May 31, 2011

Meet The Staff: Nithya Johnson Says She's Inspired by Those Working For Change

Nithya Joseph is a member of the Outreach team at StudentsFirst, working to engage and mobilize members to advocate for education reform across the country. Prior to joining StudentsFirst, she worked briefly at the Academy of Educational Development, and later in the Office of Out-of-School Time at DC Public Schools. Most recently she was at the DC Department of Parks and Recreation, where she managed city-wide summer programming. Nithya received a Masters in Public Policy with a focus in education from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.
As an Outreach Specialist for StudentsFirst, I have the incredible opportunity to interact and engage with members of StudentsFirst across the country. It is my responsibility to mobilize and spread awareness of the movement to our members, both existing and potential. But after several months working here, I would say it’s hardly a responsibility; rather it is an opportunity to be inspired every day.
Like my colleagues and most StudentsFirst members, my passion for education reform stems back years. I was an afterschool teacher in several different schools, working in an array of settings with students in upper middle class neighborhoods to lower income areas in San Diego, in both private and public schools. The schools and communities may have varied, but one thing was always consistent: the ability of my students to learn and to be inspired by their lessons.
Since that time, I focused my studies in the education sector; learning more intensively about the structural inequities facing our public school system, I became overwhelmed by the urgency of the challenges facing our schools and students. I have held different roles in various organizations, but I have never been so fulfilled as I am now. I speak to teachers, parents, concerned citizens, and students every day who tell me personal stories that never cease to amaze me. And just like my time working in afterschool programs, I find that while the members are vastly diverse and their stories are all so different, one thing is always consistent: the determination to advocate for children and the frustration with the challenges their schools and children face within the current system.
I speak with fathers and mothers who are relentlessly trying to find options of quality schools for their children; with teachers who want to see the system reformed because the thought of their students not having a continued, quality education is absolutely unacceptable; with students who want to see their most devoted teachers celebrated and rewarded. Our members inspire me and fuel my dedication to this work.
My passion for this work is not unique. My sense of urgency for this crisis is not distinct, and my desire to be a part of a movement to change a system so that all students have a fair shot at being successful is absolutely not rare. That is an incredibly comforting thing.

May 26, 2011

When Budget Cuts Necessitate Class Size Increases

Eric Hanushek is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He has been a leader in the development of economic analysis of educational issues. His newest book, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America's Public Schools,describes how improved school finance policies can be used to meet our achievement goals.
The economic downturn across the country has a lot of people talking about class size reduction. By and large, people are saying bigger classes would be a calamity for public schools. These discussions, while ever-tinged by politics, ignore both basic facts and research evidence.
The rhetoric of class size policy has been virtually constant for more than a decade. If one carefully culls the research literature, it is possible to find studies that conclude that achievement will improve with smaller classes. It did not take much of a sales pitch to convince parents, school officials, and legislators that everything should be done to bring class sizes down, resulting in a steady fall of class sizes. And, with the help of federal stimulus funds, most districts managed to keep prior reductions even as state fiscal conditions deteriorated. Handing out pink slips to teachers in the spring (and rescinding them later) was the perennial political maneuver to ensure that education takes small if any funding cuts.
Until now. Without further federal stimulus and without recovery from the recession, schools have begun to really feel the budget pressure for the first time, and the obvious way to deal with any budget slowdown or actual reduction is to let class sizes drift up a little. But this has reinvigorated the political efforts to hold education harmless from any fiscal demands. This situation has led to hysterical news media coverage about enormous classes and testimonials about how it has simply become impossible to teach with so many students in one class. It has also prompted the class size reduction lobbyists to quote back their evidence with the twist of how this is the worst thing that could happen to schools.
But an increase is actually different from a reduction. When reducing class size, one must hire more teachers, which means that the school system will essentially get a random draw that is expected to yield an average teacher. But increasing class size means that some current teachers must be laid off, and here the schools have an advantage. They know how effective their teachers are, so they are not forced to lay off an average teacher. They can in fact lay off below average teachers.
When budget shortfalls necessitate reductions in force, laying off the weakest teachers would lead to dramatic improvements in student achievement. As I have described elsewhere, replacing the worst 5-8 percent of our teachers with average teachers would be expected to move student outcomes near to if not at the top of the international league tables for math and science performance. And this would have enormous benefits for the U.S. economy and for the students who now have greater skills when they enter the labor force.
But wouldn't the increased class sizes offset any gains? In simplest terms, no. The evidence has been rehashed many times. The latest Brookings study, for example, concludes once again that the small class size increases from the current fiscal pressures would be virtually undetectable. Part of the confusion over the outcomes arises from the unwillingness or inability of schools to make decisions based on the effectiveness of teachers. By applying last in, first out rules (LIFO for short) to any dismissals, schools almost completely eliminate the chance to improve the learning for our children. When you use seniority as the determining factor in layoffs, you let some of your best teachers go. And, because their salaries are lowest, you have to lay off a greater number of new teachers (as opposed to more senior teachers).
To obtain a five percent savings in budget, schools must typically let average student-teacher ratios drift up by less than one student per teacher. This would put student-teacher ratios back roughly to where they were five or six years ago – larger yes, but hardly the dark ages. It certainly does not require a doubling of class sizes as some of the media accounts might suggest. The real data show that student-teacher ratios and class sizes have been falling throughout the past decade – and the recent changes are not in any way simply a continuation of a long slide toward larger classes.
Doing the right thing does require active decision making by schools and policy makers. Some of this may become easier as legislatures in states such as Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and more revisit the rules on hiring, retention, and school decision making. But it is not automatic.
The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

