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The Public School Insights Blog

Editor's note: This interview was originally posted October 13, 2009, by former LFA Executive Director Claus von Zastrow. Given the recent light shed on the pressures of gay teenagers, it seems fitting to repost it now as a resource that schools and districts can use to help protect all of their students.

For another resource, referenced in the interview, see Public Schools and Sexual Orientation: A First Amendment framework for finding common ground.

Charles Haynes is one of the nation's leading experts on religious liberty in the public schools. He has worked with groups from across the political spectrum to help schools create ground rules for respectful dialogue on hot-button social issues. 

Haynes recently spoke with us about one of the fiercest battles in the culture wars: the battle over sexual orientation and public schools. This battle has grown all the fiercer since Education Department official Kevin Jennings started drawing fire for his past work at GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.

Schools need to create a safe environment for civil dialogue, Haynes told us. They need to protect the rights of everyone, from conservative Christians to gay rights advocates. They cannot guarantee that everyone will agree, but they can promote trust and respect.

Haynes gives Jennings a full-throated endorsement for supporting these essential principles.

Public School Insights: What do you think is happening when people discuss sexual orientation in public schools?

Haynes: I think in many places people are speaking—or should I say shouting?—past one another about this issue.

Schools, as usual, are caught in the crossfire of the larger culture wars in the United States. We have administrators, teachers and school board members struggling to figure out how to handle this very difficult issue at a time when the larger culture is not handling it well.

Public School Insights: Is it possible for teachers, administrators and other school stakeholders to create common ground on issues of sexual orientation?

Haynes: Yes. I think it’s not only possible, I think it’s imperative that we try harder.

Unfortunately, in many school districts people put their heads in the sand and hope this issue will just disappear and that they won’t have a fight. But then they are unprepared when something emerges, and ...

Today’s guest post comes from the National PTA, a member of the Learning First Alliance. The largest volunteer child advocacy association in the nation, PTA reminds our country of its obligations to children and provides parents and families with a powerful voice to speak on behalf of every child. It also provides tools for parents to help their children be successful students.

So often we hear complaints from parents and teachers that the other is not doing their job. It is hard for teachers to understand the strengths and challenges of parents, and parents often feel like outsiders in the school world.

Breaking down barriers, fostering positive communication between teachers and parents, and having engaged families will lead to better outcomes for students. Research shows that family engagement promotes student success. Students with engaged parents are more likely to earn higher grades and pass their classes, attend school regularly and have better social skills, and go on to postsecondary education. When families, teachers and schools find ways to work together, student achievement improves, teacher morale rises, communication increases, and family, school, and community connections multiply.

Parents want what is best for their children, and teachers do too. The more teachers and parents talk to each other, work with one another and remember that the child is the focus, the more successful that child will be. And we can all use some help on how to make that happen. Here are some tips that can help parents foster a positive relationship with their child's teacher.

  • Find time to share your experiences with school and how that has shaped your perception about parent teacher relationships. Talk about ...

Editor's note: Our guest blogger today is Matt Brown, who can typically be found blogging on education issues over at Relentless Pursuit of Acronyms.

When I pass along articles about education reform or discuss the challenges I faced when I taught with my friends, many of them throw their hands in the air and say “Matt, we can make all these policy changes until we’re blue in the face…it can’t help because parents just don’t care!” Some of my old coworkers expressed similar sentiments. I remain skeptical.

My old school held their first parent-teacher conferences of the year last October. I had just started teaching a few days before (school started in mid-August, but I wasn’t placed until late September), and I couldn’t wait to meet my students' parents and go over all the exciting things that were going to happen in Room 128 that year. I wore my best suit that day, much to the amusement of some of the staff (“Mr. Brown! You getting’ married after school today? You going to court?”), hoping that I could make a good impression.

People told me not to get my hopes up. Some said the meetings would be an exercise in futility. But I refused to be defeatist. When the time came, I sat in my classroom, smiling by my sign-in sheet and looking forward to discussing the year, our class goals and my students with their parents. Sadly, only ...

There's been a lot going on with Baltimore City Public Schools lately. The district recently received the CUBE Award (Council of Urban Boards of Education). It has made remarkable progress over the past three years in test scores (especially of minority students), increasing public support and cutting the number of students dropping out of school. A couple examples: Special education students in grades three to eight have improved reading scores on state tests by nearly 30 percentage points—and math scores by nearly 28. English language learners in those grades have improved reading scores by 39 percentage points—and math scores by 39, too, outperforming their English-speaking peers in that subject.

