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The Public School Insights Blog

Editor's note: Our guest blogger today is Matt Brown, who can typically be found blogging on education issues over at Relentless Pursuit of Acronyms.

When I pass along articles about education reform or discuss the challenges I faced when I taught with my friends, many of them throw their hands in the air and say “Matt, we can make all these policy changes until we’re blue in the face…it can’t help because parents just don’t care!” Some of my old coworkers expressed similar sentiments. I remain skeptical.

My old school held their first parent-teacher conferences of the year last October. I had just started teaching a few days before (school started in mid-August, but I wasn’t placed until late September), and I couldn’t wait to meet my students' parents and go over all the exciting things that were going to happen in Room 128 that year. I wore my best suit that day, much to the amusement of some of the staff (“Mr. Brown! You getting’ married after school today? You going to court?”), hoping that I could make a good impression.

People told me not to get my hopes up. Some said the meetings would be an exercise in futility. But I refused to be defeatist. When the time came, I sat in my classroom, smiling by my sign-in sheet and looking forward to discussing the year, our class goals and my students with their parents. Sadly, only ...

There's been a lot going on with Baltimore City Public Schools lately. The district recently received the CUBE Award (Council of Urban Boards of Education). It has made remarkable progress over the past three years in test scores (especially of minority students), increasing public support and cutting the number of students dropping out of school. A couple examples: Special education students in grades three to eight have improved reading scores on state tests by nearly 30 percentage points—and math scores by nearly 28. English language learners in those grades have improved reading scores by 39 percentage points—and math scores by 39, too, outperforming their English-speaking peers in that subject.

But it's not just what has happened in Baltimore that's exciting--it is also what is to come. For example, a revolutionary new teachers contract. The proposed contract eliminates the “step” pay increases that compensate teachers based solely on their years in the workforce and degrees obtained. It incorporates effectiveness, identified in a number of ways, and also creates a career ladder that gives lead teachers the potential to earn up to $100,000.

And the contract isn’t just about pay and evaluation. It also includes “school-based options.” So teachers at a school, with an 80% majority, can determine school-level working conditions not outlined in the general contract, such as a longer working day or more planning time. It puts teachers at the center of transforming schools.

Remarkably, considering what is included, these contract negotiations went smoothly. The union and district quietly went about ...

As has been said over and over again, the recent barrage of education media has been narrowly focused and agenda driven. It has been one shot after another at teachers unions (despite the work they continuously do in driving reform efforts from Maryland to California) and one plug after another for charter schools (without mention of the fact that evidence on charters is mixed at best).

To me, a sharp illustration of the monotony of the debate came with Monica Groves, a former teacher turned dean at an Atlanta charter school, who participated in the closing panel at Education Nation. She commented:

The ... piece that I found was often missing from the conversation was, once we get highly qualified teachers in the door, what are we doing as a nation to invest and prioritize teacher development for teachers who are already in the classroom. Because as many educators agree, getting into the classroom is only the first step in the journey. Staying there, and becoming increasingly more effective is one of the bigger challenges. So my question is what are we going to do on a national level to prioritize professional development so it's not just an administrator's initiative or a district's initiative to develop teachers on an ongoing basis once they're in the classroom?

As the recent media efforts seem to, she could have championed the importance of charters or of disempowering teachers unions, two things that when looking at her choice in workplace, stereotype would suggest she supports (I don't know her position on these matters). Instead, she called attention to ...

Nancy Flanagan's picture

We're Number One!

Editor's note: Our guest blogger today is Nancy Flanagan. An education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership, she spent 30 years in the classroom--and was named the 1993 Teacher of the Year in Michigan. She is National Board-certified and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She can be found blogging over at Teacher in a Strange Land. Her work is also featured at Teachers Lead.

Are we finished being "the Education Nation" now?

The mainstream media blitz has ebbed, although bloggers are still acerbically dissecting grandiose claims made and unequal assignment of airtime and spotlights.

What are the lasting outcomes? One is a Facebook page full of messages which NBC has, ex-post facto, separated into "Education Nation" (their carefully sanitized default page) and "Just Others" (posts made by actual viewers), a clear and disappointing indication that NBC wasn't really looking for dialogue, new ideas and feedback after all.

Also remaining, this sober question: Why?

Why would a mainstream broadcast network--and trusted talk-show icon and even the Secretary of Education--embark on a highly publicized campaign to characterize public education in America as miserable failure? And lay the lion's share of blame at the feet of experienced teachers, the anonymous, exhausted foot soldiers in the quest to improve our educational outcomes? Why would they advocate for charter schools and matching teachers to test scores as go-to solutions, given the meticulous and rigorous research that disproves miracle-school and hero-teacher myths? It's irresponsible journalism--and it doesn't make sense, frankly.

One facile answer: the media is always hungry for the most simplistic but electrifying spin on any story--even a story as complex, knotty and critical as educating kids in America. "Waiting for Superman" is just another melodrama from an industry that turned a serial killer into ...

I just read an article by a well-known superintendent on the importance of improving teacher quality, and how one might go about it. I agreed with some of what was said, though not all of it, but by the time I finished reading it I was smoking.

It was missing two key words: school-based.

The piece claimed that "the single most important factor" in student achievement is the teacher. But that is not exactly what the research shows. Rather, time and time again, the research shows that family background—aka socioeconomic status—is by far the most influential factor in a student’s academic achievement.

