Two new working papers released by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggest that having high grading standards and grouping students by ability (i.e. tracking) lead to improvements in academic achievement. For more, see "Do High Grading Standards Affect Student Performance?" by David Figlio and Maurice Lucas at http://papers.nber.org/papers/W7985 and "School Choice and the Distributional Effects of Ability Tracking: Does Separation Increase Equality," by David Figlio and Marianne Page at http://papers.nber.org/papers/W8055

Inasmuch as last week's column was about chickens (Chicken Littles, to be precise) it's fitting that this one is about canards-the loud-quacking kind-that need to be put out of their misery and cooked fast.

Roaming the education reform field, I've encountered many ridiculous statements hurled at those who seek major changes in the K-12 delivery system. My purpose here is to respond to a half dozen of the most absurd.

First canard: "You'd let anyone into the classroom to teach, without having them meet any external standards."

The truth: This canard is generally voiced by people who assume that the way to get better teachers for U.S. schools is to regulate entry ever more stringently via state certification and a requirement that everyone complete a state-approved and nationally-accredited training program. But why is this the only option? Private schools are free to hire whomever they like, as are many charter schools, and they seem to be doing fine. Why can't that freedom be extended to regular public schools as well? Each school should be able to select and deploy its own teaching team-and be held accountable for their classroom results. The state's role-here come the external standards-should be to ensure that candidates can be trusted around children (hence a "background check" is called for) and are knowledgeable about their subjects (which can be determined by testing them and/or requiring that they majored in the subjects they will be teaching). Whether they're effective in class must be determined by the school...

The arguments that teachers make against merit pay are nothing new, according to Steven Malanga. When merit pay was introduced into American industry in the 1980s, many grumbled that the contributions of individual workers couldn't be measured. But while developing performance-pay systems that work takes time, many believe that the introduction of merit pay was crucial to the boost in productivity that American firms began to experience in the late 1980s. In an article in the latest City Journal, Steven Malanga examines how merit pay has been used in the private sector and how teachers in Cincinnati, Iowa, and Denver are experimenting with it today. Read "Why Merit Pay Will Improve Teaching," by Steven Malanga, City Journal, Summer 2001. Not available online; for more information about the magazine, see http://www.city-journal.org

Harold J. Noah (emeritus professor at Teachers College, Columbia) and Max A. Eckstein (emeritus professor at Queens College, CUNY) have written this disturbing book about education fraud and chicanery. They spotlight student cheating, credentials fraud and misconduct by professionals. The first of those topics regularly makes it into the news, but they also offer alarming and less familiar examples under the second and third headings. Most of their evidence of credentials fraud involves diploma mills, but they also illustrate forgeries and falsifications. Professional misconduct includes helping students cheat, plagiarizing other scholars' work, fabricating research findings, and suchlike. Noah and Eckstein do a better job of spotlighting these problems than of explaining their origins and devising solutions. Progressive educators both, they track the rising incidence of fraud to the intensifying of "competitive pressures," notably mounting emphasis on test scores, which boosts the incentive to cheat, etc. But that's not all. They even finger the local property tax as a source of this problem! As expected, they urge a lessening of competitive pressure by reducing the importance of test-driven accountability. They tread very lightly on other possible solutions, such as more rigorous enforcement of standards, better proctoring of tests, more careful checking of credentials, etc. But even if you don't find merit in their explanations and remedies, you will very likely widen your eyes at the evidence they uncover of the incidence of education fraud. The ISBN is 0-7425-1032-8. The publisher is Rowman & Littlefield, 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, MD 20706. They...

Education historian Maris A. Vinovskis is the author of this thorough, fact-filled and perceptive 270-page volume subtitled "Improving the R & D Centers, Regional Educational Laboratories, and the 'New' OERI." Much of the material in its five chapters has appeared elsewhere, but it's extremely valuable to have this all in one place. The first chapter is a close look at the work of the OERI-funded and university-based "centers." The second takes a critical (but not hostile) look at the infamous "labs." The third examines the crummy, lobbyist-whipped job of "oversight" of the labs and centers by Congress. The fourth recounts and appraises the structural reforms of OERI during the 1990's. And the fifth (and timeliest) recaps Vinovskis's thoughts on how this all might be done better in the future. He never strays too far from his material, so this is no polemic. There are times when one might wish he drew stronger conclusions. But this is a careful, balanced, nuanced work, likely to hold considerable interest for aficionados of education research in general and the federal efforts therein in particular. The ISBN is 0-472-11210-4. The publisher is The University of Michigan Press, most easily found on the web at www.press.umich.edu.

Is any charter school better than no charter school? Checker Finn used to think so but now he's not so sure. The Dayton Daily News traces his conversion in "Charter Guru Wisely Flexible," by Martin Gottlieb, Dayton Daily News, July 15, 2001 http://library.activedayton.com/cgi-bin/display.cgi?

