September 2010 Archives

K-12 Education on the Marquee

Who would have thought that public schools would be the subject of so many movies released at the same time? I was going to write "star" instead of "subject," but the former connotes admiration and awe, which is hardly what the recent list of films has in mind. On the contrary, their intent is to depict public education in this country as a disaster, with teachers unions as the villain. Documentaries, of course, have always come in many different flavors. But I don't ever recall a spate that is so utterly unnuanced as the present crop. The top contender for ...


Becoming Data Savvy About School Reform

Today's reformers rightly demand to know how well teachers are teaching and students are learning. The trouble is that statistics are the only evidence they will accept. Numbers by themselves, however, are not sacrosanct. They are subject to manipulation by special interests and to misinterpretation by unsophisticated readers. I first learned how this is done by a piece that was published in Harper's in October 1964. Otto Friedrich wrote "There Are 00 Trees in Russia." He showed how even "the most careful checking of facts by a platoon of researchers does not necessarily add up to the whole truth." He ...


New Consideration in Choosing a College

High school seniors who plan to attend a four-year college or university may want to rethink their choices if getting a job is their primary concern. The Wall Street Journal published the results of its survey of top corporate recruiters in a front-page story on Sept. 13 ("Penn State Tops Recruiter Rankings"). It found that they preferred graduates of state universities over the Ivies and elite liberal arts colleges. Recruiters said that graduates of top public universities possess the practical skills that their corporate employers are seeking. As a result, prospective students are being advised by their counselors to ask ...


Disaffection Within Teachers Unions

In the midst of today's deep recession when unions would be expected to be indivisible, a nascent movement is calling that view into question. Since it began in March in New York City, Educators 4 Excellence has signed up 700 teachers who believe that the United Federation of Teachers does not represent its priorities in educating students in the nation's largest school district. Although the new group's membership pales in comparison with the 80,000 teachers in the UFT, it is a counterintuitive development that warrants closer examination. The immediate cause of the formation of Educators 4 Excellence is the ...


Poverty Rate and the Achievement Gap

The data released by the Census Department on Sept. 16 are grim. The percentage of Americans living in poverty is the highest in 15 years, with children feeling the rise most acutely. The news has direct implications for reformers intent on narrowing the academic achievement gap and for states competing for the Race to the Top funds. With one in five children affected - more than 15 million - and with little relief in sight, teachers will find their best efforts unlikely to be enough to turn around the worst schools. That's because most failing schools are disproportionately populated by ...


Verdict on School Reform in D.C.

Although the primary election on Sept. 14 in Washington D.C. was billed as a contest between Mayor Adrian Fenty and Council Chairman Vincent Gray, in actuality it was a referendum on Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. That's because the differences between the two candidates on the ballot ultimately came down to their views on her leadership of the troubled school district. Rhee made this clear when she unabashedly campaigned for Fenty, who had appointed her soon after he was successful in getting legislation passed that eliminated D.C.'s elected school board and gave him full control on June 1, ...


Unintended Consequences of School Choice

In theory, parental choice of schools is supposed to assure educational equity. But in practice, the strategy has not always worked out that way. Reports from Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York City, for example, illustrate why the devil is always in the details. For starters, the system is terribly confusing to even the most sophisticated parents. In an attempt to provide all parents with the opportunity to enroll their children in schools that best meet their needs and interests, officials have created rules worthy of a Solomon to decipher. Los Angeles uses a points system for parents ...


Will Teacher-Led Schools Be An Improvement?

An experiment that allows teachers to run schools as they see fit is slowly gaining traction across the country. A front-page story on Sept. 7 in the New York Times described the latest effort taking place in Newark N.J. ("In a New Role, Teachers Move to Run Schools"). If the strategy succeeds in turning around failing schools, it will likely encourage more teachers to throw their hats into the ring. That's because schools that are run by teachers report higher morale, less turnover and greater motivation to improve, according to Education Evolving, a St. Paul policy group specializing in ...


Laissez-Faire Education

It's easy to forget at the start of the fall semester that private schools enjoy certain advantages over their public school counterparts. I was reminded of this difference by the Little Lake Free School in Ann Arbor, Mich. that opened its doors on Sept. 7. It is the antithesis of the standardization of education that is sweeping the country. First, the school's curriculum is determined by what students want to learn, rather than what teachers tell them to learn. The idea is that their natural curiosity will lead them on the road to discovery. The responsibility of teachers, therefore, is ...


What About Principal Accountability?

To date, reformers have focused almost exclusively on the performance of teachers in an attempt to improve educational quality. But education is not their sole responsibility. I wrote about the crucial role that parents play in the process ("The Untouchables in School Reform," Sept. 3). Now it's time to examine the performance of principals. The latest reminder of how principals can poison the learning atmosphere comes out of Washington D.C. Jay Mathews, education columnist for the Washington Post, exposed the risk that even the best teachers run when they criticize their principals ("Transfer of D.C. teacher Erich Martel ...


Teaching to the New Tests Is Sound Pedagogy

If the new standardized tests slated to make their debut in the 2014-15 school year turn out as their designers promise, classroom instruction will enter a new era. Until now, teachers have argued that the tests in wide use largely measure achievement of low-level cognitive goals. As a result, even if teachers were able to post impressive gains for their students, educational quality was unavoidably sacrificed in the process. But the two groups responsible for creating the new instruments in English and math (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) have ...


The Untouchables in Education Reform

Right now, teachers are under the microscope in an attempt to identify which ones are effective based on the value-added model. There's no question that better ways need to be developed and implemented to make that determination. But what is lost in the debate is the role that other figures play in educational outcomes. Strangely, parents have so far evaded similar scrutiny. This oversight is cause for deep concern as the new school year begins. Parental involvement in the achievement of students is well supported by a broad body of empirical evidence. The most recent data come from the Harlem ...


Romanticists v. Determinists in Education

President Obama's proclamation that "by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world" reignites the long-simmering debate about the issue. To achieve this objective, an additional 375,000 students a year would have to graduate with at least an associate's or bachelor's degree. This number represents a 42 percent increase over today's output. At present, the U.S. ranks ninth in the proportion of young adults age 25-34 with college degrees among the countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. At first reading, Obama's goal makes sense. The benefits of ...


The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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