Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Public School Insights Blog

Last November, President Obama launched the Educate to Innovate campaign with the goal of moving our students to the top of the world in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) education. And in the coming days, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology will release a report with recommendations on just how the federal government can accomplish that goal.

According to a preview by Erik Robelen on EdWeek yesterday, the report concludes that the federal government has lacked a coherent approach to STEM education for the last quarter century. The Council recommends the government take action to improve the standards, teachers and technology around STEM education. It recommends more STEM-based schools. And it calls for stronger leadership at the federal level, as well as increased opportunities to inspire a passion for STEM subjects in students.

I am anxious to see the report. After all, STEM has been a priority of LFA for years. Back in ...

No one would deny that having a high-quality teacher in every classroom is important. Research confirms that effective teaching improves student achievement. So it stands to reason that very few would deny that it’s important for all teachers to have access to high-quality professional learning. After all, research confirms it is a significant pathway to more effective teaching.

Yet as evidenced by a recent report from Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Council), the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and Council of Chief State School Officers, far too few states and school districts ensure that their educators have access to effective professional learning activities.

Advancing High-Quality Professional Learning Through Collective Bargaining and State Policy takes an in-depth look at the professional learning policies of six states. The conclusion? Professional learning does not have a significant place in policy and collective bargaining language. But there is hope—the report offers recommendations and examples of collectively bargained language, legislation, regulations and administrative guidelines to inform the development of policy language that can strengthen the quality of professional development in the future.

To learn more about the report and its implications, we spoke to three individuals who each brought a unique perspective to this issue: Joellen Killion (Deputy Executive Director of Learning Forward), Linda Davin (Senior Policy Analyst at NEA) and Joyce Powell (now serving on the NEA Executive Committee after four years as the president of the New Jersey Education Association and decades in the classroom).

Public School Insights: Why is it important to do address professional development through collective bargaining and state policy?

Killion: At Learning Forward, we believe that if there are strong policies in place that set clear expectations, then there will be improved practice. So when collective bargaining language addresses with clarity the importance of the opportunity for teachers to engage in professional development, and when state policy simultaneously provides resources, guidelines and expectations for effective professional development, we believe that the practice of professional development will be improved.

Davin: I couldn’t agree more. Although we know that we can have high quality professional learning in districts where it is not included in collective bargaining language, we also know that ...

Concerned about the state of arts education in America? This is a great week to do something about it.

The U.S. House of Representatives has designated this, the second week of September, as “Arts in Education Week.” The goal is to showcase the important role that arts education plays in producing engaged and successful students. Their resolution, which passed last July, stated:

Arts education, comprising a rich array of disciplines including dance, music, theatre, media arts, literature, design, and visual arts, is a core academic subject and an essential element of a complete and balanced education for all students.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily news. A number of schools--Alabama’s Mary B. Austin Elementary and New Jersey’s Woodrow Wilson School come to my mind immediately--have recognized the importance of, and prioritized, arts education for ...

“Education reform is not just about school improvement. It’s also about informing and inspiring parents so that they can ‘come on the team’ with high expectations and high levels of support” – Bill Jackson, founder and head of Greatschools.org, as quoted yesterday on the Core Knowledge Blog.

Whether or not you personally agree, some policymakers are starting to. The obvious question they must then confront is: How do you inform and inspire parents?

Well, as Larry Ferlazzo wrote recently on a Washington Post blog, two school districts decided to pay them. Parents will get rewarded for attending school events, such as parent-teacher conferences.

There is no denying the evidence that students are more academically successful when there is a strong parent/school connection. But will paying parents actually engage them? According to Ferlazzo, the answer is no. He points to Dan Pink’s work, which has found financial incentives can motivate people to do mechanical tasks (show up for a meeting) but not stimulate more cognitively challenging tasks (speak regularly to children about their school day). And in addition, when ...

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"Ask Coach"

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.

Reading through recent stories about the worth (or worthlessness) of teaching experience reminded me of one of my old college roommates.

I’m not normally that into video games, but during college, I made an exception for the NCAA Football series. While I technically have a degree in Political Science, I suspect I completed enough hours on our PlayStation for at least a minor in video game football. It didn’t matter if you wanted to run a spread offense, the option, Wishbone, whatever. Any of my dormmates knew if that if you fancied yourself a good NCAA guy, you needed to see how you matched up against Matt (I wasn't Mr. Brown yet).

But one of my roommates decided that he wanted to be the new floor champ. He was pretty good at a bunch of other video games, and he was a casual football fan, so he figured he could pick up the game pretty quickly. He thought that when I left the room to go to work or class, he’d play online, learn the secrets of the game, and then challenge me.

Sadly for him, playing video games online is not for the faint of heart. Only the best of the best plunk down the money for a subscription to play, and they take great pride in ...

