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Alexander Russo hits me hard on Harlem Children's Zone

On my colleague Valerie Strauss's Answer Sheet blog you will find a good post from one of my favorite bloggers, Alexander Russo, ripping into me for inadequacies in my analysis of the new Brookings Institution critique of the Harlem Children's Zone and its premier charter school, the Promise Academy.

I plead no contest. Alexander is right that I should have mentioned his deep coverage of, and doubts about, HCZ. I was trying to keep the length of my post under reasonable limits, since I am about to dump a couple of 2,000-word posts on our intrepid universal desk and then dash off on vacation. I wanted to be loved. That always gets you into trouble.

So I beg Alexander's forgiveness for not making clear that the generally favorable treatment given HCZ does not include him. But it is true that the zone, and its creator Geoffrey Canada, have as I said become huge symbols of a new approach to pulling inner city schools, and the lives of inner city residents, out of the slump they have been in for a long time. So it is still interesting that an institution as influential as Brookings decided to issue a report that says that the Promise Academy is not doing as well as other charters that don't benefit from the safety net services of the zone, and thus may be a failure.

Alexander upbraids me for saying it is too soon to raise questions about the zone and the Promise Academy. That was not exactly my point. I said it was a very good time to raise questions, because the Obama administration wants to spend a lot of money cloning the zone. What I thought was premature was judging the Promise Academy a failed experiment just because, after only six years in business, it does not have academic results as impressive as some KIPP schools in that area. The oldest KIPP school in NYC has been around for 15 years. If the Promise Academy has that much time to improve, it can make a difference.

He is also suggesting that HCZ is not unique, and that Head Start, Early Start and other programs are just like it. I will leave it up to those who know more about HCZ to answer definitively, but Head Start and Early Start seem to be exemplars of just a part of what Canada is attempting. I don't know of any other program quite like HCZ.

Alexander also paints me as a stalwart defender of HCZ, but in fact this short blog is the longest thing I have ever written about it, with the exception of my review of Paul Tough's great book about Canada a couple years ago. I don't know enough about HCZ to reach any conclusions about it. But I wrote that blog post because I agree with Alexander that it is very important, and needs careful watching. It is the embodiment of one side of one of our most vital arguments about schools -- should we focus on helping kids in class or helping them at home?

I urge everyone to keep reading Alexander on this issue. He knows his stuff.

This post has been updated since it was first published.

By Jay Mathews  | July 21, 2010; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Alexander Russo attacks me, I plead no content, the importance of the Harlem Children's Zone  
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Comments

"Should we focus on helping kids in class or helping them at home?"

I feel qualified to answer this question because there are over fifty years of research to point us in the right direction.

We know that "the family" is the most important influence regarding a child's education. Next to the family is the school, where the teacher is the number one factor affecting school achievement. I want to emphasize that the teacher is the most important SCHOOL factor.

So we know from research (and common sense) that both the school and the home are of vital importance to the education of the child. If we wish to provide an equal education for everyone, we have no choice but to address both.

For a majority of American children (80% ?) the parents do a good enough job so that their sons and daughters go to school "prepared to learn." The big problem is this: How do we help the children who are not as fortunate?

I believe that Geoffrey Canada has provided a fairly good answer to this question and I'm hoping that he has indeed made a huge difference in the lives of Harlem children. Still, it is entirely proper, and even necessary, to ask questions about his program, especially in light of all the "smoke and mirror" improvements that are going on at this time.

As for you, Jay, the best thing you and other journalists can do for education is to continue to seek the truth and check the facts. If anyone tells you that their scores went from the 13th to the 90th percentiles, ask for proof before publishing. Ask if they will allow another form of the test to be administered.

As a journalist you know that a person's level of education can be assessed by examining his written work. The same is true of children. If a school reports great progress, ask if you can go into some classrooms and administer an essay test. It will reveal much.

I believe that a lot of harm is being done to American education at this time. We all share the blame for this, but a big part goes to journalists who have helped to spread many of the smoke and mirror stories. Please continue to ask questions about HCZ and all other "miracle" stories. It's very important to know if they are true or not.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | July 21, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

So it is still interesting that an institution as influential as Brookings decided to issue a report that says that the Promise Academy is not doing as well as other charters that don't benefit from the safety net services of the zone, and thus may be a failure.
....................................
Apparently Mr. Mathews has no concept about children or testing.

One is not testing the plumbing pipe manufactured by a company.

Testing two populations of children from different schools only indicates their scores on the test.

