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The Public School Insights Blog

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The GAO just offered a report on Washington, DC's education reforms. According to the Washington Post, the report offers equal measures of praise and criticism. The District's response to that criticism gave me pause.

The report commended Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee for "bold steps" to close schools, raise scores and improve teachers' skills. Yet it criticized the district for "a lack of clear strategic planning with specific targets that can be communicated to the community stakeholders."

The deputy mayor's response to this criticism was curious, to say the least:

Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, said the Fenty administration was more interested in results than detailed blueprints.

"Our emphasis has been on accountability and results, and less on plans which the city was quite successful in doing previously," he said.

What does that mean? That they're merely implementing their predecessors' ...

People looking for a public school Cinderella story need look no further than George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Alabama. The once struggling school, which serves mostly low-income children, now boasts state math and reading test scores most wealthy suburban schools would be proud of. (See our story about George Hall's Success).

George Hall did not have to sacrifice all but the basics to get there. Instead, the school's staff courageously focused on what some would consider frills in an era of high-stakes accountability: innovative technologies; rich vocabulary and content knowledge; even field trips.

We recently spoke with George Hall principal Terri Tomlinson and teachers Elizabeth Reints and Melissa Mitchell.

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Hear highlights from our interview (5 minutes)


The phrase "high expectations" means more than some policy wonks seem to think it does. It refers, of course, to our expectations for children's success, but it also refers to what students should be able to expect from the world around them. Schools, families, communities and policymakers are all on the hook.

That is one of the lessons I draw from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which I finally read this week. Gladwell's book pokes holes in the Horatio Alger "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" myth of success in America. The culture that shapes your behavior and the conditions in which you grow up have an enormous impact on your chances for success.

We therefore all share responsibility for helping children strike a grand bargain with adults, Gladwell suggests: Work hard, treat others well, and we'll give you every opportunity to succeed. (KIPP schools, which Gladwell profiles in Chapter 9, make this bargain explicit). Unfortunately, adults all too often renege on their end of the bargain.

The wealthy are lucky enough to have "Great Expectations" in the ...

Many educators speak at a frequency inaudible to pundits' ears. Perhaps that's why pundits almost always prefer broad, simple solutions to the nitty-gritty processes of improving schools.

The venerable education pundit Jay Mathews recently exhibited this tendency in his review of a book about the success of Montgomery County Maryland. Leading for Equity, he opines, is all about process, and process is too often ponderous, impenetrable and uninspiring. For Mathews, exhibit A is the cryptic set of lessons the book outlines in its first chapter. For example: "Implementing a strategy of common, rigorous standards with differentiated resources and instruction can create excellence and equity for all students." Poetry it's not.

Still, I have to agree with Elena Silva's judgment that Matthews' "critique of the book as too process-oriented is wrong. Process has tripped up many a reform, and understanding what sequence of events and efforts leads to change is key to ...

A number of people have recommended Charles Payne's So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools. Tom Hoffman sealed the deal for me when he offered the following quotation from page 190:

...I am not in principle against the idea of freeing certain schools from bureaucratic oversight under certain conditions, but I don't see any Big Magic in autonomy itself as opposed to the way it is implemented. To the extent that we keep implementing reforms with the idea that there is some one program that is going to make all the difference; to the extent that we keep implementing reform without adequate support or without a spirit of persistence, a determination that we are going to give the work a fair chance to take root; to the extent that we keep implementing good ideas in a spirit of contempt for the practitioners who have to make them work; to the extent that we keep implementing reforms without any capacity for mid-course corrections, without any understanding of the relevant historical context; to that extent we can expect to get implementations that miss the point. How we do this may be as important as what we do, arguably more so. One of the foundational studies of the current discussion of urban school districts (Snipes, Doolittle, and Herilhy 2002) found that successful districts and unsuccessful districts say they are doing the same things; the difference appears to be in the way that they do what they do.

Debates on school reform seem to suffer from two related problems:

  • The assumption that a simple change of governance or incentives will set you free;
  • The tendency to pantomime--rather than truly implement--good reform ideas and then abandon them as ineffective when they don't work.

