Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 15
April 21, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
Keep the choice provision strong
No rest for the weary&
Just the facts, ma'am
Class size troubles
Vouchers ahead? Stay tuned
Teaching at Risk: A Call to Action
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / April 21, 2005
I finally got around to glancing through The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement, by Martin Carnoy, Rebecca Jacobsen, Lawrence Mishel, and Richard Rothstein. These people sure have nerve, pretending to analyze in scholarly fashion the now-famous contretemps over the American Federation of Teachers' so-called "study" of charter school performance using NAEP data. (Anyone whose memory of that episode is dimming can begin a refresher course athttp://www.edexcellence.net/gadfly/issue.cfm?issue=159#1941.)
The crucial thing to know about the authors of this 186-pager is that they intensely dislike charter schools and all other threats to the public-school monopoly. Jacobsen is a research assistant but the other three all have lengthy track records on the subject. Indeed, taking shots at choice-style education reforms is their vocation and possibly their greatest source of pleasure.
Andy Smarick / April 21, 2005
Public school choice was the great promise of NCLB. It gave students in failing schools an escape hatch and reinforced NCLB's commitment to every child by providing low-income families with options long enjoyed by more affluent families.
Tragically, that promise has gone almost completely unfulfilled. Today, 1 percent of eligible students have participated. Districts across the nation frustrate its implementation and few eligible families know the option exists. Even school choice supporters Rick Hess and Checker Finn say it's unworkable in its current form and that access to supplemental educational services should leapfrog it in the sequence of NCLB sanctions. The failure of public school choice is the greatest disappointment of NCLB's three-year history—and the greatest unkept promise to America's children.
Yet the U.S. Department of Education recently announced a "new path" for NCLB that appears to give states even more latitude in the law's implementation. Secretary Spellings listed areas of the law that were non-negotiable: annual testing, disaggregated results, and highly qualified teachers. Conspicuously absent was public school choice. (Also missing were supplemental services.)
Given that this feature of NCLB hasn't worked so far, that states and districts find it intolerably burdensome, that even some education reformers have doubts about it, and that the Department is inviting NCLB waiver requests, it doesn't take a psychic to see what's about to happen.
The Department should not only reject every request for flexibility over this provision; it should redouble its efforts to ensure that public
April 21, 2005
Margaret Spellings is a busy, busy woman these days. It seems that earlier, isolated outbursts of discontent about No Child Left Behind (See "Flexibility and NCLB," and "Dismantling NCLB..." for more) have now exploded into a multi-front war this week. On Wednesday, the NEA, a smattering of school districts in three states, and a host of NEA affiliates in seven others filed the long-promised lawsuit against NCLB in U.S. District Court for eastern Michigan. The suit accuses the federal government of failing to provide enough money for states and districts to implement NCLB. "You don't have to do anything this law requires unless you receive federal funds to do it," said NEA general counsel Bob Chanin, laying out the plaintiffs' position that the government can't force unfunded mandates on states. At least we agree on one thing. As Gadfly - and other reputable sources, such as the GAO; see http://www.edexcellence.net/gadfly/issue.cfm?issue=151#1855 for more details - has noted, you don't have to do anything at all relating to NCLB, so long as you choose to forego the federal funding. Meanwhile, there has been a 40 percent increase in federal education spending since 2001, most of it related to NCLB, from $17.4 billion to $24.4 billion. These facts do not bode well for the lawsuit. Also this week, Connecticut continues to threaten its own lawsuit after an unproductive palaver with the Secretary. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal gave a blunt assessment: "This
April 21, 2005
Teachers, check up on your retirement plan immediately. The latest Forbes reveals that big insurance companies are peddling bad retirement plans to teachers - often with their unions' support. These variable annuity plans - mutual funds wrapped into a life insurance policy - feature exorbitant fees and low historic returns, yet have managed to get 1.5 million teachers as investors with a total of $120 billion in funds. How are they doing it? Insurers cut million-dollar deals with unions to gain union endorsement and exclusive access to union members. According to Forbes, the NEA took in $3 million annually from the insurer Nationwide through 2000 - then put its contract on the market. One company, Great-West Life, had a great bid: no variable annuity, low 0.15 percent annual fees, and no surrender charges. But Great-West refused to buy off the NEA for its endorsement. Thus, the NEA now exclusively endorses Security Benefit's "NEA Valuebuilder," which features 5.6 percent annual fees, a "mortality and expense risk" charge of up to 0.9 percent, and a whopping 7 percent cancellation fee if you quit in the first year. Daniel Puplava, a former NEA Valuebuilder salesman, describes the life thusly: "When I did work at the union, I had to pay for tables, provide door prizes, and dine labor people to market in their territory. . . . I felt like a whore." Strong words from an insurance salesman.
