Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 45
December 22, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
Out with the old, in with the new
Intelligently designed ruling
Heads up, Chicken Little
No voucher for you!
An APropo response
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / December 22, 2005
With Gadfly taking next week off, and with me heading for distant places about the time you receive this issue, allow me this opportunity to reflect briefly on the key education events of 2005 and to venture a thought or two for the year ahead.
Over the past twelve months, eight happenings shaped the K-12 education story.
- Margaret Spellings elbowed Rod Paige aside at the Education Department and confounded just about everyone by transforming herself from NCLB's unbending enforcer into the Secretary of Flexibility. She's nobody's fool, and it was becoming obvious that states and districts were chafing under some of that statute's rigidities and dysfunctionalities. (Of course, some places just didn't want to change their ineffectual ways. Federal officials have trouble telling the difference.) (See here.)
- Though the Bush administration's high-school reform initiative was stillborn, Bill Gates's declaration that U.S. high schools are "obsolete," combined with widespread dismay over the performance of those schools and with much non-federal ferment, managed to place high-school reform well up on the nation's education agenda. (The governors even agreed to agree on how to define graduation rates. And the Gates Foundation itself, learning from bitter experience, has rethought its initial emphasis on small high schools.)
- Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans's schools, along with much else, and forced city and state to consider bold alternatives (namely, charter schools) to the Big Easy's disastrous old system (see here).
- Biologically evolved, but less than intelligent, members
December 22, 2005
Science class is for real science—and "intelligent design" isn't that. It's more akin to religion. So concluded Judge John E. Jones III, who ruled Tuesday that Dover, Pennsylvania's policy promoting intelligent design (ID) is inconsistent with both the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions. In his decision, Jones expressly linked ID to creationism, a long-standing belief among some religious groups that the creation story in Genesis is to be interpreted literally. Since its inception in the 1990s, ID advocates have disavowed any ties to creationism, claiming instead that ID is science, sort of. Said Judge Jones (a Republican, appointed by President Bush), "In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.... To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions." Though the decision is garnering massive national attention, the citizens of Dover already resolved the question democratically in November when they ousted the school board members who supported the teaching of ID (see here). Now Dover students can go back to learning science in line with
December 22, 2005
Is America's growing concern about falling behind internationally in science and math instruction inadvertently driving aspiring engineers and doctors out of the field? According to a new report from Duke University, the answer is yes. Vivek Wadhwa, a software entrepreneur and the report's co-author, posits that the U.S. is really not too far behind China and India in math and science education. "When all the politicians and everyone else is [sic] going around saying it will be 70,000 of us against 1 million from China and India," says Wadhwa, "any smart high school student would question why I should get into engineering when my job is going to be outsourced." While Gadfly doubts that the typical 17-year-old math whiz, suddenly made aware of international competition and outsourcing, will run screaming to the university philosophy or comp lit department, it is useful to keep things in perspective. The sky may not be falling, yet, but few doubt that American students deserve more rigorous math and science instruction than they now receive (see here). If we continue allowing dismal science and math instruction to flourish, even the effervescent Wadhwa may have a more dour tone in the years ahead.
"Study Sees U.S. as Competitive in Math and Science," by Vaishali Honawar, Education Week, December 16, 2005 (subscription required)
December 22, 2005
Ohio's new statewide voucher program - set to begin in fall 2006 (see here and here for a brief history) - is showing early signs of over-regulation. As signed, the law was designed to provide vouchers for 14,000 students in Ohio's major cities who are enrolled in schools that, for three consecutive years, have been classified as in "academic emergency" on the state's five-level performance scale. The Ohio Department of Education evidently wants to reduce the number of students eligible for vouchers, starting with students enrolled in public charter schools. Dayton Daily News education reporter/blogger Scott Elliott reports that "the education department manager ... made it very clear charter school students are not eligible [to receive vouchers] ... because ... the state's view was that the parents in those schools already have options." In Dayton alone, Elliott estimates 900 public school students are attending charters who, because their schools fall under the "academic emergency" label, would otherwise qualify for vouchers. We seriously doubt that the General Assembly intended for its new voucher system to give some public school parents more choices while leaving behind charter parents - who, Elliott points out, "might be more likely to try something new like a voucher."
"Will vouchers save private schools?," by Scott Elliott, Get on the Bus, December 19, 2005
December 22, 2005
Prestigious universities value the letters AP (i.e., Advanced Placement) on an applicant's transcript, maintaining that success in AP courses is the best indicator of success in college. But students looking to score points with admissions officers have begun gaming the system. Many enroll in AP courses but never sit for the accompanying AP exam. And high schools—bowing to student pressure for more AP courses—are lowering expectations so that more students can have the coveted letters on their transcripts (see here for more on AP's expansion). Consequently, the AP ship is overcrowded, and listing. But the College Board, which owns and administers the AP program, isn't standing on shore and watching it founder. To counter these abuses, the College Board has decided to start auditing classes. That means teachers and administrators will have to submit materials, including syllabi, for review. Although some have complained about the added work, Gadfly is pleased to see accountability in the AP program, which had previously suffered from lack of oversight. Now, when admissions officers at the nation's best colleges see AP on a prospective student's transcript, they can be more confident that the standards of AP are actually operative in that classroom.
