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“Making Geeks Cool Could Reform Education.” That’s the title of the latest national article to oversimplify school reform. Author Daniel Roth of Wired magazine offers the seeds of a good idea, but like so many other national commentators he doesn't add much to the conversation.

Roth’s general argument does appeal to me. I was a high school nerd long before Bill Gates and Sergei Brin made nerds cool. Perhaps nerds can help unravel the anti-intellectual marketing culture that makes academic achievement seem positively un-cool.

Roth also wins points for his healthy skepticism about the power of “disruptive” technological innovation. He describes a meeting of education entrepreneurs:

The businesspeople in the room represented a world in which innovation requires disruption. But [former teacher Alex] Grodd knew their ideas would test poorly with real disrupters: kids in a classroom. "The driving force in the life of a child, starting much earlier than ...

The history of education reform is strewn with the wreckage of dazzling new education technologies no one ever taught teachers to use. Hayes Mizell of the National Staff Development Council (NSDC) sees history repeating itself in the Race to the Top.

Mizell suggests in a recent blog posting that RTTT's investment in powerful new data systems will founder on lack of teacher professional development:

The Department seems to have made two faulty assumptions: (a) improved data systems, in and of themselves, will result in improved instruction, and (b) educators currently have the knowledge and skills they need to use data to improve instruction. Unfortunately, the proposed requirements do not mention professional development. States applying for Race To The Top funds do not have to ...

Frankforddictionaryweb.jpgFrankford Elementary School in Frankford, Delaware has garnered national attention for bringing almost all of its overwhelmingly low-income student body to grade-level proficiency in reading, mathematics, science and social studies. In fact, Frankford far exceeds state averages for students reaching proficiency. (See our story about the school here).

We recently caught up with Frankford principal Duncan Smith, who described what’s been working in his remarkable school.

Public School Insights: I understand that Frankford Elementary continues to exceed state standards by a long shot, but that wasn’t really always the case and that in the mid-1990s, there was a very different picture. What happened?

Smith: The change came along with my predecessor, Sharon Brittingham. She came to Frankford and really set things in motion, bringing higher expectations for kids and higher expectations for teachers.

In the past, the school had a reputation of having a high percentage of minority students and a high percentage of low-income students. The expectation was that those kids couldn’t know things at the same levels as the students at other ...

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Education Bedfellows

In the past few days, articles in two major urban newspapers have demonstrated how quickly education reformers and the education "establishment" can find themselves in the same boat.

According to the LA Times, the schools at the center of Mayor Villaraigosa's reform efforts have fallen short of their goals:

The scores at Villaraigosa's schools fall well short of what his original rhetoric suggested. He implied that he could deliver rapid academic gains if given control of schools in the nation's second-largest district. At the time, L.A. Unified officials and some education experts said Villaraigosa was unfairly discounting the school system's incremental progress.

On Tuesday, it was the mayor's turn to celebrate increments.

"We expect progress and we have progress, but we still have a long way to go," Villaraigosa apparently told the LA Times. "Transforming a failing school takes more than one year." Very true.

According to the Chicago Tribune, turnaround schools championed by ...

Public health officials are bracing for the H1N1 flu virus to hit schools in the fall. A vaccine may come after the flu's onset, and it might be in "limited supply." (For resources on the H1N1 flu, see our H1N1 flu page.)

According to an email I received from someone at WestEd, the Centers for Disease Control are putting together "Web Dialogues" to gather public input into vaccination policy. Here's the CDC's media advisory:


WebDialogue: H1N1 Public Engagement Dialogue
* Make Your Voice Heard on the H1N1 Pandemic Flu Vaccine *

In July, the Secretary of Health and Human Services announced that the federal government expects to initiate a voluntary fall vaccination program against the 2009 H1N1 flu virus. The CDC will help state and local health organizations develop the vaccination program and are working to decide the scope of the program for vaccinating Americans against the novel H1N1 pandemic influenza virus.

The CDC is asking for public discussion, deliberation, and input as the agency considers whether to simply make vaccines available to those seeking immunization, to promote vaccination to those most at risk, or to implement a widespread immunization program. ...

Former teacher Sarah Fine is no Hollywood heroine, and some people won’t forgive her for it. By leaving her job as a teacher at Washington, DC’s Cesar Chavez charter school, she failed the superhero test. She couldn’t Stand and Deliver.

Fine explains her decision to leave in a recent Washington Post article describing the tough working conditions many Cesar Chavez teachers face every day. Many of her readers left sympathetic comments, but quite a few expressed moral outrage. She was a “quitter,” a “whiner,” someone who cares more about herself than about her students. She was not the teacher you would hope to get from Central Casting.

