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I am an American Girl Dad. No use hiding it, no reason to lie. A significant portion of my non-work life and my living room is occupied by AG.

My wife and I took our girls to the American Girl Place on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on Black Friday a couple of years. This past summer, I was the only solo dad standing in an enormous line at 7:00 on a steamy morning for the grand opening of AGP in Columbus. “Props to you,” all the eyes pointed at me seemed to be saying, “but you’re out of your mind mister.”

But, truly, I love American Girl. Mainly because of what it has meant to my daughters over the years.

  • I read all the Felicity Merriman (1774) books to them when they were little. When we finally made it to Williamsburg some years later, they remembered the stories and went to find the places we read about and were able to find their own way in to the living history being played out in front of them.
  • We learned a ton from the stories about Rebecca Rubin (1914) as a Russian immigrant in New York City. These characters and their well-researched fictional worlds are miles from my daughters’ life experience but the best part of a later visit to NYC was an unplanned side trip to the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. Not only were the familiar touchstones of Rebecca’s story there, but the Italian immigrant experience in that same
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There were many important releases and developments this week—invaluable new SIG information from IES, Race to the Top audits, new Brookings “choice index”—and I couldn’t keep up! Those subjects and others will get fuller treatments from me next week. But until then, here are some worthwhile things to read over the weekend.

There has been much talk about the 50-year anniversary of The War on Poverty. Here’s the best stuff I’ve seen: This Gerson column smartly points out the federal government’s successes and failures (and though this superb Brooks column on evolving conservative policy thinking isn’t about The War on Poverty per se, it should be read in conjunction with Gerson’s). This short blurb by Checker Finn is terrific; the first-person narrative is compelling, and for history buffs and those fascinated by the intersection of politics and policy, it offers something special. This very good piece by my old high school friend (now at AEI) Josh Good echoes family-related arguments made by Finn’s mentor a half century ago.

If you care at all about Common Core, this Stephanie Simon article about conservative backlash is an absolute must read. There are several different strands in the piece worth thinking about (including the CCSS-as-a-stepping-stone strategy), but these two sentences speak volumes: “Still, (Common Core) supporters have struggled to counter the critics. They have had trouble even understanding the contours of the smoldering opposition.” As I told TNTP (see fifth paragraph),...

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This year, Education Week’s Quality Counts report tells a story of districts facing formidable pressures, both external (such as budgetary and performance woes) and internal (demographic shifts), as well as a maturing market of expanded school options—and how this competitive environment is leading to governance change. Ed Week overhauled its long-running State of the States comparisons, paring its sets of indicators down to three: the (still-questionable) Chance-for-Success Index; the K–12 Achievement Index; and school finance. (No longer do they include standards, assessment, and accountability; the teaching profession; or transitions and alignment.) For the rundown of states at the top and bottom of the class, be sure to check out the results online—and a nifty interactive report card, which allows readers to recalculate grades using their own weights. But of particular interest is a survey analysis of the increasingly complex district governance landscapes—thanks to the rise of educational management and charter organizations and with the use of portfolio strategies in cities like Denver. Almost 80 percent of the national sample of district administrators queried agreed with the statement that “accountability pressures and technology shifts have led them to consider changes,” while 54 percent agreed that school systems need to make significant governance or structural changes. When asked about whether they think merging high- and low-poverty districts or implementing a state-led turnaround (or turnaround school district) strategy would work, the respondents seemed more optimistic about the former.

SOURCE: Education Week, Quality Counts 2014: District Disruption & Revival...

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Earlier this week, AFT president Randi Weingarten came out against the use of value-added measures in teacher evaluations, citing recent VAM shortcomings in D.C. and Pittsburgh and launching the catchy slogan, “VAM is a sham.” VAM certainly is not perfect. But as Dara Zeehandelaar reminds us in this week’s Education Gadfly Show, teachers decades ago were concerned about being capriciously fired by principals who didn’t like them, which in turn led to the movement for a more structured and quantifiable teacher-evaluation system. Does Randi want to go back to favoritism? Or simply no accountability at all?

In a fascinating exposé of the Common Core opposition movement, Politico’s Stephanie Simon describes how a sophisticated group of strategists took a grassroots campaign, mainly populated by “a handful of angry moms,” and is milking it for political gain. With everyone’s questionable motivations out in the open, Gadfly would like to see the debate return to whether the standards are right for kids.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Eric Cantor named school choice as the best hope for the poor to escape cyclical poverty. He took special aim at New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, for planning a moratorium on charter school co-locations in the Big Apple, arguing that this could “devastate the growth of education opportunity in such a competitive real estate market.” Cantor went on to chastise President Obama for (again) refusing to fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a successful initiative that...

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The Arctic Vortex edition

Invigorated by the weather, Mike and Dara give cold shoulders to anti-Common Core strategists, California’s constitution, and Randi Weingarten’s “VAM sham.” Amber gets gifted.

Amber's Research Minute

Who Rises to the Top? Early Indicators,” by Harrison J. Kell, David Lubinski, and Camilla P. Benbow, Psychological Science 24 (2013), 2013: 648–59.

