Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 13
April 7, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
A better way to grade schools
By Bill Breisch
Dismantling NCLB . . .
. . . or improving NCLB?
Ranking the ed schools
Too many alternatives
Hoist on their own petard
Bill Breisch / April 7, 2005
As winter turns toward spring, we turn toward a perennial spring event: student testing. With that testing comes the inevitable anxiety as states brace themselves for the annual status races.
My state, Wisconsin, is no exception. We look ahead to this testing season with concern about how our performance data will measure up to results from other states, other districts, other schools. As a result of NCLB, which requires students in numerous subgroups to move toward "proficiency" in reading and mathematics (and, soon, in science), schools and school districts will either "make AYP" or be labeled "in need of improvement." Unfortunately, these assessments do not by themselves tell the full story about how well a school is performing.
That the current system does not fairly depict the quality of a school or district became clearer than ever in a study released last year by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a nonprofit organization comprised of some 1,500 school districts. (See "Individual Growth and School Success.") NWEA has one of the largest repositories of longitudinal student achievement data in the world.
The study authors posed the question: If School A and School B had identical state test scores, would they have similar success with students? Consider that School A started the year with low-performing students and caused every one of them to grow twice as much as students in School B. We immediately realize that end-of-year testing data can tell
April 7, 2005
On Saturday, the Washington Post featured an op ed by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings declaring her "willingness to work with states to make [NCLB] fit their unique local needs." Today, Spellings will announce-at a special meeting with state chiefs at Mount Vernon, near Washington-the particulars of the plan, which will include allowing states that can prove they've made progress toward closing achievement gaps greater flexibility on how to move special education, ESL, and other subgroups toward proficiency. The Post also reports that the choice provision will be revised or relaxed and perhaps made the second intervention, after SES. Doubtless sensing an opportunity to promote their respective "unique local needs," a gaggle of states, including Utah, Florida, New Jersey, and Texas, have already submitted a litany of complaints. And one state, at least, remains recalcitrant: the same day the New York Times editorialized that "the core part of the [NCLB] law . . . must remain sacrosanct, and the Bush administration must stand firm against districts that simply don't want to make the effort," Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced that the Constitution State will be the first to file a federal lawsuit challenging NCLB on its face. This after they've already been denied waivers several times (see "Playing Chicken on NCLB" for details on Connecticut's "woes"). Meanwhile, the Department is still negotiating with Utah (see "Rebellion in Utah"). What to make of all this? As always, the devil
April 7, 2005
Instead of riddling NCLB with state-specific loopholes, it would make infinitely more sense to acknowledge that that important statute needs a handful of carefully designed reforms. And then enact those reforms. But what would they be? Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby makes a brilliant start on the process in this week's Wall Street Journal when she provides solutions to quirks in how adequate yearly progress is calculated. Her fine piece is based on her chapter in a newly released Koret Task Force volume (edited by John Chubb) titled Within Our Reach (see http://www-hoover.stanford.edu/pubaffairs/releases/2005/03chubb.html). The book itself bears attention, too. Hoxby lays out three core principles of AYP, then proposes a number of reforms in how it is measured: benchmark proficiency levels to NAEP; use conventional statistical forecasting techniques to judge whether a school is on track to meeting NCLB's requirements (which amounts to a back-door value-added component); and assign the minimum score to students who miss state tests, a cleaner and less arbitrary way of penalizing schools that encourage low-scorers to be "sick" on testing day than the current 95 percent participation rate requirement. She also proposes that the federal government name names when it comes to states that have set absurdly lenient proficiency standards - and reward states that have held themselves to high standards by giving them extra time beyond 2014 to meet their goals. All in all, Hoxby's reforms amount to a good-faith effort to make NCLB
April 7, 2005
U.S. News has released its annual ranking of graduate programs, with a section on education schools, accompanied by a crackerjack essay that faults the ed school sector as a whole. "Schools of education," it observes, "like public schools, have been roundly criticized in recent years for failing to adequately equip their students, and quality, to put it mildly, is uneven." Note: This essay accompanies a list of the best ed schools in the land (the magazine does not strike a similar tone in discussing, say, business schools), so this pronouncement means something. As usual, Harvard tops the chart; the top five are rounded out by UCLA, Stanford, Teachers College, and Vanderbilt. One bright spot: NCLB's teacher quality and other provisions are slowly forcing these schools to emphasize - or at least deal with - subject mastery. As the report notes, in order to obtain a good teaching job, "content-lite won't do: You must know your subject, and know it well." For example, Bard College's new master of arts in teaching program requires a math degree for prospective math instructors, who then study with a mathematician instead of an education professor while also analyzing high school texts and curriculum. Qualified math and science teachers will be especially valuable, considering that 69 percent of math teachers and 57 percent of science teachers currently have no major or certification in their field. While education schools are still in need of drastic reform (see
April 7, 2005
Last week, the Dallas Morning News reported a sharp rise in the number of charter schools seeking "alternative education" status from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) in light of the stiffer expectations of the state's accountability system. "Alternative education" status is usually reserved for schools, both charter and traditional, "dedicated to serving students at risk of dropping out of school." But lax rules allowed many charters to claim the classification and duck the tougher accountability standards to which they would otherwise be subject. In response, TEA quickly (and in our view, rightly) set new rules that require an "alternative education" school, whether traditional or charter, to serve at least 65 percent "at-risk" students to qualify. The state plans gradually to lift that threshold to 75 percent by 2008. The rule change will allow charters that truly serve at-risk students some reasonable flexibility in meeting state requirements, while maintaining accountability among charters as a whole.
