From time to time, PNC Bank, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and ideastream get together to put on discussions of relevant issues in northeast Ohio. This week’s discussion focused on the Cleveland Plan, a broad plan and a piece of legislation aimed at improving the city’s faltering school system.
On hand to talk about the plan were Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon, Cleveland Teachers Union president David Quolke, Cleveland Foundation program director Hellen Williams, and principal Carol Lockhart.
Here are the top 5 takeaways from Monday night’s discussion:
1. Urgency is Key
Last fall voters in Cleveland approved a 15-mill levy. That levy has an expiration date of four years, and while campaigning for the levy Gordon told community members he doesn’t want them to approve another levy if the school district hasn’t improved.
That four-year timeline, Gordon says, gives them a sense of urgency that will push for changes to be made. In fact, Gordon says he’d like to put a countdown clock in every classroom to help remind teachers and principals on the ground that time is ticking, and gains need to be made.
Even union president Quolke, who says he was initially opposed to the idea of asking for a levy for just four years, says he’s glad the new funds have an end date.
“In retrospect I think it really challenges us to say if we’re going to go back to the community and say we need your commitment again for another set of years, we’ve got to engage them on day one,” he says.
2. What Makes a Good Teacher
Unsurprisingly, much of the discussion focused on what makes a good teacher, and how teachers can help improve the district on the ground. In a clip from an interview with education reformer Linda Darling-Hammond, good teaching was defined like this:
“Kids will learn as much for a teacher as from a teacher. That is, the relationship is so important to whether a student who is struggling will try to put forth the effort and work through the pain of learning.”
Relationships, Darling-Hammond said, are key to good teaching.
But the central question was how to improve teachers and how they teach. Quolke said the teacher evaluations being implemented in Cleveland is a good model because it emphasized development through the support of the district.
“We have to stop the assault on teachers,” Gordon said. “We have to presume and I do presume that when my teachers and leaders get up every and put their key in their car and turn the ignition they don’t say ‘boy I hope I fail a kid today.’”
3. What Makes a Good Principal
This discussion was again kicked off by a definition of what a good principal is from Linda Darling-Hammond:
“A good principal first of all should have been a great teacher, and know what great teaching is and how you do it. But that’s not enough because you also have to know to organize the work of lots of other people so that it operates smoothly, you have to know how to help other people become good teachers, how to develop them both individually and through planning, professional learning, you have to learn how to engage the community.”
“Leadership matters,” says Carol Lockhart, a principal in a highly performing Cleveland school. “But not just my leadership. My teachers are leaders themselves, so together we build capacity for the work. Collective efficacy drives what we do.”
Lockhart says principals should be meeting with their teachers on a regular basis. She meets with her staff for 20 minutes every day during the lunch period. And, she says, they should be talking about how to prepare their students for careers. Lockhart says principals should be asking “what is it that corporate America is looking for in your scholars as they’re graduating?”
4. Meet Parents Where They Are
“Parents aren’t sending their bad kid to school and keeping their good one at home,” Gordon joked. “They send the best kid they’ve got.”
Much of the discussion on parental involvement focused on the importance of involving parents in the schools – and how to best do that by getting beyond the traditional bake sale.
Gordon’s point about parents sending the best kid they’ve got focused on how the district can meet parents where they are, the idea being that parents aren’t necessarily bad parents if they don’t make it to a parent- teacher conference or that bake sale, maybe they’re just busy.
Gordon said teachers and principals have to think about how to keep parents involved through PTA’s or advisory groups. He suggested turning to parent-teacher conferences via Skype or sending home electronic report cards.
The bottom line, as Quolke saw it, is that the district has to “invest in organizing parents.”
5. Measure Success
The crux of any effort to “turn around” or “transform” failing schools is how to figure out when a plan has worked.
Gordon says the problem with a lot of school improvement efforts has been a strong focus on raising test scores; a practice that leads to quick fixes (and sometimes cheating).
“Our job is to get more great choices for more kids more quickly,” Gordon said.
“Significantly more high performing schools for kids in all parts of our community.”
Helen Williams of the Cleveland Foundation had more specifics to offer: ”Have we stemmed the decline in enrollment? Are more families choosing Cleveland schools than schools in the portfoio and are more of those families choosing schools that are good schools?”
Williams said it’s not enough to look at graduation rates, but also rigor and whether students are prepared for college or a job once they graduate from Cleveland schools.