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A new book review on Salon.com asks: “Why Can’t We Concentrate?” The author’s answers won’t surprise you: the internet, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, ipods and many other electronic distractions are eroding our attention spans, she writes. One could add another culprit: Standardized tests that prize short answers over extended essays or projects.

I don’t mean to knock standardized assessment, which is important for a host of reasons. But the kind of assessment on the cheap that favors easily scored multiple-choice questions over open response items hardly encourages sustained reflection. In the meantime, extended research papers and senior projects have gone the way of vinyl records--assuming they were ever that prevalent.

It won’t be easy, but we have to invest much more aggressively in far better assessments, including assessments of students’ ability to do substantive projects that require sustained attention. ...

I'm guessing that today's Washington Post article on India's "Educated, but Unemployable Youths" will light up the blogosphere. Here are some sample paragraphs:

"This is the biggest wake-up call for India. Our schools and colleges do not provide the skills that India's new economic drive demands," said Amit Kapoor, a professor at the Management Development Institute in Gurgaon, near New Delhi. "People are graduating without learning how to get things done, without complex problem-solving skills, without knowing how to put their theoretical education into practice, and with poor articulacy. Our schools are centers of rote learning and give out degrees without imparting employable skills."

The problem extends even to India's much-hyped engineering graduates, who have been the backbone of the country's thriving outsourcing industry in the past decade. Every year, India produces about 650,000 engineers. But Pratik Kumar, executive vice president for human resources at the information-technology and outsourcing giant Wipro, says his company considers fewer than a quarter of them employable."

The question is what lessons we can draw from this article. That India's education system isn't currently the powerhouse some people make it out to be? Certainly. That the U.S. should not reflexively emulate Indian ...

My favorite education innovation is better than yours.

That seems to be the reigning sentiment in many policy discussions across the education blogosphere these days. Gotham Schools offers a recent, though relatively mild, example. Together, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and NYU professor Pedro Noguera visited PS 28, a successful Brooklyn elementary school serving low-income children. They came back describing what could have been two different schools.

Noguera praised the school for its focus on both the academic and non-academic needs of its students: The school offers an extended school day, social services, social and emotional learning, professional development for teachers, etc. Klein praised the school for using data to improve instruction.

Frustrated by what he saw as Klein's unwillingness to acknowledge the school's focus on non-academic needs, Noguera told Gotham Schools reporter, "I told him to look at the full picture, all of the things that they were doing.... A lot of people are stuck on this idea that there’s only one way to go about educating urban kids: It’s the KIPP way."

The Gotham Schools story illustrates a common destructive tendency to set apparently successful school reform models in competition with each other. Data-driven improvement can exist comfortably with support for non-academic needs, but you wouldn't know it from much education policy discussion these days.

Happily, both Noguera and many KIPP supporters can see the virtue of multiple approaches to ...

The move towards common standards is picking up steam.  Many who agree on the need for "fewer, clearer and higher academic standards" see collaboration among states as a strong.mechanism for creating such standards.

While many believe the state consortium model protects the common standards movement from undue federal influence, uncertainty about the federal government's role in supporting the common standards movement persists. Questions about the federal role loomed large at a House Panel yesterday. ...

New research suggests that perceptions of college affordability can influence student motivation and academic performance as early as seventh grade. Rising costs can become yet another deadweight on poor students' performance.

The "Education Optimists" blog offers the following account of this research, which appeared in the April issue of Psychological Science:

Researchers provided low-income Chicago 7th-graders in two randomly selected classrooms with one of two kinds of information: Classroom A received information about need-based financial aid opportunities, indicating that college was a possibility for them while Classroom B was provided information about the enormous costs associated with a college education, indicating that college was not a viable option (specifically they were told that the average college tuition costs $31,160 to $126,792).

The researchers then assessed students' motivation levels and mentality towards school using questionnaires about goals, grades, and time usage.

The students in Classroom A expected to do better in school and planned to put more effort into studying and homework, compared to the students in Classroom B, who did not view college as a realistic possibility.

