Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Public School Insights Blog

We now know which sixteen states made the cut in the first round of Race to the Top applications. It seems many should be grateful that the Gates Foundation lent a hand.

I made some hasty calculations: If a state received help from Gates in putting together an application, it had a 56% chance of making the cut. If a state received no help from Gates, it had an 8% chance of making the cut.

So here are some questions to think about as we consider a future in which the feds shift much more money into competitive grants. Will wealthy foundations become the arbiters of who gets that money? Will they help preordain the winners and the losers? And is that necessarily a bad thing?

Remember that many poor and small districts can't easily pay for grant writers. They'll have to wait for the deus ex machina.

[Hat tip to @politicsk12 on Twitter. Any mistakes in my hasty calculations are all my own.] ...

We hear a lot about the need to ensure that all children succeed. But I'm beginning to think that the rhetoric of "all" has got too many reformers promising things they cannot possibly deliver. It's time to be more honest about the limitations of any single reform strategy.

In fact, many reforms getting the lion's share of attention these days might actually undermine the goal to serve all children. For example:

Competition for Federal Dollars. At first blush, this idea seems hard to reconcile with the aim to help "all kids." The feds want the states and districts to compete for federal money--and may the best, most innovative ones win. Doling the dollars out by formula, some claim, merely props up the status quo.

But shouldn't we be at least a tad concerned that the rich will get richer and the poor, poorer? Districts that can afford grant writers will have an edge. Those that cannot? It's too bad for them. "Unto him that hath, much shall be given, and from him that hath not...." (You know the rest.)

And if the feds aren't careful, they'll look like vengeful gods who visit the sins of the fathers upon the children. After all, it's children who stand to lose the most ...

We sorely need to define what we mean when we say "turnaround." That's becoming more and more apparent as the media start finding romance and drama in turnaround stories. Here's the problem: One person can see a budding turnaround story where another sees a school mired in failure. In this climate, ideology can trump evidence.

We also need to decide what the milestones on the road to excellence look like. That's not at all easy. Take, for example, the case of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. President Obama points to its rock-bottom math scores as a reason for starting over. Teachers point to rising reading and writing scores as a reason for staying the course. Similar debates are swirling around other troubled schools in the state.

As the press hungers for stories about triumph and failure, the tendency to find conflicting meanings in the same numbers will only grow. And that will create the perfect climate for spin doctors. (Just look at Chicago. The "results" of the city's school reforms have been spun in so many ways by boosters and critics alike that I'm getting dizzy.) You would think you'd just know a turnaround story when you ...

If you have any doubts about the need for good civics education, then read this. David Barstow's account of troubling undercurrents in the Tea Party movement shows us just how precarious the fate of our civil society can be.

And lest people think I'm singling out certain Tea Partiers unfairly, I'll extend the critique to anyone on the left or right who flings about words like tyranny or fascism any time they encounter an opposing political view. It's all too easy to paint those we disagree with as traitors to the American cause.

It's not enough to swear fealty to the Constitution. We have to sustain and build institutions where people with different views work together to tackle common problems. And we have to nourish better civic habits in our young people. We shouldn't leave people to discover the nation's founding documents for the first time when they feel a grievance or sense that the world is changing around them. We have much to worry about if Americans get their first taste of civic action in a climate of fear and anger.

Tell me--Am I right to worry? ...

Who cuts a more forlorn figure than a poor kid who graduates from college facing crippling loan payments during the Great Recession of 2010?

Unlike too many of her peers, that student was prepared for college when she came out of high school. She made it through college despite the financial pressures that kept her friends from finishing or even starting a degree. Now, saddled with crushing debts, she seems as far as ever from the better life we all promised her.

You'd think more people would be willing to give her a hand. Instead, we have a system that encourages debt without doing much to raise the real value of grants to low-income students. What's worse, a growing number of people in the policy world seem to be concluding that college just isn't worth it for poor kids like her.

So What's The Problem with Student Lending? Here's how Arne Duncan describes the current state of student lending:

Every year, taxpayers subsidize student loans to the tune of $9 billion. Banks service these loans, collect the debt, keep the interest, and turn a profit. When borrowers default on their loans, taxpayers foot the bill, and banks still reap the interest.

Duncan and President Obama want to end the subsidies and issue loans directly through the Education Department. The move would save billions of dollars ...

Every time you create a new set of carrots and sticks, you create a new way for people to game the system. So what's a policy maker to do? Focus on capacity, not just incentives.

