Monday Reading List: Paired Readings and Back to School Preparation

I'm going to start the Reading List with a paired reading of major newspaper editorials. First, The Washington Post urges the NAACP to rethink its opposition to charter schools:

About 60 percent of charters are located in cities, serving high-risk students. The thought of denying school choice to these families — something that middle- and upper-class parents blithely take for granted — is simply maddening. To be sure, there are charter schools with problems, as was demonstrated by comedian John Oliver’s recent skewering of several outrageous cases. But rather than impose artificial limits, the response should be to fix such problems as lax authorization standards or unfair discipline practices while replicating the successes. Schools that fail to educate students — be they charter or traditional — should be shuttered. We urge NAACP leadership to put the interests of African American children ahead of the interests of political allies who help finance the group’s activities — and veto this ill-conceived resolution.

Second, The New York Times urges legislators to loosen the purse strings for schools:

The children entering kindergarten and first grade this school year were not yet born when the Great Recession ended in mid-2009. Incoming high school seniors were not yet in middle school. But in many states and localities, the wounds to school budgets from recession-era cutbacks are still large, leaving schools with more students and less money. Recent data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that as of last year, 25 states were still spending less per student than before the recession, adjusted for inflation, and cuts in seven states exceeded 10 percent. In 31 states, local government spending per student fell between 2008 and 2014, the latest data available (adjusted for inflation). It is safe to assume some improvement in recent years, but even so, there is clearly a long way to go before overall spending catches up with enrollment and inflation.

There's a reason I'm sharing these editorials together. The backlash against charter schools specifically - and education reform policies in general - has become more pronounced of late. Much of this is politically motivated, as the platform debate during the Democratic National Convention revealed. The financial issues, however, add a layer of complexity that policy makers need to understand. For many years, reformers argued that schools - particularly underperforming urban ones - were the beneficiaries of decades of uninterrupted spending increases, and that those schools should be able to do much better with their resources. When the economy tanked, the federal government provided $100 billion in stimulus funds to prop up local governments whose schooling revenues were inextricably linked with the real estate market, which had just collapsed. The $5 billion in Race to the Top funds - the largest national reform project in history - was wrapped in that larger stimulus, so while not everyone liked the concomitant reforms, opponents mostly kept their mouths shut because there was $100 billion on the table to prop up the system. Fast forward almost a decade and the stimulus is gone, as is Race to the Top. Local schooling expenditures haven't rebounded, so it still feels like an even greater period of fiscal famine to educators. Reformers' arguments about unmitigated spending increases no longer seem as valid, and charter opposition messages rooted in rhetoric about zero-sum spending - like here in Massachusetts -  are sticky. Just something to think about.

In lighter news, fourth grade teacher Dwayne Reed made this video to welcome his students to school this year:

Keeping with the "Back to School" spirit, Kate Myers at The Root has a list of questions that parents should ask teacher to ensure classroom success in the new school year, including this:

2. What standards are you assessing in this unit of study? A unit of study is a group of related lessons that are taught within a given period of time. A typical K-12 writing or math unit, for example, may last between four to six weeks. The objective or goal of every lesson should be guided by state learning standards or the Common Core Learning Standards. State standards and CCLS outline the skills, concepts and content that students should know by the end of each grade level. In high-performing schools, teachers plan their lessons and their units of study with the standards in mind. On the other hand, in many cases, teachers at low-performing schools don’t refer to the standards when planning their lessons; leaving students with gaping holes in their knowledge base by the end of the school year.

Sometimes we forget that parents need concrete, actionable information to leverage with educators; this piece strikes the right balance of technical information and advice, without talking down to parents. Finally, Laura Faith Kebede at Chalkbeat has the story of scheduling innovations in Memphis schools:

Instead of adding time for extra academic help to the end or beginning of the school day, or taking students out of one class to catch up in another, Shelby County Schools is using a new remediation approach at its high schools. Based on a successful pilot program last year, Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez has moved ahead full throttle this school year to build remediation time into the existing school day so that every student gets needed support ... Last year, one of the biggest impacts was on Whitehaven’s students in ninth grade, considered a pivotal year in the transition to high school. The percentage of students who moved on to 10th grade was almost 96 percent, compared to about 91 percent the previous year. And the student body’s average ACT score went up about a point in writing, reading and science ... Daily intervention and remediation are foundational to Shelby County Schools’ heralded Innovation Zone, tasked with turning around Memphis schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools.

In the interest of full disclosure, the nonprofit I used to run did a lot of the research that led to the creation of the iZone and other similar endeavors, so I'm a little biased here. That said, high schools historically are far too rigid to accommodate students who are even a little bit behind. Many kids at chronically struggling high schools will enter ninth grade reading at an elementary school reading level. It's very hard to deal with those issues in a traditional schedule, so kudos to Memphis for finding the courage and flexibility to do things differently!