The day after an election presents some unenviable responsibilities for teachers, principals, and families. A tough job on any given day comes with particular challenges for teachers the day after a Presidential election. One of the biggest questions teachers grapple with is what to tell the students. I think the most important thing you can tell them is that you love them, that nothing has changed in terms of your love and commitment to them, and that above all, remind them you will be there for them, you will keep them safe, and you will remain a steady, loving force in their lives. For many children, school is a place of security, a safe haven, and school represents an important symbol of continuity in their lives. The continuity and care that you provide means everything to a child, sometimes, more than you even know on the surface. Remind them that America is a great nation and it was built to survive great change and the peaceful change of power during election periods, and as President Obama said last night, remind them that no matter what, “the sun will rise tomorrow”. Do lean on our Marva Collins Creed and our great Character Education program and other teachable moments today and always to continue to teach kindness, love, tolerance and respect. We are one great nation built on hopes and dreams and the idea that everyone can be successful and has the right to pursue happiness and freedom. My heart is with every single teacher today and with every single child. Through our own living examples of love and kindness, we will continue to change the world for our children and families we serve!
In recognition of National Charter Schools Week and also Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, I want to take the opportunity to share my appreciation and gratitude for our incredible Performance Academies team of teachers, and 14 years of successful work together alongside our students and families. I also want to give a shout out to all the hard working charter school teachers and charter school leaders across the US during this week of mutual celebration.
Performance Academies teachers represent 14 successful charter schools in Ohio and Michigan, working with some of these states’ neediest kids. Over 400 staff serve 5,000 students, a 20% increase over last year. Teachers in our 11 Ohio schools alone educate 3100 students who are 89% low income, 87% minority, and 23% special education students. Yet our kids consistently demonstrate academic progress and achievement due to the work of our great teachers.
Performance Academies charter schools typically outperform local districts and earn high value-added growth scores. Our students exceed statewide performance in two key demographic areas—African American students and special needs students. Importantly, our internal data show that the longer students are enrolled in Performance Academies schools, the higher their academic performance becomes.
Right here in Columbus where we are centrally located, our 8th grade scholars go on to top performing high schools such as Cristo Rey, Bishop Hartley the Graham School, Metro High School, the Charles School, St. Charles Preparatory School and the Columbus Academy and others. In Detroit, our students have been accepted to well thought of Cass Technical and Renaissance High School. Our middle school students are well prepared for success in these great high schools thanks to our dedicated teachers.
Based on our academic performance, the Broad Foundation recognized us in 2012 as being among the top charter operators in the nation. That recognition led us to the important turnaround work we are doing in Detroit, having converted three former Detroit Public Schools into successful charter schools that had been among the 15 lowest performing schools in the nation. Before our arrival, violence was high, attendance was low, and learning was nonexistent—0% proficiency in both reading and math. Yet in 3 short years, all 3 are the highest performing K-8 campuses within the 15-school Detroit recovery group on key indicators of: academics, teacher retention, truancy, fiscal, and other important measures. This critical work in Detroit in turn led to the exciting turnaround work we are now doing in Cleveland with a previously struggling charter school, and also back in Columbus.
While we have our own unique story, Performance Academies is not unique in that, like many other Ohio and Michigan charter schools, its charters serve a largely at-risk population of students, many of them desperately behind—which is one reason why it is so important for us to be celebrating the hard working teachers among us this week.
Nationally, the data are similar. Across the US, students in urban charter schools outperformed their district-run school peers by gaining 40 extra days annually in math achievement and 28 additional days in reading (CREDO, 2015). Results are shown to be even more pronounced for minority, low income students, and the results increase the longer students are enrolled in a charter school (CREDO, 2015; CREDO, 2013).
Charter school teachers are truly special. You are the most innovative, creative, and dedicated people I know. Like most teachers, you more than likely came to teaching for the joy that teaching brings, and you want to make a difference. You came to a charter school because like most of us here, you are little bit different, and a whole lot special!
