Category Archives: Discussion

Back to School for Billionaires

This Newsweek article explores the various methods employed by our nation’s concerned billionaires in an effort to reform the US education system. In their efforts to do good they’ve found that it’s not as simple as it seems.

“The business titans entered the education arena convinced that America’s schools would benefit greatly from the tools of the boardroom. They sought to boost incentives for improving performance, deploy new technologies, and back innovators willing to shatter old orthodoxies.

They pressed to close schools that were failing, and sought to launch new, smaller ones. They sent principals to boot camp. Battling the long-term worry that the best and brightest passed up the classroom for more lucrative professions, they opened their checkbooks to boost teacher pay.

It was an impressive amount of industry. And in some places, it has worked out—but with unanticipated complications.”

With so much success in the business world it would make sense to run schools in a business-like manner, but what we’re all realizing is that education reform is much more complicated.

“…The Walton Family Foundation hoped that its $8 million investment in Milwaukee charters would produce strong schools and a competitive environment to raise the bar across all the city’s schools. But the charters failed to outperform traditional schools. Reading scores were mostly flat over the past five years citywide. In math, elementary- and middle-school gains were stronger than in the rest of Wisconsin, but high-school proficiency dropped 2 points.

This causes pause to the cause. Should education reform be about school or teacher reform, or do we need to be looking at broader issues in society?


Billionaires Graded for Their Efforts:  Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

Started with $400 million in Austin, Texas, in 1999 to improve education for the urban poor through charters, school leadership programs, and data systems that track student performance. Received the best grade: B-


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Escaping Endless Adolescence. Why are teens growing up so slowly?

I just found an interesting Newsweek article written by Po Bronson reviewing the book Escaping Endless Adolesence. The book’s authors, Dr. Joe Allen and Dr. Claudia Worrell Allen, asks the question, “Why are teens growing up so slowly?” In other words, why does it take teens today so long to mature and be ready for the world? Their answer to this question is reflected in the current education reform discussion.

Structural changes in our school system is part of the national conscious when it comes to education reform, whether it’s extending the school day, extending the school year, block scheduling, starting the school day later, or any of the other ideas that have been tossed around, it’s been part of the mainstream conversation. What these authors have concluded is structural change is needed and should provide real-life, hands on experience that better prepare our children and offer them options to explore their talents, creativity and maturity.

“We place kids in schools together with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other kids typically from similar economic and cultural backgrounds. We group them all within a year or so of one another in age. We equip them with similar gadgets, expose them to the same TV shows, lessons, and sports. We ask them all to take almost the exact same courses and do the exact same work and be graded relative to one another. We give them only a handful of ways in which they can meaningfully demonstrate their competencies. And then we’re surprised they have some difficulty establishing a sense of their own individuality… We don’t give teens enough ways to take risks that are productive.”

At Urban School Foundation we’re trying to provide this opportunity through entrepreneurship education. We’re creating a program in which students actually start a business and run it. All proceeds from this business are then donated to the school program of their choice.

Read more about our program here.

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The Creativity Crisis

Here’s an interesting article that follows a study done by E. Paul Torrance. The study started in 1958 with group of nearly 400 Minneapolis children who took part in a creativity study. The question you might be asking yourself is, how does one measure creativity? Well according to this study you can show the amount of creative potential and thought by judging whether the subjects of the study had “unusual visual perspecitve” and “an ability to synthesize diverse elements into meaningful products.”

What does that mean exactly? Well, Ted Schwarzrock, a participant in the study, can still remember the task given to him when he was 8.  He was given a fire truck and asked, “How could you improve this toy to make it better and more fun to play with?” He was able to find 25 ways, like adding a removable ladder, which impressed his evaluators.

Torrance’s creativity tasks have since become the gold standard, and “what’s shocking is how incredibly well Torrance’s creativity index predicted those kids’ creative accomplishments as adults. Those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers…the correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.” Though they differ in content, both the creativity test (CQ) and the IQ tests are very similar in the ways they are administered, the results are very different. “With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect-each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making skids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.”

The researchers speculate on the reasons behind the decline – too many hours in front of the television or video games rather than engaging activities. In 2009 a controversial documentary came out that has another explanation. This review comes from Variety online:

“The War on Kids” contradicts popular wisdom. Studded with news reports of extreme “zero tolerance” incidents (children expelled for possessing Ibuprofen or for pointing a chicken tender and saying “bang”), Cevin Soling’s documentary posits that, far from being ridiculous exceptions to the rule as media coverage implies, such examples are endemic to a highly repressive, authoritarian [education] institution whose sole purpose is to control and contain.  …[The] docu then takes a giant if seamless step forward to suggest that the entire system of compulsory learning is designed, in the words of an award-winning teacher, “to infantilize the mass mind and condition it to take orders in a docile fashion.”

