Friday, May 29, 2009

Success for Minnesota's Children - and for Minnesota

“You are the only ones who can save Minnesota’s children,” Geoffrey Canada told an audience at the Minneapolis Foundation’s Minnesota Meeting on Wednesday.

The “you”, of course, is “we”. We are the only ones who care enough, and have the capacity and the will, to make sure that all children in Minnesota acquire the skills they need to be productive adults in the 21st century. (Canada leads the Harlem Children’s Zone – nationally recognized for increasing the educational achievement of children whom the system has not served well.)

In his remarks Canada stated that The United States has fallen backwards in educational achievement relative to other developed and developing countries of the world. This is something we at Wilder Research have noted before. Through our Twin Cities Compass initiative, we have documented the poor mathematics proficiency of our region’s high school students and the gap in skills that begins early in elementary school for our fastest growing group of students – students of color. If we want to preserve jobs and preserve our quality of life, we need to make some changes.

Harlem Children’s Zone demonstrates that low achievement, even for children from the poorest economic and community circumstances, does not have to occur; also, it can be reversed with sustained effort.

He recommended several principles to guide the development of our approach to education. Among them:

Begin early. Promote vocabulary development and pre-reading skills starting at birth; don’t let children fall behind. If they do fall behind, involve them in intensive programs to bring them back up to where they should be.

Maintain continuity of best practices through college. To enable at-risk children to succeed, it is critical to have a pathway of supports through college. Children who benefit from a short-term program lose those benefits if they return to schools that don’t teach them well.

Involve parents by all possible means. Do whatever it takes to involve parents. He “bribes” them with gift certificates to encourage them to come to meetings. Give parents the information they need to assist their children. Many parents, even with high school or college degrees, don’t have the depth of knowledge to assist their children in all the academic subjects taught in school. However, parents can learn where to direct their children to get questions answered. They can also learn how to create an environment of “warmth plus high expectations” which, from Canada’s view of the research will enable children to achieve at their highest potential

Design schools for success. “Schools that fail are designed for failure.” Canada asserted that schools have a certain “physics” – including, for example, a set number of days and hours which produces one year of achievement for children who are prepared. However, for children who start a school year unprepared or under-performing, the standard package does not work. It never enables them to catch up. He recommends lengthening the school year. He also admonishes school districts to stop hiring and firing superintendents who just travel from one district to another; instead, adjust the “physics” of education so that schools can accomplish their function with all students.

Evaluate in a timely, meaningful way. Use data to understand outcomes. Test in a way that provides immediate feedback that teachers can use to work with students during the same year the students take the tests.

Sandra Vargas, President of the Minneapolis Foundation, asked the audience of 1000+ individuals to “hold ourselves accountable” for higher educational achievement. We must “believe” we can do it; we must “take a stand to save every one of our children.”

Monday, May 11, 2009

Positive Economic News? Maybe.

Some indicators suggest that the economic decline of the past year might have slowed, or even begun to turn around. Dan Laufenberg, an economist recognized by the Wall Street Journal for his accuracy in forecasting, contends that the “economy will recover nicely in the second half of the year.” Information from several sources might give us some hope that the economy will fulfill Laufenberg’s prediction.

The Labor Department reported that, although the U.S. lost another 539,000 jobs in April, the increase in unemployment was less than expected. The Treasury surprised us, positively, with better-than-expected “stress test” results for the nation’s banks. Indicators of construction spending and home sales in March seemed to do better than expected also. All of this might boost consumer and investor confidence, even if only slightly at first.

The positive effects of an upturn, if one has truly begun to occur, will take a while to filter through to government and nonprofit organizations. In addition, unemployment, foreclosures, and other events have placed many people in situations of need from which they will not quickly extricate themselves.

Nonetheless, we can continue to watch the trends, hope that these early signs bode well for our communities, and do all within our control to make choices as individuals and organizations which will speed the recovery.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

School Superintendent Carstarphen - Good or Bad? How would we know?

Effective or ineffective? The Pioneer Press raised this issue regarding Saint Paul Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen in a provocatively titled front page article documenting contrasting perspectives on her behavior: “bully or bold leader”? I encourage the School Board to expend no energy debating Carstarphen’s competence or incompetence; such debate is neither fair nor productive, for her or for us. Rather, I urge the Board to consider the larger problem of which Meria’s departure after three years is a symptom, namely: We have in this country an itinerant group of individuals who take school superintendent positions and leave them before we can collect any evidence on whether those superintendents actually did an effective job.

Indicators from the Council of the Great City Schools suggest that most urban school superintendents typically hold their positions for just a few years; rarely do urban superintendents stay more than 5 years. A 2000 report from the National School Boards Association uses different data and suggests more optimistically that about a third of urban school superintendents might stay in their position more than 5 years. However, this represents a decline from a previous period when more than half would stay for that length of time.

Meria perfectly exemplifies the itinerant group. She now leaves Saint Paul before we can see if anything she did actually makes a difference. Before coming to Saint Paul, she served briefly as the Chief Accountability Officer of the Washington, D.C. schools. There, she implemented a new accountability system, but she quit her job before enough time passed to determine her system’s effectiveness. How can we know if Carstarphan, or any superintendent, has done an effective job, if they leave after such a short time?

No evidence suggests that the Saint Paul Schools have become markedly better during the past three years. Take a look on Twin Cities Compass at reading and math proficiency scores, as well as graduation rates. Even if you believe that three years is enough time (and I do not feel that it is) to tell whether change has occurred, you can’t find any significant positive trends. Test scores overall and the graduation rate both need improvement. The achievement gap persists for White students and students Of Color.

Saint Paul has an excellent opportunity to act wisely in securing an effective, committed Superintendent of Schools. We have a large population and school system, but not so large that the bureaucracy can’t change course under good leadership. We have many committed, competent teachers, parents, community organizations, businesses and others who can lend a hand in educating our children.

Let’s search for a superintendent who will commit to the long term with our children; and let’s develop an incentive/compensation package that rewards long term performance on the indicators of educational success that really matter. The superintendent is not the be-all and end-all of school district effectiveness, but he or she does play a major role. Saint Paul can stand out as a district that does not just pull someone off the merry-go-round and have them hop back on three years later. We can creatively build a different type of arrangement for an urban school superintendent.

Let’s acknowledge that families and communities, as much as school systems, contribute to the education of our children, and let’s nurture a productive relationship between the new superintendent and our community’s residents and institutions. This will support the new superintendent and increase the likelihood that he or she will stay as long as it takes to have an impact.

More thoughts on this topic, including some specific suggestions for the School Board, based on what we know from research, in a future blog. If you have ideas to share, please let me know.