Friday, December 18, 2009

Adults and Kids

In the world of education reform, there's a certain stigma attached to advocating for "adult issues" rather than "children's issues." Usually that's in the context of saying how unions are ruining education. However, I do have to say that there may be a case made for looking at the adult issues from time to time given that they inevitably affect the children.

In Arizona, they just received a score of D+ in the area of teacher retention from the National Council on Teacher Quality. An article in the Arizona Republic goes through a lot of the reasons that teachers leave and you know what? They're all adult issues. Assuming that we think kids should have high-quality teachers who are experienced in the classroom, it seems like we should be looking at some of those adult issues and seeing how we can improve them.

The UFT used to say that teachers want what kids need. Maybe and maybe not. But kids certainly do need good teachers. And if we want good teachers, we need, at least occasionally, to look at the adult issues and take them seriously. It's not an either/or proposition. It's about finding ways to do both.

Speaking of Arizona, I'm heading out there for the next few weeks and will be away from the blog. So Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and see you in the New Year!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lucky Guy

I never thought I would write that I think the press has gone kind of easy on Governor Paterson. Keep in mind that for about the last year there have been a steady stream of stories essentially saying that he's a lame duck and that Andrew Cuomo is so much better than he is and how the White House hates him and New Yorkers hate him and even people who've never heard of him think that someone else would be a better governor. He hasn't helped his own cause very much, but I can see how it would foster a tough environment in which to govern during difficult times.

But he seems to have caught a break. At least for now.

In his continuing efforts to cut back on spending in the state and close an ever-growing budget deficit, Paterson has announced that, among other things, he's withholding payments to school districts across the state. The New York Times headline read: School Districts Scramble After Albay Delays Aid. That's two breaks in one headline. The first is that the delay was attributed to "Albany" instead of "Paterson the terrible governor who's going to get beat by Andrew Cuomo if he insists on staying in the race." Admittedly, Albany is shorter than all that, so maybe that was the deciding factor.

The other break is a little subtler and is, in fact, repeated in the story itself. That's the use of the word "Aid" instead of, say, "funding". Now that's an interesting distinction that makes the withholding more palatable. Keeping school funding out of the hands of schools sure seems like a pretty cold-hearted move. But if it's just aid, well, maybe it's not so bad. It'll just be a little less help.

I suppose I'm not well-versed enough in the subtleties of New York State's various fiscal policies to say for sure what qualifies for aid versus what is considered outright funding, but it seems like Paterson might have caught a symantic break here, even if it is just a little one.

Monday, December 14, 2009

New Toys

It's the end of the year and that means two things for newspapers and magazines: lots of retrospective looks back at the best and worst of the year and lots of crystal ball gazing as to what the new year will bring. Even though schools operate on an offset schedule, it doesn't stop the educational journalists from indulging. I mean, who wants to feel left out?

Anyway, the experts at THE Journal have put together their predictions for what 2010 will hold in terms of classroom technology. The predictions are: more e-books, more netbooks, more interactive whiteboards, more personal devices (i.e. smart phones) in the classroom, and more individualizd instruction through technology. Presumably there will be less of some things also, but they don't make the article.

It's interesting, because to a large extent it's probably right. As the new technology is released and then becomes mainstream, teachers are looking to find ways to use it. It's seen as a high interest way to hook kids into the curriculum. While teaching about the Greek-Persian wars, I had my students create blogs and write about what was happening. The kids loved it.

The catch, though, is that I don't know that they really learned anything extra about Greece by writing what they knew on a blog rather than a regular old paper. Maybe they learned some technology skills. Maybe they were more motivated and so put in more effort and thus learned a little more. But essentially it was the same content in a new medium.

Whenever I read about a teacher incorporating Twitter into a lesson or something like that, I can't help but wonder if it isn't being used just as a gimmick. Is it boosting learning or just changing the packaging? Right now we seem to be doing a lot of repackaging. But I think that's probably the first step toward changing something more fundamental.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Reading Makes You Smarter

Everyone knows that reading makes you smarter, so it would seem to be a waste to devote an entire post (even a short one) to that proposition. But sometimes science comes up with something pretty cool and so we have to risk diverging into the annals of the obvious to make a point.

According to NPR, research just published in the journal Neuron indicates that reading more literally builds up your brain. We're not talking about a metaphorical you're smarter so your brain is stronger, we're talking about actual observable differences in the brains of people who read more. Specifically, reading seems to build up white matter, which (as near as I can tell) are like the highways that connect the different parts of your brain. By making all of those connections stronger, you're allowing your brain to process and synthesize greater amounts of information and build stronger connections.

How cool is this?

The more reading you do, the stronger those white matter connections become. They even took a group of poor readers and put them in an intensive remedial program where they found that white matter built up at the same rates as reading level - those who improved the most in reading also added the most white matter. In addition to all that content that they brought into their brains (which is, of course, another benefit of reading), they also literally made themselves smarter in a general and objective sense.

