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The Answer Sheet: January 31, 2010 - February 6, 2010

Willingham: On Susan Engel

In her February 2 Op-ed piece in The New York Times, Susan Engel celebrates the current administration’s goal of education reform, but cautions that reform may not mean much unless the curriculum is changed. Test-driven accountability, she argues, has led to a curriculum that “is strangling children and teachers alike.” As an alternative, she suggests a curriculum with more authentic, real-world tasks, and greater student choice. Engel does not mention that this curriculum has been tried again and again, and it has failed again and again.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 5, 2010; 3:45 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (12)
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, school reform  
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Saturday’s ACT exam rescheduled in storm areas

Scores of testing centers where thousands of students were planning to take the ACT college admissions exam tomorrow have closed because of the massive storm marching up the East Coast. The website has a long list of sites that have been closed and will post the new date when it becomes available.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 5, 2010; 3:40 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)
Categories:  College Admissions, SAT and ACT, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  ACT test, college admissions  
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How to build a snowman

Building a snowman is a complicated business that is part art and part science. You have to know how to dress, what supplies are necessary, what snow works best, how to build a base, how to then build other sections AND how to lift them so they don’t fall apart. Adding arms is another skill altogether. And did you know you can use water to make a snowman last longer? I didn’t either.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 5, 2010; 2:00 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)
Tags:  building a snowman  
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College visits: real and virtual

A true story: A high school student flew to Minnesota to visit a college she was interested in attending. She went on the day after a huge, uncommon rain storm, which brought out from the ground an army of bugs that usually stay unseen. She hated the school because of the bugs. If she had gone any other day, she probably would have loved it. Moral: College visits can be a great help in helping your child decide where to go. But they can also, unfairly, leave a bad impression. And while it is useful to visit, lots of kids pick a college without ever seeing the school they wind up attending. Several readers have asked how to plan college visits with their children who are juniors (and even eager sophomores)--and some have expressed concern about the cost of traveling from city to city.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 5, 2010; 12:03 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (1)
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college visits  
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Another tale of school bathrooms

It wasn’t too long ago that I wrote about how some bathrooms at Montgomery Blair High School--one of the premier institutions in Montgomery County Public Schools, itself a leading school district--had to be closed during lunch because there wasn’t enough staff to keep it from being vandalized. Now we find that the bathrooms at the county’s Whitman High School--as good as a high schools gets--are also, in the words of a young journalist at the school’s student newspaper, black&white, “downright disgraceful.”

By Valerie Strauss  | February 5, 2010; 6:30 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (8)
Categories:  Health, Montgomery County Public Schools, Student Life  | Tags:  Montgomery County Public Schools, school bathrooms  
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Fairfax County schools reject book challenges

Parental challenges to books in school curriculum usually make when district officials succumb to the challenge and restrict or remove the resource. But some don’t. Some stand firm and reject the challenge. That’s what Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia--one of the finest systems in the country--has been doing for years in the face of a handful of challenges about books in its classes.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 4, 2010; 11:26 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (1)
Categories:  Fairfax County Public Schools, Literature, Reading  | Tags:  Fairfax County Public Schools, challenging books  
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Why haven't all school systems decided to close on Friday?

I’d like to know why all of the school systems in the Washington area haven’t already ordered schools closed for tomorrow. My colleagues Michael Birnbaum and Jenna Johnson have reported that school systems are weighing what to do for tomorrow because of the foreboding weather forecasts, but doing it with an eye on how many days they have in their scheduled for such events and how many have already been used.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 4, 2010; 6:50 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (10)
Categories:  Health  | Tags:  school closures  
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Yale saves with colder buildings

In a sign of how severe the country’s economic downturn is affecting even the wealthiest universities, Yale’s leaders just told the school community that it was freezing salaries of highhly compensated officials, setting thermostats in all buildings to 68 degrees and taking other steps to save money. President Richard Levin and Provost Peter Salovey detailed the measures the school is taking to absorb a decline of the endowment from $22.9 billion in June 2008 to $16.3 billion in June 2009--a 28.6 percent drop.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 4, 2010; 2:32 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)
Categories:  College Life, Higher Education  | Tags:  Yale University, endowments  
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MCPS orders teachers to change passwords

