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July 01, 2009

A guide to developing school-to-community partnerships

Every month Golden Apple Fellows provide free professional development resources for teachers on the Golden Apple website. This month, Jim Arey shares a guide to developing school-to-community partnerships for high school students. The Guide is intended to assist social science and occupational teachers in the areas of public service and its related occupations to develop, create, and operate an internship program. This approach creates interaction among instructors and encourages the interchange of ideas and sharing of resources. The guide is designed for use in all schools in rural, suburban, or urban settings.

Click here to find out more and download the guide.

Jim Arey, a 2001 Golden Apple Fellow, is a social studies teacher at Elk Grove High School, in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. For eleven years, Jim was teacher and coordinator of the Public Service Practicum Community Resource program. The Public Service Practicum combines academics with real life learning in the form of non-paid internships, field experiences, and volunteer community service. Jim is a recipient of multiple awards and recognitions including the Golden Apple Award. He has encouraged his students to apply for and earn over $1 million dollars in college grants and scholarships. Jim has assisted in a multitude of community fundraising efforts including the Soldier Memorial fund, Heart of a Marine Foundation, and Community Character Coalition of Elk Grove.


June 04, 2009

Resources for bringing technology into your classroom

Every month Golden Apple Fellows provide free professional development resources for teachers on the Golden Apple website. This month, 2008 Fellow Carol Broos shares her wide wealth of resources for bringing technology into all classrooms. Carol explains, “When teachers explore the Internet through educational links, they can connect with each other and discover a Web 2.0 world that will enhance their teaching and increase their students’ knowledge of 21st century skills.”

“Let’s Communicate”: Resources for all teachers”
This presentation outline gives an overview of a wide range of online tools that teachers can use. Tips for online communication, interesting videos, links to the best sites for blogging, and much more.

MIDI Lab: Resources for music teachers”
This flyer outlines the process of setting up a high-tech music lab and describes the evolution of the music lab over a five-year period, along with helpful resources for starting your own lab.  A companion website give an overview of Carol’s music technology curriculum and many more resources.

Click here to find all the free resources from Golden Apple Fellows

Carol Broos is a 2008 Fellow and a born teacher. She has been teaching 4th-8th grade music at Sunset Ridge School in Northfield, Illinois for over twenty years. Her website has won national awards; her blog is one of the top 100 Music Education blogs. She frequently presents at state and national conventions both in technology and music. She is a 2006 Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher, a Finalist in TechLearning’s 2007 Leader of the Year, the 2008 IL Music Teacher of the Year, a 2008 Google Teacher Academy, and a 2009 Apple Distinguished Educator.


April 28, 2009

A guide to getting published

This month’s free professional development resource from Golden Apple is a step-by-step guide to getting your words—and your students’—into print. It was provided by 1997 Golden Apple Fellow and published children’s book author Cheryl Chapman. Please visit the Golden Apple website to download your copy!

A note from Cheryl:

When I was working as a Head Start teacher in the early 1980’s, I was frustrated with the lack of diverse characters in the picture books in my classroom.  I’d been a writer all of my life, heading up The Scribblers Club as a Roosevelt High School student in Des Moines, Iowa, and writing poetry for friends and magazines, editorials for newspapers, liturgies for church, and plays for various organizations.  I admit it:  I always knew I could write for kids, but took that talent for granted.  I was the geek who was so thrilled whenever we were assigned 500-word essays in grade school.  I entertained my little brothers and sisters and their friends with my Dr. Seuss take-offs.  When Kennedy died, I wrote a poem that made my whole school start to cry again.  I knew the power of playing with words.  So, along with my hippie-era penchant for righting wrongs, as well as my civil rights work, my little 3 and 4 year- old Head Start students finally gave me the motivation for getting some stories out of my heart and into publication.  Around that time, our local NAACP president befriended me.  I think it no coincidence that Cynthia Davis Brown was also a retired 3rd grade Chicago Public School teacher.  She took me, like a student, like a daughter, under her wings and saw that I developed the faith and know-how to do more than simply self-publish my manuscripts.  She has been the angel at my shoulder ever since, and I hope she’s proud.

So, that’s how I got here! No matter how you’ve come to the writing life, and no matter how your students get there, if you’ve never tried to get something published before, these pages should help you!  You will learn the basics:

  • How to assemble your story
  • How to find a publisher
  • How to submit work to a publisher
  • What to do in the meantime with your thirty gazillion unpublished works
  • How to enable your students’ writing addictions as well!


April 09, 2009

Latest trends in education, part 4

Please enjoy posts from Golden Apple’s own Penny Lundquist for the next few weeks.  Penny is a 1986 Golden Apple Fellow. She has been on the staff of Golden Apple for 17 years, and currently serves as Golden Apple’s Director of Professional Development. Prior to working at Golden Apple, she was an English teacher with 23 years of classroom experience in grades five through twelve. Her interests include literacy and teacher professionalism.

What follows is a highly personal list of what I perceive to be 5 key education trends . . . expressed as injunctions.  I would love to have readers comment on my choices and list picks of their own.  These are in no particular order, just things I’m picking up surfing the internet, reading Educational Leadership, Edutopia and other education publications, and following Obama’s/Duncan’s education priorities. 

Today is the 5th and final trend in this series.

5.  Start young and focus on reading. 
President Obama and Secretary Duncan have placed a high priority on early childhood education as the key to improving student achievement.  High quality, universal early childhood education can generate a generation of children entering elementary school ready to read and to learn.  The early years are critical in laying the groundwork for developing literacy, which leads to success in school, graduation from high school, entry into higher education and success in securing jobs demanding intellectual capital.  Reading is Everybody’s Business!!  This is something we’ve seen illustrated recently as Secretary Duncan and the Obamas have gone public reading to children.  Whatever else is or isn’t done educationally, reading is the basis for learning how to learn, the bedrock of education.  Deep in our national DNA is the image of Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, largely self-taught, trudging miles to get library books and reading by candlelight. 

Expect a renewed emphasis on this most important of skills, the bedrock of all other learning, and the call for more and better early childhood education and for more teachers to become highly skilled teachers of reading.  Arne Duncan’s work in Chicago focused on early childhood education and reading.  Golden Apple Award-winning teachers developed a Children’s Reading Bill of Rights to help schools and communities define a reading agenda for children, and we are sharing it as one of this month’s Free Resources.

The International Reading Association is a repository of excellent research and policy recommendations, including recommendations to President Obama. For more, check out their website.

What trends in education have you noticed?


April 06, 2009

Latest trends in education, part 3

Please enjoy posts from Golden Apple’s own Penny Lundquist for the next few weeks.  Penny is a 1986 Golden Apple Fellow. She has been on the staff of Golden Apple for 17 years, and currently serves as Golden Apple’s Director of Professional Development. Prior to working at Golden Apple, she was an English teacher with 23 years of classroom experience in grades five through twelve. Her interests include literacy and teacher professionalism.

What follows is a highly personal list of what I perceive to be 5 key education trends . . . expressed as injunctions.  I would love to have readers comment on my choices and list picks of their own.  These are in no particular order, just things I’m picking up surfing the internet, reading Educational Leadership, Edutopia and other education publications, and following Obama’s/Duncan’s education priorities. 

Last week, I looked at three trends in education. This week, I’ll be sharing two more. Today, #4:

4.  The digital divides need closing. 
Definitely one of the most urgent priorities is to guarantee that students acquire the 21st century technological skills they will need to compete successfully with students in other countries for the high quality lifestyles and living wages that are in everyone’s best interest.  For that to happen, two digital divides need closing.  We all know about the first – ensuring that poor kids have the same access to technology that more advantaged kids have.  That’s the original digital divide and by all accounts it is widening rather than shrinking.  And that brings us to the second:  in many high poverty schools, computers and other high tech equipment sit gathering dust, in some cases still in their original boxes, because teachers are either technology averse, haven’t received adequate professional development to use the technology or our current priorities under NCLB seem to preclude more innovative instructional approaches – those involving technology.  There is a digital divide between kids and their teachers across socio-economic groups.  It’s just less problematic in more advantaged communities where kids have access to technology after school, when much of their real learning is taking place, driven by their own interests.  All teachers need to become more sophisticated users of technology for instruction.  That means they need to understand how to harness web 2.0 features for classrooms across the nation.

For more, check out Edutopia.

Check back in a few days for the 5th and final trend in this series!


April 02, 2009

Latest trends in education, part 2

Please enjoy posts from Golden Apple’s own Penny Lundquist for the next few weeks.  Penny is a 1986 Golden Apple Fellow. She has been on the staff of Golden Apple for 17 years, and currently serves as Golden Apple’s Director of Professional Development. Prior to working at Golden Apple, she was an English teacher with 23 years of classroom experience in grades five through twelve. Her interests include literacy and teacher professionalism.

What follows is a highly personal list of what I perceive to be 5 key education trends . . . expressed as injunctions.  I would love to have readers comment on my choices and list picks of their own.  These are in no particular order, just things I’m picking up surfing the internet, reading Educational Leadership, Edutopia and other education publications, and following Obama’s/Duncan’s education priorities. 

A few days ago, I published the first two trends: It’s the Teachers, Stupid! and It’s the Students, Stupid! Here’s #3:

3.  Children need 21st Century Skills.
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a collaboration including business and technology leaders such Apple, Dell, Microsoft, and Verizon, and educational organizations such as Discovery Education, Scholastic, and the NEA, advocates for the full implementation of a new framework for conceptualizing education in the 21st Century, arguing that,

There is a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces...U.S. schools must align classroom environments with real world environments by infusing 21st century skills.

The framework, which has already been adopted by state partners in ten states, emphasizes a wide variety of themes, including critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, technology skills, self-directed learning, leadership, and cross-cultural understanding.

In an examination of West Virginia’s implementation of the 21st Century Skills Framework, EdWeek noted that successful integration of the framework would require a “fundamental change in teachers’ roles.”.

In his recent education speech (3/10/09), outlining his administration’s focus for the future, President Obama expanded on this idea:

In a 21st-century world where jobs can be shipped wherever there’s an Internet connection, where a child born in Dallas is now competing with a child in New Delhi, where your best job qualification is not what you do, but what you know—education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it’s a prerequisite for success. I’m calling on our nation’s governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.

It will take all of us working together, not just state education chiefs and state governors, to gear up our education system so that students learn what they need to know for successful participation in the new age.  We have to educate students for the future, not the past.
For more, check out:

In the next week, I’ll discuss two more trends in education.


March 30, 2009

Latest trends in education

Please enjoy posts from Golden Apple’s own Penny Lundquist for the next few weeks.  Penny is a 1986 Golden Apple Fellow. She has been on the staff of Golden Apple for 17 years, and currently serves as Golden Apple’s Director of Professional Development. Prior to working at Golden Apple, she was an English teacher with 23 years of classroom experience in grades five through twelve. Her interests include literacy and teacher professionalism.

What follows is a highly personal list of what I perceive to be 5 key education trends . . . expressed as injunctions.  I would love to have readers comment on my choices and list picks of their own.  These are in no particular order, just things I’m picking up surfing the internet, reading Educational Leadership, Edutopia and other education publications, and following Obama’s/Duncan’s education priorities. 

Without further ado, here are the first two trends:

1.  It’s the teachers, stupid! 
It’s turning out that the single most important common denominator in high student achievement gains by students in high needs schools, is the quality of the teaching.  Children, who have accomplished teachers, and as many in a row as possible, simply do better.  Now that this is a known fact, there is an impetus to identify more such individuals, give them the training and resources they need, get them into the schools of greatest need and reward them adequately for the important work they are doing and the results they are helping their students achieve.  Golden Apple has developed a Commitment to Teaching Excellence to guide and inspire teachers in their profession, and we’ve posted it as this month’s Free ResourceFind it here.
For more on the importance of high-quality teachers, check out Ed Trust, which publishes excellent studies on this topic.

2.  It’s the students, stupid!
This is, of course, the corollary of #1.  Secretary of Education Duncan is famously known for putting the needs of students before any other consideration – as well it should be. “My job is to fight for children, to fight for kids,” Duncan said. “When you do that, tough decisions become pretty clear in your head very quickly.” In a recent editorial, he called for “rewarding good teachers and removing bad ones” Teachers who are not highly effective either need excellent, high quality, professional development, a deepening of their content knowledge and the will and commitment to improve, or they need to make way for those who will be effective with children.  From Arne Duncan to Bill Gates, the message is clear.  We must focus on what is best for students, how students learn best and from whom . . . so trend #2 is a greater emphasis on students . . . kids come first!
For more on Duncan and the Obama administration’s education policy, check out this article.

Stay tuned over the next few weeks, as I post three more interesting trends in the public discourse on education.


March 12, 2009

Responding to Obama’s education plan

Golden Apple President and CEO Dom Belmonte shares his thoughts about President Obama’s education plan in a guest column in this month’s Catalyst:

Obama’s call to the nation’s youth to enter teaching is certainly laudable. The president’s remark that “the most important factor (to a student’s) success… (is) the person standing in front of the classroom” echoes the sentiments Golden Apple has proclaimed for decades, and we hail those that heed his call.

But the truest measure of educational improvement is not who enters the profession, but who stays and deepens their understanding of and commitment to teaching and inspiring children. A brief teaching stint to buttress one’s resume, before leaving for another field, does not improve a classroom, a school or a community.

Dom continues with a call for authentic assessment:

What was missing from Obama’s remarks, in our opinion, is the recognition that children need to be evaluated by more than their ability to achieve on timed, multiple-choice standardized tests. This mania has harmed our classrooms, dumbed-down curricula and virtually ignored problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. These are attributes that will create the world-class education system we all desire for our children.

Golden Apple feels strongly that there needs to be a significant focus on finding ways to include those attributes in all levels of education, to raise our standards and give our children the best chance to succeed in the world.


February 23, 2009

New Resources from Golden Apple

Golden Apple is pleased to announce its newest support for teachers: Free resources from Golden Apple Fellows, available every month for download!

This month, please enjoy the “I CAN” Checklist of Skills for New Teachers.

The “I CAN” Checklist was developed by Golden Apple Fellow, Dr. Renee Cargerman Dolezal, and is based on a decade of work by Golden Apple teachers in the Golden Apple Teacher Education (GATE) program, from 1998 to 2008. GATE partnered with Northwestern University, ICTC, UIC, and Chicago Public Schools to provide alternative certification and prepare new teachers for work in classrooms throughout Chicago. Special thanks to Golden Apple Fellows and staff and NU-Teach staff, as well as the outstanding GATE teachers and helpful principals who work daily to inspire their students.

Download now [PDF, 4 pages]

Find out more on the Golden Apple Free Resources Page.

Renee Cargerman Dolezal, PhD, is a 1992 Golden Apple Fellow. Renee was Chairperson of the English department at Arts of Living, a Chicago Public Alternative School for pregnant teens where she and her students developed the Baby Lit program and an award-winning cable TV series, Teen Moms Only. She received her doctorate in Performance Studies from Northwestern University. Renee served as Director of the GATE program in 2008, and is currently a consultant, mentor, and Field Instructor in Illinois.


December 29, 2008

Incoming administration supports Early Childhood Education

by desertjim

After years of being ignored by the Bush administration, advocates of early childhood education are anticipating a change for the better from the incoming Obama administration. President-elect Obama has pledged $10 billion for early childhood education. That money would be the largest federal initiative for educating young children since Head Start begain in 1965. When asked whether the current recession would force a scaling back in the pledge, transition spokeswoman Jen Pdaki said, “We simply cannot afford to sideline key priorities like education.”

Given that research shows the value of early childhood education, it is good to see that the new administration will be directing resources where they can do the most good. Noble Prize winning economist James J. Heckman has reported that, “Enriched pre-kindergarten programs available to disadvantaged children on a voluntary basis, coupled with home visitation programs, have a strong record of pormoting achievement for disadvantaged children, improving their labor market outcomes and reducing involvement in crime. Such programs are likely to generate substantial savings to society and to promote higher economic growth...” His research also indicated that ability gaps between disadvantaged and other children open up early, before schooling typically begins at age five.

Recently, eight national institutions, including National-Louis University, the National Head Start Association and the Aspire Institute issued a call for the reinvention of higher education programs for early childhood teachers and other professionals working with children from birth to age five. In their announcement, they point out that research has continually shown that, in order for children to have exceptional, high quality early care and education, they must have teachers and staff with specialized knowledge and skill. It would make sense for some of the billions of dollars pledged for early childhood education to go to the institutions that will train the needed early childhood educators.

President-elect Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has been a strong advocate for early childhood education. That speaks well for growth in Head Start and related programs.


December 26, 2008

Schools to get share of stimulus package

by desertjim

President-elect Obama’s proposed economic stimulus package includes money for school construction and to expand broadband access for schools. The president-elect himself has said, “It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have a chance to get online.” He has pledged a sweeping effort to modernize school buildings and equip classrooms with computers as part of the economic stimulus plan. So, it can reasonably be expected that the $500 billion economic recovery bill will include billions in grants for school modernization, computer linkups and renovation.

However, some school officials are lobbying lawmakers to include more money for education in the package . They hope that the stimulus bill will include money for special education, teacher training and grants for other educational needs. Edward R. Kealy, executive director of the lobbying group Committee for Education Funding says that over the long term, education is one of the best places for federal dollars because, “It actually has the strongest possibility of being able to pay back.” Since the main intent of the stimulus package is to create 3 million new jobs, it is not clear that such attempts to direct money to existing programs will be successful.

There are lots of questions to be answered at this point. How will individual public schools obtain their share of the stimulus money? How will the money be allocated, who will be eligible and will there be competition for grants? Details will become clearer when Congress returns to work after the holiday break. It behooves the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers to keep an eye on the process and offer teacher input to the writing of the final bill.


December 24, 2008

More schools fail to meet AYP

by desertjim

Almost 30,000 United States public schools failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) this year. This was a 28 percent yearly increase of schools failing to meet the testing standards under the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). Critics say that an increasing number of schools to be labelled as failing is inevitable. Those critics say the law has set unrealistic requirements, including the demand that all students be proficient in math and reading by the 2013-14 school year.

As far back as 2003, the National Education Association was pointing out that AYP rules caused many good schools to be listed as failures. In that year, for example, Ridgewood High School in New Jersey was placed on the early warning list because 3 students (who had left the school) did not take the required test. Despite the fact that Ridgewood High boasted an average SAT score of 1174 (the national average in 2003 was 1026) they were placed on the early-warning list. In Florida, Gulfport Elementary received a $40,000 bonus check from Governor Jeb Bush because of its academic excellence. However, that same year, NCLB test reported that the school had failed to meet AYP requirements.

The American Federation of Teachers points out that AYP does not in fact measure the yearly progress of the same students over time. Not surprisingly, the evidence shows that whether or not a school makes AYP does not necessaily depend on its effectiveness or the presence or absence or size of achievement gaps. The union predicts that almost all schools will have failed AYP by 2014 and points out that no other nation has been, or is close to, meeting the kind of standard that has been set by NCLB.

The superintendent of the Mat-Su school district in Arkansas recently felt compelled to write a letter to the parents explaining that the schools in his district that failed to meet AYP were not bad schools. He points out in the letter that many of his “failing” schools met 30 of the 31 target measurements this year but were still downgraded under NCLB rules.

NCLB has set standards and developed rules that will make it almost impossible for public schools to meet AYP requirements in future years. Whether this was the intended result of NCLB or not, major changes must be made as soon as possible. Arne Duncan, as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, has been no fan of NCLB’s requirements . Perhaps his tenure as Secretary of Education will include the revision or removal of NCLB high-stakes testing as the be-all and end-all of educational measurement.


