive reforms which put the interests of students first.

Michelle Rhee on the steps of the Connecticut State Capitol
The Bullshit
Yesterday, I stood on the State Capitol steps with parents, community leaders and educators from across the state of Connecticut to call on pubic officials to improve Connecticut’s schools.

Surprisingly, Connecticut has one of the highest achievement gaps in the country. Low-income 8th graders are more than 3 years behind their wealthier peers in math and African-American 8th graders are more than 3 ½ years behind white 8th graders. This is unacceptable.

Those attending the rally were there to put a stop to this injustice. I was inspired by the energy and determination of those at the rally to break away from the status quo that has been failing so many of Connecticut’s students.

We have got to change the way we think about education in Connecticut and start putting into place policies and programs that will close the achievement gap and make sure that every Connecticut child has a great teacher and a great school.

The Actual Turnout
I applaud Governor Malloy’s efforts. He supports a bill being considered in the legislature that would be a significant step forward in providing a great teacher for every student by establishing a meaningful teacher and principal evaluation system which is tied to student achievement growth. The bill also reforms teacher tenure so that it is a way to reward effective teachers rather than a way to protect ineffective teachers.

I hope that in addition to this bill, the legislature passes other reforms that empower parents to take action if their children are not getting the education they deserve.

The quality of our children’s education should not be based on their zip code or the color of their skin. Connecticut citizens are standing together to stop this civil rights violation currently taking place in their state.

Mar 14, 2012

The "Education Opportunity Gap" (Or, We're Nearing The Truth)

Nithya Joseph was program analyst and manager in Washington, DC government before joining StudentsFirst over a year ago. In her current role at StudentsFirst, she is a senior policy analyst and writer.

Halli Bayer is a former middle school English teacher who now serves as as Policy Analyst for StudentsFirst.

Education is a civil rights issue. Every American child deserves the right to a quality education. The bad news is a new study shines a disturbing light on the racial disparities that exist today regarding children’s education opportunities. The good news is there are things we can do to address the injustice.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education released new data that bring a renewed focus on glaring racial inequalities we know exist for minority students. The study is based on a wide range of demographic and academic factors self-reported by schools, covering approximately 85% of our country’s students.

Unsurprisingly, the study shows stark contrasts between the education experiences of students of different races.
  • Access to High-Level Classes: There is significant racial disparity in access to high-level math and science courses such as physics, Algebra II, and calculus. For example, 82% of the schools with small numbers of Latino and African-American students offer Algebra II, compared with only 65% of the schools serving high numbers of African-American and Latino students.

  • Student discipline: African-American and Latino students are over-represented in every type of discipline measure, including suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and referrals to law enforcement.

  • Grade repetition: While African Americans represent 16% of the 6th through 8th graders in the sample, they represent 42% of the students who repeated one of those grades.

  • Teacher Equity: The study shows that schools serving the most African-American and Latino students are nearly twice as likely to employ first and second year teachers and their teachers are paid $2,251 less per year on average than their colleagues in the same district at schools serving the fewest Latino and African-American students.
These findings, while not unexpected, serve as a sober reminder that this country is not fulfilling the promise of the American Dream to our youth. There is no silver bullet to address these issues, but there are policies that we know can address and mitigate these inequalities, particularly with regard to teacher quality.

Numerous studies show that the first few years of a teacher’s career are the only years where teacher experience significantly affects student achievement levels. And yet, nationwide, teachers with only one to two years of experience are twice as likely to serve in schools with higher populations of African Americans and Latino students. Moreover, as a result of the lock-step teacher salary scales, these teachers are paid significantly less than teachers in schools with lower enrollments of African American and Latino students.

This begs the question - given the achievement gaps that persist in this country, why are we not making every effort to attract the most effective teachers to our schools with are most underserved populations?

We need to break away from lock-step salary schedules and staffing policies that are based on seniority and implement policies that are in the best interest of the students. We know that rewarding effective teachers who are willing to teach in struggling schools with higher pay and ending seniority-based layoffs will help address the racial inequities that currently exist. This is where we have the tools to change the status quo.

It is tragic fact that over forty years after the Civil Right Movement, we are literally able to predict a child’s chances of facing certain disciplinary actions at school, retention rates, and access to various high level courses, by the color of his or her skin. While we cannot draw conclusions about the root causes for these trends based off this data alone, we must continue to rely on findings like these to serve as hard evidence for demanding a public education system that serves all students- regardless of who they are and where they come from- with the same and consistent access to opportunity, rigor of instruction, respect and high expectation.

Find the full study here