Who To Believe On State Education Budgets?

There's lots of seemingly conflicting information out there right now about whether states are really flush again or not. Last week, Stateline among others reported that there was lots of new money to spend on education (Governors Love Them Some Education Proposals).

But the latest comes from pat Callan's Center on Higher Education Policy (via Inside Higher Ed) , which says all's not so rosy: Happy Days Aren't Quite Here Again "State governments -- despite this year's relative prosperity -- face deficits that could endanger college budgets, report warns."

Traditional College Students Not So Traditional

As part of my reporting on an upcoming piece for the NYT Education Life Supplement, I was fascinated to find out that the "traditional" 18-22 year old students and public and private two- and four-year institutions that we all probably think make up the largest portion of the postsecondary world are not, actually, typical. Oops.

So-called traditional college students -- full-time, 18-22 years old, residential, etc. -- make up only 16 percent of college students, according to the folks at Eduventures who research this stuff. More than half are older, and part-time. Roughly a quarter of them are taking all or part of their courses online. A million (and growing) attend for-profit institutions.

That's just the start of it. Beyond the 17 million students counted by IPEDs (the data system that tracks students attending Title IV eligible institutions, there are another 85 million or so others that are involved in other forms of postsecondary learning -- much of it corporate training that could, but doesn't, go to university continuing ed departments.


NCLB Meets MySpace: Ct. AG Blumenthal Joins WitchPerv-Hunt

Wired magazine takes a critical look at the MySpace crackdown, pointing out that in many cases parents, educators, public officials -- and the press -- are over-reacting to the sudden creation of 57 million online profiles -- mirroring previous hype about chat rooms, heavy metal music, and violent comic books.

"There have been more articles on MySpace predators than there's been reported predators online," says one UC Berkeley expert in the article.

Could you, dear reader, be one of those over-reactors? I think you could. But you're not alone. Fearless NCLB lawsuit filer (and defendant) Ct. AG Richard Blumenthal recently announced a criminal probe into the online service's practices. Coming Next: Federal Government Blocks Spoof Margaret Spellings Profile On MySpace.


Did Reagan Invent the Phrase "No Child Left Behind"? Suddenly It All Makes Sense.

What starts out like a tired complaint about the overuse of the "No _____ Left Behind" slogan gets interesting when its writer, William Safire, asserts that the NCLB phrase -- long thought to have been coined by the CDF's Marion Wright Edelman -- may actually have originated with.... Ronald Reagan (No ... Left Behind).

Is that right? If so, it all suddenly makes sense. After all, NCLB is really a conservative plot to discredit public education and/or turn children into automatons and turn it all over to the private sector.

Whatever Happened To The PTA?

Earlier this week, it was "Whatever Happened to FairTest?" Now, with this WSJ piece (Losing the 'P' in PTA) it's the PTA's turn. According to the WSJ, the organization's downfall has much to do with its unwise affiliation with the NEA. I don't know if that's the whole story, but it's pretty clear that the PTA is an organization that's no longer the force it once was. Thanks to Right on the Left Coast for flagging the article.

Next week? Whatever Happened To the Children's Defense Fund.


Only Gringos Call Gringos 'Gringos,' -- Gabacho!

What would you want to know about Mexican/Mexican-American culture if you weren't afraid to ask -- and knew someone who could answer?

Why do Mexicans sell oranges and make fun of Guatemalans? Why do they dress up so much? Why do they pronounce "shower" as "chower" but "chicken" as "shicken"? Why do they call Anglos "gabachos" -- not "gringos"?

Those are the questions that the irreverent and controversial Orange County Weekly column Ask A Mexican is designed to answer. Written by a young Mexican-American journalist since 2004, the column takes questions of all kinds and turns them into what some of you would call teachable moments. The LATimes profiles it this weekend.

"Embedding" Reporters in the Classroom Might Help Coverage

I've written in the past that I already think most education reports are a little too sympathetic to (and credulous towards) classroom teachers. It's also true that embedding reporters with military units has had a mixed record in terms of revealing unseen truths behind the war in Iraq.

Still, this Washington Post piece (Why can't we embed reporters with teachers or bus drivers?) makes you think: "Why can't we embed reporters with, say, Metro, or the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, or Fairfax County public schools or Freddie Mac?"

Would it help? I'm guessing so -- especially when it comes to giving reporters a chance at understanding how things really work in schools as opposed to taking what teachers and administrators say as gospel.

States "Trying To Put Off The Day of Reckoning"

It feels good when smarter and larger outfits than mine (like the Post editorial page) agree with what I pretty much alone have been saying the past few weeks: that the growth model version of AYP is not a good idea.


While everyone else has been hedging and wait-and-seeing, I -- and now the Post -- are pretty clear that giving states yet another way to avoid labelling schools as failing and doing something about it is bad policy.

"That so many states are bidding to try such a scheme is a bad sign," states the Post in a Saturday editorial (No State Left Behind ). "It means that nearly half the country's school systems do not believe it is possible to make all or even most of their students proficient within a decade....Worse, it looks as though many states are now trying to put off the day of reckoning. We hope the education secretary will be stingy with permissions to join this pilot program, and we hope its tenure is brief."

UPDATE: Missing the main point of the post, which is that the mainstream media might finally be taking a critical look at what's going on over at the USDE, Eduwonk feels that there have been some others who've questioned the growth model (It's A Bird, It's A Plane, No, It's Russo! Our Last Hope!).


While You're At It, Why Not Let Dubai Run the Schools?

A friend of mine wrote earlier today to suggest that, while they're handing over control of things like ports (Bush Aides Stand Firm, Saying Port Deal Raises No Alarms NYT), maybe the Bush Administration should bring in a United Arab Emirates-controlled company to run a few of the nation's largest public school systems.

There are lots of reasons why giving a Dubai-based company control of school systems like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle would be fun. For starters, it would give Democrats something to complain and look tough (though idiotic) about. And, among educators, it would blow the whole privatization argument out of the water.

Why bother talking about mere domestic companies taking over public education when there are foreign-controlled corporations in the mix?

Got PD?

If you're one of those professional development freaks who just can't get enough (you know who you are), check out the new set of clippings that Hayes Mizell has recently started sending out (click below) and send him an email (at hmizell@msn.com) if you want to sign up. Mizell has done a lot of work with the NSDC, as well as before that on middle schools and with the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.


Here's the most recent example:

PD in the News:
Selected News Reports about Forces Shaping
What and How Teachers Learn

2/2/06 Rhode Island
Math, Science Top [Governor’s] Education Plan
Governor Carcieri unveiled his education agenda for the coming year yesterday, reiterating his push to ‘move forward boldly, rapidly’ in the areas of math and science education ... He also outlined plans to strengthen professional development for teachers and to create a system for evaluating their performance ... Spokespeople from the state's two teacher unions, the Rhode Island chapters of the American Federated Teachers and the National Education Association, said ... adding professional development days to teachers' school schedules should be left to individual districts, they said, not mandated by the state. ‘What Providence needs is probably different than what a wealthy district needs,’ said Larry Purtil, NEA's president. Carcieri wants to extend a teacher's school year to 190 days; current teacher contracts range from about 180 days to 187 days.”

2/14/06 West Virginia
Sometimes, Teachers Need to Learn, Too
“A new century calls for new ideas. That was the goal of this forum for teachers to provide comments on how the West Virginia School Board can better educate youngsters in the 21st century. ‘We need to address how teachers will gain the needed skills,’ says Williamstown Elementary schoolteacher Esther Lauderman, ‘to do things differently in the classrooms.’ And it isn't just about technology. It's about things like better problem-solving skills. And teachers who've attended similar forums elsewhere in the state say that involves more planning. ‘More professional development time is needed for our teachers in order to develop teaching methodologies to get at the teaching of these 21st Century skills for kids,’ says State Schools Superintendent Steven Paine, who participated in Monday's forum. ‘And when you talk about more professional development time, you can't help but talk about money.’ But Lauderman says dollars aren't the entire answer. ‘I think it can be done with more creativity in talking about the school day,’ she says, ‘and how we can restructure that a little more differently, to give the teachers time for collaboration, for being part of a learning community. I think that can be done within the confines of a school day.’’’

2/14/06 West Virginia
Computer Needed for Each Student, State Told
“History teacher [Robin Chaney’s] thoughts mirror what officials have been hearing as they continue to travel the state today for a series of forums. The forums are geared to find out from those already in the trenches how to better prepare students and teachers for the classroom. The initiative is part of West Virginia’s Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which is focused on the future of the state’s schools, and ultimately its workforce... Chaney took part in the first forum in Putnam County, where eight of 12 groups said they need more meaningful staff development. Teachers are required to have 18 hours of training a year. ‘Just continuing education and professional development won’t work,’ she said. ‘You can’t have a two-hour drive-by type of session.’’

2/17/06 Loveland, CO
Welcome Help
“An anonymous donor has given the Thompson School District $200,000 to provide teachers with more tools for helping students succeed. The donor has promised an additional $100,000 if the district can come up with its own $100,000, said Superintendent Dan Johnson. ‘We have already sought one other grant,’ Johnson said, adding the Board of Education has made professional development for teachers a high priority and will likely set aside money for the match. Board President Robert Towles concurred. ‘The board feels very strongly professional development is one of the things that makes us successful and our teachers ... better prepared and trained,’ he said. The money will educate teachers about four successful programs for promoting literacy, math skills and critical thinking and provide ongoing support as educators adapt techniques to their classrooms, Johnson said ... The money will allow the district to hire coaches to help teachers implement strategies successfully, he said. ‘It’s not going to be a one-shot deal. It’s designed to be ongoing support for teachers,’ he said. With the help of the grant, teachers will gain the following classroom tools, according to Johnson: • Support from the Public Education and Business Coalition, a Colorado program that shows teachers how to think critically about what their students know and discover ways to help them learn more effectively. • The Paul and Elder critical-thinking model now used successfully at Winona Elementary School, which challenges children to improve their thinking skills. • Comprehensive Early Literacy Learning, a program that promotes development of strong literacy skills at all grade levels. • Schools Attuned — An assessment that targets student strengths and weaknesses and helps teachers build on a student’s strengths while showing them how to overcome difficulties.”

2/13/06 Albuquerque, NM
Grant to Help Train Teachers to Improve Student Writing
“[The University of New Mexico] has received a $30,000 grant from the National Writing Project to improve student writing and learning. Funding will establish the High Desert Writing Project, an opportunity for Albuquerque-area teachers to participate in summer and school year programs focused on improving writing skills. The High Desert Writing Project summer institute will be held from June 1 to June 30. Participating teachers will study successful classroom strategies to teach writing, read and discuss research, and improve their knowledge of writing by writing themselves.

Leading the writing project is Richard Meyer, professor of Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies at the UNM College of Education. Meyer believes Albuquerque is an excellent site for the project because it includes the largest school district in the state and has a diverse student population. The project will also serve teachers and students in nearby counties. The National Writing Project, a federally funded professional development program with 189 sites, provided more than 6,000 programs for K-16 teachers across the country in the 2003-04 school year.”

2/17/06 Framingham, MA
Summer Institute for Teachers
“Salem State College has been awarded a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to host a summer institute for school teachers, ‘The Visual Culture of Colonial New England.’ This institute will bring together 25 K-12 teachers in a four-week-long institute. The institute is directed by Patricia Johnston, professor of art history at Salem State College, and will feature faculty from the history, English, geography and art departments, as well as two master teachers and nationally-known guest speakers. Participating teachers will receive a $3,000 stipend and PDP credits. They will also have the option of taking the class for graduate credit from Salem State College ... The institute's 25 participants will tour significant archeological sites on the North Shore of Massachusetts, including sites associated with the witch trials in Danvers and the reconstruction of the first iron works in Saugus. Many of the sessions will be held at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. In addition, participants will study key works of colonial visual culture at other New England locations including Plymouth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the Africa-American Meeting House, the Paul Revere House, the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The institute will examine four main themes: the built environment, the visual culture of the sea, the visual culture of religion and education and domestic interiors. This is the third year that the College has been awarded this prestigious grant to support teacher's professional development.”