December 17, 2008

Circuit Court hears NCLB case

by desertjim

Last week, the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit heard arguments challenging the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as an unfunded mandate. Robert H. Chanin, general counsel for the National Education Association told judges, “States and school districts are prisoners of this law. There are obligations that are placed on them by [NCLB], but the money is not enough to implement those requirements.” The suit, Pontiac School District vs Spelling has been wending its way through the courts since April of 2005.

When President Bush vetoed the 2008 education appropriations bill it resulted in a $14.8 billion annual gap in funding for NCLB programs. That is on top of a previously underfunded gap of $56.1 billion. Section 9527(a) of NCLB states that, “Nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the Federal government to mandate, direct, or control a state, local education agency....or any political subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this Act.” Despite the wording of the bill, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings argued, “NCLB is not an unfunded mandate. It is a voluntary compact between the States and the Federal government, which asks that in exchange for Federal tax dollars, results be demonstrated.”

The suit was originally dismissed in the US District Court for the Eastern Court of Michigan but the dismissal was reversed by a three judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. The school district’s case has precedent behind it.In 2006, the US Supreme Court ruled in Arlington Central School District vs Murphy that in spending-clause legislation, Congress must clearly express its intent to impose conditions on the grant of federal aid.

I was not able to find a timetable for the release of the circuit court’s decision on the case. It certainly puts an interesting twist on the reconsideration of NCLB that will take place under the incoming administration. A court judgement in favor of the school district might well place the current stress on high stakes testing in question.


December 16, 2008

Duncan to be next Secretary of Education

by desertjim

The decision has been made. The next Secretary of Education will be Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan. After seven years at the helm of the third largest school district in the nation, Duncan will follow his basketball buddy to Washington DC.

In tapping Duncan, the President-elect said, “When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners. When faced with tough decisions, Arne doesn’t blink.” President-elect Obama went on to say, “[Duncan] is not beholden to any one ideology, and he’s worked tirelessly to improve teacher quality. In just seven years he boosted elementary test scores here in Chicago from 38 percent of students meeting the standards to 67 percent. The dropout rate has gone down every year he’s been in charge.”

Mayor Daley selected Duncan to head the Chicago Schools in 2001. Prior to assuming the CEO position, Duncan was deputy chief of staff to former Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas. Since his appointment, he has gained a reputation as a reformer willing to take on the teachers’ union and punish underperforming schools. His recent decisions to support a pilot program offering pay for good grades, consider public boarding schools, and create a gay-friendly high school have bolstered his image as being open to new ideas. (3)

Duncan’s selection as Secretary of Education leaves Chicago with the problem of finding someone as dedicated as Duncan is to the idea that education is a civil rights issue. I would be interested in hearing opinions about this appointment from members of TEN who are Chicago teachers. I am also curious as to who teachers would recommend as the new head of the Chicago public schools.


December 10, 2008

TIMSS results show little US improvement

by desertjim

Yesterday saw the release of the most recent results of the quadrennial Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The report is based on science and mathematics tests given to representative samples of students at the 4th and 8th grade levels. Fourth Graders from 36 countires and eighth graders in 48 different nations were tested.

The test results produced a mixed bag of commentary. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) is discouraged. The NSTA website says, “Science scores for both fourth and eighth grade students have remained flat since 1995 and scores for minority students are dismal.” The NSTA blames the poor results primarily on the fact that science education has been eliminated from many K-6 classrooms. Education Week tends to agree with the negative assessment, using the headline, “Asians Best US Students in Math and Science.” The article goes on to point out measurable improvement in the math scores of US Fourth graders but noted that nothing has changed in the US position relative to other nations.

MSNBC finds more positive news saying that, “In math and science, American kids are doing better than people think...but some Asian countries have an edge in math that just keeps growing. US students have made significant gains in math since 1995 and score above average on international fourth and eighth grade tests.” The New York Times also picks out the higher math scores for their headline and quotes the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statisics who said, “We were pleased to see improvements in math, and wished we’d seen more in science.”

Overall, scores in the US were above the international average in each subject and grade. However, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong dominated the fourth grade tests. Several developing eastern European countries (such as Hungary, Latvia,and the Czech Republic) outscored the US on some of the tests. In one interesting part of the study, Massachusetts and Minnesota were graded as though they were separate countries. Both states did better than all but the top performing Asian countries. The overall TIMSS findings match the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that recently found some progress in math and less progress in science.

So, what should we draw from this latest test? Has the emphasis on reading under No Child Left Behind distracted schools from providing a more rounded education for our children? Should we be spending more time on science education?


December 06, 2008

Are unions really the bogeyman?

by desertjim

I have been fascinated by the attacks directed at the auto industry over their request for government backed loans. Bankers and mortgage houses, with little Congressional debate, were awarded up to $700 billion to repair the credit industry they had destroyed. The auto industry has been lambasted in Congress and in the press since they asked for loans amounting to $25 billion. The difference seems to be that the auto industry is unionized. According to their critics, the awful union workers with their demands for health insurance, pension plans and decent wages (averaging around $28/hour - not the $70 touted by the news media) will soon drive Ford, Chrysler and GM to the brink of bankruptcy. In fact, base pay for a UAW worker is $24/hour and base pay at nonunion US Nissan is $21/hour. If the Big Three auto makers go under, the union isn’t likely to be the cause.

I bring this up on an educational website, because the attacks on the auto industry are part of a recent ratcheting up of anti-union rhetoric across the board.  The rhetoric includes several recent attacks agains teachers unions. Columnist David Brooks, in a discussion about President-elect Obama’s choice of a secretary of education says he needs to pick a reformer not someone who will support, “...the teacher’s unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms.” According to Brooks, union lobbying efforts against a real reformer are relentless.

A recent editorial in the Washington Post called for the selection of an education secretary who would encourage the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship typified by Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp. The Post is against someone who is, “[one of the] ‘incrementalists’ who are allied with teachers unions.” Interestingly enough, the Post puts reformer Linda-Darling Hammond in that group of incrementalists because she, like the teachers unions, has been more critical than supportive of No Child Left Behind.

I am not convinced that the unions are the bogeyman, either in the auto industry, or in public education. Of course, I am biased. I was an active teachers’ union member my whole career. As a result, I find myself in agreement with the organization of Teacher Activist Groups (TAG) that says, “Over the last 20 years in the US, education is becoming the business of education and we emphatically reject that model. We call upon the President-elect to choose someone who will embrace the ideas of civic involvement and public participation.” TAG specifically does not want a corporate executive with a vision of privatized, corporatized, and anti-democratic schools. Neither do I.

I think it would be useful to have discussions about ways to fix public education and help ailing auto companies that aren’t based entirely on the concept that unions are bad for America.


December 03, 2008

How valuable are high school community service hours?

by desertjim

The transition website of President elect Obama includes a page titled “America Serves”. The site says that the Obama-Biden administration intends to set a goal that all middle school and high school students engage in 50 hours of community service a year.

Of course, community service for high school students is hardly a new idea. Many high schools started adding community service to their curriculums 15 years ago. Now, schools all across the nation require some number of service hours as a graduation requirement. Pacific Collegiate school in Santa Cruz, CA, requires 20 hours of community service a year for high school students and 10 hours a year at junior high. South Houston high school requires 25 hours a year (100 hours completed by graduation). The largest requirement I found was at Robert F. Kennedy high school in Queens, NY. Students (sophomore-senior) must accomplish 200 hours of community service before being allowed to graduate.

The push for more community service from high school students is coming even as cynics are calling existing programs a form of forced altruism. Not only are some college admissions officers rolling their eyes at bogus sounding claims of service, but high schools are scaling back the requirements, acknowledging that a lot of the so-called service is meaningless. Lauren Swierczal, who took over last year as director of community service at a private school in the Bronx said, “I was finding [a] fixation more on hours than acts of service.”

Not everyone is put off by the community service requirement. Angelica Body-Lawson, a junior at private Horace Mann in New York said her younger sister, a middle school student with no hourly requirements, recently volunteered for a project that made crafts for the children of battered women, and the work went late into the night. Amasheka Collins, a junior at Harlem’s Frederic Douglass Academy worked with Columbia University students on a self-sustaining greenhouse project. She enjoyed the challenge and working with the Columbia students as much as the act of construction. Frederick Douglass students are now coaching elementary students in the neighborhood in their own robotics league. (6)

What is a reasonable expectation for community service from high school students? Should the service be part of graduation requirements? Do such programs contribute to a citizenry that grows up to see value in voluntary contributions to the larger community?


November 28, 2008

Who will be Secretary of Education?

by desertjim

The incoming Obama administration made lots of news last week by naming the economic team that will be taking over at the end of January. Other probable appointments like Tom Daschle for Health and Human Services and Bill Richardson for Commerce have been leaked to the press. However, the choice for Secretary of Education seems to be very much in doubt. The number of possible candidates listed in TIME magazine, on Yahoo, and in the political blogs is lengthy.

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, here is the list I cobbled together:

Howard Dean, former governor and chairman of the Democratic Pary
Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City schools
Linda Darling-Hammond, education advisor to the Obama campaign
Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools
Wendy Kopp, founder and chairman of Teach for America
Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, DC public school system
Christopher Edley, Jr., Dean of the Law School at University of California, Berkeley
James B. Hunt, Jr., Former governor of North Carolina
Caroline Kennedy, member of the Obama campaign’s vice-presidential search committee
Johnathan Schnur, Chief executive of New Leaders for New Schools

There are probably other names floating around out there, but these seem to be the most commonly mentioned. Janet Napolitano (governor of Arizona) was on earlier lists, but she will be taking over as head of Homeland Security. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was also mentioned, but he has stated clearly that he has no interest in further service in DC.

Whoever takes over will be only the ninth Secretary of Education. Education was promoted to cabinet rank during the administration of Jimmy Carter. As educators, should we be looking for an educational administrator like Klein or Rhee, an education reformer like Kopp or Darling-Hammond, a college educator like Edley, or a politician like Dean?


November 25, 2008

Creationism is still not science

by desert jim

Yesterday was the 149th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. It was also a day that science teachers and concerned residents (this time in Texas) had to plead with their State Board of Education not to confuse public schoolchildren by watering down the teaching of evolution.  Once again, anti-evolutionists on a state board want teachers to teach the weaknesses or limitations of evolution.

Evolution is the unifying principle that explains all scientific observations of the diversity of life. It is as basic to our understanding of biology as the atomic theory is to our understanding of chemistry. At the same level, the theory of tectonic plates explains earthquakes and vulcanism and the germ theory explains communicable diseases. The only weakness or limitation that any theory could develop would be if it was unable to explain actual observations or data. That is not the case for evolution.

The most recent effort by creationists is to argue that they are proponents of academic freedom. They argue that teachers should be encouraged to, “Objectively present the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory.” This approach was developed after a judge in Pennsylvania ruled that teaching intelligent design in the public schools violated the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. I reiterate here my main point - evolution currently explains all available scientific observations and data. It has no more weaknesses than atomic theory or any of the other generally accepted scientific explanations of our universe.

The government in the United Kingdom has had enough of the creationists. New guidelines make it clear that creationism or its recent euphemism “intelligent design” do not belong in science classrooms. The guidelines state clearly, “Creationism and intelligent design are not part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study and should not be taught as science.” The guidelines go on to point out that, “In science [theory] means that there is a substantial amount of supporting evidence underpinned by principles and explanations accepted by the international scientific community.” By that definition, creationism is not a scientific theory.

149 years after Darwin made clear the way life has diversified on our planet, it is time to put the controversy between evolution and religion to rest, at least in our science classrooms


November 22, 2008

Will Merit Pay Make a Comeback?

by desertjim

In the summer of 2007, Senator Barack Obama stood in front of the National Education Association (NEA) convention and told the assembled teachers that he was in favor of paying teachers more if their students perform well on tests or if they take on added duties. This year, as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, he repeated his support of merit pay. “I know this wasn’t necessarily the most popular part of my speech last year,” he said, “but I said it then and I say it again today because it’s what I believe.” Both conventions booed his suggestion.

Last week, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, said there is a role for raises based on how well students learn. Weingarten said, “If an innovation is collaborative and fair, teachers will embrace it, and it will succeed.” Teachers unions in some cities, including New York City, have begun to accept performance pay. In New York, teachers in 128 of 200 eligible schools are getting bonuses for improving student achievement.

Draft legislation of the updated version of No Child Left Behind included a proposal to give bonuses of up to $10,000 to “outstanding teachers”. The proposal doesn’t spell out who would be eligible for the extra money, although test scores would be a factor. NEA president Reg Weaver rejected the idea during last year’s hearings, saying that level of detail should be bargained locally, not spelled out by Congress. In fact, the local NEA affiliate in Denver has accepted a limited merit pay plan.

So, is merit pay back on the table in local negotiations? For six years in the 1960s, the district I worked in had a limited merit pay plan. Teachers received $200 increases in pay based on the principals’ decision. It was a whimsical system. Few women received the bonus, men almost always got it. I received the bonus every year I was eligible except the year I headed the NEA local that negotiated our first collective bargaining agreement. The unfair bonus system was one of the first items we bargained to get rid of once we had a labor contract.

I have no problem with programs which offer higher pay for extra duties or extended years. Teachers who become department heads, team leaders or curriculum developers need to be reimbursed. I fear any new merit pay system that is even partially based on student test scores. We have evidence that the scores are not measuring student ability to succeed after high school.

Teachers who receive underachieving students in September can not reasonably be expected to raise them to acceptable test levels by March. Would such teachers be penalized? Would teachers in schools with high percentages of special education students, or English as a second language students be cut out of the system? If tests are not part of the criteria for awarding merit pay, what would replace them? How can merit pay be made fair to all the teachers?


November 19, 2008

Is “Reading First” a Failure?

by desertjim

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education act was premised on three goals. To focus on low-performing schools, to beef up the federal role in education and to promote teaching methods backed by “scientifically based research”. The centerpiece of the research-based approach was supposed to be Reading First. However, for at least two years, questions have been asked about an apparent push to adopt reading programs based on campaign contributions rather than on research. In 2006 the Inspector general found that states were pressured to approve materials from only a handful of preferred publishers including SRA/McGraw-Hill, whose CEO has been a major Republican fund-raiser.

In spring of this year, the Federal Department of Education released a report that indicated the reading comprehension of children participating in Reading First wasn’t growing as fast as that of children in a control group. Defenders of Reading First questioned the study’s methodology. Reid Lyon (former head the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human development) said that the report’s findings are, “Not a cause for ... political opportunism, but a cause for deliberation and careful consideration of all the possible explanations - ineffective treatment, poor implementation .. and many other factors.”

Well, the careful deliberation has taken place. The final report of the Reading First Impact Study, released today, shows no effect on reading comprehension in participating schools. The study gave reading proficiency tests to 30 to 40 thousand students, one-half of whom were in Reading First programs. The $6 billion spent on Reading First has helped more students to identify letters and words, but has not had an impact on reading comprehension among 1st, 2nd or 3rd graders. More time is spent on reading instruction in schools that received Reading First grants, but students are no more likely to become proficient readers.

Since NCLB was supposed to be based on research, the current Reading First program would seem to be a prime candidate for the ash heap. Perhaps a new iteration of the program could actually be based on science instead of cronyism, but that decision will rest with a new administration and a new Congress. I am not a reading teacher, so I cannot claim expertise in the field. Perhaps TEN readers who have experienced the effects of Reading First can react to the new study. What should be done to improve reading instruction for current 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders?


November 18, 2008

Test scores improve, but is that helping students?

by desertjim

The Chicago Sun Times recently reported that, while increasing numbers of Chicago students are meeting state standards, the standards are inflated and Chicago Public School kids are not grasping the complex skills they need. The Sun Times quotes a report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research that says the average eighth grader who easily passed the state math test later scored only a 17.5 on the ACT college entrance exam. That is far below Chicago’s districtwide goal of 20 (which would give a student a shot at a minimally competitive college).

There seems to be a disconnect between the state standards and national tests such as the ACT. Does teaching to the state tests result in students deficient in the analytical skills they will need to compete in college? An extensive analysis by the Harvard Civil Right Project of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) concluded that, “No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has not caused achievement to improve significantly, nor have gaps been narrowed”. A study by Policy Analysis for California Education shows similar results. Bruce Fuller (University of California at Berkley) said, “A lot of governors and a lot of state school chiefs have...claimed significant progress in terms of reading and math achievement, [but] in many cases...state officials seem to be exaggerating progress that has been made in children’s basic reading skills.”

Even the conservative Wall Street Journal says that, “NCLB is beyond uninformative, it is deceptive.” Referring to the same Harvard analysis mentioned above, the Journal says that NCLB has failed to raise test scores and instead pushes classrooms toward relentless drilling and holds good students hostage to the performance of the least talented. This is occurring, according to the Journal, when the economic future of the country depends more than ever on the performance of the most talented.

A study that indicates an actual improvement in reading and math scores comes from the Center on Educational Policy (CEP). But according to the report’s authors, the results do not indicate cause and effect relationship between NCLB and the improved scores. CEP states, “It is determine the extent to which these trends in test results have occurred because of NCLB.” The National Education Association in reporting on the study claims that any improvements in test scores may have come in spite of NCLB rather than because of it. We are all aware that districts are devoting more class time to reading and math and are even spending time teaching students how to take standardized tests at the expense of providing a more broad-based education.

If state test scores are going up, but students are less prepared for college at the end of high school, what is the benefit of the testing? If even the most favorable study can’t demonstrate that NCLB is successful, why should the law be continued?


November 11, 2008

What can educators expect from the Obama administration?

by desertjim

Now that Barack Obama is the President-Elect, I thought it would be a good time to look in more detail at his education policies.

The campaign website has considerable detail on the priorities of the incoming Obama administration. The three top education priorities are to reform No Child Left Behind (NCLB), invest in early childhood education and make college affordable for all Americans. NCLB reform will be based on the premise that, “Teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests.” A comprehensive “Zero to Five” plan is intended to assist states in moving toward voluntary, universal preschool. Finally, an Obama administration will push to create a college tuition tax credit that will cover two-thirds of the tuition costs for public universities for students who agree to community service.

The President-Elect has promised to add $10B a year to federal preschool funding, recruit an army of new teachers, double federal funding for charter schools and find funding for the scholarships to those who agree to pursue careers in teaching. It is not clear at this time which of these education proposals will take priority. The massive federal budget deficits will certainly have an effect on any new spending for education. Some may be part of the overdue renewal of NCLB. Others, such as early childhood education may be introduced as separate bills.

The Wall Street Journal (which is no longer an unbiased source under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership) is reporting that the new president may put education on the back burner, due to the financial crisis he is inheriting. This opinion seems to be based wholly on an interview in October in which he listed education fifth in priority after the economy, energy independence, health-care overhaul and tax cuts for the middle class. I would argue that the economy, energy and tax cuts are all so intimately related that they count as one item and that education is absolutely necessary to creating a technologically able work force that will create and maintain energy independence.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan disagrees with the back burner assessment. Duncan said that education has been pivotal to Obama’s personal story and he predicted, “A very strong, aggressive and comprehensive strategy...this is something that is hugely important to him.” It will be important that the education community pay attention to what happens in the first 100 days of the Obama/Biden administration. The campaign emphasis on improved education must be continued and turned into actual legislation as soon as possible.


November 06, 2008

The joy of voting

by desertjim

I spent Tuesday working as an election judge in southern New Mexico. I found out that I am really getting too old to work 14 hour days anymore. I also found out, however, how exhilarating it can be to see people cast their first votes. In the precinct I worked, over 45% had voted early or absentee. As a result, we had plenty of time to observe the 200 or so who came in to vote on election day.

