Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Public School Insights Blog

Arizona's new immigration law has caused quite a stir. It allows police to question anyone if they "reasonably suspect" that person is in the country illegally. (Does that mean that people who have dark hair or speak with an accent will have to produce papers on demand?)

This law could have a big impact on schools. The Arizona School Boards Association worries that it could have a "chilling effect that will make some parents hesitant to send their children to school, even if those children are eligible to attend Arizona public schools." Schools often find themselves on the front lines of new immigration policies. Their mission to ...

At a time when most American industries have been struggling to find their footing, at least one has been experiencing a real boom: The public school horror film industry. The filmmakers and financiers behind these movies may see themselves as defenders of children. But some of them are just leading the charge out of public education and into--what?

They're aiming for outrage. But they're just as likely to create disaffection and disengagement. That's bad news for school reform.

Here's a little sampling from the new Tinseltown genre. Two Million Minutes portrayed our high schools as relaxing spas for idle youth. Then there's Race to Nowhere, which depicts our schools as cruel pressure cookers that drive children to suicide. And we mustn't forget The War on Kids (!), which argues that U.S. schools are really just prisons designed to crush our children's spirits.

It hardly matters that these horror stories contradict one another. The overriding message is clear and consistent: Get your kids out now!

The films generally offer simple solutions to the problems they present, and that lets viewers off the hook. Most examples of the genre point to charters and vouchers. Take, for example, The Cartel, which has just hit theaters. According to The Boston Globe, "'The Cartel' leads its audience to what Bowdon [the filmmaker] sees as a promised land of better American education, populated by vouchers and ...

Mike Town is a man with a mission. This Washington state environmental science teacher has spent the past 25 years educating students on environmental issues. His students do real-world projects designed to show the relevance of science, get them thinking about the environmental impact of their actions, and introduce them to the emerging green job sector.

One such project is the Cool School Challenge, a model he helped develop that engages students and teachers in reducing their school's greenhouse gas emissions. Now available for free on the web, this approach has saved over 1.6 million pounds of CO2 nationwide (and saved Redmond High School more than $100,000 over the past three years). And he and his students are scaling up the concept in their community, joining forces with the local government for the “Eco-Office Challenge.” ...

Jay Mathews of The Washington Post clearly wants to get a rise out of his readers. He just published a short column titled "Why waste time on a foreign language?" I suspect (or rather, hope) he's playing devil's advocate. Because now is not the time to grease the rails for more cuts to foreign language programs.

Mathews trots out the rather shopworn argument that the rest of the world speaks English and that we can easily import the foreign speakers we need. C'mon, Jay. There's no need to celebrate American parochialism. We can't be so sure that the American century will become the American millennium. And even if we do stay on top of the cultural heap, wouldn't it be nice to expose our children to some other languages and cultures in a diverse and shrinking world?

Mathews's other argument is a bit jarring. High school students don't learn anything in language classes anyway, he argues, so why bother?

Well, how about improving language instruction? How about starting it much earlier, in the primary grades perhaps, when children are more likely to take to a new language? The Center for Applied Linguistics has found that the share of public ...

I find reactions to Florida Gov Christ's veto of SB 6, which would tie the bulk of teacher pay and evaluation to test scores, curious. We're hearing more about political tactics than about the wisdom of the bill itself. What's more, some people are portraying supporters of this bill as the only standard-bearers for school reform. That's just not a good idea.

Let's please not forget that testing experts have questioned the bill's fundamental mechanism. Experts at the National Academies of Science warned policy makers that they should not yet place too much weight on test scores in teacher evaluation systems. Sorry to keep bringing this up, but I'm truly surprised that such an important statement has received almost no attention in all the articles and blog postings devoted to SB 6 and Crist's veto. Isn't the whole point of the National Academies to ensure that policy makers are guided by science?

So many pundits are making support for the bill--and other bills like it--into the litmus test for reform. Why? Does it really make sense to put all our reform ...

vonzastrowc's picture

No Silver Lining

The New York Times is running a depressing story this morning on the enormity of financial challenges school districts are facing. In New Jersey, the Times reports, "voters are being asked to pay more for less at schools." Districts are in such deep financial distress that even tax increases can't stave off teacher layoffs and cuts to services.

I've heard the argument that this kind of challenge can be good for schools, but I'm not buying it. Budget problems teach districts to do more with less, the argument goes, and that efficiency will serve everyone well in the long run.

Districts can and should certainly eliminate wasteful spending. But what happens when times get downright desperate? Districts have to cut staff, scale back services, deal with mounting anger from communities that bear the brunt of the cutbacks, and make momentous decisions without the luxury of time for deliberation. That is not an ideal recipe for reform. ...

