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The Public School Insights Blog

I'm of two minds about Joan Kronholz's recent piece on the value of competition. You need look no farther than the resurgence of "academic bees and bowls," Kronholz writes in Education Next, to see that competition is making a comeback. That could be good news, but we have to learn how to spread the academic wealth beyond the winner's circle.

There's much to like in Kronholz's article. It exalts nerdy things like spelling bees and celebrates the grit of students who rise to the top by studying very, very hard. It makes clear that those students aren't idiots savants who relate better to dictionaries than to people. And it reminds us that some knowledge is valuable or even fun for its own sake.

But Kronholz doesn't really acknowledge just how limited the reach of these competitions really can be. Sure, some ten million children across the country participate in the Scripps spelling bee, but that's still a fraction of eligible children in schools. And I'm fairly sure that too few children from our neediest schools are advancing to the finals.

Is it possible to bring the spirit of the Scripps spelling bee or the Intel Science Search to more schools and communities? Some years ago, a friend of ...

The 2009 NAEP reading scores are out, and advocates of all stripes will be in a mad rush to interpret them in self-serving ways. That's bad news for NAEP.

People often use NAEP to support grand ideological claims. Just over a week ago, one blogger credited charter schools with DC's gains in NAEP scores from 1994 to 2007. "One blindingly obvious cause for the improvement: the 100 charter schools operating in the district educating over 30,000 children," he wrote.

Blindingly obvious? Perhaps not. The latest NAEP reading scores included bad news for charter schools in DC, whose 4th grade performance didn't budge, and whose 8th grade performance actually declined since 2007. In fact, the charters dragged down DC's overall numbers, which showed no improvement in eighth grade. Take charters out of the picture, and DC schools showed significant gains. 

So does this prove that charters are a flop? Of course not. But it does suggest that anyone who thinks the policy lessons of NAEP are "blindingly obvious" is prone to wishful thinking. There's been a lot of that going around.

It's always possible to find support for your favorite reform idea if you look hard enough at the NAEP results. Take mayoral control, for example. If you love it, ...

Louisiana’s Greenlawn Terrace Elementary is a small school achieving big things. It is one of the top-performing schools in its district, a feat made even more impressive given the high rate of poverty of its student population. In fact, the school was recently named a High-Performing High-Poverty School by the Louisiana Department of Education, one of a very few neighborhood schools in the greater New Orleans area to receive the honor.

We recently spoke with members of the Greenlawn community to learn how they do it. Two major themes emerged: their school environment, which is caring and safe for students, parents and staff, and their focus on data.

Principal Katherine “Kitty” Croft, special education teacher and department chair Marguerite Hymel and Title I extension teacher Amy Lang told us more.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Greenlawn Terrace Elementary?

Croft: At Greenlawn, everyone in the school, from the custodial staff to the principal, shares the same vision.

I have been at the school almost 25 years, and that stability, of course, adds to what goes on here. And we are a small neighborhood school, with about 370 students. But when I first came, this was a large school. We were almost 700 children. I took home the yearbook so I could memorize the teachers. But now we are a small, suburban school tucked in Kenner, Louisiana, behind a very busy street. I love it.

Our population…When I first came to the school it was about 66% white, 33% black. Today it is about 41% white, 33% black and 25% Hispanic. We have always been a Title I school, which means that we are always “at-risk.” We have right now about 85% free or reduced price lunch students.

I have always loved psychometry. I figured when I was in graduate school that there would always be ...

A couple of days ago, I wrote that I was uneasy with the growing criticism of our push to get many more US students into college. I worry that, without such a push, we'll give in to a system where family income remains the major gatekeeper for higher ed. 

Several people pushed back in the comments section. They shared my unease with our current inequities, but they felt the college for all approach might make things worse for kids of all income levels. I still can't back away from my support for the college push, but thought I should share their very thoughtful and spirited comments. Here are a few excerpts:

First, from Keishla Caesar-Jones:

I don't think the answer is to make education a revolving door. Because we think everyone SHOULD go to college instead of everyone should have the chance to CHOOSE to go to college.

We have created a one-size fits all approach to education that puts everyone on the same track...come hell or high water. I live in Texas, and for the past few decades, all vocational programs were eliminated from public schools. The only ones to remain were mostly automotive in some places and cosmetology. What is wrong with being an auto ...

I just can't shake the queasy feeling I got when I read yesterday's New York Times piece portraying college as a bad risk for poor kids. In large part, I worry that a retreat from our focus on college signals a retreat from our commitment to equity. But there's something else at work, something I couldn't quite put my finger on yesterday.

