All Parents Should Know These Public Schools

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Your son will have to repeat this grade”

For my mom, as for any parent, those words were scary. My kindergarten teacher explained further that I needed to repeat the grade because I had failed the subject of “chair sitting.”

Trouble with sitting: me in the mid-1970s

Although my mom was a public school teacher herself, she decided I needed something different than the neighborhood elementary school. My parents scraped together the money for three years of tuition at a private Montessori school. Montessori was better suited to my needs at the time: upon my return to public schools, I was a full grade ahead of my chronological peers rather than a full grade behind. In other words, the three years I spent at Montessori made a difference of two full grade levels upon my return to public school.

My school days were not so unusual

My experience would not surprise education scholars. Sir Ken Robinson has shown how bad traditional K-12 schools are for many students, especially young boys. Even within traditional schools, Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek has explained that the difference between top and bottom teachers can be as much as a full year of learning per year of school (because, compared with an average teacher, a top teacher provides 150% of the learning per year, while a bottom teacher provides only 50% of the learning per year).

This scholarship helps explain parental behavior. Parents want children to have amazing opportunities, which is why taxpayers spend roughly $600 billion per year on K-12 public schools. Those who can afford to, however, also spend billions out of their own pockets for tutors, afterschool activities, summer camps, and sometimes even private schools. For parents, sending their child to private school can mean walking away from tens of thousands of dollars they have already paid in taxes — yet it happens frequently. Even in prosperous suburbs with high-performing traditional public schools, parents worry about rote learning, inapt content, unhealthy food, and uneven teacher quality. In less prosperous areas, for families with fewer financial resources, or for parents whose children have special needs, the system can feel like a brutal and hostile bureaucracy.

The new public schools: tailored to the needs of all children

That is why all parents should know about a new kind of public school. At these public schools, the technology, curriculum, and pedagogy differ from what we saw when we were students. Even the cafeteria is different: students eat whole foods instead of mass-produced tater tots stuffed with sugars and trans fats. Tablet computers deliver customized content, such as books and multi-player games, automatically adapted to each child’s level and style of learning. These tablets replace chalkboards and readers, and automatically measure student progress so kids never have to stop to take standardized tests. These regular measurements serve as mere inputs to sophisticated assessment systems that adapt to each classroom and provide actionable feedback for students, parents, and teachers. Computers also handle paperwork for the class, freeing teachers to focus on synthesis, mentoring, and individual engagement. Kids of vastly different backgrounds and abilities work together developing their full potential. The most effective teachers engage across many classrooms, communicating via technology to thousands of children.

Just as fascinating as the classroom innovations are the economics. The school costs the same as any other public school (nationally, the average cost per pupil was $12,401 for the 2011–2012 school year). Their purchasing agents resist the lobbying of textbook, computer, and agribusiness companies. They obtain nearly free content from the public domain. They use bulk purchasing and their public mission to obtain steep discounts for hardware and supplies. The find that they can purchase healthy food, often locally grown, within existing budgets. Additionally, mobile computing allows students to go outside more often. Students spend so much time outdoors that they use real estate only occasionally, for certain kinds of performances and hands-on learning. Overhead costs have plummeted, much as middle management costs were cut in the private sector decades ago. All of these cost savings are re-invested in recruiting, training, and compensating teachers, helping attract and retain amazing talent.

Where you can find these new public schools

The biggest reason parents should know about these new public schools is that they don’t exist yet. In a chapter of the book Educational Entrepreneurship Today, released this month by Harvard Education Press, several other authors and I describe how venture capitalists, venture philanthropists, teacher leaders, and public officials are working toward public schools of the type I just described.

We are already seeing the early stages. My Progressive Policy Institute colleague David Osborne recently described how teacher-led schools have innovated to better meet student needs. In San Jose, California, the teachers’ union worked with the local district leadership to combine rigorous standards with student-specific safety nets; the result raised college attendance rates despite demographic challenges. This is but one example of how the teachers’ unions have started to invest in seed ideas that might lead to big changes. These efforts are not limited to cities and suburbs; for instance, a rural high school in Indiana has started to embrace “blended learning” that combines great teaching and digital empowerment.

The private sector is also playing a key role. Businesses are sprouting up to empower teachers: a former New York City public school teacher built a marketplace for lesson plans called TeachersPayTeachers, which has paid millions of dollars to teachers who have come up with outstanding ideas. More broadly, “teacherpreneurs” are finding ways to lead changes in the profession without leaving the classroom.

As with all public sector services, however, change requires public demand. Parents who want these innovative new schools must be full partners in supporting teachers and political leaders in innovation. They can do this by accepting risks, embracing the nonprofit sector and private sector as well as paying taxes to the public sector, engaging thoughtfully, and setting high expectations. More and more, Americans are realizing that we have the tools, the resources, and the teachers to give our children the best school system in the world.

