Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 36
October 13, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
End of reform in Gotham?
By Sol Stern
Charters for New Orleans?
Lefties for charters
Unintended, but consequential
Counting on faith
Today's lunch? Perfectly offal.
Sol Stern / October 13, 2005
When negotiations over a new labor contract between New York City's public school system and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) got under way last year, Joel Klein went straight for the jugular. Schools chancellor Klein looked intent on slaying the dragon of obstructionist teacher unionism right in its birthplace. He proposed scrapping the existing 200-page contract, with all of its Byzantine and excellence-killing work rules; in its place, he put a streamlined, eight-page agreement on the table that would have given principals and administrators the power to assign experienced teachers to those schools and classrooms where they were most needed. He also campaigned to eliminate tenure and make it easier to fire incompetent teachers. A few weeks ago, Klein stirred an education reform conference in Washington, D.C., by vowing to make a merit pay system for teachers his signature initiative (see Gadfly commentary here).
But even as Klein was promising radical reforms in the contract, his boss had decided that enough was enough. There was an election to be won. The last thing Mayor Mike Bloomberg needed was 120,000 angry union members demonstrating in the streets and fouling up his campaign's depiction of New York as one big happy city. So last week, Klein bit his lip and affixed his signature to yet another 200-page teachers contract - one containing the same lock-step pay schedule, based on seniority and useless education credits, that he had earlier promised to
October 13, 2005
Good news is hard to come by in New Orleans these days, but this might qualify: the Orleans Parish's school board has agreed to charter all 13 schools in the city's West Bank. Furthermore, according to the Times-Picayune, Mayor Ray Nagin has asked Governor Kathleen Blanco to "help him create a citywide charter school system." As John Maginnis, a Louisiana political commentator, writes in the Picayune, "A network of well-run, well-financed schools with motivated faculties could attract families back to the city the way the old mismanaged, bankrupt system attracted FBI agents." If this comes to fruition, it's a great start on a comprehensive plan (see here and here) to revitalize the city's educational opportunities. However, veteran Louisiana charter watchers urge caution before breaking out the champagne. The state's charter law is famously weak, and they surmise that the promised new charters in the Big Easy will actually be under the school board's thumb, not truly independent. (Maybe this is just a play for the $20 million in charter schools funding the feds have made available to Louisiana.) That would, of course, be a huge wasted opportunity.
"Orleans board makes 13 schools charters," by Steve Ritea, Times-Picayune, October 8, 2005
"Thinking outside the board on schools," by John Maginnis, Times-Picayune, October 12, 2005
October 13, 2005
Mayor Nagin isn't the only Democrat showing signs of interest in charter schools. The Los Angeles Times profiles Green Dot charter schools founder (and "Rock the Vote" creator) Steve Barr and his campaign to take over a struggling high school in L.A. Who are his strongest opponents? Members of his own party, including Superintendent (and former Colorado governor) Roy Romer (who called it a "hostile takeover") and, of course, the United Teachers of Los Angeles. But "Barr, a longtime Democratic activist, said he was tired of waiting for the district to take big steps toward reforming its schools." Right on. In Michigan, Governor Jennifer Granholm, who heretofore has had no trouble containing her ardor for charters, sent a scathing letter in defense of charter schools following a proposal from her own Detroit Public Schools transition team, whose job is to ease the transition from a state-appointed to an elected board, that charters be banned statewide. "This recommendation suggests that the only way to bring students back to the DPS is to eliminate educational options that parents and children have today.... The Transition Team instead should remain focused on finding ways to improve the Detroit Public Schools to give parents more, not fewer, opportunities to choose good schools for their children." These are sentiments upon which left-wingers and right-wingers (not to mention two-wingers like Gadfly) should be able to agree.
"Charter School Crusader Makes Waves in L.A.," by Jean Merl,
October 13, 2005
Talk about your unintended consequences. The No Child Left Behind Act made performance test scores transparent so that parents could make good decisions about their children's education and could put pressure on schools to pay attention to the needs of all of their students. The law's writers couldn't have foreseen pupils using the test scores to berate one another. That has happened at Alhambra High School in California. When the school's assistant principal informed student leaders that the gap between Asians and Latinos was closing, a columnist for the student newspaper, Robin Zhou, asked why the gap existed in the first place. His conclusion? The school's Latinos were "not pulling their weight." Asian parents push their children harder to achieve, he reasoned; "Hispanic parents are well-meaning but less active." This didn't go down well in the Landeros household. Both Anastasia, a student, and her mother were incensed, so Anastasia fired off her own letter. But instead of the school debate devolving into an ugly war of words, it became a learning tool. The school's principal arranged two meetings between Zhou and Latino students. Though tense, the youngsters began coming up with their own solutions for closing the gap. The Spring 2005 standardized test scores showed the percentage of Latinos passing exams in both English and math was up. The principal thinks the article had something to do with it. "For some students, there was a sense of pride.... 'I don't
October 13, 2005
Strong self-esteem and personal ambition aren't lacking in American high school students, but the developed intellectual capacity to achieve those ambitions often is. A new study by the U.S. Department of Education shows an unsettling disjunction between the percentage of 12th graders intent on entering the halls of higher education and the percentage of those who are actually capable of doing the work once there. The report asserts that almost two-thirds of the surveyed students who expected to receive a bachelor's degree did not possess a good understanding of intermediate math skills, and that a third of them had not yet mastered "simple problem solving, requiring the understanding of low-level mathematics concepts." Ambitious academic goals are to be encouraged, but they must be tempered with an understanding of the hard work and responsibility necessary to achieve them.
