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Listening to School Leaders

DOE’s ambassador program connects policymakers with principals.
By Caralee Adams

Jill Levine has been in public education for 22 years, but no one from the federal government has ever asked for her opinion. “And I have lots of opinions,” says the principal of Normal Park Museum Magnet, a PreK–8 magnet school in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Now, Levine is sharing her thoughts on everything from testing to professional development as one of three Principal Ambassador Fellows at the U.S. Department of Education.

“It’s a great way to collect voices of principals and use those to inform the decisions that are made from here,” says Levine of the fellowship program, which launched as a pilot in 2013.

A Conduit to the Top

Modeled after a similar fellowship for teachers that began in 2008, the principal fellows work closely with the DOE’s communication and outreach office, as well as travel to meet with administrators around the country. Levine is based in Washington full-time, while two other fellows are part-time appointees. (Levine took a leave from her school and moved her family to Arlington, Virginia, for the year.)

“There is such a distance between the altitude where we set policies and form programs and the altitude where those policies and programs hit classrooms,” says Massie Ritsch, the DOE’s communications director. “A program like this aims to close that gap so we are hearing more directly from school leaders: what they need from the federal department of education, how faithfully our policies translate into practice when they get to the local level.”

Department officials say they are realizing the overload that principals face and how policies impact them. “A huge piece is just literally understanding what is happening in the school building,” says Gillian Cohen-Boyer, director of the fellowship program. “What we do becomes part of the equation…that can help and hurt.”

The fellows are trying to find more opportunities for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other officials to hear from principals at large conferences, at small roundtable focus groups, and in schools.

This fall marked the third year that the DOE hosted a principal shadowing day in October, where 30 officials worked alongside principals in Washington, Virginia, and Maryland schools.

At a debriefing of the event held at DOE headquarters last week, Duncan said he saw firsthand the challenges of running a large high school when he shadowed Rachel Skerritt, a fellow and a principal at Eastern Senior High School in Washington, D.C.

Duncan said he saw a lot of energy expended, from checking in cell phones to complying with the district attendance policy, to “make sure the ship is afloat every day.” He also commented that he gained a new appreciation for the demands of the job and that more needs to be done to convey to young people that educators are fighting for their lives and that school is their lifeline.

Lessons From the Inside

While the fellows are sharing their perspective with DOE officials, they are gaining a better understanding of the inner workings of the bureaucracy.

“It’s a two-way street for learning,” Skerritt says. “The intention of the fellowship program was to get feedback from us, but we had a lot of learning to do about what the federal government does and doesn’t do.”

Rachel-pulse2Although he used to be an 8th-grade history teacher, fellow Sharif El-Mekki says the program has helped him realize the influence of the federal government and the control that states have over implementing education policy.

The potential impact of working collaboratively with education officials drew El-Mekki to the program. “Years ago, I thought that could never happen. It was two different worlds,” says El-Mekki, who is the principal at Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a 7th- to 12th-grade charter school in Philadelphia. “I thought whatever policymakers came up with, practitioners would just try to fix it or disregard it.” Through the fellowship, El-Mekki has discovered that the DOE is interested in the advice of principals.

“I’ve been struck by how much people here care,” Levine says. “It’s very easy to make joking comments about ‘Oh, the federal government,’ but the hearts of people here when they talk about the work they are doing is so genuine.”

So, now that Levine has their ear, what is she saying?

“The thing I most want them to know is how important principals are,” Levine says. “If there is a great administrator in the school who believes in an initiative and who buys into it and has the leadership skills to make it happen, it will happen.”

Skerritt agrees. “Principals really hold the key,” she says. For instance, with a new Teach to Lead initiative that the department rolled out in the spring, success will boil down to the school level. “It is going to fall on whether the school leader buys into that concept for the teacher to even have an opportunity to take on a teacher-leader role in a building,” Skerritt explains.

Principals must provide teachers with support for instruction to improve, adds El-Mekki, noting that PD and sharing of best training practices can help.

Leading a building is a complex job, and the new fellowship program has, in essence, been a “national support group” for principals, Skerritt says. Administrators in schools large and small, rural and urban, are sharing common challenges. One frequent refrain heard from principals is a call for autonomy.

