Report: No Room for Rivalry in School Reform

The contentious relationship between traditional public schools and charter schools needs to end, according to a report issued as part of a Brookings Institution project. There are lessons to be learned, the authors say, from both the successes and failures of charter operations. Pilot programs in Houston and Denver are demonstrating the potential. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

Early data show that the strategy – applied in Houston and Denver pilot programs – yielded “promising” results, according to the report, titled "Learning from the Successes and Failures of Charter Schools" and released Thursday by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.

The study could help improve cooperation between charter schools and traditional schools, which have often viewed each other as competitors. The debate about whether charter schools or traditional schools are more effective is a false one and misses the central point, said secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Hamilton Project’s education forum Thursday in Washington.

“The question isn’t: Do we need more charter schools, traditional schools, gifted schools, or magnet schools?” he said. “We need better public schools. Kids don’t know what kind of school they go to. All they ask is, ‘Do I have a good teacher?’ ”

The report focuses on the work that Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer did with the Houston Independent School District (HISD) to develop a pilot program targeting nine of Houston’s lowest-performing middle and high schools in 2010-11 and 11 elementary schools in 2011-12.

Dr. Fryer, who is the faculty director of Harvard’s Education Innovations Laboratories (EdLabs), studied 35 charter schools in New York and discovered the top five practices that separate low- and high-achieving charter schools: (1) extended time at school, (2) strong administrators and teachers, (3) data-driven instruction, (4) small-group tutoring, and (5) creating a “culture of high expectations.”

How Health Care Reform Will Impact Businesses

The world of public policy shook Sunday when the health care reform bill passed in the House. Now in the aftermath, supporters and detractors debate with their friends and colleagues over its impact. What’s more, many business owners are now left wondering what this means for them. The Christian Science Monitor offers about the most coherent and concise synopsis I’ve seen. Read on:

Let’s start with a caveat: that dry cleaner, and probably the restaurant, might be too small to be affected by some of the most important business-related elements in the bill. Employers with 50 or fewer workers would be exempt from coverage provisions.

But for top executives at firms with 50 workers or more, the most important question may be this: would the health care reform bill require us to offer health insurance to our employees?

The answer to that is “no,” strictly speaking. But if you don’t, you might have to pay fairly large fees to Uncle Sam.

How does the bill work for businesses?

Here’s how that works: If you are a firm with more than 50 employees, and do not offer health insurance as a benefit, and at least one of your full-time employees gets a subsidy from the federal government to purchase health insurance on his or her own, you would have to pay Washington a fee of $2,000 for every one of your full-time workers. (Company accountants take note: you could subtract the first 30 of your employees from that assessment.)

Got that?

Also, even if you do offer coverage, you might have to take some extra action to help any of your low- or middle-income workers who want to buy insurance on their own.

Take an employee who makes less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, which today is about $10,800 for an individual, or $22,000 for a family of four.

Perhaps that employee is finding firm-offered insurance expensive. If their share of health premiums is more than 8 percent of their income (but less than 9.8 percent), they would have the option of going out and buying insurance on their own through the new-fangled “exchange” marketplaces the health care reform bill would establish.

And you, as an employer, would have to help them. You’d have to provide them a “free choice voucher” equal to what the firm would have kicked in to provide coverage in the company plan.

When do the changes take effect?
All of the above changes would take effect beginning on Jan. 1, 2014.

One final item: if you’re a firm with more than 200 employees, and you do offer health insurance, you would have to automatically enroll your workers in the plan.

They could opt out of the coverage. But they are the ones that would have to make that decision.

Here is a video from last week of Indiana Chamber President Kevin Brinegar discussing the bill, labeling it "poor public policy" due to its tax increases on payroll, medical devices, etc., which will lead to job cuts. You agree?

Finland Schools Serving Up Educational Lessons

Finland has become a model for teachers across the globe hoping to learn about educational success. Attracting the best and brightest to the teaching profession is among the key benefits for the Scandinavian nation, which prides itself on rewarding those teachers with more autonomy. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

No single factor can explain the students’ strong showing. They grow up in a highly literate, bilingual society (Finnish and Swedish, with most learning English as well). Finns also enjoy strong governmental supports for parental leave, day care, and healthcare (in exchange for high taxes), which means that problems associated with poverty don’t show up at the schoolhouse door nearly as often as in the US.

One essential element, though, is the high caliber of Finland’s teaching corps, education leaders say. "We trust our teachers," says Reijo Laukkanen, head of international relations at the Finnish National Board of Education in Helsinki. "That is very important, and it’s not easy to realize in all countries – the culture of trust we have in Finland."

