Education

A Good Old-Fashioned Education

Flickr/Thomas Favre-Bulle
W hen it comes to education policy, inconstancy is the only constant. During the past generation, self-styled reformers have pitched such nostrums as vouchers, charter schools, high-stakes accountability for teachers, and a near-total emphasis on reading and math. Nothing seems to be working, though: American students continue to lag on international tests and racial and ethnic achievement gaps stubbornly persist. Here's the good news: From Houston to Long Beach, Charlotte to Brownsville, school systems across the country—big and small; generously and meagerly funded; mainly Latino, mainly black, or heterogeneous; with elected school boards and mayor-appointed school boards—have figured out how to boost reading and math scores and shrink the achievement gap. The public has never heard about these accomplishments, and it’s easy to see why. Journalists thrive on color, and there’s nothing jazzy to report. Each of these districts has identified a few evidence-based strategies like high-...

Rebuilding Schools—and Happiness—in Pakistan

Education reformers come to the former Taliban-occupied Swat Valley.

AP Photo/John McConnico
AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini When the Taliban ruled in the Swat Valley, from 2007 to 2009, it set up in enclaves in the mountainous terrain. In better times, this area was a vacation destination that drew many to its hilly hamlets. Visitors often left with apples from the orchards or jars of locally cultivated honey. People here were known for their folk music and dance, but those traditions quickly faded into the background. Taliban fighters enforced their own brand of draconian Islamic law, requiring men to grow beards and forbidding women from going to the market. Pakistanis watched as the region's famous “Green Square” turned into “Bloody Square” when the Taliban meted out punishment to those who dared cross its authority. More than two million fled the conflict, and many have since settled elsewhere, not daring to return. The region shuddered in thunderous bomb blasts. Some of those blasts were aimed at schools, and the Taliban destroyed 200 of them throughout the Swat region...

Education for Sale

Amy E. Price, SXSWedu
Amy E. Price, SXSWedu Bill Gates and Iwan Streichenberger, CEO of nonprofit inBloom Inc., discuss the potential for personalized learning technology to transform classrooms during Gates' keynote at SXSWedu, in Austin, Texas. A t a conference made up of educators, administrators, and entrepreneurs, Bill Gates is bound to be polarizing. The mega-philanthropist, who’s put billions into education-reform initiatives like charter schools and data-mining to better evaluate teachers, is a hero to some in the education community, an enemy to others. Last week, at South by Southwest Edu—the nerdy cousin of Austin's popular music and multimedia festival—Gates seemed to relish his role. “Software’s able to create this interactive, connective experience for the students in a way that simply isn’t economic in a public-school context,” he said at the final event of the four-day conference. Behind him, a pie chart showed a $9 billion dollar education market—a market in which technology currently has...

Obama's Plan for Universal Pre-K

White House / Flickr
White House / Flickr If you haven’t already, you should read Sharon Lerner on Oklahoma’s attempt to provide high-quality preschool education to all of its students. It offers a glimpse into what the Obama administration intends with its universal pre-K push, and it’s a hopeful story to boot. In the meantime, it’s worth look at the administration’s proposals, which were released this morning. Here is an extended excerpt from the White House fact sheet : The President’s proposal will improve quality and expand access to preschool, through a cost sharing partnership with all 50 states, to extend federal funds to expand high-quality public preschool to reach all low- and moderate-income four-year olds from families at or below 200% of poverty. The U.S. Department of Education will allocate dollars to states based their share of four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families and funds would be distributed to local school districts and other partner providers to implement the program...

Q&A: How Do You Measure Value in Higher Education?

P. Morrissey / Flickr
P. Morrissey / Flickr The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. In the State of the Union, President Obama gave a brief mention to higher-education reform, asking “Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.” Across the country, researchers are working hard on just this question: What “value” do colleges and universities add, and how do we measure it? The Center for American Progress recently released a paper on performance-based funding for higher education , and last year, the Gates Foundation—in collaboration with HCM Strategists—began a project called “ Context for Success .” Its goal? To give policymakers and colleges tools to better judge what works in higher education. To find more about what this entails, I had a brief conversation with Charles T. Clotfelter, a professor of public policy, economics and law at Duke University, who worked on the project. Last night...

