Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 2
January 13, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
Math standards don't add up
Road maps of charterland
Merit pay in CA?
Twentysomething and still a kid?
Dovrat back to the drawing board
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / January 13, 2005
Two decades after the U.S. was deemed "a nation at risk," academic standards for our primary and secondary schools are more important than ever - and their quality matters enormously.
In 1998, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation took it upon ourselves to find out whether those standards were any good. Early that year, we published State Math Standards, written by the distinguished mathematician Ralph Raimi and veteran math teacher Lawrence Braden. Two years later, with many states having augmented or revised their academic standards, we published The State of State Standards 2000, whose math review was again conducted by Messrs. Raimi and Braden. It appraised the math standards of 49 states, conferring upon them an average grade of "C."
Since that review, standards-based reform received a major boost from NCLB. Due mostly to that law, more than 40 states have replaced, substantially revised, or augmented their K-12 math standards since our 2000 review. NCLB also raised the stakes attached to those standards, with billions of dollars in federal aid now hinging on whether states conscientiously hold their schools and districts to account for student learning.
Mindful of this enormous burden on state standards, and aware that most of them had changed substantially, in 2004 we initiated fresh appraisals in mathematics and English, the two subjects at NCLB's heart. To lead the math review, we turned to Dr. David Klein, a professor of mathematics at California State University, Northridge, who has
January 13, 2005
You may be confused by the dueling charter school studies that have appeared in recent months. If so, two new articles try to beam a light through that tangled forest. Jennifer Marshall and Kirk Johnson of the Heritage Foundation offer their views in National Review Online, stating plainly that "What does work is the approach Hoxby took" - meaning, the "matched pair" methodology that Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby employed in her recent study that concludes that charter students are, in most cases, meeting state standards at a slightly higher rate than pupils in neighboring district schools (click here for more). Gadfly won't argue with that. But Paul Hill's piece in Education Week is broader and more illuminating, offering a discussion of the tribulations of comparing public and charter schools. Hill's National Charter School Research Center is preparing a meta-study, which should shed further light on this lively and important issue. For now, you can consider two more views by clicking below.
"Grading schools," by Jennifer A. Marshall and Kirk A. Johnson, National Review Online, January 12, 2005
"Assessing student performance in charter schools," by Paul T. Hill, Education Week, January 12, 2005
January 13, 2005
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his State of the State address, has declared his intention to promote merit-based pay for Golden State teachers. Though details remain to be filled in, state education secretary Richard Riordan explained to the Los Angeles Times that "individual school districts - in cooperation with their local collective bargaining units - would have to determine how to gauge teachers' performance." Though the idea of linking pay to teacher performance enjoys bipartisan support (attested to in a Times op ed by former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner, who heads the Teaching Commission), the unions are predictably foaming at the mouth. The Times says "Terry Pesta, president of the San Diego Education Association . . . scoffed at the idea of linking pay to performance, saying it would wreak havoc on contracts already in place." Ah yes, an excellent reason to dismiss the plan out of hand - it would interfere with contracts.
"Teachers unions blast governor's merit pay plan," by Cara Mia DiMassa and Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2005 (registration required)
"Do the math: Money plus merit equals better teachers," by Louis V. Gerstner Jr., Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2005 (registration required)
January 13, 2005
Income inequality in the U.S., the Economist warns, "is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, around the 1880s. But social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace: would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap." This, despite the fact that most Americans believe we live in a meritocracy. How can this be? The Economist finds two reasons: First, "the meritocratic revolution of the early 20th century has been at least half successful. Members of the American elite live in an intensely competitive universe. . . . Yet it is a competition among people very much like themselves - the offspring of a tiny sliver of society - rather than among the full range of talents that the country has to offer." Second, because "upward mobility is increasingly determined by education," which puts poor children at a double disadvantage because they attend inferior schools and are especially damaged by the legacy of what Michael Barone calls "soft America." "Soft America," according to the Economist, "is allergic to introducing accountability and measurement in education, particularly if it takes the form of merit pay for successful teachers or rewards for outstanding pupils." What's worse, "dumbed-down schools are particularly harmful to poor children, who are unlikely to be able to compensate for them
January 13, 2005
Are today's twentysomethings spoiled, coddled brats who sponge off their parents and wander aimlessly through an entertainment-addled existence? Or do they face unusual challenges that make it difficult to follow the time-honored high school-college-adulthood script? Both assertions were on view this week. In the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Zaslow writes about the "crisis of coddling" in American families as millions of twentysomethings move back in with their parents, and offers recommendations for parents faced with a kid who won't grow up. But in USA Today, Haya El Nasser reports that the coddled young adult - presumably emerging from the cocoon of soft America into the rigors of hard America - faces challenges that previous generations haven't. These include rising housing costs that make getting a first apartment or house difficult, and an average $19,000 in college loan debt (far higher for those with graduate/professional degrees). As usual with any point-counterpoint of this kind, the truth is likely in the middle. Yet unmentioned in both these articles is the complicity of our K-12 education system in producing young people unable to cope with adult life. Introducing K-12 students to the notion of "accountability" might decrease the number of young adults who are shocked to discover that there comes a time when Mom isn't going to take care of you anymore.
