Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bill Gates: Small schools fell short

From today's PG, an editorial on "Bill Gates 2.0":


"Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students' achievement in any significant way... [S]maller size by itself proved disappointing."

"It is amazing how big a diference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one... Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school."


Anonymous said...

I can appreciate the hindsight employed here, but the main idea comes in this quote:
"Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students' achievement in any significant way," he acknowledges. Small schools succeeded when the principal was able to change teachers, curriculum and culture, but smaller size by itself proved disappointing. "In most cases," he says, "we fell short."

Mr. Gates comes across as a strong education reformer, focusing on supporting charter schools and improving teacher quality. He suggested that when he has nailed down the evidence more firmly, he will wade into the education debates.

"It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one," Mr. Gates writes in his letter. "Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school."

I can only be ambivalent to the comments in the second paragraph. On one hand, I am in complete agreement as a teacher who has seen the results from class to class. On the other, we are teaching in an era that trumpets the need for curriculum in a can, for lesson plans which are supposed to be employed verbatim. Now more than ever in PPS, it's hard to be an individual.

How sad.

Questioner said...

Maybe the idea of curriculum in a can is to see what a great teacher does and have everyone else follow that script. Then every classroom is the same.

Can that work?

Anonymous said...

Nope. Because good teachers don't teach everything the same way, every day, every class or every year. They are constantly tweaking, changing, adding and also, perhaps most importantly, responding to their students.

If a question or topic comes up, a good to great teacher is able to go on that new path (perhaps researching it him/herself, or designing assignments so that the students can provide their own answers). S/he is able to put the students' interests and questions to work, within the framework of an overarching curriculum.

A (good) canned curriculum really only helps the bottom, say, third of teachers. It brings them up to some minimal level of information imparted to students. For teachers in the mid-range, if the curriculum is pretty good, they can take what's good about the it, understand the overall thrust and add in a few "tricks" of their own -- well, depending on how rigidly it's enforced. Great teachers can do the same, with more freedom needed/given.

That's not to say that there should be no curriculum, everyone should be able to state what the students will know/be able to do by the end of the semester or year. But only the bottom rung of teachers needs a day by day, minute by minute script to get there.

And this is, I realize, sort of what Bill Gates is saying up there. You can tell a teacher what to say, when to say it, and even how to say it. But the best teachers are continually improving themselves, evaluating their own techniques and adjusting to the needs of the specific students they are teaching.

If there were ONE thing that could be done to improve schools (like "small schools") we'd have figured it out a long time ago and we'd all do it, and that would be that.

Unfortunately, teaching is more like parenting -- there are better and worse ways to be a parent, but there's no ONE surefire, works for every child and every parent in every situation way to do it.

Questioner said...

Thank you- we'll need to find a way to communicate this explanation to those who are making decisions about how curriculum plans are used.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the current idea of curriculum in a can is twofold. On one hand, it speaks of the distrust administration has for its own teachers. Might I suggest that parameters are provided for each content area --a basic game plan that lays out what needs to be taught, what needs to be covered--and then allows the teacher to devise how such topics are taught. It speaks of control issues this superintendent and his lieutenants have, as well. In this regard unfortunately, schools are not like corporations, something Roosevelt knows quite well.
At the same time, canned curriculum might be palatable--might be--if it truly came from fellow teachers who know the classroom, know the kids, know what our students are capable of and know what is questionable.
Instead, in every area curriculum is written by teachers and then farmed out to third parties in the ivory tower---people NOT in the classroom, people who have never spent more than a couple of hours in a classroom.
Again, chalk this up to the need for oversight and control by Marky Mark and his funky bunch.

I have to laugh when Mr.Roosevelt speaks about appreciating his teachers. I have to laugh when he lauds them for the jobs they have done. This was yet another photo op for the administration, another chance to get some ink and face time on TV. Nothing could be further from the truth and truly, actions speak louder than words. More than anything else, the idea is control, oversight, taking individuality out of the equation and opting for ivory tower thinking over reality.

Anonymous said...

AMEN! You are absolutely correct. It is all about power and control. The individuals don't count.

fixit said...

"Marky Mark and his funky bunch"

I am only a parent, I do not walk in a teacher's shoes, but descriptions like the one above (from amonymous) only detract from the value of the discourse taking place on the blog.

Anonymous said...

fixit, let me address your concern for anonymous' comment this way:
I used to be a true believer in the system.I used to believe I was doing some good as a teacher and truly dedicated my life to teaching. Three hours a night were routinely given to grading papers and planning. Countless weekend hours were used in the same manner. Summers were used to review materials I would be using in the coming school year.
Additionally, I spent a great deal of money on items I could not count on the school to provide, whether it was copying chores or ancillaries that simply added to the decor of the classroom or to lessons, in general.
This was my life for over 20 years.
The current regime that has come in has made me see the folly in my actions. I no longer need to spend hours in planning worthwhile, viable lessons that the kids will not only take to but learn from because think tanks have provided a daily instruction guide that must be adhered to, whether they are more geared to collegiate visions of what urban education is or not. Grading is not important as it is clear that the district wishes to give away grades to kids who do not care to achieve. Not only are grades inflated thanks to 50% policies, but we also have a funny edict that states that although we may fail kids due to poor attendance each nine week period, their final semester grades--the ones that count, mind you-- must be based upon what he/she would have had if attendance was not an issue.
I could discuss Roosevelt's comments during the past contract negotiations. I could discuss the edicts which are coming down upon teachers now from administrators that detract from the focus being on classroom instruction. I could discuss the illusion of the Pittsburgh Promise.
But like my 20 year habit, I have to wonder why I would bother.
I have to laugh that you would feel that decorum is important as Rome burns. Perhaps you need to wake up and smell the napalm.

