Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 7
February 17, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
Science and nonscience: The limits of scientific research
By Frederick M. Hess
Cheeseheads and vouchers
Board says bye-bye to Bersin reforms
Teachers vs. parents
California ELL scores on the rise
Americans wooed by Canadian site-based management
Building the Foundation for Bright Futures
Frederick M. Hess / February 17, 2005
American education research has turned a corner. The 2002 creation of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the ascendance of accountability, and the No Child Left Behind act's demand for "scientifically based research" have radically altered an educational research culture that just a few years ago bridled at the "medical model" and too often championed ethnographies, action research, "critical narrative," "discourse analysis," and other approaches that provided parents, practitioners, or policy makers with little useful information.
Together, both NCLB and IES represent a demand that rigorous scientific principles be used to assess programs. This development did not "happen" and it was not an inevitable evolution embraced by the education research community. Rather, this change was the consequence of prodigious efforts by proponents like Congressman Michael Castle, reading expert Reid Lyon, and IES head Russ Whitehurst. For their efforts, they have met with fierce resistance from some quarters of the education research community, as well as professional discourtesy, bizarre conspiracy theories, and ad hominem attacks.
The notion that education ought to hold science in the same high regard as do medicine and engineering would seem axiomatic. In principle, IES's mission to transform education "into an evidence-based field in which decision makers routinely seek out the best available research and data before adopting programs or practices" is entirely to the good. The changes have focused researchers on questions of validity, reliability, and replicability, and raised the bar for the investment of federal
February 17, 2005
The Wisconsin Senate last week moved to ease the enrollment cap on Milwaukee's successful voucher program. (See http://www.edexcellence.net/gadfly/issue.cfm?issue=168#2039 for more on the debate.) The bill would raise the current limit of 15 percent of Milwaukee's K-12 students by 1,500 for one year, to 16,500 students. But the opposition continues to cry foul. Democratic state Sen. Tim Carpenter, an opponent of the bill, accused supporters of focusing "on a wedge issue that pits poor people in the city of Milwaukee against other poor people." Governor Jim Doyle is expected to veto the bill, because, according to a Doyle spokesman, "he stands by his belief that any change to the cap should be part of a broader package that would benefit all schoolchildren in Milwaukee." That's politician-speak for reining in the program, plus lavish new public school spending. One proponent of easing the cap cried, "Don't hold the children hostage for crimes adults committed." Too late.
"Senate approves new voucher school cap," by Todd Richmond, Associated Press, February 8, 2005
"Doyle veto likely for one-year reprieve," by Sarah Carr, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 8, 2005
February 17, 2005
Contrary to what you may have read, not everybody in San Diego wanted Superintendent Alan Bersin gone (see http://www.edexcellence.net/gadfly/issue.cfm?issue=179#2143). Less than a day after the school board bought out his contract, administrators and teachers praised the "courage and guts" of his reform efforts. Bersin's training, they said, "created a culture where teachers frequently have conversations about what works and what doesn't." Principal Robin Stern vowed, "We have to be sure this work continues and that will be my work." Unfortunately, the victorious school board is already rolling back Bersin-era reforms. First on the agenda, they lowered academic expectations for kindergarten students because, as teacher Cathy Perry explained, the demands placed on children have forced teachers into "limiting the use of Play Dough, crayons, and coloring." What a tragedy! The board didn't stop there. The next day, a board member proposed eliminating the peer coaches who act as mentors to classroom teachers, and teacher supervisors, who evaluate and guide teacher planning, because the board should "send the most experienced teachers into the classroom to work with the lowest-achieving kids, not have them supervise teachers." Larry Mikulanis, another district teacher, pled for mercy on the program's behalf. "Give us the chance to have that retraining from qualified professionals that we respect." No luck there either, however - the program has been axed. Expect other Bersin reforms to come onto the chopping block.
"Bersin given emotional ovation," by Helen Gao, San Diego
February 17, 2005
This week, Time reports that teachers have the toughest time managing their . . . students' parents. Teachers frequently complain of overbearing parents who "undermine the education and growth of their children." For example, one sixth-grade teacher told a student that she must work on her reading at home, only to have the girl's angry mother complain that the teacher had "emotionally upset her child." Another elementary school teacher complains that she can no longer make objective comments about her students without parents intervening, like some who demand that their kids never be reprimanded or even corrected. "We handle children a lot more delicately," she says. "We've given them this cotton-candy sense of self with no basis in reality." Many parents will demand tough, rigorous standards - until those standards are applied to their own kids. Some have even sued schools that have attempted to expel the little dears for cheating, blaming teachers who "left the exams out on a desk and made them too easy to steal." Unfortunately, the reporter gives time to zealots like Alfie Kohn, who blames all this mayhem on, you guessed it, standardized testing. Despite such madness, the article illumines a real problem: the tendency of some parents to demand high standards and strong disciplinary measures for everybody but my child.
