Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 28
August 11, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
High school reform redux
The South will rise again
An obit for ed schools
Time un-muddles the middle
Putting out a contract on charters
The Grinch that stole summer
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / August 11, 2005
At their mid-summer meeting last month, the governors rededicated themselves to high school reform - and sought to demonstrate that commitment by asserting near-consensus on a uniform definition of completion rates, one that, properly done, could go a distance toward standardizing America's miserably uneven and often dishonest data on high school graduates and dropouts (see Gadfly commentary here).
Also a good sign: some 18 states have joined Achieve's American Diploma Project, which starts from the premise that a state's high-school exit standards should mirror college and employer expectations for adequately skilled entrants into higher education and the workforce.
But summer also brought two whopping reminders of just how perplexing, as well as urgent, is the challenge of reforming high-school education in the United States.
The 2004 NAEP long-term trend results in reading and math again recorded truly dismal performance by seventeen year olds, who are reading as poorly as ever (that trend line goes back to 1971) and worse than 10-15 years ago; and faring no better in math than in 1992. These glum data contrasted starkly with the promising gains that nine-year olds showed in both core subjects and the steady rise in 13-year old math scores. (Reading at age 13 has been flat for ages.)
Sure, NAEP experts doubt the precision of the 17-year old (and 12th grade) scores because of evidence that a number of test-takers at that level don't strive to do well
August 11, 2005
The Dukes of Hazzard isn't the only Southern revival this summer: the recent NAEP scores show southern states accelerating faster than the General Lee. As Christian Science Monitor reporter Gail Chaddock points out, "While 9-year-olds in the Northeast gained 10 points in reading achievement (the equivalent of a grade level) over the past 30 years, the South gained 24." What's the explanation? Strong leadership (think Bill Clinton, Lamar Alexander, Dick Riley, Jim Hunt); tough accountability; and the persistent work of the Southern Regional Education Board (see below). But longtime Fordham readers shouldn't be surprised; way back in 2000 we anticipated as much in our State of State Standards report. As we said at the time about the South's strong showing (four of five honor grades came from the region): "Many Southern states have been less smugly complacent about the performance of their public schools and, politically speaking, are sometimes less beholden to the forces of the 'education establishment' that wield so much clout in chillier climes." That's no less true today.
"Why the rise in pupils' test scores? The South," by Gail Russell Chaddock, The Christian Science Monitor, August 5, 2005
"South Posts Big Gains on Long-Term NAEP in Reading and Math," by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo and Sean Cavanagh, Education Week, July 27, 2005
August 11, 2005
Gadfly can only imagine the expressions of shock and awe as ed school profs and deans awoke at their favorite summering spots to find the Grey Lady of Times Square asking, "Who Needs Education Schools?" The answer, according to this expansive and mostly astute article by Anemona Hartacollis, is pretty much nobody. Education schools have lost their way: "social justice" and high-minded theory now trump academic mastery and skills in classroom management, and alternate routes to the teaching profession have arisen to challenge the monopolistic hold of the ed school cartel. This might be a familiar story to education reformers but is now no longer a secret to the public either. The article relies heavily on David Steiner's review of ed school curricula (see here), as well as the sage words of Fordham trustee Diane Ravitch: "There is a disconnect of professors of education just not being capable of equipping future teachers with the practicalities to be successful. And if teachers are not successful, they will not be retained." Steiner is now off to run the ed school at Hunter College, where he hopes to prepare teachers who are "scholars of their craft"; Teach for America is growing by leaps and bounds; and school leaders like KIPP's David Levin are pushing for the ability to credential their own teachers (San Diego's High Tech High recently was accorded this ability). Still, as Twain might have said, the news of
August 11, 2005
Last week's Time was all about "being 13." Its conclusion: "Today's 13-year-olds, growing up in a world more connected, more competitive, more complex than the one their parents had to navigate as kids, so far show every sign of rising to the challenge." Perhaps, but are their schools "rising to the challenge," too? There are ample reasons for concern, as one of the articles in the package, "Is Middle School Bad for Kids?" explains. Conceived twenty-five years ago as a nurturing environment for angst-ridden early adolescents, the middle school has become the place where student achievement goes to die. As the recently released NAEP trend scores show (click here for more), 13-year-olds' achievement gains are paltry and disappear altogether by the time students leave high school. Time notes a retro trend emerging in cities like Milwaukee and Philadelphia - the K-8 school. But ultimately, "Educators on both sides of the debate tend to agree that how the grades are packaged ultimately matters less than what's happening inside the school." Indeed - just take a look at the latest study on 27 KIPP middle schools, which have posted "large and significant gains" in student achievement. Stay tuned for a debate in mid-September, hosted by the Fordham Foundation, on what should be done to improve the performance of U.S. 13-year-olds, building on Cheri Yecke's forthcoming volume on middle schools.
"Being 13," by Nancy Gibbs, Time, August 8, 2005
August 11, 2005
D.C. charter schools took two hits this week. On Sunday, the Post reported that only two of seven charter schools seeking to lease space in underused public school buildings will be given the opportunity to do so - a serious problem considering that charter schools are hard-pressed to afford facilities in the city's buzzing real estate market (especially when they are significantly underfunded compared to D.C.'s traditional public schools, as a forthcoming Fordham report will show). Despite the fact that Washington charters are supposed to have a legal preference over other applicants for unused school buildings, a review panel charged with making facilities decisions rejected applications for space (including five of the charter applications) that they deemed "incompatible with the traditional public schools," and instead handed the extra space to the D.C. housing authority and police department. Brainstorm: let's put all our cops in schools and our kids in jail. Meanwhile, Wednesday's Post reported the latest No Child Left Behind results for D.C. charters. The story's lede appears sobering, if not scandalous: "Only eight of 31 charter school campuses under the D.C. Public Charter School Board made adequate yearly progress." But read on and you will find that most of the other schools were too small to have scores to report and just ten actually failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress. Surely ten is too many and eight too few; we heartily support all efforts to boost charter performance (like
August 11, 2005
What could possibly be nasty enough to slash recess, eliminate gym class, demolish the arts, cause childhood obesity, increase anxiety, and now, slight of all slights, trim little Susie's summer vacation? But of course: the evil No Child Left Behind Act! Both the Times and the Wall Street Journal report on the "backlash" against earlier school start dates, with groups like "Save our Summer" and "Texans for a Traditional School Year" teaming up with (or getting funding from) the tourism industry. We say hoorah! to their boo-hoos. With most kids spending less than a tenth of their time in school and an achievement gap that imperils the nation, we have three words for this "movement" to shrink student learning time: stink, stank, stunk.
