Improving education starts with improving classroom management


by Christopher Paslay


When it comes to education reform in America, we know what’s in fashion: The need for a comprehensive data system to track student achievement; the need to adopt international benchmark standards to improve assessments; the need to implement performance pay for teachers to raise their overall quality.


We’ve also heard about the importance of good instructional strategies and “rigorous” curriculum. 


However, little has been said about classroom management.  Without an orderly classroom, instructional strategies and curriculum don’t make much difference; you have to crawl before you can walk. 


Recently I was perusing the September 2003 issue of Educational Leadership and found an interesting article on Classroom management.     


Titled “The Key to Classroom Management,” the article was organized around several research studies, all of which support the importance of classroom management and show that it is perhaps the biggest factor in student achievement.  The article was also about the dynamics of classroom management, and shed light on why some teachers have highly organized classrooms while others struggle to keep order and control. 


The article broke classroom management into three categories.  The first was setting Appropriate Levels of Dominance.   “In contrast to the more negative connotation of the term dominance as forceful control or command over others,” the authors stated, “dominance is defined as the teacher’s ability to provide clear purpose and strong guidance regarding both academics and student behavior.” 


In order to bring about this appropriate dominance, teachers must establish clear expectations and consequences, which can be done by reinforcing acceptable behavior and providing consequences for unacceptable behavior.  Teachers must also establish clear learning goals, which can be achieved through the use of rubrics and charts that state lesson objectives.  Finally, teachers must exhibit assertive behavior—they must use firm body language and tone of voice, and persist until students respond with acceptable behavior. 


Next, the article talked about Appropriate Levels of Cooperation.  The authors defined cooperation as “a concern for the needs and opinions of others”.  Teachers can achieve this by providing flexible learning goals (allowing students to help set learning objectives), by taking a personal interest in their students (talking informally with students before or after class about their interests), and by using equitable and positive classroom behaviors (making eye contact and calling all students by name).      


Finally, the idea of establishing an Awareness of High-Needs Students was mentioned.  According to the authors, 12-22 percent of all students in school suffer from mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders, and relatively few receive mental health services.  So teachers need to be aware of the special needs of their students, so they can interact with them appropriately. 


In closing, the article provided the following advice: Don’t leave relationships to chance.  The relationship between a teacher and his or her students is essential in providing a solid foundation for classroom management.  Because studies prove that classroom management is important to student achievement, student-teacher relationships should not be left to chance; they should not be dictated by the personalities of those involved. 


Improving education starts with improving classroom management.  It was refreshing to come across this article in Educational Leadership—to read about practical strategies that can have a significant impact on student achievement.


Daily News publishes ‘myth of racial inequality’ commentary



Today, the Philadelphia Daily News published my commentary on the myth of racial inequality in the Philadelphia School District, which originally appeared on this blog on July 10th.

If you missed this one (or want to give it another read in the pages of the Daily News), click here.  Feel free to leave comments below.




Christopher Paslay


The myth of racial inequality in Philadelphia public schools



Despite accusations of segregation, academic achievement and failure in district schools transcend neighborhoods and racial boundaries.


by Christopher Paslay


There’s a line in the movie JFK where Kevin Costner explains to the jury that theoretical physics can prove that an elephant can hang from a cliff with his tail tied to a daisy.


“But use your eyes, your common sense,” Costner tells the jurors.    


This is good advice when it comes to the racial achievement gap in the Philadelphia School District.  Recently, district and city officials have suggested that unequal school conditions are the reason why white students have higher math and reading skills than black and Latino students.


Philadelphia, like many other Northeastern cities, has been slow to address and remove the policy barriers that have served to keep poor and minority students in under-resourced schools,” Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s secretary of education recently stated.


It’s not my policy to look at people in terms of skin color, but since the race card has been placed squarely on the table, it’s worth investigating the matter further.


Let’s start with the racial make-up of several of the highest performing public schools in the city (as well as the state). 


Despite claims of segregation, CAPA, Engineering and Science, and Girls High have student bodies that are majority black.  Central is evenly balanced between black (30.7 percent), white (31.7 percent) and Asian (28.8 percent), and Masterman is also very diverse. 


Let’s now look at the demographics of the so-called “white” schools in the Northeast.  According to school district data, Frankford, Fells, Lincoln and Northeast all have more black students than white, or any other race for that matter.  Washington is also very diverse, with more non-white students than white. 


The interesting part about these “privileged” Northeast schools is that all five of them are empowerment schools—which means they are failing because they haven’t met the standards set forth in No Child Left Behind. 


