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Posted at 2:10 PM ET, 12/ 9/2010

Teachers: What we need to do to fix schools

By Valerie Strauss

This is the companion piece to the previous post, in which teachers expressed their frustrations about the attacks on their profession. This piece is about a new report by 14 teachers from high-needs urban schools around the country about how to effectively improve conditions in these schools.

The following was written by Larry Ferlazzo, an English teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. He is the author of several books on education policy and practice, including English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work, and maintains a popular resources blog for teachers. This appeared on the Teachers Magazine space at Education Week's website.

By Larry Ferlazzo
Few things in our world are helped by looking through an either/or lens. Reality, in my experience at least, is far too ambiguous to be seen as all one color or another. Unfortunately, many “school reformers”—often with little teacher consultation—come across as having just that sort of view, offering a short, simplistic list of “answers” (merit pay, charter schools, ending tenure, standardized testing) to the challenges facing our schools.

For the past year, I have been part of a group of 14 teachers from high-needs schools in urban districts around the United States. In partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality (and with financial support from the Ford Foundation), we’ve “webinared” with some of the most respected researchers and practitioners from all sides of the school reform debate, reviewed reams of data, and delved deeply into our own professional experiences.

Last week we released our TeacherSolutions report, describing what we believe needs to happen to bring about effective and sustainable school reform. Drawing both on what we have learned through this study and what we have experienced in our own classrooms, “Transforming School Conditions: Building Bridges to the Education System That Students And Teachers Deserve” includes these key recommendations:

Preparing Effective Teachers
Our schools and students would be better served if all teacher preparation programs— traditional university credential classes or alternative certification (e.g. Teach for America and others)—provided far more closely supervised time to candidates working in the classroom. We were particularly impressed by the work of dozens of urban teacher residency programs across the country.

In such programs, teacher residents work alongside specially trained master teachers—similar to the way that medical residents work with fully credentialed doctors—before they are released to teach in their own classrooms.

Residents are well-supported but held to rigorous standards, and those who are not successful in both grasping theory and executing practice are not recommended for licensure.

Evaluating Students and Teachers Using Fair, Valid and Reliable Measures
We need to reduce our dependence on standardized testing as the primary method of assessing students and teachers. Using multiple measures, including portfolios of student work, allows us to evaluate students based on work they have constructed themselves, as opposed to their skill in selecting the one right answer from a list of possibilities on a multiple choice test.

Starting in the late 1980s, Kentucky’s Alternate Assessment Program and Vermont’s Portfolio Project implemented precisely these types of multiple, performance-based measures at scale statewide. A RAND evaluation of Vermont’s portfolio assessment found that teachers’ ratings of student work were surprisingly unbiased. We have hopes that the federally funded Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium will call on teachers to help them craft these types of performance-based tasks. Likewise, multiple measures, including regular meaningful observations and self-assessments (like I describe here), need to be used to accurately assess teacher performance, as opposed to complete reliance on unstable value-added models.

Enhancing Collaboration Between Teachers
Making time for peer learning is a critical step toward improving instruction and—as studies have shown—reducing teacher turnover. Providing strong administrative support for weekly meetings and engaging teachers in discussions about the kind of professional development we want and need is necessary to help move us beyond our “egg crate” model that limits professional collaboration.

These steps can lead to the growth of healthy professional learning communities—teams of teachers organized by subject area, grade level or professional development interests who work together to better their practice. PLC members may offer each other ongoing support through peer observation and reflection on practice, co-teaching, analysis of student data for joint interventions, lesson studies, action research, or discussions of recent research or books.

Shared Leadership and Accountability in Schools
Schools that include substantial teacher input across many levels of school decision-making—or that are actually run by lead teachers rather than principals—are being launched in Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles and other urban districts nationwide. Teacher-led learning organizations may not be a good fit for every school system, but the emerging models suggest some best practices that translate well to nearly any school environment.

