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Leading to Reform: April 14

This week’s LTR highlights a documentary “The Dream is Now,” the drumbeat about if school districts really matter anymore, if standardized tests are effective, and college access – what many don’t know about it these days. We also link array of columns and pieces spanning the ideological spectrum on leadership and reform.

The Dream is Now – Fixing Immigration
It is time to fix America’s immigration system, giving undocumented youth and their families the chance to earn their citizenship. I encourage you to watch the new documentary titled, “The Dream is Now” from the maker of “Waiting for Superman” just as soon as you can.

Schools that serve disadvantaged children and youth are impacted our nation’s inhumane immigration policies towards illegal immigrants. Given David Guggenheim’s past movies like “Waiting for Superman” this is likely an important film that many working in suburban schools have no idea what this issue is really about.

Watch the trailer below, or learn more at

Do School Districts Matter?
School districts occupy center stage in education reform in the U.S. They manage nearly all public funding and are frequently the locus of federal and state reform initiatives, e.g., instituting meaningful teacher evaluation systems.

We know very little from existing research about how important they are to student achievement relative to other institutional components for delivering education services, including teachers and schools. Neither do we have information on the size of the differences in effectiveness among districts or whether there are districts that show exceptional patterns of performance across time, e.g., moving from low to high performing.

Even though district effects are only a small piece of the pie that represents all the influences on student achievement, there are still differences among the academic achievement of demographically similar students in higher and lower performing districts.

There are also districts that have displayed exceptional patterns of performance in terms of student achievement over the last decade, including districts that beat their demographic odds every year, districts that consistently underperformed, districts that had nose-dive declines, and districts that experienced transformative growth.

These findings provide an empirical justification for efforts to improve student achievement through district-level reforms and should be read by those who want to better understand why some districts are better than others and translate that knowledge into action.

Movement Against Standardized Testing Gaining Strength
Opposition to standardized testing is drawing surprising adherents as more groups, including some that have previously supported the high-stakes assessment method, are calling for reform and even outright elimination of testing going forward. What Reuters calls “a backlash” could be partly explained as a reaction to the increasing enthusiasm for standardized tests exhibited by both federal and state governments. Hundreds of millions of dollars are going towards design and development of new testing regimes, to be used for children aged 5 and up. The tests themselves play a role not only in assessing student progress, but also in determining teacher effectiveness and in decisions on grade promotion.

A growing number of parents are also rebelling against what they see as valuable instruction time being wasted not only filling out Scantron sheets, but also teaching students the mechanics of test taking. But the biggest issue seems to be that the effort and expense of student stress and lost learning time isn’t translating to real academic gains and districts that have good scores on lousy tests perpetuate the testing culture rather than standing up for kids.

“I see frustration and bitterness among parents growing by leaps and bounds,” says Leonie Haimson, a mother who runs Class Size Matters, an advocacy group in New York City that pushes for reduced testing and smaller class sizes. “What parents are saying is, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Some parents are taking a stronger stand than just lodging complaints. A group in northwest Washington took a more concrete step and kept their children out of school on testing days, which resulted in hundreds of children missing their state exams.

Perhaps rethinking education with a holistic approach is the way to go. But you also have to have real accountability and reward staff who get results to youth linked with accountability and rewarding those educators who get results on a blend of assessments including measuring school climate, student achievement on standardized and other assessments along with parent satisfaction assessments with teachers and principals could be another perspective.

The biggest challenge? States are relying on standardized tests because they want to know what is working in schools. Show them the evidence and they may change.

Weak school leaders putting finger in the wind to see which way the wind is blowing or refuse to put the needs of kids and families first over their own interests As Bob Dylan says, you don’t need a weatherman to see which way schools are going. Unfortunately, too many who could make a difference, keep on keeping on and why not, the leaders stay in their comfort zone and parents trust they have their best interests in mind -- when they don’t.

Want to Compare How Your Middle Class School Really Performs?
There was a time when middle-class parents in America could be — and were — content to know that their kids’ public schools were better than those in the next neighborhood over. As the world has shrunk, though, the next neighborhood over is now Shanghai or Helsinki. Tom Freedman highlights how public schools compares how public schools around the world do in applied reading, math and science skills — as saying imagine, in a few years, that you could sign on to a Web site and see how your school compares with a similar school anywhere in the world. And then you could take this information to your superintendent and ask: “Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland?”

The pilot study was described in an America Achieves report entitled “Middle Class or Middle of the Pack?” that is being released Wednesday. The report compares U.S. middle-class students to their global peers of similar socioeconomic status on the 2009 PISA exams.

Looking Back, Looking Good and Looking Forward
´┐╝After 49 years, my old friend Terry Pickeral had the opportunity of returning to his old high school in Chandler, Arizona. Terry reflects that many things seemed to have remained the same. He also saw many enhancements.

What was most compelling was the engagement with special education students, teachers and a parent of a student with special needs was the sense of inclusiveness. Everyone counts, everyone matters and everyone is encouraged to be engaged.

Learn more at Cascade Educational Consultants...

College Readiness and Access – Is Your School Up on This?
The Education Week Spotlight on College Readiness and Access is a collection of articles hand-picked by Education Week editors for their insights on:
  • The digital divide in the college admissions process
  • Districts using early college models
  • How 'soft skills,' like resiliency and grit, help students prepare for college
  • Challenges faced by college admissions counselors
  • Preparing students for the academic and financial demands of college
  • The gap in college-completion for Latino students
You can get the eight articles in a downloadable PDF, click here to download…

Articles for the Week:

"Arrogance blames. Humility takes responsibility.” --Dan Rockwell

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