Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 17
May 12, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
New schools and old
Time is on our side
The testing blues
Ravitch reviews the record
News flash! Students unchallenged, apathetic
Lifting Teacher Performance
Survey of School Choice Research, Spring 2005
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 12, 2005
Energy, enterprise, and ardor overflowed the hotel at the annual hootenanny of the New Schools Venture Fund, held last week near Silicon Valley. Hundreds of education innovators (and some profiteers and hangers-on) thronged this invitational "meet market," gossiping, exchanging business cards, exploring deals, commiserating about political and bureaucratic obstacles, and talking about curriculum, teachers, technology, and test scores.
One cannot help but contrast that scene with standard-issue education conferences, where real innovativeness is in short supply, resentment of change is the norm, and the best-loved speakers are those who rationalize the current performance of U.S. schools and decry the scoundrels who aver that the nation is in jeopardy.
New Schools attendees are younger and leaner, too, less fixated on the next cocktail hour or exhibitor break.
Twenty years ago, America had practically no "new schools," except for old-school replicas built to handle burgeoning enrollments in sun-belt communities and metropolitan exurbs. Schools were permanent institutions of brick and mortar. They didn't start from scratch; they didn't get "reconstituted"; they were not subject to redesigning; and they almost never closed, save in rare circumstances where demographics forced reluctant boards to risk community ire by mothballing buildings for which there were too few pupils (or tax dollars) to go around.
Now and then a private school might spring up, and Catholic parishes occasionally shuttered schools with too few paying customers. But public schools, like libraries, parks or churches, were assumed to be eternal. It was
May 12, 2005
An article in this week's Time accurately lays out the crucial battle taking place between the Feds and the states over NCLB. Connecticut has filed a lawsuit and so has the NEA (see here), and Maine might follow suit (see here). Utah might well lose its federal Title I funding, and Texas has been fined for exempting too many special ed students from testing (see here). And the list grows. As Time notes, these lawsuits and protests are arriving just as studies are showing that NCLB is raising student achievement at many levels, which the article calls ironic, but not a coincidence, since the pain for states has also been ratcheted up. That has many politicians (especially the 36 governors up for reelection in 2008) wary of having schools fail on their watch and blaming NCLB for their problems. Time observes that NCLB-required testing is fairly cheap - it is the requirements of teacher training and after school tutoring for failing schools that have states up in arms. But again, NCLB isn't about money, it's about change. Time notes, "Over the past 50 years, the U.S. has tripled per-pupil spending in constant dollars, to roughly $10,800 a child, more than almost any other nation. And yet it gets average or below-average results compared with other First World countries." Education Week points out that attorneys are going to have a difficult time winning their lawsuits
May 12, 2005
Michael Moore is the master of the subtle conspiracy charge, wherein a cabal is alleged with winks, nods, and innuendos without actually being stated. CNN has learned the lesson well. The cable network is airing a special on high-stakes testing (it premiered May 8 and will be shown again May 14). While brief moments are devoted to explaining how standards and testing can turn around schools, the many teacher diatribes against NCLB and student woes from standardized testing make it pretty clear where America's most trusted name in news stands. The program insinuates that the problems with the Houston school district miracle/myth will be replicated around the country as a result of NCLB. In describing the cheating that occurred, the blame falls not on cheating teachers but on former superintendent Rod Paige and his "reign of terror." In fact, in true Moore fashion, the program seems to suggest a Paige/Bush cabal to fake achievement, win the presidential election, and force testing on the unsuspecting nation. While there are plenty of sad student tales, missing are the stories of those hurt by the old system or helped by the new one. As Manhattan Institute's Jay Greene notes (the program was basically Greene vs. everyone else), "Any system [will] create some sad outcome for somebody," and while just giving everyone diplomas "might help some students, you would hurt many more. And that kind of system is rotten, and it's produced the stagnation
May 12, 2005
In Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, Diane Ravitch criticizes Big Apple Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education policies and chronicles his tumultuous tenure. According to Ravitch, Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein were oblivious to the tug-of-war between vested education interests and knowledgeable K-12 reformers, and thus appointed a top deputy for curriculum and suchlike whose ideas contradicted the mayor's campaign promises. The mayor wanted to end bilingual education, but it expanded; he promised a back-to-basics curriculum, but wound up mandating reading and math programs that were soft about everything but implementation, which proceeded with lock-step conformity. This approach gave rise to tales of stopwatch-armed supervisors measuring the time a teacher spends on a particular subject and penalizing those who exceed the limit. Test scores have not risen and in some areas have actually fallen. Mayoral control was meant to free Gotham's education system from political squabbling but has instead yielded even greater politicization. Ravitch concludes, "Who would have believed that smart, pragmatic Mike Bloomberg would become a champion of constructivist pedagogy?"
"Would you want to study at a Bloomberg school?" by Diane Ravitch, Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2005 (subscription required)
May 12, 2005
No matter what you think of Florida's package of school reforms over the past several years (See here for our analysis of the latest piece, the Voluntary Pre-K program) one has to be astonished at the deftness with which Governor Jeb Bush has moved his schools agenda (which seems to be working, see here). But the easy sledding may be coming to an end. Last week, the Florida Senate handily rejected two Bush bills: a proposal to hold a referendum to alter Florida's class size amendment (which is having a devastating effect, see here) and a voucher program for children who failed state exams for three years in a row. Not even a sweetener in the form of an amendment that would have guaranteed Florida teachers a minimum starting salary of $35,000 was enough to get state lawmakers to break the stranglehold of the Sunshine state's class size amendment.