2/16/06 Madison, IN
Good Teachers Never Stop Learning (editorial)
“Good teachers are a precious resource whether they perform at the preschool, elementary, secondary or post-secondary levels. And, good teachers know that learning never ends and knowledge is something that no one can take away. An example of excellence in education involves four Southwestern Elementary School teachers and two Hanover College faculty members who have developed a partnership that will benefit educators and students across the state. The Southwestern and Hanover teachers worked together on several science-related programs with the backing of the Hoosier Association of Science Teachers, Inc. How wonderful that our local teachers have an opportunity to share ideas with their counterparts at a respected college. And congratulations to Hanover College for its willingness to make its faculty members available. The effort, named Science Training Actively Reaches Students, or S.T.A.R.S., is funded through a $227,000 federal Math and Science Partnership grant. It provides two-week summer institutes at Hanover College for Southwestern Elementary teachers and support staff ... The partnership’s mission is simple - as teachers get better, student achievement will increase.”

2/17/06 Broward County, FL
Education Leaders Will Be Honored
“Marina Rashid, the principal at Eagle Ridge Elementary School, established Mini Child Study Meetings. She meets with teachers and support team members to analyze student baseline data and then, using a clinical approach, a unique academic plan is devised to meet each student's needs ... [She] also established TEAM Thursdays. Teachers participate in staff development and collaborative activities for an hour each Thursday while students participate in elective classes such as Spanish, chorus, drama or video production, according to the district.”

2/14/06 Tecumseh, MI
Kindergarten Changes Proposed Again ...
“After retracting a proposed half-day, every day kindergarten program last year, administrators presented to the Tecumseh school board on Monday a proposal to offer parents a choice of full-day or half-day kindergarten along with preschool and latch-key programs. Board members liked what they heard of the program ... Also in the proposal is continued professional development for the district's elementary teachers with consultant Bob Sornson, who implemented an early intervention program in the Northville schools when he was an administrator there. The result was ‘significant’ financial savings as the district reduced its number of special education students by catching learning disabilities early, [an elementary school principal said].”

2/15/06 La Crosse, WI
Credit-Based Training for Childcare Workers Goes Forward Without State Mandate
“La Crosse early childhood workers aren’t waiting for the state of Wisconsin to tell them to raise standards for professional development. They’re doing it already ... About 70 people working primarily with children ages 3 to 6 have been attending Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standard Training — for college credit, if they wish — at Family Resources. ‘Quality Care for Quality Kids’ was proposed by Gov. Jim Doyle during the last budget cycle ... Had it passed, a rating system, including requiring credit-based courses, would have started ... ‘The item was taken out of the budget, but everyone is convinced this area of professional development and early learning is going to come back,’ said Kathie Tyser, La Crosse School District associate superintendent for instruction ... ‘(The) training is all about helping those working in childcare and early childhood education to understand (what) the best practices are for young children and how to optimize that and make (them) work,’ Widuch said.”

2/15/06 Tucson, AZ
Class Sizes in Early Grades Cut ...
‘‘The Tucson Unified School District governing board unanimously approved late Tuesday a plan to keep small kindergarten class sizes for a second year at schools in which students have struggled — and expand the measure to include all kindergarten and some first-grade classes in the district. The plan will cost $5.6 million next school year to bring class sizes from 24 students per teacher down to 18 in kindergarten and from 29 students per teacher to 18 in first grade ... ‘If you want to give children a good start, this is were to do it,’ said David Yaden, a professor of language, reading and culture at the University of Arizona's College of Education. But he added, ‘Just reducing the class size but not having trained people in the classroom won't do it.’ That's why TUSD officials also are stressing that the plan will include training and professional development for teachers in the affected classes, with coaching, peer evaluations and teacher collaboration.”

2/13/06 Champaign, IL
Early Childhood Education the Subject at ... Public Forum
“The education of young children will be the topic at a public forum Feb. 25, the third in a series at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ... In Illinois, the number of children attending state-funded pre-kindergarten programs has grown rapidly in recent years, early learning standards are being implemented statewide, and a new professional development system has been established, called Gateways to Opportunity ... The forum will explore the implications of these and other developments, as well as other issues related to early childhood education in central Illinois ... The scheduled presenters are Kay Henderson, head of the Early Childhood Division of the Illinois State Board of Education; Lilian Katz, U. of I. professor emerita of early childhood education; Mark Obuchowski, professional development adviser coordinator for the Gateways to Opportunity project; and Margie Wallen, early learning project manager for the Ounce of Prevention Fund.”

2/15/06 Miami, FL
Teachers May Get ‘How-To’ Classes
“Students and teachers both could be learning during this year's summer school under a proposal that would create six ''demonstration schools'' in Miami-Dade County. Any teacher who applies could observe classes to learn techniques and strategies for some of the district's newest programs, such as single-gender classes and small learning communities. Unlike regular summer school, which lasts four weeks, the demonstration schools would have a six-week session. Details are still being negotiated with the United Teachers of Dade union, but students might only attend for part of the day, leaving teachers time to discuss the program in the afternoon. 'We'll almost be using a medical-rounds approach,’ said Ava Byrne, deputy superintendent for professional development, comparing the program to the system used for rookie doctors.”

2/17/06 Fulton, MO
[Article on School Board Meeting]
“In other matters, four FPS elementary school educators addressed the board regarding their participation in Teachers' Academy, a monthly group that convenes the region's teachers to explore cutting-edge techniques and expand their knowledge of other developments and trends within their field. ‘It's extremely helpful to meet with teachers in a region and get feedback and bounce ideas off each other,’ said Bush Acclerated School teacher Heidi Ebersole. Their involvement is part of FPS's professional-development efforts encouraginig teachers to innovate and expand their repertoire of educational approaches. ‘The kids enjoy it when I come back (from Academy meetings),’ said McIntire Elementary School teacher Sharon Meyer, ‘because they usually know I'm going to come back with something new that I'd like to try.’”

2/16/06 Lincolnton, GA
[Article on School Board Meeting]
“Concerning staff development, [an assistant superintendent] noted that there have been some major changes this year. ‘First and foremost is the fact that staff development continues to suffer the most from budget cuts. The program has lost nearly 40 percent of its funding over the last couple of years — we have had to pull funds from other Federal programs such as Title II and Title VI in order to fund our professional development program. Unfortunately, we no longer receive Title VI funds so we have lost another 20 percent of our funding.’ He went on to add, ‘We are continuing to phase in the Georgia Performance Standards which means a lot of professional development for our staff over the next several years.’”

2/16/06 Merino, CO
Mad About Merino: School’s Teachers Make It a Success
“Merino Elementary may be a small, rural school 120 miles from a major city, but it's getting nationwide attention. ‘People think of us as a little podunk, no resources, no qualified teachers because we're out here and it's just the opposite,’ Merino Elementary Principal Kyle Stumpf said. The kindergarten through sixth-grade school of 156 pupils is at the tail end of a three-year federal grant for reading. The $450,000 Colorado Reading First Grant paid for a full-time reading coach and training for teachers. Stumpf said the success the school has seen, in part because of the grant, is garnering the school attention from other areas. ‘Before, we did things well but everyone was doing their own thing,’ Stumpf said ... Merino Elementary is noted as one of the top two schools out of the 33 schools in the first cycle of the CRF grant, according to Stumpf. Because of the success the school has had in its reading program, other statewide schools are visiting it to observe Merino's teachers, according to the principal ... But why is a small school in rural town having so much success when by all accounts it should be struggling? Stumpf chalks it up to one area: The school's teachers ... [A Title I teacher said she] and other teachers try to meet the needs of the lowest students, thereby making everyone rise higher. The lowest readers are monitored every week and instruction is changed when needed. She said teachers are willing to try new things and give extra time. Any weak areas are addressed with professional development ... Kathy Graham is now the school's literacy coach. She says the grant that funds her position has given the school professional learning and a community model. ‘We all had the same training. We're all on the same page,’ Graham said. The program uses scientifically based research to monitor students' progress, Graham said. Teachers collaborate and monitor the data to see if the pupil's needs are being addressed. If not, they can intervene early. She said the children she's helped with reading are now excited about putting sounds together because of the curriculum.’”

2/15/06 East Germantown, IN
[Test] Scores Please School Leaders
“In other business ... the [school] board approved a Community Alliance to Promote Education agreement, which says the school corporation will use a $30,000 grant for training and professional development in early childhood literacy over the next three years.”

2/14/06 Chillicothe, OH
School Tech Budget May Get Boost
“The Chillicothe Board of Education is considering nearly doubling its annual technology budget for computer equipment purchases ... While many technology grants are available, the district only needs specific ones. ‘We have so much in professional development grants, you could be training people 24 hours a day,’ said Assistant Superintendent Joyce Atwood. ’Some of our other grants have dwindled. We went from getting $50,000 one year to about $13,000 this year.’’’

2/14/06 Missoula, MT
School Groups Ready to Share Recommendations
“The Community Conversations group originally gathered last summer for a series of ‘study circle’ meetings. It was comprised of parents, community representatives and educators appointed by [Missoula County Public Schools] Superintendent Jim Clark ... The Community Conversation Ad Hoc Committee had six recommendations, including: ... Invest in professional development for school district staff.”

2/15/06 Grand Rapids, MI
[School District] Teachers to Start Winter Break With Learning
“Even as many East Grand Rapids families prepare to leave town for next week's winter break, teachers are ready to head back to the classroom. Educators will spend the first three days of the weeklong break in a conference-style series of professional development workshops ... The sessions will run all day Monday through Wednesday, and teachers can choose from a variety of subjects, including differentiation, using online research resources, and working with exceptional students. All teachers must take a session on using the new data warehouse system, an online tool that allows them to create reports ranging from district-wide performance to a student's individualized results on a specific subject. ‘We have 189 teachers choosing from 11 to 14 sessions over each of the three days,’ said Glowicki. ‘It's pretty amazing to think about.’ Breton Downs Elementary teacher Lisa Loyd is looking forward to benefiting from the conference. ‘I get so much more out of having three days rather than a half day here and a half day there,’ she said. ‘And not having the students there means we can really focus on what it is we need to do.’

2/17/06 Yuma, AZ
Teacher Training “Raving Success”
“Organizers of the first-ever countywide professional development day for educators, held Friday at Yuma High School, say the event was a ‘raving success.’ Each of the more than 2,000 teachers participating attended three of the more than 200 available breakout sessions on a variety of topics ranging from culturally appropriate teaching strategies to a geometry construction project to editorial cartoons in secondary social studies.”

2/14/06 Townsend, MA
Teachers Veto Proposed 3-Year Contract
“Teachers from North Middlesex Regional School District vetoed a proposed three-year contract by a nearly two-to-one margin Monday ... Teachers and the school committee also disagree about extended Wednesday school days, because they don't provide students extra help on schoolwork or teachers the opportunity for professional development, [the teachers’ union president] said. The district's school day normally ends about 2 p.m., but lasts one hour longer on Wednesdays.”

2/17/06 Conventry, RI
Board OKs New Agreement With Teachers
“The teachers also agreed to participate in common planning time outside of the normal school day, and to spend 15 hours on professional development, at no additional cost.”

