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The Public School Insights Blog

(First published February 17, 2009)

The Honorable Lee Hamilton represented Indiana’s 9th congressional district for over three decades. After leaving Congress, he co-chaired the Iraq Study Group and served as Vice-Chair of the 9/11 Commission.

Now president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and director of Indiana University's Center on Congress, he sits or has sat on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the President's Homeland Security Advisory Council, the FBI Director’s Advisory Board, the CIA Director’s Economic Intelligence Advisory Panel, and the Defense Secretary’s National Security Study Group.

A life of public service has fueled Representative Hamilton's commitment to civics education, a commitment he honors as co-chair of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. Representative Hamilton recently sat down with us for an interview on the significance of civic education at a time of political change and economic upheaval.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: I've heard you say--or rather, write--that you have found a lot of young Americans don't necessarily know what it means to be American. They haven't really thought it over. I was wondering if you could describe the implications of what that means and what schools might be able to do about it.

HAMILTON: I think a representative democracy depends on an educated citizenry. It's very important that not only homes--parents--but also schools take on the responsibility of assuring that young people know how to become good citizens and they learn the attributes of good citizenship: Involvement in their community, listening to their friends and neighbors, trying to solve problems, reach a consensus, discuss, and to get a sense of democracy into their bones. So that they recognize that the question that Lincoln asked, whether this nation, so conceived and so dedicated, could long endure, is answered affirmatively.

I'm very concerned about what's happening today in our schools. You see so much emphasis upon math and science, and I'm certainly not opposed to that. We need that emphasis. But in many respects I think the emphasis there, in part because of the requirements of federal law, are reducing--diminishing--the amount of time that is spent on ...

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(First published August 4, 2008)

When Krista Parent arrived rural Cottage Grove, Oregon in the mid 'eighties, it was a timber town whose students regularly dropped out of high school to work in the lumber mills. Academic achievement was not among the community's top priorities. Now, over 20 years later, students in Cottage Grove's South Lane School District perform well above state averages in assessments of reading and mathematics, and the district's high school graduates more than 95% of its students.

We were recently lucky enough to interview Parent about how she and her colleagues at South Lane worked with the community to transform the district's schools. Parent describes how South Lane's educators reached out to their community to transform the academic culture. 

According to Parent, this community engagement led to a powerful school reform strategy.  South Lane schools have broadened their academic offerings, introduced more challenging courses, overhauled teacher professional development and improved students' hands-on learning opportunities.

It is always challenging to create a brief "highlights reel" from a rich and compelling 25-minute interview. Still, we managed to boil Parent's comments down to about 5 1/2 minutes. (Scroll down for a transcript of these highlights):

Still, we encourage you to listen to the entire 25-minute interview, which ...

First published August 19, 2008.

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Harvard professor and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. captured some 25 million viewers with his riveting PBS documentary series, African American Lives (WNET). Using genealogical research and DNA science, Gates traces the family history of 19 famous African Americans. What results is a rich and moving account of the African American experience.

Gates recently spoke with Public School Insights about the documentary and a remarkable idea it inspired in him: To use genealogy and DNA research to revolutionize the way we teach history and science to African American Students. Now, Gates is working with other educators to create an "ancestry-based curriculum" in K-12 schools. Many African American students know little about their ancestors. Given the chance to examine their own DNA and family histories, Gates argues, they are likely to become more engaged in their history and science classes. As they rescue their forebears from the anonymity imposed by slavery, students begin to understand their own place in the American story.

If the stories in African American Lives are any guide, they're in for an experience.

The Significance of African American Lives

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Tell me about "African-American Lives" and its significance, in your view.

GATES: Wow, that's a big question. [Laughing] I got the idea in the middle of the night to do a series for public television that would combine genealogy and ancestry tracing through genetics. I've been fascinated with my own family tree since I was 10 years old - that's the year that my grandfather died. ...

I am away at an undisclosed location to enjoy a glorious week of vacation. During my absence, some first-rate guest bloggers will write about critical teacher recruitment and retention issues. We'll also re-post some of the most popular interviews we've published over the past year.

I'll still pop into the comments section from time to time, but otherwise the family and I will spend our time gazing across the still waters of a remote and lovely Northeastern lake. ...

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Starting at Home

Teacher/blogger/Twitterer/
author extraordinaire Larry Ferlazzo recently published a gem of a little article on teacher home visits. He writes about the impact of his own efforts to visit students’ families and calls for much more extensive home visit programs. One story he recounts jumps out at me:

Immigrant parents whom I visited developed the idea of having our school provide computers and home Internet access so that entire families could have more opportunities to study English. I was not only able to learn what these parents thought would help their children and themselves; down the line, I was also able to help other parents who had the same interest connect with each other and help us develop a plan of action.