May 25, 2011

How To Reform School Boards

Gene I. Maeroff's new book is "School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy." He is a senior fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University, and president of the school board in Edison, New Jersey.
School boards are the Rodney Dangerfields of education—garnering little respect and serving as objects of derision.
Granted, while some of those who serve on school boards have their deficiencies, in general they tend to be civic-minded do-gooders who, unlike their neighbors, are willing to give up their free time and privacy for an often unpaid position that likely involves more hassle than acclaim. And some school boards are highly functional.
Certainly, there are ways to make school boards more efficient and more effective. Those who promote reforms in elementary and secondary education are remiss if they don't take note of the role of school boards, however insignificant those entities may seem. The states that empower local school boards with governance responsibilities and educational change may not succeed unless members of boards see the need for change and are willing to take bold steps to institute reforms.
But many obstacles stand in the way of improving school boards. After serving as president of a school board, analyzing educational trends for decades, and spending two and a half years researching and writing a newly-published book on the subject I conclude that these are at least four major areas to address when it comes to school board reform:
1. Qualifications of members
School board members in America range from those with doctorates to those that have not even completed high school. Almost all come onto school boards (more than 90 percent of them through elections; the rest are appointed) with little or no preparation for the specific tasks that await them. Some outstanding people serve on school boards and some have no business on these boards, given their temperament and ignorance.
If more school boards were appointed, and consideration were given only to candidates who have been interviewed and vetted by panels of leading citizens who do not represent special interest groups, this could make for better boards. Moreover, the criteria for consideration might go beyond the basics—citizenship and residence.
2. The elective process
Elections are certain to predominate even if more school districts shifted to appointed boards. The democratic process, though, sometimes contains the seeds of its own undoing. It is too easy for special interest groups to thrive in school board elections. Groups like teachers' unions that believe they can gain from the election of particular candidates or individuals who want to promote a single agenda—say, sharply reducing expenditures—sometimes figure prominently in board elections.
It would be undemocratic and illegal to bar such involvement. But more could be done to publicize which groups and individuals spend money and donate time for particular candidates. Furthermore, debates aired on local TV channels could enable more people to become familiar with candidates and their stance on particular issues.
3. The preparation and training of members
Governance is the main job of school boards. Most people, however well informed, do not know the ins and outs of the governance process and are unfamiliar with the legal responsibilities of board members. And because they are governing school systems, members of these boards should also be more conversant than the average citizen about issues involving teaching and learning.
Some states and some organizations such as the Center for Reform of School Systems run programs to deepen the knowledge of board members about educational issues and to facilitate their governance skills. These efforts should be expanded and reach beyond the once-a-year seminar.

4. Conduct by school members
Finally, nepotism should be a concern when it comes to school boards. All too often a member may intercede to gain special treatment for a relative. Ethics regulations have been promulgated in many locales, and this has crimped but hardly eliminated the practice.
Concern about the conduct of school board members and their role in personnel decisions should go well beyond nepotism, though. Cronyism, favoritism, and patronage may not involve relatives, but they do lead to appointments and promotions that undermine the meritocracy and saddle school systems with employees who may not be the best qualified for their jobs—from security guards to principals.

