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Reading is Fundamental

Yesterday’s release of a major report on teacher pay dwarfed much else in the education news. I may write on that soon, if I feel I have anything to add to the conversation. But today I wanted to talk about my favorite book, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

It has been my favorite book since the 5th grade. I haven’t read it in years, in part because I am afraid of what would happen if I read it again and thought, “Well, it’s okay.” But up through college I read it multiple times each year. I read it so many times that the cover of my first copy fell off when I was in high school, and my parents bought me a replacement copy.

I’m not exactly sure why this book touched me so. Likely because I got the book as a very young adolescent, about to go through many of the things that Francie went through in the book. She was relatable.

This isn’t the only book to have touched me over the years. But it was the first. And it helped cement the love of reading, and of books themselves (I'm not sure I'll ever get a Kindle), that I have today.

I thought of this book after seeing Sarah D. Sparks’ EdWeek blog yesterday. She posted about a meta-analysis of book-distribution programs. The study, commissioned by the book distribution group Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), found that students from low-income homes who had access to print materials through book ownership or lending programs like theirs had improved reading performance. Such programs were correlated with children better knowing the ...

obriena's picture

Today in History...

On September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention held their final meeting. There was only one item of business: Signing the Constitution of the United States of America. Henceforth, September 17 came to be known as Constitution Day.

The Constitution established the framework for a government. A government dependent on its people for survival. So it seems fitting on this day in history to consider American students' performance in civics.

The most recent results available from National Assessment of Student Progress (NAEP) test in civics are from 2006 (the test was administered in 2010, but the results have not yet been released). On that test, we learned that about two out of every three American students at grades 4 (73%), 8 (70%) and 12 (66%) have at least a basic knowledge of civics.* That does not sound TOO bad, though it is certainly concerning that a third of our high school seniors do not have even a basic sense of civics--and these are the students who make it to twelfth grade. ...

The first paragraph of Education Next’s Grading Schools: Can Citizens Tell a Good School When They See One? discusses the widespread availability of school standardized test score data. Reading that, I thought I knew what the article would be about. Citizens judging schools based on test scores alone, rather than more meaningful measures. It resonated with me, because the same day I read the article, I had fallen prey to that trap. I was talking about a really great school...and talking only about its test scores. Someone called me on it. I could have mentioned the amazing parent engagement at the school. Or discussed how students at this school--over 90% of whom receive free or reduced price lunch--collected money to send to relief efforts in Haiti. In imparting such citizenship to its students, this school must be doing something right. I know all this, about this school and many others. But I still talk mainly about test scores. We do need to look beyond test scores in determining a school’s quality, but do most citizens actually do so?

Of course, by the end of the second paragraph I knew that was not what this article was about. Instead, it described a study that looked at whether citizens judge school quality based on performance data, or whether indicators such as the racial or class makeup of the school sway their perspective. An entirely different question, but also very interesting.

So I read the article. And while I am not sure I entirely trust their methodology, I am somewhat heartened to learn that citizens do judge the quality of their schools based on student proficiency rates in core academic subjects, not racial demographics. They do ...

obriena's picture

Survey Says...

Each year the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools provides an in-depth look at how Americans perceive public schools. This year’s poll probed the public on a wide range of hot education issues. How hot? Think the federal role in public education, school and teacher quality, teacher salaries and evaluation, student learning and rewards and the importance of college.

The results, released to the public yesterday, provide food for thought for educators and policymakers on all sides (and in the middle) of the ideological debates often dominating the education media. It is well worth a read.

One overarching conclusion, drawn by a panelist at the release event: The American public is not necessarily having the same conversation as policymakers when it comes to education.

Highlights of what Americans think:

  • The state is responsible for education, not the federal government. It is responsible for funding schools, setting standards, deciding what should be taught and holding schools accountable.
  • Improving teacher quality should be the top national education priority. Not developing demanding education standards. Not creating better assessments for students. And not
  • ...

Welcome back to school!

While you educators are at various stages of the back-to-school process--you may have been getting to know students for weeks now, or met students yesterday, or be setting up your classroom or office--we know that many of you are preparing back-to-school presentations, columns, and other communications.  So we wanted to remind you that we have sample language available for use in back-to-school communications.  Feel free to steal our words. Take them all, or take only a few. Whatever your needs dictate.

This language outlines an emerging vision for 21st century public schools, a vision that is already taking shape in schools from coast to coast.  It reaffirms the ...

It is no secret that districts are struggling in the current economic climate. They are looking to cut costs every way they can.

One area worth exploring in cost-cutting debates is energy. With energy costs rising—to say nothing of the environmental impact it is becoming more and more clear that our current sources of energy can have—districts need to take a closer look at how they are using energy.

Louisiana’s St. Tammany Parish Public Schools did. And as a result, this growing district, which currently has 72 facilities and serves about 36,000 students, has saved about six million dollars in utility costs over the past four and a half years. They’ve put that money back into schools, providing resources to help the district maintain its reputation as one of the best in the state. And they’ve received national and state recognition for their work.

How did they do it? A comprehensive energy management program. And when we say comprehensive, we mean COMPREHENSIVE. The program includes everything from customized reports for principals on their school’s energy performance (generated by the district’s two energy management tracking systems) to an energy awareness curriculum correlated to the state’s grade-level expectations. Automated lighting and temperature controls to daily reminders of energy saving behaviors in the form of posters, stickers and morning announcements. And much, much more.

