Recently I stood in front of my class, observing an all-too-familiar scene. Most of my students were covertly—or so they thought—pecking away at their smartphones under their desks, checking their Facebook feeds and texts.
As I called their attention, students’ heads slowly lifted, their eyes reluctantly glancing forward. I then cheerfully explained that their next project would practice a skill they all desperately needed: holding a conversation.
Several students looked perplexed. Others fidgeted in their seats, waiting for me to stop watching the class so they could return to their phones. Finally, one student raised his hand. “How is this going to work?” he asked.
My junior English class had spent time researching different education issues. We had held whole-class discussions surrounding school reform issues and also practiced one-on-one discussions. Next, they would create podcasts in small groups, demonstrating their ability to communicate about the topics—the project represented a culminating assessment of their ability to speak about the issues in real time.
Even with plenty of practice, the task proved daunting to students. I watched trial runs of their podcasts frequently fall silent. Unless the student facilitator asked a question, most kids were unable to converse effectively. Instead of chiming in or following up on comments, they conducted rigid interviews. They shuffled papers and looked down at their hands. Some even reached for their phones—an automatic impulse and the last thing they should be doing.
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Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, show how separate and unequal education is coming back.
Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow.
What right should students have to talk about God in homework, assemblies, club meetings, and graduation speeches? This is the question at stake in a new law in Tennessee and other states across the country. On Thursday, Governor Bill Haslam signed the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, which affirms that religious students should have the same free-speech rights as secular ones. At first, this might seem uncontroversial; religious expression has always been protected by the First Amendment. So why did two Republican state legislators feel the need to write the bill?
"Christian conservative groups have for many years been frustrated by what they see as a hostile environment for religion in public schools," said Charles Haynes, the Director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. "They are convinced—with some justification—that there’s a lot more that public schools can be doing to protect religious expression."
In Tennessee, legislators pointed to one case in particular as the motivation for creating the bill. In October, a teacher told a Memphis fifth grader that she couldn’t write about God in an essay about “her idol.” In defiance, ten-year-old Erin Shead wrote two essays—both about the Almighty, although only one was about Michael Jackson—and her mom sought legal help. The elementary schooler was later allowed to turn in her God essay (and earned a score of 100%, as local news organizations dutifully reported at the time).
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“I hate the Common Core,” the mother of two complained when I told her I write about education.
“What, specifically, do you hate?” I asked.
“The math. It makes no sense! I can’t help my kid with his homework and I don’t understand the new methods at all.”
What I told this mother, and what I wish I could explain to every parent frustrated with the nonsensical math homework coming home in our children’s backpacks, is this: The confusing math methodology everyone is complaining about is not part of the Common Core State Standards.
The Common Core is a set of “standards,” lists of competencies or skills that kids will need to know by the end of a given school year. Standards require what skills will be taught, while curriculum dictates other details such as how a given skill is conveyed to a second grader. For example, the Standards require second graders to know that “100 can be thought of as a bundle of ten tens—called a ‘hundred,’” but curriculum dictates the textbook, or teaching methodology, or philosophy used to teach that skill. The confusing math that has been coming home in our children’s backpacks is a result of Everyday Math, a curriculum based on critical thinking skills, (so-called “fuzzy math”) developed at the University of Chicago.
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It’s extremely tricky to prove scientifically whether or not single-sex schooling is effective.
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Finnish education often seems paradoxical to outside observers because it appears to break a lot of the rules we take for granted. Finnish children don’t begin school until age 7. They have more recess, shorter school hours than many U.S. children do (nearly 300 fewer hours per year in elementary school), and the lightest homework load of any industrialized nation. There are no gifted programs, almost no private schools, and no high-stakes national standardized tests.
Yet over the past decade Finland has consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world. Finland’s school children didn’t always excel. Finland built its excellent, efficient, and equitable educational system in a few decades from scratch, and the concept guiding almost every educational reform has been equity. The Finnish paradox is that by focusing on the bigger picture for all, Finland has succeeded at fostering the individual potential of most every child.
I recently accompanied Krista Kiuru, Finland’s minister of education and science, when she visited the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in Boston, and asked her what Finland is doing that we could learn from.
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Arizona State University, like many colleges across the United States, has a problem with students who enter their freshman year ill prepared in math. Though the school offers remedial classes, one-third of students earn less than a C, a key predictor that they will leave before getting a degree. To improve the dismal situation, ASU turned to adaptive-learning software by Knewton, a prominent edtech company. The result: Pass rates zipped up from 64% to 75% between 2009 and 2011, and dropout rates were cut in half.
But imagine the underside to this seeming success story. What if the data collected by the software never disappeared and the fact that one had needed to take remedial classes became part of a student’s permanent record, accessible decades later? Consider if the technical system made predictions that tried to improve the school’s success rate not by pushing students to excel, but by pushing them out, in order to inflate the overall grade average of students who remained.
These sorts of scenarios are extremely possible.
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No more SAT words or long essays: The new SAT is here, and it looks pretty different. Almost a year after first announcing the SAT would face a major redesign, College Board President David Coleman released new information this afternoon on how the exam is going to change.
The College Board says it is emphasizing “delivering opportunity” to all students and making the SAT more reflective of high school academics. “It is time to admit that the SAT and ACT have become disconnected from the work of our high schools,” Coleman said in a press conference. He also said he hoped the changes would remove the “sense of mystery and dismantle the advantages that people perceive in using costly test preparation.”
Here are some of the key changes, which will go into effect in 2016.
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The Common Core has started to take political flak from the right and the left. Conservatives worry about the overreach of federal incentives, while unions don’t want the standards connected to teacher evaluations. What is being lost? The standards’ significant emphasis on reinvigorating the democratic purpose of public education. Making good on this promise presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine and reprioritize the special role that schools play in preparing students for active civic participation.
These new educational goals emphasize higher-level abilities: analysis and critical thinking; marshaling evidence and making arguments; collaboration and problem-solving; and communicating clearly. The stated focus of the Common Core—to prepare students who are “college and career ready”—advances one fundamental purpose of public education: preparing students for productive employment and economic self-sufficiency.
But Common Core is not just about college and career readiness. It is also deeply and explicitly focused on preparing students for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. And while many skills are transferable across the domains of college, career, and citizenship, the commitment in the Common Core to the democratic mission of public schools goes much deeper.
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