Top Stories: week of 10/29–11/5/13

Teachers are getting smarter…. Some states are worse than Kazakhstan…. Classics for the teething set… Nick Kristof on preschools and prisons…  Jay Greene takes out after Fordham…. Catholics oppose Common Core…. And Dan Willingham reviews Paul Tough….

Top Stories

Preschools or Prison?

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof offers us a stark choice: preschools or prison. Growing research (such as here), suggesting that poor kids start so far behind when school begins that they never catch up, bolsters the push for early education programs. It also happens to be one of those rare initiatives that polls well with both Democrats and Republicans, according to a recent national survey. Early education is “not a magic wand,” Kristof writes, “but it’s the best tool we have to break cycles of poverty.”


Good News for Boston Charters

According to a new MIT study, charter students consistently outperform their public school counterparts in math and reading, reports Walter Russell Mead in his blog. What’s more, this achievement gap grows the longer the students stay in school. Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas, writing about the same study, notes that these gains are particularly high for poor and minority students, as well as English language learners. “This kind of progress, for students of color,” Greene writes, “could easily eliminate the racial achievement gap over the course of middle and high school.”


Are Charters Anti-Public School?

As the school choice movement continues to make gains, parents now have more options than ever before. “Do so many options undermine the purpose of public schools though?” asks Matthew Lynch, author of The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching. “Should all of the energy that is going into building, naming and analyzing these other schools really be channeled into strengthening the basic schools that the government gave us?”


Obama, Common Core, Co-Locations and Brooklyn

Joe Williams, head of Democrats for Education Reform, takes note of President Obama’s recent visit to Brooklyn to remind New York’s new mayor that P-Tech—the celebrated Brooklyn school that President Obama visited last week—might not even exist today if de Blasio had been elected four years ago. P-Tech (Pathways in Technology Early College High School), which was featured in Obama’s State of the Union address last year, opened in 2011 in what had been Paul Robeson High School as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to replace large, failing schools with smaller, theme-based academies. At the time, de Blasio questioned Bloomberg’s policies. “Sadly,” writes Williams, “if it had been left up to much of the city’s political establishment, hundreds of kids would still be failing at Robeson rather than thriving at P-Tech.”


Why the Next NYC Mayor Must Embrace Philanthropy

The nearly newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio, has an opportunity to build on Bloomberg’s philanthropic legacy and take it to an even deeper level, says Marilyn Gelber, President Emerita of the Brooklyn Community Foundation. “He should make sure City Hall’s doors remain wide open to New York City’s unique and invaluable philanthropic sector,” Gelber writes in City Limits. “Aligning progressive public policy with thoughtful philanthropic strategies can help to build a more equitable and fair future for all New Yorkers.”


Grit Works: When It’s in the Service of the Cognitive Hypothesis!

Daniel Willingham is kind to Paul Tough, whose latest book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, has been a bestseller. Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia and a member of the board of the Core Knowledge Foundation, gives Tough a thumbs up, noting that he “is among a very small number of reporters who gets complex science right consistently.” But Willingham does correct Tough on two critical fronts. “[Y]ou do need cognitive skills for academic success,” he says pointing to an anecdote in Tough’s own book to prove it. “Self-control predicts academic success because it makes you more likely to do the work to develop cognitive skills,” says Willingham, giving the author the benefit of the doubt. “I’m sure Tough understands this point, but a reader could easily miss it.”


 Swan Song for the Humanities?

Tamar Lewin reports that future of the humanities is a hot topic of conversion in academia these days. At Stanford, for example, there are no longer any humanities programs among the top five majors. “With the recession having helped turn college, in the popular view, into largely a tool for job preparation, administrators are concerned,” Lewin writes. And many distinguished humanities professors are feeling the slow erosion of the status they once enjoyed. One professor reports he sometimes feels “like a newspaper comic strip character whose face is getting smaller and smaller.”


Common Core Watch

Catholic Academics: Just Say No to Common Core

Catherine Gewertz reports that a group of more than 100 Catholic scholars have signed a letter to the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops condemning the Common Core State Standards as “deeply flawed” and urging church leaders to abandon or resist adopting them. The scholars—who come from Catholic universities, such as the University of Notre Dame, as well as public and private institutions like SUNY at Buffalo and New York University—contend that the Common Core is a “step backwards.” Read the full letter here.

The New Republic Questions CC’s Reading Standards

Author Blaine Greteman, an assistant professor of English at the University of Iowa, takes aim at the metric (called “lexiles”) used to judge the reading complexity of literary texts. And now that the Common Core Standards have adopted Lexiles to determine what books are appropriate for students in each grade level, publishers are taking note. They can submit their books for measurement, and various apps and websites match students to books on their personal Lexile level.  But does a system that rates Hunger Games more complex than The Grapes of Wrath or The Sun Also Rises make any sense at all, he asks?

Jay Greene and the Common Core Marauders

In a Halloween day blog post that was neither trick nor treat, Jay P. Greene, the endowed professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, accused the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has supported and promoted the Common Core, of being  inconsistent, if not disingenuous, in its description of what exactly the Common Core would and would not do. Various Fordham writers, including its president Checker Finn and senior fellow Kathleen Porter-Magee, says Greene, “reassured those concerned about centralized control that Common Core embodies a ‘tight-loose’ approach, which is tight on the ends of education but loose on the means for accomplishing those ends.” But now that that fight has switched from adoption to implementation, Greene argues, we’re seeing that the Common Core does in fact dictate how and what schools should teach.

