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MEDIA WATCH: Blogs that provide education news and intelligent commentary are hard to find... This week in Education and District 299.com are holding out against a rising tide of Blogdom mediocrity

Once a week from now on, www.substancenews.net will try and provide our readers with an update on locations in Cyberspace where they can find easily accessible, relevant and reliable news and commentary on education.

For the week of Valentine's Day, February 14, 2010, this week's picks go to two blogs operated by former Chicago pundit Alexander Russo, This Week in Education and District 299.com.

District299.com, which for years was hosted by Catalyst, is now at another spot on the dial and can be accessed at

http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/district-299/

This Week in Education is now located at Scholastic and can be accessed at

http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/

Even though like all blogs these two are subject to the usual warning signs — blogs derive their "content" from other people's reporting and punditry, then set off a stream of commentary — these two blogs have the advantages of high quality content and a base of loyal and well-informed readers. This combination keeps them both lively and — within the usual range — accurate and relevant. Since most of the commentators, especially at District 299, are Chicago teachers, parents and administrators, the relevance can often be brutally local.

It was District 299.com that first exposed the problems of Chicago principal Erin Roche at Ravenswood Elementary School.

These became the problems of Prescott Elementary School when Erin Roche went from Ravenswood to Prescott, for example. Substance reported extensively on the Prescott struggles last Spring and Summer.

Then things changed again in real time.

Prescott is presently in the fight of its life against a move by Ron Huberman to close the school (possibly because Huberman believed it was vulnerable because Roche had made himself unpopular with some veteran teachers). If anything, however, the Battle of Prescott has now taken a new turn. As we reported exclusively at www.substancenews.net, more than 700 people turned out for the two hearings to oppose Huberman's plans to close Prescott, an extraordinary turnout for a school that has, at most around 200 children this school year. (The Prescott story and updates beyond the blogs has been covered by Substance and is a lesson, for both pundits and reporters, in how Cyberspace clippings without current reporting may prove misleading).

To see the latest news from Prescott, we urge our readers to go to the story posted last Saturday (More than 400 people take off a Saturday morning to say 'Don't close Prescott!' by Jesse Sharkey - February 07, 2010) following the massive turnout at Prescott under the slogan "Don't Close Prescott!" at

http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=1157§ion=Article

But back to the blogs hosted by Alexander Russo. In order to evaluate educational praxis and promises — and separate them from the overwhelming hype that surrounds most privatization schemes — readers need careful reporting, as well as blogging and commentary. Skepticism is required, and that is best gained as a result of experience in education and education reporting.

At their best, these two blogs have both the experience and skepticism necessary if public schooling is to survive the Duncan years.

For example, during the last few days, Russo's blogs have reported on critical views on the Harlem Children's Zone and Teach for America, both citing reporting that is not easily available to Chicago readers.

Here is an example, from the Washington Post's Nick Anderson, who has begun taking a critical look at the Chicago Miracle and the policies being promoted by the Duncan and Obama administrations.

Teach for America's federal funds threatened by grant competition proposal, By Nick Anderson, Washington Post Staff Writer, Thursday, February 11, 2010; 10:40 PM

Teach for America, which enlists recent college graduates for two-year stints in some of the nation's most troubled public schools, would lose its uncontested claim on $18 million in federal funding under an Obama administration proposal to launch a grant competition for teacher training programs.

At first blush, the proposal to end Teach for America's noncompetitive grant seems a surprising setback for a program viewed favorably by federal officials, lawmakers and philanthropists with influence in public education.

But Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the proposal to merge that funding with other programs, if approved by Congress, would make $235 million available for initiatives to recruit and prepare teachers for high-need schools.

"We think there's a chance for programs that are doing a great job to actually increase their funding," Duncan told reporters last week when asked about Teach for America. "It's an expanded pool of resources and we want the best to rise to the top. . . . There's a big, big opportunity out there for high performers."

But leaders of the 20-year-old nonprofit organization, based in New York, have expressed concerns about the budget proposal because they are counting on federal funding to help finance an expansion. So a dedicated grant could be more valuable to the organization than the chance to win more money.

"We're really hopeful that Congress will put us in the budget," said Teach for America spokeswoman Kerci Marcello Stroud, "so we can take advantage of this tremendous opportunity for us to grow and reach more kids."

Stroud said the proposed grant competition could raise difficulties for the organization. "It's hard to plan," she said. "We have to plan so far in advance."

Teach for America placed 4,100 new teachers in schools last fall, more than double the number five years earlier, and it hopes to grow even more. The organization has provided the Washington region with many teachers over the years, including 415 this year in the District and Prince George's County. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is one of its most famous alumni.

Backers say the program is one of the best alternative pathways into the profession; critics say the teachers it places are ill prepared and often do no better than those who come from teacher colleges with regular credentials.

On various occasions, Duncan has praised Teach for America. He also has said many teacher colleges do a "mediocre job" preparing teachers for the classroom.