"Costly lesson," by Neil
April 21, 2005
Columbia Journalism Review has a long essay in its March/April issue calling upon journalists to "get beyond" test scores in education reporting and not just accept the district or state's numbers, but also look at how numbers and policies are actually affecting the classroom. The essay by LynNell Hancock - a professor at Columbia's journalism school and former education reporter for Newsweek - notes that the education beat, long the unloved step-child of the news and metro sections, is "a complex beat, in flux, under new scrutiny. Old top-down reporting habits - never adequate to begin with - become even more dangerous when used to analyze the impact of such far-reaching, top-down reforms as the elimination of social promotion and No Child Left Behind." The essay argues that journalists need to stack these claims against the impact that reforms have on individual schools and teachers, on classrooms and the lives of students. We agree - to a point. A healthy skepticism about official pronouncements among the fourth estate is always advisable, and possibly even indispensable to transparent government. But reporters should also beware of the "tunnel effect" that can bedevil all reporting, but especially education reporting. (It has its ed school counterpart: so called "qualitative research".) As in, because I see something - curricular narrowing, or a wonderfully effective teaching tool - in this particular school, it must be equally effective or equally true of all schools, all students, all
April 21, 2005
The Florida class size amendment is causing problems again. Luckily, state schools chief John Winn is showing some useful flexibility in applying its regulations. Approximately 154,000 children are expected to enroll in Florida's new pre-kindergarten program, but the requirements of the class size amendment are causing a shortage in classroom space. While pre-K providers were required to certify that they could meet the class size stipulation all the way through the 2010-11 school year, Winn will allow any provider that currently meets the requirements to enroll in the program. But as predicted, the lofty intentions of this amendment are colliding with reality, forcing administrators to devote needed resources to meeting its requirements, which strains physical plants and degrades the quality of the teaching pool by forcing the hiring of less-effective teachers. Past attempts to repeal the amendment have failed (see http://www.edexcellence.net/gadfly/issue.cfm?issue=112#1407). Florida voters will eventually have to face the realities of the tradeoff they've embraced: quantity or quality?
"Education chief eases pre-K requirement," by Diane Hirth, Democrat Capitol Bureau, April 13, 2005
April 21, 2005
Last week, the Ohio House of Representatives passed its state budget, which included a plan to provide 18,000 vouchers for more than 30 school districts in 2006 and double that number in 2007, which would make it the largest voucher program in the country. The proposal is expected to meet fierce resistance from Senate Democrats, but voucher proponents in both the House and Senate say they're confident it will pass. Don't expect smooth sailing, though: Opposition forces such as the Ohio Education Association are already gearing up with the dread "Three Ls": lobbyists, lawyers, and lawsuits. Nationwide, it's two steps forward, one step back on vouchers - Ohio is moving ahead but Indiana's voucher proposal (see http://www.edexcellence.net/gadfly/issue.cfm?issue=184#2201) bit the dust last week.
"School vouchers stopped in house," by Mary Beth Schneider and Staci Hupp, Indianapolis Star, April 7, 2005
"Expansion of school choice clears the Ohio House," Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, April 15, 2005
"School voucher debate undergoes 'sea-change,'" by Doug Oplinger and Dennis J. Willard, Akron Beacon-Journal, April 18, 2005
The Efficacy of Choice Threats Within School Accountability Systems: Results From Legislatively Induced Experiments
April 21, 2005
Martin R. West and Paul R. Peterson, Program on Education Policy and GovernanceHarvard University
What gets schools moving faster - the threats of vouchers or the stigma of being labeled "failing," a la NCLB? To find out, West and Peterson compared the performance of Florida schools that were facing a voucher threat (meaning they received an "F" under the Florida Comprehensive Accountability Test, or FCAT) to "D" schools that face no voucher threat but still have the stigma of receiving a low grade, and then compared those "D" schools to similar "C" schools. Thanks to their access to student-level data and demographic characteristics, they were able to adjust for socio-economic status, mobility, and other variables. The results make sense: "D" schools, motivated by the stigma of their low letter grade, outperformed "C" schools significantly. But the growth was even greater for "F" schools facing a voucher threat, which raised student learning by the equivalent of three to four months above the performance of students in the "C" schools. The authors found no impact at all, however, from the threat of public school choice under NCLB as implemented in Florida. Policy implication: being labeled a failure can shame some institutions to improve, but to spur real reform you have to incentivize them with consequences. Only in education is this rather mundane insight novel - or contentious. Check out the report at http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/pepg/pdf/papers/West_Peterson_ChoiceThreats.pdf.