Yet charter school teachers are on the front lines of closing the achievement gap. Charter school teachers are expected to engage every child, provide differentiated instruction, track student data, close sometimes 2 & 3 year learning and behavioral learning gaps for students in a single academic year, remain “on call” for parents in an ever connected world of email and technology, and you must stay ahead of the next set of moving targets in testing, accountability, and standards year after year.
On some days, it may feel like your joy of teaching is imperiled. When we have the Washington Post perpetuating myths just this year that charters “turn away the most difficult students”, when we hear reports unfairly critical of charter schools, when the larger field of education feels like a pressure pot of compliance, tick boxes and check points, and oh if you’re a special education teacher, you know the crush of paperwork and meetings while providing quality service delivery to your kids…I know sometimes you have wondered am I really making a difference? Or, perhaps you’ve wondered, is it all worth it?
But the truth is, you are making a difference. You and the children and the parents we serve are the heart of this movement, the reason we are all here. You drive the mission of charter schooling forward.
As a former middle school math teacher, principal and superintendent. I know changing the lives of the neediest children is the most important work we can be called to do. That for the thousands of children we serve between all of us, we are making a difference, we are providing something better, a quality choice for an education to help families break free from the shackles of miseducation and low standards, something parents and families desperately want. Parents want something better for their children than a failing neighborhood school. You are freeing families every single day who might otherwise be trapped by a zip code. Together we are increasing achievement, yes, but we are doing so much more than that.
Our children need us. We are the ones who have shown up for this work (while simultaneously embracing the ultimate in academic accountability-possible school closure if we fail). No one else has showed up for this work on these terms. Our kids are counting on us to help them succeed.
I find my inspiration in all of you this week, and in our children always. I especially want to thank our incredible, professional teachers and school leaders at Performance Academies who are making a difference in one of our 14 schools. Thank you charter school teachers and thank you for all you do for America’s 2.9 million public charter school children…and growing stronger.
Embodied in the meaning and spirit of “teaching the whole child” is the idea of developing children both academically and socially. More broadly, meeting the needs of the whole child includes teaching rich academic content within the larger context of how students will contribute in the workplace and as citizens of the world when they are grown. To that end, I am thrilled to see more emphasis on the express (and urgent) need to teach character, social skills, and positive behaviors in schools. There is mounting evidence to suggest that teaching character, prosocial skills, and emotional skills are critical predictors of future success in the workplace. At Performance Academies, we have been leaders in teaching a meaningful and intentional curriculum of character education infused with positive behavioral training for nearly 13 years.
David Deming suggests that within the next 20 years, the top paying jobs will go to those not with education alone, but to “people people”. (See: Lizzie Heiselt—”This is the skill that determines your child’s future employability”http://qz.com/510622/this-is-the-skill-that-determines-your-childs-future-employability/ ). Whether kids are future salespeople, teachers, builders, physicians, etc., they will need the proper interpersonal tools to successfully navigate the people relationships that will make them successful in their adult jobs.
Dr. Howard Knoff, past President of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), and creator and director of Project Achieve, also raises the issue in his recent blog. He emphasizes the importance of students’ social, emotional and behavioral skills. He poses, “The importance of teaching students—from preschool through high school— interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills is supported both by research and practice.” (See: “Improving Our Schools”—http://www.improvingourschools.blogspot.com )
Similarly, recent research from around the world highlights how mental health intervention actually improves school achievement, and also improves outcomes for at-risk youth. “By recognizing that good mental health is essential to learning, it has taken a place of leadership among world nations,” says Michael Jellinek, MD, creator of the Pediatric Symptoms Checklist and co-author of the Skills for Life Program in Chile. (See: Medical News-“National school-based mental health intervention improves outcomes for at-risk students” http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/299913.php )
It also seems that students themselves recognize the importance of prosocial behaviors in school and the connection between positive behaviors, attitudes, and future success. The Gallup Student Poll, for example, is a survey that measures the hope, engagement, and wellbeing of students in grades 5-12 and serves as a “measure of non-cognitive metrics that predicts student success in academic and other settings”. (See: “Gallup Student Poll-Measure What Matters for Student Success – Engaged for Today, Ready for Tomorrow” –http://www.gallupstudentpoll.com/171791/gallup-student-poll.aspx ). Gallup’s research has shown that hope, engagement, and wellbeing are key factors that drive students’ grades, achievement scores, and also future employment.
