Join the conversation

...about what is working in our public schools.

The Public School Insights Blog

If you're willing to read subtitles, this may be worth two and a half minutes of your time:


Grover (Russ) Whitehurst was the founding director of the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences. He currently directs the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

On June 4th, we praised him for questioning some education reformers' blind approval of innovation for innovation’s sake. (See his compelling essay, “Innovation, Motherhood and Apple Pie.”)

Whitehurst recently joined us by telephone to describe his concerns in greater detail.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Thanks for joining us.

WHITEHURST: I'm pleased to be here.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Let me begin with an incantation that I think you wrote. It runs, "Full moon and candles/magic times three/we summon the power of innovation/to be.” Can you explain that?

WHITEHURST: As I have talked to people in education about innovation, which seems to be the new buzzword, I have with some frequency asked them to give me an example of what they mean: an innovation that they think is on the horizon that is going to transform the delivery of education in this country. The typical response is, we don't know what that would be.

So it seems to me that in many cases innovation is being invoked almost as if it is magic. We don't know exactly what it is and we don't know what it looks like, but if we could only release it, it would fix all of our problems.

What I was trying to convey is that we should not believe, as adults, in Santa Claus or magic to solve our problems. If we're thinking about innovation, we need to get serious about what it is, what types we're interested in, and how we expect to use processes of innovation to advance education.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: This gets to your definition of innovation….

WHITEHURST: First, I think it's important to note that innovation is just introducing something new, and you hope it's going to make things better. So much of what any organization does as it tries to solve problems falls under the general category of innovation.

Within that broad category, it is important to differentiate innovations that work from those that don't—effective versus ineffective innovations. If an innovation is the introduction of something new with the intent to be useful -- reality and intent are often two different things -- we need procedures and processes in place to carefully evaluate innovations so that we can tell the difference between those that are actually improving the state affairs versus those that are just a hope and a wish. ...

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter lives in a world of delightful simplicity.

Here's his advice on how to spend the education stimulus money: "We know what works now and should just go ahead and fund it."

And here I was, thinking it's challenging to choose among many pressing spending needs. How silly of me.

And what works, according to Alter? He doesn't give us much insight here, but he does mention performance pay for teachers. OK--that's an important idea that deserves our attention, but where's the evidence that it "works"? The most thoughtful advocates of performance pay for teachers acknowledge that it has enormous logistical and statistical hurdles to clear before it can be a very stable foundation for teacher compensation decisions.

Unfortunately, we don't have ironclad knowledge about ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Testing the Tests

It’s great news that administration intends to improve the quality and relevance of education research. I hope they’ll also make good on their vow to improve the quality of assessments. After all, the two efforts are closely related.

The value of research on what works depends on the quality of assessments measuring school and student gains. Two recent items drive home the point:

First, a New York Daily News analysis questioning the steep rise in New York State test scores. After reviewing the state assessments, former Eduwonkette Jennifer Jennings determined that they had grown less challenging and more susceptible to test-prep manipulation. Critics of the New York City Department of Education point to this analysis as they accuse the Department of over-hyping the success of their reforms.

Second, a new Harvard study of charter schools examining the low cognitive demand placed on students in some high-performing charters:

The instructional emphasis frequently was on procedure, not on conceptual understanding. Students were not being asked to think for themselves, nor were they being asked to conjecture, evaluate, or assess. Why? Because the tests that hold these charter schools accountable do not measure higher-order ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Engaging ideas

A fascinating piece in Sunday’s Washington Post touches on a formidable, often neglected, barrier to promising education reforms: Community opposition. Especially as we try to fast-track reforms fed by stimulus dollars, we should not forget that community engagement is an essential (though frequently missing) ingredient in school reform efforts.

The essay’s author praises the year-round calendar adopted by her son’s elementary school. The longer school year allows time for “intersessions,” or “short breaks throughout the year.” During these breaks students take “fun, creative classes” where students learn “karate, ballet, photography, cooking and a host of other things.” She’s clearly a fan.