Just like the rest of the nation, about one in 10 of our voters were new to the process. Many still showed their temporary voter registration cards. They had registered so recently that there hadn’t been time for the permanent cards to reach them. It was clear that they took their duty as voters seriously. Several came in with friends who had just voted at other precincts, or were going to vote at the next stop in their travels. (Friends make sure friends vote?) They had sample ballots in their hands and had obviously thought out their choices ahead of time. I noticed that they all took the time to vote on the state constitutional amendments and bond issues on the back of the ballot - something many of our older voters skipped.

But the smiles were the thing that all the election workers and poll watchers commented on. When the ballot went into the box, and the counter showed that the vote was recorded, each new voter lit up and walked out with the smile of a kid with a new puppy at Christmas. There were even a couple of high-fives from the accompanying friends. It was a joy to behold.

I’ve been voting for a long time now. I never miss a chance to vote, whether it’s for school board members, city council or president of the United States. I consider it a duty and a privilege of my citizenship. Tuesday’s new voters reminded me and my fellow poll workers just how great it is to be able to cast our own ballots. I have a feeling that those young voters will continue to vote. They aren’t going to easily forget the feeling that accompanied participating in our democracy for the first time.


October 29, 2008

How do we acquire the best teachers?

by desertjim
In Tuesday’s post, I noted that both presidential candidates have spoken favorably of Teach For America as a way to increase the number of excellent teachers in the public schools. Veteran teachers are aware that the debate continues about the efficacy of staffing classrooms with such alternatively certified teachers. Despite the increasing number of alternative certification programs, support in the educational community it hardly uniform.

There are research studies that argue both for and against alternative certification. With only five weeks of training and no advanced degrees in education, Teach for America teachers would presumably be far less qualified than those coming out of tradtional teacher programs. Yet a 2005 study found that 74% of principals polled considered Teach for America teachers more effective than other beginning teachers. Of the principals surveyed, 95% reported that TFA members’ training is at least as good at the training of other beginning teachers.

Another study found that, despite early hopes, alternative routes do not add to the diversity of the teaching force. However, the same study concluded that alternative routes can be effective in recruiting teachers for subject areasof greatest need, such as mathematics and science (Shen, J. Alternative Certification: Math and Science Teachers, Educational Horizons 78 (1), 1999). The Golden Apple Teacher Education (GATE) program was one such program which brought science and math experts from industry into public school classrooms. GATE (cosponsored by the Golden Apple Foundation and Northwestern University) introduced alternative certification to Illinois.

The US Department of Education considers alternative certification of teachers to be a useful innovation (3)The Department’s web page says, “The rationale driving alternative route programs is that many excellent teacher candidates have made other life or career choices but would be open to becoming teachers if presented with the right offer.” The department recommends recruiting widely in industry but being very selective in admitting candidates into programs. Many existing programs now use the Haberman interview to select only those most likely to succeed in urban classrooms. (Haberman, Martin; Star Teachers of Children in Poverty, Kappa Delta Pi, 1995).

The next federal administration will have to address the need for more and more excellent teachers to staff public school classrooms. As educators, we need to consider what direction we think will acquire the best teachers possible.


October 28, 2008

Presidential candidates’ educational policies

by desertjim

After almost two years of campaigning, we are now one week from the presidential election. I will not miss the TV ads, robo-calls, canvassers and mounds of election mailers. Living in the swing state of New Mexico means an even heavier dose of electioneering than I used to see in Illinois. Voting early did help reduce some of the campaign calls from individual candidates. All the new computer software allows campaigns to track voters and not waste time by calling those who already cast their ballots. (I did my part to cut down calls in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional district by volunteering to do that data entry for several local candidates.)

If you haven’t voted yet, here is a bit of information about the educational policies of the presidential candidates. The information is gleaned directly from the websites of Barack Obama and John McCain.

Senator McCain says that No Child Left Behind has focused our attention on the realities of how students perform against a common standard and that we can no longer accept low standards for some students and high standards for others. Senator Obama says the goal of the law was the right one, but unfulfilled funding promises, inadequate implementation and shortcomings in the design of the law have limited its effectiveness. He says the law has failed to provide sufficient high-quality teachers and failed to support and pay those teachers.

Despite what I have heard from some educators, McCain does not seem to have a specific program for school vouchers. His website does say that, “If a school wil not change, the students should be able to change schools....parents shold be empowered with school choice to send their children to the school that can best educate them.” It is not stated whether that choice would include private and/or public schools.  Obama intends to foster choice by doubling funding for the Federal Charter School Program to create more successful charter schools (which are part of the public school system). He would, however, require more accountability for charter schools and ask for a clear process to close down underperforming charter schools.

Obama hopes to attract more teachers by creating Teacher Service Scholarships that will pay for teacher education in exchange for teaching for at least four years in a high-need field or location. McCain believes that schools need to be freed up to compete for the most effective, character building teachers, hire them and reward them. Both candidates in interviews have expressed support for alternative routes to teaching such as Teach For America.

There are other positions given on the candidates’ websites linked above. If you are still undecided, check them out for yourself. Educated voters are the best hope of an effective democracy.


October 23, 2008

Golden Apple Fellow Cheryl D. Watkins chosen for Milken National Educator Award

We are so proud and applaud our Golden Apple Fellow and colleague, Cheryl D. Watkins, principal of Pershing West Magnet Elementary School, for her selection as a National Educator Award recipient from the Milken Foundation.

Golden Apple’s relationship with this fine educator began in 1991 when she was nominated as a teacher of autistic children as Agassiz Elementary School and was named in the 6th cohort of Golden Apple Award winners. Cheryl has distinguished herself in the Golden Apple Academy ever since her inclusion. Cheryl serves as a Pre-K-3rd class representative on the Golden Apple Academy Committee. She has taught and mentored our prospective teachers through the Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois program. She has always been a vibrant and articulate advocate for children and represents Golden Apple’s interest and programs superbly. We hailed her appointment as principal of Pershing West and have joined in her pride at seeing her vision of excellent educational experiences for deserving children come through on Chicago’s south side.

The Milken Award was presented to Cheryl by Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Foundation and creator of the Milken Family Awards. He explained the rational behind the award, “I believe that teachers and principals have the most important jobs in the country. Research confirms that the most important school-related factor in student achievement is the quality of teachers and principals.”

Cheryl received the award at an assembly she had been asked to organize at Pershing West Magnet School. The assembly was ostensibly called to hear accolades from Chicago Public School CEO Arne Duncan for the school’s outstanding educational achievements. Her obvious pleasure at the description of the school’s success was replaced by disbelief and tears of joy as she was announced as a recipient of the $25,000 Milken Educator Award.

Golden Apple prides itself at being far before the curve in recognizing educators of uncommon talent and promise. We cheer that the outer world is now growing in recognition of the talent and passion of this extraordinary teacher and leader who so ably represents the mission and spirit of our organization.


October 21, 2008

Will CPS middle-school teachers be required to go back to college?

by desertjim

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) may soon be asking 6th, 7th and 8th grade teachers to gain certificate endorsements indicating that they are highly qualified to teach their specific subjects. According to the Chicago Tribune there may be as many as 5,000 middle-school teachers effected by the new plan. While it is probable that some of the 5,000 middle-school teachers already have the necessary college credits and will therefore meet the new standard, the plan will require many teachers to take additional college courses in math, science or English.

In 2002, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 31% of elementary science teachers and 57% of high school science teachers lack a major or certification in their fields. At Loyola University in Chicago, a science education major requires 21 semester hours of science courses in addition to the 42 semester hours of education courses. The Illinois State Board of Education will currently endorse middle school teachers as “highly qualified” if they hold the proper certification and have passed the elementary/middle grades test or the relevant content area test. Teachers can also be highly qualified if they have completed coursework equivalent to a major, have earned a master’s degree in their field or have achieved National Board certification.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act does not actually require that middle-school teachers have college majors in their fields. “No Child Left Behind does not require current teachers to return to school or get a degree in every subject they teach to demonstrate that they are highly qualified. The law allows [states] to provide an alternate method… for experienced teachers to demonstrate subject matter competency that recognizes, among other things, the experience, expertise and professional training garnered over time in the profession.” (4)

I understand why CPS would like to have teachers endorsed as “highly qualified”. It’s one more pressure exerted on public education systems by NCLB. Its good that the district is willing to provide grants and interest free loans to pay for the necessary college credit. Nonetheless, college courses are not the only route to better teaching. If NCLB allows for alternative routes to such qualification, shouldn’t they also be explored? Is requiring overworked teachers to go back to university the best way to improve the teaching staff? 


October 17, 2008

Angels Under Fire - How do we get literature students to become contemplative readers?

By Jeff Berger-White

For the last two years, I have taught Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.  It is a complex and sophisticated drama, strange, harrowing, funny, and political.  It is subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” and it chronicles several gay men during the first horrifying wave of the AIDS crisis in the mid 80s. Although I had some anxiety about teaching it, the one hundred students who studied the play with me made it a wonderful experience.  What made it a difficult experience was that last year, I was attacked by a group from outside the school district called the North Shore Student Advocacy Group, who accused me of teaching to the “activist homosexual agenda.” Although the school Board, administration, student body, and parents at Deerfield High School supported my efforts, the attacks via e-mail, post, and in the news media were nerve-wracking and a distraction. 

There’s a seemingly simple moment near the beginning of The Tempest, when Miranda asks her father whether it was a gift or a burden that has brought them to this island: “What foul play had we, that we came from thence? /Or blessed was’t we did?” Prospero answers, “Both, both, my girl,” and in that incredibly compressed line, Shakespeare teaches us how to read him, and literature. For literature lives in paradox, and often aims to show how both sides of a character or an issue can be true.  “It was like so, but wasn’t,” begins Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2, echoing the tag-line of Persian fables. One of my primary aims as a teacher is to help move students away from simple and easy answers, away from either-or thinking, and toward an approach that is both-and. This is hard, but striving toward that kind of complexity can make us more flexible and agile thinkers—which is not at all the same thing as being easily plied or soft. James Wood says that “[l]iterature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on.” Wood writes here about the art of careful observation, of close reading. As a corollary, I’d add that the study of nuanced, paradoxical characters—and texts—helps us see better our complexity, and that in life.

I’ve never believed that literature should be a pawn, a tool to help advance some social or political agenda. That seems to me wrongheaded. Setting up curriculum this way traps students into thinking simply and reductively—or defensively.  Or worse, they shut down completely because they see the way the deck has been stacked, and who wants to wager on a hand when the dealer always hits twenty-one? Designing curriculum with a right set of answers to the problems a text raises does little to engender deep contemplation or genuine change. Our first obligation should be to find works of literature we believe will challenge our students intellectually. It’s foolish to put first in an English classroom any social agenda.  When we make a work about a single thing—race, gender, sexuality, politics—it hurts our students and devalues the literature. When we simplify something complex and sophisticated into a message that could be placed on a pamphlet or a placard or even in an op-ed column, we trap our students into believing there are a very limited set of responses.  We must ground the discussion in the building blocks of literature—language, style, structure, voice, character, and theme. Naturally, and necessarily I think, our conversations should spill over into the issues a work raises for us—individually and collectively—and how our sense of those issues helps us see meaning, relevance, and value in that particular work. But we cannot put those concerns first, nor can we divorce them from the work itself.  In the end, I want my courses to be transformative for my students (and for myself, too), but how students grow intellectually, emotionally, or morally can’t be prescriptive.  A deep and thorough understanding of literature almost necessarily evokes empathy, and empathy is the beginning of adulthood, and a lot more, or so I would like to believe.  I want my courses to be transformative for my students (and for myself, too), but how students grow intellectually, emotionally, or morally can’t be prescriptive. 

I would not have taught Angels if I didn’t think it was a transcendent work of art. The play about something specific, a group of young gay men battling AIDS, but it also speaks the universal language of the heart.  This seems to me true of all great works: they are simultaneously grounded in something highly particular, and yet they become something that transcends time and place.  My students came to talk about the play as a tale of struggle, illness, love, and forgiveness, and our discussions were as rich and as memorable as any I can remember.  It was a challenge for me to stay calm in the face of dozens and dozens of nasty e-mails, but seeing the way my students handled the material with maturity and grace made it wholly worthwhile.


October 14, 2008

Con-con vote - How might it affect teachers?

by desertjim
At the top of Illinois ballots this November will be a proposal to call a constitutional convention. The current 40 year-old State constitution contains a provision to ask the voters of every generation whether they want to request or refuse such a convention. If the voters agree, the legislature will set a framework to allow for restructuring, rewriting and revising the entire current document.

Former state comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, former governor Jim Edgar, the AFL-CIO, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Manufacturers Association and the Farm Bureau are all opposed to calling a convention. Lieutenant governor Pat Quinn, Cook County assessor James Houlihan and state representative John Fritchey are among the more vocal supporters.

The Illinois Education Association (IEA) has come out strongly against such a convention. The IEA fears that protection for public pensions could be undermined by revisions to the 1970 document. The current constitution guarantees that a public pension “shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.” According to the IEA. that means the security of ALL public pensions including the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS), State Universities Retirement System (SURS) and the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF) could be at risk at a Con-Con if delegates removed or modified that language. The constitution protects pension benefits that have already been earned, but lawmakers can change future benefits.

Quinn has argued against the interpretation that public employees could lose their pensions. He said, “The federal constitution precludes that, its fearmongering.” The federal Constitution prohibits states from any action that would impair the enforcement of contracts and currently pension obligations are defined as contractual under the Illinois constitution. There is federal case law that would protect anyone with a current Illinois state pension. This, of course, does not speak to the future of Illinois teachers, professors, and state and municipal employees. Since pension obligations are a huge part of the state budget, it seems possible that delegates to a con-con could choose to remove future contractual obligations.

With three weeks to go until election day, and with early voting already started in Illinois, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of clarity on this issue. Perhaps someone with a better understanding of contract law could explain this to me. 


October 07, 2008

Report on House Education Committee budget hearing

by Cheryl Chapman and Sonya Collins

On September 30, 2008 we both attended the House Education Committee budget hearing in South Holland. Among the people offering testimony to the committee were people from A+ Illinois, the Illinois PTA; The Illinois Education Association; Ralph Martire; Voices for Illinois Children students, school teachers, staff and administrators, and members of the general public. A solid majority of the speakers made the case that our Illinois schools are underfunded at the foundation level. They further stated that the inequities between schools are unethical. The current property tax funding system may keep education under local control, but it insures that a child’s zip code determines the quality of the that child’s schools.

Sonya spoke to the hearing about her own experiences with the inequities in school funding. She pointed out that she was a product of the CPS system, a graduate of the University of Chicago, Concordia University and now a doctorate student at Roosevelt University.  She described to the panel how two summers ago she held back tears as she walked into the computer lab of a high school in Naperville, Illinois.  There for professional development, she was amazed by the seemingly unlimited resources available to students there.  She was also hurt to realize that Illinois schools are still separate and unequal!

We all know that property in poor and middle income areas cannot generate enough revenue to fund education.  Likewise the state’s over-reliance on property taxes is what has caused this great inequality in school funding.  The State must provide more money for school funding.  The national average is for states to cover 50% of education costs.  Currently, Illinois provides just 32%.  Even though the government can provide some funding, it is clear that we must increase the state’s portion to at least 50% to try and reduce the disparities between poor and wealthy areas and bring the school funding formula closer to the national average.  A state-wide tax reform is necessary to reform school funding—we cannot continue to rely on the local tax base.  Likewise we need to increase income tax rates for individuals, corporations and expand the state sales tax base.  Doing so could generate almost 9 billion dollars in new revenue.  Surely if Henry Paulson can request and practically demand 700 billion dollars to bailout Wall Street, we can work together to supply the monies necessary to provide all children with an adequate education.

It was pointed out to the Committee that research shows the correlations between student achievement and school funding.  Sonya specifically asked the Committee to tell the 3100 students in her Dolton school district that the quality of their education won’t continue to be determined by the wealth of the community where they live and that Illinois politicians understand that they must overcome enormous odds to obtain an education. She prevailed upon the legislators to not fear about their re-election chances because SB2288 increases taxes.  According to a poll by Associated Press, 61% of Illinois voters will support a tax increase that improves education.

Golden Apple along with National Louis University co-sponsored community forums on education funding one year ago, and each year we hope that “this will be the year!” So far, that year has never arrived. Many people spoke in favor of Senate Bill 2288. All of the speakers were well-received by the committee, and they promised to educate their fellow House members. Hopefully more of us in the TEN community will continue to inform ourselves and people in our educational communities about the very important issue of educational funding, especially the most-echoed issue of the evening: How do we move forward?


October 06, 2008

PSAE Scores - do they tell us anything useful?

by desertjim

Last Friday, the Chicago Public Schools released the results attained by city high school juniors on the Prairie State Achievement Exams (PSAE). The scores dropped for the third year in a row. City officials immediately dismissed this year’s results. Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan said, “This is screwy, It’s impossible to be down.”

Duncan blamed the results on a decision to weigh the second day of testing lower than the first day, which is devoted to the ACT. CPS juniors did better on four of six tests taken over two days, but the district’s overall pass rate went down. This may not be “screwy”, but it certainly gives support to Duncan’s claim that changing the way the test was scored may well be a factor in the results.  Changing test grading methods can have serious effects on the results. This August, the Chicago Tribune reported that over one million of Illinois’s elementary exams had to be regraded due to problems with the protocols being used.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal education law requires that high stakes testing such as the PSAE be used to hold schools accountable. Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the State Board of Education, said federal officials reviewed the new scoring and found it to be comparable to that of previous years.  Nonetheless, In a letter to CPS principals district officials cautioned against comparisons to previous results, citing changes in the scoring. The CPS administration found 32 high schools for which the reading scores on the PSAE went up on both days of the test, but the overall reported reading scores went down. In math, 19 schools went up on both days, but down overall in math.

As educators, we know that ranking schools only on the basis of high stakes standardized tests is not a good idea. We know that the tests have always varied from state to state, which creates scores that cannot be compared. The tests are given to different groups of students each year, so the scores for this year’s class of juniors are not really telling us anything about their growth as individuals or as a class. Now, we find that the tests aren’t even being consistently scored from year to year.

PSAE scores have serious ramifications for Illinois schools. Failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress on the exams has consequences. If the scoring protocols can be changed, as they clearly were this year, how is any of this information supposed to be of use? Can “accountability” have any meaning when the test results are so easily called into question?  What can be done to ensure that scoring is consistent from year to year? Does a system which selects a single group of students and tracks growth from year to year hold more promise? If public schools must demonstrate that children are learning, what type of demonstration might actually be useful?


October 02, 2008

Elementary Turnaround School Principals Needed

by Laura Couchman

The Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) is the leading Turnaround school management organization working to transform the lowest-performing Chicago Public Schools.  Our mission is to select visionary leaders with exceptional management and instructional leadership skills to join a team that is making a significant impact in public education.

Currently, we are seeking experienced elementary principals for three Chicago Public schools located on Chicago’s West and South sides.  Principal positions will be staffed full time beginning in early January 2009 to plan for the opening of Turnaround schools in Fall 2009.

AUSL will select principals who have effectively advocated, nurtured and sustained a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and professional growth of staff. Each possesses competencies which are critical to succeed in a turnaround school: orientation toward results, action, impact and influence; development of high performing teams; strategic planning and problem solving skills for immediate success; and the confidence to lead in a challenging situation while believing in the ability to effect change.

Click here for more information about AUSL.  To apply, send cover letter and resume to the AUSL job site or by fax to 773-283-0903.