Arguably, prosocial behavior and interpersonal skills reign more important than ever in the workplace due to the transformational nature of work. The need for teamwork, project based collaboration, and emphasis on group outcomes, makes interpersonal skills a fundamental element for success in the present and future workplace, not a secondary one.
Of course, providing a content rich, quality academic education for all students is a primary component of facilitating student preparedness for the workplace. But, as the Common Core and the testing debates rage on, are we missing the boat on something at least as important, if not bigger?
And with Arne Duncan stepping down as Education Secretary and John King slated to take over the Department of Education in December, might we see a shift to emphasize teaching prosocial skills in schools, or will the emphasis remain on testing and fighting about the Common Core standards? (See: Education Week—“Arne Duncan to Step Down as Ed. Sec., John King to Head Up Department”http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2015/10/arne_duncan_to_step_down_in_de.html?cmp=soc-tw-shr). One thing is for sure, if schools ignore purposeful development of the people skills necessary for future success in the workplace, even as we rightfully address raising academic standards, the American workforce will continue to lag.
School is off to a roaring start! Here are five things you can do right now to improve student engagement in your classroom:
Smile at your kids! Remember: smiles are infectious! The positive energy you share in your classroom becomes your classroom culture. If you are smiling, your students will smile back. They’ll sit up tall when you smile at them, and they will pay attention to your engaging, positive lesson. No one likes to look at a frowning face!
Deliver positive, interesting instruction. You compete with the latest video games and technology for threshold of interest. Therefore, you have to be a bit of an entertainer. Instruction has to be fun, interactive, sometimes a little unexpected, and always interesting to maintain student attention. This is true of big kids or small kids. No one wants to listen to a boring, monotonous lecture. Mix it up and have fun!
3. Pick Up Your Pace.
Move the lesson along and teach. Dont hesitate. Don’t let one or two small distractions stop the whole class. Don’t spend too much time talking about procedures. You had them at hello! Kids are smart, and if you have good systems in place early on, they will follow them. Teach, and show them you expect them to learn. A good pace for instruction is everything.
Don’t stand still when you teach, and for heavens sake don’t sit down. Move around the room. Make eye contact. Be engaging. Talk to the children, not at them. Face the students with your toes pointed out. Never turn your back to the board or away from the students.
5. Reward Your Rockstars!
Recognize your best students by building them up. They will shut down if you spend all your time engaging trouble spots. Don’t forget about your hardest workers. They will help you build a strong, positive culture in your classroom, and they will help you set the bar high for all kids to be engaged if you recognize them.
Above all, have FUN with your kids! (I know, that’s 6). They are your world and the reason you decided to teach. Let them remind you of the joy of teaching, and your joy will be reflected back to them, and they will become the engaged learners you want them to be. ❤️
In the spirit of National Adoption Day, I am sharing a short story of our family’s adoption journey with our daughter, Annabelle. It also happens to be the anniversary of Annabelle’s “gotcha day” this Thanksgiving Day, the day we brought our “forever girl” home from Russia. We have many plans on Thanksgiving to celebrate her arrival and to bring just a small part of that rich and old culture to Annabelle for her special day.
Over a period of 12 months, we experienced the many challenges and joys of adopting a child from Russia. We were so fortunate to bring Annabelle home before that country’s leader, Vladimir Putin, closed the doors for the foreseeable future to would be forever families from America. We made 4 trips to Russia before we brought her home. We knew it would be the journey of a lifetime in so many ways, from the first moment we met Annabelle and fell in love with her, to “springing her free” from her rural orphanage for children with disabilities, the only home she ever new since birth, right up to her arrival on American soil.
