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The Public School Insights Blog

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 ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Of Customers and Citizens

Rich HarwoodHere's a wonderful excerpt from a speech public engagement guru Rich Harwood made to the Learning First Alliance earlier this year:

When I've worked on public schools over the last 20 years a lot of folks who are doing engagement around public schools have this notion that … people should look at public schools like gas stations. You drop your kid off in the morning, you hope the teacher fixes the kid. When the kid comes home, if somehow or other they can't read or write, we need to go to a school board meeting and complain like you would to a mechanic. …

If we're serious about engaging people, we need to see people not as consumers, not as customers…but as citizens. As people who are able and willing to step forward and engage the tough issues; as people who are willing to deal with trade-offs and choices; as people who are in fact even willing, under the right conditions, to make sacrifices, not only for their kids but for other kids in our communities. …

I have not seen any change, process or movement in current times or over history in America where when we treated people as consumers we got what we thought we needed. It's only when people step forward as citizens that we're able to create the change that we need. To me, that's the beautiful lesson of American history.

You can read more about Rich's remarks here. ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Pursuing our Interests

Watch out for those teacher interest groups! They'll smother a good reform every time. Or so the argument usually goes....

I object to this argument not only because it is reductive. I object to it because it implies that all the other groups clamoring for and against changes to schools aren't interest groups. The fact is that the education landscape is simply crawling with interest groups. And that's both good and bad.

The formidable Geoffrey Canada is only the latest person to depict teacher groups as the major barriers to a promising reform. He asserts that they oppose giving students more time in school:

Some educators and unions won’t even consider working longer hours or a longer school year. (New York Times Magazine)

"Some" is the operative term here. In fact, both national teachers unions have supported extended school days and years, provided teachers get paid accordingly.

More to the point, there are legions of others who oppose longer days and years. Take, for example, the 68 percent of adults who voiced their opposition in a very recent national poll. Then there's the vacation and travel industry. And don't forget the virulent opposition of employers who can't shake their addiction to teen ...

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The Moral Argument

Secretary Duncan gave a stirring speech on Thursday. He read from Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to justify swift adoption of innovative school reforms. "Justice delayed is justice denied."

Dr. King's letter reminds us of just how high the stakes of school reform are, but it doesn't teach school reformers to throw caution to the wind. It conveys the high moral purpose of guaranteeing every child access to an excellent school. It reminds us that the work of school improvement is urgent. But it does not light the way to any specific vision of school reform. And it certainly does not give us license to rush into reform before we're ready to do it well.

Dr. King was not calling for "innovation." In the 1960s, there was nothing especially innovative about universal suffrage or equality before the law. In fact, Dr. King was speaking out against the nation's betrayal of traditional American values. We had failed to honor our founding ideals, and the way forward was clear.

Duncan is right. Education is a civil rights issue, but that doesn't justify haste to innovate at all costs. Dr. King's experience has taught us that we cannot tolerate unequal access to great teachers or great schools. But he unfortunately cannot ...

Kevin Jennings is the right person to lead the Education Department's Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. He is a passionate advocate for the welfare of all children in our schools. As the former head of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, he demonstrated his devotion to the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

He will stand up for any child who faces harassment for any reason: race, religion, sexual orientation or political beliefs. You would be-hard pressed to find anyone who has done more to promote values such as trust and mutual respect in our schools.

Normally an endorsement like this would be unnecessary. Jennings's actions and history speak for themselves. But fringe groups have started leveling outrageous charges at him: He is promoting a "radical homosexual agenda." He cares about only gay and lesbian students. He is hostile to religion.

These attacks are preposterous. They are beyond the pale. Jennings worked with the Christian Educators Association to create ground rules for respectful dialogue on sexual orientation in schools. He has always been an outspoken advocate for all students' right to a safe and civil school environment. And he sits on the board of the Union Theological Seminary.

A public school is safe only when everyone can expect to be treated with civility and respect. If anything, the hostility leveled at Jennings proves that we have much work to do. ...

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The Need for Speed

Secretary Duncan channeled MLK to justify the breakneck pace of his reform proposals. "Justice delayed is justice denied."

In a blog posting that reads like a telegram, Tom Vander Ark offers a different view:

AP speculating on 2010 attempted ESEA reauthorization. Related rumors that RttT may be one round. Both bad ideas.

There won’t be more than 6-8 great RttT proposals by November even with McKinsey/Parthenon help.

We need at least 18 months of action to reshape the landscape and debate before reauthorization. Going faster will make health care look fun.

(Hat tip to Alexander Russo) ...

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