Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 32
September 15, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
Fie on Middle Schoolism
Out of commission
Walking tall in Philly
A is for arugula
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / September 15, 2005
If ever an education fad showed dreadful timing, reaching its intellectual and political pinnacle just as lightning struck the mountaintop, it's "middle schoolism." The key year was 1989, when the middle school bible, an influential Carnegie-backed report named Turning Points, was published. It hit just as the governors and then-President Bush gathered in Charlottesville to place the United States squarely astride the standards-based reform that is antithetical to the central message of this education religion.
In the ensuing decade and a half, the National Middle School Association (NMSA) and its acolytes, flying the banner of Turning Points and arguing that the middle grades are no time for academic learning, argued with great success that these schools should be devoted to social adjustment, coping with hormonal throbs, and looking out for the needs of the "whole child."
That is the essence of middle schoolism as set forth in a stunning new Fordham report by Cheri Pierson Yecke. It's a jeremiad drawing upon gobs of evidence that show the middle grades are where U.S. student achievement begins its fateful plunge and where a growing number of other nations begins to outpace us.
That the middle grades can be a time of strong academic growth and marked achievement in core skills and knowledge is demonstrated by numerous effective school examples. Though youngsters between the ages of 10 and 15 can be ornery and exasperating, they can also learn lots of math and history, plenty of
September 15, 2005
What do the Amistad Commission, the Holocaust Commission, and the Italian Commission have in common? They all want a piece of the public school curriculum. More teaching about slavery; more teaching about genocide; more teaching about Italy - these and other claims are laid at the feet of teachers every day, coming from governors, state legislatures, and local school boards, explains Stacy Teicher of the Christian Science Monitor. This is not news to Fordham watchers - Sandra Stotsky's monograph, The Stealth Curriculum, earlier revealed the machinations of interest groups and their impact on what gets taught in schools. And surely some suggestions from outsiders are reasonable, such as columnist Katherine Kersten's plea in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that schools teach "great books" with "guy appeal" that will help "boys become young men of character." But when does it stop? And who decides what gets crammed into the 6-hour school day? Someone should appoint a commission.
"Everyone is telling teachers what to teach," by Stacy A. Teicher, Christian Science Monitor, September 8, 2005
"Strong examples from life, fiction, make the man," by Katherine Kersten, Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 8, 2005
September 15, 2005
The conservative Tory party has long supported parental choice as the best method to elevate student achievement. This explains why the party has backed the City Academies Program launched by Labor's Tony Blair, which draws on community sponsors (business, faith-based, and individual) to replace decaying urban schools. An up-and-coming Tory leader, David Cameron, also likes the plan - to a point. Rigor, not choice, he tells the Independent is the real key to raising student achievement. "The academy program has not gone far enough," he tells BBC News. "What is needed is real rigor combined with autonomy in schools." He chastises the government for claiming that student achievement is on the rise but never providing the proof. "They say they are improving literacy and numeracy standards...but they aren't. There are still one in five children leaving primary school unable to read, write, or add up." This lukewarm attitude toward choice has upset more than a few of Cameron's fellow conservatives, but still he presses on. The result? Possibly the house at 10 Downing Street.
"David Cameron: Tories' man wipes the slate," Independent, September 8, 2005
"Parents back academies says Blair," BBC News, September 13, 2005
September 15, 2005
Philadelphia Superintendent Paul Vallas stands tall (and not only because his height exceeds 6'5"). In this age, school superintendents are hired, sacked and traded as capriciously as professional athletes, but Vallas has a knack for sticking with the home team, explains Alan Greenblatt in his excellent Governing Magazine profile. He served as head of Chicago schools for six years - an eternity for an urban superintendent. Now he's in his fourth year overseeing the famously dysfunctional Philadelphia public schools. A technocrat and gubernatorial aspirant turned educator, Vallas has displayed a knack for uniting the City of Brotherly Love's disparate factions. Although he doesn't shy from bringing private entities into the schools, Vallas still enjoys an uncharacteristically good relationship with the president of Philadelphia's teachers union. An accomplished, focused, and fair superintendent - though prone to the occasional fumble - Vallas listens to ideas and follows through on promised reforms. A true hat-trick.
