Category Archives: school models

Waiting for Superman

I hate to think of myself as a pessimist, but I have been feeling that, as a country, we were doomed to a bleak future. Because of partisan politics, the economy, crime? All of these are among the many reasons to be concerned, but the underlying factor for me is our broken education system. In 1983 the problems were clearly outlined in a book presented by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, entitled A Nation At Risk. Our children were already falling in international comparisons of student achievement. But we were going to fix it, right? Wrong. Today, the statistics that are quoted are worse: 25th out of 30 developed or industrialized countries in math, 21st in science, and 11th in literacy. Doomed is not too strong a word.

Then along came a documentary film: Waiting for Superman. The movie hasn’t come to Madison, and I intend to see it as soon as it does. But I don’t need to see it to have a glimmer of hope. Oprah had two shows devoted to it in one week,  Meet the Press devoted half their Sunday morning hour to it, the news hours are covering it, the talk shows are talking it. A seemingly sincere dialogue has begun. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan called it “A Rosa Parks Movie” because, he said, “the country is compelled to act.” Maybe he’s right. I hope he’s right.

I say go Newark; go Washington D.C.; go Detroit; go New York City! Leaders from these cities have been featured on the shows I’ve seen over the past few days, and I applaud their intentions to act. I join the Madison Urban League in its goals to turn around dismal statistics regarding graduation rates here for children of color. I await news of commitments in community after community, state after state. As in New Jersey may our Democratic and Republican leaders join forces in saying, “Yes, we have some great teachers, but that’s not enough. Every child deserves an excellent education. Every child deserves rigor in the curriculum. Every child’s dreams should be heard and encouraged. And we’re going to work TOGETHER to make it happen.”

Core Elements of Learning

On The New York Times Op Ed page, February 23, 2010, columnist Bob Herbert talked about Deborah Kenny’s philosophy about improving schools in this country. In setting up the successful charter schools known as the Harlem Village Academies, she explained, “If you had an amazing teacher who was talented and passionate and given the freedom and support to teach well that was just 100 times more important than anything else.”

She went on to tell Herbert, “I had five core things in mind for my kids [her own children], and that’s what I want for our students. I wanted them to be wholesome in character. I wanted them to be compassionate and to see life as a responsibility to give something to the world. I wanted them to have a sophisticated intellect. I wanted them to be avid readers, the kind of person who always has trouble putting a book down. And I raised them to be independent thinkers, to lead reflective and meaningful lives.”

Herbert concludes, “It never crossed Ms. Kenny’s mind that a rich and abiding intellectual life was out of the reach of kids growing up in a tough urban environment.”

Kenny’s hiring philosophy is the same that I used at WCATY and I endorse her learning philosophy 100%. In hiring our WCATY teachers, we used three criteria: they had to be excellent in their field; they had to have a passion for that field, and they had to want to pass that passion on to their students.

I think some people perceive that because I have written a book for young children that emphasizes the importance of being smart I put less value on character. This is far from the truth. If you read “Grandma Says,” all the qualities mentioned by Kenny are in some way described or implied: a passion for learning, the love of reading, being good to the world, sharing with others, and in Kenny’s terminology, a “sophisticated intellect.” Being smart includes respecting and developing one’s own and other’s curiosity, creative thinking, critical thinking, independent questioning, exploration, and problem solving. I agree with Kenny that every child, from an early age, at home and at school, should grow up knowing that learning is cool – something they CAN do with great joy!

Grit, persistence, or the understanding that success involves hard work is the one quality that I may not have emphasized to the degree some would prefer in my children’s book. It will be addressed up front in the next – because children do need to understand that practice and careful attention to the tasks at hand are among the keys to learning. Although Kenny didn’t talk about this in the Herbert interview either, I suspect she  considers it a part of the “sophisticated intellect” as do I.

A Conversation with Jim Zellmer

Authoring a book about the importance of early childhood education has created many wonderful opportunities for me. Copies of “Grandma Says it’s Good to Be Smart” are now in all of the Madison Public Libraries and are for sale at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Recently I was interviewed by Jim Zellmer (link to his zmetro.com blog), a leading education blogger (link to schoolinfosystem.com) whose School Info System reaches tens of thousands of educators, parents, activists and policy makers.

Our conversation about the current state of American education is available  via this 17MB mp3 audio file CTRL-Click to download or read the transcript. I enjoyed visiting with Jim and hope you will find the conversation  interesting. Here’s an excerpt:

Jim: What’s the best, most effective education model these days? Obviously, there are traditional schools. There are virtual schools. There are chartered schools. There are magnets. And then there’s the complete open-enrollment thing. Milwaukee has it, where the kids can go wherever they want, public or private, and the taxes follow.Ellie: [32:52] I think there’s no one best model from the standpoint of those models that you just named. [32:59] What is important within any one of those models is that a key player in making that education available to your child believes that no matter how good the curriculum, no matter how good the model, the children they are about to serve are different, that children are not alike.

[33:30] And that they will have to make differences in the curriculum and in the way the learning takes place for different children.

[33:45] And I have experienced that myself. I’ve served on the boards of several private schools here in the city, and I have given that message: “This may be an excellent curriculum, and I believe it’s an excellent curriculum. But that’s not enough.”

[34:05] You cannot just sit this curriculum down in front of every child in the classroom and say, “We’re going to turn the pages at the same time, and we’re going to write the answers in the same way.” It does not work that way. You must believe in individually paced education.

Thanks to Rick Kiley for arranging this conversation.