Barack Obama at Successful Turnaround Public School

Here is a final story about a Barack Obama school visit that provides some context for his approach to education policy and reform. After he was elected Senator and before he began his presidential campaign, Obama visited the Dodge Renaissance Academy on the west side of Chicago. A few years before, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan had shut down the school because it had perennially been one of the lowest achieving schools in the entire city of Chicago. Duncan immediately reopened Dodge as a new public school managed by the Chicago-based non-profit “Academy for Urban School Leadership” (AUSL). Dodge became the most-improved public school in the entire state of Illinois with the vast majority of students students now achieving at or above grade level in core academic subjects.Obama came to visit Dodge in order to celebrate progress and learn from the educators and students who produced that progress.

Obama’s experience at the school – and the results at Dodge – resonated with his own deeply held beliefs and highlighted for Senator Obama the importance of:

1) Adults’ personal responsiblity and accountability for our students and their improved learning.

2) Teaching quality – including recruitment, training, and consistent support for professionalization, development, and better pay for our teachers – as the most important in-school factor driving improved student achievement.

3) Rewarding and supporting what’s working in public education while decisively and fairly addressing low performance on behalf of putting our children first.

First, one teacher told Obama that one of the greatest obstacles to success is the “these kids” syndrome. The teacher told him that too many adults find nothing but excuses (student motivation, family background, etc) for why “these kids” can’t learn. At Dodge, the teachers rejected this formulation which absolves adults of responsibility and implies that students and their low achievement are someone else’s problem.

Obama agreed with the teacher’s and school’s insight and belief. The students are not “these kids”, Obama said. “They our our kids. They want a chance to achieve and each of us has a responsibility to give them that chance.”

Second, Obama saw in action the idea that adult talent and teaching practice are the single greatest in-school factors driving improvements in student achievement. He learned about a model to recruit master teachers with a strong track record to teach at a high-poverty school and place carefully selected teachers-in-training as residents in the classrooms with those master teachers. The teachers told him of being treated as professionals including better support and higher pay in recognition of their successful track record and the extra work and time at the school. And he saw a school where low-performing teachers got support and then either improved or left the clasroom entirely.

Third, Barack Obama observed this and other successful schools as real examples of what’s possible when a school system and non-profit or community organization work with educators and parents to address low-performance fairly but decisively while opening up a new public school and investing in what works for the same community and students.

Obama says creating and taking to greater scale successful schools like Dodge show “what’s possible in education if we’re willing to break free of the tired thinking and political stalemate….if we’re willing to try new ideas and new reforms based not on ideology but on what works to give our children the best possible chance in life.”

He now contrasts these promising successes with the achievement gap more generally and describes that gap as “morally unacceptable for our children. It’s economically untenable for our future. And its not who we are as a nation.”

Later today, we’ll finish this series with a description of Barack Obama’s specific education plan to support efforts nationwide to bring the success that students at Dodge and elsewhere have begun to experience to students all across America.

Guestblogger – Jon Schnur

5 Replies to “Barack Obama at Successful Turnaround Public School”

  1. This is all nice and I agree, but it’s feel-good stuff. It’s a big Kumbaya moment here in Dodge, and everyone says all the right stuff and then expects everyone to smile, be better people, and all will be well.

    What makes some teaching better than other teaching? It’s not whether a teacher likes kids, is a born teacher, is motivated, etc. that makes some teaching better. The most motivated teacher can still offer lousy instruction. I see it all the time in education research.

    Until Obama (or anyone) tries to wrestle with the real technical core of teaching, nothing will change. Tell Barack not to hire the usual suspects for the US DOE when and if he gets elected. Hire someone with the guts to do the work to improve instructional practice.

  2. I agree with Cooler Heads – the last thing we need is to put more status quo/wrong-headed people in power at the fed level. I’ll tell you that the prospect of having Darling-Hammond appointed secretary is enough to make me vote for the other guy.

  3. Jon,

    Dodge Elementary is actually part of a larger initiative – it is one of Chicago’s initial Renaissance 2010 schools. Ren10 is an effort at scaling up reform – by launching 100 public schools of exceptional quality in underserved communities by 2010 (about 16% of the district).

