Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 16
April 28, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
Lessons from San Diego
By Frederick M. Hess
A rush to judgment?
By Diane Ravitch
NCLB needs a course change
Right time for randomized trials?
Texas tech textbooks
Animal House 101
Putting the World into Our Classrooms
Frederick M. Hess / April 28, 2005
In 1998, San Diego City Schools launched one of the nation's most ambitious efforts at urban school reform. Superintendent Alan Bersin, former U.S. District Attorney for Southern California and President Clinton's "border czar," sought to reinvent the teaching and organization of the nation's eighth largest school district. In June, Bersin's stormy tenure will draw to a close. He departs as the longest-serving of the nation's big-city superintendents.
When first hired, Bersin named Tony Alvarado, former superintendent of District #2 in New York City, to serve as head of San Diego's instructional and curricular program. They moved aggressively to promote a strategy of coherent, uniform instruction drawn from Alvarado's work in Gotham. That agenda sparked sharp conflict with the San Diego Education Association, reflected in a persistent 3-2 split on the school board.
Bersin's administration enjoyed some visible successes. Between 1999 and 2004, the percentage of San Diego elementary schools scoring at the top rung of the statewide Academic Performance Index increased by more than a third, the number of schools in the bottom category fell from 13 to one, and the racial achievement gap narrowed. However, more disappointingly, middle school and high school achievement stubbornly failed to improve and some observers questioned the rigor of the district's curriculum, Alvarado's approach to teaching, and Bersin's handling of the union.
Bersin's departure provides an opportunity to ask what we have learned from his highly visible and often contentious tenure. To explore that question, and
Diane Ravitch / April 28, 2005
The selection of the New York City Department of Education as a finalist for the Broad award surprised many seasoned observers in our fair city, especially because of score declines in 2004 in some of the poorest neighborhoods.
Over the past two years, the city school system has gone through a radical change - politically and pedagogically - as a result of the State Legislature's decision in spring 2001 to grant control to the newly elected mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Mayor Bloomberg hired prosecutor and trust-buster Joel Klein to be his chancellor; Klein in turn hired Diana Lam as his instructional deputy (she has since departed), and she selected the key programs and personnel. Klein unveiled his program in the spring of 2002; the program was installed in September 2002.
Integral to the reorganization was 1) a complete centralization of all authority; 2) the elimination of the policy making powers of lay central and local boards, which were replaced by toothless boards; 3) imposition of a mandated citywide curriculum for all but a select number of exempt schools; 4) creation of a Leadership Academy to recruit and train principals. (The Leadership Academy spent $25 million in its first year and produced about 65 principals.)
The reading portion of the mandated curriculum consists of "balanced literacy," which relies heavily on professional development by Teachers College and groups known for their adherence to the precepts of whole language. The math portion
April 28, 2005
Earlier this week, at an event marking the release of the new Koret Task Force volume, Within Our Reach: How America Can Educate Every Child, a key House Education Committee staff member made it clear - let us say, made it sharply clear - that No Child Left Behind would not, repeat not, be opened up to legislative tinkering before its regular reauthorization date in 2007. (Memo to the administration and its allies on the Hill: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and denigrating your longtime friends and supporters in public is not as smart or effective as you think.) We certainly understand the administration's fear: Rewriting portions of the law runs the risk of having it gutted on Capitol Hill as unions, states, and assorted malcontents put pressure upon elected officials. But with states in open rebellion, departments being fined for non-compliance, and major editorial pages all over the map about the future of NCLB, we have to wonder if that risk might be preferable to the chaos of the past several weeks. We have no truck with states' whining about NCLB. But states do have one justifiable complaint: that the new "flexibility" scheme is arbitrary and cumbersome. Will someone please explain why this approach is preferable to an open, transparent, and definitive floor fight over what we mean by, and how we get to, leaving no child behind?
April 28, 2005
Science magazine reports that researchers worry that the Department of Education's focus on medical-style randomized controlled trials in education research is premature, since the groundwork hasn't yet been laid for applying those techniques to education. "Rushing to do RCTs is wrongheaded and bad science," Alan Schoenfeld, a math education professor at Berkeley, told the magazine. "There's a whole body of research that must be done before that." Just three months ago in Gadfly, Rick Hess editorialized that randomized studies in education should be confined to issues for which they are suited - pedagogical and curricular interventions - and not applied to structural changes such as regulatory reforms or school board overhauls (see here). We definitely agree. Still, we tend to believe that those who bemoan the inappropriateness of randomized studies in education are blowing smoke. No, the science isn't perfect, the prerequisites aren't completely in place, and we lack a broad body of knowledge upon which to build carefully controlled studies. So let's start perfecting and building these things as we work to increase the education sector's capacity to evaluate itself in a manner that passes the laugh test.
