Tag: school reform

This week on “The Learning Curve,” Gerard and Cara talk with Jay Mathews, an education columnist for The Washington Post and author of the recent book, An Optimist’s Guide to American Public Education. Jay describes the three key trends in K-12 schooling that he views as cause for hope. They also discuss the tensions between high-profile, college prep-centered school reformers and the dominant pedagogical outlook found across many of the major schools of education. They explore teacher-driven school reforms, whether led by legendary figures such as Jaime Escalante in traditional public schools, or in charter networks such as KIPP, which have established high-caliber teacher preparation programs. Drawing on his decades spent covering K-12 education for The Washington Post, he shares observations about the quality and success of the U.S. Department of Education’s policymaking, and the strengths and weaknesses of federal education efforts in contrast to what he has observed in states, districts, and schools. They also talk about the most effective ways to spend the massive infusion of federal money school districts are receiving through COVID relief. Next, he offers insights on American journalism, print media’s struggles to adapt to a digital world, the impact on K-12 education coverage, and suggestions for improvement. As someone whose education background and early career focused on Asia, he offers thoughts on U.S.-China relations and the wider implications for America’s global competitiveness in K-12 school reform. He concludes with a reading from his new book.

Stories of the Week: Are unnecessarily severe middle school discipline policies and practices that disproportionately target students of color exacerbating the school-to-prison pipeline? Writing in The Wall Street JournalEducation Next‘s Ira Stoll explores the debate in Boston about changing admissions policies at exam schools, and whether outside organizations, such as the Red Sox baseball team, should weigh in on the issue.

This week on “The Learning Curve,” Cara and guest co-host Kerry McDonald are joined by Michelle Rhee, founder and former CEO of StudentsFirst and prior to that, former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Michelle shares how her liberal arts background and Teach for America experience prepared her for a career in education leadership. Michelle reflects on the reforms she initiated at DCPS, the challenges she faced navigating notoriously difficult D.C. politics, and the rewards of working with her successor, Kaya Henderson, to implement lasting reforms and deliver great results for kids. She offers recommendations for restructuring K-12 schools, especially in larger, urban districts. They also discuss the ways in which schools and districts are being radically decentralized during COVID-19, with virtual schooling, homeschooling, and pandemic pods.

Stories of the Week: Through pandemic pods, parents without a lot of financial resources or home space are getting creative to set up meaningful learning environments across the country. A study on school responses to COVID-19 that appeared in EducationNext shows that leading charter school networks shifted seamlessly to remote learning, within days of the mid-March shutdowns. How did they succeed, and is it replicable?

The Case For Lower Academic Standards


shutterstock_149471909In any discussion of education reform, it’s only a matter of time before someone says we need to raise standards. It’s become such a commonplace suggestion that people repeat it without giving it any thought. Regardless, it’s being put into practice; many states, for example, now require Algebra II for graduation. Well, here is an inconvenient fact that seems to have escaped the notice of most reformers: Half of the students are below average — well, technically, below median — in academic ability. Those below-average students will not learn Algebra I, much less Algebra II. (Some of them may pass, but that is an altogether different proposition.)

And it’s not just algebra. Below-average students are not going to figure out the theme of Great Expectations, nor will they be able to explain complex metabolic processes in detail. Telling them that failure to do so should sentence them to a lifetime of poverty is an act of cruelty. This is why we should lower academic standards.

Or, rather, have more flexible standards that account for varying levels and kinds of ability. All but the least-talented should be able to write a simple paragraph that is clear in meaning and reasonably free of errors. They should be able to do the basic arithmetic that comes up in everyday life, including the ability to balance a checkbook and figure a percentage. They should have a basic understanding of how to interpret graphs and charts. They should know basic facts about science necessary to make better choices regarding health and public policy. They should know the basics of history and government necessary to citizenship. Their time in school should be spent on mastering these and similar matters, rather than having them pretend to read Paradise Lost or trying (and failing) to prove a theorem. And once they master these skills, they should be able to opt-out of school with no stigma to pursue vocational training or take a job.

Why Schools Never Change


shutterstock_136514909If you are perplexed as to why our schools, despite mountainous evidence of failure, go on unchanged, here’s a theory: if you look closely at high-level public officials – the people who determine education policy – you will recognize them as (overwhelmingly) the same collection of prigs and toadies you heartily hated in high school.

That is, the people who decide how your children are educated are those who liked the educational system when they were students and thrived under it. Your state senator was on the debate team, just as your state superintendent of public schools was treasurer of the student council. The college professor who educated your kids’ third-grade teacher sat in the front row and asked questions right up until the bell. The union official was a hall monitor. These people were having a good time in school. It suited their temperaments and they got positive ego strokes every day. Unsurprisingly, they think that, since it worked for them, there’s no reason it won’t work for everyone else.

That they have inflicted the same system on today’s kids works out well for those who are also well-suited to the school environment. For kids who are reasonably bright, highly motivated, and tolerant of being bossed around by low-level bureaucrats, school can be a pleasant place. It works for them. For kids who are not especially bright, not much interested in intellectual pursuits, or intolerant of persnickety assistant principals, it’s hell on earth. And there are a whole lot more kids in the second category than the first. If we are going to have an educational system that works for all kids, control must be wrested from the prigs and toadies.