"The Impatience of Paul Vallas," by Alan Greenblatt, Governing, September, 2005
September 15, 2005
Move over Jean Georges. There's a new "it" destination for haute cuisine in the Big Apple, and it's a place where vocal food critics are decidedly personae non gratae. Get caught turning up your nose, and you just might have to go to the back of the line. At Promise Academy, a charter school in Harlem, school leaders are targeting not only student achievement, but student health as well by revamping the cafeteria menu. Now, instead of pizza and fries, the kitchen (headed by a Johnson & Wales culinary school grad) turns out fresh gourmet fare. Children develop good habits in the classroom, and they also learn the advantages of eating healthy, nutritious meals - and table manners to boot! Gadfly hears that the exciting gustatory offerings at Promise Academy far outpace the banal food of the NEA Caf??. Possibly the French are right: Food does reflect life.
"Harlem School Introduces Children to Swiss Chard," by Kim Severson, New York Times, September 9, 2005
Michael J. Petrilli / September 15, 2005
Chicago Public Schools, Office of Research, Evaluation, and Accountability
This straightforward 22-page report is as spin-free as its title. Yet it packs a punch. It's the first analysis anywhere of the impact of No Child Left Behind's free tutoring provisions on student achievement. The bottom line: 60,000 CPS students who took advantage of tutoring this past year posted slightly larger gains in reading than their eligible classmates who did not: 1.09 years of progress versus 1.03. There were no discernable gains in math. The policy question, not addressed in this "just the facts" brief, is whether an extra .06 years of progress in reading - or roughly two weeks - is an adequate return on a $50 million investment. Considering that most students received 40 hours of tutoring (versus 900 hours of regular classroom instruction), just how much progress is it fair to expect? This is far from an academic question, since states are responsible, under NCLB, for "withdrawing approval from providers that fail, for 2 consecutive years, to contribute to increasing the academic proficiency of students." There are lots more goodies in the report, including data on parental satisfaction with the tutoring program (headline: they love it) and a breakout of student gains by the major tutoring providers - Kaplan, Platform, Education Station, etc. - including the Chicago Public Schools itself, underscoring the inherent conflict of CPS both monitoring the progress of other providers and competing with them,
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / September 15, 2005
Lynn Fielding, Nancy Kerr, and Paul Rosier, New Foundation Press
This book didn't create much buzz when released last year. In fact, it didn't even fly into the Gadfly's nest until two weeks ago. Nonetheless, the story it relates deserves attention. In 1995, long before No Child Left Behind became a household phrase, the superintendent of southwest Washington state's Kennewick School District, Paul Rosier, announced that 90 percent of second graders would be reading at grade level by 1998. A bold statement for a school district that in 1996 saw just one of its thirteen elementary schools hit that mark, and only two other schools come within 10 points. In its effort to reach its stated goal, a lot of mistakes were made. So many, in fact, that by 1998 Rosier conceded he hadn't a clue how to attain the mark. "We had thought it was a matter ... of working harder. It wasn't," write the authors. So in 1999 the district changed strategies and embraced aggressive testing in order to identify students' sub-skill deficiencies. It then took the "radical" step of introducing proportional increases in direct instructional time. The further behind a student was in reading, the more hours per day dedicated to reading instruction. By 2004, 8 of 13 schools had hit the mark, and 4 of the remaining 5 were within 10 points. The district has since adopted the goal of 95 percent of students reading at
September 15, 2005
In the race to learn, there will always be students who begin with a generous lead. It is the responsibility of schools and teachers, according to the Core Knowledge Foundation's new report, Filling the Void: Lessons from Core Knowledge Schools, to ensure that those initial disparities between students don't become lasting (and widening) chasms. Building on arguments first forwarded by Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch in his books Cultural Literacy and The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, the report calls for a comprehensive, coherent curriculum that hands all students keys to the club of knowledge and power. "Knowledge is cumulative," say the authors, and children "need knowledge to gain knowledge." Creative teaching methods and individualized instruction are not enough; if students are to perform, they must have a base from which to work. The Core Knowledge curriculum is designed to "reduce repetitions and gaps in classroom teaching," make better use of teacher-student interaction, create structure and consistency for students, and provide a solid basis in the "world knowledge" necessary for future success. Filling the Void, though not particularly substantive, does offer the results of several studies that attest to the efficacy of Core Knowledge's philosophy. One hundred percent of the students at James A. Duff Elementary, a rural Kentucky school once labeled "in crisis," come from low income families. After implementing Core Knowledge as its curriculum, Duff Elementary experienced an achievement turnaround, and its