Tabula Rasa does not mean Carte Blanche

What are the emerging education stories in the months ahead? What continuing stories should we be tracking? What issues aren’t being covered in the proper depth?

What's next?I know it’s the dog days of summer, hardly the best time for jumping up and down with intellectual energy, but I hope you will give us a hand, because Learning Matters is at another crossroads, another decision point.

I hope you have noticed that we have devoted lots of time, resources and energy over the past three years to two important school reform stories: the efforts to bring about change in Washington, DC and New Orleans, LA, two of the lowest performing school systems in the nation, by Michelle Rhee and Paul Vallas, respectively. In a few weeks the final episode of this series will air on PBS NewsHour. In total we will have produced twelve stories about NOLA and twelve about DC. That’s unprecedented reporting, particularly for television, and it’s been worthwhile.

Now, however, we have the opportunity to cover other stories.

But which ones? We do have, in effect, a tabula rasa, but we don’t have carte blanche to report on any old thing we please. We work for and with PBS NewsHour, whose journalistic standards are well regarded; for another, we’re interested in stories that have significance beyond their immediate surroundings, whenever possible. We don’t want to do PR for someone’s best idea ever, but neither do we want to miss any exciting new approaches to solving persistent problems.

Four big issues seem obvious to us (but you may disagree):

1) What the administration calls ‘The Race to the Top” and its ramifications, including the decision by a number of states not to participate;

2) The emergence of what are being called ‘common standards; and

3 & 4) Pushes at both ends of the system, one for early reading, the other for increasing the number of college graduates.

We’ll be working on ideas for the next couple of weeks. I invite you to weigh in and promise that your ideas will be given fair consideration. Please respond in the comments, and maybe we’ll get a healthy debate going. We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

19 thoughts on “Tabula Rasa does not mean Carte Blanche

  1. The ultimate success or failure of the Bologna Process (European higher education reform) may exert considerable influence on higher education in the US as well as increase Europe’s competitiveness for international students who now more often choose to study in the US. It will be important to follow this story. We can be certain that Sen. Lamar Alexander and others interested in reforming US higher education are paying close attention.


  2. John –

    RE: Other stories

    There’s a lot of talk – but little clarity – about “21st century” education. Forget that we’re already ten years into this century, there seems to be as many definitions of what this means as their are pundits. Some think that there’s little new here, simply a restatement of what has always been basic education. Others see goals such as those promulgated by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills as a means for companies to hijack education away from educators and public policymakers. Some see it as all about technology. A few see it as radically different from what is happening today in even the most progressive schools.

    The public is, as usual, caught in the crossfire of words and their mindset mostly formed by their past school experiences.



  3. Take a look at home schooling and its recent exponential growth. It was interesting to read recently that many children are nothome schooled for religious reasons. Apparently college acceptance rates outpace those of public schools.


  4. Here’s two ideas:

    –Since we’ve just celebrated the anniversary of IDEA, now might be a good time to REALLY look at what’s going on (or not) with special education in America.

    –Since you (and just about everybody else) have been focused on the struggles and successes of urban schools (DC, NOLA), isn’t time to remember the rest of us in the rural schools?

    Need more, I know a bunch of great teachers who be glad to fill your inbox!


  5. John,

    In 1999 the music industry was broadsided by Shawn Fanning. The same thing is about to happen to the textbook industry. It makes no sense for schools to pay what they are paying for textbooks. In fact, with the advent of digital textbooks, taxpayers need to hold state and local agencies accountable for the billions of dollars that are being wasted. Teachers, parents, and education advocates need to point out that we have spent huge amounts of money connecting our schools to the Internet, yet we are not receiving the economic benefit of downloading digital textbooks for pennies.

    To give thoughtful and thorough coverage to this aspect of technology in schools would be one of the most useful topics you could choose to cover.


  6. The Obama Administration has prided itself on following the research evidence to formulate policies. Yet, thus far in their school reform initiatives, pre-k and early education – which has decades worth of research pointing to their short- and long-term benefits for children, government and society – have been largely ignored. In Race to the Top and i3 competition, they’ve been sidelined as optional priorities. Their ESEA blueprint has minimal mention of early education. The media has been so focused on charter schools and pay for performance that this topic has received relatively little attention. There are plenty of state and local stories that demonstrate how school leaders and policy makers outside of Washington are turning to high-quality pre-k as a critical part of their school reform strategy. I hope someone in the media explores the role (or lack thereof) that early education plays in national conversations about education reform.

