Top Stories: The New Year 2014!

Shakespeare is out, pop culture is in… Philly charters doing well…  L.A.charters connect to homeschoolers…  Another round of “bold” moves in Newark…. Advice for Carmen Farina… and the billionaire Robin Hood.

At Many Colleges, Shakespeare Is Out, Pop Culture Is In

“In 2011, the University of California at Los Angeles wrecked its English major,” writes Heather Mac Donald in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece. That was the year that UCLA replaced Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton with “alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race and class.” While UCLA is hardly the only school to drop the Great Authors from its English requirements (Georgetown University, for instance, did so to much protest in 1996), “the UCLA coup was particularly significant because the school’s English department was one of the last champions of the historically informed study of great literature, uncorrupted by an ideological overlay,” notes Mac Donald, a contributing editor of City Journal and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “Precisely for that reason, it was the most popular English major in the country, enrolling a whopping 1,400 undergraduates.”


Philly Renaissance Schools Have Mixed Results

Since the 2010-2011 school year, Philadelphia has been converting schools to Renaissance Charters, operated by various charter providers and the Promise Academies. According to a new study, under the three-year-old turnaround initiative, schools turned over to charter operators have shown improvements in academics and climates—however, the big gains that were seen in the first and second years are leveling off, and even reversing. The study, conducted by the district’s Office of Research and Evaluation, found that most Renaissance charters continue to have higher proficiency rates than they did before the turnaround, but results for the four schools converted in the third cohort (2012-2013) were decidedly mixed. In addition, three of the Promise Academies—all of them high schools—have since been closed.


L.A. Charter Connects to Homeschoolers

The Da Vinci Innovation Academy, a full public charter school serving only home schoolers, is proving that home schooling doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition, according to Education Week reporter Sarah D. Sparks. The school, a partnership between the Da Vinci charter-management group and the Wiseburn school district, serves K-8 students in the South Bay of Los Angeles and neighboring communities. Students attend school two days a week and work with their parents the rest of the week on projects developed in partnership with the school’s teachers and aligned with the Common Core State Standards. “There are 270 kids attending DVIA, and they all have very different programs because every parent is seeing their role a little bit differently,” says Tom R. Johnstone, Wiseburn’s superintendent. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, three percent of all school-age American children, or 1.77 million, were home-schooled in 2011 (the most recent data).


Tell the Truth about NYC Schools

Whether to award billions in back pay to teachers is one of the central education decisions facing New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio. But before retroactively doling out taxpayers’ money, “wouldn’t it make sense to do an assessment of what the enormous surge in money laid out for education in the Bloomberg years has actually accomplished?” asks Seth Lipsky of the New York Post.


Income Inequality: Opportunity or Moral Outrage?

“Mayor Bill de Blasio’s message of eliminating New York City’s rising economic inequality carried him to the city’s highest post. He also has some national leaders convinced,” writes Chester Soria in the Gotham Gazette. Former President Bill Clinton, who swore in the new mayor on New Year’s Day, is one who agrees. “But it is not just a moral outrage, it’s a horrible constraint on economic growth … we cannot go forward if we don’t do it together,” Clinton told the 5,000 New Yorkers who braved cold temperatures to attend the inauguration.


Newark: Another Round of “Sensible and Bold” Proposals

Even before Cami Anderson, Newark’s superintendent of schools, unveiled her “One Newark” plan calling for sweeping changes to address students’ poor academic performance and exodus to charter schools, she faced fierce opposition. But the Newark Star Ledger’s editorial board is on Anderson’s side. “Know this: If she were not raising hell in a district that has failed its children so dramatically for so long, she would not be doing her job. She was not hired to play it safe,” the editorial board wrote on December 22, 2013. “None of these reforms is guaranteed to succeed. But it is sensible to lean on the best charter schools for help, give principals control over their staffs and make sure each ward has plenty of school choices. If that stirs up a bees nest, then so be it.