The State of the Kindergarteners Should Be Strong

Flickr/SFA Union City
Flickr/US Army Africa O bama gave the country a glimpse of his new pre-K initiative in last night State of the Union address—and reason to hope that he’ll bring the rest of the country toward the national models set by states such as Georgia and Oklahoma . About halfway through the roughly hour-long speech, the President proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,”—an ambitious goal, given that only 27 percent of four-year-olds are currently in public pre-K. With his comment that “Most middle-class parents can't afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool”—which was met with an emphatic “that’s right” from the audience—Obama gave voice to a huge frustration of parents across the political spectrum. Those close to the issue had already been tipped off to the new initiative at a January meeting with Health and Human Services official Linda Smith, who estimated that the expansion of pre-K would reach some 1.85...

How to Fix the Federal Student Aid System

The New America Foundation takes a crack.

Flickr/Bearseye
A landmark report came out last week from the New America Foundation featuring a novel plan to fix the federal student aid program. What makes it so new? It helps more Americans finish college—the end game of federal student aid—without burdening them with debt. The report has 30 specific recommendations for everything from the Pell grant to the student loan program. And here's the kicker—according to their accounting, the changes are revenue-neutral over the next ten years. The idea is to simplify programs—for example, by having only one student loan program with one repayment plan—so families don't borrow as much up front, colleges don't have as much freedom to raise prices, and students have the support they need to stick with an education program. It’s the sign of a truly broken system that there is so much low-hanging fruit to be found: it would actually be quite possible to save money and help more of the neediest all at the same time. But implementing the whole plan would...

Pushing Arne Duncan to Fast-Forward

Activists demand that the Department of Education address discriminatory policies.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
At a March 15, 2011, sit-down at the Children’s Defense Fund, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent an unequivocal message to black community and faith leaders. “What we’re desperately missing in this country is parents who will demand better for their children,” he said. “I wish to God I had parents knocking on my door every single day saying, go faster, you’re not moving fast enough.” On Tuesday, community activists from across the country did exactly that. Some 400 students and parents from as far as California descended on Department of Education headquarters to testify on the racialized impact of school closings, turnarounds, and other measures stipulated by federal education funding mandates. Statistically, actions like these tend to affect students of color more than their white counterparts in the same districts. Students displaced by school turnover are forced to cross myriad social boundaries, including gang lines , with little to no precedent of greater academic success...

In the Schools of Philadelphia

Flickr/It's Our City The Philadelphia School District headquarters in downtown Philadelphia O n December 13, a large group of parents, students, teachers, and activists gathered in front of the headquarters of the School District of Philadelphia—a drab, low-slung building on Broad Street, one of the city’s major arteries. In the numbing cold, the crowd’s mood was bitter: The district had recently announced the 37 schools slated to be closed next fall. Around 17,000 kids will be relocated, mostly to institutions with academic records no better than those they currently attend. Chants of “The Mayor don’t care!” rippled through the crowd as attendees carried gravestone-shaped signs reading “R.I.P Philly Schools.” The protesters—among them Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT)—were there to demand a moratorium on school closings, which many fear will further urban blight as school building are vacated and lead to violence as different neighborhood...

A Standardized Testing Revolt

Flickr/albertogp123
Over the past year, there's been a steady and ongoing revolt in Texas. Not about secession or guns or the many other fringe topics that the state is usually associated with. This battle has been waged primarily by parents and teachers, and the demand is relatively simple—cut back on testing our kids. There's been similar sentiments simmering in states across the country, but in Texas a new set of tests, put in place last year, sparked the outcry. Now, the push that began in school board and PTA meetings has finally reached the halls of power. When the biennial state legislature gaveled in on Tuesday, it didn't take long for newly re-elected Speaker of the House Joe Straus to mention testing. "By now, every member of this house has heard from constituents at the grocery store or the Little League fields about the burdens of an increasingly cumbersome testing system in our schools," he said. "Teachers and parents worry that we have sacrificed classroom inspiration for rote memorization...

Fighting Education Shock Therapy

With tools from 1964, community activists are pushing the White House to turn federal education policy around.

