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The New Ninth Ward

If you’re one of the folks that stopped watching Treme after its first season (“Too boring! Too slow!”), or if you just never bothered to check it out, you might want to check back in. Now in its third season, Treme is proving itself adept at mirroring what creator David Simon’s more celebrated predecessor, The Wire, did better than any show before or since: depict characters struggling and surviving amidst the dysfunctional, intractable, and dialectical systems holding them – and us – prisoner.

In The Wire, the city was Baltimore, and the systems were the drug trade, the public schools, the municipal government, the press, and the police. In Treme, the city is New Orleans, and several of the systems – the schools, the police and the elected officials – make a return appearance. This time, however, Simon adds some new storylines and characters, all of which ride in on the destructive current of Hurricane Katrina, and all of who exist to tell a different story. Indeed, if The Wire was about the older, less visible systems that are holding us prisoner, Treme is about the newer, more visible ones that are being created in the name of progress. The genius of both shows is they refuse to craft a story about something so complicated by oversimplifying the myriad forces at play. As in life, systems and people are more nuanced than mere two-dimensional caricatures – even the ones that hold us prisoner, and even the ones who are up to no good.

I say this because lately I feel like the conversations about school reform in New Orleans are taking on an unhelpful and increasingly entrenched two-dimensional tone: you’re either for the locals, who are being preyed upon by profit-seeking charter schools and carpet-bagging businessmen who see in the chaos of Katrina their last, best chance to remake the city into something new; or you’re for the engines of progress, which recognize that the city’s schools were an embarrassment, its housing projects a blight, and its local traditions best preserved via tangible, lasting monuments, not intangible, romanticized dysfunction.

I say this as someone who knows well-meaning people that have gone to New Orleans as “engines of progress” and who see in its schools the greatest chance to reimagine urban public education for the better. And I say this as someone who feels that much of what they have created is, in effect, perfecting our ability to succeed in an old (Industrial-era) system that no longer serves our interests.

We do ourselves a disservice when we describe school reform in New Orleans in the overly simplistic “privatization of public education” storyline (which is so appealing precisely because it has such clearly defined good people and bad people – and which, like all storylines, is at least partially grounded in the truth). And we are kidding ourselves if we continue to believe that what poor communities need most are outsiders coming in and helping their children raise test scores via a grab bag of teaching methods that not a single “outsider” I know has actually chosen for their own children.

What we have at play in modern New Orleans, in other words, are a few bad people, a lot of bad decisions, and a lot of good (or at least decent) people struggling to succeed amidst larger systemic ways of seeing and thinking that are still holding them – and us – prisoner.

The most recent episode of Treme captures this spirit perfectly in the lyrics of a new song one of the characters has penned in an effort to tell the story of what has happened there since Katrina. Sung by the legendary Irma Thomas, its opening stanza tells you what’s coming:

I’ll meet you on the corner of Dick Cheney Street

And Rumsfeld Boulevard,

Right next to the statue of Michael Brown,

In the new Ninth Ward.

As the song progresses, it’s clear its author is not a fan of the changes underway (nor should he be).

Folks are living so easy there,

Times used to be so hard,

A chicken in every pot,

Oh they dance a lot,

In the new Ninth Ward.

The song’s final stanza sums up the unique tragedy of modern New Orleans – a city with as much cultural heritage as any place in the United States, and a city with as much need of civic improvement.

We kicked out all the criminals,

Got rid of the blight,

Put a little camera on the traffic light,

The kids that come to school

They come to learn and not fight,

This time around we’re making it right,

In the new Ninth Ward.

What makes Treme so redeeming is its refusal to give the chief architects of the post-Katrina clusterfuck a free pass, and its insistence that we not delude ourselves into seeing those architects as being separate from the rest of us. We have met the enemy, and it is us. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we may actually figure out a way to be free. Until that happens, get ready – a new Ninth Ward is coming your way soon.

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E Pluribus Pluribus?

It’s not even Noon, and nine-year-old Harvey is already back on the floor.

