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For some time I’ve been pondering how those of us who work to strengthen public K-12 education could spend less energy attacking each other (i.e. the “reformers” vs the “establishment”) and more time on problem-solving in a way that would help us serve all students regardless of economic/social/family situation to find success in a complex world.  Of course one thing that would be helpful is if we could collectively acknowledge that a student’s out-of-school situation DOES have a profound impact on school performance—not to use that acknowledgement as an excuse, but rather to factor it into the efforts we design to ensure school success.  ...

Recently the Wall Street Journal featured an interview with Bill Gates in which Gates conceded some missteps in his philanthropic efforts toward public education. $5 billion dollars after his debut into public education affairs, Gates admits “It’s been about a decade of learning.” It’s a common concern that private dollars toward education can actually be counterproductive when they direct attention and commitment to misplaced priorities, and so it’s somewhat gratifying to hear Gates acknowledging this.

Gates offered a more tempered view on education than the WSJ interviewer (who in the article described public education in cities as “dysfunctional urban school systems run by powerful labor unions and a top-down government monopoly provider”), but despite his avowed learning from past mistakes,  he still seems naïve in some respects. ...

Education news coming out of Texas lately seems to depict a large-scale comedy of errors. There are misplaced funding priorities (here, here and here) and hard-fought battles to include mainstream science curriculum. Texas is the lone (star) state to pull out of a significant education council that collaborates on state-directed (optional) common standards, and it does not ascribe to the trend to more specifically delineate student racial demographic information for data and research purposes. But at least the most recent debacle may provide a silver(ado) lining: according to Edweek, in explaining the need for the new Supportive School Discipline Initiative, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the numbers from a recent study finding that 60 percent of Texas school children are suspended or expelled between 7th grade and graduation “are a kind of wake up call,” and that “it’s obvious we can do better.”

In short, the initiative is a joint undertaking by the Departments of Justice and Education, and it targets curbing school discipline policies that push students into ...

In two recent Salon.com articles (here and here) political commentator David Sirota has pointed out key differences between Finland and the U.S. that he believes account for education discrepancies between these nations. It essentially boils down to differences in: 1) systemic equity, 2) incentives for and recruitment and support of teachers 3) focus on standardized testing, and 4) bipartisan support among all relevant stakeholders.

To open Sirota asks, “How has one industrialized country created one of the world's most successful education systems in a way that is completely hostile to testing”—and, I’ll add, that does not even attach consequence-based evaluation to teachers or schools? For answers, he refers readers to the documentary film "The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World's Most Surprising School System” which paints the picture of an educational system that completely contrasts with what he calls “the test-obsessed, teacher-demonizing orthodoxy of education ‘reform’ that now dominates America's political debate.”

Some background to set the stage:

It’s clear by now that while the U.S. tests students more than any other nation, our students perform significantly worse in math and science than students in other industrialized countries. Nevertheless, Sirota points out that ...

Over the past few years, the idea of paying teachers a bonus based on student performance (typically on standardized tests) has been called into question for a number of reasons. Some education organizations have expressed concern about the focus it puts on tests they are not convinced accurately reflect student learning. They also question the underlying theory: That teachers can be motivated to work harder for more money; in other words, that they are not already working as hard as they can.

Some outside the education industry share this skepticism. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely expresses concern that these pay systems create odd incentives for teachers and points out that “If you teach, you want to focus on teaching and not on how your salary is changing every day. Not on your chance for a bonus.” Business writer Dan Pink questions how they motivate, believing that educators more than most respect the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Research also challenges the effectiveness of these systems. Last year, in what many considered the first controlled study of the issue, researchers found that Tennessee’s Project on Incentives in Teaching (POINT), which awarded bonuses of up to $15,000 to teachers who raised student standardized test scores, had no overall impact on student performance – “It simply did not do much of anything.”

This week we got further evidence suggesting that perhaps this is not the path to improved student performance, with a new study by RAND.

