December 6th, 2012
04:30 AM ET

My View: When it comes to a longer school day, something’s got to give

Courtesy Becky HaleBy Sam Chaltain, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Sam Chaltain is a Washington-based writer and education advocate. He can be found on Twitter at @samchaltain.

(CNN) – Now that five states are planning to add 300 hours of class time in an effort to close the achievement gap and re-imagine the school day, I can only come to one conclusion: Something’s got to give.

On one hand, the Time for Innovation Matters in Education Collaborative is a welcome chance for us to shake off the anachronistic trappings of the agrarian school calendar. After all, just because we went to school from August to June doesn’t mean our kids should, and just because we got out of school at 3 p.m. doesn’t mean that dismissal time is a good idea. In fact, for poor kids in poor communities, the period between 3 and 6 p.m. is the most dangerous time of the day. So I take great hope in the project’s intent to “empower each student with the knowledge, skills, and experiences essential for college and career success.”

And I admire any plan to expand the sorts of learning experiences students have during the day - and where (and how) the day unfolds. As the Ford Foundation’s Jeannie Oakes puts it, “More time must mean better time.”

On the other hand, the 40 schools participating in this project in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee, don’t exist in a vacuum, and here in America we still rank schools as successful or unsuccessful based on a single metric - standardized reading and math scores.  Knowing that, will these schools be able to follow through on their plans to explore academic content more deeply, provide teacher collaboration time more regularly and revitalize the arts more fully? Or will the extra hours be used to turn a small subset of “failing” schools into high-achieving ones?
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My View: The curious paradox of 'Won't Back Down'
Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal star in "Won't Back Down."
September 27th, 2012
01:50 PM ET

My View: The curious paradox of 'Won't Back Down'

Courtesy Becky HaleBy Sam Chaltain, Special to CNN

Editor's Note: Sam Chaltain is a Washington-based writer and education advocate. He can be found on Twitter at @samchaltain.

(CNN) - "Won’t Back Down," the new Hollywood film about two mothers determined to take over their children's failing inner city school, represents everything that’s wrong with the present way we talk about school reform – and everything we need to talk about more in the future.

The film itself feels like Soviet-era propaganda. No characters are well-developed; they’re all two-dimensional mouthpieces for different constituency groups’ pet programs and policy proposals. Even when the filmmakers try to instill a bit of complexity – such as the Teach for America alum who works in a neighborhood school and was raised in a family with deep union ties – the strings of the puppeteer are too easily visible for anyone interested in the story more than the sound bite.

It’s a lousy movie, plain and simple.

"Won’t Back Down" is also lousy at orienting viewers to the complexity of our current efforts to improve public education. School choice is presented as a panacea in and of itself, and the process of turning a struggling school into a successful one seems to involve little more than a few all-nighters, some dogged persistence and an unwavering belief in the rightness of one’s cause. If viewers took this film at its word, they might think that all we’d need to do to transform public education is scream “Power to the People” and presto! No more failing schools.

Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. And yet, even though the film’s treatment of school reform is misleadingly simplistic, it would be equally misleading to dismiss it altogether. In fact, the core issues it raises – the importance of parental engagement, the injustice of American education and the illogic of a sclerotic system of schools that has outgrown its Industrial-era mission – are exactly the sorts of issues we need to explore more deeply as a nation.
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September 7th, 2012
05:28 PM ET

My View: The whole world is watching Chicago, once again

Courtesy Becky HaleBy Sam Chaltain, Special to CNN

Editor's Note: Sam Chaltain is a Washington-based writer and education advocate. He can be found on Twitter at @samchaltain.

In 1968, student protesters stationed outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago broke into a spontaneous chant that quickly crystallized the tenor of the times: "The whole world is watching!"

It's ironic, then, that one day after this year's Democratic National Convention, rumors of a city-wide teacher strike in Chicago are reaching a similarly feverous pitch.

As they do, I want to borrow that famous line from 1968 and re-purpose it for 2012. The whole world should be watching, once again, because the core issues at stake in Chicago are the same core issues at stake in our ongoing efforts to improve American public education. In short, what's happening in Chicago is extremely important, extremely rare, and not entirely discouraging.

