Monday, December 24, 2007

Surprise! Seattle's gifted program has mostly white kids in it

And I'm guessing that a lot of the others are Asian

An outside review of gifted education in Seattle Public Schools said the district should act aggressively to diversify its program. Almost three-quarters of the students enrolled in the Accelerated Progress Program (APP) are white, compared to about 40 percent districtwide. Concerns about APP were noted by a group of consultants from the University of Virginia who were hired by the district to review the program. Their report was released today.

About 1,500 students in APP are admitted after testing in the 98th or 99th percentile nationally in cognitive ability and reading and math skills. They can spend almost their entire public-school experience together, starting at Lowell Elementary School, on to Washington Middle and finishing at Garfield High. But according to the report, APP is perceived to be "elitist, exclusionary and even racist," and that some of its African-American students are bullied and isolated. Administrators are committed to addressing issues of racial and socio-economic diversity, the report added.

The report also raised concern about student selection, saying admission to the program relies too much on a single test and is unfair to low-income students and students without parental support. "I think that we are going to work really hard to bring [up] the representation of all the different students in our advanced learning programs," said Bob Vaughan, director of advanced learning for the district. "The process we have now for selection is not sufficient."

The program's curriculum lacks vision, the report said, and rigor in classes is inconsistent. "The philosophy and definition of giftedness in Seattle do not reflect current developments in the field of gifted education," it said. The review is one of several the district has launched, including evaluations of curriculum, special education and alternative programs.


D.C. education chief says school choice shouldn't be reserved for the rich

"I see it as a social justice issue--I want them all to be in excellent schools. The kids in Tenleytown are getting a wildly different educational experience than the kids in Anacostia, so our schools are not serving their purpose." So says D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has brought an unusual sense of urgency to her new job. One of her first decisions was to get rid of the furniture. When she arrived last summer, she says, there was a whole area, complete with couch and chair and TV for lounging in her sprawling, pink-carpeted office. Wasted space, she thought, "When am I ever going to have time to sit?"

That was a pretty good prediction for a woman whose first five months on the job have been a whirlwind of jousting with the dinosaurs in the city's education bureaucracy. So far, in her quest to turn around the public school system, she's taken on the unions, the city council and, most recently, hundreds of angry central-office workers.

This week, the city council gave preliminary approval to Chancellor Rhee's request for authority to fire nonunion employees in the central office. She knew it was going to be a political firestorm, but she's worked hard to convince her skeptics that protecting an ossified bureaucracy isn't in anyone's best interests. "I think it's a critical piece of this equation," she says of the personnel legislation, "and if someone like me can come in, guns blazing, and make all the hard calls . . . we can actually see how much progress we can make for the kids."

In a chic gray suit, with her black hair long and loose, the 37-year-old Korean-American does not fit the profile of the usual urban school superintendent. Nor does she have the most first-hand experience with the education bureaucracy she is trying to wrangle. After teaching for three years in a tough school in Baltimore, she spent the majority of her career running The New Teacher Project, a group that studies best practices in school systems nationwide. She figured her value was as an external player, poking and prodding from the outside, and her first thought about the chancellor job was "absolutely not." The reason she changed her mind was Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Her name first came to Mayor Fenty's attention through Joel Klein, the chancellor of the New York City School system. She was known as an out-of-the-box thinker, a relentless advocate of reform. And that made her just what the young mayor was looking for. The alliance she and the mayor formed that day is now one of the strongest cards in the chancellor's hand. Their agreement was that as long as she acted in the best interests of the kids, he would back her up no matter how loud the screaming of the unions and community groups. "And since then, he has been unwavering," Ms. Rhee says with a note of awe in her voice. "He has never ever said to me, well, we need to think of the political ramifications."

That commitment is facing one of its toughest public tests, with the chancellor's plan to close 23 schools citywide--18 more than any other chancellor in the city's history dared propose. Parents and community groups are screaming bloody murder. The night before our interview, Ms. Rhee and her staff held their first local meeting to hear from her constituents directly. When several hundred irritable residents showed up, her staff was mapping the exits. "I came out of it and I was like, 'That wasn't that bad" the chancellor laughs now. "My staff looks at me like, 'You are crazy.'"

Yes, she understands the grieving process. "People have to have the opportunity to vent, to be angry, and they want to do that at me specifically," she says. Less tolerable is the politics that always seems to run against real reform. "I sat in a meeting where one of the City Council members said, you can close down as many schools as you need to, just not in my ward."

When she's not closing schools with low enrollment, she's building on those that are succeeding--with expanded campuses and courses, from music classes to gifted programs. One she looks to as a model is Langdon Elementary, where the percentage of poor minority students is very high and so are achievement levels. Why? The answer begins with a committed principal communicating her priorities and standards to her staff.

