Sunday, January 10, 2016

It's the kids, and their parents, and, yes, their teachers

How to fix the nation's schools, in the NYTimes:
Today Union City, which opted for homegrown gradualism, is regarded as a poster child for good urban education. Newark, despite huge infusions of money and outside talent, has struggled by comparison. In 2014, Union City’s graduation rate was 81 percent, exceeding the national average; Newark’s was 69 percent.

What explains this difference? The experience of Union City, as well as other districts, like Montgomery County, Md., and Long Beach, Calif., that have beaten the demographic odds, show that there’s no miracle cure for what ails public education. What business gurus label “continuous improvement,” and the rest of us call slow-and-steady, wins the race.

Slow-and-steady was anathema to Mr. Booker and Mr. Christie, who had big dreams for Newark. But as Dale Russakoff writes in her absorbing account “The Prize,” the politicians’ optimism proved misplaced. What went wrong had as much to do with their top-down approach as with the proposals themselves.
In Newark:
In 2011, Mr. Christie appointed 39-year-old Cami Anderson — a Teach for America alumna — superintendent. She introduced some solid ideas, like replacing the weakest performers with “renew schools” and persuading charters to enroll more poor kids. But she ran into trouble with parents when she did away with neighborhood schools and laid off hundreds of workers to pay for her initiatives.

Her hurry-up style made matters worse. “She didn’t listen,” contends Ms. Russakoff. “She said her plan — ‘16-dimensional chess’ — was too complex for parents.” After repeated heckling by teachers and parents, Ms. Anderson stopped attending board meetings.
In Union City:
In 1989, with one year to shape up Union City, Mr. Carrigg, with a cadre of teachers and administrators, devised a multipronged strategy: Focus on how kids learn best, how teachers teach most effectively and how parents can be engaged. Non-English speakers had previously been expected to acquire the language through the sink-or-swim method. So the district junked its old approach. Instead, English learners are initially taught in their own language, mainly Spanish, and then are gradually shifted to English. The system started hiring more teachers who spoke Spanish or had E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) training.

The bilingual approach went beyond the classroom. Even though many parents speak only Spanish, meetings had been conducted and written information prepared only in English. In the new era, bilingualism quickly became the norm. Parents, made to feel welcome in the schools, were conscripted to help with their children’s homework and reinforce the schools’ high expectations for them.
Newark’s big mistake was not so much that the school officials embraced one solution or another but that they placed their faith in the idea of disruptive change and charismatic leaders. Union City adopted the opposite approach, embracing the idea of gradual change and working within existing structures.

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