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The film Two Million Minutes made news by claiming that even the best U.S. high schools leave their students unprepared to compete with the academic whiz kids who brandish heavy calculus textbooks on every Chinese street corner. Now comes a new documentary, Race to Nowhere, which depicts U.S. schools as pressure cookers that stifle all passion for learning and drive kids to suicide. Which crisis to believe? Take your pick. Crisis itself has become the commodity here. After a while, the specific content of such films will hardly matter anymore.

Such films' PR tactics are overwhelming their specific lessons about school improvement. After a while, all these films will leave only one big lesson behind: Things are bad, very bad, in our public schools, so pull your kids out now! This kind of disengagement spells disaster in the long run.

Eagle-eyed Alexander Russo recently spotted what looks like the most alarmist film to come out in a while: The War on Kids. Judging from the over-the-top trailer, this film paints schools as prisons that assign crushing punishments for tiny infractions. They kill students' spirits, the film suggests.

Once again, schools just can't win. Ask most Americans what's wrong with public schools, and they'll tell you that the kids are violent and out of control. Watch ...

The book Nurture Shock is making big waves in parenting and education circles. Authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are not afraid to tip parents' and teachers' sacred cows. They use science to question the received wisdom about issues such as self-esteem, self-control and IQ. Merryman recently told us about her book and its implications for schools.

Public School Insights: Let me begin a little outside your book. One of the things that first prompted my e-mail to you was your comments on the success versus failure of public schools and how the narrative that is being told about public schools right now might actually hurt the prospects for success. Could you explain that a bit?

Merryman: There is this constant drumbeat that American schools are failing our kids—that our schools are a disaster and kids aren’t finishing school. That kids aren’t prepared when they get to college, if they get to college. That they must do remedial level work. That they can’t read or write or anything like that.

It’s not that I think that schools can’t improve. Certainly they can. For kids at the bottom socioeconomically, and kids who we would label perhaps at-risk, schools definitely are a problem. And I ...

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Reporters Get Schooled

Linda Perlstein's new blog aims to keep reporters honest, and she's off to a running start. Yesterday she took on the oft-repeated claim that teachers are the single most important factor in student success.

Not true, she writes.

Before people get their knickers in a twist, they should consider her larger argument. "Of the various factors inside school," she writes, "teacher quality has had more effect on student scores than any other that has been measured.... When you read that teachers are the most important school factor, you can’t drop the 'school' and pass it on."

Of course, that's exactly what happens. Reporters, commentators and politicians commonly drop the "school" and pass it on. In doing so they help sustain the tiresome pitched battles between "in-school" and "out-of school" factors that affect students' learning.

Teachers are awfully, awfully important. (How many teachers want to hear that they don't really make much of a difference?) But choosing between teachers and ...

Charles Haynes is one of the nation's leading experts on religious liberty in the public schools. He has worked with groups from across the political spectrum to help schools create ground rules for respectful dialogue on hot-button social issues. 

Haynes recently spoke with us about one of the fiercest battles in the culture wars: the battle over sexual orientation and public schools. This battle has grown all the fiercer since Education Department official Kevin Jennings started drawing fire for his past work at GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.

Schools need to create a safe environment for civil dialogue, Haynes told us. They need to protect the rights of everyone, from conservative Christians to gay rights advocates. They cannot guarantee that everyone will agree, but they can promote trust and respect.

Haynes gives Jennings a full-throated endorsement for supporting these essential principles.

Public School Insights: What do you think is happening when people discuss sexual orientation in public schools?

Haynes: I think in many places people are speaking—or should I say shouting?—past one another about this issue.

Schools, as usual, are caught in the crossfire of the larger culture wars in the United States. We have administrators, teachers and school board members struggling to figure out how to handle this very difficult issue at a time when the larger culture is not handling it well.

Public School Insights: Is it possible for teachers, administrators and other school stakeholders to create common ground on issues of sexual orientation?

Haynes: Yes. I think it’s not only possible, I think it’s imperative that we try harder.

Unfortunately, in many school districts people put their heads in the sand and hope this issue will just disappear and that they won’t have a fight. But then they are unprepared when something emerges, and ...

School reformers take heed: We ignore communities at our own risk.

This warning came through loud and clear in a Chicago Tribune story about the gang brawl that ended the life of Darrion Albert, a 16-year-old bystander. One passage jumped out at me:

The conflict escalated between the two neighborhoods after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) transformed Carver High School, located in the Altgeld community, into a military academy. That put many Altgeld kids at Fenger [High School] behind enemy lines, traversing unfamiliar streets in unfriendly territory.

This reads almost like the history of a small country roiled by ethnic strife years after colonial powers redraw its national boundaries.

No, CPS is not like a colonial power. And claims that school reformers somehow caused Albert's death by reconstituting Fenger High School are way over the top. Fenger was troubled by violence long before the district tried to turn it around.

