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The Public School Insights Blog

Education historian Diane Ravitch has just published a new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. The book has been a runaway success. It currently ranks among the top 60 best-selling books on Amazon.com, where it sold out within a week of its release.

Public School Insights: I’ve heard your book characterized as a “u-turn,” an “about-face,” a sudden shift from “conservative” to “liberal” views on education reform. Are those characterizations accurate? What are some of the fundamental beliefs that unite your efforts over the past four decades?

Ravitch: I did not do a "U-turn" or an abrupt "about-face," nor (as one story said) did I "recant" almost everything I ever believed or wrote. I certainly did change my mind about things I had advocated in the past, but the change was more gradual than it appeared to those who have not read what I have been writing for the past three years. As I write in the book, I concluded that NCLB was failing when I attended a conference at a conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, on November 30, 2006. I was given the assignment of summing up the day's proceedings; paper after paper demonstrated that NCLB's remedies were not working. Very small proportions of students were choosing to leave their school or to get tutoring. In my remarks at the end of the day, I said that NCLB was failing. The next fall, in 2007, when NAEP scores were released and showed meager improvements, I wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times titled, "Get Congress Out of the Classroom." Since then, I have written several articles in opposition to NCLB. So my turn-about on NCLB was very public and not ...

We're told we have to hold teachers and students to high expectations, but somehow it's OK to have low expectations of policy makers. Teachers and other school staff have learned by now that they must never say never. But policy makers? Don't expect too much from them.

Jay Mathews is just the latest to accept this double standard. "It is politically impossible to pass a plan that doesn't make teachers accountable for student performance," he writes.

We will never return to the good old days (in the minds of some) when we ignored that factor. I agree...that there are better measures of schools, but for the moment they are way too expensive (like regular inspections) and way too complicated for voters to understand and trust."

I admire Mathews very much, but he's way off base here. If we expect schools to move every mountain--"do whatever it takes"--to make every child successful, then why should we let policy makers off the hook in demanding--and paying for ...

vonzastrowc's picture

A Tricky Business

When it comes to schools, does the business community suffer from split personality?

We hear a lot about the influence of business on school reform. But I'm not sure there's a monolithic "business" perspective on schools. Instead, I've seen at least two major thrusts in what business leaders have said about school reform. First, there are those who championed No Child Left Behind. Then there are those who urge hands-on learning, higher-order thinking skills, and rich opportunities to learn outside school walls. Needless to say, the two approaches don't always mingle happily.

Maybe that's why a new set of business recommendations on ESEA seemed almost at war with itself. The Business Coalition for Student Achievement's (BCSA) "Principles for the Reauthorization of ESEA" combine many of NCLB's greatest hits with more muted appeals for a broader vision of schooling. In these very lean years, I worry that NCLB's narrow vision will prevail as the broader vision falls by the wayside.

First, the Blast from the Past. BCSA wants to retain the major hallmarks of NCLB: Annual testing in math and reading, full proficiency, and sanctions for struggling schools. They even want to keep the SES provisions. (Because they were such a smashing success?) What's more, they want to add merit pay to this mix, a move that might actually ratchet up the pressure to teach to tests and dump all but math, reading and science out of the curriculum.

Now the Kinder, Gentler Vision of the Future. But then BCSA includes a kinder, gentler vision of schooling. They call for ESEA to support "inquiry ...

Newsweek has apparently scrubbed its lead story on education of some offensive content. The original headline read "The Problem with Education Is Teachers." Well, that's gone. So is the following subhead: "Getting rid of bad teachers is the solution to turning around failing urban schools." (Earlier this week, I got pretty worked up over their hatchet job on teachers.)

Did they succumb to mass outrage? Did they succumb to pangs of conscience?

Can anyone find the original version of those articles in the Google cache?

[Hat tip to an anonymous commenter for discovering the change.] ...

A draft of the the Common Core State Standards in K12 appeared yesterday, and the media have taken notice. As far as I can tell so far, response to the draft has been pretty positive. (The public comment period is now open.) I just hope the public and policymakers don't lose interest before we do the hard work of giving people in schools the time and support they need to use the standards well in the classroom.

The English Language Arts standards in particular have gone over very well with some groups that were skeptical at the outset. Core Knowledge, Common Core, and Fordham all like what they see. I've had some time to page through the ELA standards myself and am impressed. The suggested reading list is especially substantive and diverse: Homer, Euclid, Donne, de Tocqueville, MLK, Lahiri, Morrison, and even Enzensberger!

Of course, not everyone is on board. Officials from the only two states that declined to take part in the Common Core standards initiative--Texas and Alaska--were quick to declare their own standards equal or superior to the Common Core. (Groups that review state standards, like Fordham and the AFT, might well disagree.)