"Coming Soon to a Classroom Near You," by Doug Lederman, Inside Higher Ed, October 10, 2005
October 13, 2005
Those who lament the often sorry state of American public education may content themselves with this Pyrrhic victory: American students don't eat raw innards at school, at least not yet. The word out of New Zealand, however, is that that country's students do, indeed, feast upon entrails in the classroom. School contests of dubious academic value, based on the reality show "Fear Factor" (a show where contestants are required to ingest any number of nausea-inducing entities for cash and prizes), have Kiwi kids gulping down raw animal products and, as a result, contracting campylobacter and getting sick. The number of cases usually peaks during lambing season (when dad brings a bad one home for dinner), but just last month there were 226 cases reported in the town of Canterbury - "double the monthly average." The trend may be spreading. While American youngsters aren't yet enticed by uncooked beef guts, a recent goldfish swallowing episode at a suburban Seattle school made headlines when it incurred ire and admonishments from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). As the raw food movement gathers steam with the K-12 set, Gadfly stands firmly with PETA: Noshing on live animals, be they fish - or (gasp!) insect - is a definite no-no, especially in our schools!
"School contests give children food poisoning," by Kamala Hayman, The Press, October 7, 2005
"PETA angry over goldfish swallowed at school assembly," Associated Press, Seattle
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / October 13, 2005
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development
Close watchers of NCLB's supplemental educational services (SES) program may be interested in perusing this 63-page report based on nine case studies of local SES programs operating in six states during the 2003-2004 school year. (None is named. These are pseudonymous case studies.) The two-page executive summary does a pretty good job of hitting the most interesting findings. Here are a few:
- The typical "tutoring" session involved small groups of 5-10 kids at a time.
- The average per pupil expenditure was $1,408.
- Attendance was, to put it gently, uneven, particularly in the middle
and high schools.
- In 8 of the districts, the number of SES providers ranged from 5 to 14; in
one (a large urban district) there were 27. Few of the providers were faith-
based and few operated on-line.
- In 2 of the three cases where the district itself was an SES provider, it
enrolled the "lion's share" (49 and 76 percent) of all participants.
- Private providers generally insisted on a minimum enrollment before
working in a district - and small and rural communities were poorly served
by private providers.
Digging deeper into the report, more interesting findings emerge - these involving participation rates. At first glance, the numbers look gloomy; in seven of the nine districts, fewer than 15 percent of eligible students received services. That sounds terrible, right? But those numbers are misleading indicators of
Michael J. Petrilli / October 13, 2005
Center on Education Policy
The Center on Education Policy (CEP) has produced plenty of good work recently, especially on the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act and on high school exit exams (see here and here). But CEP's report on the "good news" in education falls short. The authors claim they will "dispel common misconceptions about public schools," but in fact they create misperceptions of their own. To be sure, there is good news in American education, and you can find it sprinkled among the report's 24 "indicators": math achievement is up, reading achievement is up for fourth-graders, and more young adults are completing four-year college degrees. But most of the indicators either measure dubious inputs or don't tell the full story. Is it good news that "pupil-teacher ratios are falling" or that "public school enrollments are growing faster than private school enrollments"? Should we celebrate the fact that, "in other academic subjects [writing, science, U.S. history, and geography], achievement has improved or stayed the same," when the "improvements" are miniscule and the starting points were in the cellar? And in light of recent, and well-placed, anxiety about America's competitive posture in the world, thanks to embarrassing scores on international math, reading, and science tests, it seems a bit boosterish to declare, "U.S. students outscore other countries in interpreting civic information." To its credit, CEP does include - albeit in small print -
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / October 13, 2005
Sara Mead, Progressive Policy Institute
October 4, 2005
The latest in a fine series of PPI profiles of state-level charter school programs, this one has already kicked up a cloud of dust in the nation's capital. That's because author Sara Mead raises doubts about the District board of education's effectiveness as one of two school authorizers. (She mostly praises the other one, the Public Charter School Board, on which serves PPI president Will Marshall, though she notes that its paperwork and reporting requirements are excessively burdensome on the schools.) If the board of ed "is not committed to being a quality authorizer," she writes, "its authority to issue charters should be revoked." "I take great umbrage with this report," replied the board's vice president. Still, the district has two authorizers, which is 100 percent more than a lot of places, and it has a lot of charter schools enrolling a lot of kids. Unfortunately, not all is well with those schools. Mead emphasizes the charter sector's overall weak academic performance, noting that the district has some terrific charters but also some abysmal ones - including some that should, but haven't been, shut down. Facilities is the other big challenge on which she focuses. Despite some special funding for this purpose, most D.C. charters operate in shabby quarters, and they've been effectively denied access to the school system's many surplus buildings. Mead concludes with insightful reflections on the problems associated with the large