Monday, February 07, 2011

Guest Post: Education's So-Called "Experts"

My husband is a teacher. I am a former teacher. We talk about the state of education ALL of the time around here. He originally wrote this guest post for his friends on Facebook, but it provides such an excellent insight into the life of a teacher I wanted to share it with a wider audience. Once you've read it, I'd love for you to share your thoughts and to share his post with others. Let's have a conversation!

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The field of K-12 education is filled with experts and consultants who will tell you how to accomplish the miracles teachers are expected to accomplish. Unfortunately, most education experts have no expertise other than the ability to market themselves as experts.

I teach at a Title I school. "Title I" means we receive extra federal funding because we serve a student population that is largely poor. And having a population that is largely poor, we have many students who don't speak English well, and/or are designated as special education. Being Title I also means we face all the requirements and sanctions from No Child Left Behind.

So, to help us teachers do what we're supposed to do--which is get students born into a variety of disadvantages to perform at the level of middle class students--we are required to go through professional development programs. One of those programs requires us to watch a series of videos, by experts, on how to teach these students.

The videos feature principals and teachers from schools; and these principals and teachers tell us what works for them and how I can do what they do. Now, as an educational researcher, I like to verify claims. So, I've been looking up testing data on the schools featured in these videos. Video after video has featured schools that have failed to meet the standards of No Child Left Behind. So, people at failing schools were telling me to do what they do so I can be successful like them; but they're really failing.

The problem is that it is almost impossible for a Title I school to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind. And the proof of that is the fact that a decade into No Child Left Behind, there are almost no Title I schools meeting the requirements.

But, I say it's almost impossible. In this last week, I watched two videos that featured two schools that have met the requirements. The first one I found, I knew it was going to meet the requirements before I even looked up the data. It was H.F. NcNeill Elementary School in Texas. And during the video, they discussed how their school faces the tremendous challenge of having a large population of students whose first language is not English. But, they also mentioned that the most common language at their school, other than English, is Vietnamese.

Well, as someone who has previously worked in an educational program that served many Vietnamese students, I knew this school would be successful. I don't care if they're not native English speakers; they have parents who care deeply about their kids' educations and will make sure their kids are successful. And sure enough, the school not only meets No Child Left Behind, but it's ranked as an "exemplary" school in Texas. More than 90% of their students pass the state tests.

There's no mystery to why this school is successful. It has nothing at all to do with the administrators or teachers at the school. I knew the school would be successful the second I saw that Vietnamese was a common language there. It's not only the Chinese who have Tiger moms.

Now on Friday, I found one more successful Title I school featured in a video. It was Frankford Elementary in DE. When I looked up the school, I found it has a very high number of low-income students, a very high number of non-native English speakers, and a fairly high number of special ed students. And it has managed to achieve incredible success. It has more than 90% of students passing the state exam.

So, this got my interest. How had they done this?

In the video, the principal talked about how when she came to the school, she didn't care about any excuses from teachers. She didn't care about how hard it was to get students from these backgrounds to succeed. She just told the teachers there were no excuses for failure.

So, the video made it seem like she just forced the teachers to do their jobs. And that it what many people think is the solution. Failing schools have failing teachers; so kick their butts into gear, or kick their butts onto the streets.

But, I know the research. I know it's not that simple. So, I knew there was more to it. So, I looked into it.

As it turns out, the principal developed an extensive community involvement program. She has business and individuals donating tremendous amounts of money to buy things for students. For example, one couple in the community donates money to buy two books for every student, every year. Beyond that, the principal developed a mentoring system where 150 members of the community come in every week to mentor students.

Basically, this principal has managed to get the community to come in and parent these kids.

And it has worked. I certainly want to applaud that.

But, let's be honest and realize what it took and the difficulty in that. This success is so rare that the principal was a guest of Laura Bush at the 2007 State of the Union Address.

When a principal at a Title I school gets those students to meet No Child Left Behind, even 6 years after No Child Left Behind began, it was rare enough to warrant a personal invitation to the State of the Union.

So, as a teacher working at a Title I school, what am I supposed to learn from this professional development?

I guess I could be like Erin Gruwell, the teacher immortalized in the movie, "Freedom Writers." She worked two part-time jobs just to have enough money to buy things for her students. And she destroyed her marriage because she invested everything she had into being the family of kids who had no family.

But, what many people don't know is that even she only did that once, with a couple dozen students. After that, she left teaching and became an educational expert. She now tells people how to replicate what she never replicated.

Ultimately, anything that presents itself as a real answer for educating students should actually work and be transferable on a large scale for the long term.

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