Saturday, April 3, 2010

Death and Life of the Great American School System

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch is a look at many attempts to make the public school system work for all students. She is a former Assistant Secretary of Education and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. This is a scholarly work with statistics to back up her change of heart from Choice to support for the neighborhood public school. "With so much money and power aligned against the neighborhood school and against education as a profession, public education itself is placed at risk." She makes the point that community schools allow the public to engage in discussions with their neighbors which is the very basis of our democracy. She defines how charter schools, testing, and the business of education has become a cottage industry in the United States. Often it's about making money, not about what is best for children and their schools. The history of Alvarado Elementary, as shown on this blog, clearly shows it is a long standing community school.

After retiring from 25 years of teaching,
I am well aware there were many programs developed to improve students academic success. Here are some of the programs, often thought of as "silver bullets", designed to lead to superior student success that I have seen, personally used, or participated in developing. Some of these were in other districts and I am sure there are many more programs. Some are a renamed combination of strategies. Some of these address the big picture such as Strategic Planning; some address what happens in the classroom, basic teaching strategies; and some address both, such as No Child Left Behind.

*Split reading
*Phonics only
*Open Court
*Sullivan reading
*Plan, Do, Review
*KWLH charts
*Whole Language
*Sheltered English
*Interactive Writing
*Terry Johnson Strategies
*CELL California Early Literacy Learning
*California Literature Project
*S.T.A.R.S.S. Successful Teaching of Academic Reading to Struggling Students*Just in Time Teaching
*Rebecca Sitton Spelling
*ExLL Extended Literacy Learning
*IBM Writing to Read - Technology Based
*Reciprocal Teaching
*Word Wall - Glad, Clad, Cell
*Non Fiction Matters
*Read Naturally
*Grouping, Non Grouping,
*Tracking, Non Tracking
Differentiated Instruction
*Buddy Systems-student and teacher
*Conflict Resolution
*Best Practices
*Power Standards
*Strategies That Work
*Technology Based (Road Ahead Grant)
*Literacy Coaching
*Learning Walks
*Writers Workshop
*Character Education
*Reading Recovery
*Balanced Literacy
*Intervention: Before, After, and During School (pull-out)
*Strategic Planning
*Professional Learning Communities (PLC) Collaboration
*Data Driven Instruction, testing
*No Child Left Behind (NCLB)- testing, testing, testing
*Critical Literacy
*Human System Dynamics
*Targeted Instruction

*Race to the Top (Grant)

Some of these ideas are from for profit companies who have sold a bill of goods to superintendents, and they in turn have sold the bill of goods to their school boards. Many of these ideas are about making money for a company. Some work exceedingly well, but they are often limited by the number of children with access to the program or even the materials. Teachers pay a high price in time spent exploring these options after school, in the evening, or even in the summer. Often in the next few years they are dumped for new strategies. Then teachers are off learning new techniques spending more hours and hours in training or in meetings at the district office. The good part is experienced teachers have an arsenal of strategies to pull out when needed. The bad part is good teachers get frustrated with the system and leave teaching. There is only one thing certain about schools and that is "constant change".

Probably the most useful to teachers and students is intervention, which could be in the classroom or Read Naturally or Reading Recovery, and voluntary PLC's. Required PLC's often do not work unless there is a very cohesive staff in most grade levels. If all these worked all the time on all the students, we wouldn't have to have NCLB. The principal's eye needs to be always on the prize. The prize being all children reading on or above grade level. The best people need to be hand picked to do the best job whether it's classroom teaching or some type of intervention. I have seen very experienced and well trained aides successfully teach intervention outside of the classroom. Those aides were very disciplined, allowed no excuses for work not done or lack of effort expended by the students, and worked well as a team. Since little effort is spent training aides this is rare. Usually it is the classroom teacher who has the skill and the discipline, and that skill is not easily replicated. Districts are always trying to replicate good teaching. Can it be done effectively? Each teacher is so unique. It is only each teacher's skill at that time, in that place, with a particular child that makes a child successful. It's what the teacher knows and how they use it to spin it to each child's best advantage. It's one child and one teacher, one on one.
Charter schools, poverty, and disenfranchisement, which includes drug use, are premier issues facing the public school system. Diane Ravitch's book is an attempt to look at what has happened in the past and what should happen in future to save the American public school system. Ravitch does not support President Obama's education agenda for merit pay plans. According to her, "test-based accountability removes all responsibility from students and their families for students academic performance". She is not against private schools or even Charter schools. She is against taking parental support, motivated students, and funding away from public schools. She also examines the success rate of the business or army model used by foundations, such as the Gates foundation, and adapted by some charter schools.

Her last chapter is titled, "Lessons Learned" where she explores options for public schools. This chapter relates how generations of immigrants have adjusted to the American way of life through participation in the free public school system. Teachers and staff have seen this on a daily basis at Alvarado. She believes we should establish a general national curriculum which includes the liberal arts, sciences, physical education, and the social behaviors and skills that make learning possible. When schools are in trouble, then whatever needs to be done to correct the problem needs to be done and it might be different from school to school from community to community.

The author's challenges parents, teachers, and students to go to their law makers.
On National Public Radio she recommended these groups go to their congressmen, even naming George Miller, a powerful voice on the education committee from Contra Costa County, as one who knows little about what really goes on in public schools. Her final conclusion is that it's all about good teachers and good principals. Teachers and principals with experience, knowledge, and empathy. That's the magic.

District Librarian's Photo 1990 to 2011

New Haven Unified School District's Proud Librarians

Click on the photo to enlarge
Composite of District Librarians 1990 to 2011

Carla Colburn, James Logan High School
Martha Utley, Conley Carrabello
Jan Dietrich