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The Public School Insights Blog

The film Two Million Minutes made news by claiming that even the best U.S. high schools leave their students unprepared to compete with the academic whiz kids who brandish heavy calculus textbooks on every Chinese street corner. Now comes a new documentary, Race to Nowhere, which depicts U.S. schools as pressure cookers that stifle all passion for learning and drive kids to suicide. Which crisis to believe? Take your pick. Crisis itself has become the commodity here. After a while, the specific content of such films will hardly matter anymore.

Such films' PR tactics are overwhelming their specific lessons about school improvement. After a while, all these films will leave only one big lesson behind: Things are bad, very bad, in our public schools, so pull your kids out now! This kind of disengagement spells disaster in the long run.

Eagle-eyed Alexander Russo recently spotted what looks like the most alarmist film to come out in a while: The War on Kids. Judging from the over-the-top trailer, this film paints schools as prisons that assign crushing punishments for tiny infractions. They kill students' spirits, the film suggests.

Once again, schools just can't win. Ask most Americans what's wrong with public schools, and they'll tell you that the kids are violent and out of control. Watch ...

Teachers should fend for themselves. May the best ones win.

That seems to be the guiding philosophy behind so many school reform ideas lately. No one can shake the really incompetent teachers out of the system, reformers tell us, and gifted teachers can't rise to the top. Listen to some reform advocates, and you'd think that the former far outnumber the latter. So you use carrots and sticks to help the market do its work.

And what about the conditions that help teachers succeed? You don't hear much about those.

The fuss over teachers who sell their lesson plans on the internet offers a case in point. As always happens in discussions of teachers and money, big questions arise about how we value teachers and their work. Do we cheapen the vocation of teaching when we assume teachers are motivated primarily by money? On the other hand, do we damage teaching as a profession when we make altruism the main job qualification? (For a great discussion of these matters, head on over to the Teacher Leaders Network.) For my money, though, blogger Corey Bower asks the most important question: "The right question is why teachers should have to buy lesson plans."

So here's the vision I see emerging from this discussion. Teachers are free agents. They pay their own way, create their own reality. Those who thrive in this ...

The book Nurture Shock is making big waves in parenting and education circles. Authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are not afraid to tip parents' and teachers' sacred cows. They use science to question the received wisdom about issues such as self-esteem, self-control and IQ. Merryman recently told us about her book and its implications for schools.

Public School Insights: Let me begin a little outside your book. One of the things that first prompted my e-mail to you was your comments on the success versus failure of public schools and how the narrative that is being told about public schools right now might actually hurt the prospects for success. Could you explain that a bit?

Merryman: There is this constant drumbeat that American schools are failing our kids—that our schools are a disaster and kids aren’t finishing school. That kids aren’t prepared when they get to college, if they get to college. That they must do remedial level work. That they can’t read or write or anything like that.

It’s not that I think that schools can’t improve. Certainly they can. For kids at the bottom socioeconomically, and kids who we would label perhaps at-risk, schools definitely are a problem. And I ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Slaves to Fashion

Beware those who claim to break with conventional wisdom. They're often most deeply in its thrall.

That's one big lesson I drew from Meet the Press last Sunday. Here is host David Gregory's breathless introduction:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and one-time Democratic candidate Al Sharpton have been touring the nation's schools and join us here today to challenge conventional thinking....

What followed was a conversation chock full of conventional thinking.

Here are some of the more egregious examples:

  1. Districts and schools are just rolling in stimulus dough--so let the reforms begin! "For the first time," Gregory gushed, reformers "have the money" to launch ambitious reforms. Wrong. Remember the recession? Even with stimulus money, districts are hurting badly. That doesn't mean we don't have real opportunities for reform, but it's time we reined in all the talk of abundance.
  2. Charter schools are our only beacons of innovation in education.  The only good schools anyone mentioned by name during the entire segment were charter schools. This has become de rigueur in current school

Editor's note: This is the second installment of our three-part report on Viers Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland. The first installment appeared last Tuesday.

Hear today's posting (~15:12)

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Viers Mill Elementary School violates much of the received wisdom about school reform. The school has made astonishing gains in the past decade without becoming a charter school, firing lots of teachers, importing all kinds of outside talent, or paying teachers for children’s test scores. In fact, some of these reforms would likely have thwarted the main strategy Viers Mill credits with its success: collaboration.

