Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 5, Number 31
September 8, 2005
Opinion + Analysis
After the storm
When rote equals rot
Tyranny of the minority
NCLB: Civil right or wrong?
Maine eyes the big test
Who you callin' a capuchin?
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / September 8, 2005
Last week, Americans watched in horror as governments at all levels failed to provide the basic necessities for our fellow citizens; this week Americans watched with pride as educators at all levels sprung into action to help cope with the human devastation in Katrina's wake. The hurricane displaced tens of thousands of school-age children across the Gulf Coast, who are now living in shelters scattered across the country, with large concentrations in Texas. The nation's schools and many school systems wasted no time preparing to get those kids into classrooms and back to some semblance of normalcy. Education Secretary Spellings called a meeting yesterday to organize a national response; Deputy Secretary Ray Simon said that the "red tape would be put in a drawer"; and most impressively, local school systems have flung open their doors to their newest arrivals. (See excellent Education Week coverage here.)
The Lone Star State's reaction - especially Houston's - has been impressive and praiseworthy; information about ways to assist their schools' massive response is here. Other states are following Texas's lead. We know of one charter school in the Midwest, for example, that's seeking an amendment to its charter so it can serve fifty children from New Orleans now living in a church shelter across from the school. Many more acts of heroism, generosity and kindness, big and small, can be observed in schools across the land.
September 8, 2005
Jonathan Kozol has spent decades hunting for inequities in American education, and his tune - which is 99 percent off key - hasn't changed much over the years. In an interview with New York Times Magazine, Kozol rages against today's testing requirements (such as those mandated by No Child Left Behind) as "sociopathic" and designed "to highlight failure in inner-city schools as dramatically as possible in order to create a ground swell of support for private vouchers or other privatizing schemes." But setting aside conspiracy theories for a moment, one can find in Kozol's vast body of work the occasional sonorous note regarding schools' misguided responses to test pressure. In a recent Harper's Magazine piece, for example, he describes a school in the Bronx whose classrooms are so focused on boosting test scores that they resemble academic boot camps more than centers of learning. Teacher Magazine profiles a similar situation - in this case, where a middle school raised its test scores at the expense of the campus basketball league. While apologists like Kozol use such examples to argue for the overthrow of accountability systems, real reformers must acknowledge that some schools will do bone-headed things under the pressure to perform. We should all be able to agree that our children deserve a well-rounded education that is more akin to an orchestra than a nonstop flutophone.
"School Monitor," interview by Debora Solomon, New York Times Magazine, September 4,
September 8, 2005
Slate's Michael Kinsley once said that "a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth." Well, Rafe Esquith is no politician (though we'd vote for him in a heartbeat; as a 5th grade teacher in Los Angeles he's been producing near-miraculous results with his charges for two decades), and his truth-telling was far from an accident, yet it's startling all the same: "Some children should be left behind." According to National Review Online's Catherine Seipp, Esquith doesn't waste a lot of time with the handful of kids who are unmotivated and unwilling to learn - he just manages their behavior so he can focus on the vast majority eager to do the hard work needed to succeed. And he makes his students earn special privileges, such as field trips: "I explain [to my students] that there are many things they can't do yet: they don't drive a car, date, or vote.... And they don't do these things not because they're bad people but because they need to acquire certain skills before they're allowed to do them." In other words, students have to take responsibility for their own learning and deal with real consequences if they make poor choices. While that policy would be much too harsh for Kindergarten, and eminently fair by the 12th grade, on which side of the line is middle school? And is there a way to protect Rafe's kids from the tyranny of the minority
September 8, 2005
Breaking news: civil rights groups disagree on NCLB. Though John Jackson, the NAACP's national director of education, tells Education Week, "Unity is always best," it is proving elusive. Sparks flew this summer with the release of a report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University that said NCLB's Adequate Yearly Progress requirements are disproportionately affecting minority communities and undermining their schools' ability to improve performance. The Achievement Alliance, a group of civil rights, business, and education advocacy groups that formed last year, quickly countered. Its news release said, "The fact that students in larger, more diverse districts are being paid attention to and given extra help is a welcome change in an education system that routinely shortchanges such students.... This additional support should not be characterized as punishment." Bingo.
