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The Public School Insights Blog

Long before "responsibility" and "hard work" became dreaded codewords for "socialism," they were values Americans wanted to see in their schools. Let me give you a glimpse of the good old days before the dust-up over the president's speech to school children.

In 2005, 93 percent of Americans said "teaching hard work and responsibility" was a very important goal for public schools. Forty-four percent said it was the most important goal. No other goal achieved a higher rating. These numbers come from a Learning First Alliance poll of likely voters. (The Alliance sponsors this website.)

These poll results should come as no surprise. Support for (and criticism of) public education reflect ingrained American values. We ignore that fact at our own risk.

The most enduring reforms rest on shared values. These days, we should cherish common ground when we find it. The recent tempest in a teacup does us no favors.

Update (7:23 pm): Teacher Larry Ferlazzo has his hands on the president's speech, and he has very specific ideas for using it in his own classes. ...

"School reformers [should] begin working with teachers--rather than around them." This is the overarching theme of a new report by Barnett Berry. The product of collaboration between NEA and Berry's Center for Teaching Quality, the report examines how to get top teachers into the classrooms that need them most. Its title says it all: Children of Poverty Deserve Great Teachers.

The report offers welcome relief from the either/or thinking that mars so many education policy discussions. We spend so much time following the horse race between traditional and alternative routes into teaching, for example, that we miss the bigger question: How do we better prepare teachers to succeed in struggling schools, regardless of where they come from?

I can't possibly summarize the whole report here, but I can offer a few glimpses of what it has to offer.

The report "begins by rejecting several myths with compelling evidence." Myth number one: If you topple the "barriers" posed by traditional certification, effective teachers will simply flood into struggling schools. Myth number two: If you ...

If we're not careful, "engagement" will become just another cure-all, like charters or vouchers. The idea is far too important to leave to this fate.

Engagement can seem like the holy grail, and I understand why. Teachers in struggling schools are looking for ways to reach disaffected students before they drop out. Many see engagement as an answer to mindless test prep or uninspired teaching. New technologies are sparking students' interest in challenging academic work.

But there's a dark side to much current talk about engagement. For one, it can become yet another stick to beat teachers with. When students violate all standards of behavior, their teachers often catch flak for not engaging them. (Maybe that kid wouldn't have pulled that knife on you if you hadn't been so boring.) Yes, students are much less likely to act out if they are interested in their studies. But calls for more engagement should never drown out serious ...

There is a school turnaround strategy for every taste. At least, that's the impression I get from the National Journal's most recent panel of experts. Asked to name the best strategies for turning around schools, different experts list different ideas. Pair struggling schools with the best teacher training institutions, writes Steve Peha. Create a year-round calendar, writes Phil Quon. Shutter struggling schools and start from scratch, writes Tom Vander Ark.

Each of these ideas has merit in some cases--I myself love the first idea, like the second, and am not fully sold on the third. But none is a necessary ingredient for all or even most schools.

So what do we know about turnarounds? Two big themes stand out in much of the school turnaround literature:

  1. There is no detailed prescription for what works in all cases.
  2. There is, however, abundant evidence that a school will not turn itself around unless it gives teachers the support they need to succeed.

These themes are also clear in the many turnaround stories we profile on this website. Policy makers should take note.

The Reconstitution Myth
It's high time to slay the reconstitution dragon. Despite what you may hear these days, you do not have to kill a school to save it.

Here's what Emily and Bryan Hassel write in Education Next, which is hardly a pro-union rag: “Successful turnaround leaders typically do not replace all or most of the staff at the start, but they often replace some key leaders who help ...

A New York Times puff piece on reading workshops has ignited a firestorm in the blogosphere. Stop force-feeding kids the great books, the article implies. Let them read what they want to. Bloggers' reactions range from horror to approval.

I can understand the horror. When will children make the transition from Captain Underpants to Shakespeare, Twain or Hurston? What happens if we raise them to believe that reading should always be easy or fun? The most challenging books often offer the biggest rewards.

