A Smarter Charter

image from tcf.org

Empowered teachers and integrated enrollments make for A Smarter Charter, argue Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter of The Century Foundation. That’s the original vision of teacher union leader Al Shanker, they write.

“The charter model still offers an exciting opportunity to “build new schools from scratch,” the authors write in a New York Times commentary. “A small but growing number are using their flexibility in governance and enrollment to increase the influence of teachers and to integrate their student bodies.”

Some charter teachers have unionized with “thin” collective bargaining agreements that provide flexibility.

Others asks teachers to share administrative responsibilities.

Kahlenberg and Potter praise charter schools that serve a racial, ethnic and socioeconomic mix of students. For example, San Diego’s High Tech High “employs a lottery weighted by ZIP code that capitalizes on the unfortunate reality of residential segregation” to achieve diversity.

“Different families want different things for their children,” writes Neerav Kingsland in response to the op-ed. “While socioeconomic diversity is a noble goal, it may not be the number one priority for all families.”

In addition, Kahlenberg and Potter dismiss “strong evidence of the benefits of charter schools for African-American students,” writes Kingsland. CREDO’s 27-state charter study found that African-American students in poverty who attended charter schools achieved nearly two months of extra learning per year. As yet, there’s “little rigorous research” backing the educational benefits of socioeconomically diverse schools.

‘Curious’ in a google-it world

Ian Leslie plays with his baby daughter.

Ian Leslie plays with his baby daughter.

In a wired world, it’s easy to access information. That can discourage “true curiosity,” writes Ian Leslie in Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It 

Leslie criticizes Sir Ken Robinson’s wildly popular TED talk on how schools squash creativity, notes Philip Delves Broughton in a Wall Street Journal review of the book . Sir Ken wants children to master “learning skills” rather than knowledge.

This is dangerous nonsense, Mr. Leslie asserts, an insidious argument for workforce training dressed up as respect for the individuality of the child. “It’s a philosophy that has made its way deep into the educational mainstream,” writes Mr. Leslie. “It can be found wherever you see an approving reference to students ‘taking control of their own learning’ or a teacher criticized for spending too much time on instruction instead of allowing children to express themselves. A report published on the website of a British teaching union states plainly, ‘A 21st century curriculum cannot have the transfer of knowledge at its core.’ “

Children’s “natural appetite for learning” needs to be “fed with knowledge by teachers and adults who know something of the world,” argues Leslie.

“Diversive curiosity, the attraction to everything novel,” is easily satisfied, writes Broughton. “Epistemic curiosity, a deeper desire to understand a subject from top to bottom, may lead to a lifetime’s study and even profound discovery.”

The sheer abundance of information at our disposal risks turning us into a society of glib know-it-alls, ignorant of our own ignorance.

. . . Mr. Leslie cites a question recently posted on the social-news and discussion site Reddit: “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about today?” The most popular answer was this: “I possess a device in my pocket that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”

Knowledge makes us smarter, Leslie writes. “People who know more about a subject have a kind of X-ray vision; they can zero in on a problem’s underlying fundamentals, rather than using up their brain’s processing power on getting to grips with the information in which the problem comes wrapped.”

The family that dines together . . .

The family that dines together gets along fine together, reports The Week.

As Bruce Feiler writes in his book, The Secrets of Happy Families:

A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem.

. . . a University of Michigan report . . . discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.

Knowing family history predicts a child’s emotional well-being, according to an Emory study. Children who know the family stories — including “natural ups and downs” —  are more confident and more convinced they can “control their world,” says Feiler.

How unschoolers turn out

What do unschooled adults think about their unstructured education? Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, surveyed people 18 or older who’d directed their own learning for at least two high school years.

Seventy-five people responded to his ad, including 24 who’d never attended school and 27 who hadn’t attended past sixth grade.  (There’s no way tell how representative they are, writes Gray, a Boston College professor, in Psychology Today.)

All but three were happy they’d been unschooled.

Most had pursued higher education, typically starting at a community college in their teens before transferring.

Colleges attended “ranged from state universities (e.g. the University of South Carolina and UCLA) to an Ivy League university (Cornell) to a variety of small liberal-arts colleges (e.g. Mt. Holyoke, Bennington, and Earlham),” writes Gray.

The participants reported remarkably little difficulty academically in college. Students who had never previously been in a classroom or read a textbook found themselves getting straight A’s and earning honors, both in community college courses and in bachelor’s programs. . . . Most reported themselves to be at an academic advantage compared with their classmates, because they were not burned out by previous schooling, had learned as unschoolers to be self-directed and self-responsible, perceived it as their own choice to go to college, and were intent on making the most of what the college had to offer.

Seventy-nine percent of those who’d never attended school were pursuing creative arts careers, including fine arts, crafts, music, photography, film, and writing.  A third of those with some schooling also were seeking creative careers.

Entrepreneurship — including selling their creative products or services — was high.

Luba Vangelova on Mind/Shift has more.

Idzie Desmarais, author of Unschooling 101, writes a blog called I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write.

Pre-test, fail, learn, succeed

Taking and failing a pre-test helps students learn, writes Benedict Carey in the New York Times.

.  . . wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later.

That is: The (bombed) pretest drives home the information in a way that studying as usual does not. We fail, but we fail forward.