May 23, 2011

High School Student Weighs In On Ed Reform

Ryan Sieli, 17, is a junior at Marquette High School in St. Louis Missouri. He says he became inspired about changing the current education system by watching the movie "Waiting for Superman."
Who would you expect to be writing a blog about the state of public education? A concerned government official? A recently laid off teacher? How about a school superintendent? These are all the typical names you would probably expect to see weighing in on education reform. You would probably expect them to be on news programs. You would probably expect them to be arguing over budget cuts and spending. But what you might not expect is a high school student coming out and saying how he views the national education reform debate. Sometimes, we students wonder, if we speak out, will anyone listen? How will people respond? So, I guess you could call this blog something of an experiment.
Let's start by talking about teachers who aren't performing as well as they should be, or as well as their peers. I'm sure that sentence alone put myself on the opposite side of the education debate for about half of the people reading this. But why? If I started this sentence off with "School bus drivers who get speeding tickets shouldn't drive kids," you probably would agree. However, in our society, it has become anti-teacher to raise questions about the quality of our educators or to ask that teachers be judged based on student learning. Employees in almost every other occupation expect to see their performance measured. Why not teachers?
As a test subject in the experiment going on now that we call high school, I have seen students drop out of challenging courses or fail them simply because of uninspiring, weak teaching. I have also had teachers change our outlook on a particular subject, and even school in general, because of their exceptional quality. A teacher can and will change a kid's life. I am in NO way saying the teacher is the sole determining factor in how a student performs, but it is almost crazy to suggest that it isn't a factor at all.
So how do we measure a teacher's success? I'm not here to answer the question, but I can say that it needs to be asked. I believe we should create laws and polices that motivate teachers to be the best they can be, and also motivate talented college grads to become teachers.
One teacher who has inspired me is my 10th-grade honors geometry teacher, Mrs. Bontrager. The story about her influence on my life actually starts in 7th grade when I transferred from a private elementary school to a public middle school. When I made the switch, the math classes were unsynchronized and I was put in a lower-level math course. For several yeas, I felt looked down upon by teachers and students because I was in many honors courses, yet in a lower-level math class. However, I had the opportunity to get back on the honors track when geometry came up my sophomore year of high school. I so badly wanted to prove to everyone that I was talented in math, and Mrs. Bontrager helped me do that. There truly was something different about Mrs. Bontrager. Her class structure made it nearly impossible for a motivated student to fall behind, and she was always available to help a pupil before or after school. She also always made sure that she answered every question before moving on to another subject, all the while keeping the class on task. Teachers like her can truly change kids' lives; whether it is a couple points higher on an ACT, or the pursuit of a career based in mathematics. These are the type of teachers schools needs to reward and fight to keep.
I believe that there are many other high-quality teachers out there, in fact I know there are. Yet the way we treat them in regards to salary and tenure doesn't make sense anymore. The current system in which we go about hiring, paying and employing our teachers doesn't work for anybody. Teachers are nation builders and they deserve to be held to a higher standard. If we can pass bills that will keep good teachers teaching and move out those who are low performing, we can catch up with countries like Finland and South Korea in terms of the quality of public schools and once again become The Education Nation.
The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

May 19, 2011

A Formula For Strong And Effective Teacher Evaluations

Christina Giguiere earned a Multiple Subject Teaching Credential and M.A. in Teaching at UC Irvine. While teaching first and third grade in Irvine Unified, she obtained a MS in Reading and Reading Specialist Credential and is passionate about literacy. Christina returned to UCI in 2007 to work as the Multiple Subject Credential Program Coordinator. In this role she fosters innovative partnerships with district and schools where the credential candidates are completing their student teaching. She implements professional development for elementary teachers and teaches courses about health, classroom management, lesson planning, assessment and education policy.
Teacher evaluation systems need to reward and support the most influential people in a child's education. A comprehensive evaluation system should serve to improve teacher quality and recognize highly effective teachers. Developing an innovative system is a complex process. However, because we value the impact that teachers have on student learning we must invest time and collaborate with school communities to improve the process for retaining teachers. Teacher evaluation systems need to be about clear expectations, providing teachers with data-driven feedback, and continuously supporting best practices.
I worked on a task force with members from a teacher preparation and induction coalition in Orange County. We developed a set of guidelines and recommendations for districts to use as they begin to design and implement robust teacher evaluation systems. Our guidelines encourage districts to: develop a system that is consistent and responsive to district goals; include common principles and systems that are consistently applied in the district; create transparency and clear expectations; and include quantifiable elements in all evaluations.
In addition to relying on student achievement data to measure teacher effectiveness, our task force believes teacher evaluations should be a formative and collaborative process and developed using multiple perspectives and measures. Observations should take place at several key points during the year, collaboration with colleagues and peer feedback should be an integral part of the system, and professional development support must be embedded. A tool for measuring instructional expertise, such as the Continuum for Teaching Practice used in California during induction, or the Teaching and Learning Framework implemented in D.C., allows teachers to engage in self-reflection, goal setting, and deep inquiry into practice. The Continuum or Framework provides a common language about teaching and learning, and can be used to promote professional growth within an environment of collaborative support. The tool also effectively provides teachers with an ongoing opportunity to reflect on and assess their own instructional practice.
The goal of reforming teacher evaluations is not to demonize ineffective teachers but to support and empower great teachers. Reflective educators want to be held accountable for improving student outcomes. We all must work together to develop policies for teacher evaluation that elevate the profession and value a teacher’s impact on students.
The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

