No wonder Valerie Strauss never engages….

No wonder Valerie Strauss never engages….

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Reading through Alexander Russo’s new blog, “The Grade,” I happened on an interesting blog post about The Washington Post’s blog The Answer Sheet by….Valerie Strauss. He writes:

She doesn’t write very much of her own commentary, they say. She can’t be both a columnist/blogger who traffics in opinion and commentary and also take/get assigned straight news stories, they say. Her reported pieces aren’t well-reported. And most of all: What she does post is pretty much unrelentingly critical of reform ideas like charter schools and test-based accountability.

Now granted, the complaints are mostly coming from reform advocates whose views aren’t frequently found on Strauss’s staunchly critical education blog. Or they’re from education journalists who are competitors of some kind. So all this is all to be taken with a grain of salt. But the list goes on and on, and the behind-the-scenes conversations with editors and ombudsmen I’ve heard about are pretty much endless.

I just assumed she was busy, but I tweet to her every day and have written extensively about an interview she “presumably” did with Anthony Cody in these posts:

Refuting Anthony Cody Part 3

Cody denies progress to advance his agenda

Really? No Gains in NYC?

Anthony Cody, can you look a child in DC in the eyes and tell him that his progress is unrecognized

Refuting Anthony Cody Part 2

Refuting Anthony Cody Part 1

Granted it was Cody’s interview, and if anyone were to respond it would be him, and he has to an extent, but she never has made a peep, ever. And I’ve even gotten John Thompson to challenge me, I’m not a nobody! 🙂

But this blog post of Alexander’s just makes a lot of sense from my experience with the blog.

Alexander goes on:

This might not be the biggest or deepest critique of the work Strauss does and her Post editors allow. My main issue with her blog is that it doesn’t seem to offer readers an honest, somewhat balanced assessment of the big education issues that are being debated, or isn’t balanced with another blog so that readers of the Post can at least see two sides of a discussion. Oh, and it annoys me to no end that Answer Sheet blog posts overwhelm regular reported news stories on the site’s education page and on Feedly as if blog posts and reported news are the same thing. But let’s save all that for another time, shall we?

Yes, yes please write about something other than the far left leaning wing of the Democratic Party. I basically don’t read her material because I know it’s all over the edge and I’m not likely to agree.

Alexander goes on to discuss the world of bylines in the journalism world (and I have to say he did very well by me as a writer or news clipper making me a contributor and my name would be on the morning news) but my biggest pet peeve is this which he brings up later – her lack of accountability:

Issue number two related to the byline is the accountability issue. When there’s heat or pushback on what she’s posted under her byline, Strauss seems like she doesn’t want anything to do with it. In such situations she wants it known that she’s just the person who assigned or accepted the outside contribution. Then, she’s just the editor. But she still gets a byline.

The most recent example of this is a May 15 post Strauss published taking on Deepak Chopra’s work, written by Steven Newton. The headline is “Scientist: Why Deepak Chopra is driving me crazy.” The byline is, as usual, “By Valerie Strauss.” But two paragraphs in, Strauss hands it over to Newton.

The post generated nearly 50 comments and some attention on Twitter, including this hostile/polite tweet from Chopra’s account on May 18 addressed to Strauss and sent to his 2.44 million followers:

Dear @valeriestrauss – I responded to your ad hominem blog on me in the Washington Post in the comments section. Regards

— Deepak Chopra (@DeepakChopra) May 18, 2015

Strauss published a follow-up piececomplaining that Chopra’s email and Tweet were misguided: “He said it was written by me. He didn’t mention that Newton actually wrote the piece.”

To recap: Strauss published a piece under her byline. Chopra responded to her Twitter handle. But Strauss doesn’t feel like the responsibility for the post is hers.

Ah well, didn’t like her before and have zero reason to like her now. Too bad because I generally like the WashPost.

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School take over plan that is working – Lawrence, MA

School take over plan that is working – Lawrence, MA

Thanks to Peter Cunningham for sharing this Education Week article with me about progress in Lawrence, MA, especially since I remember hearing about the beginning of the state take over when I worked with STAND MA and it’s hard to keep up with news all over the country these days.

He points out that it’s a good example of district administration and unions working together so I had to take a look.

The state take over or “turnaround plan” has several key points that matter to both unions and the pro-reform community:

  • Strong district leader – Mr. Jeffrey Riley, a former principal and former chief innovation officer in the Boston public schools, as Lawrence district’s receiver. A very important ingredient is that the turnaround team approached the takeover with a “strong dose” of respect for the adults in the system.

“We did not start with the assumption that the adults were the problem,” Mr. Chester said. “We started with the assumption that the system as a whole was broken and needed to be restructured.”

[Principal Lennon] “He knows that [teachers] are the people doing the work every day, and they are the ones solving the problems,” she said of Mr. Riley. “And the fact that he could gather information from them, and say to them, ‘What are some ideas that you have at the school level that’s going to impact students?’ That’s a positive shift.”

  • Expanded learning time – Schools added between 200-300 hours annually, allowing time for enrichment programs and interventions. Teachers got collaborative planning and professional-development time.

“Mr. Riley said the opportunities that children now have to engage in enrichment activities have been a critically important piece of the turnaround effort. Through partnerships with the Boys & Girls Club, the Merrimack Valley YMCA, and the district’s teachers, students are able to take classes in cooking, karate, theater, swimming, squash, and a host of other extracurricular activities they might not otherwise be exposed to.”