We know that student mobility negatively impacts achievement and increases the likelihood of dropping out, not to mention the spillover effects on non-movers in high-churn schools. But can schools really do anything to curtail mobility among students? This study, conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Rice University, seeks to answer that question by randomly assigning an intervention designed to build relationships among families and between families and school personnel. Parents are recruited into a program comprising eight weeks of gatherings after school that last two to three hours, followed by two years of monthly parent-led meetings where parents, students, and school staff have meals together, play bonding games, and engage in other family rituals. Fifty-two elementary schools in Phoenix and San Antonio—all with high proportions of Hispanic and poor children—were randomly assigned to the treatment, with half receiving the intervention and half serving as the control group. Data were collected during the students’ first- through third-grade years. In the treatment schools, 73 percent of families attended at least one gathering and half attended multiple sessions. Of those who attended at all, a third completed the full program. Analysts found that on average, attending a school with the intervention did not reduce mobility. However, there were subgroup differences; specifically, black students in the control schools were more likely to move overall, but the intervention reduced their likelihood of moving by 29 percent in intervention schools—and that percentage rose for students whose families completed the entire program. Survey...

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Nationally, dropout rates have consistently declined over the past twenty years. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s estimates, 12.1 percent of seventeen- to twenty-four-year-olds had dropped out of school in 1990, while in 2010 just 7.4 percent had dropped out. This is a demonstrably positive trend in American education. However, as this report documents, not all is well in schools’ efforts to get all their students to graduation. The researchers from the newly formed Ohio Education Research Center find that some of Ohio’s schools have massive dropout-rate problems. Using student-level data collected by the state Department of Education from 2006 to 2010, the analysts report dropout counts and rates for Ohio’s high schools, both district and charter. While the report is chock-full of data, the pieces that are most jaw dropping relate to Ohio’s virtual and “dropout-recovery” schools. For example, in 2009–10, Virtual High School, operated by Cincinnati Public Schools, had a 93 percent dropout rate (196 dropouts over the school year, relative to a baseline high school enrollment of 211) and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) had a dropout rate of 53 percent (2,908 dropouts relative to an enrollment of 5,468). The dropout rates for Ohio’s brick-and-mortar dropout recovery schools were worse, some greater than 200 percent, meaning that these schools had more than twice the number of dropouts than their baseline enrollment. These appalling statistics should call into question the efficacy of Ohio’s virtual and dropout-recovery-school programs. Still, these statistics could be more...

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A long time ago now, the late syndicated columnist William Raspberry was in the Twin Cities for some kind of program and a woman asked a modest question: “How do you fix poverty?” Raspberry, who was a gracious Pulitzer Prize winner, said something about how poverty was a very big problem, and as such, one could jump in just about anywhere and make a contribution. But if he had to choose just one place, he said, he would start with the boys, which is exactly where I start, principally because boys become the men whom women don’t want to marry, and usually for very good reasons.

Or more precisely, I start where I do because unless we somehow revive marriage in America, particularly in inner cities, there isn’t a chance in the world of making more than tiny dents in poverty. Which leads to another modest question: How to bring marriage back in communities where it’s nearly dead?

Claiming that getting a good education is ultimately the best strategy might sound elementary to the point of trite. But what more promising route is out there, especially for millions of boys (and girls) who have a hole in their heart where their father (and sometimes their mother) should be? What type of education might work best at filling such gaps?

The adjectives that come quickest to mind are “paternalistic” and “nurturing.” “Paternalistic” suggests tough-loving charter schools in the “sweat the small stuff” spirit of KIPP academies, and “nurturing” suggests schools in which religious...

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The so-called War on Poverty has been fantastically successful at eradicating poverty among the old and devastatingly miserable at eradicating poverty among the young. It’s not hard to see why. It’s easy to reduce or eliminate poverty among people, such as seniors, who are not expected to work: Give them money and free services, like Social Security and Medicare. Voilà, problem solved. What our young people require, however, is so much more. And it’s nothing a government program can provide.

What they need, first and foremost, are parents with the emotional stability, resources, and commitment to do their most important job well. That means making good decisions every day about what they will or won’t expect of their kids; the time they will or won’t spend with them; the books they will or won’t read to them; the experiences they will or won’t provide. It shouldn’t be controversial to say, then, that many poor parents struggle to make these good decisions, often because they themselves are still growing up and are trying to do the job alone.

If we want to reduce intergenerational poverty—the real social scourge in America—we need an all-out effort to encourage everyone to follow a simple rule: Don’t have kids until you are ready to provide for them, emotionally and financially.

That means taking children who are growing up today in dysfunctional families and dysfunctional communities, and often attending dysfunctional schools, and transporting them into environments that can, as President George W. Bush would say, “touch...

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Forgive an aging education-reformer’s reminiscences, but LBJ’s declaration of war on poverty shaped the next fifty years of my life.

I was a Harvard undergraduate at the time, dabbling in social reform and social action via a slew of student-volunteer programs in schools, settlement houses, public-housing projects, and hospitals; not studying very hard; and expected by my family to join my father and grandfather in their Dayton law firm.

Then two things happened.

Professor Edward Banfield brought into his course on “urban problems” a young assistant secretary of labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose enthusiastic explanation of the nascent “war” fired my imagination—and introduced the man who would later become my doctoral adviser, chief mentor, and source of three riveting jobs.

And Lyndon Johnson’s oft-stated conviction that education was the surest route to vanquishing poverty engaged both the do-gooder inclinations of a twenty-year-old and reflected what I was seeing among children in poor neighborhoods of Cambridge and Boston and the miserable schools they attended.

Between LBJ and Pat Moynihan, I now had a sense of mission. So I applied to the ed school instead of the law school. And on it went from there.

In retrospect, I have no career regrets, but I’ve also learned a ton about the limits of formal education (which makes up a relatively small part of a person’s life); about the difficulty of changing our major institutions; about the hazards of inflating what Uncle Sam, in particular, can do to bring about such changes; about the predilection...

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