Richard Rothstein Challenges Joel Klein’s School Reform Autobiography

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I’m home in New Jersey visiting my family. Each time I come home, my mind seems to reflect on how my family has supported me each step of the way in my life’s journey. As a critical thinker, I always compare and contrast my life to this point to others in my hometown–a town crippled by poverty. Unlike many of my peers growing up, I have a father who was a first generation college student. It is this, along with other fortunate life situations that I was born into, that has great influence of my present level of success.

This morning, I read a piece by Richard Rothstein titled, “Why Education Reform may be Doomed.” I believe his entire piece pushes us all to reflect on how our level of individual privilege and social capital impacts our life’s outcomes.

Rothstein, born with similar privilege of Klein, argues that Klein misrepresents his family’s economic situation in the name of pushing his type of education reform: one that believes that poverty is not destiny. That he was able to overcome poverty by the hand of a teacher. Therefore, teachers can singlehandedly life children out of poverty. I will post my response to his piece next week.

Here is an excerpt:

Children like Klein and me were privileged, not perhaps in money but in what sociologists term “social capital.” Nobody I know of from my special-progress class dropped out of school; my fellow students typically went on to become college professors, doctors, business executives, accountants, writers, and lawyers. Sure, we loved to play street stickball, but we were not “kids from the streets,” as Klein would have it. We were surrounded by peers with middle-class ambitions and goals.

It would be obscene for me to claim I overcame severe hardship and was rescued from deprivation by schoolteachers. It is more obscene for Klein to do so, because his claim supports attacks on contemporary teachers and a refusal to acknowledge impediments teachers face because of their students’ social and economic deprivation. It’s a deprivation that he never suffered but that many children from public housing do today.

A few superhuman teachers may lift a handful of children who come to school from barely literate homes, hungry, in poor health, and otherwise unprepared for academic instruction. But even the best teachers face impossible tasks when confronted with classrooms filled with truly disadvantaged students who are not in tracked special-progress classes and don’t arrive each morning from families as academically supportive as mine. Instead, they may come from segregated communities where concentrated and entrenched poverty, unemployment, and social alienation over many generations have been ravaging.

The rest of Rothstein’s piece can be read at Salon.. I do encourage you to read it and post your thoughts. As you’re reading, I want you to take a hard look inside and ask yourself just how did you get to where you are today?

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Apply for a Capital Cause Microgrant!

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Is your nonprofit doing work to address the issues of hunger, homeless and poverty in the DC Metropolitan area? If so, your organization may be eligible to receive a Capital Cause Grant!

Capital Cause is pleased to announce its second grant cycle of the 2012 year! Capital Cause is an organization that invests young professionals in philanthropy through collective giving of monetary donations (Capital) and time (Cause). Since 2009, Capital Cause has awarded nearly 20 microgrants to deserving nonprofits across the Washington Metropolitan Area, and your nonprofit could be next!

This year, Capital Cause Young Philanthropists selected poverty to be ourcause of the year. As such, all microgrants we award will be used to assist nonprofits and causes doing work in this area. According to the United Nations:

“Poverty is defined as ‘a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and informations. It depends not just on the income, but also on access to services.'”

During our second cycle, Capital Cause will award monetary grants focusing organizations that aim to eradicate poverty.

The deadline to apply is Wednesday, October 17th at 11:59pm.

Microgrants will be awarded in $500 and $1,000 increments. Nonprofits who meet the requirements below are encouraged to apply:

1. Be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit as defined by the IRS
2. Aim to address poverty
3. Complete the Capital Microgrant Online Application

Qualifying organizations can complete our online application here:http://www.capitalcause.com/capital-bank/apply

Please send any questions, comments, or concerns to Darla Bunting,Capital Director, at capital@capitalcause.com.

Yours in Philanthropy,

Darla Bunting
Capital Director,
Capital Cause

Elevating the “No Excuses” Debate

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Some aspects of public education are in a battle: standardized testing, teacher evaluation, school choice, common core, class size, and more. Every solution is up for a great debate on Twitter, in the editorial section of newspapers, and blogs from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, C.A. and everywhere in between. Yet, as these battles take place, I’m worried that the best solutions are not making it to the table. Both sides are publicly seen as arrogant and unwilling to compromise, and this is hurting our kids.