2/15/06 Eldridge, iA
[School District] Unveils Proposed 06-07 School Calendar
“Seven professional development days have been scattered throughout the first and second semesters. Two additional per diem days were scheduled and will depend on state funding - one on Aug. 11 and the other on Jan. 3, 2007. ’One of the things we've worked on very hard in the last few years is to make the best use of our staff development days,’ he said. ‘We've tried to move them throughout the calendar so they come in a timely fashion, at a time when we can make best use of that very important staff development time.’ One noteworthy change, Langenhan explained, involves two-hour early dismissals on the last day of each quarter. He said that teachers will be using that time to work together. Board member Joni Dittmer asked how well the staff development day, held on the day after Christmas break ended, went. Langenhan thought those sessions went ‘very well,’ and that the teachers came back refreshed and ready to work.”

2/18/06 Chambersburg, PA
Our View: [Superintendent] is Wrong Choice for Conference (editorial)
“Four months before his retirement date, Chambersburg Area School District Superintendent Ed Sponseller is heading to California next week for a conference at taxpayers' expense ... The money is coming from Chapter I federal funds. Sending Sponseller to San Diego for the American Association of School Administrators' national conference isn't the best use of taxpayer dollars. What "professional development" can Sponseller achieve in a four-day conference that he hasn't picked up in 38 years in education?”

2/14/06 Las Vegas,NV
School Board’s Math Skills Come Under Criticism
“Pop quiz: How should the Clark County School District spend $46,000 in private funds designated for training School Board members? A) On four days with a management consultant. B) On a six-month contract with a firm teaching largely the same techniques? The School Board chose the first option, which has some observers wondering if there shouldn't have been a third choice - hire a math teacher who could explain the difference between four days and six months.
... Under a deal approved by the School Board in a 6-1 vote, consultant John Carver will collect $46,000 to spend four days in Clark County reminding the board how it should conduct its business. The School Board adopted his [‘policy governance’] model in 2000, hiring Carver and his wife, Miriam, to conduct initial training. He has made several follow-up visits to the district, with the associated costs covered by private grants. The latest contract will also be paid with a professional development grant from the private Broad Foundation... Carver charged the district $6,000 a day for three days on his visit two years ago. This time, he sought a daily rate of $8,500, plus expenses, which he said must include lodging at a four-star hotel. His second option - the one the board chose - which was $46,000 for four days, including expenses ... The School Board nixed hiring Aspen Group International, a leadership development company based in Castle Rock, Colo., to provide four days of workshops plus six months of follow-up services.”

Compiled and disseminated by:
Hayes Mizell
Distinguished Senior Fellow
National Staff Development Council

To be added to or removed from the ‘PD in the News’ distribution list, contact: hmizell@msn.com


The Ed Trust's Growth Model Strategy: Be In The Room

I was emailing back and forth with the EdTrust's policy god Ross Weiner earlier today about this whole growth model thing, which they're cautiously optimistic about (more about that below). At a certain point I realized that the Trust is, I think, basically making the call that they'd rather be in the room helping the process not be as bad as it could be rather than on the outside clamoring against it. It might be the right thing to do in the short term, but it's a messy, messy, high risk strategy if it doesn't work.


Weiner at the EdTrust tells me that the growth pilot could be OK: "There are legitimate reasons for examining how growth models work in comparison to the current AYP rules," he writes, without letting states using this as "an opportunity to shirk their responsibility for educating all kids."

OK, fine. But aren't the states all about the shirking? And hasn't the USDE of late been all about going along with the shirking? Sure, says Weiner, but it ... won't happen this time. "We know that states have not accepted this responsibility in the past, and we will be watching this process closely," he says, noting that the state applications are going to be made public and that EdTrust's Kati Haycock will be on the advisory board. (So will Bill Taylor of the CCCR, along with a bunch of state folks.)

As you may recall, Haycock responded cautiously to the original announcement:
“We had so-called growth models before NCLB, and they did little to drive reform or improvements for students. The question we can answer with a good pilot is whether a new generation of growth-based accountability systems will do more to drive the necessary changes in teaching and learning than the current model.”

Still, it seems awfully optimistic to me, given that, as Haycock herself points out, we've tried growth before and it didn't work, that the USDE doesn't have to release the applications (and hasn't yet, to my knowledge), and that the advisory board is just that: advisory.

That's where I come to the notion that it's a strategic call more than anything else. The Trust knows that it could go badly, and wants to help avoid that. It could stand on the sidelines and point out just how badly things are going. That's what I'd do. (Hell, that's what I'm doing.)

The upside, if it works, is that there's some next-generation model of measuring school performance that more folks agree is fair and accurate, and the world is a better place with less strife about school performance. Hard to imagine, but it could happen.

In the meantime, Ross gets the last word: "I think many states wanted a free for all and didn't get it. But that doesn't mean everything is taken care of, either. It will be interesting to see what states have proposed (I am sure some will be more responsible than others), what kind of public conversation takes place (will the sleeping giants out there wake up and push back on the states/systems that want to set lower expectations for their kids?), and what gets approved. There's a lot of issues on the table and a lot of implications, but I don't think any of it is cut and dry good or bad at this point."

Jumping On The Kate Boo Bandwagon

I've gotten a couple of emails about Board of Visitors, which sorta resembles A Valentine To Boo and Banchero. All I can say is ... great minds think alike? Maybe nobody at the Sector saw my post? Anyway, I've put in for an explanation and am hoping for reparations in the form of Maker's Mark.

Who's Covering The Testing Industry?

I read today's NYT Winerip column (Watchdog of Test Industry Faces Economic Extinction)-- and the "We're not dead yet" response from FairTest -- with mixed feelings.

As longtime readers of this site know (How “Fringe” is FairTest? Very., Like Asking Quakers About Iraq), I have long thought that FairTest had been generally overused by education reporters and had become a marginalized and extreme part of the testing and standards debate in education.

And yet, it's clear that the world of testing is something that most reporters and the public know too little about.

How interesting that the piece comes during the same week that the Washington Post's Jay Mathews writes about the need for the press and public to rethink attitudes towards testing ('Teaching to the test' can be a good thing, too).

How ironic that the piece quotes Tom Toch, whose most recent report on the testing industry (Testing industry overwhelmed under NCLB) was undoubtedly helped behind the scenes by the folks at FairTest and would have been -- should have been -- just the type of thing that FairTest could have undertaken on their own. If FairTest had been doing its job (as I would have defined it), Toch's report would have come from FairTest, and the Education Sector would be doing something else.

UPDATE: Mike over at Intercepts wonders how Winerip chooses which groups to fundraise for: Winerip Spoonfeeds a Watchdog Group.

UPDATE 2: Andy over at Eduwonk calls the column "source greasing" for Winerip's "favorite idea mill" but doesn't acknowledge the role FairTest may have played in helped with the EdSector report or the fact that the Sector has moved into the space FairTest abandoned.

UPDATE 3: Over at the Dayton Daily News' Get On The Bus, Sean Elliot writes that I shouldn't have chided reporters for over-using FairTest and that he hopes the organization survives (Test companies need a watchdog). I agree -- I just think that there are other, more balanced experts on testing and assessment that journalists should turn to.

USA Today Comes Out For Mandatory College Grad Rate Data -- But Not Mandatory College Testing

Things are getting interesting on the HEA reauthorization front.

The editorial page at USA Today comes out this morning in favor of better data from colleges and universities -- using Secty Spellings' experience finding a college for her daughter as an example of the problem -- but against mandatory academic testing for colleges a la NCLB (What high schoolers need USA Today via EducationNews.org):

"Information on dining plans and intramural sports is everywhere, but data about graduation rates or instructional quality are hard to come by," states the Solomon-esque editorial, which goes on to say that "Tracking college students' academic progress doesn't require mandatory standardized tests, like those used in elementary and secondary schools."

The editorial points out that literacy rates for college graduates leave much to be desired, and that research universities in particular aren't oriented around educating undergrads. (There's a shout out to the John Merrow-created PBS show Declining By Degrees in there as well.)

Governors Love Them Some Education Proposals

Kavan Peterson over at Stateline.org does a great job rounding up the various school-related notions and initiatives that this nation's governors are coming up with this year, thanks to new budget surpluses -- and looming elections (State surpluses a boon to education).

Yes, it's true, big education plans make great politics, especially when state tuitions have been going up double digits each year and teacher salaries have been falling behind the state next door. It doesn't even necessarily matter whether the plans go through. If your plan stalls out, just blame it on balky legislators .

USDE Sells Off AYP, Ed Trust Says 'No Problem'

This morning's NYT reports that 20 states want in on the latest NCLB fire sale -- the "growth model" pilot program -- as the USDE continues seling off bits and pieces of AYP.

Don't think this has a lot to do with fairness, or anything else. It's pretty much all about reducing the number of schools that fail to meet AYP -- a practice that many states have gotten awfully good at over the past four years.

And -- this may be news -- the Education Trust seems fine with that.


The states vying for inclusion are Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. Six others Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Dakota want in for next year.

As of last year, roughly 20 percent of the 50,000 Title I schools around the nation failed to meet AYP (though that rate varies widely from state to state). Even without the growth pilot, that wouldn't be that much higher this spring, due to all the carveouts and loopholes the states have devised. Is 20 percent really too many?

No problem, signals the EdTrust's Ross Weiner in the article:
"It really brings into relief, this question, this issue that has been simmering" around the law, Mr. Wiener said. "How much growth is ambitious enough that you're being fair to kids versus what's fair to schools and school systems?"



KIPP Hype Threat Level: Orange (High)

The Department of Education Hyperbole has upgraded the Hype Threat Level for the network of schools known as KIPP to Orange (High).

The heightened warning comes in response to a suspicious spike in "chatter" being monitored by the Department regarding KIPP and its greatness, etc.

During this period of danger, KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin and their minions are advised to lay low, avoiding unnecessary self-promotion or media coverage.

During this period of danger, reporters, bloggers, and education officials in particular should refrain from fawning descriptions of these schools, their methods, materials, etc.

You will be notified when the threat level is downgraded to Yellow.

Why Isn't There Pressure To Hire More Minority Female Superintendents?

It's getting to be superintendent hiring season, and EdWeek has a worthwhile article on the lack of black, female superintendents across the nation -- a handful of whom have resigned or been forced out in recent weeks.

Even discounting the recent resignations, it seems there are challenges both to being black and -- perhaps even more so -- to being a woman running a major school system.

What's missing is any sense of momentum around addressing the situation, or any public pressure from the public or the press on districts to change it or at least consider qualified minority candidates (like there is for minority sports coaches, for example).

Some pundits like AEI's Rick Hess don't even think there's a problem.


Just 18 percent of superintendents are women, according to EdWeek (Race, Gender, and the Superintendency).

The advantages of being a woman and a minority superintendent would seem to be relatively minor, given the generally white, male nature of most of the senior administrators, business leaders, and elected officials that a superintendent has to deal with.

This makes the comments attributed to AEI's Rick Hess seem naive at best: Hess rejects the notion that being black and female affects urban superintendents “in any predictable or straightforward way,” or that they are “a systematic handicap."

According to the article, "A black superintendent’s race might well provide an advantage a white leader would lack in trying to build connections with a city’s racial and ethnic minorities, Mr. Hess said."

Come on, now, Rick. Get real.


A Moment of Agreement on Spellings

It's not often that I find myself agreeing with much of what's written on the website Schools Matter (except of course the title of the blog). But to every rule there's an exception, and this one (Margaret Spellings is not a Mensch ) comes courtesy of guest blogger Judy Rabin, who asks the question "Why is it every time a pundit talks about the colossal failure and abuses of those in this administration, education is always left off the list?"


Good question. Riffing off the NYT article about the lack of menches in government, Rabin covers some ground that I have covered in past posts, including the bunny rabbit episode (Secretary Spellings -- Education's Very Own Oprah, What to Wear to Your 2nd SOTU As A Cabinet Member? Pink). Rabin points out Spellings' lack of educational qualifications, which are also worth noting and often left out of the press.