Of course, in a time of fiscal crisis, districts may not be able to afford the upfront costs of some of the software and automation that St. Tammany now has. But it is important to note that St. Tammany started this program right after Hurricane Katrina, at a time when they were unable to do more than tell principals to turn off the lights and set thermostats to the lowest possible setting in the winter and the highest in the summer. But those behaviors alone saved the district 7% in energy costs.

We recently spoke to the district’s supervisor of administration, John Swang. He told us more about the program and its results. Below are some highlights of our conversation. Or read the full edited transcript.

At the Beginning: Runaway Energy Costs

Public School Insights: Why did St. Tammany Parish decide to start a comprehensive energy management program?

Swang: About four and a half years ago, our energy bills were skyrocketing. At one point, the cost of energy doubled in three years. We were sending a lot of our resources to the utility companies. It was no different than what the rest of the country was experiencing—it was a kind of runaway situation. And still, to a large extent, the cost of energy is increasing and probably will continue to do so.

But at that point the St. Tammany Parish School Board began talking about getting control of ...

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the promise of school-based health centers (SBHCs). We also heard from Linda Gann, an official in Colorado’s Montrose County School District RE-1J who helped spearhead efforts to open two of these centers in her district. She told us about how her district came to embrace SBHCs as part of a broad strategy to address the needs of its growing Hispanic community and her experience planning and implementing these centers. Today Nurse Practitioner Jennifer Danielson tells us more, giving us a look at the day to day work that happens at her clinic.

Public School Insights: Tell me about school-based health clinics.

Danielson: One of the biggest keys to understanding school-based health clinics is that they are all different. There are some similarities, but a district or a school can tailor a clinic to meet its needs.

For example, our clinic works differently from others in that a lot of clinics have an enrollment form that parents sign at the beginning of the year. If their children go to the school nurse at any point, they get funneled back to a nurse practitioner or a physician's assistant. Sometimes the clinic calls the parents and sometimes it does not. Kids are essentially pre-consented to get care throughout the school year.

At our clinic, we talk to the parent for every visit. So while we are physically on a school campus, we function in a lot of ways like any small medical clinic or doctor's office. Everything is by appointment, though we do accept some walk-ins if we are available. And a parent is either present or part of the visit over the phone every time we see the kids. Kids never come see me without their parents wanting them to be seen and ...

Lieutenant General Benjamin C. Freakley is the commanding general of the United States Army Accessions Command (USAAC) and oversees recruiting for the U.S. Army's officer, warrant officer and enlisted forces. USAAC has joined forces with the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) to support young people and boost graduation rates. (We wrote about this partnership in a blog posting several months ago. NASBE is a member of LFA.)

LTG Freakley recently spoke with us about the promise of greater collaboration between the military and schools.

Education: A National Security Issue

Public School Insights: Why do you think the military is getting involved in K-12 education?

LTG Freakley: I believe that the preparedness of our youth through education, health and conduct is a national security issue. Right now our young people, regardless of the tact they take for postsecondary, are limiting themselves. They are limiting themselves because they are not getting a good foundational education in K-12. They are not as healthy as they should be, with childhood obesity becoming an epidemic. And they get off track in their conduct, limiting what might be brilliant careers because they chose to get involved with gang violence, drugs, teenage pregnancy, etc.

It is disheartening to see all of this potential being limited. We believe that we have got to help our youth to achieve success through supporting our educators who, I believe, are undervalued in America—not recognized like they should be or supported like they should be. We ought to be as close to education as we can so we can sustain our all volunteer force and also so we can have an economically ...

Should we turn a blind eye to the excesses of PR campaigns that advance a cause we support? Should we tolerate overstatements and hype, as long as they are in the service of something we believe in? Not if the dubious means undermine the noble ends. I worry that some recent PR campaigns launched by combatants in today's school reform wars may allow the means to swamp the ends.

A recent commentator on school reform took a different view. He praised aggressive campaigns and likened the school reform movements they support to past movements for civil rights.

Movements, whether Martin Luther King's exposure of segregation as morally illegitimate, or Gandhi's exposure of the immorality of 'British Rule," are actually the proper political culmination of good ideas, brought about by the impatience with the slow movement of the chattering class.

I'm not sure the analogy really works. Laws enforcing segregation were wrong, full stop. The moral thing to do was clear: Strike them down. School reform, by contrast, doesn't often present such clear choices. So we should be careful not to draw parallels that lump critics of one school reform or another together with those who opposed the movement to end segregation.

History also reminds us that not all movements are created equal. Some movements that are fueled by true outrage and conviction can run off the rails and pervert their original aims when the need to advance The Cause overpowers all tolerance for nuance or doubt. Such movements can begin with a noble vision, but they often end by merely replacing one ...

I’ve been loosely following the hype over the recent Brookings’ report on the Harlem Children’s Zone, which calls into question the wisdom of taking a neighborhood approach to education reform. I have read the report, what some have said about it, and HCZ President and CEO Geoffrey Canada’s response to it.

Having drunk the Kool-Aid on the importance wraparound services for students, I must say I sympathize with Canada’s position on a number of counts. Why didn’t the Brookings’ investigators consider growth over time in their analysis? And really, calling into question the whole neighborhood approach to education reform based on the performance of one aspect of the HCZ—one charter school—that 1) does not serve the majority of individuals receiving the Zone’s services and 2) was evaluated in a somewhat suspect way (again, what about growth over time?) seems a bit hasty.

But the main concern I have with this report is its call for a schools-only approach to education reform. That approach is so REACTIVE for a vision of reform. It seems to say that kids come to school “broken” so ...

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