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The Public School Insights Blog

The education establishment cares more about adults than about children. This has become a favorite talking point among those who push the small handful of strategies they deem "true reform." It popped up again in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Harold Ford, Lou Gerstner and Eli Broad. "For decades," the trio writes, "adult interests have been at the forefront of public education." This conceit has become an intellectual easy chair.

Here's how the argument seems to go. If you have concerns about charter schools or performance pay, then you hate children. Or maybe you like them well enough, but you like those high teacher salaries and cushy teaching conditions even better.

The argument leaves no room for principled concerns about reform strategies. Just in the last few weeks, we've interviewed an award-winning teacher who ...

Dr. Jerry Weast has presided over a decade of strong and steady gains in Montgomery County, Maryland. How did his district do it? Not by using any of the cure-all strategies that have captivated the national media.

Weast recently told us the story of his school district's success. Several big themes stand out:

  • Stop the blame game and start collaborating. Big fights between administrators and teachers are catnip to reporters, but they don't do much for children.
  • Set common goals and figure out how to reach them. In Montgomery County, everyone could agree that students should leave high school ready for college.
  • Create a system that helps everyone be successful. It's not enough to let 1000 flowers bloom.
  • There's more to equity than equality. Weast describes a "red zone" where most of the county's low-income children live. It's not enough to treat those children and their wealthier "green zone" peers equally. The children in the "red zone" need much more systemic support.

There's much more to Dr. Weast's vision than I can sum up here. Here's the story as he told it to us in a phone conversation last week:

There are some structural issues in the way that we are thinking about American education. You see little Kindergartners come to school, and they believe that they can learn anything. Their parents do too. And so does everybody else who meets them. But a few years later, because of the sorting process and the type of structure that they are in, a lot of that belief is taken away and there are huge achievement gaps.

Then you see beginning teachers. They come in and they feel like they can take on the world and do anything. But within five years about half of them have left the profession.

There is something structurally wrong with a system where about a third of the children in America ...

The think tank Education Sector caused quite a stir last week when it released a scrubbed version of Tom Toch's report on Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). In the original draft, Toch questioned whether even the best CMOs could spawn many more charter schools without diluting their quality. The official version of the report soft-pedaled Toch's critique of CMOs and tacked an odd set of recommendations, mostly a CMO wish list, onto the end. Yet even as published, the report unleashes forces its own anodyne recommendations can't contain. No matter what version you read, the report challenges the current charter hype.

Some Big Lessons

Thanks to bloggers Alexander Russo and Marc Dean Millot, we can compare the final report to the draft Toch actually wrote oh so many months ago. The draft, which Russo and Millot posted on their site, cuts deeper than the official version. The language is more intense, the examples more vivid, the implications more starkly drawn.

Here are a few ideas I took from the draft:

You can't expect superstar teachers to save the day. Young, eager teachers in charter schools are exhausted, burning out, too busy to have children of their own, and cycling out of their jobs soon after they enter. That situation is barely sustainable, much less "scalable," as the current jargon goes.

CMO bureaucracies are beginning to look like school districts. And maybe that's not all bad. Charter schools need central office support (gasp!), and that costs money. The best CMOs have learned that their schools will not flourish in splendid isolation. Tell this to the True Believers of the charter movement, who have long seen central offices as just so much bureaucratic bloat.

The best charter schools cost money. A lot of money. Toch breaks down the high costs of operating some of the nation's most successful charters. Why do they cost so much? Because they offer longer days, longer years and extra services to make up for the challenges of teaching students who live in poverty.

It has become fashionable to claim that money barely matters, or even that our benighted public school leaders could benefit from belt tightening in these lean ...

Keep your eyes on Alexander Russo's blog, This Week in Education. Last week, Russo reported that think tank Education Sector had sanitized a report on Charter Management Organizations.

The draft report, by Education Sector co-founder Tom Toch, questioned the capacity of the best CMOs to expand without compromising the quality of their schools. The final report, which does not bear Toch's name, apparently offers a decidedly sunnier view of things.

This morning, guest blogger Marc Dean Millot posted the original draft and the final report side by side. Millot writes that "those interested in the discrepancy can review Sweating and draw their own conclusions." I sure will.

He promises more on this odd story next week. ...

Something big is up at the think tank Education Sector. They appear to have scrubbed a report on big challenges Charter Management Organizations face as they try to expand. True to form, education blogger Alexander Russo got the story first. He noted that the report did not bear the name of its original author, Tom Toch:

Asked about the situation, Toch said, "I removed my name from the report because a good deal of my analysis was removed and, as published, the report does not reflect my research findings on the current status and future prospects of charter management organizations." (See Russo's post for more.)

The bowdlerized final report isn't a mere a pro-charter whitewash. It does more than most to acknowledge real problems of expanding the best charter school networks. But the report's recommendations don't reflect what Toch published in his Education Week preview. 