Of course, this being Schools Matter, it doesn't take long for all this to come off the tracks, and sure enough the rest of the post dissolves into a rant about Spellings' reign of terror and the spread of testing into high schools and colleges, massive budget cuts, etc. But still. We had a moment.


Media Watch: Plagiarism Prevention Technology Migrates From Classroom To Newsroom

Sloppy and deceitful journalists, watch out. The company best known for developing TurnItIn.com, an online plagiarism prevention tool for schools and colleges, has now created a new version -- for newspapers.


According to this story (Plagiarism 2.0) in the Baltimore City Paper (via Medibistro), it's called CopyGuard and it's being sold as an add-on to LexisNexis and used to check for insufficient attribution and outright theft. To some, at least, what's good for the goose is good for the gander:

“The school I went to as a kid has installed anti-plagiarism software to check student papers," says one source in the article. "Yet many of North America’s leading newspapers won’t even bother to the check the previous work of a staffer found lifting material, let alone invest in technology."

The NYT's Limp "Mop-Up" Editorial on Tutoring (Plus Gadfly & EdWeek Updates)

The "mop-up" editorial (is there a technical term?) is one of the most obvious, self-congratulating, and annoying traditions in big paper journalism. And Thursday's NYT has a great example of it.



After running a decent but not necessarily insightful or balanced piece about NCLB tutoring over the weekend (see below), the editorial page decides it'll jump on the bandwagon with an even less nuanced piece of commentary (Tutoring Gap).

There's nothing fresh or new here. And, unlike the news piece it follows and reality as we know it, the editorial puts the blame squarely on NCLB and the USDE, the states and suspect providers -- leaving out the districts and schools that aren't always doing their best to make this work as intended. It misrepresents what's really going on, and would annoy me no end if I were a beat reporter.

UPDATE 1: Speaking of mopping up, The Gadfly weighs in with Tutoring Tragedy, observing that some cities like Pittsburgh served 5 percent of the students it had funds to serve while others served 80 percent of those it could. "This contrast—certain urban districts meeting their responsibilities while others shirk them—is the real story. Where’s the outrage that some districts are doing all they can to keep parents in the dark about the free tutoring, since they retain the money if kids don’t sign up? Can you imagine the Times’ reaction if districts were keeping the free lunch program a secret from poor families?"

UPDATE 2: Education Week finishes things out with its own take on the last week or two of reports and events, focusing in particular on provider complaints and the results of a survey of 216 providers around the nation. One surprise? Tutoring participation has almost doubled from last year to the year before, despite all the problems. You can see the EIA PowerPoint here.

Making MySpace Safer: Unreasonable Fear of Technology?

According to the latest WSJ, "social-networking site MySpace has taken off among teens, but has come under fire for exposing children to risque content and sexual predators. In response, News Corp. is scrambling to make MySpace a safer place." (News Corp. Aims to Make MySpace Safer)

What I can't really tell is whether this is a legitimate concern or an unreasonable fear among parents, fanned by the media. Based on past media hype (freak dancing, sex bracelets, bondage pants all come to mind), it seems more likely it's hype. Pedophiles and preteen sex and drinking, they're everywhere. Until someone does some real reporting on this, I just don't buy it.


Racism On TV

You don't have to be watching PBS to learn some interesting things about race and class in American society. Whether it's The West Wing, Wife Swap, or even Extreme Home Makeover, sometimes it seems like TV is addressing what's going on in our society better and more directly than most elected officials and media outlets.

Now comes a new FX reality show, Black.White, in which two families essentially switch lives and go through their days as another race. It premiers March 8th and sounds like it tries to do a responsible job of depicting the subtleties of racism and the challenges of that old ideal, being color blind. Here's the NYT story about it. Confronting America''s Racial Divide, in Blackface and White

Providers & Advocates Tell Other Side of NCLB Tutoring Story

Right on schedule, the Education Industry Association -- along with some pro-tutoring advocacy groups and a bipartisan group of Congressional lawmakers -- took a whack at the districts and states for the lack of NCLB tutoring (Tutors say parents, kids missing free help AP). The AP article is pretty much a direct response to many of the points made in the NYT piece earlier this week, which leaned towards the district and state side of things (Struggle Between SES Providers and School Districts).

"Gee Whiz" NYT Piece on Venture Philanthropy

For almost a decade now, new-model school reform efforts dubbed "venture philanthropy" and "social entrepreneurship" have intrigued education writers and schoolpeople alike.

That's not unexpected. Venture philanthropy sounds new, sexy, and cool, and indeed there are some pretty smart people involved. It also signals the arrival of a whole new set of philanthropic organizations. And clearly the NYT is pretty enamored (Venture Capitalists Are Investing in Educational Reform).

But before you get on the bandwagon remember that it's not clear that the venture philanthropy folks do any better with their investments than the traditional funders. And so far at least most of the venture-type efforts focus on charter school expansion.


Education Writers Who Blog

There are precious few education writers with full time newspaper jobs who have the time, interest, and ability to maintain a blog. Patti Ghezzi at the Atlanta Journal Constitution is one of them.

She writes (below) that her blog is edited, was her idea, and generally helps her writing rather than hurting it -- even when the blog causes consternation inside the newsroom or out among her readers. Read below to learn about her experience and what she's learned from it.


Q & A with the AJC's Patti Ghezzi

Q What's the best and worst part of having that blog responsibility along with the rest?

A The best part of blogging is that it's fun. I love communicating with readers in this way. The anonymity allows people to loosen up and tell me what they really think.

Q The worst part is that some idiots take over the conversation. They drive me nuts and run off others with quality ideas to contribute.

Q Was it your idea or the editors'?

A My idea. I have had a personal blog for years (http://redvelvetcake.typepad.com) and I thought it would be fun to blog about school issues.

Q What sort of editing approval process do you go through?

A Editors read the blog and let me know if they think I've crossed the objectivity line. That happens on occasion.

Q Does it help or hurt your 'regular' writing?

A It helps in that I better understand the underlying issues crippling public education, such as the belief many have that education shouldn't be a right, it should be available only to those who want it. I don't think it hurts my writing for the print product.

Q Is your site supposed to be objective like the rest of the news section or bloggy, and is that hard or easy?

A It's supposed to be objective, but with a wee bit of attitude. It's kinda hard, but I don't stress out about it. If a blog item is inappropriate, I can always take it down or change it. It's not engraved in stone.

Q Are there things you can't post about or posts you've had to take down?

A Hmmmmm...I once made a snarky comment about a state DOE plan to offer Georgia students free online SAT practice tests. I pointed out there are already free online SAT practice tests offered by all the prep companies. Editor wanted me to take it down. I can't remember if I did or if I convinced him I didn't need to.

At the request of the editor of our At Issue section, I posted about profanity in the schools and whether teachers call students out for it. That led to some inappropriate posts that had to be deleted. The blog editor thought I showed bad judgment in posting about profanity. She thought it invited profane feedback. (We have filtering software of course, but people know how to get around it) Anyway, a big package on profanity in schools is running in At Issue sometime in the next couple of weeks, with excerpts from the blog...

Seems like there were some other posts that sparked mild controversy inside the newsroom. Nothing too big.

Q How much time does it take?

A Somedays I just post a link to a story in our paper and that takes five minutes. Other days I spend thirty minutes to an hour composing a post. I have to check the comments four or five times a day and delete anything outrageously inappropriate. That only happens about once a month, but when it does it pisses me off. Sometimes when a topic gets too heated, I shut down the comments feature.

A Million Little Pieces...Of NCLB

At some point, even some of the strongest critics of NCLB may come to see that slicing and dicing up NCLB this way could have detrimental effects that go far beyond the law itself.

Just a day after Harvard puts out a study showing how some states are getting more of a break from NCLB than others (see previous post), AP reports that even more state to state disparity is on the way.


This is especially interesting since we already know that most of these states don't have the student data systems in place to do the job (USDE Allows "Progress" Pilot -- But Few States Ready).

According to AP story (States seek more flexibility under No Child Left Behind), the applications (due Friday) are coming from Florida, Ohio, Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon, Indiana, Colorado, Delaware, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

Of these, only two states -- Florida and Ohio -- are anywhere near ready to run a growth model, acccording to NCEA's State Data Systems report cited above. Two more states -- Arizona and Hawaii -- have none of the 1o elements needed to operate a growth model.

A First Look At Newspaper-Run Education Blogs

A small but growing number of newspapers have added education blogs to their website content over the past few months and years. The most recent addition is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's School Zone.

Now I'm all for blogs, all for education writers, and all for more education writing out there, but I have wondered whether -- given the constraints of traditional journalism and large organizations -- these newspaper blogs could excel. So I asked education researcher Eric Grodsky to take a look at the sites out there and see whether they're any good.


There may be others, but we only found four possible candidates to review -- and one (Jay Mathews' Class Struggle) really isn't a blog it's more like an online column.

Maybe that's because it's already hard enough to put out print stories and update them online (argh, I'm told). Putting out additional education content -- not so easy. Especially if there are editors and lawyers involved.

But here the few brave examples are, along with Eric's assessment:

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Blog (School Zone):

The posts are mostly local. There's no commentary. But there are several postings each day, and the blog occasionally offers links to other newspapers.

The rationale? "We’re not shy about telling you that you can get more and better education coverage in the Journal Sentinel than you can get anywhere else in southeastern Wisconsin. Now, we’re expanding our efforts with this blog. We are aiming for it to be a way to add depth and breadth to what we do - not to mention speed, thanks to the Internet....One thing we won’t put here: Our own opinions on education issues. Anything that appears here will be held to the same standards as what appears in the printed editions of our newspaper."

Dayton Daily News (Get on the Bus):

Started in July 2005 and written by reporter Scott Elliot, this one has more sporadic posts but is definitely a blog not a news site. He writes, "This is one of the very few mainstream media education blogs. It covers local, state and national education issues, as well as specific issues of teaching and learning." It provides and invites commentary and sometimes even delves into non-education, newsworthy topics. Recent posts cover teachable moments, news of the edusphere, intelligent design, and the Super Bowl. It also links to other periodicals and other education related blogs, and has a nice table of contents on the side that categorizes past postings. Nice-looking site.

Atlanta Journal Constitution—(Get Schooled)

Run by Patti Bhezzi, this one is also more bloggy and not as newsy as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It invites and displays comments without clicking on a link. One entry has a whopping 276 comments. Wow. There are other AJC blogs on the side. Posts often ends with questions to respond to -- a great idea. It mostly concentrates on local news, but not always. Sometimes Patti looks for sources on the site. Why didn't I think of that?

Given the way of things, there will almost certainly be more. But will they be straight extensions of the news division, like the MJS site, or more editorial in nature like the AJC and the DDN? I don't know. Nor do I know whether they will last, whether readers and advertisers will like them, and whether writers will be willing to add them on to their workload.

UPDATE: How could I forget The Chalkboard, around since October 2004?

What Boehner & McKeon Are Really Good For: The Student Loan Industry

While some of us have been debating about what Boehner's impact is going to do or not do for NCLB and school reform in general (How the Boehner Elevation Helps NCLB Opponents,Pundits & Reporters Being Fooled on Boehner), this USNews piece skips all that and gets right to what's what: New House lineup good for student loan industry.

Like it says, "The rise of Ohioan John Boehner to majority leader and the likely rise of Californian Howard P. "Buck" McKeon to Boehner's old job as the powerful chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce are good news for one industry."


A Valentine To Boo and Banchero: Great Writing About Schools and Home Visits

It's not exactly typical Valentine's Day reading, but I've finally gotten started into what seems like another great Katherine Boo article in the New Yorker from last week, called "Swamp Nurse" about the Nurse-Family Partnership program, an aggressive $4k per case per year early intervention program for poor young mothers in which home visit nurses try to get to issues long before the children get to school.

