Category Archives: Music

Don’t Miss My New Slate Podcast, “Schooled!”

This past spring, I got together with David Plotz, the editor of Slate, to discuss ideas for education coverage on the site. We wanted to come up with a project that would be relevant to parents, wonks, and everybody else who cares about kids and improving schools. 

The result is "Schooled," which launches today. The first episode features Amanda Ripley and myself, discussing whether American schools are anti-intellectual, what Teach for America and Finland have in common (hint: it involves the number 5), and who performs better on international tests — the average Canadian kid or the average kid in Beverly Hills, California?

On future episodes we cover research on giftedness, class size, whether affluent kids learn less (or more) in mixed-income schools, and what to look for when you visit schools in which you're considering enrolling your child.

I'm proud to say five of the six episodes include either a current or former public school teacher. And that my producer was the very excellent Sally Herships.


2012: The Year in Review, Education and Beyond

Education story of the yearThe Chicago teachers' strike. American teacher unionism was founded in Chicago in the late 1890s, as female, largely Catholic elementary school teachers resisted centralization policies–standardized testing, a uniform curriculum, numeric teacher evaluations–pursued by a male, Protestant bureaucracy. So it was fitting that the loudest cry of protest against contemporary standards-and-accountability school reform emerged in the Windy City this September, as teachers resisted professional evaluation tied to student test scores, closures of neighborhood schools, and the expansion of the charter school sector. You can read my history of Chicago teacher unionism here.

The strike has had a few interesting results. First, it raised the profile of Chicago Teachers' Union leader Karen Lewis, who is a less compromising and more leftist figure than Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers. Second, it brought to the public's attention the tension bewteen increasing test-score pressure on teachers and schools while cutting budgetary support for art, music, counseling, school psychologists, and the many other crucial, yet more holistic services schools provide. Third, it resulted in a compromise contract with both progressive and regressive features. More funding for social support services, especially in high-poverty schools, is a good thing. Continuing to backload teacher salaries and bonsues, though, will not make the profession more appealing to ambitious young people or career-changers. Yet it is encouraging that CTU agreed, at least in theory, to professional evaluations that include evidence of student learning. Now the devil will be in working out the details, particularly on what role standardized test scores will play, and how to evaluate teachers of currently non-tested subjects and grades, like art, music, PE, and kindergarten.


Magazines of the Year: Tomorrow and Jacobin.

Education research-finding of the year: Teachers matter, and not just for academics. A study by economists Raj Chetty, Jonah Rockoff, and John Friedman found that teachers who consistently improve their students' standardized test scores also help children avoid teenage pregnancy, get to college, and earn higher incomes. But there is a crucial caveat to this finding: The study was conducted in a low-stakes settingin other words, among teachers whose pay and evaluation were not tied to test scores. The researchers admitted in their paper that when tests do become high-stakes, there is an increased risk of score manipulation, which can occur either through teaching-to-the-test or outright cheating. In high-stakes settings, test scores become less reliable and, therefore, their link to better life outcomes for kids could be compromised.


Under-reported education trend of the year (and decade): Sociology used to be the academic discipline with the most influence over public education policy. Today that discipline is economics. On the upside, we now have more data about children's academic and life outcomes. On the downside, education policy-makers are paying less attention to aspects of children's lives that are more difficult or impossible to quantify, such as parental involvement and comfort with diversity.


New York restaurant of the year: Pok Pok. We only had the patience to wait in line for this place once, but it was so, so, so worth it. A close runner-up is Battersby, where I had two wonderful meals. Another year, another few reasons never to leave Brooklyn. 


Book of the year on How We Live NowTwilight of the Elites, by Chris HayesThis bracing book about "America after meritocracy" has implications for every area of policy-making, but is especially sharp at deconstructing myths we tell ourselves about education: that test scores measure aptitude and that elite schools serve the common good.


Education story to watch in 2013: The roll-out of the Common Core. Will the movement to implement shared national academic standards remain bipartisan, or will conservatives and Republicans increasingly turn against it? Will schools implement the Core faithfully, or will myths about the standards–like the false idea that they cut out fiction reading–persist?  


Albums of the year: "Break it Yourself," by Andrew Bird. "Sun," by Cat Power. "Channel Orange," by Frank Ocean. "The Idler Wheel…" by Fiona Apple. "Shields," by Grizzly Bear.


Education book of the year: My favorite was Saving the School, by Michael Brick.


A book to pounce on in 2013: The absolutely masterful Hope Against Hope, by Sarah Carr, the definitive account of education reform in post-Katrina New Orleans, told through the eyes of a student, a teacher, and a principal. A gripping narrative with deep historical and political ramifications. 


Cultural controversy of the year: The battle over the future of the New York Public Library's main branch, at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Should this world-class research institution ship several million books to New Jersey, and open space for a lending library? Should architect Norman Foster, known for his glass additions to historic buildings, be let loose on this Beaux Arts masterpiece? I work there almost every day, and I still can't decide how I feel about it. 


TV Show of the Year: "Girls." Feminists are funny. 


