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The Public School Insights Blog

Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson recently penned a Newsweek cover story called "The Creativity Crisis." They cite new evidence that American creativity is on the decline, but they also suggest that we can turn things around.

Regular readers of this blog may recall our earlier interview with Merryman about Nurture Shock, the best-selling book she and Bronson published last year. That book argued that many of our most cherished strategies for nurturing children are failing because we overlook key lessons from science.

In their Newsweek piece, Merryman and Bronson find themselves on similar ground. There is a science of creativity, they write, and we ignore that fact at our peril. We can't just pin our hopes on a vague sense of American ingenuity. Nor can we simply enjoin students to let their inner creativity out.

But science can point us toward concrete strategies to boost creativity, Merryman and Bronson write. In an interview last Friday, Merryman told us more.

Is American Creativity on the Decline?

Public School Insights: You and Po Bronson write that measures of creativity in the United States are falling. How bad do you think the situation is?

Merryman: Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) were developed in 1958 by E. Paul Torrance. He and a colleague tracked kids for 40 and 50 years. They found the TTCT predicts lifetime creative achievement more effectively than IQ. It is a three-time stronger correlation.

These tests are continually re-normed because scores are based on, what answer is most original? In 1970, if someone had drawn an iPod, they would've scored off the charts. But a kid who drew something as an iPod today might not be considered original. So the tests are constantly reevaluated in terms of what kids understand and are familiar with.

Kyung Hee Kim, a researcher at the College of William and Mary, is one of the people responsible for re-norming these tests. In May, when analyzing over 300,000 scores, she found a pattern that showed a decline in scores since 1990. Before 1990, scores were going up, but they've been going down since. The decline is the steepest for young children, specifically school-age children. They are still working on the data, so I cannot say “It has declined X percentage.” But what we can say is that the decline is significant, and Kim considers the ...

In education policy circles, we have to come to grips with some of our double standards. Mike Petrilli illustrated two of these double standards in a recent blog posting.

He openly identified only one of them. Can we forgive charter middle schools for lowering test scores of students who are not on free and reduced-price lunch, he asks? We're not as kind to public schools that serve poor children. "Middle class" charter schools tend to be progressive, so they don't focus on the tests, he writes. That, Petrilli speculates, is why middle class charter middle schools seemed to do worse than regular public schools. Middle class kids "will probably do fine" even with the lower scores, he asserts.

Petrilli is no ideologue. He asks whether his double standard will "end up hurting poor kids, who are forced into 'testing factories' while their middle class counterparts get to 'learn while doing'?" But in the end he's not too worried about the apparent dip in middle class scores.

Petrilli makes very valid points in his characteristically thoughtful and engaging way. Yet I see another double standard in his question. Would regular public schools serving the middle class enjoy the same indulgence charter schools do? Would he and his colleagues give regular public schools that favor progressive methods the same free pass on test scores? (Petrilli's employer, the Fordham Foundation, has not been very kind to progressive educators in the past.)

Petrilli's posting reminds us that the charter movement is not some monolithic force. In recent media portrayals, charters come across as schools that strive to lift student achievement, and test scores are simply the coin of that realm. No excuses! But I often come across people ...

Most people believe we can't be a prosperous nation if we're not a creative nation. But can we teach creativity without giving in to the gauzy, shallow, I'm OK, You're OK creativity exercises that drive traditionalists round the bend?

A recent Newsweek cover story by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman suggests that we can. In fact, its authors say we must, because our young people have been getting less creative over the past twenty years. What's worse, they claim, we don't seem to have any national strategy to tackle the problem.

In this country, we tend to believe that our Edisons and Gateses will come to us as naturally as the leaves to a tree. Our children's math scores may not always top the international charts, but darn it, we're a naturally ingenious bunch.

But new research is starting to shake that confidence, Bronson and Merryman report. Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary reviewed some 300,000 Torrance scores from the past half century and found that they have been declining since 1990. (Torrance tests are a common measure of creativity. They correlate strongly with "lifetime creative accomplishment," Bronson and Merryman report.) The decline is worst in young children.

But it won't do just to get in touch with our inner poets or to move all our mental furniture into our right brains. Creativity depends on steady commerce between the left and right ...

The Senate should pass a measure to stave off massive layoffs of school staff. LFA just released a statement urging swift action on the Education Jobs Fund, which would provide $10 billion dollars to save critical jobs.

A recent study by the Center on Education Policy underscores the urgency of this effort. Here are some thoughts on a few of the study's major findings:

  • Stimulus funds often did not cover the shortfalls most districts faced last year. Seventy percent of districts reported a decrease in funding between 2008/09 and 2009/10. About 50 percent of those reported that stimulus funds made up for less than half of the shortfall. Forty-five percent of districts that received SFSF money had to cut teaching positions. Though $100 billion sounds like a lot, schools were not awash in money.
  • Most districts expect further declines in funding next year, and to make matters worse, the stimulus money is running out fast. Almost seventy percent expected funding to drop further in 2010/11. Well over half expected to have spent all their SFSF funds by the end of the 2009/10 school year. Fewer than a quarter of districts expecting declines think SFSF funds will make up half or more of these shortfalls. That's the
    ...

Students can come to school with a lot of baggage. They may be feeling the stress of financial pressure at home. They may be dealing with a death or illness in their family. But as school counselor Barbara Micucci puts it, “Ultimately it does not matter the issues that kids bring to school. Schools are charged with educating the kids.”

This is where she and other counselors come in. We recently spoke with Micucci about the counseling profession—why it is important, how it has changed over the years and the challenges it faces. She also told us about her own work and some of the strategies that led her to be named the 2010 School Counselor of the Year by Naviance and the American School Counselor Association. Key to her success: visibility, and a desire to engage parents as partners in the educational process.

