Oakland Schools ~ Michigan


Oakland SchoolsWon’t Back Down, the new “Parent Trigger” reform movie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, is packed with spirit and emotion and good acting, but something is missing. Well, the facts, for one, but this is Hollywood and we’re all used to movie-land playing fast and loose with “true events”. What’s missing is a big chunk of transparency. Something dark and backroom is not-being-said about this film, which lends a sinister Hunger Games air of propaganda to every hoo-rah Walmart-backed preview and cinema premiere.

The movie, for all of its feel-good parent empowerment, was funded by conservative legislative and corporate groups who are hopeful about making a fortune off of privatizing public education. By demonizing teachers, the financiers hoped to pull smoke-and-mirrors over their own modus operandi: get cranky citizens pointed angrily in the wrong direction, and maybe no one will notice…

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Tools To Assist Classroom Teachers with Structure: How Much?

In my role as a behavior and learning consultant in our county, I assisted school teams in problem solving around individual students.  It didn’t take long for me to see that the core issue was about the fit between the student and teacher, along with instruction, materials and environment.  The problem was always about the “system” and not an individual.

Every classroom teacher has a variety of rituals, routines, rules and motivational techniques they use as a framework to ensure students are engaged and thriving.  Some have frameworks that are tight; others prefer loose.  This does not refer to how friendly or punishing the teacher is, but instead  the degree to which the teacher orchestrates student behavior.

  • A loosely structured classroom allows students to lead most things, including dismissal, beginning and ending routines, how homework is turned in and how much talking there is during reading. Teachers do not need to be explicit or consistent about expectations and the level of maturity and self-control of the students is high. Dismissal might happen all at once as the students are quite self-directed.
  •  A tightly structured classroom is one in which the teacher makes most decisions, including  the amount of talking, how  many students in the bathroom at a time, etc. The teacher makes expectations explicit and is very consistent in routines.  Dismissal might happen with small groups being excused in a calm, orderly and quiet fashion.

The level of structure in your classroom will be based on two major things:

  1. Your own personal style
  2. The collective needs of your students from year to year

What is your personal style?  Can you tolerate noise?  Movement?  Mess?  Do you prefer quiet and calm?  Are interruptions upsetting or expected?  Can you multi-task or does that overwhelm you?

Teachers must be honest and true to themselves about their own preferences around such things as noise, movement and tolerance for multi-tasking and interruption.  Those preferring a highly orchestrated day are encouraged to work that way, even if their students could responsibly handle less structure.  Students are more likely to adapt and the “fit” will be better.  Those who can tolerate more noise and movement can spend more time reflecting on the needs of the students.  Tightening up on routines and structure can happen if student need dictates.

To reflect on the type of classroom setting a teacher needs, Randy Sprick from Safe and Civil Schools created a brief teacher questionnaire.  The purpose of this questionnaire is to allow teachers to reflect upon their own unique needs.  The teacher who knows they have a low tolerance for noise needs to specifically teach students to keep noise to a minimum and acknowledge when they have it “right”.  This tool can be used with grade-level teams for discussion.

 Next, teachers need to consider student’s needs and their risk factors.  Randy Sprick’s Classroom Management and Discipline Planning Questionnaire is a way for teachers to assess their building and class regarding things such as age, number of students, and specific risk factors they might have.  A class with many risk factors is more likely to have increased behavioral difficulties if the structure of the class is quite loose.  A class with few risk factors may need low structure as the students are predominantly mature and independent students.

Considering both your needs and the needs of your classroom is a great way to ensure the fit between you and them is conducive to engagement and productivity.  You can judge the appropriateness of your level of structure over time by the frequency and intensity of misbehavior.  If there isn’t a problem, there is nothing to fix!   : )

Overwhelmed By Poverty: It Takes More Than Just Good Teaching


I am currently trying to integrate the voices of some extraordinary educators regarding poverty and its impact on education.  This began with a video by Dr. Vickie Markavitch, Superintendent of Oakland Schools.   The video was in response to Michigan’s Focus School initiative, which places schools on the list based on disproportionality between the test scores of the lowest and highest 30% .  (Losing Focus with Focus Schools (http://bit.ly/MWHLZe) .