The Latest Stats on Students, Teachers and Educational Institutions Across the U.S.

The Education Department just released its Digest of Education Statistics 2012. Among the interesting tidbits: Spending by elementary and secondary schools hit $700 billion. About 88 percent of adults have a high school diploma or equivalency degree, and 31 percent at least a bachelor’s degree. There are 3.7 million elementary and secondary full-time school teachers (3.3 million in public schools and 0.4 million in private schools), up seven percent since 2002. Teacher pay, however, hasn’t risen much; the average salary of $56,643 is up just one percent—after adjusting for inflation—from the 1990-91 school year.


A Billionaire Robin Hood: the Influence of Paul Tudor Jones

Hedge fund billionaire and Robin Hood Foundation founder Paul Tudor Jones is on a mission to save the U.S. public education system. His ideas for education reform include longer school days, better teacher and principal training, and true evaluation and accountability. But first, he must convince New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to buy in. “I don’t think he fully understands education. I don’t think he’s fully knowledgeable yet,” Jones recently told Forbes. “Our job will be to get him fully up to speed.”


The Year of Universal Proficiency

While we didn’t reach the George W. Bush Administration’s goal of attaining “universal proficiency” in reading and math by 2014, Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, takes a positive point of view of what has been achieved thus far. “My take is that these big jumps in achievement—amounting to about a half year of learning, on average—are worth celebrating,” he writes in his Flypaper blog. “We should remember this as we set goals for the future…. let us ask, ‘What can schools be realistically expected to achieve, considering the challenges they and their students face?’ Let’s set stretch goals—but not ones that are impossible to achieve, for that only sows the seeds of cynicism and despair.”


De Blasio and the Old Regime

Will Bill de Blasio tackle New Yorkers’ real problems or undo the achievements of his predecessors? Aaron M. Renn, an urban analyst, consultant and publisher of the urban policy website The Urbanophile, recently asked in City Journal. “Yes, the city has a yawning income gap, as de Blasio has eagerly pointed out, but this problem is more of a symptom than a cause,” he writes. “Unfortunately, the new mayor seems more likely to attack the legitimate accomplishments of the ‘old regime’ than face up to the structural challenges holding back poor and middle-class New Yorkers.”


A Somber Assessment of Farina by Ed in the Apple

Can Carmen Farina, New York City’s new schools chancellor, lead a dispirited and frustrated school system? Peter Goodman (aka “Ed In the Apple”) has concerns, but hopes that the new leader of the nation’s biggest public school system is up to the challenge. “Teachers are yearning for leadership, for a chancellor who understands, who listens, who leads by example, a chancellor who understands the daily frustrations and has their back, a chancellor who speaks for them, who speaks for the families struggling to make it in a city fractured by class and race and inequality,” he writes. “I hope Carmen Farina fits the bill.”


Advice for Carmen Farina from Jenny Seldis

New York City’s new schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, faces numerous challenges, from failing schools to bad teachers. Jenny Seldis, executive director at StudentsFirstNY, outlines the top five challenges in a recent New York Post article: (1) improving the teachers’ contract; (2) creating a culture of high standards and rigor; (3) ensuring that no child is trapped in a failing school; (4) maintaining a focus on teacher quality; and (5) letting parent choice continue to thrive. “Welcome to the toughest job in America,” Seldis writes.


The Amazing KIPP Story Continues

In the KIPP blog, Richard Barth, KIPP Foundation CEO, shares highlights from 2013, including the fact that KIPP now serves more than 50,000 students in 47 elementary, 74 middle and 20 high schools.


Five “Edu-Reads” from Andy Smarick

In a December 31 essay, Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, recommends five education articles, to start the new year off right, “knowing you smartened yourself up,” he writes.


