Cory Turner | KERA News

Cory Turner

For a moment, let's pretend.

That everything you know about America's public education system — the bitter politics and arcane funding policies, the rules and countless reasons our schools work (or don't) the way they do — is suddenly negotiable.

Pretend the obstacles to change have melted like butter on hot blacktop.

Now ask yourself: What could — and should — we do differently?

You sneak them into backpacks and let them commingle with the video games (hoping some of the latter's appeal will rub off). You lay them around the kids' beds like stepping stones through the Slough of Despond and, for good measure, Vitamix them to an imperceptible pulp for the occasional smoothie.

Books are everywhere in your house, and yet ... they're not being consumed. Because it's summer, and kids have so many other things they'd rather do.

It's summer, and whether you're 5 years old or 105 it's time to play.

To inspire you, the NPR Ed Team called up leaders and designers at 10 of the nation's best children's museums and asked them one simple question:

What's the one thing under your roof (or maybe out back) that kids and their grown-ups love to do/see/touch/play the most?

Here are their answers, our summer "playlist."

1. Adventure Expeditions — Port Discovery Children's Museum, Baltimore.

Welcome to our sand box.

For months now, the NPR Ed Team has been playing with what we like to call "long listen" ideas — worthy stories that we can't tell in three or four minutes.

A new report, out today, provides 186 pages of answers to one of the toughest questions in education:

What does it take to get preschool right?

Parents and politicians alike want to know. States are spending roughly $7 billion this year on early childhood education, despite the fact that there are more cautionary tales — like this one from Tennessee — than success stories.

"My goal for this special session is to keep the schools open," said Sam Brownback, Republican governor of Kansas, talking about a high-stakes gathering today in Topeka.

He called lawmakers back from their vacations for a special session after the state's Supreme Court doubled-down on its demand that they make school funding more equitable across districts or risk a calamitous funding freeze.

"We cannot allow our children to be caught in a constitutional struggle between branches of government," Brownback said. But that's exactly what's happened.

Something's wrong in America's classrooms.

According to new data from the Education Department, black students — from kindergarten through high school — are 3.8 times more likely to be suspended than white students.

Now the really bad news.

This trend begins in preschool, where black children are already 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than white students.

What made Mozart great? Or Bobby Fischer? Or Serena Williams?

The answer sits somewhere on the scales of human achievement. On one side: natural talent. On the other: hard work. Many would argue that success hangs in some delicate balance between them. But not Anders Ericsson.

"This is an intolerable situation," Sen. Lamar Alexander said last week in a heated speech on the Senate floor.

The Tennessee Republican is chairman of the Senate's education committee, and he is furious with the Education Department. He even gave states some remarkable advice:

"If the regulations are not consistent with the law, I don't believe [states] should follow them," he said. "If the department persists, then the state should go to court to sue the department."

The Kansas Supreme Court gave state lawmakers an ultimatum:

Make school funding more equitable by June 30, or it will consider shutting down the state's public schools.

Since then, things have gotten ugly.

Lawmakers followed up with a plan — to make it easier to impeach Supreme Court judges who attempt to "usurp the power" of the Legislature or governor.

This winter, Jameria Miller would often run to her high school Spanish class, though not to get a good seat.

She wanted a good blanket.

"The cold is definitely a distraction," Jameria says of her classroom's uninsulated, metal walls.

Her teacher provided the blankets. First come, first served. Such is life in the William Penn School District in an inner-ring suburb of Philadelphia.

The hardest part for Jameria, though, isn't the cold. It's knowing that other schools aren't like this.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Let's begin with a choice.

Say there's a check in the mail. It's meant to help you run your household. You can use it to keep the lights on, the water running and food on the table. Would you rather that check be for $9,794 or $28,639?

It's not a trick question. It's the story of America's schools in two numbers.

Many middle and high school science teachers are getting climate change wrong.

That's according to the results of a new, national teacher survey backed by the National Center for Science Education and published in the journal Science.

Before we get to those results, a quick, climate science refresher is in order.

NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce says the world's major scientific organizations are now clear on global warming:

Erika Christakis' new book, The Importance of Being Little, is an impassioned plea for educators and parents to put down the worksheets and flash cards, ditch the tired craft projects (yes, you, Thanksgiving Handprint Turkey) and exotic vocabulary lessons, and double-down on one, simple word:

Play.

