In the News This Week: 10/21–30/2013

Arne Duncan debates Rick Hess, Doug Lemov interviews Kathleen Porter-Magee, Andy Smarick says not to forget smart kids, teacher evaluation results in NYS are either good news or bad, ditto for international test results — and Billy Collins…


Top Stories


What Do We Want to Do With Our Smart Kids?

Andy Smarick thinks public education neglects gifted students. Over the last two decades, argues Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, policymakers have focused their efforts and resources on the neediest kids, at the expense of our brightest and most talented young minds. While the “achievement gap” appears to be closing slowly, the “excellence gap”—the difference in performance at the advanced level—is large and growing.  A recent Fordham Institute survey asked teachers which students were most likely to get one-on-one attention: 81 percent said struggling students and only 5 percent said advanced students.  Meanwhile, a 2011 Fordham study found that 30 percent to 50 percent of early grade “high flyers” lost ground and did not continue to achieve at the most advanced levels.


Charters Pose a Financial Threat to Already-hurting Traditional Public Schools 

More than two million American kids attended charter schools in the 2012-13 school year—or 4.6 percent of the total K-12 student population, according to analysts at Moody’s, the credit rating agency. And the growth of charters, reports Matt Philips in The Atlantic, is causing concern for traditional public school districts that face financial stress. Aging school districts in the Midwest and Northeast seem particularly affected. In July, Moody’s cut its ratings on Philadelphia School District bonds, citing, in part, charter school dynamics. Ironically, student academic performance is an entirely different story. According to a 2009 study by Marcus A. Winters, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, increased competition from charter schools in New York City actually boosted ELA scores at their neighboring traditional public schools.  


Doug Lemov Interviews Kathleen Porter-Magee 

Best-selling author Doug Lemov (Teach Like a Champion, 2010) recently spoke one-on-one with Kathleen Porter-Magee, the College Board’s new senior advisor for policy and instruction. The two talked about literacy, teaching, and why Porter-Magee is so bullish on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). “There is simply no way to become a good reader without reading great books, articles, essays, poems and so on,” she told Lemov, who founded and directs Uncommon Schools. “There is abundant research that demonstrates that reading comprehension depends not on mastery of isolated skills, but on knowledge of vocabulary and content. The Common Core seeks to right this wrong. Unlike just about any of the state standards they’ve replaced, the CCSS seek to bring the text back to the center of reading and literature class.”


What Will New York’s Next Mayor Do to Charter Schools?

 Just a week before the Gotham mayoral election, many charter school leaders are fearful that the support they’ve enjoyed under Michael Bloomberg’s 12-year tenure could be in jeopardy, writes Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and now research professor at the University of Washington. If elected, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio says he plans to charge charter schools rent because the schools have financial advantages, including receiving money from foundations, and because teachers and principals in traditional schools are annoyed at having to share facilities with charter schools. Hill rejects De Blasio’s proposal, which he claims draws an arbitrary line between two groups of schools serving NYC kids. “De Blasio’s proposal would upset this balance,” says Hill. “Charter schools that have to pay rent will be less able to invest in innovation, serve their students and put pressure on traditional schools to raise their game.” And In a long story for The Atlantic, Hill goes on to tell de Blasio not to dismantle what Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein have put in place.  Of course,the new mayor will want to “put his own stamp on the schools,” Hill says. “But he shouldn’t toss anything out until he knows what [Bloomberg’s policies have] contributed and what could be lost.” For more about Bloomberg’s successes in education, see here and here 


Why Teacher Colleges Get a Failing Grade – and What To Do About It

Most teacher training programs simply do not pass the test, say Barbara Nemko, superintendent of schools in Napa County, Calif., and Harold Kwalwasser, an education consultant and former general counsel of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The bar is set too low for entrance into most colleges of education, while graduation requirements are too lax. Education curricula are out of date and far too theoretical, with minimal classroom-teaching requirements. Too often, future educators learn to teach math, but they don’t necessarily learn how to do math. Nemko and Kwalwasser propose a simple but radical idea: end teacher education as we know it. Instead, require teaching candidates to major in an undergraduate subject other than education, and give state funding to the districts for alternative certification, not to colleges of education.



