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Japanese classroom by Angie Harms

Rationalizing America’s lackluster academic performance is something of a cottage industry. One of the most popular ways people explain away our low test scores is to claim that they don’t matter much anyway. “Let others have the higher test scores. I prefer to bet on the creative, can-do spirit of the American people,” says Diane Ravitch. Or there’s Alfie Kohn’s take: self-disciplined students are “likely conflicted, unhappy, and perhaps less likely to succeed (at least by meaningful criteria) at whatever they’re doing.”

But what if these rationalizations are questionable? Or worse, what if they’re simply bunk? What if super hardworking students in, say, South Korea and Japan are scoring worlds better than us on international tests and are more innovative and happy?

In a sobering twist, that might be the case.

Bloomberg News recently published its 2014 list of the most innovative countries in the world. Seven weighted factors go into the metric.* Here are the top five nations, along with their scores:

  1. South Korea (score: 92.10)
  2. Sweden (score: 90.80)
  3. United States (score: 90.69)
  4. Japan (score: 90.41)
  5. Germany (score: 88.23)

The chart-topper is a real doozy. South Korea—often ridiculed for working its students too hard and robbing them of creative, independent thought—might be the most innovative country in the world. Japan, subject to...

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Dara and the Following

Dara’s taste in TV shows is questionable, but her ed-policy knowledge is not. She and Michelle dish on Common Core implementation, student-data privacy, and marketing in schools. Amber gets pensive about pensions.

Amber's Research Minute

Missouri Charter Schools and Teacher Pension Plans: How Well Do Existing Pension Plans Serve Charter and Urban Teachers? by Cory Koedel, Shawn Ni, Michael Podgursky, and P. Brett Xiang, (Kansas City, MO: Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, February 2014).

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 amphibiansAncient Asian Cultures; the early American civilizations; Ancient Greece; Native American culturesChristopher Columbus and the Age of Discovery; Colonial America and the Revolutionary War; the American founders;  movie adaptations of classic children’s books; and American folk heroes.

If you’ve got little kids, you won’t take much convincing that reptiles are just plain cool. Alligators! Crocodiles! Snakes! And cute turtles, to boot! Not only are these animals an important part of our biological heritage (been in touch with your reptilian brain lately?), but they are also major players in our cultural heritage, from the Garden of Eden to Aesop’s fables and classic children’s literature. So enjoy these videos with your kids, which help our reptile cousins come alive. (Note: videos about dinosaurs are available here.)

The Best Streaming Videos on Reptiles

1. Nature Adventures: Behind the Scenes at Reptile Gardens

Nature AdventuresTerri and Todd visit the Reptile Gardens, where they go behind the scenes and get “hands on” with various reptiles, including alligators, crocodiles, a timber rattlesnake, and more!

Length: 27 minutes

Rating: NR

PBS

...
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Frustration and misinformation on the Common Core State Standards abound. But two cheers for Fox News for featuring Fordham trustee Mike Kelly to set the record straight.

Kelly not only quizzes Fox commentators on their math skills, but also makes it clear: The standards are not the problem; it’s implementation that’s messy. Some districts are choosing bad textbooks; some teachers aren’t communicating the changes as effectively as they could be. Of course, that’s all been true since the beginning of time. (Stay tuned for a report coming Wednesday that looks at these sorts of district-level Common Core challenges.)

And yes, Kelly stuck around to chat on Facebook.

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The white pants edition

Mike dishes out fashion advice, while Brickman talks Common Core, 50CAN’s education-reform polling, and the work ethic. Amber tells us what the Kalamazoo is happening in Kalamazoo.

Amber's Research Minute

“The Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship” by Timothy J. Bartik and Marta Lachowska, (Boston, MA: Education Next, Spring 2014).

On Wednesday, Michigan superintendent Mike Flanagan dumped the Education Achievement Authority, saying it will no longer be exclusively responsible for Michigan’s failing schools. Opponents to the EEA are claiming victory, but Gadfly notes that this is a political maneuver that Detroit’s children won’t find very clever.

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican, is taking a tool from our school-choice toolkit. He wants to expand the state’s tax-credit-scholarship program while requiring scholarship students to take the same (or similar) assessments as their public-school counterparts. The expansion would also allow partial scholarships for participating families with rising incomes—a smart way to encourage upward mobility.

The majority of teachers may support Common Core, but the largest union is raising a big red flag nonetheless. But read the NEA’s words carefully; when its president, Dennis Van Roekel, says a major “course correction” is needed, we’re pretty sure he’s mostly talking about teacher evaluations. Implementation isn’t easy, but “when the going gets tough, union presidents run for cover.”

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The headline in yesterday’s Columbus Dispatch, “Union leader to be Coleman’s education czar,” certainly got my attention. I suspect I’m not alone.

