College fundraising and the shame factor.
Wow. Just wow. Rachel Louise Ensign of the Chronicle of Higher Ed reports
how students at two colleges shame classmates who do not give to school fund drives.
As much as I liked my college, and as much as a friend of mine begged me to give, I stopped making alumni contributions when my favorite professor was denied tenure. I never donated to my grad school because I hadn’t appreciated the overcrowded classes and under-challenging curriculum. I figured the tens of thousands of dollars I paid was contribution enough.
And then there’s the fact I prefer to send my charitable contributions elsewhere.
Focusing on class-participation rates in college fund drives—which is what had my friend pleading for my contribution—is a stupid form of competition. Giving choices are personal, in all sorts of ways. I am glad Ensign called attention to this and, more important, to the bigger question of whether these student gift drives are cost-efficient.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then you are not in school.
I declare war
in Slate on the uncomfortable, ill-fitting school desk. And no, it’s not the “best way” to fix education. It just might makes things a little better for the children.
Have a cocktail on Slate, in the name of classroom design.
I will be on MSNBC today between 3 and 4 p.m. eastern—not sure exactly what time—to talk about the Slate project I am leading to design a better classroom
for the 21st century. There’s going to be a cool event
to close out the project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on Monday, November 8, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Attendees will include educators, students, smart Slate readers, architects ... though, sadly, not me, because I’ll just have left for Seattle. Go and have a cocktail for me. And if you have not entered your own design idea in the contest yet, please do! It might actually get built! You don’t have to draw anything, though we would love it if you did
And keep your eye out for my next installment: Why don’t we care that school desks and chairs are so uncomfortable and ill-fitting?
The single best piece of advice I have for writers.
The first time I wrote a book
based on a year of observation, I moved out of D.C. and into a bare-bones apartment a three-minute bike ride from the school I was writing about. It was 2001. It was a miserable year for me, personally. My father was in a motorcycle accident (he recovered), my grandmother died, I got dumped by a guy I loved and one I just sort of liked, and September 11 layered onto all of that to leave me utterly disconsolate.
I had no life, unless by “life” you mean following 12-year-olds to the roller rink on Friday nights and actually feeling jealous they had partners to couples-skate with. (I know! Embarrassing! But if you have ever been depressed, you know what I mean.) In a way, this physical and emotional isolation was a gift when it came to my work. It was too painful to focus on myself, so I focused 100 percent on my middle schoolers. Aside from online Scrabble, I had no distractions. I had all the time in the world to accomplish all of my friend Hank’s “13 Questions to Gauge How Well You Know a Source
,” including the one where you see your subject go to sleep and
Most important, I had nothing better to do every evening than to transcribe my notes from the notepad to the computer. From William Strunk Jr
. I learned to omit needless words. From David Finkel
, an early mentor, I learned not to say the same thing twice, even (and especially) if it’s in two different ways. And from Margaret Mead
I got the best possible advice for a narrative journalist: write up your notes as soon as possible.
Whether you are writing a book or a weekender, when you unload your notebook on the day of your reporting, what’s written on the pad (or even what you capture on tape, not my preferred method) is just a teaser for your brain, which fills in the copious blanks of every scene and every thought. This is time-consuming—I spent three or four hours a night on this early in the year, less time later—but well worth it. I could IM or call my subjects, asking, “What were you thinking when such-and-such happened?” and of course they would remember, because it was a few hours ago. A word in my notebook became a paragraph in my computer file. A quote became an entire anecdote. From the scribbles on one page I managed to write lengthy scenes off the top of my head that needed only a bit of polishing, months later, to be bookworthy copy. When summer came and I sat down to write a draft, I did it in five weeks.
Contrast that to how I approached my second book
, four years later. I was commuting from Baltimore to Annapolis, 45 minutes to an hour away. I was committed to the project but also happily distracted by my wedding, my honeymoon, my life. A friend of mine, who is something of a big-deal journalist, was doing her own narrative project at the same time. She went months
without unloading her notebooks! So why couldn’t I?
I was not that lax; I would wait days, or at most weeks. I knew it was a horrible idea. I still had tons of material on my notebook pages, I just didn’t always remember why it was important, or what happened in the background that I wasn’t able to write down, or even sometimes what that awful handwriting meant—things I would easily have been able to retrieve if my memory was fresh. When I sat down to write a draft, I had strong, solid material, but I knew I could have had so much more to choose from had I been more disciplined about transcription. Writing the draft of that book took five months.
