Greater Greater Education

Does education reform have to be impersonal?

Do education reformers rely on "impersonal" solutions, as a recent New York Times op-ed argues? Not from what I've seen in DC. Teachers care about students, but the effects of their caring are hard to measure. And caring may not be enough.

Photo of teacher and student from Shutterstock.

Today's education reformers ignore the "inherently complicated and messy human relationships" that are at the core of education, says Berkeley professor David Kirp in Sunday's New York Times. Instead, he claims, they turn to ostensibly simpler and neater strategies that rely on competition between schools or the transformative power of technology.

Predictably, Kirp's piece has unleashed a storm of commentary and an avalanche of tweets. Those who place themselves in the ed reform camp have assailed the flaws and oversimplifications in Kirp's argument.

They note that few if any education reformers treat test scores as "the single metric of success," as Kirp asserts. They point out that Kirp overlooks the fact that many charter schools actually do get better results for low-income African-American students.

And they express bafflement at his claim that reformers focus on "markets and competition" to the exclusion of factors like talented teachers, engaged students, and a challenging curriculum. In fact, much of education reform (a term so broad and loaded it should perhaps be retired) is directed towards creating those very things.

I agree that, like many articles that get a lot of attention, Kirp's suffers from exaggeration and a lack of nuance. At the same time, though, he's hit on something, albeit with a blunt instrument.

The importance of caring

Kirp's basic point is that for education to be effective, schools need to foster personal "bonds of caring" between teachers and students. I imagine most if not all teachers and administrators, including those who consider themselves education reformers, would agree.

I've met teachers in DC's charter and traditional public school sectors who have not only formed personal bonds with students, but who probably would have done so even if some misguided "reformer" had explicitly tried to prohibit them. And I've seen those teachers chafe against a system that doesn't always acknowledge the importance of those bonds or reward their formation.

At a high-poverty DC public high school, one teacher told me about a student who had come to him with a request. Holding out the program from a funeral, the boy asked if the teacher could "fix" it. Eventually the teacher came to understand what the problem was: The boy's mother had told him that the deceased was his father. But the program failed to include the boy's name in the list of survivors.

The teacher recruited a more tech-savvy colleague to try to figure out a way to insert the boy's name so it would look like part of the program. In the end, the only way to do that was to retype the whole document, carefully matching its font and formatting. The teachers stayed far past the end of the school day in order to have the new program ready for the student by the next morning.

The teacher who told me this story was making a point: the DC Public Schools teacher evaluation system has no way of taking into account teachers' willingness to extend themselves on behalf of their students. And no doubt stories like this could be found many times over, in DC and elsewhere.

I'm sure students benefit in many ways from knowing their teachers care about them personally. And a teacher who doesn't care about her students as individuals probably isn't going to be very good at her job.

Caring may not be enough

But it's hard to know, and especially to measure, what effect those personal bonds have on students' ability to learn. Even the most caring teacher may not be equipped to teach effectively, possibly because of a lack of training or support.

And, surprisingly, in some instances personal bonds can actually get in the way of teaching. One study found that a computer program that gave students feedback on their writing actually produced more positive feelings, and more improvement, than feedback from a human instructor. Apparently students didn't take the criticism so personally when it came from a machine.

In a broader sense, of course, Kirp is right that personal connections between teachers and students are crucial. But, as with any one element of education, they're not sufficient. We also need to figure out ways to assess whether teachers are actually teaching and students are actually learning.

The tension, as always, is between the bright clean lines of standardizationwhether in testing, curriculum, or teaching methodsand the messy individualization that's necessary when you're dealing with real people who vary greatly in their needs and capabilities.

We haven't yet figured out the right balance between the two, but peopleincluding some who identify as education reformersare definitely working on it.

Michelle Rhee takes a break from education reform

Last week former DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced that she is stepping down from her post as head of StudentsFirst, the non-profit advocacy group she founded. Is this the swan song for an education reform leader who rose to prominence through her time at DCPS?

Photo by Commonwealth Club on Flickr.