Check out the trailer below.

“A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency’ of the future.” What are your thoughts on the creativity crisis? Does it relate to the education crisis, as War on Kids implies? Respond on our discussion board. You can read more about the creativity test at Newsweek and a full review of the documentary at Variety or the New York Times.

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Why does the US need education reform? A nation in crisis.

Throughout history there have been defining periods of human ingenuity and creative thought that have transformed society. Inventions in the 1700’s were precursors to the industrial revolution in the 1800’s. The 1900’s saw the advent of the mass-produced automobile, the telephone, television, radio, computers, internet and more. In the past 20 years we’ve seen just how the internet and communications technology can change the world. It still amazes this blog writer that just just a few years ago Facebook burst onto the scene, a site that assisted in an Egyptian revolution and most of us generally can’t live without. We’re all living in a time when the world that’s changing at the speed of technology.

This ever-changing world has put our nation in crisis. Today’s HS graduate will have on average 8-15 careers in his/her lifetime, even if they stay with the same company. This is paradime-shifting in it’s implications for educating our children. Our competitive advantages of the past (natural resources, capital, technology and human captial) have been eroded by globalization. Brain power is now the competitive advantage in the 21st century, making ed the center of  global competition.

If brain power is the new global capital, how is the US measuring up? Let’s take a look. ABC’s 20/20 host, John Stossel, made a persuasive feature he titled “Stupid in America” arguing that a lack of choice cheats our kids out of a good education. This is clearly a pro-charter feature, which is a topic we’ve explored in previous blog posts and not why we’re referencing it. (See previous posts Join the Conversation: Charter Schools The Myth of Charter Schools) What was interesting about this report was a comparison between students at an above average Jersey high school and to students at an equivalent level at a school in Belgium. ABC gave parts of an international test to each class. After taking the test each class felt they had done well on the test. How did they fare?

“Belgian kids cleaned the American kids’ clocks, and called them ‘stupid.’ We didn’t pick smart kids to test in Europe and dumb kids in the United States. The American students attend an above-average school in New Jersey, and New Jersey’s kids have test scores that are above average for America. Lov Patel, the boy who got the highest score among the American students, told me, ‘I’m shocked, because it just shows how advanced they are compared to us.’ …When students from 40 countries are tested, the Americans place 25th.”

Today, more than 220 of the world’s biggest companies have their IT operations in India. Many of these jobs are skilled, high-paying technology jobs. Why are major corporations moving overseas? America is facing the challenge of an increasingly global and constantly changing world with an education system that’s entrenched in educating for a world that doesn’t exist anymore, and the market is holding this hard fact up to our face.  Intel’s Sr. Vice president fears four our competitive future as a nation. Lester Thorough of MIT expressed, “if we do not get a handle on this problem of non-functionals entering the labor market, the US will become a third world labor market by the year 2030.”

I was planning on throwing some more statistics at you demonstrating rising dropout rates and talk about how they’ll affect our economy and our ability as a nation to govern, but instead I think I’ll just show you these clips from Jay Leno’s late night comedy show:

  1. Jay Walking: Geographically Challenged. Jay quizzes high school students on geography because he couldn’t believe that 11% of American students between the ages of 18 and 24 couldn’t locate the United States on a map  (that’s 1 in 10 students)

Note: one of the comments below this video reads, “Man americans are stupid! I thought war was the only way for them to learn geography, but they don’t even know where they’re fighting.”

  1. Jay Walking: Citizenship Test. Jay asks passersby to answer questions from the American citizenship test and deports those who fail.

So, the question remains, how do we prepare our children to live in an ever-changing world? We need to find a better way to instill in our students the agility to learn and relearn, to think and re-think creatively and connect ideas, solve problems and think for themselves.  It’s clear we’re not doing that now, so what are we going to do about it?

Learn how entrepreneurship education can help.


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The United States’ Shocking Education Statistics

While it’s debatable whether or not Davis Guggenheim’s documentary film, Waiting for Superman, offers the right solution to the problems affecting the US public education system, it definitely has raised awareness of the statistics presented throughout the movie:

The tables and graphs above shed light on our broken education system. Though we’ve increased spending per student, math and reading scores are abysmal. According to the PISA test, a international test that measures proficiency in core subject matter every three years, only 23% of United States high schoolers graduate at their expected level in math. That’s less than 1 in 4 students. Reading proficiency is better but not by much at 35%, or a little over 1 in 3 students.

