Tag Archives: low-performing schools

Part One: Questions for Teach for America

This will be the first in a two part series on Teach for America, a program developed by Wendy Kopp while she was studying public policy at Princeton. According to its website, the goal of the program is to “recruit a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement who work to expand educational opportunity, starting by teaching for two years in a low-income community.” In these blogs, we will explore just how successful Teach for America has been.

Over the past 20 years, thousands of college graduates have joined Kopp’s movement whose mission is to ensure that students who are growing up in poverty have the opportunity to get an excellent education. In fact, since 2008, applications for the program have doubled and foundations have donated tens of millions to the program.

Studies indicate that family income is one of the most accurate ways to predict how students will perform in the classroom. For example, only 18 percent of low-income eighth-grade students received proficient or above scores on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

At the center of the debate over how to achieve educational reform is how do schools overcome the challenges that poverty creates? The solution clearly is to fill these schools with highly effective teachers, but statistically, these schools generally have twice as many teachers who have fewer than three years’ experience in schools.

Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, who served as the founding director for Teach for America in New York City, said, “The reality, particularly in urban centers in America, is they [highly effective teachers] aren’t there.”

Teach for America believes that it can create a corps of highly effective teachers to fill these schools in a short period of time. However, research has supported the simple fact that experienced teachers tend to be more effective in the classroom, while beginning teachers tend to improve with experience.

One Harvard study which focused on students in Texas, for instance, concluded that a teacher’s level of education, experience, and scores on their licensing exams had more of an influence on student performance than any other factor they studied. Research done in North Carolina on various teacher training programs, which included Teach for America, revealed that when elementary students were taught math by a first-year teacher, they lost the equivalent of 21 days of schooling compared to students who had teachers who had four years of experience.

So how are Teach for America candidates recruited and trained to prepare them for the challenges they will face? First, most of those who apply only consider teaching as an option after speaking with a Teach for America recruiter or program graduate; most of them have no education background and have never even considered teaching as a career.

Ryan Winn, for example, was won over when his recruiter showed him a picture of his third-grade Phoenix class. When the recruiter told Winn that half the students in the photograph would probably drop out by the eighth grade, Winn said, “That struck me as incredibly unfair and I was upset about it.” He is currently a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee.

Once a graduate is accepted into Teach for America, they begin their training with thick packages of reading materials. Next, they spend five weeks co-teaching a summer class, usually in an urban school district, with students who are taking remedial coursework in order to move on to the next grade.

While co-teaching, they are overseen by another instructor, who might be a more experienced school teacher or a current or former Teach for America corps member.

Sarahi Constantine Padilla, a recent Stanford University graduate teaching at Holmes Elementary in Miami, said of the training program, “It was a real steep learning curve.”

After this short summer experience, these “trained” Teach for America teachers are sent to the districts they have been assigned to where many of them don’t even know what they are going to teach until just before the school year begins. The districts which hire these teachers pay up to $5,000 to Teach for America for each corps member who gets hired on, as well as paying the teacher’s salary.

Interviews with nearly two dozen Teach for America corps members were mixed. Many described classroom victories, but many also admitted to feeling uncertain about their abilities as first-year teachers.

Brett Barley, who taught in the San Francisco Bay area, said,  “I struggled personally with my ability to be effective, and I think the gains my kids achieved were largely in spite of me. I thought the key thing I was able to bring to them was communicating the urgency of the predicament they faced and having them buy in to the idea they could be successful.”

Barley had reasons to be dismayed; most of his fourth-grade class started the year at a second-grade level in reading and writing. Two of his students were classified as blind, and roughly 30 percent weren’t native English speakers.

“The biggest challenge was trying to learn on the job to meet all the kids at their different skill levels,” Barley said.

Kopp’s book, A Chance to Make History, tells the stories of several Teach for America corps members who achieved extraordinary success in their classrooms, but there are many teachers whose experiences were far from successful, like Megan Hopkins. A Spanish major in college, Hopkins was assigned as a bilingual teacher in Phoenix, but she received no training regarding how to teach English language learners.

“I had no idea how to teach a child to read,” Hopkins said. “I had no idea how to teach a second language learner to read in Spanish, much less in English. After five weeks of training, I really had no idea what I was doing. I felt that was a big disservice to my students.”

She was encouraged by Teach for America to set a goal to advance her students one and a half grade levels, but she had no idea how to attain the goal. She had to work with other teachers to develop a plan.

She said that she was praised “up and down” for increasing her students’ reading levels, but she questioned the validity of the results. She claimed that one of her students, who was a native Spanish speaker, was able to read fluently in English as a result of her efforts, “but if you asked him what he read, he had absolutely no idea.”

So how effective is Teach for America, and how effective are the teachers who the program “trains?” These are questions we will explore tomorrow in the second part of this blog.

Bizarre Events in Los Angeles’ School

Now here is a truly strange and terrible story out of Los Angeles yesterday. Before I tell you the story, let me set the scene.

Gardena High School is located in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and it has a sketchy record already. It is a school with a history of discipline problems and racial tension which has caused numerous fights. Additionally, it is ranked as one of the district’s lowest-performing high schools with a 35 percent dropout rate. CBS News reports: “Five years ago, more than 2,000 students were suspended, and 15 students were expelled. Those figures remained high until last year when the number of suspensions dropped to 300 and expulsions to two.”

