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The Public School Insights Blog

Today, the Washington Post praised Secretary Duncan for his promise to "eschew politics, ideology and the preferences of interest groups for 'what works.'" Unfortunately, opinions about "what works" are hard to liberate from politics, ideology and the preferences of interest groups.

As Mike Petrilli notes, few of the reforms advanced by the Race to the Top guidance rest on ironclad evidence. If only we knew for sure "what works" to turn around struggling schools or ensure widespread success among charter schools!

We do have an idea of what is working in schools and districts around the country. This website profiles public schools and districts that succeed by improving their curricula, assessment strategies, staff development, and attention to individual students' needs, among other things. Our challenge is to turn "what is working" in these schools and districts right now into prescriptions for "what works" in many more cases.

One way to mute the influence of politics and ideology is to demand some humility from all sides. While we're at it, we should demand more education R&D. After ...

Poverty does not keep "gifted and motivated" young people from college, writes Jay Mathews. They get scholarships. Instead, he argues, it is poor schooling that prevents low-income students from realizing their gifts or preparing for college.

I think Mathews gets it wrong.

For the moment, let's leave aside the multiple causes, both within and beyond schools, of low-income students' poor academic performance. Mathews seems a bit blasé about the impact of financial impediments to college.

Consider, for example, the lot of strong, if not stellar, students from low- and medium-income families. No, they're not the stand-out stars Mathews is writing about. But that's the point. There is troubling evidence that low- and medium-income students of average accomplishments are not nearly as likely to attend college as their wealthier peers are. Their success is a critical measure of opportunity.

High-income students who perform poorly on eighth-grade mathematics tests are about as likely to complete college as low-income students who perform in the highest quartile. Sure, the low-income students may lose ground in high ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Race to Judgment

You have to pity the states. No sooner did the Education Department release the draft application for Race to the Top (RttT) Funds than bloggers raised a chorus of voices predicting that states would weasel out of their sacred duty to improve public schools. Anything short of stunning success in the next two years, it seems, will be proof positive of states' obstructionism, self-interest and sloth.

OK, I exaggerate. But some bloggers seem loath to admit that reforms take time, careful planning and--yes--even caution. Consider the lot of states that must commit to common standards and assessments that don't yet exist, teacher evaluation plans that have few precedents, or turnaround strategies that rest on very slender evidence

The RttT's  teacher and principal effectiveness measures are a case in point. The draft application defines "effective teachers" as teachers who produce a year's worth of academic gains in a year's worth of time. "Highly effective teachers" produce more than a year's worth of gains in a year. Sounds reasonable, but recent research suggests that a given teacher's effectiveness often varies widely from year to year. Teachers who seem to add the most value for their ...

With school turnarounds near the top of the administration's agenda, one turnaround model is getting the lion's share of attention: Close the school, get a new principal, hire a new batch of teachers, and start from scratch. Unfortunately, it is not clear that this model is more feasible or effective than any other.

Evidence on effective turnaround strategies is scant, to say the least. To favor any one model is, at least to some degree, to fire a shot in the dark. School reconstitutions will founder if few qualified teachers and leaders are waiting in the wings to replace those who have been dismissed. This is no trivial problem as ...

The GAO just offered a report on Washington, DC's education reforms. According to the Washington Post, the report offers equal measures of praise and criticism. The District's response to that criticism gave me pause.

The report commended Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee for "bold steps" to close schools, raise scores and improve teachers' skills. Yet it criticized the district for "a lack of clear strategic planning with specific targets that can be communicated to the community stakeholders."

The deputy mayor's response to this criticism was curious, to say the least:

Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, said the Fenty administration was more interested in results than detailed blueprints.

"Our emphasis has been on accountability and results, and less on plans which the city was quite successful in doing previously," he said.

What does that mean? That they're merely implementing their predecessors' ...

People looking for a public school Cinderella story need look no further than George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Alabama. The once struggling school, which serves mostly low-income children, now boasts state math and reading test scores most wealthy suburban schools would be proud of. (See our story about George Hall's Success).

