Monday, December 15, 2008

In light of Sunday’s Houston Chronicle article about Houston Independent School District (HISD) magnet programs that suggested that support for magnet programs waning both locally and nationally, I would like to stress how important it is that support our magnet programs because they represent the some of the best schools in our city and provide school choice without funding private schools and igniting divisive church/state issues. HISD Superintendent Dr. Saavedra‘s statement that “only 27% of magnet students transfer to schools with higher academic ratings than their neighborhood schools” is either wrong or perhaps reflects that so few HISD schools have high academic ratings. In 2008, no zoned high schools received TEA exemplary status, however, there were 5 magnet high schools that received this highest academic rating. All 5 of these exemplary high schools were magnet schools with their own campuses. Every student at these 5 schools, Carnegie Vanguard, DeBakey High School for the Health Professions, East Early College, Eastwood Academy, and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) transferred from a zoned school with a lower academic rating since no locally zoned high schools in HISD are exemplary.

Any student in Houston can apply to these 5 outstanding high schools since they are not restricted by the geographical boundaries that have lead to such high disparities in our American educational system. Admission criteria vary amongst the schools and they are not all about test scores (for example there is no academic requirement for HSPVA). These schools represent the economic, racial, and ethnic diversity that make Houston such a dynamic city. These schools belong to every person in our school district and, as such, should be supported by all HISD board members. A serious effort should be made to inform families, especially those with limited resources, that their children can attend these schools.
HISD needs to invest in programs that work. Rather than encouraging students to attend their local schools, why not replicate or expand these successful programs? Large locally zoned schools that do not require any commitment from the students and their parents, other than showing up on the first day of school is a school model has resulted in high dropout rates and a huge achievement gap between wealthy and poor students. In a time when Houston’s population is growing faster than any other city in the nation, HISD’s enrollment is shrinking. Perhaps the magnet schools can serve as a mechanism to attract and retain students in our school district.

I have been very impressed with the quality of education that my children have received through the HISD magnet programs. My daughter is a senior at HSPVA and my son is a sophomore at Carnegie Vanguard. I want all Houston students to have the same educational experience my children have had and attend schools where the teachers are master in their subjects, where the curriculum is stimulating and engaging, and where the students and their parents all feel honored be part of educational excellence. It is time for a renewed investment in the 30 year old magnet program. Otherwise, HISD’s enrollment and quality will continue to decline as the most motivated students, most educated families and the most gifted teachers will continue to leave the district. This continued erosion in of one of the largest school districts in our country will result in greater inequities in our society.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Identifying what matters

I attended a Houston Independent School District (HISD) board meeting last night to hear if they had decided to build a new facility for my son's school. However, all of this debate over buildings just drives home the fact that facilities do not enhance learning. The chart shown on the right illustrates the importance of different variables in determining student achievement. This graph is from Dr. John Hattie's analysis of the New Zealand school system (see shows that a student’s own ability (for example as measured by an IQ test) is the factor that correlates strongest to high student achievement – not a very surprising result. However, the next important factor is the teacher, not school, principal, home, or peers. Teachers make the critical difference in student learning, therefore we need to ensure that all children are taught by effective teachers. We need to invest in high quality teacher professional development and create a system where teaching is a well paid, highly honored profession.

The highest paid jobs in HISD are not in the classroom, but rather in administration. The HISD superintendent’s salary as of July 2008, was $442,556. An article in the Houston Chronicle just announced that the new head of HISD’s human resources (named Department of Human Talent) will receive a salary of $145,000 (she was a teacher for 4 years). The highest pay grade in HISD is for a 12 month teacher with a PhD and 27+ years of experience is $86,000 It is not clear how many, if any, of the 12,000 teachers in HISD have a 12 month appointment and that level of experience.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Out of field teaching in High Poverty Schools

The disparity among the quality of our schools is heartbreaking. Some of this is a result of complex socioeconomic issues. However, teachers cannot teach what they do not know, and therefore, poorer American students are receiving instruction from teachers who are less effective teachers.

The Education Trust just released a report that analyzed prevalence of out of field teaching in US middle and high school classes based on the most recent US department of Education School and Staffing survey data (2003-2004). Out of field teachers were defined as teacher’s lacking certification or an academic major in the subject they are teaching. Not surprisingly, out of field teaching was much more common in high poverty schools , i.e. schools where 75% of students receiving reduced or free lunch. Twenty-seven percent of the core courses in these high poverty schools are taught by out of field teachers while that rate is fourteen percent in low poverty schools (15% or fewer students receiving free lunch). Mathematics is particularly problematic with 41% of math courses in high poverty schools being taught by teachers without state certification or an academic major in math or a math related subject like engineering, physics or math education.

American schools are not broken, just fractured. While there are many factors that lead to the relatively low ranking of American students in most international comparisons (e.g. in mathematics the US ranked 24th of 29 countries that participated in the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment), it is clear that American students from our wealthiest schools are quite competitive as indicated by their high achievements at the university level. We need to provide economic incentives for the best teachers to take on the challenges of our inner city schools and we need to provide teachers who may lack content knowledge with the opportunity to gain content knowledge in the subjects that they are teaching. Recruitment bonuses for teachers at underresourced schools and high quality teacher professional development courses can help mend this fractured system.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

How do we teach chemistry so that it is real and relevant?

A few weeks ago I went to an innercity high school to observe a teacher that had been a participant in our professional development classes. This teacher is outstanding and was doing her best to engage 16 year old, economically disadvantaged students in her lecture on the structure of the atom. She used inquiry based methods, including “what do you know, what do you want to know, and what have you learned” prompts before, during, and at the end of class. She also used fun, exploratory techniques like modeling the Rutherford Gold Foil Experiment using a bowling ball as a model of the nucleus and having students throw tennis balls (see image). The students were enthusiastic and seemed to be learning about atomic structure – that atom is mostly empty space, that most of the mass is in the nucleus, protons are positive, etc.
She then lead the students through an introduction to electron orbital theory, which was less exciting but still very well taught.

At the end of what was an inspiring chemistry class, the teacher asked if there were any questions. One girl raised her hand and asked “Are there atoms inside me?”

How can a student who has taken a semester of 11th grade chemistry, a 10th grade in biology course, and 9th grade integrated physics and chemistry course, not understand that everything, including our bodies, is composed of atoms? How can we have this huge disconnect between what kids memorize for tests and what they really comprehend about science and our world?