Rhee says she will remain involved in StudentsFirst and is proud of what she's accomplished there, but the group has struggled recently. The organization has pulled out of 5 states where it was active, and even some supporters acknowledge that StudentsFirst has not met the ambitious goals Rhee outlined at its launch.

It's not clear whether Rhee plans to take on another high-profile assignment in the education world, but her recent announcements suggest a move out of the spotlight.

Rhee says she's stepping down from the StudentsFirst job to focus on her family and support the career of her husband, Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. She also recently took on the role of interim board chair for a small network of Sacramento charter schools, likely a welcome change from the size and prominence of DCPS. A gig on the board of Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. also won't hurt her recuperation from years in the trenches.

Love Rhee or hate her, she had a significant impact on education in DC. Her successor as Chancellor, Kaya Henderson, has continued many of Rhee's key initiatives with a tone that is more community-minded, as GGW anticipated at the time of her appointment.

While much of Rhee's legacy lives on in the District, many of her signature reforms are taking a step back in that large city to the north. Several years ago, former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein was implementing many of the same initiatives as Rhee. (I once attended a conference where Klein recalled fielding requests from Rhee antagonists asking for help in modulating her; Klein responded, "I'm not her Daddy!")

The trajectory has changed, though, with current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio winning election on a platform that opposed Klein/Rhee-style school closures and ratings of schools. And some politicians, including Rhee's own husband, are shying away from even using the phrase "education reform."

At the same time, others are taking up Rhee's mantle. Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown has formed an organization that is fighting teacher tenure laws, among other goals.

If Rhee does step back from the spotlight, who will be the new face of education reform? And what impact will that new leader have on changes throughout the country and here in DC?

A summer break, and then some changes

Greater Greater Education will be on hiatus until August 19th because I'll be out of town. When I return, there will be a few changes.

Photo of feet from Shutterstock.

I will continue to write posts about education in DC just as I have in the past. But I'll be doing so as a contributor and volunteer editor for Greater Greater Washington rather than as primary editor of Greater Greater Education.

If you come to Greater Greater Education directly, you'll still be able to read posts on education at, subscribe to the GGE RSS feed, get the daily email, or follow us on Twitter. One change you may notice is that we'll no longer be running our Morning Bell compilation of links, although local education news will sometimes appear in Greater Greater Washington's Breakfast Links.

If you've been reading Greater Greater Education articles on Greater Greater Washington, you'll notice education-related articles now appearing in their entirety on Greater Greater Washington's home page, rather than as brief summaries with links to the full articles on GGE.

One struggling reader plus another may equal a boost in reading skills for both

A DC nonprofit called Reach Incorporated hires struggling high school readers to tutor struggling elementary school readers. It may sound counterintuitive, but both groups seem to benefit.

Photo from Reach Incorporated.

Fewer than 20% of DC 8th-graders read at a proficient level, according to national test results last year. The proportion of proficient 4th-grade readers is only slightly better.

Where others might see just a yawning educational gap, Mark Hecker saw a potential bridge. Hecker, a former social worker, envisioned a program that would train 9th-grade students to teach younger ones, and in the process, help the older students make up lost ground.

Hecker launched Reach Incorporated in 2010 and serves as its executive director. The program matches high school students with second- and third-graders.

Although the teens start out reading at a 4th- to 6th-grade level, Hecker says 75% of the program's 11th-graders end up reading at grade level or above after 3 years in the program. And as paid workers with a purpose, they save face.

"Instead of handing them a Dr. Seuss book, we hand them a Dr. Seuss book and a 7-year-old, and that eliminates the stigma" of school failure, explained Hecker, who expects to have 100 Reach tutors on the job serving a like number of students at 4 elementary schools this fall.

During the school year, tutors spend 4 hours a week in the program, two of them mentoring students and the other two learning the skills needed to teach reading. Over the summer, the program ramps up to 4 paid hours a day for older participants, who read books, craft resumes, visit workplaces, and tour colleges.

With the help of two college art students and one professional writer, the teens also team up to create something still rare in libraries: picture books that reflect the lives of low-income children. "We thought the best way to address the lack of material was for the teens to write it," Hecker said.

