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The Public School Insights Blog

The Obama administration claims that its blueprint for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now called No Child Left Behind, is grounded in research. A new book, the first major project of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), disagrees. Or rather, it disagrees that it is grounded in quality research.

The Obama Education Blueprint: Researchers Examine the Evidence offer six reviews, one of each of the research summaries that the administration released in May as an evidence base for its blueprint. These reviews were written by independent scholars, including a woman who is now a household name: Diane Ravitch.

While each review has its own findings, overarching themes emerge, including: low quality research, extensive use of non-research and advocacy sources and a focus on problems rather than on research supporting conclusions. In addition, there were some important omissions. There was no support for the administration’s proposed accountability system, or rationale for increasing reliance on competitive grants. And support for the four intervention models that must be used when turning around struggling schools was found to be "undeveloped." Yet these three policies are among the centerpieces of the administration’s agenda--and are the subject of great debate among education stakeholders.

These findings come as no surprise to many in the education community. They have been pointing out the weaknesses in the evidence base ever since ...

"When we make decisions we think we’re in control, making rational choices. But are we?"

In his best-selling book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, behavioral economist Dan Ariely challenges the basic assumptions of our economic system, exploring the powerful tricks that our minds play on us and showing that actually, we humans are far from rational.

Of course, irrationality is not always bad. His follow-up, The Upside of Irrationality, offers another look at the irrational decisions that influence our lives, as well as some of the positive effects that such irrationality can have.

Ariely recently spoke with us about his work and its implications for education reforms involving teacher compensation and school choice.

Public School Insights: You are a behavioral economist. What does that mean?

Ariely: My Ph.D.s are actually not in economics. I have a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, and I have a Ph.D. in business administration. But what I do lies between psychology and economics.

I ask questions that economists would ask, but instead of assuming straightaway that people behave rationally, I just observe how people behave. So think of it as something that has no assumption; it's just observational in its nature. That's the basic story.

Public School Insights: You've written a couple of books, Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. Could you briefly describe them?

Ariely: Yes. In Predictably Irrational, I talk about how people think, mostly about financial decisions. The things that we buy. One chapter asks the question, "How do we decide how much something is worth?" Economic theory has a very simple assumption about this. But I ask the question, "How do we really do it?"

Or I ask the question, "What happens when the price of something drops to zero?" People get overly excited about it, usually. But is it just because ...

It was recently announced that Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is donating $100 million to help improve Newark’s long-troubled public schools. Those funds will be matched by donations raised by the city, which is also raising $50 million for another youth effort. In other words, Newark’s children will have a lot more money available to them over the next few years.

As part of this agreement, Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will cede some control over Newark Public Schools (currently state-run) to Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Together, they will select a new superintendent, and Mayor Booker will have freedom to redesign the system (though the governor retains formal authority over it).

This partnership is great news in some respects--a Democrat and a Republican overcoming political conflicts, joining forces for the sake of the children. Hopefully it is the first of many such unions across the country.

But I do have some concerns with this set-up. First, we must question the wisdom of short-term infusions of private funds into public schools. While $100 million--or even $250 million--is a lot of money, it won't last forever. What happens when the money runs out?

And second, what is the role of philanthropy in school reform? Some argue, as NYC Chancellor Joel Klein puts it, that while private philanthropy will never be a large part of a system's budget, it is money that can be used for research and development and for ...

Have you checked out NBC’s Education Nation’s mission statement? A little birdie recently passed on some interesting information about it...

The statement claims “Sixty-eight percent of our eighth-graders can’t read at grade level.” But where did that number come from?

The source was not immediately apparent. But having some knowledge of education (and a helpful source), I assumed it came from NAEP--the National Assessment of Educational Progress. So I went to their website to check out the reading scores.

NAEP actually found that 32% of eighth graders performed at or above the proficient level in 2009, the most recent data available. That means, of course, that 68% of eighth graders did not. The problem? Scoring “proficient” on the reading NAEP has no relationship with whether or not a student can read at grade-level.

NAEP defines proficient as “representing solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of ...

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Teachers - Got Plans Sunday?

If not, consider joining a live chat for Education Nation’s Teacher Town Hall. It will be held Sunday, September 26, at 12pm Eastern/9am Pacific. And during this event, NBC’s Brian Williams will talk with teachers on-air and online about issues facing educators and education. Just remember--you must register to participate.

For those who do not know, NBC News’ Education Nation is a week-long event, starting Sunday, that will examine and redefine education in America. It “seeks to engage the public, through thoughtful dialogue, in pursuit of the shared goal of providing every American with an opportunity to pursue the best education in the world.” Believing that we have allowed our students to fall behind, that our workforce is largely unprepared for today’s marketplace and that we face stiff competition from abroad, NBC hopes to provide quality news and information to the public to help us decide: Is it time to reinvent American as an Education Nation?

This event will feature in-depth conversations about improving education in American, including the Teacher Town Hall (which, by the way, will be aired live on MSNBC, educationnation.com, scholastic.com and msnbc.com). For the entire week, “NBC Nightly News,” “Today,” “Meet the Press,” “Your Business,” MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo, msnbc.com and ...

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Groundbreaking Public Schools

Monday’s episode of Oprah, as you may know, featured DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, billionaire Bill Gates and Davis Guggenheim, currently famous as the man behind Waiting For Superman. Theoretically, the show examined public education in America, though I don't think I was alone in noticing the voices missing from the show.

