Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 42
December 1, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
To close or not to close?
Education goes to court
No choices on teacher quality
Mind the gap
The Iceman cometh
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / December 1, 2005
Paul Hill's National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington recently issued a wide-ranging, nicely balanced appraisal of the charter-school movement circa 2005 - emphasizing how loosely coupled it is, how different from state to state and school to school, indeed how it's not fairly termed a national movement at all. (See here.)
One chapter is especially provocative and timely: Andy Rotherham on "the pros and cons of charter school closures."
Everyone knows that a key element of the "charter bargain" is that non-performing schools are supposed to vanish via sponsors shutting them or not renewing their contracts. Yet in the real world this doesn't happen very often. Across all the states that reported school-closure data for 2004-2005, Rotherham says, there were just 65 such events, involving only 2 percent of the schools in those states. Fifteen states reported no closures.
Yes, there are occasional high-profile events such as the abrupt shut-down (on grounds of financial mismanagement) of the multi-campus California Charter Academy in summer 2004. In fact, that's where the topic begins to get interesting and complicated. Did that school's sponsors behave conscientiously? Did they even have the right incentives to behave conscientiously? One doesn't have to dig very deep into the CCA saga, Rotherham explains, to discover that the authorizers, far from being attentive watchdogs, were complicit in something akin to charter fraud. They were making money from the authorizer fees they
Michael J. Petrilli / December 1, 2005
Margaret Spellings's November 18th announcement of an NCLB "growth model" pilot project capped a busy year of new-found flexibility for the Secretary and her policy minions. Since her confirmation, the Department of Education has made a number of adjustments to the No Child Left Behind Act. They can be grouped into three categories: those that seek to correct fundamental flaws with the law, those that attempt to use the carrot of flexibility to coerce states into stronger cooperation, and those that represent pure political payback.
April's decision to exempt a greater proportion of special ed students from regular testing, as well as the new "growth-model pilot," surely fit into the first category. Nobody thinks kids with significant cognitive disabilities should be expected to reach the same standards as everybody else; it's hard if not impossible to find anyone in the Administration or on Capitol Hill who claims credit for the idea of including special education students as an NCLB subgroup in the first place. Once it was embedded in the law, however, special ed advocates seized on its potential, making it impossible to remove. Spellings - and Secretary Paige before her - have been carefully walking federal policy back from this brink since the Act's ink was dry.
The need for some sort of growth or value-added achievement gauge within the NCLB accountability apparatus has also been clear since day one. Virtually everyone - from
December 1, 2005
It's been an eventful two weeks for education in the nation's courtrooms. A lawsuit organized by the National Education Association - that argued that NCLB improperly forced school districts to spend their own funds to implement the law - was dismissed by a federal judge in Michigan. The judge ruled that if "Congress had intended to prohibit unfunded mandates," it would have explicitly "stated that the federal government will reimburse the states for all costs they incur in complying with" the law. The NEA will appeal the ruling. The New York Times editorial board celebrated the decision, saying the suit was not about funding, but was rather a "transparent attempt by the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, to sabotage the No Child Left Behind education act." The paper asked, "Why does it [the NEA] put so much emphasis on the teachers? What about the children whose lives are cast into permanent shadow when they have to attend dismal, nonperforming schools?" Good question. The Wall Street Journal focused on another recent judicial event wherein the Texas Supreme Court struck down a statewide property tax used to fund public schools and rejected the argument that Texas wasn't spending enough on education. The court declared, in what the editorial heralded as a momentous judicial first, that "more money does not guarantee better schools or more educated students," and it shifted the debate away from dollars and toward student achievement. The
December 1, 2005
Even if you don't believe that principals should have unfettered choices when it comes to hiring new teachers (see here), surely few people would defend a system whereby principals have no choice over the individuals who teach in their schools. Yet, according to a blockbuster report by The New Teacher Project, fully 40 percent of vacancies (in five urban districts studied) were filled by veteran teachers over whom the principal had little or no say in hiring. Principals adjust to this perverse set-up, both by hiding their vacancies from the central office and by encouraging poor performers to exit for other schools (where administrators will have no choice but to take them). So who is defending this system? Reg Weaver of the NEA, of course, who tells the L.A. Times: "I think it's another smoke screen to blame union rules for our society's lack of commitment to children.... This diversion gets us away from the responsibility we have collectively to make sure that no children are left behind." When we know that teachers are among the most important factors in raising student achievement, one can hardly call this problem a "diversion."
