Flypaper

Here are some of the best edu-reads I’ve come across recently.

Think the teacher-pension issue is only for green-eyeshade types? Think again! My colleagues at Bellwether, Chad Aldeman and Andy Rotherham, have written an informative—and worrisome—report on the current state of play of educator retirement benefits and its implications for the profession and taxpayers. Get this: about half of all public schoolteachers won’t qualify for even a minimal pension. How in the world is that possible? Read the report.

You may also think that “school productivity”—how to get the biggest bang for our education buck—is only for accountants and actuaries. But Paul Hill has written a very good piece for the George W. Bush Institute on how smart governance changes can both make the most of our scarce resources and improve student learning. The report isn’t spreadsheets and pivot tables; it’s an interesting argument for changes in mindset, policy, and practice.

The always-excellent Center for Reinventing Public Education has produced a terrific short white paper on common enrollment systems, namely how to facilitate choice across a city with multiple school sectors. The brief describes how such systems are working in Denver and New Orleans, including the tough issues such systems have to address and how well they ultimately match students to their most preferred schools. I believe the march toward sector agnosticism is inexorable. A common enrollment system is almost certainly part of the urban school system of the future, so if you track K–12 developments...

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Everyone knows that the Common Core State Standards initiative has turned into a political football. But a more apt analogy might be baseball—spring training, to be exact. That’s because, for all the colorful commentary, the Common Core is still in the very earliest phases of implementation. It isn’t yet time to pay much attention to the score; instead, we ought to work out the kinks and improve the fundamentals.

And to be sure, tons of progress is needed before states, districts, and schools are ready for game day. That’s the upshot of Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers, a new in-depth study from our think tank. Along with analysts at the group Education First, we examined initial implementation efforts in four districts that are ahead of the curve: Kenton County (KY), Metro Nashville (TN), Illinois’s School District 54 (Schaumburg and vicinity), and Washoe County (Reno, NV).

Here are three major challenges they are facing and what they are doing to overcome them:

1. In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality Common Core materials, districts are striving to devise their own—with mixed success.

Curriculum publishers were suspiciously quick to proclaim that what they are selling is aligned with the Common Core, and districts are rightly wary of such claims. It takes time to develop and vet high-quality textbook series and other curriculum. All four districts expressed caution about spending limited dollars on materials that were not truly aligned to the Common Core and are delaying at least...

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The SXSWedu portion of the famously cool SXSW festival is the oddball segment, as evidenced by the early start and the attendees actually wearing suits. Besides the un-SXSW vibe of SXSWedu, there were a ton of takeaways for policy wonks. Here are four key ones:

  1. Wendy Kopp, founder of Teacher For America and Teach For All, not only takes tough questions from the audience (including many former TFA corps members), she took the no-silver-bullets route—that no one policy is the answer for our education crisis. She identified teacher-preparation reform as the 2013–14 flavor of the school year: fix the teachers and you’ll fix the schools. But most impressively, she told a tech-savvy audience that putting a tablet into every child’s hands isn’t going to do squat for improving our schools.
  2. A marriage between school choice and non-cognitive skills has a lot of potential. Many are reluctant to open their arms to teaching the “touchy-feely” stuff in our schools, especially as we continue to underperform academically. But non-cognitive skills matter. Bryan Contreras from KIPP Houston described the network’s home visits, summer camps, and mentoring programs. Contreras convinced me that these efforts at “social and emotional learning” are clear-headed parts of KIPP’s strategy for preparing students for success in college and life. It would be no easy task to scale these for all students at all schools, but charter schools (and private schools) can lead the way on innovative ways to provide non-cognitive skills to more low-income kids.
  3. Data security was
  4. ...
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The SXSWedu portion of the famously cool SXSW festival is the oddball segment, as evidenced by the early start and the attendees actually wearing suits. Besides the un-SXSW vibe of SXSWedu, there were a ton of takeaways for policy wonks. Here are four key ones:

  1. Wendy Kopp, founder of Teacher For America and Teach For All, not only takes tough questions from the audience (including many former TFA corps members), she took the no-silver-bullets route—that no one policy is the answer for our education crisis. She identified teacher-preparation reform as the 2013–14 flavor of the school year: fix the teachers and you’ll fix the schools. But most impressively, she told a tech-savvy audience that putting a tablet into every child’s hands isn’t going to do squat for improving our schools.
  2. A marriage between school choice and non-cognitive skills has a lot of potential. Many are reluctant to open their arms to teaching the “touchy-feely” stuff in our schools, especially as we continue to underperform academically. But non-cognitive skills matter. Bryan Contreras from KIPP Houston described the network’s home visits, summer camps, and mentoring programs. Contreras convinced me that these efforts at “social and emotional learning” are clear-headed parts of KIPP’s strategy for preparing students for success in college and life. It would be no easy task to scale these for all students at all schools, but charter schools (and private schools) can lead the way on innovative ways to provide non-cognitive skills to more low-income kids.
  3. Data security was
  4. ...
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Last week, Chris Cerf stepped down after three extraordinarily successful years as New Jersey’s commissioner of education. Education observers in the Garden State and beyond will remember his tenure for its major initiatives.

He secured a Race to the Top 3 grant and one of the first ESEA waivers. He successfully led the charge for the overhaul of the state’s outdated tenure statute and launched a new teacher-evaluation pilot program. He negotiated a new labor contract in Newark, and he had the state intervene in the tragically low-performing Camden school district. He dramatically improved chartering in the state, authorizing dozens of new schools while closing 10 persistently low performers. And he was a stalwart for both Common Core and PARCC.

Cerf’s accomplishments are undeniable. But in the fine tradition of blogging, I need to make this about me.

To wit, no single person has had a larger or more positive influence on my professional development. I learned mountains from Chris Cerf about leadership in general and, more specifically, how to bring about change as the whipping winds of politics (and worse) swirl around you.

As fate would have it, our adventure and all I took from it came an inch from being aborted. We met during the darkest period of my professional career. I had been offered the job as New Jersey’s deputy commissioner by Cerf’s predecessor.

I quit my job, moved my wife and two-week old baby away from family in Maryland, bought a house, and began...

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By now, education observers are aware of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s incursion on the Big Apple’s charter sector.

No one should be surprised; this was no ambuscade, no lying in wait. He publicly campaigned against charters. He actually called his predecessor’s policy of allowing charter public schools to share public-school space with district public schools “abhorrent.”

This has been a shame for low-income kids, of course, given NYC’s charters’ superb performance. But it has made for 24-karat media fodder.

Hizzoner has picked a fight with Eva Moskowitz, not only the operator of a network of tremendously successful charters but also one of the toughest pugilists in the city’s notoriously combative political squared-circle. The Democratic mayor is now involved in internecine warfare over charters with the state’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, who publicly declared, “We will save charter schools.

But de Blasio’s camp hasn’t turned tail; they’ve trickily tergiversated. Despite their words and deeds, the mayor’s camp is claiming he’s not really against chartershis narrative got hijacked. He likes charters just fine!

Former governor Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, brilliantly said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”

Given the mayor’s attempt at playing both sides, his team might be credited with implying a third part of the equation: “You spin in prevarication.”

Though all of this makes for Broadway-ready pyrotechnics, there is an important and as-of-yet unexplored element of this script....

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Note: This post is part of our series, "Netflix Academy: The best educational videos available for streaming." Be sure to check out our previous Netflix Academy posts on dinosaursaquatic lifeinsectsfrogs and other amphibians; reptilesAncient Asian Cultures; the early American civilizations; Ancient GreeceNative American culturesChristopher Columbus and the Age of DiscoveryColonial America and the Revolutionary Warthe American founders;  movie adaptations of classic children’s books; and American folk heroes.

Where I live near Washington, D.C., the long, cold, snowy winter and late spring haven’t deterred the songbirds from making their vernal voices heard. Not only are these incredible creatures beautiful (visually and vocally), but they also are our modern link to the age of the dinosaurs and feature prominently in art, music, and culture throughout human history. Here are some videos to help teach your kids about our feathered friends.