Deadline to Apply:  November 1, 2008


September 29, 2008

Superintendent turnover is becoming a problem

by desertjim

Big city school districts are having a hard time holding on to their superintendents. A recent Associated Press article specifically mentions turnover in the top spots in St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri and Miami-Dade County, Florida. In some cases the tenure of the superintendent is short indeed. St. Louis is looking for the eighth person to fill the spot in five years.  The superintendent in Atlanta, Georgia has been there nine years, but before her arrival the district went through five superintendents in ten years.

It’s not just big cities that have a problem retaining superintendents. Here in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a city of about 85,000, there have been three superintendents since 2005. Various studies done a few years back showed that average tenure for superintendents nationwide ranged from three to seven years. Chicago Public Schools have done pretty well in comparison. Paul Vallas was the chief operating officer for six years and Arne Duncan has now been on the job for seven.

There are a couple of problems with such continuous turnover at the top. One is financial. In many cases school boards end up paying ineffective superintendents to go away. Contract buyouts (euphemized as severance packages) are common. In Texas, for example, $2.4 million has been spent in the last 3 years to buy out the contracts of 20 or so superintendents. Such buyouts clearly have an effect on school district budgets.

The second problem is the lack of continuity in program. A new superintendent brings new priorities and expectations. Just as the teachers and school administrators have adjusted to one set of criteria, there is change at the top and the criteria change. I was lucky to spend most of my classroom career in a district with long-term superintendents. However, there was a four year period in the middle of that time in which we had three changes at the top. The constantly changing orders from the district offices disrupted schedules, teaching staff and the education of our students.

The AP article cited above indicates that part of the problem may be the difficulty in meeting today’s higher demands. Diana Bourisaw, who left the St. Louis superintendency after two years is quoted saying, “School boards like to hire someone to come in and rescue the district, and one person can’t do that.”

As a teacher, I wanted stability in management. I wonder how such constant flux at the top is affecting current classrooms. Have you experienced such turnover at the top? If so, has it affected your classroom?


September 25, 2008

STEM education - Beyond School Time

by Maureen Kelleher

There’s much fuss these days from the corporate world to Congress about America’s declining numbers of engineers, scientists and mathematicians. Grant money is flowing for Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology (STEM) education both at the K-12 and higher education levels.

One interesting sidelight in this story is the rise of STEM beyond the classroom: in after-school programs, summer camps and informal, community-based workshops. Last week, Project Exploration and the Coalition for Science After School cohosted the first national conference on science and technology in out-of-school time here in Chicago.
The 250 attendees expressed energy and enthusiasm for their new and rapidly developing field, which sits at the intersection of two hot educational trends: STEM and learning in out-of-school time.

Yet I walked away somewhat unsure of the relation they could or should develop with schools and classroom teachers. “Our relevancy to formal education should be strengthened,” said keynote speaker Eric Jolly of the Science Museum of Minnesota . But how?

Clearly conference presenters didn’t want their programs to look like classrooms, often for good reason. Being outside the formal classroom offers advantages: more time to do labs and observations, a focus on personal relationships and youth development, an ability to focus activity on student interests rather than on a state-mandated curriculum, just to name a few. Yet many participants also acknowledged they want to do a better job of helping students understand the science behind all those fun projects.

I met exactly one person with a foot inside and outside the classroom door: Linda Marten of Chicago’s Foreman High School, who teaches biology and runs their two-year-old science37 apprenticeship program. Though Marten is delighted to have a way to give students real lab exposure, it’s been a challenge to teach school all day and then run a program afterwards for three hours twice a week. (Last year it was three times a week until she could recruit some colleagues to get involved.)

I left this conference with more questions than answers.  Where are kids getting hooked on science, inside or outside the classroom? Should we just make school look more like good out-of-school time programs, and if so, how could we do that given the testing and curricular pressures teachers face? Should the classroom and after-school be separate in terms of personnel but mutually beneficial by giving students hands-on experience relevant to content learning?

Closer to the ground, I met many good-hearted staff from local museums, but can’t say I’ve always seen clear connections between what they do and what goes on in schools or after-school in hard-to-serve neighborhoods. How helpful are Chicago’s museums in supporting classroom science teaching? How much of a role do they really take in reaching the hardest-to-reach young people outside of school time?


September 23, 2008

How do we retain new teachers?

by desertjim

A recent piece in the Chicago Tribune profiled a young teacher returning to her second year of teaching. The article addresses the trials and tribulations of a first year teacher and the improved techniques developed by the second year. It also mentions that 31% of new Illinois teachers leave the profession before getting to their fifth year in the classroom. That sounds like a terrible attrition rate, until you discover that nationwide one-third of new teachers leave within three years and 46 percent are gone within five years.

The cost of such attrition is very high. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) estimates that there is an average turnover cost of over $56,000 for each teacher who leaves and is replaced by a new hire. ACORN’s figures come from a study done in Texas but their assumption is that Chicago Public Schools would absorb similar losses for each new teacher that decides to call it quits. Nationwide, a recent report finds that teacher turnover costs US school systems over $7 billion a year. Clearly something needs to be done to help new teachers stay in the classroom beyond their first few years. If the monetary loss is not enough, there is the simple fact that experience counts, and our students suffer if there are fewer experienced teachers in the classrooms.

Studies have been done to determine what causes the high turnover rate. A National Center for Education Statistics survey found that 64% left for jobs where they had more professional autonomy. The survey also found widespread problems with workloads and general working conditions. Anecdotal evidence cites administrative inflexibility and high levels of bureaucracy as reasons for leaving teaching. A survey in Arizona found that time, teacher empowerment, school leadership, professional development and facilities and resources all entered into the decision to stay in teaching or leave the profession.

What can be done to curb teacher turnover? Have you been involved in effective programs that keep teachers in their classrooms? What can other teachers do to help new teachers become long-term members of the school community?


September 20, 2008

Teaching Recognized as National Service

by desertjim

The time may have come in which teaching is recognized for the service it provides to the nation. In recent speeches and interviews both presidential candidates have cited teaching as an example of the kind of community or national service that they support. Senator Obama recently spoke of his plan to help universities partner with school districts to provide stronger field experiences for prospective teachers who agree to serve in high-need schools. He stressed the need for math and science teachers in particular. Senator McCain, meanwhile, stressed his own community-service plan that would use Americorps and Senior Corps volunteer to help address high dropout rates in some high school by serving as tutors and mentors. McCain also spoke highly of Teach For America as, “probably one of the lead organizations in America today.”

Obama, in response to questions on the Teach For America website stated that his proposed Service Scholarship program would prioritize the recruitment of of high quality math and science teachers and focus on successful teaching and effective [school] leadership. McCain’s responses supported programs such as charter schools that allow the recruitment and hiring of teaching staffs whose skills reflect the mission and goals of the organization rather than, “State or district imposed management interference such as tenure laws.” Both want to see the brightest graduates in all fields of study brought into teaching. A greater national stress on the recruitment of teachers seems to be in the cards regardless of the outcome of the election in November.

Not everyone is waiting for the next national administration to put a new program in place. In Illinois, the governor recently signed into law the Golden Apple Illinois Future Teacher Corps Partnership. The law will create a consolidated program that will assist prospective teachers who will teach in hard-to-staff schools throughout the state. This consolidation of the Golden Apple Scholars program and the Illinois Future Teachers Corps will result in scholarships for up to 200 future teachers a year (3). The scholarship students will be required to pursue teaching degrees in Illinois universities and pledge to teach in needy schools. In another attempt to attract people to teaching, Illinois and other states have created alternative certification routes for adults with degrees in other fields to gain teacher certification. The Golden Apple Foundation is proud to have been instrumental in creating the first alternative certifcation program in Illinois.

Now that the presidential candidates have put teaching front and center as a form of national service perhaps we can attract more of the best and the brightest to the profession. I guess the question we need to ask is which of these methods will be most effective in improving public education. Are all these approaches likely to be equally as effective? Should we be hoping for increased volunteerism, as advocated by McCain, student loan forgiveness and scholarships as advocated by Obama or alternative certification routes for adults? 


September 17, 2008

Public hearings scheduled on school-funding reforms

from Cheryl Chapman

The Illinois House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee has scheduled five hearings for late September and early October to consider ideas on school-funding reforms..  All are welcome to attend, and Voices strongly encourages Illinoisans to use these opportunities to demand changes that can improve learning for all children—particularly those whose opportunities are lagging the most.  The hearings are scheduled for:

Oak Park:  Sept. 18, 1 p.m., Oak Park Village Hall, 123 Madison St.
South Holland:  Sept. 30, 6 p.m., Thornwood High School, 17101 S. Park Ave.
Chicago:  Oct. 2, 6 p.m., Loyola University, 6525 N. Sheridan Road
Lincolnwood:  Oct. 6, 7 p.m., Lincolnwood City Hall, 6900 N. Lincoln Ave.
Springfield:  Oct. 9, 1 p.m., State Capitol, 2nd and Monroe Streets

Committee Chairman and state Rep. Mike Smith of Canton called for the hearings last month, prompted by the efforts of Chicago Sen. James Meeks and other African-American legislators to highlight gross funding inequities among Illinois schools.  To try to reduce such unfairness, Meeks and some fellow lawmakers called, in part, for the elimination of property taxes as a source of school revenues. “Fairness is a fundamental concept we teach our children.  We should apply that lesson in every aspect of public policy—particularly our aim to offer every child a high-quality education, a goal we clearly are not fulfilling today,” said Jerry Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children.

However, elimination of property taxes from the school formula could remove some important stability from Illinois’ education funding base, Voices believes.  Stermer said a key to improving funding fairness is to focus on greatly increasing the state’s investments, in order to lift-up poorly supported schools and to bolster research-proven strategies to raise the quality of children’s education.  This approach would allow Illinois to maintain the stability of property taxes as a revenue source while appropriately shifting more responsibility to state funding sources.

“The improvement of children’s learning hinges upon caring adults coming together with more ideas, more creativity and more commitment,” Stermer added, applauding the work of Meeks, Smith and other education leaders to focus more attention on this issue of critical importance to Illinois’ future.

Stermer plans to address the South Holland hearing, and other members of the A+ Illinois campaign—seeking reform of schools’ funding and quality and the state’s revenue system—will speak at several of the forums.


September 15, 2008

National Student/Parent Mock Election - October 30, 2008

by desertjim

Once again the National Student/Parent Mock Election (NMSPME) is providing free curriculum materials to schools who want to bring current events to their classrooms. This year their national mock election day is October 30, 2008. In 2004, over four million students, parents and teachers participated in their national presidential mock election.

The people who run the NMSPME feel that their process can turn the sense of powerlessness that keeps young Americans and their parents from going to the polls into a sense of the power of participation in our democracy. That may be wishful thinking. However, the United States does have one of the lowest percentages of voter participation in any of the world’s democracies. Perhaps allowing your students to be part of a nationwide straw poll will instill the habit of voting in them.

I realize that it is necessary for teachers to keep their personal politics out of the classroom. I admit that, when I taught US History, I did expand on the one page textbook summary on the union movement. That may be considered a political decision on my part, but I figured the textbook authors had already made a different political decision by pretty much ignoring the struggles of working people. I never did tell students who I was voting for though, and we did have mock elections in presidential years. I think it is possible to teach the political process without pushing your personal political beliefs. This would certainly seem to be a good year to do so.

I would be interested in knowing how many TEN readers are going to be using this year’s election as a teaching tool. Even if you are not going to use the NSPME mterials, are you going to have students express their presidential preference? Are you going to have student debates on the campaign issues? How much class time will you devote to the ongoing civic event that surrounds us in this presidential election year?


September 12, 2008

Paying for Grades - Will It Create Successful Students?

by desertjim

On September 11, 2008, the Chicago Tribune headlined an article “Earn an A? Here’s $50.” The article went on to describe a pilot program which will pay up to 5000 freshmen for earning good grades. The Harvard designed program will measure students every five weeks in math, English, social studies, science and PE. Earning money on a graduated scale from $50 for an A to $20 for a C, a straight A student can earn up to $4000 in the first two years of high school (one half of the money will be held back until graduation).

Chicago Public School chief executive Arne Duncan is in favor of the program, “...I’m trying to level the playing field. This is the kind of incentive that middle-class families have had for decades.” Critics call it a bribe. Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College says, It’s a terrible idea because you are getting people to do things for wrong reasons.” The idea is based on the fact that adults who do well at work expect raises. For employees, higher pay is an incentive to work harder.  Why shouldn’t the same thing apply to students?

Based on this logic, district officials in Dallas, Texas started paying students for scoring well on Advanced Placement tests in 1996. Similar programs exist in Arkansas, Alabama, Connecticut and Virginia. In New York city, more than $500,000 has been doled out in two years . The New York city program involved fourth and seventh grade students in 60 public schools for one school year. The program, designed by Harvard economist Roland Fryer was intended to, “Figure out a way to make school tangible for kids, to come up with short-term rewards that will be in their long-term best interests.” In Albuquerque, NM, students at a charter school can earn up to $300 a year for good attendance. In Santa Ana, CA and Baltimore, MD, students can earn money for doing well on standardized tests.

Janet Bodnar in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance questions whether such programs can actually improve learning.She points out that, “High achieving students will get good grades anyway, so you’re wasting your money. Kids who are underacheivers fail because they’re inconsistent [according to child psychologist Sylvia Rimm] so if they slip and get a poor grade, they figure they’re not going to get the reward and give up.” Bodnar feels that learning is a sign of a child’s natural growth and development. Since we don’t pay kids for learning to tie their shoes or ride a bike, we shouldn’t pay them for learning to read.

The little bit of research that exists was all done on earlier programs. It seems to show that, despite short-term gain, pay for grades may be detrimental in the long-term. Earlier programs showed decreased student motivation once the incentives were removed. Nonetheless, the people supporting the current programs feel that once students actually get good grades in order to earn money, they will realize their own abilities and know that they can be successful in school.

But the question is still open - is pay for grades a way to create more successful students?


September 08, 2008

Cell phones in the classroom

by desertjim

Current figures indicate that 75% of 13 to 17 year olds in the United States have cell phones. Wireless companies are now working to have the same percentage of 8 to 12 year olds enter the ranks of the electronically connected. Even my 10 year old grand-daughter carries her very own cell phone in her backpack (restricted by her parents to calling 911, her paretns at work and home). More of our students have cell phones than have computer access. At the college level Abilene Christian University will hand out iPhones to two-thirds of this year’s entering class of freshmen . Students and instructors are expected to use the devices in class to take attendance, get virtual handouts and brainstorm ideas.

There is no question that cell phones are already distractions in classrooms at all levels. Text-messaging makes it possible for students to exchange answers during exams. The ability of the phones to serve as game platforms goes way beyond the old-fashioned problem of a couple of kids playing “dots” or tic-tac-toe in the back of the room. My physics teacher son-in-law and his colleagues have discussed buying a cell phone blocker and moving it randomly from classroom to classroom. (Alas, the current devices are still a bit too large to place inobtrusively on a restaurant table.)

As cell phone technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, schools will have to adjust their rules to keep pace. Many already have. I am curious to know what our readers’ schools have done to keep the presence of cell phones and their abilities to serve as cameras, games or text-messagers from disrupting or distracting from classroom activities. Is anyone else adopting the Abilene Christian University model and trying to co-opt the technology into becoming a teaching tool? 


September 05, 2008

Further discussion on inequitable school funding

by Cheryl Chapman

On Oct. 6th, 2007, A+ Illinois, National Louis University, and the Golden Apple Foundation co-sponsored a forum on school funding.  The panel was moderated by Cornelia Grumman, Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.  Members included Chicago City Clerk Miguel Del Valle, Mr. Ralph Martire, Executive Director of the bi-partisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, Illinois Representative Kathy Ryg, national school finance expert Dr. Allan Odden, St. Charles SD 303 Superintendent Dr. Donald Schlomann, and Wisconsin Senator Luther Olsen.

Several questions came out of the discussion. Forum attendees wanted to know why taxpayers in wealthy suburbs should spend far less of a percentage of their personal property taxes than taxpayers in less wealthy suburbs, yet their teachers earn more money and their students have smaller class sizes. They wondered why students in schools with average to above-average funding have special classes like art, music, and p.e. taught on a regular basis by a specialist, not a classroom teacher, while children in many schools throughout the state get no “specials” at all, or must chose only one.  Finally, they asked why many districts apply for a yearly waiver of the state’s requirement that children have a daily p.e. class?  Why do some districts not even offer recess?

What became clear during this forum was that Illinois school children deserve better.  In fact, they deserve funding reform of a nature that will really help them.  The answer to all the questions was the same.  Inequitable state funding!

One year later, nothing has changed:

Fact:  Illinois has the 5th largest economy of any state.
Fact:  Illinois total state AND local tax burden, as a percentage of personal income, ranks only 48th in the nation, and we have by far, the lowest tax burden in the Midwest.
Fact:  Illinois ranks only 42nd in spending among the states.

A major factor in the problem of funding inequity is that there is also inequity in the state and local tax burden as a percentage of income. For you math teachers out there, and everyone else as well, the inequity is presented here in detail:

If you count sales tax, excise tax, property tax, income tax, total this up and
subtract the federal offset, you will find that the lowest 20% of Illinois taxpayers (earning less than $16,000 per year on average) shoulder nearly 13% of the tax burden.  The second 20% (average income is $22,600) shoulders 11%, the middle 20% ($38,500) has a 10%, the fourth 20% (teachers?  Average salary here is $61,100) makes up 9.2% of the burden, the next 15% (people making over $101,400 per year) pay 7.7%, the next 4% (income over $200,600) pay 6.3%, and the top 1% only use up 4.4% of their income on taxes.  So, the poorest pay the highest percentage and the richest pay the least.

The above statistics explain why, in a state in which the decline in personal income is the second worst in the nation, where manufacturing jobs are down by almost 25%, where over 27% of the state population is either uninsured or on Medicaid, where the gap in hourly wages between Whites and Hispanics has grown by 23.9% since 1980 and the gap between Whites and African Americans has grown 162.3% since 1980, nobody wants to raise taxes!  And this is why our state legislature can’t get itself together to do what is necessary for our schools, in spite of the fact that we live in the 5th largest economy in the nation and that we rank only 42nd in spending among the states.  Our antiquated tax structure just doesn’t work for us anymore.

Here in Illinois, a group called EFAB decides what our “foundation level” for core educational funding should be.  This group did some research and somehow figured out how much money it would take for 2/3 of Illinois students to pass the state tests.  2/3?  Why not 100%?  Well, they funded the “foundation level” at 51% of the level they’d chosen, and guess what?  51% of Illinois students meet state standards.  Apparently, you get what you pay for. What is needed in Illinois is a major tax reform. 

If we did have equitable educational funding in our state, we could be assured that all Illinois students would have the chance to get a quality education and Illinois teachers’ pay scales and per pupil spending would be more equitable as well. In addition, industry would be attracted to Illinois and jobs would be plentiful because we would have enough educated citizens to fill their demanding positions.

In the face of these facts and these challenges, you as a teacher can set your own goals.  Become active in a group that is trying to do something about this!  See what your teachers’ union is doing.  Spread the word – tell your students’ parents and your fellow teachers.  Get excited!  Get involved.  Visit websites to see about current legislation and write to and visit your state senators and representatives.  You can write to the U.S. senators and reps as well.  I don’t know how many times I have written to Sen. Obama and Sen. Durbin telling them that the ESEA/NCLB act should not fail schools, they should fail entire states!!!  Like ours!!!  For not coming up with enough money to educate our kids!!!  If important legislation is coming up, share it in your weekly newsletter home, and encourage your friends to join you in writing to your senators.  Join groups like A+ Illinois, the League of Women Voters, Voices for Illinois Children, Better Funding for Better Schools, and pay attention to groups like the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.  Join with other Apples in working for reform. When tax reform questions come up, pay attention, and let people know what you think!  And if you are retired like I am, take a school day, and go knock on A+ Illinois’s door – they will be happy to have you!


