* No Excuses: Quality Teachers

No ExcusesIn their book, “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning,” the authors describe the dilemma of identifying teacher excellence.  They say that great teaching is readily apparent when you walk in a classroom, but how can that excellence be quantified?  The authors evaluate research, describe its outcomes, and sometimes leave us with the uncertainty of “and yet….”

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned two factors that “conventional wisdom” suggests are critical: high expectations and minority teachers.  Yet research does not support either factor as essential to student success.  Teachers in high minority schools tend to express greater pessimism about their students’ potential (perhaps realistically, the authors note).  Black and Hispanic students report higher rates than whites with regard to interest and attention exhibited by their teachers.  They also gave higher scores than whites on questions about teacher behavior (Did they make learning fun? Were they excited about the subject they taught?  Did they treat students with respect?).  The authors concluded that students of color do not see low teacher expectations as a problem that affects their academic performance.  And yet… the descriptions of schools in which the racial gap was reduced had unusually high standards and expectations.

And the importance of minority teachers? The authors studied research that examined whether black students learn more from black teachers.  The short answer?  No.  And yet, one study provided slightly different results, so the authors suggest more research on this topic.  What if a teacher’s race is a factor in student achievement?  Sadly, the effect of our country’s racial gap in learning has created a very small pool of qualified minority college graduates; the pool shrinks further as few of those college graduates choose a teaching career.

My opinion? High expectations and quality teachers who reflect students’ race and ethnicity are very important in closing the achievement gap.  The studies that measured teachers’ expectations used self-reporting surveys.  I know teachers who publicly say they believe ALL kids can learn and yet they say something quite different with their behavior and private conversations.  And why wouldn’t ALL our kids want to see brown faces doing more than sweeping floors and picking up trash?  At any rate, as our nation goes gray and brown, we’ll be using the expression “minority” quite differently. That’s a whole other conversation, isn’t it?

* No Excuses: A look at successful schools

No ExcusesHow do we create effective schools for ALL kids?  How do we teach so that test scores are not racially predictable?  How do we eliminate the glaring racial gap in our public schools?  To quote the authors of “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning“: What have these few inner-city schools done, in neighborhoods “rampant” with “illiteracy, drug abuse, broken homes, gangs, and juvenile crime?” (page 67)  Here’ s a list of their common characteristics:

1.  Successful schools establish a culture of community and clear expectations for conduct.  Mission statements of respect, caring for others, and responsibility are taught explicitly.  Appropriate social behavior is practiced and rewarded.

2.  Successful schools establish a “culture of work.”  There is no wasted time, even in the hallways.

3.  Successful schools create a sense of teamwork (or even “family”), so that kids learn to support one another.

4.  Successful schools create an economic system that parallels the real world, such as pay for performance and creation of a “microsociety” in which students interview for jobs, create businesses, and establish a police force, courts, and legislature.

5.  Successful schools teach “desire, discipline, and dedication.”  They promote ambition to succeed, steps toward social mobility.

6.  Successful schools teach students “to think of themselves as unique, free to choose their identity, to emphasize thier racial and ethnic ties as much or as little as they wish….” (page 78)

7.  Successful schools teach cultural acquisition, which means learning the social code of a workplace.

The next step is to examine the role of teacher quality in the schools which overcame racial gaps in learning.  Do their teachers have higher expectations?  Are they more likely to be black or Hispanic?  You may be surprised, so stay tuned!

* No Excuses: The success stories

No Excuses

The authors of “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning,” examine the dismal performance of black and Hispanic students in public schools, where black kids lag about four years behind their white peers.  But the authors did discover some bright spots.  Here’s what they said:

“Scattered across the American landscape are what some call ‘break-the-mold’ schools- high poverty public schools with students who score well on statewide tests.  There aren’t many of them, and all are atypical within their own districts.  Nevertheless, their record of success suggests that truly radical educational innovation can change the lives of inner-city students, whatever their race or ethnicity.  The goal is thus clear.  But how to get there?  The road is littered with obstacles.  We focus on a handful of remarkable schools….We chose these particular examples of fabulous education only because they came to our attention and we visited them.” (page 43)

The authors did mention that they found impressive private schools, as well, but chose to limit their descriptions to public schools since a majority of American kids attend public school.  All of the above exceptional schools are charter schools.  The authors ask whether this success can be replicated in “regular” public schools.  They emphasize the autonomy of these schools as a primary factor in their achievement: “They are largely independent of district control, generally able to hire nonunion teachers, and have considerable discretionary power over their budgets.  No one tells them which textbooks to buy or how to organize their instructional day.” (page 44).

The authors remind readers that there are “good charter schools and bad ones.”  In their footnotes, they comment that failing charter schools in Massachusetts will be shut down but no regular public school in that state had been closed due to poor student performance.

So how do these schools use their autonomy?  What characterizes these success stories?  Stay tuned for the next post.

* No Excuses

No Excuses

In this well-regarded volume entitled “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning,” the authors begin with “The Problem” in our public schools. Despite the authors’ contention that their goal encompasses more than painting a bleak picture, their descriptions of black and Hispanic student performance are heartbreaking.  On every measure of academic success, black and Hispanic kids fall far behind their white and Asian peers.  The problem, a four-year gap between white and black achievement in American schools, means that black students are functioning at an eighth grade level when (if) they complete high school.  Even among middle class black families, kids are lagging far behind their white peers.  The book explores the cultural heritage of black, Hispanic, and Asian families.  When describing the cultural heritage of black students, for instance, the authors state that it is “the product of a very long history of racial oppression-centuries of slavery, followed by disfranchisement, legally mandated segregation, and subordination in the Jim Crow South and intense prejudice in the North.” (page 121)  Despite “Americanization,” Asian students equal or outperform whites.  The authors quote a researcher who surveyed 20,000 Asian kids, finding that “They are much more engaged in school than their peers.” (page 91)

The authors turn their attention to the commonly suggested panacea for all these problems: spend more money.  They examine Title 1 and Head Start programs, which have failed to deliver despite pouring billions of dollars into the public schools. Hiring more teachers to reduce class size has had no effect on the racial achievement gap. The authors suggest that money is best spent to attract and keep exceptional teachers and administrators.

Is there any hope for public schools?  Yes!  But the authors only found successful schools and classes among charter schools which were not bound by a pervasive system which tolerates mediocre teachers and administrators, bureaucratic inertia, and negative cultural influences.  These highly successful schools communicated a powerful message to their students and families: No Excuses.

My next post will examine the characteristics of these excellent schools in greater detail.