His three tablemates, their efforts at independent reading on hold, watch and wait for Ms. Serber to arrive and restore order. Harvey’s pear-shaped body writhes on the floor, animated by neither malice nor mischief. He chews absent-mindedly on his silver necklace and gazes at the ceiling until she arrives.

“Let’s get up and get back into it,” Ms. Serber implores, her hand gently rubbing his back to coax him up to the table. After a few minutes, Harvey picks his book back up, and Ms. Serber resumes scanning the faces of her other twenty-eight 3rd graders to assess their needs. Mid-morning light cuts across her eighty-year-old classroom from the large windows that line the west wall, casting strips of shadow on the homemade plates to which each child attaches a clothespin to register his or her daily mood: sad, angry, worried, frustrated, frightened, excited, bored, happy. This morning – most mornings – most pins clasp the same plate: sleepy.

Nearby, a reed-thin boy named Elliott keeps working. Pale and quiet, his hair still bearing the shape of last night’s sleep, Elliott is an avid reader; this summer alone, he finished more than twenty books, from The Hobbit to The Trumpet of the Swan. Ms. Serber observes him working quietly, and then transfers her attention to a different table where her presence is more sorely needed.

Elliott’s reading list is among the many things displayed proudly on the back wall of room 121, where each student has identified what he or she hopes to learn about in third grade. Some of the preferences are predictable: Harvey, for example, wants to “lrn abto sharks”; others wish “to learn about weather systems,” or “go to the Baltimore museum and see the dolfin show.”  Taken together, the children’s goals reflect just how varied their levels of engagement and readiness are. One student outlines an admirable goal with nearly unintelligible spelling: “I hope to lun to slpel wrs because a m ging to go te colejig.” Another merely outlines something unintelligible. “Matlattrusala is big. You like Matlatirusla.”

At 12:30pm, Serber and her co-teacher, Ms. Creagh – whose shared first name has led them to be known as “The Two Sarahs” – get their first break in five hours. In that time, they’ve taught the students about reading the date and time; reading content for mood and rhythm; differentiating between fiction and non-fiction; writing reflectively and creatively; sounding out phonics; practicing addition and subtraction; and solving mathematical word problems. As their students head for the lunchroom and descend the school’s weathered marble stairs in a winding line of spasmodic energy, their teachers take their first bathroom break, unpack their homemade lunches, and use the quiet time to fine-tune their afternoon lessons.

A few miles away, at a different school, Cassie Hurst is contemplating her own classroom’s eclectic set of needs. A first-year kindergarten teacher in a first-year charter school, Cassie is tall, slender and kinetic. When she speaks, whether it’s to a five-year-old or an adult, she uses her long limbs expressively – and often – to animate her words. Her intelligent eyes jump out from behind her black Jill Stuart glasses.

The school year is barely a month old, yet Cassie already feels energized professionally – and exhausted personally. “I think we’re doing a really good job of reaching different kids and differentiating our instruction,” she explained on a sunny October afternoon. “At the same time, I’m worn out. I hadn’t expected to feel this strained this early in the year. But I’m with my kids every day from 8:30 to 3:30, without any breaks; that’s a long time to be “on” every day. And the needs of my kids are so varied. For example, a lot of our students came to us from the same play-based preschool; they are the sweetest boys, but they didn’t spend a lot of time on academics so they don’t know their letters at all. Then there are other kids who bring with them such complicated family and emotional issues. We assess everyone every four weeks to make sure we’re keeping track of their progress, and we’re grouping kids by ability in different “learning teams” within each classroom – but even within those groups, the highest-achieving kids have such different strengths and weaknesses, and for so many reasons, and the same is true for the lowest-achieving ones. It’s a lot, and it’s a constant challenge, and I work in a team of three. Thinking about trying to do that work on my own gives me chills at night. I just don’t think it would be possible.”

*  *  *

Is it possible? Can one, two or even three teachers in a classroom of twenty to thirty children not just diagnose the needs of each child, but also meet those needs, consistently and measurably?

In theory, such a goal has always directed America’s efforts to improve its public schools; after all, the first major federal legislation affecting public education was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s equity-oriented “War on Poverty.” But the goal was never explicitly stated – and incentivized – until 2002, when the 107th U.S. Congress rechristened Johnson’s legislation as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, and President George W. Bush heralded the dawn of “a new time in public education in our country.  As of this hour,” he said, just before signing the bill at a public high school in Ohio, “America’s schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results.”

