Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 4, Number 22
June 3, 2004
Opinion + Analysis
High quality education at cut-rate prices
Breaking the textbook lock
Minimum grades, minimum motivation
eRate is eWrong
Steiner on one-sided syllabi
June 3, 2004Anyone who's ever lived through a tornado knows the provenance of the phrase "calm before the storm." There's that eerie, pregnant moment before the wind picks up, when the sky turns pea-green, the wind dies down, and everything seems muffled, almost pleasant. Then all hell breaks loose.
In American K-12 education, right now, the wind is just beginning to pick up and Ma and Pa are hustling the kids into the cellar. A twister's coming, and its name is No Child Left Behind.
Those who have followed the education debate over the past two years might be forgiven for wondering: how can anyone possibly think this debate is going to get more ferocious? After all, NCLB has generated enough heat and light over the past two years (and especially in the past 12 months) to last a lifetime.
Yet what's coming could make the debates of the past few months seem as tame as a Ladies' Sodality. This summer, it is widely expected, thousands of schools will be labeled "in need of improvement" when their 2004 state test results roll in. These schools will likely represent a cross-section of American K-12 education - urban schools, yes, but also well-heeled suburban schools, rural districts, and everybody in between.
So it is that in the past few weeks, schools and districts - abetted by members of the media who may be constitutionally anti-testing but mostly crave a good story - have
June 3, 2004
According to the Independent, surveys consistently show that more than 50 percent of British families would like to send their kids to private schools, which cost on average ??7,000 per year, but fewer than 7 percent can actually afford to do so. Does a quality education have to be so expensive? Civitas, a leading British think tank, thinks not and is out to prove it with a chain of "New Model Schools" that will charge only ??3,000 a year. According to Civitas's deputy director, Robert Whelan, the schools are designed to challenge both the public sector, which he argues is failing kids, and the private sector, which he believes is failing parents "by not providing a sufficiently wide range of products." Whelan insists that the curriculum will be rigorous, students will be "reading and adding up after just one year," school discipline policy will be "firm," and the New Model Schools will emphasize music, art, and P.E., subjects that many complain have been squeezed out by the national curriculum. The first school is fully staffed and slated to open in London in September.
"Cut-price private schools set for launch," by Nicolas Pyke, Independent, May 30, 2004, http://education.independent.co.uk/news/story.jsp?story=526323
June 3, 2004
Philanthropy magazine has a primer for philanthropists and others on efforts to break the textbook monopoly and inject high-quality, content-rich books into the market. The piece mentions Fordham's report on high school history textbooks (click here for the report) and also such worthy undertakings as the Bible Literacy Project and the environmental sciences efforts of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). But as always, the challenge is dissemination - actually getting textbooks in the hands of teachers, which means bypassing the adoption process that presently reigns in 26 states. Fordham will have more to say on textbook adoption later this summer; in the meantime, read up on what funders are up to in this critical area.
"Glitzy texts, dull students," by Adam Schaeffer, Philanthropy, May/June 2004, http://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/magazines/2004/mayjune/textbooks.htm
June 3, 2004
Every teacher has a story about a smart kid who failed because she just refused to do even the bare minimum to pass. Well-intentioned teachers also learn the hard way that lowering expectations and letting shoddy work slide by only makes things worse. The moral is apparently lost, though, on some school districts. Across New York State, districts are enacting policies that give students an automatic minimum grade of 50 for the quarter, regardless of attendance, test scores, class participation, etc. Proponents say the policy will motivate low-achieving students to stay in school and give them a chance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps even after abysmal performance in one or more quarters. Unfortunately, the minimum grade policy may do the exact opposite. According to Sally Jo Widmer, president of the Auburn (NY) Teachers Association, "We have students who have successfully completed the first three marking periods and they are, with pen and pencil, calculating how little work they can do and still receive a passing grade." What's worse, some fear that minimum grade policies will exacerbate high-school grade inflation. Once you start giving kids who are doing nothing a 50, how can you justify giving a kid who works extremely hard, but has not mastered the material, the same grade? According to Val Carr, an 11th grade social studies teacher in Syracuse, such fears are already being realized. "[Some] administrators are asking the nontenured teachers to consider bumping
June 3, 2004
Back in January, Todd Oppenheimer published a devastating article on eRate, the federal tax on phone service that funds wiring schools for and to the Internet. Internet access in schools is one of the many techno-utopian ideas that floated around in the go-go 1990s, when every politician worth his salt wanted to give kids "the tools they need to succeed in a rapidly changing global environment," and other assorted blather. In fact, as Oppenheimer pointed out, the program was a mess from the beginning, with accusations that tech companies were enticing schools to buy gobs of soon-to-be-outmoded technology they didn't need. This week, criminal investigations into eRate culminated in an admission of wrongdoing on the part of NEC Business Network Solutions for wire fraud and conspiracy. As part of the settlement, the company agreed to $20 million in fines and restitution. Another company has been charged as well, and a San Francisco school administrator is serving time in jail for accepting bribes to buy technology with a no-bid contract."NEC unit admits it defrauded schools," by Matt Richtel and Gary Rivlin, New York Times, May 27, 2004, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/28/technology/28net.html
June 3, 2004
In recent weeks, David Steiner, a professor at Boston University, has roiled the ed school world with his article, "Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers: An Analysis of Syllabi from a Sample of America's Schools of Education," published in the recent book A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom? Steiner's conclusion - that syllabi used in courses in U.S. colleges of education show a marked bias for progressivism and constructivism and shortchange the works of education thinkers like E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch - has sparked howls of protest from ed school profs. Some of the objections are absurd, such as the contention that syllabi don't matter, which raises the question of why professors hand them out. And of course, there are the usual denunciations of politicization and ideological water-carrying and the like. The reaction, we think, shows that Steiner is on to something: a clear effort among ed school faculty to shield their students from viewpoints that challenge regnant pedagogies and education philosophies. You can read Steiner's account of his conclusions and the controversy in the New York Sun, or better yet order the book at this link.
Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / June 3, 2004
Richard Rothstein, Economic Policy Institute
Nobody who followed Richard Rothstein's columns in the New York Times or his earlier work on education will be surprised that his new book ascribes most of the black-white achievement gap to social class and economics. In effect, he devotes this book to affirming Coleman's 1964 finding that school differences have far less impact on achievement differences than do family characteristics, of which, Rothstein says, socio-economic status is the mightiest. He insists that contemporary school reforms cannot overcome that influence and therefore urges (if the country is serious about gap-closing) that we focus more on equalizing income, housing, health care and suchlike. Indeed, Rothstein states, "If the nation can't close the gaps in income, health, and housing, there is little prospect of equalizing achievement." He also tries to debunk some well-known examples of schools and educators that succeed with disadvantaged minority youngsters. He deprecates claims made by, among others, the Heritage Foundation, the Education Trust, KIPP academies, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, and Jaime Escalante's biographers, insisting either that the achievements don't amount to much or couldn't be replicated or that the schools engage in cream-skimming. The book, therefore, seeks to throw ice water on just about every popular form of contemporary school-centered reform, although Rothstein cuts some slack for (high quality) pre-school programs, extended-day and summer programs; mainly because they help to supply poor kids with some of the advantages more commonly associated
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / June 3, 2004
Center on Education Policy
The Center on Education Policy is the source of this 130-page report, which says that high-stakes exit exams from high schools are not a low-cost education reform even if the tests themselves don't carry fat price tags. The point is that it costs money to provide extra academic help to students to boost the odds of their passing the exams. And that's surely true so long as one takes a remedial model for granted, i.e. assumes that the schools can't or won't do it right the first time around and will thus continue to let lots of kids make it to the stage of exit test-taking without having been properly educated. At that point, states and schools will indeed incur remedial costs-which this report takes for granted-or will face what may be politically and morally unacceptable levels of exam failure and diploma denial. The report is based on studies of the costs of exam preparation in three states: Indiana, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. These costs turn out to vary greatly-from $171 per student per year to $557, though even the high figure strikes me as a bargain if it means diplomas will (finally) begin to connote real achievement. The CEP authors also extract some (fairly obvious) lessons for policy makers, including starting out with as tough an exam as one wants to end up with rather than raising the bar along the way, and (of course)
June 3, 2004
General Accounting Office
The GAO issued a report this week that says what Gadfly has long been saying - that NCLB cannot be an "unfunded mandate" because it is not, in fact, a mandate. Though GAO used what People for the American Way calls a "complicated legal definition" of mandates, the point is well made and well taken: NCLB is not an unfunded mandate because its "requirements were a condition of federal financial assistance," i.e. not an absolute requirement of federal law (like paying your taxes). Though PFAW concedes that GAO is technically right, it grumbles that "to meet NCLB requirements, states are forced to use their own state and local funds. If states do not abide by NCLB requirements, they will be denied the resources they need to keep educating children." Whatever. Certainly the report confirms that states cannot both have their cake (the Title 1 money) and eat it (not be held accountable to anyone for academic achievement). To see for yourself, visit this link.
"Education law deemed no mandate," by George Archibald, Washington Times, June 1, 2004," http://www.washingtontimes.com/national/20040601-122115-1993r.htm
"Paige parses words while states and schools struggle," People for the American Way, May 28, 2004, http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=15749
Brandy Bones / June 3, 2004
Robert Holland and Don Soifer, Lexington Institute
Rewarding teachers with better pay based on performance rather than seniority is often derided as "utopian." But a teacher pay scheme in Chattanooga, Tennessee - one of six reform programs profiled in this Lexington Institute study - brings quality teachers to underperforming inner city schools by doing just that. Under the leadership of Mayor Bob Corker, a coalition of community groups and businesses banded together to provide bonuses for high performing teachers if they 1) relocate to low-performing schools and 2) are able to significantly improve the academic gains made by students in those schools. The study's authors also summarize other grassroots reforms such as Florida's tax credit scholarship program, which has enhanced school choice and saved the state millions of dollars, and Colorado's school report cards, which offer accessible and comprehensive information for parents concerning school performance. All in all, a nice summary of promising practices worth repeating elsewhere. Click here to view the report.