"Bush rebuffed on class sizes," by Carrie Johnson, St. Petersburg Times, May 6, 2005
May 12, 2005
Newsweek's annual ranking of America's best high schools (using the system devised by Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews) is out, alerting readers to some high-performing but relatively unknown schools. Top dog this year is Jefferson County International Baccalaureate in Irondale, Alabama, which is acclaimed for its rigorous college-prep courses. A school's ranking is determined by dividing the total number of AP or IB tests administered by the number of seniors who graduate. (Private schools and public schools with exclusive admissions policies, such as Virginia's Jefferson Math and Science in Fairfax, are not included in the ranking.) We've harrumphed before about this methodology and will harrumph again in suggesting that passing the AP tests is what really matters (see here), which this study does not account for. But Mathews's list is always provocative and we're pleased to see some charter schools on the list, including Raleigh Charter in North Carolina (#9), as well as a number of public schools with high concentrations of free- and reduced-lunch students. And Mathews's separate essay on innovative schools highlights a number of familiar names, including KIPP Houston.
"The 100 best high schools in America," by Barbara Kantrowitz, Newsweek, May 16, 2005
"How to build a better high school," by Jay Mathews, Newsweek, May 16, 2005
"Other winning equations," by Jay Mathews, Newsweek, May 16, 2005
May 12, 2005
Anyone who has seen a student suffering from senioritis could have predicted the findings of this latest survey of high school students. An Indiana University study shows that a majority of high school students (55 percent) spend no more than three hours a week studying yet are still managing to maintain good grades (65 percent). Further, only 11 percent of college-bound seniors report spending seven or more hours a week studying. This pattern - the outward marks of success while doing very little work - is terrible preparation for both college and the real world. It's also a further example of what Michael Barone has famously called the division between "soft America" - whose mushy center is our K-12 system - where self-esteem and easy achievement are the rage, and "hard America," the meritocratic world of higher education and work.
"Survey: High school fails to engage students," by Alvin P. Sanoff, USA Today, May 8, 2005
May 12, 2005
The latest Education Next is out. Its cover story chronicles the $10 billion school food industry and finds a galaxy of interests in play other than kids' well-being. In a second article, a brave food critic lunches in Boston-area school cafeterias and reviews what's on offer there. Paul Peterson and Frederick Hess compare NAEP proficiency levels to state-reported assessment systems; while most states say their proficiency "cut scores" are set high, in fact their NAEP scores prove quite the opposite. Only South Carolina, Maine, Missouri, Wyoming, and Massachusetts get As from the authors for truly rigorous standards, while Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma bring up the rear. In addition, there are two articles on charter schools: Michael Petrilli discusses why they must be held to NCLB accountability standards, while Theodore Sizer explains the importance of innovation for the future of charters and of K-12 education. Lots of good stuff here. Go to http://www.educationnext.org/ for more.
May 12, 2005
Andrew Leigh and Sara Mead
Progressive Policy Institute
This policy report from PPI is a succinct and astute review of the importance of teacher quality and the solutions to improve it. We are reminded that teacher quality is one of the most important factors in a child's education, the more so for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. But it's not up to par. The report cites weak preparation, few growth opportunities for effective teachers, and a system that demands higher numbers of lower-skilled teachers when it should be insisting on the opposite (see "Teacher can't teach"). The standard notions for improving teacher quality are also flawed. An across-the-board pay increase would do nothing but provide all teachers (good and bad) with a few more dollars, and the current teacher certification process is credential- rather than results-based. (It appears that schools would be better off selecting teachers with high test scores and no teacher training rather than individuals with lesser skills, yet full teacher certification. Maybe that's why private schools follow this practice.) Cutting class size is flawed policy at best and disastrous at worst, since it "risks unintentionally lowering teacher quality even further, as affluent districts make up their numbers by poaching the most capable teachers from poorer areas." The authors instead offer three sweeping recommendations: institute well-designed performance-based teacher pay, offer incentives for teachers who work in struggling schools, and streamline the certification requirements to increase the pool
On Course for Success: A Close Look at Selected High School Courses That Prepare All Students for College
Jim Fedako / May 12, 2005
ACT and The Education Trust
ACT and EdTrust team up to take a closer look at the high school courses that are doing the best job of preparing kids for college. Their report builds upon ACT's October 2004 report, "Crisis at the Core: Preparing All Students for College and Work," which found that fewer than 61 percent of high schoolers take the minimum core curriculum that ostensibly readies them for college - but even these core classes aren't getting the job done. This report looks at specific "courses for success" in ten schools with high performing students (based on ACT scores and demographics) to determine precisely what, in practice, makes advanced courses (e.g. physics, calculus, advanced English) work. High-level college-oriented content is the first and most obvious key. But curriculum is only one piece of the puzzle. Successful classes also had well-qualified and engaged teachers and provided tutoring assistance for struggling students. Model syllabi from the 69 classes in the study are included. Find it here.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 12, 2005
Gerard Robinson, Institute for the Transformation of Learning
Howard Fuller's Institute published this 13-pager by senior fellow Gerard Robinson. It concisely recaps the findings of studies of several publicly funded and a number of privately supported voucher programs. The author "strongly" concludes that vouchers "improve academic performance, especially among African-American students; increase parent satisfaction and involvement; and appear to have a positive impact on student achievement in public schools." Find it here.