Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child


Blog Entries

The call to expand learning time to ensure that American students remain competitive with their international peers has become quite popular. While the rationale is perhaps a bit misguided (some evidence suggests that our students already experience as much instructional time as their peers, and other research confirms that teachers in the United States spend more time on instruction than teachers in other nations do), there are certainly reasons to focus on the issue, not least of which is the summer learning loss that disproportionately impacts our nation’s most disadvantaged youth.

But as those in the education community know, it is not necessarily the idea of extending learning time that is appealing – it is the idea of expanding learning opportunities. Partly in response to federal accountability measures, curriculum in many schools – particularly those serving predominantly disadvantaged students – has narrowed to focus on reading and math at the expense of the arts, physical education, civics and other subjects. In addition, the budget cuts of the Great Recession caused schools to further pull back in areas like art, sports and extracurricular activities – and, as a recent survey points out, the sequester has had an impact as well.

Yet in all these cuts, wealthier students are less likely to be impacted than their lower-income peers, in large part because their parents ensure they are exposed to enrichment opportunities either at school (perhaps paid for by fundraising efforts) or in ...

By Haylie Bernacki, Specialist of Unified Sports School and College Growth, Special Olympics North America Project UNIFY 

For years, a main initiative within Special Olympics Project UNIFY schools and State Programs has been the expansion of Unified Sports, which combines individuals with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. Project UNIFY State Program staff are expanding relationships with state interscholastic associations to increase the credibility, reach, and depth of Unified Sports throughout school districts across the country. The hope is that every child will be able to play on a school sports team, regardless of their ability level. ...

By Elaine Weiss, National Coordinator, Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, and Noelle Ellerson, Associate Executive Director, Policy & Advocacy, AASA, The School Superintendents Association

Since the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk, policymakers have asserted that US students are falling behind their international peers, with dire consequences if we do not improve. The result has been three decades of increasingly high-stakes "standards-and-accountability" reforms, which rely on rigorous academic standards and test-based evaluation systems to hold schools and teachers accountable for student progress. As a comprehensive 2011 National Academy of Sciences report found, there is no evidence that this strategy has produced any meaningful improvement. Moreover, a series of recent reports suggests that we have been misinterpreting A Nation at Risk. Our education system is not so much falling behind as it is pulling apart, and the past decade of heightened accountability measures has likely further widened the gaps.

The Equity and Excellence Commission's February report, For Each and Every Child, points to poverty and inequities as core hurdles to U.S. educational improvement. It focuses on the long-neglected issues of school funding equity and state school finance systems, and its core recommendations include more equitable school finance, access to preschool, and comprehensive student supports. Soon after that report's publication, the Council on Foreign Relations released the newest report in its Renewing America Scorecard series. Its findings echo those of the Equity and Excellence Commission: "The real scourge of the U.S. education system -- and its greatest competitive weakness -- is the deep and growing achievement gap between socioeconomic groups that ...

By Cheryl S. Williams, Executive Director, Learning First Alliance, and Stephanie Hirsh, Executive Director, Learning Forward

When leaders of the nation's largest education membership associations gathered recently for the annual meeting of the Learning First Alliance, one of the most interesting speakers challenged the group to come together on messages that resonate with the public and are actionable across policy and decision-making groups. Representing more than 10 million educators, policymakers, and parents, Learning First Alliance has a responsibility to advocate and advance policies and practices that improve learning for both educators and their students. While we may on occasion debate at the "how" level, we stand together on the why and the what.

We offer these recommendations for the start of a great 2013-14 school year. They provide guidance to policy makers and decision makers across the country. They engender the support of education practitioners at all levels. They underlie our precepts as a moral and democratic society.

1. Invest in early childhood education. We have a responsibility to take care of the children. We are among the wealthiest nations in the world and yet we have among the highest percentage of children living in poverty. Education is the single most powerful pathway into ...

Education doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but sometimes the most obvious connections are easy to miss – even those that are right in front of us. In an era of high-stakes testing, more rigorous standards and decreasing budgets, some stakeholders and policymakers may wonder why schools should invest time and money on students’ health.  But health care, education and poverty are inextricably linked, and an innate understanding of how these policy spheres intersect locally is almost always required to ensure that each child has an equal opportunity to learn.

Physical Health ...

By Sharon P. Robinson, Ed.D., President and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE)

Last month, President Barack Obama visited colleges in New York and Pennsylvania to discuss a plan to make higher education more affordable and accessible to all Americans. Soaring costs threaten accessibility; lack of accessibility threatens the economic growth of the country. Therefore, attention to this matter is absolutely required.