We've all heard about the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind. Schools narrow their curricula. They focus on "bubble kids," students just under the passing bar. And they teach to tests.

Defenders of NCLB have argued that schools should just do the right thing and let everything else fall into place. Some schools do, but I don't think this is a compelling argument.

What, after all, is the point of a law that promotes perverse behavior? If we can count on everyone to do the right thing, no matter the consequences, then why do we need accountability systems at all? Fear is a powerful motivator. It can push good people to violate their own instincts about what's best for children.

The carrots cherished by some policy makers are also troubling. Pay for performance schemes assume that, in Linda Perlstein's words, staff have "reserves of greatness they are withholding from children simply because they don’t ...

Some months ago, a friend of mine surprised me. "The public schools really are a mess," he said. "I guess we're going to have to turn them all into charters." This from a well-educated, well-informed and socially-conscious man who lives In a district with some of the most celebrated public schools in the country. I suspect his point of view will become more and more typical. After all, any reasonable person would draw the same conclusions from recent reporting on school reform.

"The public schools really are a mess." That broad-brush portrait of public schools is common, and it can do harm to our reform efforts. Don't get me wrong. Public schools face huge challenges. Some 30% of U.S. students don't graduate high school in four years. Other developed countries are beating the pants off of us in tests of student performance. Even our good schools often don't serve all their students well, a point that became clear after we started really paying attention.

But the tendency to see every public school as a lawless learning-free zone is shaping much of the public discourse on school reform these days--and with troubling consequences.** Take, for example, a recent article in Time Magazine, which presents the despairing words of an 11th-grader as "a succinct assessment of the crisis in U.S. public education today": "It's not like we were learning anything in class anyway."

The same article presents this assessment as justification for "crapshoot" reform ideas that rest on shaky evidence: "The system can't get any worse, he reckons, so why not reinvent?" The author ascribes that sentiment to Arne Duncan, who is not generally given to such reckless statements. (I suspect he was taken out ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Testing... Testing...

If you believe school reform is urgent (and you should), then you should be in an absolute lather over the quality of our standardized tests. Here's why:

The tests are allowing us to stay in a state of permanent emergency response. Despite all our talk of high expectations, we've geared the system to minimum expectations for many of our students. Lousy tests have become de facto standards in too many places. As the pressures to make Adequate Yearly Progress build so will the pressure to narrow schools' vision. With many of the tests we have, it will be hard to tell the difference between the schools that stay in triage and those that lift their students to world-class standards. So much for transparency.

The tests are becoming the measure of everything, not just schools or Students. Every reform, every innovation, every old or new practice seems to rise or fall on the results of state tests. We make sweeping judgments about what works on the basis of tests, and we often use anemic (though "significant") gains in scores to proclaim one reform better than another.

Take the on-going debate about class size, for example. Research on the benefits of small class sizes is mixed. But Nancy Flanagan offers a bracing caution: "When our only measures of student success are memorized material, spit back on a bubble-in test, then a class of 45 listening to a teacher's lecture may be ...

An old idea is making a strong comeback in several states: Let 10th graders graduate from high school and enroll in community college if they're ready to do so. The idea of early graduation has a lot of merit, because it lets students choose a course that best suits their specific talents and aspirations.

But what about the opposite idea? What about late graduation?

No natural law dictates that high school should take four years. Some students can do it more quickly if they're ready to move on. But others, like recent immigrants who are still learning English, may need more than four years.

A high school principal once told me that she did what she could to keep some recent immigrants in her school as long as possible, even though her school's on-time graduation numbers suffered as a result. Some students arrive at her school at age 15 with no English and little or no formal schooling under their belts.

The larger point of any flexible graduation scheme is that the number of hours you spend warming a seat in your school should be less important than what you learn while you're there. As we weigh the benefits of early graduation, we shouldn't forget the needs of those students who need a little more time. ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Pity the "Bureaucrats"

It seems we're in for another tiresome round of arguments that we have to fire school district staff to focus our dollars in the Classroom. Del Stover recently came across these words from a Maryland State Senator:

We don’t want to cut public education, so we’re going to have to go to superintendents of schools and say: "Listen, you’ve got to find us some administrators, some bureaucrats, some public relations people that we can cut, because we’re not going to furlough teachers."

Stover praises the Senator for wanting to save teachers' jobs, but he bridles at the suggestion that central offices are "bloated, stuffed by people who don't do essential work."

After all, someone has to write those paychecks. Someone has to make sure the schools are compliant with the myriad laws and ...

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