As the debate about school reforms heats up, it's getting tougher to have reasoned, thoughtful conversations about specific reform strategies. You're either a wild-eyed zealot pushing for scorched-earth change or a dour obstructionist doing all you can to defend the status quo. There is little room for doubt in this super-heated environment.

I see this dynamic at work in the growing crop of opinion pieces urging states to give no quarter on teacher evaluation and merit pay reforms. The standard for many pundits seems to be 50 percent. If you don't base at least half of a teacher's evaluation on test scores, you must be a weak-kneed servant of special interests. An editorial in yesterday's Washington Post offers just the latest example of this argument.

But aren't there some questions we should ask before we base most of our pay and evaluation decisions on test scores? Do we know how this will affect teacher morale? Do we know how it will influence teacher recruitment? Do we know how many teachers would stick around under the new regime? Are we sure ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Why I Worry

The reigning rhetoric of school reform has me worried. This is the thrust of what I'm reading in so many blogs and op-eds these days:

  1. The bolder, the better.
  2. There's no time to wait for more evidence before we act.
  3. There's little time for planning.
  4. Those who question our reforms defend the status quo.
  5. Collaboration with those who must carry out reforms will just slow things down and jeopardize the "boldness" of reform. (See no. 1).
  6. Anything new would be better than what we have now.

I don't mean to say that every one of those points is terrible. But in combination, they could be lethal. Bolder can truly be better, but not when the evidence base is so thin. We can't wait for evidence before trying new reforms, but shouldn't a shortage of evidence prevent us from gambling so much on so few strategies? Shouldn't that put us in a more deliberative mood?

Add disdain for skeptics to the mix, and you have have a very dangerous situation, indeed. Our history if full of hard-won lessons about the need for checks and balances.

And the common claim that anything would be better than what we now have is particularly troubling. It's a refuge of last resort for those who prize boldness over feasibility. It's also a license to check your judgment at the door.

I see the volatile mix of justifications for bigger, faster, bolder measures in a lot of recent writing about Race to the Top. Pundits are counseling states that lost out on the money in round one to ratchet ...

When the President's Blueprint for Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act appeared last month, Chuck Saylors was struck by what he didn't see: much attention to parent engagement. The President's budget proposal had already seemed to eliminate the Parent Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs), the only federal program devoted solely to parent engagement in schools. (The Learning First Alliance just released a statement urging a much stronger federal focus on parent engagement.)

Saylors recently told us about the National PTA's work to make parent and family enagement a national priority. Despite his disappointment with the Blueprint, Saylors is optimistic. The administration seems ready to listen, he told us, and the PTA is not about to let up on its fight for parents.

Public School Insights: What are the biggest legislative priorities this year at PTA?

Saylors: There are several things on the agenda, but I am going to say that the reauthorization of ESEA is probably the issue of the day for us. We want to make sure that ESEA is reauthorized in a timely manner and we want to do everything that we can to get parents involved in the process. There are a lot of components to the legislation that need to be addressed, and we want to make sure that a parent voice is at the table.

Public School Insights: Is your sense that the blueprint the Obama administration offered for this reauthorization included the parent voice?

Saylors: I have to admit that I'm very disappointed that it was not more direct in including parental engagement. There are some brief references, but as the leader of the PTA I can tell you that I am very disappointed in the fact that there's not more concrete reference to parental engagement in the blueprint.

That being said, I have to publicly admit that PTA does have a good working relationship with the administration and we are very thankful for that. But this is ...

I was wrong. I thought the debate between the value of schools and the value of community support for children was winding down, but it seems the debate is alive and well in the pages of the Washington Post.

Joel Klein, Michael Lomax, and Janet Murguia resurrected it in an op-ed last Friday. Their opening strikes me as a bit of a strawman:

In the debate over how to fix American public education, many believe that schools alone cannot overcome the impact that economic disadvantage has on a child, that life outcomes are fixed by poverty and family circumstances, and that education doesn't work until other problems are solved.

I don't know many people who believe that education won't work "until" we fix all the other problems. Groups like the Broader, Bolder Approach (which is a likely target of the op-ed) call for robust work to improve schools and address those factors outside of schools that can hinder students' learning.

The op-ed's following sentences might be jarring to people who work in and for schools: "This theory [that life outcomes are fixed] is, in some ways, comforting for educators. After all, if schools make only a marginal difference, we can stop faulting ourselves for failing to make them work well for millions of children."

Few educators would be "comforted" to think they can make only a "marginal difference." Why go into a line of work that yields such small financial ...

Syndicate content