It can not tell you anything about the effectiveness of the methods of the different schools.

Children are not plumbing pipe and contrary to Mr. Mathews all black students are not the same.

School A had better grades than school B.

No one tested the capabilities and skills of the students of school A when these students originally entered School A.

No one tested the capabilities and skills of the student of school B when they entered School B.

The manufacturer testing plumbing pipe will only use material that are similar. Nothing can by gained from testing when there is guarantee that the materials that are required for manufacturing plumbing pipe are the same.

For all we know school B did a better job than School A that had higher scores since it had students that entered their school with far lower capabilities and skills than the students that entered school B.

Test only tell you how well or poorly someone has done on a test.

This entire concept of testing of students indicating the effectiveness of different schools is flawed.

Without any knowledge of the skills and capabilities when they enter the school you can not use testing to make any statements regarding the school system.

To judge the effectiveness of school systems with tests you need to have for every student the baseline test of their abilities and capabilities when they entered the school system.

Without these baselines test the only thing that can be said when the students of school A do better on a test than the students of school B is that the students of school A do better on a test than the students of school B.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 21, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

I get upset at Mr. Mathews.

I emailed Mr. Mathews in 2003 information that if he wanted to use tests to evaluate schools you would have to test every student when they enter the public school system to have a baseline for later tests.

Any manufacture know that he has to have materials that meets rigorous standards if quality testing is going to tell the manufacturer anything about his manufacturing process.

Children are not the same and for testing to be an indication of the school system you must have baseline testing when the child enters the school.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 21, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

I believe that a lot of harm is being done to American education at this time. We all share the blame for this, but a big part goes to journalists who have helped to spread many of the smoke and mirror stories.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher
.................................
Mr. Mathews has added to this smoke and mirror.

No baseline test to measure later test results yet Mr. Mathews sees no problem in judging the effectiveness of different schools on test results.

Then all the stories on the wonders of the results of standardized tests when there is no indication of the quality of these tests.

Last week the Washington Post had a story of the DC school system stating rates of 44 percent proficiency for 2010 testing by DC.

There were also stories of even more use of standardized testing by DC.

You would have expected Mr. Mathews to write articles on this since he is such a proponent of the use of standardized testing.

Perhaps Mr. Mathews avoided writing such articles as he might be forced to explain how DC is making claims of 44 percent of students being proficient for 2010 when national tests in 2009 show proficient percentages as low as 11 percent.

2009 national tests proficiency and above
4th grade math 17%
8th grade math 14%
4th grade reading 17%
8th grade reading 14%

Apparently Mr. Mathews has lost his taste for cheer leading the miracles that can be achieved by standardized testing.

http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/

Posted by: bsallamack | July 21, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Once I was in the difficult position of turning a literature program around after a series of teachers who didn't do much. The curriculum was a mess, the students wanted to color all the time (in 7th and 8th grade), the school counselors kept giving me students who weren't ready for the material and kept confusing the class with ESOL which they also confused with Special Ed. It was a very bad situation.

But I was very determined to get the program going again, I had an excellent resource teacher who supported my efforts and an assistant principal who did also.

But I kept feeling that it was such slow progress. I watched the movie about Jaime Escalante and thought, "How did he do it?"

Then I came up with what I think must have been Jay's column or remarks he had made about Escalante online. He (or someone did, because I didn't read the Education page at the time)said, "The movie makes it look as if these changes happened in one year. It really took Escalante 10 years and he had a lot of trouble, more than the movie shows."

When I read that it took 10 years, not one, I felt so encouraged because I thought, "I can do it, I am seeing results, I just have to be patient and keep working, keep being positive and keep rewriting the curriculum so it fits the needs of these kids. Even Escalante took 10 years, not two."

That is why what the reporters write about education matters. There are miracles, but they are little day to day things like the student who learns to express himself in his own language during the final exam and says in wonderment, "I've never written anything in my own language before, look, I did it, read this, read what I wrote"

The score on that exam is a D. You don't learn to write properly in a new language in a day. But that student now has an A in learning and could possibly become a translator or maybe even just help somebody out some day.

That is why for me, there are miracles in education, they just have very little to do with standardized test scores and a lot to do with genuinely wanting to teach kids how great it is to learn.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 21, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

For bsallamack--My editors, and most readers, would get impatient, rightly, if I tried to write about everything every day. I and several of my colleagues have written about the gap between proficiency rates on state and local tests, and proficiency rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests many times, and will again. The reason why states are adopting the new common standards (see Nick Anderson's story today) is, in part, their desire to close that info gap.