Teachers Get High marks in New York State – That’s Bad News for Reformers


Despite the sturm and drang around the new teacher evaluation procedures in New York State (see here and here), results from the new system turned out to be unexciting. The New York State Department of Education released the preliminary, composite evaluation results for teachers across the state (“Composite Scores 2012-13: Preliminary APPR Results”):  more than 90 percent of New York state public-school teachers outside the city received high marks.  Of the state’s 127,000 teachers, 50 percent were deemed highly effective, 42 percent effective, four percent developing and just one percent ineffective – the last low figure being precisely the one that education reformers were hoping would change with the new system. NYC’s teachers weren’t included in the results, because the city and its teachers union failed to agree on a new system. Now what?



The Latest International Test Comparisons: Good News or More of the Same? 

Amid reports about slipping international competitiveness of American students, a new study indicates that the U.S. might finally be catching up with the rest of the world. The report, released last week by the National Center for Education Statistics, revealedthat 8th grade students in 35 states outperformed the international average in math, and students in 46 states did so in science. Moreover, 8th graders in the top-performing states—which include Massachusetts, Minnesota and Vermont—outperformed all but five of 47 countries abroad in math. While this news seems to be cause for celebration, Paul E. Peterson, director of the program on education policy and governance at Harvard and a fellow at the conservative-leaning Hoover Institution, is not quite so optimistic: the pool of nations taking the math and science exams included many developing countries and that several industrialized nations, such as France, Germany and Denmark, did not participate in the study; nor did India and China, two of our biggest economic competitors. “So if you really want to compare the U.S. to the developing world, then we do look good,” said Peterson, who has just co-authored his own study, Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School.


 More Common Core Tales

Thanks to Common Core, Reading Gets Harder, But Teachers Aren’t Paying Attention

A new survey by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute reveals that most teachers still pitch reading assignments to students’ skill level, rather than—as the new Common Core State Standards envision—to their grade level. Currently, many teachers are assigning “relevant” and “easily digested books” in the hope of getting students to read, with a tendency across all grades to err on the side of lower-level books, says education blogger Joanne Jacobs about the report. In many classrooms, classic literature has been replaced by popular teen novels (often turned into movies) such as The Hunger Games and Twilight. The most assigned books are Because of Winn-Dixie, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is also frequently assigned. Despite the new standards, 51 percent of teachers surveyed—all in the 45 states that have adopted the Common Core—say they plan to make little or no change to their teaching. “Though this wariness seems to diminish as grade levels rise, even in high school relatively large proportions of students were assigned texts based mainly on their current reading levels,” say the report’s three authors, led by University of Illinois-Chicago literacy expert Timothy Shanahan. “This was true both when teachers were assigning a single text to a class and when they were making independent reading recommendations. Huge shifts in these practices may lie ahead.”


Rubio: Do We Now Have a National School Board?

The CCSS have set off some disagreement between two of Florida’s top Republicans—U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush. “Common Core started out as a well-intentioned effort to develop more rigorous curriculum standards,” Rubio told the Tampa Bay Times on July 26. “However, it is increasingly being used by the Obama administration to turn the Department of Education into what is effectively a national school board.”  Jeb Bush, during an interview on ABC’s This Week Sunday morning news show on October 20, disagreed. “There’s a big fear on the right about this massive government overreach. I totally appreciate that,” he said. “But that’s not what this is. This is a national imperative. It’s not a federal government program.”

Superintendents’ Group in California Publishes How-to Guide on Implementing Common Core

A new 60-page how-to guide is now available to help California school districts with the rollout of the Common Core standards. The first edition of the Leadership Planning Guide was published last week by the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, along with help from other organizations representing the teachers, school boards, school administrators, charter schools and parents. “The Planning Guide emphasizes a team approach to Common Core implementation and features links to a wealth of resources from California and across the country,” saysDavid Gordon, superintendent of schools for the Sacramento County Office of Education, which took a leading role in the publication of the Guide. “It’s a quick read and should be helpful to districts well along the road to implementation as well as those just starting out.”  The Guide also encourages districts and schools to analyze where they are, for each component, in the four phases of adoption: awareness, transition, implementation and continuous improvement.  It might useful for other CC states.