As a result, the Luther Burbank High School Family Literacy Project has produced dramatic English-assessment gains for students and was the Grand Prize winner of the International Reading Association Presidential Award For Reading and Technology.

I like this story, because it turns a common assumption on its head. Teachers are not coming to parents as missionaries converting the unenlightened. Instead, they are forging strong partnerships with parents, discovering shared aspirations ...

Change.org’s education blog just congratulated Dover Elementary School in Richardson, Texas for its inspiring resurgence after more than two decades of flagging community support and low academic performance.

The Dover story illustrates important conditions of school success and failure. Part of Dover’s history is all too familiar: An influx of immigrant families changes school demographics. Wealthier families flee the public schools. Academic performance drops, and the school labors under a stigma.

That’s where the story takes a different turn: ...

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NAEP Gains Ground

New York City students’ steady gains in state assessments have sparked debate over the value of the tests. The Race to the Top guidelines have profound implications for this debate.

The city’s gains have far outpaced those of the state as a whole, but critics point to stagnation in the city’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores as cause for concern. State tests are easy to manipulate, they argue. But NAEP, which assesses a much broader range of content and skills and cannot be easily gamed, represents a better measure of student learning.

New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein counters that the state assessments do measure what’s important. State standards, curricula and assessments aren’t aligned to NAEP, so NAEP scores offer a less valid measure of learning under New York state standards.

The draft Race to the Top application makes it pretty clear where the Education Department stands. The Department will judge state applicants on the extent ...

There is a Finland for every taste. If you want to advocate for an education reform, any education reform, just imply that they do it in Finland.

Newsweek is the latest in a long line of national news magazines to make use of this all-purpose Finland. Newsweek contributor Stefan Theil touts Finland’s success in an article advocating the use of value-added data to measure teacher effectiveness:

[W]ithout such testing and evaluation, education policy will remain vague and approximate, based on folk wisdom and political expediency rather than evidence and facts…. [M]ost of what governments around the world are calling "education investments" still fails to meet the effectiveness test.

Testing and evaluation are without a doubt essential, and we would all welcome much better performance data on which to base policy. But it is disingenuous at best to suggest that the most successful nations succeed primarily as a result of their testing and evaluation systems.

Finland offers a case in point. Some months ago, Finnish education leader Reijo Laukkanen told me: “We don't have any evaluation of teachers. The working morale and the working ethics of the teachers are very high, and we can also ...

A couple of weeks ago, I threw a hissy fit over the influence of marketing and the media on young people’s academic habits. Afterwards, I received a couple of emails laying the blame for poor academic habits at parents’ feet. If parents weren’t missing in action, the argument went, young people would be less disruptive and more invested in school. I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.

A new British study of parenting is suggestive. It found that parents are more likely to spend time with their children and monitor their children’s activities that they were twenty years ago. The researchers speculate that that youth behavior problems in the UK reflect--you guessed it--“the influence of youth culture.”

Yes, this is a study of British families. Yet I wonder if we would find similar trends in the United States. American author Michael Chabon recently went so far as to lament the encroachment of adults on the time-honored freedoms of childhood:

The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.

Surely Chabon has a point. Thirty years ago, I made a daily ten-block trek--alone and on foot--to my elementary school. Try to do that now, even in the nation’s most well-heeled suburbs, and your parents will probably get a visit from child protective services. Many children seem to have little time away from adults. This ...

A decade ago, Interlake High School was the lowest-performing school in the Bellevue, Washington school district. Now, students thrive on a rich diet of demanding core courses. Student achievement rose steadily as more and more students opted for challenging AP and International Baccalaureate coursework. (See our story about Interlake here)

Principal Sharon Collins chalks her school’s success up to the ambitious de-tracking effort she launched when she became principal. The school eliminated the lowest-rung courses and urged students into the more challenging AP and IB routes. Key to this strategy was early and sustained support for struggling students.

We recently chatted with Collins by phone:

Public School Insights: I understand that about ten years ago, Interlake was the lowest-performing school in the district. What changed?

Collins: Well, there were quite a few components that came into it. One of them [is that] the school went through huge remodel. We got an opportunity to reinvent ourselves when we moved into the new building.

When I first came there, I met with every staff member for a 20-minute interview. We talked a lot about curriculum and climate. Those two things were the focus for the school. I instituted a whole committee to work on the ...

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