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The Public School Insights Blog

Amanda Ripley ran a piece in The Atlantic this week praising Teach for America for its work to define what a great teacher looks like. That article had me running all hot and cold. Here I'll focus on what left me cold: The overuse of standardized tests to define greatness.

We're already creating students in the image of these tests. If I'm to believe The Atlantic, we'll be creating teachers in their image, too. Not only will we use test scores to determine which teachers are doing the best teaching. We'll use them to decide what character traits, academic background, hobbies and who knows what else teachers should possess. We could hitch everything, everything to that engine. (See Diana Seneshal's provocative piece on why that should ...

Recent debates about charter schools are shedding more heat than light. There's enough evidence out there now to keep both the critics and the boosters busy. But as most people know by now, arguments over whether charters are "good" or "bad" are a waste of time. The real question is whether we can create enough of the good ones to make a real dent in student achievement. And that's not at all clear.

Charter boosters got some more wind in their sails after Stanford's CREDO released a study of New York City charters. Their findings: students at charter schools make more academic progress than students at traditional public schools do. This study echoed earlier findings by another Stanford researcher, Carolyn Hoxby. The United Federation of Teachers countered that charters enroll fewer special education students and English language learners. (The City Education Department's data seem to bear this out.) Charter supporters responded in ...

Shocking news! You can turn around a struggling school without firing all or even most staff. You can even keep the principal. All you need is a little--or a lot of--help from your friends.

This is one of the big lessons I draw from a new study (PDF) of work by Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI) to turn around 10 troubled schools in Chicago. SLI worked with existing school principals and teachers to improve instruction, and student performance gains accelerated by a factor of six. And SLI did this work without resorting to the slash-and-burn turnaround techniques that are all the vogue these days.

Here's an excerpt from Education Week's report on the study:

"The results that SLI has achieved, and that [the American Institutes for Research] has validated, are very impressive and suggest that well before decisions are made to reconstitute schools under the mandates of [the federal No Child Left Behind Act], school districts would be wise to consider far less drastic, but clearly powerful, interventions such as the Focused Instruction Process," write AIR analysts Steven Leinwand and Sarah Edwards in their July evaluation.

The U.S. Department of Education's four models for turning around low-achieving schools using federal stimulus money all require the principal to be fired; one calls for the school to be closed. But [SRI CEO John] Simmons argues that it's less expensive, and often more effective, to invest in the people already working in the schools. With the right tools, he says, school staffers can produce different results....

"That is the heart of our story--the application of research to the work of improving schools. High-performance schools aren't just born, they are trained and coached."

This story flies in the face of many current policy trends. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that great teachers are born, not bred. Why else spend all our ...

Dan Pink has written several bestselling books on the future of work. His most recent book, Drive, is already lighting up the blogosphere a scant week after its release. Drive explores what motivates us to do our best work. These days, carrots and sticks will do more harm than good, Pink argues. The time has come to tap "the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world."

Pink has earned his chops as a business writer. He has become a regular in the pages of magazines like Fast Company, the Harvard Business Review and Wired. But his work is at least as relevant to schools as it is to business.

Pink recently spoke with us about his book and its implications for school reform.

Public School Insights: Given that this is the age of Twitter, can you summarize your book in 140 characters or less?

Pink: I can summarize the book in 140 characters, although it is kind of hard to measure characters in audio….

The 140 character summary of this book Drive goes like this: Carrots and sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st-century work we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Public School Insights: Thank you, that does the trick. Let's dig into that and create a few more characters. [Along with] this notion of autonomy, mastery and purpose, you give a bit of a history. We have moved from motivation 1.0 to motivation 2.0, and then to motivation 3.0. What are these stages and why are they important?

Pink: Part of this book has a metaphor at the center of it. It is the metaphor of the computer operating system. All of us use computers. We use a whole variety of ...

HeckmanPicture.jpg[First published June 27, 2008]

A few days ago, we had the privilege of interviewing Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman, whose recent work on topics such as graduation rates and the benefits of early childhood education has attracted close attention from education advocates.

Heckman faults current education policy for giving non-cognitive skills short shrift, citing recent research that demonstrates their positive social and economic impact. Excellent early childhood programs, he suggests, can help disadvantaged children develop the broader complement of skills they need to prosper later in life.

You can listen to highlights from our interview (5 minutes), or check out the transcript below.


PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  Let me begin with a very general question, and that is: what is your view of the significance of the Bolder, Broader Approach task force's statement? 

HECKMAN:  I think the most important [aspect] is probably the emphasis on understanding something besides cognition, something besides smarts, is important in life.  There's a category of skills-of traits-called non-cognitive traits, that have to do with behavior, with self-control, with motivation, with ...