Since 1979, master’s degrees have been required for teaching in primary and secondary schools. And the profession is so popular – even with its moderate salaries – that only 10 to 15 percent of applicants make it into university teacher-education programs…

While many American teachers have been chafing under the accountability systems of the federal No Child Left Behind law in recent years, autonomy is a hallmark of the teaching profession in Finland. "There’s nobody who supervises if we follow [the curriculum]," says Marja Asikainen, a longtime English teacher at the Länsimäki School. "They trust us that we’ll follow it, and Finnish teachers are rather free … to do it in their own way."

Finnish teaching places a strong emphasis on helping students become independent thinkers. "We don’t want to give only ready answers," says Liisa Norvanto, a primary teacher at the school. "We want to teach them to explore their surroundings…. We try to teach them how to compare knowledge … and be critical."

Education Reform With a Capital ‘R’

The challenges are no different than those many school districts are facing — unacceptable dropout rates, continually disappointing test scores and an overall environment of "disconnection" between educators and their students.

The solutions for many are to tinker around the edges, adjust a regulation or adopt a policy to try to spark change. While well-intentioned, the results often disapppoint. In an opposite take on the old saying — if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it — education in many places is broke and requires a radical fix.

Implementation won’t begin fully until next year and ultimate results will be years down the road, but let’s give a Denver-area school district kudos for trying. How does doing away with traditional grade levels and strategically involving students in lesson plans grab you for starters? Students will advance when they have proven mastery of that subject. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

The district is training teachers to involve students in the lesson plan in a far greater way than before – the students articulate their goals and develop things such as a code of conduct as a classroom. And when children fall short of understanding the material, they keep working at it. The only "acceptable" score to move on to the next lesson is the equivalent of a "B" in normal grading – hopefully showing proficiency and giving kids a better foundation as they move on to more advanced concepts. Advocates sometimes describe it as flipping the traditional system around so that time, rather than mastery of material, is the variable.

While the idea of "standards-based education," as it’s often known, has been around for a while, the only public district where it’s been tried for any length of time is in Alaska, where the Chugach district – whose 250 students are scattered over 22,000 square miles – went from the lowest performing district in the state to Alaska’s highest-performing quartile in five years in the 1990s, a shift the former superintendent, Richard DeLorenzo, attributes to the new philosophy.

Even before the opening bell, I give a hearty "A" for effort. Read the story here. Let us know what you think.

CS Monitor Moving to Web: A Harbinger of What’s to Come for Newspapers?

Many of us have been saying it: One day newspapers won’t be in print anymore, and we’ll get their information from our computers. I was an editor of a newspaper who got out of the business a little over two years ago, and I’m not sure I’ve read an actual print version of a newspaper since — although I frequently visit their web sites. Granted, I think I’m allergic to newsprint as I have an immune system (and occasionally a disposition) comparable to the Bubble Boy on "Seinfeld,"  but there’s also been no reason to. However, some say there are folks who will always want a tangible copy, so I guess the argument for print still exists. 

At any rate, the Christian Science Monitor, which is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary, is now set to change its business paradigm to focus on the Web.

Judy Wolff (chairman of the board of trustees for the Christian Science Publishing Society) cited three goals that drove what she called "our evolving strategy" for the Monitor:

• Producing a website that can be updated 24/7 and delivered instantaneously "better fulfills Mrs. Eddy’s original vision" for the Monitor to be daily than does a five-day-a-week paper delivered by mail with frequent delays.

• Focusing resources on the fast-growing Web audience for news rather than on the economically troubled daily newspaper industry "increases the Monitor’s reach and impact." The Monitor’s website currently attracts about 1.5 million visitors a month.

• Eliminating the major production and distribution costs of a daily newspaper will allow the Monitor to "make progress toward achieving financial sustainability" while supporting its global news resources.

I’m still not totally sure how this profit model would work for other papers, though. The Monitor has the benefit of being subsidized by the Christian Science church as the paper is estimated to lose, in all its forms, $18.9 million this year. Also noteworthy is this excerpt:

This is a period of extreme financial difficulty for all news organizations. New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., for instance, was asked at a conference in California on Oct. 22 whether the Times would be a print product in 10 years. "The heart of the answer must be (that) we can’t care," Sulzberger said. He added that he expects print to be around for a long time but "we must be where people want us for our information."

Read the full article here. Let us know what you think. Is print dead or will the average American reader always have a little ink smudge on his fingers?