Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Public School Insights Blog

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 ...

obriena's picture

The State of the Student

Last week we looked at the state of public schools, as viewed by the American public. Today we’ll look at the state of the American student, as viewed by students themselves.

In creating the recent report Youth Readiness for the Future, Gallup polled students age 10-18 on their hope, engagement and well-being. Why those variables? A number of reasons, including that they are indicators of future success, with links to attendance, grades, achievement scores, retention and employment. And they are malleable—so even if a student is not hopeful now, he or she might be in the future.

The results? Over half of students—53%—are hopeful about the future, while 31% are “stuck” and 16% are discouraged. Over two-thirds of students—70%—are thriving, with about 30% struggling or suffering. And nearly two-thirds—63%—are engaged, while 23% are not engaged (just going through the motions) and 14% are actively disengaged (likely undermining the teaching and learning process for themselves and others). Engagement peaks during elementary school, then decreases through middle school and ...

All over the country, policymakers are calling for systems that tie teacher evaluation to student performance. And from Florida to Colorado, Maryland to Louisiana, they are defining student performance as standardized test scores.

Few would argue that current teacher evaluation systems are adequate. And using standardized tests seems a cost-effective way to define performance, an important consideration in times of fiscal crisis. But are evaluation systems based on those tests valid? Can student performance on standardized assessments accurately identify effective teachers?

A new brief from the Economic Policy Institute reviews the evidence. The conclusion? Taken alone, student test scores are not a valid or reliable indicator of teacher effectiveness.

The brief discusses the lack of evidence that test-based accountability improves student learning, statistical concerns with using standardized tests to evaluate individual teachers and practical concerns with systems that do so, including the difficulty of attributing learning gains to one individual. It also raises concerns about the unintended consequences of these systems, including a narrowing of ...

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