Top Stories 11/27–12/03/2013

Let us give thanks to…. Rick Hess, to Dana Goldstein, to (the former) Diane Ravitch, to Bill Moyers and Henry Giroux, to the Belfast PTA, to good literature, to good fiction, to the Common Core. And hurray for PISA Day….


Top Stories

The PISA Tests Results are in: What do they Mean?’s-razor

Many opinions on these international benchmarks. Here’s Mark Schneider, former U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics: “While much of the press coverage will no doubt zero in on our middling performance and the bleak economic future it foretells, a far more disturbing pattern in the data is more likely to hurt us in the long run than will our mediocre average scores. What should scare us is the low percentage of students in the highest levels of performance (PISA level 5 and above).”



Rick Hess: I Used to Think…. Now I Think

Today, so-called “experts” are everywhere—telling people what to think and do about a wide variety of subjects—but they’re not necessarily the best or most reliable problem solvers, says Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. “In education, for instance, despite decades of research, experts have no systematic way to tell who will be a good teacher or how to design practices that lead to predictable improvement at scale,” he writes in a three-part Education Week series about the dubious nature of expertise in education. “After all, expert advice tends to reflect what experts know, which may not reflect what is most useful for solving the larger problem in the real world.” Expertise does have its place, he continues, “If one assembles the right mix of experts, their competing views can prove enormously helpful in crafting smart policies. The key, however, is not to empower any one expert to play guru but to allow competing expertise to illuminate and inform complex decisions.”


Start the Countdown: Top Stories of 2013

What are the Top education stories for 2013? Was there any particular story that so struck you that it needs to be remembered? Send your nominees to Elizabeth Janice at


What Happens When Great Teachers Get $20,000 to Work in Low-Income Schools?

Teacher merit pay is one of those perennially popular policy ideas that has been tried in many places (including New York City, Nashville and Chicago) but historically hasn’t worked very well—until now, reports education writer Dana Goldstein. A new study financed by the federal government evaluated the impact of offering high-performing teachers large financial incentive—a $20,000 bonus paid over two years—to switch to low-performing schools. The “Talent Transfer Initiative” sought out some of the best teachers in 10 large, economically diverse districts from seven states for the transfers. At the end of two years, the transfer teachers significantly outperformed the control-group of teachers in the elementary grades, raising student achievement by 4 to 10 percentile points, depending on the year and the subject. What’s more, the initiative helped improve teacher retention rates. More than 90 percent of the transfer teachers—who tended to be accomplished and experienced, with strong ties to the cities in which they worked—remained in the high-poverty schools while the bonuses were being paid, and 60 percent stayed on after the experiment ended.


Foreign Desk

Belfast PTAs Make Important Contribution

Like his American counterparts, Irish Education Minister John O’Dowd is focused on raising standards, closing the educational gap for economically disadvantaged students and ensuring that all students have access to high-quality education. Speaking last week at the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) Conference, “Working Smarter,” in Belfast, he said: “PTAs make a very important contribution to school life not least through the valuable support they give to principals, teachers and the wider school community as well as fundraising for school purposes.” For more information, visit


Cyberbullying in the U.K.

The parents of a 15-year-old British boy who hanged himself after being bullied online say that social media sites like Facebook need to do more to protect young people from cyberbullying. The student, Thomas Mullaney, from a village outside of Birmingham, England, killed himself at home in May 2010 after being threatened by another student on Facebook. ‘‘It’s true that Facebook is here to stay,” Tom’s father, Robert Mullaney, told the Birmingham Mail. “You don’t have to agree with it but you have to teach your kids how to use it. Make sure security is kept to only friends and family, and don’t open profiles up to people you don’t know.” A supervisor for ChildLine (, a free 24-hour counseling service for children and young people under the age of 19 in the U.K., warns that cyberbullying is different, and perhaps worse, than traditional bullying.


From the Archives

Good Literature Leads to Good Social Skills

Does reading a good book make you more empathetic and better able to connect with other people? Yes, according to two social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City. In a study published earlier this fall in the journal Science, the researchers found that people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction. The reason, they conclude, is that literary fiction usually leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuances and complexity. The study’s subjects, who were recruited through, were randomly assigned texts to read, either extracts of popular fiction such as Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother or Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, or more literary texts, such as The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, “The Runner” by Don DeLillo, or works by Anton Chekhov. The authors of the study say that these findings should be considered by educators designing curricula, particularly for the Common Core.


Your Brain on Fiction

The evidence in favor of the virtues of reading great works of literature continues to mount, and it’s coming from a surprising source—neuroscience, reported Annie Murphy Paul, author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. Writing in the New York Times last year, Paul cited numerous studies revealing that “old-fashioned” literary works—which typically involve detailed descriptions, evocative metaphors and emotional exchanges between characters—stimulate certain regions of our brain. The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life, and this, in turn, can change people’s actual behavior. “Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings,” wrote Paul. “Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.”