Payne's book has rocketed to the top of my reading list. ...

We hear a lot of debate these days about the merits of business involvement in education. Few of these debates ever touch on a critical element of big business’s influence on schools: the impact of advertising on youth culture.

There are all sorts of forces out there, cultural and corporate, that undermine educators' efforts. There is a multi-billion dollar industry whose primary products are apathy, ignorance and stupidity.

As the father of a two-month-old girl, I've started paying much closer attention to all the media that will compete for her attention over the next 20 years. I do not like what I see: Sexualization of children. Junk food. Vacuous summer movies. Fatuous music. Violent video games. Ads that openly disparage study. Even pink cigarettes for girls. And the list goes on.

I've even ventured onto the Seventeen and Cosmo Girl web pages. Let's just say that intellectual achievement isn't the next hot thing. (Is it too late to join the Amish?) ...

Today, the Learning First Alliance, which sponsors Public School Insights, released a statement of support for the CCSSO/NGA Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Here's our press release: ...

When Daniel P. King came to the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district in 2007, the district’s dropout rate was double the Texas state average. Now, it is half the state average.

How did the district do it? Dr. King and his colleagues created a College, Career and Technology Academy to steer dropouts--some as old as 25--back onto a path towards graduation. Not only do those students gain the skills and course credits they need to graduate, they also gain college credit along the way. (See a story about the Academy in our success stories section).

King recently spoke with us about the district’s remarkable success.

Public School Insights: What prompted you to create the College, Career & Technology Academy in the first place?

King: I was entering new into the district. I was moving from a small district to a large district, and I was overwhelmed when I saw that the district had a dropout rate that was twice the state average. The prior year had seen approximately 500 dropouts.

When I asked for an analysis of the 500 dropouts from the previous year I found that not only was there the typical freshman bubble (where students don't make it past the ninth grade, get stuck there and ultimately drop out), but there was [also] a relatively new phenomenon that I call the “twelfth grade bubble, ” [caused by] exit testing and rising standards.

In a small district I had dealt with [the dropout problem] very successfully, simply through ...

A recent piece in The Economist reminds us, yet again, that lay journalists are not necessarily contributing to the national discussion of school reform.

The piece describes “a movement that is improving education across America: the rise of ‘charter’ schools”:

These are paid for by state governments and free for the students, open to anyone and, crucially, independent of often badly-run school boards. [Principals] have wide discretion in the hiring and firing of teachers and are free to pay by results as they think fit. Charter schools are a mixed bag, but the best of them are achieving results most board-run schools can only dream of and are heavily oversubscribed.

Ok, several problems here. First, it’s not clear that the charter movement is “improving education across America”—at least not yet. The recent Stanford review of charter school performance nation-wide certainly disappointed charter supporters. The Economist faintly acknowledges this point by calling charters a “mixed bag” but neglects to note that there are still more bad charters than ...


Things are happening in Mobile.

The Alabama district mounted an innovative public engagement campaign early this decade, and student performance has been rising ever since.


Though the district has a larger share of low-income students than does Alabama as a whole, it boasts higher scores on state assessments. We recently profiled two very successful Mobile County public elementary schools—George Hall and Mary B. Austin—on our Success Stories Page.

Last week, we caught up with Mary B. Austin principal Jacquelyn Zeigler, who has worked with dedicated staff and parents to narrow achievement gaps dramatically. She described the ingredients of her success:

Public School Insights: We've heard a lot about Mary B. Austin School, but I thought I'd give you an opportunity to say in your own words what kind of a school it is. Describe the sort of students you serve.

Jacquelyn Zeigler: There are no -- or very few -- new families coming in. So to keep my doors open, 80 percent of the children are on transfer. We get them from all over Mobile County. And because of that, we are right at 50/50 boy/girl, 50/50 black/white, and about 34 percent free and reduced [lunch program]. We have a wonderful cross-section of society.

Right across the street is Springfield College, and then just down the street is the University of South Alabama, so I'm very fortunate because I am able to get their student teachers and their interns; a lot of the volunteers to come and work with my ...

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