When I visited Viers Mill about ten days ago, I was stunned by the level of collaboration I saw there. My guide through the building, staff development teacher Susan Freiman, showed me a school where everyone on staff works together for the good of the students. Collaboration at Viers Mill is not just a heartwarming tendency among staff. (Though it is that.) It is a carefully crafted reform strategy.

On the Same Page

The school works, because so many of its staff members are on the same page. If the school is working to improve vocabulary, for example, then the whole school is doing so. Freiman took me into the gymnasium to demonstrate this point. She showed me a list of vocabulary words posted on the wall:

Freiman: But I want you to see the word wall. Remember I told you about ...

Some school reform advocates are in a bit of a tizzy about changes to the Race to the Top guidelines. Here's what Jeanne Allen has to say:

The teacher reform piece was performance pay, they’ve muted that. We thought Arne [Duncan] liked the girl with the brains but he’s dumped us for the popular girl…. The education establishment got to them.

Allen is objecting to the Department's decision to base teacher "effectiveness...on input from multiple measures, provided that student growth is a significant factor." In other words, test scores will not be the only measure of a teacher's worth. Seems kind of reasonable to me.

But let's get to Allen's metaphor, which is precisely backwards. Since when was the "education establishment" the "popular girl?" Just about every major national newspaper is gushing over "reformers" and warning against the evils of the "establishment." It sounds to me like the popular girl didn't get everything she wanted.

And how about "the girl with the brains?" Since when was it smart to put all of our reform eggs into so few baskets? Since when was it smart to place so much faith ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Scantron Gone Wrong

Robert Pondiscio unearthed this story about the U.K.'s plans to grade student essays by computer.

It turns out that the computer doesn't much like writers like Churchill and Hemingway. Hemingway's prose was too simplistic. Churchill's stirring call to "fight them on the beaches"? Too repetitive:

We shall fight on the beaches,
We shall fight on the landing grounds,
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
We shall fight in the hills;
We shall never surrender.

Churchill also loses points elsewhere for mentioning the "might of" the German army. "Might have" is apparently the appropriate phrase.

The lure of computer grading systems is growing, especially for those who balk at the cost of living, breathing essay graders. The British article notes that such ...

Linda Darling-HammondStanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond is holding two free webinars on international standards and assessments. Standards and assessments are all the rage. So is talk of our standing in international tests of student performance. Seldom do we seek to learn from the countries we so admire. Professor Darling-Hammond seeks to change all that by drawing "Lessons from Abroad." The webinars are bound to be a treat. Edutopia and SCOPE are sponsoring the events in collaboration with CCSSO. More information below the fold. ...

Hear this posting (~6:55)

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If you're looking for a Cinderella story, get to know the people at Viers Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland:

One of the [paraeducators] who had been here a long time said, "you know, they used to call this place 'slumville.'" Now, she says "the President's visiting here...." He came to our school for the work we did. He didn't just happen to show up.... It was the apotheosis of my entire career.... The President of the United States--the President of the United states!--is in our cafeteria...because of the work that went on in this building....

That's Susan Freiman, Viers Mill's staff development teacher, describing President Obama's surprise visit to the school last month. She worked hard with her colleagues to turn the once struggling elementary school into a national exemplar where almost every student is proficient on state tests. That is no mean feat for a school where most students are from low-income families and almost half are still learning English.

It doesn't take long for visitors to see just how remarkable Viers Mill is. Last week, Freiman took me through a school buzzing with excitement and academic purpose. She showed me some first grade classrooms where ...

A few months ago, the blogosphere was abuzz with news that American students are shockingly ignorant of U.S. civics and history. Research sponsored by conservative think tanks found that fewer than one in twenty public school students in Arizona and Oklahoma could answer six or more questions correctly on the U.S. Citizenship Test. The most alarming finding: Only one in four could name George Washington as our first president. It turns out that those findings were likely hogwash.

I suspected as much when the studies were released. The results of the Washington question in particular didn't pass the laugh test. Statistics guru Nate Silver had the same reaction in September. For example, he found the claim that not one out of 1,000 Oklahoma students could get more than 7 answers right well nigh impossible. "Isn't there some total nerd in Tulsa, some AP Honors student in Stillwater, who was able to answer at least eight of these ten very basic questions correctly?"

His suspicions grew when Oklahoma state representative Ed Cannaday re-administered the same test to seniors in 10 high schools across his district. According to Cannaday, almost 80 percent of his seniors answered all ten ...

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