The main reason important reforms don't get made in American K-12 education may be termed the Chicken Little Syndrome: the assertion that the sky will surely fall down if this change is made or, more temperately, the suggestion that the sky MIGHT collapse but we can't be sure so let's not take chances.

To watch this syndrome on display, observe the school establishment's reaction to vouchers: we don't know whether they'll work and we're not sure what will happen, so we daren't take the risk. Or the response to "charter states" and other forms of funding flexibility: we can't be sure what innovations those squirrelly states might try so we'd best not gamble. Or "alternative certification" of teachers. And so forth.

Mostly, this is the characteristic response of timid people and organizations with deep vested interests in the status quo. They fear change or believe it would adversely affect them. Their method of fending it off is to emulate Chicken Little, warning that the heavens will crash down upon innocent children if any such innovation is introduced.

Sometimes, though, we have actual experience to draw upon in predicting the likely outcome of a course of action. Sometimes Chicken Little's raindrop should be taken seriously, not as foreshadowing the sky's collapse but as a clue that there's going to be another downpour.

In those situations, it's foolish not to learn from the past. In rainy weather, after all, it's smart to carry an umbrella. Ignoring the first few drops is pretty...

Center for Civic Innovation, Manhattan Institute

This report by the Manhattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation provides statistics on the SURR list (Schools Under Registration Review) in New York. These low-performing public schools are targeted for corrective instruction and-in principle-closed if significant improvements are not made within three years. Twenty percent of all public schools in the state are located in New York City, yet the city's five boroughs comprise almost ninety percent of the schools on the SURR list. These schools have a disproportionate number of minority students as well as a disproportionate number of uncertified teachers. While the State Education Department's guidelines would seem to demand rapid turnaround or severe consequences, these schools often linger on the SURR list for an average of five years and are only shut down after nine years or more-or never. This brief report contains little text or analysis but many interesting graphs and tables that provide alarming statistics on the racial make-up, test scores and income levels within SURR schools. Perhaps most disturbing are the current percentages of students performing below an acceptable level in reading and math in schools that actually got taken off the SURR list in 2000. In Grade 4, the percentage of students reading below an acceptable level is 80.9% and in math, 63.6%. In Grade 8, the percentage of students reading below an acceptable level is 77.1% and in math, 85%. Author Joseph Viteritti suggests that such data show a "resignation to failure,...which serves as a...

Charter Friends National Network

As the charter school movement advances, one of its most contentious practices is the "contracting out" of school management services. In such arrangements, charter boards hand over the reins of school control to for-profit or non-profit firms. Critics argue that contracted management -- especially by profit-seeking companies -- amounts to dangerous "privatization" of public education. Others see an opportunity to raise student achievement. Charting a Clear Course, a new report written by Margaret Lin and Bryan Hassel for the Charter Friends National Network, cuts through this debate. Noting that widespread contracting already occurs, the authors explain that "the real issue is not whether contracting should take place, but how." To this end, the report outlines practical strategies for charter boards to establish sound contractual arrangements. Such contracting requires arranging the charter board's public obligations to ensure responsible school management while ensuring that contractors are free from excessive outside control. "In order to hold contractors accountable for performance, those contractors must receive proportionate autonomy and authority to execute their responsibilities as promised," the authors argue. Informed by on-the-ground lessons from charter authorizers, education management organizations, and others, Charting a Clear Course dispenses useful advice on defining responsibilities, establishing guidelines, structuring performance evaluations, and determining compensation. The report also contains a helpful checklist of important provisions to include in school management agreements. Obtain a free copy by calling CFNN at 651-644-6115, or download the entire report at www.charterfriends.org/contracting.pdf....

Consortium for Policy Research in Education

Margaret Goertz and Mark Duffy of Penn's Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) have issued both a 7-page "policy brief" and a longer report on state accountability systems (as those stood in spring 2000). There's much pertinent information here, particularly as we reflect on the changes that states must make to comply with the pending E.S.E.A. requirements. While 48 states were testing students statewide in 2000 (Iowa and Nebraska settle for requiring districts to test their own students), only a dozen used the same assessment for the same kids in the same subjects every year. The others skip around. And while 33 states had "state-defined accountability systems" in place, these varied greatly in how they define and measure pupil proficiency. Some focus on relative growth (i.e. schools progressing from their previous achievement levels), some on absolute standards, some on reducing the number of kids in low performing groups. Only a few jurisdictions "hold schools accountable for the performance of specific groups of students, such as racial/ethnic minorities or economically-disadvantaged students." But consequences for schools and, especially, for districts are few. In sum, most states have a ways to go to prepare for the mandates that E.S.E.A. is probably going to lay on them. The short version is coded RB-33-May 2001 and we think it's free, from the CPRE website http://www.gse.upenn.edu/cpre/ or by phoning (215) 573-0700, x 233. The long version-CPRE Research Report RR-046, March 2001-weighs in at 41 pages and can...