I never understand people who say they have no regrets. I regret drinking too much tequila and French 75’s the night before I flew to Mexico in 1999. I regret about 60 percent of my clothing purchases. And I regret being lazy about my notes. Readers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from the first book to the second. And I don’t know what is missing—just that something
Credit where credit is due.
Sara Lipka wrote this week
in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about the lack of consistency among institutions regarding what a credit actually means. You cannot swing a cat on a college campus (note to readers: I am not encouraging the swinging of cats) without hitting someone who had trouble transferring credits. For many students this winds up being a real roadblock to graduating in the traditional number of years—or at all. I encourage all you higher ed writers to take on the subject with some compelling local examples.
From the TER archives: Great clips.
My last chunk of unearthed files I want to share, from a manila folder I had titled “EXCELLENT ARTICLES.” Is it the best journalism ever? Well, it is the stuff I decided to tear out and hold onto for a decade or more—high praise from someone so ruthless about culling files.
Poor Schools, Rich Targets
, a 2004 Baltimore Sun series by Alec MacGillis, now at the Washington Post, on the education software industry targeting high-poverty schools, to great profit and often little effect.
Listening to Khakis
, the 1997 New Yorker piece that sold me on Malcolm Gladwell. We worked on the national staff of the Washington Post at the same time, and he was good there, but this piece, about selling men’s pants, was the first time I realized I would have to read everything he wrote about culture, from then on. (Until a couple of years ago. I think I just had my fill.)
A Citizen in Full
, a 2000 profile of Ralph Nader by Lewis Lapham of Harper’s Magazine. Generally, Lapham’s columns leave me empty and uncertain of my intellect. But in this piece, he managed to spend a day with Nader and paint an intensely vivid picture of a very, very odd man. It is easy to write a bad profile, and hard to pull off a good one.
, David Plotz’s 1999 Harper’s piece about the depressing ubiquity of video gambling in South Carolina culture and politics. David does an amazing job of creating a sense of place; read it and cough from the cigarette smoke you imagine surrounds you.
Bless This Food
, one of Hank Stuever’s first great feature stories for the Washington Post, from 1999. I have been having trouble putting my finger on what exactly bores me about the Style section these days, and now I think I’ve got it: not enough pieces on guys who cook up roadkill for the needy.
Invisible Lives and Invisible Deaths
, Katherine Boo’s 1999 and 2000 Washington Post investigations on the neglect and abuse endemic to the city’s group homes for the mentally retarded. Boo’s New Yorker pieces are amazing, but none changed the world
for an entire group of people the way this project did. Did I say above that all this might not be the best journalism ever? This is.
From the TER archives: Merit pay.
Just in case you are new to education reporting and think this debate is new, I present some all-stars from my old files, soon to be crayoned over now that I have them bookmarked online:
—Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job
, a 2006 Brookings report by Robert Gordon, Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger. Many elements of the recommendations are reflected in policy today.
—Volatility in School Test Scores: Implications for Test-Based Accountability Systems
and The Promise and Pitfalls of Using Imprecise School Accountability Measures
, written by Kane and Staiger in 2002. Diane Ravitch warns of the disruption to testing from distractions, but I forgot that Kane and Staiger the same thing once too. The pair’s concerns refer not to test data being linked individually to teachers, but to the volatility of measuring schools as a whole.
—A bunch of 2006 news stories
about performance-pay plans that feel a lot like what is being written in 2010.
—Henry Braun’s 2005 report for ETS, Using Student Progress to Evaluate Teachers: A Primer on Value-Added Models
—Better Pay for Better Teaching
, which Bryan Hassel wrote for the Progressive Policy Institute in 2002.
—Not about teacher quality, but I wonder whether many of the concerns about the testing industry presented in Margins of Error
, Tom Toch’s 2006 report for Education Sector, have been solved.
From the TER archives: Middle schoolers
I suddenly realized that I don’t need to bring all my files with me across the country
—that there is this wacky new way to keep track of valuable reading material, and that the actual paper can go to Milo so that he can draw car carriers and house-faces on the backsides.
Sorting through everything, I’ve found a lot I want to share with you, which can be sorted into three categories: the sociology of middle schoolers, journalism I love and teacher quality.