Given Mayor’s Coleman’s relentless (and praiseworthy) push for education reform over the past 18 months, the appointment of a long-time teacher union official was almost shocking. Teacher unions, after all, have been the primary power brokers in the development of the education system that we are now struggling to reform.

So what’s the mayor thinking?

First, he’s obviously got to respond to the stunning levy defeat in November and the school system’s breathtaking cheating scandal. Choosing a respected educator is a smart way to build bridges and public support. 

Second, even in her official role as union president, Ms. Johnson has proven herself to be open to change. She appears to have played a significant role on the mayor’s education reform commission. For that, she deserves much credit. It would have been easy in those discussions for her to stymie any reform proposal that might negatively impact some of her members, but she didn’t. Instead, she helped the broad coalition of community stakeholders to reach a consensus. The result was a bold report that every commission member signed. It called for bold changes such as empowering school principals with the ability to choose the teachers assigned to their schools and evaluating teachers and principals based upon student success.

As the mayor’s agent in pushing...

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Political theorist Benjamin Barber is not the first person you would associate with education reform. He is a staunch advocate of democracy, democratic institutions, and “democratic patriotism,” and he is best known for a somewhat prescient 1992 book called Jihad vs. McWorld, which gained some clout following the 2001 terrorist attacks. In his 1994 book An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, he argues that the most critical outcome required of our education system is an appreciation of inclusive civic engagement—and that this outcome and excellence are not mutually exclusive. In fact, he warned of the “dumbing down” of American education at that time. In If Mayors Ruled the World, his latest book, Barber goes even further, calling out national governments of all stripes as gridlocked failures of representative governance. Instead, he argues that cities are the true and proper vehicles of citizenship and democracy…not to mention the only political entities capable of “taking out the trash” - by which he means literally getting the job done. Where does that leave education in the United States, traditionally the domain of the states? Barber cites all the various vehicles of education today—districts, charters, vouchers—and concludes, “In education, then…we need to seek partial solutions, relevant remedies, and best practices that are best because they are salient and pertinent to the specific challenges being addressed. That is in fact what cities do.” “Best practices,” he continues, “arise out of experimentation and action….Those are ‘best’ that work.” Sounds...

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Yesterday, I jokingly tweeted that since today would be a snowy Friday before a holiday weekend, the U.S. Department of Education would probably release SIG data. (They’ve executed numerous SIG-related “Friday afternoon trash dumps” in an attempt to minimize the field’s attention to this failed—and massively expensive—program.)

Turns out my joke wasn’t funny at all. 

They’ve done it again.

As you might remember, several months ago, the Department released second-year results, meaning two years of data from cohort-one SIG schools and one year of data from cohort-two schools. But they had to retract the data because of mistakes made by a contractor.

So today, they’ve released the corrected information.

On a Friday afternoon.

Before a holiday weekend.

I’ve belabored the fiasco that is SIG, so I won’t pile on today. I just hope someone, someone, in the Department is saying, “If we find ourselves continually dumping bad SIG news, shouldn’t we just admit we messed up and ask Congress to end this program?”

Here’s what you need to know.

  • When the program launched, we were told that this now-$6 billion program would produce “dramatic” improvements in our most troubled schools. The Secretary talked of “transformation not tinkering.”
  • The most persistently low-performing schools in American got several million dollars, on average, and yet a third of them got worse.
  • On average, schools with two years of funding and interventions under their belts saw a three percentage point gain in reading proficiency—just about the same gain as all
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Nothing helps pass the time better when you’re snowed in than some high-quality edu-reading. Here’s some of the best stuff I’ve come across recently.

Public Impact has produced a very good and very important report on “extraordinary authority districts,” entities like Louisiana’s Recovery School District. It’s exactly the kind of nuts-and-bolts document that’s needed right now. Many states are considering such bodies, and this is a thoughtful guide—informed by our experience to date—for how to do it right.

A group of University of Missouri researchers compared three different types of growth measures: “student-growth percentiles,” a.k.a. SGP (my preferred method), and two “value-added models,” a.k.a. VAM. They found that a VAM approach that incorporates a comparison of demographically similar schools produces the best results (for a number of reasons). The full working paper is a bit dense, but the shorter Education Next article is accessible and very informative. Growth measures are important and here to stay; this piece will help you bone up.

NACSA and Charter School Growth Fund have put together a good, short report on how to ensure that the charter sector’s future growth leads to more and more high-quality seats and fewer low-quality ones. It has valuable policy recommendations and even better suggestions for improving authorizer practice. I particularly liked the report’s view that authorizers aren’t just disinterested umpires—they also have a role to play in identifying and replicating great schools.

I really enjoyed Fordham’s recent...

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