Friday, September 17, 2010

What Makes a School Great

One of the lead articles in Time:

What Makes a School Great

By Amanda Ripley Wednesday, Sep. 08, 2010,8599,2016978,00.html

Waiting for "Superman" is a new film about America's malfunctioning education system by Davis Guggenheim, the Academy Award-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth, a movie that took on another mind-numbingly complex issue and, confounding all logic, grossed $50 million worldwide — and changed the way many Americans think about climate change.

Scheduled to be released on Sept. 24, Waiting for "Superman" is a documentary that follows five kids and their parents as they try to escape their neighborhood public schools for higher-performing public charter schools. The movie explains how it could be that the U.S. since 1971 has more than doubled the money it spends per pupil, yet still trails most rich nations in science and math scores. (Read TIME's education cover story: "The Case Against Summer Vacation.")

But the film succeeds because it also lays out the solutions, something no one could credibly attempt to do until very recently. Today, several decades into America's long fight over how to upend the status quo in public education, three remarkable things are happening simultaneously. First, thanks partly to the blunt instruments of No Child Left Behind, we can now track how well individual students are doing from year to year — and figure out which schools are working and which are not. Second, legions of public schools — some charters, some not — are succeeding while others flounder. These schools are altering fundamentals that were for so long untouchable, insisting on great teachers, more class time and higher standards. The third novelty is in Washington, where a Democratic President is standing up to his party's most dysfunctional long-term romantic interest, the teachers' unions. (See photos of summer programs keeping kids' minds sharp.)

President Barack Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, have dangled $4.35 billion in stimulus money in front of cash-strapped state legislatures in exchange for rationalizing their systems. Overnight, the White House has become the biggest benefactor in the education world. The competition, known as Race to the Top, is pushing school districts to allow more charter schools, to evaluate teachers based in part on how much their students are learning, to train teachers more effectively — and to remove those who are not cut out for the job. (Read a postcard from Kansas City on efforts to save its schools.)

In response, we are witnessing what may be the beginning of a common-sense revolution. Seven states have enacted laws to remove firewalls between student achievement and teacher evaluations. At least 12 states have passed laws requiring student-progress data to be used in making teacher-evaluation or tenure decisions, a notion that would have been unimaginable five years ago. And 35 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to adopt common standards for what kids should learn at every grade level.

It's worth noting that these are early days. The vast majority of American kids have yet to be affected by any of these changes. But the drumbeat is hard to ignore. We may be on the cusp of running schools — brace yourself — according to what actually works.

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