Let’s start with the kids, whose friendships I spent many years
—A 1993 study
from Sociology of Education that I always want to give to the awkwardest sixth-grade boys I meet, except that I know it won’t make them feel better at the time. The point of it is that things can turn out pretty good for the nerds. Which anyone who has gone to a 20th high school reunion will tell you is true. They are hot, and they married well! (Not that I am biased.)
—A 2000 study
from Developmental Psychology about how jerks are overrepresented among the popular boys. (Not that I am surprised.)
—A 1998 report
from the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine that showed how clueless middle schoolers’ parents were went it came to the risky behaviors their kids were exposed to.
—A 1995 study
from Youth & Society about the relationship between sports and popularity. For boys, athletic participation is pretty much necessary, though not sufficient, for popularity.
—A 1998 study
from Child Development links social acceptance in youth to feelings of self-worth in adulthood. As you probably could have guessed.
Let’s sum up. You don’t want your kid to be totally rejected in middle school, but you don’t want him to be a jerk either. Do you?
My friend Hank Stuever at the Washington Post offers an engaging review
of the latest batch of DIY reality television, including NBC’s education-renovation show “School Pride.” I weighed in
on this program a few months ago, and I am involved in a Slate project
on innovative classroom design too—though the “School Pride” classrooms aren’t so much reimagined as redecorated.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up to cheer on the renovation. And why shouldn’t he be thrilled? If the government can’t fix decrepit schools, let NBC do it!
Help Slate build a better classroom.
Today Slate launched its third “Hive” crowdsourcing project. This one
aims to build a better classroom. Think about it: Over the last century, nearly all our institutions have changed in form to match an evolution in function. Yet our children still learn in rectangles filled with desks.
I am leading the project and encourage you to spread the word to anyone—educators, children, architects, your creative uncle—who might be interested in entering the contest. While there is no prize, per se, sponsor Coca-Cola may actually build a classroom based on the winning entries (which isn’t to discourage entries that are completely fantastical). Instructions for entering are at the end of the article linked above.
Maybe you think there is no need for classrooms to change; don’t worry, we’ll address that too.
The project, by the way, will include shorter pieces on related topics throughout October. If you would like to pitch one, contact me.
It has 48,000 Facebook fans. So what?
Spaghetti tacos: 1,200
Filipino artist protesting the Catholic church: 12,000
Anti-Muslim German economist: 21,000
I just can’t get behind the now-ubiquitous mention in articles of how many Facebook fans some person or cause or toddler-pleasing dinner entree has as indication of its actual popularity. Check out Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker
recently on what we can or cannot make of Facebook support.
On Facebook I am a “fan” of Aretha Franklin’s inauguration hat, the brown pieces in Gardetto’s snacks, bacon, EWA, my cousin’s fiancee’s artwork, my friend Hank, the Muppets, Captain Sully, sleeping and The Oatmeal. Except for a couple of these things (I will let you guess which)—and as I suspect is the case with many people—my clicking of a button indicated absolutely no true allegiance or active support. So, journalists, be careful about implying that it does.
I am headed to the other Washington.
On November 1, The Educated Reporter is picking up stakes and moving to Seattle. My husband—a “tech guy,” in proper English—has taken a new job there. No need to worry—I will still be public-editoring full-time for EWA. You can reach me in all of the same ways, at all of the same times, except probably that first hour you are at work on the East Coast.
If you can think of anyone in Washington state I should get to know (or anywhere I should eat!), please let me know.
From special ed to college.
Just last week I was wondering why I have not read more about how students who received K-12 special education services are faring in college. Yesterday the U.S. Department of Education announced
$11 million in grants to help with this transition: a peg!
Politics and the Facebook billions.
Michelle Rhee is most likely leaving now that Mayor Adrian Fenty was voted out. Depending on whom you read, Ron Huberman may
or may not
leave Chicago Public Schools now that Mayor Richard Daley is stepping down. It makes sense that much of the journalistic attention about mayoral control to date has focused on what it means for governance while the mayor-schools chief partnership is strong and the mayor is, well, the mayor. But I’m wondering now why little has been written anticipating this aspect of things—asking what might happen if some of that falls apart.
Whatever affect it has on decision-making, putting the school chief’s fate in the hands of a mayor is not necessarily more or less stable, temporally, than leaving the matter to a school board or voters. Certainly Rhee’s tenure will have been no shorter than the average schools superintendent’s
(though Huberman’s, if he leaves soon, will be). Not everyone has Mike Bloomberg’s deep pockets and political longevity, but obviously New York shows that mayoral control does not ensure brief chancellor tenures.
