Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 4, Number 35
September 30, 2004
Opinion + Analysis
The harm done by textbook adoption
By Diane Ravitch
We won't say we told you so, but. . . .
Charter achievement redux
Scientific illiteracy among the education elite
A third way on social promotion
The White House speaks!
UK inches toward merit pay
Diane Ravitch / September 30, 2004
The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption, released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is a splendid survey of what's wrong with textbooks today and how they went awry.
The main problem besetting textbooks, we know, is their quality. They are sanitized to avoid offending anyone who might complain at adoption hearings in big states, they are poorly written, they are burdened with irrelevant and unedifying content, and they reach for the lowest common denominator. As a result, they undermine learning instead of building and encouraging it.
This newest Fordham study, and others that have examined textbooks (see A Consumer's Guide to High School History Textbooks), show that it need not be this way. There are plenty of examples of fine textbooks from the recent past, as well as from other countries. Good history books contain vivid narratives about significant people and exciting events that changed the course of human affairs; such books certainly do not sidestep controversial topics. Good literature anthologies contain a blend of outstanding traditional literature as well as recent writing that is worthy of study and analysis; such anthologies are not assembled primarily in terms of the authors' gender and ethnicity (unless they are intended to be compilations of writings by women, men, or members of specific groups). Good textbooks in mathematics and science focus on the facts and ideas that are necessary to build a cumulative foundation of knowledge in
September 30, 2004
Last week, Gadfly editorialized that "Putting most of the available energy, political capital, brain power and money into 'helping' districts engage in chartering rather than devoting those (limited) assets to advancing the frontier of independent charter schools: removing caps on their numbers and enrollments, creating multiple authorizers, strengthening school autonomy, securing adequate funding and facilities, etc.," could harm independent chartering. This week, independent charter school operators and would-be operators in Chicago were dismayed to discover that the Renaissance 2010 plan being pushed by Mayor Richard Daley would effectively cut per-pupil funding for new and existing charter schools, once a hefty new charge for building maintenance and rent is deducted. According to the plan, elementary schools would receive $4,325 per pupil and high schools would receive $5,075 after these fees are deducted - well below what schools now receive. Further, charters would be required to use district-employed janitors, security staff, and technical personnel who would answer to the Chicago Public Schools. Charter operator Rod Joslin told the Chicago Tribune, "I want to be empowered. I want the janitor to report to the principal, not someone at CPS. I don't want their security guards at all. I don't want their technology. And why should I pay rent to CPS? It's shameful they are even suggesting it." Dave Weinberg, director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, told the Tribune that he's hopeful the formula will be changed. "These numbers are not encouraging,"
September 30, 2004
Caroline Hoxby recaps the Great Charter Debate (or should we call it Ambush?) of 2004 in the Wall Street Journal this week. She compares her recent study of pupil achievement in charter schools (click here for our review) - which concluded that charter students are more apt to pass state tests than similar public school counterparts - to the "crude" AFT study that found charter students lagging their public school counterparts on NAEP tests (click here for more). As usual, Hoxby marshals an array of facts and astute analysis to back her argument. So where's the New York Times article on Hoxby's study? Don't hold your breath. See below for (Hoxby-compatible) new information from Dayton schools regarding the achievement of charter and district students on Ohio tests in 2004.
"Chalk it up," by Caroline Hoxby, Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2004 (subscription required)
September 30, 2004
As any education researcher will tell you, conducting a "scientific" study of educational programs or practices is difficult at best, primarily because so many factors contribute to pupil achievement, including students' previous knowledge, teacher quality, the degree of parental and community support, etc. But a recent article by education blogger Joanne Jacobs questions whether these underlying difficulties are the true cause of the dearth of scientifically based research in the field, or whether the problem is more fundamental: most education researchers don't really know how to conduct rigorous scientific studies. Already this year, the Chronicle of Higher Education (click here) reported that "fewer than 10 percent of American Education Research Association [AERA] members are knowledgeable about randomized trials. And even fewer have actually worked on a randomized trial." Worse still, rather than learn the skills necessary to conduct such studies (which are now required to earn the "scientifically based" moniker), education researchers demonstrate "a deep well of hostility to cold, hard, number-heavy science." And, as Thomas Cook has shown, the intellectual culture of colleges of education has little use for randomized experiments and kindred research. As a result, economists (like Caroline Hoxby, mentioned above), statisticians, and psychologists are increasingly being called upon to conduct the scientifically based studies that traditional education researchers are unwilling to take on.