Last summer, the program produced 4 of these volumes, with titles such as One Lonely Camel and The Airplane Effect, about a sick boy who throws a paper airplane out of the window, setting off an unexpected chain of events. This summer, 5 original books are underway.

Importance of empathy

The teens bring a crucial strength to their work: empathy. "They recognize what it's like to be a struggling reader," Hecker said, "and so they want to prevent that from happening to someone else."

Za'Metria Froneberger, a rising 11th-grader at Perry Street Preparatory Public Charter School, began working for Reach roughly a year ago. Her task was simple but daunting: to help Makea, a struggling second-grader at Burroughs Elementary School, learn to love reading. The high schooler discovered the younger child had a penchant for humor and responded to funny books.

"It changed my personality," said Froneberger of her tutoring. "It taught me to be more patient, that you can change the impact of a child's life by the things you do."

It's no accident that the Reach program targets students in the mid-elementary grades. Hecker cites the research suggesting that between third and fourth grades, children shift from learning to read to reading to learn. "Our goal is to prepare them for that transition," Hecker said.

One professional observer of the Reach model counts herself "thoroughly impressed," and she has the data to prove it. As academic intervention coach for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), Jennifer Johnson serves as liaison between Reach and one of the schools it serves, Simon Elementary.

"Oh, my goodness, we saw great gains," Johnson said, pointing to Reach results from the last academic year: Some 50% of the second-graders served (12 children) boosted their reading ability significantly, she said. Among 3rd-grade students in the Reach program, that was true for 83%.

Yet even those gains are insufficient for some students, cautions Johnson. She cites the case of one boy in the program who shot up 6 reading levels yet still failed to meet the benchmark expected for his grade. He had started too far behind.

"They come with so many needs, so many deficiencies that for them, 25-plus in the classroom may be too much," Johnson said, referring to typical class sizes in the early grades. "If we had more tutors, we'd definitely have students to receive the services."

Tutor on the honor roll

The tutors benefit as well. Sarita McCard says her son Rico, a rising junior at Eastern High School, joined Reach during a tough transition to 9th grade. At the time, McCard says, "he wasn't making A's and B's." She credits the program for giving him the confidence and motivation to attain the honor roll for every marking period in 10th grade.

"He's more focused, more inspired," said McCard of her son. "He feels he's doing something greater than simply working and making a paycheck."

Yet such striking turnarounds, even multiplied by 80 to 100 tutors recruited annually by Reach, represent only a sliver of the achievement gap affecting tens of thousands of District students. Asked about the modest size of his program, Hecker says he is deliberately growing it slowly, in order to preserve "depth over breadth." But he hopes to double the number of participants over the next few years.

Meanwhile, inquiries about Reach have been streaming in from across the country and from as far away as South Africa and Curaçao, Hecker says. He has a simple message for those who wish to replicate the success of his fledgling program.

"What makes Reach work is that the teens feel cared about, supported, and empowered," Hecker said. "The model is helpful, but it's the relationships that matter."

A school choice advocate argues for a student assignment proposal that no longer exists

An op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post expressed support for a "recently released proposal" that would shift DC from a system of neighborhood schools toward "a geographically broader school assignment process." But that proposal, which DC officials put forward in April, was abandoned months ago in favor of one that would keep neighborhood schools in place.

The op-ed, by the former chief executive of an education reform center in New Orleans, argues that neighborhood schools reinforce geographic patterns of racial and socioeconomic segregation.

The author, Neerav Kingsland, suggests an enrollment system similar to that adopted in New Orleans, where schools serving kindergarten-through-8th-grade students reserve half their seats for neighborhood kids. The other half are open to students from all over the city. At the high school level, all seats are open to all students.

As far as the DC boundary proposals go, Kingsland seems unaware that this particular train has already left the station. Yes, the advisory committee charged with revising the student assignment system did put forward proposals in April that would have shifted away from a neighborhood school system to one in which choice and chance play a larger role.