Under Bush’s new path, schools receiving federal funding were now required to annually test every child in certain grades in both reading and math. The students’ scores would be broken down and reported by subgroups – both as a way to highlight the progress of historically under-served groups of children, and to ensure that no single group’s performance could be concealed amidst a single, all-encompassing number. “The story of children being just shuffled through the system is one of the saddest stories of America,” said Bush. “The first step to making sure that a child is not shuffled through is to test that child as to whether or not he or she can read and write, or add and subtract . . . We need to know whether or not children have got the basic education . . . And now it’s up to you, the local citizens of our great land, the compassionate, decent citizens of America, to stand up and demand high standards, and to demand that no child – not one single child in America – is left behind.”

A decade after its passage, President Barack Obama and members of the 112th Congress were aggressively pursuing a re-write of NCLB before the end of the year – and opinions remained split about whether it had been more helpful or hurtful to American schools. On one side, critics decry that the bill’s narrow focus on reading and math scores has had the unintended effects of squeezing other subjects out of the curriculum, and stifling the creative capacity of teachers to engage their kids in different ways. On the other side, advocates celebrate the ways NCLB has forced America to publicly confront just how poorly some students have been served in the past. No Child Left Behind shone a data-drenched light on the actual academic differences between kids, they argue, and sunshine is a powerful disinfectant with the potential to highlight the most necessary reforms.

Across the same general time frame, an equally seismic policy shift had occurred: the virtual disappearance of “tracking” – or the process of assigning students to classes based on categorizations of their perceived academic potential. In its place, today’s teachers are increasingly expected to “differentiate” their lessons – and not merely to each class, but to each child, every day, all year.

By the start of the 2011-2012 school year, this constellation of forces – the dawn of high-stakes testing, the death of tracking, and the desirability of differentiated instruction – had resulted in a perfect storm of reform that had dramatically recast the daily experiences and expectations of teachers like Cassie and the Two Sarahs. And once again, education experts remained split over whether the forces at play were ultimately for the better.

“We are shortchanging America’s brightest students,” argues education scholar Frederick Hess, “and we’re doing it reflexively and furtively. A big part of the problem is our desire to duck hard choices when it comes to kids and schooling. Differentiated instruction — the notion that any teacher can simultaneously instruct children of wildly different levels of ability in a single classroom — is appealing precisely because it seemingly allows us to avoid having to decide where to focus finite time, energy and resources. Truth is, few teachers have the extraordinary skill and stamina to constantly fine-tune instruction to the needs of 20- or 30-odd students, six hours a day, 180 days a year. What happens instead is that teachers tend to focus on the middle of the pack. Or, more typically of late, on the least proficient students.

“Focusing on the neediest students, even at the expense of their peers, is not unreasonable,” Hess explains. “After all, we can’t do everything. But self-interest and a proper respect for all children demand that we wrestle with such decisions and pay more than lip service to the needs of advanced students.”

Carol Ann Tomlinson, a nationally-known expert on issues of differentiation, defines the core issue differently: “Is the primary goal a separate room for students with particular needs, or should our primary goal be high-quality learning experiences wherever a student is taught? The range of students in schools indicates the need for a range of services. Since most students have always received most of their instruction in general education classrooms, it’s quite important that differentiation in that setting be robust. There are some very bright students whose academic needs are quite well addressed in some “regular” classrooms, some who require extended instruction in a specific subject, some whose need for challenge suggests specialized instruction in all content areas — perhaps even outside the student’s school. Effective differentiation would serve the student in each of those situations.”

*  *  *

Of course, there are theoretical conversations about school reform that take place at 30,000 feet. And then there’s the daily reality teachers must experience and negotiate on the ground.

One afternoon after school, over the din of the few remaining students’ voices still bouncing off the room’s ten-foot-high brick walls, the Two Sarahs pause to reflect on the question, and their work.

