Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 18
May 19, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
Graduation or bust?
Scopes, part deux
Tossing the terror tots
Small jumps in the Big Apple?
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 19, 2005
California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is bent on ending teacher tenure as we know it. If legislators won't budge, he's gathered signatures to put it on the ballot and let voters decide. "If they don't do their job," quoth the Gubernator, "then we go to special election without any doubt."
It's enough to make one ask: What is tenure and why do teachers have it? Where did this peculiar custom come from and what exactly is the matter with it?
Tenure, of course, means you have a guaranteed job and salary, year after year, pretty much unrelated to your performance. Sure, the job itself may be eliminated if a school is closed or the system shrinks. And if you do something horrendous—a criminal or moral offense, say—you might be terminated despite your tenure. But such things are rare and painful. The norm for tenured employees is that their job and paycheck are assured from one year to the next and while their performance might be evaluated, it has little bearing on their employment or salary.
Tenure in modern America is found, with minor exceptions, in four places: the civil service, the judiciary, universities, and schools. Everybody else has a contract or is some sort of at-will employee.
The history of tenure for university professors is bound up in the long saga of academic freedom and its protection. Traces can be found in battles over governance of the earliest European universities, but it's mainly a 20th
May 19, 2005
Much has been said about the specious nature of official high school graduation rates promulgated by states, districts, and the feds (see here for Jay Greene's February 2005 report on the subject). The message is beginning to take hold. This week, the Indianapolis Star is running a great 7-part series about Indiana's graduation rates that reveals that a mere 34 percent of Indianapolis Public School students graduate, as opposed to the "official" IPS figure of 90 percent. In California, Mike Piscal (of the Inner City Education Foundation and View Park Prep Charter Schools in California) lists some dismaying statistics for South Los Angeles on the new blog, The Huffington Post. He writes plaintively, "There are 3,950 students in the ninth grade at four major area high schools. . . . Only around 1,600 graduate. . . . Over 2,300 drop out. . . . How or why are our public schools in South Los Angeles so utterly broken?" The Rocky Mountain News puts a human face on Denver's woeful graduation rates in a series that looks at a specific group of eighth graders. Of these students, only one in three earned a diploma on time. More and more people are discovering that (as the Star editors put it), "Inflated graduation numbers have lulled the public into believing dropping out is rare. It's not. And thousands of young people are suffering the consequences."
"Missing in action," Indianapolis
May 19, 2005
The Kansas State Board of Education has just wrapped up its evolution trial. Proponents of "intelligent design" have pushed the state to present a "more critical" view of evolution in Kansas classrooms and to move away from the definition of science in the state standards as a search for "natural explanations," which they say represents an endorsement of naturalism and atheism. It is this last part that should have scientists especially worried. If not natural explanations, will science be based on supernatural explanations? Biblical? The majority of scientists on the state's curriculum review committee opposes efforts to revise the state's standards, but largely refused to testify on grounds that the hearings were a set-up. The confession of state board member Kathy Martin that she has never actually read the report from Kansas' curriculum committee on science standards, lends credibility to the charge that the fix is in. She explains, "I'm not a word-for-word reader in this kind of technical information." Well, Fordham is a word-for-word reader and we'll be releasing an evaluation of state science standards later this year, so perhaps we'll take that task on for Ms. Martin. Expect a final decision from the Kansas state board during the summer.
"No quick vote foreseen in evolution teaching," by Diane Carroll, Kansas City Star, May 11, 2005
"What matters in Kansas," by William Saletan, Slate, May 11, 2005
"A real monkey trial," by Peter Dizikes, Salon.com, May
May 19, 2005
A new report from the Yale University Child Study Center (see here) finds that pre-Kindergarten students are being expelled from their programs at rates much higher than students in K-12 are expelled from school. "For every 1,000 preschoolers enrolled in state pre-K programs, 6.67 are being tossed out of school, compared with 2.09 per 1,000 students in elementary, middle, and high schools, according to the research," reports Education Week. Four-year-olds were 50 percent more likely to be ousted than two- or three-year-olds, and African-American children were twice as likely to be expelled as whites or Hispanics. But the real losers are boys, who are expelled at a rate four-and-a-half times greater than that for girls. Pre-K educators blame undisciplined and badly parented kids who are fed a steady diet of TV and video games, while the report's authors suggest that untrained pre-K teachers are ill-equipped to deal with aggressive behavior. Wherever this "blame" is properly assigned - and we surmise that it belongs in many places - the situation bodes ill for the elementary schools that will shortly be required to deal with students who've been expelled before they made it to Kindergarten, and for efforts to expand pre-K access as a tool to close achievement gaps.
"Preschoolers expelled from school at rates exceeding that of K-12," by Linda Jacobson, Education Week, May 18, 2005
May 19, 2005
The Christian Science Monitor reports a resurgence of interest in spelling in American classrooms, a subject which, according to author and spelling zealot Richard Gentry, was dealt a setback by whole-language instruction in the 1980s. Recent emphasis on basic skills has prompted "more teachers to return to explicit spelling instruction - instead of simply assuming that it's a skill that kids will pick up as they go along." According to Gentry, "Spelling . . . is proving much more important than we've ever thought it to be." Welcome, folks - reality is where Gadfly has lived for years (though we only learned to spell it recently). Unfortunately, as matters alphabetic improve here, they're deteriorating across the pond. The London Telegraph reports that 600,000 English 14-year-olds won't be penalized for incorrect spelling on their major writing exam, mainly because "ministers are particularly concerned about exam results this year." English teacher Andrew Cunningham noted, "All teachers are having to spend time going over these basics, which should have been sorted out at an earlier age." So, although the Brits beat us in math (see "This PISA is falling"), we'll put our money on the U.S. in the event of a trans-Atlantic spelling bee.