Perhaps there is a middle course. If children become enthusiastic about books they choose themselves, can teachers direct this enthusiasm toward more challenging books? Children's Literature Laureate John Scieszka seems to think so. (Or at least that's what he told me in an interview last ...

Granger High School in Washington State has garnered national attention for its remarkable journey from bad to great. Most Granger students come from low-income families working on farms in the surrounding Yakima Valley. Many are children of migrant workers. In 2001, Granger was plagued by gang violence, low morale and an astronomical dropout rate. Now more than 95% of Granger students graduate, and almost 90% go on to college or technical school. (See our story about Granger here.)

Granger principal Paul Chartrand recently spoke with me about the critical work of sustaining the trend. The overriding message I took away from our conversation: Forge strong personal connections with students and their families.

Sustaining the Turnaround Trend

Public School Insights: Granger High School has been described by quite a few people as a real turnaround story. Do you think that is a fair description?

Chartrand: I do think it’s a fair description. My predecessor, Richard Esparza, really started the turnaround. I took over last year, and we are trying to continue the trend. We have been successful in a couple of areas, and we are still working on it in ...

I just saw the shocking news! Reading Rainbow, a staple of PBS children's programming for 26 years, is coming to an end.

According to one of the show's representatives,

[T]he funding crunch is partially to blame, but the decision to end Reading Rainbow can also be traced to a shift in the philosophy of educational television programming. The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration..., which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading — like phonics and spelling.

Reading Rainbow fosters the joy of reading in children who have already mastered basic reading skills. These days, funders want television shows that teach students how to read.

I have a few questions: Can't we sustain both kinds of children's programming? Isn't there still a need for programming that nourishes the enthusiasm of children who already know how to read? Is this more evidence that we're allowing an exclusive focus on basic skills to crowd out so many other things that inspire ...

Principal John O'Neill has earned his chops as a turnaround expert. In the past ten years, he has helped turn around two schools in two different states--no mean feat for a man who once struggled in school.

As principal of Forest Grove High School in Oregon, he has presided over a dramatic surge in test scores and graduation rates. In addition, many more low-income students have been signing up for challenging AP courses since O'Neill arrived in 2002. (Read our story about Forest Grove here.)

O'Neill recently told us about his school's journey from mediocrity to distinction. Some big lessons emerge from his story of school turnaround:

  • Create a climate of personal attention to student needs.
  • Do not remediate. Accelerate.
  • Build broad commitment to change.
  • Go for early, visible successes.
  • Create reforms for the long haul.

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of talk recently about school turnarounds. I understand you have actually turned around two different schools. Is there some kind of a broad prescription, do you think, for a successful turnaround strategy?

O’Neill: I think you need to have a clear plan of action and clear targets that you want to impact. For myself, in ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Survey Says...

The results of the 2009 PDK/Gallup Poll of Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools became public yesterday, and they're fascinating. There is something in the poll to please and dismay education ideologues of every stripe.

Here are some of the tidbits I found most interesting:

Most people like charter schools (whatever those are). No big surprise here. President Obama's strong support for charters has probably fueled their rise in popularity. But most respondents think charters are private schools that charge tuition and select students on the basis of ability. (Note to the uninitiated: None of that is true.) Public enthusiasm has outrun public understanding. Charter supporters and skeptics alike have much work to do to educate Americans about this piece of the president's reform agenda.

Most people like merit pay for teachers, but the devil's in the details. Almost three out of four respondents favored merit pay for teachers, and about as many said teachers should should be paid ...

Novelist Mark Slouka makes a full-throated defense of the humanities in this month's Harper's magazine. Some excerpts:

The case for the humanities is not hard to make, though it can be difficult—to such an extent have we been marginalized, so long have we acceded to that marginalization—not to sound either defensive or naive. The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their “success” something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion.

They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values. There is no better that I am aware of.

This, I would submit, is value—and cheap at the price. This ...

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