Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Public School Insights Blog

Newsweek science writer Sharon Begley gives education research an "F." We just don't have much good research on what works. That's a big problem if we intend to hold teachers responsible for students' test scores, Begley writes. (Perhaps she is atoning for the magazine's past sins.) We give teachers lousy tools and then punish them for their failures.

Begley manages to paint education researchers as slack and feckless, which isn't quite fair. She fails to mention the ethical or logistical challenges of doing "gold standard" research in schools. (Take random assignment, for example. Do you want your child in the intervention group? Well, tough luck.)

She also fails to note that education research has been starved of resources since, well, forever. Less than 1 percent of the federal research budget goes to education research.

But her overall point is worth considering. If we're going to make teachers sweat, let's give them the tools they need to succeed. A much bigger investment in ...

We spend an awful lot of time in this country debating the relative merits of "traditional" and "alternative" approaches to education. We'd do far better to spend our time looking for what works, whether it's new or old, sexy or boring, alternative or traditional.

The National Research Council's new report on teacher preparation bears out this point. The report's authors found that "there is more variation within the 'traditional' and 'alternative' categories that there is between these categories." What's more, they found "no evidence that any one pathway into teaching is the best way to attract and prepare desirable candidates and guide them into the teaching force."

And that's our biggest problem. We lack evidence to inform our ever more strident debates between new and old.

It's natural to exalt the new and disdain the old. It's common to see the best new programs as standard-bearers for all new programs and the worst old programs as the embodiment of all old programs. The best new programs represent the promise of another way. The worst old programs represent all the burdens of tradition and complacency.

But the NRC study suggests that all those new, shiny alternative programs could add up to little more than a parallel system that does nothing more than the ...

We in education could learn a lot from the US military. That's the major message of the new State Education Standard. This remarkable issue of NASBE's quarterly magazine is well worth a read.

People in schools don't naturally look to the military for advice. When they hear "military," many think "rigid," "stern" or "traditional." A story in Wednesday's New York Times shows just how damaging such perceptions can be. It charts the decline of private military academies that long ago billed themselves as reform schools--hardly the best way to market private schools these days. The schools may have changed, but the reputation lingers.

The State Education Standard offers a very different view of what the military brings to the table. Many decidedly un-military educators will no doubt like what they see there. In some respects, there's nothing at all military about the military. Here's a brief sampling of ideas I took away from the magazine:

Nurture your talent. This passage from a story on leadership stopped me in my tracks: "Typically, officers spend between one-quarter and one-third of their time in schools, either as students or as instructors!" Yes, the military does a great deal to steer its best people into leadership tracks. But once leaders are in those tracks, they receive sustained, job-embedded staff development. It's ironic that the ...

Today, the Learning First Alliance released the following statement:

“The Learning First Alliance strongly supports the Keep Our Educators Working Act, which would create a $23 Billion Education Jobs Fund to prevent layoffs of teachers, principals and other critical school staff. The need for this relief is urgent as states face unprecedented budget shortfalls that could result in massive job losses in our schools. These job losses would have grave long-term consequences for our nation’s children by swelling class sizes, shrinking curricular options and gutting essential services. We urge swift action on this critical effort to save hundreds of thousands of education jobs.”

Read our press release here. ...

Kathleen Parker could have been writing about school reform when she penned the following lines: "What some may see as cooperation is viewed by true believers as weakness. Any attempt to compromise is viewed as surrendering principle."

Her target is tea party members. Many of them are ganging up on GOP policy makers who made the tough decision to vote for bank bailouts when our financial system was on the verge of collapse. But cooperation has become a dirty word in school reform, too. That has to change.

Collaboration has become particularly déclassé since Arne Duncan cited it as a reason for some states' success in the Race to the Top. Some bloggers assume that buy-in from unions and other groups on the front lines of any big change ...

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich believes public education needs an emergency infusion of funds to stave off massive job losses and program cuts that could have dire consequences for the nation’s youth. He recently told us more.

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Listen to the interview, approximately 10 minutes

Public School Insights: What prompted you to come out so forcefully for a bailout of public education in the first place?

Reich: When I was Secretary of Labor, it was very clear that an educated workforce was the most important foundation for the nation's continued prosperity. But in recent years, we've sacrificed education, particularly in this very severe economic downturn, because the states cannot run deficits and because most educational budgets—K-12 and public higher education—derive from state revenues. We've witnessed K-12 and public higher education being decimated: Teachers let go; in some cases, classrooms becoming far more crowded than before; some states and localities adopting four-day programs, rather than the full five days; cutting back on hours; in public higher education, tuitions and fees being raised to the point that many young people cannot afford to attend college, even though they are fully qualified.

