It all starts with Literacy.

In the news: Rich-poor vocabulary gap, fixing teacher ed, world’s best schools


kellerSeveral outstanding stories about education appeared this week in the New York Times.

On Monday, the paper reported that the language gap between small children from richer and poorer families is even wider than previously thought:

The new research by Anne Fernald, a psychologist at Stanford University, which was published in Developmental Science this year, showed that at 18 months children from wealthier homes could identify pictures of simple words they knew — “dog” or “ball” — much faster than children from low-income families.

By age 2, the study found, affluent children had learned 30 percent more words in the intervening months than the children from low-income homes.

The new findings, although based on a small sample, reinforced the earlier research showing that because professional parents speak so much more to their children, the children hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households, early literacy experts, preschool directors and pediatricians said….

“That gap just gets bigger and bigger,” said Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, an advocate of early education for low-income children. “That gap is very real and very hard to undo.”

It’s this very gap that Innovations for Learning is working so hard to bridge, by providing the most powerful digital tools and instructional software to school districts serving low-income neighborhoods.

On Sunday, columnist Bill Keller focused on a glaring weak spot in American education: the dismaying condition of teacher training. As he writes, only 23 percent of American teachers — and only 14 percent in high-poverty schools — come from the top third of college graduates.

He points the finger at our complacent universities:

Of all the competing claims on America’s education dollar — more technology, smaller classes, universal prekindergarten, school choice — the one option that would seem to be a no-brainer is investing in good teachers. But universities have proved largely immutable. Educators, including some inside these institutions, say universities have treated education programs as “cash cows.” The schools see no incentive to change because they have plenty of applicants willing to pay full tuition, the programs are relatively cheap to run, and they are accountable to no one except accrediting agencies run by, you guessed it, education schools. It’s a contented cartel.

What should teacher education look like, ideally? Keller says most reformers are agreed:

  • Teacher colleges should be more selective.
  • Study should be more rigorous, not just in teaching techniques and philosophy, but also in the content, particularly in math and science.
  • And students should get more rigorous experience in classrooms, while being coached by master teachers.

To see top-ranked schools in action, columnist Tom Friedman traveled to Shanghai. The Chinese city’s public schools topped the world charts in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exams that measure 15-year-olds in 65 countries in math, science and reading.

On Tuesday, Friedman wrote:

After visiting Shanghai’s Qiangwei Primary School, with 754 students — grades one through five — and 59 teachers, I think I found The Secret:

There is no secret.

When you sit in on a class here and meet with the principal and teachers, what you find is a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools but that are difficult to pull off consistently across an entire school system.

These are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.

In 2003, Shanghai had a “very average school system,” one education leader tells Friedman. Now the system leads the world.

And if that can happen in one major nation, it can happen in another.

Friedman again:

In just doing the things that American and Chinese educators know work — but doing them systematically and relentlessly — Shanghai has in a decade lifted some of its schools to the global heights in reading, science and math skills.

Oh, and Shen Jun, the principal, wanted me to know: “This is just the start.”

Graphic: Nicholas Blechman / New York Times



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