How do these figures measure up on a global scale? In comparison with 30 other developed countries, the US is nowhere close to the top:

If we’re not serving our students and they’re not prepared for college or the workforce, how will this affect poverty in America? In turn, how will it affect government-supported social services? Our nation’s future in general? Let us know your thoughts on our discussion forum.

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Join the Conversation: The Myth of Charter Schools

This blog post is a continuation of our previous post, Join the Conversation: Charter Schools, which discussed the documentaries Waiting for Superman and The Lottery. These documentaries suggested charter schools as the answer to America’s failing public education system, but not everyone would agree. Diane Ravitch, a writer for The New York Review of Books embodies the sentiments of those who feel charter schools can’t be a all-in-one solution for education reform. She and others argue that Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman is an oversimplification of what’s wrong with the current system.

“At last we have the culprit on which we can pin our anger, our palpable sense that something is very wrong with our society, that we are on the wrong track, and that America is losing the race for global dominance. It is not globalization or deindustrialization or poverty or our coarse popular culture or predatory financial practices that bear responsibility: it’s the public schools, their teachers, and their unions.”

In Waiting for Superman, charter schools are portrayed as the answer to failing public schools, but is that really true? In 2009 results from a Stanford University study were released that found, when compared to traditional public schools:

  • Only 17% of charter schools performed significantly better (less than 1 in 5 charter schools)
  • 37% of charters performed worse
  • 46% showed no different in their performance

Guggenheim focuses heavily on Geoffry Canada’s success with the Harlem Children’s Zone as the example of a successful charter school, and rightfully so. That success is clear cut. In almost every respect students at HCZ are performing above state averages. However, Guggenheim chooses to cling to the idea that charter schools like HCZ are successful because they’re mostly free from teacher unions and can fire teachers that aren’t up to snuff.

Geoffry Canada is an advocate for the ability to fire poor performing teachers. He’s not afraid to share his opinion that “some teachers just can’t teach” and “when you see a great teacher you’re seeing a work of art.” Throughout the documentary segments of an interview with Canada are shown that portray these sentiments in support of a charter school’s freedom to manage its staff. This narrow focus on whether or not schools can fire bad teachers as the cause for a failing education system is not fair to the viewer. This idea becomes the scapegoat and ignores the many other issues that are part of the cultural fabric of urban areas like Harlem.

Canada expects their teachers to consistently perform at a level of excellence, but he also understands that excellent teachers are just part of the solution. All teachers in inner city classrooms face crime, poverty, substance abuse, and the challenges that come with dysfunctional and single parent families.

HCZ teachers are teaching kids that face these challenges, too. The difference is Canada’s solution wasn’t solely to create charter schools where he can fire teachers who aren’t up to snuff. What isn’t shown in Waiting for Superman is that HCZ created a “project pipeline,” charter schools surrounded by an institutional support structure that, according to author of Whatever it Takes, Paul Tough, is “designed to mimic the often-invisible cocoon of support and nurturance that follows middle-class and upper-middle-class kids through their childhood.” This cocoon includes services like access to quality family and social services, health and community building programs that provide teacher support.

Let’s take a quick look at inner city public schools that have found a way to create a similar support system. Turnaround for Children, Inc. is an organization in New York that works with public schools, as well as the 4 in 5 failing charter schools, to help them reorganize from the inside out and make them productive learning environments. To do this they work with schools in many ways. How?

  • Servicesbuilding internal school capacity to address mental health and behavioral challenges and linkages to community social services:
    • School-based counseling and support
    • Pathways to a community-based mental health partner
    • Family engagement ahd education
  • Skills providing outcome-driven professional development for all school staff, for example:
    • Strategic classroom organization
    • Proactive classroom management
    • Knowledge of social-emotional and behavioral development in children

By providing social support and counciling, Turnaround for Kids, Inc. has found success. Schools became calmer and safer:

  • 51% decrease in police-reported incidences
  • 32% decrease in suspensions

Which also had an effect on teacher performance:

  • 77% decline in teacher turnover
  • 34% decrease in teacher absences

Over a three to four year intervention period ending in 2009, students in Turnaround for Children’s New York City partner schools showed notable academic gains, as shown by the percentage of students demonstrating at or above grade-level proficiency.

  • Math:  Students’ math proficiency scores increased from 49 to 82% at the elementary level; and from 24 to 64% at the middle school level.
  • English Language Arts:  Students’ ELA proficiency scores increased from 47 to 57% at the elementary level; and from 27 to 49% at the middle school level.

So, reader, what do you think? Is the real question of education reform as simple as saying teachers are the problem, public shcools are inadequate and charters are the answer? Contribute your thoughts to our discussion board.

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