To occupy myself on a couple of long airplane rides I took this week, I decided to check out what "urban school reform" meant in a different time and a different place: Chicago, fifteen years ago.
Before Ira Glass was the host of the nationally-known radio and television documentary series This American Life, he was an education reporter for National Public Radio in Chicago. He spent two years in the early 1990s examining how a set of ambitious changes played out in two schools on Chicago's west side: in one case, a principal broke his large high school into four small schools and in the other, an elementary school overhauled its teaching methods
What struck me about the series was how familiar many of the conversations and arguments Glass recorded still sound, even though much of the context is radically different. Consider this comment from a Chicago school board member, following sudden budget cuts in 1993 that stymied the effort to break the large high school, Taft High, into smaller schools:
Taft is a prime example of how reform should work. How successful would it be? Depended upon the ability for it to have a nice, stable environment in which to work from. Current funding by the state of Illinois makes it impossible for any school to have a current stable funding source which allows it to carry through the multi-year experience necessary to set such a program. This is just one more example of that. And it's a tragic example of it.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg won re-election last night by slightly more than 50,000 votes, beating opponent William Thompson by a narrow margin in an election with one of the lowest turn-outs in the city's recent history, the New York Times reported this morning. The Times also has an interesting break-down of exit polling information. It includes a couple of figures about how New Yorkers with a stake in the schools voted:
A quarter of voters reported that they have children in public schools. Of those voters, 55 percent cast their ballot for Thompson, with 43 percent going for Bloomberg.
Turnout came in at around 1.1 million voters, so that works out to be about 151,000 parents casting their votes for Thompson and around 118,000 parents voting for Bloomberg.
Around 16 percent of voters, or about 176,000 people, said that education was the one issue that mattered most in deciding how they voted. That group went to Bloomberg, 57 percent to 40 percent.
If you're close to a radio (or an internet connection) this weekend, be sure to tune to WNYC for a look at why otherwise strong suburban schools fail minority students. The hour-long documentary is produced by reporter Nancy Solomon and focuses on a school that's close to home -- Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.
Solomon's website has the full piece up already, along with a set of audio slideshows featuring students and teachers at the school discussing how they grapple with race and education. In one of the segments, sociology and history teacher Melissa Cooper says that it's important for minority students to have teachers they trust will understand their experiences.
"There is an assumption that I understand them and I get them, and sometimes that's true and sometimes it's not," says Cooper, who is African American. "But there's a comfort level, and I wonder how it affects children to go through perhaps their entire daily class schedule and not have people whom they believe can get them, or know their world, or understand a story about mom or dad or aunt or uncle."
The adviser said Obama's strategy has to stretch beyond simply, "Be like Joel." Above, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lauding New York City as a model last year.
An early adviser to President Obama on education issues, Christopher Edley, the dean of the law school at UC-Berkeley, today praised the president for following through on his promise to make schools a priority despite the tough times. But Edley said that whether Obama is pursuing the right education policies is unclear.
"The question is whether he is going to pick the right strategy to advance that," Edley said, speaking on an education panel at the New York Public Library sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and Intel Corporation.
His skepticism called to mind the ongoing debate inside the Democratic Party about how to transform public schools — and also cast it in a different light. Edley's concern, he said, is that the Obama administration could end up relying too heavily on competition as a lever to spur change. But forcing schools to compete for students and to stay open will not alone improve them. Schools also need to be regulated, he said.
A Department of Education staffer is making the case for principals to get their texting privileges back by proving that texts can help them communicate with teachers and parents.
Over the summer, the DOE discontinued texting service for the thousands of principals, assistant principals, and members of the central administration who have department-issued cell phones. The idea, DOE officials said at the time, was to prevent people from sending personal texts during school hours. But there was a caveat: teachers who could demonstrate that they needed to send text messages for professional reasons could apply to the DOE and, if approved, pay the $240 yearly cost out of their school's budget.
Lisa Nielsen, who works in the DOE's instructional technology office, has a post on her blog The Innovative Educator, listing some reasons school administrators and principals have benefited from being able to text.
Several hundred more eighth grade students will not move on to high school this year than did the year before, under the Department of Education's retention policy.
Applied to eighth graders in the spring of last year, the retention policy calls for students who have scored below a Level 2 on the state math and English exams to repeat a grade level. The same policy was put in place for students in grades three, five, and seven in 2004 and is now being proposed for grades four and six.
The difference between last year's eighth grade retention numbers and this year's numbers comes to a little under 300 students, a modest increase the DOE credits to the very few eighth graders who scored below a Level 2 this year.
Number of students retained as of August 31
480 of 59,710 retained (0.8%), compared to 864 of 57,463 last year (1.5%)
1,325 students didn't meet standards in June, 455 promoted on appeal in June, 309 promoted based on summer tests, 81 promoted on appeal in August