Throughout the country, an increasing number of students must rely on loans to pay for postsecondary schooling and are burdened with debt after graduation. According to the College Board (2012), among students earning bachelor’s degrees in 2010-11 from either public or private nonprofit, 4-year colleges, 60% of students took out student loans and graduated with an average debt of $25,300. This educational debt is especially taxing for graduates who choose to enter lower paying public service careers, such as the teaching profession.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2012), as of 2009, more than 47% of graduates with a bachelor’s degree in education will accumulate an average of $21,400 in student debt. In fields such as education, where salaries are notoriously low, mitigating debt through grant programs is essential to recruiting and retaining the most talented men and women in the field.

Since 2008, a little-known grant program has made college accessible and affordable for talented students interested in teaching. The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grant program, authorized in ...

When you think of the PTA, you might picture parents getting together to put on a fall carnival or bake cookies for teacher appreciation week. And while the National PTA does encourage teacher appreciation (and has a great Pinterest board dedicated to the topic), the organization is about so much more.

The overall purpose of the PTA is to make every child’s potential a reality by engaging and empowering families and communities to advocate for all children. The national organization prides itself on being a powerful voice for children, a relevant resource for families and communities, and a strong advocate for public education, working in cooperation with many national education, health, safety and child advocacy groups and federal agencies on behalf of every child.

Otha Thornton was installed as President of the National PTA in June 2013, making history as the first African-American male to lead the organization. He recently took the time to tell us about himself and his views on education, as well as how the PTA is gearing up to address the challenges facing public education.

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

Thornton: It demonstrates that PTA, as an Association, transcends race. The founders did not start PTA as a segregated Association, but due to our southern states and their laws earlier in our country’s history, the National Congress of Colored Parents was formed in 1911 by Selena Sloan Butler to address the needs of black children. The two Congresses combined in 1971 to form the National PTA with the shared mission that all children of all races need advocates to ...

By Daniel A. Domenech, Executive Director, AASA: The School Superintendents Association

A new school year is about to start. For the past five years, school systems have suffered the worst economic decline since the Great Depression and, to add insult to injury, the effects of sequestration this year will add to the economic malaise.

Nevertheless, public education in America is the best that it has ever been. How can that be, you say? Media accounts abound as to how our schools are failing with privatization, vouchers, charter schools and choice offered as our only salvation. Not true.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of students attending schools considered “dropout factories” has declined by 41 percent since 2002. The number of dropout factories has declined by 29 percent since 2007. A total of 1.1 million fewer students are attending such schools. Today, the dropout rate, which has been declining steadily since 1972, is the lowest it has ever been. Conversely, high school completion rates have been trending up, and ...

By Joseph Bishop, Director of the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and Executive Director of Opportunity Action

Last week, New York education officials released scores from the first Common Core-aligned standardized state tests. Student scores showed a dramatic drop in performance from previous years.  Statewide, just 31.1 percent of students tested proficient in English Language Arts, and 31 percent tested proficient in math.

We can’t be surprised by the results, as New York leaders and many state decision-makers across the country have failed to recognize that new standards alone won’t drive students to succeed. Standards must be matched with common core supports for students, parents, teachers and principals.  The challenge the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign is trying to address with organizations like the Alliance for Quality Education and A+New York is about more than closing the achievement gap on state tests. We’re working to rectify the ever-present opportunity gap that ...

There is precious little research demonstrating the value of school counselors on student achievement, with good reason – it is difficult to demonstrate the impact of counselors on standardized test scores, which have come to define achievement in recent years. But as a result, when it comes to making tough budget decisions, school counselors are not a priority. And that has real consequences for children. As Mindy Willard, an Arizona school counselor named the American School Counselor Association’s (ASCA) 2013 School Counselor of the Year, pointed out in a recent interview:

[T]he biggest challenge school counselors are faced with right now, on all levels, are our ratios. Currently, Arizona is 49th in the nation for counselor to student ratios with a ratio of 1 counselor to 861 students; ASCA recommends a ratio of 1:250! With numbers like this it is virtually impossible for school counselors to meet all of the personal/social, academic and career developmental needs of all the students on their caseloads.

But as we turn to new measures of school quality – such as the production of college and career ready students – there is new space for advocates to research and promote the benefits of school counselors. And an ongoing longitudinal study in ...

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