After several months of waiting, in May of 2010 we received a referral for a forever daughter. All we had was a photograph and a one page medical description, indicating Annabelle had some medical concerns, including congenital ptosis of the eye (a droopy eyelid), a misshapen kidney, and birth complications including hypoxia, from lack of oxygen to the brain. We learned her birth mother never took her home from the hospital, and after a few weeks, Lyudmila (her Russian name, meaning, “of the people”), was transferred from the hospital to a rural orphanage for babies with disabilities in Konakovo, about an hour outside the city of Tver where she was born. We learned we would be visiting her there in June. We had two weeks to procure a flight and prepare for our first trip to Russia.
We were so busy preparing for travel and making proper arrangements for our biological 4-year old son to be home in our absence, the time passed quickly. The day for travel to Russia arrived and we boarded a plane at JFK. After a long flight to Moscow, we landed, and we waited nervously in an unfamiliar airport for a half an hour for our driver to arrive. We were eventually found by two male strangers holding a sign with our name on it and taken to a small car. We were driven for a few hours to a German operated hotel in the old Russian city of Tver. Along the way, we drove past a two story high statue of Lenin in the Tver town square, (the first of many similar statues of Lenin we would see in many Russian towns, large and small), and oceans of tenement style buildings one after the other, completely identical, not unlike those I’d seen in other parts of Europe and New York. We drove past ancient white forests, beautiful rivers, and past several military “parks” and government buildings tended by elderly women with brooms. Eventually, we found our hotel which stood out as a shiny new structure with a small patch of grass in the front, unusual, because no other house or building seemed to have grass. It was surrounded by old houses and buildings and a boarded up synagogue across the street. The streets were empty, save for a few dogs. We settled into our hotel room, Skyped with our dear 4 year old boy we left at home with his grandparents, and anxiously awaited meeting our sweet girl the next day.
Early in the morning, one of the drivers retrieved us from the hotel accompanied by an english translator, and they drove us an hour out into the countryside along the Volga River to a small town, called Konakovo, to meet our future daughter.
Upon arrival, we found the orphanage surrounded by dozens more tenement style buildings. I remember the stuffed animals in the trees outside the front door, greeting guests and children who lived there. As we entered, they asked us to cover our feet with foot coverings they provided to prevent the spread of germs and dirt.The orphanage itself was very clean, albeit somewhat sparse. The orphanage was full of sights and sounds of many women tending to about 100 small children and babies in adjoining cribs. They sat us in an empty room with a few chairs and some toys behind locked cabinets. It was 97 degrees. Smoke filled what little breeze there was (there had been a terrible heatwave and peat/bog forest fires that burned all summer, causing smoke to fill the air for hundreds of miles).
We waited nervously for the meeting we had been anticipating for many months. But first, we had to wait for another American couple to see their child. They had flown in on the plane with us from JFK to Moscow, and they were staying in our hotel. This was their second trip to Russia for their forever boy, Alex. Alex was brought out to greet his new parents in what appeared to be a Russian version of adorable lederhosen, and he was carrying a bright yellow balloon. He appeared to be about 15 months old, and needed some help to walk to his new parents. Reunited with their forever boy, they cried and Alex fell into their arms and they cried some more. I was overwhelmed.
I wondered if this is what it would be like for us. I wondered if Ludmila would look like the picture they sent us. I wondered if she would love me, if she would love Clint, if she would be shy, if she would be sleepy (we were told they were waking her because we arrived at nap time). I wondered if we would bond right away, and if we did, how I would feel leaving her here and going back to America in a few short days. I wondered how many trips it would take to bring her home. I wondered if she would like the toys I realized I was clutching with a death grip because I was so nervous. I wondered how much the orphanage staff would be observing our interactions and if they would approve of us as parents. We were told they would testify in court on a future visit about their observations.
