A roundup of a dozen stories you don’t want to miss

Vocabulary is hot… Budgets are not…  Hirsch argues for Common Core… Hanushek for focusing on teacher compensation…  Brooks takes on pre-K… fifth-graders learn philosophy, and Finn says, “Obama for governor!” … and much more…

Cuomo to schools: fix thyselves (with one hand tied behind your back)


Earlier this month, an angry, fired-up crowd demanded more dollars as upstate New York school districts face down their own fiscal cliff. Indeed, the line of cars stretched for more than a mile as parents, students, teachers and superintendents packed a high school auditorium to rally for more equitable school funding. The 1,000+ attendees, representing more than 47 upstate school districts, all had one thing in common—they are deeply concerned about the dire state of funding of New York’s public schools. “We are running out of options,” warned headliner Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, an advocacy group that calls for more equitable aid distribution. Money is going to the wrong places at the wrong time, he says. As a result, more than 100 districts face insolvency in the next two years. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, claims he has no more left to give and that more districts need to consider consolidation or other ways to reduce spending. However, the repeal of the Triborough Amendment, an infamous and costly state labor law which keeps teacher union  contracts in place during negotiations and guarantees such costly labor practices as “Last-in-First-Out” layoff procedures, said Cuomo, is a “political non-starter.”


The case for revamping teacher compensation


The only way for school districts to fix their budgetary problems is to strengthen the relationship between teacher salaries and student performance—or so says Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “Currently,” he writes, “we dramatically underpay our best teachers while dramatically overpaying our worst.” For more on this controversial topic, read on at the link above.

E.D. Hirsch and the Common Core State Standards: make them work, not go away


In a recent blog posting, literacy expert E.D. Hirsch Jr. reviews the new book Inequality For All by William Schmidt and Curtis McKnight, while advocating for the Common Core Standards. “I’ve argued that general knowledge is approximately twice as important as math in determining a person’s future capacity to function economically and as a citizen, and therefore deserves at least the same care and coherence that Schmidt and McKnight want for science and math,” writes Hirsch. “Every day my email inbox fills with relentless attacks on these standards, and renewed attempts to undo the commitments of forty-odd states to follow them. I wish these energies and criticisms could be turned to making the standards function well, rather than making them go away.”

Vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary



“Vocabulary is a deceptively simple literacy skill that researchers and educators agree is critical to students’ academic success, but which has proved frustratingly difficult to address,” writes Sarah D. Sparks, a reporter at Education Week. An ongoing series of studies by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor show that children will need to learn more words to keep up with the Common Core standards. Children who enter kindergarten with a limited vocabulary are simply not taught enough words—particularly, sophisticated academic words—to close the gap. “Vocabulary is the tip of the iceberg: Words reflect concepts and content that students need to know,” says study coauthor Susan B. Neuman. “This whole common core will fall on its face if kids are not getting the kind of instruction it will require.” There are a couple of important takeaways from the studies: (1) students need to encounter a new word many times—28 times on average—and learn it in context, in order to remember it;  and (2) the closing of the vocabulary gap has to start early, preferably before first grade.

And more vocabulary: demographics is not destiny, but words may be


Education and communications consultant Robert Pondiscio who carried the Core Knowledge blog for several years and is former teacher, concurs that there’s clearly direct correlation between early verbal abilities and later achievement in school. What is needed to close the verbal gap, he writes, is “high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.”

Failing families—NOT!


The outcomes are dismal for Head Start, the big federal early childhood program that has been chugging along since 1965, writes David Brooks in a recent New York Times op-ed piece. But all is not lost. The good news is that there is lots of evidence that state programs, such as those in New Jersey, Oklahoma and Georgia, “can make at least an incremental difference in preparing children for school and getting parents to be more engaged in their kids’ education. These programs do not perform miracles, but incremental improvements add up year by year and produce significantly better lives.” He continues: “There’s still a lot we don’t know about how to educate children that young. The essential thing is to build systems that can measure progress, learn and adapt to local circumstances. Over time, many children will migrate from Head Start into state programs.” Brooks goes on to encourage everyone—including Republicans—to get on board. But it’s a mystery how this essay got headlined, “When Families Fail.”