Regardless—and while this is not precisely an example of mayoral control—an obvious question to ask in light of all this is: What happens to Mark Zuckerberg’s money if Cory Booker is voted out of Newark in four years, or Gov. Chris Christie out of Trenton, or for some reason either of them leaves sooner? I know there has been coverage
of the legality of the proposed arrangement. But have questions about its potential durability in the case of political change been asked, or answered? Is the money tied to the grown-ups, or to the children?
A charter school teacher on what works.
I have been disappointed in how the charter debate—the next great thing! the worst thing ever!—obscures what to me is the most important question: What makes successful charter schools successful, and how can those pieces be incorporated in regular public schools that need to improve? The journalism on this is lacking, which is why I was glad to read this post
from a teacher at the SEED School
in Washington, D.C., on Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet blog. Dan Brown points to specific approaches that he thinks make his teaching work, approaches he believes need not be the domain of charters only. (They aren’t, necessarily. But if you teach at a traditional public school and get the kind of meaningful oversight, support and feedback from your administrators that Brown does, raise your hand.)
Where do the lottery losers end up?
I met Macke Raymond
of Stanford at a conference last week. When the conversation turned to Gail Collins’s exasperation over charter school lotteries in a recent New York Times column
, Raymond said something interesting. According to the data she has gathered, students who are not accepted into charter schools almost never go back to the bad neighborhood school they were seeking to leave. They go to lesser charter schools or parochial schools, or their families move—they are that
determined. To Raymond, this means that it is inaccurate to imply (whether you are a parent or a filmmaker) that these lotteries are the last chance for children. To me, as a challenge to common assumptions about where these kids end up, it makes for a good topic for journalistic exploration.
Come to EWA’s data bootcamp.
October 15 is the deadline to apply for EWA’s Education Research and Statistics Bootcamp
, which will be held December 2-5 at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. You bring the numbers, and the assembled gurus will help you crunch them. Journalists always come away from this seminar with great energy and—even better—tangible, project-ready work. Applicants are encouraged, though not required, to propose work related to stimulus spending.
Principals, principles and the press.
For this month, editors at the Harvard Education Letter
have kindly removed the paywall on this interview with me. In it, I give advice to school and district administrators about dealing with the press. Not surprisingly, I advocate for openness, but I think I make a good case—so pass this along to the people you cover, and maybe it will give them pause about shutting you out.
Learning more after “Superman.”
EWA has put together a resource guide for people who want to learn more about the issues raised in “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” Go to the movie, then go here
Does the NEA have laryngitis?
It is an understatement to say that I am tired of the Randi Weingarten/Michelle Rhee road show being repeated over
again. At this point it’s just unimaginative booking. There are other conversations we should be having besides hiring-and-firing, and when that pair are matched up even that one is soundbitten into uselessness.
But at least Weingarten is talking. AFT’s media strategy during this burst of national attention to education reform is messaging, messaging, messaging. The messaging may occasionally be contradictory, but it is something
. The strategy of the NEA, which is twice as large as AFT and just as angry? Crickets.
From the homepage of the AFT
you can link to all sorts of responses to “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” The homepage of the NEA
features pleas for the usual agenda items (increased funding, teachers salaries) but only one direct response to the current debate: a link, midway down the page, to a teacher’s letter to Oprah. You can dig to find Van Roekel’s press release criticizing “Superman,” and he was a low-key presence on one of the Education Nation panels
. But that’s not much, is it?
Why? Weingarten was a character in “Superman” and Van Roekel was not, though the film is only one small part of the discussion building this year. Maybe the NEA cannot settle on an approach. Stephen Sawchuk at Education Week wrote a great piece
this summer about how the unions’ differing structures affect their ability to take a seat at the table regarding national reforms—essentially, the AFT is run by Weingarten and the NEA is run by its locals. Perhaps the NEA has some sort of cunning strategy I don’t understand—lie low and hope that it all blows over?
I guess the Weingarten/Rhee showdown appears irresistible to those who plan panels and make movies. So maybe we haven’t heard much from the NEA is because barely anyone has asked. Though why the nation’s largest union would wait to be invited before raising its voice is a mystery to me.