But, as anyone who has been paying attention to this issue knows, those proposals precipitated a huge outcry of opposition from parents. As a result, the committee released a new proposal in June that embraced the idea of neighborhood schools, albeit with some redrawn boundaries.

Perhaps Kingsland, who apparently doesn't live in DC, can be forgiven for his obliviousness to recent events here. But it's surprising that Post editors were equally oblivious, given that the paper has reported extensively on the controversy over school boundaries.

These days the threat to neighborhood schools comes not from the boundary proposals but rather from DC's burgeoning charter sector. Charter schools, which now serve almost half of DC's students, have fiercely resisted the idea of a neighborhood preference in admissions. Kingsland does refer in passing to that threat, although he sees it more as an opportunity.

On the merits, Kingsland's argument against neighborhood schools underestimates the very factor that induced the advisory committee to back down from its initial proposals: parent opposition. He mentions parents' concerns about the downsides of a non-geographic assignment systema lack of predictability, long commutesbut says they must be balanced against the segregation inherent in a neighborhood system.

But if middle-class parents dislike a non-neighborhood system so much that they pick up and leave, as many were threatening to do in DC, Kingsland's New Orleans model won't work. Even allocating 50% of seats to neighborhood children wouldn't necessarily provide parents with the guaranteed slots many want.

So instead of achieving the kind of racial and socioeconomic mixing Kingsland envisions, we could end up with a school system entirely composed of those who can't afford to escape it. In fact, that's more or less what DC's public school system did look like until fairly recently.

Kingsland also overlooks the kind of segregation that can occur in an all-choice system, where students tend to sort themselves into different schools based on achievement. That's what seems to be happening in Chicago, which has adopted an all-choice system for its high schools.

Reasonable people can disagree, of course, about the pluses and minuses of neighborhood schools. What they can't disagree about is the fact that the specific proposal Kingsland is advocating for no longer exists.

Morning bell: Back to Latin at some schools, onward to technology at others

Photo of Roman forum from Shutterstock.
Latin and literacy: Some educators, including a few in DC, are advocating spoken Latin as a remedy for literacy problems, including those among low-income and special-education students. At School Without Walls @ Francis-Stevens, Latin begins in preschool. (Post)

High-tech charter finds a spot in Anacostia: Rocketship, a California-based charter network that blends technology with traditional instruction, will build its first DC school on a wooded hilltop across from a public housing development in Anacostia. (Post)

Summer school blitz: At one San Francisco high school, a teacher tries to cram an entire year-long algebra course into 5 weeks, for students who struggle with math in the first place. (NPR)

Home visit blitz: Before school starts in Henderson County, KY, teachers knock on the door of every student in the county to build relationships with them and their families. (Ed Week)

Celebrities and education reform: Whoopi Goldberg is only the latest boldface name to speak out on the subject, in her case weighing in against teacher tenure. (NPR)

The promise, and the limits, of tutoring

Tutoring can be an effective way to bring a struggling reader up to grade level. But, as I discovered when I volunteered with one highly regarded tutoring program, it isn't always easy. And it may not be the whole solution to a problem that is at the root of the achievement gap.

Photo of boy reading from Shutterstock.

If a child isn't reading on grade level by 3rd grade, chances are she'll never catch up. And in DC, only 23% of 4th-graders were reading on grade level according to national tests given in 2013.

One method that has been shown to work with at-risk readers is one-on-one tutoring. But it's expensive to have professional tutors work with all the students who need help. What about using volunteers?

According to a recent rigorous study, at least one program that uses volunteers actually works. Students got the equivalent of one-and-a-half to two months of additional growth in sight-word reading over the course of a school year, as compared to a control group. The study also found statistically significant results for comprehension and fluency.

The program, called Reading Partners, is active in 7 states and DC. It works with about 600 students in kindergarten through 5th grade in the District, and deploys about the same number of volunteers. This past school year I was one of them.

I decided to volunteer for two reasons. First and most obvious, I wanted to help a child in need. Second, I had learned from a previous tutoring experience how important it is to spend time in schools if you're interested in education, and especially if you're writing about it.