And that's not all. At the same time, the Chicago Tribune's Stephanie Banchero has put out another of her great features --about a program called System of Care that's taking a similarly aggressive and comprehensive -- intrusive? -- approach. Whether you like the approach or not, or think it works or not, this is top-notch writing about complicated social policy issues.



I'm halways through Swamp Nurse, and it' s not online (I plan to scan it) (read it below), but I can already tell how good it is. (A Macarthur "genius" grant awardee before she was 40, Boo also wrote The Marriage Cure and The Factory about Pacific Rim charter school in Boston, and this, and this, and this.). Amazing, closely observed, not obviously ideological stuff. There is an online Q&A with Boo about how she made the article and what she learned: Children of the Bayou.

So far, at least, Swamp Nurse is reminding me of another recent piece -- Stephanie Banchero's Tribune Magazine piece about a comprehensive services program in Chicago, which you should also check out. You may recall, Banchero wrote a great series in 2004 about one child's effort to take advantage of the NCLB transfer provision that still stands out in my mind.

All hail, Kate and Stephanie -- mixing detailed reporting with insightful policy analysis.

UPDATE: Here's the article:

February 6, 2006

SECTION: FACT; A Reporter At Large; Pg. 54

LENGTH: 9381 words

What's the best hope for the first child of a poor mother?


In the swamps of Louisiana, late autumn marks the end of the hurricane and the sugarcane seasons-a time for removing plywood from windows and burning residues of harvest in the fields. Then begins the season of crayfish and, nine months having passed since the revelry of Mardi Gras, a season of newborn Cajuns. Among the yield of infants in the autumn of 2004 was a boy named Daigan James Plaisance Theriot, and, on the morning of Daigan's thirtieth day of life, he was seated next to a bag of raw chickens in the back of an Oldsmobile Cutlass. His mother, a teen-ager named Alexis, was in front, squeezed between her younger sister and her sister's latest beau, a heavily tattooed man who had just been released from maximum-security prison. The car came down a road that begins with a bayou and ends in dented trailers, and stopped at a small wooden house.

When Alexis's sister leaned into the back seat to fetch the poultry, the young man, grinning, slipped a hand down the back of her jeans. Alexis stared at the couple for a moment, then pushed them aside to pick up Daigan. Alexis's hair was long and streaked with pink, and her face was a knot of frustration. As Daigan began to cry, she crossed the yard denouncing in absentia his father, whom she called Big Head: "If I see him, I will hurt him-Big Head asking for it now." When she reached the porch, which was crammed with auto parts and porcelain toilets, she fell silent, then forced a smile. Amid the fixtures stood a tall black nurse.

The nurse, Luwana Marts, holds one of the stranger jobs in the Louisiana state bureaucracy: she is a professional nurturer in a program called the Nurse-Family Partnership, which attempts to improve the prospects of destitute babies. A few months earlier, Alexis, eighteen and pregnant, had arrived at a local government office seeking Medicaid for her impending delivery. She ended up with both the Medicaid and Luwana. As a rule, Cajun families don't welcome government intervention, especially when it occurs inside their homes, involves their infants, and means the presence of a dark-skinned person. To some parents, Alexis among them, Luwana was a spy in the house of maternity, and so she now and again had to lie in wait for reluctant beneficiaries.

Alexis maneuvered herself and Daigan past the toilets, from which cacti had started to grow, and pushed open the front door with her hip. She entered a combined living room, dining room, kitchen, laundry, and storage facility that was home to five people, a dying cockatoo named Tweety, and multitudes of flat silver bugs. Luwana followed Alexis, Daigan, little sister, and boyfriend inside. That morning, feeling the onset of flu symptoms, Luwana had decided to avoid contact with the infants she called her "little darlings." In the field, though, calculations of risk were subject to change. She dropped her satchel, slathered her hands with Purell disinfectant, and reached out. Alexis handed over Daigan and wrapped her arms tightly around herself. "So, tell me," the nurse began with practiced tranquillity as she scanned a body in a playsuit for damage. "Not the happiest day of your life?"

Alexis and nineteen other girls in Luwana's caseload call her their "nurse-visitor," a term whose genteel ring seldom comports with the details of her job. She is one of eight nurses, all mothers themselves, who work the parishes of Terrebonne and Lafourche, persuading poor first-time mothers-to-be to accept assistance. The Nurse-Family Partnership model is currently being tried in Louisiana and nineteen other states on the basis of promising preliminary results-results achieved in the face of the nurses' preposterously difficult assignment. In regular visits until a baby is two years old, they try to address, simultaneously, the continual crises of poverty and the class-transcending anxiety of new maternity: this creature is inexplicable to me. Despite its ambition, the program is rooted in a pessimistic view of the future that awaits an American child born poor-a sense that the schools, day-care centers, and other institutions available to him may do little to nurture his talents. Shrewder, then, to insulate him by an exercise of uncommon intrusion: building for him, inside his home, a better parent.

Thus, no matter how chaotic the scene-no matter that Alexis's sister had taken a break from hacking chicken parts by the kitchen sink in order to satisfy the ex-inmate's sexual needs in the next room-Luwana's first task is to create an aura of momentousness around the new baby. As she moves through a household, giving advice about routinebuilding, breast-feeding, and storing shotguns out of reach, she attempts to win over not just a young mother but a typically unwieldy cast of supporting players, from the baby's father to the greatgrandmother getting high in a tent behind the house. What Luwana tells each family may seem, on the face of it, fiction: that in this infant enormous possibilities inhere. But such fictions can be strategic, especially in cultures in which the act of becoming a mother is honored far more than what the mother subsequently does for her child.

Alexis, who wore a tight red T-shirt, would have been striking even without the pink improvements she'd made to her caramel-colored hair, and since fifth grade, when she'd lost interest in schoolwork, most of her opportunities had come from men who'd taken note of her looks. Lately, she'd been wishing that she'd had a longer, simpler childhood, but, in the childhood that she had, full hips and breasts and lips had served her well. They served her less well now. To Luwana's questions about Daigan's feeding schedule, she responded monosyllabically while studying her manicured fingers. She'd received the manicure, plus some blue balloons and a chocolate-chip cake, on what she called the "heartful" occasion of Daigan's birth. The days preceding his arrival had not been happy. Alexis lived with her mother and father, a grocery clerk and a construction worker who were in constant conflict. When Alexis was eight months pregnant, the fights grew so fierce that she fled the household altogether. Her recent return testified less to domestic reconciliation than to the impact that a squalling baby has on the sleepover invitations a girl receives.

As Luwana tried to draw Alexis out, the phone rang, and Alexis covered her ears. "I'm guessing this is Daigan's dad who keeps on calling," Luwana said, after the third round of unanswered rings. Alexis met her eyes for an instant, then burst into tears. "O.K., now," the nurse said, "spell it out for Miss Luwana." Between sniffles, the proximate cause of distress became clear. Daigan's father, a sturdy twenty-six-year-old named James, worked on a tugboat on the Mississippi River. That weekend, he would be returning to shore and expected to have sex with Alexis, though she was not healed from childbirth, nor was she using contraception.

"No way!" Luwana said. "Keep your legs closed: embed that in your brain. Tell him to keep his hands to himself. And if you can't stand up for yourself, stand up for Daigan. You've got a lot of work ahead, giving him what he needs. Look around, Alexis. You need another baby in this picture?"

"No," Alexis said dully. Then she brightened: "Miss Luwana, maybe you can write me an excuse note, like for gym?"

Luwana's church friends smiled knowingly when they learned that she worked for the state. They pictured cubicles, potted plants, and cushy hours. She seldom corrected this impression, nor did she say that some mornings, driving her six-year-old Maxima toward some difficult case, she wanted to turn north and spend the rest of her working life in more high-minded quarters. But Luwana's efforts were invigorated by the fact that twenty years ago she was herself a poor, pregnant teen-ager in these swamps. "I know now that there were government programs on the books designed to help girls in my situation, but back then, especially if you were black, you didn't hear about them," she said. She is now thirty-eight, with two sons and a husband who has spent most of his working life in a mill that makes paper cups. It took her fourteen years, between child-rearing and stints as a nurse's aide, to earn a bachelor's degree in nursing. Her state job pays thirty-five thousand dollars a year, half of what she'd make in the emergency room of a private hospital. "Oh, I have my material longings-every so often I'll throw a pity party for the house I'll never have," she said. "But quite a few of us nurses are working, you could say, in the context of our own memories."

"How he doing?" Alexis asked uneasily, as Luwana's fingers explored Daigan's soft spot.

"You're the mama," Luwana responded. "You tell me."

"He's got a big head like his father," Alexis said under her breath. Then she rallied: "He's not as cranky as he was. And one thing I learned already is how he cries different when he's hungry than when he's wet." Luwana bestowed on Alexis a dazzling smile that she had thus far reserved for Daigan. "Making that distinction is important," she said. "You're listening to him, and in his own way he's explaining what he needs. Pretty soon now he'll be making other sounds, and when he does you'll want to make that noise right back. He'll babble, and then you'll talk to him, and that's how you'll develop his language. Now, what you may also find, around five to eight weeks, is that he'll be crying even more-it's a normal part of his development, but it can also stress out the mom, so we'll want to be prepared for it. The main thing will be keeping calm. And if you just can't keep calm-if you find yourself getting all worked up and frustrated-well, then what?"

"Put him down? So I don't hurt him, shake him, make him brain-dead?"

"Put him down and . . . ?" Luwana drilled her girls hard on this particular point.

"Call someone who isn't upset? Let the baby be, and get help."

Luwana turned to Daigan and clapped. "See, your mama is getting it," she said, using the high-frequency tones that babies hear best. "She's surely going to figure you out."

There was a trick that Luwana relied on to stave off dejection: imagining how a given scene would unfold if she weren't in it. In Alexis's case-one that, in terms of degree of difficulty, fell roughly in the middle of her caseload-she knew that slight improvements had already been made. At Luwana's urging, Alexis had stopped drinking and smoking when she was pregnant and had kept her prenatal appointments. So she wasn't incapable of changing her life on Daigan's behalf; the odds were just long.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor now, Luwana sang "Clementine" and made faces at Daigan, and for a moment Alexis studied this demonstration of engagement with her child. But then her gaze drifted over to her sister and the ex-con, who had emerged from the bedroom to chop the rest of the chicken. The young man, whose tattoos included whitesupremacist ones, put on mirrored sunglasses for this task, a fashion choice that made Alexis giggle. Luwana's primary subject that day was infant attachment, a topic she tailored to fit Alexis's limited attention span. "A funny thing about the axe murderers," she said casually. "Usually something missing in the love link." And, indeed, axe-murdering seemed to register with both Alexis and the former prisoner, who set down his knife and came over. "I need to hear, too-mines is horrible," he said. "We whup him but since he turned two he don't do nothing we say, probably 'cause his mama on drugs and sleeping around and getting locked up-well, she's a whore."

"You hit a two-year-old?" Luwana asked, her eyes narrowing. "You teach him how to fight and are surprised when he turns around, starts fighting you?" She then fixed her stare on Alexis, who began examining the brown linoleum floor.

"The love link," Luwana began again. Now the room was still. "It's a cycle. When there's no safe base for the baby-when you're not meeting his basic needs, satisfying his hunger, keeping him out of harm's way-there will be no trust, no foundation for love. And that's when you might just get the axe murderer. Maybe sometimes we have a baby and expect that baby to comfort us? Well, sorry, it works the other way around. It's on you now to comfort him, earn his trust, because that's how Daigan is going to learn how to love."

