A Simple List to Improve Public Education

Last week’s New Schools Venture Fund-Aspen Institute Summit in Burlingame provided another example of the incredible work being done across this nation by educators, thinkers, academics and entrepreneurs.

There is absolutely no doubt that if jaw-dropping increases in academic achievement can happen in Denver, New York and Houston, they can also happen here in the Valley of Hearts Delight, irrespective of income or the color of a child’s skin. The list of tenets that will help us reach the goal of SJ/SV2020 is actually embarrassing simple.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, plenary session speaker and “closer” of the Summit said the single most important driver of economic growth is the public school system. Emanuel said, “We’re not about reform, we’re for results.” Harvard economic professor and innovator of Harvard’s EdLabs Roland Fryer, a conference presenter, gave us the “game plan” for how to get different results than what we currently reap in schools. He urged all assembled to change the odds for poor kids in America. Equalized test scores for all income and racial subgroups by the end of 8th grade are critical and doable, according to Fryer.

Another speaker that told the bare truth was Kaya Henderson, the new chancellor of Washington D. C. schools. She told the 900 invitees, mostly charter school advocates, that the choice movement is a false dichotomy between traditional public/district schools and charter schools.

Chancellor Henderson said we must be able to innovate in district schools, as the charter choice movement is able to do. Professor Fryer said there is no magic bullet about charters, and the three most seminal studies on this issue demonstrate that charters are not better and sometimes worse than the traditional district schools they replace. Many should be shuttered, he said. Yet, we are learning form the work of high quality charters across the nation, he added.

Most Summit speakers agreed that we know what to do, we just need the courage to do it. Is Silicon Valley ready to embrace the large-scale changes needed, so we can say in year 2020 that we have climbed the mountain, and the achievement gap has been eliminated?

Here is what Professor Fryer did with his Apollo 20 schools in Houston, where he got the results Mayor Emanuel asserts are necessary for economic viability in America. Fryer’s list of necessities for successful and effective schools systems is as follows:

Find a way to replace teachers from the system whose students test poorly and replace ineffective school leaders. In the Houston Apollo 20 project, 50 percent of teachers were replaced and all of the principals. The results have been encouraging, but, as Fryer said, the project is only on the 30-yard line with 70 yards to go.

According to Fryer, the five critical tenets to success are:
• Provide teachers with quality feedback.
• Use data to drive instruction.
• Employ high academic expectations for all.
• Tutor, tutor, and tutor each student at least on a 2-1 ratio.
• Increase instructional time.

Fryer says there is no correlation of improved student achievement when the typical school change initiatives are employed:
• Class sizes are reduced.
• Teachers are certified.
• Per pupil expenditures increase.

In some cases, according to Fryer, the aforementioned negatively correlated with achievement in charter schools.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion and can be found weekly on San Jose Inside.

2 Comments

  1. “The list of tenets that will help us reach the goal of SJ/SV2020 is actually embarrassing simple.”

    Tick Tock. 

    SJ/SV2020 began in October 2009. It has now been 31 months, with only 92 months left until 2020.  With the enormous prestige and powers of San Jose’s mayor and the county superintendent, not to mention help from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, surely you have more than dreams by now, don’t you?

    A quarter of the time from the beginning of SJ/SV2020 has been spent.  How are matters proceeding in Santa Clara Valley?

  2. Any time you see a simple solution to an incredibly complex problem, it’s time for skepticism.  Fryer’s list is not only simple, it’s simply wrong, and surprisingly inconsistent.

    >Find a way to replace teachers from the system whose students test poorly and replace ineffective school leaders.
    This is a recipe for disaster.  Are any high performing schools or private schools using test scores to evaluate teachers?  Hmmmm, why not?  Could it be that most teachers and administrators know it’s a bad idea? (See what’s happening in New York, where thousands of principals are protesting their state’s new policies calling on them to do that). And as New York City has so recently and dramatically demonstrated, test scores are a terrible tool for evaluating teacher performance.  You can always find a lowest 10%, 20%, whatever – but the actual differences might add up to a couple test questions per child.  The rankings are highly volatile.  The tests are generally shoddy (talking pineapples, anyone?  Look it up if you don’t get the reference).

    >According to Fryer, the five critical tenets to success are:
    >• Provide teachers with quality feedback.
    That one is right on.

    >• Use data to drive instruction.
    Data cannot drive instruction.  Data can be useful to guide discussions and inform decisions, but when data drives, professional judgment has been undermined.  Data are not inherently clear and objective.  Cause and effect, especially in classrooms and schools, are not always as discernible as people with “simple” solutions would like to think.

    >• Employ high academic expectations for all.
    No argument there – as long as the support is there to maintain those expectations.

    >• Tutor, tutor, and tutor each student at least on a 2-1 ratio.
    For struggling students, this can certainly make a difference, especially if the tutor has not only the content knowledge but also the instructional strategies to be effective.

    >• Increase instructional time.
    Only helpful if the time is used well.  Simply saying more time doesn’t mean much in the absence of a discussion about age groups, curriculum, and the use of that time.

    >Fryer says there is no correlation of improved student achievement when the typical school change initiatives are employed:
    >• Class sizes are reduced.

    First of all, this is one of those issues where people can be selective about the studies they quote and back up either side of an argument.  Class size obviously matters.  First of all, no one would argue that a 15 student class and a 50 student class are equally conducive to teaching and learning.  So the only question is how the curve looks in between.  With almost two decades in secondary English classrooms, I have had classes ranging in size from 16 to 35, and of course there’s a difference.  (I am not arguing for class sizes of 16).  Now, if we’re talking about changing class sizes from 22 to 25, I don’t see a huge difference.  However, when we add 2-3 students in class size ratios per year and say it’s no big deal, we go from 20 to 30+ in five years or less.  Also, for secondary teachers, you have to look at the increase and typically multiply by five classes we teach.  Add 4-5 students per class and our instructional load just grew by the equivalent of another class.  Teachers, students, and parents all know that class size matters in terms of the complete educational and interpersonal experiences that are important to us.  Have you ever seen a private school market itself without reference to their favorable student:staff ratio?  It’s only “reformers” and bureaucrats who try to argue otherwise, and mainly they rely on standardized test scores as the one measure to support their position.  Kind of embarrassing, if you ask me.  And, if low ratios are important for tutoring, why are ratios irrelevant as a school change initiative? 

    >• Teachers are certified.
    That’s another example of where you can pick your study and rely on standardized test scores alone.  We won’t improve schools or the teaching profession by looking for expedient routes to raise test scores while ignoring the professional preparation and certification of practitioners.  Yes, teacher training and preparation needs improvement in some cases.  Saying certification doesn’t matter will hurt rather than help the situation. 

    >• Per pupil expenditures increase.
    So, Fryer wants to accomplish all of the above without increasing per pupil expenditures.  Got it.  Improve feedback to teachers – but don’t spend any money on the training and time necessary to make that happen?  Provide lots of tutoring – all by volunteerism?  Lengthen the school day/year – but don’t pay anything for it?  One can only assume that Fryer is either promising more than can be delivered, or that the funding is supposed to be shifted from elsewhere.  Maybe it’s those non-certifed teachers you don’t have to pay very much, and lower pay for teachers will certainly help the profession, right?