Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 39
November 3, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
In IB we trust?
Apples and oranges
Similar Students, Different Results: Why Do Some Schools Do Better?
By Martin A. Davis, Jr.
Saving Money and Improving Education: How School Choice Can Help States Reduce Education Costs
By Eric Osberg
November 3, 2005
At first glance, the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program appears to be an education reformer's ideal. It boasts a demanding curriculum. It concentrates on core subject areas (experimental science, math, languages, etc.), and it integrates them with a Theory of Knowledge class that shows how the subjects are interrelated. Students must also complete 150 hours of community service and a 4,000 word "extended essay" - a high school version of an undergraduate thesis. IB is designed to form well-rounded minds, spark esoteric interests, and prepare students for sparkling success in college.
And IB doesn't only impress advocates of core curricula. It scores points with accountability hawks, too. Each IB student must face, in the final months of his or her high school career, a battery of comprehensive examinations. Those students who don't achieve the required point total don't receive an IB diploma, regardless of their classroom performance and grades - no exceptions.
But for all the positive characteristics that have made IB the darling of reform-minded school administrators, it is not an educational panacea. The intentions and ideas are sound, but without proper execution the program fails.
As a 14-year-old, I was drawn to IB by its promises of educational exploration. When I attended freshman orientation, the teachers lavished praise on (and parents practically drooled over) IB's blend of high expectations and achievement. It sounded fantastic: a college-like experience, where students are encouraged to question their teachers and probe for
November 3, 2005
People for the American Way president Ralph Neas writes in USA Today that the Senate's Katrina package (which includes a provision that will provide vouchers to help support private-school families) is an opportunity for right-wingers "to implement an ideological agenda that has little to do with the hurricane itself." Pot calling the kettle black, eh? Neas may be the king of ideological sound bytes, and he's never met a newsworthy situation that he couldn't spin - including Katrina education relief. He warns against vouchers that "support religious indoctrination" and may contribute to "the unconstitutional use of federal tax dollars to fund discrimination." But stripped of the outrageous language, Neas is merely rehashing the same old anti-voucher talking points. Especially now - when working-class Katrina families who had children enrolled in private schools before the catastrophe are merely trying to regain some continuity in their lives - this overt politicizing is especially unwelcome. Public schools will receive federal funds to cover their Katrina-related expenses, and those private schools that have willingly opened their doors to 60,000 displaced students deserve the same. USA Today agrees, and their editorial in support of the voucher program is a cogent, factual rebuttal to Neas's bald-faced harangue.
November 3, 2005
Abigail and Stephen Thernstom can only wonder: "Is the ghost of George Wallace running New York City's public schools?" Jonathan Kozol seems to think so. He writes in his new book, The Shame of the Nation, that in New York and other big cities one "cannot discern the slightest hint that any vestige of the legal victory embodied in Brown v. Board of Education...has survived." But as the Thernstroms explain, comparing the situation of the South circa 1963 (with its de jure segregation and "apartheid" schooling) to today's Big Apple betrays Kozol's "stunning ignorance" of the nation's racial history. Segregation - the kind found in the 60's-era South - meant that black and white students were completely and legally separated. But today, the segregation buzzword means something entirely different. Academics and popularizers often ignore the incredible cultural diversity in urban schools and consider them "segregated" if their populations are less than 50% white. Rather than focus on academic achievement, or acknowledge the mass of different ethnicities represented in urban classrooms, they are overwhelmed by myopic racial and social implications they invent. Kozol, for example, ignores high performing all-minority schools such as the KIPP Academy in his own hometown of the Bronx. Let's dispense with the racial demagoguery. The Thernstroms are right to ask, "Were the segregated schools in Mississippi a half century ago really no different?"
"Busting Busing Myths," by Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom, New York Sun,
November 3, 2005
It's not news when interest groups ask legislatures for more money, but it's certainly worth noting when they ask legislatures to spend money more wisely. Up-and-coming school reform group First Class Education is doing just that. Funded by Patrick Byrne of Overstock.com fame, the organization advocates for targeting spending on actual classroom instruction. The group is challenging states to meet the "65 percent threshold" - that is, to ensure that 65 cents of every education dollar is directly used for student education and not spent on, say, landscaping at district headquarters. (Of course, as our charter school finance report illustrated, figuring out how much money is actually reaching the school level is an arduous task.) In much the same vein, policymakers in Michigan are also debating how to increase funding without raising taxes or shortchanging students. One suggestion is to implement school "federations" that would allow individual districts to maintain their identities and gain advantages of group spending while cutting back on wasteful administrative fees. Or dollars could be re-routed directly to principals, thus placing "the power to decide how to spend money in the hands of those closest to the needs of the school." Common theme: less administration and more fiscal autonomy for the schools. Sounds like a plan.
