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The Public School Insights Blog

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews wants your stories about what's working in schools:

I am suggesting we take a short break from our usual (but always useful) wallowing in what is wrong with our schools and their leaders, and briefly accentuate the positive. In my Monday column...I pick the eight best moves I have ever seen Virginia educators make. Two were by governors, but the rest were by wise and hard-working local educators....

We love that idea, so much so that we started publishing public school success stories in March of '08. We also love Mathews's gracious words about Virginia educators in his Monday column:

The [Virginia] gubernatorial candidates must focus on what needs fixing, but that shouldn’t stop voters, when they walk into their polling place at the neighborhood school this November, from looking around and feeling good about the great job Virginia educators have done.

We're less thrilled by Mathews's apparent stinginess with this kind of praise. Why allow us only a "short break" from the gloom and doom? Why only "briefly accentuate ...

vonzastrowc's picture

You Can't Win

What's wrong with public schools? Take your pick:

  • Schools are still the drab indoctrination factories they were 100 years ago.
  • Schools have become squishy progressive learning communes where students spend their days building yurts out of tongue depressors.
  • Schools are test-prep sweatshops where children never see the light of day or catch a breath of fresh air.
  • Schools are discipline-free zones where students dither their time away rather than focusing on the task of learning.

I could go on. These days, stories of school failure come in all the colors of the rainbow. Got your kids sitting in rows? Someone will call you a failure. Have them working on a project in groups? Failure. Are you de-tracking? You're neglecting the superstars. Tracking? You're stifling the most vulnerable students.*

Everyone has strong opinions on education, and woe unto them that stray from those paths of righteousness. It makes you wonder why anyone would want to become an educator. Before long you'll commit some act that will confirm someone's dim view of you in particular and the education system in general.

Case in point: The economist Thomas Sowell lashed out at a fifth grade teacher who had students write to public figures with questions about current events. What did he do after receiving receiving a child's note with questions about the ...

Oh no! The dreaded "establishment" is once again erecting barriers to school reform!

No, not the education establishment. The research establishment. The National Research council's Board on Testing and Assessment (BOTA), to be exact. BOTA just released their comments of Race to the Top, and the Department's proposal for performance evaluation comes in for a bit of a drubbing:

BOTA has significant concerns that the Department’s proposal places too much emphasis on measures of growth in student achievement (1) that have not yet been adequately studied for the purposes of evaluating teachers and principals and (2) that face substantial practical barriers to being successfully deployed in an operational personnel system that is fair, reliable, and valid.

To be fair to the Department, Race to the Top does offer states and districts some wiggle room. It requires that student growth data be a "significant factor" in evaluating teachers' and principals' effectiveness. "Significance" may be in the eye of the beholder, so districts don't have to go whole hog on performance pay.

Still, is it too much to hope that the biggest boosters of performance pay might learn a little humility? Barnett Berry rightly criticizes pundits who "do not ...

School reformers take heed: We ignore communities at our own risk.

This warning came through loud and clear in a Chicago Tribune story about the gang brawl that ended the life of Darrion Albert, a 16-year-old bystander. One passage jumped out at me:

The conflict escalated between the two neighborhoods after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) transformed Carver High School, located in the Altgeld community, into a military academy. That put many Altgeld kids at Fenger [High School] behind enemy lines, traversing unfamiliar streets in unfriendly territory.

This reads almost like the history of a small country roiled by ethnic strife years after colonial powers redraw its national boundaries.

No, CPS is not like a colonial power. And claims that school reformers somehow caused Albert's death by reconstituting Fenger High School are way over the top. Fenger was troubled by violence long before the district tried to turn it around.

But the Fenger story reminds us of how important it is to understand the social and political context of communities whose schools we want to transform. Even with the best of intentions, we can do harm.

The vicious circle of violence and reprisals that traps some of Chicago's poorest teens has a logic all its own. It's the stuff of Sophocles, a tragic cycle that ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Food Fight

What is it about charter schools and food? The Hassels say charters are like spaghetti. You try out a bunch of different recipes, decide which ones taste best, and discard the ones you don’t like. Corey Bower says charters are more like pizza. It tastes great, but you can’t eat it all the time. And then there are all the people who argue over whether charters “cream” the best students.

Much of this boils down to two questions: Is there enough of the good stuff to go around? Is the good stuff always good, no matter where and when you serve it? Despite what fire-breathing charter boosters or detractors might tell you, we don’t have very good answers to either question.

Let’s start with Emily and Bryan Hassel and the spaghetti metaphor:

You try ten different variations. Despite your best efforts, three are worse than the original. Five are no better, but two are markedly superior…. [Y]ou avoid the eight bad and OK recipes, make more of the two good ones, and try more new recipes that build on the ones that pleased your palate. Your average experiment in round 1 was a “failure,” but your average meal going forward is going to be pretty tasty.

So charters are as easy to replicate as a good batch of spaghetti? I’m not so sure. We might live in a world where the market offers different tomatoes in different weeks, fresh basil sells out by Tuesday morning, and the stove’s temperature is devilishly difficult to regulate. Can we find enough teachers willing to put in ...

Actress Danica McKellar first became famous as the beautiful Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years, a hit TV show that aired in the late '80s and early '90s. In the years since, she has starred in over 30 films, TV movies and plays.