In a sensitivity analysis the researchers repeated the study with Detroit classrooms, and changed the second condition from info about college costs to no info at all. Results again indicated that ...

Public School Insights has assembled resources to help schools and districts prepare for the unlikely case of a swine flu pandemic. ...

Today, esteemed education historian Diane Ravitch condemned the political misappropriation of the recent McKinsey Report on the economic costs of low educational achievement. Apparently, some have made the extraordinary claim that the report questions the link between achievement gaps and poverty:

At the press conference, according to the story in The New York Times, Chancellor Klein “said the study vindicated the idea that the root cause of test-score disparities was not poverty or family circumstances, but subpar teachers and principals.” This study offered Chancellor Klein the opportunity to argue yet again, as the Education Equality Project does, that schools alone can close the achievement gap, and that such things as poverty and social disadvantage are merely excuses for those unwilling to accept the challenge.

Actually, the report doesn’t say this.... The document says little about causes and cures, just lays out what it costs our society to have so many people who are poorly educated. It does say that low-income students are likely to get less experienced, less qualified teachers, and that ...

Over at the Core Knowledge blog, early childhood expert Alice Wiggins takes on the false dichotomy between play and cognitive development in Kindergarten. Responding to a new report advocating intentional play, she writes:

I am a huge fan of play in the early childhood classroom (preschool through grade 3). The research is clear. Through play, children develop a host of important skills and knowledge including social skills (for negotiating and cooperating with peers), language (particularly in dramatic play, which studies show fosters children in using more complete and complex language), literacy (as they interact with literacy materials in the play environment), as well as math and science (as they interact with manipulatives including blocks, puzzles, and toy vehicles).

For those of you who didn’t let out a supportive cheer at news of this report, I’d like to clarify two things that I spend a great deal of time communicating to teachers during professional development. “Free play” doesn’t mean “free for all” and “child-initiated” doesn’t mean ...

A new McKinsey report on the economic costs of low educational achievement has drawn plenty of praise and criticism. Critics charge that the report gives international assessments too much credence while paying scant attention to the dramatic socio-economic disparities that distinguish the United States from the highest-performing nations. The critics have a point, but we should not overlook the report's most critical lessons about the high cost of inequity.

Business champions of school reform have admittedly lost some of their luster in the current economic environment. The judgment of consulting groups like McKinsey seems a bit more fallible these days. The past year has shown us that a handful of Harvard MBA’s can do at least as much economic damage as a horde of high school dropouts. It would behoove many in the business community to show a bit more humility as they discuss education and the economy.

Still, let's not ignore some of the report's most critical conclusions:

"Race and poverty are not destiny." This is not just a truism. Charles Murray and his acolytes have been hard at work attributing poverty and low achievement to genetic causes. These views have even been gaining traction in some mainstream education blogs. Murray and his followers seek to inoculate Americans against concern about the tremendous social, economic, political and educational disadvantages that ...

You have to admire Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews for his openness to persuasion.  Unlike so many education commentators, he is willing to budge an inch or two in the face of compelling arguments.

The latest example of this pliability came on Monday, when he responded to a young teacher's concerns about the effect of testing and accountability pressures on teaching and learning. He was willing to concede two problems the young teacher raised:

  1. With its all-or-nothing focus on passing state tests, No Child Left Behind turns a blind eye to much excellent work in schools.
  2. Current accountability policies encourage schools to focus on "bubble kids"--students just under the passing bar. Meanwhile, those schools leave other children behind.

Mathews' instinctive reaction to the "bubble kids" phenomenon is fairly common: "A good principal...would put an end to such nonsense." This response certainly carries genuine emotional weight. Still, it puzzles me that so many DC policy wonks invoke it in defense of No Child Left Behind in its current form.

What, after all, is the point of a policy that creates poor incentives and encourages perverse behavior? If we can rely on everyone to do the right thing regardless of consequences, then we hardly need accountability systems in the first place.

As Mathews realizes, even good principals succumb to ...

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