George Hall did not have to sacrifice all but the basics to get there. Instead, the school's staff courageously focused on what some would consider frills in an era of high-stakes accountability: innovative technologies; rich vocabulary and content knowledge; even field trips.

We recently spoke with George Hall principal Terri Tomlinson and teachers Elizabeth Reints and Melissa Mitchell.

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Hear highlights from our interview (5 minutes)


The phrase "high expectations" means more than some policy wonks seem to think it does. It refers, of course, to our expectations for children's success, but it also refers to what students should be able to expect from the world around them. Schools, families, communities and policymakers are all on the hook.

That is one of the lessons I draw from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which I finally read this week. Gladwell's book pokes holes in the Horatio Alger "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" myth of success in America. The culture that shapes your behavior and the conditions in which you grow up have an enormous impact on your chances for success.

We therefore all share responsibility for helping children strike a grand bargain with adults, Gladwell suggests: Work hard, treat others well, and we'll give you every opportunity to succeed. (KIPP schools, which Gladwell profiles in Chapter 9, make this bargain explicit). Unfortunately, adults all too often renege on their end of the bargain.

The wealthy are lucky enough to have "Great Expectations" in the ...

Many educators speak at a frequency inaudible to pundits' ears. Perhaps that's why pundits almost always prefer broad, simple solutions to the nitty-gritty processes of improving schools.

The venerable education pundit Jay Mathews recently exhibited this tendency in his review of a book about the success of Montgomery County Maryland. Leading for Equity, he opines, is all about process, and process is too often ponderous, impenetrable and uninspiring. For Mathews, exhibit A is the cryptic set of lessons the book outlines in its first chapter. For example: "Implementing a strategy of common, rigorous standards with differentiated resources and instruction can create excellence and equity for all students." Poetry it's not.

Still, I have to agree with Elena Silva's judgment that Matthews' "critique of the book as too process-oriented is wrong. Process has tripped up many a reform, and understanding what sequence of events and efforts leads to change is key to ...

A number of people have recommended Charles Payne's So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools. Tom Hoffman sealed the deal for me when he offered the following quotation from page 190:

...I am not in principle against the idea of freeing certain schools from bureaucratic oversight under certain conditions, but I don't see any Big Magic in autonomy itself as opposed to the way it is implemented. To the extent that we keep implementing reforms with the idea that there is some one program that is going to make all the difference; to the extent that we keep implementing reform without adequate support or without a spirit of persistence, a determination that we are going to give the work a fair chance to take root; to the extent that we keep implementing good ideas in a spirit of contempt for the practitioners who have to make them work; to the extent that we keep implementing reforms without any capacity for mid-course corrections, without any understanding of the relevant historical context; to that extent we can expect to get implementations that miss the point. How we do this may be as important as what we do, arguably more so. One of the foundational studies of the current discussion of urban school districts (Snipes, Doolittle, and Herilhy 2002) found that successful districts and unsuccessful districts say they are doing the same things; the difference appears to be in the way that they do what they do.

Debates on school reform seem to suffer from two related problems:

  • The assumption that a simple change of governance or incentives will set you free;
  • The tendency to pantomime--rather than truly implement--good reform ideas and then abandon them as ineffective when they don't work.

Payne's book has rocketed to the top of my reading list. ...

We hear a lot of debate these days about the merits of business involvement in education. Few of these debates ever touch on a critical element of big business’s influence on schools: the impact of advertising on youth culture.

There are all sorts of forces out there, cultural and corporate, that undermine educators' efforts. There is a multi-billion dollar industry whose primary products are apathy, ignorance and stupidity.

As the father of a two-month-old girl, I've started paying much closer attention to all the media that will compete for her attention over the next 20 years. I do not like what I see: Sexualization of children. Junk food. Vacuous summer movies. Fatuous music. Violent video games. Ads that openly disparage study. Even pink cigarettes for girls. And the list goes on.

I've even ventured onto the Seventeen and Cosmo Girl web pages. Let's just say that intellectual achievement isn't the next hot thing. (Is it too late to join the Amish?) ...

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