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The Public School Insights Blog

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Scantron Gone Wrong

Robert Pondiscio unearthed this story about the U.K.'s plans to grade student essays by computer.

It turns out that the computer doesn't much like writers like Churchill and Hemingway. Hemingway's prose was too simplistic. Churchill's stirring call to "fight them on the beaches"? Too repetitive:

We shall fight on the beaches,
We shall fight on the landing grounds,
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
We shall fight in the hills;
We shall never surrender.

Churchill also loses points elsewhere for mentioning the "might of" the German army. "Might have" is apparently the appropriate phrase.

The lure of computer grading systems is growing, especially for those who balk at the cost of living, breathing essay graders. The British article notes that such ...

Linda Darling-HammondStanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond is holding two free webinars on international standards and assessments. Standards and assessments are all the rage. So is talk of our standing in international tests of student performance. Seldom do we seek to learn from the countries we so admire. Professor Darling-Hammond seeks to change all that by drawing "Lessons from Abroad." The webinars are bound to be a treat. Edutopia and SCOPE are sponsoring the events in collaboration with CCSSO. More information below the fold. ...

Hear this posting (~6:55)

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If you're looking for a Cinderella story, get to know the people at Viers Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland:

One of the [paraeducators] who had been here a long time said, "you know, they used to call this place 'slumville.'" Now, she says "the President's visiting here...." He came to our school for the work we did. He didn't just happen to show up.... It was the apotheosis of my entire career.... The President of the United States--the President of the United states!--is in our cafeteria...because of the work that went on in this building....

That's Susan Freiman, Viers Mill's staff development teacher, describing President Obama's surprise visit to the school last month. She worked hard with her colleagues to turn the once struggling elementary school into a national exemplar where almost every student is proficient on state tests. That is no mean feat for a school where most students are from low-income families and almost half are still learning English.

It doesn't take long for visitors to see just how remarkable Viers Mill is. Last week, Freiman took me through a school buzzing with excitement and academic purpose. She showed me some first grade classrooms where ...

A few months ago, the blogosphere was abuzz with news that American students are shockingly ignorant of U.S. civics and history. Research sponsored by conservative think tanks found that fewer than one in twenty public school students in Arizona and Oklahoma could answer six or more questions correctly on the U.S. Citizenship Test. The most alarming finding: Only one in four could name George Washington as our first president. It turns out that those findings were likely hogwash.

I suspected as much when the studies were released. The results of the Washington question in particular didn't pass the laugh test. Statistics guru Nate Silver had the same reaction in September. For example, he found the claim that not one out of 1,000 Oklahoma students could get more than 7 answers right well nigh impossible. "Isn't there some total nerd in Tulsa, some AP Honors student in Stillwater, who was able to answer at least eight of these ten very basic questions correctly?"

His suspicions grew when Oklahoma state representative Ed Cannaday re-administered the same test to seniors in 10 high schools across his district. According to Cannaday, almost 80 percent of his seniors answered all ten ...

Charter school opponents often forget that charter schools are in fact public schools. Charters cannot charge tuition or create selective admissions policies. Ironically, we might have charter boosters to blame for the belief that charters aren't public.

The critics aren't the only ones who have odd notions about charter schools. Though Americans tend to like charter schools, most think they are private schools that charge tuition and admit students on the basis of ability. Why the confusion? For one, charters are being sold as the "anti-public school."

This isn't my idea. I got it from Nancy Flanagan, who recently wrote about a charter school meeting she attended in Michigan. She describes one of her main reactions to the meeting:

I think that positioning charter schools as the opposite of public schools, rather than a necessary supplement to public education, has poisoned the discourse. And—it goes both ways. It’s not just public schools and public school teachers being skeptical (or downright nasty) in their remarks about charter schools. Public school academies—charters—seem to be bent on repeating the worst ...

Yesterday I spent the morning at Viers Mill Elementary School In Maryland. You might know the school. President Obama paid it an unexpected visit a couple of weeks ago. If ever you want to renew your spirits in these dismal days, visit a school like Viers Mill. Those teachers and kids knocked my socks off.

We've published a lot of public school success stories on this website. But it's another thing altogether to see one of these schools in action. The school is certainly impressive on paper. Almost half the students are still learning English. Most are from low-income families. And almost all students score proficient or better on Maryland state assessments.

