Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 34
September 29, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
By Jim Williams
Next steps in Norfolk
By Martin A. Davis, Jr.
Schooled on class
Put your merit pay where your mouth is
The shirt off their backs
Christmas in September
Private Schools for the Poor
Jim Williams / September 29, 2005
Becoming a public high school teacher after nearly 30 years in business required that I adapt to a culture whose priorities, norms, and incentives are upside down. Public schools operate in ways that conflict with their core purpose - teaching children the basic knowledge and skills required to lead successful adult lives. These dysfunctional practices are a source of deep frustration for teachers because they understand that it's the students who are shortchanged.
Consistently, research shows that teachers are critical to improving student achievement. School officials celebrate teachers with motherhood-and-apple-pie ceremonies, but in practice they do not treat teachers as scarce, valuable resources. Instead of enabling teachers to focus on working effectively with students in the classroom, schools require teachers to invest excessive time, energy, and attention in overcoming daily obstacles. Unwelcome distractions include preventable problems (such as running out of copier toner and paper), redundant clerical duties (e.g. requiring teachers to keep both handwritten and electronic reports), and tracking minor administrative inquiries, all of which create ceaseless, unproductive diversions from classroom teaching.
At first glance, such diversions may seem trivial. But the cumulative impact of these messages day after day, both objective (the time and energy spent outside the classroom handling administrative tasks) and implicit (you aren't a "true" professional), make good teaching unnecessarily challenging.
A situation early in my business career contrasts vividly with my public school experience to date. I worked in a distribution operation located in a
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / September 29, 2005
Norfolk Public Schools finally brought home the big one - the $500,000 Broad Prize for Urban Education. A bridesmaid in the competition each year from 2002 to 2004, the district took top honors this year based on the strength of increased reading and math scores, improved graduation rates, and significant reduction in ethnic achievement gaps. (These are profiled here.) The district is, indeed, a worthy champion.
But what's the next step? To find out, we went straight to the source: Norfolk's new superintendent, Dr. Stephen C. Jones.
For education reformers, there's good and bad news. Let's lead with the good.
Norfolk has embraced a data-driven approach to classroom learning. And it's paid off. Reading scores, according to the Broad Foundation, are up 14 percentage points among elementary students over the past four years, and 12 percentage points among middle school students. Superintendent Jones wants to build on this. The district has adopted a web-based program used to track and analyze reading data on every K-2 student. In the coming years, all grades will use this system. The goal, according to Jones, is that "all high school graduates [be] 'powerfully literate'" by 2010.
Further, the data are used to hold not just students and teachers accountable, but principals and board members as well. "Data has to drive all we do," says Jones.
Now for the bad news.
Jones recognizes that one of his biggest problems is deploying his workforce strategically.
September 29, 2005
While the spike in oil prices is leading some school districts to cut back on busing (see Christmas in September, below), the New York Times has found one district that is busing more kids than ever. Wake County Public Schools, which serves Raleigh, has for five years embarked on a campaign to integrate its schools along economic lines. The goal is that no one school have more than 40 percent low income students, thereby creating learning environments dominated by a "middle class" culture. Advocates point to dramatic increases in minority test scores to suggest the policy's working. But as Paul E. Peterson explains in the New York Sun, there's no way to know whether the rise in student achievement can be attributed to this program, plus, Raleigh's gains are dwarfed by larger increases statewide. And "progress" in North Carolina doesn't mean much anyway, because the state has some of the country's most lenient proficiency standards. By the Tar Heel state's lights, 85 percent of its eighth graders are reading proficiently, while the more reliable National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows only 29 percent reading at that level. All this leaves little justification for Raleigh's social engineering, especially when high-achieving schools such as KIPP prove that it's possible to create a "middle class," achievement-oriented culture even in schools populated by poor children
"Erasing Inequality," by Paul E. Peterson, New York Sun, September 28, 2005
September 29, 2005
The list of high-profile political leaders who talk about merit pay for teachers keeps growing. Gadfly has already noted that New York City's school chancellor Joel Klein is a supporter. Now we can add Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to the list. He has laid out for legislative approval specific plans to incorporate teacher merit pay by next school year. The teacher unions are predictably unimpressed by Romney's ideas, but unlike California, where unions terminated Ahhnold's merit pay plan, the Bay State's chief appears ready for a fight. Will that be enough? If Massachusetts could actually get merit pay out of the legislature and into the classroom, it could be big. Josh Greenman of The Teaching Commission tells us that eight governors mentioned performance pay in their state of the state addresses this year, and another six have shown some interest in the idea. But all this "support" is for naught until someone finally makes merit pay a reality. Lace 'em up Mitt, Gadfly's in your corner.
