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Lily Eskelsen's picture

There is a very smart new Member of Congress from California who gets it.

Congresswoman Judy Chu is tired of jumping on rickety legislative bandwagons of blame and shame and name the bad guys and all will be magically right with all of our schools.

She’s an educator. So she knows it’s complicated. So she knows as we start down that road to reauthorizing (read that: getting rid of the Stupid Stuff in) No Child Left, what we need to leave behind are those gimmicks of abusing high-stakes tests and pretending they mean something they don’t.

She’s put together a compelling case for rethinking what's real.

Today she presented her white paper (pdf). There’s a little tear-stain of hope on my copy. Because she calls for exactly what President Obama promised we would do first in reauthorizing a law that was supposed to give a leg up to children who face life’s greatest challenges and live in our most disadvantaged communities.

The President said, “We are going to stop doing things that don’t work.”

Educators sent up balloons when he said that! Champagne corks popped! Imagine. We’re going to stop doing Stupid Stuff! Yes! ‘Bout time! (I have now used up my quota of exclamation points.)

There are a lot of people, Democrats and Republicans, who want to get this right. Smart people, like Congresswoman Chu, know that the way to start is to do our homework on what research and experience says is already working.

Here’s what her researched paper says:

  1. You get rid of One-Size-Fits-All labels. Because kids don’t come in a box with some-assembly-required instructions. I’ve found that children, although deceiving little, are actual human-type people. And what they need from us can be very different, school to school, class to class, child to child. Give us the freedom and the responsibility and the authority to design something that works for the kids we’re serving.
  2. You end a structure that isolates teachers and support staff so they think they’re all alone. Successful structures are systems based on teams of dedicated professionals who are expected to analyze data, diagnose and design what works for our individual students. The best teams start by being clear about the purpose of that school. It’s never to maximize a Cut-Score Quota of Kids. People who care, care about the whole kid learning the skills, attitudes, work habits, creative and critical thinking abilities – the whole enchilada of the system in service to that blessedly whole and human child.
  3. You recognize that a school can’t do it alone – but a school CAN be the hub that invites the parts together. The school can bring in the community and parents and businesses and researchers - so that if a problem is outside the school, you have the right people to design and implement a plan for nutrition, health, overworked parents, crime…
  4. You build a culture of people taking charge – showing leadership – no excuses.

We’ve seen that leadership in Hamilton County, Tennessee and Seattle and Priority Schools in Wisconsin.

We’ve seen it in Putnam City West High School just outside Oklahoma City where a fourth of the student body are English Language Learners, where 2/3 live below the poverty line and where there’s a 40% turnover of students who begin the year and whose families will move before the school year ends.

Putnam needed something tailored to their kids, so they didn’t look on a shelf for the right Reform-In-A-Box. They built it from scratch. They used a framework for success remarkably like the one Representative Chu presented today.

They used data – not to blame somebody – but to find out where the strengths and weaknesses in their programs were. They need to know where to begin filling in the gaps that were holding back many of their kids.

They brought together teachers and support staff and administrators and parents and business leaders and advocates who work with families in poverty and community colleges…and then they got radical. They LISTENED to each other.

They heard that students didn’t always think that classes were relevant to them. So they partnered with Technology Centers so that kids could understand they were preparing for some pretty cool jobs.

They heard that parents didn’t always feel welcome, especially where there were language barriers. So they reached out to parents and made them feel that the school belonged to them – and that they were an essential part of success.

They heard that families often had no context for college. So they got parents excited about graduation, because that diploma would be a golden ticket to higher education and its infinite possibilities.

They trained teachers in data analysis and personalized instruction, so the teacher had a deeper understanding of the needs and achievement of each child.

Kids know that they are so important, that that the hub and spokes and wheel that was built is . And it’s paying off. We know, because they’re measuring results.

After 3 years, Parent Night went from less than 50 parents to over 200 parents.

The pass rate on English II (a graduation requirement) went from 55% to 77%.

The Academic Performance Index (a broader measure of achievement across subject areas) went up 27% for Hispanic students.

Attendance is up.

The graduation rate increased by 70%.

Putnam City West High School isn’t afraid of accountability, because accountability at Putnam isn’t a blame game there. Accountability is taking responsibility for doing what’s right and doing what’s smart.

That’s all her paper says. True transformation isn’t a matter of how many people get fired or how many scripted reading programs are passed out.

If you want to transform schools, you do what works – you unleash the positive power of the people who know the names of those kids.

Representative Chu deserves the thanks of a grateful nation of educators for making the eloquent point: Do what works.

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