“Testing might be the key to studying, rather than the other way around,” he writes.  Testing is “a way of enriching and altering memory.”

Teach for America is changing

Teach for America is listening to its critics — and changing, writes Dana Goldstein on Vox.

Two pilot programs rethink the “quick-prep, high-turnover model,” she writes.

One will provide a year of pre-service training to 50 to 100 college seniors who applied early-decision to TFA and were accepted during their junior years.

The second pilot “will encourage corps members in 12 regions — Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, Connecticut, D.C., Dallas, Nashville, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, San Antonio, South Carolina, and St. Louis — to commit to teach for up to five years.”

Corps members will receive instructional coaching and stipends to pursue graduate studies in education.

“Teaching beyond two years cannot be a backup plan — it has to be the main plan,” co-CEO Matt Kramer said in a speech announcing the changes.

Robert Schwartz loved being a Teach for America teacher, Goldstein writes. After his two-year commitment, he taught for five more years at an East Los Angeles middle school. “TFA was a great thing for me,” Schwartz said.

But then he took a job as an administrator at an LA-based charter school network called the Inner City Education Foundation. . . . He realized he wasn’t interested in hiring brand-new Teach for America corps members. He wanted to hire experienced teachers who were familiar with his students’ neighborhoods — not fresh recruits to the profession, most from other cities, who’d been through just five weeks of training and could only be counted on to stay for two or three years.

“My argument was: let’s take the resources you’re investing in a corps member — tens of thousands of dollars per year — and put that into professional development for training current staff on campuses,” Schwartz said. “You’ll see teachers that are going to stick around longer and are really invested in the community.”

TFA has many more applicants than it can handle, writes Goldstein. It can afford to reject those who aren’t willing to commit to more than two years of teaching.

The corps also is enrolling many more blacks and Latinos.

Pink cookie is banned — and in demand

Pink cookies will not be sold at Elyria, Ohio schools, reports the Chronicle-Telegram. The popular cookies  — named Best Cafeteria Cookie by Cleveland magazine in 2009 — have too much real butter and sour cream icing to meet federal guidelines.

A tray of pink cookies are seen at Elyria Schools.  CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

“We could modify the recipe by changing the size, using whole-grain flour or putting on less icing, but in doing that you are not making the same cookies,”  said Scott Teaman, food services director with Sodexo Inc., the district’s contracted food provider. “There is only one way to do the pink cookie, and to do it any other way would not do it justice.”

Forty years ago, Jean Gawlik, the former food production manager for Elyria Schools, used her mother’s recipe for the pink cookies.

You can’t change the recipe of the pink cookie,” said Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda. “It’s like eating diet potato chips. It’s not right.” Pink cookies are “one of those things that’s special to our community.”

The cookie ban has spurred demand, reports Reason’s Hit & Run. The bakers are taking special orders for “the perfect cookie.”  If the district can figure out how to ship the cookies, they now have customers around the country and in Canada asking for a box of pinks.

Universities welcome transfer surge

Universities are welcoming — and sometimes recruiting — transfer students as college costs persuade more people to start at community college.

6th-graders told to compare Hitler, Bush

homework_s877x1372 Washington, D.C. sixth graders were told to compare George W. Bush and Adolf Hitler for a homework assignment.

“Now that we have read about two men of power who abused their power in various ways, we will compare and contrast them and their actions,” the assignment reads. “Please refer to your texts, ‘Fighting Hitler – A Holocaust Story’ and ‘Bush: Iraq War Justified Despite No WMD’ to compare and contrast former President George W. Bush and Hitler.”

Parents complained. “In a written statement, D.C. Public Schools said that the teacher acknowledged poor judgment and will apologize to students,” reports USA Today.

Bill Gates likes Big History

Professor David Christian’s “Big History” synthesizes “history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields” into “a unifying narrative of life on earth,” writes Andrew Ross Sorkin in the New York Times Magazine.

More than a thousand U.S. high schools are trying the 10-module course. Wait for the shoe . . . Bill Gates is funding Big History. He discovered Christian’s college course on video while walking on his treadmill. It’s what he would have loved to have taken in high school.

If Gates loves it, a lot of other people hate it, of course. But is it a useful way to make connections? Or a fad? I can’t tell from the description.

Christian’s aim was not to offer discrete accounts of each period so much as to integrate them all into vertiginous conceptual narratives, sweeping through billions of years in the span of a single semester. A lecture on the Big Bang, for instance, offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centered view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model, through the heliocentric versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe. In the worldview of “Big History,” a discussion about the formation of stars cannot help including Einstein and the hydrogen bomb; a lesson on the rise of life will find its way to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.

. . . The units begin with the Big Bang and shift to lesson plans on the solar system, trade and communications, globalization and, finally, the future. A class on the emergence of life might start with photosynthesis before moving on to eukaryotes and multicellular organisms and the genius of Charles Darwin and James Watson. A lecture on the slave trade might include the history of coffee beans in Ethiopia.

Gates hired engineers and designers to develop the web site, which has lots of graphics and videos.

This fall, Big History is being “offered free to more than 15,000 students in some 1,200 schools, from the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in New York to Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Mich., to Gates’s alma mater, Lakeside Upper School in Seattle.”

I loved Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man when it was on TV, ages ago.