"'65 cent solution' takes on ed establishment," by Kavan Peterson, Stateline.org, October 28, 2005
"Trimming bureaucracies will save schools money," by Barry McGhan, Detroit News, October
November 3, 2005
School construction is no longer about bricks, mortar, and a couple of workers with lunch pails. Today, aesthetics matter. At least, that's the opinion of a pair of school architects from Illinois who contend that their newly developed list of eight design strategies can lead to higher achievement in middle schools. You see, it's not the shoddy curriculum that leads to low scores on tests such as TIMSS and NAEP. No, the middle schools slump is all about bad feng shui. "By addressing each of these eight design strategies," the authors write, "we believe middle schools will transform education." Some of their sophisticated ideas? Support mind, body, and spirit (Strategy 5); develop exploratory areas (Strategy 3); and listen to everyone (Strategy 7). But Gadfly isn't convinced that rearrange-able furniture will end low achievement in middle schools, and "exploratory areas" just sounds downright creepy. Holding students to high academic expectations is the proven way to better middle schools, and until we see some research that shows a correlation between flying buttresses and higher math scores, we're leaving chic design to the professionals on The Learning Channel.
"8 Strategies for School Design," by August Battaglia and Robin Randall, American School Board Journal, October 2005
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / November 3, 2005
Old News: The higher the percentage of low-income students a school serves, the lower the school's overall achievement scores. New News: Schools with high numbers of low-income students aren't all the same. Of course, new news is old news to those who've watched over the years as high-poverty, high-performance schools such as the KIPP Academies outscore by wide margins schools with similar demographics. For those who haven't watched, you might want to have a glance at EdSource's new study. EdSource, a California-based education policy group, noticed that among high-poverty schools in California, academic achievement was far from consistent. The top-performing schools in this demographic outscored the bottom schools by some 250 points (on a 200-1000 point scale) on the state's academic performance index (API). To find out why, EdSource polled principals and teachers at 257 state elementary schools serving similar populations of high-poverty children to try to determine what most affected student achievement. The results show schools that 1) prioritized student achievement, 2) implemented a coherent, standards-based curriculum, 3) used assessment data to improve both student achievement and teacher instruction, and 4) ensured teachers and students have the requisite resources (books, supplemental material, etc.) greatly outperformed those schools that did not. What had less affect on student achievement? Involving parents in schools, teacher collaboration, and professional development. What's old is new, and what's new, is old. Read the report here.
Eric Osberg / November 3, 2005
October 4, 2005
Proponents of school choice have, over the years, made any number of moral, political, and philosophical arguments to support choice. Is there a fiscal argument to be made? In theory, yes, and David Salisbury tests the idea in this report by examining how choice programs affected school funding in Arizona, Florida, Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin, among other states. The theoretical case for school choice is straightforward. Choice programs enacted to date, be they vouchers, charter schools, or tax credits, have always cost less per student than the cost of educating a child in a district school. When students shift to these programs, district schools benefit because more funding, per pupil, remains in their budgets, and they save money overall if they cut costs in response to reduced enrollments. Choice programs also encourage the private sector to invest in education - as philanthropic dollars supplement private and charter school costs, and families themselves pay portions of tuition. Of course, the financial realities of choice are more complicated. Not all public education costs are variable, so when a child departs, schools cannot necessarily reduce their costs by the average per-pupil spending. And politics always intrude - when public schools are threatened by competition, legislatures often allocate them more funds to protect against their potential losses. This report carefully considers the former concern, of fixed costs, and discusses one study which found that as much as 80
November 3, 2005
Dr. Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim
Berkley Publishing Group
Top of the Class, written by two first-generation Korean-American sisters, purports to reveal in its 17 chapters ("secrets," they're called) why Asian parents raise such successful children. But many, if not most, of the book's secrets are everyday, commonsense ruminations: Yes, instilling a love of learning in one's children is a good thing; no, it's not healthy to give children all that they demand; and so forth. As such, Top of the Class is no different from the plethora of unoriginal parenting guides - except in one way. This book outdoes the others in defining success as a black-and-white, one-size-fits-all proposition. And what constitutes success in Top of the Class? Flip the book over, peruse the summary, and you'll find the answer glaring in bright red ink: "Asians and Asian-Americans make up 4% of the U.S. population...and 20% of the Ivy League. Now, find out how they do it...." That tidbit is followed by a list of prestigious colleges and the percentages of their student bodies of Asian descent. And although the authors (one a surgeon, the other a lawyer) occasionally toss in short blurbs about "personal fulfillment" and "happiness," they can't resist writing about how much money they make in their chosen professions. The sisters also tell us: "Thirty years later, we still smile when we hear our parents brag to friends and family, 'One doctor and one lawyer in the