Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 4, Number 39
October 28, 2004
Opinion + Analysis
Three races to watch
Times to charters: know your place
Compromising for votes in NYC?
Capping vouchers in Milwaukee
The real meaning of NCLB
The Fourth-Grade Reading Classroom
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / October 28, 2004
Modernity and its technologies bring many pluses. We can, more or less, learn everything we want to know about everything whenever we want to know it. Thanks to the Internet, 24-hour news, blogs and e-mail, we are awash in information and communication options.
We don't have to wait until the morning paper arrives to learn what happened in the world yesterday. We don't have to get to a broker's office to find out how our investments are faring. We can access scads of reviews of a movie or restaurant before buying a ticket or ordering a meal. We can second-guess our physicians by checking on our own diseases and their possible treatments. We can find out what a hotel room will look like by taking a "virtual tour" before booking a reservation. We can do research in the world's great libraries without having to go there and negotiate permission. We can comparison shop for clothes, for cars, even for houses, without leaving our desks or waiting in line or facing an over-zealous salesman. We can watch our elected officials redraw district lines so as to ensure that a suitable number of legislators or school board members are minorities.
In education, we can learn tons about colleges from their websites and from sundry outside reviews and guides. If we live in a state blessed with GreatSchools.net or Just for the Kids, we can access information about our children's schools and how they're doing.
October 28, 2004
On November 3, we may or may not have a new president, and we know that this election season hasn't seen much action on the education front besides a bidding war on No Child Left Behind. But at the state level, there are a few races worth watching on election night if you're an education reformer. Here are three:
Bergeson versus Billings for Washington State superintendent. We've reported on this race several times (click here and here for more information). Moderate reformer Terry Bergeson, a former state union president, was snubbed by the Washington Education Association in a race that has focused on whether the Washington Assessment of Student Learning should be retained as a graduation test. The race has been marked by dubious accusations of misconduct against Bergeson and some of her top deputies.
Referendum 55, the Washington state charter school proposition. Voters in Washington rejected charters schools in 1996 and 2000, but this year's referendum - backed by a majority of the state legislature - looks like it may pass. Again, the WEA is pulling out all the stops in this race, with union head Charles Hasse lamenting the potential loss of the union's "collective voice" if voters allow charters with non-union teachers. "To weaken that voice is in the long run not in the interest of children," he told AP. His group has spent $350,000 to defeat the proposal, while the NEA has chipped in $500,000. The proposal
October 28, 2004
This is the New York Times' idea of a balanced story on charter schooling? We'd hate to see the biased story . . . oh, wait, we already did (click here). For weeks, we've heard rumors that the Times might be considering a follow-up to correct some of the more blatant problems with its August hatchet job on charter schools, filed by the American Federation of Teachers. The basic premise of this story seems to be that charters schools weren't initially controversial, but now they are, as school failures have caused previously supportive teachers' unions and others to rethink their support. The counter argument - that charters are now "controversial" because they now are numerous enough, and successful enough, to threaten the system's interests - is never considered. Note that the author refers to states such as Delaware and Connecticut as places where charters "enjoy broad support" because those states have tough charter oversight schemes. It's never mentioned that both states also severely limit the number of charters that can operate and that charter students account for small portions of the total student population in those states (four and less than one percent, respectively). So the message from the system is, yes, let's have charters, so long as they don't represent real competition to us or threaten our chokehold on education. That's why we hope that charters remain controversial, threatening, competitive, and all the other things the New York
October 28, 2004
In a bid to better position himself going into what will be a tough election year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg "is getting ready to trade away the education of New York City's children for a deal with Gotham's most powerful union boss, Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers." So says Ryan Sager in two recent Op-Eds in the New York Post. Sager claims that, rather than working to reform and streamline teacher contracts, "Bloomberg is going to let the UFT keep the vast majority of the privileges enshrined in past contracts," which limit, among other things, how long a teacher can work each day, how schools set faculty meeting agendas, and how teachers are hired and fired. (Click here for more.) If true, such a compromise would deal a severe blow to his own schools chancellor, Joel Klein, who has staked his chancellorship on breaking what he called "the three poles of civil service: lockstep pay, seniority, and life tenure," which are embodied in the current teacher contracts and which, according to Klein, prevent policymakers "from making the changes that will encourage and support excellence in our [school] system." City Council Chair Eva Moskowitz - a vocal critic of the work rules enshrined in the teacher contracts - agrees, arguing that "if we don't get fundamental reform of the [teachers] contract, Chancellor Klein, as talented and committed as he is, isn't going to be able
October 28, 2004
In 1998, the state of Wisconsin decided that only 15 percent of Milwaukee school children, or about 15,000 students, could receive a voucher under the city's school choice program. Now, as the city is just 100 students away from reaching this limit, a simmering debate over the merit of the voucher cap is coming to a boil. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, voucher critics argue that the cap is a "fair limit on a program that is 'unaccountable' to taxpayers." Similarly, Wisconsin Education Association president Stan Johnson contends that students "are already getting a free ride on the taxpayers" and that "there's no reason to lift the cap because the program has no accountability." Pace Mr. Johnson, the results from a recent report by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute suggest otherwise, with the graduation rate of students in Milwaukee's voucher program nearly double that of students in the public school system. (Click here for more.) And, research conducted by Caroline Hoxby shows that the more exposed public schools were to these sources of competition, the greater their academic improvement. (Read more here.) Compelling reasons, both to lift the cap and extend choice to more Milwaukee families.