Research does show that teachers are the most important school-based factor in a child’s achievement. Effective teachers can work with students to overcome some of the challenges that they bring to school, helping them achieve at high levels. So clearly in designing school improvement efforts, a number of policies around teachers—their quality, development, compensation and more—should be considered.

But too many debates on education reform leave out those two little words. And that can create some unrealistic ...

The Obama administration claims that its blueprint for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now called No Child Left Behind, is grounded in research. A new book, the first major project of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), disagrees. Or rather, it disagrees that it is grounded in quality research.

The Obama Education Blueprint: Researchers Examine the Evidence offer six reviews, one of each of the research summaries that the administration released in May as an evidence base for its blueprint. These reviews were written by independent scholars, including a woman who is now a household name: Diane Ravitch.

While each review has its own findings, overarching themes emerge, including: low quality research, extensive use of non-research and advocacy sources and a focus on problems rather than on research supporting conclusions. In addition, there were some important omissions. There was no support for the administration’s proposed accountability system, or rationale for increasing reliance on competitive grants. And support for the four intervention models that must be used when turning around struggling schools was found to be "undeveloped." Yet these three policies are among the centerpieces of the administration’s agenda--and are the subject of great debate among education stakeholders.

These findings come as no surprise to many in the education community. They have been pointing out the weaknesses in the evidence base ever since ...

"When we make decisions we think we’re in control, making rational choices. But are we?"

In his best-selling book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, behavioral economist Dan Ariely challenges the basic assumptions of our economic system, exploring the powerful tricks that our minds play on us and showing that actually, we humans are far from rational.

Of course, irrationality is not always bad. His follow-up, The Upside of Irrationality, offers another look at the irrational decisions that influence our lives, as well as some of the positive effects that such irrationality can have.

Ariely recently spoke with us about his work and its implications for education reforms involving teacher compensation and school choice.

Public School Insights: You are a behavioral economist. What does that mean?

Ariely: My Ph.D.s are actually not in economics. I have a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, and I have a Ph.D. in business administration. But what I do lies between psychology and economics.

I ask questions that economists would ask, but instead of assuming straightaway that people behave rationally, I just observe how people behave. So think of it as something that has no assumption; it's just observational in its nature. That's the basic story.

Public School Insights: You've written a couple of books, Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. Could you briefly describe them?

Ariely: Yes. In Predictably Irrational, I talk about how people think, mostly about financial decisions. The things that we buy. One chapter asks the question, "How do we decide how much something is worth?" Economic theory has a very simple assumption about this. But I ask the question, "How do we really do it?"

Or I ask the question, "What happens when the price of something drops to zero?" People get overly excited about it, usually. But is it just because ...

It was recently announced that Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is donating $100 million to help improve Newark’s long-troubled public schools. Those funds will be matched by donations raised by the city, which is also raising $50 million for another youth effort. In other words, Newark’s children will have a lot more money available to them over the next few years.

As part of this agreement, Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will cede some control over Newark Public Schools (currently state-run) to Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Together, they will select a new superintendent, and Mayor Booker will have freedom to redesign the system (though the governor retains formal authority over it).

This partnership is great news in some respects--a Democrat and a Republican overcoming political conflicts, joining forces for the sake of the children. Hopefully it is the first of many such unions across the country.

But I do have some concerns with this set-up. First, we must question the wisdom of short-term infusions of private funds into public schools. While $100 million--or even $250 million--is a lot of money, it won't last forever. What happens when the money runs out?

And second, what is the role of philanthropy in school reform? Some argue, as NYC Chancellor Joel Klein puts it, that while private philanthropy will never be a large part of a system's budget, it is money that can be used for research and development and for ...

Have you checked out NBC’s Education Nation’s mission statement? A little birdie recently passed on some interesting information about it...

The statement claims “Sixty-eight percent of our eighth-graders can’t read at grade level.” But where did that number come from?

The source was not immediately apparent. But having some knowledge of education (and a helpful source), I assumed it came from NAEP--the National Assessment of Educational Progress. So I went to their website to check out the reading scores.

NAEP actually found that 32% of eighth graders performed at or above the proficient level in 2009, the most recent data available. That means, of course, that 68% of eighth graders did not. The problem? Scoring “proficient” on the reading NAEP has no relationship with whether or not a student can read at grade-level.

NAEP defines proficient as “representing solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of ...

obriena's picture

Teachers - Got Plans Sunday?

If not, consider joining a live chat for Education Nation’s Teacher Town Hall. It will be held Sunday, September 26, at 12pm Eastern/9am Pacific. And during this event, NBC’s Brian Williams will talk with teachers on-air and online about issues facing educators and education. Just remember--you must register to participate.

For those who do not know, NBC News’ Education Nation is a week-long event, starting Sunday, that will examine and redefine education in America. It “seeks to engage the public, through thoughtful dialogue, in pursuit of the shared goal of providing every American with an opportunity to pursue the best education in the world.” Believing that we have allowed our students to fall behind, that our workforce is largely unprepared for today’s marketplace and that we face stiff competition from abroad, NBC hopes to provide quality news and information to the public to help us decide: Is it time to reinvent American as an Education Nation?

This event will feature in-depth conversations about improving education in American, including the Teacher Town Hall (which, by the way, will be aired live on MSNBC, educationnation.com, scholastic.com and msnbc.com). For the entire week, “NBC Nightly News,” “Today,” “Meet the Press,” “Your Business,” MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo, msnbc.com and ...

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