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The Public School Insights Blog

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According to Joel Shatzky, this is how your garden-variety public school 9th-grader wrote in the 1950s and 60s:

Color is rampant and the woodlands and countryside are ablaze with every hue of the spectrum; lemon yellow, bright saffron, tawny orange, lively russet, flaming scarlet, brilliant magenta, deep crimson, and rich purple…. With such a prelude it is no wonder that the contrast of the weird subterranean world of the Caverns strikes one with tremendous impact.... Instead of the sparkling sunlight there is a Stygian darkness pierced by colored lights.” -- Ninth grader, Crestonian, Creston JHS,1957 (SP class)

That's a far cry from the digital grunts we get from today's students, Shatzky tells us.

I'm sorry, but I'm just not buying it. Not even for a minute. How many high school freshmen actually wrote that way as a matter of course? And what happened to all those splendid writers after they graduated from high school? I worry that this talk of a golden age can actually do damage.

It sure is alluring, though, and has been for a long, long time. In the 1950s, the Council for Basic Education published a book of essays on the sorry state of U.S. schools. (The authors clearly did not share Shatzky's admiration for the writing students were doing 60 years ago.) One essay writer claimed that his public ...

North Carolina’s Laurel Hill Elementary School is a model school. Its rural, diverse and high-poverty student population consistently exceeds state targets on standardized test scores, and the school has made AYP each year since 2003. It has also been recognized for its great working conditions.

But getting there wasn’t easy. In the early 2000s, one challenge stood out: The school failed to make AYP because of the performance of its students with disabilities (known in North Carolina as its “exceptional children”). Rather than throw up their hands at the daunting task of educating special education students, staff at Laurel Hill made lemonade out of lemons. They took the opportunity to study their school and its structure, revise its schedule and move to full inclusion. The result? A Blue Ribbon school that can confidently say it is meeting the needs of all its children. Principal Cindy Goodman recently told us about the school and its journey.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Laurel Hill Elementary?

Goodman: Laurel Hill is a pre-K through fifth grade community school. We have about 500 students and are located in an extremely rural community. We have a very nice facility, which is about 11 years old.

We have an outstanding staff that holds our children to very high standards for behavior, for academics…just high standards in general.

Public School Insights: What kind of population does the school serve?

Goodman: Our community, the little town of Laurel Hill, is located in Scotland County, North Carolina. The county currently has, and for a good while has had, the highest unemployment rate in the state. So it is a very poor area. Between ...

We often hear that students in other countries are leaving ours in the dust. That fact, in turn, becomes the rationale for all manner of reforms.

But reformers often pay scant attention to what those countries actually do to get where they are. Are we slipping in the rankings? Quick--institute merit pay! Grease the rails for alt cert programs! Open more charter schools! That oughta do it!

These may be worthy goals to pursue in their own right, but they won't be enough to close the gap between us and our high-flying competitors.

Linda Darling-Hammond draws a much broader set of lessons from countries that succeed. This 9-minute video from Edutopia sums them up nicely.

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Common, high academic standards. Excellent (and often free) teacher preparation. Strong and sustained support for staff. Time in the schedule for staff to work together. And--crucially--very good assessments that don't knock everything else off course. Darling-Hammond finds all of these things in countries that ...

Many school reformers have eagerly adopted the language of the business world, and that makes a lot of people nervous. I'm not worried by the business speak per se. I'm more concerned about what happens when we draw the wrong lessons from business.

The School Administrator has a wonderful set of articles this month on a promising reform strategy that first came from the business world: the balanced scorecard. They make for very good reading, because they take us far beyond the standard story about reforms inspired by business. You can pretty much sum up that story in four short sentences: Focus on outcomes. Be innovative. Give people choices. Get the incentives right.

The balanced scorecard goes a good deal farther. It looks at process, a word that gets precious little respect these days. Here's how Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall describes it in The School Administrator's feature article:

All school systems focus on student achievement — these are the critical outcomes that we track as educators. But to get to those outcomes, you must measure and evaluate everything we do as a district. The balanced scorecard is our way to look across all ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Separate but Equal?

School segregation is back in the news, and it has me worried.

Early this month, UCLA's Civil Rights Project released a report (PDF) calling the charter school movement "a civil rights failure" for worsening segregation in U.S. schools. Charter supporters shot back, calling it perverse to fault charter schools in poor areas for enrolling mostly students of color who were hardly thriving before the advent of charters. One wise observer struck a more moderate pose, calling on all sides to "make racially isolated schools better, and do lots more to reduce that racial isolation in the first place." 

I worry that racial isolation will mask inequities that can persist despite gains in test scores. Just take a look at what appears to be happening in New York City. The New York Daily News reports that the city's most prestigious high schools now enroll fewer black students than they did in 2002. The share of black students in some of these schools, like Bard and Eleanor Roosevelt, has plummeted to nearly half of what it once was. District officials counter that new "high-performing ...

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.) ...

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