But it's not just what has happened in Baltimore that's exciting--it is also what is to come. For example, a revolutionary new teachers contract. The proposed contract eliminates the “step” pay increases that compensate teachers based solely on their years in the workforce and degrees obtained. It incorporates effectiveness, identified in a number of ways, and also creates a career ladder that gives lead teachers the potential to earn up to $100,000.

And the contract isn’t just about pay and evaluation. It also includes “school-based options.” So teachers at a school, with an 80% majority, can determine school-level working conditions not outlined in the general contract, such as a longer working day or more planning time. It puts teachers at the center of transforming schools.

Remarkably, considering what is included, these contract negotiations went smoothly. The union and district quietly went about ...

As has been said over and over again, the recent barrage of education media has been narrowly focused and agenda driven. It has been one shot after another at teachers unions (despite the work they continuously do in driving reform efforts from Maryland to California) and one plug after another for charter schools (without mention of the fact that evidence on charters is mixed at best).

To me, a sharp illustration of the monotony of the debate came with Monica Groves, a former teacher turned dean at an Atlanta charter school, who participated in the closing panel at Education Nation. She commented:

The ... piece that I found was often missing from the conversation was, once we get highly qualified teachers in the door, what are we doing as a nation to invest and prioritize teacher development for teachers who are already in the classroom. Because as many educators agree, getting into the classroom is only the first step in the journey. Staying there, and becoming increasingly more effective is one of the bigger challenges. So my question is what are we going to do on a national level to prioritize professional development so it's not just an administrator's initiative or a district's initiative to develop teachers on an ongoing basis once they're in the classroom?

As the recent media efforts seem to, she could have championed the importance of charters or of disempowering teachers unions, two things that when looking at her choice in workplace, stereotype would suggest she supports (I don't know her position on these matters). Instead, she called attention to ...

Nancy Flanagan's picture

We're Number One!

Editor's note: Our guest blogger today is Nancy Flanagan. An education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership, she spent 30 years in the classroom--and was named the 1993 Teacher of the Year in Michigan. She is National Board-certified and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She can be found blogging over at Teacher in a Strange Land. Her work is also featured at Teachers Lead.

Are we finished being "the Education Nation" now?

The mainstream media blitz has ebbed, although bloggers are still acerbically dissecting grandiose claims made and unequal assignment of airtime and spotlights.

What are the lasting outcomes? One is a Facebook page full of messages which NBC has, ex-post facto, separated into "Education Nation" (their carefully sanitized default page) and "Just Others" (posts made by actual viewers), a clear and disappointing indication that NBC wasn't really looking for dialogue, new ideas and feedback after all.

Also remaining, this sober question: Why?

Why would a mainstream broadcast network--and trusted talk-show icon and even the Secretary of Education--embark on a highly publicized campaign to characterize public education in America as miserable failure? And lay the lion's share of blame at the feet of experienced teachers, the anonymous, exhausted foot soldiers in the quest to improve our educational outcomes? Why would they advocate for charter schools and matching teachers to test scores as go-to solutions, given the meticulous and rigorous research that disproves miracle-school and hero-teacher myths? It's irresponsible journalism--and it doesn't make sense, frankly.

One facile answer: the media is always hungry for the most simplistic but electrifying spin on any story--even a story as complex, knotty and critical as educating kids in America. "Waiting for Superman" is just another melodrama from an industry that turned a serial killer into ...

I just read an article by a well-known superintendent on the importance of improving teacher quality, and how one might go about it. I agreed with some of what was said, though not all of it, but by the time I finished reading it I was smoking.

It was missing two key words: school-based.

The piece claimed that "the single most important factor" in student achievement is the teacher. But that is not exactly what the research shows. Rather, time and time again, the research shows that family background—aka socioeconomic status—is by far the most influential factor in a student’s academic achievement.

Research does show that teachers are the most important school-based factor in a child’s achievement. Effective teachers can work with students to overcome some of the challenges that they bring to school, helping them achieve at high levels. So clearly in designing school improvement efforts, a number of policies around teachers—their quality, development, compensation and more—should be considered.

But too many debates on education reform leave out those two little words. And that can create some unrealistic ...

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 ...

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