Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Public School Insights Blog

One strategy I’m using to get up-to-speed in my position as the new executive director at the Learning First Alliance (LFA) is to delve into the LFA member publications that land on my desk almost daily. It is true that each publication is a wealth of thoughtful articles that examine the challenges and rewards professional public educators across the nation deal with on a regular basis. I’m reminded that some of my favorite thought-leaders continue to seek new information, explore alternate approaches, and share their observations in ways that remind me that we know a good deal about how to make schooling better, we just lack the will or if not that, the systems thinking approach that could help us do what we know will make us better.

An example of that reality is the article authored by Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at Stanford University and supporter of teachers par excellent, in the Winter 2010-2011 issue of the American Educator, published by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Dr. Darling-Hammond’s article “Soaring Systems” looks at three nations’ public education system, each of whom started with very little and purposefully built highly productive and equitable systems in the space of only two to three decades. Before considering what those three countries, Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, did to ...

President Obama has set the goal that the United States will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. To help Americans understand how our country is progressing towards that goal, and to provide an accessible and transparent view of the nation’s education system as a whole, the U.S. Department of Education has launched a new resource: The United States Education Dashboard (http://dashboard.ed.gov).

The Dashboard features 16 key indicators of the state of American education. Taken together, they are intended to provide a complete picture, from cradle (3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool) to career (students completing a bachelor’s degree within 6 years from their initial institution), of education in this country. It includes information on performance, equity, teachers and leaders and more.

The Dashboard also offers a state-level look at education, providing information on these indicators for ...

Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as No Child Left Behind) has long been a concern among the education community and policymakers, but this issue has experienced more buzz within the past several months.

While up till now gaining broad support among policymakers for a focus on ESEA legislation has been slow, there are indications that reauthorization may have turned a corner and could happen in the relative short-term. This is in part due to effects of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s active effort speaking on behalf of reauthorization in public forums and in meetings with legislative members for the past two years, and to claims that Obama is set to make education a major priority, starting with his upcoming state-of-the-union address (January 25) that is supposed to highlight education. As Susan Ochshorn of the Huffington Post relays, both Obama and Duncan are connecting education—and ESEA renewal—to economic ...

A recent Washington Post article on a vote in Wake County (NC) to end the district’s socioeconomic school integration plan and return to neighborhood schools has lit up the blogosphere. National observers ranging from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert have expressed concern (or to be fair to Colbert, "support") about the potential for the policy to resegregate the county's schools – and give rise to the problems accompanying segregated schools. Low-performing schools in low-income neighborhoods. High-performing schools in high-income neighborhoods. The best teachers flocking to schools in high-income neighborhoods. This would greatly change the educational landscape in the county, where currently some of the best schools are in the poorest neighborhoods - and 94% of parents are satisfied with their child's school.

Many in the media have focused on school board member John Tedesco’s controversial statement:

"If we had a school that was, like, 80 percent high-poverty, the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful," he said. "Right now, we ...

I was anxious to read the December/January issue of the Phi Delta Kappan because the cover promised a focus on how we can use technology to improve teaching and learning, a field I’ve been immersed in for some time. But once I delved into the issue, while the technology articles were interesting and represented a variety of viewpoints, I was really excited to see the article on the Kalamazoo Promise. Full disclosure here: my good friend and colleague, Jim Bosco, professor emeritus in the Education Department at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, had told me about this project several years ago as it was kicking off. The article details the progress of a project that promised a fully paid college education for any Kalamazoo public school student who graduated with an academic record strong enough to be selected for admission to a state-supported institution of higher education. Jim was excited about the project and his enthusiasm was infectious. Here was a community that focused first on the outcome they wanted….every student proceeding to post-secondary education….not how the school district was going to ensure students took advantage of the “carrot.” ...

Community support for schools is a crucial issue, especially in light of the current negativity toward public schools by the media, and severe funding limits on the national, state, and local level. It is timely then that during a recent meeting, members of the Learning First Alliance heard from Jamie Vollmer—head of Vollmer, Inc., a public education advocacy firm—who discussed ideas from his most recent book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone: Building Public Support for America’s Public Schools. He focused on the idea of local level community engagement for building school support.