But the Fenger story reminds us of how important it is to understand the social and political context of communities whose schools we want to transform. Even with the best of intentions, we can do harm.

The vicious circle of violence and reprisals that traps some of Chicago's poorest teens has a logic all its own. It's the stuff of Sophocles, a tragic cycle that ...

Ricardo LeBlanc-Esparza rose to national fame for turning around a classic hard-luck school. A key ingredient of his success? Parent engagement. Yesterday, he told us about his work to bring the parent engagement gospel to schools around the country.

The Current State of Parent Engagement in Public Schools

Public School Insights: As people who've read our website before know, you've gained national prominence by helping turn around Granger High School in Washington State. What lessons did you learn from that experience that you really carry around with you now?

Esparza: There are so many lessons. It's hard to say. Public education is so big when you talk about instruction, curriculum, discipline and motivation. The piece that I really want to talk about is the whole family involvement/engagement piece.

I have traveled across the country, from Pennsylvania to Florida to Iowa to Arizona to Texas. Our public schools truly are lacking true public or parent involvement, engagement—whatever you want to call it when parents are active participants in the whole educational process.

Public School Insights: Exactly problems are you seeing in the schools that lack this engagement?

Esparza: I guess I need to frame that question…Because when I look at public schools, I see they typically meet the needs of the middle class and above population.

My wife is a principal of a K-8 magnet school for gifted and talented students. She told me a story that ...

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Of Customers and Citizens

Rich HarwoodHere's a wonderful excerpt from a speech public engagement guru Rich Harwood made to the Learning First Alliance earlier this year:

When I've worked on public schools over the last 20 years a lot of folks who are doing engagement around public schools have this notion that … people should look at public schools like gas stations. You drop your kid off in the morning, you hope the teacher fixes the kid. When the kid comes home, if somehow or other they can't read or write, we need to go to a school board meeting and complain like you would to a mechanic. …

If we're serious about engaging people, we need to see people not as consumers, not as customers…but as citizens. As people who are able and willing to step forward and engage the tough issues; as people who are willing to deal with trade-offs and choices; as people who are in fact even willing, under the right conditions, to make sacrifices, not only for their kids but for other kids in our communities. …

I have not seen any change, process or movement in current times or over history in America where when we treated people as consumers we got what we thought we needed. It's only when people step forward as citizens that we're able to create the change that we need. To me, that's the beautiful lesson of American history.

You can read more about Rich's remarks here. ...

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Pursuing our Interests

Watch out for those teacher interest groups! They'll smother a good reform every time. Or so the argument usually goes....

I object to this argument not only because it is reductive. I object to it because it implies that all the other groups clamoring for and against changes to schools aren't interest groups. The fact is that the education landscape is simply crawling with interest groups. And that's both good and bad.

The formidable Geoffrey Canada is only the latest person to depict teacher groups as the major barriers to a promising reform. He asserts that they oppose giving students more time in school:

Some educators and unions won’t even consider working longer hours or a longer school year. (New York Times Magazine)

"Some" is the operative term here. In fact, both national teachers unions have supported extended school days and years, provided teachers get paid accordingly.

More to the point, there are legions of others who oppose longer days and years. Take, for example, the 68 percent of adults who voiced their opposition in a very recent national poll. Then there's the vacation and travel industry. And don't forget the virulent opposition of employers who can't shake their addiction to teen ...

The PTA is about far more than suburban bake sales and school carnivals. The national organization has been moving aggressively in recent years to bring more urban families into the fold. It has been getting more fathers involved. And it has embraced a robust policy agenda to ensure all children equal opportunities to succeed.

National PTA’s first-ever male president recently spoke with us about these efforts. He also told us about his journey from volunteer hot dog duty at his son’s elementary school to the helm of one of the largest volunteer organizations in the country.

Download the full interview here, or use the audioplayer (~14:22 min).

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You can also read the interview transcript:

A Place for Fathers

Public School Insights: It’s been widely noted that you are the first male president in the National PTA’s history of 113 years. What do you think is the significance of that?

Saylors: For an association that started as the National Congress of Mothers, I’m very proud of the fact that we are moving in the direction that we are. I follow in the footsteps of a number of ...

"Say Yes to Education" may finally get its due. Joe Biden, Arne Duncan and Tim Geithner converged on Syracuse yesterday to learn about the innovative program.

We've honored Say Yes time and again on this website. The initiative has nearly closed high school and college graduation gaps separating urban youth from their suburban peers. How? By providing low-income youth comprehensive supports ranging from health care to academic help and college scholarships.

So will this event catapult Say Yes into the national consciousness? Early signs aren't good. The event has been covered, well, almost nowhere. Not in the education press. Not in the blogosphere.

It did get a few hits in the local Syracuse papers, but those focused mostly on college affordability: an important, but small, facet of the Say Yes program. I suppose I can understand why. The White House Task Force on Middle ...

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