    Thank you.


  7. The U.S. is falling behind in getting students to and through college. Many are focusing more on the college years and completion, but the real story may be that during the crucial years of grades 5-9, we lose our students’ interest and motivation to learn. Once middle school is past, if students don’t have solid math background and the ability to read and write, it is too late. The transitions to middle school and high school may actually hold the key to the long-term success of our nation.

    The other story is that many students get through high school without the right courses to even go to college if they can afford it. In California, this means the A-G requirements, but every state has its requirements—and many students get a high school degree without even being remotely ready for college.


  8. What about looking at ways to help college students and graduates manage student loan debt? The push is on for increasing the number of college graduates and, for the foreseeable future, the majority of students and families will rely on student loans to pay for college. But more people taking on larger amounts of student loans, combined with the faltering job market, could mean big problems for both the individuals taking on the debt and the nation’s economy. Lowering college costs and investing more federal dollars in Pell Grants vs loans are possible solutions but will take years to achieve. There actually are many programs already in place to help struggling borrowers make the debt manageable, but too few people know how to take advantage of them. Can the government and higher education be doing more to educate student loan borrowers, both before and after the debt is taken on?


  9. Thanks for these suggestions. So far no one has proposed turning over rocks (such as the for profit colleges). Does anyone have an appetite for that sort of reporting?


  10. 1. The for-profit college idea, undergrad and graduate degrees, is a good one. As degrees are more and more a recognized economic, rather than academic, commodity, students become customers. As customers, they are “always right.” Students are now buying a product rather than getting an education. The customer decides what product to buy rather than what kind of a growth experience to engage in. What does this mean for learning, understanding, knowing, personal and intellectual growth and development – all part of the traditional college education? This also applies to the “marketizing” of K-12 education where parents are buying a particular product for their children. What are the consequences of turning education into a product to be marketed and sold to individuals for personal benefit rather than a community effort to develop competent citizens for the public good?

    2. The current push for longer school days and school years runs into the realm of after-school and summer programs. Is it better to have more school or is there something unique about these out-of-school time programs that should be preserved, or even expanded? While the school day focuses on achievement and test scores, after-school and summer programs tend to look at the development of the whole child and provide broader experiences. What kind of balance should we strike for the benefit of our children, our communities and the future of our country?

    3. School “reform” has been going on for a very long time. One model that takes a developmental and community approach is that of James Comer. There have been, and still are, a large number of these schools across the country over many years. They seem to have been generally successful in improving student behavior and achievement. Are they what they seem? If so, why have they not been embraced as reform models in the current push to improve schools? Are they too hard to create, sustain, and replicate? Or are they just too hard to standardize and measure? Or is it politics and/or ideology?


  11. I think the for-profit college topic could be an interesting one, and it follow on from my question. My original degree was a traditional liberal arts degree (which I passionately believe is important). However, I live in a rural area – and when it was time to go back to school (post kids) I ended up in a vocational school getting an associate degree in nursing. I know I got an excellent education there – but now I’m stymied. It seems the only way to go beyond that degree in this area is to drive over an hour and a half to school – or choose one of the for-profit onlines that actively recruit people like me. RN to MSN! Enroll today! That doesn’t seem a good model to me.
    But I was also seriously concerned when I went to the local high school, knowing that they would be glad to help me with a college search – and the same school I ended up attending was pooh-poohed. Just a vo-tech. This in a high school that had kids going to Mount Holyoke and Skidmore and Harvard – and a high drop out rate.
    We need to rethink opportunity looks like. Not every kid should go to a liberal arts or engineering school – but there are lots of schools out there where young adults could learn about their passions, whether that’s engines or early childhood ed. This should not be considered a second-best choice.
    By the way – I ended up at a non-traditional school, getting a masters in developmental psychology. It was the only college in town. I will never be an advanced practice nurse but it has opened the doors that I wanted to open.


  12. In December 2009, dozens of Asian immigrant students began an 8-day boycott of their Philadelphia high school after two dozen of their peers were attacked in a day-long series of assaults. The boycott, which drew international attention, highlighted students’ concerns following more than a year of assaults and complaints from students and community advocates about anti-Asian/anti-immigrant hostility from both students and staff. In January the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a complaint with the U.S. Dept. of Justice alleging civil rights violations by the School District of Philadelphia for failing to address the anti-Asian/anti-immigrant violence at the school.