We were led to another small, but clean visiting room with a few wooden chairs, some thin, white curtains covering the doorway and the open windows. The curtains were barely moving in the hot, smoky air. I was sweating. They asked us to leave the bag of brand new clothes and toys we brought with us from the United States somewhere in the room, as well as a carefully wrapped gift for the orphanage director we brought with us all the way from home. I placed them on a small wooden chair next to me, not knowing what else to do with them.
We were left alone in the room only for a few minutes when our translator returned with a baby girl in her arms. The baby was dressed in a hat, a small green dress and socks. She handed the baby to me and promptly left us alone with her.
It was love at first sight. My heart melted when she placed Lyudmila in my arms. I knew she was mine. I knew she was Clint’s. I knew she was meant to be with our family. After I recovered from the physical outpouring of nearly overwhelming emotions in my body, not at all unlike the intense love a mother feels immediately after the experience of giving birth (happily without all the physical suffering and exhaustion), my first thought was how small she was, how little she weighed. I had held 5 other babies of my own in my lifetime. She did not feel like an 11 month old child. She was a feather. She was small and flimsy and thin and floppy, and the experience was far more like holding a 6 month old child.
She had numbers stitched into her dress and her socks. She was beautiful and amazing. She cocked her head back to help her affected eye see us a little bit better. She was sizing us up as we were admiring her. We hugged her, and she smiled.
Within 10 minutes, our translator returned. She asked, “Is she the right child for you? Do you want a different child?” I clung to the baby tighter and said, “Absolutely not, she’s ours, she’s mine. We’ve bonded, no one is taking her”. That settled, we were asked to name her on the spot. Annabelle Lyudmila it was. Though we Americanized her middle name to Ludmila.
Three more trips ensued, however, before we were able to bring our Annabelle Ludmila home to America. Ultimately, she would not come home until Thanksgiving Day, five months after that first meeting and our growing love that started the minute we laid eyes on her. Each trip home after each visit, I would cry nearly the entire 10 hour flight from Moscow to JFK. The flames burned deep in the ground in Russia all that summer, the smoky filled rooms in the buildings lingered, and the heat, the unbearable record setting heat with no air conditioning, never relented. The kind, but overworked “babushkas” that served in the orphanages who watched us sternly at each visit, the faces of all the dozens of other babies and toddlers in the orphanage, the international families that visited the orphanage, new teeth that we noticed in Annabelle at each new visit, so much ran through my mind that summer. Annabelle had suffered from a pesky MRSA infection, and this resulted in a surgical procedure to remove the infection. She bears those scars today.
Meanwhile, the politics were brewing and threats had begun to end the program for American families. In fact, one of our many requirements on one of our 4 trips was to visit a Russian mental health hospital and undergo an evaluation from a Russian psychiatrist with our translator. Among many other things, we were probed as to whether we would ever consider “sending Annabelle back to Russia on a plane and disrupting the adoption”, similar to the mother in Tennessee who had recently sent her school age son back to Russia after adopting him through another agency. This caused an international incident. We explained we had no relation to that mother, and of course we would never commit such an unthinkable act. We were also asked to produce a menu for the child, because “Americans are too inclined to feed their children corn dogs and we might make her fat.” They wanted to see vegetables and fruits and meats all laid out in a healthy weekly meal plan. We were sure to put broccoli on that list.
We worried that the politics might unduly extend our chances to bring her home in a timely manner, or at all. But we stuffed those thoughts well in the back of our minds always and pressed on and complied with everything that was asked. Sometimes, it was leaving a carefully purchased and wrapped gift in the chair of a courtroom or the back of a car for the driver, who we understood later served two roles–that of driver and that of assistant to the judge who reviewed our case. We were asked to bring plenty of new (never used) clothes, toys, all items still bearing tags on every visit to the orphanage based on clearly defined lists and the needs of the day.
