Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 40
November 10, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
National standards: Do we have the will?
Every state left behind
California ed reform terminated?
Patronage or patrons?
Show me the merit pay!
What's the matter with Kansas?
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / November 10, 2005
For 40 years the United States has struggled to find the right approach to academic standards for K-12 education. Oversimplifying, this quest was catalyzed by the Coleman Report (1966) and A Nation at Risk (1983). The former said we can't rely on fiddling with school inputs to boost school outcomes, while the latter said our outcomes are sorely inadequate.
If we can't rely on inputs, but we need to do something about outcomes, the logical move is to spell out the outcomes we want and then work to ensure that kids and schools attain them.
That had long been done for college-bound kids via Regents exams, AP tests, colleges' own entrance prerequisites, etc. But it had never been done for all kids. And it needed to be.
This effort grew serious in 1989 when, at the Charlottesville summit, the governors and President George H.W. Bush set national education goals for the year 2000. One of these said, "American students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography."
The word they used was "competency." Today, we're more apt to say "proficiency." Still, the question instantly arose, who determines competency in particular subjects, and how would anyone know whether a kid or a school, a district or a state, had attained that level?
Now we're 16 years into answering that question and, frankly, it's a muddle, arising in large part from America's arcane education
Diane Ravitch / November 10, 2005
Editor's Note: This commentary first appeared in the New York Times on November 7, 2005.
While in office, Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton both called for national academic standards and national tests in the public schools. In both cases, the proposals were rejected by a Congress dominated by the opposing party. The current President Bush, with a friendly Congress in hand, did not pursue that goal because it is contrary to the Republican Party philosophy of localism. Instead he adopted a strategy of "50 states, 50 standards, 50 tests" - and the evidence is growing that this approach has not improved student achievement. Americans must recognize that we need national standards, national tests and a national curriculum.
The release last month of test results by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is part of the Department of Education, vividly demonstrated why varying state standards and tests are inadequate. Almost all states report that, based on their own tests, incredibly large proportions of their students meet high standards. Yet the scores on the federal test (which was given to a representative sample of fourth and eighth graders) were far lower. Basically, the states have embraced low standards and grade inflation.
Idaho claims that 90 percent of its fourth-grade students are proficient in mathematics, but on the federal test only 41 percent reached the Education Department's standard of proficiency. Similarly, New York reports that nearly 85 percent of its fourth graders
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / November 10, 2005
There was no hero to rush to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's aid Tuesday as California voters pummeled all four of his ballot propositions with "nos."
Two of these rebukes were particularly painful for education reformers. Proposition 74 would have lengthened from two to five years the time required for a public school teacher to earn tenure. And Proposition 75 would have given public union members (many of whom are educators) a check-off option to keep their dues from flowing to political campaigns. This latter proposal would have weakened the unions' ability to block myriad initiatives that are in the public good (but threaten their weakest members) like the expansion of charter schools or the adoption of performance pay - and Tuesday's referenda.
Though the thumbs-down from voters was resounding, don't hit the panic button just yet. For Tuesday's vote wasn't a referendum on education policy so much as it was a test of union power, and of Schwarzenegger's approach to governing.
Clearly, the public employee unions won this round. They heavily outspent Schwarzenegger - $172 million vs. $90 million - according to Stanford's Michael Kirst, and bragged about their ability to do so. California Teachers Association President Barbara Kerr, incensed that the governor didn't credit the unions for his 0 for 4 showing, told a room of union supporters Tuesday night, "This governor ... doesn't have the courage to say he was wrong, that we're the real heroes of California." Says Kirst,
November 10, 2005
Amidst the clean-up efforts in Louisiana, Governor Kathleen Blanco has proposed a plan to allow New Orleans' failing schools (an astonishing 102 of the city's 117 schools) to re-open as charters, free from the miserable New Orleans school board's overbearing regulations. "We will use innovative thinking, help from proven partners, and look to the charter school model as one of our options," Blanco said in front of the legislature's special session. "Now is the time for us to turn those schools around and create a system that benefits every child in that parish." Can it work? Hard to say at the moment, as there are few specifics on how a charter system would operate (Louisiana's charter school law is notoriously weak - see here for more). Some in the state, however, are squarely behind the idea, and for all the right reasons. "There's no reason to give the vested interests of today's system a veto over reforms," writes the editorial board of the Advocate, a Baton Rouge paper. "Let's face it, this is an easy call: adults and their patronage jobs, or children and their futures." And the state's House Education Committee is drafting legislation as Gadfly goes to press. The specifics of that legislation will ultimately determine whether the charter move is real or illusory.