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Are All Readers Literate?

Back in 1965, UNESCO proclaimed September 8 to be International Literacy Day. The goal? To highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and society. I’ll try to link to some of the reports being released today as they come out.

Just learning this occasion exists reminded me of a post of Robert Pondiscio’s that I saw recently on the Core Knowledge Blog, which referred to a post on Mark Bauerlein’s blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education that commented on an article that Pondiscio wrote with E.D. Hirsch earlier this year. (You’ve got to love the internet.)

The article doesn’t necessary embrace the international spirit of today, but it hits literacy on the head.

To be fully literate is to have the communicative power of language at your command—to read, write, listen and speak with understanding.

The Pondiscio/Hirsch article argues that reading is not a transferable skill, at least not entirely. A child may be able to master “decoding” but needs domain-specific content knowledge to fully comprehend what he or she is reading. And it argues that our current testing and accountability system for our public schools results in time wasted on reading strategies rather than imparting the knowledge that will allow our children to become truly literate, especially in low-income schools where children don't always get background knowledge from ...

In an op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson claimed that school reform efforts have disappointed for two reasons. One, no one has discovered transformative changes that are scalable. And two, shrunken student motivation.

Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.

Samuelson may be on to something here. Student motivation is rarely mentioned in education reform discussions--except, of course, as part of carrot and stick conversations about how incentives can help students do better (an idea that research both within education and in other sectors has shed doubt on). Perhaps if reform discussions focused more on getting students invested in their learning, they would be more fruitful.

But then he takes it a bit far for me:

The unstated assumption of much school "reform" is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with ...

The first paragraph of Education Next’s Grading Schools: Can Citizens Tell a Good School When They See One? discusses the widespread availability of school standardized test score data. Reading that, I thought I knew what the article would be about. Citizens judging schools based on test scores alone, rather than more meaningful measures. It resonated with me, because the same day I read the article, I had fallen prey to that trap. I was talking about a really great school...and talking only about its test scores. Someone called me on it. I could have mentioned the amazing parent engagement at the school. Or discussed how students at this school--over 90% of whom receive free or reduced price lunch--collected money to send to relief efforts in Haiti. In imparting such citizenship to its students, this school must be doing something right. I know all this, about this school and many others. But I still talk mainly about test scores. We do need to look beyond test scores in determining a school’s quality, but do most citizens actually do so?

Of course, by the end of the second paragraph I knew that was not what this article was about. Instead, it described a study that looked at whether citizens judge school quality based on performance data, or whether indicators such as the racial or class makeup of the school sway their perspective. An entirely different question, but also very interesting.

So I read the article. And while I am not sure I entirely trust their methodology, I am somewhat heartened to learn that citizens do judge the quality of their schools based on student proficiency rates in core academic subjects, not racial demographics. They do ...

Editor's note: Rebecca Mazonson is a junior at Brown University. She interned at the Learning First Alliance during the summer of 2010.

As a graduate of a single-sex high school, I can attest to the premise that the single-sex educational experience can be a liberating one, free of many of the distractions and frustrations of coeducation. My classmates and I felt little pressure to wear makeup or be “coy” in the classroom. We readily embraced (consciously or not) the school’s motto of “women learning, women leading,” pushing ourselves to explore academic and career realms that suited our interests, rather than subscribing to gender stereotypes or traditional roles.

I don’t know that this is true for all students who attend or attended single-sex schools. But I contest the assumption that a separation of genders in school necessarily reinforces gender stereotypes. Indeed, I am constantly aware of the ways many of my female classmates at my co-educational university constrain themselves in the classroom or lecture hall, and usually without being aware of it. I have discussed with professors the perennial problem I witness of male students being readier to ask questions or make presentations than female students. (I am talking in the aggregate here. There are clearly exceptions, and I like to think that I am one of them). Having attended an ...

Editor's note: Samantha Abrams is a rising senior at Dartmouth College. She interned at the Learning First Alliance during the spring of 2010.

The recent phenomenon of single-sex public schools prompts the question of whether these schools are better than co-ed schools at preparing students academically and socially for the future.

There are a variety of academic arguments that proponents of single-sex schools make in favor of all-boys and all-girls schools. One of these arguments is that students are able to concentrate better in class when they are not being distracted by members of the opposite sex. This argument, of course, assumes that members of the opposite sex are more distracting to students than members of their own sex. As a student who was recently in the K-12 school system, I can say that this statement is not inherently true; while members of the two sexes have different ways of distracting each other, they don’t necessarily distract each other more or less than the other sex.

Proponents of single-sex schools also make social arguments for these schools. They say: there is less peer pressure; students feel more comfortable; students become more confident; students develop stronger same-sex relationships; and classroom behavior is better. I counter these arguments, saying: the social pressures from people of the same sex are not fewer, just ...

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