"'Back to School' Comes Earlier," by Anne Marie Chaker, The Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2005 (subscription required)
"As More Schools Open Earlier, Parents Seek to Reclaim Summer," by Michael Janofsky, The New York Times, August 6, 2005
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / August 11, 2005
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, previously known as the Charter School Leadership Council, and the umbrella organization for the U.S. charter-school movement, has just issued this first-rate statement rededicating that movement to quality and accountability. In 30 pages, it carefully and eloquently explains what those terms mean in the charter-school world, why they're important, and how different they are from the constructions that opponents typically place on them. Several key paragraphs are worth quoting here, and anyone seriously interested in charter schools should go on to read the whole thing.
The charter compact must be reaffirmed and reinvigorated. The freedom to innovate must be protected against re-regulation. Accountability for results must be clearer and more certain. And achievement must be the first priority.
When the charter model works as it should, there is a relentless focus on achievement, and the "system of schools" itself is actually shaped by the quality of its performance:
- Successful charter schools flourish. Their enrollment expands to serve more students, and their successful practices are replicated....
- Promising charter schools are given adequate resources and take advantage of their unique flexibility to pursue constant improvement. They are monitored conscientiously by the authorizer that granted their charter....
- Persistently low-achieving charter schools are closed, and students move to schools that will serve them more effectively.
When faithfully followed, this new model of public education works brilliantly. But too often, the charter
August 11, 2005
Alicia Diaz and Joan Lord, Southern Regional Education Board
For coming on 20 years, SREB has been fighting the good fight in 16 Southern states to raise standards and hold schools and districts accountable for student performance. The group has been a consistent voice for educational excellence through its "Challenge to Lead" goals for education, so it's good to report that the effort is beginning to bear fruit. This report, released in advance of the latest NAEP numbers, analyzed state performance across a variety of student performance measures and showed real progress being made. To wit: In 2004, higher percentages of black, Hispanic, and white students in SREB states met state expectations in reading and math as compared to the year prior. The same holds true for other subgroups, such as LEP, disabled, and low-income students. Still, there are problems. High school graduation rates in most SREB states are flat, and only half of those states have set standards that seem to exceed NAEP's "basic" performance level - not exactly an exacting standard. Also worrisome is the number of SREB states that have set unrealistic "back-loaded" AYP schedules that will require enormous jumps in student performance in the out-years of NCLB if they are to remain on track. One of the admirable qualities of SREB has been the group's willingness to call a spade a spade. You can find this particular garden implement at http://www.sreb.org/main/Goals/Publications/05E05-Accountability.pdf.
Allison Porch / August 11, 2005
Lauren E. Allen, Eric Osthoff, Paula White, and Judy Swanson, Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform
This qualitative study provides commentary from school administrators, principals and teachers on the disconnect between districts' lofty reform agendas and teachers' understanding of how to translate them into everyday practice. After examining curricular reforms in three districts (Chicago, Milwaukee and Seattle), the authors conclude that front-line educators need more resources and support to implement superintendents' policies and improve instruction. So far, so good; policy makers are unwise to ignore the wisdom and experience of teachers and principals. But for such a promising premise, the report disappoints greatly as it evolves into a screed against standardized testing. One Chicago principal complains, "We are taking tests all the time...The emphasis on testing is one that I sometimes question because the day that the children have to take the test - it's like a judgment day...you have to look at the whole child." In fact, the authors draw a sharp line between "improving instruction" and district administrators' "relentless focus on increasing standardized test scores." Perhaps for their next report the Cross City Campaign should visit some of the charter schools - such as KIPP, Amistad Academy, and NorthStar - that show how improving instruction and raising achievement can go hand-in-hand. The report weighs in at 104 pages, but you can glean the most important (if dubious) points from the slim executive summary. Both are available
Eric Osberg / August 11, 2005
Richard H. Hersh and John Merrow, editors
Palgrave Macmillan, publishers
This collection of essays hopes to "sound an alert and encourage a national conversation" about the state of higher education today, much as A Nation at Risk did for K-12 education two decades ago. It's unlikely to succeed in that quest, however, because, for the most part, instead of stark data and compelling horror stories it offers gentle musings and suggestions. Some of these are interesting, even thought provoking, but they're not likely to birth a reform movement. For example, one author laments the fact that newspapers devote more coverage to K-12 issues than to higher ed; one urges a separation of teaching and research; another urges a reinvigoration of campus life and better coordination across disciplines. The report does explain how simplified rankings of schools can create the wrong incentives: good schools remain exclusive rather than increase their acceptance rates in order to serve more students. As is typical of such collections, the authors sometimes contradict each other. Do students and professors have a "mutual nonaggression pact," such that the latter can focus on research and leave students alone, or do students "put an emphasis on teaching" and wish their professors would do the same? Of course, there are no simple answers, and a national conversation could certainly help us frame the problem more precisely before moving on to solutions. But we're going to need more ammunition before reformers can be