What Gap?


I had a conversation about gaps today.    I wasn’t sure which gap was referred to because this phrase has many meanings.  Letterman is fine with his gap; educators are not fine with achievement gaps.  Politicians make policies that ignore crucial gaps, the ones that go to the root of the problem.  Everyone seems confused.  Gaps remain.

Gaps exist in classrooms, buildings, districts, counties, states and patterns form across countries.

The truth is, achievement gaps in the United States are pretty predictable.  Most  can tell you about their district  before any test scores come out.  The issue, time and time again has to do with opportunity and wealth or IEP status.  The patterns are clear in every district; every state.

Come down from the helicopter view and into a building:  there is MUCH a teacher can do to design the learning so that all kids in front of them have a chance.  Relationships are the cornerstone for all learning.  Enthusiasm is contagious.  Deep thinking and learning can occur.  We engineer the context.  Hope is restored with a great teacher.

Still, over time and across the district and the state:  poverty, limited experience and racism are problems.   Gaps exist between boys and girls; people of color and those milky white; kids with IEPs and those whithout.   Until we address that with our education, assessment and even housing policies, the gaps will persist.   Teachers will continue to be blamed for walls they cannot permeate.  Kids in poverty will stay in poverty.  Boys and students of color will be suspended at higher rates.  Initiatives will aim at the wrong target .  I’m thinking of my dog, chasing his tail.


This conundrum, however,   isn’t quite so clever or  funny.

We need to go to the core to solve the real problems WHILE engineering relationships and environments that support; design learning that engages.    If we look at gender, IEP status and socio-economic factors, we still  have to keep teaching well.  To teach well, we do have to look at socio-economic factors, gender and IEP status.  To deny the culture of poverty  is to lie to ourselves and our students. To deny the hurdles faced by students with IEPs and those of color is unfair.   And yes, we need to figure out how to create environments where boys can thrive.  Many great teachers do that, but not all boys have that experience.

It isn’t all or nothing; either /or .  It rarely is.  There are no excuses.  We must teach well.  If that could happen within  the context of policies reflecting  the real problems, teachers might have a chance to support all of their students.

We need to mind the gap.  The big gaps.   And stop chasing our tails.


White Dudes Dangling Carrots


The US is  in a state of revolutionary  change.  .  As we stand on the edge of the “fiscal cliff”, we reflect on what was, in the decades before the crash.  Indeed, the bell-shaped curve illustrating the “haves” and “have-nots” has become an inverted J curve with the chasm between the rich and poor astounding; the lopsided spin  makes the bulk of us dizzy.

It is time we focus on the core issues.  Government needs to work collaboratively to solve the REAL problems.  Pointing at teachers, firefighters, police, librarians instead of focusing on the REAL problem for our financial woes is incredulous. In politics, it is obvious where the unnecessary roadblocks lie.  In the past, Obama sent forth proposals with concessions already in place, thinking they would be accepted.  He learned that the proposals were pocketed and  Congress simply asked for more.   Failure to collaborate and compromise is a core issue.  The philosophical differences are hurdles, but solving the problems should not be optional.  Drawing lines in the sand cannot be tolerated.  The people in the US spoke clearly last month.  Did anyone hear?

Blaming the poor, the uneducated, teachers/firefighters/police officers and others for the money woes in this country is incredulous.  It is nothing more than dangling carrots and barking  empty  promises.   Not everyone is distracted by hollow, shiny things dangled by good-looking guys with a tan and nice, white teeth.

Not me, anyways. The problems are crystal clear.   I hope I am still around to see our country  focus on the truth instead of blaming the casualties on the side of the road,  victims of a system that protects the elite.

It’s time to put the political shenanigans aside for the welfare of our country.  

Thinking Through the Roadblocks: PBIS

Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) is a school-wide  framework that offers buildings the opportunity for culture change.  Implemented well, within a response to intervention (RTI) system that offers a wide array of creative, comprehensive options for academic and behavioral challenges, research on PBIS is promising.  It reduces the need for special education referrals.  It reduces the number of suspensions.

Most common misperceptions?  

  •  PBIS is all about extrinsic rewards.
  • All kids don’t “need” it, so why should we do it?

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!

PBIS is a comprehensive framework that is most effective when embedded in the school’s improvement plan/goals AND in collaboration with an RTI model around academics.  The beauty of PBIS, really?

  • develops predictable routines in common areas
  • creates common language for staff and students
  • focuses on teaching routines/expectations instead of punishing
  • helps staff think through expectations for activities and procedures
  • helps administrators think through expectations of staff and students
  • keeps staff and administration communicating about their school culture
  • helps school teams develop alternatives to suspension

Reward systems are part of PBIS and research across many buildings indicate it works.  However, reward systems are only a small part of the bigger picture.  During our professional learning and implementation support, we encourage buildings to determine if this part is necessary for them.  If they are not comfortable with it, we help them implement without.  After all, if the data indicates the climate is fine, why tamper with what works for them?

PBIS is not needed for you?  This may be true for teachers who  are incredibly effective at building relationships.  Maybe you are consistent, positive and  able to manage all difficulties within your classroom.  But look around.  Is this true for every classroom in your building?  District?   Is it possible that your building or district needs it, despite your success?   The consistency, predictability  and routines that PBIS supports offer are vital for children who come from chaotic, unpredictable communities/homes.  Your demographics may not include these students.  They may, but you might be effective regardless.   Still, the benefits of PBIS done well are clear.  They work for everyone, everywhere.  This is about the building, not the individual teacher alone.