I will always be concerned about the lower 30%, regardless of the economic situation of their family or community.  Being at the bottom in a highly social context is not a place any student would choose.  Still, searching further via twitter and google and my 48 years of living- I began focusing on the issue of poverty and segregation.  Diane Ravitch and many others on Twitter lead me to a book:  How Children Succeed  by Paul Tough.

Tough has spent years thinking about this issue.  In his book, he argues that cognitive and academic skills –and “good teaching” cannot overcome the stressors involved with growing up in poverty.   Instead, the kids who overcome their history of poverty have “resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition”:  non-cognitive, character traits.

In his NYTimes article “Reading, Math and Grit”  , Joe Nocera says   “On some level, these are traits we all try to instill in our children. But poor children too often don’t have parents who can serve that role. They develop habits that impede their ability to learn. Often they can’t even see what the point of learning is. They act indifferently or hostile in school, though that often masks feelings of hopelessness and anxiety. “

Knowing that it isn’t just about the money, teaching, tests or curriculm, people like Jeff Nelson, who runs a program in partnership with 23 Chicago high schools called One Goal and Geoffrey Canada who founded  Harlem Children’s Zone,  are attempting a comprehensive approach to supporting kids in highly segregated and  economically disadvantaged areas.  The Harlem Children’s Zone, in particular,   “combines educational, social and medical services. It starts at birth and follows children to college. It meshes those services into an interlocking web, and then it drops that web over an entire neighbourhood. The objective is to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighbourhood just can’t slip through.”

I began to feel hopeful that someone was going to the core.  My work in our county alone tells me the disparity (in every way you can measure it)   is enormous.  You can drive 15 minutes and see just about everything in terms of the physical and social environment of the school and the overall vitality of the community.  The playing field is not even for teachers or students.  It disturbs me deeply.

Then today, I read an article at Dropout Nation:   “Voices of the Dropout Nation: Matt Barnum on Diane Ravitch and the Faulty Data Behind the Poverty Myth”.   Barnum sharp-shoots some of Ravitch’s recent statements:    “family income is the most-reliable predictor of test score performance”;  “single most reliable predictor of low academic achievement is poverty”. Barnum reports that Ravitch “ declared that the U.S. leads the advanced nations of the world in poverty with nearly a quarter of kids in poor households, while in other highly developed nations the child poverty rate is under five percent”. From where she sits, Barnum goes on, “ it is the shame of our nation.”

He challenges Ravitch because the US is actually SECOND to last and not LAST.  He refers to a world poverty chart  , which puts the US second from the bottom (directly between Romania and Latvia).   

 Barnum concludes with this:  “Most school reformers agree that poverty does indeed matter. The idea behind the education reform movement, however, is that we can improve our impoverished schools as a means of overcoming the debilitating effects of poverty. So it is hard to hear poverty as an excuse for poor-quality education – especially when it’s backed by misleading data.”  Barnum seems to believe it is “one or the other”.

And so, I go back to a great quote last week from Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention:  “nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day”.

My belief is that the answer is “both/and”, not “either/or”.  With the economic re-segregation and enormous gaps between the haves and have-nots, the job of “overcoming the debilitating effects of poverty” is going to take more than just good teaching.  Note:  I did not say that good teaching wasn’t needed.  In fact, I suspect NOBODY has ever said that in education.  That is always expected.  Instead, we need to look past that  and out into the school community as there is much evidence that good teaching is not enough for the long haul.

Until we pair good teaching in economically diverse neighborhoods with the kind of comprehensive support that Nelson and Canada are providing in Chicago and Harlem, we will be placing band-aids on deep wounds.  And anyone who has skinned their knee knows:

band-aids don’t last after the first bath.