Another is Peabody, a small school on Capitol Hill that's pre-kindergarten through second grade, and running a program for three- and four-year-olds that has a long wait list. "People cry when they don't get in and that sort of thing," she says. With Ms. Rhee's help, the school's leadership and faculty are expanding to four more sites. "Why wouldn't we?"

To be effective, Ms. Rhee believes, reforms must begin with the people closest to the children. When she first took the job, she made time to meet individually with all 159 principals in the school system. "People thought I was crazy, and it was very time consuming," she says, "but it was the best use of time . . . it was very telling." Telling of what? Ms. Rhee quickly came to the conclusion that principals who were succeeding in their schools were her best resource. They were the ones who could tell her what she needed to do. She called in a group of top-tier principals and asked them for their wish lists: "I called them together and told them, 'You're the unsung heroes. This place creates such a bureaucracy that you can't get stuff done efficiently. Be creative, tell me what you want to do.'"

At first, the principals looked at her blankly. "They were like, what? And then when they got it, they were so excited." One principal asked for permission to run her school as a STEM school--focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. And she said that she wanted to keep her kids all the way through 8th grade. She explained that if parents had a school they believed in, they'd be less likely to take them out of the public system.

Those are important strides being made on the ground level. But reform also means, inevitably, taking an axe to dead wood elsewhere in the system. In the case of the plan to reclassify the 545 central-office workers as "at will" employees, Ms. Rhee's plan for reform is on delicate ground with the city's powerful public-sector unions. Though the administrative workers aren't union employees, her plan hasn't sat well with labor leaders, including those for bus drivers, cafeteria workers and clerical workers. Explains Ms. Rhee, they said, "We're opposed to this because our job is not just to protect our members but to protect the rights of all workers. We think you're going to start with them and then we're going to be next." She says she respects George Parker, head of the teachers union. "I believe he has the best interests of the kids at heart" and supports reform. But it's a struggle to bring along his rank and file, and the forces of inertia. "I think that somebody like me coming along has probably made his life more difficult."

Ms. Rhee grew up in Toledo and went on to school at Cornell and Harvard before joining Teach for America, the program that landed in her at Harlem Park Elementary in Baltimore. She taught second grade, and the 36 kids in her class ran her ragged. "It was a life altering experience for me and the reason I'm here today." She says that she and a colleague worked day and night to prepare for their classes, and saw their group of kids go from the bottom of the heap to where 90% of them were scoring above the 90th percentile. "I don't believe you can do this work, or be engaged in it at any level, unless you believe in your core that poor minority kids can achieve at the highest level despite all the obstacles."

Ms. Rhee says that her mission is not incremental change, and she doesn't plan on making being a school superintendent a career. "This is a one-time gig for me," she laughs, "so I can make every single decision in a way in which I think is in the best interests of the kids--without the politics, without owing people, just with that in mind." And her motivation? She's a working mother with two daughters in the school system. "That gives me a different sense of urgency about my work."

Mayor Fenty is the first D.C. mayor to have direct control of the city schools (in lieu of a school board)--a set-up that's also been key to turnaround efforts in Chicago, New York and Boston. There's a powerful demand for quality education in the nation's capital that hasn't been met by the public school system, as evidenced by the 30% of the district's kids who attend charter schools. "For way too long in this country, choice in education was something that was reserved for rich people in the suburbs," Ms. Rhee says.

That same desire for innovation in the schools has been behind the success of the District's Opportunity Scholarship Program--the country's first federal voucher program. Signed by President Bush in 2004, the program gives around 1,900 students from low-income families up to $7,500 to attend private schools of their choice. The five-year pilot program is up for renewal next year, but Ms. Rhee doesn't see school choice as a threat to her mission in the public schools. She shakes her head. "I would never, as long as I am in this role, do anything to limit another parent's ability to make a choice for their child. Ever."

Instead, she sees the competition presented by school choice and charter schools as part of the process of raising standards in the public school system at large. "We have an excellent choice dynamic for parents here. . . . I'm a huge proponent of choice, but I'm also an unbelievably competitive person, and my goal is . . . to create schools within the system that I believe are the most compelling choices."

People have tried to get her to commit to a ratio of public schools to charter schools. Ms. Rhee won't play that game. "I don't enter this with defensiveness, about protecting [D.C. public schools'] share of the market. I believe we should proliferate what's working and close down what's not. Period."

She says she keeps hearing from worried city council members that some teachers and administrators are frightened of her. They are feeling pressure and that's a problem. Her answer? Get used to it. "I'm going to hold people accountable and I'm going to hold their feet to the fire. If they're feeling pressure--good! I feel pressure every day because I have the education of 49,000 kids in my hands"


Students so much more than future cogs in the great GDP machine

Comment from Australia by Kevin Donnelly

WHAT is the purpose of education? Judged by the Australian Labor Party's education policy and subsequent comments by Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Julia Gillard, the answer is straightforward. In a recent interview in this paper, Gillard, on being asked the core purpose of her portfolio, replied: 'So while my portfolio can be a mouthful, I'll be happy to be referred to simply as 'the minister for productivity'.' Such a utilitarian view of education is mirrored by Labor's policy document entitled Establishing a National Curriculum to Improve Our Children's Educational Outcomes, released last February.