So, what does it take to become a high implementor of PBIS?

(1) Teacher commitment to the initiative needs to be developed and reinforced. Communication of guidelines and the rationale for practices could facilitate teacher buy-in. Systematic use of data to demonstrate the effectiveness of PBS practices was also linked to teacher buy-in.
(2) Clear implementation guidelines should be provided to all school staff through a structured system of professional development and information dissemination. The guidelines need to help teachers respond positively to an often diverse population of students. They also need to encourage consistent and appropriate implementation of the rewards system based on a shared understanding of PBS in the school.
(3) Systematic data collection and use allows teachers and administrators to monitor the nature, location, and frequency of smaller disciplinary infractions before they become larger issues.
(4) Including student input in data-based decision-making can be useful in addressing barriers associated with the rewards system, including selecting appropriate rewards and monitoring the consistency with which rewards are offered.
(5) PBS orientation/training for new and substitute teachers could increase the consistency of application within the school. Similarly, refresher training may be needed for more experienced teachers. However, given the limited resources for professional development and the experience of some teachers with PBS, creativity in how to provide the training – to whom, when, and in what format – will be needed.


Positive Behavior Support in Delaware Schools

Identifying Implementation Barriers and Facilitators in PBIS


Poverty and Education: Solutions?

Poverty affects education.  It affects test scores.  It affects teacher and student motivation.  It is related to just about every possible negative life outcome you could imagine.  In the US, about one-quarter of our children are raised in poverty,  the same percentage of students drop out of school without diplomas.

These figures are an outrage.  Still, much of the school reform efforts actively ignore the research on poverty in education.  They focus instead on test scores and gaps between high scores and low scores within a building. Teachers are being held accountable for these gaps.  Some are losing their jobs.  Having tried to fight  the effects of poverty in highly segregated areas, others are exhausted, dispirited and have quit.  Politicians cannot even say the “P” word, let alone address the effects systemically.  And so the fingers point to the people on the front-line.  Everyone wants an answer but they are looking in the wrong places.

Educators around the globe engaged in a Twitter chat with the hashtag:  educhat.  This is a once weekly event.  Yesterday’s topic was:  If it is the poverty gap that is the major force stalling improvement in the American education system, how do we address that issue?

The majority belief emerged:

  1. Poverty is not an excuse:
  2. Teachers must pull up bootstraps and teach well

This belief set is certainly vital and adaptive.  I think it is a given that good teaching is a must.  But there is more.

Frequency, Intensity, Place

It would seem that your beliefs would vary, depending on your experience.  If you are from an economically and racially diverse community you may not feel the same way a teacher in the inner city does.  Having a few kids in your class with high needs is different than having the majority of your kids with high needs.  Your typical classroom in a racially and economically segregated area that has a high % of families living in poverty will include large class sizes and children with immense needs.

This we know:

Children from poor families do worse than kids from middle-class and wealthy families; children do better if their mother has a college degree, and overall, children of all ethnicities and races do better in schools with less than 25 percent of the student population from low-income families.

There is plenty of research suggesting that students of color are disciplined more harshly than their white peers.  

A cultural shift from zero-tolerance policies is needed in our schools. One research-based alternative, known as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), is gaining momentum among educators as a way to improve overall school climates, as well as academic performance, while keeping children in the classroom. PBIS has been successfully used in both urban and rural school districts and in districts with high and low concentrations of poverty.

Implementation of PBIS is a key provision in several class action settlements reached between the SPLC and school districts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. The results have been promising. For example, two years after PBIS was implemented throughout the Jefferson Parish, La., school district, the out-of-school suspension rate for special education students was cut in half. Out-of-school suspensions for general education students dropped 24 percent after the first year.

PBIS implementation is just one of the ways we’re working to ensure that all children have access to a quality education. We’ve also launched campaigns to address the use of alternative schools to warehouse students and deny them the educational services to which they are entitled. In addition, we work to ensure that youths most likely to be pushed out of school receive individualized support to increase their chances of graduating, to address racial disparities in school discipline practices and to increase parental engagement in the formation of school discipline policies and practices.

Current attempts at reform, focusing on test scores and charter schools, are short-sighted.  More importantly, they miss the core issues and leave many kids behind.  Additionally, housing policy in most communities encourages the economic segregation that causes pockets of unmanageable distress.  Solving small problems is different than solving huge, pervasive problems.

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.

Early Cues: Keeping Them Engaged

“You know, Mary.  Crying in a baby is a late cue,”  said my sister as I held my adorable (but quivering) niece.  “We missed the early cues that she was hungry:  smacking lips, rooting, hand and leg movement.”   My sister’s insight caused me to pause (this would not be the first, or last time-I am sure of that)!

I know that behavior is communication.  This was framing what I knew in a unique way:  the tantrums and acting out we see in schools so often are  just that:   a late cue.  We missed the early messages, or failed to respond in ways that were effective at the school.

Children who repeatedly find themselves in the office for disciplinary issues, often, are trying to communicate something to the adults in their environment:  the work is too hard; my life is too chaotic; I’ve not a trusting relationship in any environment that urges me to stay engaged in the classroom.  There are limits to our ability to impact this, but we must never stop trying.

Essentially, this is an issue related to engagement.  We want them to be meaningfully engaged with

  • their learning
  • their teachers
  • their peers
  • their school

Catching the cues early and providing protective supports is vital .   We know the early warning signs.  We know the protective factors.  Most vital are the relationships.

That means us.

“I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing”

Tom Petty




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.