In evaluating New York City’s Schoolwide Performance Bonus System (SPBP), RAND found no positive effects of bonuses on student achievement (as measured by performance on ...

The American Prospect recently featured an article by Sharon Lerner that details an exemplary pioneering effort to combat racial segregation in schools in Omaha, Nebraska, called the Learning Community. It pools resources and allows student movement to help make schools more socioeconomically diverse. But while Lerner argues that this “radical experiment” could serve to be a national model, local resistance may be indicative of potential animosity to similar efforts in other places. If better racial integration in schools is a focus we want to make to improve public education (and I think it should be), this situation provides a prime example of why appropriate legislation, funding, and winning hearts and minds are all integral to success. ...

Clearly espousing emphasis in STEM education is all the rage these days—with good reason. However, despite theoretical broad support and frequent political lip service, successful implementation of STEM-fostering programs in public schools has been lacking.

That’s why a current competition funded by the Carnegie Corporation— Partnering for Excellence: Innovations in Science + Technology + Engineering + Math Education on the Changemakers website—sounds like a condonable endeavor. The website notes the lack of progress thus far, saying that “our communities are filled with many of the world’s most talented professionals in these fields. They work in hospitals, universities, and museums; biotech, engineering, and architecture firms; graphic-design and urban-planning studios; hedge funds, banks, and computer-software, gaming, and pharmaceutical companies. They just rarely directly impact our public schools.” ...

Last week, NPR revisited Rhode Island’s Central Falls High School. You may remember the school from the controversy that erupted last year after the district proposed to fire all its teachers, a move that both the U.S. Secretary of Education and the President appeared to support. You may also remember that many of those teachers were ultimately retained, after stakeholders agreed to a series of reforms – a “transformation” that was to include a longer school day, more after school tutoring and a tougher evaluation for teachers, among other changes.

But the school has struggled ever since. Last year, just 7 percent of Central Falls’ students tested at grade level in math, and 24 percent did so in reading. Some anticipate this year's test results will be worse.

Why have they continued to struggle, in spite of a plan that included a great many reforms that in some contexts have had success? Some ...

An article featured on Edweek this week by Jeffrey Henig and S. Paul Reville, “Why Attention Will Return to Non-School Factors” provides a great summary of issues surrounding education that public school advocates have been trying to direct attention to for years. However, the optimism that the public will inevitably invest in these issues may be overly rosy—though I certainly hope their prediction pans out.

The authors point out that “when thinking about their own families, parents take it as a given that non-school factors . . . affect whether their children will thrive.” Likewise, analysts studying patterns of education achievement “take it as a given that socioeconomic status, concentrations of poverty, and school and residential mobility are dominating predictors that must be statistically controlled for before one can accurately register weaker and less reliable effects of teachers and schools.” The authors add: “[t]hat there are exceptions to the rule—that children and schools in poor neighborhoods succeed against all odds—does not gainsay the core reality that the odds are steep.”

Despite these realities that indicate people certainly consider non-school factors to be greatly significant, the authors point out that often times in education reform circles, many fear “[a]ttention to non-school factors . . . as an excuse to ...

To kick-off last week’s LFA Leadership Council meeting, the LFA gave its first Education Visionary Award to Richard W. Riley—former Secretary of Education under President Bill Clinton—for his public service, which has benefited all constituencies LFA organizations serve. While governor of South Carolina, Mr. Riley raised funding and support for education through the Education Improvement Act, which the RAND Corporation called “most comprehensive educational reform measure in the United States.” During his two terms as DOE Secretary, he stressed raising academic standards, improving teaching, and increasing education grants to help disadvantaged children. In 2008, Time Magazine named Riley as one of the “Top 10 Best Cabinet Members” of the 20th century. In his address following his award acceptance, he discussed a few major themes, including high standards, good assessment systems, diversity among the student population, and poverty—all major focuses of the LFA as well. ...

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