Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 37
October 20, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
What 'cha reading?
By Mark Bauerlein
Charter schools rising
Stemming the tide
Entrance requirements - not just for college anymore
A new wave of home schooling
Sex, drugs, and Mickey Mouse
The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life
By Martin A. Davis, Jr.
Mark Bauerlein / October 20, 2005
[Editor's Note: The following editorial draws on the 2004 long-term trend NAEP results. These should not be confused with the 2005 "main NAEP" reading results discussed in our October 19 press release, Gains on State Reading Test Evaporate on 2005 NAEP.]
In times not too-far gone, if you wanted to get to know someone you asked him what he was reading. Today, the question is a joke, especially among teens.
"Reading - for fun?" (Big smile, followed by loud laugh.) "But seriously, how many tunes are on your i-Pod?"
The decline in leisure reading is no laughing matter, however. In fact, the Department of Education's report, NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics, which was released this summer, offers some tantalizing information that suggests a connection between students' generally poor performance on academic reading tests and their declining leisure-reading habits.
Let's consider academic reading scores first. Among nine-year-olds, the news is very good. Their performance on the NAEP 2004 showed significant gains over previous assessment years. In fact, 2004 recorded this age group's highest scores ever. But thirteen-year-olds improved not at all between 1999 and 2004, and as a group they've only improved slightly since 1971. For seventeen-year-olds, there is no measurable difference between their scores in 2004 and 1971. Further, the percentage of seventeen-year-old students deemed capable of understanding "complicated information" fell 3 percentage points, from 41 percent in 1994 to 38
October 20, 2005
Even as Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and President Bush were struggling to shine the best possible light on (the mostly disappointing) 2005 NAEP scores (The Nation's Report Card), charter school supporters have reason to celebrate. Fourth-grade charter school students nationwide improved on their 2003 scores, especially in reading, "at a faster rate than students in traditional public schools," according to a National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) analysis. The trends are especially encouraging for poor and minority fourth-grade students. "African-American, Latino, and low-income charter students ... registered larger reading gains than their fourth-grade peers" in non-charter public schools." Moreover, "gains among Hispanic charter fourth graders were so strong that [these students] have opened a 10-point gap with non-charter students." The news wasn't as rosy for eighth-grade charter students, who trail their non-charter public school counterparts both in math and in reading. Bryan Hassel of Public Impact sounds a word of caution. "There's no way, using NAEP tools, to determine if the differences in scores are statistically significant," he told the Gadfly in an interview. Still, the charter progress is positive, though all of the nation's schools have a long way to go before anyone can declare success.
"Charter Schools Closing Achievement Gap in Fourth Grade Reading and Math," National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, October 2005
"Education Law Gets First Test in U.S. Schools," by Sam Dillon, New York Times, October 20, 2005
October 20, 2005
District schools in Columbus, Ohio, are finally exploring ways to bring students back into the fold. Why now? Because the exodus of students to charter schools is hitting the district in its pocketbook. Last spring, the district set its budget for 2005-2006 based on an estimate of 6,200 students taking the charter option. But so far this year, it's looking more like 7,100 students. This means the district will have to tap into reserves to cover a looming budget shortfall. (In Gadfly's hometown of Dayton, at least 30 percent of the kids are enrolled in charter schools.) Columbus school board member Jeff Cabot thinks the school system can rally. "We're going to fight for kids and offer what parents want. We'll get them back." Among their methods for fighting back is changing the way Columbus delivers education. The district is investigating the popular schools-within-a-school model for possible adoption at some institutions. And this year, Columbus is offering three single-sex schools, "a direct response to thriving single-sex charter schools," according to the Columbus Dispatch. With so many districts "fighting back" against charters by pulling dirty tricks (see here), it's heartening to see Columbus fight the old-fashioned and honorable way—by competing. (If dirty tricks are also afoot in the capital of the Buckeye State, we trust that concerned readers will inform us.)