But come to Viers Mill, and you'll see enthusiastic children, a passionate staff, gleaming hallways festooned with student work. You'll see teachers collaborating with each other--and other school staff--to meet individual students' needs. You'll see a school that has made itself a national exemplar without firing its staff or ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Tables Turned

Consider, for a moment, the following three quotations, which I drew from various media sources:

  • "The candidate said he will build more public schools if the charter schools do not step up to the plate and improve."
  • "Traditional public schools can be a mixed bag, but the best of them are achieving results most charter schools can only dream of."
  • "The media likes to fixate on the few bad apples among public schools, giving the impression that all public schools are mediocre at best and fraudulent at worst. But there are many shining examples of public school excellence nationwide."

The first two quotations seem apocryphal. What political candidate these days would utter the first? And who these days would portray traditional public schools as models to which charter schools should aspire? The third quotation will likely prompt some eye-rolling. Why would anyone seek to minimize the very pressing need to improve our public schools?

In fact, all three quotations are apocryphal, or at least semi-apocryphal. I basically made the words "charter schools" trade places with the words "public schools." Why? Because I wanted to highlight the asymmetry of the current education debate. Almost no one writes about the best traditional public schools.

In their original form, all three quotations would hardly have raised eyebrows. It is becoming an article of faith in national newspapers that charter schools are the only bright spots in a generally dismal public education landscape. But the original versions of those quotations are no better than the doctored versions.

There are wonderful charter schools that can teach us important lessons about school reform. How do we bring them to scale? But there are also wonderful traditional public schools that are succeeding in the face of big challenges, but ...

Nurture Shock author Ashley Merryman came out in defense of public schools this morning. Her main argument: "US School Kids Are Doing Better Than Ever – But You Never Hear It!"

She takes the doomsayers to task:

Last week, I was at a conference, participating in a discussion on education reform. One of the panelists – the creator of several highly acclaimed [charter] schools – essentially argued that schools are such a mess that we need to throw out the American education system and start ...

A while back, I suggested that we pay pundits for their performance. Now is as good a time as any to start. First up for evaluation: Jonathan Alter.

He should brace himself for a pay cut.

Let's review his most recent performance in this week's Newsweek magazine. He relishes the tough choice facing states that want Race to the Top money:

[L]ift your caps on the number of innovative charter schools allowed and your prohibitions on holding teachers accountable for whether kids learn—or lose a chance for some of Obama's $5 billion "Race to the Top" money.

A pretty weak showing so far. For one, states have to lift caps on all charter schools, not just the "innovative" ones. Given that charter schools have had rather mixed results, can we blame states for worrying about the charter school land rush that might ensue? Here's what researcher Tom Toch writes in the most recent edition of Education Week: "Even with an infusion of federal funding, it would be difficult for C[harter] M[anagement] O[rganizations] to expand much more rapidly without compromising the quality of their schools."

Let's see if things get any better in Alter's next paragraph:

This issue cleaves the Democratic Party. On one side are Obama and the reformers, who point out that we now have a good idea of what works: KIPP and other "no excuses" charter models boast 80 percent graduation rates in America's roughest neighborhoods, nearly twice ...

Jack Grayson has been many things in his 86 years. A farmer, FBI agent, journalist, importer/exporter, professor, business school dean, and member of three presidential commissions. But he has made a lasting name for himself as one of the nation’s most outspoken champions of productivity and quality.

Grayson rose to national fame almost forty years ago as Chairman of the U.S. Price Commission, which helped avert hyperinflation in the early 1970s. His brush with economic turmoil convinced him that productivity was key to the nation’s well-being, so he founded The American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC), a non-profit that helps organizations boost performance by improving their processes. As APQC chairman, he is devoting all of his time to the organization’s work in education.

These days, many school reformers are fond of reciting lessons they have learned from business. Be innovative. Focus on outcomes. Get the incentives right. The rest, the theory goes, will follow.

But Grayson says such reformers are missing the biggest lesson of all: Focus on process! He admits that talk of process can be dry as dust, especially when all of DC is abuzz with talk of innovation. But it is process improvements that brought the best American businesses out of the industrial age, he insists.

Yes, innovation and outcomes are critical. But if reformers ignore the hard work of building schools’ capacity to produce the best outcomes, even the most innovative school systems may well go the way of GM.

Listen to Grayson's interview on the Public School Insights podcast (~23:15).

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A quick warning about our recording: It has a lot of background noise. If the side conversations and occasional pop music become too distracting, read the edited transcript below.

Public School Insights: A lot of people are talking about the promise of innovation in improving education. Do you think innovation itself holds the key to solving our problems in public education?

Grayson: No. Innovation will certainly help, and innovation in any area is the leader. It’s the new idea. But you do not want to leave the old idea behind because ...

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