“Principals don’t actually mind the buck stopping with them and the responsibility line,” Skerritt says. “But they definitely want the autonomy around key levers: hiring and resources that impact school success. They are really longing for that and it needs to be considered when holding them accountable.”

Next Steps

During the summer, the fellows met with DOE staff to summarize what they were hearing from principals, and they will be asked to do so again at the end of their experience, says Ritsch. They also participate in meetings almost weekly in which they are asked to chime in with ideas on communication materials going out to schools or language going into a speech.

The information provided by the principal fellows has already changed the way the department thinks about policy, says Cohen-Boyer. Administrators must clearly understand reform initiatives if they are going to be implemented with fidelity, she says. With 90,000 principals (compared with 3. 5 million teachers), the number is more manageable to reach, she adds.

The fellows have provided a reality check. “Things can sound perfect in the abstract when you are designing them on paper, but you need a person running a school to tell you if that’s going to fly,” says Ritsch.

While the fellowship pilot lasts for 18 months, going forward the appointment will be for the academic year. According to Ritsch, new fellows will be selected in the spring for 2015–16. Last year, 600 applications were received for the three positions. Application information will be available by the end of this year here.

Image: Chris Adams

Black-teachers

The Keys for Empowering Black Male Learners

How to make the best use of the federal My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

 By Baruti Kafele

Whatever other gains have been made in American education in the past decade or two, there is a continuing crisis when it comes to young black males, who graduate at a rate of just 47 percent. I believe the biggest challenge for American education is motivating and inspiring black males to strive for academic excellence. I also believe this is attainable, and the federal My Brother’s Keeper initiative is one step toward this vision. Below, I’ll outline how a Young Men’s Empowerment Program, such as ones I’ve created in previous schools, must be a key component of My Brother’s Keeper initiatives.

For readers unfamiliar with My Brother’s Keeper, it is a White House initiative to “address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.” The President’s Task Force is working to identify programs and policies that work in our communities to help young people reach the following six milestones:

  • Entering school ready to learn
  • Reading at grade level by third grade
  • Graduating from high school ready for college or career
  • Completing post-secondary education or training
  • Entering the workforce
  • Reducing violence and providing a second chance

The reality is that in the academic realm, we typically discuss the plight of black males within the context of the overall achievement gap. In doing so, we’re addressing this as an academic problem, which it is not. When we analyze the national achievement data of black males, it becomes glaringly clear that this gap in achievement occurs in virtually every district in the country and across rural, suburban, and urban areas. There are deeper issues that often go unaddressed in schools.

Peer pressure and gangs are the two biggest challenges I’ve witnessed affecting my students (and these are by no means unique to the communities I’ve served). The feeling among so many black males is that it is uncool to be smart and that succeeding in school means they’re “acting white.” This results in black males coming to school wearing invisible masks and thereby adhering to this black male code of conduct, academically speaking. Teachers all too often attempt to teach to the mask rather than the student because they do not realize that he is wearing a mask.

I have contended for many years, based on national data that shows upwards of 70 percent of black children are born into a household where there is no father present, that this is a crisis. We are asking black males to perform proficiently in the classroom when far too many of them are struggling with home issues that start them off on unequal footing. Due to the lack of male role models in their homes, schools, communities, and even the media, they are confused about their roles as young men.

To address the challenges that arise from a lack of black male role models and to help young black males gain an understanding of who they are, I launched the Young Men’s Empowerment Program in a middle school where I was principal, and then brought it with me to Newark Tech High School when I became principal there.

The purpose of the YMEP is to teach my male students about both manhood and their history. The overall development and leadership of the program was, and is, a sustained collaboration between my staff, community partners, and me. The community partners contributed greatly to the overall climate and culture of the school and to the academic, social, and emotional growth and development of not only my black male students but to all of my male students. The YMEP components include:

  • All-male empowerment assemblies/meetings with black guest speakers (Power Mondays)
  • All-male empowerment classroom meetings with black guest speakers
  • Small-group and one-on-one mentoring sessions led by men of color
  • Opportunities to meet and spend time with black male college students, successful black males in their work environments, and men of color in political leadership roles
  • Dress for Success days
  • Father-son programs
  • Positive Rites of Passage programs

