Monday, January 30, 2012

Nobody I met was raising chickens...

... but that didn’t stop Newsweek from suggesting, in the online subhed of my new article, that that is who today’s urban homeschoolers are. Okay, no biggie—many of them are kind of crafty. But their headline on the print magazine is another story:  “Are homeschoolers out of their minds?”

Literally another story, because I did not write that one. The editors wanted me to—I got some pushback that I was making urban homeschooling look like “just another choice,” rather than this outlet for crazy mothers who couldn’t bear to be away from their kids.  (I don’t read Newsweek much and had not realized that its prime directive these days is provocation.) Homeschooling isn’t for me, given that one of my favorite moments of the day is when John and Milo—I love you guys, sorry—leave for the morning and the house is quiet. And I do have concerns: that homeschooling parents may make false presumptions about public schools (and therefore their kids miss out on services they could benefit from), that there is something solipsistic about having your whole environment tailored (and sometimes smoothed) for you, that spending so much time around your mom makes you less independent in the early years than I like my own child to be.

But my thinking on such choices was molded largely by the time I spent with a teenager named Gaurav Thakur in 2004, for a Washington Post article. Gaurav was an introverted math whiz whose high school teachers didn’t have much to offer him, so he learned online from home. I went in to my reporting thinking “Weird” and left thinking “Why not?” You know, I am fine with people making their own educational choices for their kids—including this choice. Besides, just about every urban homeschooled student I met was a walking advertisement for Not Being Screwed Up And Perhaps Even Made More Interesting By Homeschooling. They did not lead isolated lives. And their days were pretty fun.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The best community college in America.

I had the strangest travel itinerary this fall: For a month, I bounced from small-town South Dakota to rural Iowa to dusty south Texas to sprawling Florida, and a whole bunch of places in between. I was lucky enough to part of the team visiting the finalist schools for the first annual Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, which was created to reward schools that work hard to ensure good outcomes for their students.

Why is this novel? Because the vast majority of students who start community college do not finish—and at many schools, completing doesn’t get you particularly close to a good job. Every community college surely states student success as its goal and employs many people who care and work hard. But not all of these schools are actually doing everything they can, as institutions, to make sure students are in the right programs for them, are guided to smart choices, receive effective instruction and meaningful counseling, and learn what is really needed in order to be successful in the workforce or at the four-year colleges they might transfer to.

Aspen identified ten colleges that are. We saw some great practices on our visits; you can read my profiles here. At Valencia College in Orlando, we saw the most impressive example of a systemic approach to improving teaching, learning, and outcomes for students. Yesterday, Valencia was awarded the $600,000 Aspen Prize, deservedly so. It was an exciting place to visit, and according to the many students we met, an exciting place to go to school.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sorry, valedictorian.

University of Washington is turning more to out-of-state students, who pay more. I don’t feel too bad for the kid in the lede of this Seattle Times piece by Katherine Long, because it has been a long time since straight A’s were a guarantee of acceptance by your state’s flagship. But the bigger question of how much state schools should devote themselves to state students is an interesting one. There aren’t many very selective private colleges in the state, so this might make even more students look elsewhere—in a state where outmigration of students is a problem, at least until they come back to work for Microsoft or Amazon.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Wait—at college we go to class?

Andrew Ferguson hits the mark with a piece in the Wall Street Journal about how academics barely register when colleges bring admitted students and their parents to campus to visit. The “aren’t college kids so krazy with their queer theory and dental dams” part is always an easy shot to take, and not a particularly interesting one. But his bigger point about the downplaying of academics gets at one of my biggest concerns with the packaging of college. Unfortunately, the pie chart of some students’ brains include only a very small sliver for, you know, class. It’s a bummer when universities facilitate those priorities.

Friday, March 25, 2011

You can’t teach kids when they aren’t in school.

Articles like this one, by Karen Ann Cullotta in the New York Times yesterday, feature the lengths administrators go to to get kids to show up at school. It is important work; absenteeism is one of the biggest problems in education, and complicates everything else schools are trying to do. (Including value-added scores for teachers: If a student fails to make a year’s worth of progress but was only in class half the time, is that a measure of the teacher’s abilities? The best VA models account for absenteeism but not all do—what is the case in the school system you cover?)