Posted by: jaymathews | July 21, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

for celestun100--thanks for the very kind post. that was me, one of my few messages that resonate. And the figure was more precisely 8 years, from the time Escalante arrived at Garfield in 1974 to 1982 when he had 18 kids with passing scores on the AP, and the big cheating controversy flared. Stand and Deliver was a great movie, but it would have been even better if it had not pretended that Jaime arrived one year to a school in chaos, and had 18 (actually more in the movie) taking AP calculus the next year.

Posted by: jaymathews | July 21, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Celestun100:

I can tell you are an excellent and dedicated teacher. Please keep up the fight for true educational reform. What we have going on right now will soon be remembered as the most destructive period in the history of American education. You must be proud of the fact that you are fighting against it, as I am.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | July 21, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Linda.

I post because I feel that someone has to say something. I am a bit pessimistic that our voices will be heard. I think most people hear the word "reform" and think it means "improvement", not "back to the basics with an emphasis on testing".

I enjoy your posts also and missed you for awhile back when everyone was discussing the Sousa principal. (See Jay's older columns).

What I like about these blogs are the conversations between the bloggers because the people posting actually seem to care about the kids and the state of education in general.

I also agree with bsmallack that testing is being used incorrectly in all these schools. The tests should be used to help individual students improve, not as report cards on entire school systems.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 21, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

Thanks, next time I turn around a program I'll remember to give it 8 years, not 10!LOL

I suppose "Stand and Deliver" had to do that. It had to be dramatic or nobody would watch. Who would want to watch all the actual ups and downs of poor Mr. Escalante for eight long years? Even teachers wouldn't watch it.

Sad though if people are expecting those sorts of turn arounds in a short time frame, because it can't really happen that way unless you are teaching something very, very simple.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 21, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Celestun100:
I can tell you are an excellent and dedicated teacher. Please keep up the fight for true educational reform. What we have going on right now will soon be remembered as the most destructive period in the history of American education. You must be proud of the fact that you are fighting against it, as I am.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher
................................
I sometimes believe that public education will never recover.

President Bush led the way and showed politicians that it is not necessary to improve public education but instead it is only necessary to pretend to improve public education for the four years until reelection.

The new administration is now using prize money to pretend that it is improving public education. For the very small sum of 4 billion dollars this administration will be able until 2012 to keep up this pretense of improving public education. After 2012 there will no longer need for a pretense at improving public education unless a new President is elected.

In the area of public education and in many other areas our Presidents have been adopting the attitude of apres moi, le deluge.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 21, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

All they have to do is call budget cuts, layoffs and school closings "reform".

But it is not just the budget cuts and layoffs. It is the working environment for teachers that has suffered. There were always unruly kids and difficult parents and even standardized tests. But now there is a sort of undervaluing of the real skills that it takes to teach.

Maybe calling it "look like you're reforming" would be more accurate. Because that is where all the improvements have taken place. No one cares if kids learn the material, so long as they have test scores to "prove" that the school is doing well. The schools spend countless hours reporting data and making graphs and analyzing numbers. Then, they look good and hopefully get more money so they can hire more specialists to analyze the data and get it out to the press.

As I say, I'm a bit pessimistic.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 21, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

As I say, I'm a bit pessimistic.

Posted by: celestun100
..............................
Many States Adopt National Standards for Their Schools
New York Times

They lay out detailed expectations of skills that students should have at each grade level... while fifth graders should be able to add and subtract fractions with different denominators.
.............................
Expect gains in the national 4th grade math tests in 2011.

Since fifth graders should be able to add and subtract fractions with different denominators any questions regarding fractions should not be on the 4th grade national math tests.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 21, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

While the KIPP Academy in New York City has been around for a while, I believe the other three KIPP schools are about the same age as the HCZ schools. Moreover, many of the schools that are performing better than the HCZ schools with similar students are newer schools, although many are replications of high performing schools, e.g., Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, etc. While I have nothing against the social services provided by HCZ, I would hate for it to be used as an excuse to restrict charter schools that are demonstrating success without them. Or more likely, the schools themselves with longer days and years and more communication between teachers and families are providing a form of "wrap-around services" that is more efficient than the HCZ model. Clearly successful charter schools have demonstrated the need for more funds to run their expanded school programs and maybe it makes more sense to invest it through the school rather than spreading it around a neighborhood.

Posted by: gideon4ed | July 23, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

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