May 18, 2011

Court Ruling On Charters Sends Protesters To Capitol

Jeri Powell is a member of the Engagement team for StudentsFirst, working to pass laws across the country that put childrens' needs at the forefront of decision making. Jeri has a passionate belief in the transformative and lasting power a great education can have on a child's future. She is an attorney who recently left law practice to devote herself full-time to the movement.
The Georgia Supreme Court released an opinion Monday voting 4-3 against the law creating the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. The commission had allowed state-approved charter schools, but the court ruled only local boards of education can open public schools in most cases.
On Tuesday, I joined hundreds of parents, students, school and community leaders and elected officials for a protest on the steps of the Georgia Capitol Building in Atlanta. Tony Roberts, CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, led the demonstration. The speakers included State Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, State Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, and State House Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones, among other prominent community activists. Throughout the rally, the refrain was loud and clear: children are unique, and when it comes to education, cookie-cutter solutions just won't cut it. Students and parents need choices, and that's just what the Georgia Charter Schools Commission addresses.
Protestors carried signs with slogans such as "My Charter School Is Special," a reference to the Georgia Supreme Court's argument that only "special" K-12 schools may be founded outside of the local school board's control, an argument many are sure to find tenuous, particularly given that children's lives are at stake.
A few of the day's highlights included seeing the young ladies of Ivy Preparatory Academy, dressed in uniforms and singing their school song. Ivy Preparatory Academy is a charter public middle and high school for girls, and it has produced great results for kids. More than 90 percent of the school's students met or exceeded standards in English/language arts, reading and math on the Spring 2009 Criterion Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), outperforming many of their peers in the state. Twice rejected by the local school board, the school's charter application was approved by the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. The success of Ivy Preparatory Academy is a clear example of why alternative paths to charter schools are needed.
An eloquent charter school sixth grade scholar addressed the crowd, telling her story of why her parents chose to send her to a charter school. Her confidence before a gathering of hundreds was evidence of what great teachers and great schools can do for children. She was truly inspiring, and it reminded me of the saying, "Out of the mouths of babes (oft time come gems)"!
Majority Leader Chip Rogers challenged those gathered to keep showing up, every day, to personally lobby legislators until the movement had gathered all of the support necessary for justice to be restored. I have no doubt his call has been heard, and the challenge will be met. The power, enthusiasm and energy of the crowd cannot be overstated. While emotions ran the gamut from dismay, to disbelief, to defiance, the sense that there is hope remained. What I am sure of is this -- the fight has just begun. Those present and thousands more across the state will be working hard to ensure real school choice exists in Georgia.
Rally at the Georgia State Capitol to protest anti-charter Supreme Court decision

May 17, 2011

A Welcome Change From The Status Quo - Reflections Of A Florida Teacher

Rhonda Lochiatto is a fifth grade teacher who lives and works in central Florida. She has worked in Osceola and Orange County and is currently employed in Volusia County.
Thirteen years ago, when I first started teaching, I immediately joined the local teachers' union. I felt like I had to join because all the other teachers in my school were members.
A few months later, when I was making about $20,000 a year and struggling to pay my rent and other bills, I decided to withdraw my membership.
I followed the procedure of writing a letter and requesting termination of my membership. It took about six months for me to receive a response; meanwhile, they continued to take the dues out of my paycheck. While they did eventually reimburse me and grant my request, it left me questioning the validity of an organization that was so clearly unorganized. The expense was not the only issue. I realized I did not fully understand the purpose of the teachers' union.
As I researched more about the union, I began to question certain policies and procedures. Specifically, I did not understand how it was possible that so many great teachers put so much additional time and effort into their work, produced greater results, and yet were paid the same salary and benefits as others who were far less dedicated. It did not make any sense to me.
I have also never understood why teaching is a salaried position, with a specified number of hours. No results-producing teacher sticks to the minimum number—we work constantly!
My own personal experiences left me puzzled over teacher tenure. When I left my first job in Osceola County, everyone thought I was crazy to give up guaranteed job security. I reasoned that if I'm not doing my job, I shouldn't be protected and if I'm doing what's expected of me, I will keep my job anyway. However, after relocating to a new district, I was pink slipped at the end of the year. The reason I was laid off was because I was one of the last ones hired at the school. What that means is that even though I had exemplary evaluations, another teacher stayed simply because they'd been there longer. I accepted the policy and quickly began the job search again, but last in, first out doesn't benefit kids.
I eventually moved to my current home in Volusia County, where I have been at my current school for six years, and though I have again attained tenure I still don't understand why this policy is in place. I should not be guaranteed a job just because I have been at the school over a period of time. My longevity should be based on my performance. In talking with other teachers and parents, I know I am not alone in my concerns. Great teachers deserve the recognition that comes with being great. Ineffective teachers deserve to know that they are ineffective and to be given a chance to either better themselves or to find a more fitting career field.
What teachers deserve is fairness based on job performance and assurance that poor teachers will not be protected by tenure. That's why I am glad that the Florida legislature recently passed legislation that would end tenure and last in, first out policies. With these changes, Florida is on track toward boosting the quality of education in the state.
The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not ne cessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