These practices include site-based decisionmaking to the fullest extent possible, with all school staff playing important roles in determining how school budgets will be spent, how school-wide programs and policies (e.g., discipline or parent policies) will be organized, which new staff will be hired, and how those new members will be inducted into the school’s educational community.

Building Bridges Between Schools and Communities
We understand and embrace the idea that teachers are the most powerful in-school predictor of student achievement. But there are many factors outside of the traditional scope of schools’ work with children that must be addressed—health care, job training, affordable housing, etc.—that have an enormous impact on student achievement.

Still, until these broader solutions are in place, schools and education systems can do a great deal to leverage the resources, both human and financial, that are available to their students during school hours. Funding is needed for school-based health clinics, counseling and work services, and food programs—serving both students and entire families.

The short lists of simple answers that now dominate the school reform debate make for easy media delivery, but they do not point the way forward to improving our schools. Noted teacher, administrator, and author Larry Cuban suggests that those who look for simple answers make the mistake of looking at schools as complicated systems that rely on data, flow charts, and certainty to solve problems.

Rather, he writes, schools are actually complex systems filled with constantly moving parts that require constant adjustments. He questions the wisdom of “grafting” complicated procedures onto complex organizations.

The recommendations in our Transforming School Conditions report are both research-based and rooted in the realities of school life and the everyday practice of teachers. They offer a practical and effective guide to the kind of reform our “complex” school systems—and the students, families, administrators and teachers within them—need to thrive in challenging times.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 9, 2010; 2:10 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Larry Ferlazzo, School turnarounds/reform, Teachers  | Tags:  larry ferlazzo, quality teachers, school reform, teacher assessment, teacher development, teacher planning, teachers, teachers leadership network, urban schools, urban teachers  
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Next: Valerie vs. Jay on Teach for America, KIPP, etc.


Transforming School Conditions

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Posted by: jlp19 | December 9, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Bravo! I would add class size and plentiful uninterrupted teaching time to those excellent recommendations!

Posted by: kmlisle | December 9, 2010 8:22 PM | Report abuse

Just an additional comment on the portfolio and on projects used as evaluation. I have my students put together a portfolio when we hand back papers. They put all their short essays and lab write-ups (middle school life and earth science) plus 1 - 2 assignments of their own choosing that they feel best represents their work in the folio which they get back at the end of the year. I take them to parent conferences and put them out during open houses for students to share with parents. A short essay tells me so much more about what a student understands about a concept that does a MC test. Their thinking is on display. I get a very good idea about what kinds of misconceptions are common and can redirect my plans to address them. We look at real scientists notebooks from the web which the kids find fascinating and I teach them to write in that style using technical vocabulary, incorporating data from their experiments and illustrating their ideas with labeled diagrams graphs and charts. A project that incorporates art, writing and or technology to illustrate a concept can also show very clearly what my students are thinking. We recently finished a layers of the Earth project that was drawn to scale. The students chose the appropriate scale to fit their design on the poster paper provided. For part of the grade I took their scale and calculated the size of an Earth layer and then checked the measurements. The posters are now over in the math class being used as examples for her unit on scale. The incorporation of art and writing into my science classroom is a wonderful way to assess learning and the kids love it. Next week we are doing rock cartoons! The down side is that more and more of my teaching time for these kinds of projects is being replaced with more and more high stakes tests. Many of the projects I used to do have been discarded because there is no time since NCLB testing encroached on class time.

Posted by: kmlisle | December 9, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

Fine, but research is needed to really move school learning ahead. A century ago, physicians could have pursued an approach similar to that described above, BUT absence the advances from research that have transformed the practice and effectiveness of medicine, outcomes for patients would have improved little if at all. Education also needs the transformative benefits of research. Extant research findings demonstrate the power of research for improving and transforming education.

For example, Research has established that adolescents generally need more sleep and get sleepy later. Use: move the start time back so adolescents will get the sleep they need. Results: increased attentiveness (especially in first period class), better grades and test scores.