September 01, 2008

Same-sex classes growing in number nationally

by desertjim

This weekend newspapers across the country published a column by Ann Doss Helms of the Charlotte Observer about the continuing growth in the number of public schools with same-sex classes. There are increasing numbers of schools that separate girls and boys from middle school through high school.

Public school single-sex education seems to have begun in California. Governor Pete Wilson started a program in 1996 to create single-sex public schools in an attempt to duplicate the success of expensive private school programs. Six pairs of schools were created, but all but one pair had failed and closed by 2001. A Ford Foundation study proclaimed the effort largely a failure. The progam’s lack of success was blamed on badly designed programs, inadequate training in gender issues for staff and insufficient funding.

The failure of California’s experiment notwithstanding, there are now hundreds of gender-specific programs in public schools.Only six years ago there were about a dozen single gender programs in the public schools. Estimates now range from 360 to 450 schools offering gender-specific classes. In a few cases, entire schools are now single gender.  The current growth spurt in such programs began with a 2001 amendment legalizing single-sex education in contradiction to the original Title IX that required equal education for both genders.

In South Carolina, David Chadwell is the nations first state official in charge of single-sex education programs. He says that single-gender classes work best if they are optional, if teachers are well trained and if parents buy in. He also says that the teachers’ ability shapes the results.

Not everyone sees the single-gender classes as improvement. Last fall the American Civil Liberies Union threatened to sue the Cleveland school district saying the district’s five new single gender schools were discriminatory and that separate is not equal in education. The ACLU suggested the district would be better off recruiting “culturally competent” teachers, increasing teacher pay, improving school administration and making the curriculum more challenging. The National Organization of Women has also maintained that same-sex schooling would diminish the affects of Title IX.

Does the hope that single-sex classes for adolescents will reduce distractions and address different learning styles offer sufficient inducement to continue to expand such programs? I would be interested in hearing from teachers who have worked in such programs on the pros and cons of eparating students by gender.


August 22, 2008

School funding in Illinois generates suggested boycott, lawsuit

by desertjim

In 1991, Jonathan Kozol published Savage Inequalities decrying the horrible inequities in school funding between rich suburban school districts and poorer urban and rural districts. Lucy Klocksin addressed the issue in her post on TEN last month. Seventeen years after Kozol’s book, the issue has reached the boiling point in Illinois.

State Senator James Meeks (Chicago-Democrat) has been urging students in his district to skip the first day of school in protest to the unequal funding. Meeks even suggests the Chicago students use the time to apply for admission at New Trier High School in Winnetka. He points out that this year, Chicago schools will spend $10,409 on each child, while New Trier will have $16,856 available for each student. Despite some local support for the boycott, Mayor Daley and the Baptist Ministers Conference of Chicago and Vicinity want students to attend school starting the first day of class (September 2, this year) and not waste a day of their education.

A different approach to the problem has been put forward by the Chicago Urban League. The League is suing the State of Illinois to force the state to alter the education funding system.Currently, Illinois ranks 49th of the 50 states in the state-contributed portion of school funding. 62% of school funding in Illinois comes from local sources. (Nationally the rate is 50%). Affluent communities can fund their schools much more easily than poor ones. The per-pupil funding ranges from $23,000 down to districts that can only afford $6,000.

The Urban League suit argues that, “The disparities in funding discriminate against black and Hispanic children. Schools in poorer minority communities - such as Chicago - receive funding at a dramatically lower rate than affluent white scool districts”

Inequities in school funding are not limited to Illinois (although the ranking as 49th out of 50 should wake up some state legislators). It is long past time that we seriously consider what is best for our children, and whose responsibility it is to pay for public education.


August 18, 2008

Energy costs are affecting our schools

by desertjim

Last week’s TIME magazine (August 23, 2008, page 69) had an interesting article about schools adopting four-day weeks in order to save energy on bus routes, air-conditioning and other costs. I didn’t think too much about it because the laws in Illinois require a minimum number of school days, so such a four-day plan is impossible for most of the readers of this blog.

Today, the Associated Press published an article which expands on the effects that high energy prices are having on schools all over the country. It’s not just school bus fuel that is impacting school costs. Electricity for air conditioning, heating oil, even delivery costs for cafeteria food are going up along with diesel fuel for the buses.

Schools in 17 states have gone to the four-day week. In most cases, this means each school day is longer. We all know the attention span of our students and may well question the usefulness of longer school days. Some schools are adjusting to the shorter school week by cutting electives, thus increasing the percentage of the day spent on reading and writing and test preparation that had already gone up under No Child Left Behind. Needless to say, field trips are disappearing from the curriculum in most locales.

Parents are finding the costs of school supplies and back-to-school clothes has also increased. For some families, this means cutting back on purchases or accepting the idea of increasing credit card debt. Increased costs for school lunches may well lead to a lot more kids brown-bagging it for lunch. (I can actually see some benefits in that - while I was still teaching, I always liked the lunches I packed better than the cafeteria food).

As the school year begins, all of our schools will see long-lasting financial effects from the current energy crunch. How the schools deal with these fiscal problems will certainly affect what happens in the classroom. Will suburban and rural districts have to rethink their bus routes as fuel costs continue to increase? Are longer days really going to result in more learning each day? Will cutting electives to save time result in schools becoming deadly dull test preparation academies? What will your school and district do in response to higher energy costs?


August 11, 2008

One Million ISAT exams to be regraded.

by desertjim

With the excitement of the Olympic’s opening cermony and the competing news of active warfare between Russia and Georgia both happening on Friday evening, you may not have seen this local story in the Chicago Tribune. The decision was announced on Friday to check the scores of almost one million elementary school math and reading tests from this year’s ISAT program.

The scores on this year’s math and reading tests varied widely from previous results (both higher and lower than in recent years). This was the first year that these particular versions of the reading and math tests were used. The science scores, using an older version did not show the wild fluctuations seen in math and reading. A number of school districts (including Chicago) questioned the preliminary results.

Although such wide variations in scores are new to Illinois, many states have had problems with the high stakes testing demanded under No Child Left Behind. The Baltimore Sun reports that changes in the Maryland State Assessment this year created an unusually large rise in student test scores.

A panel of testing experts concluded that changes in the Maryland test (it is shorter and more questions were written to fit the state standards) contributed to increases in scores. Howeverr, they couldn’t estimate how much of the increase was due to the test changes. If the companies hired to oversee state testing (Harcourt in Maryland, Pearson in Illinois) cannot guarantee consistency from year to year, the tests are not of any use.

NCLB demands accountability in terms of Adequate Yearly Progress. If the tests cannot be trusted to measure students on the same yardstick from year to year, AYP becomes meaningless. Perhaps it is really long past time to demand some accountability for real education reform from the US Department of Education. We need to ask for something other than standardized testing, especially when it is becoming clear that the tests may not be accurately measuring student achievement.


August 08, 2008

Google Teacher Academy - Applications Now Being Accepted

Google Teacher Academy - Chicago
Chicago, IL
September 24, 2008

Applications Due: August 24, 2008
for applications, check out this site --------------------------------------------------------
It has just been announced that another round of Google’s FREE training program for K-12 educators is coming to Chicago. Outstanding educators from around the world are encouraged to apply for the Google Teacher Academy taking place on Wednesday, September 24, 2008.

The GTA is an intensive, one-day event (8:30am-7:30pm) where participants get hands-on experience with Google’s free products and other technologies, learn about innovative instructional strategies, collaborate with exceptional educators, and immerse themselves in an innovative corporate environment. Upon completion, GTA participants become Google Certified Teachers who share what they learn with other K-12 educators in their local region.

50 outstanding educators from around the world will be selected to attend the GTA based on their passion for teaching, their experience as leaders, and their use of technology in K-12 settings. Each applicant is REQUIRED to produce and submit an original one-minute video on either of the following topics: “Motivation and Learning” or “Classroom Innovation.” Applications for the event in Chicago are due on August 24, 2008. If possible, please use Google Video or YouTube to post these original videos. Participants must provide their own travel, and if necessary, their own lodging.  Though we will give preference to K-12 educators within a 90-minute local commute of an Academy event, anyone may apply.

Learn more about the program and the application here

The event coordinators say that the GTAs have been a wonderful experience for everyone involved, with 97% of all attendees rating the GTA as “outstanding.”
They’ve attached a few quotes from GTA participants:
“The academy was everything I hoped for and more! I can’t wait to plan out ways to use the tools we learned about, to share my experiences with my colleagues and to re-connect with the other academy participants!”
“The focus on innovation in education, and not just about the tools, was right on target.”
“I appreciate the opportunity to be connected to a group of educators that are passionate about preparing students for the 21st century. I feel inspired and able to meet the challenges that lie ahead!”
“Until now, I had never attended a conference where I was so engaged and loving every minute of it.”
“This was easily the most important professional development experience I have ever had as an educator. World-class tools demonstrated by world-class people at a world-class facility. THANK YOU!”
“I love [the Google Certified Teacher community] for the ideas and inspiration that comes flowing to and from it...folks share professional development strategies (technology or otherwise) that have worked. It’s nice to have a variety of ways to assist others and having that variety also provides spice for those of us responsible for doing the providing.”

Any questions will be answered at this e-mail address

We’re looking forward to another great event! - The GTA Team
Google Teacher Academy
September 24, 2008
Chicago, IL

Note: Another GTA is currently being planned for New York City in November 2008. Sign up for the Google Teacher Newsletter on the front page of Google for Educators site to receive more detailed information soon.


August 03, 2008

summer musing

by desertjim

Here in the high desert of southern New Mexico, the kids go back to school on August 11. The local school administrators spent this weekend at their pre-school retreat up in the Sacramento Mountains, and the teachers report to their in-service workshops this week.

My wife and I just got back from buying a bunch of back-to-school clothes for our grand-daughter back in Illinois.We took advantage of New Mexico’s annual sales tax holiday on school supplies, backpacks and clothes.I suppose the UPS shipping fees will equal the tax savings, but our grand-daughter is well worth it. The tax holiday seems like a good idea for other states too. Parents can certainly use a break when getting their children ready for the new school year. Its estimated that New Mexico parents will save a total of four million dollars this year.

Even though I am retired from the classroom, I try to keep my hand in. Several times each year, I present middle-school inquiry science lessons. I also sit on the board of the group that supports 50 retired and active scientists, engineers, mathematicians and teachers that volunteer to do presentations in the schools. Volunteering, however, is not the same as having your own class of students.

About this time of year, I still get that feeling that its time to start getting my lab organized and my opening day lesson plan rewritten. I am getting better at just letting the feeling pass though. I am now able to watch the local kids lining up at the corner for the school bus and appreciate the fact that I can just grab another cup of coffee and the newspaper instead of my seating chart.

I hope that all of TEN’s members and readers have had a relaxing summer. Please take the time you have left before school starts in your area to reenergize yourselves. To help out, here’s a little piece of humor to provide perspective before the start of another year of over-emphasis on high stakes testing . 


July 28, 2008

Teacher pensions are underfunded too

by desertjim

Lucy Klocksin wrote eloquently last weeek about the lack of adequate public school funding from the state. I would like to point out that there is a continuing lack of funding for another aspect of public education. In Illinois, the legislature has chronically underfunded the Chicago and downstate teacher retirement funds.

In March, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) sued the state of Illinois, charging that the state had failed to fund Chicago teacher pensions at the same level as the downstate Teacher Retirement System (TRS). Although Chicago teachers constitute 20% of the state’s public school teachers, Chicago received only 5% of the state’s teacher pension funding. Meeting funding requirements cost CPS an additional $131 million (taken from operating funds).

The downstate teacher pension system fares little better.The current unfunded state liability for its five retirement systems was $42 billion at the start of the last legislative session. In 2006, the state had $31 billion in accounts to pay $51 billion in projected pensions. Recent borrowing from the pension funds to cover other state expenses has not imporved the situation. Currently, the state has 63% of the money needed to pay public pensions (nationwide the average is 85%).

It took generations for Illinois legislators to fall so far behind in funding teacher pensions. Teachers need to be aware of the situation, and keep track of legislative actions in the future.


July 24, 2008

Carnival of Education - see resources section


July 21, 2008

Public School Funding

by Lucy Klocksin - Golden Apple Fellow

The inequities in school funding in Illinois have haunted me for years. I taught for several years on the north shore and also sent my own children to these well funded schools.  For the past 15 years I have taught in the Chicago Public Schools.  The differences in what the children of the poor and children of the wealthy are offered in their schools makes me shudder.

All schools are held to the same standards but are expected to meet those standards with dramatically different resources available to them. People are forever explaining to me that “throwing more money at city schools isn’t going to improve them.” No one from a poorly funded school has EVER told me that more money wouldn’t help their school. 80% of students in my city school come from low income homes while my old school in the suburbs had no low income students.  More than a third of my current students are Limited English Proficient (LEP) while my old school had an LEP population of about 1%. Still the school that doesn’t have poor or LEP children gets about $10,000 per child per year more money to teach those children.

Illinois legislation needs to be altered dramatically and new ways of funding schools have to be found.  While this problem exists in virtually every state, Illinois’ funding inequities are the worst in the nation. Not surprisingly, we also have an achievement gap second to none.  While the average state picks up 50% of school expenses, our state pays about 30% (Metropolitan Planning Council, 2006).

It’s no secret that children in well funded schools do better than children in poor schools. That doesn’t happen because those children are all smarter!  Well funded schools can attract the best teachers, buy the best equipment, build state of the art buildings and do whatever is needed to help children learn to their fullest potential. I’m glad I got the best for my children but I won’t rest easy until the good education my children got is standard for everybody’s children. 

I haven’t done a lot of ranting about school funding recently but I heard some sad news this week that got me thinking.  Sharon Voliva died this week. She began fighting for more equitable school funding decades ago, when her children were small. She probably fought that battle harder and longer than anyone in our state.  She organized statewide rallies, she talked with legislators, `she started a wonderful organization called Better Funding for Better Schools. She dedicated her life to this cause. Now her grandchildren feel the bite of inequitably funded schools in Illinois. Without Sharon’s selfless determination and wisdom I wonder if this problem ever will be resolved.  Is anyone else out there as angry as I am or is there something I am missing that makes it okay to treat children so unfairly?


July 19, 2008

What is the purpose of public education?

by desertjim

The NY Times recently interviewed Randi Weingarten, the probable next president of the American Federation of Teachers, who wants to replace NCLB’s standardized testing with a vision of public schools as community centers.

Ms. Weingarten imagined in the interview. “A federal law that promoted community schools — schools that serve the neediest children by bringing together under one roof all the services and activities they and their families need?” She would like a federal education law, “...that promoted community schools — schools that serve the neediest children by bringing together under one roof all the services and activities they and their families need...Schools that include dental, medical and counseling clinics.”

Public schools historically had a much narrower mission - to create educated citizens. My parents immigrated as children from German occupied Poland before WWI. They were both taught to read and speak English in the Chicago Public Schools. Society saw that as sufficient and it seemed to be; my immigrant father eventually ran his own business. The four children in our family were also educated in the Chicago public schools in the 1940s and 50s. Three of us earned college degrees (two on partial scholarships the third using military benefits) based on our solid public school educations. The public schools of the first half of the 20th century seem to have served us all very well.

Now, at the start of the 21st century, we are looking for ways to reform, upgrade and “make more relevant” our public schools. Perhaps even turn them into the community centers suggested by Randi Weingarten. 

In a commentary on his blog Going to the Mat, Matt Johnston questions the effectiveness of such an approach. Johnston points out that ever since the “War on Poverty” we have been asking schools to provide more and more social services to the students.  “We ask schools to provide psychological services, counseling, and other non-educational services under the rubric of ‘it will help the student learn.’” I think this all ties in to a June post on this site in which a teacher stated his opinion that he is not a social worker.

Is it realistic to expect such expansion from schools and teacehrs that are already stretched thin just trying to teach reading, math and the other traditonal school subjects? Can (or should) our public schools become all things to all people?


July 17, 2008

Carnival of Education - see resources section


July 11, 2008

Teacher preparation

by desertjim

Last week I asked what the priorities should be for federal aid to education. The first priority that came out of that discussion was the need to upgrade the teaching profession and improve teacher training. This gives me a new question for this week. Cool - this is just like my favorite kind of inquiry driven science class.

The various paths to the classroom all seem to produce not only excellent but also average and sub-par teachers. How are we to decide which method is best? A recent article (cited in the Carnival of Education this week) speaks very disparagingly of the short-term alternative certification route offered by Teach for America. Yet a June 25, 2008 article in the Chicago Tribune (Chicago schools make gains in hiring better grade of teachers) includes the hiring of 1,200 alternatively certified teachers as one factor in improving teacher quality.

That same Tribune article says that teacher quality in Chicago Public Schools is improving. This improvement was measured by checking scores on the ACT, the Illinois Basic Skills Test and by performance in college. (I know - there needs to be another discussion about whether those criteria actually tell us anything about teacher quality - maybe next week.)

What is the best way to increase the quality of teachers in the public schools? Are teachers best prepared by becoming subject matter experts first and then taking courses in pedagogy? Should the philosophy of education or courses on classroom management be stressed? Are the relatively short alternative certification programs a better way to develop excellent teachers than the “normal” route taught in what used to be called Normal schools?

So, a new question for our readers - what is the best way to improve teacher quality?


July 09, 2008

Carnival of Education

Perhaps the best part of this week’s Carnival of Education is the introduction. All of us who have had to sit through interminable inservice meetings will identify with the author’s attitude. Beyond that though, there are some excellent links. Check out an interesting take on our special education students at this site

Education Notes Online submitted an essay on types of teacher training that might be of special interest to those of us who have been involved in alternative certification programs. At HorseSense and Nonsense you can find an ongoing discussion on what does or doesn’t constitute teacher insubordination.

All-in-all, another interesting conglomeration of educational topics, all gathered together in one tiny piece of the blogosphere.


Poll on school effectiveness

By desertjim

The poll shows that education ranks behind the economy and gas prices as the top issue for Americans. However, the participants said that the quality of the education system has a big impact on the economy.

In addition to responding that the schools are not getting students ready for “real-life”, the poll indicates that the public feels the current stress on testing is a waste of time. I think most educators would agree with the public on that one.


July 06, 2008

Federal education policy

by desertjim

Here in the high desert of southern New Mexico it is becoming apparent that the coming election will usher in big political change. Change that may approach the level of 1932 when FDR was elected and fostered the New Deal. This trend seems to surpass the desire for change that elected Ronald Reagan and the Republicans to power in 1980.

If this year turns out to bring a major political change to America, we as educators need to be able to articulate how we want the new Congress and administration to approach public education. Clearly NCLB, the last major education policy change, was a disaster. Public schools have been forced to teach to standardized high-stakes tests and shortchange actual education.

What should be the federal government’s role in public education?

I have my own biases. I think federal aid to education should go predominantly toward funding districts which adopt research supported programs. For example, studies clearly show that inquiry science education and early childhood programs like Headstart are effective.

Perhaps you have other priorities. Should the government concentrate on mandates like Title IX or the ADA rules on special education? Should the nation return to programs like the Eisenhower funding that paid for teacher training and adoption of exemplary curricula? Perhaps the National Science Foundation summer workshops for teachers should be reinstated. Would block grants to states be the simplest approach?

I would like to hear other opinions on this issue. What do you think must be done to improve public education using federal dollars? What priorities will you present to your congressional representatives when the education bill comes up for renewal? 