"Columbus schools trying to analyze, predict charter exodus," Associated Press, Dayton Daily News October 13, 2005
October 20, 2005
To Idaho, now, where the state Board of Education wants to implement high school entrance requirements. If enacted, all eighth-grade students would need to earn a cumulative C average in four subjects and pass pre-algebra before moving on. Those who do not will - presumably - be retained for another year. That's the catch, though. The board hasn't specified how it intends to provide for those middle-schoolers who miss the mark. Would they simply stay where they were for another year, repeating that which they failed at the first time around, or would they move to a special, remedial middle school? The board has no specific plan for financing either option. And how fair is it to base requirements on GPA when a C in one school's science class could easily translate into a D or F in another's? The impetus for all this is Idaho's standardized test scores which, like scores around the nation, drop off precipitously between the elementary and high school years. Instead of implementing vague exit requirements, Idaho might do better to base promotion on the passage of a rigorous exam. Better yet, it might focus on reforming and restructuring its middle school curriculum. (See here.) If the Gem State's middle schools are like those in the rest of the country, they suffer from low academic expectations and an emphasis on social development rather than learning. Giving middle school teachers an incentive to inflate
October 20, 2005
The number of home schoolers is on the rise, thanks to the combined impacts of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Displaced residents, many grown tired of placing their children in new surroundings, have decided to take on the education burden themselves. In Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana's southern-most, school officials estimate that some 800 families are taking the do-it-yourself route. For some parents, the added duty is not only physically taxing, but mentally as well. "Math'll be hard," said one resident. "It's not just addition and subtraction - it's everything." Other parents are more optimistic. "This is a beautiful short-term solution, especially given where we are now," said a former resident of New Orleans now living in Baton Rouge and teaching her twin 9-year-old daughters. Policy people should be mindful of what's happening. This is a unique opportunity to measure and observe how well home schooling parents - both the well-educated and the not-so-well-educated - can do with this challenging task.
"Across Louisiana, parents become makeshift teachers," CNN.com, October 6, 2005
October 20, 2005
"Seniors of Kellenberg Memorial High School - You've just had your prom cancelled. What are you going to do now?" Why, go to Disney World, of course. It seems the $20,000 rental house in the Hamptons and liquor-loaded chauffeured limousines became simply too much for the principal of Long Island's tony Catholic high school to accept. So he called the whole shebang off. In a letter to the school's parents, he said, "It is not primarily the sex/booze/drugs that surround this event, as problematic as they might be; it is rather the flaunting of affluence, assuming exaggerated expenses, a pursuit of vanity for vanity's sake - in a word, financial decadence." Despite some modest backlash from parents, who are considering hosting an un-official prom, the cancellation has gone down fairly well. One student noted that "you can't really argue with the facts they present.... It's just what it's evolved into." But no worries - he's still got the four-day senior class trip to Disney World to look forward to this April. Climbing into his jet-black Infiniti, he told the AP reporter, "We fly down together and stay in the same hotel and so it's not like we're totally losing everything." Mr. Principal, it looks like you still have some work to do. Call your chaperones.