Dmitri Mehlhorn is a Senior Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy. This was republished from Medium.

Rather than fight reform, teachers should “heal thy self”

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Radically simple thinking and a return to basic values may do more to improve education than a million years war against charter schools, Teach For America, or Common Core academic standards. That’s Raymond A. Schroth’s suggestion in his article “Teacher Heal Thy Self” for The National Catholic Review.

Schroth pierces the mainstream education conflict too often characterized by volley from side-to-side by teacher sympathizers fighting system technocrats, but he does it with a new set of eyes coming from the Jesuit tradition. That refreshes our browser which, perhaps, has been stuck on an error page for too long.

Up front he defines the purpose of teaching, drawing from “Jesuit Schools and the Humanities Yesterday and Today” by historian John W. O’Malley. These are the “five hooks” that unify Jesuit teaching that may be helpful for all of us:

1. It releases the “fly in the bottle,” that is, it helps students escape the bondage of unexamined assumptions.

2. It helps students understand our pasts, where we came from.

3. It communicates a commitment to “faith that does justice.” That comes from Cicero’s “We are not born for ourselves alone.” Our talents are given us to serve.

4. It offers a study of the great literature so we can fit words to thought—that’s called eloquentia perfecta.

5. Its humane letters sharpen students’ aesthetic sensibilities—teaching prudence to make wise decisions. These principles remain relevant today.

If those five hooks are real, then teachers must be very important to the process of education. That might sound trite, but we often talk about teachers as if they have no agency, no efficacy, and no direct connection to outcomes that aren’t pre-determined by the demographic composition of the students in their classroom.

Schroth has this to say about teaching’s connection to our problems in education:

Perhaps the real crisis in education centers on a decline of teaching as a profession. We all know great teachers who have transformed our lives; but too many teachers today are guilty both in their laxity in the classroom and in their failure to raise and enforce the standards of their profession. Both documentary and experiential evidence paints a picture today of mediocrity. College professors encounter high school graduates who have never read a book, who can barely write a sentence, who know no grammar, cannot stand up and speak and have no intention of doing the next assignment.


During a formal visit, one group of college students told me with a straight face that their teachers were so good that they learned everything in class and so never had any homework. On my professional visits to all the Jesuit universities, I found very few students could name books that had influenced their lives. Lawyers tell me that newly hired colleagues lack sufficient writing skills.

The responsibility for these lapses falls upon those teachers who—out of laziness, timidity, ignorance of their field or a misguided desire to be loved—fail to challenge every student to do his or her very best. This includes chairpersons and deans who do not demand high standards, visit classrooms, study syllabi or publish the grade distributions by departments. Little do teachers realize that in the long run students will admire the professors who cared enough to challenge them and despise those who gave them the easy A’s.

Too many schools of education and education majors are considered academically soft. In 2014 the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research group committed to restructuring the teaching profession, released a report on 836 academic institutions housing teacher preparation programs, evaluating them on the core components of teacher preparation, including course content and practice teaching. Only 26 elementary programs and 81 secondary programs got top rankings.

And, there are real impacts to lax attention to teacher efficacy in basic material:

The weak schools disregard the basic methods of reading instruction. As a result, only 30 percent of American children learn to read beyond the basic level. Only 15 percent improved teaching on how to control classroom disruption. Worse, many classroom teachers have not been tested in the subjects they are assigned. In 509 institutions, 44 percent of the education graduates received honors, compared to 30 percent of other students. As a result the word spreads that getting an education degree is an easy college path—when, considering the responsibility of forming young minds, it should be the most rigorous.

Lowering standards, avoiding rigor, and discounting high expectations – as many do when they mock “no excuses” as a reform mantra – has disastrous consequences. We degrade the system if we forget education is supposed to free students of intellectual limits and ignorance by arming them with skills and a world fund of usable information.

Here are several books on teaching that Schroth recommends:

Low expectations don’t soften hard knocks

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I was a poor Black student that went to a poor Black school and I lived in a poor Black neighborhood and I did poorly on tests just like my poor Black peers did.

Liberal white folks that never met me created a narrative that told me that maybe I was just a poor test taker.

They blamed society. They blamed my hood. They blamed circumstance. They blamed my parents. They blamed me.

Truth be told, what I needed was for the blaming to cease and for someone to get serious about teaching me. I needed to be taught, to be challenged.

I was passed from year to year with high grades, but then got to a school with a high bar and realized I wasn’t prepared.

