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The Public School Insights Blog

Every child can learn, but teachers are unteachable. That seems to be an unspoken premise of the current national debate on school reform.

Okay, I exaggerate. But the punditry's enthusiasm for Teach for America stands in stark contrast to the radio silence on issues like staff development and teacher support. Great teachers are born and hired, it seems, not made.

I hope at least some people will take note of a new IES study on teacher induction programs. The study found that teachers who received "comprehensive induction" support for two years were more likely than those who did not to raise their students' scores in reading and math. Mathematica Policy Research carried out the study, which was a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT).

The three-year study's findings are surely music to the ears of people who support induction programs. An interim report last year showed no significant impact on test scores after just one year of induction support. The second year appears to be the charm. It may well be that new teachers need more than one year of mentoring to ...

For every dream, there is a corresponding nightmare. Whether we fulfill the dream or succumb to the nightmare depends on whether quality or economy is the prime mover of our work. That fact heightens the ferocity of current debates on school reform.

Take, for example, the standards movement. I still believe in the dream of standards. First-rate standards can create a compelling common vision for what students should know and be able to do. Excellent curriculum, assessments, staff development and teaching tools--all tied to those standards--can help teachers and students reach those goals.

But in far too many places, the dream became a nightmare. Fairly rotten multiple-choice tests became de facto standards, test prep became the curriculum, and staff development went by the wayside. And tools for teachers? Forget it.

This brand of standards based reform on the cheap was a perversion of the original idea. It just fueled opposition to the whole standards movement.

Another example: the dream of "disruptive" technologies. The internet can give students in the remotest little hamlets access to top teachers thousands of ...

Reform costs money. That's an inconvenient truth as school districts face their bleakest budget forecasts in decades.

Long before the first stimulus dollar made its way to a central office, some pundits felt that lean budgets would be a good thing, an antidote to the bloat and bureaucracy that, they said, were a deadweight on school performance. Now, as districts prepare to spend what may be their last stimulus dollar, the story of Locke High School should give the pundits pause.

The New York Times reports that the effort to turn around this LA high school has cost some 15 million dollars a year. But this isn't the story of bureaucratic bloat. Locke has all the features that should endear it to the reformiest of reformers. It's run by a charter management group. That group, Green Dot Schools, enjoys support from funders who have made big gambles on school reform: Gates, Broad, Walton and the New Schools Venture Fund, among others. Green Dot replaced most of the old teachers. And Arne Duncan has praised Locke as a successful turnaround.

But Locke hasn't hit on any secret for nickling and diming its way to success. And "success" is a relative term here. Locke made big improvements to the ...

A few pundits in some powerful think tanks have started rattling their sabers at the Common Core State Standards. They're raising fears of government takeover and federally-imposed mediocrity. I think their fears are unfounded.

Over at the Heritage Foundation blog, Jennifer Marshall recently joined the chorus of nay-sayers. Her claims about the Common Core don't really stand up to scrutiny:

  • Claim #1: Parents already have the information they need to know how their children are doing. State tests "let parents know how well their children have mastered the curriculum," Marshall writes. And the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) should set them straight about the quality of their standards, she adds.

I don't agree. Many states have notoriously low standards. The best that NAEP can do, presuming anyone will pay attention to it, is let parents know that their children's scores aren't telling them anything at all. (And let's not forget that many foes of common standards have also been foes of NAEP.) So how do you create a groundswell of support for higher standards under these conditions?

  • Claim #2: Common standards don't guarantee high performance. After all, most high-flying countries have national standards, but so do most laggards, Marshall points out. True, but that just proves that common standards aren't enough, not that they don't matter. Without strong support for excellent tests, curriculum, staff development, and a whole host of ...

Will the humanities save us? It depends.

Wes Davis is among those who, in recent months, have portrayed the humanities as an antidote to the excesses that hastened our financial crisis. He tells the story of a big company that, a half century ago, sent its top executives to college for a year to get a crash course in the liberal arts. The executives read very widely and had discussions with leading thinkers. They loved it, but they also became "less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities." The program came to an end in 1960.

Davis mourns the loss of that program. "As the worst economic crisis since the Depression continues and the deepening rift in the nation’s political fabric threatens to forestall economic reform, the values the program instilled would certainly come in handy today," he writes.

I'm inclined to agree with Davis, but I think we have to be careful not to present the humanities as a cure-all. It's perfectly possible to venerate the great artists and authors while committing atrocities of the first order, so I'm not sure a fuller curriculum would, in itself, protect us from the kinds of dirty dealing that contributed to our current woes.

I'll focus on an extreme example--far, far more extreme than any of the worst things than ever happened on Wall Street. The Nazis embraced the humanities. Many of their leaders were aesthetes who celebrated poetry and painting. (Hitler began ...