The challenge of Keisha

I suppose I imagined getting an adorable, bright-eyed child who would be grateful for the attention I was showering on her, and whose progress would be gratifyingly obvious.

I know there are many such kids, but instead I got a 4th-grader I'll call Keisha. When I first met Keisha in January, she sat as far from me as possible at the small table in the school's reading center where we met for 45 minutes every Tuesday, turning her chair to face away from me. She was quiet to the point of being unresponsive.

I thought she would warm up as she got to know me, but her behavior was unpredictable. One week she'd be bouncing off the wall and the next she'd be back inside her shell, refusing to answer my questions.

Thanks to a goal-setting system I devised with the help of the Reading Partners site administrator, things eventually got better. But the difficulty of reaching Keisha gave me some idea of what classroom teachers are up against.

I did everything I could think of to establish a rapport, including bringing her a small damp bag of moss to illustrate a vocabulary word that had stumped her. But nothing seemed to work.

I confess there were busy weeks when I was less than eager to make the 90-minute round-trip journey to Keisha's school. But I reminded myself that all kids deserve to learn, regardless of their level of cuteness. (And to be fair, there were times when even Keisha was pretty cute.)

A focus on skills, not content

The other problem, though, was that it wasn't always clear to me that Keisha was learning. To be sure, there were some aspects of the highly structured program that seemed valuable. I liked the fact that Keisha was writing, at least a little, about what she was reading. And reviewing vocabulary words several times over a period of weeks seemed like a good way to reinforce them.

But the Reading Partners approach, like much of education today, is focused on teaching discrete skills rather than fostering an appreciation for literature or conveying a particular body of knowledge. Over the course of about 6 months, we covered only 3 skills: Sequencing in Informational Text, Making Inferences, and Summarizing.

At each session, I would explain or review the relevant term and make sure Keisha understood it. When it was time for her to read, the protocol required me to interrupt her every page or two to ask her about Sequencing, or get her to Make an Inference, or Summarize.

That approach tends to take the joy out of reading, and I couldn't really blame Keisha when she seemed annoyed by my questions. I found myself wondering why we couldn't read a book all the way through and then go back and talk about it in a more natural way.

I also noticed Keisha's level of engagement varied with how much she liked what she was reading. Some books clearly grabbed her. But because she was only reading at a 2nd-grade level, she found others babyish.

"I'm in 4th grade!" she said disgustedly about one of them. "This isn't a 4th-grade book." She may have been behind in reading, but she was no dummy.

Tying tutoring to classroom work

More fundamentally, I wondered if it wouldn't have been more helpful for Keisha to spend time with a tutor working on the material she was actually supposed to be learning in class. That's the kind of tutoring affluent kids get, paid for by their parents.

Keisha might have been more responsive to that kind of tutoring, as well. Not only would we have avoided the "babyish" problem, but she might have seen a more direct connection between tutoring and her education. At one point she told me she really ought to be back in class, where she'd be learning something.

But no doubt it would be difficult, if not impossible, to engineer that individualized approach for a large-scale program that relies on volunteers.

But perhaps I accomplished more with Keisha than I thought. At the end of the school year, my Reading Partners site administrator sent me an excited email announcing that Keisha had made over a year of growth in her reading skills in the 6 months that I and another tutor worked with her. She was still about 18 months below her grade level, but she'd narrowed the gap by almost half a year.

I also got a handwritten note from Keisha that read: "Dear Ms. Natalie, I had Fun with you & I Love how you ask me great questions." It was accompanied by a drawing of the two of us.

I'm sure she wrote it because she was instructed to, but still, it made me tear up a bit. I've volunteered to tutor again next year, with Keisha if her schedule permits.

I don't know that tutoring is the whole answer to the problem of struggling readers. I suspect that the kind of tutoring Reading Partners does works best with younger children who are still learning the basics. For older children, I wonder if different classroom teaching methods are also needed.

But I'm not ready to give up on Keisha. And maybe Keisha's not the only one who learned something. It's possible that, with 6 months of experience under my belt, I'll be a better tutor.