Special thanks to research interns Andrew McDonnell, Elisabeth Hoyson, and Liz McInerney for helping to compile these lists.

Best videos on birds

1. Nature Adventures: Unique Birds of the Prairie

Nature AdventuresTodd and Terri explore the Great Plains in search of unique bird species. They show you that not all birds live in nests, as they get up close to burrowing owls near the Badlands of South Dakota. Plus they examine red tailed hawks and long...

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The K–12 education world brims with debates and dichotomies that get us into all manner of needless quarrels and cul-de-sacs, thus messing up every reform initiative and retarding progress. In every case, both sides are certain that they speak the whole truth; convinced that opposing views are misguided, perhaps even evil; and insistent that changes the system needs will go awry unless their side prevails.

These philosophical tug-of-wars lead to paralysis akin to what we witness today in Congress and many legislatures. Of them we ask, “Why can’t you compromise, split the difference, make a deal, take the best of both positions, and get something done?”

The ten education dichotomies outlined below should be seen in similar light: neither side owns the truth—and what would do kids the greatest good is an intelligent middle ground that melds the best of both views.

Skills vs. Knowledge

Back in 1987, in What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, Diane Ravitch and I tackled a pair of overlapping “false dichotomies”: skills vs. content and concepts vs. facts. They were prevalent in the education profession then and remain front and center today—indeed, are highlighted by the challenges of implementing (and assessing) the Common Core State Standards, which at first look skills-centric but which also make clear that success hinges on the deployment of a rich, sequential, content-focused curriculum. Already influenced by the analysis of E.D. Hirsch Jr. and the cognitive science that he had exhaustively mined, Diane and I wrote, “It is neither possible nor desirable...

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“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I vividly remember a seventh-grade English teacher telling our class, with great solemnity, “Small minds use big words.”

For years, this guided my writing.

Until I figured out how wrong, how profoundly wrong, she had been.

And that’s why I’m so concerned about the new SAT’s approach to vocabulary—namely cutting “obscure” and “arcane” words. According to the Times,The SAT’s rarefied vocabulary challenges will be replaced by words that are common in college courses, like ‘empirical’ and ‘synthesis.’”

Over the last 25 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that maximizing the words at one’s disposal is indispensable for two reasons.

First, words enable us to explain, and an infinitely complex world requires an expansive vocabulary so we can be clear and precise.

Jane Austen is known for her extensive vocabulary, which can cause eye rolling: “blowsy,” “solicitude,” “diffident,” “abstruse,” and “licentiousness.”

But as I read her books, dictionary always nearby, I found that every single time she used an unfamiliar word, it was because that word was exactly right; it captured the nuance she intended to convey.

For example, in one famous case, she might’ve used “shy” but chose “diffident” instead.

Why?...

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The Obama administration has just released its 2015 budget proposal. Here are its most notable K-12 edu-features.

  • It leads with the “Preschool for All” initiative, a significant investment in pre-K. It’s worth noting that this is at the front of the request. Pre-K is popular, and the administration is seizing on it. The budget also discusses an “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative,” which would cut across several departments; some of these resources would be applicable to this pre-K initiative.
  • The budget reflects the growing use of the term “equity” in the K–12 debate with the new Race to the Top “Equity and Opportunity” program, which is designed to help close the achievement gap. It’s relatively small ($300m) compared to previous RTT programs, and it’s not totally clear how it would work. It appears that the administration wants to “leverage” existing programs, and it too will be supplemented by the “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative.” This does, however, continue the RTT brand and is an indication that the administration wanted to show that it listened to the Equity and Excellence Commission.
  • The administration promotes its “most mature” programs: RTT, i3, SIG, TIF, and Promise Neighborhoods. They don’t mention, however, that TIF was created by the Bush administration or that SIG is failing badly. Regardless, four of these five are competitive grant programs (not formula programs), something the administration evidently wants to be remembered for advancing—and for which it deserves credit.
  • The administration still doesn’t understand that it
  • ...
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