Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 41
November 17, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
Tough choices on teacher quality
Remembering Gaynor McCown (1960-2005)
No right-wing critique left behind
Pythagoras knows best
Out of ideas? Ask the kid and the felon
The Carnegie of School Choice
Michael J. Petrilli / November 17, 2005
OK, school reformers, it's pop-quiz time. Take out your # 2 pencils and circle the answer with which you agree.
To boost teacher quality, policy makers should:
a. Allow principals to hire the best teachers they can find, regardless of credentials; or
b. Require new teachers to pass a rigorous test of subject matter knowledge or possess a major in their field.
Do you find yourself wanting to answer "both, of course"? If so, join the club. And consider yourself part of the problem, because, frankly, together we have made a mess of teacher quality policy.
It's not for lack of good intentions. Unlike the teacher unions, whose positions on this issue cannot be disentangled from their members' self-interest, reformers can claim purity of heart and selflessness of intentions. But we are also of two minds. We feel the tug of competing values. And, too often, we try to split the difference, to have it both ways.
The values at war are deregulation versus academic rigor. Let's examine the case for each.
The argument for deregulation is strong. Much of the rhetoric of the standards-and-accountability movement (and its cousin, the charter school movement) is about results in return for flexibility, giving principals more power in return for stronger outcomes. Now that school leaders are in the hot seat, facing exposure and sanctions under No Child Left Behind if they don't boost achievement, they have every incentive to hire great teachers who can help them succeed in making adequate
Kate Walsh / November 17, 2005
My friend, colleague, and boss Gaynor McCown died this week, leaving this earth far too soon at the age of 45. Gaynor started as Executive Director of The Teaching Commission during the same month that I started at the National Council on Teacher Quality. She set up a lunch so that we could meet and talk about how our two organizations could work together. I thought I was going to have lunch with a man - a misunderstanding I didn't hide very well when I saw this petite blonde waiting for me at the restaurant - but Gaynor reacted with grace and laughter. We immediately hit it off, discovering not only that we held very similar views about teacher quality issues, but also that we shared similar backgrounds. We had both gone to colleges in the same town at about the same time. After college, Gaynor did social justice work in Latin America and became life-long friends with a woman who had been my college roommate and bridesmaid but with whom I had completely lost touch. Gaynor made it clear she thought that was disgraceful and then made it her personal mission to make sure we reconnected.
Gaynor McCown epitomized graciousness. She knew all along that relationships are the most important thing about life. She knew absolutely everyone. Everyone loved her from the instant they met her, drawn in by her self-effacing humor and that charming Southern accent still so
November 17, 2005
Parents who contend that schools are failing their special needs children will now have to do more than make the claim in order to get the additional services they desire. They'll have to prove their case. The Supreme Court's decision on Monday that parents, and not school districts, bear the burden of proof when contesting the goals and instructional methods spelled out in their children's individualized education plan(s) (IEP) could greatly reduce the number of cases that go to court for resolution. Districts see an opportunity to save big bucks. In the District of Columbia, the amount spent on IEP appeals jumped from $499,000 in 2001 to $2.9 million in 2005. "This will help us pare down the amount of money spent on special education and allow us to use that money to give students a world-class education in the D.C. school system," says the D.C. school board president. We'll see about that. Others worry that the children of parents unable to afford costly litigation will suffer most. Gadfly wonders: why not leave the school systems in charge of the services they provide (which the ruling does) but also offer parents scholarship money so, if they disagree with their district's special education approach, they can move their children to another school?
"In Special-Ed Case, Court Backs Montgomery Schools," by Charles Lane and Lori Aratani, Washington Post, November 15, 2005
"D.C. Schools See Opportunity to Pare Back," by Lori Aratani and V.
November 17, 2005
No Child Left Behind was recently highlighted by two conservative columnists, David Brooks and George Will. In the Times, Brooks tweaked NCLB by arguing that the future is in human capital - that is, the cultural, social, moral, cognitive, and aspirational aspects of each individual. Skills and knowledge, "the stuff measured by tests," are but one part of this. Therefore, he reasons, nothing is gained by pouring money into huge federal programs such as NCLB and treating students "as skill-acquiring cogs." Instead, the instructional emphasis must come at a personalized and local level through demanding teachers who help transform all aspects of students' lives. But trouble can brew when local entities assert their autonomy. George Will examines the growing NCLB tension between state and federal authorities which, in some instances, is pitting Republicans against each other. His case-in-point is Utah, the nation's most reliably red state, which has, nonetheless, rebelled against President Bush's NCLB legislation. Conservatives believe in high standards, Will says, but they also believe in the principles of federalism, which give states significant autonomy over their internal governance (education included). Both pundits raise significant questions. Answering them is the tricky part.
"Psst! 'Human Capital,'" by David Brooks, New York Times, November 13, 2005 (Times Select subscription required)
"In Utah, No Right Left Behind," by George Will, Washington Post, November 11, 2005
November 17, 2005
In Penfield, N.Y., high-flying math whiz Jim Munch looked to be the poster child for constructivist math curriculum. He scored a 5 on the A.P. Calculus exam, and hopes to become a theoretical mathematician. Turns out, he succeeded in spite, not because of, his school's progressivist training. Munch's parents (one an engineer, the other an educator) instructed him by night as his school teachers pushed "fuzzy" math by day. (See here and here for more on the problems of this fad.) "Kids do not do better learning math themselves," young Munch said. "There's a reason we go to school, which is that there's someone smarter than us with something to teach us." A novel idea, that. Ardent constructivists, such as the folks who lead the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the Penfield School District, don't think "old-fashioned" math skills (including learning basic items such as multiplication tables) are necessary for academic success. That simply doesn't compute.