I think it is time for journalists to take another step forward on this topic. Coming to school, or getting a kid to school, reflects choices made by children and their families, not just efforts or lack thereof by administrators. So the next phase of articles should focus on them, their decision-making, their daily rhythms. Why do they say they don’t show up, and what policies and efforts do they say would make a difference? 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Miss Rhee and Miss Grundy

I am all for pop culture references, as you know, but like puns, they have to make sense in all directions. Of this I feel very strongly. The headline “Miss Grundy Was Fired Today” on Andrew Rice’s New York magazine piece about Michelle Rhee makes no sense. First, while the headline writer probably was referring to the advanced age of Archie’s teacher, in comicland, and how she might be at risk without a last-in-first-out policy, I recall she was actually a good teacher—so presumably her job would have been safe. Second, she died while still a teacher, so she couldn’t have been fired. Third, um, how big is the Venn diagram intersection of New York Magazine readers and people who remember who the hell Miss Grundy was?

That out of the way, this article says more about what Rhee is trying to do with her organization, StudentsFirst, and the political interplay of her efforts and the current environment, than anything else I have read so far. Read it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Are teachers the most important factor?

I spent all day yesterday editing a summary of the research on teacher effectiveness, the first point of which was that this is not true:

“The idea, aggressively embraced by the Obama administration, is as straightforward as it is controversial: that teachers are the main factor in student growth—more than poverty, parents, curriculum, principals or other circumstances.”

This is a graf in the Washington Post piece I recommended yesterday on D.C.’s teacher evaluation system, and I am not sure how I missed the error, but I wanted to point it out now. Researchers concur that the bulk of student achievement differences can actually be attributed to factors outside school, such as poverty and parents. People writing articles and speeches have recently picked up on this and made sure to qualify the assertion with something like “in-school.”

But of the factors inside school that have been studied, are teachers the main factor? Sorting through the evidence on this is not easy. Many are comfortable saying that of the in-school factors studied, teachers are the main one. Others are not comfortable with that assessment because some research shows that teacher effectiveness only accounts for a small share of student differences, while other factors have not been studied with as much rigor.

Soon we will be putting out a paper that helps you put the research, and the rhetoric, in context.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Measuring IMPACT.

I am so glad Stephanie McCrummen of the Washington Post was able to give an up-close-and-personal look at an evaluation conference under D.C.’s IMPACT teacher evaluation system. It is just one meeting, for just one teacher, but it is illustrative of some of the allure of and opposition to that system: that the evaluator considers how a teacher challenges and connects with students, that he knocks a teacher’s score down for deflating a lesson on the fly for students who need to review basic skills.

Policy meets practice: my favorite kind of journalism.

An African girl, and education journalism at its best.

Tomorrow, this blog migrates to my own web site. Before it does, while I have as many eyeballs as possible, I want to show you the highest example of what can be accomplished on the education beat.

My friend Amy Argetsinger was covering higher ed for the Washington Post when she learned about an young Masai woman from Kenya who was attending a small women’s college in Virginia. Amy could have written a simple fish-out-of-water piece; the material just for that was terrific. But the story that unfolded as she got to know Kakenya Ntaiya was far more complex and compelling—involving genital mutilation, arranged marriage, college readiness, more.

Amy and a photographer visited Kakenya at college many times over the course of two years, and traveled to the remote African village where her family remained. The four-part series, from December 2003, is here. Several months later, Amy and the photographer returned to Kenya to document Kakenya’s mother’s journey to her daughter’s college graduation, and that piece is here.

Fortunately, this was a paper and a time where that kind of investment of resources was possible. Would this happen now, anywhere? Ha. I get that as a journalistic endeavor it is far removed from what nearly all of you do, day to day. But as evidence of the power of the written word and the medium, it is entirely relevant. Did you cry? I do, every time I read this. Did the journalism make a difference?

For Kakenya, an amazing woman then and still, yes. For the girls getting educated at the school she has since founded in Kenya, yes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A new way for school districts to mess with journalists.

So in Springfield, Missouri, according to the News-Leader, school district folks are taping interviews by local reporters and putting out their own reports on those interviews, before the journalists’ stories appear. I am not sure that is how Springfield parents really want their school dollars to be spent, and I am certain that won’t help them understand what is happening with their children’s education. Also, it is obnoxious. Transparency is an ongoing problem with the district, journalists there say, and the primacy officials place on ensuring a “consistent message” creeps me out, though it doesn’t surprise me.

It is my last week as the public editor at EWA, and it is safe to say that the one thing I regret above all is that I have not done enough to bring light to the ways school systems attempt to keep journalists and, more important, citizens in the dark. They are shutting down access to classrooms, saying visits are disruptive. (Teachers and children are used to all sorts of observers coming in and out of schools, and good journalists are not disruptive anyway.) They are banning employees from speaking to the media in any way, shape or form, and prefer they not talk to anyone else, either.