But in addition to presenting a one-sided view to education and school improvement in America, I was really disappointed with one thing in particular. Oprah celebrated six groundbreaking charter schools/charter networks that work with mainly under-resourced populations. Each got a million dollars from her “Angel Network.” Now, these schools have accomplished amazing things. They should to be commended for the hard work that their staff puts in on behalf of their students. Clearly, they are all very deserving of the money and recognition they got on her show.

But the fact the show highlighted ONLY charter schools was unsettling. Such actions unwittingly (or unfortunately, perhaps wittingly) imply that charter schools are the best hope for our disadvantaged kids. But that is ENTIRELY untrue. While there are struggling public schools (which was clearly evident from this show), there are also public schools across the country that help children from all backgrounds reach great academic heights. In them, unheralded teachers are doing extraordinary things every day. But ...

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Reading is Fundamental

Yesterday’s release of a major report on teacher pay dwarfed much else in the education news. I may write on that soon, if I feel I have anything to add to the conversation. But today I wanted to talk about my favorite book, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

It has been my favorite book since the 5th grade. I haven’t read it in years, in part because I am afraid of what would happen if I read it again and thought, “Well, it’s okay.” But up through college I read it multiple times each year. I read it so many times that the cover of my first copy fell off when I was in high school, and my parents bought me a replacement copy.

I’m not exactly sure why this book touched me so. Likely because I got the book as a very young adolescent, about to go through many of the things that Francie went through in the book. She was relatable.

This isn’t the only book to have touched me over the years. But it was the first. And it helped cement the love of reading, and of books themselves (I'm not sure I'll ever get a Kindle), that I have today.

I thought of this book after seeing Sarah D. Sparks’ EdWeek blog yesterday. She posted about a meta-analysis of book-distribution programs. The study, commissioned by the book distribution group Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), found that students from low-income homes who had access to print materials through book ownership or lending programs like theirs had improved reading performance. Such programs were correlated with children better knowing the ...

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Public Service or Profession?

What makes a great school? The September 20 issue of Time magazine plastered this question across its cover, implying that it might, I don’t know, attempt to answer it. Instead, the magazine contained an editor's letter, a list of ways that various constituencies could get involved in public schools and two articles on public education: a fairly biased look at the upcoming documentary Waiting for Superman and a fairly reasoned look at teacher recruitment, training and professionalism.

The implication of the issue is that it is teachers that make a school great. I would expand that to all the people in the school—the principal, counselors, paraeducators, other support staff. And actually, I think that to be great, a school must have a culture that is great. And culture isn't dependent on merely on the people in the school building. The parents, the district staff, even the surrounding business community, all play a role.

But no one will deny that teachers are a huge part of it, which is one reason that I was drawn to John Cloud’s piece How to Recruit Better Teachers. (Unfortunately, this article is not available in its entirety on-line, but I’ll do my best to summarize the important themes). The recruitment, training and support of new teachers are incredibly important in our quest to strengthen schools.

Of course, one of the first programs mentioned in the article was TFA (Teach For America). One of the next was TNTP (The New Teacher Project). Both are alternative ways to move through the teacher certification process.

Next came criticism of schools of education. “A-ha!" I thought. “Cloud has hit the magic formula of ‘us’ versus ‘them’…two sides, pitted against each other in a bloodbath, winner cares about kids.”

But then Cloud asks a question. A question that I think really should be at the forefront of all education reform discussions:

“What does it mean when we decide that teaching is more a public service than a profession?”

Rumor (spread by Cloud in this piece) has a forthcoming McKinsey study showing that the best undergraduates in the U.S. see teaching as equivalent to ...

As promised, last week the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released their strategy to improve STEM education in America’s elementary and secondary schools. It has two prongs, focusing on both preparing students (improving STEM education itself) and inspiring students so they are motivated to study STEM subjects and have careers in STEM fields in the future. The report divided recommendations into five general priorities for the federal government: improving federal coordination and leadership, supporting the state-led movement to establish a baseline for what students should learn in STEM courses, cultivating/recruiting/rewarding STEM teachers, creating STEM-related experiences that excite and interest students, and supporting the transformation of schools into STEM learning centers.

As I said last week, I was anxious to see the strategy proposed for motivating students in STEM. As a science and remedial math high school teacher in a low-income community, I found that getting students excited about STEM subjects was one of my biggest challenges. And if students weren’t excited, they were not going to learn it. Plain as that. I suggested that doing more to ...

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Today in History...

On September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention held their final meeting. There was only one item of business: Signing the Constitution of the United States of America. Henceforth, September 17 came to be known as Constitution Day.

The Constitution established the framework for a government. A government dependent on its people for survival. So it seems fitting on this day in history to consider American students' performance in civics.

The most recent results available from National Assessment of Student Progress (NAEP) test in civics are from 2006 (the test was administered in 2010, but the results have not yet been released). On that test, we learned that about two out of every three American students at grades 4 (73%), 8 (70%) and 12 (66%) have at least a basic knowledge of civics.* That does not sound TOO bad, though it is certainly concerning that a third of our high school seniors do not have even a basic sense of civics--and these are the students who make it to twelfth grade. ...

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