Forget for a moment whether you believe this is a good use of an extended calendar. (Some might see it as an antidote to “kill-and-drill” teaching methods during the rest of the year. Others might see it as a lost academic opportunity, especially for low-income children).

A larger lesson I drew from the piece is that any sort of plan to extend the school year can run afoul of both parents, who worry about the effect of longer years on their children’s well being, and summer amusement businesses, which rise or fall on teen-age labor. Reformers can easily leave very important stakeholders on the sidelines of important education debates.

One of the strongest proponents ...

The education thinktankocracy has become bewitched by all those sexy innovations that dominate education policy discussions--charter schools, new compensation systems, etc.  The national preoccupation with those innovations is crowding out critical discussions of more hum-drum, but perhaps more effective, improvements to public education. That's the conclusion Russ Whitehurst draws in an important March 2009 essay.

For those of you who don't know, Whitehurst was the beleaguered director of the Institute of Education Sciences in the Bush administration. It seems he has spread his wings since becoming head of the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy.

In his Brookings essay, Whitehurst draws an important distinction between flashy new innovations ("product innovations") and incremental ...

A recent editorial in the San Francisco Examiner smears President Obama’s “zero to five” early childhood education aspirations as a “Scam.” The authors’ grand claim? “There is no evidence that expanding the time American children spend in state-run schools will produce any educational benefits at all."

Oh really? How about this? Or this? Or this? Or this? ...

Editor’s note: Our series of guest blogs in which accomplished teachers offer ideas for how to spend stimulus funds concludes with Susan Graham's thoughts. The opinions she expresses are, of course, her own and do not necessarily represent those of LFA or its member organizations.

This series also includes contributions from Ariel SacksHeather Wolpert-Gawron and Mary Tedrow.

Bob Woodruff, the ABC news correspondent who suffered traumatic brain injury in Iraq, didn’t plan to be a journalist. In a recent address to students he recalled that he took a pay cut when he went into journalism, but he went on to say, "I really believe in doing what you want to do. Especially at a young age, do what your heart tells you to do."

What does this have to do with innovative efforts in public school? Before stumbling into journalism, Woodruff spent four years in college and four years in law school. The vast majority of ...

Editor’s note: This week, we are continuing a series of guest blogs in which accomplished teachers offer ideas for how to spend stimulus funds. Last week, Heather Wolpert-Gawron and Ariel Sacks shared their thoughts. Today, Mary Tedrow offers her contribution. The opinions she expresses are, of course, her own and do not necessarily represent those of LFA or its member organizations.

True reform happens one student at a time: a single student finally participates in his own learning, reflects on growth, incorporates new knowledge into his life, and uses new knowledge to serve both his immediate needs and the needs of the community. The tool for achieving this revolution already exists but is widely neglected and even undermined by the current emphasis on standardized tests. (see:

MY PROPOSED STIMULUS INVESTMENT: Spend funds to develop writing across all curricula in all grade levels and in all schools in the nation.

Award stimulus dollars to districts that pursue the placement of at least one writing coach in every building, supported and trained through ...

There seems to be no escape from the phony debate over whether schools alone or out-of-school social programs alone can close achievement gaps. Recently, David Brooks fanned the flames with his over-hasty conclusion that the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academies bolsters the schools alone case.

Brooks distorted the conclusions of a recent Harvard study examining the academies' academic results. Responding to a chorus of complaints about Brooks's tactics, blogger Andy Rotherham fine tuned the argument a bit: “It’s the schools that actually matter most even in the HCZ [Harlem Children's Zone] model," he declared. To be fair, Rotherham isn't pulling his conclusions entirely out of thin air. The study's authors suggest that the Promise Academies are an indispensable ingredient of their students' success--and that the HCZ's wraparound services alone don't guarantee strong academic results.

But Rotherham and other Brooks supporters don't ask the essential follow-up question: Can the schools do it alone, without the HCZ model? The study’s authors ...

Syndicate content