The opening paragraph, in justifying the need for a nationally consistent curriculum in core areas such as mathematics, the sciences, English and history, argues: 'For Australia to succeed in a highly competitive global economy, our children need to have the best education possible. 'Better education outcomes deliver a real and tangible benefit to our nation's economy, lifting productivity and allowing people to get better jobs that pay more.' Referring to a speech by Productivity Commission head Gary Banks, Labor's national curriculum paper justifies investing more in education by linking raised standards to increased productivity and building human capital. Another paper released early this year, Federalist Paper 2: The Future of Schooling in Australia, written on behalf of state and territory governments, also justifies the needto strengthen standards by linking education to higher economic efficiency and workforce participation.

In justifying his offer to buy computers for all Australian senior school students -- ignoring the fact the overwhelming majority already have access to computers -- and to provide internet connection, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd repeats the mantra that students need to be information-rich and computer-literate to succeed in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

For many years the cultural Left, represented by groups such as the Australian Education Union, the Australian Council for the Deans of Education and the Australian Curriculum Studies Association, has argued that a competitive, academic curriculum is elitist and guilty of reinforcing disadvantage. The solution? Force the education system to be more socially inclusive by promoting equality of outcomes and enforce a politically correct curriculum.

Gillard is also Social Inclusion Minister and it is here that one finds a second justification for Labor's so-called education revolution. Put simply, and harkening back to Gough Whitlam's wasteful disadvantaged schools program, the purpose of education is to remedy economic and social inequality. That social inclusion is central to the Rudd Government's education revolution is evident by a speech given by Gillard at an Australian Council of Social Service conference just before the federal election. Gillard said that education was critical to social inclusion and that a Rudd government would quickly establish a social inclusion board, with a social inclusion unit placed within the PM's Department.

There is an alternative to defining the value of education by its ability to increase productivity and reduce social inequality. Instead of restricting the work of schools to economic objectives and what often amounts to utopian social engineering, the true value of education lies in its cultural dimension; its ability to cultivate and enrich the moral, emotional, spiritual and intellectual aspects of individuals and the society in which they live.

David Green, an analyst at the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs, summarising an address to the Mont Pelerin Society given by English historian Max Hartwell, describes this cultural view of education as embracing 'civility, morality, objectivity, freedom and creativity. By civility he (Hartwell) means respect for other people; by morality, the elementary maxims such as honesty and fairness; by objectivity, belief in the disinterested examination of facts and arguments, without fear or favour; by freedom, the principle that children should be equipped to exercise personal responsibility; and by creativity, belief in the advance of knowledge, not the perfectibility of man, but the possibility of progress.' Music, literature, history and art may not have any immediate application or practical use, but to ignore them is to give students an impoverished, superficial and largely barren education. It should also never be forgotten that much of contemporary culture is driven by the need to make a profit and to entertain, and thus provides little of lasting or real value.

US writer and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim and American academic Joseph Campbell argued that literature, especially those myths, fables and legends associated with the Western tradition and classic texts such as Euripides's Medea, Homer's Iliad and the works of Shakespeare, deal with human nature in a profoundly moving and illuminating way. Such works also introduce students to archetypes and emotional and existential challenges that define what it is to be human.

The purpose of studying history is not only to learn about the past to better understand the present and to predict the future; equally as important is the way history allows individuals to partake in a narrative that provides meaning and a sense of belonging to something larger and more enduring than one's day to day routine.

Music and art, especially that of the great masters, helps cultivate a sense of the spirit and the sublime and, once again, while not of immediate economic use, can enrich one's character and, to use poet William Blake's phrase, cleanse the doors of perception; allowing a richer and more nuanced understanding of the world. With schools being forced to embrace a managerial approach to education, where accountability and testing prevail, the dangers of ignoring and undervaluing a cultural view of education are plain to see. As shown by research sponsored by the Australian Scholarship Group and released last October, one-third of those students interviewed felt stressed and unable to cope with the demands of school and peer relationships.

Melbourne-based adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg also suggests all is not well, observing that many young people feel disengaged, and lack resilience and a sense of purpose in life; hence the rising tide of youth suicide, street violence and the endemic drug culture associated with city nightlife.

Although there is no guarantee that the type of liberal education associated with studying literature, history, music and art will address such concerns, it is also true that education represents a powerful humanising force and, as suggested in the Bible and epitomised by the Christian ritual of Christmas, man does not live by bread alone.


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