It's extremely important because you have a Democratic mayor pushing reforms that his city's teachers - the majority of who are also Democrats - are pushing back against. The mayor wants merit pay and a longer school day. The teachers want a more balanced set of courses, including the arts, music and foreign languages. The mayor wants 50% of a teacher's formal evaluation to be based on student reading and math scores. The teachers counter that if you enact a policy like that, the only thing your extended day will get you is more test prep and more concerted efforts to game the system.

In that sense, the fight in Chicago isn't purely about teacher contracts - it's also about conflicting visions of how you create the optimal conditions for teaching and learning.

It's extremely rare because it hasn't happened in a quarter-century - and yet 90% of Chicago's teachers voted to authorize a strike. That tells you just how strongly Windy City educators are feeling. And regardless of what one thinks about teacher unions, surely we can all agree that having teachers more directly engaged in core questions about education reform is a good idea.
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My View: When did teacher bashing become the new national pastime?
Sam Chaltain: Align teacher evaluation systems around "what parents and teachers are both really seeking."
March 6th, 2012
06:10 AM ET

My View: When did teacher bashing become the new national pastime?

Courtesy Marilyn MargonBy Sam Chaltain, Special to CNN

Editor’s Note: Sam Chaltain  is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and education advocate. He can be found on Twitter at @samchaltain.

With spring training under way, fantasy baseball owners across the country are hard at work readying their draft boards and preparing to select their championship rosters. As they do, I have a modest proposal to make that will simplify the whole process: Let’s stop getting weighed down by multiple data points, and start looking at just one number instead – the number of doubles a player hit the previous season.

Too simplistic a way to evaluate something as complex as a player’s overall value to your team?  Hogwash. For example, look at last year’s stats and you’ll see that the Kansas City Royals’ Jeff Francoeur smacked almost 50 two-baggers. By contrast, some guy named Albert Pujols hit half as many. By my calculations, then, Francoeur must be twice as good.

Sounds simple enough – unless you know anything about baseball, and which of those two guys is the sure Hall of Famer who just signed a $254 million dollar contract (hint: it isn’t Francoeur). In fact, the only thing effective about drafting a fantasy baseball team this way is that it would effectively eliminate you from competition before the season starts. Yet this sort of magical thinking is exactly what’s happening in New York City right now, thanks to the city’s recent release of its own fantasy rankings based on how the students of 18,000 schoolteachers did on standardized reading and math exams.
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November 16th, 2011
10:53 AM ET

Is it time to redesign the report card?

Courtesy Marilyn MargonEditor’s Note: Sam Chaltain  is a DC-based writer and education advocate. He can be found on Twitter at @samchaltain

By Sam Chaltain, Special to CNN

This week, many parents and guardians of students across the country will receive their first report cards of the 2011-2012 school year. For some, the occasion will provide welcome confirmation of a young person’s superior effort. Others will open their mail to find an uncomfortable wake up call. Yet for too many families, the report cards will offer little more than confusion – about how their child is actually behaving, what he or she has actually learned, and whether any meaningful progress has actually been made. “I have a master’s degree in education,” said Devon Bartlett, a parent whose children are in first and fourth grade, “and even I can’t make sense of what my child’s report card is trying to tell me. Clearly, we can do better.”

Given how uninformed so many parents feel, and considering how differently the nation’s 100,000 plus schools choose to track student growth, is it time to give the school report card an extreme makeover, and dress it up for the 21st century?

Zakiya Reid, principal of Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C., certainly thinks so – although she’s mandated to use the same report card as all other D.C. public schools. “We’re doing a lot better here than we were before,” she offered, “and all of our feedback is presented in terms of the primary standards we want the children to reach. At the same time, we’re still learning as a community of educators how to do standards-based grading, so I know the way we present information on the new report card is not clear to all of our teachers. And if it isn’t clear to the teachers, it’s safe to say it isn’t going to be clear to our students and parents. So we still have some important work to do.”
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