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Today’s guest post comes from the National PTA, a member of the Learning First Alliance. The largest volunteer child advocacy association in the nation, PTA reminds our country of its obligations to children and provides parents and families with a powerful voice to speak on behalf of every child. It also provides tools for parents to help their children be successful students.

So often we hear complaints from parents and teachers that the other is not doing their job. It is hard for teachers to understand the strengths and challenges of parents, and parents often feel like outsiders in the school world.

Breaking down barriers, fostering positive communication between teachers and parents, and having engaged families will lead to better outcomes for students. Research shows that family engagement promotes student success. Students with engaged parents are more likely to earn higher grades and pass their classes, attend school regularly and have better social skills, and go on to postsecondary education. When families, teachers and schools find ways to work together, student achievement improves, teacher morale rises, communication increases, and family, school, and community connections multiply.

Parents want what is best for their children, and teachers do too. The more teachers and parents talk to each other, work with one another and remember that the child is the focus, the more successful that child will be. And we can all use some help on how to make that happen. Here are some tips that can help parents foster a positive relationship with their child's teacher.

  • Find time to share your experiences with school and how that has shaped your perception about parent teacher relationships. Talk about ...

Editor's note: Our guest blogger today is Matt Brown, who can typically be found blogging on education issues over at Relentless Pursuit of Acronyms.

When I pass along articles about education reform or discuss the challenges I faced when I taught with my friends, many of them throw their hands in the air and say “Matt, we can make all these policy changes until we’re blue in the face…it can’t help because parents just don’t care!” Some of my old coworkers expressed similar sentiments. I remain skeptical.

My old school held their first parent-teacher conferences of the year last October. I had just started teaching a few days before (school started in mid-August, but I wasn’t placed until late September), and I couldn’t wait to meet my students' parents and go over all the exciting things that were going to happen in Room 128 that year. I wore my best suit that day, much to the amusement of some of the staff (“Mr. Brown! You getting’ married after school today? You going to court?”), hoping that I could make a good impression.

People told me not to get my hopes up. Some said the meetings would be an exercise in futility. But I refused to be defeatist. When the time came, I sat in my classroom, smiling by my sign-in sheet and looking forward to discussing the year, our class goals and my students with their parents. Sadly, only ...

It was recently announced that Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is donating $100 million to help improve Newark’s long-troubled public schools. Those funds will be matched by donations raised by the city, which is also raising $50 million for another youth effort. In other words, Newark’s children will have a lot more money available to them over the next few years.

As part of this agreement, Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will cede some control over Newark Public Schools (currently state-run) to Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Together, they will select a new superintendent, and Mayor Booker will have freedom to redesign the system (though the governor retains formal authority over it).

This partnership is great news in some respects--a Democrat and a Republican overcoming political conflicts, joining forces for the sake of the children. Hopefully it is the first of many such unions across the country.

But I do have some concerns with this set-up. First, we must question the wisdom of short-term infusions of private funds into public schools. While $100 million--or even $250 million--is a lot of money, it won't last forever. What happens when the money runs out?

And second, what is the role of philanthropy in school reform? Some argue, as NYC Chancellor Joel Klein puts it, that while private philanthropy will never be a large part of a system's budget, it is money that can be used for research and development and for ...

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Teachers - Got Plans Sunday?

If not, consider joining a live chat for Education Nation’s Teacher Town Hall. It will be held Sunday, September 26, at 12pm Eastern/9am Pacific. And during this event, NBC’s Brian Williams will talk with teachers on-air and online about issues facing educators and education. Just remember--you must register to participate.

For those who do not know, NBC News’ Education Nation is a week-long event, starting Sunday, that will examine and redefine education in America. It “seeks to engage the public, through thoughtful dialogue, in pursuit of the shared goal of providing every American with an opportunity to pursue the best education in the world.” Believing that we have allowed our students to fall behind, that our workforce is largely unprepared for today’s marketplace and that we face stiff competition from abroad, NBC hopes to provide quality news and information to the public to help us decide: Is it time to reinvent American as an Education Nation?

This event will feature in-depth conversations about improving education in American, including the Teacher Town Hall (which, by the way, will be aired live on MSNBC, educationnation.com, scholastic.com and msnbc.com). For the entire week, “NBC Nightly News,” “Today,” “Meet the Press,” “Your Business,” MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo, msnbc.com and ...

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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 ...

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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 ...

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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 ...

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