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A few months ago, the blogosphere was abuzz with news that American students are shockingly ignorant of U.S. civics and history. Research sponsored by conservative think tanks found that fewer than one in twenty public school students in Arizona and Oklahoma could answer six or more questions correctly on the U.S. Citizenship Test. The most alarming finding: Only one in four could name George Washington as our first president. It turns out that those findings were likely hogwash.

I suspected as much when the studies were released. The results of the Washington question in particular didn't pass the laugh test. Statistics guru Nate Silver had the same reaction in September. For example, he found the claim that not one out of 1,000 Oklahoma students could get more than 7 answers right well nigh impossible. "Isn't there some total nerd in Tulsa, some AP Honors student in Stillwater, who was able to answer at least eight of these ten very basic questions correctly?"

His suspicions grew when Oklahoma state representative Ed Cannaday re-administered the same test to seniors in 10 high schools across his district. According to Cannaday, almost 80 percent of his seniors answered all ten ...

Emily and Bryan Hassel have an idea: Don't get too hung up on plans to make teachers better. Instead, figure out how to help the best teachers reach far more students. After all, they argue, the top 20 percent of teachers are three times as effective as the bottom 20 percent.

Try as they might, though, they cannot escape the need to support teachers through good old fashioned staff development, curriculum and assessment. It's time the education economists paid much closer attention to these critical areas, which are just so déclassé these days.

Of course, the Hassels' argument raises all sorts of questions. How do you identify the top 20 percent of teachers? Do we trust test scores? Will teachers stay in the top 20 percent from year to year? Are the "top" teachers good in every kind of school? Are they effective with every kind of student?

But the Hassels face an even bigger challenge. Their plan will require nothing short of a massive investment in all those things their fellow educonomists find oh-so tedious: Teacher training. New curricula. Much, much better tests. If we pursue the Hassels' brave new reforms the way we pursue most reforms--on the cheap--then we're going to be in a whole heap of trouble.

The Hassels, like so many of their ideological brethren, seem to believe that great teachers are born, not made. Hence their relatively dim view of staff development. (I've always found it curious that so many reformers who insist that every child ...

Have economists brought nothing but woe upon public schools? Has all the talk of efficiency, productivity, merit pay and market incentives poisoned the field? Well, it depends. Do those economists have a clear vision for how their favored policies will affect teaching and learning?

According to two articles published yesterday, the answer so far has been yes and no.

The Harvard Education Letter paints a rosier picture of "the invisible hand" than you might expect. The HEL reminds us, for example, that economist James Heckman has done about as much as anyone to push early childhood education. In the process, he has set the stage for richer conversations about program quality. Overall, economists can spur us to pay closer attention the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs.

Then there's Russ Whitehurst's recent article: Don't Forget Curriculum! He says economists just don't get the importance of curriculum. Here's the money quote from his piece: "[P]olicy makers who cut their teeth on policy reforms in the areas of school governance and management rather than classroom practice...may be oblivious to curriculum for the same reason that Bedouin don’t think much about water skiing.”

Whitehurst elaborates:

The disciplinary training, job experience, professional networks, and intuitions about what is important hardly overlap between governance and curriculum reformers. For the governance types, teaching ...

Actress Danica McKellar first became famous as the beautiful Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years, a hit TV show that aired in the late '80s and early '90s. In the years since, she has starred in over 30 films, TV movies and plays.

But it's her work in mathematics that has most recently caught the attention of educators around the country. McKellar has written two books to get tween-aged girls hooked on math. Math Doesn't Suck aims to help middle school girls overcome their fear of math and understand that it pays to be smart. Her sequel, Kiss My Math, helps girls slay the pre-algebra dragon. A third book, this one on algebra, is in the works.

A summa-cum-laude math major from UCLA, McKellar comes with impressive mathematical credentials. She has even co-authored a theorem on two-dimensional magnetism that now bears her name.

McKellar recently spoke with us about girls and math.

Girls and Math

Public School Insights: Do girls really hate math? And if so, why?

McKellar: Let's face it: Boys and girls in this country, by and large, are not huge fans of mathematics. But the issue seems to be particularly problematic for girls because, on top of the stereotypes about how difficult and “nerdy” it is to study math, girls are also getting the message that they're not supposed to be good at it.

Public School Insights: Where do you think that message is coming from?

McKellar: I think that it is coming from all over. Girls are inundated with images of what women are supposed to be, from billboards, magazines and pop culture in general – that girls are supposed to be sexy and appealing, and maybe even a little dumb, and that this is considered attractive. That's the message that ...

As everyone knows by now, Aldine Independent School District in Texas won the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. And they did it without mayoral control (gasp) or even a single charter school (say it ain't so!)

So what did they do? For one, the board, administrators, teachers and community members collaborated on common solutions to the district's problems. For another, they worked hard to give teachers and administrators the support they needed. Most important, they committed to improvement for the long haul. No quick fixes at Aldine.

