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The Public School Insights Blog

Editor's note: This is the second installment of our three-part report on Viers Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland. The first installment appeared last Tuesday.

Hear today's posting (~15:12)

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Viers Mill Elementary School violates much of the received wisdom about school reform. The school has made astonishing gains in the past decade without becoming a charter school, firing lots of teachers, importing all kinds of outside talent, or paying teachers for children’s test scores. In fact, some of these reforms would likely have thwarted the main strategy Viers Mill credits with its success: collaboration.

When I visited Viers Mill about ten days ago, I was stunned by the level of collaboration I saw there. My guide through the building, staff development teacher Susan Freiman, showed me a school where everyone on staff works together for the good of the students. Collaboration at Viers Mill is not just a heartwarming tendency among staff. (Though it is that.) It is a carefully crafted reform strategy.

On the Same Page

The school works, because so many of its staff members are on the same page. If the school is working to improve vocabulary, for example, then the whole school is doing so. Freiman took me into the gymnasium to demonstrate this point. She showed me a list of vocabulary words posted on the wall:

Freiman: But I want you to see the word wall. Remember I told you about ...

Some school reform advocates are in a bit of a tizzy about changes to the Race to the Top guidelines. Here's what Jeanne Allen has to say:

The teacher reform piece was performance pay, they’ve muted that. We thought Arne [Duncan] liked the girl with the brains but he’s dumped us for the popular girl…. The education establishment got to them.

Allen is objecting to the Department's decision to base teacher "effectiveness...on input from multiple measures, provided that student growth is a significant factor." In other words, test scores will not be the only measure of a teacher's worth. Seems kind of reasonable to me.

But let's get to Allen's metaphor, which is precisely backwards. Since when was the "education establishment" the "popular girl?" Just about every major national newspaper is gushing over "reformers" and warning against the evils of the "establishment." It sounds to me like the popular girl didn't get everything she wanted.

And how about "the girl with the brains?" Since when was it smart to put all of our reform eggs into so few baskets? Since when was it smart to place so much faith ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Scantron Gone Wrong

Robert Pondiscio unearthed this story about the U.K.'s plans to grade student essays by computer.

It turns out that the computer doesn't much like writers like Churchill and Hemingway. Hemingway's prose was too simplistic. Churchill's stirring call to "fight them on the beaches"? Too repetitive:

We shall fight on the beaches,
We shall fight on the landing grounds,
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
We shall fight in the hills;
We shall never surrender.

Churchill also loses points elsewhere for mentioning the "might of" the German army. "Might have" is apparently the appropriate phrase.

The lure of computer grading systems is growing, especially for those who balk at the cost of living, breathing essay graders. The British article notes that such ...

Linda Darling-HammondStanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond is holding two free webinars on international standards and assessments. Standards and assessments are all the rage. So is talk of our standing in international tests of student performance. Seldom do we seek to learn from the countries we so admire. Professor Darling-Hammond seeks to change all that by drawing "Lessons from Abroad." The webinars are bound to be a treat. Edutopia and SCOPE are sponsoring the events in collaboration with CCSSO. More information below the fold. ...

Hear this posting (~6:55)

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If you're looking for a Cinderella story, get to know the people at Viers Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland:

One of the [paraeducators] who had been here a long time said, "you know, they used to call this place 'slumville.'" Now, she says "the President's visiting here...." He came to our school for the work we did. He didn't just happen to show up.... It was the apotheosis of my entire career.... The President of the United States--the President of the United states!--is in our cafeteria...because of the work that went on in this building....

That's Susan Freiman, Viers Mill's staff development teacher, describing President Obama's surprise visit to the school last month. She worked hard with her colleagues to turn the once struggling elementary school into a national exemplar where almost every student is proficient on state tests. That is no mean feat for a school where most students are from low-income families and almost half are still learning English.

It doesn't take long for visitors to see just how remarkable Viers Mill is. Last week, Freiman took me through a school buzzing with excitement and academic purpose. She showed me some first grade classrooms where ...