I don't have any policy recommendation or anything as a result of this other than that we should encourage everyone to read (a novel idea, I know). I just think this stuff is really interesting. And I'm going to go do some reading now.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Predictable Predictions

There's nothing the press loves so much as a dramatic story about a school rising from the ashes of failure and achieving great (or at least less substandard) things for their children. So it's no surprise that the L.A. Times profiles another school in that series. What I like to see, though, is the ways in which the schools are able to turn themselves around. Turns out that it doesn't always require a school being closed, the staff being fired, and a no-excuses charter opening in its place. Sometimes it just takes some extra time.

De Anza Elementary School in Los Angeles has made the turnaround by extending their day. Now, nearly half of their students spend time at school after school to receive extra help and academic enrichment. Families are brought into the school. It's not quite a community school, but it seems like a close cousin of the concept. And it works.

It's always nice when the things that seem like they ought to work actually do. I mean, you extend the time kids are supervised in an academic setting, you give them more one-on-one attention, you draw families into the process and good things happen. Seems pretty predictable, so it's good that the predictions are correct.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Math and Teaching

File this one in the counterintuitive column. According to an article in Education Week, elementary and middle school math performance isn't really benefitted by having a teacher who majored in math. The study being reported on found that prior math experience (undergraduate major, previous career in something like accounting, etc.) didn't have much impact on the younger grades. By the time high school starts, though, the connection grows stronger.

I say that it's counterintuitive, but that's not exactly the case. As anyone who's ever been into a classroom knows, there's a lot more to teaching than knowing the content. Knowing the causes for the Civil War doesn't necessarily mean you'll be able to convey them well to a classroom full of hormonal teenagers. You also have to know how to teach.

That's the punch line in the whole push for "highly qualified teachers." In reality, the push is not toward highly qualified teachers, but rather toward people who are highly qualified in their field and who will become teachers. I'm not saying that's a bad thing in any way. However, we shouldn't confuse highly qualified mathematicians for high qualified math teachers. It may or may not help, but it's not enough on its own.

Friday, December 4, 2009

I'm a Believer

Have I mentioned before how much I love the community school idea? I mean, what a great way to tie together so many of the different threads that need to be in place for children of poverty to succeed. Not least of those being helping to address the problems that the adults may be facing.

A recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (about a community school in Boston, oddly), included the line, "as a result of helping parents, schools can relieve children of some of the non-academic baggage that's making it hard for them to learn." Spot on. Help the whole child and the whole family and you're going to see results for the kids. It just makes sense.

The article is actually a pretty good one. It does a good job explaining the rationale for community schools, the work that goes into operating one, and the results that can be derived from doing so. It's not that long either, so you can read it even if you're in a rush.

The bottom line is that community schools take a ton of work from creative, driven people in order to function. It takes looking beyond the traditional role of a school and seeking to embody more. But, really, isn't that what we need right now? We know where the traditional model has gotten us, both for better or worse. Especially for schools in poor areas, we need anything that will add more to the better column.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What's the Problem?

Race, class, and school admissions. If that isn't the set-up for a fraught conversation, I don't know what is. I mention it because that's exactly what's going on in Chicago. A 2007 Supreme Court decision prevented the use of race in determining school decisions. That caused problems for the system in trying to comply wth a desegregation order. So, rather than use race as the determining criterion, CPS is looking at census tracts, neighborhood income levels, and other socio-economic indicators as the determinative factors. The goal being that by looking at these issues, the system will be able to reap a "racial dividend" and achieve essentially the same result.

Frankly, all of this makes sense to me. However, some of Chicago's alderman have other ideas and are calling the new system unjust and a way to get white students into selective schools. They may have a point given that the new methods seem to be somewhat less than ideal. For instance, the article reports that "some students will be competing against kids whose families make at least 10 times more than theirs do." So obviously the system needs some tinkering.

Assuming that things were working well, though, I think that this makes a whole lot of sense. I've always been a strong believer in the maxim that your solutions should address your problems. Otherwise, what's the point? So is the problem race or is the problem socio-economic disparities. Obviously, the two are pretty firmly linked in this country so it's a little tough to separate them out. However, since I have a hard time believing that different races automatically have different levels of academic achievement, I'm inclined to favor socio-economic factors. If that's the problem, then that's what our solutions should be targeting. Chicago seems to have started down that road, but they've got a ways to go still.

On an unrelated note, the Los Angeles Times just ran an editorial saying that while charters have a lot of promise, "they're no magic bullet." Couldn't agree more. Could we be seeing the beginning of a shift on popular perception of the schools? Obviously one editorial doesn't make a trend, but it's a start.