For example, NIH research has established the most effective way to teach reading. Implement this research finding. Results: Greater success in teaching a core skill.

For example, evaluations have consistently found that interventions for children of disadvantaged families have no or little education benefits, and when there is an educational boost, it is short lived, with one notable exception: Intervening with children 8 mos. to 3 years through in home visitation 20 hrs/wk for verbal interactions with the little one in order to develop vocabulary. Vocabulary size correlates better than .9 with verbal IQ. Results: at 4th grade, average IQs of 100, and educational achievement at grade level. This is a transformative result for the children, for schools and for the country. Shift money from what doesn't work to this early intervention, which does work (if implemented with fidelity to the model).

There is much, much more than we need to know and that research can do to enable improvement in education. So, Advocate vigorously for a U.S. Educational Research Institute with a size commensurate with the national need (enormous) and rigor comparable to that of NIH institutes to produce the basic and applied research necessary to further improve and transform education.

Posted by: jimb | December 9, 2010 9:57 PM | Report abuse

Hello Ms. Strauss.

I love your blog--you are an excellent journalist and a fanstatic writer and reporter.

I wish I could write more, but we've got to get down to business.

Please read this article and blog topic. It would be great for you to look into it and offer your insight and expertise:

Posted by: IndigenousBlackAmerican | December 9, 2010 11:59 PM | Report abuse

Are there any public school systems in the US that actually connect teacher performance to student achievement? We keep hearing how bad this is, but we've never seen it implemented.

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Posted by: shoestrade30 | December 10, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Schools are "complex systems"? That's code for "How come the black kids score so much lower?"

► Don't ask a question unless you want to know the answer.

See, social scientists FOUND that answer less than a decade ago, but it's such a hot potato that they don't dare talk about except in serious academic journals.

You won't like it.

Hey, I don't either, but it's TRUE.

According to about two dozen recent studies published in many serious, peer-reviewed, duplicated studies, MRI analyses using standard volumetric medical software have proven conclusively that blacks average 5% smaller brains than whites, and 6% smaller than Asians.

No, it's not the environment. The deficit is seen in embryos just weeks old. It's seen in all countries, and is independent of what the mother eats/drinks/does.

Nor is it body size: Asians have the largest brains and the smallest bodies.

Nutrition? The cerebral volume deficit exists even when all subjects are well-fed.

The results have been duplicated at universities all over the world, scanning thousands of different brains and verified three other ways (like brain weight at autopsy).

It is not due any of the other OBVIOUS excuses you come up with, either. You think they didn't occur to university statistical analysts who've done this every day for years?

And no, this doesn't make whites the "master race". Asians, on average, have even larger brains, and THEY'RE not the master race, are they? BTW, it disgusts and angers me when someone thinks smart people are better humans than anybody else. Nazi doctors were VERY smart, but evil.

If you're curious about how such a horrible thing could be true, it's that the first humans were Africans, and whites/Asians evolved from the ones who left Africa 80,000 years later. The frozen winters made only the smartest survive.

Say, you think this might explain blacks' average IQ of 80 in America, 70 in Africa, and 60 in Ethiopia? And no, the IQ tests aren't biased either. They're the same internationally-used, culturally-neutral oral tests created by iberal sociologists and used all over the world. (Example: show a square, a triangle, and a circle and ask "which one is different?")

So is all this from the KKK? No! From the journal of that Liberal bastion, the American Psychological Association:


You non-autistics always just go ahead and believe whatever the hell you want to, then attack anyone who doesn't go along with your make-believe. But your lies HURT INNOCENT PEOPLE, like black kids who study really hard but get called "failures" by the white man. Or dedicated inner-city teachers who get fired.

Y'all make me SICK! I'm glad I live alone and naked in a cave

...laughing. Not at blacks--it's not their fault. I laugh at YOU, trying desperately to ignore this truth that JUST won't go away.


--faye kane homeless idiot savant

Posted by: Knee_Cheese_Zarathustra | December 11, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

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