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Interview Of The Month: Claus von Zastrow From The Learning First Alliance

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Last month I began a new feature called “Interview Of The Month.” In these interviews, I’ll be talking with anybody in the education world who I want to get to know better and who I think others might be interested in, too. How’s that for a broad criteria?

The first person I interviewed was Kelly Young from Pebble Creek Labs, one of the best people — if not The Best — in the country for assisting teachers develop better instructional strategies.

Next month, David Cohen, one of the key people behind The Accomplished Teachers Forum and co-author of a recent Op Ed piece titled Test scores poor tool for teacher evaluation, will be the guest.

This month, I was lucky enough to interview Claus von Zastrow, the director of the Learning First Alliance, a partnership of 17 leading education associations. He writes the influential Public School Insights blog, which I highlight regularly here.

It’s a bit lengthy, but well worth reading!

Can you describe the Learning First Alliance and how you got involved with it?

The Learning First Alliance is a permanent partnership of 17 major national education associations that collectively represent some 10 million parents, education practitioners and education policymakers. Rather than dump the entire list of members on you right here, here’s a link to the membership list. We represent the people who work in and for public schools every day. We need to have a voice at the national policy table.

We give our very diverse membership opportunities to find common ground on a host of education issues that affect the well-being of children. The Alliance exists because the members believe they can accomplish much more for children if they work together.

We’ve done some important work establishing common ground in areas like reading instruction, mathematics instruction, district-wide improvement and staffing hard-to-staff schools. We want to create alignment among our own members in these important areas, but we also want to remind the outside world that the people who carry out the work of public education have to be partners in the formulation of policy.

How did I get involved with LFA? My previous jobs in education were quite different. I started working on workforce issues and proceeded to curricular issues at a couple of DC think tank/policy organizations. It occurred to me after that work that parents and practitioners were often left out of discussions about school reform. They, after all, will have to carry out many of the reforms currently under discussion. LFA operates on the assumption that the people who work in and for public schools everyday can become a powerful force for improvement.

You’ve written a lot about the fallacies of looking at school reform through the lens of “either/or” — it’s either the merit pay/standardized tests/charter school etc. way or one that has all the elements of what are often considered a “progressive” vision for schools. Can you give us an overview of these thoughts, and why you think so many people have that “either/or” perspective?

I think people like to go whole hog on the newest reform ideas, and they tend to dismiss earlier reform ideas as passé or ineffective. That tendency creates either/or thinking, because people begin to harden into ideological camps.

Take, for example, the biggest proponents of alternative certification. Many discount investments in “traditional” teacher education or staff development. One prominent advocate even counseled the federal government to defund traditional programs. As Linda Darling-Hammond notes, however, neither traditional nor alternative certification programs can boast stellar results across the board, so it’s time to learn what’s best from both to create something much better. (Of course, Darling-Hammond had to endure vicious ideological attacks, but that’s another story.)

The charter school debate offers another example. There are terrific charter schools out there, and we can learn a lot from them. But the True Believers in the charter movement—and their enablers in the media—would have you believe that charters offer the only answers to what ails public schools. There are wonderful traditional public schools out there that are having astonishing results for low-income kids, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the papers. And as a result, the public is getting a distorted view of what’s possible in school reform. For many, the charters vs. traditional public schools discussion boils down to a zero-sum game.

Case in point: A very intelligent friend asked me if we should just convert all schools into charter schools to improve the system as a whole. I had to remind him that (1.) charter schools are on average no better than traditional public schools, and many are worse; (2.) Many of the best charters are difficult to replicate; and (3.) we have important lessons to learn from high-performing traditional public schools as well. These are common-sense positions, but you won’t find them in the New York Times or Washington Post these days.

One more example: The highly-publicized battle between those who advocate for a “schools plus” approach to improving student performance and those who argue that schools alone can get the job done. You would think it would be uncontroversial to argue that factors both within and beyond schools affect student performance—and that we should address both. But somehow the media framed this argument as a debate between those who believe schools are powerless to effect change and those who say schools alone can effect change. What a preposterous debate! And yet national commentators like David Brooks, commentators who should know better, fueled the phony debate with simplistic op eds.