Obviously journalists care about this. Does it bug anyone else?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

TER in print: I review Kopp and Kirp.

In the American Prospect this month, I review new books by Wendy Kopp and David Kirp. Anyone who reads me regularly or knows me personally is well aware that I think the polarization of the conversation on education reform is not just annoying—it is not especially reflective of many thinkers.

Sorry if that stance bores you. But at least I am consistent: My first published piece, on the Wall Street Journal Europe op-ed page when I interned there in 1991, reflected a similar resistance to false dichotomies, in that case about college campus reaction to the first Gulf War. (Nope, not Googlable.)

Both of these books stand on their own as good ideas. They do not contradict each other, or cancel each other out. Let’s not act as if they do.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Remembering David Broder.

David Broder died today. I know there is a lot of disagreement about his work, but I can’t imagine anyone challenging this: He was one of the kindest colleagues I ever had. I began working at the national desk of the Washington Post as a 22-year-old intern and came on as a staffer a year later. It was, surprisingly, a place full of kind veterans. On my first day, Bob Woodward introduced himself and offered help anytime; Don Graham knew my name within months.

He knew everyone’s name. And maybe David Broder called everyone “Slugger.” But I took it as a reference to my softball skills and was glad that he often stopped to say hi on his way to his office, steps away. He offered guidance on the political graphics I was creating, and was always very encouraging.

I thought my two-hour dentist appointment would be the worst thing about today, but not anymore.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cheating kids, without cheating?

The third-grade teacher I followed for my book Tested had a good sense of what was going to be on the Maryland School Assessment. The exam, and the benchmark tests designed in its image, didn’t change a whole lot from year to year—there were certain constructs that showed up again and again, and certain questions too. One question she’d come to expect was, “How do you know such-and-such is a poem?” The standard tested was identifying the elements of a poem. We all know that the best way to ingrain an enduring understanding of poetry is to have students not just read poems but to engage with them—especially, to write them. These kids didn’t do that. More than 30 times the teacher had the kids copy some form of this paragraph from the overhead projector: I know this is a poem because it has rhyme, stanzas and rhythm. It has rhyme because sea and free rhyme. It has stanzas because the paragraphs don’t indent. It has rhythm because...

They wrote two poems that year, after testing—acrostics, which, by the way, don’t have rhyme or stanzas or rhythm. This is how all their instruction went that year: A teacher who had years of experience with the state test focused sharply (and effectively!) on exactly what was likely to be on it, used the most direct instruction possible to get them to answer correctly, and didn’t address anything else.

Despite lousy scores every year in the past, despite being at a high-poverty school, 90 percent of her kids passed the state test in reading.

She did not cheat.

USA Today, along with several other Gannett papers, has done a huge investigation identifying test score anomalies in six states and D.C.: big leaps for a group of students that are followed by big drops.
The main point of “Testing the System,” which has more stories coming, is that in many cases anomalies were never investigated. This is important and powerful. It is a good bet there was cheating going on. But not a sure bet.

Mike Feinberg from KIPP said in the first piece that single-year gains might be attributed to “great teaching.” That is true! Or they can be attributed to questionable teaching, as the poetry example shows (and as the teacher herself would tell you; she hated what she was doing, and by the way after she left the gains were not sustained at the same level).

This isn’t to take away from the good journalism done at USA Today. It’s only to point out that there are actions in between cheating and great teaching that can yield fast, big gains, and it’s important that the players involved—district administrators, investigators, journalists—identify them and include them in the conversation.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Voting and college.

A few months after I left Milwaukee to go to college in Connecticut, I turned 18 and immediately registered to vote. When local elections approached the next fall, I took them very seriously. I read the voters’ guide in the local paper and chose candidates—from dogcatcher to mayor—one by one. Some were Democrats, some Republicans.

Every single one of them lost. It was a bummer, but I got to vote! I lived in Connecticut, so I voted in Connecticut. I went to the doctor in Connecticut; I spent my money in Connecticut; when I got a car, I registered it in Connecticut. I never again went back to Milwaukee for more than a few days at a time.

So why would I vote in Wisconsin?

The new bills preventing young Americans from voting where they live don’t make sense to me. Reporters who cover colleges in these states should attempt to figure out whether they make sense to the students either. Certainly college students remain more entwined with life back home, and their parents, than we were two decades ago. Maybe the bulk of them vote absentee anyway, or do not vote at all. But that isn’t what this is about, is it?