Why I’m for the Common Core

When asked if he supported the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), academic literary critic, author, and former University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch Jr. gave an emphatic “yes” last August in a piece for the Huffington Post. “Not even most prescient among us can know whether the Common Core standards will end in triumph or tragedy,” he wrote. “But unless the actual curricular plans of the critics (where are they?) also required coherent ‘content knowledge within and across grades,’ their alternatives are not likely to be as effective as CCSS. And if critics do support the key principles of specificity and coherence—well then—why not just support this daring effort that has been miraculously adopted by multiple states rather than get lost in details of who was or was not consulted?”


Why I Support the Common Core

While the Common Core has its share of downsides, Neerav Kingsland, Chief Strategy Officer of New Schools for New Orleans, is another supporter. “Common Core is complicated… but, in the end, I support it for two reasons: (1) There is some evidence (and logic) that increasing the rigor of assessments will lead to increases in student achievement and (2) rigorous standards and accountability systems have been the bedrock of effective charter sectors,” he writes in Education Excellence. “Great standards can sit on shelves. Great assessments must be dealt with…. Effective educators know that assessment items define rigor, and they backward-map their lessons from these items.”


The Former Diane Ravitch: Reviewing E.D. Hirsch

In a 2006 review of E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s book, The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children, Diane Ravitch noted that research is now on the side of those who advocate for knowledge as the end-goal of learning. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University and a member of the board of the Core Knowledge Foundation when she wrote the review, argued that Hirsch’s research demonstrates “that students will not learn to read with comprehension unless they have acquired a large fund of background knowledge. Furthermore, he shows that the achievement gap between students from different racial groups will continue to be large unless students of all groups are educated with a knowledge-based curriculum.”


The Cartel and the Fight Over Charter Schools

Advocates want more choice for students, while critics are calling for more oversight and transparency. The Cartel, a 2009 documentary film by broadcast journalist and school choice champion Bob Bowdon, was the subject of discussion on Morning Joe in 2010. The award-winning film covers the waste and corruption in the U.S. public education by focusing on New Jersey. Bowdon called the current system—under which “you can never fire a bad teacher”—“preposterous.” He also noted that despite the massive amounts of money spent on education, “very little reaches the teachers’ salaries.” The show’s host, Joe Scarborough, commenting on a clip from the film showing a charter school lottery, said: “A number drawn could make the difference, and in many times makes the difference, between a young girl being able to follow her dreams and being trapped in a school system that will leave her where her parents were and her grandparents were. It’s just devastating.”


What Scientists Can Learn from the Humanities

Humanists are often urged to pay more attention to science, but it is scientists who can learn from the humanities, according to Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and author of Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960, in the New York Times. Responding to an article by Steven Pinker in the New Republic, “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” Gutting argues that social scientists have been far more open than natural scientists to history and other humanistic disciplines. Indeed, he says, all the great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment—including Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant and Adam Smith—were interested in scientific questions but also viewed themselves as philosophers. “They were,” he writes, “in fact, models of the broadly and deeply educated intellectual that today’s typical scientist is not.”


Famous Documentarian Tackles California’s Education Crisis

In his latest documentary (his 38th since 1967), legendary documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has turned his attention to the public university system and the radical defunding of higher education in California. The subject of this four-hour film, At Berkeley, is UC Berkeley and “how capitalism is reshaping education in an age of dwindling resources and the fading of the middle-class dream,” notes the New York Times film and music critic Stephen Holden. One of the film’s first sequences features then-chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau in a meeting, posing the question: “The country has many great private universities—Standford, Harvard, etc.—and it doesn’t need another one. It needs great public universities. How are we going to do that in an environment were the state is progressively disinvesting?” To view the film’s official trailer, click here.


One of a Kind

Bill Moyers and Zombie Politics

Henry Giroux, the Global TV Network Chair Professorship in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, appeared on the Bill Moyers show last week to discuss his book, Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism. “To me, democracy is way too important to allow it to be undermined,” Giroux told Moyers. “The stories that are being told about democracy are really about the swindle of fulfillment,” and “the biggest lie of all is that capitalism is democracy. We have no way of understanding democracy outside of the market, just as we have no understanding of how to understand freedom outside of market values.” In a 2010 article, Giroux discussed the lessons to be learned from Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, in light of the current “hostile takeover of public education” by the “ultra-rich and hedge fund zombies, who get massive tax breaks from gaining control of charter schools.”


–Elizabeth Janice is an East Coast-based freelance writer who has written for national magazines, including Family Circle , Woman’s Day, All You and Essence. She earned her B.A. from the University of Michigan and her M.A. from New York University.



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