Because hope springs eternal, we still hold out high hopes for research that will lead to dramatic improvements in our most troubled schools. But much promising research will fall flat in schools if we don't give people in those schools the conditions to use it well. That's one of the insights I draw from our recent forum on education research.

On June 8, the Learning First Alliance and the Knowledge Alliance convened a forum entitled "Using Evidence for a Change: Challenges for Research, Innovation and Improvement in Education." With generous support from the WT Grant Foundation, the forum brought together some very smart people with diverse perspectives on the issue. (See our new report on the forum.)

Quite a few of the panelists' comments have really stuck with me. For example, Susan Freiman, an award-winning staff development teacher in Maryland, made a strong case for giving schools a more direct role in the whole research enterprise. We've fawned over her on this site before. The success of Freiman and her colleagues at Viers Mill Elementary School prompted a visit from President Obama last fall.

Her staff have the luxury of applying and adapting the research it receives from her district. She and her colleagues study it, test the strategies it supports, review their outcomes, adjust their approach when they need to, and then begin the cycle again. “It’s the whole plan, do, study, act, use [cycle].”

But none of this can happen if people in schools lack the conditions for doing it well, she said. They need time to study the research, collaborate with their colleagues and review the results of their work. They need staff development to build ...

An innovative program out of Boston College is making a big difference for children in 11 Boston elementary schools. City Connects (CCNX) works with the schools to link each child to a "tailored set of intervention, prevention and enrichment services located in the community."

Its efforts have gone a good distance towards closing achievement gaps between the low-income children in the program and children who meet state averages. CCNX's results offer powerful support for what should be common sense: When we address the challenges poor students face both within and beyond schools, they flourish.

A rigorous study (PDF) of the program's outcomes tells a pretty stunning story:

  • The beneficial impact of BCNX [the former name of CCNX] on student growth in academic achievement (across grades 1 to 5) was, on average, approximately three times the harmful impact of poverty.
  • By the end of grade 5, achievement differences between BCNX and comparison students indicated that the BCNX intervention moves students at the 50th percentile up to or near the 75th percentile, and the students at the 25th percentile up to or near the 50th.
  • For multiple outcomes, the treatment effects were largest for students at greatest risk for academic failure. For example, English language learners experienced the largest treatment benefits on literacy outcomes, by third grade demonstrating similar report card scores to those proficient in English in comparison schools. In fact,as a result of BCNX, there was no longer an achievement gap between these students.
  • After grade 5, the lasting positive effects ofthe BCNX intervention can be seen in middle-school MCAS scores. The size ofthe positive effect of BCNX ranged from approximately 50% to 130% as large as the negative effects of poverty on these scores.1

We recently caught up with two of the program's leaders: Dr. Mary Walsh, its Executive Director, and Patrice DiNatale, its Director of Practice.

Public School Insights: What is City Connects?

Walsh: City Connects is a systemic, evidence-based approach to school-based student support. It involves assessing, in conversation with teachers and other school staff, each child in the school at the beginning of the school year and then developing a tailored student support plan based on that student's strengths and needs in four areas: academic, social emotional/behavioral, health and family.

That support plan involves accessing services, supports, resources and enrichment for the child, both school-based resources as well as, and importantly, community resources. A trained professional with a Master’s degree—either ...

The more we fixate on the "good teacher," the less we seem to concern ourselves with good teaching.

That's the thought that came to me as I read about new plans in Cincinnati to get top teachers in struggling schools. I don't know enough about the program to judge it. It does address a critical problem.

But the story also drove home how seldom we hear about the conditions that foster good teaching. Most news stories on ed reform leave the impression that a good teacher is a good teacher is a good teacher, no matter where he teaches, no matter what challenges he faces, no matter how toxic the climate in his school is. Good teachers, it seems, are widgets to be deployed to all manner of schools, where they'll climb every mountain and ford every stream.

In most of our policy discussions, we tend to treat teachers like a currency that carries the same value no matter where we spend it. (Let's find the five dollar teachers and spend them in the neediest schools, which too often have to make do with the one dollar variety). Perhaps that's what happens when the language ...

These days, we hear a great deal about problems with current teacher evaluation systems. The received wisdom seems to be that teachers will always close ranks and protect their worst colleagues. Why else cling to systems that rate almost every teacher as top notch?

A new study out of Chicago offers a very different view of what teachers want. When teachers evaluate each other, it turns out, they're a good deal more discerning than the district has been. In a pilot study of 44 Chicago schools, "37 percent of teachers received one of the two highest ratings, compared to 91 percent under the district’s existing system," reports Catalyst Chicago.

In fact, teachers turned out to be more demanding than principals.

They were less likely than principals to give a “distinguished” rating—the highest—on instruction, a finding that bolsters the view that teachers themselves are the toughest judge when it comes ...

We all know that new media are changing our lives. If there was ever a reason to hone our 18th-century skills, this is it.

Steven Pinker's recent piece in The New York Times drives this point home. "Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder," he writes:

But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.

And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at ...

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