"Civil Rights Groups Split Over NCLB," by Karla Scoon Reid, Education Week, August 31, 2005 (Subscription required)
September 8, 2005
Will all high school students in the state of Maine pass through a Kaplan test-prep course on their way to graduation? The Boston Globe reports that the land of the lobster may soon swap its Maine Educational Assessment test for the SAT. If adopted, the state would pay for every 11th grade student to take the test once. According to the state's education commissioner, the move would encourage students to take advantage of postsecondary opportunities. The need to align high school graduation standards with college entrance requirements is real, so by those lights Maine is moving in the right direction. But there are a number of problems. For one thing, students would not be required to achieve any particular score on the SAT in order graduate, thereby rendering the exam toothless. Further, the SAT is basically content-free; a better solution would be to develop content-rich end-of-course or exit exams, like those in Virginia and New York, and tie them to college admissions. But with Michigan contemplating the use of the ACT in place of its current high-school exit test, it looks like we officially have a trend.
"Maine officials may adopt SAT," by Anand Vaishnav, Boston Globe, August 31, 2005
September 8, 2005
It's a bit shocking to read that almost two-thirds of Americans recently told a poll-taker that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. Forty-two percent of respondents self-identified as creationists and almost certainly voted in favor of teaching the idea. But how does one explain the others who voiced support? Gadfly wonders if the phrasing of the survey questions may have affected the results. Pick the statement with which you most agree: 1) Humans have always existed in their present form, or 2) Your Great Aunt Alma is one-quarter orangutan. What would you say?
"Teaching of Creationism Is Endorsed in New Survey," by Laurie Goodstein, New York Times, August 31, 2005
September 8, 2005
Chris Whittle, Riverhead Press
America's repeated failures to reform its schools do not stem from a lack of books on the subject so much as from a lack of inventiveness, effort, and practical ingenuity. So works by those forward-thinking individuals making education reform a reality are welcome. Chris Whittle, founder and CEO of Edison Schools, weds his practical success to words in his new book, Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education. Edison Schools have changed the way hundreds of thousands of students receive public education. Whittle offers no apologies for decrying the vestigial components of American schools and putting forth a capital-driven, business model as the basis for education reform. If the unorthodox flavor of his positions is shocking, the success of many (but not all) of his schools is even more so. For example, Whittle presents data from Montebello Elementary, a perennially failing school in one of Baltimore's roughest neighborhoods, and a real Edison success story. Between 2000, when Edison took over the school's management, and 2003, student achievement scores at Montebello tripled. Whittle's point: Students are capable of learning and performing - they simply need better-structured schools and better-structured curricula to teach them. Not everyone is convinced, though, and some readers have found Whittle's actions and words to be less than inspiring. James Glassman writes in the Wall Street Journal that Crash Course's reform prescriptions are akin to "incrementalism" and show how Whittle "has
Eric Osberg / September 8, 2005
This short report from EdSource compares California's own accountability system (codified in the 1999 Public Schools Accountability Act) to the federal No Child Left Behind Act and explains both the modifications California is making to its system and the flexibility within NCLB it seeks from the feds. It's a useful document in which EdSource, a think tank focusing on education policy issues in California, breaks down the differences and points of tension between Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under NCLB and California's Academic Progress Index (API). The most important gap between the two is that API is based on growth in scores, while AYP, famously, is not. California has also granted more leeway than has NCLB to subgroups in closing the achievement gap. The state proposes to bridge these gaps by toughening its requirements for subgroups and ratcheting up overall growth expectations on statewide exams. However, like many states, California is waiting to see if the feds will assent. The challenge to Secretary Spellings is to accommodate California's growth model while maintaining NCLB's high expectations and focus on gap-closing. You can order a copy for $5 here.