Category Archives: Schools I’m Following

A demographic description of the schools and communities I’m observing

What I Learned In School

From 2013-2014, I visited high school English classes across the socioeconomic spectrum in Los Angeles in an attempt to understand what makes a great teacher and what we mean when we say “education.”  This is one of the most important lessons I learned: that we need a new language to talk about poverty.

I recently worked with three groups of 8th and 9th grade students. All of the groups are comprised of students of color from families in poverty, which means they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under a California program whose cutoff is for a family of four is an income of under $30,615 (free), or under $43,568 (reduced-price). Students from families like these who qualify for free and reduced lunch are generally the students we talk about when we talk about children in poverty.

My three student groups all meet this criterion. In addition, they all are highly motivated and academically proficient, with supportive parents who have enrolled them in an after-school college-prep enrichment program. They must all be alike, right?

Wrong. Continue reading What I Learned In School

Lesson 1: You’re Dead in the Water Without a Great Principal

You know how they say that people come to look like their dogs? A parallel truism is that any organization comes to look like its leader. For some reason, though this idea is axiomatic in corporate life—who would attribute the success of Apple to its highly effective programmers?—when you get to schools, I rarely hear it said that every school embodies the values of its principal. But it’s meaningless to talk about teacher “effectiveness” outside of the context in which he or she works. One of the biggest lessons I learned this year is that a teacher cannot, repeat, cannot be effective for long in a dysfunctional community. And whether that school community is or is not functional is entirely dependent on the leadership of the principal. Continue reading Lesson 1: You’re Dead in the Water Without a Great Principal

What’s the Future of Unions?

The recent ruling in the Vergara v. California lawsuit, in which Judge Rolf Treu struck a body blow against the power of teachers’ unions by declaring that five of California’s laws protecting teacher tenure, firing and seniority were in violation of the state constitution’s guarantee of equal education to all children, has implications so broad I don’t think we can even fully comprehend them yet.

I’ve written in earlier posts that though I absolutely think that bad teachers should be fired—and that last in, first out policies should be re-thought—they are not the core problem in the fight for equal education. I’m troubled by the witch-hunt zeal, the purge mentality, of this lawsuit, which implies that the layoffs that caused so many eager young teachers to be fired in the first place were some kind of natural disaster inflicted upon us by the gods that we should have diverted onto the heads of bad teachers.

But let’s be honest, California: those layoffs occurred because of budget cuts—and those budget cuts were our collective decision. And they were so radical that even if we had first fired the small percentage of bad teachers, we would still have been laying off a large number of excellent teachers. Continue reading What’s the Future of Unions?

When Reform Addresses Poverty, Not Just Schools

I am out of town for a week for my son’s college graduation!  I’ll begin posting again when I return on May 27.

So I’ve been running around town for the last six years yelling “the problem isn’t bad teachers, the problem is poverty” and finally somebody did something about it. Okay, it wasn’t just because I was yelling. In the factionalized world of education, most people outside of the Ed Reform camp hold the same view: that the underlying factor causing students of color in low-income communities to fare less well than more affluent students is the trauma caused by poverty and lack of resources, which often leads to overcrowded living situations, parents in crisis, transient families, violence in the community, lack of access to medical care and sometimes lack of food, and until we improve those conditions, the achievement gap will not change (as indeed it has not despite over a decade of Education Reform and several decades of other various education crazes.) Continue reading When Reform Addresses Poverty, Not Just Schools

Every Student is Somebody’s Child

After seven years of bouncing around the LAUSD, first at a middle school, then starting a pilot school, then in administration, Nicki Tiberio came home—to Theodore Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights, where she herself attended high school. She’s been here three years now and like her colleague Gene Dean, she doesn’t hold back in expressing her opinions.

Growing up in Boyle Heights, she always knew she wanted to be in education. Her mother works in Special Ed with adults. “It gave me an understanding that everyone deserves to work at their level,” Nicki tells me as we sit in the shade of one of the school’s enormous courtyard, Nicki continually answering frantic texts from teachers asking for help in administering the Common Core practice tests (“I can’t say that all of my colleagues are tech-savvy,” she says, philosophical. “There’s no way to prepare for this new assessment other than to practice resilience through patience. A lot of my colleagues aren’t ready for this.”) Continue reading Every Student is Somebody’s Child

Low Tech Low

The future is here and I’m putting on my sunglasses. I’m in San Diego on my own little field trip of one, squinting into the glare and fighting amazement.