Why does this happen? Many organizations have focused more attention on PR than research into what works. Brass knuckles PR types have made sure that national media outlets like the Times or Newsweek play up the battles between opposing factions rather than actually weighing evidence or learning more about the nuances of education policy. Nuances can make for uninteresting copy, but they sure matter when it comes time to make things better for kids.

I’m often asked by people outside of education what I think should be done to make schools better. What would your response to that question be?

That’s a challenging question, because It invites silver bullet answers. The real answer is actually more complex than many journalists think it is. Any answer that does not consider how reforms affect classroom practice isn’t really much of an answer at all.

We’ve published an “emerging vision” that lays out some big areas for school improvement. I won’t repeat all of that vision here, but I will point to some important themes. For one, we need excellent standards AND curricula AND assessments—and we have to be sure that they support excellent instruction. Standards-based reform often stopped at standards—assuming it went that far. Assessments have too often been lousy, and curricular supports for teachers all but non-existent. So standards that do little to build educators’ capacity don’t accomplish much—other than giving politicians nice talking points.

Another important theme is personal attention to students’ needs. This, after all, is the reason for better data systems. Teachers need information and time to address students’ individual instructional needs. They need the right kinds of information, they need to get it in time to be useful to students, and they need help—professional development—to use it most effectively. Too many commentators have made a fetish out of data systems for accountability purposes without considering how they can boost educators’ ability to provide first-rate differentiated instruction.

And let’s not forget the importance of families and communities. Schools need their help—but they also have a responsibility to engage families and communities as partners in the work of educating children. (Your excellent new book can be a guide here, Larry). The media have distorted calls for greater community engagement as attempts to let schools off the hook. That’s pure rubbish. Schools alone can have a profound effect on students’ lives, but schools working with their communities can tackle the broad array of challenges our most vulnerable students face.

As for the reforms that get the most ink in our national papers—charter schools, merit pay and mayoral control…. They can be promising if they truly improve instructional conditions for kids. Yet too many reformers seem to support them as ends in themselves, even though the evidence for these reform strategies remains murky.

Whose thinking/writing most challenges and pushes your own thinking about education?

Yours!

Otherwise, I’m hesitant to name too many names. The education writers who challenge my thinking in the best ways are often the writers I don’t agree with. Often, they simply irk me, but they can also unsettle some of my own assumptions and force me to reconsider my positions on issues of school reform. It’s important to keep these critical friends on the reading list!

Your blog is widely read in education circles. What do you consider its primary purpose, and what might be three or four posts you’d characterize as particularly good and/or insightful?

The blog’s primary purpose is to highlight what’s working in public schools and districts—and to call for reforms that build schools’ capacity for improvement. A closely related goal: The blog aims to call some received wisdom about school reform into question. The media stage the “reformers vs. establishment” drama. In doing so they turn complex debates about school reform into a kind of morality play, complete with personified virtues and vices. I hope the blog reminds people that true reform has many faces. There’s much more to reform than changes to incentives and governance structures.

What are my favorite posts? Hard to say. It’s often disappointing to reread them. I’ll give you three very recent posts: The first, which aims to sum up the teacher’s predicament, received a fair number of comments. The other two, which I published since yesterday, received few or no comments—and I wish they would get a few more. (Yes, I’m shamelessly trolling for comments):

1.) “You Can’t Win”

2.) “Merit Just Ain’t Worth What It Used to Be”

3.) “Welcome to Our World”

I hope people also visit our “Success Stories” page, which is the heart of our website: One-hundred, fifteen stories and counting.

People might also enjoy our page of exclusive interviews with education visionaries. We’ve interviewed about 75 people, including some big names like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., author Dave Eggers and fitness legend Richard Simmons. More important, we’ve interviewed many educators and parents who are doing remarkable work.

What might be the three most important lessons you’ve learned about making change in schools?

1.) The people on the front lines have to be central players in discussions of school reform.

2.) Don’t oversell any reform idea: You’ll do more harm than good over the long term.

3.) Reformers should have a clear vision for how their reforms actually improve classroom instruction.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this blog’s readers?

I’m afraid I’ve said too much already. It’s such an honor to be interviewed by you. Thanks so much for the opportunity.

Thanks, Claus!

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

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