Sarah Serber speaks first. Her face is expressive and illustrative – the sort of visage her students rely on to gauge how she feels at any given time. Small and compact, Serber has the gait of a gymnast, more powerful than delicate: one imagines her approaching a pommel horse like the young Mary Lou Retton – focused, confident, fearless. “I don’t think it would be possible for me not to teach in this way,” she says. “Before, in my first and second years of teaching, I did a lot more whole-group lessons, and although they took less time to plan, they ended up taking much more total time because of all the follow-up work I had to do with different kids. So I’ve adjusted my own sense of where my time is best invested. And now we know that those late nights of breaking down not just the different activities, but also the different goals for the different students within each activity, is the only way we can realistically do our job.”

Sarah Creagh agrees. Tall and blonde and in her fifth year of teaching, Creagh has a quieter, softer air about her. She also shares her co-teacher’s passion about both her decision to teach in a public school, and her conviction that it’s possible, even in a class as big as theirs, to identify and meet every child’s needs.  “I feel a social justice calling in this work – or, maybe that’s too corny, but I feel very personally a need to contribute to our larger commitment to equity and equality.”

Creagh’s own conversion occurred one summer, when, after graduating from college with a major in psychology and women’s studies, she followed her parents to DC and haphazardly got a job with a reading research company. Up to that point, Creagh had never seriously considered teaching. “But then I found myself working intensively with children who simply could not read, and watching them make phenomenal progress. It was amazing to see that power – and it occurred to me that the real place this needed to be happening was not in some summer program, but in their full-time, yearlong classroom, day in and day out.”

After their last remaining students exit the school’s red front doors to head home down different leafy streets, past houses and housing projects, the Sarahs spend the last minutes of their work day examining the latest iteration of the DCPS report card to assess which standards they will address before the first quarter comes to a close.

The form reflects the efforts of city administrators to provide greater clarity about what all students are expected to learn. Most of the standards are in the two tested subjects – reading and math – but other categories exist for science, social studies, music, art, health, and work habits. To review their efforts, Creagh and Serber check the standards they have addressed thus far, from “comparing and recognizing that plants and animals have predictable life cycles” to “speaking in complete sentences when appropriate to task and situation.”

Another section of the report card addresses “personal and social development” – fitting, since on most days it’s this sort of attention most 3rd graders most acutely need.  Of the section’s five benchmarks, four place a value on children following the rules; the other is about self-regulating emotions and behavior. It’s ironic, since even a casual visitor to room 121 would quickly see that in order for Serber and Creagh to create the sort of environment that can support the desired intellectual growth of their students, they must first construct a complex web of interpersonal trust, expectations, and empathy.

What would happen if such skills were weighted equally, and identified more specifically? Would teachers’ daily efforts at differentiating their instruction become more or less difficult?

The next morning, Harvey enters the classroom, hangs up his jacket, and sits down at his table to eat the breakfast provided by his city to its schoolchildren – an egg burrito, banana, and milk. He finishes, lumbers up to a visitor stationed near the back wall of the room, and points to his personal goals for the year, which feature a colorful drawing of the sharks he hopes to study. “That’s my name there!” he reports excitedly. Moments later, Ms. Creagh asks the class to help clean up the trash from breakfast. Harvey returns to his seat, and resumes gazing out the large windows in front of him.

It’s a new day.

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The Gift, a.k.a “Waiting for Superman”

This morning, I received an email from my dear friend Maya Soetoro-Ng, a lifelong educator and all-around deep thinker, who wrote to her friends and family after seeing Waiting for Superman. Please read it — her way of framing the opportunity provided by the film is exactly what we need to hear.

(Incidentally, plans are underway for the sort of outreach she calls for in early 2011. Email me — schaltain@gmail.com — if you want to learn more . . .)

Dear friend and caring community member,

I only have a few minutes right now, so my evaluation will be necessarily incomplete, but I want to share some thoughts about Guggenheim’s new documentary, “Waiting for Superman”, which I saw last night (I had only seen several discrete segments before).