"Blanco urges cuts as session opens," by Robert Travis Scott, Times-Picayune, November 7, 2005
"Reform system for the children," Advocate (Baton
November 10, 2005
State capitals have been abuzz with talk of teacher merit pay. Unfortunately, that talk has rarely translated into action (see here) - until now. Tired of relying on quibbling politicians in Austin, Texas Governor Rick Perry took matters into his own hands and used his executive authority to institute the Lone Star State's first incentive pay program for teachers after the Legislature adjourned. Explained Perry, "the need for education reform is simply too great to wait for lawmakers to overcome their differences." But Texas isn't alone in enterprising spirit. Merit pay has gotten off the ground in Denver, too, at least in a limited sort of way. Last Tuesday voters passed ballot issue 3A, which begins implementation of merit pay for teachers. Meanwhile, Florida's education department is hosting workshops to re-write the rules that implement the Sunshine State's Performance-Based Pay Program law, which so far hasn't actually led to any performance pay due to district and union intransigence (see here). Could merit pay finally be on the march?
"Backers celebrate ProComp plan victory," by Nancy Mitchell, Rocky Mountain News, November 2, 2005
"Perry enacts teacher merit pay," by Janet Elliot, Houston Chronicle, November 4, 2005
November 10, 2005
After months of heated debate, the Kansas State Board of Education officially thumbed its nose at the scientific community. Under the state's newly adopted science standards, Kansas schoolchildren will now be taught (we're not making this up) that not all scientific occurrences have "natural" explanations. Of course, the theory of evolution is the first bedrock principle to suffer under this new approach, but surely others will follow:
- Benjamin Franklin was wrong: Lightning really is an act of divine retribution
- Galileo Update: We are the center of the universe after all
- Know that wart on your hand that won't go away? It really is the toad's fault
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, voters in Dover threw out all the local school board members who favored the teaching of intelligent design in science classrooms. Now that is a sign of intelligence.
"Kansas School Board Approves Controversial Science Standards," by Jodi Wilgoren, New York Times, November 8, 2005
"Pennsylvania voters oust school board," CNN.com, November 9, 2005
November 10, 2005
Julian R. Betts, Andrew C. Zau, and Kevin KingPublic Policy Institute of California2005
In 2000, the San Diego city school system stood at the forefront of the reform movement when it adopted then-Superintendent Alan Bersin's Blueprint for Student Success - an ambitious set of reforms to improve students' reading skills. In that same year, the district contracted with the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) to analyze and assess student achievement. This report, From Blueprint to Reality: San Diego's Education Reforms, is the second in a series and looks exclusively at the Blueprint and its impact. (Although many of the Blueprint programs have been discontinued or experienced cutbacks since their inception, the basic framework still exists.) The study finds that, although some of the Blueprint's policies are more effective than others, overall it is accomplishing its goals. The Blueprint program employs three strategies for raising reading skills:
- Prevention: Seeks to head off illiteracy by extending classes, supplying up-to-date teaching materials, and providing teachers with additional training.
- Intervention: Targets struggling students and provides peer coaches as well as additional practice and instructional time in reading.
- Retention: Retains students who demonstrate below-grade - level literacy skills.
Some strategies, such as assigning peer coaches to struggling students, didn't yield positive results at the district level, but others are showing their worth. For example, the Extended Reading Program - in which struggling students are supervised for 90 minutes of before- or after-school reading
Michael J. Petrilli / November 10, 2005
School Choice Demonstration Project, Georgetown University
Thomas Stewart, Ph.D., Patrick J. Wolf, Ph.D., and Stephen Q. Cornman, Esq.
While choice opponents sometimes argue cynically that poor parents cannot be trusted to make good decisions for their children, these Georgetown researchers (and their funders at the Annie E. Casey Foundation) respected parents enough to ask them (in a series of focus groups) about their experiences in Washington, D.C.'s new, federally funded voucher program. Their answers are illuminating. Most families' and students' experiences with the program were overwhelmingly positive, and many parents reported that, after receiving an Opportunity Scholarship their children were more confident, performed better academically, and demonstrated increased enthusiasm for school. Says one elementary school parent: "This is what I tell my kids. I tell them that this is an opportunity for you to strive, do your best, take advantage of it, that's what I tell my children." Parents were especially enthusiastic about the rigorous standards of their children's new schools and the opportunity to get involved, though both presented challenges. Says one Hispanic parent, "For us there was a significant change more than anything because we were forced to go to English school to learn English ... when I realized all the homework was in English, so I had to stay awake all night with a translator and a dictionary." There have been bumps, such as the incident in which a teacher told a scholarship student (whose involvement