Teach for America's $18 million noncompetitive grant, authorized under the federal higher-education law, amounts to a tiny fraction of the $59 billion Education Department budget for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. But Stroud said the grant and a few million dollars from other federal sources account for more than 10 percent of the organization's $189 million budget. Teach for America has received federal education funding for several years, according to the organization, including a $14.9 million grant in the last fiscal year.

Whether the administration's proposal will win congressional approval remains to be seen.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he was "disappointed" that Teach for America was not specifically included in the administration's budget. "This is a proven program," he said. "If you're effective and have demonstrated success, does it make sense that you're rolling the dice potentially every year in terms of continued funding?"

Looking for admissions advice? Campus news? Reports on college life? Please visit our new Higher Education page at washingtonpost.com/higher-ed. Bookmark it!

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Comments:

February 13, 2010 at 6:58 PM

By: kugler

the more the better

it is sad and frightening that the other media outlets in chicago ignored the closings hearings(wgn, cataylst) did one story about three weeks of testimony from the stakeholders of the schools to be closed.

shame on them for taking the road less traveled in fear of retaliation from their corporate sponsors.

We are talking about human lives not numbers. Ignoring their plight is an affirmation of the crimes against them.

russo on his 299blog, i have noticed is not afraid to push the envelop. maybe he is like me already blacklisted so it does not matter anymore that we please the master.

http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/district-299/

An injury to one is an injury to all.

February 14, 2010 at 6:50 PM

By: Danny

D299...Dull, Dead

My, how the District 299 Blog has fallen since moving from Catalyst to the Chicago Tribune.

A year ago, D299 was a must-read. A good number of people contributed comments, and while many were wild-eyed rants, disinformation, and ad hominem attacks, a fair number were informative, insightful, and thoughtful.

That’s not the case today. Since the move to the Trib, the number of comments has declined dramatically, as has the number of contributors. My guess is that only a handful of people make the vast majority of comments. Rather than provoking thought, these commenters provoke bilious, low-brow personal attacks and unsubstantiated absurdities. Sigh.

Granted, it is difficult to come up with interesting topics on a daily basis that people care about enough to write comments. Alexander Russo sometimes used very poor judgment, pushing the envelope, as it were, in a direction that was incompatible with Catalyst. He bristled at their censoring him and moved to the new site.

But Russo has yet to find his niche. Catalyst found its niche in the high-brow, favorable to school reform approach; Substance, which has a decidedly different editorial slant, excels in its news-gathering (something Russo cannot do from New Jersey).

Hopefully, D299 will find its bearings and reverse this decline. Or perhaps someone else will come along and provide a better forum. Please keep us posted.

February 16, 2010 at 5:10 PM

By: alexander

blogger

thanks for your post, george, and for your comments, john and danny -- i appreciate the praise and the feedback.

readership is actually up quite a bit since i left catalyst, though comments are down so far. lots of substance readers and fans on the site, though -- seems like there's always someone linking back to here in the comments.

good news is that you can now post comments anonymously again on district299.com --

no need to create a profile or even go through the rigamarole of using district299reader --

just click the "anonymous" link and give whatever name and whatever made up email you want to (i just used "joe@schmoe.com" for example) and you're ready to go.

thanks again

/ alexander

February 16, 2010 at 6:40 PM

By: Retired Principal

District 299 Blog

Danny, you are right! Alexander, have you lost your educational soul or did you sell your educational soul?

February 16, 2010 at 10:03 PM

By: I don't get this guys

dist 299 fan

I blog back and forth between substance and 299. I also read the comments from all three of you above me on the 299 site. When catalyst, which I read, but rarely comment on now that 299 is gone from there, the censorship was a BIG issue. So I can see why Alexander left. I get where George is coming from re: the Tribune, but I still get some meaty stuff off of 299. ChicagoNow allows a bigger audience and with the good fight we are fighting, for the students that we all care about, the more exposure the public gets about CPS smoke and mirrors, the better.

February 17, 2010 at 2:19 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

Tribune clarities

I have to read the Tribune as part of my work. I made the decision not to blog to the Tribune (in any form), given their breathtaking history of promoting teacher bashing, union busting, charterization, and privatization. We need to write up the complete history of the current attack on public schools and the Tribune's role in that attack going all the way back to "Chicago Schools: Worst in America" (Tribune Books, 1988) and coming forward to every puff piece the Trib has published mindlessly promoting charters, mindlessly bashing CPS teachers, and viciously pushing the Ayn Rand version of reality.

Reading District 299 is one thing...

Blogging there would be like putting on boots made of cowshit and walking around the house. The stink would drive everyone out and everything else away.

The best thing that can be said about the Tribune is that their "news" columns are a good place to learn how the enemy spins, and their editorial (and op ed) pages are where the enemy dictates its strategic planning.

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