Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 26
July 21, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
Still swimming in Lake Wobegon
Success has a thousand fathers
Good news on grad rates
Live free and die
Less Dewey, more Shakespeare
How about "deferred intelligence"?
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / July 21, 2005
It's not easy today even to recall the stir created in 1987 when an obscure West Virginia physician and his never-heard-from-before one-man advocacy organization called "Friends for Education" released a little study titled "Nationally Normed Elementary Achievement Testing in America's Public Schools: How All 50 States Are Above the National Average." Swiftly dubbed the "Lake Wobegon report" after Garrison Keillor's mythical Minnesota hometown where "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average," it rocked the testing and education policy worlds, which were still reeling from A Nation at Risk just four years earlier.
As Education Week's Bob Rothman reported at the time, "The overwhelming majority of elementary-school pupils nationwide score above the average on normed achievement tests, results from a controversial new 50-state survey indicate. The survey...provides average scores from the 32 states that test elementary students statewide, as well as selected averages for district-administered tests in the 18 states without statewide assessments... Such findings suggest that norm-referenced tests - in which students are compared with a group tested in the past, not with other current test takers - 'do not represent an accurate appraisal of educational performance,' argued John Jacob Cannell, the group's president and author of the report.... Based on the most recent results available, 90 percent of school districts and 70 percent of students tested performed above the average on nationally normed tests, the report estimates. Those scores
July 21, 2005
Last week, offering up some "First thoughts on the NAEP" (see here), we noted that "Success has a thousand fathers and many will try to claim credit" for the good news about achievement gains amongst 9-year-olds. It's been amusing this week to watch various interests tie themselves in knots to attribute the NAEP data to their particular approach, gimmick, program or conviction. Leslie Conery, of the International Society for Technology in Education, attributed gains to, you guessed it, technology in education. "If you put powerful tools in the hands of teachers, powerful results will occur," she told eSchool News. Neil McCluskey, Cato Institute scholar and author of "NCLB: Leave the Feds Behind," sniffed at the Bush administration's claim that NCLB was behind the increases in scores: "If it worked that fast, NCLB would be a certified miracle. . . . If anything, No Child Left Behind is much more likely to reverse than accelerate promising academic trends." McCluskey attributes the improvements to - one guess now - school choice. But the strangest interpretation of the NAEP long-term trend results must come from the Grey Lady herself, the New York Times, whose editorial page theorized that "the constant flow of data that shows poor and diminished performance in middle schools and high schools" is caused by school systems "placing their most well-trained and experienced teachers in the early grades, a strategy that means the teachers become less and less
July 21, 2005
No, the percentage of kids graduating hasn't gone up, but after years of prodding by reformers on the left and right - especially Jay Greene, the Education Trust, and the Urban Institute - 45 governors have committed to a common formula for calculating the rates themselves. Worth celebrating, yes, but turning their promise into reality will be no small task. While doing the math differently is easy, building the kinds of comprehensive data systems required is not. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the governors' announcement was the show of support for state-to-state comparisons from two presidential contenders (one from each party). Outgoing NGA chair and Virginia Democratic governor Mark Warner explained: "Right now, different states have different definitions. So how can we make valid comparisons? And if you can't compare, how do we validate who has the best practices?" Meanwhile, incoming NGA chair and Arkansas Republican governor Mike Huckabee analogized the current patchwork system of differing state definitions to a basketball game, with one team shooting at an 8-foot-high basket and another shooting at a 10-foot basket. "We should all be shooting at a 10-foot basket," he said. "This will give us the ability to honestly know how well we are doing compared to the other states." Amen. But the same point could be made about differing state academic standards, proficiency cut-offs, and the wildly variable expectations children in different parts of the country now face. Mr. and Mr.
July 21, 2005
It was a bad omen for the Free State when the Old Man of the Mountain fell off, but this is even worse: New Hampshire's very first charter school, Franklin Career Academy, is closing for want of state funding. The state commissioner of education, Lyonel Tracy, explained that there was nothing wrong with the school: "The students were doing well. There was a good response from the parents and good results from the students." The culprits: the Franklin and Winnisquam school boards and the Franklin city council, all of which refused to pass along the (miserly) state per-pupil funding to the charter school. That's right: they just refused to pay. Tracy again: "The whole Franklin charter school situation was one marked by adult entanglement and ideological turf wars." Indeed. But this leaves Gadfly scratching his little bug head; why wasn't the Commish able to force the districts to play ball? And what is the charter school movement going to do about this blatant transgression? In the meantime, look for Fordham's upcoming study of charter funding (which won't include New Hampshire—we only examine states that are serious about charter schools) which will expose a host of fiscal shenanigans and policy shortcomings that punish charters from coast to coast.
"Charter schools minus one in New Hampshire," by Kathleen Bailey, Portsmouth Herald, July 17, 2005
July 21, 2005
In the newest edition of MassINC's CommonWealth magazine, Sandra Stotsky elucidates the well-known problems of teacher education (see Arthur Levine's highly-critical piece, "Educating School Leaders") and offers pragmatic advice for Massachusetts policy makers. The core problem: Those who want to teach must endure a bevy of useless classes on pedagogy and therefore fail to receive a broad liberal arts education with a strong focus on their teaching subject. And vice versa: Those who do have strong subject-knowledge are put off by these requirements and usually end up choosing another field. Stotsky argues that all secondary teachers should earn a master's degree in their discipline and learn their classrooms skills in a shorter time-span, like a one-year classroom apprenticeship. She also advocates giving federal or state grants to individuals who earn their master's degree and agree to teach in a public school for a few years. Requirements for pre-K-4 teachers, on the other hand, could be reduced. (Is a four-year degree in, say, European history really necessary to teach kindergarten?) We hope Stotsky's ready for the likely reaction: the "professionalism" crowd can be heard drafting their letters to the editor already.