July 02, 2008

Carnival of Education

This week’s Carnival of Education at An (aspiring) Educator’s Blog features last week’s TEN post on Academic Capital among many others. A few I found particularly interesting:

Bill Ferriter at The Tempered Radical wonders,

How can we, as educators, come to grips with the idea of a job well done, when “a job well done” inevitably includes failures in the form of children who we just didn’t wouldn’t decided not to couldn’t reach?

Lorem Ipsum wonders, with tongue in cheek, what would happen if we decided to solve the school budget crunch and silence the critics of teachers by just getting rid of all the teachers.

Firing teachers would solve so many problems.  No more problems with kids being given too much homework, no more problems with kids being taught evolution, no more problems with “unfairness” in general.

Right on the Left Coast shares a story of a teacher who taught a book despite being specifically forbidden to teach it and got suspended. Do you agree with his conclusion?

[I]t may not be smart for schools or districts to keep particular books out of classrooms, but it is legal. And since we teachers are public employees and not private contractors, we follow the instructions that are laid out by the elected school boards and implemented through the school administration. I’m sorry this teacher lost her job over this, but she defied specific instructions about curriculum.


June 30, 2008

Academic capital

The Illinois Education Research Council is releasing a new study on the “Teacher Academic Capital Gap in Illinois.” (Download the full study or policy brief [pdf])

Teacher academic capital is a measurement combining the mean ACT score of teachers, the percentage of teachers who failed the IL Basic Skills Test on the first attempt, the percentage of teachers who were provisionally or emergency certified, and the mean Barron’s competitiveness ranking of the undergraduate institutions attended by teachers. It represents, according to the IERC, “a collection of intellectual resources and assets that are available to schools through their teachers.”

The study found that between 2001 and 2006, schools with the highest percentage of low-income and minority students made major gains in academic capital. Though Chicago still has a lower average than the rest of the state, it is increasing faster than any other region, and increases in Chicago’s measures are the main driving force behind the statewide increase.

The report points out that Chicago’s huge increases in teacher academic capital are “largely the result of hiring inexperienced teachers with stronger academic backgrounds.”

The found that ISAT scores showed a “positive link between improvements in [academic capital] and achievement gains.” They also found that “[academic capital] gains tend to have a greater positive effect on a school’s student achievement than the negative effect associated with teacher inexperience.”

They specifically warn schools against seeking out experienced teachers as the expense of looking at new teachers with strong academic qualifications. But, to be sure, there are challenges to focusing on academic capital, as the IERC reported last year:

Unfortunately, in a recent study on teacher attrition in Illinois (DeAngelis & Presley, 2007), the IERC found that teachers with the highest ACT scores and degrees from the most competitive institutions are less likely to remain teaching in the lowest-performing schools. If this trend continues, the improvements in the distribution of Illinois’ teacher academic capital in recent years could be eroded. State and district officials need to ensure that all school leaders are implementing effective mentoring and induction support for new teachers, and striving to improve their schools’ teaching and learning climates.

Links to news coverage and related teacher achievement data in New York at This Week in Education.


June 28, 2008

Class size, class culture

[via Joanne Jacobs]
A Los Angeles teacher talks about class size. It’s not about giving teacher fewer papers to grade or parents to call. It’s about giving teachers and students a fighting chance to fight the entrenched classroom culture that pervades high-need schools.

In Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” invisibility translates to a lack of individuality and signifies how being looked at is not the same as being seen. When one is invisible in any culture, one feels no sense of personal motivation or accountability. Class-size reduction is one very important way to change the culture. Being able to look each student in the eye, to touch each student on the shoulder, to make each student feel responsible for his or her behavior is impossible when the room feels like one huge organism that has devoured individuals and turned them into a monstrous mass. With an environment that allows us the ability to give attention where attention is needed, we can all accomplish more. With an environment that allows us the ability to see one another as individuals, despite the enforced limitations of an obsolete institution like the Los Angeles Unified School District, we might even exceed all our expectations.


June 26, 2008

Carnival of Education

This week’s Carnival of Education at Where’s the Sun highlights a recent TEN post on standardized test score analysis.

Also worth checking out:

An (aspiring) Eduator’s Blog looks at four different personas taken on by teachers to address race in the classroom: the colorblind champion, the touchy-feely empathizer, the devil’s advocate, and the social justice league. Each has pros and cons. She says,

[A]ll of my teachers have influenced my blackness - from how I see myself as an African American to how I relate with others in and outside of my racial group. Many teachers are not cognizant of the power they have over this domain.

Tween Teacher is talking about how to find a teaching job you love. She’s got detailed steps and potential interview questions. If you’re in the market for a first (or new) teaching job, be sure to take a look! “[Y]ou are entitled to work in a place that ‘gets’ you, and wants what you have to offer.”


What are you doing this summer?

Chicago’s Curie High School Youth Radio project wondered what their teachers do for fun and during the summer. Hear the interview here. Answers included quilting, singing, golfing, gardening, “being a soccer mom,” and moshing at heavy metal concerts.

Everyone’s got their own special summer thing. Hope everyone’s got something relaxing, fun, and/or inspirational planned for this summer. What will you be doing?


June 23, 2008

This just doesn’t make sense

Last week the Fordham Institute release a new study showing that, “while the nation’s lowest achieving youngsters made rapid gains from 2000 to 2007, the performance of top students was languid.” It suggests that NCLB’s focus on “closing the achievement gap” has forced teachers to pay more attention to their lowest performing students, perhaps as the expense of the highest.

The report expresses grave concern about these findings, calling them “one of [NCLB’s] unintended consequences - and one that’s worrisome for America’s future competitiveness.”

There’s something about this that just doesn’t make any sense to me. Never has. Let me see if I can break it down.

Here’s a set of scores reported in the study: in 8th grade math, the average score of those students in the 10th percentile went up 13 points, from 221 to 234, while the average score of the students in the 90th percentile went up only five points, from 320 to 325.

These scores aren’t measuring the performance of individual kids over time. They’re the 8th grade scores each year, so each year it’s a different set of kids.

I might be worried if we were talking about a single group of kids. If in the past we were able to move high achieving kids along at a certain rate over their years in school, and now we’re not because we’ve stopped paying attention to them, that would be worrisome.

But why does it make sense to expect the top scores of 8th graders to increase dramatically each year? Should each class of 8th graders be significantly more successful than the previous year’s class?

Is what we’re saying that we don’t think that 325 is a good score on the NAEP? That to be internationally competitive, 8th graders should be scoring, what, 400? 500? If they got to that score, would we then be contented if their scores stayed stagnant?

It makes me wonder what we’re really measuring. If we had some really well defined standards for what 8th graders should be able to know and do, and some really valid measuring tools, then I think you would not expect the scores of the top students to rise dramatically every year. They would just be high. Stable and high.

It’s not that I don’t think they have a point about teachers in the current test-obessed climate being pressured to pay more attention to their lowest performing students at the expense of enriching the education of the highest performing students. There’s just something really fishy to me about the expectation that all scores - even the very highest - will rise every year. Maybe there’s something I’m missing.

More on the study from Eduwonk and Eduwonkette.


June 22, 2008

Gender and education

In May the American Association of University Women released a report that describes the amazing strides girls have made in educational attainment in the last 35 years. They pointedly argue that this has not been at the expense of boys. 

USA Today reporter Richard Whitmire disagrees vehemently, and has a new blog just to explore Why Boys Fail.

Regardless of your point of view on whether there’s a boys crisis or a girls crisis or both or neither in education today, the blog is a great source of interesting links. Check the sidebar on the right for a library of editorials and reports worth checking out if you’re interested in gender and education.


June 20, 2008

Carnival of Education

This week’s Carnival features posts relating to the theme of youth empowerment.

I particularly liked this post from What it’s Like on the Inside, talking about her approach to end of the year assessment:

For example, I had a student who missed a lot of class not that long ago. It turned out that he was skipping school and by the time all that caught up to him, well, he had been gone a lot of days. He served a week of in-school suspension for his truancies. Five of his teachers told his parents that there was no way he could pass their classes---all those zeros in their gradebooks couldn’t be made up due to unexcused absences. It is their right to have such a policy, but I didn’t follow suit. The kid made some bad choices, to be sure. But he had a school applied punishment for that. Why should I kick him with a grade, too? I can’t imagine having to come to school for the last month knowing that nothing you would do would matter...that because of something stupid, others were going to make a mess of your transcript and condemn you to summer school for summers to come. Now, it remains to be seen whether or not he will pass my class. He is still missing several assessments, but he has the choice to show me that he has learned the material. It is definitely one of those “lead a horse to water” sorts of deals; however, in the event that an “F” shows up on his report card for my class, it won’t be because I destined him to fail. I sleep a lot better that way.


June 19, 2008

A broader, bolder approach?

Last week, in full-page ads [pdf] in the New York Times and Washington Post, a task force commissioned by the Economics Policy Institute released “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.” The education internet has been buzzing ever since.

Here is what the report says:

Education policy in this nation has typically been crafted around the expectation that schools alone can offset the full impact of low socioeconomic status on learning. Schools can—and have—ameliorated some of the impact of social and economic disadvantage on achievement. Improving our schools, therefore, continues to be a vitally important strategy for promoting upward mobility and for working toward equal opportunity and overall educational excellence.

Evidence demonstrates, however, that achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status are present before children even begin formal schooling. Despite the impressive academic gains registered by some schools serving disadvantaged students, there is no evidence that school improvement strategies by themselves can close these gaps in a substantial, consistent, and sustainable manner.

The broader, bolder approach includes increased investment in early childhood education; health services like prenatal, dental, and optometric care; and after school and summer services.

Successful programs do not exclusively focus on academic remediation. Rather, they provide disadvantaged children with the cultural, organizational, athletic, and academic enrichment activities that middle-class parents routinely make available to their own children.

Lots of education thought leaders have gotten behind this. You can see the original task force list here, and you can become a cosigner of the statement here.

Critics of the statement contend that it is anti-accountability and lets school off the hook for their role in the education crisis.

Here’s a typical critique, from Eduwonk:

I’m all for many of the proposals it champions, better access to health care and other social services, better access to pre-kindergarten education for low-income kids, using time more effectively....those are all vitally important.

But, the conspicuous soft-pedaling of a focus on results and the explicit rejection that perhaps schools are even a substantial part of the educational problem is unsettling. It’s as though the debates and progress of the last 25 years didn’t happen at all.

But when I read it, I didn’t see results getting soft-pedaled at all. Here’s what the report says about accountability and assessment:

The public has a right to hold schools accountable for raising student achievement. However, test scores alone cannot describe a school’s contribution to the full range of student outcomes. New accountability systems should combine appropriate qualitative and quantitative methods, and they will be considerably more expensive than the flawed accountability systems currently in use by the federal and state governments.

I’ve talked about this before: it’s time to focus on figuring out what real accountability would look like. If we want to argue that standard testing is a bad measure of student achievement, we have to offer a real replacement. A scientific, carefully reasoned alternative.


June 14, 2008

Imaginative education system fixes

Andy Rotherham at Eduwonk is wondering, “what would you do with $5 billion to improve American education?”

Here are some of the ideas from the many comments:

  • Find the best method for training teachers, and then require that the exact curriculum be implemented in every Ed School in the nation.
  • I would establish a competitive master-teacher career track open to candidates with five or more years of documented exceptional impact on student achievement.
  • Establish a equivalent of the medical residency “match” in the public schools. Each year, each aspiring, credentialed teacher would apply for school jobs through the same service. Schools would compete for top staff, and at the end of the selection process each teacher would receive a single school assignment where he/she would apprentice under master teachers for three years.
  • Use the money to hire teachers for one-on-one home tutoring for our most disruptive students.
  • I would take $3 billion and spend it buying out as many education vendors as I could, so I could streamline product development and reduce the amount of time districts and schools spend being bombarded by salespeople.
  • Shift the focus from measuring test scores to measuring life outcomes, specifically: college going and persistence, entered employment, retention, and earnings gain over 1 year, and civic particpation. Provide support for developing the necessary tracking systems, provide huge incentives for districts to begin holding themselves to these broader goals, and reward those districts that make the biggest gains.
  • I don’t think there’s any way to spend $5 billion nationally without it being a drop in the bucket. I’d pick a small to medium-size urban district and pour all the money into it...If spent wisely, at the end of the day we would know whether or not more money really can make a difference.
  • Universal day care at no charge to parents.
  • Pick middle schools in neighborhoods with the worst high school dropout rates and place counselors at those schools to specifically focus on students with low attendance.
  • Have a program to create teacher’s assistants. Not teaching assistants, but Teacher’s Assistants, that is administrative professionals who can perform all that paperwork and documentation that teachers spend hours upon hours doing.

See the idea he picked as his favorite here.

What would you do?


June 13, 2008

Big rally a big waste?

District 299, Alexander Russo’s blog about Chicago Public Schools asked teachers for their impressions of the big anti-violence-pro-school-funding rally at Soldier Field this week. (He also links to all the newspaper coverage here)

Some impressions gathered from the comments:

  • “Not much substance that pertained to the kids.”
  • “[I]f you were to assess what the kids learned from it, you would find they learned very little.”
  • “[O]ur kids were prepped to interact with other students and found that the stadium was as segregated as our fine city.”

While the event wasn’t, according to these witnesses, much good to the students themselves, is it possible it might have some political impact as a showpiece nevertheless? Does that kind of strategy even work to change public or political opinion? 


June 12, 2008

Carnival of Education

This week’s Carnival of Education at Learn Me Good features, among many others, Penny Lundquist’s guest post on TEN on the role of teachers, “I’m not a social worker.”

Also worth checking out:

Reading Coach Online worries that a proposal to add suggested age ranges to all children’s book is at best unnecessary, and at worst could discourage or embarrass kids who are reading out of their publisher-selected age range.

Learning from the Experts shares some advice for teachers from middle school students, including a suggestion that teachers allow students to evaluate them sometimes. Anyone tried this?

What it’s Like on the Inside wonders how to move outside our comfortable habits and stretch ourselves as educators, not to mention helping our students to do the same.

You cannot have innovation, unless you are willing and able to move through the unknown and go from curiosity to wonder. How do you help yourself make that move?


June 10, 2008

Where is the career ladder for teachers?

A the blog Teaching in the 408, blogger TMAO is talking about why he’s leaving his teaching job. Here’s one reason:

What does a teacher-promotion look like? Lead teacher/ mentor teacher/ department chair tend to mean very little except occasionally more work. Instructional coach means not teaching. Vice-principal means not teaching. Coordinator of something at the D.O. means not teaching. What does a teacher-promotion look like? We don’t know, not really. What happens when I figure out my job, do it well, occasionally do it more than well? What are my options for professional growth beyond 1) stop doing the job I do well; and 2) continue to do the job I do well, without change, indefinitely?

His post inspired a great discussion about this topic on the dy/dan blog, where Dan asks,

Where, in the vast sphere of education, do you deploy someone like TMAO, someone who is more satisfied by instructional innovation than by instructional implementation? How do you play to that teacher’s strengths? How do you keep him challenged?


June 09, 2008

“I’m not a social worker”

Today’s guest blog post is from Golden Apple’s Director of Professional Development and Golden Apple Fellow Penny Lundquist.

On a recent visit to a far south side Chicago public high school, I observed a well-spoken African-American student linger after class.  When the young man left, I commented to his teacher, “he seems to be quite interested in your class.  One of your better students?” The teacher replied.  “He’s very smart, but he’s failing my class.” When I asked him why, the teacher responded, “I don’t know why.  I don’t pry into my students’ personal lives.  I’m not a social worker.”

Far too many poor and minority students, students of promise, are also students who are beset by wide-ranging life challenges outside of school that interfere with their ability to succeed in school.  Unfortunately, far too many of their teachers view their role as purely academic and are unable or unwilling to reach out to them to build the bridge those students need.

Sarah Karp’s “Teaching Kids to Cope” in the April 08 issue of Catalyst addresses social and emotional learning:

In the first-ever districtwide survey of students last spring, CPS students were asked a number of questions about their own and their peers’ social and emotional development. … The results showed that social and emotional learning is the No. 1 area students identified as needing improvement . . . [However,] Teachers worry that social and emotional lessons will cut into time they have to spend teaching reading or math. Others don’t see the immediate impact.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear, has there been a sound?  If a teacher imparts information, “teaches,” to students who are so beset by life challenges that they cannot absorb the teaching, has the teacher really taught? 

Vivian Loseth, Executive Director of Youth Guidance, explained it this way in the Catalyst article:

One of the common things you find with bad teachers is that they have not found a way to connect with students. If you can connect with kids and teach them how to manage their own behavior, then it frees up time for math and science.

Should a teachers’ role include “social work?” If so, how can we make sure teachers are getting the training and support to provide this role? What would this training look like?


June 07, 2008

That kid

Joanne Jacobs sums up some of the coverage on the two recently reported incidents of kindergarten teachers acting cruelly toward difficult students in their classes.

In talking to teachers and reading the dozens of comments on my blog posts here and here, I see a pattern.

Teachers complain that more wild and crazy children are coming to school, and that there’s little that teachers are allowed to do to enforce discipline when parents are uncooperative or incompetent…

Teachers also say they’re promised training in dealing with children with disabilities or behavior problems, but they never get it. Or they get it, and it’s not helpful. They’re told special education teachers will co-teach or that aides will work with high-need children, but the extra help never appears or vanishes with the next budget cut.

Her summary of those responses is, for me, a little too close to “teachers say it’s the kids’ fault, the parents’ fault and/or the school system’s fault.” I don’t think that’s really what the teachers meant.

But, I think teachers do often feel really angry and helpless when they have that kid in class. The kid who makes it so difficult for you to teach everyone else. The kid who makes you cry after school because you have no idea how to reach her. And if you have four or five or twelve kids like that, well, then it takes more than just a devotion to your calling to survive a year. It takes strategies.

I bet a few of you had that kid in your class this year. We all know the answer to having an extremely disruptive kid in your class and terribly insufficient support is NOT to have the other kids vote him out of the class!

So, what worked for you? 


June 05, 2008

Carnival of Education

A few highlights from this week’s Carnival, which also includes this post from TEN on interdisciplinary learning.

Lead from the Start shares a study that proves preschoolers do much better on motor skills tasks when they talk to themselves.

Andrea muses on the mixed messages we give kids:

We want you to resist peer pressure and think for yourself. We want you to believe everything we tell you about what are good values.
We want you to be a good team member. Don’t even think of asking the student next to you how they solved the problem; you do your own work.
Be responsible. Only do what we tell you to.
We want you to be compassionate and look out for each other. We want you to turn in your peers to the authorities when they are troubled.
Cooperation is the key to success. There can only be one winner, so you have to beat everyone else.

History is Elementary demands that her fellow content-area teachers “roll up our sleeves and provide more opportunities for students to have more varied literacy experiences and more practice with various reading strategies, so they will not be ‘left behind.’”


June 02, 2008

Interdisciplinary learning

Sometimes, when he’s rereading his favorite Douglas Hofstadter book, my husband tries to get me estimate. How many blocks high is the Sears Tower? How many dumptrucks would it take to haul away Mt. Fuji?

I was thinking of those questions when I read this piece in the New York Times about a new interdisciplinary program at Binghamton University in New York that seeks to break down the never-ending divide between the disciplines:

It’s been some 50 years since the physicist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famous “Two Cultures” lecture at the University of Cambridge, in which he decried the “gulf of mutual incomprehension,” the “hostility and dislike” that divided the world’s “natural scientists,” its chemists, engineers, physicists and biologists, from its “literary intellectuals,” a group that, by Snow’s reckoning, included pretty much everyone who wasn’t a scientist.

The estimation problems are an interesting bridge of this gap. I’m more of a “literary intellectual” than a scientist, and I start out frustrated because I think of them as being math problems that I simply don’t have enough information to solve. But they’re not. I have lots of information from things I’ve seen and done and read to start to figure out the answers.

