Roundup: Coaches, dropouts, community colleges

Hiring math and literacy “coaches” to help teachers improve their practice seems to be following the usual path of change in public education—going from innovation to fad with little interruption and little research. As Alexander Russo describes in the latest Harvard Education Letter, coaching emerged as an alternative to traditional approaches to professional development in New York’s old community school district 2 and in Boston. It then spread to the West Coast when Tony Alvarado went to help Alan Bersin in San Diego, got picked in Los Angeles and then began spreading everywhere. Russo lays out the case in favor of coaches but he also raises questions that haven’t been widely asked. Little attention to this phenomenon, which in many places has been financed by a redirection of Title I money, has been paid in the mainstream press.

Education Week takes a look at ways school districts are rethinking high school promotion policies to avoid holding kids back in the 9th grade, which leads to many of them dropping out. With evidence of the dropout crisis in this country mounting (see the work of Robert Balfanz and his team at Johns Hopkins in which they identify schools that lack “promoting power”), this discussion is timely. As is noted in the Ed Week article, the transition to high school derails many 9th graders. Coddled in middle school, many freshmen arrive in high school without the basic skills, study habits or dispositions necessary to succeed. (One idea for how schools can work on this is here.)Middle schools, of course, ought to be more focused on preparing students academically. But, beyond that, high school counselors should be learning about the incoming class in January or February, instead of waiting until September when they show up on the doorstep. Middle school teachers should recommend courses based on the students’ needs. The high school should hold meetings in the spring for parents of incoming middle schoolers, to discuss their options. The middle schoolers should tour the high school. A high school student should be assigned to each middle schooler as a mentor to help them their first weeks. The high school should make a “study skills” class a requirement, to help kids learn to take notes, something many do only for the first time in high school. On and on. If schools were serious about easing this transition, there’s a lot they could do.

A new report out last week from the Education Commission of the States on community colleges deserved more attention. Called Keeping America’s Promise, the report said these institutions are affordable and effective, but are undervalued and underfunded. “The U.S. is currently number one in the global economic race, but mediocre performance on international assessments of educational quality suggest that its preeminent status is living on borrowed time,” writes Anthony Carnevale, a senior fellow with the National Center on Education and the Economy and Donna Desrochers, a director of policy research with the Educational Testing Service. They add, “As economic and demographic changes increase the demand for workers with at least some college, income differentials between the most and least skilled will continue to grow, threatening the egalitarian base at the core of America’s culture.” Half of all community college students are poorly prepared academically and far too many fail to stick around long enough to get an associate’s degree, let alone go on for a four-year degree.

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