At the point in the film when children were crying because they weren’t selected in school lotteries, many people around me couldn’t suppress tears and, as a mother of two girls, I too felt intense grief and empathy for the parents of the children.  After the film, I spoke with a wonderful longtime public school teacher and she was teary as well, for a different reason; she was shedding tears of frustration about the fact that the film ignored the enormous commitment and talent of many public DOE teachers and the great work taking place in the classrooms and schools where they throw in their hands and spend large parts of their days. I was one of Randi’s teachers myself in my first years of teaching in NYC. I was even the union rep. for a couple of years. I do understand the hurt, but I urged this teacher not to let the imbalanced nature of the documentary frustrate her, and instead to go talk with others in the community about what she knows, feels, remembers, and can use to help make schools even stronger.

Marveling at the emotion generated by both those who are critical of the film and those who wholly accept the film’s assessments, I’ve become increasingly glad that this imperfect but also compelling film has come along at this time.   Here’s what I hope doesn’t happen:  I hope that we don’t grow more embittered and angry with one another and expend huge amounts of energy in senseless shouting; I hope that public school teachers are not vilified by people who think that they know more than they know about what happens in classrooms.  I hope that the film’s emphasis on test scores doesn’t make us lose sight of the many other potent and meaningful forms of learning and assessment that exist like creative writing, projects of civic engagement, Socratic learning forums, and multifaceted portfolio presentations.

Here’s what I hope happens:  I hope that the film will increase the amount and caliber of dialogue between teachers, administrators, community members, and parents.  I hope that it will encourage teachers everywhere to share their craft and schools loudly and proudly, when pride is merited, and welcome the community’s assistance as well as new opportunities for collaboration.  I hope that the film will help people to see the importance of graceful negotiation when trying to change a system and recognize the true power of persuasion.  I hope that people will think of public schools as belonging to all of us, regardless of whether we have kids in the system, or have kids period.

I hope that we begin to view successful experiments, like good charter schools, as opportunities for evaluation and implementation of best practices.  Of course a larger percentage of charter schools are healthy learning environments, not because the teachers are all better but for the following reasons: charter schools are usually smaller and therefore more manageable; school charters require greater buy-in and contribution from parents; charter schools have the freedom to create cohesive school cultures surrounding issues of local interest and imperative (i.e. Hawaiian language and cultural immersion schools); the choice and freedom in charter schools often allow for a greater sense of ownership by teachers, students, and administrators; and whether conversion schools or new, charter schools are often built using innovations that have been tested and found effective in older, larger, and more overwhelmed regular DOE schools.

Now it is time to reverse the flow of innovation and use charter schools as laboratories for what might work in larger DOE schools.  Let leaders of schools, government, and community focus on building a strong sense of school family, or ohana, in every public school with less tracking, smaller class sizes, smaller learning groups within the classroom, and family-style attention to the whole child.  Let’s think about how to get the community more actively involved in public schools, find new ways for families to participate and share in the culture of the school, and bring the kids out into the community more.  Let’s work to offer free after school, extended year, and parent-enrichment programs, and have school event daycare options for single and overworked parents.  Let’s think of our public schools as the center—the beating heart—of our communities.   Go check out the film, by all means, but then let’s keep talking. With mighty love,

Maya

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BBC Walk and Talk

I spent this afternoon walking and talking with BBC reporter Kavitha Cardoza about assessment systems and what the U.S. can learn from other countries around the world. Check it out at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/world_news_america/8612399.stm.

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MSNBC — Chaltain and . . . Sharpton

This morning I was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe talking about the national climate for school reform . . . with Reverend Al Sharpton. Check it out at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/35458319#35458319.

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What Would Theo Do?

I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan, so as this year’s trading deadline approaches, I’m wondering once again what Theo Epstein, the GM of my beloved Boston Red Sox, will do to improve his team’s chances of winning their third championship in six years — after not winning one for eighty-six.

I’m also a lifelong public education fan, so with the Department of Education’s Race to the Top Fund poised to provide billions of dollars in competitive grants, I’m wondering if Arne Duncan can do for public schools what Theo Epstein has done for the Red Sox — take a maligned institution known more commonly for its failures than its successes, and turn it into a perennial winner.

Duncan should start by asking himself a simple question –What Would Theo Do?

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