"'Innovative' Math, but Can You Count?" by Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times, November 9, 2005
November 17, 2005
While gubernatorial races hogged election-day press coverage, a couple of local races in Michigan and California have raised eyebrows. In the Great Lakes State, 18-year-old Michael Sessions is making a case for "hands-on" learning. Why study civics? Just do it! He won the Hillsdale mayoral race, as a write-in candidate, by two votes. Sessions campaigned on a platform of stimulating Hillsdale's economic development. In a town with an unemployment rate hovering around 6 percent, and where more than 10 percent of the population lives in poverty, Sessions's foci hit home. Until he graduates from high school in May, though, he'll fulfill his mayoral duties after school. An equally interesting display of democracy occurred in California where Randy Hale, an inmate of the California Institution for Men in Chino, was elected to the Romoland school board. A political science professor at UC Riverside thinks Hale may have won "because he was at the top of the ballot." Remember that the next time you hear the National School Boards Association celebrating the genius of "local control." Hale's release is scheduled for February 15th. Until then, he'll have plenty of free time in which to craft a revolutionary plan for the revitalization of Romoland's district schools. First action item: School uniforms (orange, of course).
"High School Kid by Day, Mr. Mayor by Night," by P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2005
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / November 17, 2005
by Joanne Jacobs
Those who dispute the "Great Man" theory of history may have to reconsider their position. Philanthropy magazine's essay on the late John Walton's influence on school choice leaves little room for doubting that a single person can change the world. The tribute, ably and eloquently penned by Joanne Jacobs, includes a parade of examples showing how Walton and his family's foundation catapulted school choice from a good idea shared by a few people to a nationwide movement. Consider just two of these. Walton (and Ted Forstmann) underwrote scholarships for 40,000 American students through the Children's Scholarship Fund. When CSF was launched, more than 1.2 million people applied. "That was the beginning of a national debate," says Gisele Huff, because the overwhelming interest made it "impossible to ignore the desperation of parents whose children were in low-quality public schools." Another example: the quarter-million dollars that the Walton foundation provided to each of more than 500 charter schools. Says NewSchools Venture Fund head Kim Smith, "I don't know if we'd have a charter school movement without John Walton." Indeed. Walton also backed and helped to build a network of state and local advocacy organizations, including the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options. But Jacobs does more than capture the dollars and cents side of Walton's impact on education; she also evokes his persona and character. "Before the
November 17, 2005
The Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation
School choice starts with legislation, but it doesn't end there. Each choice program's success depends upon implementation, which is handled by school districts and state or local authorities who can aid the program with simple enlistment procedures or stifle it with convoluted participation policies. This Friedman Foundation study assesses how easy it is for students to participate in each of the nation's fourteen K-12 school-choice programs (choice, here, meaning vouchers, tax-funded scholarships, and tax credits and deductions - charter schools are conspicuously absent). Ratings are based on an analysis of eligibility criteria and application processes. The study also examines each program's history, noting the number of eligible students who participate year-to-year. The results? As one might expect, it's easy for parents and students to participate in some choice programs and hard to take part in others. Milwaukee's voucher system, for example, is rated "excellent." The city sets no application deadline, and students are admitted on a rolling basis. Interested parents can access application forms online or pick them up from participating schools. Finally, students need not reapply each year. On the other hand, Florida's A+ voucher program, rated "poor," is faulted for its procedural burdens. Participation is limited to students in schools whose schools have received an "F" grade (based on test scores) twice in four years. After the state announces school grades, parents of eligible students have two weeks to complete
Creating a Culture of Literacy: A Guide for Middle and High School Principals, and Reading at Risk: How States Can Respond to the Crisis in Adolescent Literacy
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / November 17, 2005
National Association of Secondary School Principals2005
National Association of State Boards of EducationOctober 2005
There are plenty of sound materials for teaching young children to read, but not many for instructing adolescents to do the same. Alas, these two new publications, aimed specifically at the problem of adolescent literacy, don't much help. Creating a Culture of Literacy is more of the same, tired whole-language rhetoric (successful literacy programs use "motivation," "self-directed learning," and "effective instructional principles embedded in content" to raise achievement). And despite its frequent invocation of the word "data," the report is seriously lacking in numbers to back up its claims. Of the five school-success profiles it offers, just one (J.E.B. Stuart High School in Virginia) references specific data to support its assertion that the adopted reading literacy curriculum had a positive impact. The study cites that school's overall improvement on the Virginia Standards of Learning Tests - passing rates in Reading and Literature jumped from 64 to 94 percent between 1998 and 2004. But these gains are suspect because most schools in Virginia have shown similar gains on state tests. Reading at Risk values phonics-based reading instruction, but its primary focus is influencing state leaders by encouraging them to set high literacy goals, paying for teacher training, and requiring districts to adopt only research-based literacy strategies, not discussing what does and doesn't work in the classroom. The report does reference both the Just Read, Florida! and