Power of the voucher," by Paul E.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / April 21, 2005
Gary Miron, The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University
Gary Miron is an assiduous, technically competent, and generally objective evaluator of charter school performance. At the request of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, he and his center evaluated the performance of that state's charter schools as of 2003-4. (Ten of fourteen operating schools were included in this analysis.) The results are generally positive in grades 4, 6, and 8: "In three of the four cohorts, the charter schools made much larger gains than their comparison groups." The two charter high schools in the batch, however, were "mixed to negative." Besides state tests, Miron looked at how many of the schools' own goals were being attained. Of the 179 objectives they had set, "nearly 44 percent . . . were fully met, another 27 percent were mostly met, and 8 percent were partially met. Twenty-one percent of the objectives were deemed in this study to have not been met, in many cases because the schools did not provide sufficient evidence." Connecticut has a very small and heavily regulated charter movement. (See http://www.edexcellence.net/doc/IndividualStateReports_All.pdf and turn to page 36.) It would appear from this latest appraisal, however, that its schools are doing pretty well. Surf to http://www.wmich.edu/evalctr/charter/ct_cs_eval_executive_summary.pdf for the report.
Eric Osberg / April 21, 2005
The Teaching Commission
The Teaching Commission, headed by IBM's Lou Gerstner and populated by leaders in education, business and politics, released this report in 2004. It's another manifesto, really, urging action on three worthwhile reforms: implementing pay-for-performance, improving teacher preparation, and reducing licensure and certification barriers to entry. In each case, the commissioners offer specific recommendations in the hopes of bridging ideological divides and moving these ideas into practice. On teacher pay, they suggest that the best teachers might get 30 percent raises, softened by offering all teachers 10 percent raises (at a $30 billion annual cost). Importantly, they urge that teachers be evaluated using value-added methods. They argue that improving school leadership and giving principals autonomy would improve teacher retention. There's more, on training, mentoring, retention, and other topics. None get in-depth treatment - it's a brief document - but most are accompanied by worthwhile arguments. They also offer a host of mini case studies - examples, really - to buttress their recommendations. There is information about the Teacher Advancement Program, New Leaders for New Schools, Carnegie's Teachers for a New Era, and the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), as well as various efforts underway in Tennessee, Texas, New Jersey, and other locations. The proposals wouldn't seem controversial to lay leaders, but those who know education reform know better. We'll watch with interest to see if they can succeed in their plan to work with "eight to
April 21, 2005
Paul E. Barton, Educational Testing Service
February 2005Characteristics of Minority Students Who Excel on the SAT and in the Classroom
Brent Bridgeman and Cathy Wendler, Educational Testing Service
Two ETS reports: One analyzes characteristics of minority students who excel on the SAT and the other examines the rising number of high school dropouts. The former study finds expected correlations. Regardless of race, students who do well in rigorous courses tend to have higher SAT scores and vice-versa; most likely these two factors affect each other simultaneously and the report urges all students to take rigorous courses. Of the numerous correlations provided, an especially troubling one compares SAT scores and field of study in college. It finds that "'academic superstars' have almost no interest in teaching (at least no interest in majoring in education)." Those with low scores, however, flock to the field. With an extremely high correlation between teacher intelligence and instructional prowess, the fact that our brightest students have no interest in teaching is worrisome indeed. The second study examines the growing number of high school dropouts, what needs to be done to help them stick it out (or re-enter) and graduate, and the personal and societal effects from these dropouts. In the 1990s, high school dropout rates increased in all but seven states, while students as a whole began leaving at an earlier age. The study cites a shortage of counselors to help deal with troubled youngsters and declining