After several court appearances and three trips, Clint flew back to Moscow alone for the last time to bring our sweet girl home. I stayed with our 4-year old who needed his mommy after so many previous trips and so much time away from him. We kissed daddy goodbye at the airport, and asked him to call us and Skype with us the minute he had Annabelle in his arms.
Clint sent us this picture above from his Moscow hotel room, just a few hours after she was officially handed over to him at the orphanage. Jake and I were consumed with joy, absolutely thrilled to see her. We both cried with happiness that daddy had her safe and in his care at last. Clint captured Annabelle in the picture above, just a few hours in a moment where he sort of propped her up for a second before she sat back down. She was 14 months old, she was so flimsy she could not yet walk on her own. Jake and I Skyped with her and Clint later that night, and Jake sang her to sleep with a sweet lullaby I usually sang to him.
Turns out she had also passed out earlier in the day, shortly after arriving at the hotel, exhausted from her first ever car ride from Konakovo, the only home she ever knew, and after the long drive to a Moscow hotel, where many more procedures, visits and paperwork awaited her and Clint for a few more days–a pediatrician visit to the hotel room clearing her to travel internationally, a trip to the passport office, and more. Just days prior, Clint noticed a large scab on her upper arm where she had received an old fashioned vaccine like we used to get in America. She still has that scar, and she will forever test positive for TB, because she was over vaccinated and must carry a special card. At the orphanage, they had also given her a fancy “bowl” haircut for her passport photo and for the trip.
A few days later, Jake and I received this picture when Clint and Annabelle landed safely in New York. Annabelle was now officially an American citizen.
On the flight home, Clint remarked that she had never been used to falling asleep in someone’s arms. She had only ever been put to bed, left to comfort herself and fall asleep with the noises of all the babies around her in (literally) adjoining cribs. He remarked that the first bath in the hotel room she shrieked so loudly, you thought someone murdered her dog. Her fear of water was beyond terror. Back at home we had to start with just pouring tiny amounts of water from a cup on her feet in the kitchen sink to get her used to water at all.
Today, Annabelle is a happy, well adjusted child. This Thanksgiving, we have so much to be thankful for. We are thankful for her birth mother who chose to give her life. We are thankful we were able to bring her home before the Russian government closed the door to American parents. We had friends who were not as fortunate; they never brought their children home.
In addition to the traditional American Thanksgiving meal on Thanksgiving, we will also celebrate Annabelle’s “gotcha day”. We will have traditional foods many Russian children grow up with, including Russian “blinis” (thin pancakes) for breakfast, cheese filled pirogies and cold apple soup with vanilla cookies for lunch. We also have a special treat prepared–cookies in the shape of Russian Matryoshka dolls. We think it is important to celebrate her rich Russian heritage by providing some typical dishes the children might experience in Russia.
Our Russian heritage cookbooks also help keep Annabelle’s Russian heritage alive by providing her with traditional Russian children’s dishes throughout the year and on the anniversary of her “gotcha day”.
We also have a few traditional Russian toys to give her we hope she will enjoy opening up tomorrow on gotcha day:
There is so much more of the story to tell, but this is a snapshot of her story. The rest she will be told within the family. In the meantime, she still is supposed to notify the Russian consulate should she move to another state, and until she is 21, must travel on a Russian passport should she ever travel back to Russia. Also at 21, she must choose a single citizenship-Russian or American. Until then, Annabelle has dual citizenship and remains a daughter of both countries.
There are about a hundred reasons why we need to get back to rigorous, peer reviewed research to inform educational policy. But the latest reason is very compelling. As if there isn’t enough squabbling on all sides about the Common Core, overtesting, and the merits of teacher evaluation, it seems the latest brewing “edusquabble” is over the merits of “developmentally appropriate” instruction. Having studied special education, school psychology, and education policy, an attempt to cast aside decades of research on child development gives me pause. I’m all for high standards, rigor and pushing kids at their challenge level, but minimizing sensitivity to developmentally appropriate teaching and learning, and ultimately individualized instruction, is troubling on many levels. More importantly, show me the research that says all kids develop the same skills on a rigid timetable.