Teachers talk a lot about the importance of interdisciplinary learning. But it takes a lot to figure out ways to authentically connect, say, math and literature.  The beauty of it is, once you’ve done it, the “math kids” will be more engaged with the literature and the “reading kids” will be more engaged with the math.  The Binghamton prof gives this example:

One goal of the initiative is to demystify science by applying its traditional routines and parlance in nontraditional settings — graphing Jane Austen, as the title of an upcoming book felicitously puts it. “If you do statistics in the context of something you’re interested in and are good at, then it becomes an incremental as opposed to a saltational* jump,” Dr. Wilson said. “You see that the mechanics are not so hard after all, and once you understand why you’re doing the statistics in the first place, it ends up being simple nuts and bolts stuff, nothing more.”

This is a big project for professional development providers and ed schools. Teachers need to learn to bridge between disciplines on their own before they can help their students to do it.

* A term in biology referring to an abrupt jump.


May 31, 2008

Realism about 21st Century Schools

Chris Lehmann, the principal of the innovative Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, critiques this glossy video proclaiming the importance of technology in education in his blog Practical Theory.

He worries that the message is too glib:

I’m disturbed by the fascination with connection for connection’s sake that I see in the first few minutes of the video. I remain very, very concerned with the notion that all we have to do is let the kids connect with the world—just like they do on Facebook or MySpace—and the kids will learn...We have to stop just thinking that the introduction of these tools without an incredible amount of planning and forethought will change anything for the better.

He also worries that we risk throwing away the baby with the bathwater:

The technology can be transformative, but only when coupled with a sense of where you are going and why. Let’s not forget the last 100 years of progressive school reform as we look to change schools today. We have to learn from the lessons of the past—we must learn why the progressive school movement lost to the factory model as the dominant educational model in America, if we expect to be successful in whatever the next wave of school reform turns out to be.

Lehmann worries that the video, produced by Pearson, is really just a marketing ploy for its new web-based school products. And he’s probably right.

The video is a symptom, not a cause, of the problems Lehmann is worried about. The video won’t keep anyone from asking the tough questions, but it just might be another indicator that not enough people are asking them yet.

Scott McLeod takes a similar perspective in his blog Dangerously Irrelevant,

Quit offering us wishes. Quit offering us dreams. Quit preaching to us about what is morally right and educationally appropriate. Help us realize, in terms we can understand, what this new thing might actually look like AT SCALE and how we might reasonably get here. Even if we agree with you that this is important, without a vision AND a plan we’re just as stuck as you are.


May 29, 2008

Carnival of Education

This week’s Carnival of Education features a recent TEN blog post on the perils of ACT preparation, as well as two interesting posts for/about new teachers:

Lead from the Start offers advice to his student teacher, considering taking a full-time teaching job at his high need school. He warns her,

Most of all you have to realize that if you do come to here, you have to buy-in completely to the school and its culture. Don’t do it if you think you need to come because you have to change the way things are done. You will only be disappointed.

Tween Teacher talks about the lessons she learned as a new teacher and defends the role of young, new teachers in difficult classrooms:

It’s not that I don’t agree that more experienced teachers are better for the harder-to-teach class, it’s just that I think that we can’t dismiss the passion and newness and energy that new teachers bring to the table.

Also interesting:

A Voice in the Wilderness offers up even more disturbing examples of product placement in the NY State standardized tests this year. I haven’t heard any complaints about this on Illinois tests. Has anyone seen anything like this here?

Jose Vilson explains why you can’t go on the field trip, even though he thinks you’re an awesome kid.

Dangerously Irrelevent asks a question nobody’s asking:

So what if schools don’t adjust to the demands of the digital, global economy? So what if the schools don’t prepare kids for the 21st century?


May 27, 2008

ACT prep: too much, too late

The Consortium on Chicago School Research has released the next study in their series on Chicago high schools, this one looking at ACT preparation. The ACT is now a required part of the PSAE, Illinois’ standardized test for high school students.

According to the report summary:

The majority of Chicago Public Schools students are not attaining the ACT scores they are aiming for, which they need to qualify for scholarships and college acceptance… CPS students are highly motivated to do well on the ACT, and they are spending extraordinary amounts of time preparing for it. However, the predominant ways in which students are preparing for the ACT are unlikely to help them do well on the test or to be ready for college-level work. Students are training for the ACT in a last-minute sprint focused on test practice, when the ACT requires years of hard work developing college-level skills.

The full report explores this in fascinating depth, looking at test score data in conjunction with interviews with teachers and students. This really stood out for me:

Most students believe that ACT scores are strongly determined by tenacity and practice. When students were asked in interviews what they were doing to prepare for the test, the most common response was that they were going to try hard… Student perceptions that tenacity, strategies, and practice are what matter most for test scores are reinforced by the large amount of class time spent on practice items, strategies, pep assemblies around the test, and motivational posters… Teachers also tend to believe that ACT scores are predominantly determined by test-taking skills—almost 60 percent believe so. More teachers believe that the ACT reflects testing skills than believe it reflects student learning in their classes.

The belief that tenacity and motivation are the keys to success is one of the most pervasive themes in American rhetoric, and there’s a great power in conveying that sense of self-efficacy to students. It’s also a convenient message for policy-makers and test-prep companies. It’s simple and it sells.

But if schools are serious about getting students ready for college, this report concludes, it’s time to turn the volume down on that message a little bit, and turn the volume way up on the importance of aligning middle school and high school curricula, aligning high school instruction to what colleges are looking for, and generally improving the quality and quantity of instruction in high schools.

More from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times.

Full report here [pdf].


May 24, 2008

Surprising (or not) news about science teachers

[via Schools Matter]

Wired Magazine’s blog draws attention to a new Penn State study that found that one in eight U.S. high school teachers presents creationism or intelligent design as a valid alternative to evolution.

From the study:

When we asked whether an excellent biology course could exist without mentioning Darwin or evolutionary theory at all, 13% of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that such a course could exist…

Of the 25% of teachers who devoted time to creationism or intelligent design, nearly half agreed or strongly agreed that they teach creationism as a “valid scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species.” Nearly the same number agreed or strongly agreed that when they teach creationism or intelligent design they emphasize that “many reputable scientists view these as valid alternatives to Darwinian Theory”…

[O]ur data demonstrate substantial sympathy for the “young earth” creationist position among nearly one in six members of the science teaching profession. The teachers who chose the “young earth” creationist position devoted 35% fewer class hours to evolution than all other teachers.

The study concludes:

These findings strongly suggest that victory in the courts is not enough for the scientific community to ensure that evolution is included in high school science courses. Nor is success in persuading states to adopt rigorous content standards consistent with recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences and other scientific organizations. Scientists concerned about the quality of evolution instruction might have a bigger impact in the classroom by focusing on the certification standards for high school biology teachers. Our study suggests that requiring all teachers to complete a course in evolutionary biology would have a substantial impact on the emphasis on evolution and its centrality in high school biology courses. In the long run, the impact of such a change could have a more far reaching effect than the victories in courts and in state governments.

So, next step, better science teacher preparation programs. Anyone seen an example of a good program at work?


May 22, 2008

End of the year anxieties

[via this week’s Carnival of Education]

High school teacher Ms. Cornelius is irritated:

Like my new haircut?

I got it from the whirling blades of the latest helicopter parents to hover over my head now that the semester is inexorably subsiding like a California mudslide into the onslaught of finality which is known as “end of semester” time.

The question before us, ladies and gentlemen, is if it possible for Sugarplum to increase his semester average 8 percentage points in the next six school days. Never mind that Sugarplum has never come within sniffing distance of the grade that this parent has suddenly just plucked out of the ether as their “dream grade.”

The end of the year is a tough time, especially for new teachers. It takes practice to stand your ground with parents and students who have switched into desperation mode far too late in the game. It also takes experience to have worked out a grading system that you feel confident defending.  (Maybe those check-pluses should be worth 15 points instead of 10...Maybe participation should be 25% instead of 20%, and maybe I’m measuring it wrong anyway… Repeat variations endlessly in your head until you can’t sleep.  I may be speaking from experience here.)

Heading into the end of the year, I wonder if TEN readers have any suggestions for both these issues: dealing with desperate parents/students, and making sure you’re confident with your grading system.


Carnival of Education

This week’s Carnival at Teacher in a Strange Land features my collection of Teach for America stories, as well as this bizarre TFA-related anecdote from New York, where the standardized test includes essays written in response to a pre-recorded speech:

Today’s ’situation’ told students that they were in a leadership team who has been debating ‘whether leaders should have experience in their chosen fields.’ They were instructed to write ‘a position paper in which you argue that inexperienced people can provide leadership.’

They weren’t even given a choice about which position to take.

They then had to listen to a speech by-you guessed it-Wendy Kopp, about why she started Teach For America. In the speech, Kopp talks about how her lack of experience served to her advantage when creating Teach For America…

This is the New York State exam, blatantly plugging this!

First of all, they forced the children into the position of defending a ‘lack of experience.’ They didn’t say- agree or disagree. They instructed the students to agree with what they were going to hear.

Then, they told them to accept the concept of sending teachers with no experience into their schools. It’s good for you.

How dare they?

I actually like the idea of asking students to write about education reform. It would be great to get student perspectives on innovations like TFA or charter schools. But (a) it’s a standardized test, so anything interesting the kids write will be shipped off to the super-secret test scoring location and never seen again and (b) it’s only worth doing if you actually ask the kids for their opinion instead of assigning it.

Also worth checking out:

Anthony Cody at Edutopia and Susan Graham at Teacher Magazine blog about my favorite topic, the empowerment of teachers and of the teaching profession.

More on the TFA essay question here, including a somewhat depressing (to me, at least) example of a high scoring essay.


May 19, 2008

Youtube activism

Nancy Flanagan, a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, pointed me to this YouTube video by a North Carolina special ed teacher. Fed up with the contradiction between NCLB’s stated goal of all children meeting state standards by 2013 and the state’s norm-referenced (i.e. bell-curved) test, he decided to speak up.

As he expected, he was suspended and asked to resign. Nancy wonders,

[I]s this sweet, shambling guy in a T-shirt the person we want telling our story, explaining the paradoxes of teaching, testing and caring about kids? Doug doesn’t seem to be grandstanding, and this video is not what you’d call impressive rhetoric or razor-sharp analysis. Still, he seems like a regular guy, telling a common sense tale of frustration driving him to definitive action.

The video interests me less because of its connection to last month’s test-refusal stories than because it makes me speculate about the amazing potential of a highly democratic medium like YouTube as a forum for teacher activism. I’m sure it doesn’t all have to be the kind of activism that gets you fired.


May 18, 2008

Everyone wants to be in Teach for America

[via This Week in Education]

Teach for America is experiencing an unprecedented surge in applications. About 24,700 seniors applied this year, up from 18,000 last year. Only 3,700 of them will be placed in classrooms.

What I wonder, is if this signifies any kind of increase in the number of college seniors who want to be teachers as opposed to the number of seniors who simply want to be in Teach for America.

I guess I’m not really wondering. TFA is prestigious. Teaching still is not.

A former TFA teacher, guest blogging on Eduwonk says,

Teach for America recruiting efforts are “surging” because TFA treats prospective corps members like professionals rather than missionaries. I’m not sure how attracting engaging, intelligent, and driven people to the career who might not otherwise consider it became a bad thing. Mastering the art of teaching is a career-long challenge. The first year corps member’s bigger immediate hurdle is reconciling TFA’s personal touch with the pervasive unprofessional treatment accorded most stakeholders in their school systems --- their faculty colleagues, their students’ parents, and, most of all, their kids.

Perhaps this disconnect is why the author left teaching to become a doctor.

Meanwhile, the author of the excellent teacher blog Teaching in the 408, a TFA alum, recently announced he is resigning. Check out his blog, and his tongue-in-cheek description of the imaginary new TFA recruit who will likely be replacing him.

Jake’s a smart guy, worked hard all four years on an interdisciplinary American Studies/ Sociology/ Econ degree he designed more or less himself. He can tell you a lot about the changing face of the American worker, and how film has reflected, driven, and (re)created our (mis)understandings of the American proletariat...Last summer, Jake did some volunteering at an outward bound program his girlfriend was all jazzed about...Let’s hope the smart-and-excited-trumps-experienced gamble pays off.

Another great teacher (well, actually principal) blog, Practical Theory, continues to explore why why fabulous, bright, committed teachers are still leaving in such great numbers.

[This was updated after original posting to add the Eduwonk post]


May 15, 2008

Changing jobs?

As the year draws to a close, some of you may be considering looking for new jobs for next fall. Perhaps you’re moving, perhaps you want to try a new grade level, perhaps your current school just isn’t a good fit.

Math teacher and blogger Dan Meyer is looking for a new job, and has put together his dream criteria.  Here are a few from his really interesting list that particularly stood out to me:

  • a faculty which sees student failure as clear indication of school failure. I want to work with people whose first reaction to below-average common assessment results is, “how can I learn from my colleagues?” not, “the assessment was invalid because I’m pretty sure I know a little something about teaching.”
  • a math department stocked with teachers young, old, and everywhere in between. The next youngest teacher in my current department is fifteen years my senior with two kids. I dig all my coworkers but, in many ways, we don’t relate.
  • veterans who step up and take the tough preps for new teachers. This isn’t self-serving. Lump me into the veterans and give me three preps, fine, but I want to work with people who treat new teachers better than an expendable, renewable commodity, who understand the most remedial classes need the best teachers.

Dan’s readers had a variety of comments and suggestions that are also worth reading, including:

  • Have lunch with the kids. Interview them. Ask who the best teachers in the buildings are. Seek those teachers out. And interview *them*. (#6)
  • Arrive early for your interview — not conspicuously early, but early enough so that you need to wait in a public place for 15-20 minutes. Be a fly on the wall and watch the interactions that occur in that space. Who talks to you? Who doesn’t? You can get a pretty good sense of the tenor of a school by observing interactions. (#9)
  • I’d look for either a small school or a school with small learning communities. One of the most powerful tools I have is working with teachers who work with the same students. (#20)

TEN readers, what advice might you give to someone thinking of changing schools?


May 14, 2008

Carnival of Education

This week’s Carnival of Education at Instructify features not one, but two posts from TEN: Elitism and Middle Ground on Learning Styles. A few other great posts from this week’s Carnival:

A Voice from the Middle presents a unique way to assess students: let them answer questions they pose themselves, and base the grade on both the importance of the question and the thoroughness of the answer.

A New York City student writes that he understands why it’s important to learn how to take tests...but that he would rather have test prep contained in a single required class, so that subject area teachers could go back to teaching real content.

Scholastic Scribe is lingoed out and wonders if it’s really true that “By Adding Value to the Concept of our Worthiness as Educators, we can Hit the Ground Running without putting all of our Eggs in One Basket.”


May 12, 2008


Golden Apple Fellow Jane Artabasy has been doing a lot of thinking about the upcoming election. In recent weeks, she has been particularly upset at the use of “elitist” as a major criticism of Obama, and in this post, she argues that an elite president is exactly what we need.

Here’s a dose of the obvious: we need to get this next election right.  With record numbers voting in the primaries, it appears our citizenry understands the immediacy of this moment and this choice.  Teachers and former teachers are particularly well-equipped to help the process along.

Even as spin, distraction, dissimulation, and fear mongering grab center stage during the campaigns, we can hold candidates and media accountable by urging ideas of substance, creativity, and even nobility in the last months of what has been an exhausting, if exhilarating, electoral season. 

Teachers are inherently a skeptical lot, not a natural base for the Kool-Aid culture of 21st century electioneering, with its cynical, smarmy manipulation of language.  As a start, how about the most recent “word du jour:” elitism?  Only an intellectually bankrupt political system would dare to twist such a perfectly good noun into a pejorative, a negative, a mortal stigma. Webster’s defines elite as “the choice or most carefully selected part of a group...” Sounds to me like the perfect baseline description of a president. 

If Senator Obama is elite, or Senator Clinton, or Senator McCain, shouldn’t that be a very good thing, or at least cause for celebration?  Don’t we dearly need an Oval Office resident who’s a whole lot smarter than most of us?  Someone incredibly educated, with a nuanced global awareness and the wisdom to bring a strategically beneficent vision to the complex diplomatic demands of our age?  In the context of our anguished times, an elite might be a breath of fresh air.  An elite someone in the Oval Office might be the only hope we’ve got left. 

There is a larger point here unrelated to the election, as well. Last month, I linked to a post by a teacher of gifted students critiquing the culture of education schools:

In short, there is a relentless tide of mediocrity in schools of education, one that’s nearly impossible to swim through...You learn to be mediocre. You learn that not to be mediocre — to strive for scholarship, to insist on a level of academic rigor — is...viewed as useless or pretentious.

Does our profession truly suffer from a commitment to mediocrity? Are teachers frightened of being labeled “elitist”?


May 10, 2008

Middle ground on learning styles?

Recently, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright made a speech in which he suggested that black and white students inherently learn differently. NPR’s Tell Me More explored that statement with two education professors, Pedro Noguera and Janice Hale.

The conversation goes back and forth, with Hale defending Wright’s statements with her own research on the learning styles of African-American children, while Noguera worries that this kind of race-based reductionism will lend credence to claims that black (and Latino) students are inferior to white students.

Noguera’s point is that it is very easy to twist evidence saying that kids of different races learn differently into a terrible argument that kids of different races are inherently inferior.

Hale’s point is that in being so afraid of this twisted use of the information, we are doing a disservice to black children, who could benefit if only teachers were prepared to teach them where they are.

In the end, the argument I found most compelling was Noguera’s reminder that:

There is a great deal of diversity within groups. Not all black children learn the same way, not all white children learn the same way. There are a lot of individual differences. We also know that most children learn better when there’s active learning.

It reminds me of the ongoing debates over Ruby Payne’s work on teaching children in poverty and over Leonard Sax’s insistence that boys and girls learn differently.

In all three of these very similar debates, I always find myself wishing that someone was synthesizing the positions into a carefully reasoned middle ground. Because while I lean toward agreeing with Noguera, Hale had some interesting and important points. And while the works of Ruby Payne and Leonard Sax strike me as dangerously reductionist when considered in isolation, I also find elements of truth in the things they say.


May 08, 2008

Teachers speak on evaluation, unions, and reform

[via District 299 and the Associated Press]

A new study by Education Sector continues to break down the image that teachers are opposed to evaluation, interested in protecting bad teachers, and disinterested in professional development.

Some findings:

Only 26 percent of teachers say that their most recent formal evaluation was useful and effective in helping them to improve their teaching. Seventy-nine percent support strengthening the formal evaluation of probationary teachers. And nearly a third of teachers (32 percent) say that tenured teachers should be evaluated on an annual basis.


Teachers say they would support the union taking an active union role in improving teacher evaluation, supporting and mentoring teachers, guiding ineffective teachers out of the profession, and negotiating new/differentiated roles/responsibilities for teachers.

Download the full study here. [pdf]


Carnival of Education

This week’s Carnival of Education links to a continuation of the conversation from last week about Carl Chew, the Washington State teacher who refused to administer his state’s standardized tests.  This week, Larry Ferlazzo puts Chew’s actions in the larger context of civil disobedience:

I think performing civil disobedience outside of the context of a strategic campaign is indeed often, to use the words in Bill’s post, “arrogant” and “egocentric.” At the risk of sounding too harsh, I think it’s much easier to refuse to give a standardized test then to do the day-to-day and face-to-face organizing of listening and agitating people to develop an effective campaign for more accurate and just student assessments.