"Report Says Teacher Union Contracts Are Holding Schools Back," by Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2005
December 1, 2005
Four years ago, when Congress enacted NCLB, it showed uncommon wisdom in requiring all states to participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The reasoning: the national test would serve as a benchmark of the states' own reports of progress, and the resulting sunshine would potentially buffer state leaders from the inevitable political pressure to lower their own standards. Gadfly noted in October, following the release of the 2005 NAEP results in reading and math, that there was good reason to believe state exams showing huge achievement gains were in fact suspect. (See here and here.) The New York Times also took note, and it published a trenchant piece illustrating the cavernous gap between states' definitions of "proficiency" and NAEP's. In Tennessee, for example, 87 percent of the state's 8th-grade students received "proficient" scores on the state exam, but just 21 percent of eight graders who took the NAEP math exam reached the same level. That trend is also reflected, sadly, in the just-released Trial Urban District Assessment, a special project of NAEP (see here and here). Just as with the national scores released last month, urban district scores are basically flat. For example, the percentage of fourth-grade New York City students at the proficient level jumped seven points from 2003 to 2005 on the state assessment, but didn't budge on the NAEP. The value of a single standard and single
December 1, 2005
Sensitive readers: Avert your eyes. The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that 15-year-old Davie Miles of Kentucky's Nicholas County High School urinated in his gymnasium's ice machine. Some 30 students and staff reportedly consumed ice from the dispenser before the contamination was reported and the machine was quarantined. Panic ensued shortly thereafter. Only when county schools police chief Ben Buckler contacted the state's Health Department, and was told that the incident (although "gross and morally wrong") didn't represent a health risk, were parents somewhat calmed. But why did Davie do it? A new form of territorial gang marking, perhaps? Not quite. Bullying emerged as the true culprit. Miles was reportedly so displeased with his school, so distraught by the daily teasing he endured there, that he decided public urination into an ice machine was his only remedy. "I'd do anything to get out of that school," he said. As for the ice machine, Buckler said if the school decides to use it again, it will undergo a thorough cleaning.
"Nicholas County student urinates in ice machine," by Cassondra Kirby, Lexington Herald-Leader, November 18, 2005
"Student links urinating incident to bullying," by Cassondra Kirby, Lexington Herald-Leader, November 22, 2005
Evaluating Value-Added: Findings and Recommendations from the NASBE Study Group on Value-Added Assessments and Using Student Progress to Evaluate Teachers: A Primer on Value-Added Models
Eric Osberg / December 1, 2005
National Association of State Boards of EducationOctober 2005
Henry I. Braun, Educational Testing Service September 2005
Together, these booklets offer useful insights into value-added testing models - how they work, their strengths and weaknesses, and issues to consider before implementation. NASBE delves into the models' practical tradeoffs, but leaves largely untouched the question of how they actually work. ETS fills this void and offers descriptions of the statistics and processes used to determine which schools and teachers are "adding value" to their students' scores each year. Understanding value-added models is no easy task. NASBE notes that Tennessee's much-discussed program "involves the solving of thousands of equations iteratively," and uses software which "enables a massive multivariate, longitudinal analysis using all achievement data for each student no matter how sparse or complete." This complexity may be value-added analyses' greatest challenge: Will the public accept high stakes accountability based on metrics they must simply trust to be reliable? Perhaps an equal challenge is that the nature of these systems - which can account for "'external' factors such as socioeconomic status, race, parents' educational levels, or innate ability" in assessing a school - might hurt NCLB's no-excuses mentality. As a measurement tool, it may be appropriate to account for students' backgrounds, but as policy it could send a dangerous signal. (William Sanders, father of the Tennessee model, happens to argue against using student characteristics, because while they correlate with current scores, in his view "the
D.C. Charter Schools: Strengthening Monitoring and Process When Schools Close Could Improve Accountability and Ease Student Transitions
December 1, 2005
United States Government Accountability Office
The District of Columbia has a larger percentage of its students - over 20 percent - in charter schools than any state (although in urban districts, it trails Dayton for highest percentage of charter students). Their schools are approved and overseen by two authorizers - the D.C. Board of Education (BOE), which also runs the city's traditional public schools, and the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB). How well are these two authorizers doing their jobs, and in what areas can they improve? That's what this report, required by the 2005 D.C. Appropriations Act, sets out to answer. This informative study neatly examines the authorizers' resources (money and staff) and how they are used, oversight practices and response to school closures, and use of services available to them. To accomplish this, GAO researchers analyzed the authorizers' budgets, pored over documents and monitoring reports related to school closures, and conducted interviews. The results? Both authorizers are doing a fairly good job, but, especially for the BOE, there's lots of room for improvement. (BOE has been criticized by a recent Progressive Policy Institute report as well.) For one, the BOE gives the same level of oversight to all its schools. It would do far better to focus its energy and limited resources on struggling charters where students aren't achieving in the classroom or where internal management isn't up to par. Also, the BOE did not always