Infant-development strategies, like other forms of social capital, are perversely distributed in America-fetishized in places where babies are fundamentally secure and likely to prosper, undervalued in places where babies are not. The nurse-visiting program aims, in a fashion, at equalization. The territory that Luwana and her colleagues cover begins an hour's drive southwest of New Orleans, down fog-prone highways lined with cypress trees which lead to the Gulf of Mexico. On the shoulders, turkey vultures pause, flicking mud from their wings. Mississippi River sediment shaped this marshy delta, to which eighteenth-century French Acadians, expelled by the British from Nova Scotia, laid a claim not hotly contested. The terrain now occupied by the exiles' descendants is muggy, heavily wooded, and visited so often by hurricanes that Katrina, which made landfall near here, failed to register as a main event. Residents have another, steadier battle with nature, because they've built their lives on one of the fastest-sinking landmasses on earth.

The social demographics are almost as fragile. Louisiana literacy rates are among the nation's lowest; infantmortality and child-poverty rates-thirty per cent of all children are poor-are among the very highest; and almost half of all births are to single mothers. Historically, the swamp region's topography isolated it from the rest of the state, but drawbridges and thoroughfares have been erected in recent years, and cane fields now give way to Wal-Marts. Still, idiosyncratic child-rearing beliefs endure: a baby will become constipated if held by a menstruating woman; formula is healthier than breast milk; giving an infant a haircut before his first birthday will stunt his growth and hurt his brain.

The cases that Luwana and her fellow-nurses take typically begin with a referral from a public-health or prenatal clinic: a form indicating the age and address of an expectant mother and the baby's due date. Occasionally, a nurse shows up at the given address to find a mother-to-be converting Sudafed to methamphetamine on a hot plate. Other times, a pregnant girl's father is hostile because he's the probable father of his daughter's child. But the nurse's typical commission is to work with what she finds. And while Luwana believes that some aspects of mothering are instinctual, what she teaches is more like applied science. Her tools include a polystyrene demonstration baby named Dionne, picture books, a raft of developmental checklists, and, above all, her trade's bleak knowledge: babies can get used to almost anything-as many of those babies' mothers had.

The Nurse-Family Partnership program began twenty-eight years ago as the obsession of a developmental psychologist named David Olds. He is fifty-seven years old, with clear blue eyes and a tendency to fidget not unlike that of Luwana's adolescent mothers. He grew up in a working-class household and as a young man taught in an inner-city day-care center, an experience that led him to suspect that by age four or five some children are already gravely damaged. In the nineteenseventies, after earning a Ph.D. at Cornell under the late child psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, he began working with colleagues to translate this grim view into an elaborate scheme of prevention. At the time, scientific knowledge about early brain development and the importance of a child's first years of learning was more limited than it is now. But for Olds, who has one biological child and two adopted children, intuition as much as evidence suggested that the rescue effort should begin before birth, and unfold in the setting where an infant would spend most of his time. As for what sort of person a low-income young woman might trust inside her home, he and his colleagues settled on nurses, who in poor communities have high status and medical expertise that many pregnant women want. In 1978, Olds used a federal grant to test his idea in Elmira, an economically depressed, mostly white community in New York's Southern Tier, which had the highest rates of child abuse and neglect in the state.

"Some policymakers look for cure-alls, which this isn't," said Olds, who continues to study his protocol's effects as the director of the Prevention Research Center for Family and Child Health, at the University of Colorado, in Denver. "We keep refining how we do this as the nurses report back on their experiences, because there's still a lot that we don't know-for instance, how best to help mothers who are battered or mentally ill." Nonetheless, when he conducted random-assignment evaluations (among the most strenuous tests of a social program's effect) to gauge how the Elmira mothers and children were faring at the completion of the program, he found more improvement than he had expected. One of his chief concerns had been child abuse, and it turned out that children whose mothers had finished the nurse-visiting program were far less likely to be abused or injured than their counterparts in a control group. He also discovered that by the time the nurse-visited children were four, their mothers were more likely to be employed, off public assistance, and in stable relationships with their partners. Evaluations of two subsequent pilot programs-with primarily black families in Memphis and a racially diverse group in Denver-showed less dramatic results against control groups but suggested additional possibilities. By age six, for instance, the nurse-visited Memphis children had larger vocabularies, fewer mental-health problems, and slightly higher I.Q.s. In all three sites, the mothers had fewer subsequent children and longer spaces between them. An economic analysis of the Olds experiment commissioned by the state of Washington concluded that the approach-which currently costs around four thousand dollars per year per family-was cost-effective as well, because the children aided by the nurses had required fewer expensive social services such as foster care and hospitalization.

The early optimism surrounding programs meant to help poor children is often dispelled by the rigorous assessments that come later. Children may make startling intellectual and functional gains in the hothouse of a model program-say, a preschool run by skilled and idealistic teachers-but those gains tend to vanish when the children move on to their communities' less hospitable institutions. This phenomenon, known as "fade-out," is one of the great frustrations of antipoverty policy, and I was first drawn to Olds's work because his long-term findings seemed to defy the regressive trend. By the time the Elmira children turned fifteen, they were still demonstrably better off than their controlgroup peers. For instance, they'd been arrested far fewer times, one of several findings that inspired the U.S. Department of Justice to cite Olds's infantintervention program as a model for the prevention of juvenile crime. I wondered, however, about the objectivity of the Olds studies, since, regardless of acceptance by peer-reviewed publications like the Journal of the American Medical Association, he is essentially grading his own work. When I raised specific questions about the long-term outcomes in Elmira, Olds decided to recalculate his data using seven different evaluation methodologies, grasping that such a test might undercut his life's work. He later reported that some of the original findings-for instance, those about Elmira teen-agers drinking and running away less than their counterparts-weren't holding up under a preliminary analysis. He was so dismayed by these results that he seemed oblivious of the fact that other evidence of the improved futures of nurse-visited children and their mothers was now about as solid as findings can be when the subject is social policy's impact on human behavior.

The nurse-visitor approach makes some liberals uneasy, because they fear that its focus on good parenting will undermine the fight for decent schools, quality day care, and other institutional supports for poor children. Libertarians recoil at a government-funded program that meddles in private lives, and child-welfare advocates have been frustrated by Olds's restraint. In their view, a "scientifically proven" approach like nursevisiting could have attracted bipartisan support and been widely implemented years ago, if its creator had more emphatically promoted it.

Olds's cautiousness is based not just on a sense of personal fallibility but on what he considers the faltering of Head Start in the late sixties and seventies. A rapid, politically driven expansion inflated public expectation while diluting program standards; by the eighties, conservative policymakers were using Head Start's modest results to justify the rejection of other government antipoverty programs. Olds wants his protocol to expand incrementally, as he fine-tunes it. Currently, thanks to a hodgepodge of public and private funders, nursevisitors in places as diverse as Los Angeles, Fargo, Allentown, Tulsa, and BedfordStuyvesant serve an annual twenty thousand of the United States' 2.5 million low-income children under the age of two.

Louisiana, where I decided to watch Olds's ideas at work over the course of a year, is one of nurse-visiting's most difficult settings. Legislators there have been sufficiently impressed with the program to more than double its size in four years, with the help of federal Medicaid dollars. But, in a state where nurses often run out of breath when recounting the disadvantages of their clients ("The mom I'm working with now is a sixteen-year-old unmedicated, bipolar rape victim and crack-addicted prostitute with a pattern of threatening to kill her social worker, who recently abandoned her baby at her ex-boyfriend's sister's, and who has an attempted murder charge in another situation-well, I think I've got all the risk factors," a colleague of Luwana's said one day), nurse-visiting is unlikely to be mistaken for a cure-all.

In the bayou, every schoolchild knows that a shrimp's heart is in its head, and that now it's cheaper to buy that shrimp from China. So last winter, in a neighborhood called Upper Little Caillou, people who once worked on the water were trawling for a servicesector niche. On homemade signs in yards, the inventory of salable goods continually evolved: "Shrimp/Alterations/Vinyl Blinds"; "Turtle Meat, Adult Novelties & Bail Bonds." Maggie Lander, a seventeen-year-old client of Luwana's, was among the residents hawking what she imagined rich people might want, such as her mother's cache of Harlequin novels. In the interest of clarity of message, though, the front of her home bore just one sign-"No smoking"-on behalf of her one-year-old daughter.

In a few years, Maggie figured, her daughter would perceive the deficiencies of her home, as Maggie did-understanding, for instance, that a sheet stapled to the ceiling wasn't what people usually meant by an interior wall. But she chose to believe what Luwana had told her: that babies didn't care about the surface of things. Their standards were deeper, Maggie believed, than those of some grownups she knew.

In addition to selling secondhand goods, Maggie worked for a janitorial service. She has a lisp, a vulpine face, and auburn hair that she parts down the middle and often lets fall over her eyes. When Luwana came around, though, Maggie tucked the strands behind her ears, revealing the sallow beauty of a Victorian consumptive. For a half-Mexican, halfNative American schoolmate named Jose Hernandez, the sexual attraction had been intense. It wasn't entirely an accident when, after a year and a half of courtship, she got pregnant.

In the bayou region, which is traditionally Catholic, no doctors admit to performing abortions. Home remedies, though, are highly evolved: blue cohosh root, a belly flop from bed to floor, the placenta-rupturing magic of cocaine. ("Is the baby shaking yet?" practitioners of this late-stage strategy asked when they entered the local emergency room; they knew the drill better than the doctors did.) But most pregnancies here were not terminated; as Maggie's mother liked to say, "God doesn't make mistakes." Maggie concurred with this theory. Still, when Luwana first appeared on her broken front porch, she was relieved to have a fresh pair of eyes on her life.

David Olds and his researchers like findings that can be quantified, and Luwana has learned to report her experiences accordingly. The forms she filled out, however, didn't always capture the extent of a family's despair. The first time she'd come to Maggie's house, she had found an intelligent, underfed tenth grader in her second trimester who was sick with untreated hepatitis B and was also trying to care for her mother, who was bedridden and weighed eighty-two pounds. "I was in another world then, wanting to die," Maggie's mother, whose name is Tammy, recalled. "I'd been played the fool by a man I thought wanted a wife." Though mother and daughter shared malnourishment, depression, and very close quarters, they seemed to exist in separate spheres.

One afternoon before Christmas, the effects of Luwana's yearlong campaign against hopelessness were easy to see. The baby, whose name is Maia, was an exuberant babbler, with a paunch so magisterial that her patchwork jeans were left unbuttoned. Maggie's mother was rounder, too, thanks to antidepressants, and she was working alongside Maggie at the cleaning company. Maggie was buoyed by her recent engagement to Jose, whom Maia plainly adored. He had moved into the house shortly before his daughter's birth, and he, Maggie, and Maia now occupied a sweltering room in the rafters.

As Maggie discussed her low-budget wedding plans with Luwana, she bounced her dark-skinned daughter gently, while her fingers traced shapes on the baby's thigh. Maggie had become a diligent student of child-development technique, reading aloud so often from the parenting handouts Luwana had given her that she got on Jose's nerves. "She's, 'Listen to this on early brain development,' and I'm like 'O.K., I was here when Luwana went over it, I know,' " he said. "But she has to memorize this stuff." Luwana, of course, found the habit agreeable, and privately gave Maggie her highest praise: "The girl's an overcomer." But, in the swamps, a massively improved life is not the same as a good one.

Maggie was now weak from the interferon that Luwana pressed her to take for her hepatitis. Maggie didn't know whether she had caught the disease from the twenty-five-year-old to whom she lost her virginity, at age thirteen, or whether she had been born with it. But the combined pressures of infirmity and maternity had led her to a decision with which Luwana took strong issue: dropping out of school after Maia was born.

"I'm just trying to see that we're taking logical steps here," the nurse said gently. A fiercer iteration of her argument-that bearing a child as an unmarried teen-ager and failing to finish high school were matchless predictors of lifetime poverty-had just brought tears to Maggie's eyes. "You have too much to lose, and I know you don't want to clean houses all your life. Remember when I met you? It was one of the first things you said-how adamant you were about finishing?"