"Parents behaving badly," by Nancy Gibbs, Time, February 21, 2005 (subscription required)
February 17, 2005
According to Daniel Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee, in California schools the phrase 'English Learner' is "finally starting to mean what it says." The latest results from the California English Language Development Test show that 47 percent of English Language Learner (ELL) students in the Golden State scored either "advanced" or "early advanced" (meaning at or approaching fluency) in 2004, up from 25 percent in 2001. Weintraub attributes this spike to implementation of the Proposition 227, the contentious 1998 ballot measure that all but eliminated bilingual education in favor of English immersion. (See http://www.edexcellence.net/gadfly/issue.cfm?issue=71#1026 and http://www.edexcellence.net/gadfly/issue.cfm?issue=17#227 for more.) Of course, some educators contend that the score gains are due, at least in part, to the fact that not all students who achieve fluency are then mainstreamed. Since schools receive state and federal funds to serve ELL students, there is a financial incentive not to reclassify students. In fact, in 2003, 8.3 percent of ELL students were reclassified as fully English proficient despite the fact that 42 percent of them scored high enough to be considered "fluent." According to Wayne E. Wright, an assistant professor of cultural and bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, "there's probably some magic number where you reclassify enough to meet federal standards, but not so many that you lose money." California state superintendent Jack O'Connell recently said that he would push districts across the state to become more efficient at
February 17, 2005
American educators are streaming to Edmonton, Alberta to study that city's successful implementation of site-based management, which gives individual schools wide-ranging control over curriculum, budgets, and management. Known as one of the most innovative school districts in North America, Edmonton requires that all students reach high standards, but gives schools greater autonomy and discretion to obtain these achievements. Superintendent Angus McBeath argues that giving educators a stake in reform efforts and allowing them to direct school operations will ultimately lead to more innovative, effective, and accountable schools. "When you give people the money and the authority, they behave like owners, and boy, do they do that in our system," says McBeath. Parents from the district are free to choose any school they wish, which encourages schools to create innovative programs (e.g. foreign-language immersion, performing arts) to attract students. Site-based management creates a sense of ownership that encourages teachers to participate in all forms of running the school, which in turn exposes teachers to new methods. "The one thing that I am absolutely certain about all of this is, that when you can get teachers talking to each other about what they're doing, student achievement will improve," says John Edey, a former Edmonton principal. Indeed, American educators are wise to emulate a system that fosters competition, innovation, and accountability, and we could definitely use more leaders like McBeath, who promises, "We're in an endless system of reform. We're not finished yet."
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / February 17, 2005
National Governors Association
The National Governors Association has issued two reports arising from the work of its Task Force on School Readiness, which commenced in 2002-3 when Kentucky's Paul Patton was NGA chairman. (Today, under Virginia's Mark Warner, the focus is high school reform. One of NGA's challenges is steering a steady course.)
The Task Force's 40-page Final Report goes from unimpeachable, even banal, principles to scads and SCADS of recommendations for state policy and action, nearly all of these also sensible if not obvious. I spotted no high-controversy items (such as a call for universal publicly-funded pre-school) but plenty of common-sense suggestions across a host of domains, many of them process-heavy, some of them substantive. To my eye, the most important proposals here are a call for states to develop "early learning standards . . . that set clear expectations for what young children should know and be able to do before, during, and after school entry," then to use those standards "to guide early education curriculum and assessments to ensure that what is being taught and measured matches expectations." You can find the report here.
The companion publication, a 35-page "Governor's Guide to School Readiness," mostly gives examples of extant state programs and practices that illustrate and implement the Task Force's recommendations. With respect to pre-school standards and curricula, for instance, it points to Rhode Island, Kentucky, and Maryland, and shows you where to find more information. (As
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / February 17, 2005
Cyril Taylor and Conor Ryan, David Fulton Publishers
From across the sea comes this perceptive account of school improvement efforts in England, especially those under the umbrella of the Specialist Schools Trust. The primary author, Sir Cyril Taylor, is that organization's inspiration and admiral, as well as an advisor on education policy to the Blair government. In 300+ pages and 18 chapters, he and his colleague get fairly concrete about the essential elements of successful schools, turning around failing schools, getting the curriculum right, deploying the school team, and much else. Though their policy framework is England (and Wales), U.S. education leaders could learn much from their wide-ranging experience, their sagacity and their erudition. The ISBN is 1843122138, the publisher (in the U.K.) is David Fulton, and you can learn more here.
Eric Osberg / February 17, 2005
Gary Wolfram, Cato Institute
January 25, 2005
This short piece in Cato's Policy Analysis series explores the "Bennett hypothesis," the former education secretary's argument that federal student aid programs drive up college tuitions and thus do less good for students and their families than intended. Such programs cost $68.8 billion in 2004 (and Bush has asked for $73 billion in the FY2006 budget), so it's important to understand the effects of these programs. Wolfram first takes readers back to economics 101 to get reacquainted with the theory that such subsidies shift the demand curve and thus shift the equilibrium quantity and price - in his example, to a point where more students attend college but face higher tuitions. The actual slopes of the supply and demand curves (elasticity) determine whether, in real life, enrollments actually increase (a school may prefer to remain selective) and how much tuitions rise. On that point, Wolfram reviews empirical studies of the relationship between federal aid and tuition and finds convincing evidence of a connection. The effect varies in size - in some cases tuition rose by more than the aid amounts, in others less - but nonetheless exists. The net effect is that federal student aid probably does as much to enrich our colleges (and hold down state aid to students) as it does to ease tuition burdens. The problem is exacerbated by the rising level of aid available to wealthier families today (see here)
February 17, 2005
Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters, Manhattan Institute
Jay Greene's latest review of graduation rates paints a stark picture of the national graduation rate and finds wide discrepancies in achievement levels between racial and ethnic groups. Never mind the government figures; Greene finds that only 71 percent of public school students graduated with a regular diploma in 2002, down from 72 percent in 1991. And while 78 percent of white students graduated with a regular diploma, only 56 percent of African-American students and 52 percent of Hispanic students did the same. The study did find a slight increase in the proportion of students graduating with the skills needed to succeed in college, up from 25 percent in 1991 to 34 percent in 2002. Greene attributes that gain to "the increased standards and accountability programs over the last decade, which have required students to take more challenging courses required for admission to college without pushing those students to drop out of high school." But again, while 40 percent of white students were ready for college, only 23 percent of African-American students and 20 percent of Hispanic students were similarly prepared. You can read the full study on the web by clicking here.