But it's her work in mathematics that has most recently caught the attention of educators around the country. McKellar has written two books to get tween-aged girls hooked on math. Math Doesn't Suck aims to help middle school girls overcome their fear of math and understand that it pays to be smart. Her sequel, Kiss My Math, helps girls slay the pre-algebra dragon. A third book, this one on algebra, is in the works.

A summa-cum-laude math major from UCLA, McKellar comes with impressive mathematical credentials. She has even co-authored a theorem on two-dimensional magnetism that now bears her name.

McKellar recently spoke with us about girls and math.

Girls and Math

Public School Insights: Do girls really hate math? And if so, why?

McKellar: Let's face it: Boys and girls in this country, by and large, are not huge fans of mathematics. But the issue seems to be particularly problematic for girls because, on top of the stereotypes about how difficult and “nerdy” it is to study math, girls are also getting the message that they're not supposed to be good at it.

Public School Insights: Where do you think that message is coming from?

McKellar: I think that it is coming from all over. Girls are inundated with images of what women are supposed to be, from billboards, magazines and pop culture in general – that girls are supposed to be sexy and appealing, and maybe even a little dumb, and that this is considered attractive. That's the message that ...

Here's a shocker from the Associated Press: " An internal watchdog at the Education Department says states are using money from the economic stimulus to plug budget holes instead of boosting aid for schools." Some states have slashed their education budgets and then used stimulus dollars to backfill the resulting holes.

Surprising? No. Just about everyone saw this coming.

Arne Duncan promised to come down "like a ton of bricks" on states that play these shell games. I'm very sure he was sincere in his promise. But all he can really do is penalize those states by docking points from their Race to the Top and other applications for extra dollars.

States that have already played fast and loose with 95 percent of the stimulus money are unlikely to mend their ways for the remaining five percent. ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Turnaround Hassels

Bryan and Emily Hassel have a modest proposal for turning around struggling schools: Try, Try Again. They say we should give school turnaround efforts less time to succeed before hitting the reset button. Give leaders one to two years to fix a school. If they fail, start over with a new leader and a new plan. In five years, they claim, this rapid restart strategy will fix many more schools than more incremental models will. I think their proposal is both bad and good.

The Bad
Let's get the bad out of the way first.

1. Beware the Siren Song of the Quick Fix
The Hassels make grand calculations about how many schools will be "fixed" in one, two, or five years. But struggling schools aren't carburetors. You improve them over time. You don't fix 'em good as new by plugging some holes or replacing the air adjustment valve.

It might seem like I'm quibbling over words here. What the Hassels mean to say is that schools should show signs of strong and sustainable improvement early on or leaders should pull the plug.

But when you say a school is "fixed," you don't acknowledge that schools can slide back after a promising start, or that they can plateau after a few years. The ...

Who knew Michelle Rhee was such a lilly-livered apologist for failing schools? Who knew that Jay Mathews would join her in finding excuses to squirm out from under real accountability?

Mathews tells the story of DC's Shaw Middle School, whose test scores actually dropped after Rhee installed a new and well-regarded principal. He praises Rhee for her continued confidence in the principal. Rhee is willing to wait, because "the Shaw people are doing nearly everything that the most successful school turnaround artists have done." There was even a mitigating factor: "Only 17 percent of Shaw's 2009 students had attended the school in 2008, distorting the official test score comparisons." Excuses, excuses.

Even Mathews's title is just the kind of thing that earns groans from accountability hawks: "Measuring Progress At Shaw With More Than Numbers."

Of course, Rhee and Mathews are right. It would be foolish to expect dramatic gains a scant year after the turnaround process begins. Shaw needs time. Shaw needs understanding and support.

And I'll admit that I've indulged in caricature here. Rhee and Mathews aren't accountability ogres. Rhee is doing what any reasonable person would do under the circumstances.

What concerns me most about Mathews's article is the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality of reform. Liam Goldrick puts it best:

I would argue that, in addition to doing the right thing (as happened in this instance), reform advocates and school leaders like Rhee also have a responsibility to say and advocate for the right thing. They have a responsibility to be honest about the complexity of student learning and the inability of student assessments to accurately capture all of the nuance going on within schools and classrooms

As Goldrick notes, Rhee's enthusiasm for "year-to-year" gains in test scores defies logic. Scores fluctuate from one year to the next, and unexpected winds can ...

Ricardo LeBlanc-Esparza rose to national fame for turning around a classic hard-luck school. A key ingredient of his success? Parent engagement. Yesterday, he told us about his work to bring the parent engagement gospel to schools around the country.

The Current State of Parent Engagement in Public Schools

Public School Insights: As people who've read our website before know, you've gained national prominence by helping turn around Granger High School in Washington State. What lessons did you learn from that experience that you really carry around with you now?

Esparza: There are so many lessons. It's hard to say. Public education is so big when you talk about instruction, curriculum, discipline and motivation. The piece that I really want to talk about is the whole family involvement/engagement piece.

I have traveled across the country, from Pennsylvania to Florida to Iowa to Arizona to Texas. Our public schools truly are lacking true public or parent involvement, engagement—whatever you want to call it when parents are active participants in the whole educational process.

Public School Insights: Exactly problems are you seeing in the schools that lack this engagement?

Esparza: I guess I need to frame that question…Because when I look at public schools, I see they typically meet the needs of the middle class and above population.

My wife is a principal of a K-8 magnet school for gifted and talented students. She told me a story that ...

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