"Voucher debate flares as program nears its limit," by Sarah Carr, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 24, 2004
October 28, 2004
Just in time for Halloween, an update from the spook file. The blogger Bellaciao (motto: "To rebel is right, to disobey is a duty, to act is necessary!") has apparently unraveled the mystical meaning behind the No Child Left Behind act: it's a reference to the Apocalypse. Specifically, it's code for the bestselling "Left Behind" series, an evangelical Christian science fiction series that tells the story of the Rapture and the End Days, as the forces of Satan and God duke it out on Earth. The dotted lines are a bit hard to follow here, but we think Bellaciao is suggesting that NCLB is meant to be a wink-wink reference to the series, and possibly a harbinger of an evangelical takeover of public schools. Which, if true, might make Democrats a little happier that it's "underfunded."
"No Child 'Left Behind': Code words for a children's cookbook," by Jane Stillwater, Bellaciao.org, October 25, 2004, http://bellaciao.org/en/article.php3?id_article=3938
Eric Osberg / October 28, 2004
Paul T. Hill and James Harvey, editors, The Brookings Institution
This wonderful little book by Paul Hill and company offers novel ideas to break through the inertia plaguing most attempts at school reform. School districts lack the capacity for real change - not necessarily for want of trying, but because they have evolved to excel in certain other capacities: running the buses on time, scheduling classes, coordinating thousands of employees, etc. This means that they are not necessary experts in "data-driven decision making," in leadership training, in creatively filling teacher shortages, and other elements critical to overhauling a struggling system. So it's time to rely on a "third way," and time for philanthropy to help fill these needs. This book proposes that private foundations help birth new community based institutions that would work in partnership with districts and schools to meet their reform needs. A Public School Real Estate Trust could manage facilities decisions and transactions for a school district, freeing it to focus on educating students (and saving money, as these financial decisions would be made by real estate experts, not uninformed administrators). Data centers could conduct research and crunch numbers on behalf of schools, forecasting which schools are improving and which are sliding, to liberate such important judgments from the politics and bureaucracies of districts. The book carefully thinks through these suggestions and several others, even offering basic cost models for each. There are good ideas throughout, with important
A New Framework for Assessing the Benefits of Early Education; and Developmental Education: The Value of High Quality Preschool Investments as Economic Tools
October 28, 2004
Ev Ehrlich and Tracy Kornblatt, Committee for Economic Development
The Committee for Economic Development recently released these two working papers, which analyze the economic benefits to the community of investing in early childhood education. In short, both conclude that it can have greater long-term economic benefits than short-term, incentive-based investments that are designed to draw businesses into the community. In the first report, the authors set the stage by summarizing the current value-added research of early childhood education, which they argue shows that the "right" early childhood program will help the child succeed not only academically, but also in smoothly transitioning into adulthood. The second report goes a step further, concluding that "there is active interest in public investment in economic development, even if it is at a high cost and with low expected benefits." Thus, not surprisingly, CED instead favors increasing funding for "quality" early education programs (which the authors argue Head Start is not). To read both papers, click here.
October 28, 2004
Richard J. Coley and Ashaki B. Coleman, Educational Testing Service Policy Information Center, September 2004
This ETS report provides a snapshot of the American fourth-grade reading class. The authors surveyed the vast array of data collected as part of the 2000 NAEP, and their analysis is accordingly wide-ranging. They analyze information about various types of instruction, levels of teacher preparation, class size, remedial instruction, and other factors, and break the results down based on factors such as school type, school location, and student ethnicity. Most fourth grade reading teachers, the authors find, are fully certified and experienced. Most of them also think that they are receiving sufficient resources. Some of the report's findings are troubling, however: Black students are more likely to attend schools with lower teacher retention rates, and Hispanic students are more likely to be in classes of 30 or more. However, the authors note several times that "the overall health of fourth grade reading instruction appears to be good." This report is uncontroversial, because it is virtually all analysis and no prescription. But it's a very useful snapshot of elementary reading instruction in America, and it's certainly worth poring over for a few minutes. You can do so here.