Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 19
May 26, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
Always blame standards
Charters news redux
More money! Wait, maybe not
Everything's fine in Finland!
Readin', writin', politickin'
Choosing a School for Your Child
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 26, 2005
As everyone knows, last week the Yale Child Study Center issued a report indicating that pre-schoolers are three times more likely to be "expelled" from their programs than K-8 children are to be expelled from school. (See "Tossing the Terror Tots," or see here for the full report.)
It's not totally clear what it means to be "expelled" from an optional program that some parents simply withdraw kids from. But let that go. Assume that pre-school authorities are in fact bouncing their wee pupils at the reported rate of 5,000 per year.
Why could this be? How could anything so small and innocent as a pre-schooler do anything so dreadful as to warrant expulsion?
The first round of explanations ranged from inadequately trained pre-school teachers and aides to heedless parents who fail to train their toddlers to behave properly and share nicely before inflicting them on hapless pre-school workers.
Over the weekend, however, a second round of explanation emerged in - where else? - the pages of the New York Times. The culprit is now said to be - are you ready? - academic standards!
The Times reporter rustled up the requisite couple of experts to lament that pre-schools have become places that replace "block sets and dress-up rooms" with "alphabet drills and quiet desk work." "The notion of standards are [sic] coming down almost to the embryo," grumped one such expert. "We are not allowing normal, creative, interactive
May 26, 2005
Two great charter school stories this week. In New York City, recent tests that showed increases in proficiency rates citywide (see here) also showed charter schools outscoring their traditional public school peers. Fourteen of 20 charter schools that took the test posted higher scores than nearby public schools, with two of the charters - KIPP Academy and Bronx Prep - far outpacing the city average on the 8th grade test. Meanwhile, in California, EdSource reports (see here) that classroom-based charter schools were 33 percent more likely than regular public schools to meet California proficiency standards. (Non-classroom or "virtual" charters performed significantly worse than classroom charters and slightly worse than regular district schools.) Charters in California have focused on "five key areas, including student achievement, strong site leadership, and mentoring between schools. If one school is struggling with English language learning programs, for example, they get help from more seasoned colleagues at other sites," reports the Contra Costa Times. Will this help efforts to lift charter school caps and other onerous regulations in place in both states? One hopes. In Maryland, though, the state board decided to reduce the per-pupil funding that 16 new charter schools are to receive next year after local school districts whined that it was too much money. So, two steps forward, one step back.
"Charter students tops in test scores," by Joe Williams, New York Daily News, May 23, 2005
May 26, 2005
The Washington Unified School District in Sacramento wants to attract high-quality teachers to work in its worst schools. So it plans to pay those teachers more. (Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed something similar statewide.) This is a rather pedestrian practice in the real (meaning, non-education) world. So, of course, the local union is outraged. "Does he think teachers are whores - that you have to pay them more to do this?" asked one union spokesman. Another teacher thinks it's "very dangerous" to use money to incentivize teachers because tough schools will be swamped with cash-hungry teachers who don't have kids' best interests in mind. So follow the circular argument: All teachers are good teachers and deserve high and equal salaries; but "combat pay" attracts only the bad, money-grubbing teachers; true teachers work for love of children, not money; however, low salaries dissuade people from becoming teachers. And Gadfly can believe six impossible things before breakfast. Another thought: If teachers are never motivated by money, would it be OK to sock every California teacher with a 15 percent pay cut? Would they do as much, or little, as they do today if they weren't paid at all? After all, we shouldn't insult these people by implying that they're interested in money.
"West Sac 'combat pay' fight," by Michael Kolber, Sacramento Bee, May 23, 2005
May 26, 2005
This week, the Washington Post looks at Finland's highly-ranked public school system, which "graduates nearly every young person from vocational or high school, and sends nearly half of them on to higher education," and gained national attention after a first place ranking on PISA (see here for more on how the U.S. performed). Educators from around the world are rushing to the shores of the Baltic in hopes of finding a "silver bullet" to bring back to their own countries. Administrators and educators say Finland's success is a direct result of a highly motivated and professional teacher corps. "The key," says Finnish scholar Pekka Himanen, "isn't how much is invested, it's the people. . . . We really believe we live in an information age, so it is respected to be in such a key . . . profession as teaching." Teacher quality is indeed an important factor in raising student achievement, and perhaps Finland's edu-tourists can obtain some better definition of what constitutes a "quality teacher." Some things to keep in mind, however, on this "silver bullet" hunt: Finland's success hinges on any number of other factors, and many obstacles to great public schools that are widespread elsewhere have never been at issue for the Finns. They have a relatively small, homogeneous population and low poverty rates - demographic issues that helped ease their transition from a "poor and agrarian nation half a century ago" to a hotbed
May 26, 2005
In the current Policy Review, David Davenport and Jeffrey Jones discuss the politics of literacy and its transformation from a local education issue to its current role in national public policy. Much of federal legislation has its roots in state level policies, such as California's knock-down fight over "whole language" versus phonics-based reading strategies or Texas' pioneering testing and accountability system. But the literacy debate is often so politicized and polarized that the actual question of how best to teach children to read is lost. The authors argue that any plan to improve literacy must contend with two major and seemingly durable political changes: "the increasing federalization of literacy policy and the emergence of more centrist and pragmatic neoconservative and neoliberal leadership on educational matters." They recommend funding research on literacy and then teaching scientifically proven methods; they also suggest using tests to provide more localized data on school achievement and to narrow the achievement gap. We worry that the blithe suggestion that everybody just needs to chill out and do what's "best for kids" is a bit na??ve considering both honest differences of opinion on what "best" means and the less-honest entrenched interests that make money off reading instruction. Still, they make a valid point. With state and local literacy programs taking in a billion dollars a year in federal money, it is important that literacy methods be based not on politics, but on proven results.
