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Walter Dean Myers understands second chances. A high school dropout by age 17, he enlisted in the army and worked odd jobs as a young adult. It was his lifelong relationship with books that put him on a path to becoming one of the nation's most celebrated young adult authors. Five Coretta Scott King Awards and two Newbery Honors later, Myers is sharing the lesson of second chances with a new generation of at-risk youth.

Last week, Myers spoke with us about the central themes of his new novel, Dope Sick: personal responsibility and redemption. The novel tells the story of a young man facing the consequences of a drug deal gone wrong who has an opportunity to review and revise his life choices. This story line reflects a belief Myers avowed throughout our interview: We must empower teens to take greater control of their lives.

Dope Sick has become the centerpiece of an effort to do just that. Myers is collaborating with and the NEA on the Second Chance Initiative, which aims to help youth make better choices. As part of this initiative, the novel will be available for free on HarperCollins' website from February 10th through 24th. The initiative also offers Dope Sick reading guides and writing activities along with resources on preventing high school dropout, teen pregnancy and substance abuse.

Underlying this effort is Myers' long-standing faith that reading can offer hope to teens who need it most.

Listen to highlights from our interview with Walter Dean Myers here (16 minutes), or read a transcript below:


PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You're releasing your new novel, Dope Sick, very soon. What's the novel about?

MYERS: It's about a young man who has reached a point of crisis in his life. He goes into a building, running from the police, and he meets another young man his own age. The new young man is a somewhat fantastic creature who can call up ...

A sobering article in Saturday's Wall Street Journal details the Harlem Children's Zone's financial worries as foundations and and private investors cut back or bail out altogether. The deepening recession and Madoff mess have apparently taken a toll on Geoffrey Canada's groundbreaking effort to break the cycle of poverty in Harlem.

The WSJ article offers a bracing reminder of what can happen when efforts to serve the public good must rely overwhelmingly on private grants and ...

The Great Expectations School, Dan Brown's harrowing and touching memoir of his first year teaching at an elementary school in the Bronx, has won high praise from heavy hitters in education, including Susan Fuhrman, Randi Weingarten, Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch.

Dan recently took the time to speak with me about the lessons of his experience teaching low-income children who could be by turns loving, enraged, vulnerable, brazen, curious and deeply disaffected. He shared his thoughts on the support new teachers need to function in this environment, specific strategies for serving children in poverty, and policy implications of day-to-day challenges in urban schools.

Hear five minutes of highlights from Dan's account of his first year:

Or, listen to about four and a half minutes of highlights from his discussion of education policy:


Larry Cuban's thoughtful op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post has received remarkably little attention in the education blogosphere.  That's surprising, because he assesses the performance of DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose name is usually catnip to education bloggers everywhere.

Cuban argues that Rhee is a sprinter in a world where marathon runners are most likely to succeed.  He faults her and other sprinters for attempting to tackle the unions far too early while paying little attention to other critical ingredients of long-term school reform:

[Sprinters] suffer from ideological myopia. They believe low test scores and achievement gaps between whites and minorities result in large part from knuckle-dragging union leaders defending seniority and tenure rights that protect lousy teachers. Such beliefs reflect a serious misreading of why urban students fail to reach proficiency levels and graduate from high school.

As important as it is to get rid of incompetent teachers, doing so will not turn around the D.C. school system or any other broken district. The failure of urban schools has more to do with turnstile superintendencies, partially implemented standards and other ...

On Thursday, the Center for American Progress released Financial Incentives for Hard-to-Staff Positions, a report on teacher pay that draws lessons from fields like government, the military, medicine and private industry. The report offers very valuable analysis of the kinds of incentives that might coax effective teachers into hard-to-staff schools.

Yet it also disappoints in a couple of respects. For one, it offers little information about effective pay-for-performance structures in other fields. (It will hardly end acrimonious debates between supporters and critics of performance pay). It also minimizes the importance of other strategies for ensuring poor and minority students access to the most effective teachers and administrators.

Among the points that caught my attention are these:

  • Teachers' base pay should be competitive with base pay in other fields. "In each of the sectors we studied, financial incentives for hard-to-staff positions are layered on top of a starting salary that is fundamentally competitive with candidates' job opportunities in other industries or organizations."
  • Incentive pay in education tends to be way too low. "Employers across sectors are providing much larger incentives than
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"C" for Effort

BadNewsReportCardWEB.jpgNew York City public schools have received a new round of letter grades for their performance, and the results are either encouraging or bewildering, depending on whom you ask.  NYC Education Department officials point to the overall improvements over last year, due in large part to the city's rising test scores in mathematics and reading.  Critics of the Department point to large fluctuations in grades from one year to the next as evidence that the grading system is fundamentally flawed. ...

SocialEmotionalWEB.jpgLast week, the Chicago Sun Times ran a series of editorials advocating social and emotional learning in Chicago Public Schools.  According to the Sun Times, troubled schools whose students regularly face the consequences of violence and neglect confront sobering odds in raising those students' academic performance.  The writers call for a social and emotional learning curriculum in all schools, as well as for more social workers, school counselors and psychologists. 

Like the signers of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, they recognize the importance of stressing "social development and non-academic skills" alongside academic learning.  And like the Broader, Bolder Approach signers, they will likely be accused of abandoning academic rigor for some fuzzy-headed notion of "life skills." ...


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. ...

The last few weeks have brought us six new inspiring stories about successful public schools and districts.  Be sure to check them out:  ...

Today, the New York Times published Jennifer Medina's story about the success of the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, a small school that sends almost all of its students--the large majority of them poor--to college. The school's inspiring success is a testament to the passion and unrelenting hard work of its staff and students.

Still, an aspect of the Times story left me distinctly uneasy. "To hear the tales of the new graduates is to understand the enormous effort and amount of resources it takes to make a school succeed," Medina writes. "Teachers and other staff members routinely work 60 hours a week....  [School Principal Elana] Karopkin said it would be unfair to say she was burned out, but admitted she was nothing less than 'exhausted,' both physically and emotionally."  Asked about her staff's workload, she replied that "nobody should be forced to choose between educating other people's children and having their own." ...

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