"New rules aim to ensure AP courses make the grade," by Georgina Gustin, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 18, 2005
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / December 22, 2005
National Center for Education Statistics
The 2005 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) contains predictably bad news, surprisingly good news, and some news that can only be described as baffling. The NAAL, last conducted in 1992, measures how well adults can read and evaluates their literacy in three areas: prose (ability to interpret news stories), documents (ability to read and understand bills, maps, prescription labels, and such), and quantitative (ability to understand numbers found on tax forms, bank statements, etc.). Overall, today's adults are no more or less capable with prose and documents now than they were in 1992. They do, however, fare better with quantitative data. The bad news is that, when survey takers are broken out by education level (some high school or less, high school graduate, college graduate, and post-college graduate), no group improved its literacy levels in any of the three areas. The best that can be said is that no group changed since 1992. When results are examined by race, some of the news gets worse. Among Hispanics, literacy levels are down dramatically. On the other hand, African-Americans and Asians are performing significantly better than 13 years ago. (Whites show no statistically significant change.) The most baffling finding is that, among people who have taken graduate courses, literacy fell sharply; 41 percent scored at the proficient level, vs. 51 percent in 1992. These findings are available in several formats. Links to the entire study, or
December 22, 2005
U.S. Department of Education
This report compares NAEP performance by students from public schools and a variety of private schools, and it draws conclusions from the assessment's results. For the first time, it distinguishes between private religious and non-religious schools. The religious school categories are limited to Catholic, Lutheran, and Conservative Christian institutions. The first two are easily identifiable, but the "Conservative Christian" category seems arbitrary. The authors populated it with students enrolled in schools that belong to five self-identified conservative Christian education groups. What's not clear is how many "conservative Christian" schools may operate outside of those organizations. In any case, the results, overall, are no surprise. For instance, "Few differences in performance were found among the three types of private [religious] schools....With some exceptions, no significant differences were found between performance of students in Lutheran and Catholic schools." The report also shows that private religious schools enroll "a higher percentage of White students and a lower percentage of Black and Hispanic students than public schools," and that private school students post significantly higher test scores than their public school counterparts. The real question, and one upon which the study shines little light, is whether the private school's higher scores are the result of better teaching methods or selective admissions policies and socio-economic realities. In short, are private schools actually more effective than public schools or do they have smarter and/or better-off pupils? The study leaves no doubt that private schools
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / December 22, 2005
Progressive Policy Institute
Todd Ziebarth, newly based at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, penned this latest entry in the Progressive Policy Institute's fine series of profiles of the charter-school movement as it has evolved in individual states. (For Gadfly reviews of other pieces in this series, see here, here, and here.) Colorado was among the early enactors of charter legislation and now boasts 100-plus schools serving some 36,000 kids, or about 5 percent of the state's public-school population. Moreover, the Centennial State's charter association is among the most dynamic, astute, and best-led state associations in the nation, which has aided the movement's growth on multiple fronts. Colorado's charter effort can legitimately claim bipartisan origins and name former governor (now Los Angeles superintendent) Roy Romer among its early supporters. But challenging days are ahead. The Democrats, who for the first time in three decades control both houses of the legislature, display, in Ziebarth's words, a "growing rift" with respect to charter schools. Hence, the political assumptions of past years won't necessarily work in the future. Ziebarth recommends that the charter community "strengthen its political support at the statehouse." To do this, he urges charter leaders to pay greater attention to the successful education of disadvantaged children. While Colorado's charters, on the whole, outperform district-operated schools - one of the few places in the country where charter supporters can make that
Michael J. Petrilli / December 22, 2005
Frederick M. Hess, editor
Harvard Education Press
Papers presented at Rick Hess's K-12 education philanthropy conference last spring are now out, and the volume should be on every education grantmaker's shelf. (See earlier Gadfly conference coverage here.) It's not, however, very happy reading. Despite the attention that philanthropy's education funders receive?especially high-profile behemoths Gates and Broad?their financial contributions are, in Jay Greene's words, "buckets into the sea." Trying to move education policy and practice with funds that are a pittance compared with those of the government is mostly a recipe for disappointment. Indeed, the contributors to this volume seem to be aware of the sorry history of education giving. Today's education philanthropists operate in the shadow of the Annenberg Challenge?Walter Annenberg's 1993 $500 million gift to improve schools?which had too little lasting effect (see here). Today's foundations, seeking to do better, practice a brand of "venture philanthropy" that is more hands-on and seeks to replicate the practices of modern business. Here's wishing them well, but it's hard to find evidence in this volume that their efforts will lead to better results than past philanthropic endeavors. Still, as Richard Lee Colvin points out in his overview chapter, getting the nation to focus on problems and ideas once ignored is a worthwhile thing to do and a contribution that philanthropy can make. The topics of high school reform and urban (mis)management are now on the policy agenda thanks in no small part