Yesterday, the normal activities at Gardena were violently interrupted by the sound of gunshot when a sophomore dropped his backpack on his desk, and the gun which he was carrying in that backpack somehow discharged. Now, this on its own is unreal! Lt. John Pasquariello of the Los Angeles police department said of this bizarre event, “We don’t know exactly what happened. Traditionally, guns don’t go off without someone’s finger on the trigger.” But, to make matters worse, and more unbelievable, two students were shot by the one bullet that discharged.

One of the victims was a 15-year old girl who suffered a skull fracture, bruising of the brain, and developed a “significant blood clot” caused when the bullet grazed her skull. The other victim was a 15-year old boy who was shot in the neck by the same bullet.

The boy who brought the gun to school reportedly yelled that he was sorry after the gun discharged, and he ran from the room. The teacher, who was in the classroom, felt that the boy’s response proved that this was a tragic accident.

So how did he get into the school with a gun? According to the district’s spokesperson, schools can’t afford metal detectors, but students are checked randomly as they arrive with security wands. Sadly, this boy must not have been one of those randomly checked yesterday morning.

So, what has happened to the three students forever linked in this bizarre story? The girl’s blood clot was successfully removed although she is sedated and in critical condition as of yesterday. The boy who was shot is listed in fair condition. And the boy who made the biggest mistake of his life was arrested and, as of yesterday, was being held pending charges. 

Ironically, the school system is talking about either suspending or expelling the boy if he is released from custody. All I can think is: do they really think this is going to teach this young man the lesson they obviously want him to learn from this incident? Because I can’t help but think that suspension or expulsion pale in comparison to what this boy must be going through right now. His live has been forever altered by a tragic lack of reasoning. We may never know why he brought this gun to school with him yesterday, but clearly what occurred was not planned. Who would ever have thought that a gun would go off so easily? And how could he have known when he placed that gun in his backpack that his young life and the lives of two innocent people would never be the same again?

California Gets a Taste of the Parent Trigger Law

A CBS News article by Ben Tracy, dated December 24, tells of an unsettling new state law in California, the Parent Trigger Law, which allows parents to take over their children’s failing school if they have a majority vote by parents to do so. And that is exactly what is happening at McKinley Elementary in Compton, California.

According to this article, Compton is a tough town with a school that is ranked in the bottom 10 percent. A vote was taken, and 62 percent of McKinley’s parents voted to force the school district to become a charter school which would be publicly funded but privately run. This is the first time the Parent Trigger Law has been used in California, and it has precipitated a nasty fight between parents and teachers. Some parents claim that they were tricked or intimidated into signing the petition, and they fear a backlash if they withdraw their support. At the same time, those who are calling for reform also say they have been threatened. They claim they have been told that their children will be kicked out of school or the parents might be deported.

Governor Schwarzenegger (the governor at the time) called for an investigation due to the hostile environment that has been created. The teachers of McKinley are obviously reeling. They argue that the timing is unfair since their state test scores have jumped almost 13 percent over the last two years. They are hurt because they believe they are on the right track to fix things in their school.

I can’t help but feel for both the parents and the teachers in this divisive atmosphere. I think that California citizens need to ask themselves, in hindsight, if the Parent Trigger Law was such a great idea. Let’s face it; unless parents are actually spending time in their children’s schools, they haven’t got the whole picture as to what is going on there. I find it outrageous to leave schools in the hands of parents who probably do not have all of the facts at their disposal and may instead be reacting out of emotion rather than information. Worrying about their child’s education is certain to make parents emotional, but should it empower them to take matters into their own hands? I think not! This is truly a chaotic situation which I will continue to report on, so stay tuned.

Who’s Paying for This One?

The latest release on the U.S. Department of Education’s website from October 5, states that the Department of Education has awarded $38.8 million in grants to eleven states “to measure school safety at the building level and to help intervene in those schools with the greatest safety needs. The goal of the grants is to create and support safe and drug-free learning environments and to increase academic success for students in these high-risk schools.” The Safe and Supportive School grant is managed by the Department’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools:
*         which supports efforts to create safe schools
*         ensures the health and well being of students
*         teaches students good citizenship and character
*         responds to crisis
*         prevents drug and alcohol abuse
Now, I have always said that in order to turn around low-performing schools you need to first turn around the neighborhoods which is the cause of poor academic performance. I am not sure how such a feat would be accomplished, and I am aware it would be an expensive venture. But this freaks me out! We are all limping around in this severely crippled economy, tightening our belts, shopping for bargains, putting off what we’d like to have for what we need to have. We are all making sacrifices and impatiently waiting for this economy to improve. Yet, almost every time I log onto the U.S. Department of Education website, I read about more money being awarded to this state or that state for this or that. Isn’t anyone worried? Isn’t anyone else asking who is footing the bill for all of this?
Is it any wonder that our economy is such a mess? Who is going to pay for all of this spending? You and I? Our children? Our grandchildren? Enough, please! It’s a great cause, but enough!