Obama for governor! Another opinion on turning Head Start over to the states


“Maybe President Obama should follow the Pope’s example and resign—but then he should run for governor, presumably in Illinois,” writes Chester E. Finn, Jr., the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and current head of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute. That’s because, when it comes to education policy, just about everything the President wants the federal government to do could be done better at the state level, including raising academic standards, evaluating teachers and giving kids choices. “To its credit, the Obama Administration has pushed to reform Head Start… but with very limited success,” he continues. “The fact is that big federal programs, once entrenched, are exceptionally hard to change. Head Start should be turned over the states—where, with governors like Barack Obama—it might be merged into states’ own efforts to provide pre-schooling to those who need it.”

 The end of the university as we know it


For nearly a thousand years, college classrooms everywhere have pretty much looked the same—teacher-centered rooms featuring a professor behind a podium lecturing to students seated in rows of chairs. But all that is about to change. Fifty years from now—if not sooner—half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the U.S. will have ceased to exist, predicts Nathan Harden in The American Interest magazine. The demise of the brick-and-mortar university and concurrent rise of the virtual classroom is inevitable, he says. Education is about to experience the same jolting upheaval the music industry experienced when new technologies hit it: “Among the chattering classes in higher ed, there is an increasing sense that we have reached a tipping point where new interactive technologies, coupled with widespread access to broadband internet service and increased student comfort interacting online, will send online education mainstream.” Harden paints a picture of a not-too-distant future where access to college-level education will be free for everyone who wants it; the residential college campus will be largely obsolete; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and thousands of professors will be out of work.

 Fifth graders learning philosophy


“Winning Words,” an award-winning University of Chicago after-school philosophy program, is challenging young South Side scholars to think about and question the things in their everyday lives. Students are encouraged to pose and discuss such open-ended questions as: Should there be recess? Does a school uniform serve a greater good or does it infringe on individual liberty? Is there such a thing as a bad teacher? Should children be allowed to play the lottery? While hard-core empirical research on the project is lacking, there’s no doubt that students benefit from its emphasis on public speaking, thoughtful self-examination and self-expression, and frank classroom discussions. By the end, even the quietest youngsters enjoy honing their oratorical skills and all appear to thrive on having the opportunity for their voices to be heard. Now, if they would only introduce these kids to “close reading” (per Common Core State Standards) of The Great Books, in the tradition of the great university’s famous president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, they’d be on to something.

 D.C. council member declares war on ‘social promotion’


David A. Catania, a Washington, D.C., council member, has announced plans to introduce legislation to repeal “social promotion” in local schools. “We have an inexplicable municipal regulation that forces social promotion. It has to stop,” the chair of the council’s new education committee says. The regulation in question permits D.C. schools to fail students only in grades three, five and eight. And in most cases, a student can’t be held back more than once. The result, according to Catania, is that too many students are pushed along despite lacking basic skills. “It’s not fair to those kids who aren’t ready to go forward to continue that kind of farce.” While holding a child back should always be the last resort, he says, teachers and principals should have that option if they think it in the child’s best interest.

In an open letter, Chicago teachers take a stand against standardized testing


A coalition of teachers from Chicago public and private school teachers—including the school that Education Secretary Arne Duncan attended as a child and where President Obama’s daughters were enrolled before they moved to Washington—have released an open letter to Duncan expressing concerns about the impact of standardized testing on humanities curricula. The letter was released on the same day that President Obama spoke in Chicago about his second-term initiatives. “The widespread trend of teaching to the test is undermining primary and secondary education. Social studies, history, the fine arts, the study of literatures and languages, drama and music; these and other subjects not assessed in the standardized tests of ‘No Child Left Behind’ are subjects that are themselves being left behind as administrators pressure teachers to raise narrowly conceived test scores in a few core areas.”

White House debuts ‘College Scorecard’ tool to help students find schools with the right fit


As high school seniors and their families know, the search for the right college can be downright confusing and oftentimes overwhelming. To the rescue: The U.S. Department of Education has just unveiled the interactive “College Scorecard”—an online tool that gives a snapshot of information about any college or university in the U.S. Prospective students can search for a given school by name to find out the actual net cost per year, graduation rate, loan default rate and the typical amount borrowed for undergraduate studies. (In the future, the Scorecard will also provide data on average earnings for graduates.) Prospective students who don’t have a specific college in mind can use various filters to search for colleges based on: degree and major, occupation, location, student body size, awards offered and distance education services. In his State of the Union address this month, President Obama said the Scorecard will enable parents and students “to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your education buck.” The Scorecard can be accessed through the White House website. Try it out yourself.


Elizabeth Janice is an East Coast-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in national magazines such as Family Circle, Woman’s Day, and Essence. She earned her B.A. from the University of Michigan and her M.A. from New York University.



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