Things to know about Stephen Ritz, one of NPR's 50 Great Teachers:

He and his students made bow ties out of Scrabble tiles.

His Bronx classroom, a refurbished school library, has more plants than desks.

He calls the room his National Health, Wellness and Learning Center. It's got tower gardens, gleaming cabinets and counters, an industrial sink and a new, mobile cooking station.

"In this class, we go from seed to tower to table to plate in 20 feet," Ritz says.

Just because a toy's packaging says it's educational doesn't make it so. That's the finding from a new study in JAMA Pediatrics that found some toys being marketed as language promoters got in the way of learning.

President Obama called it "a Christmas miracle. A bipartisan bill signing right here."

The "right here" was the South Court Auditorium, part of the White House complex. More importantly, the bipartisan bill being signed was the Every Student Succeeds Act — a long-overdue replacement of the unpopular federal education law known as No Child Left Behind.

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote as soon as Wednesday on replacing the nation's big education law, known since 2001 as No Child Left Behind.

And President Obama is expected to sign the new version, ending an era marked by bitter fights between the federal government, states and schools.

So as it dies, we thought an obituary was in order.

Yup, an obituary. Because the law's critics and defenders all agree on one thing: No Child Left Behind took on a life of its own.

The number of international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities jumped last year — in a big way. It's up 10 percent, to roughly 975,000, according to a new report by the Institute of International Education and backed by the State Department.

In 2014-15, China was still the largest source of students with 31 percent of the total. India was in second place with nearly 14 percent. And Indian students were a big reason for the overall jump.

Starting a new job is always tough — no matter the profession. But the first year for a new teacher can be brutal.

Research shows that roughly one teacher in 10 will quit by the end of that first year, and the toughest time — for many — is right now. In fact, this season is so famously hard on teachers that it even has a name ...

Here's a recent excerpt from the blog Love, Teach:

They're hard.

At least, that was the rep on new tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards that millions of U.S. kids took last spring. Now you can be the judge.

There are now a slew of actual math and English Language Arts questions online — searchable — from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — better know as PARCC. You can also see some student responses and guidance on how they were scored.

George Watts Montessori Magnet sits just north of downtown Durham, N.C., along the eastern edge of Duke University. Its sprawling, red-brick campus is nearly a century old and surrounded by gorgeously restored family homes that once housed Duke fraternities, before the university sold them off.

Cross your fingers.

Congress is trying to do something it was supposed to do back in 2007: agree on a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It's not controversial to say the law is in desperate need of an update.

After nearly seven years in office, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will step down in December. The former head of Chicago Public Schools came to Washington back in 2009 with his friend — a newly-elected President Obama.

Duncan's tenure was remarkable for two reasons:

First, he got a lot done. A lot. The list is long, so, for the purposes of this short post, let's focus on perhaps the biggest thing he did, which was also one of the first things he did. In the summer of 2009, Duncan made this grand pronouncement:

Students who experience traumatic events while growing up in poor, turbulent neighborhoods could be considered disabled, a federal judge has ruled in a high-profile case involving the Compton, Calif., schools.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald, released on Wednesday, involves a class-action lawsuit filed against the Compton Unified School District. The plaintiffs argued that students who have experienced trauma are entitled to the same services and protections that schools must provide to traditionally disabled students.

Teachers, parents and politicians have long wrestled with the question:

How important is preschool?

A new answer comes in the form of a study — out of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. — that is as clear as it is controversial.

If you made it past the headline, you're likely a student, concerned parent, teacher or, like me, a nerd nostalgist who enjoys basking in the distant glow of Homework Triumphs Past (second-grade report on Custer's Last Stand, nailed it!).

Whoever you are, you're surely hoping for some clarity in the loud, perennial debate over whether U.S. students are justifiably exhausted and nervous from too much homework — even though some international comparisons suggest they're sitting comfortably at the average.

There is big news today for prospective college students and their parents. It comes from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who is in Iowa with President Obama for his annual Back to School Bus Tour.

"Today, we're lending a hand to millions of high school students who want to go to college and who've worked hard," Duncan said. "We're announcing an easier, earlier FAFSA."

That's the Free Application For Federal Student Aid. With more than 100 questions, it's a gatekeeper for students hoping to get help paying for college.

It's not just baby talk. Any kind of talk with young children — especially if they're too young to talk back — will do.

Because talk is vital to a child's brain development, says Dana Suskind, who found her passion for literacy in an unlikely place: the operating room.

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