Morning bell: Changes ahead

Photo of railroad tracks from Shutterstock.
What Common Core means in practice: On the Kojo Nnamdi show, two local educators discuss how the new Common Core State Standards will change the way teachers teach. (WAMU)

Duke Ellington renovation gets the nod: Community partners have signed off on the $82 million project at the arts-focused DCPS high school in Georgetown. Plans include a new 850-seat theater and a controversial rooftop deck. (Georgetown Dish)

Back to School fair: The Prince George's County school system will be holding its annual fair on Saturday at the Showplace Arena, where students can register for classes and even get required immunizations. (Post)

Attrition and the success of KIPP: When middle-school students leave the high-performing charter network, its schools don't fill those vacancies to the same extent as traditional public schools, and the latecomers they do admit tend to be higher-performing. But a study concludes that those discrepancies aren't the reason for KIPP's success, as some have argued. (Education Next)

Summer coding: With interest in computer science growing and few high schools offering classes in coding, summer programs have sprung up in New York City to fill the demand. (Chalkbeat NY)

Morning Bell: Summer programs combine fun and work to prevent academic backsliding

Photo of child in garden from Shutterstock.
How their garden grows: Low-income children in one Northeast DC neighborhood are having fun growing and cooking vegetables. But they're also getting tutoring in reading and math to keep them from falling behind academically over the summer. (Post)

Camp touts reading: Freedom School, a 6-week camp in Prince George's County, aims to stem summer reading slide among young people in grades 7 to 9. A recently completed pilot program, launched jointly by the county and its school district, targeted 90 youth from high-poverty neighborhoods. (Gazette)

Charter finds a home in Ward 3: Shining Stars Montessori, which had planned a move into Petworth before a lease deal fell through, will locate on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park. That means the school will become Ward 3's first charter school. (Post)

Teens drop out to earn: In largely immigrant Langley Park, children gain in elementary school, slip in middle school, and often quit high school to support their families. A new study shows that 37% of the community's 16- to 19-year-olds are working rather than in school, over 4 times the national average. (WAMU, Urban Institute)

Rhee to lead charter group: Former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee has added a new job to her current role as chief executive officer at StudentsFirst. Rhee will serve as board chair for the St. Hope Schools, a charter network in Sacramento founded by her husband, the city's Mayor Kevin Johnson. (Sacramento Bee)

Work ahead on cyber manners: A task force on cyber civility for the Montgomery County Public Schools has moved to continue work through the fall. The task force formed after Superintendent Joshua P. Starr received a slew of abusive tweets as he was mulling snow days last winter. (Post)

Should ed school go to school?: Programs that prepare teachers should trade the college campus for an urban schoolhouse, with its potential for apprenticeships and exposure to real-world challenges, argues one observer. (Hechinger Report)

Charter staff gets trucking: At the third charter school in Massachusetts to unionize, 80 staff members signed up with the Teamster's Union. Teachers cited high turnover as a reason for joining the union. (Worcester Telegram & Gazette)

Morning bell: One DC charter school educates two generations simultaneously

Photo of mother and child from Shutterstock.
Mother and child education: One DC charter school educates both young children and their parents, many of whom are learning English. It's a promising model that has also been tried elsewhere around the country. (Post)

Washington Post sides with charters: The editorial board threw its weight behind a lawsuit alleging that DC has disregarded a law requiring it to fund charters and traditional public schools equally.

Integrating Montgomery schools: An African-American member of the county school board said he was "offended by the notion that students of color could thrive only if surrounded by more middle-class and affluent whites." An advocate of socioeconomic integration, writing for a new blog focusing on Montgomery County schools, responds. (MoCoEdBlog)

Common Core problem: Math educators in Maryland were surprised by the difficulty of a sample 4th-grade question from the Common-Core-aligned PARCC test that will be given next spring. (Ed Week)

Lawyer joins anti-tenure group: David Boies, part of the team that took the same-sex marriage case to the Supreme Court, is chairing a group that is pursuing lawsuits to challenge teacher tenure. Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown founded the organization. (NYT)

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