I really wanted to hate High Tech High, the famous charter system with eleven schools in San Diego.   Their reputation annoyed me when I saw it cited in books by academics about how their project-based model would give students the 21st century learning skills they needed. I’d think: yeah, wax on, tell it to TED. Right? So what if they, according to their website, used “design principles of personalization, adult world connection, common intellectual mission, and teacher as designer.” What did that even mean? Continue reading Low Tech Low

I Can See Myself Growing Here

What makes a kid decide to turn his life around?  At the beginning of this year, I sat in on Cynthia Castillo’s English 11 class, which had 45 students on the roster. Here’s part of my description of my visit that first day:

Her students are the chattiest I’ve visited; no matter how many questions she answers, there are always more.  But a vocal group of eight or so very gregarious boys claims most of her time, along with a kid with extreme behavior issues, who just returned from three days of restorative justice circles and is continually jumping up and down announcing that his computer is broken and accusing her of having something against him.Continue reading I Can See Myself Growing Here

Why Raising The Standards Won’t Make Kids Read

I recently sat in on a class in which none of the students had done the reading. It was an 11th grade English class; they were reading a fat canonical American novel, maybe 350 pages long. And none of them had read it—at least not the chapter they were supposed to have read the night before.

The teacher, a smart, dedicated older man, stood in front of the class trying to lead a class discussion. Crickets.

As the teacher stood lobbing question after question, the kids sat at their desks making eye contact with no one, shifting uneasily in their seats and waiting for the time to pass so they could leave.

Reader, I’ve been there. Maybe not in a situation where all of my students didn’t do the reading, but often when a very substantial number did not, a situation that would inevitably put me into a panic of misery, shame and frustration. What should I have done? What was I doing wrong? If the kids didn’t read the book, how could they write an essay that meant anything? Continue reading Why Raising The Standards Won’t Make Kids Read

Mr. Navarro Says

The soft-spoken 18-year-old boy in a buttoned-down blue oxford cloth shirt tells me that when he was fifteen, he was taken away from his mother and put into a foster care facility.  Up until then, Ramon* been hanging around with tough kids, doing drugs and feeling like he had no future; suddenly, he was at a new school, Cesar Chavez Social Justice Academy in San Fernando, where he found himself alone, far from his friends.  In the evenings after school, he’d go for long walks by himself, thinking about what would happen to him.  Having seen his mother spiral out of control on drugs, he knew that he couldn’t continue the life he’d been living without ending up an addict.  But what could he choose?  What other future was there?

Mr. Navarro says that if you aim at nothing, that’s exactly what you’ll achieve,” Ramon tells me.  Mr. Navarro is the principal of his school, the person he says inspired him to change his life.  With a transcript full of terrible grades from his previous school and his old life, Ramon has faced an exhausting battle to get himself back on track.  “Mr. Navarro says ‘this, too, shall pass,’” Ramon says, a statement that he repeats to himself when times get hard, reminding himself that Mr. Navarro has told him of his own similar struggles.  Now, Ramon is a mentor to other kids, telling them his story and encouraging them not to give up.  He will graduate in June and plans to attend community college. Continue reading Mr. Navarro Says

Good-bye, Tests! Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out!

Sayonara, test score mania!  Well, for two years, anyway.  The state of California has just suspended the calculation of API scores until 2016—an index of performance based on multiple choice state tests in every subject for every grade–in order to give schools time to gear up for the Common Core tests that are still under construction.  As far as I’m concerned, that suspension is cause for celebration.  I know, I know, all over the state, people are freaking out because they believe this suspension of scores will leave schools in low-income communities free to go down the toilet for two full years while corrupt administrators and bad teachers merrily cash paychecks, accountable to no one.  Here’s why I think that logic is wrong—and why I believe this temporary suspension is a great opportunity to create a better system.

First of all, over a decade of API scores doesn’t seem to have done much to stop corrupt administrators and bad teachers.  The schools that were terrible before we started testing are still terrible.  Where schools were declared failing and taken over by the Partnership for L.A. Schools or other charter management systems, results have been underwhelming no matter who is in charge.  I have heard not a single story of a miracle takeover, but have heard many stories of schools that are as bad as before.  In any case, test scores are not the best measure of whether these takeovers have been successful; the first measure is safety, followed by attendance and student attrition rates.  Very high teacher turnover rates or large numbers of long-term subs are also serious red flags.  We don’t need test scores to measure dysfunction.  I wish it were that hard.  Continue reading Good-bye, Tests! Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out!