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The Public School Insights Blog

Everything old is new again. Here's an example:

As the Industrial Revolution began to gain steam, Friedrich Schiller didn't like what he saw:

Enjoyment was sundered from work, the means from the ends, the effort from the reward. Eternally chained to a single, small fragment of the whole, man himself becomes a mere fragment. With the ceaseless drone of the revolving wheel in his ear, he never develops the harmony of his being, and instead of impressing the seal of humanity in his nature, he becomes a pale imprint of his occupation, his science.1

Schiller, who wrote those words over two hundred years ago, saw education as an antidote to the extreme specialization and numbing routines of a new mechanical age. Education could restore wholeness and humanity to a world that was going to pieces.

We now hear that our schools were designed for that industrial age, and that we need a new vision of schooling. The good news is that our new captains of industry are far more apt to agree with Schiller than their predecessors were. Well, at least in part. There seems to be a growing sense that a broad education ...

Katherine Paterson is best known for her novel A Bridge to Terabithia, which won a coveted Newbery Award in 1978 and became a feature-length film in 2007. Terabithia is just one of almost forty works that have made Paterson one of the nation's most beloved authors for young readers.

The Library of Congress has just named her the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. (She assumes the title from Jon Scieszka, whom we interviewed in 2008.) As National Ambassador, Paterson will be an evangelist for reading at events across the country. The first of these events will be WNET's Celebration of Teaching & Learning in New York City on March 5. Her platform as Ambassador? "Read for Your Life!"

Paterson recently spoke with us from her home in Barre, Vermont.

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[Listen to the interview--12 minutes]

Public School Insights: You are the nation's second National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Jon Scieszka was the first. Obviously you are very different authors. What is the bridge from [Scieszka's] The Stinky Cheese Man to [your] Terabithia?

Paterson: I think the fact that we are very different authors is probably the bridge. We want to show the wide variety of books for children. Jon has done a lot of picture books. I have not done any picture books. I've done some picture story books—in other words, lavishly illustrated books—but not a real picture book.

And Jon is very, very funny. I hope I am not without humor, but I write quite a ...

Incentives are all the rage. If we can just find the right carrots, we can move people to do marvelous things. We see this thinking in teacher merit pay proposals, of course, but it's also a regular feature in discussions of student motivation.

Unfortunately it's becoming harder and harder to find the right incentives for our students. Here's why:

We're swimming against strong cultural currents. The worst sides of youth culture aren't doing us any favors. For example, reality TV serves up a grotesque parody of a lesson we all want to teach our children: Work hard, and you'll reap rewards. What are they learning from reality TV? Distinguish yourself through vanity, venality, selfishness, boastfulness and intrigue, and you'll win the prize. Fame, however ill-gotten, is its own reward.

Perverse notions of self esteem weaken the drive to work hard. Recent polls suggest that American students on the whole think very highly of themselves. Jean Twenge, who has studied these polls, worries that “self-esteem without basis ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Snow Job

I pride myself on being a tough customer when it comes to snow. I grew up in Michigan through the snowy '70s, studied in frigid New Hampshire, and spent a lot of time in the icier bits of Central and Eastern Europe. When I first moved to Washington, DC almost ten years ago, I rolled my eyes at the hysteria even the lightest snowfall seemed to occasion. I'm made of tougher stuff, I told myself.

But, oh, this week is so very different. Where I live, we got almost thirty inches of snow over the weekend, and we're told to expect ten to twenty more on Tuesday and Wednesday. No one can get anywhere. DC schools might be closed for the better part of the week.

And that, apparently, is reason enough to spark fierce battles between angry folk everywhere. Check the blogosphere, and you'll find some people calling DC teachers lazy because many called for a snow day. (A couple even make the ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Apples and Oranges

If you want to see a brief but vivid portrayal of a teacher's day, have a look at the following clip. (The linked image below will take you offsite, to a YouTube video.)

The clip uses a split screen to compare a teacher's morning to that of a real estate broker. The teacher packs in several hectic hours before the broker even emerges from his bedroom.

The clip comes from The Teacher Salary Project, which is putting together a feature-length documentary film on the lives of teachers. We first learned about this film when we interviewed author Dave Eggers, who is one of the film's producers.

(Hat Tip: Sara Bernard.) ...

Thomas Edison Elementary School in Port Chester, NY has earned its reputation as a success story. A decade ago, only 19% of Edison’s fourth graders were proficient in English language arts. Last year 75% were. Proficiency rates in math and social studies are even higher. Not bad for a school where over 80% of students live in poverty.