May 16, 2011

A Call For Civility

Olivia Demas is a mother of three who lives in Ohio.
Opponents of education reform are crossing a line.
  • In January, a mom in my hometown of Akron, Ohio was sent to jail for 9 days for seeking and pursuing the best school option she could find, ultimately getting her children into the "wrong" school district so that they could get a better education.
  • Last week, a mother of five in Indiana and the President of her local PTA spoke out in favor of the StudentsFirst agenda. In response, an organized team of intimidators looked her up, wrote scathing personal attacks, and even posted information about her children.
  • This month, a teacher in Nevada decided to speak out about antiquated state policies that serve to put adult interests ahead of her students. As a reward, she has been greeted with calls from her fellow teachers to leave her school, or worse, leave the teaching profession.
  • In December, 275 parents in Compton, California signed a "parent trigger" petition to have McKinley Elementary School turned over to a new manager -- but defenders of the status quo in Compton harassed and intimidated the parents until a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered them to stop. Even today, the fate of the school this fall depends on litigation.
This has to stop. Debate around school reform issues should be intense; disagreements will be sharp, and rhetoric will get heated. After all, the stakes are incredibly high; but there has to be a line.
The parents noted above are speaking up in their role as good and concerned parents. Teachers should have the right to speak out as teachers. All of us should have a right to speak without being bullied and harassed.
StudentsFirst was started in order to give a voice to parents, teachers and concerned citizens who know that our country's future depends on comprehensive education reform focused on the interests of students. Please join the movement by signing up at and recruit your friends and family to do the same. We are fighting for our future, and we need your help.

May 13, 2011

The Power Of High-Quality Teacher Evaluations

Sharra Weasler is a mother of two and leads the StudentsFirst Internet communications efforts. Prior to StudentsFirst, she worked with Fight For Children – a non-profit in D.C. focused on improving life outcomes for D.C. kids. In California, Sharra taught high school science in the public school system and managed education-focused websites for Silicon Valley companies. Sharra received her BA, MA and teaching credential from Stanford University.
My name is Sharra Weasler. At StudentsFirst, it is my responsibility to connect online with our members and others interested in transforming our nation's education system. The Internet provides us with an exciting and powerful medium by which to truly create a national movement to disrupt the status quo and insist on real education reform.
Education has always been my passion. I began my career as a high school public school science teacher after going through a traditional credentialing program. I loved teaching. I come from a long line of educators and have always believed that there is no greater contribution to society than educating our country's youth. Our public education system is core to both our society's values of equal opportunity for all and the strength of our nation's future economy. Because of this, teachers are one of our country’s most valuable assets.
As a teacher, I was also very frustrated with several aspects of the profession. Most salient to me was the lack of meaningful feedback about how I was doing. I felt I had no barometer by which to measure the impact I was having on students. While I worked with a collaborative team who shared lesson plans and ideas, there was no time or process for peer evaluation or mentoring to help me identify areas in which I could improve. And I got no satisfaction from my glowing evaluation written by my Vice Principal who said she had finally understood refraction after observing my class.
After leaving teaching for personal circumstances, I spent the next several years thinking about how our public education system could do a better job evaluating teachers so that teachers could take pride in knowing when they excel and the positive impact they have on student learning. They also need to be able to better recognize their weaknesses and receive support and training to improve. I believe that recognition and professional growth are key to recruiting and retaining excellent teachers, and I believe excellent teachers are the key to the success of students.
Working for a non-profit in D.C., Fight for Children, I learned about the teacher evaluation system that Michelle Rhee had implemented in D.C. Public Schools. This epitomized what I had envisioned over the years: A comprehensive and clearly described set of universal best practices that all teachers could strive to achieve; the opportunity to be evaluated by a Master teacher in your subject area who could work with you over the course of the year to help you improve; and the use of math and reading test scores so that teachers could get credit and be held accountable for the student achievement growth they produced in their classes in these basic and critical skills. Then there was the opportunity for the most excellent educators to earn a triple digit salary -- this was unheard of!
I joined StudentsFirst because I believe that our public education system is the key to equal opportunity and national economic prosperity and that teachers are the key to an excellent public education system. I believe that fair, consistent and comprehensive evaluation systems coupled with good professional development and rewards for excellence are crucial to improving the quality of our current teaching force and recruiting the best teachers for the future.
I'm excited to be able to connect with our members and followers online to hear your stories and perspectives, to work with you to change the status quo to make sure we do what's best for students, and to report to you about our activities and successes. The internet makes it so easy for all of us to spread the word to our friends and family about the urgency of transforming public education and the common sense solutions that we must fight for right now to make sure that students are the focus of the education debate.
StudentsFirst is a national movement. It is you, the movement, who will be key to transformative change. You are the voice defending students. If you're not already doing so, follow us on Facebook and Twitter and sign up on our website so we can communicate with you via email. And help us use this powerful medium, the Internet, to grow our movement so that we have the required strength to overturn the status quo.