Micucci has been a counselor for over 20 years and is currently working at Caley Elementary School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. She was selected from a field of extraordinary school counselors across the country and plans to use her new role to call for strategies to ensure that every elementary school across the United States has a school counselor.

Why Have School Counselors?

Public School Insights: Let’s start with a very general question. Why is it important for schools to have counselors?

Micucci: It is so important for a number of reasons. I think kids today are under a lot more stress and family pressure than they have been in the past. There are many reasons. Families themselves are very stressed. A lot of it comes from economic conditions. And aside from that, when I think of my school—and I am in a middle-class school in a suburban district—there are a lot of families where parents are divorced. There are single parent families. There are parents who have adopted children. I have a couple families where there's terminal illness. More families are coming with limited English proficiency. There are families living with other families because of ...

Soon after I posted this morning's blog entry on technology, I got some emails that gave me second thoughts about the way I had advanced my argument. I had painted the ed tech community with a very broad brush, one person wrote. Few supporters of technology in schools are wild-eyed enthusiasts for every new gizmo that comes down the pike. Few believe that iPads or the internet can work miracles without serious attention to how students use these tools. And almost all value persistence, patience, deep thought and concentration.

I meant to argue that education technology is important because it can unite the interests and concerns of the ed tech supporters and skeptics. New media can be powerful aids to old-fashioned skills like reflection, research and reason. And ed tech supporters have the best interests of children at heart. People who use the internet to push all manner of garbage, on the other hand, do not. All the more reason for young people to learn how best to use technology.

So my previous posting may well have reinforced the false dichotomy I was trying to attack. My apologies. ...

If ed tech enthusiasts want to advance their cause, then they should embrace the curmudgeons. In the end, technology skeptics offer some of the best reasons for bringing schools into the digital age.

And the curmudgeons have been out in full force recently. Kathleen Parker mounted a passionate defense of good old fashioned books in her column last week. Malcolm Jones praised the slow reading movement in a recent issue of Newsweek. Brent Staples of The New York Times just described the internet as a sort of plagiarism superhighway, a tool that encourages young people to cut and paste other people's thoughts rather than to think their own. And David Brooks recently wrote that the internet culture is much shallower than what he calls literary culture, which prizes long study and intellectual heft.

I feel a certain kinship with the curmudgeons. Few other people are making the case for virtues like patience, focus, deep thought, and long, good books that demand time, attention and persistence.

I also pity the curmudgeons. They often get tarred as reactionaries, Luddites, bitter-enders and--worst of all--deadweights on school reform.

But the curmudgeons have a point. Recent research suggests that mere access to plain old books can boost students' academic performance, while access to high-speed internet can drag it down. And it turns out that video games, like TV, can shorten our attention spans.

This shouldn't really surprise us. If we simply hand every student an iPad, we just open the doors to distraction. Why spend the time reading a long and difficult text, or doing the hard work of grasping what very smart people wrote many years ago, when you have Hulu ...

As an organization, the Learning First Alliance is concerned with issues that relate specifically to k-12 public education in America. But as individuals, we are interested in most issues relating to education. So when I saw the recent New York Times article Share of College Spending for Recreation is Rising, I gave it a read. Times are tough—no one will deny that. And really? Colleges spending on recreation? Is that the best use of their funds, especially in times of fiscal crisis?

But my reaction to the article was likely not what the author hoped. Rather than a sense of outrage at the spending habits of higher education institutions, I came away concerned with how spending categories were portrayed and hoping a similar tone would not be used in discussions of k-12 budgets.

To quote from the article:

The trend toward increased spending on nonacademic areas prevailed across the higher education spectrum, with public and private, elite and community colleges increasing expenditures more for student services than for instruction, the report says.

Now, to me, “student services” does not equal “recreation.” And the very next paragraph explains: “The student services category can include spending on career counseling and financial aid offices, but also on intramural athletics and student centers.” To me, student services would also likely include things like mental health services, student health ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Essays R Us

Last night, I got some forty spam comments from essay mills. This sort of thing happens pretty often, but it's beginning to get under my skin. Do many college or high school students actually submit essays from these mills as their own work? How big is this problem?

I have no love for comment spammers in general, but these spammers strike me as especially dastardly. Take, for example, college-paper.org, which has flooded this blog with comments. The site's tag line is "Intelligence Made Easy," which pretty much sums things up.

The site makes no pretense of helping students with their writing, as some essay sites do. "Are you missing out on the things you want to do because you are working on your research paper?" the site asks visitors. Get someone else to do your work, because, golly, thinking for yourself is hard. So is acting with integrity. (And do college students really need to cut down on the hours they spend studying?)

And here's the kicker: All those spam comments? Plagiarized from other sources. ...

I'm getting more and more worried about the heated rhetoric of debates on school reform. This rhetoric is fueling a war without winners. Here's why:

The rhetoric of reform is killing the public school brand.
Too often, the rhetoric suggests that all public schools are schools of desperate measures, schools of last resort. The failing urban school has come to represent every public school. Some say public schools are impervious to reform. Others say they have capitulated to reform and become test prep factories. Public schools are battle grounds for ideologues of all stripes who attack them for straying from ideological visions of what is Good and Holy.

The message to parents of means? Get your kids out.

The rhetoric of reform is shrinking our vision for education.
The language of "high expectations" rings hollow when we consider just how little we expect of some reform models. The tests we use to measure our progress focus mostly on low-level skills. Subjects like world language are disappearing from the curriculum. Those who say tests don't measure everything that matters are sometimes derided as "touchy feely."

But visions that inspire us are by nature touchy feely. They push us to think well beyond our current impoverished measures. (Today, Jay Mathews praised a set of high schools that ...

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