What I’ve Been Reading About Education

Over the past year or so I’ve found time to read some thoughtful, provocative books about education amidst the daily flood of news and real-time journalism. Several of these influenced my thinking about Louisville’s public schools, and I strongly recommend them to anyone interested in improving education here or elsewhere in the United States.  In addition, two shorter pieces plus one podcast stand out as vital in thinking about Louisville schools’ situation. And more thought-provoking books and stories are being published all the time, so perhaps I’ll update this if useful.

In the coming weeks I’ll be publishing these reviews here on my blog. Feel free to leave comments with your own recommendations of books, articles, podcasts, or anything else that may help inform our dialogue around education in Louisville. You can leave your comments here on my blog or join the conversation on my Facebook and Twitter pages.

Let’s get started.

What I Learned from The Smartest Kids in the World

This week in my What I’ve Been Reading About Education series I review The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley.

Ripley, who now writes for Time Magazine and The Atlantic, says she’d never intended to write about education but got captivated by its “real mystery.” She describes this mystery as intensely frustrating: “Why [are] some kids learning so much—and others so very little?” She then takes the reader on a world tour that gives a powerful answer.

Ripley focused her research on three countries that have achieved extraordinary results over the past several decades from their public schools systems, but are otherwise very different: Finland, South Korea and Poland. Her descriptions of these countries’ journeys are inspiring, and persuade the reader, in a way that raw test data cannot, that U.S. public education has indeed fallen behind.

She adds life to policy descriptions and data by reporting on the experiences of American exchange students in each country, and the U.S. high schools each came from. This makes for interesting reading, sometimes funny and sometimes sad as her “field agents” – the American kids – encounter new ways of doing things and sometimes deep loneliness.

Ultimately, she finds that educators in top-performing countries face challenges quite similar to those in the American context: “politics, bureaucracy, antiquated union contracts and parental blind spots—the surprisingly universal plagues of all education systems everywhere.” What sets apart the nations that have done best in education over the past decades, she finds, is at once softer and harder: citizen commitment to rigor in education.

All major shifts . . . require a feeling that spreads among people like a whispered oath, kitchen table by kitchen table, until enough of them agree that something must be done. . . . All children must learn rigorous higher-order thinking to thrive in the modern world. The only way to do that is by creating a serious intellectual culture in schools, one that kids can sense is real and true.

Her hopeful conclusion is that as more data “spills out” from places where students are achieving, and “students themselves find ways to tell the world how much more they could do,” American students will receive the respect of a rigorous education. As Kentucky’s legislature takes up our new Governor’s call to modify education standards that only recently were finally raised to respect our students’ ability to learn at the level of those in the world’s top ranks, Ripley’s finding is much on my mind.

(Longer reviews appeared here in the Washington Post and New York Times.)

Finding and Funding Improvement

At last night’s meeting of the Jefferson County Board of Education I commented on recent concerns within the JCPS community and among broader Louisville stakeholders about possible changes affecting student discipline rules and employee salaries.  Here’s the text of my remarks:

Two weeks ago, members of the Jefferson County Board of Education met in work sessions to discuss the Code of Conduct and the recent Salary Study.  The weeks since then have been difficult for our JCPS community, and I want to say a few words about the board’s perspective as our meeting begins tonight.

My fellow board members and I are distressed that our work sessions have left so many teachers feeling disrespected and undervalued, because nothing could be further from the truth.

  • We treasure our teachers and their commitment to the students in our district;
  • We understand how hard they work and that the conditions in schools are often challenging;
  • We know that a great teacher is worth his or her weight in gold – and while we can’t pay that we intend to maintain a competitive salary structure;
  • We know that our system of discipline must be improved.
  • And we are committed to investing in great teachers and safe and well-resourced classrooms because success – for every student – is our highest priority.

We hear the unhappiness with how JCPS has communicated on these topics.

But we took up these topics for important reasons.  And it’s no good pretending that the work will be easy, or taking refuge in calling each other names or blaming our problems on bad communication.

Every member of this board ran for office, and was elected, because we believe our schools must improve.

  • We are not content with the academic results, which suggest that only half our kids are graduating ready for their future;
  • We are not content with school climate or discipline, with teachers telling us regularly of eroding standards of student behavior, even as suspension rates rise;
  • We are not content with the one-size-fits-all environments imposed by standardized testing, even as we value the insights this gives us into gaps within and between our schools;
  • We are not content with the equity delivered by our schools, with neighborhood, family income, race and other factors correlating so highly with student learning.

The board spent the bulk of 2015 consulting deeply with the community, with national experts, with the teachers’ association, and with other internal stakeholders on how to improve.  These consultations are reflected in our strategy, Vision 2020, which calls for significant change so that JCPS delivers:

  • Deeper and more personalized learning, beyond what’s measured in today’s bubble tests;
  • Successful investment in building the capacity of our teachers and principals so they can teach and lead today’s youth;
  • Staffing our schools and coordinating other services that overcome the social factors that impede so many of our students – including more psychological and behavioral supports in schools;
  • And more.

Having asked our District leaders to drive change, the board expects them to propose it.  If we’re not content with student behavior, we must be open to hearing and debating new ideas about how to change — that’s what was going on in the Code of Conduct work session.  Having demanded changes that we know cost money, we must be open to proposals about where to find it.  That’s what the Salary Study work session was about.

The elected board together has asked the Superintendent to take on hard issues.  We know it will be messy; after all, there’s no national blueprint for how to succeed in big city public education, no other large urban district whose success we can simply copy.  We wish all the people up here spoke with the tongues of angels, but we, like the District’s executive leadership, are busy people who don’t always find the right words, and sometimes clang like noisy gongs.

So the board respects the concerns of our teachers and regrets the disruption. But we are united behind Vision 2020, which we believe represents the community’s call for improvement in its schools.  And we expect continued focus and tenacity in finding and funding improvement.

One final point. This hard work is made harder when professionals who help shape public opinion don’t share their knowledge of the issues at hand.  I’ve said before how grateful the board is for the small number of media outlets that fund full time paid professional reporters to cover education in Louisville.  I’m still grateful for that.

But just as I praise good reporting when it shines needed light on hidden issues, I want to express my disappointment with the quality of reporting over the last two weeks.  The reporters who sit through every board meeting and work session have a deeper understanding of the board’s work than our teachers and citizens can have. They know, for example, that the board sets its own agenda – a subject on which we’ve spoken ad nauseum this year — and that interim reports and recommendations from community committees don’t lead automatically to board action.  They know JCPS is party to union contracts, and that thoughts about salary are subject to negotiation, not board fiat.

In short, they know there’s a difference between the sausage factory of work sessions and formal recommendations to the board.  And yet both reporting and silences over the past two weeks have frightened our teachers and enraged our community by creating the impression that action was imminent to cut salaries and weaken standards for behavior and discipline. This was never the case, and I ask our colleagues in the Fourth Estate to think not just of likes and followers and retweets, but of the community they serve.