    Nationwide, incidents of bullying and in particular anti-immigrant violence in schools is of serious concern. Earlier this year, a young Irish immigrant girl committed suicide following relentless harassment at her school. Five years ago the Dept. of Justice ruled against a Brooklyn high school for failing to protect Asian students there against “persistent” harassment.

    What is the responsibility of school districts in creating safe and inclusive climates for all children to learn? What are the best practices we can learn in creating spaces where racial justice can thrive? What’s happened to multiculturalism and anti-racist pedagogy which was once building in our districts?

    Young immigrant students in Philadelphia, in so many ways, among the most silenced in our school communities, have risen up to the challenge locally, calling attention to the issue, working with other youth groups to form a citywide campaign against school violence, testifying at hearings and commissions, and taking leadership in place of a recalcitrant School District. As our newest Americans, they are a shining example of the power of youth organizing and the future of our schools.


  13. If you’re looking for an emerging story I wonder if this might be one I found some of the allegations in here very disturbing, like students were supposed to get an externship as a required part of a program and didn’t and couldn’t graduate but the school kept on getting goverment money which means it’s taxpayer money which means it’s partially MY money. I think it’s a disgrace. It also has to be ruining the students lives and as they are supposed to be minorities it has a funny rip-off-of-the minority-student smell to it which really has to stop happening to kids from these circumstances. It seems it’s like shooting fish in a barrel for these for-profits to go after these kids. It really is time to put a stop to these predatory moves, I think.


  14. Here in Oklahoma, education funding is a problem. Scores of teachers and support personnel have been let go for the coming year due to a lack of funds. We have an upcoming State Question on the ballot that would mandate funding at the regional average. The State Question does not provide more funding for education. In these difficult economic times, how are school systems and states dealing with their budgets?


  15. In your book, you talk about the fact that schools should be practicing democracy but instead are more interested in avoiding controversy. I would love to see more coverage of that idea. We need to ask about what schools should be doing more often and looking for schools that are moving in interesting directions.

    The stories of Rhee and Vallas are interesting from the standpoint of how schools get from very bad to pretty bad, but I would love to see more on what decent schools should be doing.

    I also think that Pam has a good idea as far as talking about the impacts of state and local budget crunches. Obama just signed over $10 billion to deal with that, but it’s difficult to figure out whether that’s the right amount.


  16. I think the sleeper story of the year is the proliferation and diversification of early colleges: who they serve, how they operate, and where they’re funded.

    Once a novel way to engage bright but bored high school students, in the last ten years early colleges have diversified in shape and scope. The models are different. The students are different. The funding from one to the next is different. Yet they are growing.

    There are running start programs, dual enrollment options, early entrance and still yet, places like Simon’s Rock— an exclusively early college.

    Last year there were more than 300 early colleges—all taking different forms, with more still developing through federal and private grant support. What does this all mean? What is motivating this growth? Are early colleges about saving money or an education? And what can be learned from colleges like Simon’s Rock who have been in operation for more than four decades? Most importantly, how can families make sense of it all?


  17. We appreciate your involvement and the wealth of good stories. Have any of you been following the recent controversy over publicly connecting student test scores with their teachers? The LA Times broke a big story on Sunday, and reporters everywhere are buzzing about it. Is this legitimate, in your mind? Should we try to cover this one?
    Home schooling is a tough story to cover, because it seems as if each family is unique. Thoughts?
    And thanks…


  18. The Voting Rights Act (VRA) must be upheld by the supreme court:

    The numerous despicable attempts to restrict voting made during the last election cycle are proof of that. Anyone who truly believes the VRA is obsolete needs to recognize, given last year’s voter suppression efforts, the Jim Crowe era is biding its time.

    Now even if you are dumb enough to believe that all is OK with the world and there are no reasons to have the voting rights act on the books. Then why are the the parties at opposite end’s on this? Why are the Republicans in America trying to keep people from the poles ?

    The argument is that VRA is discriminatory against Southern states to require them but not other states to seek pre-clearance for voting laws; I actually agree. The Voting Rights Act should require *ALL* states to seek pre-clearance. After what we’ve seen the GOP try to pass in states all across the nation prior to the last 2012 election, I see no reason this safeguard against voter suppression should be limited to just Southern states as suggested by VRA of 1965 but now should be expanded to apply to ALL 50 states.

    Ajay Jain
    1209 Creekwood Drive
    Garland TX 75044-2421


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