Anonymous said...

This is really sad. Is there no way that the teachers' union can be made to address these problems? If the leadership will not challenge the district- why aren't the teachers voting in someone different?

Anonymous said...

Please don't cast most of us within the "money grubbing teachers" vision that some on the street would have you believe. Most teachers care about their students. Most give of themselves without any ceremony or publicity. Many feel crushed today.

Many teachers have come to look at the PFT as being a shell of what it once was, a group that at one time did teachers a great good in garnering better salaries and working conditions. That time has come and past a decade or more ago. We now have secret votes for contracts and union positions and as such, few veteran teachers look upon PFT leadership as being a beacon that will lead our cause.

In fact, the 50% policy was endorsed by PFT leadership, as were most issues that now affect the daily classroom teacher.

This is a bleak time for caring teachers within this district. Parents should know what is going on.

Stephanie Tecza said...

I strongly believer that our PPS is trying hard to get rid of the teachers union. I am also saddened by the comment from anonymous "fixit".

Anonymous said...

Stephanie, we have a PFT in name only. You have been made to swallow so many things that a decade ago would have caused work stoppages or at least general rancor. There is no union, and administration knows this.

fixit said...

It is a shame Mr. Gates and company did not attend some small group parent meetings or the PSCC meetings or the community meetings superintendents new and old, held. I used to tell my kid's elementary principal "small schools = small problems" but I was wrong. Some of the smartest parents I know and have learned from have always said they wanted small classrooms. I really believe that is the true cause of successful CAS students. Small Classrooms.

At the beginning of the year there was a very inspiring email going around that a teacher shared with me. A kid in the Dallas Independent School District was the featured speaker at the kickoff event for a new school year. The "Do YOU believe in me..." speech was a nice jumpstart and the kid was awesome. I am not normally a cynic but decided to research the kid and his school. The school the kid attended had an average class size of 11. I wish I remembered more details about the configuration of the building and the staff. I feel confident that even a teacher who may not be a superstar, could work wonders with a class of 11 kids at a time. Talk about personalization!!

Anonymous said...

You're seeing things with tunnel vision, fixit. CAS is nice, and it's something the district should be proud of. Truth be told however, it's a small minority of the district's student body as a whole.
I'm all for smaller schools given your scenario. Problem is, that perception does not speak to the larger picture.

Anonparent said...

This could likely be its own posting -- just found this blog and it has lots of interesting stuff and good links.

The last half of this post for example, speaks to a lot of what we're talking about here:

The whole concept of that blog also shows how there are parents all across urban America seeing things clearly but having a hard time being heard, or even better, being listened to!

Anonymous said...

It is always amazing that those with money believe that they know what is best but the true educational experts (the teachers) are rarely consulted. When a teacher is considered to "fall short" (as judged but student scores) no one dances around the issue!
If foundations want to help then ask what a school district needs but don't attach strings.

Anonymous said...

Well said, anon. These are disturbing times for teachers. On one hand, instruction has been taken out of our hands and placed firmly in the hands of third parties--ivory tower people who have no clue as to what transpires in a classroom, be it CAS, PSP, AP or mainstream.
On the other, we have an administrator who is bent on giving grades to students. The 50% policy makes the district the laughing stock of the educational community.
I have to wonder what any admissions rep at the collegiate level will be thinking when he looks over applicants from our district. I have to wonder if he will think score reports are suspect.
He certainly should, and that's a shame to our true achievers.

Questioner said...

Which score reports do you mean, Anon 9:37- grades or standardized?

Anonymous said...

Questioner, what's the diff? Now that it's public knowledge that grades are being given away, how long do you think it will be before our applicants are turned away from schools like Pitt or Duquesne because the grades can't be trusted? SAT scores don't mean everything.

Questioner said...

When colleges can't trust the grades or grades are not given, SAT's may be given greater emphasis.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand, Questioner. Are you just out of touch with reality or simply hoping that the facts will go away. Let's see, you want to put more credence in one-off testing than in grades because this district has decided to wildly inflate the grades. How does this make sense. Most observers of the process for years have taken colleges to task for placing too much importance upon SAT scores, and indeed...they do. Now, we are going to ask colleges to go back to those same skewed scores to make judgments?

Listen, this is an outrage affront to teachers, achieving students and their parents across the district. The integrity of teachers has been compromised by an incredibly poor decision.

Questioner said...

No endorsement of SAT's intended! Just an observation that if grades are unreliable, colleges focus more on SAT's.

Speaking of the 50% rule- the PG Sports section gave the defensive line's Superbowl performance an F- apparently not realizing that here in Pittsburgh, we award 50% for showing up!

PPSparent said...

I believe this 50% policy has been in practice for more than two years? I'm sure that over the long run, it might have an effect, but honestly, I think there are far stronger arguments it than that.

Did I miss it when somebody here defended it?!

Questioner said...

It seems that the 50% policy was in place but not really enforced.

Anonymous said...

PPSparent, as an FYI, please know that 50% policy apparently was in place at the elementary level for a number of years. It was ram-rodded down the throats of teachers just this school year, at least at the high school level. It's sickening, and that's the best I can say. How can it possibly be justified, either in the short term or long term???
Questioner, thanks for the laugh.

Anonymous said...

PPS is like a factory's assembly line - keep it moving - pass the students along at whatever cost, and push them out the door. Never mind that many of them can't read and write at their grade level. They "graduated" and that is what matters to Bellefield.