Montgomery County schools officials have ordered all employees to create new computer passwords after students hacked into the computers at Churchill High School to change grades. But it wasn’t the first time kids have hacked into school computers in the county, however; at Whitman High School, the student newspaper black&white reported on Sept. 30, 2009, that a student had broken through the security barriers on Whitman’s Pinnacle grading system and changed some grades.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 4, 2010; 12:30 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (2)
Categories:  Montgomery County Public Schools  | Tags:  computer hacking, montgomery county public schools  
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Recess and academic achievement

A new Gallup poll out today shows that most elementary school principals report that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement AND that students listen better and are more focused in class after being out on the playground. Did we really need Gallup to state the obvious--the obvious being that taking a break from an intense activity (such as math class) can be reenergizing? Do you ever take a break at work for this very reason? This poll tell us at least as much about the value of recess as it does about the state of educational thinking today.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 4, 2010; 10:19 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (3)
Categories:  Elementary School, Health, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  recess  
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Achievement gap among best and brightest

By Debra Viadero When it comes to achievement gaps between students of different racial, socioeconomic, and gender groups, the good news in recent years has been that the distances between those groups seem to be narrowing. The bad news: Not so for everyone. For the nation's best and brightest, a new report says, academic gaps between girls and boys, between white students and disadvantaged minority students, between poor students and their better-off peers, and between English-language learners and their English-speaking counterparts have only widened, stagnated, or declined by a hair since the late 1990s.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 4, 2010; 9:30 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (1)
Tags:  achievement gap  
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Finding and using a private higher ed consultant

After talking to some private educational consultants--some who charge tens of thousands of dollars and some who cost a fraction of that--I began wondering how many students actually use their services. The answer surprised me. A recent study shows that among high-achieving high school seniors, 26 percent hire an independent educational consultant.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 4, 2010; 6:30 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (1)
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college admissions  
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'Why Boys Fail’ in school

A new book called “Why Boys Fail” makes the argument that boys are falling behind girls in American schools because kids are now forced to use literacy skills at ever younger grades and boys take longer to develop them. The author, Richard Whitmire, says the solution will take a “politically incorrect” decision by Education Secretary Arne Duncan that requires the federal government to admit the problem for the first time.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 3, 2010; 1:55 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (13)
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, High School, Learning, National Standards, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  boys in school, gender gap  
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College acceptances, test scores: a plea for privacy

David Altshuler, a private schools consultant, urges high schools to keep private college acceptances. Why: "My child is going to a local community college because his single parent father lost his job. Does he want 'Maria Enriquez--Local Community College' up there on the bulletin board next to 'Abigail Adams--Princeton'? Probably not." The disparity in family income is clear enough in the student parking lot. There is no need to beat them over the head with this information in another form.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 3, 2010; 6:30 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (6)
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college admissions  
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Why I doubt the abstinence-only sex ed study

I’m not an expert on scientific research but I question the results of a highly publicized research study on an abstinence-only program that is being touted as persuading young teens not to have sex. The abstract of the study says that the outcomes were self-reported, meaning that the researchers took the word of middle and high school students about whether they had had sex or not.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 3, 2010; 6:08 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (4)
Categories:  Health  | Tags:  sex education  
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Alcohol, drug use: Colleges should tell parents

Virginia Tech is being criticized for deciding that it was time to notify parents every time their child is disciplined for violations of alcohol and drug rules. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m wondering why any school would keep that information from parents. Under the old rule, parents learned about major infractions but not about minor ones. So if a kid was busted for having a beer in his dorm room, his parents would’t find out. Now they will.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 2, 2010; 6:24 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (4)
Categories:  College Life, Health  | Tags:  college life, drinking, virginia tech  
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Duncan, his apology and clean slates

Education Secretary Arne Duncan apologized today for saying that Hurricane Katrina was “the best that happened to the education system in New Orleans”--though the fact that it took several days for his walk-back suggests that he was measuring just how many people he offended with the statement. Apparently, not enough. Shortly after his Katrina remarks became public late last week, education officials in Louisiana chimed in to say that Duncan was oh so correct. I’m sure they were not currying favor with the education secretary but really believe that the people of New Orleans should thank their lucky stars for Katrina or else the poor kids in the city would still be sitting in lousy schools.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 2, 2010; 4:30 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (4)
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan  | Tags:  arne duncan  
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Schools and overweight kids