"Rigor-free research," by Joanne Jacobs, TechCentralStation.com, September 27, 2004
"Sciencephobia," by Thomas D. Cook, Education Next, Fall 2001
September 30, 2004
The New York Times this week featured a column by Arthur Levine (often a sensible fellow, despite being president of Teachers College) outlining a "third way" on social promotion. Levine contends that "neither social promotion nor holding back students works. Leaving students back increases their dropout rate. . . . Socially promoted students, meanwhile, are unable to learn more advanced material in the next grade and are more likely to become disruptive, diminishing their classmates' ability to learn as well." His solution? Group students not by age and grade, but by academic achievement in specific areas, and be flexible about how long it takes to earn a diploma. In the current system, Levine observes, students "are all expected to learn the same material in 180 days even though they come to school with different levels of ability and experience. Inevitably, some students can't keep up, forcing schools to decide whether to promote them or leave them back." Instead, he believes, the education system should "simply recognize that children learn at different rates." That might mean letting advanced students graduate in as few as 10 years, while slower learners take as many as 14 years to complete their elementary/secondary studies. An interesting idea, albeit one that would mean the total reorganization of American schooling and would give pause to a great many parents wanting to know "what grade" Mandy and Jason are in. It's one that could only work
September 30, 2004
You've watched Rotherham and Finn duke it out over the Bush administration's record on education. So let's hear from the administration, shall we? This week, the White House released a new "policy book" detailing its education successes and pointing toward future plans. As befits a campaign piece, the self-reviews of NCLB are more-than-glowing, but there are also some interesting factoids and revelations here. The list of new initiatives is notable mostly for its caution (community college grants, job training, taking high school seriously, fiddling with Head Start). Perhaps the White House has had its fill of bold education initiatives and radical overhauls, at least before the election.
"Education: The promise of America," White House Policy Book, September 26, 2004
September 30, 2004
The British House of Commons education committee recently recommended greater flexibility in teacher pay as a way to combat specific teacher shortages. In particular, they recommend that "super teachers" be given bonuses for working in tough schools, and that schools that face persistent recruiting problems should be able to pay more to entice new teachers. Of course, teachers unions on all sides of every ocean are opposed to anything that smacks of merit pay, especially if it links teacher pay to student outcomes. BBC education correspondent Mike Baker argues that this opposition stems from historical precedent. More than a century ago, it seems, some British teachers' pay was linked to their pupils' achievement, which led to abuses and cheating. Perhaps that's the reason, and maybe it's pure self-interest in contemporary context, but British leaders are looking to the more recent example of Sweden, which suggests that merit pay can be made to work. The Swedish model, said to be supported by teachers and their unions, is a more flexible system that allows individual teachers to negotiate their salary directly with the principal, who can consider student performance as a factor in deciding how much to offer. Strange, that capitalist America pays each teacher according to his needs, not his ability, while socialistic Sweden has chosen the invisible hand of supply and demand.
"More money for 'super teachers'?" by Mike Baker, BBC News, September 24, 2004
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / September 30, 2004
Bryan C. Hassel, Progressive Policy InstituteSeptember 21, 2004
Bryan C. Hassel authored and the Progressive Policy Institute published this terrific account of the first three years of charter schooling in Indianapolis under the extraordinary leadership of Mayor Bart Peterson. What's most remarkable about this tale is its coherent, strategic purposefulness. In effect, the Mayor's Office is creating a whole new "sector" of public education in Indianapolis, and it's off to a strong start. With ten schools operating and several more soon to open, this sector is on course to enroll about 4,500 youngsters within a few years. (That's about ten percent of total district enrollment.) The "new approach" alluded to in the subtitle of this 37-pager is the mayor's role as charter authorizer. But in fact the report contains lessons, insights, and sage advice for other authorizers and communities, and is a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on charter schooling. You can find it online here.
September 30, 2004
Robin J. Lake, Progressive Policy InstituteSeptember 2004
This insightful report serves as a worthy companion to the Indianapolis study noted above. Although Lake focuses on developments in Gotham, she also provides information about the growing charter movements in Rochester and Buffalo and generally offers a good overview of the Empire State's current charter scene. We see that the best charter schools in New York City are outperforming their district counterparts by a sizable margin, but we also encounter numerous problems and insightful ideas for solving them. Lake would have city policy makers integrate charter schools with other district schools, create many more charters, and use charter schools to meet the demands of NCLB. At the state level, she recommends streamlining the authorizing process and closing the funding gap between charter schools and traditional public schools. A nice piece of work, which you can find here.
Eric Osberg / September 30, 2004
Cheri Pierson Yecke, Ph.D., Center of the American ExperimentSeptember 22, 2004
In this short report, former Minnesota education commissioner Cheri Yecke reports on the findings of her discussions with Minnesota educators about the challenges of NCLB. She heard more than bellyaching and offers a practical set of tweaks and improvements, both to the federal law and to her state's accountability practices, seeking "to strengthen No Child Left Behind," not "to dodge the law or mask accountability." In particular, she urges Washington to consider value-added measures of achievement to measure and understand changes over time. She suggests improvements related to special ed, including a modification to the teacher quality provision (so that a teacher covering five subjects need not prove proficiency in each); a pitch for replicating Florida's McKay scholarship program; and flexibility in the AYP formula (noting that as students improve they might no longer be classified as special ed, thus mislabeling good schools as needing improvement in that area). She notes the folly of holding school leaders accountable for results if they are powerless over their teachers, leading her to urge Minnesota to make it easier to fire bad teachers, reform tenure, and enable performance pay. And she would grant states more freedom with their federal funds in exchange for increased accountability (an idea abandoned on Capitol Hill in 2001 in favor of NCLB's regulatory approach). Overall, Yecke's report is a rewarding read for anyone hoping to improve