If you ask the school’s principal, Dr. Eileen Santiago, the decision over ten years ago to turn Edison into a full-service community school has played a key role in its transformation. Working with strong community partners, the school offers on-site health care, education for parents, counseling for children and their families, and after-school enrichment. Add that community focus to a robust instructional program and close attention to data on how students are doing, and you get a stirring turnaround story.

Dr. Santiago recently told us more.

Public School Insights: Tell me about your school.

Santiago: I have served as principal of this school for 14 years. And I have always felt fortunate that I came into a school with many, many caring people. I did not walk into a school where the adults felt negatively about the children.

However, I was faced with other concerns. One of them was that the school had a pretty significant level of poverty. We were at over 80% free lunch. We continue to have that level of poverty today.

In addition, Edison has always served an immigrant population. The school was constructed in 1872, so you can imagine that the population has changed a lot over the years. Today the population is primarily multi-ethnic Hispanic, coming from different areas of the Hispanic world. And many of our children are undocumented immigrants. That in itself adds several levels of challenge: ...

"Every teacher for himself!" Is that the new rallying cry of school reformers? Well, no. But school reform ideas that are getting the lion's share of press don't necessarily do much to foster a climate of collaboration in our schools. If we're really aiming for dramatic improvement in our schools, that's a big deal.

Here, for example, is an idea that has been gaining ground recently: Sack the bottom 25% of teachers up for tenure each year. How do you identify the bottom 25%? By measuring their students' growth in state test scores, of course. A new study (PDF) suggests that this tactic may raise a district's test scores in the long run. This finding buoyed the spirits of folks at the National Council on Teacher Quality, who urged districts to "hold to their guns" and give the bottom quarter the axe, year after year.

The study's authors are a bit more cautious. They note that the effects of this strategy could be "modest by some standards" and that they might reflect "changes in class or school dynamics outside of a teacher's control." They also limit their analysis to teachers for whom test data are available in the first place--a minority, as it turns out. Still, they feel that student performance on tests should be fair game when it comes time to make decisions about personnel.

Maybe. But I'm more worried by the collatoral damage of draconian firing policies. What will happen to the climate of a school where every new teacher knows he has a one-in-four chance of getting the boot in a couple of years? It's a truism by now that staff in good schools work together and share responsibility for their kids. In the best low-income schools, any given child will have seen any number of ...

vonzastrowc's picture

On Second Thought....

A couple of days ago, I wrote that the President's proposed budget gave staff development short shrift. That may have been a premature judgment.

The languge of the budget may in fact contain the seeds of good news. The budget includes a program called "Excellent Instructional Teams," which includes most of the staff development money for 2011. That program, the budget tells us, should "promote collaboration and the development of instructional teams that use data to improve practice." This new language suggests that the feds may have seen the light on what makes for good staff development.

It is too early to celebrate, however. The overall cut in Title II funds will keep some people up at night, and we don't yet know if the change in language will fuel a change in practice.

At the very least, though, champions of strong professional development will have something to hang their hats on. ...

Run, don't walk, to the February edition of the Phi Delta Kappan. First, there is a truly gripping interview (PDF) with Kevin Jennings, who directs the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education. Jennings describes how his childhood experiences with bullying in school have shaped his life's work.

He also calls for "standards around school climate" as well as "a data system so parents know what kind of environment a kid will encounter in a school":

But I do know that what gets measured is what gets done. Over time, it will force this issue onto the agenda. There will always be a role for grassroots activism. What the government can do is to push those ideas along a little faster.

I’m hearing loud and clear from people at the grassroots that they need help with this issue. We can’t just crank out standardized tests and expect that will make our schools better. We have to look at ...

Read President Obama's budget, and you'll get the distinct sense that alternative certification works and staff development doesn't. The first of these gets a big shot in the arm, and the second (Title II) suffers a pretty big blow. Get the right people into the schools, the thinking seems to go, and the rest will sort itself out. But reality is more complicated than that. All roads will take us back to staff development.

Critics argue that federal staff development dollars haven't done much good, so why keep them flowing? Much better to funnel them into alternatives. The critics have a point, or maybe half a point. We haven't gotten enough bang for our federal buck, so it's tough to justify calls for more Title II money unless we can show that we will spend the money well. Of course, alt cert programs haven't yet proven their worth either, but they're newer, some are promising, and none carry the taint of "status quo."

But it would be very wrong to turn our backs on staff development because it has so often been botched in practice. Stephanie Hirsh of the National Staff ...

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