"The coddling crisis: Why Americans think adulthood begins at age 26," by Jeff Zaslow, Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2005 (subscription
January 13, 2005
The recommendations of a national panel looking at fixes to the ailing Israeli K-12 education system has the entire country up in arms. The Dovrat Commission has recommended defunding small schools, setting new national academic standards, increasing teacher pay, extending the school day and year, instituting new teacher certification regulations, and, most controversially, firing upwards of 14,000 teachers. Ultra-Orthodox religious groups are opposed, as the recommendations threaten the existence of the state-funded Haredi education system for Orthodox children, and teacher unions are gearing up for national strikes. In the face of such clamor, the Israeli cabinet delayed a vote on accepting the report and re-negotiations may resume shortly. They're definitely needed. While there are useful bureaucratic fixes in the report, it studiously avoids the real question: what are Israeli children learning? The commission's focus is on inputs, soft measures of achievement, and credentials-based certification, not on rigorous standards and assessments. As columnist Batya Medad writes, "The failures in the Israeli educational system are due to faddish curriculum planning and failure-prone teaching methods. . . . We must get beyond the superficial."
"Cabinet pushes off decision on Dovrat commission," Arutz Sheva, January 12, 2005
"Dovrat: Rotten idea," by Batya Medad, Arutz Sheva, January 11, 2005
"Dovrat report spurs salary spat," by Yulie Khromchenko, Ha'aretz, January 10, 2005
"Dovrat report outlines education reform," Jerusalem Post, December 23, 2004
Eric Osberg / January 13, 2005
The Education Trust
In November 2004, the Education Trust showed that many states had increased the average test scores of elementary school students while also narrowing achievement gaps (click here). EdTrust has now expanded this analysis to include middle and high schools, where the news is less encouraging, especially in the high school years. Twenty-four of 28 states improved in middle school math and 16 of 27 in middle school reading, compared with 14 of 21 states in high school math and just 11 of 20 in high school reading. (We hear an echo of the finding from our recent State of State English Standards 2005 that high school literature standards across the country are woeful.) Both middle and high schools are doing a worse job in closing achievement gaps than elementary schools. Still, in most of the cases analyzed (e.g., reading and math, for middle and high school, across each of the subgroups), more states narrowed than widened their achievement gaps. The November report concluded that elementary schools still have much progress to make, and overall this report indicates that middle and, especially, high schools have even further to travel. The reasons may be numerous (learn more here), but the data may add momentum to the Bush proposal to expand NCLB-style results-based accountability to the high school level. You can access this short report online here.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / January 13, 2005
The Carnegie Corporation of New York paid for this detailed RAND study of adolescent reading and writing achievement in the U.S. (It's part of a big Carnegie adolescent-literacy initiative that you can read more about here.) While basic decoding skills are slowly improving in the early grades, "many children are not moving beyond . . . to fluency and comprehension." The RAND team sought to explicate this by examining how well 4th-12th graders are meeting state literacy goals as measured by state tests; how well they're meeting national goals as evidenced by NAEP; and to what extent are state tests and NAEP results consistent? This inquiry leads, inter alia, to "major concerns about the ability of states to meet the ambitious goal set by NCLB of 100-percent proficiency." In many places, lots of kids are far from proficient judged by the state's own standards. Expectations vary widely from state to state, often set well below NAEP's definition of "proficient." Most troubling to the researchers and (one hopes) to the rest of us, once one gets above the primary grades in most schools, nobody is really responsible for teaching literacy skills as such. That surely helps explain why our kids are not doing very well - and why staying on the present course does not give great grounds for optimism about the prospects of NCLB, at least in the middle and upper grades. The press release can be found
J.E. Stone / January 13, 2005
Ellen Forte Fast and William J. Erpenbach, Council of Chief State School Officers
This detail-heavy report summarizes all requests made by states to amend their NCLB accountability plans in 2003-04. The authors classify the requests in a thorough manner; the short section on AYP consequences and reporting, for example, is broken down into four subcategories. They also provide a nice summary of the Education Department's pattern of responses to these requests. For state policy makers, it's bound to be useful, if only to learn from other states' experiences. It's also of value for anyone interested in how states are dealing with NCLB's accountability demands. Overall, though, it's a reference tool, not a page-turner, and the authors make no policy recommendations. You can check it out here.