School counselors play a crucial role in making this program work. They identify and locate the role models who come to the school to work with students. Staff members can reach out to local organizations, neighborhood associations, religious institutions, and even individual community members—we have found that there are many men who would love to come into their local schools to speak to or mentor students but have never been approached. Before this occurs, however, a committee of staff members should conduct a needs assessment of their male population. The following questions should be raised:

  • How will we go about bringing men into our school to speak at our empowerment meetings?
  • What kind of follow-up will we have for the speakers to engage in?
  • Will the meetings be comprised of single grade levels or will grade levels be combined?
  • How frequently will the meetings occur, during what time of day, and how long will they last?
  • What do the girls do during the male empowerment meetings?
  • Which staff members should be involved?
  • What topics will be discussed and what activities will we engage students in?
  • What are the goals of the male empowerment meetings?
  • How will we measure the success of the program?
  • What are the possibilities of partnering with corporations, businesses, and other agencies?

Our YMEP was rooted in what we coined “Power Monday”—a day to focus on empowerment. All male students were required to wear a shirt, tie, slacks, shoes, and a belt. The intent was for them to look empowered and ultimately to feel empowered. For the actual empowerment program, we had a meeting with one grade level on the morning of each Power Monday. These meetings typically lasted for two hours. I, along with other male staff members and men from the community, would engage the students in a wide variety of discussions pertaining to the many facets of manhood. I wanted the students to be exposed to men from all walks of life, so I went into the community and literally recruited men to be a part of what we wanted to accomplish with our male students.  

As our test scores began to rise to a level of national recognition over the six years that I was principal of Newark Tech, it was clear and evident that our YMEP, with a concentration on Power Monday, was making a tremendous difference in the lives of our young men. If similar programs become a part of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative across the nation, more schools can experience this success.

For more information on the public and private sector groups that have pledged time and money to recruit mentors, share information, and more, look at the My Brother’s Keeper Fact Sheet. To find out more about becoming a mentor and bringing change to your community, check out serve.org.

Baruti Kafele is an award-winning educator and best-selling author of Closing the Attitude Gap: How to Fire Up Your Students to Strive for Success (ASCD, 2013) and Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life (ASCD, 2009). Under his leadership, Newark Tech High School in New Jersey went from a low-performing school in need of improvement to being recognized as one of America's best high schools in U.S. News & World Report.

On this new episode of ASCD’s Whole Child Podcast, Baruti Kafele and ASCD’s Sean Slade discuss how knowing your students, intentionally creating a positive school climate and culture, and making learning relevant set the stage for student motivation and achievement. They’ll pay attention to how making meaning for students is an underutilized, but effective, strategy.

Listen to the episode:

 

Image: Blend/ MediaBakery

Randi Reacts to Vergara Decision

Statement from AFT President Weingarten on Vergara Decision

WASHINGTON— Statement from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on today’s Vergara v. California decision.

“Today, as the Vergara decision was rendered, thousands of California classrooms were brimming with teachers teaching and students learning. They see themselves as a team, but sadly, this case now stoops to pitting students against their teachers. The other side wanted a headline that reads: “Students win, teachers lose.” This is a sad day for public education.

“While this decision is not unexpected, the rhetoric and lack of a thorough, reasoned opinion is disturbing.  For example, the judge believes that due process is essential, but his objection boils down to his feeling that two years is not long enough for probation.  He argues, as we do, that no one should tolerate bad teachers in the classroom. He is right on that.  But in focusing on these teachers who make up a fraction of the workforce, he strips the hundreds of thousands of teachers who are doing a good job of any right to a voice.  In focusing on who should be laid off in times of budget crises, he omits the larger problem at play: full and fair funding of our schools so all kids have access to the classes—like music, art and physical education—and opportunities they need.

“It's surprising that the court, which used its bully pulpit when it came to criticizing teacher protections, did not spend one second discussing funding inequities, school segregation, high poverty or any other out-of-school or in-school factors that are proven to affect student achievement and our children.  We must lift up solutions that speak to these factors—solutions like wraparound services, early childhood education and project-based learning.

“Sadly, there is nothing in this opinion that suggests a thoughtful analysis of how these statutes should work.  There is very little that lays groundwork for a path forward.  Other states have determined better ways—ways that don’t pit teachers against students, but lift up entire communities.  Every child is entitled to a high-quality education regardless of his or her ZIP code. And no parent should have to rely on a lottery system to get his or her child into a good school.

