Common state standards in math and English — a step forward?

By now, all but five states (Alaska, Texas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Virginia) have adopted what’s known as Common Core State Standards for math and English, a common agreement of what students in the United States should know and be able to do in those subjects.

A Learning Matters blog post features differing views of what this major development might mean for the U.S. educational system — and whether the current system (each state having its own separate set of standards) really does lack focus. I thought you might find it interesting, and I’m curious to know what you’ve heard about this initiative and what questions you have about how it will work, in practice.

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Notes from a long and eventful board meeting

Tonight’s — or should I say, last night’s —  5 p.m. Oakland school board meeting went till midnight. I observed so much from my ergonomically incorrect wooden seat:

The NAACP‘s Oakland branch showed up in force to register their concerns about complaints they’d heard from students and alumni about problem teachers, institutional racism and African American students’ opportunities for success at Skyline High (where a transcript review last fall revealed a whole bunch of students who weren’t on track to graduate), McClymonds and Castlemont high schools.

Teachers showed up to voice their support for retired teachers whom the district hired to coach them when they were first starting out. The retired teachers said they were told their services would no longer be needed. Superintendent Tony Smith said he had known nothing about this — and that he wished he had been informed of this development by his staff, rather than at a school board meeting. (Sounded to me like the program would be restored.)

Nikita Mitchell, one of the school board’s student directors, gave a rousing, seemingly extemporaneous end-of-term speech about education in Oakland, the “two Oaklands,” and how she and other students had been saying for years what members of the NAACP reported on Wednesday.

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Oakland makes national news – in a good way

When friends and relatives from other parts of the country see Oakland in the news, it’s almost always because something tragic or bizarre has happened here. I’m sure many of you can relate.

Now I hate to speak too soon — I wasn’t near a TV at 3:20 this afternoon — but I believe BET aired a piece about Amir Ealy and 22 other African-American boys in Oakland who earned perfect scores on their 2010 math or reading tests. The network used some of our footage (with permission) in this one-minute news brief, which is now posted on its website.

Here it is:


Berkeley-based National Writing Project in jeopardy

The Berkeley-based National Writing Project, a 37-year-old program to help teachers of all grade levels and disciplines teach writing, received some tough news this week. It lost all of its federal funding for the upcoming school year in a temporary spending bill President Barack Obama signed into law Wednesday in an effort to avoid a federal government shutdown.

Ed Week’s Alyson Klein reports that the writing project was one of more than a dozen educational programs that will lose federal funding temporarily, if not permanently. Support for such programs is technically defined as an earmark, since it is a non-competitive grant, though some of the organizations — such as Teach For America — are national in scope.

The National Writing Project’s network receives more than $25 million from the U.S. Department of Education; it encompasses 200 programs at colleges and universities in all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Bay Area Writing Project, anchored at UC Berkeley, is the oldest one.

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The best of Oakland: Oratorical Fest

Kristen Caven, an OUSD parent, volunteer, and author of Perfectly Revolting: My Glamorous Cartooning Career, tells us about a festival that’s become an institution in Oakland. The final competition is March 18 and 19.

Do you want to see the best of Oakland? Come to any round of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratorical Fest, at any school, now in its 32nd year. Private, public and charter school students perform famous or original speeches, poetry, and songs about peace, freedom, justice, beauty, human rights, personal struggle, and triumph, or just being a good and authentic person.

I attended the regional competition for middle and high schools on a lark today, helping out an English newcomers teacher, Ms. Colt, who’d had two teachers and three parents call in sick, and could not otherwise take her the 21 kids from our school. But my sacrifice was not entirely altruistic. I’ve often gone out of my way to attend the festival at my son’s elementary school, always a memorable, many-tissue day filled with poetry, inspiring words, and adorable, brave kids.

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Sweat equity in Oakland

This spring, as California schools face yet another round of budget reductions, some are giving this fundraising formula a try: Oakland pride + a fitness challenge + a way to help a school in need.

Sankofa Elementary School library, photo by Hasain RasheedDagmar Serota was in a meeting at the Sankofa Academy library when she noticed the bare shelves. The few books that were on them, she said, were old and outdated.

Like other schools in the district, the North Oakland elementary can’t afford a library clerk, let alone a librarian, to manage the collection and lend books to the children.

Then Serota thought about Urban Promise Academy, a middle school in Fruitvale, and the money it was able to raise last year through the Oakland Running Festival. She thought of all the excitement surrounding the marathon, and the fact that people seem to like running for a cause.

Fast forward a few weeks, and we have Run for Sankofa.

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High school debate, alive and well in Oakland

Skyline debate team (courtesy photo)

EXCEL’s Tanesha Walker (back row, middle), and Top Speaker Rashid Campbell (back row, left) with the Skyline High School team. Campbell and Walker won the championship trophy at last weekend’s debate championships.

Christopher Scheer, a teacher and debate coach at Skyline High School, sent me a recap of the Bay Area Urban Debate League championships last weekend, which I’ve posted below.

My favorite quote:

I spoke with my martial arts mentor this morning, said Campbell, a senior at Skyline from East Oakland who will attend the University of Oklahoma on a debate scholarship this fall. “We talked about how I wasn’t scared to fail, I was scared to succeed. I decided to succeed.

For the full play-by-play of the competition, check out Scheer’s write-up below: Continue Reading


A half-baked test prep question?

casseroles, from Cameron Nordholm's site at flickr.com/creativecommons

Last night, a mom sent me a reading test-prep stumper involving casseroles. I was SURE I’d be able to nail it. I grew up in the Midwest in the 1980s and early 90s, so I’m no stranger to cream of mushroom soup or Tater Tots. If anyone would know the answer, I thought, it’s me.

She writes:

My daughter brought home a “Practice and Mastery” book to prep for the 4th grade CA language arts standards. She was stumped at the following question in the Word Analysis section:

Read this sentence: She baked a very tasty casserole.

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An Oakland principal goes to new lengths to promote reading

Over the years, Think College Now Principal David Silver has subjected his staff to the dunk tank, danced to Snoop Dogg on the roof and let students run the school for a day as a reward for reading for at least 100 million minutes by June. The students fell short of their goal last year, but this time the prize might be too tempting to pass up. Silver hasn’t had a haircut in months; if the kids meet the goal, as they explain in the below video (in which a group of students appear to be grooming his curls), the student council will be allowed to shave his head.

You can donate books to the school library by clicking here.