Public education is where the nation's human capital is developed. “Human capital” is a cold-blooded term, but it does signify the critical importance of the capacity of our people to solve problems, to identify problems, to work constructively in groups, to have basic communication skills and basic mathematical skills, and so forth. Human capital is much more important to the country's future than financial capital, which can move across national borders at the speed of an electronic impulse these days.

We bailed out Wall Street to the tune of $700 billion when Wall Street found itself dangerously broke, and we nursed it back to health. But our public education ...

Back in 2005, Idaho’s Sacajawea Elementary School was struggling. The school had had four principals in four years, had never made Adequate Yearly Progress and lacked direction. But that changed with the arrival of Greg Alexander.

Now in his fourth full year as principal, Alexander presides over an award-winning school. After making AYP the last two years and seeing tremendous growth in its Limited English Proficient students' reading scores in particular, Sacajawea was named one of only three Distinguished Schools in Idaho for 2009. What are the keys to its success? A focus on recruiting and retaining excellent teachers, a consistent discipline strategy, a strong reading program and a host of other efforts designed to meet students’ individual needs. Principal Alexander recently told us more.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Sacajawea Elementary?

Alexander: Sacajawea Elementary is located in Caldwell, Idaho, a suburb of the capital city of Boise, just a good 20 minutes away. I actually live in Boise and commute to this community. We have a neat facility. We are up on a hill, overlooking what is called the Treasure Valley. There is a story about a young boy sitting on the edge of a cliff off beyond our school, looking over the valley as the wagon trains came through. The sagebrush was so high that you could only see their canopies. And we look up at the Cascade Mountains. It is just a really beautiful campus.

On this beautiful campus we serve 500 students from pre-K through fifth grade. We are 60% Hispanic and 23% ELL, or LEP [Limited English Proficient], students. We are about 36% Caucasian students, and then just a few percentage of a variety of other students. We have 7% that have special education needs, and we are 90% free and ...

Finally, a balanced and thoughtful review of the charter school movement!

The New York Times ran a long and fairly detailed story on charters over the weekend. Nothing in the story should surprise followers of the movement. There are some terrific charters, there are some lousy charters, some states' charters are better than others states' charters, and the best charters may be tough to replicate on a very large scale. But major media outlets have been slow to review both the promise and the struggles of the movement. In some cases, enthusiasm has swamped judgment. That's why the Times story stands out.

The Times takes a closer look at this enthusiasm. It describes a recent meeting of charter supporters as "the equivalent of the cool kids’ table in the cafeteria." Charter schools have become a cause célèbre for philanthropists, hedge fund managers, movie stars, rock stars, and politicians from the left and right.

You really can't begrudge the top charters their success with funders and the media. But it would be nice if traditional public schools that beat the odds ...

I continue to be amazed by the fact that it has become taboo in some school reform circles to talk about strategies for clearing away non-academic barriers to student learning. Calls to address problems like hunger or poor health are often seen as excuses for poor schooling rather than as concrete strategies to improve the lot of children. This tendency strikes me as very counterproductive.

It's not the job of schools to ensure medical care and proper nutrition, we're told. It's not the job of schools to do what parents should be doing. Those are lovely sentiments. Many teachers and other school staff would probably agree that the job they thought they signed up for didn't involve finding health care for children, getting them warm clothing in the winter, or offering them breakfast when they're hungry.

But such expectations don't mean a whole lot when a child in your classroom can't concentrate because she has a tooth ache, can't see the board because she needs eye glasses, or is hungry because she went without breakfast. High-sounding talk about what a school's "mission" should or shouldn't be must ...

I'm hearing concerns that too much power over schools is passing into the hands of people who have not been elected by the public to serve the public interest. What a thorny issue.

An article in yesterday's Washington Post offers a case in point. A group of foundations warned that they might not keep the money flowing into Washington DC's school reform efforts if the district's leadership changes. In other words, the funds may dry up if a new mayor takes the reins. Not surprisingly, this warning has caused an outcry over the influence of foundations on the mayoral race.

A new commentary in Edweek raises similar concerns about the concentration of power. Russ Whitehurst, the founding director of IES, writes that Race to the Top (RTTT) was an end-run around Congress. "Based on the ARRA itself, he writes, "I don’t think Congress intended to give Secretary Duncan the carte blanche he took."

The legislative process is messy, but we are better served in the long term by allowing our elected representatives to decide on the education policies we are to pursue as a nation, rather than having them dictated to us by the executive branch under the guise of a grant program to reward reform and innovation.

Duncan and the foundations may well counter that they can't very well dole out money without strings attached. But growing suspicion of government ...

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