Unfortunately, this sort of talk often drowns out important discussions of teacher working conditions. Barnett Berry hits the nail on the head:

Investing in research and pilot projects so that we can do a better job of identifying effective teachers makes sense — using rigorous measures and tools that keep a tight focus on the critical dimensions of student learning.

But judging teacher performance without paying attention to the conditions under which qualified teachers can teach effectively will ...

A roundup of success stories recently published by Public School Insights is far overdue. Here's a list of eleven inspiring new stories we've posted in the past few months:

(First published February 17, 2009)

The Honorable Lee Hamilton represented Indiana’s 9th congressional district for over three decades. After leaving Congress, he co-chaired the Iraq Study Group and served as Vice-Chair of the 9/11 Commission.

Now president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and director of Indiana University's Center on Congress, he sits or has sat on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the President's Homeland Security Advisory Council, the FBI Director’s Advisory Board, the CIA Director’s Economic Intelligence Advisory Panel, and the Defense Secretary’s National Security Study Group.

A life of public service has fueled Representative Hamilton's commitment to civics education, a commitment he honors as co-chair of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. Representative Hamilton recently sat down with us for an interview on the significance of civic education at a time of political change and economic upheaval.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: I've heard you say--or rather, write--that you have found a lot of young Americans don't necessarily know what it means to be American. They haven't really thought it over. I was wondering if you could describe the implications of what that means and what schools might be able to do about it.

HAMILTON: I think a representative democracy depends on an educated citizenry. It's very important that not only homes--parents--but also schools take on the responsibility of assuring that young people know how to become good citizens and they learn the attributes of good citizenship: Involvement in their community, listening to their friends and neighbors, trying to solve problems, reach a consensus, discuss, and to get a sense of democracy into their bones. So that they recognize that the question that Lincoln asked, whether this nation, so conceived and so dedicated, could long endure, is answered affirmatively.

I'm very concerned about what's happening today in our schools. You see so much emphasis upon math and science, and I'm certainly not opposed to that. We need that emphasis. But in many respects I think the emphasis there, in part because of the requirements of federal law, are reducing--diminishing--the amount of time that is spent on ...

Krista Parent AASA Picture WEB.jpg

(First published August 4, 2008)

When Krista Parent arrived rural Cottage Grove, Oregon in the mid 'eighties, it was a timber town whose students regularly dropped out of high school to work in the lumber mills. Academic achievement was not among the community's top priorities. Now, over 20 years later, students in Cottage Grove's South Lane School District perform well above state averages in assessments of reading and mathematics, and the district's high school graduates more than 95% of its students.

We were recently lucky enough to interview Parent about how she and her colleagues at South Lane worked with the community to transform the district's schools. Parent describes how South Lane's educators reached out to their community to transform the academic culture. 

According to Parent, this community engagement led to a powerful school reform strategy.  South Lane schools have broadened their academic offerings, introduced more challenging courses, overhauled teacher professional development and improved students' hands-on learning opportunities.

It is always challenging to create a brief "highlights reel" from a rich and compelling 25-minute interview. Still, we managed to boil Parent's comments down to about 5 1/2 minutes. (Scroll down for a transcript of these highlights):

Still, we encourage you to listen to the entire 25-minute interview, which ...

First published August 19, 2008.


Harvard professor and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. captured some 25 million viewers with his riveting PBS documentary series, African American Lives (WNET). Using genealogical research and DNA science, Gates traces the family history of 19 famous African Americans. What results is a rich and moving account of the African American experience.

Gates recently spoke with Public School Insights about the documentary and a remarkable idea it inspired in him: To use genealogy and DNA research to revolutionize the way we teach history and science to African American Students. Now, Gates is working with other educators to create an "ancestry-based curriculum" in K-12 schools. Many African American students know little about their ancestors. Given the chance to examine their own DNA and family histories, Gates argues, they are likely to become more engaged in their history and science classes. As they rescue their forebears from the anonymity imposed by slavery, students begin to understand their own place in the American story.

If the stories in African American Lives are any guide, they're in for an experience.

The Significance of African American Lives

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Tell me about "African-American Lives" and its significance, in your view.

GATES: Wow, that's a big question. [Laughing] I got the idea in the middle of the night to do a series for public television that would combine genealogy and ancestry tracing through genetics. I've been fascinated with my own family tree since I was 10 years old - that's the year that my grandfather died. ...

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