The latest debate at the forefront is “no excuses” as a method to change school culture. Opponents of this school culture model claim that the no excuses approach ignores poverty’s stranglehold on schools. Supporters of this model argue that students need to be taught to stop making excuses for their level of academic achievement by working hard, being nice and going to college. Somewhere in the middle is where the answer lies. Yet, again the public conversation is creating another polarizing argument that halts progress.

Here’s my take:
Opponents of No Excuses: Yes, poverty is the root cause of the problems ailing our nation’s most struggling schools and communities. Yes, districts must provide schools with the basic wraparound services to provide an excellent education for our children. Nevertheless, I’m afraid what’s missing from your public stance is the acknowledgement that school culture must change in many of our schools.

No excuses is not an approach to combat poverty. It is an attempt to create a positive school culture. If you do not agree with this approach to creating a positive school culture, you must then give solutions about how to create one. By simply saying, “No excuses ignores poverty,” you lose a great opportunity to push the school culture debate further.

We can push the school culture debate further by discussing the following:
1. What is the vision of your school?
2. Does your current school culture support your vision of creating a college-going culture?
3. If not, how do we create a college culture in our schools that are not graduating students who go on to college in high numbers?
4. What mindsets do children need to succeed?
5. What does this look like on a whole- school level? Classroom level?
6. As a staff, what will we do to drastically improve our school culture so that are students expect to go to college?
7. What is holding your school back from creating a positive learning environment? Does your school have a whole-school behavior and incentive system? How are you improving attendance? How are you decreasing suspensions?
8. If your school does have an amazing school culture, share it, tweet it, blog about it. What are you doing to share your school’s best practices?

Supporters of No Excuses
Yes, schools must take daring moves to create learning environments that raise expectations and push students to believe college is their route to success in places where going to college is not the norm. Yes, school districts and school leaders have the power to create schools as safe havens that equip our students with the tools they need to beat the odds in their dilapidated neighborhoods. Yes, many schools do a poor job of creating positive learning environments for children.

Nevertheless, what’s missing in your argument is the reality that it’s not just college banners donning the hallways, college chants echoing from classrooms, or demerit systems that create school culture. Wraparound services, low student to teacher ratios, positive working environments that provide teacher leadership and professional development are also important pieces that work in synchronization to provide our students with the best conditions to achieve at high levels.

We need to push the school culture debate further by answering the following:
1. What is your definition of the “no excuses” approach?
2. How did you come up with this approach as the most effective way to change a school’s culture?
3. What does this model look like at the school level? Classroom level?
4. What are the misconceptions of this approach?
5. What are the areas of improvement for the “no excuse” model?
6. How do you create buy-in of this model from staff, students and families?
7. What happens when children challenge this model?
8. What are your student attendance and suspension rates? Have you seen increased attendance and deceased suspensions with this model? If not, what are you doing to improve? If so, what best practices can you share?

Let’s all agree to take this debate to the next level. The real work is the action happening in classrooms and schools. We all agree that for far too long we’ve allowed the children living in our nation’s most impoverished neighborhoods to attend schools that have not produced enough students attending college. Although, poverty continues to plague our neighborhoods, and we may not be able to control all the outside factors, we can definitely control what our schools look and feel like once a child enters the doors. Let’s discuss concrete solutions that schools can implement in their classrooms to create a school culture where students expect to attend college. Then put them into action. I’m ready to work!

The Best Chicago Strike Op-Ed!

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Tonight, as I sifted through tweets checking for articles on the Chicago Teachers Union, I found a gem. In my opinion, the best Chicago Teachers Union Strike op-Ed by far. Posted in The New York Times, the author Alex Kotlowitz asked a serious question, “Are We Asking Too Much of Teachers?” This is a question I asked myself earlier this year as I made the difficult choice to leave the classroom.

Fueled by my passion to create better schools for all public school students, I started teaching giving it 100%, even when that meant putting my life on hold as I struggled to manage the individual life circumstances of each of my students. You see, I never intended to be a career teacher. Being a teacher was just my first step in a lifelong journey to help bring innovative solutions to the most ailing problems facing our nation’s most poverty-stricken communities. I hope to one day be at the table where major decisions are made to benefit our
students. I believe that teacher voice is critical at that table.