Read both, and judge for yourself. ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Innovation Follies

Dana Goldstein just turned in a fascinating review of the current craze for all things innovative. Here are the big lessons I took away from her article:

1. We're not sure what "innovation" is, so we turn it into a fetish with mystical powers.

Goldstein writes that "no one can agree on what innovation is, or when, exactly, it is a goal worth pursuing." Actually, she is only partly right. Many big foundations and newspapers do seem to agree on what innovation is: charter schools, pay for performance and Teach for America. Everything else, it appears, is just the status quo.

Too many people in power see innovation as a specific set of things rather than as an idea. Innovation itself is hard to define. It's easier to worship a set of fetishes we invest with almost magical power.

2. "Innovation," it seems, is its own reward.

Evidence for the most popular education innovations is weak. Researchers continue to go back and forth on charter schools. Performance pay plans have a long. long way to go before we can expect them to yield big payoffs in student learning. To be fair, evidence for almost everything in education is weak. And if the evidence for specific innovations were ironclad, they would be in common use and no longer be innovative.

But innovation should never become an end in itself. As Russ Whitehurst once told me, "innovation is being invoked almost as if it were magic." To hear some ...

The film Two Million Minutes made news by claiming that even the best U.S. high schools leave their students unprepared to compete with the academic whiz kids who brandish heavy calculus textbooks on every Chinese street corner. Now comes a new documentary, Race to Nowhere, which depicts U.S. schools as pressure cookers that stifle all passion for learning and drive kids to suicide. Which crisis to believe? Take your pick. Crisis itself has become the commodity here. After a while, the specific content of such films will hardly matter anymore.

Such films' PR tactics are overwhelming their specific lessons about school improvement. After a while, all these films will leave only one big lesson behind: Things are bad, very bad, in our public schools, so pull your kids out now! This kind of disengagement spells disaster in the long run.

Eagle-eyed Alexander Russo recently spotted what looks like the most alarmist film to come out in a while: The War on Kids. Judging from the over-the-top trailer, this film paints schools as prisons that assign crushing punishments for tiny infractions. They kill students' spirits, the film suggests.

Once again, schools just can't win. Ask most Americans what's wrong with public schools, and they'll tell you that the kids are violent and out of control. Watch ...

Teachers should fend for themselves. May the best ones win.

That seems to be the guiding philosophy behind so many school reform ideas lately. No one can shake the really incompetent teachers out of the system, reformers tell us, and gifted teachers can't rise to the top. Listen to some reform advocates, and you'd think that the former far outnumber the latter. So you use carrots and sticks to help the market do its work.

And what about the conditions that help teachers succeed? You don't hear much about those.

The fuss over teachers who sell their lesson plans on the internet offers a case in point. As always happens in discussions of teachers and money, big questions arise about how we value teachers and their work. Do we cheapen the vocation of teaching when we assume teachers are motivated primarily by money? On the other hand, do we damage teaching as a profession when we make altruism the main job qualification? (For a great discussion of these matters, head on over to the Teacher Leaders Network.) For my money, though, blogger Corey Bower asks the most important question: "The right question is why teachers should have to buy lesson plans."

So here's the vision I see emerging from this discussion. Teachers are free agents. They pay their own way, create their own reality. Those who thrive in this ...

The book Nurture Shock is making big waves in parenting and education circles. Authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are not afraid to tip parents' and teachers' sacred cows. They use science to question the received wisdom about issues such as self-esteem, self-control and IQ. Merryman recently told us about her book and its implications for schools.

Public School Insights: Let me begin a little outside your book. One of the things that first prompted my e-mail to you was your comments on the success versus failure of public schools and how the narrative that is being told about public schools right now might actually hurt the prospects for success. Could you explain that a bit?

Merryman: There is this constant drumbeat that American schools are failing our kids—that our schools are a disaster and kids aren’t finishing school. That kids aren’t prepared when they get to college, if they get to college. That they must do remedial level work. That they can’t read or write or anything like that.

It’s not that I think that schools can’t improve. Certainly they can. For kids at the bottom socioeconomically, and kids who we would label perhaps at-risk, schools definitely are a problem. And I ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Slaves to Fashion

Beware those who claim to break with conventional wisdom. They're often most deeply in its thrall.

That's one big lesson I drew from Meet the Press last Sunday. Here is host David Gregory's breathless introduction:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and one-time Democratic candidate Al Sharpton have been touring the nation's schools and join us here today to challenge conventional thinking....

What followed was a conversation chock full of conventional thinking.

Here are some of the more egregious examples:

  1. Districts and schools are just rolling in stimulus dough--so let the reforms begin! "For the first time," Gregory gushed, reformers "have the money" to launch ambitious reforms. Wrong. Remember the recession? Even with stimulus money, districts are hurting badly. That doesn't mean we don't have real opportunities for reform, but it's time we reined in all the talk of abundance.
  2. Charter schools are our only beacons of innovation in education.  The only good schools anyone mentioned by name during the entire segment were charter schools. This has become de rigueur in current school
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