    The Ren10 schools are a mix of charter schools, contract schools, and what we call performance schools. All of these schools are given more freedom to structure their school day, hire staff, manage their budget, in exchange for greater accountability and a 5 year performance contract. All of the school design teams must pass through a rigorous 7 month selection process (that involves submitting detailed proposals, interviews with national and local education experts, numerous presentations before the community, etc) prior to selection.

    The city is on track to reach its goal of 100 schools. So far, it has opened 75 Renaissance 2010 schools. 54 have been funded by The Renaissance Schools Fund, and among those, we are seeing strong early results with:

    Higher average attendance: 90% at RSF high schools vs. 83% in CPS non-selective high schools

    Stronger academic achievement: An average of 6.5% growth vs. 2.2% for CPS neighborhood comparison schools in 2007

    Longer school day & year: A student attending RSF schools from K-12th grade will receive an average of 5.3 years more instruction in core subject areas than his or her CPS counterparts

    More professional development: RSF teachers receive an average of 70% more hours per month than the CPS average

    At all of these schools parents must complete a basic application for lottery purposes although the process is non-selective. Parents are being encouraged to be partners in these schools and some are already seeing unprecendented levels of involvement.

    We do hope an Obama education team would look to seeding and scaling up successful education innovations like this.

    Thanks for your post.

  4. Katheryn, how do kids get into Dodge? Can anyone get in? Is there a test? Are there hard and fast contracts regarding behavior and expulsion?

    Do tell!

  5. I checked out the Web Page at Dodge and found the following newspaper account of their success”

    “The goal: Explain dramatic irony to a roomful of seventh graders at Chicago’s Dodge Renaissance Academy.

    The result: in one ear, out the other.

    Were she at another school, language arts teacher Karla Kemp probably would have moved on. “Many teachers just plow through,” she said.

    Not at Dodge. Kemp huddled with a student teacher to write a new lesson. The second time, most students got it.

    “The focus here is on being a better teacher,” Kemp, 39, said during a break at the West Side public school recently. “And I got that way here. It’s the atmosphere here. We all want to get better.”

    Frequent testing contributed to that successful outcome. I personally prefer to trust conversation, intuition, and all of the other tricks I’ve picked up, supplemented by data, to learn whether students really understand, but I teach high school and also there are plenty of ways to skin a cat. The only thing that is nonnegotiable is the atmosphere that was described. It must be trusting and honest. (Perhaps a constructive learning culture can exist in a school with data-driven accountability – as opposed to data-driven decision-making – but I personally would never want to try it out, and we know that high stakes testing creates a lot of harm and dishonesty, even if it does some good.)

    My minority opinion is that we have overlooked the single most destructive characteristic of NCLB-type accountability. We know about the test prep, the curriculum narrowing, the increased dropout rate, and the dishonesty, but I think that the single worst policy is that teachers are being pressured to cover too much material too quickly. We have always had the problem of the “in one ear, out the other” dynamic, but now so many teachers are being pressured to follow curriculum pacing formats developed by people who don’t know squat about actual teaching. Only in an honest and collaborative culture can teachers argue for their better professional judgement. (And in my opinion, that honesty can only be sustained when you have strong union protections. Individual academic leaders with integrity may produce gains for a few years, but the need for checks and balances is a true in schools as in the Constitution.)

    My biggest job is to listen to and to read people. The most reliable method in my experience is to see whether kids can catch a joke which is only funny when you have understood a concept. If sometime in my lifetime a test can compete with my professional judgement in learning about my students’ learning, I’ll give props to the technology. Why not? And that won’t happen for a long long time.

    The same, “on one hand and on the other hand” dynamic applies to the exhortation to have high expectations. Of course, every child can learn, but of course, every system can fail. Too many teachers are too quick to criticize their fellow teachers. When a school with the capacity for additional hours and the culture required to attract great teachers is successful we should all applaud. Too many teachers have bought into the “bait and switch” of pointing to schools with high expectations, plus additional capacity, and then expecting teachers in schools without that capacity (or where money is wasted due to situations beyond the control of teachers) to achieve equal results. That is a recipe for burnout. I see it all of the time.

    But that gets us back to THE essential, in my opinion, an HONEST EXCHANGE OF MEANINGFUL AND ACCURATE INFORMATION ALONG WITH OUR PROFESSIONAL JUDGEMENTS. But how is that possible? Unless you truly LOVE, AND UNDERSTAND AND LISTEN to the kids, its awfully hard to look in the mirror.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.