Also mentioned, this series in the Columbus Education Association Blog (which featured TEN in its Carnival a few weeks back), examining the legacy of the Nation At Risk report.

The CEA Blog has been fortunate enough to acquire a slightly used Flux Capacitor and retrofit a union-made car for the trip of a lifetime. We asked a number of edu-bloggers the question “What would the American educational landscape be like today if A Nation At Risk were never released?” and loaned them the time machine.

Three have already appeared, all are fascinating. (Eduwonkette’s, Leo Casey’s, and Ed Muir’s.)


May 04, 2008

Reviving the Dream for Immigrant Students

In this guest blog post, Greg Michie, a Golden Apple Fellow, invites us to consider our role as educators in the national debate on immigration.

During my years teaching 7th and 8th graders in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, I avoided decorating my classroom with motivational posters.

“Success is 99% hard work.”
“Education is the key to every door.”
“When I let myself dream, anything is possible.”

Common as such platitudes are on school walls, I figured they’d ring hollow to my students’ ears.  Many of the kids I taught had seen poverty and hardship up close.  They knew the world was more complicated than feel-good slogans could convey.

Still, I did my best to make my classroom a place of hope.  I tried to help my students see college as a real possibility down the road.  And I tried to impress upon them that, clichéd or not, working hard and doing well academically would give them more options after high school.

Turns out that I lied.

You see, most of my former students are from Mexican immigrant families, and some—more than I realized at the time—are undocumented.  So even if they remain focused, stay out of trouble, study, and graduate from high school with exceptional grades, going to college is still a long shot at best.  For many, it’s simply not possible.

That’s because current U.S. law dictates that the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools each year are not eligible for federal work study programs or loans to help fund their collegiate studies.  Their immigration status also precludes them from receiving many private scholarships, and they cannot work legally to support themselves through school. 

But legislation known as the DREAM Act would change that.  The DREAM Act would allow undocumented students who entered the U.S. before the age of 16, have lived here for at least 5 years, and demonstrate “good moral character” to become legal residents on a conditional basis when they are accepted to a 2- or 4-year college or university.  The conditional status would allow students to get work study jobs, receive federal loans (but not Pell grants), and seek legal employment.  In short, it would make college a real possibility.

Unfortunately, the DREAM Act failed again last year to become law, a casualty of the contentious broader debate over comprehensive immigration reform.  But the struggle for its passage continues, and teachers and educators should be a major voice in the conversation.

Write your senators and representatives.  Educate your colleagues.  Let them know that we need to take action to support undocumented youth who’ve been in this country much of their lives doing the right things. 

These are kids who have worked hard.  They’ve grabbed hold of their educations.  And despite evidence around them that sometimes mocks their devotion, they’ve continued to believe in the promise of America.

Question is, how much do we believe in them? 

Our answer will speak volumes about whether the dreams we propagate in schools are the stuff of reality for undocumented students, or simply fodder for a poster on a classroom wall.

Gregory Michie teaches in the College of Education at Illinois State University.  He is co-editor of City Kids, City Schools: More Reports from the Front Row, to be published this summer by The New Press. He is also the author of Holler if You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students and the co-author of See You When We Get There: Teaching for Change in Urban Schools.


May 01, 2008

Carnival of Education

This week’s Carnival of Education links to a great set of writing about education all over the web (including a post right here on TEN!)

Most interesting to me this week was Bill Ferriter’s take on Carl Chew, the Washington State teacher who refused to administer his state’s standardized tests.

I think that refusing to give the state test is a pretty arrogant and egocentric thing to do...To willfully ignore the methods selected by elected officials essentially says that we don’t respect the values of the communities that we serve.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m no fan of testing at all...In many ways, testing has destroyed what I do in my classroom each year, changed the dynamic of teaching and learning completely, and has done far more damage that it has done good.

But it is a system selected and believed in by the people who pay my check.  And (in theory) it’s based on the values and beliefs of a group of people that go far beyond me.  For those reasons, I choose to honor and respect the system even though I don’t totally believe in it.

He follows up with another post here.

Other Carnival entries to check out:
Larry Ferlazzo’s further tips on classroom management. (A follow-up to what I posted here).

TweenTeacher suggests that building confidence is an essential test prep strategy.

Learners Inherit the Earth criticizes an alt-cert teaching fellow program for perpetuating an us vs. them dynamic between fellows and veteran teachers at their school.


More on Bill: Teaching for social justice

An interesting debate on the role of social justice in teaching pits Bill Ayers against Sol Stern on Eduwonkette.


So a brief word on schools and social justice: all schools serve the societies in which they’re embedded—authoritarian schools serve authoritarian systems, apartheid schools serve an apartheid society, and so on. Practically all schools want their students to study hard, stay away from drugs, do their homework, and so on. In fact none of these features distinguishes schools in the old Soviet Union or fascist Germany from schools in a democracy. But in a democracy one would expect something more—a commitment to free inquiry, questioning, and participation; a push for access and equity; a curriculum that encouraged free thought and independent judgment; a standard of full recognition of the humanity of each individual. In other words, social justice.


We need a professional code of ethics for teachers, a Hippocratic Oath if you will, that makes clear that our public school classrooms are not laboratories for social and political change, with the kids serving as guinea pigs. Perhaps Stanley Fish put it best: “Teachers should teach their subjects. They should not teach peace or war or freedom or obedience or diversity or uniformity or nationalism or antinationalism or any other agenda that might properly be taught by a political leader or a talk show host.”

I recently posted a call for teachers to make a greater commitment to working for social justice. Slightly different from teaching for social justice, but still related.  As a teacher, how do you make your decisions about doing both/either/neither?


April 29, 2008

The Bill Ayers controversy

Many of us working in education in Chicago are familiar with Bill Ayers through his work as a professor at UIC and his longstanding involvement in education reform efforts here.

Golden Apple Fellow Mark Larson was moved to respond to the flap over Barack Obama’s acquaintance with Ayers:

I do not condone what Bill did 40 years ago. In fact, I find it impossible to defend.

I do celebrate who he is in his many dimensions, today.

This is what I know: When I spend time with Bill, I see our world as a flawed, fascinating and hopeful place that is rife with ironies and potential. Bill’s curiosity about the world and his abiding respect for its people is contagious. He speaks with passion and eloquence about the lives and futures of children in ways that remind us that this is the most important subject of our times.

The full text of Mark’s letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune is here.

Joanne Jacobs presents another point of view.

Has anyone talked about this with their students? I feel like there is an interesting issue here (both regarding Ayers and Rev. Jeremiah Wright) about the grey areas in choosing and defending your friends. Especially for kids who may have friends or relatives who, for instance, are in gangs, use racist or homophobic language, have been involved in bullying or other school violence, etc.


April 27, 2008

Reframing the conversation on contracts

On Friday I attended the Education Writers Association annual conference. Among the sessions was one on teacher contracts led by Tim Daly of the New Teacher Project. Some of the basics are not surprising: collectively bargained contracts are somewhat likely to force schools to hire teachers they don’t choose, shuffle poor performing teachers from school to school, and treat new teachers as expendable. Restrictive or confusing contracts also exacerbate the problem of new teachers choosing smaller or suburban districts simply because large urban districts hire so late.

Speaking to a room full of education reporters, he encouraged them to challenge the trope that teachers oppose meaningful contract reform and will live and die on the issue of seniority privileges.  In New York, for example, a new contract basically did away with provisions forcing schools to choose teachers based on seniority and bump new teachers first. And yet 90% of the union membership voted to extend the contract.  The idea that teachers would prefer a system in which neither they nor the schools they work in are able to make intelligent decisions based on personal preferences and talents simply doesn’t make sense.

So where does the idea come from? Daly said that historically the conflict is reported wrong. It’s framed as a labor vs. management issue, but it’s not. In fact, it’s a central office vs. school issue.  School bureaucrats and the unions tend to value a centralized process. It’s easy to manage, black and white, and avoids complicated decisions that can cause grievances to be filed, which is expensive.

Principals and teachers are actually on the same side. They want a process that allows schools and teachers to make good decisions. This is sometimes messy, but the net impact for both teachers and principals is better.

Well, guess who negotiates the contract? Not the teachers or the principals. The contract is negotiated by their central office representatives. Predictable results have been the rule, though recently some major districts have made some big improvements.

Interested in more specifics on various districts? The Fordham Foundation recently released a study of labor agreements in the fifty largest school districts. Chicago earns pretty good marks for its personnel policies, but lags behind in compensation flexibility and work rules. Download the study here.


April 24, 2008

Nation at Risk

Twenty-five years ago, the Nation at Risk report was released. On its anniversary, writers and pundits are busy assessing its legacy.

Not surprisingly, I’m not terribly fond of the conclusions George F. Will draws in his op ed on the subject - I don’t, for instance, consider lowering class size to be “shopworn” nor do I think multiculturalism is the reason high school students can’t correctly identify historical events. 

But he does raise one point that, though he wouldn’t be particularly fond of the conclusion I’m going to draw from it, bears further conversation among educators.

Moynihan also knew that schools cannot compensate for the disintegration of families and hence communities—the primary transmitters of social capital. No reform can enable schools to cope with the 36.9 percent of all children and 69.9 percent of black children today born out of wedlock, which means, among many other things, a continually renewed cohort of unruly adolescent males.


[I]n 1966, the Coleman report...concluded that the qualities of the families from which children come to school matter much more than money as predictors of schools’ effectiveness. The crucial common denominator of problems of race and class—fractured families—would have to be faced.

Unlike Will, who seems to be arguing that social context makes school reform irrelevant at best, I think these quotes actually argue for a larger role for teachers in advocating for social justice.

When I wrote about this a year ago, I quoted Pedro Noguera, among others:

If we want to insure that all students have the opportunity to learn, we must insure that their basic needs are met. Students who are hungry should be fed, children who need coats in the winter should receive them and those who have been abused or neglected should have counseling and care. Expanding access to healthcare, preschool and affordable housing, and providing more generous parental leave policies should be included on the education reform agenda.

Not an easy task. But perhaps one that it’s time to focus on.

Noguera and his colleagues at the Forum for Education and Democracy marked the anniversary of Nation at Risk by releasing their own vision of a new education reform agenda in Democracy at Risk: The Need for a New Federal Policy in Education.

More coverage on the 25th anniversary of Nation at Risk in this USA Today article, this Christian Science Monitor article, and the EdWeek archive.


April 23, 2008

Carnival of Education - High Expectations

In addition to linking to Sam Dyson’s great guest blog post (congrats, Sam!) from a few days ago, this week’s Carnival of Education highlights some of the best education writing on the web this week.

I was particularly interested in this piece from A Voice in the Wilderness.  The author’s friend, severely dyslexic, was incredibly successful in school despite his disability. But, unfortunately, when his master’s degree and other academic accomplishments landed him in jobs requiring lots of writing, he was tragically unsuccessful. This should never have happened argues the author:

The educational community failed my friend. We didn’t want him to feel bad about himself when he was in school, so we gave him a false view of his abilities. We decided that it was better for him to feel good about himself while in school and then be miserable for the rest of his life. We do this all the time.

For some reason, education has completely removed itself from the real world. Researchers and ivory tower professors are dictating what should be happening in schools. All children should study academics, they say. All children should attend college. Apparently, all children are the same. Guess what, they’re not.

This makes me wonder about the idea of having “high expectations for all students.” Can we have high expectations, but not necessarily the same expectations for all our students?  For instance, is it possible to be an excellent high school teacher who does not think all her students should go to college?

A related TEN blog post, referencing this great conversation on the Faculty Room blog.

Unrelated: my other favorite post from this week’s Carnival asks, “should teachers hide their beliefs?”


April 19, 2008

Understanding and assessing

Guest blogger and Golden Apple Fellow Sam Dyson is grappling with what it means to understand and what it means to truly try to assess student understanding. 

Any assessment we make of students’ understanding is made indirectly.  As absurd as it may seem, most teachers reveal through their interactions with their students a belief, which I share, that somehow we ought to be able to read our students’ minds.  It’s not for a lack of trying that I have failed to do so.  After all, assessing what a student has understood is regarded as one of our basic responsibilities. It would seem that “mind reading” is exactly what we are called to do.

We also expect a particularly high level of meta-cognition from our students.  We might want to avoid the daily temptation of asking our students, “Do you understand?” unless we have deliberately concentrated on helping students learn to evaluate their own understanding.

Such a question is unlikely to elicit an informed response from the majority of students, yet we ask it all the time. Perhaps we teachers, having realized that we cannot read students’ minds, hope that they will do us the favor of surveying their own understanding to report back to us what they have found. 

Acknowledging that “Do you understand?” is a question that only the most practiced learners can honestly answer, instead of asking it we should offer them the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding by doing something they could only do if they understood.  Designing such activities requires skill and insight, but of all of the implications of what it means to understand, this may be the one we teachers can most frequently put into practice. 


April 17, 2008

New achievement gap research

[via Joanne Jacobs] EdWeek summarizes the results of a few research papers presented at the AERA conference a few weeks back, and discovers a new twist for our understanding of the “achievement gap”:

New research into what is commonly called the black-white “achievement gap” suggests that the students who lose the most ground academically in U.S. public schools may be the brightest African-American children.

As black students move through elementary and middle school, these studies show, the test-score gaps that separate them from their better-performing white counterparts grow fastest among the most able students and the most slowly for those who start out with below-average academic skills.

So, the black students who start school with the highest ability levels and readiness to learn tend not to fulfill their potential in their years in school.

This phenomenon is not independent of the fact that most black students attend schools that are predominantly black.  One of the researchers, Sean Reardon, theorized that,

[B]ecause schools with predominantly African-American enrollments tend to have lower average test scores, high-achieving black children may be further from the mean, academically, than is the case for top-scoring white children.

“If instruction is aimed more to the middle of the distribution, then black children are less likely to have cognitively stimulating opportunities.”

Though he adds, “not because anyone is being racist”—still, ouch.

It does make me wonder, though, what kinds of things are we as teachers doing to make sure that we’re nurturing the kids at the top of the class in struggling schools?


April 16, 2008

Carnival of Education

This week’s Carnival of Education has another lineup of fascinating posts (including this one from TEN!). In particular, check out:

Putting the Public Back in ‘Public Education’
Renee Moore of the Teacher Leaders Network blog TeachMoore talks about reconnecting the communities to schools.

Educators have always had a higher calling than simply to generate a workforce; we were to produce thinking, responsible citizens. However, we were never expected to do it entirely on our own.

English is Yours!
NYC Educator reminds us that our students’ parents are also English Language Learners.

On the way home, she told her husband, “I can speak English. I could say whatever I want. And everyone understood me. Not only that, but they were afraid of me.”

She was delighted. And the next week, when her child had a new and better speech therapist, she was even more delighted.

The First Step is Admitting You Have a Problem
Paul at Scripted Sponteneity makes a confession about his teaching:

But, in reality, I am that guy. I am the self-absorbed “Sage on the Stage” that turns every class period into a one-man stand-up comedy show. I keep their attention by making them laugh. I bestow knowledge and dispel myth from my lofty residence at the front of the room…

You’ll notice that I use the present tense to describe this problem, in a similar way to how a recovering alcoholic will always call himself an alcoholic. I will always be that guy. Now, I just have to begin to become That Teacher.

Visit the Carnival for more!


April 14, 2008

Born to teach?

NPR’s Tell Me More program last week interviewed three teachers about why teachers leave, why teachers stay, and how teachers cope with challenging situations.

One of the teachers interviewed, Joanne Wilkerson, is a 30+ year veteran teacher. She made two comments that made me stop the playback.

If you do not see [teaching] as your call, or something you were...almost...born to do, then it can be very difficult and very frustrating.


As human beings we like immediate gratification, and there are some teaching situations in which you’re not going to get immediate gratification.  It may be ten years later. And another thing is sometimes when you work with children there is so much emotional involvement, especially as you become attached to them, and I think not everyone is cut out to be a teacher.

On the one hand, yes, not everyone is cut out to be a teacher. And teaching is, as I said just the other day, much more than a job.

But, still, something about these comments bothered me.

Somehow it feels like this viewpoint really discounts the impact of effective teacher training, mentoring, and professional development, chalking teachers’ staying power up to a mysterious “it” factor. (You’ve got it or you don’t; you can’t learn it).

I also wonder if teaching, at least the first few years, is sometimes more difficult and frustrating - or at least disappointing - for those teachers who feel called to it. The pressure to succeed at the thing you were born to do is pretty high.

I realize that I am simply not the kind of person who thinks of my life in terms of a “calling.” My argument with Mrs. Wilkerson may be nothing more than a clash of rhetorical style. But I think it’s a clash that’s prevalent in the teaching world. When we think about attracting new people to the profession, people who may want very much to teach without feeling “born to teach,” I think it’s important that we make a place in the rhetoric for them, too.

The full interview (17 min.) is here.
Related post on TEN here.


April 11, 2008

Chicago high school transformation: a work in progress

Yesterday I attended the second annual Catalyst High School Summit.

At the event, Washington Post reporter Jay Matthews gave a national perspective, outlining some key elements of high school reform.  He emphasized that school change is a “hiring issue,” that districts need to find principals that will hire and retain teachers who can raise expectations and create a school culture of learning.  Later, CPS High School Transformation Project director Alan Alson agreed, saying that the district needs to be tougher and more systematic about hiring, training, and firing teachers.

Catalyst reporters Sarah Karp and John Myers reported on the CPS transformation project, the subject of a special just-released issue of Catalyst. One key problem CPS high schools face is something Karp and Myers refer to as “enrollment creep.” Their focus school Marshall HS, for example, admitted almost its entire freshman class after the first day of school.  One student Karp shadowed at Marshall arrived on the tenth day of school...but her special education records didn’t appear until the tenth week of school. 

That is the type of chaos that makes it nearly impossible to set clear expectations and establish an effective class culture.  It makes it hard to get to know students and means that every week of the first quarter will be just as unpredictable as the first week of school.

CPS CEO Arne Duncan and Alan Alson both talked about some of the plans CPS has in place for addressing this issue in the next few years.  First and foremost, 8th graders will register for high school in the spring.  In addition, many schools will be implementing a two week freshman orientation period to give 9th graders the time they need to acclimate to high school and get all scheduling and registration issues sorted out before the regular school year begins.

Karp and Myers also mentioned the impact that absenteeism has on Marshall.  Students miss on average 50 days of school per year at Marshall.  In 1992, CPS cut its 153 truant officers to save money.  Schools often contract with outside agencies to help them, but with limited resources, even these workers have caseloads far too large to make a real difference.

The most interesting part of the day was a panel of high school students. Some highlights:

Talking about what motivates her, Tevela, a student at Robeson HS called the feeling “the fierce urgency of now.” She takes heart from her desire to disprove the implicit message of impending failure that kids in tough high schools receive every day. Evelyn, from Gage Park HS, said that some of her friends are discouraged when they see how nice other schools are compared to theirs.

Skyler, a student at North Lawndale College Prep (a charter school) said creating a solid school culture can play a major role in turning a school around.  “[A]t our schools we are the metal detectors.” At her school, on the other hand, Tevela reports that there is so much security (including an actual police office in the building), that many kids simply don’t want to come to school.

Talking about their teachers, the students agreed that not all of them have high expectations. Deon, from Gage Park, suggested that the key is to figure out which teachers do have high expectations and focus on them. Evelyn pointed out that sometimes it feels like you have just too many teachers who don’t care, and that’s when students stop coming to school.

For more, including discussions with teachers and students at Marshall High School and plenty of charts, be sure to check out the new edition of Catalyst.  Also, visit the Eduwonk blog, where this week guest bloggers are talking about how high schools can prepare students for college and sharing an amazing collection of student application essays.



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