Duncan, Hess Clash on Common Core

At an event sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Institute on Politics on October 24, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the American Enterprise’s education reform guru Rick Hess squared off over the Common Core. Though both men agreed that the CCSS is considered  the most ambitious effort to improve the quality of teaching and learning in the United States in a generation, they disagreed about its potential for improving student outcomes. “Whenever we raise the bar and challenge people to do more, particularly children and disadvantaged communities, they always hit that bar,” Duncan argued. “We need high standards, but we’re trying to have a much more thoughtful, nuanced, sophisticated set of metrics to look at, accountability beyond a single test score. Do we want to go back to dummy-down standards? Do the kids and our country deserve something more?” Countered Hess, “I think one can make a strong and coherent case for the value of states having common standards.  But I have enormous concerns about the way this has all unfolded. Frankly, right now I don’t think many states are going to abandon the Common Core. I just think they’re going to do in ways that treat it as little more than words on paper. And what we’re going to wind up with is five or six years of disruption, all of the oxygen sucked out of the room, and a lot of confusion and turmoil. And it’s going to be the biggest flop since Y2K.”



Before There Were “No Excuses” Schools There Were “Dispelling the Myth” Schools

Last week, the Education Trust honored four outstanding public schools with the 11th annual Dispelling the Myth Awards. The award recognizes outstanding work in high-poverty schools that have narrowed achievement gaps between student groups, have exceeded state standards, or have shown rapid student learning improvements. “With dedication, high expectations and relentless attention to the business of teaching and learning,” said Ed Trust, “the educators working in these high-poverty and high-minority schools prove that all students can learn at high levels when they are taught to high levels.” The 2013 Dispelling the Myth Award recipients are:  Dr. Carlos J. Finlay Elementary School in Miami; Arcadia Elementary School in Olympia Fields, Ill.; Chadwick Elementary School in Baltimore; and Pass Christian High School in Pass Christian, Miss.  



The Softer Side of No Excuses: KIPP

In the debate over charter schools, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) and other so-called “No Excuses” schools have no shortage of critics.  KIPP has been criticized as a “New Age eugenics intervention at best,” and a “concentration camp” at worst, according to this Education Next. A much more positive view of KIPP schools is also in action. The authors did hundreds of hours of fieldwork over the past eight years in 12 KIPP schools in five states, interviewing scores of teachers, students and administrators. While it’s true that an atmosphere of order generally prevails, they found that strict discipline eases off once a safe, tolerant learning environment is secured. “KIPPsters” and their teachers live up to the “Work Hard, Be Nice” motto, but they also play hard. If the KIPP culture establishes cooperation and academic success, is that such a bad thing? Why couldn’t traditional public schools give this a try? 


More Vindication for Bloomberg: Small Schools Work 

According to a study by researchers at MIT and Duke University, small schools—which have been the central focus of Mayor Bloomberg’s education plan—do boost student achievement. Using a sample of 150 small high schools created by the Bloomberg administration between 2003-2008, the study found that students who attended small high schools were 9 percent more likely to graduate, and 7 percent more likely to attend college, than students who attended larger city high schools. Students from small schools are also more likely to earn Regents diplomas and less likely to require remediation in reading and writing when they enter college.  


Stop the Presses: Vocabulary Counts

In a front-page New York Times story Motoko Rich writes, “Nearly two decades ago, a landmark study found that by age 3, the children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than those of less educated parents, giving them a distinct advantage in school and suggesting the need for increased investment in pre-kindergarten programs.” The big news is that a follow-up study has found a language gap as early as 18 months. New research by Anne Fernald, a psychologist at Stanford University, published in Developmental Science earlier this year, showed that 18-month-old children from wealthier homes could identify pictures of simple words they knew — such as “dog” or “ball”—much faster than children from low-income families. By age 2, the study found, affluent children had learned 30 percent more words in the intervening months than the children from low-income homes. Since oral language and vocabulary are so connected to reading comprehension, the most disadvantaged children face increased challenges once they enter school and start learning to read. The gap just keeps getting bigger and bigger. 




Poet Billy Collins with some “close reading” advice

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide… 



Public school staffing at highest level in two years

School districts across the country added 9,500 jobs last month—but that’s down about 286,000 positions from the peak of 8.1 million jobs in June 2009.


Extremism in the defense of liberty is no virtue

Although more radical impulses seem to be making inroads into our current political landscape, Americans have never really had much of an appetite for extremism. 


What Obamacare, “supplemental services,” and teacher evaluations have in common


NEA membership numbers continue to decline

The nation’s largest teachers union lost an additional 61K members during the 2012-13 school year—with potentially large impacts on state politics.




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