"'Alternative' label popular with charters," by Kent Fischer, Dallas Morning News, March 27, 2005
April 7, 2005
Caught stealing from your union? You might find that your best friend is . . . your union. Wayne Kruse, former president of the Lawrence Education Association, was charged with stealing $97,000 in dues from the Kansas NEA. Naturally, the Lawrence school board tried to fire him, but because of protections guaranteed in his NEA-negotiated contract, he would have been eligible to appeal his dismissal and tie the board up in costly litigation. As a compromise, Kruse offered not to go to court if the board agreed to pay him through June 2005. The board, of course, yielded. You have to admire the brazenness of it all, and the irony. Of course, if the board had really wanted to get back at the NEA, maybe they should have let Kruse continue to head the local union.
"Kruse offers resignation to district," by Dave Ranney, Lawrence Journal World, March 29, 2005
"Cruel irony in Kansas," Education Intelligence Agency, April 4, 2005
Beating the Odds: A City-by-City Analysis of Student Performance and Achievement Gaps on State Assessments
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / April 7, 2005
When we flagged this report some weeks back, we had seen only the executive summary. Now we have the full 240-page tome and are impressed enough to mention it again. Carefully prepared by the Council of the Great City Schools, this is a painstaking analysis of how the Council's 55 member districts (including most of the country's major cities) have done in recent years as gauged primarily by their states' tests. We've never seen anything so detailed and candid-including welcome honesty about the limits of these data and the difficulties of using them for comparisons. The good news is that many of the nation's urban districts are posting significant gains in math and reading and are reducing achievement gaps between white and minority students. Twenty-three urban districts have been making faster gains in math than the state average in at least half the grades tested, while seventeen posted reading gains that exceeded the state average. (Many, of course, still lag well behind their states' averages, and some are weakening vis-?-vis their states.) There is a raft of data here that you probably cannot get anywhere else, as well as a helpful statistical spotlight on the actual condition of urban education in America today. Kudos to the Council for making it available. It can be ordered from the Council for $20 plus $5 shipping by calling 202-393-2427, writing 1301 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 702, Washington, DC 20004 or surfing to
April 7, 2005
Center on Education Policy
Underscoring the findings of the report reviewed above, this third annual CEP report on NCLB implementation finds that the law has significantly raised student test scores, especially in lower-achieving populations. It's done this by bringing a "greater sense of urgency to state and local efforts to raise student achievement," which has forced needed attention on struggling students and improved 6,000 of the nation's worst schools. The report is based on a survey of education officials in 49 states and 314 school districts, plus detailed case studies in 36 districts - so a slight bias might be present from those feeling NCLB's hammer. But other CEP recommendations mirror oft-voiced state concerns, such as the call for more funding. The report also notes that while 15 percent of districts must now offer students the choice to transfer to another public school, only 1 percent of students have done so. This gives CEP a chance to ride one of its favorite policy hobbyhorses and assert that the choice option is irreparably broken. Instead, of course, it could and should be fixed via essential reforms in NCLB itself. Otherwise, this report offers a decent assessment of NCLB to date. You can read it on the web at http://www.ctredpol.org/pubs/nclby2/.
Madeleine Will / April 7, 2005
In its latest survey, Public Agenda has taken a long look at what factors contribute to a student's decision to continue on to higher education. While the "overwhelming majority of young adults recognize the value of higher education," the reality is that one in three students don't continue their education after high school, and many who do never graduate. Not surprisingly, students cite the high cost of schooling as the major impediment. Nearly 60 percent of African-American and Hispanic students say they would have chosen a different institution had money not been an issue, and many students in these groups are far less confident that they can find the resources to attend college. Parent pressure also plays a significant role in the decision to pursue a college degree. You may not be surprised to learn that 86 percent of Asian-American students say "their parents strongly expect them to go to college," while other ethnic groups report lower percentages. For those who chose not to pursue higher education, most said they would prefer to "work and make money" immediately, and the report paints an interesting picture of the high school student who drifts into low-paying work after graduation not out of conscious choice, but because of a "let the chips fall where they may" attitude. It's an interesting survey, albeit one that highlights the limits of "values and attitudes" polling in constructing public policy. Namely: what if students
April 7, 2005
Clifford Adelman, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education
In the last decade, the percentage of community college students under the age of 22 has risen from 32 percent to 42 percent, a reflection of the record number of high school graduates not ready for four-year colleges. A new study from the Department of Education seeks to profile this growing group and how they differ from older community college students. Those over 24 are likelier to think of themselves as employees instead of students, more apt to have children of their own (more than half do), and far less likely to transfer to a four-year institution. The study argues for greater cooperation between community colleges and secondary schools in preparing students for higher education. As a whole, 44 percent of those who start community colleges did not reach Algebra II in high school, whereas only 11 percent of those at four-year colleges did not. Latinos are actually underrepresented at community colleges, so Adelman urges community colleges to be "particularly innovative in outreach programs for this population." You can find it on the web at http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/research/pubs/comcollege/index.html.