Clearly educators face many challenges and have to work under numerous limitations (money, time, and demographic realities of schools, among others). But Vollmer argues there is a largely unexploited factor that can work to schools’ advantages: the malleability of local communities to accepting area educators as legitimate forces for good.

He asserts that by effectively targeting community members and informing them on how it is in their own self-interest to have good public schools, educators can gain the community support that is so vital to school issues.

To do so, Vollmer proposes that educators reach out using two tracks: a formal track that focuses on community groups, and an informal one that takes place through every day interactions. The formal track should take place “on the communities’ turf and ...

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The State of the States

According to Quality Counts 2011 (which claims to be the most comprehensive ongoing assessment of the state of American education), overall the states have earned an average of a "C" for their educational efforts. For the third straight year, Maryland earned the highest grade in the nation - B+. Massachusetts and New York followed, both earning Bs.

Quality Counts grades states on six indices - "Chance for Success," "K-12 Achievement," "Standards, Assessment and Accountability," "Transitions and Alignment," "Teaching Profession" and "School Finance." Each index includes several indicators designed to capture the true state of the state. For example, the "K-12 Achievement" index includes 18 indicators that capture not only current academic achievement (based on NAEP data) but also improvement and performance gaps between low-income students and their peers.

While the national average of the six indices is a C, there is wide variation between the indices. For example, the national average on "Standards, Assessment and Accountability" was a B. However, in "K-12 Achievement" (which ...

Last week the Fordham Institute released Stretching the School Dollar: A Brief for State Policymakers. It listed 15 concrete steps that states can take to stretch the school dollar, including "End 'last hired, first fired' practices," "Remove class-size mandates," "Eliminate mandatory salary schedules,"  "Remove “seat time” requirements,""Create a rigorous teacher evaluation system,""Tackle the fiscal viability of teacher pensions,""Allocate spending for learning-disabled students as a percent of population," and "Limit the length of time that students can be identified as English Language Learners," among others.

Now, states are in dire straits -- we all know that. So there is great potential for a brief like this to be a real resource in helping them find ways to cut spending while not harming educational outcomes -- or maybe even improving them. Except, as Bruce Baker points out over at School Finance 101, "it’s pretty darn hard to see how any of the 15 proposals would lead to progress toward that goal."

Baker presents detailed explanations of why all 15 of these proposals would really not stretch the school dollar. It is ...

Isn't it incumbent upon those who hold the public trust--and I include both educators and political leaders in this group--to speak with discretion and a commitment to peace?

So wrote Nancy Flanagan yesterday over at Teacher in a Strange Land, in musings on the weekend tragedy that left six dead and several – including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords – wounded.

I doubt anyone would disagree. But I would add another party to her list of those who hold the public trust and need to be more careful in how they use it – the media. These days media can mean so many things. Here, I would include, along with newspaper and television reporters, those in the “new media” – those who blog, tweet, and post thoughts on Facebook about the state of the world.

In the past, this blog has called on the media to take a more measured approach to reporting on issues of education policy. Some education reporting has become quite polarizing, creating false dichotomies that hide the shades of gray inherent in any debate of substance. It has contributed to ...

In times of fiscal crisis, which few would dispute most districts are in, we have been hearing a bit about “smart” increases in class size. Some are advocating for states to remove class size mandates all together.

In the past, this blog has supported class size reduction. Certainly, the evidence makes it clear to me that small classes, particularly in the early years and for our most disadvantaged students, can improve academic outcomes.

But the flip side of class size debates is not articulated nearly as frequently as it should be. The debate is not only about the benefits of small classes. It is also about the problems that can come with large classes.

I was reminded of this recently thanks to a Detroit Free Press article on the problems resulting from a teacher shortage in Detroit Public Schools. Among them (and there are a lot) are large class sizes. Teachers at nearly a third of Detroit’s schools – 44 of 140 – report classes over the limits outlined in their contract.

These large classes are overwhelming teachers – having 40 to 50 students in a class makes it hard for them to control students and guide their learning. One 24-year veteran who averages more than 40 students in ...

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