Kathleen Porter-Magee responds

In response to Greene, Porter-Magee, now also the College Board’s senior advisor for policy and instruction, argues that there is a distinct difference between setting standards and “mandating curriculum.” While the Common Core does indeed set the targets, it’s up to local leaders to select and develop the curricula and strategies to help students meet those targets. “If your definition of ‘curriculum’ is indistinguishable from your definition of ‘standards,’ then I suppose adopting any set of state standards is tantamount to prescribing a state curriculum,” she writes. “However, if you are drawing the distinction between setting a target versus charting the course, than the difference between the two is more than mere semantics.”

John Birch Group Pays for Wisconsin CCSS Critics

Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the debate over the Common Core continues to heat up in the Badger State with news that several out-of-state speakers critical of the standards received compensation through an arm of the John Birch Society.

Buffalo Board Member Says the City Needs the Common Core

Contending that the leadership at New York State United Teachers is trying to derail education reform progress in an effort to stop the governor’s new teacher evaluation system, Buffalo board of Education member James T. Sampson stands up for the Common Core. 


5 Reasons to Read Education Week

This is not an ad. But these five stories, which appeared in IdeaLab’s mailbox this week, are part of the reason Education Week is considered a must-read for teachers, administrators, and education policy makers. 

Transition to Online Testing Sparks Concerns

A Common-Core Challenge: Learners With Special Needs

Gains Seen in Teachers’ Academic Abilities

Should Teachers Be More Mindful?

How Far Should Student-Centered Learning Go?



Granite State NEA Joins AFL-CIO

“What was once unthinkable among NEA state affiliates,” writes Mike Antonucci, “is now becoming commonplace,” with the Rhode Island affiliate of the National Education Association’s historic decision to join the AFL-CIO. When the process is concluded by the end of the year, Rhode Island will join five other states that have merged with the AFL-CIO. What effect, if any, the addition of NEARI’s 9,300 active members will have on labor federation remains to be seen.


Report from Japan: A Robin Hood School-Voucher Program

In a new rob-from-the-rich and give-to-the-poor program in Japan, Checker Finn reports on a stunning new proposal by the Shinzō Abe government—to charge children from wealthy families tuition to attend public high schools and use the proceeds to subsidize low-income children who attend private schools! Would a plan as controversial as this ever work in the U.S.? In American terms, writes Finn, the proposal “blends the liberal idea of income redistribution with the conservative idea of helping poor kids choose private education.”


A New College Ranking: Bang for the Buck

“There is no agreement on how to measure the value of a college, and there is no agreement, or anything even close, on what value is in the first place,” writes Ariel Kaminer in the New York Times. Many publications now publish some form of ranking based on schools’ “value.” But what exactly is meant by value: Tuition? Graduation rates? Student satisfaction? Or,economic diversity? Value rankings could grow even more important if President Barack Obama’s college affordability plan—which would tie college rankings to federal funding—comes to pass.


A Model Adult Education Program

In an NPR Weekend Edition report by Kavitha Cardoza, the topic of discussion is Washington state’s I-BEST program, that allows students in community colleges to earn certificates in any of the almost 200 courses, from medical billing to welding to building maintenance, without first getting a GED. Louisa Erickson, who helps run I-BESTprograms, says it’s about giving adults a second chance. The program has been so successful in getting adult students into the workforce—and jobs paying living wages—that more than 20 states are now implementing the model.


The NYC Girls Project

Samantha Levine, director of the New York City Girls Project—a new public education campaign aimed at improving girls’ body image and self-esteem—writes that the public response has been overwhelming. “For too long, our culture has sent girls, and women, two devastating messages: our greatest value is our appearance and there is only one, narrow vision of beauty that is worth striving to meet. And those messages are penetrating at younger and younger ages.”  The campaign, aimed at girls ages seven to 12, promotes the belief that personal value comes from character, skills and attributes—not outward appearance. Through bus and subway ads, young girls are featured performing activities like reading or playing sports with the words: “I’m a girl…  I’m beautiful the way I am.” See here.


27,000 ERIC PDFs have been restored

More than 27,400 full-text PDFs, documents and journal articles that were previously restricted due to privacy concerns, have been restored in the online Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) collection, a digital library of education research and information, sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) of the U.S. Department of Education. Users include education researchers, teachers, librarians, administrators, policymakers, students and the general public. 



“My teacher sees difficulty, not capacity”

When Belgian teen music sensation Lou Boland, who is blind and suffers from de Morsier Syndrom, told Weekend Edition host Scott Simon that his teacher always has the tendency “to see the disability and not ability and not capacity,” he was not offering a compliment.  And he probably speaks for millions of “disabled” students in the United States who are so “labeled” and sometimes suffer a system that emphasizes their difficulties, not their capacities.




A new industry: classic books for the teething set

“Baby lit” books—which introduce babies and toddlers to favorite literary characters like Romeo, Juliet, Jane Eyre and Mr. Darcy—are the latest trend in publishing.


To the editor:  readers respond to Bill Keller on teacher eval

Teachers and professors of education had plenty to say about Keller’s recent attack on teacher prep programs (see here). Suggestions ran the gamut from requiring more fieldwork experience, to embracing varied teaching styles, to giving teachers the respect they rightly deserve.


Teachers are getting smarter

The push to get more academically accomplished people into the teacher workforce appears to be working: average SAT scores for new teachers have increased significantly over the past two decades, while more are entering the profession through graduate-level programs.


Making College More Affordable

In an effort to gather public feedback about the Obama Administration’s proposals to address rising college costs, the U.S. Department of Education announced last week that it is hosting four public forums across the country this month.


Your kid might be better off learning math in Kazakhstan than in these states

In the first-ever study to rank how U.S. states would rate against international students in math and science, Alabama looks a lot like Armenia; Tennessee and Oklahoma stack up with Kazakhstan; California and West Virginia with New Zealand; and Massachusetts is just one rung below Japan.


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