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Kenneth C. Davis is a New York Times best-selling author who has written about a myriad of significant popular issues—from American History, to geography, to literature, to the Bible, to mythology. His books, for both adults and children, provide an accessible and entertaining guide to these topics. For this interview, we focus on the latest revised edition of his book, Don’t Know Much About History: Anniversary Edition—which is now out in hard cover from HarperCollins. He contrasts this book with what he considers boring approaches in most history textbooks, and emphasizes that Americans are highly interested in history when it’s relayed in an engaging, realistic way.

Public School Insights: Why did you decide to write this book?

Kenneth Davis: To make history as interesting and exciting as I always thought it was! The book looks at 500 years of American History, from the voyages of Columbus, right up to the year 2000. I wrote the ...

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. ...

So asked John Merrow on Monday in a blog post and a segment on the PBS NewsHour that examined reading at PS 1 in the South Bronx of New York City.

Merrow initially selected this high-poverty school for a visit on the basis of its low scores on reading standardized tests. Just 18% of the school’s 4th graders read on grade-level – as he put it, “strong evidence of a failing school.” Yet Principal Jorge Perdomo welcomed Merrow and the Newshour crew, and let them know that PS 1 is actually a great school. And upon observation, Merrow realized: It might be.

According to the segment, the school’s students are enthusiastic and eager to learn, and teachers provide a supportive and nurturing environment – “strong evidence that the school is a success.”

In addition, Merrow found that the school’s first graders were reading “confidently and competently” – both in decoding and in comprehension. So he went to investigate why the school’s fourth graders weren’t doing so well. Some ...

The intent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in its current form is to ensure that all students are held to high achievement standards and that there is accountability for every student’s success. The Learning First Alliance has long applauded these goals and shares a commitment to ensuring that standards of excellence are adopted and implemented in every public school district in the nation. LFA and its members have advocated (and continue to advocate) for improving ESEA in ways that support educators, student learning and local public school reform.

However, ESEA is now more than three years overdue for reauthorization. And despite the noble intentions of the law, it is widely acknowledged that it contains unfair, counterproductive and overly burdensome regulations. These regulations require local districts to focus scarce resources on compliance, sanctions and reporting that do little to contribute to student success.

Given known flaws in the current iteration of ESEA, and concern that reauthorization will not occur prior to the start of the 2011-12 school year, 16 members of the Learning First Alliance have joined together to send the U.S. Secretary of Education a letter urging the Department of Education to explore its authority for offering appropriate and immediate regulatory relief around ESEA.

This request is predicated on our desire to focus the limited resources available for public education in ways most directly ensuring the highest level of student learning and achievement.

Read the letter and accompanying press release.

Members of the Learning First Alliance signing on to the ...

We all know that reading and math standardized test scores do not truly represent how good a school is. But thanks to No Child Left Behind (NCLB - the current iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA), that is just about all we consider when judging a school’s performance. Under current accountability systems, whether a school promotes civic-mindedness, good physical health or social or behavioral outcomes like self-regulating behavior or an ability to work in teams – or any of the other outcomes that society expects of its public schools – doesn’t actually count towards anything.

So of course, schools focus their efforts on the things that matter. Research confirms that since implementation of No Child Left Behind, curriculum in many places has narrowed. Schools are spending more time teaching basic reading and math at the expense of the arts, social studies, physical education and science.

We at the Learning First Alliance have long called for a broader approach to assessment and school accountability. Individually, many of our member organizations do as well. So we were very privileged to have the opportunity to co-host, with the Sandler Foundation, an event to release a new report by RAND Education that examined expanded measures of school performance.

In this report, RAND examined what measures of school performance that states currently use in accountability systems, trends outside the accountability context in ...

All of us can agree that the United States needs to carefully examine our efforts in STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) with an eye towards improving rigor, expanding reach and ensuring that more of our students are both interested and proficient in these subjects.  Certainly, from an economic health and employment standpoint, we should all be concerned with raising the bar on STEM standards while nurturing the effectiveness of the professionals who teach these subjects.  However, agreeing on the “what” that needs to be done is always easier than agreement on the “how” to get the job done. ...

obriena's picture

Winning the Future

Yesterday I had the extremely good fortune to be in the audience for President Obama’s remarks on education. It was my first time being so close to a President, an experience that was much more exciting than I expected it to be. Of course, it helped that this President is extremely charismatic. And when he bounded off stage to start shaking hands with the students and others in the audience, his enthusiasm was catching, regardless of whether you agreed with his policy positions or not. Though to be honest, I did agree with many of the points he made in this speech.

For example, the President pointed out (as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did last week) that more than 80% of public schools could be labeled as failing for not meeting their goals under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) this year. But we (the broad we – the public, politicians and education community alike) know that 80% of schools aren’t failing. And when you look at which schools would be labeled as ...

Earlier this week the MetLife Foundation released the first of two reports from its 27th annual Survey of the American Teacher. The survey, which in addition to middle and high school teachers included student, parent and business executive (aka potential employer) respondents, examines “the importance of being college- and career-ready, what the preparation includes and what it may take to get there.”

Postsecondary education is being seen as a necessity - both executives (77%) and students (84%) strongy agree that there will be few or no career opportunities for students who do have some education beyond high school. And not surprisingly, there is broad agreement among stakeholders that all students should graduate high school ready for college and a career. There were, though, differences in how high a priority this should be – less than half of executives think it must be done, compared to 73% of parents.

What I found particularly interesting - and what I think could have important policy implications for schools, districts, states and the federal government - were the areas of consensus, and divergence, in what being college- and career- ready means.

Teachers, parents, students and executives all overwhelmingly agree that problem solving skills, critical thinking skills, the ability to write clearly and ...

One strategy I’m using to get up-to-speed in my position as the new executive director at the Learning First Alliance (LFA) is to delve into the LFA member publications that land on my desk almost daily. It is true that each publication is a wealth of thoughtful articles that examine the challenges and rewards professional public educators across the nation deal with on a regular basis. I’m reminded that some of my favorite thought-leaders continue to seek new information, explore alternate approaches, and share their observations in ways that remind me that we know a good deal about how to make schooling better, we just lack the will or if not that, the systems thinking approach that could help us do what we know will make us better.

An example of that reality is the article authored by Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at Stanford University and supporter of teachers par excellent, in the Winter 2010-2011 issue of the American Educator, published by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Dr. Darling-Hammond’s article “Soaring Systems” looks at three nations’ public education system, each of whom started with very little and purposefully built highly productive and equitable systems in the space of only two to three decades. Before considering what those three countries, Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, did to ...

obriena's picture

Brilliance in a Box?

A recent Slate article asked, “What do the best classrooms in the world look like?” Their answer: Surprisingly low-tech.

To find these classrooms, the author looked to Finland and South Korea, both of which perform better than the United States on international standardized assessments without really utilizing technology in the classroom. She points to KIPP charter schools, claiming them among the most effective in the nation, and explains how one KIPP school uses technology--to make teachers' lives easier, not to engage students.

It’s not that this piece is wrong, exactly. Having never been to South Korea, Finland or the KIPP school featured here, I can’t speak to their use of technology in education. But I have problems with the assumption on which the author seems to rely: That these schools are the best in the world, and the ideal model for reform efforts.

Actually, what she claims, after mentioning how these classrooms look like those of 1989 or 1959, is that “the most innovative schools around the world do not tend to be the ones with the most innovative technology inside them.” Now, I agree that innovative doesn't need to mean technology, but ...

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