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Jay Mathews of The Washington Post clearly wants to get a rise out of his readers. He just published a short column titled "Why waste time on a foreign language?" I suspect (or rather, hope) he's playing devil's advocate. Because now is not the time to grease the rails for more cuts to foreign language programs.

Mathews trots out the rather shopworn argument that the rest of the world speaks English and that we can easily import the foreign speakers we need. C'mon, Jay. There's no need to celebrate American parochialism. We can't be so sure that the American century will become the American millennium. And even if we do stay on top of the cultural heap, wouldn't it be nice to expose our children to some other languages and cultures in a diverse and shrinking world?

Mathews's other argument is a bit jarring. High school students don't learn anything in language classes anyway, he argues, so why bother?

Well, how about improving language instruction? How about starting it much earlier, in the primary grades perhaps, when children are more likely to take to a new language? The Center for Applied Linguistics has found that the share of public ...

David Kelley is a legend in technology and design circles. Decades ago, he founded a design firm that dreamed up the  computer mouse as we know it today. That firm has since evolved into IDEO, a global design company that has left its unique stamp on everything from consumer goods to social innovation. IDEO's work has probably touched your life in ways you don't even know.

For years, Kelley has brought his passion for design into the classroom as a professor at Stanford's famed Institute of Design (or D.School, for those in the know). More recently, Kelley has set his sights on the K-12 classroom. He and his Stanford graduate students are working with schools to help teachers and students master "design thinking." He recently told us what that means.

Public School Insights: Let's start with a big question. What is "design thinking?"

Kelley: To me, design thinking is basically a methodology that allows people to have confidence in their creative ability. Normally many people don't think of themselves as creative, or they think that creativity comes from somewhere that they don't know—like an angel appears and tells them the answer or gives them a new idea.

So design thinking is hopefully a framework that people can hang their creative confidence on. We give people a step-by-step method on how to more routinely be creative or more routinely innovate.

Public School Insights: So you are not talking about something that only artists or engineers would use.

Kelley: No. I struggled with what to call it when we first started out. The reason that we put the word design in it is that this really is the way that designers naturally think. It's not necessarily the way that doctors, lawyers or teachers think, ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Back to the Future

Will Craig Jerald effect a truce in the 21st-century skills fight? Read his new report for the Center for Public Education and draw your own conclusions.

In case you don't know what I'm talking about: Almost a year ago, a battle erupted between champions and skeptics of 21st-century skills. Some skeptics charged the champions with pushing fuzzy skills at the expense of content knowledge. Some champions charged the skeptics with turning facts into fetishes and all but ignoring vital skills like problem solving and critical thinking. Along the way, people on both sides held out hope for common ground.

Jerald's report reads like an attempt to stake out that common ground. He takes 21st-century skills seriously and does much more than most to define slippery concepts like problem solving, collaboration and creativity. He also insists that such skills "are best taught within traditional disciplines."

As Jerald defines them, some of those 21st-century skills seem just as at home in the nineteenth. Creativity, for example, is the ability "to combine disparate ...

Teachers should fend for themselves. May the best ones win.

That seems to be the guiding philosophy behind so many school reform ideas lately. No one can shake the really incompetent teachers out of the system, reformers tell us, and gifted teachers can't rise to the top. Listen to some reform advocates, and you'd think that the former far outnumber the latter. So you use carrots and sticks to help the market do its work.

And what about the conditions that help teachers succeed? You don't hear much about those.

The fuss over teachers who sell their lesson plans on the internet offers a case in point. As always happens in discussions of teachers and money, big questions arise about how we value teachers and their work. Do we cheapen the vocation of teaching when we assume teachers are motivated primarily by money? On the other hand, do we damage teaching as a profession when we make altruism the main job qualification? (For a great discussion of these matters, head on over to the Teacher Leaders Network.) For my money, though, blogger Corey Bower asks the most important question: "The right question is why teachers should have to buy lesson plans."

So here's the vision I see emerging from this discussion. Teachers are free agents. They pay their own way, create their own reality. Those who thrive in this ...

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 ...

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