"Spelling makes a comeback," by Stacy A. Teicher, Christian Science Monitor, May 17, 2005
"Incorrect spelling will not be penalised in English tests," by Julie Henry, London Telegraph, May 17, 2005
May 19, 2005
Given Gadfly's many doubts about Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education efforts (see "A rush to judgment?"), we pondered how to present the news that proficiency scores for Big Apple fourth graders have jumped 10 percent this year (accompanied by a slight dip among eighth graders). We considered quoting the late Senator Russell Long's apothegm that even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while. We pondered voicing widespread doubts about inordinate numbers of ELL students who were exempted from the test. We contemplated cautioning that it's comparatively easy to effect gains in fourth grade but unless they're sustained in eighth grade (and beyond) they're just a candle in a cave. In the end, however, let us simply note that we're pleased to see these gains in New York, as we are everywhere they actually occur.
"Literacy test scores rise for urban students in N.Y.," by David Herszenhorn, New York Times, May 18, 2005
Eric Osberg / May 19, 2005
Gregg Vanourek, Charter School Leadership Council
The CSLC and charter school expert Gregg Vanourek have produced a terrific guide to the charter movement that should find a home on the bookshelf of any education reformer. Its purpose isn't to provide new research or data but rather to offer one-stop-shopping for those seeking the best available information about the charter school world. To offer just a sampling, it provides data on the number of charters (3,400), their enrollment (300,000), waiting lists (39 percent have them, averaging 135 students each), and locations (more than half are in three states, California, Arizona, and Florida). One learns that 10 percent of these schools are managed by EMOs, perhaps as many as 14 percent use the Core Knowledge method, and 16 percent were converted from existing public schools. Twenty-seven states have caps on charters; about half of traditional schools have started new programs in response to charter competition; and half of all authorizers work with just a single charter school. Of paramount interest to some charter followers, it summarizes the research on academic achievement (leaning heavily on Bryan Hassel's meta-analysis), noting the mixed but "encouraging" results. There's much more and you'd be well served by downloading a copy. Though it doesn't offer a fancy layout, the brief explanations interspersed with useful charts and graphs make it an easy read. It also lays bare the gaps in current research by suggesting issues for future study.
May 19, 2005
Bible Literacy Project
What do Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, William Blake, John Winthrop, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King have in common? The works of all these writers are deeply imbued with the phrases and rhythms of the Bible. Not to know the Bible is to be unable to grapple successfully with a sizable chunk of Western literature and philosophy. But schools are understandably confused about legal issues surrounding the Bible's presence in the classroom and teachers worry about giving offense or being sued. That's a tremendous loss to students who are being denied access to an important cultural artifact - a loss for cultural literacy that the Bible Literacy Project is attempting to rectify. This month, the Templeton-funded project (which has the support of both major Christian churches and the ACLU) released this survey of students and teachers to test their knowledge of important stories, phrases, and concepts from the Bible. Results are decidedly mixed. Almost three-quarters of students know that Moses "led the Israelites out of bondage," while more than 90 percent know who Adam and Eve are. (Unfortunately, 8 percent "believe that Moses is one of the twelve Apostles.") But get beyond a few key concepts, as David Gelernter notes in the Weekly Standard, and knowledge falls off dramatically - two-thirds of teens couldn't identify the phrase "Blessed are the poor in spirit" from the Sermon on the Mount, while similar numbers were ignorant of phrases such as "the
Eric Osberg / May 19, 2005
Bruce O. Boston, America Youth Policy Forum and Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
This semi-sensible manifesto calls for a focus on civic engagement in our schools. It argues that training students to be engaged citizens should be given the same importance as "core subjects" such as reading and math. Importantly, it distinguishes civic education from civic engagement and focuses on the latter. Thus it lauds service learning, providing evidence of its academic benefits and highlighting some programs worth emulating. To us, the key is to not let such "applied" civic learning supplant the important work of teaching content, and in this the report strikes a decent balance, paying reasonable attention to knowledge and content. And though they want to teach "the whole child," they are not so foolish as to believe that this is solely the job of schools. You can find it online here.
May 19, 2005
The Teaching Commission
The latest Teaching Commission poll takes the temperature of both the general public and teachers with regard to its primary concerns: boosting and changing teacher compensation, raising standards and increasing accountability, and improving professional development and training. Overall, the poll finds broad public support for such initiatives, including a compensation system that provides "larger increases for teachers who improve student achievement, raise teaching standards, and increase accountability for teachers." However, only 16 percent of adults identify teacher quality as a main problem facing public schools, and in their own schools, 64 percent rate the quality of teachers as "excellent or good," a figure at odds with well-known data on out-of-field teaching and related matters. The survey captures the great challenge facing education reformers: many folks agree that those schools need improvement while insisting that my school is doing just fine. To read the complete findings, click here.
May 19, 2005
J. Carl Setzer, Laurie Lewis, and Bernard Greene, National Center for Education Statistics
NCES has released the first report that gives a nationally representative study of technology-based distance education and its availability, course offerings, and enrollment patterns. The study also examines the technologies used to deliver distance education, the reasons such classes are developed, and hindrances that districts face in expanding distance education. Specifically, in school year 2002-3, 36 percent of districts and 9 percent of schools had students enrolled in distance education, disproportionately (but logically) in rural areas. Unfortunately, technology moves faster than NCES, so one can only wonder how much more distance learning has spread in the ensuing two years. But have a look, if you like, by clicking here.