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Earlier this week the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA) released its latest report, The Broadband Imperative: Recommendations to Address K-12 Education Infrastructure Needs, at an event featuring presentations by a panel that included two state leaders from Maine and West Virginia along with a district administrator from New Jersey.  Once again, we were reminded of the opportunities that are opened up for students and teachers (and those administrators that lead districts and schools) when robust connections and ubiquitous communications devices are available for teaching and learning.  However, having more years of experience than I like to admit in advocating for the appropriate use of technology to support personalized learning opportunities and teaching effectiveness, I was struck with the realization that this meeting and its recommendations, while important, were not new.   ...

On a webinar yesterday hosted by the National Education Association’s (NEA) Priority Schools Campaign, Anne Henderson* offered a hopeful vision for the future of family and community engagement in public education. She predicted that the time is coming where schools really understand that engaging families and communities is a core strategy for school improvement. It will no longer be considered an extra, something to address after we’ve taken care of academic issues. In other words, it will be an integral piece of the puzzle.

Research from the past thirty years certainly supports this vision. And so do countless individual stories. On that same webinar, representatives from Oklahoma’s Putnam City West High School shared how family and community engagement lead to academic gains at their school.

Putnam City West serves a rapidly changing student population. In 2004, 10% of the student body was Hispanic. This year, 25% is. Thirteen percent of students are ...

Recently I was looking through old paper files in the Learning First Alliance (LFA) office and happened upon a successful grant application that LFA had received some years ago to gather, record, and disseminate the knowledge, skills, and approaches successful school districts use to ensure their students achieve to their highest abilities.  The project resulted in a publication called Beyond Islands of Excellence that, indeed did chronicle what goes into an effective public school system and profiled districts whose students had benefited from their wise, effective leadership.   I was struck by how much the scope of work described in the successful grant application articulated the concepts and big ideas that LFA organizations and their leaders still work diligently to implement today. ...

In the Metro DC area, the Higher Achievement Program works to increase the educational opportunities for low-income middle school students who are eager for more rigor and support in their academic programming.  And it cannot keep up with demand, which says two things to me. First, the program is making a difference. And second, some children and parents in low-income areas are eager to engage with this type of learning opportunity.  In an era of budget cuts, public schools are being undermined in their mission to provide this opportunity to all children. This reality paints a troubling picture: a lack of resources holding back ambitious and dedicated young students who crave such support is quite simply, undermining our nation’s future one budget slash at a time. ...

In 2001, The Learning First Alliance wrote a report titled “Every Child Learning: Safe and Supportive Schools – A Summary,” which advocated for systemic approaches to supporting positive behavior in our nation’s schools. The Alliance argued for school-wide approaches to improving school climate, safety and discipline: “In a safe and supportive learning community, civility, order, and decorum are the norms and antisocial behaviors such as bullying and taunting are clearly unacceptable.” Ten years later, schools across the nation continually contend with the harsh and terrifying realities of bullying and the sad reality is that we still have a long way to go when it comes to ensuring a safe and supportive environment for our nation’s children. Fortunately, recent attention to the issue suggests that we are all beginning to take important steps in the right direction.  ...

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine (September 18, 2011), featured a cover story entitled “The Character Test”, suggesting that our kids’ success, and happiness, may depend less on perfect performance than on learning how to deal with failure.  The two schools profiled were Riverdale, one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, and KIPP Infinity Middle School, a member of the KIPP network of public charter schools in New York City.  The common factor in each of these schools is a headmaster or charter school superintendent whose leadership is focused on providing an educational experience for the students he serves that encompasses more than academic rigor and achievement.  Their strategies are based on the work of Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, whose scholarly publication, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, documents 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras.  The importance of these strengths does not come from their relationship to any system of ethics or moral laws but from their practical benefit:  cultivating these strengths represent a reliable path to “the good life,” a life that is not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling. ...

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. ...

A couple months ago, I wrote about an NPR series on efforts by Chicago city and public schools to mitigate violence and vulnerability among low-income students. Yesterday, Edweek featured an article about a new Chicago city-initiative—spearheaded by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel in a partnership with Comcast—to provide computers and internet services at dramatically-reduced prices for the families of low-income students. The goal is in part to combat the increasing educational achievement gap between students with and without computers – a gap that, if left unaddressed, will only increase and further disadvantage our most vulnerable students. In a press conference announcing the initiative, Emmanuel pointed to a map and showed areas where only 15-45% of households have internet service. ...

Recently, NPR did a special series on violence among youth in Chicago. Schools and students all over the country—especially in urban areas—deal with the everyday-threat of violence. Clearly, this omnipresent factor can take a huge toll on public schools.

Mayor-elect of Rahm Emanuel says the violence in the city is unacceptable, and he has promised to hire a thousand new police officers as part of his crime policy. One article  quotes him stating, "My goal for the four years, and the measurement of my progress, will be whether that child can be thinking of their studies, and not their safety."

Already the city—relying on schools and police—is implementing intensive efforts to try to combat what some consider an epidemic of youth violence in Chicago—efforts that may provide good models for other cities and school districts facing these problems. ...

It was recently announced that Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is donating $100 million to help improve Newark’s long-troubled public schools. Those funds will be matched by donations raised by the city, which is also raising $50 million for another youth effort. In other words, Newark’s children will have a lot more money available to them over the next few years.

As part of this agreement, Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will cede some control over Newark Public Schools (currently state-run) to Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Together, they will select a new superintendent, and Mayor Booker will have freedom to redesign the system (though the governor retains formal authority over it).

This partnership is great news in some respects--a Democrat and a Republican overcoming political conflicts, joining forces for the sake of the children. Hopefully it is the first of many such unions across the country.

But I do have some concerns with this set-up. First, we must question the wisdom of short-term infusions of private funds into public schools. While $100 million--or even $250 million--is a lot of money, it won't last forever. What happens when the money runs out?

And second, what is the role of philanthropy in school reform? Some argue, as NYC Chancellor Joel Klein puts it, that while private philanthropy will never be a large part of a system's budget, it is money that can be used for research and development and for ...

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