"L.I. Principal Nixes School's Senior Prom," by Frank Eltman, Press of Atlantic City, October 16, 2005
Eric Osberg / October 20, 2005
Guanglei Hong and Stephen W. Raudenbush
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis
If a kindergarten student is struggling to succeed academically, does it make sense to hold the child back? And how does that decision affect the performance of his/her classmates? These are difficult questions to address, but the authors give it the old college try. On the latter question, they find no effect, simply because fewer than 5 percent of students are typically retained. The former question yielded more interesting results. The authors found that for the retained students, their academic performance diminished significantly. Had the students instead been promoted to first grade, their math and reading achievement gaps (relative to the normally-promoted students) would be halved. Could this be correct? As with much education research, a key question is whether the analysis has sufficiently approximated a random experiment. Ideally, one would study a group of children who all deserved to be retained, while randomly promoting some and retaining others. Of course, no such experiment exists, so the authors did the next best thing: they compared similar students, some of whom were promoted and some of whom were retained. To ensure similarity, they relied on a robust data set from the National Center for Education Statistics, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten, with detailed student-level data including demographics, and even indicators of parental involvement and home life. Hong and Raudenbush constructed their model from 207 such indicators. It's impressive
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / October 20, 2005
Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens
If you're a male, read this review in an open field while gazing up a haystack; it might help. Or so think this book's authors, who believe boys are falling behind girls in the classroom because boys have been cut off from the farm since the Industrial Revolution. I kid you not. "If you think back to how your ancestors were educated, you'll notice that until about a hundred years ago, in all parts of the world, our sons' primary teachers were not lone individuals in schoolrooms but families, tribes and natural environments.... Not until about two hundred years ago did printing and the written word become a major part of a boy's educational life. It was at that point that the Industrial Revolution was upon us." It is true that until recently most boys did not learn in classrooms, but don't chalk it up to their preference for being outdoors. Rather, for most of the world's history, education was limited to the elite. Boys have learned quite well in the classroom, thank you, for most of recorded history. Whether in ancient China, where boys and young men ran a gamut of civil service exams that make current high-stakes U.S. tests look laughable; or late-medieval Europe, where boys studied in monasteries or scriptoria to become manuscript copyists; or in Eastern Europe, where young Jewish males sat at the feet of the rabbi and studied
October 20, 2005
Brian P. Gill, Laura S. Hamilton, et al.
It takes times to make a fine wine, and time to raise academic achievement. That's RAND's less-than-scintillating conclusion in its report on Edison Schools, the nation's largest, private education management company. According to the study, achievement gains for schools in their first two years under Edison control generally don't vary much from those of comparison institutions. And in many cases, student performance actually declines immediately following an Edison takeover. Four years after Edison takes charge of a school, however, many of them begin to show significant improvements. And after five years, Edison school students in general produce test scores that are significantly higher than those in comparable, non-Edison classrooms. (RAND doubters say it matters greatly which year the analysts selected as their starting point.) In any case, little here is predictable on the basis of age alone. The study notes that, while some Edison schools function at high academic levels, others never emerge from their achievement slumps. What's the difference? According to RAND, Edison operations that post the greatest gains are those not micromanaged by local education authorities. In short - the fewer the constraints, the better the school. RAND's findings are said to be the "most comprehensive independent assessment of Edison schools ever conducted." But education reformers will find little new here. In fact, Edison founder Chris Whittle serves up most of RAND's conclusions in his own
Michael J. Petrilli / October 20, 2005
Andrew Rudalevige, Dickinson College
Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
One canard frequently hurled at the No Child Left Behind Act is that it was a right-wing plot to discredit, and then dismantle, public education. As for hard evidence, however, conspiracy theorists, who live in a fantasy world where NCLB-backer Ted Kennedy is either a Republican pawn or a closet conservative, have little to substantiate their beliefs other than a dubious pessimism that schools are incapable of improving themselves. Back on earth, political scientist Andrew Rudalevige reminds us that, far from dismantling public education, NCLB may well lead to even greater funding and resources. He lays out his evidence in a provocative paper written for last week's Harvard conference, "Adequacy Lawsuits: Their Growing Impact on American Education." His counterintuitive, though ultimately commonsense, argument is that the truckloads of performance data produced by NCLB-style accountability systems provide an edge to litigants filing "funding adequacy" lawsuits in states across the land. As the author says, "By requiring every student to reach proficiency on challenging content standards by 2014, by requiring a 'highly qualified' teacher in every classroom and a variety of interventions when students fail to make progress, NCLB effectively declares that every child can learn, if only given the resources to do so." This declaration buttresses arguments that litigants and legislators were already making at the state level. For example, Maryland's "Thornton Commission," set up to uncover a solution to