The Learning First Alliance offered far more detail in a 2003 case study of Aldine. Here are a few highlights from what we learned back then:

  1. Recognize that you have a problem. When student peformance cratered in the mid 90s, district leaders knew they had to do something.
  2. Set high expectations for students and staff. Yes, this has become a truism--but only because it's so very true.
  3. Give schools a first-rate curriculum. In 1996, Aldine created "benchmark targets," a curriculum aligned with state standards. Teachers asked for
    ...

A New York Times puff piece on reading workshops has ignited a firestorm in the blogosphere. Stop force-feeding kids the great books, the article implies. Let them read what they want to. Bloggers' reactions range from horror to approval.

I can understand the horror. When will children make the transition from Captain Underpants to Shakespeare, Twain or Hurston? What happens if we raise them to believe that reading should always be easy or fun? The most challenging books often offer the biggest rewards.

Perhaps there is a middle course. If children become enthusiastic about books they choose themselves, can teachers direct this enthusiasm toward more challenging books? Children's Literature Laureate John Scieszka seems to think so. (Or at least that's what he told me in an interview last ...

First published August 19, 2008.

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Harvard professor and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. captured some 25 million viewers with his riveting PBS documentary series, African American Lives (WNET). Using genealogical research and DNA science, Gates traces the family history of 19 famous African Americans. What results is a rich and moving account of the African American experience.

Gates recently spoke with Public School Insights about the documentary and a remarkable idea it inspired in him: To use genealogy and DNA research to revolutionize the way we teach history and science to African American Students. Now, Gates is working with other educators to create an "ancestry-based curriculum" in K-12 schools. Many African American students know little about their ancestors. Given the chance to examine their own DNA and family histories, Gates argues, they are likely to become more engaged in their history and science classes. As they rescue their forebears from the anonymity imposed by slavery, students begin to understand their own place in the American story.

If the stories in African American Lives are any guide, they're in for an experience.

The Significance of African American Lives

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Tell me about "African-American Lives" and its significance, in your view.

GATES: Wow, that's a big question. [Laughing] I got the idea in the middle of the night to do a series for public television that would combine genealogy and ancestry tracing through genetics. I've been fascinated with my own family tree since I was 10 years old - that's the year that my grandfather died. ...

People looking for a public school Cinderella story need look no further than George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Alabama. The once struggling school, which serves mostly low-income children, now boasts state math and reading test scores most wealthy suburban schools would be proud of. (See our story about George Hall's Success).

George Hall did not have to sacrifice all but the basics to get there. Instead, the school's staff courageously focused on what some would consider frills in an era of high-stakes accountability: innovative technologies; rich vocabulary and content knowledge; even field trips.

We recently spoke with George Hall principal Terri Tomlinson and teachers Elizabeth Reints and Melissa Mitchell.

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Hear highlights from our interview (5 minutes)

  ...

When Daniel P. King came to the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district in 2007, the district’s dropout rate was double the Texas state average. Now, it is half the state average.

How did the district do it? Dr. King and his colleagues created a College, Career and Technology Academy to steer dropouts--some as old as 25--back onto a path towards graduation. Not only do those students gain the skills and course credits they need to graduate, they also gain college credit along the way. (See a story about the Academy in our success stories section).

King recently spoke with us about the district’s remarkable success.

Public School Insights: What prompted you to create the College, Career & Technology Academy in the first place?

King: I was entering new into the district. I was moving from a small district to a large district, and I was overwhelmed when I saw that the district had a dropout rate that was twice the state average. The prior year had seen approximately 500 dropouts.

When I asked for an analysis of the 500 dropouts from the previous year I found that not only was there the typical freshman bubble (where students don't make it past the ninth grade, get stuck there and ultimately drop out), but there was [also] a relatively new phenomenon that I call the “twelfth grade bubble, ” [caused by] exit testing and rising standards.

In a small district I had dealt with [the dropout problem] very successfully, simply through ...

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Things are happening in Mobile.

The Alabama district mounted an innovative public engagement campaign early this decade, and student performance has been rising ever since.

 

Though the district has a larger share of low-income students than does Alabama as a whole, it boasts higher scores on state assessments. We recently profiled two very successful Mobile County public elementary schools—George Hall and Mary B. Austin—on our Success Stories Page.

Last week, we caught up with Mary B. Austin principal Jacquelyn Zeigler, who has worked with dedicated staff and parents to narrow achievement gaps dramatically. She described the ingredients of her success:

Public School Insights: We've heard a lot about Mary B. Austin School, but I thought I'd give you an opportunity to say in your own words what kind of a school it is. Describe the sort of students you serve.

Jacquelyn Zeigler: There are no -- or very few -- new families coming in. So to keep my doors open, 80 percent of the children are on transfer. We get them from all over Mobile County. And because of that, we are right at 50/50 boy/girl, 50/50 black/white, and about 34 percent free and reduced [lunch program]. We have a wonderful cross-section of society.

Right across the street is Springfield College, and then just down the street is the University of South Alabama, so I'm very fortunate because I am able to get their student teachers and their interns; a lot of the volunteers to come and work with my ...

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