New York

High-stakes school accountability across the pond

At home and abroad, the ultimate consequence a failing school can face is closure. Under No Child Left Behind, schools can be restructured or even closed if they fail to make progress for several years at a time. Here in New York, the chancellor has the ability to close schools at will, and this past year he shut the doors of several schools where student performance hadn’t budged in years. In addition, last year the DOE released school progress reports for the first time; schools that receive a failing grade on those reports in the future will be subject to closure.

But the handful of school closures each year in the city is nothing compared with what Britain may face in three years. Last month, the British government’s year-old Department for Children, Schools, and Families launched “National Challenge,” an initiative to hold schools accountable for preparing at least 30 percent of their students to pass five comprehensive exams that are considered a first step toward winning university admission. The General Comprehensive Subject Exams, required before students can take the A-level tests required for admission to universities, are offered in dozens of subjects. Currently, only about half of all British teens pass five GCSEs, and a fifth of schools don’t meet the National Challenge requirements. The remaining 20 percent have only until 2011 to improve their performance.

In the initiative’s first phase, the government released a list of schools currently not in compliance with the National Challenge standards. The schools on the list contrast sharply with those considered unsatisfactory by Ofsted, the national unit that inspects schools. In fact, the BBC recently reported that only 10 percent of the schools given only three years to improve or be closed are considered “in need of intervention” by Ofsted. School heads resent the stigma being attached to their schools, with one telling the BBC, “Branding my school as weak is simplistic in the extreme and downright unfair.” The whole affair closely parallels the fallout  of the  progress reports’ release here in New York last fall, when it became clear that many schools with top grades were on the state’s list of schools in need of improvement, and some failing schools were actually quite high-performing. In England, pundits are asking, “Can naming and shaming help schools?” It’s a question worth considering. (Mike Baker,  the British education journalist who posed that question recently, said the answer is no — and that those who named and shamed schools in the past now regret it.)

Another question Britons are grappling with: whether the GCSEs are even valuable. GCSEs have traditionally been considered rigorous exams. But some believe the most popular exams have gotten easier in recent years. A new English course that focuses on “real-life contexts” where English is used rather than on literature will roll out in 2010. A media studies course requires students to analyze scenes from an action film. And in recent years, many independent schools have reduced the number of GCSE exams they offer, saying some subjects are “too easy” to merit class time. The British government seems to be out of step with A report being released this week by two influential British academics concludes that the multiple-test system encourages students to think of learning as a fragmented, disconnected experience. It suggests replacing the GCSE system with a single baccalaureate exam that all students must pass to graduate from secondary school. Here, Britain might learn from the example of the U.S. states that have adopted high school exit exams, only to find that they discourage high school completion.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.