Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 44
December 15, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
What if competition doesn't work?
Dispatch from Soft America
The problem with politics
Every school a charter school?
Eat pea pod, get iPod
Head Start's Broken Promise
Michael J. Petrilli / December 15, 2005
Ten years ago, many school choice and charter school advocates (including yours truly) pointed to the American automobile industry as a powerful example of the free market's ability to transform unwieldy bureaucracies. The "Big 3" Detroit automakers had grown complacent. By the early 1980s, their quality was low and costs (and prices) were high. Fuel efficiency was a joke and safety not a priority. Along with the rest of America's manufacturing economy, the auto sector looked bleak.
But competition came to the rescue, in the form of cheaper, smaller, and higher-quality imports, mainly from Japan. Faced with the first real threat to their market share in decades, Big Auto and Big Labor reacted with horror, and screamed for Uncle Sam to save their bacon. Yet these protectionist calls went mostly unheeded and carmakers were forced to face the music. "Change or die" was the clarion call, and change they did. They retooled their plants, retrained their people, borrowed management techniques from the Japanese, and began designing cars that people wanted (and could afford) to drive.
School choice advocates in the '90s saw in Detroit's transformation a model for reforming public education. Big urban districts, we said, would never improve on their own. Their leaders wouldn't—couldn't—just decide to make the painful changes that a full turnaround required. Only if they faced the stark choice between "change or die" would they buckle down and make significant progress.
We touted vouchers and charter schools as mechanisms
December 15, 2005
Enterprising journalist Scott Reeder has proven what critics of K-12 teacher tenure have long surmised: it's nearly impossible to fire a tenured teacher. He collected every instance of disciplinary action, which no doubt includes everything from moral turpitude to ineffectiveness in the classroom, taken against a tenured teacher in Illinois's 876 districts over the past 18 years. The results:
- Just 61 of those districts even attempted to fire a tenured faculty member
- Of the 61 that tried, only 38 succeeded
- Of the state's 95,000 tenured educators, only 2, on average, are fired for poor job performance each year. (That equates to .002 percent.)
It costs a district, on average, $100,000+ in attorneys' fees to fire a teacher. Genesco Public Schools has been trying to fire Cecil Roth for five years for poor job performance and has spent $400,000 so far. The case is still on appeal. So bad is the problem that a number of schools have resorted to quietly paying off poor-performing teachers instead of firing them. Because these pay-offs include confidentiality agreements, no one knows how many tax dollars have been used in this way. This all means that, once tenured, teachers are essentially untouchable. Says Cicero Elementary School superintendent Clyde Senters: "There is not a lot that can be done to hold them accountable - because of tenure."
"Tenure frustrates drive for teacher accountability," by Scott Reeder, Small Newspaper Group
"Protecting mediocre teachers," Chicago Tribune, December 9, 2005
December 15, 2005
Everyone knows that the Kansas Board of Education, to the dismay of the scientific community, recently voted to adopt new science standards that attack evolution, validate intelligent design, and re-define science itself. The real mystery is why they did it. Scott Canon, writing in the Kansas City Star, thinks he knows: Politics. Kansas is one of just 10 states that elect their state boards. In other states, that body is appointed. With national opinion polls consistently showing that most Americans don't believe in evolution (a belief even more pronounced in Kansas), it's small wonder that an elected board would be more inclined to ignore the experts and move toward the opinions of their constituents. There are exceptions to the rule, to be sure, but, creatively using Fordham's recently released science standards report, Canon found that elected boards were about twice as likely as appointed bodies to adopt standards with an insufficient treatment of, or direct challenges to, evolution. But elected boards beware—voters can be fickle. Eight members of the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board found this out the hard way. After they introduced intelligent design into the classroom as an alternative to evolution, they were summarily voted out of office. And if the Star's editorial page has its way, the Kansas board will enjoy the same fate come November.
"Elected boards favor people over pundits," by Scott Canon, Kansas City Star, December 11, 2005
"Redefining science," Kansas City
December 15, 2005
An effort is gaining steam in California to grant charter status to all ten of Grossmont Union High School District's schools. This move might bode well for education reformers, coming as it does in the wake of last month's Big Labor victory over Governor Schwarzenegger's statewide education initiatives (see here). But some generally choice-friendly Grossmont Union district parents are skeptical about converting their district to an all-charter one, because district trustees would still be in charge. So how would it be different, they ask, from the existing system? According to trustee Ron Nehring, the plan would present more options to district parents. Each school would be governed by a parent-elected board, as opposed to a district-appointed board, though the trustees would still oversee the schools. But parents aren't buying it. Some contend Nehring's plan is a ploy to divert attention from a plan to convert Grossmont's Steele Canyon High to a teacher-run charter school. If approved, Steele Canyon High would enjoy more autonomy than it would under Nehring's plan. California has several all-charter school districts, but currently the largest has just 2,000 students; Grossmont has 24,000 students. Nehring's plan comes before the school board on January 12, 2006.