May 26, 2005
Maris A. Vinovskis, University of Chicago Press
A professor of history and public policy at the University of Michigan, Vinovskis has written what will surely stand forever as the history of the early years of Head Start. Fair warning: This book is dense, with sub-headings like "The Gardener Task Force and Early Childhood Education" and extended discussions of long-forgotten policy symposia. But veteran federal ed-policy tracker and chronicler Vinovskis is excellent at demonstrating just how fly-by-night Head Start was in its early years, with rows of bureaucrats rubber-stamping questionable program proposals because the Johnson administration needed to demonstrate the program's political viability and popular appeal. The roots of the present questions facing Head Start are well-documented in this book. To wit: Is it a child development or school readiness program, fundamentally? Can program quality actually be maintained across thousands of individual sites? And why exactly does Health and Human Services run it? These were, in fact, questions being asked as early as the first summer. The author also recounts a whole series of early attacks on Head Start from the left: community action groups such as ACORN and assorted Saul Alinksy outfits were disappointed that Head Start didn't explicitly seek to inculcate tots in the virtues of social justice, political marching, and root-causes-of-poverty activism. Vinovskis also (delicately but firmly) points fingers at some of the Head Start pioneers - especially the venerable Sargent Shriver - whose enthusiasm for early childhood education
When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program
May 26, 2005
U.S. Department of Education
This third and final report on the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, a federal after-school program that serves almost 1,600 districts and 6,800 schools, once again concludes that the program is having little and in some cases a negative impact. (See here for the first report and here for the second). Ostensibly designed to provide a safe haven for academic and recreational activities, the study indicates that academic preparation is directionless, usually little more than supervised study hall. While students do report feeling moderately safer at school, the positives end there. Students in the program did not have higher test scores or better grades in math, science, social studies or English. Indeed, higher levels of negative behaviors were exhibited among participants, such as suspensions, teachers phoning parents over behavior problems, and students being disciplined by teachers. Such findings are troubling considering the program's current $1 billion price tag, which has ballooned from its initial $40 million budget in 1998. Intuitively, the idea sounds great (a safe environment in which extra help is provided for struggling students), but unfortunately, it appears that this program is doing little to justify its massive price tag. This one might be destined for the chopping block - as the administration has suggested but Congress has resisted. You can find the report here.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 26, 2005
Greg J. Duncan and Katherine A. Magnuson, The Future of Children, pp. 35-54
According to this imaginative and timely analysis, family socio-economic status may explain as much as half a standard deviation in initial achievement gaps between black/Hispanic and white children at the time they enter school. Yet, say the authors (a social policy professor at Northwestern and a social work faculty member at Wisconsin/Madison), the policy implications of this are "far from clear." They note that "no policies address 'socioeconomic status' directly. They address only its components - income, parental schooling, family structure, and the like. Moreover, wise policy decisions require an understanding of both causal mechanisms and cost-effective interventions that can produce desired changes." Because these are few and far between, they conclude that, if the goal is to narrow achievement gaps among children entering school, "policies that directly target children's aptitude or mental and physical health" are better bets. (A host of those are addressed in other essays in the same journal; this whole issue is devoted to closing racial and ethnic gaps in school readiness.) If you ask why we're pointing out the obvious, the answer is that we keep encountering the determinist (and defeatist) assertion - see, for example, Richard Rothstein's 2004 book Class and Schools, reviewed here - that the achievement gap can only be dealt with via wholesale transformations in American society and its economy. The fact is, say Duncan and
May 26, 2005
United States Department of Education, Office of Innovation and Improvement
The Department of Education has released this helpful parental guide for choosing a child's school. The pamphlet discusses the myriad school choice opportunities that are beginning to take hold and directs parents to look at charter schools, vouchers, private scholarships for low-income students, and home schooling. It suggests what a parent should look for in a school and provides ample resources for school-specific research. Most important, it tells parents what rights they are entitled to under NCLB, serving as a bill of rights for those fighting an unresponsive district or school bureaucracy. You can find it here.