Then there's of course the Cato Institute's Neal McClusky, who sees the whole effort as a dangerous diversion from the boundless promise of the free ...

People in our business commonly talk about the challenges of teaching students who are still learning English. Not so Ted Appel of Luther Burbank High School in California. He sees these students as an asset.

More than half of his school's students are English language learners. About nine in ten come from low-income families. Though some schools might see such students as a drag on their test scores, Luther Burbank High welcomes them from neighborhoods far from its own. For Appel, such students enrich the school in ways standard school rating systems cannot begin to capture.

Appel recently told us about his school--and about the state and federal  policies that can at times impede its vital work.

Public School Insights: Tell me a little bit about Luther Burbank High School.

Appel: It is a comprehensive high school with about 2100 students. About 90% are on free or reduced lunch. About 35% are Southeast Asian, mostly Hmong. We are about 25% Latino, about 20% African-American, and whatever percentage is left is from everywhere else in the world.

Public School Insights: So you must have a lot of different languages spoken in the school.

Appel: Yes. The predominant languages are Hmong and Spanish. For about 55% of our student population, English is not the primary language spoken at home. They are English learners.

Public School Insights: I would assume this population has a pretty big impact on your school and the teaching strategies you to use. Is that true?

Appel: Absolutely. One of the advantages of having such a large number of English learners is that we in a way do not have an English learner program. We try to foster a sense that all teachers are likely to be teaching English learners, so there is not a sense that English learners are the kids that somebody else ...

I usually delete comment spam as soon as it appears, but once in a while I come across an example that's just too good to erase. Here's this month's candidate:

Sometimes, people make the thesis mba by their own efforts. But some students like to order the professional idea related to this topic from the thesis service, because that seems to be more comfortable.

You heard it here first. ...

Newsweek excels at self-parody. It has long produced lop-sided and simplistic reporting on school reform. But this week's lead story takes the cake: "The Problem with Education is Teachers."

I had a hissy fit when I first read that inflammatory and irresponsible headline. And the lede pushed me over the edge: "Getting rid of bad teachers is the solution to turning around failing urban schools." Any journalist who writes about "the solution" to anything should get a pay cut. Another subtitle for the article just added insult to injury: "In no other profession are workers so insulated from accountability." Well, what about journalism?

It's too bad Newsweek ran such a poor piece. They could have learned a thing or two about schools and journalism if they had read Elizabeth Green's wonderful piece in last weeks' New York Times Magazine. Newsweek's authors interviewed only the usual reform suspects, ignored viewpoints that clashed with their angle, ignored the role of factors like staff development and curriculum, and went for the sensational headline. Green's story is a world apart from all that.

For one, Green asks logical questions about what has become received wisdom in some school reform circles. Can TFA really supply the needs of all our troubled urban and rural schools? If we fired "bad teachers" at the bottom and hired "great" ones at the top, would we really solve our education problems? What about the ...

I've been out of commission for a couple days with a nasty bug I picked up from my infant daughter (who's now better.) So imagine my surprise when I finally open my computer and find a Newsweek cover article titled "The Problem With Education is Teachers."*

Haven't read the article itself yet, but I just have to say--WOW. What an inflammatory, unfair and thoroughly irresponsible title to add to any article. More later....

The problem with journalism is lousy journalists and editors. Unbelievable.

* Text corrected 3/8/2010 ...

Principal Stephanie Smith of Seaford Middle School has seen the highs and lows of school reform. She has seen her school shake off the stigma it bore as a school "in need of improvement." (Delaware named her its 2008 Principal of the Year for her role in that school's remarkable transformation.) She has seen the school sustain its students' performance despite the fact that many more now live in poverty than did just a few years ago. She has even seen the school begin to stem the tide of its highest-performing students into a neighboring charter school.

But now she worries that the school might not be able to keep clearing the bar that No Child Left Behind sets higher every year. And she faces the prospect of slipping back into "needs improvement" status less than a decade after her school emerged from it.

We recently spoke with Smith, who told us the remarkable story of her school's triumphs and struggles in the era of No Child Left Behind.

Public School Insights: What kind of a school is Seaford Middle School?

Smith: It is a grade six through eight middle school. We are the only middle school in our school system. We have four feeder elementary schools and we feed into one high school. We have about 750 students.

Seaford is a demographically diverse school. We really don’t have a majority population anymore—we run about 40% African-American and Caucasian populations, with a Hispanic population as well. We are 71% free and reduced price lunch. That number has gone up drastically, probably since you last got information on our school. We are about 21% special ed.

Public School Insights: What do you think prompted the rise in free and reduced price lunch numbers?

Smith: I think just the status of the economy. Our community—the city of Seaford and its outlying areas—has been given the title of the poorest community in ...

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