Moreover, as my teaching days went on and years passed, writing objective-driven lesson plans aligned to standards every day wasn’t all that would deem me effective under DC Public School’s IMPACT evaluation system. I had to create Girls and Boys Day to introduce my scholars to positive mentors that look like them and had gone to college. I did home visits to build relationships with parents. I brought volunteers into the school to help get it ready for the first day of school. I wrote Donors Choose grants to get more resources into my classroom. I did everything in my human power to try to circumvent poverty’s impact on my classroom.

Nevertheless, late nights and early mornings entering student data in a computer taught me (the hard way) what I knew all along from growing up in an poverty-stricken city in southern NJ–just being an effective teacher alone cannot solve poverty, and I could not stress myself out about it. Because stressing myself out about my some of my students living in homeless shelters, not having food on the table or proper clothes to wear will break a person down–especially a teacher who comes to school every day garnering all hope possible to challenge this reality head on.

Now do not get me wrong. I agree that teachers must teach the best they can while knowing that we’re working against negative neighborhood environments that can suck our children into a tornado of negative choices that limit their life’s positive outcomes. I know that great teachers in every classroom will ensure that a student can be strong enough to believe in their future more than the dark reality that they live. I know that great teachers make a difference, but what Mr. Kotlowitz sheds light on is that teachers alone cannot rid our country of poverty. Putting so much pressure on schools does not serve our children or communities. Schools must also be supported by economic policies at the local, state and federal levels that create more sustainable and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods that produce more equitable schools.

While so many people have the luxury of never stepping foot in an impoverished community, teachers in our most troubled schools don’t. It’s easy to be on Capital Hill and never come to Southeast DC, but make sweeping generalizations about all the teachers who work in the “failing” schools. It’s easy to work in Chicago Public Schools’ Central Office and never fully empathize with a student who asks you every day to see his incarcerated father, but you have to tell him it’s okay and help him stay focused on the lesson. When we dare teachers to be on the frontlines, having the audacity to fight poverty in they see and feel, we better have their backs every step along the way.

More than likely, Chicago won’t be the answer to Mr. Kotlowitz’s question–just like schools alone cannot heal our nation from wound of poverty. However, when we bring thoughtful dialogue and perspective in the conversation, we allow a better product to be produced. Here’s to a quick end to the strike, but to continued conversation. Thank you for Chicago for sparking the dialogue. We can either use this as a time to point fingers or to really begin to ask the tough questions that help us create systemic solutions.

Mr. Kotlowitz, I applaud you for bringing depth to the conversation. To read his piece that inspired my post click here

Why do I spend so much time at work?

Last night, I came home extremely tired.  I’ve been working nonstop.  I worked through my weekend and I envision that being the case this weekend as well.  I haven’t gotten in before 8:00pm this week because I’ve been spending every waking moment in DC Scholars Stanton.  I say this not because I want admiration or pity, I say this because I wholeheartedly want to do everything possible to be an effective teacher and lead my scholars to achieving their academic goals this year.

It is all I think about.  How can I teach this reading strategy better?  How can I reach my lowest students?  How can I make sure I’m creating a welcoming atmosphere?  How can I be a great school teammate?  The list of questions–much like my to-do list– is never-ending.  Whenever I think I’m ahead, I think of something else that needs to be done because we are in an educational crisis.  The stakes are too high and I refuse to be part of the problem.

Earlier today, President Obama delivered his annual Back to School speech, right here in Washington, D.C. at Benjamin Banneker High School.  Although, I could not see it delivered live, I felt compelled to watch it tonight before hitting the sack.  I was not disappointed.  I felt like he knew exactly how I felt at that moment.  It was like he was in my living room and speaking directly to me.

In one part of his speech, he talked about teachers.  Below is what he said:

Let me say something about teachers, by the way. Teachers are the men and women who might be working harder than just about anybody these days. (Applause.) Whether you go to a big school or a small one, whether you attend a public or a private or charter school –- your teachers are giving up their weekends; they’re waking up at dawn; they’re cramming their days full of classes and extra-curricular activities. And then they’re going home, eating some dinner, and then they’ve got to stay up sometimes past midnight, grading your papers and correcting your grammar, and making sure you got that algebra formula properly.

