School Leaders On What Determines Student Success
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, it is the season of giving - along with really corny ads reminding you about that. In a few minutes, we'll talk about the best and worst of charity video campaigns according to one advocacy group. That's coming up.
But first, we want to continue the conversation we've been having about school districts in big cities. The Nation's Report Card came out this week, and we're talking about the findings with Alberto Carvalho. He is the superintendent for the Miami-Dade school district. Also with us, Daniel Gohl. He's the chief academic officer for Houston Independent School District. And NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez remains with us as well. So, Claudio, we were talking before the break about how a report like this should be used - or how it is used. And I wanted to ask how you think it should be used. One of the things that you said really stuck out for you was the persistence in these racial, you know, achievement gaps. I mean, there were some people who would argue that, you know, the issue - that everybody's moving up - that there's good news in the report and that everybody's moving up. And it happens that the kids who are already ahead are getting even, you know, further ahead, but that the good news is that everybody's moving up. How do you respond to that?
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: I think that the huge red flag in this study - and the one that critics certainly point to for very legitimate reasons - is that the results from the NAEP report and the cities in this study show that only - again, I'll repeat because I said it earlier - only 12 percent of black students scored at grade level in math. It's even worse in Detroit, 3 percent - Milwaukee, 4 percent - Fresno, 6 percent - Cleveland, 7 percent. And even in D.C., which is being lauded for doing so well, only 8 percent of black kids - less than 1 in 10 - is doing grade level work in math. And that...
MARTIN: And how does that compare to white kids or overall?
SANCHEZ: I don't have the number for the white kids in front of me. But you have - you have a huge disparity between wealthy kids, and especially white kids and black kids - poor black kids. So what this is saying to me is we're missing something huge here. We're talking about huge improvements, and certainly, you know, places like Miami and Houston need to be recognized for all the work they've done. But we're missing a big, big opportunity to really improve on the kids who are struggling the most...
SANCHEZ: ...Black, Latino, poor kids.
MARTIN: Superintendent Carvalho, agree or disagree?
ALBERTO CARVALHO: I absolutely agree. As I said earlier, I mean, Miami-Dade is a minority-majority community, where 65 percent of the students are Hispanic, Latino. And the rest are black. And even though we celebrate the fact that both Hispanic and black students performed well compared to their counterparts nationwide - and our fourth graders, particularly, who are poor, score significantly higher than their counterparts in public schools nationwide and large cities in both reading and math. When you look at their percentage of proficiency compared to suburban non-minority America, it is still a challenge. Now, again, we look at it from a perspective - how did we get them?
And contrary to Houston and the position of Houston's CAO, a lot of these kids in a city like Miami - we have not had them since they were in pre-K or kindergarten or first grade. We have a lot of kids who arrive in our public schools from Cuba, from Central America, South America, from Haiti - virtually illiterate in both languages. And they must be caught up side-by-side with native speakers within the timeline of the accountability system. So are we making progress? Yes. Do we need to ramp up and accelerate that progress? Yes. Should we take pride in significantly narrowing the achievement gap between poor kids, black and Hispanic and their counterparts across the country? Yes. Should we rest on the shadow of success? Absolutely not. There's still a lot of ground to cover.
MARTIN: Before we let you go - we have about six minutes left and I would love to hear from each of you in the time that we have left. I'd like to ask, of the innovations that, you know, all of you have been sort of deeply immersed in looking at the various things that people have tried to address this problem - particularly over the last, you know, 10 years when the focus on the achievement gap has really increased. The racial achievement gap, the ethnic achievement gap has - so are there particular innovations that you're excited about, whether they're innovations or not?
Perhaps these are kind of classic methods that you just feel need more emphasis. In the time that we have left, Daniel Gohl, I'd like to ask you to start. What is it that you would like us all to be thinking about in addressing these problems? What do you think is the most important thing for us to focus our attention on?
DANIEL GOHL: So here in Houston, we've noticed of a divide between our mathematics and literacy performance. And we are deeply examining what - the structural reasons for that. NAEP doesn't give school results. It gives district level results for the TUDAs, or the trial urban districts. We see that we have a limited number of mathematics programs and that students have a fair degree of coherence when they have high mobility. We do not have that same reality in literacy. We have an incredible plethora of programs, and we have a big tradition here in Houston of allowing local control to decide literacy programs. We don't have the ability to support that anymore.
We need to acknowledge that when a kid moves from school to school, they need to have a coherent literacy program like they do in math. And we think that we can close the gap in literacy by bringing more coherence. That's not a top-down, but it is establishing a standard. We all get to buy a cell phone from any provider, but it all works together. And our literacy programs need that same degree of engineering.
MARTIN: Interesting. Superintendent Carvalho, what about you?
CARVALHO: So, I think your question is actually the most important question. So recognizing where we were and where we are today, what ingredients of what we believe is traditional education should we maintain in public schools? And what else should we add to catapult and really, you know, drive significantly different results? Some true-and-tried ingredients of reform which have been the mainstay of public education need to continue to be so.
And I'm referring specifically to the fact that great schools that generate great results and great student achievement have great effective leaders who are first and foremost instructional leaders. This is a clear departure from the way we viewed principals in the past. The principal cannot just be a motivational coach - needs to be an instructional leader who is data-driven, who knows how to identify, recognize, coach, model, support effective instruction in classroom and knows how to identify and hire the second most important factor in a school, which is teacher effectiveness. The third element is the wraparound services - support of communities and organizations that provide intervention in schools, interventions in - particularly in reading and math, the same key concerns that Houston has identified.
But the transformative promise of education reform through blended learning environments, using respectful - socially respectful technology tools that provide teachers the ability to differentiate instruction in the same classroom, allowing for simultaneous acceleration and remediation through technology that is adaptable and adaptive to students, meets them where they are and catapults them to proficiency level is the biggest promise in America right now...
MARTIN: All right.
CARVALHO: ...Not as a substitute for classroom teaching, but as a compliment to the teaching environment.
GOHL: I want to...
GOHL: ...Second that.
MARTIN: OK, I want to give Claudio time for a last comment. Claudio Sanchez.
SANCHEZ: I think there's an enormous amount of innovation going on in large city school systems, which, in fact, is, again, one of the bright things about - not that it comes up or is showcased in this report. But clearly, big cities are big laboratories for a lot of innovation. And you have to give them credit. I mean, they've improved teacher training. They've improved - certainly focused a lot more on struggling kids and so forth. But it's not enough. That's my point. It just hasn't been enough.
And as has been mentioned, there's a lot more work to do. I think the federal role here is also important. Remember that the Obama administration has gotten a lot of flak for intervening in many ways. I mean, it declared, you know, high schools and urban school systems, for example, dropout factories. And many of them were in large cities. But it's also pushed things like merit pay, charters, shutting down these poor-performing schools. And even though there is this notion that locals know best, I think that the pressure of the federal government has had a role in at least being able to claim that it's really put the pressure on these systems to do better.
MARTIN: A lot to talk about. You've all given us a lot to think about and a lot to talk about. And so we appreciate that very much. That was Claudio Sanchez speaking just now. He is our NPR education correspondent. And he comes to us from our Washington, D.C. studios. With us from member station WLRN in Miami, Alberto Carvalho. He is the superintendent for the Miami-Dade school district. Daniel Gohl is the chief academic officer for Houston Independent School District. And he was with us from Houston. Thank you all so much for joining us at this very busy time for you. And happy holidays to you all.
CARVALHO: Thank you.
GOHL: Thank you to you. And yours.
SANCHEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.