“This will not be the last word. As this case makes it through an appeal, we will continue to do what we’ve done in state after state. We will continue to work with parents and communities to fight for safe and welcoming neighborhood public schools that value both kids and the women and men who work with them. No wealthy benefactor with an extreme agenda will detour us from our path to reclaim the promise of public education.”

###

Top Stories for Thursday 4/17

How Will The New SAT Test Vocab?
The redesigned SAT will focus on ‘high utility’ words. What exactly does that mean?

Choosing Sides At Northwestern
Last month’s vote to allow a union causes friction. The New York Times

Opposing Views on Teacher Tenure
Calif. case outcome could become example for other states. The New York Times

Common Core Aligned With Cognitive Issues
Field tests for students with disabilities administered. Education Week

Indiana Rushes to Make New Deadline
First state to drop Common Core to approve new standards. The Huffington Post

Pay It Forward Tuition
New idea could allow students to go to college for free. NPR

Top Stories for Wednesday 3/12

Will the Common Core Spell the End of the Letter Grade?
How standards-based grading could revolutionize assessment. The Atlantic

NYC Building Collapses
Middle school shaken by nearby explosion. The New York Times

School Lunches Transformed
How one fed up parent is making big change. Education Week

Charter School Supporters Aren't Giving Up
Thousands protested De Blasio’s decision in Albany. Education Week

Foreign Students Struggle in Universities
American colleges try to keep foreign students enrolled. The New York Times

Are For-Profit Schools Taking Advantage of Students?
States work to correct for-profit school oversights. Hechinger Report

Top Stories for Monday 11/25

SIG Report: Why Are Some Schools Getting Worse?
Two-thirds of schools getting grants improve; others regress. The Huffington Post

de Blasio's Upcoming Ed Decisions
Let the lobbying begin. GothamSchools

Pearson's New Global Ed Strategy
Learning before profits, company says. The Washington Post

Beyond Minecraft: Games for Learning
6 other games of building and exploration to use in classrooms. Mindshift

Should Colleges Have More Tests?
Frequent quizzes can boost attendance and learning. The New York Times

Top Stories for Friday 11/22

A Third of Schools Saw Scores Fall After Getting Federal Grants
But is it too soon to draw conclusions from the numbers? The Huffington Post

Say Goodbye to Algebra II
Why Texas is dropping the graduation requirement. Education Week

Competition in the Classroom May Not Be a Good Thing
How Japan’s school system could serve as a cautionary tale. The Atlantic

Who Controls U.S. Textbooks?
Why special interest groups are being accused of interference. The Huffington Post

California Concedes to Education Department
Agrees to move forward with new standardized tests. SCPR

Top Stories for Wednesday 11/20

Miami Lawmakers File Bill for Gender-Specific Classrooms
Why two legislators are pushing for gender-separate schools. Huffington Post

Just in Time: NY to Shorten Standardized Tests
Following low scores new tests will have fewer questions. WNYC

Massachusetts Won’t Require PARCC Tests in 2015
Plan to take PARCC for “test drive” before committing. Education Week

How Course Selection Is Shaping Student Life
Research shows friendships are formed in the classroom. The Atlantic

Graphing Poverty in the Classroom
How income impacts students’ test scores in four graphs. The Huffington Post

Top Stories for Tuesday 10/29

Are America’s Copyright Laws Holding Students Back?
Why reading textbooks are so out-of-date. The Atlantic

LA Wants Deasy to Stay
LA Unified Board says Deasy’s upcoming evaluation will be positive. LA School Report

Teaching in Memphis: Is Memphis the Best City in America to Teach In?
That depends on who you talk to. Hechinger Report

New Jersey Exams Leaked
District cancels testing after anonymous  online leak. The New York Times

What Color Is a Great School?
States experiment with new school grading systems. The Washington Post 

Top Stories for Friday 10/18

Do Charter Schools Need More Oversight?
D.C. funding scandal leads to proposed regulations. The Washington Post

Study: Almost Half of Public School Students Are Now Low-Income
What does this mean for schools? The Atlantic

Faulty Logic Behind New School Rating Systems?
New report on A-F system sparks concerns over reforms. Education Week

Testing the Common Core in Tennessee
The struggle to reconcile old and new standards before tests. Hechinger Report

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.