To suggest every child is ready and should be benchmarked at the same exact point in time is based on an arbitrary standard, not on an empirical body of knowledge. High standards are critical. But, kids don’t all learn at the exact same rate in the exact same subjects at the exact same time—often not in the same house, not in the same class, not in the same grade, not in the same school.
Tell me, for example, my youngest daughter isn’t on her own “developmental trajectory” or isn’t developmentally delayed. We rescued her from a Russian orphanage at 14 months old, so flimsy she couldn’t walk and had no word in her working vocabulary other than “ball” when we brought her home. Tell me she doesn’t need more time and intensive, individualized intervention to catch up. We have incredibly high standards for her, and we are fortunate to have the means to find her good tutors, a quality preschool, and the best speech and academic interventions (day and night) to help her master specific skills she needs. She is indeed closing gaps in learning every single day. But she is still behind her “peers”, and she will be for awhile. Does that mean we have low standards? No. Does that mean we are sensitive to her individual learning needs? Absolutely. And I would add, I promise you after making four trips to Russia, the “99% literacy rate” her Russian counterparts tout in that country do not include the hundreds upon thousands of kids living in orphanages and rural communities there.
But getting back to the point about developmentally appropriate learning—Even if you aren’t into empirical research, common sense and experience alone telI you kids don’t learn the same things at the same time, even in the same house. Parents have known this since the beginning of time. Teachers, good teachers, have known this anecdotally for decades. So why put the consequence for failed learning on a child? Why are we, for example, promoting the policy of retaining kids for failing to meet an arbitrary benchmark in an arbitrary year? How can we do that in good faith if we are sensitive to a child’s unique needs and experiences that bring them to their present level of performance?
We should give every child what they need and go for individualized mastery of specific content instead. Do some temperature checks, yes. Do real time assessments at specific points in time that provide real time feedback that teachers and parents can use. To do that effectively, though, we need to value student, teacher and parent voices, and we need to listen to them. We need to include all of them in deep conversations about individualized assessment tied to meaningful interventions for individual kids. Then we need to teach and reteach until the child masters a specific set of skills. Good teachers who are worth their salt know how their individual students learn best. More importantly, no one knows a child better and how they learn better than the child, the child’s parents, and the child’s teacher. They should all be partners in a mastery learning approach.
In full disclosure, I innately dislike “one size fits all” approaches to education. I’m a school choice, charter school proponent and have been for nearly 20 years. But that’s because I believe in parent voices, I understand learning differences, and to the grave, I believe in the original intent of school choice. I dislike “one size fits all” approaches to education, because as a teacher and parent of six children, I know kids, because I value the profession and study of child development, and because I value individualized learning approaches.
Ultimately, we need to learn so much more about learning, innovation, student engagement, and how to provide high quality instructional service delivery to each and every child. As parents and teachers, we aren’t done learning about learning yet. It’s a journey, a process, not an event. I fear in ignoring the database we’ve created so far on child development, on learning and human behavior, that emphasis will fall in favor of the latest think tank agendas. The agendas feed the journalists who feast on the latest controversies and spit them out in ugly headlines to sell papers and media slots. Journalists ultimately shape the policy and practice now in our local schools. This is an entirely new phenomenon in American education.
Thusly, a few, loud voices now determine local education policy and practice for kids and families. Worse, it seems we are getting farther and farther away from the rigors of university based, peer reviewed research to guide best educational practices for kids. Instead, there are shouting matches in efforts to grab the attention of those in power to drive policy.
In turn, opportunities for real innovation in practice seem a distant idea of the past, as all schools, traditional public and charter alike, begin marching to the beat of the same drum of common benchmarks and teaching to the single test. This threatens precious resources and time for creative teaching designed to meet the individual and developmentally appropriate needs of the unique child. Moreover, annual standardized tests do not provide teachers with necessary REAL TIME student data they need to make intelligent, swift instructional decisions for their kids. Rather it allows policy wonks and think tanks to rank and sort teachers and school districts (which all too often turns out to actually be a ranking and sorting of poverty, but that is a subject for another day.)