"Romney wants teacher merit pay," by Maria Sacchetti and Tracy Jan, Boston Globe, September 22, 2005
September 29, 2005
First there was carnival-gate (see here), and now we have uniform-gate. Toledo requires all its public elementary and middle school students to wear uniforms. Low-income families can apply to the district for free uniforms, which are paid for by Lucas County Job and Family Services. But when some 50 parents whose children attend charter schools—which, after all, are public schools—applied for the free uniforms the district said, "No-go." We're not making this up. Toledo isn't the only place, however, holding tightly to its shirts. In D.C., charter school students were denied free t-shirts that were distributed by the District school system to low-income public school students participating in a help-the-homeless fundraising walk. A word of advice to charters—watch your pants.
"TPS says free uniforms are not for charter school students," by Ignazio Messina, Toledo Blade, September 27, 2005
"Why did I ignore charter schools?" by Jay Matthews, Washington Post, September 21, 2005
September 29, 2005
Early this week, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue closed the Peach State's schools for two days in anticipation of an oil shortage caused by Hurricane Rita—a shortage that never happened. In Washington, President Bush praised the governor's decision, saying Perdue "showed some leadership" in "anticipating a problem." But parents around the state, forced to scramble over the weekend to find child care for Monday and Tuesday, disagreed. "It causes problems for these kids who need to be learning and not just hanging out," said Randy Faigin David, an Atlanta parent. Gadfly wonders if the Department of Homeland Security is preparing for a new threat on American soil—students sabotaging oil pipelines in the hopes of driving up gas prices and earning more "snow days" in September.
"Parents Protest Georgia School Closures," By Dick Pettys, Washington Post, September 26, 2005
Michael J. Petrilli / September 29, 2005
Joe Williams's new book is written with all the vividness, verve, and emotion of a Jonathan Kozol tome, but with a message that will make serious school reformers cheer. Hard-hitting, packed with inflammatory anecdotes and devastating details, Cheating our Kids puts a human face on today's education policy battles. Williams's day job is reporting, now for the New York Daily News and previously for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and he harnesses his well-honed journalistic skills and considerable energy to report stories that make your heart ache and your blood boil. Like any good storyteller, Williams presents plenty of villains - union hacks, low-level bureaucrats, curriculum company executives - and roots for the little guys, the parents and kids. Sometimes, as with Milwaukee's voucher program, the little guy even wins. His message is populist, and his final chapter, "Parent Power," presents 12 rules for parent-activists. My favorites? "Don't trust PTAs to do anything other than raising cold, hard cash," and, "If an administrator tells you something can't be done, assume they are wrong and plow forward." This book is written for neophytes in the school reform wars, so hardened policy wonks won't find many new ideas. In fact - and I don't say this just because he signs my paychecks - it's hard not to hear in Williams's pages the echo of Chester E. Finn, Jr.'s 1991 manifesto, We Must Take Charge. Finn, then: "American education isn't
September 29, 2005
The United Nations' Millennium Development Plan, to provide basic education for every school-age student in the world by 2015, is failing. Private schools, says British education analyst James Tooley, could be a significant player in helping the UN regain lost ground and reach its admirable goal. From Ghana to Kenya, from India to China, Tooley's report details the large number of private schools (mostly ignored by government bean-counters) that are already functioning in impoverished urban slums. The numbers are staggering. In some poor sections of Hyderabad, India, for example, Tooley estimates that fully 77 percent of children attend school at private institutions. Instead of continuing to pour money into faltering state systems - money that often doesn't even find its way to schools or students - Tooley says the UN should channel some of those dollars to private schools. The UN, of course, is aghast at the notion of funding private education, which it automatically associates with the elite and which many member states wish would go away. But the private schools Tooley examined tend to operate on smaller budgets and in worse conditions than the local public counterparts, yet they still outperform those government institutions. Read about it here, here, and here.
September 29, 2005
Larry Rosenstock and Jennifer Husbands
The Charter Journal (Not available online)
When High Tech High realized that its teachers, once exempt from state credentialing requirements, would have to meet similar standards under No Child Left Behind, the school complied with the law, albeit in its own way. A top-performing charter in San Diego, HTH took the bold step of creating its own teacher-training program instead of simply adopting one of the many offered by the state. That program launched in August 2004, following a four-year development process (and bare-knuckled battles with regulators). High Tech High took pains to create a preparation experience that would truly enlighten and edify its participants. The program is "embedded in the daily practice" of teachers, and it integrates onsite training specific to HTH with larger, overarching instruction that would be applicable in any school. We salute their resourcefulness - and their doggedness. When faced with what could have been an unpleasant distraction, the school's leadership thought creatively and turned the accreditation requirement into a positive addition.