"I will go back, Miss Luwana, I promise," Maggie replied. "It's just now, with my job and Maia doing so many new things-I don't know. . . ." Luwana's concern with diplomas, career plans, and jobs with benefits wasn't shared by many people Maggie knew. In a sinking region, land and housing came cheap, and dinner could be yanked from the brown water, so uneducated people could in fact "work the odd one," "do for themselves," and get by.

Luwana, like many of her clients, is good at suppressing emotion. Among her cases were a young mother who had attempted suicide in her third trimester, two others who'd been violently abused, and one who was paraplegic and mentally disabled. Maggie's case troubled the nurse differently. She saw in the girl something of her younger self-"You know, that caged bird singing"-and feared the potential was going to be lost.

"I mean, I'm not going to be just some dropout," Maggie promised Luwana now, gathering conviction. She reminded the nurse of a pact she'd made with Jose, who worked nights with her on the cleaning crew and spent his days in high school. He'd get his diploma while she took care of Maia, then it would be her turn for school.

"So he's going to be the main one keeping Maia, is that what you're saying?" Luwana said skeptically. "You're going to trust him with her next year when you don't trust him now-when he doesn't wake up when she's crying?" In the year that Luwana and Maggie had spent together, Luwana had grown alert to the girl's romantic habits of mind.

When Maggie and Jose cleaned houses for lawyers and car dealers, Jose enjoyed discoveries of drug stashes and signs of affairs. "Wife large," he'd say with a broken-toothed smile, brandishing a find. "Panties behind the trash can in the bathroom, petite." Maggie preferred to dwell on other evidence. "I like dirty kitchens more than the fancy spotless ones," she said, "because in the dirty ones you can picture the homey wife and the father and kids all eating together and talking like a family." She hoped to replicate this scenario with Jose and Maia.

"Let's see," she said one day of the family life she had personally experienced. "In the last few years, we stayed in that trailer park we couldn't afford, then the little blue house we couldn't afford, either-had to give it back. Then a trailer park, then my auntie's trailer when we couldn't afford the trailer, then back to the trailer park, then straight to a little bitty camper behind my aunt's trailer-now, that was tiny, you walk in the door, there's a mattress and a table and that's it. Then we moved in with my uncle, then with my mom's boyfriend, then back to the trailer park, then back to the boyfriend, then back to my uncle, and then here."

Luwana had bettered her own circumstances with the help of caring teachers and strong parents, neither of which Maggie seemed to have. Her father, an illiterate as well as an addict, beat her mother when Maggie was young, and then his neck was broken in a car wreck. Afterward, he got sober, found religion, and separated from Tammy. Both parents are devoted to Maggie, but their leverage is minimal. "I hear Luwana saying to Maggie, 'It's not about you, you're making decisions for your daughter now,' " Tammy once said, "and I can almost see it on the tip of Maggie's tongue, 'But you didn't, Mom. You didn't look out for me.' " Tammy thought often about a day, shortly before Maggie got pregnant, when her daughter told her she was suicidal. "I didn't want to hear it," Tammy said. "I just wanted to believe that Maggie was the one thing in my lousy life I'd done right." Now Maggie considered Maia one thing that she was doing right.

Luwana crouched to study the teen-ager as she and Maia played with a set of plastic blocks. Some adolescents were reluctant to play with their babies because it violated their code of nonchalance. Maggie, though, played zealously until Maia lost interest and tried to crawl away. When Maggie picked her up, Luwana objected: "She's at an age where it's good for her to explore. You want to let her learn to be independent."

"House isn't safe," Maggie said, running her hand across a patch of rough plywood. "I gotta keep her in one place."

"Your authority is her safety, too," Luwana said, then whispered excitedly in Maia's ear, "Let's see you walk! You want to walk? I think you want to walk!"

"She doesn't want to, she's not ready," Maggie protested. Luwana raised an eyebrow, and then they both laughed. It was Maggie who wasn't ready. She said, "It's like, stop here where it's happy, because what if the rest ain't this good?"

Every December, Santa Claus comes down the bayou on a shrimp boat twinkling with lights, at which time bitterness begins to rise in a swamp nurse's heart. This is the season when families whose financial and emotional problems she's been working for months to unravel go deep into debt, drink themselves into oblivion, and beat each other up with more than usual frequency. On Christmas Day, their babies get "Lion King" DVDs that they can't watch, because the television has been repossessed. For Luwana, the rest of the winter is mop-up.

One morning in February, Luwana and six other nurses gathered at the Terrebonne Parish Health Unit, in a low-slung concrete building situated between a shabby neighborhood and an oil rig. A space shortage meant that the nurses conducted their weekly meetings in a storage area, but to Luwana the hours there were luxurious-a time of reassurance that she wasn't working alone.

Waiting for the late arrivals, the nurses discussed the deficiencies of the Atkins diet and the doings of their own adolescent children. Luwana's younger son was a smart and willful twelve-year-old, and the other nurses nodded knowingly at her assertion "I'm better with other people's kids than I am with my own."

The meeting came to order with the appearance of Claudette McKay, the unit's fifty-seven-year-old supervisor; she'd been one of the first nursevisitors in the region-apparently a memorable one. At noon the day before, as she drove through Terrebonne Parish to a local diner, a young woman in a skullcap yelled in her open window, "I'm going to carjack you!" "You skipped your birth-control appointment!" Claudette barked back, unfazed, as the girl, a client from four years ago, smiled sheepishly and promised to return to the clinic. A few minutes later, as the nurse ate lunch, a little girl across the diner started gesturing wildly in her direction. "One of mine," Claudette said. "Interesting how, years later, they still react to the voice."

Now Claudette's bifocals slid down her nose as she ripped through orders of business, one item of which was the resignation of a nurse, who had taken a less stressful job. Then she turned to Luwana: "Which of your wonderful cases do you want to tell us about today?" Claudette could be hard on Luwana, whom she'd hired two years before. At the time, Luwana had envisioned a job that left time for her husband, children, and the teen-agers she tutored and counselled at her church. But in a place where resistance to nurse-visiting was great, and sixty-four per cent of mothers abandoned the program before their children turned two, Claudette expected-and in Luwana's case eventually got-passionate commitment.

Although passion is tricky to sustain in the winter, Luwana took solace in two girls she called "my model moms" and in the unexpected stability of Alexis. On Valentine's Day, the teen-ager had accepted a marriage proposal from Daigan's father, who had a steady income from tugboat work. They'd moved into an apartment down the street from her parents, which Alexis planned to decorate in "purples and blues." Away from her parents' home, she seemed happier and marginally more attentive to Daigan; she was also, finally, on birth control. So today Luwana solicited her colleagues' advice on a different case: a household in which, as she worked with the mother and baby, a libidinous grandmother kept trying to feel her up. "I try not to make a big deal about it, because I don't want to lose the trust I've gained with the family," Luwana said. "But I have to say, Eeeeeee! I don't like it."

As the other nurses burst into laughter, Claudette, who happened to know the grandmother in question, suggested that a confrontation wouldn't be as counterproductive as Luwana feared. "Next time she tries, you just say, 'Honey, back it up,' " she advised. "She'll get that sort of language, since she's all in your face herself."

The discussion moved on to several mentally retarded mothers who, inexplicably, had been cut from disability rolls. The nurses sometimes had to scramble to prevent retarded mothers and their children from being evicted while convincing the bureaucracy that the person who had an I.Q. of sixty last year had roughly the same I.Q. now. And then the nurses turned to a case that worried them all: a withdrawn seventh grader in a violent household who appeared, in her third trimester, to be starving her baby.

One of the nurses said, "I'm at that door every day, but they won't open it, and now she's not going to school. I'm afraid she'll try to abort the baby on her own." The nurses hoped to get the girl into a Baton Rouge home for expectant mothers-and quickly, because when last seen she had been bloody from a fight with her mother. This abuse had been reported to child-protection authorities, who concluded that the girl was safe where she was.

That week, state officials were vowing to reform the child-protection system, after a violent shaking left an eight-month-old boy in a nearby town brain-dead. But the nurses understood what was left unsaid: though state child-abuse deaths were rising, a shortage of child-protection workers, family services, and foster parents meant that at-risk children were often stuck in dangerous homes. The nurses eventually decided that the safety of the seventh grader necessitated what they called "the back-channel option," involving an appeal to a sympathetic local judge. Then the women grabbed their satchels and headed out down the bayous, to fresh troubles they would keep to themselves until they met the following week.

"How many centimetres?" Luwana said into her cell phone one day as she drove down the highway. "Well, baby, that's what the epidural is for, you don't feel it. Sometimes it also gives you chills, be ready for that. I'll be there as soon as I can." Luwana's niece was about to give birth after what the nurse called "the longest pregnancy, emotionally speaking, on record," and Luwana had been at the hospital most of the night. Her fatigue was exacerbated by the fact that her next client, Alexis, had just left a message telling her not to come. Luwana turned off the main road and drove down gravel paths in search of a cell-phone signal. First she called Alexis's sister, whom she had recently turned into an informant, and who reported that Alexis and James, her fiance, had been brawling. "Look, Alexis, I'm not trying to get in your business," she was saying a few minutes later, "but Daigan is my business. O.K., O.K., can I see you tomorrow? No, I need to see you tomorrow." When she hung up, she said, "I don't feel good about this."

Although by now Alexis had mastered the good-mother script-"I can't stand leaving Daigan, he's developing so fine and I don't want to miss nothing"-the baby seemed, at six months, to contradict her. He was lethargic and close to obese, which Luwana attributed to Alexis's discovery that overfeeding a baby will make him sleep more. As she fretted, her cell phone rang again. "Eight centimetres?" she said in a voice considerably brighter than her mood. "Baby, I'll be there as soon as I can."

Her last visit of the afternoon was with an introverted young woman named Krystal. (Many teen-age mothers on the bayou are named either Krystle or Alexis, after feuding characters in the television show "Dynasty," which was popular when they were born.) Four months earlier, when Krystal's son was two weeks old, the young mother had seemed overwhelmed by her baby, and further rattled by a belief that, after a Cesarean, the obstetrician had left his instruments in her belly. Since then, Krystal had become improbably adept with her son. "My pa be saying, 'There's something wrong with your baby, all these noises he's making,' " she now told Luwana, laughing. "I told him, Pa, you ain't know about preverbal-my baby is talking." Krystal, like most of the literate mothers in Luwana's caseload, was now reading to her baby as well as talking to him, and had become obsessed with his developmental progress. That day was her son's four-month evaluation, and Krystal watched solemnly as the nurse explained the neurological, auditory, and visual cues she was looking for, and jotted estimations in a notebook. After several minutes, the nurse sat up straight. "Mama!" she announced. "He's on task!" Relief flooded Krystal's face.

By the time Luwana left the house, another impoverished baby had joined the citizenry of Louisiana: her niece's six-pound-ten-ounce son. Outside Terrebonne General Hospital, the new father was waiting to dramatize the day's high points: "Man, I be getting sick with they snipping her little bits to get the baby out. But guess what," he added mischievously, "he got a hairy back just like his mama." In the recovery room, Luwana hugged her niece and dropped a gift bag on the table: condoms and contraceptive foam. "This is wonderful," Luwana told the couple, shaking her head. "And it's going to be a long, long time before you do it again."

Luwana waited again on Alexis's porch. "I knew she would do me like this," she said, rising on tiptoe to check a bedroom window. By now, she was expert in the ruses of the poor: although they couldn't afford to stay away long, they were often quite good at hiding. After a few minutes, she gave up and got back into her car, at which time something down the road caught her attention. She swallowed hard and hit the gas, overtaking a strapping, sunburned man on a motorcycle.