Meantime, the policy wonks attack what used to be the holy grail of child and lifespan human development and individualized instruction because it suits them. Educators and parents should speak up and stop allowing non-educators to ultimately place the consequence for academic failure on students and teachers out of fear of being called “soft on standards”, “weak on accountability”, “slow on turn around”, or other such shame rhetoric that simply isn’t true in many schools-charter or traditional. Quality education and opportunities for innovation in both types of schools calls for patience and clear heads. Let’s stop degrading the teachers, stop retaining the children based on rigid benchmarks, and let’s remain sensitive to basic, well known premises of child development. Let’s embrace parent and teacher voices in all kinds of schools. Let’s get back to rigorously studying what works for kids before we impose our “untested rigors” on them.
As the Founder of Performance Academies representing 13 successful charter schools in Ohio and Michigan, we work with some these states’ academically neediest students. Our 10 Ohio schools educate 2600 students alone who are 89% low income, 87% minority, and 23% special education. Yet our students consistently demonstrate academic progress and achievement. Six of our Ohio schools received an A or B in value added growth on the new state report card. Our Toledo school was a top performer on the 3rd grade OAA in the Toledo area, and nearly all of our schools had few or no students retained in 3rd grade under the new Third Grade Reading Guarantee. Sixty-nine of our Columbus area middle school students were accepted into top performing high schools last year, including Cristo Rey, the Graham School, Metro High School, the Charles School, and the prestigious Columbus Academy. Significantly, our internal data shows that the longer students are enrolled in our schools, the higher their academic performance becomes.
In Michigan, we are seeing similar positive results. Three years ago the State of Michigan created a recovery school district, the Education Achievement Authority, which assumed control of the 15 lowest performing public schools in Michigan—all, not surprisingly, in Detroit. Performance Academies submitted and won a RFP to convert three of these campuses to charter schools. Proficiency rates at these campuses were at 0% in reading and math. Violence was high, attendance was low, and learning was nonexistent. Yet in two short years we have been moving these campuses out of failing status, pulling one out of priority status in the first year in the nation’s worst zip code for crime and violence, and all 3 are among the 3 highest performing K-8 campuses within the 15-school group.
While Performance Academies has its own unique story, Performance Academies is not unique in that, like many other Ohio and Michigan charter schools, the charters serve an urban and largely at-risk population of students.
One of the biggest and oldest canards about charter schools is that they “cream the best students.” I saw this statement repeated just last week in the Huffington Post. They said, “With few exceptions, charters cherry-pick their students, admitting only those students who do well on tests,” This was written by Frank Breslin, a retired New Jersey school teacher with a regular column there. The truth couldn’t be any more different.
Kids enroll in charter schools more often than not because they have had a bad experience elsewhere. They’ve been bullied, ignored, or unsuccessful for some other reason. Think about it . . . why would a family leave a school if they were happy with it and were successful behaviorally and academically? They wouldn’t. They don’t. It’s the bad experiences and the unhappiness that drive families to charters. In most cases, this unhappiness is reflected in low student performance data.
Yet at a charter school, these students thrive. They thrive because our charters offer a safe, secure learning environment where students get their needs met, where parents matter, where parents have real opportunities to be involved, where principals and teachers respond and communicate and listen to their concerns, where staff know their children, and most importantly, where student needs are put first, not the needs of the grown ups.
And so, who is responsible for turning around the academic lives of these students? Our teachers. They know this, and, like charters more broadly, charter school teachers are on the front lines of closing student achievement gaps—reaching out to these previously academically or behaviorally unsuccessful students and giving them a fresh start in learning. Given the strong connection between K-12 learning and future life expectations, it is not too much say that our teachers give these students, who’ve not been successful elsewhere, a fresh start at life.