And they don’t do it for a fancy office. They don’t — they sure don’t do it for the big salary. They do it for you. They do it because nothing gives them more satisfaction than seeing you learn. They live for those moments when something clicks; when you amaze them with your intellect or your vocabulary, or they see what kind of person you’re becoming. And they’re proud of you. And they say, I had something to do with that, that wonderful young person who is going to succeed. They have confidence in you that you will be citizens and leaders who take us into tomorrow. They know you’re our future. So your teachers are pouring everything they got into you, and they’re not alone.

President Obama, you answered a question that many of my friends have asked me time and time again.  Why do you do it?  Why do you spend so many hours at work?  I do it because I want my scholars to succeed.  I know through life experiences that education is the way to a better life for the kids I teach.  I know that what I do in that classroom could set them on the path to success or to a life of poverty.  I want the best for them.  I want them to love learning, and most importantly I want them to succeed in doing what they love most.  I do not want their life’s outcomes to be dictated by their zip code or their parents income level.  I want their life’s outcomes to be controlled by their will to make the world a little better for those coming after them.
Thank you President Obama.  You just recharged my battery.

The Power of Home Visits!

This year, in partnership with the Flamboyan Foundation, my school, DC Scholars Stanton, set a goal of 200 home visits before our early September deadline.  I am proud to say that as a school we surpassed our 200 goal and teachers completed 213 home visits!   I believe that the home visit initiative kicked off this summer propelled our school to a great start this school year.  Family engagement is higher than ever.  Our Back to School Night was filled to capacity, forms are being returned at higher rates, and teacher-parent interactions have increased tremendously.   As a teacher, home visits solidified my belief that:

1.  Parents need structured ways to be involved

Each parent or grandparent I met wanted to be involved in school.  They want to help their children with their homework.   Many just did not know how–either their educational level crippled them from assisting at a beneficial level or they forgot how to do the concept.  At my school we are implementing Academic Parent Teacher Teams this year.   Academic Parent Teacher teams will happen three times this year.  At these 1 and half hour meetings, teachers distribute and analyze  student and class-wide data, teachers instruct two major learning goals, and parents learn and receive materials of practice activities to do at home.  Our first Academic Parent Teacher Team meeting will happen in October.  Parents are already excited for it!  This is just one way that parents will be involved in school this year.

2.  Schools can serve as community hubs

A child’s school should feel welcoming to the community. A parent should not feel as though they do not have anyone to go to when their child is having a problem.   Parents should feel like they belong and have a voice.  Schools must provide parents with ways to be meaningfully involved through ways that ensure their child’s academic success.   At the end of the day, it is the schools responsibility to create the structure for parents to be involved.

Secondly, schools can serve as portals from what is to what is possible.  Many parents and grandparents want to expose their children to life beyond their communities.  In fact, this exposure is an important aspect of their child’s success.  Schools can partner with community organizations and provide opportunities both inside and outside of school that give each child a broaden perspective of the world around them.

3.  We must advocate to end poverty

I’ve done home visits in apartments and homeless shelters.  No matter where I went I was faced with the daunting reality that Americans should be angered at the high level of poverty in our country.   Children should not have to grow up in these types of conditions.

Secondly, the working poor in America was rise up and reclaim their American dream.  For too long have the wealthiest people labeled Americans working poor as lazy Americans who deserve the lives they live.  That notion is farther from the truth.  Each house I went to, parents and grandparents were working or looking for work to make a better life for their family.  The problem is that there is a lack of opportunity and resources.  We must expand welfare policies that train people to be productive members of society and ensure that the communities they live in are filled with resources that uplift their children.

I challenge schools to encourage their teachers and staff members to conduct home visits prior to and during the school year.  Home visits will give teachers more perspective in their scholars home lives as well as connect parents with families prior to the start of school.  I would love to hear your plans for implementing home visits or how your school continues to engage families after the initial home visit.

Systemic Change: Study dismisses poverty, but try telling that to the poor

Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy is spot on when he blasts the Heritage Foundation and their portrayal of America’s poor.  Here’s an excerpt:

By the researchers’ reckoning, we probably shouldn’t be too alarmed by the Census Bureau’s announcement Tuesday that thenation’s poverty rate rose from 14.3 percent in 2009 to 15.1 in 2010. And we probably shouldn’t fret that there are now more Americans living in poverty — 46.2 million — than at any other time in the past half-century.

