What the First Grade Says About the Rest of Your Life, and How We Change Destiny

Teachers are flooding back to school today: a new contract, a new chancellor, no new school closings, and no ill-conceived new ideas, and, yes, there are grades aside from pre-kindergarten, the one very high profile new initiative.

For the first time in a dozen years we have a mayor and a chancellor who understand the “tale of two cities,” many families in New York City as well as around the state who live in poverty while others bask in luxury.

In the press release that accompanied the release of the state test scores Commissioner King wrote,

“Although there is some correlation between 2014 math and ELA performance and poverty, there are many examples of schools outperforming demographically similar peer schools.”

(See http://www.p12.nysed.gov/irs/pressRelease/20140814/home.html for a list of higher achieving schools and higher growth schools at both higher and lower levels of wealth.)

A quick scan shows us that many of the low wealth/higher achieving schools are screened schools, i.e., principals choose their students. It would make much sense to use “zip code by poverty” than Title 1 eligibility.

There is no question that occasionally a high poverty school “beats the odds,” and, the Education Trust has written extensively about the qualities of these schools (“Yes We Can: Dispelling Myths About Race and Education in America, September 2006″).

If we analyze how the “beat the odds” schools differ from other high poverty schools:

School Leadership: There are endless college programs that grant school leadership certificates – unfortunately the candidates are not exemplary – even the highly touted New York City Leadership Academy does not uniformly produce highly successful principals. School leadership determines school quality and the evidence of the qualities of highly effective school leaders is still elusive. Nature or nurture? Are highly effective principals the result of excellent training programs or inherent qualities? A leadership gene? Growing up in a household that fostered qualities that lead to the qualities of effective leadership?

Teaching-learning synergy: We measure the quality of the teacher and we measure student outcomes, it is still difficult to understand why some teachers are simply more successful than other teachers. The Gates Measures of Effective Teaching Study videotaped thousands of lessons without identifying that “certain something” that could be replicated classroom to classroom.

Reflective teaching: Teachers who regularly ask themselves, from lesson to lesson, from day to day, what was effective, what was not, how can I change the elements of my lesson to make them more effective? Mike Schmoker calls these “checks for understanding,” teachers who do not wait for kids to change, teachers who realize that teaching impacts learning and, unchanged teaching practice that do not change outcomes must be altered.

The union and the contract as partners, not obstacles: In an increasing number of schools the school leadership includes the UFT chapter leader; in some the school leader and the union leadership are at odds. In some schools union chapters use the contract clauses to allow for flexibility in others the contract is used to prevent school leadership initiatives.

True collegiality and collaboration: .Some principals are actually instructional leaders, they lead professional development, they teach demonstration lessons and they have earned the respect of the staff and the student body; however, too few principals possess the skills to actually lead.

With all of these elements the progress may not reflect in dramatically higher test scores. The progress may be measured in fewer suspensions, better attendance and less lateness, more students doing homework, more students engaged in lessons, moving from high level one to low level two is progress.

Yes, there are outliers, there are a few schools with that special combination of school leadership and staff, a combination that is exceptionally difficult to replicate, a combination that may make progress, progress that may not result in a majority of students on level three or higher.

For too many kids in spite of the yeoman efforts of school leaders and teachers geography is destiny.

The Washington Post reports on the end of a twenty-five year study

For 25 years, the authors of The Long Shadow tracked the life progress of a group of almost 800 predominantly low-income Baltimore school children … The authors’ fine-grained analysis confirms that the children who lived in more cohesive neighborhoods, had stronger families, and attended better schools tended to maintain a higher economic status later in life. Combining original interviews with Baltimore families, teachers, and other community members with the empirical data gathered from the authors’ groundbreaking research, The Long Shadow unravels the complex connections between socioeconomic origins and socioeconomic destinations to reveal a startling and much-needed examination of who succeeds and why.

The Russell Sage Foundation writes,

“We like to think that education is an equalizer — that through it, children may receive the tools to become entrepreneurs when their parents were unemployed, lawyers when their single moms had 10th-grade educations. But [the researchers] kept coming back to one data point: the 4 percent of disadvantaged children who earned college degrees by age 28 … education did not appear to provide a dependable path to stable jobs and good incomes for the worst off.

The story is different for children from upper-income families, who supplement classroom learning with homework help, museum trips and college expectations. [the researchers] found one exception: Low-income white boys attained some of the lowest levels of education. But they earned the highest incomes among the urban disadvantaged.”

Let me repeat: only 4% of the disadvantaged children earned college degrees by the age of 28 – among the “urban disadvantaged” white males earned the highest incomes.

Race and class, not education, was the determinant as far as stable jobs and good income are concerned.

We have a mayor, a chancellor and some members of the Regents who understand that education, teaching and learning, cannot be separated from the realities of day to day life. The governor and the legislature and mayors have to work to lessen the “tale of two cities,” the electeds must create jobs and affordable housing and health care.

How about equalizing the district to district disparity in funding? How about encouraging policies that integrate instead of segregating schools? How about understanding that the teacher evaluation process (APPR) is fatally flawed? And, how about creating a testing system that is useful to parents and teachers instead of responding to federal mandates?

Perhaps in a school year without the acrimony of the last decade we can begin to both acknowledge the need for working on the economic inequities and creating more effective schools.

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2 responses to “What the First Grade Says About the Rest of Your Life, and How We Change Destiny

  1. Which study are you citing in painting all principal prep programs with the same negative brush?

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  2. Sadly, for the last decade, we have had policy by anecdote. The reformers would find statistical outiers and use them to make educational policy. There will always be the magical teacher that inspires a high needs students to reach a high level of achievement. The problem is most people of any field do a decent job, but do not have that charismatic quality to motivate and inspire. Let’s use our presidents as examples. For every John Kennedy, Teddy or FDR, there were about 40 others who did not have that magic. Some were duds but most did decent enough jobs under the circumstances they were given. By the way, there is no mathematical formula that can quantify charisma. Anyone who says they can create one is a charlatan. Unfortunately, in the last decade, in terms of education, the charlatans have been in charge

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