[FIrst published January 31, 2009]

Walter Dean Myers understands second chances. A high school dropout by age 17, he enlisted in the army and worked odd jobs as a young adult. It was his lifelong relationship with books that put him on a path to becoming one of the nation's most celebrated young adult authors. Five Coretta Scott King Awards and two Newbery Honors later, Myers is sharing the lesson of second chances with a new generation of at-risk youth.

Last week, Myers spoke with us about the central themes of his new novel, Dope Sick: personal responsibility and redemption. The novel tells the story of a young man who must face the consequences of a drug deal gone wrong. This story line reflects a belief Myers avowed throughout our interview: We must empower teens to take greater control of their lives.

Underlying this work is Myers' long-standing faith that reading can offer hope to teens who need it most.

Listen to highlights from our interview with Walter Dean Myers here (16 minutes), or read a transcript below:

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You're releasing your new novel, Dope Sick, very soon. What's the novel about?

MYERS: It's about a young man who has reached a point of crisis in his life. He goes into a building, running from the police, and he meets another young man his own age. The new young man is a somewhat fantastic creature who can call up ...

While the national debate rages over the benefits of early childhood education, an innovative, district-wide early childhood education initiative is bearing fruit in Bremerton, Washington. Since the initiative's founding, the percentage of Bremerton children entering Kindergarten knowing their letters has shot from 4% to over 50%. The percentage of Kindergarteners needing specialized education services has plummeted from 12% to 2%. And the share of first graders reading on grade level has risen from 52% to 73%.

Last week, I spoke with a woman at the center of the program: Linda Sullivan-Dudzic, the district's Director of Special programs. She described some keys to the program's success. The district:

  • Aligns existing school and community resources
  • Raises the quality of existing preschools rather than creating new ones
  • Focuses on literacy and numeracy
  • Heeds the research, and
  • Holds all providers to high standards of quality

[First published on June 26]

Read extensive highlights from our interview with Sullivan-Dudzic:

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What are the major goals of Early Childhood Care and Education Group, and what do you believe you've accomplished in striving towards those goals?

SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: We have two goals. [The first is] to increase the number of children entering kindergarten with early literacy skills--and now we've added early math foundation skills. And the second goal is to decrease the number of children, students, with learning disabilities or learning differences associated with reading.  

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: And do you feel like you've made headway in reaching your goals?

SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: Yes. In literacy definitely. We're just starting in math. We have decreasing numbers of kids qualifying as learning disabled, and we have increasing numbers of kids entering kindergarten with early reading foundation skills.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: So you have all kinds of community partners?

SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: Sure. I started 29 years ago with Head Start, as a ...

According to MSNBC, schools can suffer now or later:

Using federal stimulus money to avoid layoffs at schools is going to create a shortfall even more difficult for states and schools to contend with when that money runs out, according to a first-of-its-kind study released Monday.

That doesn't fill me with Holiday cheer.

(Hat tip to Alexander Russo.) ...

If you say that schools should prepare every student for college, someone will object that some students are better off going into the trades. Fair enough. But new research tells us that it's income, not inclination, that sifts people out of the college track.

As far as I'm concerned, that fact alone justifies the "every child college ready" slogan. But college readiness isn't the only issue we have to consider. All kinds of social and economic forces conspire to keep poor students from enrolling in or completing college. We have to address those, too.

That's why I'm pleased to see so many college leaders vowing to boost access to and success in college. They have apparently awakened to the fact that poor and minority students are leaking out of the pipeline at an astonishing rate. At a time when need-based aid is dwindling, they have their work cut out for them.

I'm also pleased to see that leaders are recognizing the many reasons why students don't succeed in college. Yes, far too many low-income students ...

The language of economics is quickly replacing the language of schooling, and that might not bode well for our children in the long term.

Two recent studies suggest that all the recent educonomic talk might thwart children's performance in the long run. (I learned about both studies from Newsweek's Nurture Shock blog).

The first found that students who focus more on test scores than on the inherent value of learning don't retain much of what they get by heart for a test. No big surprise there. 

The second found that students do worse on tests when they believe they are competing with many people. By contrast, they "work harder, and do better, when they are up against just a few people." The study's authors speculate that students are more motivated to succeed when the competition is personal, when there are "fewer people in the race."

So the common language of school reform might actually take some wind out of students' sails. All that focus on test scores, especially those test-prep classes and rallies, might actually smother the urge to learn. And all that time we spend warning students that they're up against millions of Chinese and Indian geniuses? It may be counterproductive.

Reformers will no doubt heave exasperated sighs if they read this. High-flown ...

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