Would you support a university's decision to grant diplomas to overweight students only if they took a special fitness class? One school actually did this for several years.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 2, 2010; 4:07 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)
Categories:  Health  | Tags:  health, physical education  
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Special ed arts teacher walks in students' shoes

Pamela Michaels worked for 28 years in four schools with at-risk special education students in the arts. She developed two art programs in schools for students with learning disabilities and taught numerous subjects. After years working with learning disabled students, Michaels suffered her own disability--severe hearing loss--that helped her gain a new understanding of the challenges her students had faced throughout the years. Here is her story.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 2, 2010; 2:45 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)
Categories:  Learning Disabilities  | Tags:  learning disabilities  
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Parents' role in college admissions

I know parents who don’t get involved in their child’s college application process. And I know parents whose child doesn’t get very much involved in his/her own college application process. Somewhere in the middle is the right space in which to inhabit. Marcia Libes Simon, a private college admissions counselor to talk about the right kind of parent involvement in college admissions, offers advice on how--and how not--to help your child fill out their applications and tour college campuses.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 2, 2010; 6:30 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (2)
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college admissions  
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'The Diary of Anne Frank' and parental book complaints

Culpeper County Public School officials now say that 8th graders can learn from the version of Anne Frank's diary that drew a complaint from a parent for sexually explicit passages, but a committee will convene to review the book for future use. Can any parent complain about any part of the curriculum and be assured that a committee will be convened to review its suitability? This can easily get out of hand, as it just did in the Menifee Union School District in California. In the 9,000-student K-8 district, officials pulled dictionaries off of school shelves after a parent complained that “oral sex” was one of the entries.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 1, 2010; 5:43 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (25)
Categories:  Literature, Reading  | Tags:  book censorship  
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College quotas for high schools?

So your child comes home in great despair with news that two or possibly three kids from his/her high school have already been admitted to Yale, or Chicago, or Stanford, or Virginia, or Northwestern, or Williams, or the college of your kid’s dreams. And now he/she is worried that he/she can’t be admitted because the quota is filled for that high school. That would make sense if there was a quota, but after asking dozens of college and university admissions officers, I’m convinced there is no formal quota. But there IS a different process at work.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 1, 2010; 2:30 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (1)
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college admissions  
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Challenging Jay’s Challenge Index

Someone has to say it, so I will. Today my esteemed colleague Jay Mathews published his Washington region version of the Challenge Index, that annual exercise in which he ranks high schools. How does he do this? With this formula that he devised years ago: The number of Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school, divided by the number of graduating seniors. That’s it. Is that enough? I don't think so.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 1, 2010; 12:24 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (7)
Categories:  High School, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  challenge index  
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Willingham: 'Race to Top' a doomed bribery scheme

By Daniel Willingham When I was about 10 years old I was supposed to clean my room each day, which meant that each day I tried to find a way to get out of the house before my mother discovered that I hadn’t done so. Tired of nagging me, my mother offered me fifty cents a week to keep it clean. So then my goal changed from sneaking out of the house to preventing my mother from discovering that I had merely shoved all my junk under the bed. This reminds me of the Race to the Top initiative. Why would the federal government hold a grant competition for states? Either because states lack money, or because they lack conviction.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 1, 2010; 11:00 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (8)
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Education Secretary Duncan, Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, Race to the Top  
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Kids' sex talk horrifies teachers--Report

America isn’t the only country where there are concerns about kids engaging in sexual activity at ever younger ages. Teachers in Australia are reported to feel “helpless” while listening to fourth and fifth graders boast about their sexual exploits. In an article in the Australian newspaper The Mercury, Australian Education Union official Roz Madsen was reported as saying that a recent union forum teachers described the discussions that the kids were having. "The students are talking about what they have done on the weekend, sexual experiences that they are having," she said.... ""They are talking about oral sex and saying they are doing it."

By Valerie Strauss  | February 1, 2010; 9:28 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (1)
Tags:  sex education  
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Should Rhee ignore the new poll?

If I were D.C. Schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee, I wouldn’t care much about a new Post poll that shows declining support among parents in the city. Monday’s Post has details of a new poll largely about Mayor Adrian Fenty but that also includes questions about Rhee, and it shows the popularity of both officials down from where it was two years ago.

By Valerie Strauss  | February 1, 2010; 6:30 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (5)
Categories:  D.C. Schools  | Tags:  michelle rhee  
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