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast Sixty-five-year-old John Washington pick up his great grandson, Rayshaun Cates, at Samuel Morse Elementary School, a Chicago school closed in 2006. T he watchword of austerity, “there is no alternative,” connotes painful cuts and layoffs adopted by fiscally shot local governments. In practice, though, this is a contradiction in terms: the politics of austerity are also a politics of imaginative restructuring, in which fiscal crisis is a cover for what Clintonites called “reinventing government” or, as partisans of Naomi Klein might prefer, “shock therapy.” The lie is starkest in the realm of education policy, where the Obama administration prescribes a slate of options for impoverished communities receiving federal School Improvement Grants. These range from “turnarounds,” which replace the principal and at least half of school staff, to charterization or outright closure. The catch with turnarounds and closings? Urban schools affected by them house more...

We Can't All Be Royals

AP Photo
Ap Photo Kate Middleton and Prince William on their wedding day I know you can hardly stand the excitement: Princess Kate is preggers! Finally, the QEII can step out of service, passing off the baton—er, scepter—in a way that skips right past her reprobate son. Finally, she has a new generation in line that understands the royal job: Get married, reproduce, and stay honorably married. Which, as you may have noticed over the weekend, is just what The New York Times 's Ross Douthat wants us reprobate Americans to start doing. In what began as an almost sensible column, Douthat noted that public policy can help encourage working people to have families. But then Douthat ran right off the rails, chiding us for our lack of character, our selfish decadence, our end-of-empire exhaustion, and for preferring the comforts of—oh, I don’t know, maybe paying the mortgage?—to the sacrifices of raising more children. Herewith: The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-...

Pre-K on the Range

Rural, conservative, impoverished Oklahoma has built the nation’s brightest model for early education.

(Flickr/Howard County Library System)
F our-year-old John Kaykay is a serious and quiet boy—“my thoughtful one,” his dad calls him. When the official greeters at the front door of the McClure early-childhood center in Tulsa welcome him with their clipboards and electric cheer—“Good morning, John! How are you today?”—he just slowly nods his small chin in their direction. When he gets to Christie Housley’s large, sunny classroom, he focuses intensely on signing in, writing the four letters of his name with a crayon as his dad crouches behind him. When he’s asked the question of the day—“Do you like music?”—he pauses for a minute before putting his magnetic nameplate in the “no” section. John’s third day of pre-kindergarten will be filled with more questions. Since yesterday was the 20th and tomorrow is the 22nd, what day is today? Can he pick out the card with the number 21 written on it? If the colors go pink, blue, pink, blue, what comes next in the pattern? How many of his friends are in school today? Can he think of a...

Schools in the Crosshairs

(Flickr/Arsisa7)
When her dyslexic second-grader landed in a failing public elementary school in Pittsburgh, single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick spotted trouble right away. Her daughter’s teacher spent class time shopping online for clothes while the kids bullied one another. Though other teachers wanted to do right by the kids, their union wouldn’t allow it; teachers were forbidden to offer any extra help to the students outside of class, and because their pay was based on seniority, some of the worst made the most. So despite working two jobs, Fitzpatrick somehow found the time to persuade other parents to sign a petition to turn the school into a nonunion charter. Most teachers joined the effort, perfectly content to give up their union protections. At the new charter school, magic happened. The kids began to get a proper education. Fitzpatrick’s daughter learned to read almost immediately. It’s an inspiring tale. It’s also fiction—the plot of Won’t Back Down , a film released this fall starring Maggie...

Anti-Testing: Unlikely Common Ground?

(Flick/ cliff1066â„¢)
At first glance, the 2012 elections didn’t seem to have much bearing on education policies. After all, the fundamental debates around schools—whether to increase the role of testing, merit pay, charter schools, and school choice—are, for the most part, outside the realm of partisan politics. Among both Democratic and Republican leadership, there’s a fair amount of consensus in the self-proclaimed reform agenda, which seeks to make schools more like a marketplace and relies on testing to offer metrics for success. It’s the one area where the parties seem to agree. Heck, Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, is delivering a keynote speech at Jeb Bush’s Excellence in Education summit at the end of the month. But while the politicians might agree, this year’s election turned out to offer a surprising message: Many still support the idea of charter schools, but a whole lot of teachers and parents aren’t so pleased with the elevation of testing, the new regimented days with little...

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