The same is true for the Northeast’s Austin Meehan Middle School and Fitzpatrick Elementary—they have more non-white students than white, and both are categorized as failing. 


A school that is predominantly white is Kensington’s Charles Carroll High School (54.8% white), but once again there are no extra privileges or resources here, because this school is also failing by state standards. 


A school that isn’t failing is Strawberry Mansion, which is 98 percent black and located in the heart of North Philadelphia.  Neither is Bok in South Philadelphia (77.3 percent black); or Communications Technology in Southwest Philadelphia (98 percent black); or High School of the Future in West Philadelphia (94.7 percent black).  And the list goes on and on.  


So where’s the unequal opportunity?


When you analyze the actual numbers, it becomes clear that Philadelphia’s racial achievement gap is more about politics than it is about a “dark stain” of inequality.  There is no legitimate racial discrimination taking place—the district’s 85 empowerment schools, as well as the ones making Adequate Yearly Progress—are evenly distributed across racial lines and neighborhood boundaries. 


But even if there were some kind of discrimination evident, it would clearly have to be of the black-on-black variety.      


Mayor Michael Nutter is black (as was John Street before him);  Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is black; School Reform Commission chair Robert L. Archie Jr. is black; 61 percent of Philadelphia public school students (and their parents) are black. 


This, of course, is opposed to the 13 percent of the district students who are white.


White students may score higher on standardized math and reading tests than their black and Latino counterparts, but educational opportunities in schools are only the tip of the iceberg.


In a newly released report titled Parsing the Achievement Gap II, the Educational Testing Service tracked national trends between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.  The report listed 16 factors that have been linked to student achievement. 


Of the 16 factors, nine were directly related to a child’s home environment.  Minority children struggle in schools for reasons such as lack of parental involvement, low birth weight, hunger and poor nutrition, exposure to lead and mercury, excessive television watching, and the fact that they are not read to enough as babies, among other things.


If we want all children to succeed in school, it’s time to take a holistic approach to education.  We not only need more resources in struggling schools, but we need true buy-in from parents and the community. 


We all must take responsibility for educating our city’s children, and resist the familiar temptation to blame our shortcomings on racism.      


The Arne Duncan reform train: when ‘all’ really means ‘some’

The Secretary of Education calls on teachers and their unions to reform their ways.  He asks others to commit to education only superficially.  


by Christopher Paslay


In recent weeks, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has outlined his plans for reforming America’s public schools in a series of high profile speeches. 


Although many of the proposals contained in these speeches make sense, Duncan still seems to oversimplify the problems facing our public school system.   


Education is much broader than teachers and schools.  Granted, a good teacher and a successful school are necessary for a child to learn, but by no means does education stop there.  There are numerous components to the education equation, relevant factors that have a significant impact on a child’s overall ability to learn (and on a teacher’s and school’s ability to be successful).


You have education policy writers, and their ability to develop practical and effective teaching strategies; you have colleges and universities, and their ability to properly prepare and train quality teachers; you have parents, and their responsibility to nurture their child’s thirst for knowledge by helping with homework and getting involved in their school; you have social service organizations, and their ability to provide the basics—such as asthma medicine and eyeglasses—to children without health care; you have the community, and its responsibility to instill in youth the values needed to be a good citizen.                  


Unfortunately, Secretary Duncan’s speeches have for the most part ignored the complexities of the factors mentioned above, and focused on one piece of the pie—teachers and schools—as if teachers and schools exist in a vacuum and are not interconnected to the whole.  He equates education reform to a moving train, and calls for everyoneall people—to get on board. 


“The education reform movement is not a table where we all sit around and talk,” Duncan told the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference on June 22 in Washington D.C.  “It’s a train that is leaving the station, gaining speed, momentum and direction. It is time for everyone—everywhere—to get on board.”    


But it doesn’t appear that Duncan’s definition of “everyone” really means everyone.    


A quick recap of all four of Duncan’s recent speeches might reveal this truth.     


On June 8th, Duncan addressed the Institute of Education Sciences research conference in Washington, D.C.  He focused on the need for a comprehensive data system to track student achievement and teacher effectiveness.   


“But to somehow suggest that we should not link student achievement and teacher effectiveness, it’s like suggesting we judge a sports team without looking at the box score,” Duncan told the audience. 


This makes sense, to a certain extent; there are many factors that affect test data other than teacher performance, of course.


But if we’re going to introduce a comprehensive data system into our public schools, why should this data solely measure student achievement and teacher effectiveness?  Why not extend this data system to track parental involvement?  To measure the effectiveness and practicality of educational policy and those who write it?  To measure the performance of superintendents and school board members?        