Last In, First Out Hurts Kids

Angela taught in Columbus City Schools where she enjoyed a short tenure as a kindergarten and first grade teacher; due to the "Last In, First Out" policy, she was forced out after two years. After leaving Columbus, she got a job at one of the best elementary schools in the greater Columbus area.
As a teacher affected by last in, first out policies, the current education debate really resonates with me. I taught for two years in Columbus, Ohio. Toward the end of my second year, I signed a contract to come back for another year. A few weeks later, however, I got laid off. It was a shock. I was so disappointed in the system. It let me down, my principal down, and worst of all, it let the children down.
I taught at a school where nearly all of the students qualified for free or reduced lunch. My school needed teachers who were passionate, determined, and willing to do anything for their students. It needed teachers who referred to their students as "my kids." I always found myself using that term, because they were more than just students to me -- and I was more than just their teacher.
Last in, first out, or LIFO for short, dictates that senior teachers get to stay when there are reductions in force while new ones have to leave. What frustrates me most about using seniority, instead of teacher quality, to make these decisions, is it can support educators who shouldn't be teaching. Teachers who consistently do not produce student gains should not be responsible for educating the young minds of our society. This is a backward policy. We should be focusing on providing children with an excellent education, not on supporting teachers who continue to let students down.
Every year around this time, particularly in low-income communities where LIFO hits hardest because so many schools rely on new teachers, teachers are informed that they are being laid off. Many of these teachers are talented, and determined educators who are the hardest working people in their schools. And many are teachers who want to be in low-income communities helping make sure every child get a good education. But they aren't given that choice. Instead, they are forced to leave the profession or find a job elsewhere -- sometimes in a more affluent community. I wanted to stay at my old school. I wanted to grow as an educator and continue helping to improve a community that wanted me to be there. I wanted to show my students the power of learning and education. But I didn’t get that chance, and my students were the ones to suffer.
Now, a year after I was laid off, I am teaching in a wealthier school district and I have grown as an educator. If not for LIFO, I would still be teaching in Columbus and would still be helping my kids pave a positive future for themselves. I spent most of this year worrying about whether or not my current one-year contract would be extended. Luckily it was, for one more year anyway. So next year, my fourth year as a teacher, I will again worry about my job status. Oddly enough, I won't be worried about my status because of my actual performance. I'll be worrying because of arbitrary seniority rules.
Many of our social problems are deeply rooted. For things to improve, we need change within our education system. Our public education should exist to provide an equal opportunity for all no matter where people live or what they look like. LIFO stops this from happening. We need to start advocating more for policies that best benefit students, which will in turn benefit society as a whole. Getting rid of LIFO would be a great first step.
The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not ne cessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

May 10, 2011

Our Most Valued Asset


Since January 5th 2010, Esteban Bullrich has been the Minister of Education of the City of Buenos Aires. Among other positions previously held, he was Minister of Social Development of the City of Buenos Aires, a National Congressman, and a Parliamentary Advisor. Minister Bullrich holds a graduate degree from the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University. He is married and has three children.
The importance of having well trained teachers who are passionate about their jobs and are effective in instructing children is widely known. A study published by McKinsey in 2007 shows that student performance is strongly linked to the successful recruitment, training, and support provided to teachers in the classroom.
In Buenos Aires we value very highly the efforts made by our teachers every day to empower students to become the future leaders of our country. We provide all our teachers with proper training, and we are working hard to establish evaluation systems that ensure our teachers are fairly and consistently evaluated. We hope these evaluations will allow us to identify and reward those teachers that are excelling at improving student performance and will provide necessary assistance to educators who need help.
An important part of developing a highly effective teacher base is recruiting academically strong individuals to pursue careers in teaching. To help achieve, this we have implemented the "Se Maestro" (Be a Teacher) campaign. In this campaign, rather than focusing on benefits and salaries, we focus on the social aspect of teaching. We are encouraging young men and women to support our students and our city's future, thereby establishing themselves as critical pillars of our society. Along with this campaign, we are continuously working to strengthen the social prestige of teachers in Buenos Aires by providing them with constant training, fair salaries, job stability and good work conditions.
As part of our effort to measure, evaluate, reward, and help teachers, we recently carried out a pilot test of a teacher evaluation program that we called "My best class." This is a program that is carried out differently than other evaluations that have been traditionally carried out in Buenos Aires in hopes of learning more about teachers' needs and providing help. Holding frequent and effective teacher evaluations is of extreme importance, as it is the only way we can identify where our teachers are lagging and figure out how to help them improve.
Teachers are the cornerstone of our education system. Because the future of our country in an increasingly competitive world depends on them, we place the highest importance on providing them with the resources they need to improve their skills.

May 9, 2011

Making Sure All Kids Have Access To A College Education

Kati Haycock is one of the nation's leading child advocates in the field of education. She currently serves as director of the Education Trust. Prior to coming to the Education Trust, Haycock served as executive vice president of the Children's Defense Fund, the nation's largest child advocacy organization. A native Californian, Haycock founded and served as president of The Achievement Council, a statewide organization that provides assistance to teachers and principals in predominately minority schools in improving student achievement.
Later this month, the US Senate will act on a matter of grave importance to America's future: whether to preserve full funding for the Pell Grant, which has for decades made it possible for American families of modest means to send their children to college and for college graduates to earn teaching credentials.
Without full funding, the maximum grant will be reduced from about $5500 per year to $3000, or even less, with devastating effects on students and families. Especially now, when both parents and teachers have been focusing like never before on preparing students for college, it will be a crushing defeat if the federal government turns its back on helping students and families with the costs of post-secondary education.
By raising your voice now, you can help send a strong message to the Senate about maintaining support for Pell. Tell them our children's minds are too important to waste.
Click here to send a note directly to your Senators:

May 6, 2011

More Choices For Schoolchildren In Florida

New measures that would greatly expand the choices parents have when it comes to educating their children are headed to Florida Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.
The bills, recently passed by the Florida legislature, will make it easier for existing, high-performing charter schools to grow. The need is there. Last year, more than 37,000 children were turned away from charter schools due to a lack of space.
The legislation also would allow children in low-performing public schools to move to high-performing public ones in any school district within the state.
Parents of children with disabilities are hailing the legislation, as it also would expand the number of students with disabilities who can obtain funds to send their children to private schools. It's estimated up to thousands more students could become eligible for this benefit.
The measures now heading to Gov. Scott follow the enactment earlier this year of legislation that also will help improve Florida's schools. Those measures strengthened teacher evaluations, eliminated the policy of laying off teachers by seniority rather than by quality and put in place a performance-pay system that rewards excellent teaching. Principals also will have more say over which teachers to hire.
The previously approved legislation took important steps to boost transparency in Florida schools. It required districts to publish teacher ratings by school. Names won't be used, but the information will help parents make informed decisions about which school to send their children to. Parents also must be notified when their kids are placed in a class with a teacher who has received an ineffective rating.
With these key education reforms becoming a reality in Florida, policy makers across the country will be looking to the Sunshine State for lessons and guidance on how to improve schools nationally. We at StudentsFirst hope to help.

Teaching To The Test?

After co-founding the youth focused non-profit "VIBE Foundation", Julian became the co-chair to the Sacramento Youth Commission and Youth Liaison to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. Julian Nagler graduated from a California High School in the class of 2010, and now lives in Washington, DC.
When I think of great teachers I've had, I think of my high school AP Government teacher, Mr. Meegan. I remember walking into his class for the first time. I knew him by reputation alone, and I was eager to see what was in store. He was known as one of the most challenging teachers at our school but retained a loyal following of students who admired his ability to make an AP class feel like a free-flowing conversation. On that first day, he made it very clear that his one explicit job as our AP Government teacher would be to equip us with the knowledge necessary to pass the AP Government Exam, a feat required to earn the college level credit. I remember thinking to myself "How can people like this guy so much; he literally just told us he will be teaching to the test all year?" Fortunately, it wasn't long before any doubt I had faded away. Mr. Meegan had a way of hitting on all the necessary exam points without giving off the impression of following any pre-scripted lesson plan. His class was predominately lecture-based, yet it encouraged spontaneous conversation on the topic at hand.
With Mr. Meegan, students felt a sense of mutual respect between teacher and student, something that is far less common than one might think. He never assigned busywork, so we respected his assignments. He never pressured us into conforming to his personal political views, rather he encouraged us to support our own. What he did do was teach us how to pass the AP Exam without ever seeming to "teach to the test." This is what I found most interesting about his style of teaching -- he was able to fulfill his job responsibility of making sure we could pass an exam while turning it into one of the most interesting and open classes I've ever had. To me, that is the teacher's golden key -- get the class interested, get them involved, and get them educated.

May 4, 2011

What Makes A Great Teacher?

Courter Shimeall is currently pursuing a dual degree in law and public policy at Ohio State. Prior to being a student, he taught middle school English for two years in Watts, California, and then worked for Teach For America in recruiting for several years. Courter stays active in issues regarding educational inequality. He is an alumnus of the College of Wooster (B.A.) and Loyola Marymount University (M.A. Ed.). He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife, Angela, who is a public school teacher.
It's a question we either hear or ask often: "Is s/he a good teacher?" And even though we’ve all had "good" or even "great" teachers, my hunch is that we rarely think about what it actually means to qualify as a "good teacher" in the eyes of students, former students, teaching peers, and parents. So in honor of teacher appreciation week, I've reflected on just what makes our best teachers so great.
Involvement, effort, and dedication
When I reflect on great teachers I've had, or on great teachers with whom I taught, there's one thing that unites them all: they were involved. Whether it was coaching, running after school programs and clubs, or attending concerts and games, some of the most beloved and best teachers I've known were ever-present in their students' lives.
This ever-presence is even more important for the actual inside-the-classroom component of education. Of course, most of our teachers were physically present on a regular basis. But I'm thinking specifically about the ones who came early and/or stayed late; the ones who were clearly dedicated to their craft; and the ones whom I saw in the back of other classes observing peers to improve their own approach. This kind of effort communicates tacitly yet clearly that a teacher is dedicated to his or her students.
Perhaps more importantly, these were teachers who were leading by example. The involvement, the effort, and the dedication are great examples to students of positive work habits and how to take a professional approach to one's craft. Students who have teachers who are present and who work hard know that their teachers care about them, and almost always reciprocate the effort and the focus.
Accessible curriculum
We can all remember the classes we dreaded. Canned curriculum. Worksheets with matching or word-finds. Not to say that this wasn't okay every once in a while, but it fails to engage students as a general practice.
Contrast the above with the teachers who actually engaged you in the curriculum. The beauty of this is that there's no one way or "right" way to do this. It's the high school history teacher who tells stories about the Punic Wars that are so vivid and so engaging that you feel like you can actually see the battles unfold. Or the English teacher who always connects the material to his or her students' lives; whether reading "To Kill a Mockingbird", "Always Running", or any other great piece of literature. Or it's the science teacher who leads her students in preparation for a robotics or engineering contest.
In some way or another, the best teachers I've had and observed find a way to engage their students in the curriculum they teach. Invariably, the approach is practical, interdisciplinary, and fluid. And invariably, the kids always love going to class.
A fundamental belief in students
For the most part, what makes or breaks a student is a general sense of self-confidence and, specifically, the confidence to overcome challenges and reach for more. And if I think back on the most important characteristic of the most influential teachers I've known, it's that they believed in their students.
This comes through in a number of ways. For example, some great teachers communicate this belief verbally. It's no surprise that students who hear encouragement before tests, are actually told that they’re smart, and are actually told how capable they are end up becoming people who believe in themselves. And for those who don't believe in sappy praise, I've seen great teachers communicate this through their actions, taking the form of the teacher who pushes you to write one more rough draft when you thought you were done, or the form of the teacher who consistently assigns the most challenging work. Actions often speak louder than words in the education profession. And teachers who push their students to get better communicate that they believe in their students enough to make them better.
This is obviously a less than scientific analysis. But in reflecting back on those teachers who helped you get to where you are today, I'm willing to bet you'll remember that they embodied at least a few of the above characteristics. The reflection has also helped me realize once again just how important it is that America has a diverse pool of strong teachers, so that every student -- from the suburbs, rural America, or an urban environment -- has the opportunity to experience what it's like to have a great teacher.