Just numbers, they wrote dismissively of such poverty data. What the Census Bureau omits, they contended, is an accounting of the benefits that the poor receive from the “welfare state.” From what the government defines as poverty — for instance, a family of four with a household income of about $22,000 a year — a picture emerges of people who might well be regarded as rich anywhere else in the world.

I’m glad to hear so many people beginning to speak out against our nation’s dismal poverty rate.  Just because we can prove that their are exceptions who can escape poverty and be successful, does not mean that we stop fighting to end poverty.  Read more of Courtland Milloy’s piece here.

Systemic Change: Public education’s biggest problem gets worse

As part of my Systemic Change category, I’ve found yet another article that sheds light on poverty’s impact on school reform.  Valerie Strauss, from the Washington Post, recently published Public education’s biggest problem gets worse.  In her piece, she underscores that we cannot truly fix schools without also addressing our nation’s poverty crisis.  Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

But we need to face facts: Problems in schools would remain even if every teacher were magnificent (show me a profession where that is true about every practioner) because teachers are obviously enormously important, but they are not the only factor that goes into how well children succeed.

The current direction of school reform is making it even harder to fix broken schools and improve the ones that do well even if they suffer from 20th century design and resources.

Making teachers entirely responsible for a student’s academic progress — regardless of whether the child eats enough or sleeps enough or gets enough medical attention — is counterproductive. Pretending that these issues can be “factored out” in some kind of mathematical formula that can assess how much “value” a teacher has added to a student’s progress is near nutty. That’s not just me saying it. Leading mathematicians say it too.

The effects of poverty on children matter in regard to student achievement. That is not to say that efforts to improve teacher quality, modernize curriculum, infuse technology into the classroom where it makes sense and other reforms should not be pursued. But doing all of that while ignoring the conditions in which kids live is a big waste of time.

Read more of the op-ed at the Washington Post online by clicking here.

Dr. Steve Perry is No Nonsense about Educating Our Youth

My friend and fellow University of Maryland alumnus, Joi Marie McKenzie, had the opportunity sit down the Dr. Steve Perry.  She asked him some great questions, including one I submitted.  Below is the question and response:

Loop 21: What role do you feel educators have in advocating for policies or programs that help to eradicate poverty?

Dr. Perry: I believe educators are professionally obligated to ensure that they, with all do haste, work for the betterment of children beyond just coming to work and teach somebody how to add. They must advocate for programs and policies that will enrich these children lives that means that if they see a policy that will provide a free reduced lunch for children, they have to support that. If they see a policy that will close failed schools, they have to support that. If they see a policy that will allow children to have choice, as opposed to the current system where the parent has to move the family or a parent has to win the lottery whether it be the economic lottery or the lottery of getting into a good school, then they have to support that. If teachers are truly to fulfill their obligation and represent the calling that is ours, then they have to advocate even when advocacy could lead to the loss of their own job.

What are your thoughts on what Dr. Steve Perry said?

Check out Joi’s entire interview at The Loop 21.

Systemic Change: Paul Tough’s “No, Seriously: No Excuses”

This week, I’m adding a new category to my blog:  Systemic Change.  In this category, I will post links to great articles published on the web that offer excellent insight into how we can best improve our nation’s public school system.   These articles will address one of the root causes of inequality in America:  poverty.

My first article, No, Seriously: No Excuses, was published in The New York Times earlier this summer.  It is a piece by Paul Tough, author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.

Here’s a short excerpt:

The reformers’ policy goals are, in most cases, quite worthy. Yes, contracts should be renegotiated so that the best teachers are given incentives to teach in the poorest schools, and yes, school systems should extend the school day and school year for low-income students, as many successful charter schools have done. But these changes are not nearly sufficient. As Paul Reville, the Massachusetts secretary of education, wrote recently in Education Week, traditional reform strategies “will not, on average, enable us to overcome the barriers to student learning posed by the conditions of poverty.” Reformers also need to take concrete steps to address the whole range of factors that hold poor students back. That doesn’t mean sitting around hoping for utopian social change. It means supplementing classroom strategies with targeted, evidence-based interventions outside the classroom: working intensively with the most disadvantaged families to improve home environments for young children; providing high-quality early-childhood education to children from the neediest families; and, once school begins, providing low-income students with a robust system of emotional and psychological support, as well as academic support.

Continue to read more by clicking here.