Later, I got to college with my good GPA and was ushered right into remedial Math and English. I was luckier than my friends who entered college with me – who were also poor, black and from the hood – but didn’t get the help they needed.

Most of them flunked out. College was over.

When I became the Program Director at a small nonprofit in Oakland, I worked with kids that grew up like me. They were poor. Their parents didn’t have college degrees. Most of these students came in on average around a 2.0 GPA going into their 11th grade year.

I didn’t care.

Allow me to rephrase that, it’s because I cared that I went harder on them than anyone else had up to that point. I challenged them. But, raising a C to a B wasn’t enough. Why not go for the A?

We struggled through that work together and I was insistent on taking no shortcuts.

That didn’t make me popular. I was tough. But the bottom line is they all graduated. Had I lost sight of that as the goal, some of my students would not have made it and I would have been responsible.

That’s why it infuriated me whenever I saw professionals, adults, lowering expectations for students who were the most likely to be left behind.

Life for these kids – kids like I had once been –  will be hard. Lowering expectations may feel like compassion, but it isn’t. Lowering the bar hurts them even more. It teaches them to make excuses and depend on a system to bend for them (a system that has never loved them).

Real life is unforgiving, especially for people who fail in school. I’m proof that poverty doesn’t cause a bad education, and that poor kids can succeed if they learn. It’s not complicated. People who can’t read and write won’t do as well as their peers who can.

Let’s be real, there’s a war raging against the poor right now. For black people it’s not getting better. We need warriors, not wimps. We need strong minds to rise from the hood, move up the ranks, and lead us to victory.

We need power.

So, I’m asking the folks in charge of educating and guiding the kids that grew up like me to do so with the understanding that the world is a colder place when you’re uneducated.

I’m asking that we stop with the blaming.

I am asking that we understand the difference between being culturally competent and lowering the bar.

I am asking that we do a better job of teaching these poor Black kids today than when I was in school.

Let’s either prepare them for the war, or make room for those who can.

The really bad education gap we can address now

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“Teachers know that motivation matters. It is central to student learning; it helps determine how engaged students are in their work, how hard they work, and how well they persevere in the face of challenges.”


In a recent blog post on the Carnegie Foundation website Sarah McKay says there is a gap in education that is more “pernicious” and, more importantly, “more addressable” than the achievement gap.

Drawing on a Carnegie Foundation report she wrote with Susan Headden called “Motivation Matters: How New Research Can Help Teachers Boost Student Engagement,” McKay says teachers can build motivation in students, a key factor in their success, in three important ways:

  1. encouraging positive behaviors by offering rewards and emphasizing the value of students’ work,
  2. improving their academic mindsets,
  3. and enhancing their sense of connectedness with their teachers and their peers.
Here are other key takeaways:
“Getting students to value their schoolwork may be a more effective way to boost engagement.”

Rewards and Value

Gold stars, detentions, grades—all can light fires under students. But research shows that these sorts of extrinsic rewards can also undermine students’ intrinsic motivation for learning…Extrinsic rewards can produce results, particularly if they are unexpected, prize mastery of skills over absolute performance, or encourage identifiable behaviors rather than outcomes. But getting students to see the value in their schoolwork by connecting concepts to their lives may be a more effective way for teachers to boost student engagement.

“The good news for teachers is that student mindsets aren’t set in stone.”

Student Mindsets

Evidence is mounting that academic mindsets are extremely important to student success.  Students’ sense of belonging in their learning environment, their perceptions of how or whether “kids like them” succeed academically, and the extent to which they believe that hard work and persistence pay off—all of these have a powerful effect on student motivation.

In a 2011 study, for instance, freshman at a selective college were given reports ostensibly compiled from a survey of older students at the school. One group’s report showed that these older students had initially worried about whether they belonged in college, but that these concerns dissipated over time; the other group’s report did not address the issue of social belonging. Both groups wrote essays and gave speeches describing how their own college experiences related to the survey results. African-American students who read and reflected on how belonging uncertainty is both common and temporary had dramatically higher GPAs over the course of three years than the control group (who read surveys and wrote essays about topics other than belonging, such as social-political attitudes), cutting the achievement gap between black and white students by 79 percent.

Student Relationships

Students care when they believe that other people care about them. They are less likely to drop out, and more likely to feel positively about school, when they have ongoing connections with teachers. Likewise, when they associate with highly-engaged peers, they become more engaged themselves.

An Issue of Scale

None of these strategies for boosting motivation is necessarily new; good teachers have always incentivized productive behaviors, encouraged positive mindsets, and created caring and connected classroom environments. But the new research adds evidence that these factors are vital to student success, and they show that, through practical interventions, they can be changed. The challenge now is to extend best practices beyond isolated classrooms, making the work systematic and sustained.