"It's academic," by Sandra Stotsky, CommonWealth, Summer 2005
July 21, 2005
Even the hard-knock Brits are sometimes subjected to the touchy-feely politics of their own education establishment. At next week's annual conference of the Professional Association of Teachers, Liz Beattie, a retired school teacher, will recommend that the word "fail" be abolished from classrooms and replaced with the less offensive "deferred success." Ms. Beattie explains that "some children who have a problem are being turned off the whole education process . . . simply because failure is a thing they see quite a lot of." Here's a thought: Spend some time debating how to better EDUCATE them so they experience less "deferred success" and more actual success. On second thought, though, blurring the harshness of bad "F" words may have merit elsewhere; think of all the surly teenagers who could claim "deferred employment" rather than "getting fired" from fast food joints.
"Call to ban word 'failure' from schools," by Michael Blackley, The Scotsman, July 20, 2005
Michael J. Petrilli / July 21, 2005
Ruth Curran Neild, Elizabeth Useem, and Elizabeth Farley, Research for Action
This well-written, accessible report is ostensibly an update of the same outfit's 2003 examination of the quality of teachers in the city of brotherly love (see Gadfly's take here and original report here). But there are at least three interesting sub-plots lurking beneath. First: where else but in Paul Vallas's Philadelphia could researchers gain access to such useful data on teacher quality? (Example: "More than one quarter of the teachers at the lowest-income schools were in their first or second year of teaching in the district.") Second: No Child Left Behind's "highly qualified teacher" requirement is apparently having an impact here, at least for new teachers. (Because of the federal law, for example, new middle school teachers are giving up their elementary certifications for credentials in the specific academic subjects they will teach - a big step forward.) Third: will Vallas's new contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers - and specifically its compromise provision on "seniority bumping rights" - succeed in smoothing out the distribution of new and experienced teachers across the district's schools?
There's reason to be skeptical on the last point, since veteran teachers can still elbow their way into half of the district's schools, but Research for Action is bullish. Let's hope they're right. Let's hope, too, that, in the next installment, the analysts drop their schizophrenia about recruiting teachers from non-traditional
July 21, 2005
Emily C. Feistritzer, National Center for Education Information
This handy report contains the findings of the first-ever demographic profile of alternative route teachers, based on a 2,600-person survey. Some of the findings confirm what we already knew or make intuitive sense: alternate route teachers tend to be older; half of them would not have entered teaching if not for the alternate route program; and the older the teachers the more likely they are to say they wouldn't have entered the profession without a way of bypassing ed school. But there are some surprising results as well. Alternate route teachers are far more likely to be male than the general teaching population (37 vs. 25 percent) and more likely to be minorities (32 vs. 11 percent). Considering that alternate route programs are now producing 35,000 teachers a year, it's time that we understood a bit more about this cadre. This report is a great baseline for needed further research, including the $64,000 question: Just how good are these alternative route programs, after all? Check it out here.
July 21, 2005
Rodel Foundation of Delaware
The Rodel Foundation has produced a substantive and helpful (if perhaps slightly na??ve) report card on the First State's K-12 education system. It gauges student performance across all grade levels (pre-K, elementary, and secondary) as well as "system conditions" that affect that performance (teacher quality, leadership development, school finance, school choice, standards and accountability, and community and family engagement). Interestingly, according to the authors, Delaware's standards come in at 12th in the nation - based on AFT rankings for standards and accountability that fail to assess the actual content of those standards. Fordham's own standards evaluations showed less reasons for pride (see here for more), ranking Delaware 34th in math and a distressing 48th in English. Also, the rosy claim that "we rank third nationally in the percentage of kids in charter schools" is a bit over-simplified; Delaware has a considerable distance to travel to inform parents of existing choices and create enough high-quality choices that parents have plenty from which to choose. But overall, there's a lot of useful information here and a format that could be well employed by other policy groups and philanthropies looking to evaluate their home state across a range of telling criteria. Check it out here.
July 21, 2005
Association for Asian Studies, University of Tennessee
Edited by Lucien Ellington, valiant opponent of the multicultural approach to teaching world history, this issue of Education About Asia features a special section on teaching about Islam in Asian countries (see Fordham's Terrorists, Despots, and Democracy: What Our Children Need to Know for more). In his Editor's Message, Ellington notes, "Many in the United States and throughout the West draw little or no association between the terms 'Islam' and 'Asia,' and thus understand less about the belief system or the region of the world where it is most widely practiced." To combat the problem, and prevent politically correct nonsense from creeping into the teaching of it, the magazine offers useful teacher guidance in articles like "Teaching Islam in Southeast Asia," by Nelly van Doorn-Harder. Other items present perspectives on subjects that range from architecture to religion to politics in the region, including a fascinating look at "Cultural Relativism, Universal Human Rights, and Women in Islamic Societies," by Carolyn Brown Heinz. As Sandra Stotsky noted in the Fordham Foundation publication, The Stealth Curriculum, there is a dearth of useful, comprehensive guides for teaching sensitive topics; this one is worth checking out. You can't read the entire thing online, but access selected articles and supplementary materials here.