#longreads of the year: This past spring, the magazine that launched my career, The American Prospect, experienced a terrifying brush with death. I'm so glad donors and subscribers have helped The Prospect continue its work, because under editor Kit Rachlis, it has published some amazing writing. Monica Potts' "Pressing on the Upward Way" is a compassionate, beautifully-constructed portrait of rural poverty in Eastern Kentucky. Equally stirring was Gabriel Arana's "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life," which not only told Gabe's personal story of surviving "ex-gay therapy," but also broke news by revealing how the psychiatrist who pushed to define homosexuality as a mental illness, Robert Spitzer, has come to regret and retract his previous work.

Documentary of the Year: "Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry," by Alison Klayman.

Personal Highlight of the Year: Pacific Street. With this guy.
Happy New Year, folks. 

Congratulations Lauren and Will!

I'm headed to New Orleans tomorrow for the wedding festivities of my dear friends Lauren and Will. They've been together six years and are so supportive of one another–they share a beautiful life all about family, friends, film, art, and travel. I know they have a lot to look forward to, and I'm so honored to stand with them on Saturday!


I'll see you all back on the blog after Columbus Day. In the meantime…


Reading List

Magazine deadlines everywhere! So apologies for not blogging up a storm this week. If you're looking for some good education reading, check out John Schmitt's contribution  to the neverending "is college worth it?" debate. Schmitt says, quite rightly: "Why is it that when confronted with compelling evidence that college pays a big financial dividend, so many young people still don’t get a college degree? Heather Boushey and I argue that the short answer  is that for a surprising share of college graduates, the large price tag may actually not pay off."

Another interesting read: Bill Gates tells the Wall Street Journal that his current education philanthropy priorities include research and leveraging private money to change government funding priorities. 

Music break!


Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago

I'll be off the blog this week, since I'm in Chicago researching women teachers and feminist labor politics at the turn of the century. In the meantime, my friend Michelle Goldberg has written a delightfully devastating review of Life of the Party, a new memoir by former GOP flack Lisa Baron. You should also check out this Russell Baker essay on Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt's unconventional marriage and political partnership. 

In other non-news, I am contemplating one of the great pop music mysteries of the hair band era: How did these guys manage to write this song, which came on in a Walgreen's today, reminding me of its cheesiness, but also its awesomeness and correctness. Enjoy…


Education Reform Philanthropy Has Changed Radically Over the Past Decade

With the NewSchools Venture Fund Summit kicking off this evening, I thought I'd do an overview of the state of K-12 education philanthropy.

The NewSchools Venture Fund is one of the founding institutions of "venture philanthropy," a school of charitable giving that borrows its ethos from the world of venture capital. Venture philanthropists seek out non-profits that pursue social change while embracing data-driven corporate accountability standards. These donors often seek to bring promising local reforms "to scale" as quickly as possible, and many explicitly look for "innovative" programs–reform models that prioritize new technologies or new management and governance structures. Some examples: Online learning, national charter school networks, and advocacy on behalf of mayoral control of school districts. 

For a helpful synthesis of the entire venture philanthropy ideology, read the Gates Foundation's "Guiding Principles." An excerpt: "We identify a specific point of intervention and apply our efforts against a theory of change. We take risks, make big bets, and move with urgency. We are in it for the long haul."

All of this is relatively new. Let's look at a chart created by Sarah Reckhow, an up-and-coming political scientist–and former Baltimore public school teacher–who researches the role of foundations in shaping education policy. Reckhow combed through tax documents and discovered that back in 2000, when NewSchools was just 2-years old, the "New Big Three" education foundations (Gates, Broad, and Walton) donated about the same amount to American schools as the "Old Big Three" (Ford, Carnegie, and Annenberg). Just five years later, the New Big Three were spending almost four times as much as the Old Big Three.

Screen shot 2011-05-17 at 5.18.11 PM

chart courtesy Sarah Reckhow

Why do we care? Well, the priorities of the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations–charter schools, mayoral control, and teacher evaluation and pay tied to student test scores–not only match up with one another, but stand in contrast to some of the priorities of the older funders. Ford, for example, prioritizes school-funding equity and neighborhood-school partnerships, alongside accountability. Annenberg funds arts and civics education. Carnegie, like the newer donors, focuses on teaching.

Often working in tandem, the New Big Three exercise an enormous amount of sway over national education policy-making. In a typical year (one without a stimulus bill), the federal Department of Education has just about $20 million in discretionary funds to play with outside of its big, pre-defined funding streams, such as Title I and IDEA. But in 2009, the last year for which data is available, the Gates Foundation gave away over $373 million to American education, the Walton Foundation donated approximately $134.1 million to school reform efforts, and the Broad Foundation about $39.1 million

Reckhow calls the results philanthropic "convergence." Her research shows that a handful of popular non-profits ate up 35 percent of all foundation dollars to public education in 2005. NewSchools is one of these groups; others include Teach for America, KIPP, New Visions for Public Schools, and Pacific Charter School Development.

There was convergence in education philanthropy in 2000, too, but the beneficiaries of the phenomenon back then were a far different group, including Harvard University, Columbia University Teachers' College, and the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education. 

In American education philanthropy, a lot has changed over the last decade. So it's worth thinking about how the dispersal of all these billions of dollars shapes our political and cultural debate about education reform. 

If you made it this far, I owe you a drink. And a Bay Area-themed song.


reporting for this blog post made possible by the "Private Money, Public Schools" workshop at the Columbia Journalism School