A few months ago, the blogosphere was abuzz with news that American students are shockingly ignorant of U.S. civics and history. Research sponsored by conservative think tanks found that fewer than one in twenty public school students in Arizona and Oklahoma could answer six or more questions correctly on the U.S. Citizenship Test. The most alarming finding: Only one in four could name George Washington as our first president. It turns out that those findings were likely hogwash.

I suspected as much when the studies were released. The results of the Washington question in particular didn't pass the laugh test. Statistics guru Nate Silver had the same reaction in September. For example, he found the claim that not one out of 1,000 Oklahoma students could get more than 7 answers right well nigh impossible. "Isn't there some total nerd in Tulsa, some AP Honors student in Stillwater, who was able to answer at least eight of these ten very basic questions correctly?"

His suspicions grew when Oklahoma state representative Ed Cannaday re-administered the same test to seniors in 10 high schools across his district. According to Cannaday, almost 80 percent of his seniors answered all ten ...

Charter school opponents often forget that charter schools are in fact public schools. Charters cannot charge tuition or create selective admissions policies. Ironically, we might have charter boosters to blame for the belief that charters aren't public.

The critics aren't the only ones who have odd notions about charter schools. Though Americans tend to like charter schools, most think they are private schools that charge tuition and admit students on the basis of ability. Why the confusion? For one, charters are being sold as the "anti-public school."

This isn't my idea. I got it from Nancy Flanagan, who recently wrote about a charter school meeting she attended in Michigan. She describes one of her main reactions to the meeting:

I think that positioning charter schools as the opposite of public schools, rather than a necessary supplement to public education, has poisoned the discourse. And—it goes both ways. It’s not just public schools and public school teachers being skeptical (or downright nasty) in their remarks about charter schools. Public school academies—charters—seem to be bent on repeating the worst ...

Yesterday I spent the morning at Viers Mill Elementary School In Maryland. You might know the school. President Obama paid it an unexpected visit a couple of weeks ago. If ever you want to renew your spirits in these dismal days, visit a school like Viers Mill. Those teachers and kids knocked my socks off.

We've published a lot of public school success stories on this website. But it's another thing altogether to see one of these schools in action. The school is certainly impressive on paper. Almost half the students are still learning English. Most are from low-income families. And almost all students score proficient or better on Maryland state assessments.

But come to Viers Mill, and you'll see enthusiastic children, a passionate staff, gleaming hallways festooned with student work. You'll see teachers collaborating with each other--and other school staff--to meet individual students' needs. You'll see a school that has made itself a national exemplar without firing its staff or ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Tables Turned

Consider, for a moment, the following three quotations, which I drew from various media sources:

  • "The candidate said he will build more public schools if the charter schools do not step up to the plate and improve."
  • "Traditional public schools can be a mixed bag, but the best of them are achieving results most charter schools can only dream of."
  • "The media likes to fixate on the few bad apples among public schools, giving the impression that all public schools are mediocre at best and fraudulent at worst. But there are many shining examples of public school excellence nationwide."

The first two quotations seem apocryphal. What political candidate these days would utter the first? And who these days would portray traditional public schools as models to which charter schools should aspire? The third quotation will likely prompt some eye-rolling. Why would anyone seek to minimize the very pressing need to improve our public schools?

In fact, all three quotations are apocryphal, or at least semi-apocryphal. I basically made the words "charter schools" trade places with the words "public schools." Why? Because I wanted to highlight the asymmetry of the current education debate. Almost no one writes about the best traditional public schools.

In their original form, all three quotations would hardly have raised eyebrows. It is becoming an article of faith in national newspapers that charter schools are the only bright spots in a generally dismal public education landscape. But the original versions of those quotations are no better than the doctored versions.

There are wonderful charter schools that can teach us important lessons about school reform. How do we bring them to scale? But there are also wonderful traditional public schools that are succeeding in the face of big challenges, but ...

Nurture Shock author Ashley Merryman came out in defense of public schools this morning. Her main argument: "US School Kids Are Doing Better Than Ever – But You Never Hear It!"

She takes the doomsayers to task:

Last week, I was at a conference, participating in a discussion on education reform. One of the panelists – the creator of several highly acclaimed [charter] schools – essentially argued that schools are such a mess that we need to throw out the American education system and start ...

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