Blogger Corey Bunje Bower helped me put a name to it. Some college critics seem to prize training over education.

Here's how Bower puts it:

College does not only exist to train students for future employment. Students might benefit from attending college in myriad ways regardless of whether or not it directly relates to their future career. Similarly, society may benefit in many ways other than a more skilled labor force if more people attend college.

In the college skeptics' defense, $100K or even $200K is an awful lot to shell out for that certain je ne sais quoi. Every family has to consider the return on its investment in higher ed. And we can surely question the wisdom of colleges that race to outspend each other on swanky rec centers and freshman suites while tuition skyrockets.

But we have to be careful not to hearken back to granddad's vocational ed. There's more to school than workforce preparation, but so much of the ...

The dream of college for all is one of the first casualties when jobs dry up and the future looks bleak. More and more people are questioning the wisdom of paying big tuition for what could be a small return. Technical school may be a better bet, they say, especially for poor youth who can't afford to get into debt.

They may have a point. But I think it's a very bad idea to retreat from our commitment to get many, many more poor students through college. At the same time, it's unwise to assume that education alone will solve our economic woes.

The "college for all" argument is important, because it offers a vision for overcoming stubborn class inequities. Let's face it, the vast majority of wealthy parents expect their kids to go to college. Even some of those pundits who pooh pooh college in the pages of the Times or The Wall Street Journal would likely pitch a fit if their own children decided to go the voc-ed route. Poor children face a very different reality.

It may be true that college isn't for everyone. But until student inclination--and not income--becomes the major sorting mechanism for college, I'm not ready to abandon the focus on college. After all, those who never went to college are ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Tough Luck

Hallelujah! A recent study shows that an improvement strategy may actually work at scale. And it may even work well. What a relief after a spate of studies suggesting that nothing ever really works for anyone anywhere. But control your enthusiasm. Even this promising strategy has fallen under the budget axe.

According to Deb Viadero in EdWeek, a Stanford study "suggests that putting literacy coaches in schools can help boost students' reading skills by as much as 32 percent over three years." (The program focuses on K-2 classrooms.) And the more coaching, the better:

Teachers and schools that experienced more coaching sessions tended to spur bigger learning gains in their students. Some teachers recieved no coaching over the course of the study, while others had as many as 43 sessions.

The program seemed to work best in schools where teachers have real authority and strong relationships with their peers:

The schools where the most coaching took place were...places where teachers felt they had a voice in what went on in their building and where professional networks among teachers were already strong. (Those ...

Multi-tasking might not be all it's cracked up to be. So perhaps schools should do all they can to nurture students' mono-tasking skills.

ASCD's In-Service blog sums up a few of Richard Restak's concerns about multi-tasking. Two stand out for me:

  • "The more you multitask, the worse you do those tasks and the more distractible you become."
  • "Those who do too much multitasking often have trouble distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information."

Restak is one of a handful of authors and researchers who have been sounding alarm bells about kids' apparent need to do ten things at once. A few years ago, Walter Kim argued that people who do too many things at once lose their ability to retain information.

People tend to knock schools for for resisting new technologies and forcing children to conform to old models of schooling. But maybe schools should hold fast to a few decidedly anti-modern principles. Sustained attention and reflection ...

Here's an idea: Let's push most teachers out the door after five or ten years. Or we can just keep them at the same salary level for 35 years. That idea has been bouncing around a couple of blogs recently. Woe unto all of us if it comes to pass.

The logic goes like this: teachers aren't more effective after 25 years on the job than they are after five, so pack your bags, old-timer. Join the “real world,” where you have to get better and better with each passing year. You'd save the school system a lot of money if you stopped collecting that big paycheck.

The people floating this idea aren't ogres. They tend to be thoughtful commentators. But the idea itself troubles me, to say the least. In many ways, it sums up the direction of the current debate on school reform. ...

Newsweek science writer Sharon Begley gives education research an "F." We just don't have much good research on what works. That's a big problem if we intend to hold teachers responsible for students' test scores, Begley writes. (Perhaps she is atoning for the magazine's past sins.) We give teachers lousy tools and then punish them for their failures.

Begley manages to paint education researchers as slack and feckless, which isn't quite fair. She fails to mention the ethical or logistical challenges of doing "gold standard" research in schools. (Take random assignment, for example. Do you want your child in the intervention group? Well, tough luck.)

She also fails to note that education research has been starved of resources since, well, forever. Less than 1 percent of the federal research budget goes to education research.

But her overall point is worth considering. If we're going to make teachers sweat, let's give them the tools they need to succeed. A much bigger investment in ...

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