"Can randomized trials answer the question of what works?" by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, Science, March 25, 2005
April 28, 2005
The Texas state House has overwhelmingly approved a new bill that would dramatically alter its textbook landscape. HB 4 would replace the word "textbooks" in the state education code with "instructional materials," making it easier for schools to use state funds to purchase computer-based textbooks; provide a substantial increase in technology funding; and give additional flexibility to schools to update instructional materials by increasing the ease and frequency in which materials are updated. Currently, the State Board of Education selects textbooks once every six years, but could now approve new cyber-materials four times a year - allowing companies to simply update their materials, instead of forcing districts to buy brand new textbooks at hundreds of dollars per kid. "No longer do we have this delay to get good data to kids," said the bill's author, Rep. Kent Grusendorf. The bill would ultimately increase technology spending by $700 million over two years, but would also cut traditional textbook funding by $378 million. Right now, it is unclear how the bill would affect the never-ending battles over evolution and sex ed in Texas textbooks, or affect the state's onerous textbook guidelines. But it may encourage one of the outcomes Fordham advocated in The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption: breaking the stranglehold of a few multinational conglomerates over the $4+ billion textbook market in this country.
"House: Tech-savvy kids need high-tech teaching," by Jason Embry, Austin
April 28, 2005
The New York Times travels to State U and finds mega-sized classes, disengaged and anonymous students floating through their four (or increasingly four-and-a-half, or five, years of college), and an environment where books and studying have been replaced with beer bongs and "power hours" (a shot of beer every minute for an hour). The Times profiles five students and their experiences at the University of Arizona (one describes passing out on the floor of a vacant fraternity house - although he drinks four nights a week and never attends class, he has still made the dean's list). Professors and students exist in a kind of mutual non-aggression pact: professors offer light material and grade easily, and students don't kick up a fuss. Universities blame a culture of apathy, limited state funding, and poor secondary preparation by high schools. A few states want to stem the astonishingly high dropout rate at big public universities by tying funding to such measures as retention, but this could perversely incentivize colleges to lower standards even further. In the end, the spiraling cost of tuition - even at state schools - might be the only thing that sparks reform. Eventually, parents are going to wonder why a college that costs tens of thousands of dollars per year nets the proud graduate little but overstuffed lecture halls, a degree of questionable value, and a cirrhotic liver.
"Survival of the fittest," by John Merrow, New
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / April 28, 2005
Tom Loveless, American Enterprise Institute
Perhaps the most gripping contribution to this week's lively American Enterprise Institute conference on K-12 education philanthropy was a paper by Brookings's Tom Loveless examining the education beliefs and values of program officers at a cross-section of U.S. foundations. He mail-surveyed 240 such foundations, receiving a 53 percent response rate, so his data come from 128 education program officers. There was some debate at the conference about how representative they are of their species, but the data themselves are more than a little dismaying. Bottom line: those who make education grant decisions are even more "progressive" in their ideas about schools and schooling than professors in colleges of education! (Loveless used the same questions that Public Agenda had asked ed school faculty in 1997, which yielded the celebrated study Different Drummers, showing that the professoriate is markedly out of step with both the general public and with teachers themselves. See here.) For example, when asked if they felt kids' academic achievement could be improved by "emphasizing such work habits as being on time, dependable, and disciplined," just 44 percent of foundation program officers were positive, versus 60 percent of education professors. Asked if it would help to raise promotion standards between elementary and middle school and "only let . . . kids move ahead when they pass a test showing they have reached those standards," strong positives were registered by only a
Does Teacher Preparation Matter? Evidence about Teacher Certification, Teach for America, and Teacher Effectiveness
Eric Osberg / April 28, 2005
Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah J. Holtzman, Su Jin Gatlin and Julian Vasquez Heilig
Linda Darling-Hammond has made no secret of her dislike for Teach for America (TFA), and her latest report attempts to prove the relative ineffectiveness of TFA teachers. These results are at odds with previous studies by CREDO (see here) and Mathematica (see here), which found that TFA teachers outperform traditionally-prepared teachers. Much of this is a spat about research methodologies, to which TFA and others have responded, (see here and here) casting serious doubt on Darling-Hammond's conclusions. But this is also a philosophical debate. To accept her results is to accept that the way to improve schools is within the current frameworks: give teachers greater autonomy and pay and ensure that they go through the right (and supposedly effective) certification programs. However, even if that would help, it is folly to hope that a new generation of Darling-Hammond-style career teachers can be found among today's college students; this generation has other ideas about its career paths (see here). And enticing talented youngsters into teaching may in fact be worth the high turnover rates Darling-Hammond laments. It's sad that some would prefer to tear down innovative programs that are making a difference in favor of an unrealistic vision for tinkering with the status quo. You can find this short and moderately technical report online here.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / April 28, 2005
Michael H. Levine, Progressive Policy Institute
In this six-page "policy brief," the education chief of the Asia Society argues that American students are learning far too little about the world beyond our borders and offers up four recommendations for rectifying that situation. No objections here. You can find it on line here.