Read Sarah’s post here, or read the full report.

4 Questions that boost learning

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by Rhoda Koenig

Why should teaching the processes of learning be on the front burner this year in your classroom? I think this familiar proverb answers that question best, “If a man is hungry and you give him a fish, he will eat for a day; teach man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. These words (articulated pre climate change when people had no concept of disappearing water and wild life and pre women’s liberation when we lived in a one-gender world) take on added significance now that any bit of information is one click away from our students. Do we really want to devote precious class time and home study to “fishing” for answers that will be forgotten in days or weeks? The paramount goal of education today is to make students lifetime nimble, confident learners, capable of acquiring the knowledge they need when they collaborate, problem solve and create.

This is a perspective we need to share with students of all ages. Before I made a practice of combining teaching both content and process, I found that students expected lessons to move them through text or topics. They felt they were not really “learning” when lessons, such as the following, turned to learning itself: How to answer questions when the information is not stated; How to avoid careless mistakes; How to infer an author’s point of view; How to differentiate relevant from irrelevant information when solving a problem; How to monitor and regulate the product of your efforts; How to help yourself understand and remember what you read when the text is challenging; How to be flexible when your stumped.

When students are asked the open-ended questions below (preferably at the start of the school year) they connect to these lessons on learning and have the opportunity to expand a schema about which they have, most likely, learned very little, “How I Learn”. As cognitive researchers have told us, we attend to incoming information on the basis of novelty, contrast, and, most relevant here, importance to us. When questions we pose and the discussions they generate raise students’ awareness of themselves as learners who have control over how and when they learn, we engage our students and start them on the path to achieving a sense of self-efficacy.

Here are 4 questions I recommend for that purpose:

1. What do you think it means to be intelligent or smart? Why do you think that?

Ask students to journal or map their answers. While most students will think intelligence is knowing the answers, getting their work done quickly or getting high marks, during the group discussion give examples of people working out of different disciplines and fields of endeavor who have accomplished something extraordinary as a result of long, hard work, someone who did not know the answer he or she was seeking. Ask students to revisit their ideas about intelligent people and share their thinking.

2. What are the thinking habits (Habits of Mind) of intelligent people?

Referring to the people who, students agree, are famous for their excellence and intelligence, help students label the behaviors or habits these people had to have to accomplish what they did. A list that includes the words accuracy, flexibility, persistence, curiosity and thoroughness will apply to everyone from Baseball Hall of Famers to Nobel Prize winning scientists. (Costa and Kallick are the seminal authors on Habits of Mind.)

3. How does behaving intelligently affect your life? How does other people behaving intelligently affect you?

After students have had time to think-pair-share, mine the group conversation for demonstrations of understanding. Are your students interpreting and applying this new concept of intelligence? Coach students to identify the intelligent behaviors they use at home, on the field and at school. Provide plenty of examples of how the Habits of Mind of others are crucial to our well being.


  • Would you want to go to doctor who is not persistent in finding out what is making you sick? Why?
  • Would you want to fly in an airplane with a pilot who does not strive for accuracy? Why?
  • Do you want the person who repairs your family car to be thorough? Why?

4. How do you think a person gets to be intelligent?

This question gives you access to your students’ world view on being smart and gives you the opportunity to dispel the notion that it’s a closed club. They need to know that while each of us is born with particular talents, special abilities and different kinds of intelligence, the neat thing is we can increase our intelligence. Using a ball of clay for a concrete demonstration (metaphors are best used with intermediate grades and up), you can say, “Researchers find that our intelligence is modifiable.” They have found that our learning experiences grow our brains cells. See Google Images for “diagrams of dendrite impoverished and enriched neurons” to illustrate the brain’s capacity for growth.

This conversation also sets the stage for differentiated instruction. Students develop a more enlightened attitude towards the differences in their classmates learning styles and the variations in their assignments. This is not magical thinking. A classroom that is rich in explicit strategy instruction develops a language around learning and consequently engages in metacognitive dialogue. It is a more conscious, empathetic and yes, intelligent classroom.

The stage for vital teaching is not set until we put this conversation back into the context of the classroom experience the students have come to know. Tell your class: While we will be learning all kinds of fascinating things this year, doing projects and sharing our findings about our world, we are also going to be growing your intelligence. I will show you ways to do that when we are reading, writing and solving problems. Just think, you will be learning the habits of intelligent thinking so that you will be the kind of person who knows what to do when you don’t know. You will know how to be in charge of your own learning!



Rhoda Koenig is an educator and consultant. Her guide to teaching reading, writing and thinking behaviors can be found in her book Learning For Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners (ASCD, 2010).

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This article has been republished with permission.