May 3, 2011

High School Student Reflects On Lessons Of A Great Teacher

Sarai Reed is a senior at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. She was recently awarded the Stephen Joel Tractenberg scholarship to attend George Washington University in the fall.
I've never been a fan of journalism, but unfortunately I signed up for four years of it when I landed in the Literary Media and Communications Department at my school -- Duke Ellington School of the Arts. I made it through the first two years as a staff writer on our school paper by the grace of God, considering I'm highly indisposed to strict deadlines. By the beginning of my junior year, however, things changed when we got a new journalism teacher. From my impressionable, 16-year-old standpoint, Mr. Oyedeji -- fresh off the boat from the U.K. and dressed in American Apparel and Chuck Taylors -- was a revolutionary. He, of course, referred to himself modestly as just another "softly spoken brother."
In his first week with us, Mr. Oyedeji (affectionately called "Mr. O") entreated the class to participate in a small group activity. He divided the class into four groups and gave mine the task of going into the hallway to discuss a topic he assigned us. We had 10 minutes to create a lesson plan and come back and effectively teach the class about the assigned topic.
We scampered eagerly out of the classroom to perform the task, but when we returned, we were met with some difficulty. About a third of our audience was disengaged and silent; another third was distracted and chatty; and the remaining third had so many questions and thoughts to share it was pesky.
Mr. O hardly intervened as we struggled to hold the attention of the class. When our frustrated group was about to throw in the towel, Mr. O had each of the other groups reveal their assignments. Each one had been put up to the task of impeding our short lecture by being under engaged, overly talkative or heckling us with questions and comments. For those few moments, our class truly understood the frustrations and obstacles a teacher is subjected to and we’ve had close to perfect harmony in our classroom ever since.
We've since done away with our outdated school paper and upgraded to a glossy magazine that the entire department can be proud of. Mr. O is always telling us that if our writing is nothing else it ought to be clever, cool and meaningful. In a lot of ways, he exemplifies his own words of wisdom: he's clever, cool, and the two years I spent in his class will always mean a lot to me.

May 2, 2011

Ed Reform In Indiana

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels put his signature on a new law this weekend that will ensure teachers get high-quality evaluations, rather than working under a weak evaluation system in which they go without the objective feedback every professional needs and wants.
The new law also spells out that teachers who demonstrate they are effective in the classroom can receive higher compensation. In other words, excellence will be rewarded rather than ignored.
The law brings an end to the archaic practice of laying teachers off by seniority rather than quality. In the past, when layoffs have occurred, the last teacher hired was the first fired regardless of teacher effectiveness. The new law says those decisions must be made around the quality of the teacher's work, not just his or her length of service.
State lawmakers also have approved legislation that will provide lower-income students additional school options by allowing them to attend private schools. Importantly, private schools that participate in the program must administer the same accountability tests given to students in public schools to ensure that public dollars are spent wisely.
Another approved bill also is designed to expand the number of high-quality public charter schools created in the state. Charter schools are public schools that operate with more flexibility than traditional public schools and that are open to all students in a district regardless of their neighborhood.
StudentsFirst is proud to have attended the signing ceremony this weekend to support this great achievement in Indiana.
Governor Daniels signs ground-breaking education reform bill into law.
StudentsFirst witnesses the signing of the Indiana education reform bill SB1.