On June 14th, Duncan spoke to the 2009 Governors Education Symposium in North Carolina.  He talked about raising the bar in terms of assessment, and urged all states to adopt a set of international benchmarked standards that prepare students for success in the workforce and college.


“The standards must be tied to the endpoint of making sure students are ready to succeed in college or in the workplace,” Duncan said. “You must resist the temptation to make these standards too easy. Our children deserve to graduate from high school prepared for college and the jobs of the future.”


Again, why should these “higher” standards stop with students and teachers?  Why not raise the standards when it comes to the credentials needed to hold the office of Secretary of Education?  Shouldn’t candidates need at least some experience teaching in a public school classroom (yes, I’m referring to you, Mr. Duncan).  How about superintendents?  Education professors and writers of curriculum? 


On June 22, Duncan addressed the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference in Washington D.C.  He talked about ways to turn around failing schools. 


He had four basic models in mind.


The first involved stripping teachers of seniority, and giving principals full autonomy to pick their own teaching staffs.    


“Under this model, the children stay and the staff leaves,” Duncan said.  “Teachers can reapply for their jobs and some get rehired, but most go elsewhere. A few leave the profession, which is not all bad. Not everyone is cut out for teaching. Like every profession, people burn out.”


Duncan’s second option also involved replacing the teachers and principals.  The plan called for turning schools into charters, or handing them over to for-profit management organizations. 


Apparently, Secretary Duncan hasn’t been paying much attention to the for-profit management experiment in the Philadelphia School District.  Numerous studies have shown that these private managers do not raise academic performance. 


In fact, 16 out of the 20 elementary and middle schools currently being run by outside managers in Philadelphia performed lower than the city’s traditional public schools (this of course didn’t stop their contracts from being renewed this year at the cost of $9 million).      


As for charters:  How is it that some charters fail to raise academic achievement, embezzle millions of taxpayer dollars and still remain in operation? 


Duncan said his third turnaround model for failing schools keeps most of the existing staff but they must establish a rigorous performance evaluation system.  The school must also increase learning time for kids during afternoons, weekends, and in the summer, among other things.


Duncan’s last turnaround model: Close under-performing schools and reenroll students in better ones.


On July 2nd, Duncan addressed the National Education Association at their annual convention in San Diego.  His focus this time was on improving the quality of the education workforce—teachers, principals and education support personnel.


In this speech he immediately put the role of unions in the spotlight.


“I came here today to challenge you to think differently about the role of unions in public education,” Duncan said.  “When thousands of schools are chronically failing and millions of children are dropping out each year—we all must think differently.”


He urged “dramatic change” in education and insinuated that unions and their policies were standing in the way of that change. 


“We created seniority rules that protect teachers from arbitrary and capricious management,” he said, “and that’s a good goal. But sometimes those rules place teachers in schools and communities where they won’t succeed—and that’s wrong.  We created tenure rules to make sure that a struggling teacher gets a fair opportunity to improve—and that’s a good goal. But when an ineffective teacher gets a chance to improve and doesn’t—and when the tenure system keeps that teacher in the classroom anyway—then the system is protecting jobs rather than children. That’s not a good thing. We need to work together to change that.”


When it comes to unions protecting struggling teachers, Duncan may have a point; and I say this as a member of a teachers union myself. 


However, let’s back up a minute and talk about real teacher supports.  One of the biggest reasons teachers struggle is because of classroom management issues—you must have order before you can teach.  What are two big causes of management problems?  Class size, and the lack of alternative placements for troubled students. 


How long have unions been asking (begging, pleading) for smaller class sizes?  How long have teachers been held hostage by violent or unruly students who are kept in the classroom because there is no where to put them, or by laws that prevent their expulsion? 


Why don’t we cut class sizes or build more alternative schools?  Because it costs too much money!  And when it comes to money, everyone isn’t on board the reform train.  Money is going here, there, everywhere, but too little of it finds its way into the classroom for direct instruction.


So where is the hands-on support for the struggling teachers?  Where are the resources for the teachers who have 33 teenagers in their classroom, some with ADD, others with physical and behavior health issues, and no parental involvement? 


Real education reform is possible in American.  Teachers do have room to improve, and unions must learn to be more open minded and flexible.  But if real reform is going to happen, we all must truly get on board, and reform cannot stop with teachers and schools. 


To quote Arne Duncan:  “There is simply no more important work in our society than education. The President understands that, parents understand that, America understands that. Now we—all of us together—must act on that understanding and move forward.”


Now if only we could get Arne Duncan to expand his definition of “all” to truly include everybody.