"James!" she yelled, leaning out the window. Daigan's father turned around, surprised.

He climbed off the bike, removed his helmet, and stared past the nurse toward Alexis's little wooden house. "Well," he said, "she broke my heart. And you know all what I did for her-you saw."

Luwana got to the point: "Where's my baby?"

"The new guy got no job, on drugs, on parole, got warrants out for his arrest. And"-James's tone suggested this failing was the greatest-"ain't got no car."

"And . . . Daigan? You know that's my main concern."

"My first thought is that Alexis is bringing that boy around people he shouldn't be around, you know, but ain't nothing I can do about it 'til I got definite proof. But, uh . . ." He hesitated for a minute, then told the nurse that he had caught Alexis and the young man together.

"You saw?" Luwana asked, uneasy.

"My own eyes."

"James, did you react? Maintain . . . composure?"

"I retained my composure, Miss Luwana, I did. It was hard but I did."

"Just get up, get out?"

He nodded.

"Takes a big man, James," she said, exhaling. "Takes a big man."

Tears filled the man's eyes. "I don't know what happened," he said. "I'm moving out today. Dude probably up in there so I got to go."

"But you have to work out some arrangements, James. Because whatever happens, Daigan still needs you to be the dad."

"I know, I will," he said, in a tone that said he wouldn't, and as he rode off Luwana shuddered. She tended to think of a given child's circumstances as the product of many generations; sometimes, though, the speed of change stunned her. In the time it took to smoke a cigarette, children could be stripped of their fathers. "And in the middle of this is the poor . . . Daigan," she said as she pulled back onto the roadway, "and I can't talk to Alexis, can't see where her head is at, I just . . ." She took a wrong turn, braked at a dead end, and rested her forehead on the steering wheel. "I don't know what I am doing."

Then she sat up straight, shifted into reverse, and repeated the word she'd just said to Daigan's father: "Composure. Composure."

Over the winter, Maggie had stopped taking her hepatitis medicine, as it made her too tired to work. Jose may have contracted the disease as well, but had decided that ignorance was preferable to treatment. Luwana had ruled out ignorance in the case of their daughter, however, and arrived at the house one stormy afternoon to hear the results of the toddler's test.

"It's all messed up," Maggie informed her. "We have to do the test over, but I don't know why-maybe they don't tell me stuff because they think I'm a kid."

"You are a kid," Jose snapped at Maggie. He was staring at her from the far end of the room, a black look in his eyes. When their one-year-old daughter ambled toward him, he scooped her up and began to sing a Metallica song into her ear:

I have lost the will to live Simply nothing more to give There is nothing more for me Need the end to set me free.

"Look," Luwana said, temporarily ignoring the domestic drama. "You guys have got to step up, make the doctors explain. Never leave that office until you understand what's going on, even if you have to say, 'Let me see the records'-they're your records, because Maia is your baby. If she's sick, you're going to have to fight for her, and you're going to have to have the information down." Luwana wrote for a minute in her notebook, then looked up. "O.K., I'm all ears: What is up with you two? And Maggie, what's the deal with the hair?"

The deal with the hair was that Maggie had dyed it black with two platinum skunk-streaks, because skunky was how she was feeling. "It's over-we're not getting married," she told Luwana. "I just blew up my life, right there." Jose nodded, leaving Maggie to explain: how she and Jose had fought, and how she'd had sex with one of his friends; how the next day, Jose's high-school classmate tipped him off, and the guilty friend had proffered the details. Jose had promptly abandoned his cleaning-crew job, stopped his financial contributions to the household, and was moving out. Maggie's mother sat behind the couple, listening with her head in her hands. She'd been working sixteen-hour shifts to compensate for the lost income; still, her bank account was overdrawn.

"The pressures," Maggie said miserably. "The men come at you, and when they get what they want they don't like you for it. I mean, I know that's how it works. And I know that Jose is the person I want to marry-I wanted the three of us to grow up together."

"Well, I don't do forgiveness," Jose said. "And I don't do nice, either. Maybe logical, maybe even humane. But nice doesn't help for nothing in this world."

Luwana immediately set out to discourage Jose from doing what Daigan's father had done: abandon the baby along with the mother. "You can't take this anger out on Maia," she told him with some heat. "This girl has bonded hard with you-you see it, you hear her call you Daddy. And if she has hepatitis it's only that much more important that you keep the bond strong. She is going to need both of you for a long, long time."

"She's a smart girl," Jose said, rubbing his forearms and looking at his daughter, who now stood in an open cupboard blowing kisses around the room like a film star. "We're trying to keep it from her but I think she already knows. I mean, I'm not thinking straight, all I can think about Maggie is bad names. But if I let myself get angry . . ." He paused, then concluded, "Well, that would be it."

"When we have a child, sometimes we feel like being a parent, and sometimes we don't," Luwana said. "And when we don't feel it we act our way through it, because Maia is no sweater you bought at Wal-Mart and change your mind about." There was a silence then, and Maggie looked away. Atop the cupboard was an old photo of Maggie in eyeglasses donated by the Lions Club-"back when I was ten and nerdful and smart." If she had it to do over, she wouldn't have brought Maia into the world and tried to make a family with Jose. But this belated realization made her feel more ashamed than she already felt.

"So fake it," Luwana said, "starting now." She hugged them both, then ushered them out into the storm. "No point in postponing Maia's test," she said by way of goodbye. "Sooner we know if she's sick, the better we plan."

Maggie drove to the hospital, tense and wincing. Rain pummelled the wild irises that had come into bloom on the roadsides, traffic was slow, and other drivers were being hard on their horns. "You were the coolest," Jose hissed into her ear, mindful of what their daughter was overhearing. "You liked my sports, my music, my video games, and then you went and acted like any other stupid girl . . ." By the time they arrived, they were sick of the argument and each other, and they refocussed their attention on Maia. As the baby had her blood drawn, they hovered over her, declared her brave, exclaimed over a Sesame Street Band-Aid. Then they went their separate ways: Jose with Maia to hang out at his parents' house, and Maggie to a week of double shifts at work.

In the month that followed, the girl's janitorial specialties, "garbage and floors," brought her almost unsettling comfort; it was only when she'd put up the mops that Metallica's "lost the will to live" song began to run at high speed through her mind. There was a chance that Luwana could help her get her head straight about sex and win Jose back. But there was little chance that their daughter was going to have a normal life. The test results had confirmed it: Maia's liver was already damaged by hepatitis, and the odds were one in four that she would develop potentially fatal complications.

When Maggie was seven months pregnant, Luwana had asked her to write down the qualities she hoped to pass on to her daughter. "How to be a lady," Maggie wrote first, and then "What love is." She wasn't thinking then about the worst parts of herself, and how those, too, could be transmitted.

In the summer of 2005, the Census Bureau reported that poverty had increased in the United States for the fourth straight year; and the Nurse-Family Partnership produced an empirical snapshot of the one thousand mothers and children in Louisiana who had finished the nurse-visiting program. By some measures, the nurses' efforts seemed to have been trumped by local custom: only a third of the mothers had forsaken formula to attempt breast-feeding, for instance. Other findings were more encouraging, though. By the time their children turned two, almost sixty per cent of mothers over twenty were working, and forty-one per cent of those who had started the program without a high-school diploma or equivalency degree had one in hand. And though it was too soon to determine whether their children's intellectual capacities had been strengthened, one of the study's findings was suggestive. Thirty per cent of toddlers had scored in the top quartile of a national test of language development. But Luwana couldn't help thinking of the mothers and babies who hadn't flourished, and the battle of wills she was now losing with Alexis.

Luwana had pushed Alexis to support herself instead of counting on men, and in July this wish was realized. The teen-ager took a full-time job as a short-order cook, earning six dollars an hour. And while her latest lover didn't have a job, he didn't have a criminal record, either, and sometimes babysat while she worked. But then there was Daigan: a jolly ten-month-old with eyes that missed nothing and a body so large that he was unable to crawl.

As Luwana held him, her trusty mind-trick-would this scene have been worse without me in it-didn't provide the comfort it sometimes did. "I think she'll keep making small changes in the months ahead, but now I don't expect a transformation," Luwana said of Alexis. "She doesn't want for herself what I want for her, and that's something I have to make myself accept."

Alexis concurred with the nurse's forecast, and decided to quit the program. One evening in August, she sat on the couch and looked at Daigan, who was on the floor in a "Motor Speedway Heavy Duty" T-shirt, staring back. "Luwana really cares about me," she said. "And she's helped me a lot-I learned stuff, like how old they gonna get and what they gonna go through and how they gonna grow. But what Luwana says to do-well, basically, I just do it my way." She had recently miscarried her new boyfriend's baby, she said as Daigan emitted a single high shriek. As she reflected on the miscarriage, sadness softened her face, until another thought hit her, and she broke into a beautiful smile. Her boyfriend was eager to try again, she said. "And next I want a little girl."

A few days later, Luwana arrived at Maggie's house to find that a tropical storm had blown off part of the roof. She scarcely noticed, as she had come to celebrate a battle that she'd won. The day before, Maggie had returned to high school. The girl spiritedly shared some newfound knowledge: "In Rome, the invaders came and tried to wipe out all the intelligent people-all the teachers and libraries-because they didn't want the competition, but then everyone ended up kind of stupid." Jose, who was with her, then took her hand. Together, they informed Luwana that decisions bigger than high school had also been made. Jose was joining the Marines, and he and Maggie had decided to marry. In the telling, their mouths were straight lines. Love and patriotism were not much on their minds.

"I'm less nervous about Iraq than I am about marrying Maggie," Jose told the nurse as he and Maggie took turns pushing the talkative eighteen-month-old Maia around in an empty diaper box. Since they lived in a community with a particularly high death rate in the war, Maggie saw the Marine Corps and marriage as equally distressing propositions. But the couple had made a hard calculation, and there were two things they wanted for their daughter that they didn't know another way to get: good, possibly life-extending medical care and a habitable dwelling in which she might grow up.

A few days later, Katrina came through the swamps, damaging homes but sparing lives. As Luwana cared for injured New Orleaneans in a triage unit, Maggie, Jose, and their families undertook a familiar ritual in this hurricane alley: taping together broken windows, eating from cans, and waiting for the electricity to return. One day, Maggie, whose skin was mottled with poison ivy after bundling up fallen branches, realized that there were just enough food stamps left to buy a wedding cake at Wal-Mart.

The ceremony would take place on a building site that Maggie's father mowed for pocket money. There was a gazebo on the field and, one rainy evening shortly before Jose left for boot camp, a silver cloud of mosquitoes as well. The wedding guests assembled, the shrimpers among them watching the sky as they slapped and scratched. Heat lightning flashed; somewhere, new storms were gathering, and the Gulf waters felt to them weirdly warm. They sensed another hurricane, Rita, which would arrive the following week and obliterate thousands of fragile dwellings in Luwana's territory. Among the homeless would be Maggie and Maia.

But now the bride, waiting for her mother to find the tape with the wedding music on it, leaned into a mirror to see if her tube of lipstick had met its target despite her shakes. She'd seen enough movies to know that such trembling was normal, and that these moments before the vows were for dreaming. "Three bedrooms someday," she said as Luwana came to escort her across the field. "And two baths."

Afterward, Luwana tried to feel optimistic-to see, in the tough choices of two teen-agers, real hope for an impoverished American child. And if the sacrifice and exertion required to secure that tenuous possibility struck her as outsized, well, she was a practical woman, and she had a fresh obligation in a hamlet named Cut Off-a newborn whose parents had met in court-ordered drug rehab and then broke up.

"So beautiful, Miss Alaysia, even when you cry," Luwana sang off-key to Cut Off's newest resident, a dark-haired girl in a soiled white dress. "Real tears already? Baby, you're quick! Now Mama, are you reading to her yet?"