"Trustee proposes Grossmont switch to charter district," by Liz Neely, San Diego Union-Tribune, December 6, 2005
December 15, 2005
The New York City schools are converting junk-food-loving children one soybean at a time. Jorge Leon Collazo, executive chef of SchoolFood, which provides 860,000 breakfasts and lunches per day to Big Apple public school students, has introduced nutritious, flavorful options into the district's cafeterias. But the transition hasn't been a bowl of cherries. "Some see it as welfare food," says Collazo. "And that's something we're chipping away at." How? By providing "incentives," such as iPods and bicycles, for kids who "choose" a Garden Burger over a hamburger. "We want to make it cool for kids to eat the food they serve in school," says David Berkowitz, SchoolFood's executive director. Gadfly, a creature with impeccable tastes (see here), applauds the effort; but will "collards and chick peas" ever replace French fries—door prizes notwithstanding? We'll have to chew on that one.
"Brain Food," by Evantheia Schibsted, Edutopia, December 5, 2005
Comprehensive School Reform Quality Center Report on Elementary School Comprehensive School Reform Models
December 15, 2005
American Institutes for Research
"Comprehensive school reform" as an education improvement strategy dates back to the early 1990s, when Lamar Alexander and David Kearns launched the New American Schools Development Corporation. New American Schools is gone now, merged into the American Institutes for Research (AIR), but comprehensive school reform (CSR) lives on, and this report from AIR reviews 22 models suited for elementary schools. (Long-minded readers may recall an earlier AIR study of CSR models [order the report here], as well as Fordham's own take.) Each model examined "serves a minimum of 20 elementary schools in at least three states and is available" for implementation "in almost all states." Collectively, these 22 represent a major portion of elementary CSR strategies. AIR aims to provide helpful information to education administrators seeking to select the best one for their circumstances, though the report avoids picking "winners and losers." Still, the report rates each CSR model's effectiveness in boosting student achievement using seven categories ranging from "no rating" to "very strong." None received a rating of "very strong," and only two (Direct Instruction and Success for All) were rated "moderately strong." On the plus side, no model was found to negatively affect student performance. Beyond student achievement, the study also evaluated each model on four other dimensions: additional outcomes, such as attendance; effects on parent, family, and community involvement; the link between research and the model design; and
Eric Osberg / December 15, 2005
NCB Development Corporation
For many charter schools, finding a suitable home is a huge challenge. Most states provide little if any financial support for charter facilities. (For more on this, see Fordham's Charter School Funding: Inequity's Next Frontier.) To alleviate the problem, NCB Development Corporation has released this useful guide on all aspects of the charter facility decision: Whether to lease or buy, how to calculate space requirements, how to finance it, and how to work with architects and construction teams. The guide also includes templates for planning budgets, cash flows, and loan applications. It strives to help charter leaders thoughtfully approach choices among types of facilities—churches, converted warehouses, etc.—and offers practical descriptions of bidding options, financing structures, and construction processes. Perhaps most important, it's written in a style accessible to those who are not real estate or finance pros. Given the prevalence and severity of facilities woes faced by charters, their leaders and board members will likely find this work useful. You can find it online here.
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / December 15, 2005
American Enterprise Institute
Questions about the effectiveness of Head Start—the famed, early intervention, preschool program for disadvantaged kids—have held up reauthorization of the $9 billion a year program since 2003. Earlier this year, however, Republicans and Democrats agreed, with no compelling research to guide their decisions, to give Head Start the benefit of the doubt and set it on the road to renewal. Both House and Senate drafted bills that, if enacted, would greatly expand the program. Let's hope it's not too late to reverse course. A gold-standard (randomized experiment) study of the program released just weeks after Congress set reauthorization in process shows Head Start to be only modestly successful in preparing children for school. Bottom line: Head Start alumni fair only marginally better than similar children who do not participate. So glum were these findings, notes Douglas Besharov in this commentary, that even Head Start boosters could say little more than that it has "modest impact" on children's lives. Even more damning is the fact that Head Start parents are using their feet to vote against the program. Writes Besharov: "Many working parents use regular child care (even if they have to help pay for it) or instead rely on relatives to care for their children." How should Congress respond? Besharov urges lawmakers to "mandate a systematic research and demonstration effort aimed at making Head Start more effective." It may be "naïve to think Head Start can
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / December 15, 2005
Hoover Institution 2005
Will the Natural State take the lead in U.S. school reform? If it follows the ambitious agenda laid out for it by the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education (currently chaired by me), it could well assume that position of honor. In response to a request from Governor Mike Huckabee, the Hoover-based Task Force spent a year appraising K-12 education in Arkansas, which has already made many changes in response to a state supreme court school-finance ruling, and developed some 45 recommendations across a wide spectrum of issues. This 166-page volume is organized into a dozen chapters under the broad headings of "standards and curriculum," "assessment and accountability," "structure and options," and "teachers." It's already causing a stir in Arkansas. (See here, here, and here.) Among the topics generating debate, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, is the Task Force's proposal "calling for the state to lessen its reliance on graduates of colleges of education and state certification." Moreover, the Task Force "proposed devoting all new state funding for teacher pay raises toward establishing a reward system for teachers whose students show achievement gains over the course of a school year." To read all the proposals, have a look here.