“Principal Colleen M. Lennon proudly watched over some of her young charges at the Emily G. Wetherbee School on a recent afternoon in this struggling city of 77,000, seeing students engage in activities that are a given in most middle- to upper-income communities. They were taking drumming lessons. Fingerknitting. Practicing cheerleading stands. Illustrating a short story. And making fruit salad in a class on healthy eating.”

“Ms. Lennon also credits professional development for teachers, giving them latitude to collaborate with their peers on classroom strategies, and creating leadership teams that rely on their expertise.”

“At UP Academy Leonard Middle School, Principal Komal Bhasin says the dedicated planning time that teachers get each Friday has been powerful. Working in cohorts, teachers spend 2½ hours on Fridays reviewing student data, revising curriculum, sharing successful teaching strategies, and setting goals for the school on a range of issues such as school climate or support for special education students.”

  • Partnerships – The district partnered with charter-management organizations and the Lawrence teachers’ union to run schools. It worked with Boston-based Match Education to provide math tutoring to high school students.

 “The district’s non-dogmatic view of who is best suited to run schools targeted for turnaround—charter-management organizations, the local teachers’ union, and the district itself are all operating schools in Lawrence—has also been a strength.”

“Mr. Riley has championed a governance model he calls “open architecture,” in which the district consists of a combination of charter-run schools and regular district schools. There is expanded autonomy at the school level and the central office’s role is curtailed.

“The problems in urban education are far too big for the civil war that’s going on out there today,” Mr. Riley said about the debate over charter versus district-run schools.

“We’ve created a small community where people have been willing to put aside their differences, work under this unified umbrella, and get results for kids,” he said.

An example of that “open architecture” system is evident in the district’s approach to turning around the low-performing Henry K. Oliver School. The Lawrence Teachers’ Union took over grades 1-5 and launched the Oliver Partnership School in August 2013, while the Boston-based UP Academy, a charter-management organization, took over grade 6. That new school is the UP Academy Oliver Middle School.”

  • Data – Boston-based Achievement Network (ANet) has trained teachers and principals to analyze data to measure student progress and improve instruction.

“[Lawrence is] looking deeply at performance and data, and they are targeting interventions at the problems,” Ms. Yatsko said. “They are unleashing their professional staff in the buildings by providing them with autonomy and coupling it with supports.”

Under Mr. Riley, principals and teachers are expected to know the proficiency levels of every student in their schools, Ms. Lennon said. Students are also keenly aware of their scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, what they need to do to reach proficiency, and how much their schools are expected to grow annually, Ms. Lennon said.

  • School autonomy and accountability – Successful principals got more authority over calendars, interim assessments, and staffing. Includes the charters, union run and traditional public schools.

An emphasis on creating and supporting strong school leaders; attracting and developing effective teachers; aligning resources to student and teacher needs; and providing both the funding and flexibility to school leaders to design programs that meet their school’s unique needs.

  • Staffing – A new contract with the teachers’ union created career ladders for teachers and provided opportunities to earn more money based on proficiency, performance, and leadership roles. About 50 percent of principals, 20 percent of assistant principals, and 10 percent of teachers were replaced.

The contract approved a year later created career ladders for teachers and gave them opportunities to earn more money based on their performance and the leadership roles they embraced in their schools. And Mr. Riley insisted that all teachers, including those in charter-run schools, be members of the local union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

  • Increasing parental engagement—the district recently opened a resource center at one of the city’s old mills, where parents can get help finding jobs and housing—is also part of the turnaround strategy.

Funding might really be the interesting area or question for the future.

The district receives about 95 percent of its annual $190 million budget from the state, and that contribution level has not changed under the takeover.

In a report by Education Resource Systems they make a point that while cutting administrative costs, state funding has remained the same and many of the new reforms were funded by grants that will end. The question is will the district be able to maintain these new programs once the grants end? Will the state realize the importance of these programs and provide more funding?

LPS received substantial transition funding during the first three years of receivership. The highest level of funding was received in SY 2013–14, including more than $3 million in School Redesign Grants and more than $2 million in Massachusetts Race to the Top funds. Also in 2013–14, the district reduced central office expenses by $1.6 million and provided that funding directly to schools to finance reforms. Although the district has been able to reduce central office non-staff spending in the 2014–15 budget by an additional $5 million to help offset School Redesign Grants and Race to the Top funding as it expires, it is not enough to replace all of the transitional spending. Lawrence has a growing enrollment, which should provide for some increases in state funding over time. However, it will be critical to watch expenses closely to ensure that the funding needed to continue the reforms is available.

ERS also notes that while Lawrence is a relatively small school district, the concepts are scalable across districts:

Reform is scalable. While LPS is a relatively small urban district (only 28 schools) and had the advantage of transitional funding from the state and private funders, even the largest districts can likely make the same kind of changes in a subset of schools. Creating the conditions for rapid change—including the flexibilities, supports, and human capital changes that Lawrence made— in the worst-performing schools in a district build momentum by improving outcomes in those schools. The key is to use that success to pave the way for broadening those changes to other schools by working to change the structures and policies that will enable lasting improvement.

This story encourages me as GA is about to look at state take over of certain schools throughout GA, if the bill is ratified by voters in 2016. Look for my next post analyzing the district/union relationship throughout the state take over in Lawrence.