RTTT States with Money to Spend

With states well into the final year of Race to the Top implementation, the 12 winners of the 2010 grant competition still have a lot of money to spend, writes Michele McNeil, assistant editor and reporter for Education Week. The state with largest share of its award left is New York, with 59 percent of its $700 million still sitting in the bank. Delaware, meanwhile, has just 31 percent left. Altogether, the 12 Race to the Top states have $1.8 billion of their $4 billion in winnings left, or just under half. “It’s important to note that the large balances aren’t necessarily a bad thing,” writes McNeil. “However, the unspent money is one indicator of larger delays that have plagued Race to the Top states, and a contributing factor to the Education Department’s decision to allow winning states, on a case-by-case basis, to get an additional year of time to implement some of their programs.” But states can’t just sit on their money, either. With the extensions, they will have until July 1, 2015 to spend their money.


Closing the Word Gap Between Rich and Poor

The “30 million word gap,” the vocabulary gap that develops in the first three years of life between affluent and poor children, has been the subject of research and discussion since the early 1990s. This has lead to increased calls for universal preschool, but some say that’s not early enough. Angel Taveras, mayor of Providence, R.I., and the grand prize winner of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, told NPR that two-thirds of kindergarteners in the city show up on their first day already behind national literacy benchmarks. Later this month, the city will launch Providence Talks and begin distributing small recording devices—essentially “word pedometers”—that tuck into a child’s clothing. The devices will automatically record and calculate the number of words spoken and the number of times a parent and child ask and answer each other’s questions. “We are very hopeful that we can be the laboratory here in Providence,” the mayor says, “and as we have success we can share it with the rest of.”


Censorship or Common Decency?

Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, weighs in on the recent controversy generated by New York University Professor Diane Ravitch’s blog posting in which a reader compared herself to a Nazi kapo for teaching Common Core State Standards. Despite an “outpouring of rage on Twitter” against this post, Ravitch defended the writer’s right to free speech. Willingham, however, disagrees. “Test-takers are not comparable to Holocaust victims,” Willingham writes on his blog. “Diane, I respectfully ask that you rethink your position on this matter. I don’t think it was a good call and I don’t think your defense of it holds up.”


DC’s “Screwed Up” Teacher Evaluation Program

In response to the troubling news concerning DC’s IMPACT teacher evaluation program (as Nick Anderson reported in the Washington Post, faulty calculations resulted in erroneous performance evaluations for 44 teachers, including one who was fired because of a low rating), Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute urges teacher evaluation enthusiasts to proceed with caution. “The inconvenient truth is that it’s not a question of whether the results are more right than wrong—it’s a question of whether the flaws are minor and defensible enough to pass muster in the courts of law and of public opinion,” writes Hess in Education Week. “DCPS [DC Public Schools] here has seemingly done a responsible job of ‘fessing up, coming clean and moving to clean up its mess.  Let’s hope that’s the norm for districts and states which misstep on teacher evaluation in the year ahead.”


The Next BIG Thing: Deeper Learning MOOCs

K-16 educators can sign up for a free MOOC (massive open online course) to learn how to put deeper learning—which essentially means covering a smaller number of topics in a greater depth—into practice. According to the Hewlitt Foundation, which is one of the supporters of this project, students feel more motivated and challenged in classrooms where deeper learning is the focus and can see how their school work relates to real life. The course will run for nine consecutive weeks, from January 20 through March 27, 2014. Currently, more than 1,300 participants from 66 countries have signed up (39 percent of participants are from outside the United States). To learn more, click here.


Hechinger: Year of the NOT-MOOC

“If 2012 was the year of the MOOC, as the New York Times famously dubbed it, 2013 was the year of … well, not the MOOC,” says the Hechinger Report. “The number of universities jumping on the MOOC bandwagon continued to rise, along with the number of people enrolling in these massive online open courses. But so did skepticism of their effectiveness, and warnings from the architects of MOOCs themselves that they were never meant to be the answer to the problems of higher education,” the nonprofit news organization reports. This and nine other news stories—including the continued debate between sciences and the humanities and the rise of personalized “success coaching”—make up the Hechinger Report’s top ten higher-education stories of the year.


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