Friday, July 8, 2011

What constitutes success?

An upcoming New York Times article discusses the no-excuses school movement here.  Advocates of certain low-income schools point out particular schools, many of which are charter schools, as models of success.  Critics point out that these schools have proficiency rates that are far below state averages and also their graduates"were below average in the basic academic skills necessary for success in college and in life".  School advocates countered that it's unfair (and, I'll assume, not useful from a data perspective) to compare students from low-income backgrounds and their more affluent peers in such a manner.

The article explains the situation clearly and I'll try to avoid making the author's points for him.  Towards the end of the article, however, he asks a tough question:

So why are some reformers resorting to excuses ? Most likely for the same reason that urban educators from an earlier generation made excuses: successfully educating large numbers of low-income kids is very, very hard. But it is not impossible, as reformers have repeatedly demonstrated on a small scale. To achieve systemwide success, though, we need a shift in strategy.

To shift strategies, we need to acknowledge the importance of several things.  First is the quality of education children receive.  Children need excellent teachers.  They also need their teachers to work under the leadership of dedicated administrators and district leaders who promote accountability.  Children need parents who are supportive and a positive force in their lives, and that means that schools and other groups should work toward equipping parents to empower their children.  One way schools can support this is by giving additional planning time to teachers so that teachers can reach out to parents.  Schools can also more effectively enforce their codes of conduct to incentivize positive behavior and give positive reinforcement to the students who need it most.

The article mentions small-scale success stories from the education reform movement.  It's going to be much easier to reach the first 1% of low-income students (who likely are talented, supported, and eager to learn) than the last 1% of students (who likely come from the most challenged of circumstances, and may have severe behavioral problems).  How do we reach the last 1% of students?  I'm interested in reading comments and offering my own thoughts once I formulate them.


  1. First, charter schools have more money to spend per student. We can't claim spending money is "throwing money at a problem" and then praising schools that get results because their students have decent materials in decent buildings. I've spent the past 4 years teaching students from a portable. I've had students miss school 23% of the time, and not due to illness. Our school removed the things that make children want to come to school because of (a) no money and (b) we need to get the kids to pass the tests.

    Solutions? Bring back specials, i.e. the arts and PE. Kids learn better who actually show up at school. Extrinsic motivations come before intrinsic ones. You're reading at grade level this quarter? Have an ice cream on report card day. You're not? Did you move up? Did you show up? Help students value progress and value education, whether their parents do or not.

    The whole community needs to loudly speak out in support of education, instead of claiming that teaching is for people who couldn't get "a real job." Sports figures need to point out the role going to college played in their having a sports career today. Musicians need to point out that they are making the big bucks because they know how to read and write (and rhyme, in some cases). We reach the last 1% by motivating them to be successful (and to show up), and then helping them as individual people. That includes testing them for learning disabilities, hearing issues, and eyeglasses.

  2. I'd definitely like to hear more about your experiences. The money issue is interesting to me. There are good and bad ways to spend money. There are districts that spend a lot of money on their schools and don't see student outcomes change. Last year, administrators at my public school used new iPads for evaluations but the smartboards that were supposed to be installed never were. I agree investing in the arts and athletics is important but I'm concerned there's money not being well spent in education.