Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 16
April 20, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
Arizona: When 500 charter schools are not enough
By Matthew Ladner
A hex on state flex
The Peter principal
A San Francisco feat
Idle minds build Maginot Lines
This week, Mike and guest host Liam Julian contemplate whether states can be trusted to guarantee rigorous curricula and standards, if Omaha is doing the right thing by segregating its districts, and why Joel Klein won't give principals more bonus money. We've got an interview with Arizona education reformer Matthew Ladner, and Education News of the Weird is, well, boring. All this in 15 minutes? You know it.
Matthew Ladner / April 20, 2006
This is the first in an occasional series of articles about state-level education reform and its national implications. To write an essay on your state, please contact Liam Julian.
As immigration debates heat up in the U.S., so, too, does education's role in the discussion. Can our current public education system-which already does a poor job educating its young population-be expected to handle the surging numbers of non-English-speaking youngsters? Can the growing number of charter schools and other schools of choice create enough opportunities for those who need it? A look at Arizona provides some early answers.
The Grand Canyon State's education system faces two major challenges. The first is the state's rapidly growing population. Between 2000 and 2003, Arizona's total population grew by 450,000 people at a rate three times the national average. And over the past five years, public school enrollment has soared 13 percent. Major increases in Hispanics largely explains both trends. The result? In 1992, the state's public schools were 60 percent Anglo and 27 percent Hispanic. In 2002, they were 49 percent Anglo (and falling) and 37 percent Hispanic (and rising). Arizona's public school population is a "majority minority."
The second problem is the state's continuing failure to arm students, particularly its non-Anglo population, with the skills necessary to succeed in the modern economy. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that 63 percent of Arizona's Hispanic fourth-graders failed to demonstrate
Michael J. Petrilli / April 20, 2006
Once upon a time, most of us at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation enthusiastically supported the notion of devolving K-12 decisions to the states. (See here, here, and here, for example.) We gladly signed on to the ambitious but ultimately doomed "Straight A's" plan, which would have had the federal government treat states like charter schools: Hold them accountable for improving student achievement, but otherwise let them be. After all, there is no font of wisdom flowing from the banks of the mighty Potomac about how to run schools. Furthermore, innovative governors (not federal officials) had been the heroes of the post-Nation at Risk era.
Ah, the times they are a-changin'. This week brings more news that states are playing games with the No Child Left Behind Act, this time to let schools off the hook even if their minority students are performing abysmally. (An Associated Press analysis found that an astounding 2 million students-most of them minorities-are being left behind by the law's accountability system because of these state decisions.) Last month we learned that the number of schools "in need of improvement" is remaining stable, even as states are supposedly ratcheting up their standards, mostly because of technical changes that states are making to their "Adequate Yearly Progress" definitions. (See a fascinating chart of how the numbers of schools making AYP break out by state, here.)
April 20, 2006
Soon enough, New York City's youngsters won't be the only ones receiving report cards. Starting September 2007, the Big Apple will track test scores of individual students year-by-year, and give schools A-F grades mainly based on their students' academic progress. The grades will count, too; schools that outperform others in their "peer groups" will receive extra money. On the flip side, administrators in low-performing schools will be held accountable for their performance and, according to Chancellor Joel Klein, "principals whose schools persistently fail could be removed." Of course, principals' unions have already cried foul and called the new proposal "a sword of Damocles" that will alienate current and potential school leaders. One wonders, though, why Klein's ideas would alienate principals rather than empower them. By tracking individual student progress, even the worst-performing schools have a fair chance to turn the tide. And by increasing funds for those schools that do right by their students, Klein has offered principals an opportunity to prove their leadership acumen and see their schools rewarded for it. But school leaders ought to point out that accountability must go hand-in-hand with principal autonomy (currently lacking in New York's schools). One can't well survive without the other.
"Like Students, City Schools Will Be Graded," by Deborah Kolben, New York Sun, April 12, 2006 (subscription required)
"Principals' Jobs On Line as City Grades Schools," by Elissa Gootman,
April 20, 2006
Weighted student funding isn't just a topic for wonkish debate anymore-regular citizens are starting to get interested, too. Reason's Lisa Snell profiles parents and students who have benefited from San Francisco's school funding program, which allocates public education dollars based on individual student needs. Those dollars then follow each child to the public school of his or her choice. Some successful variations of the formula are currently in place in other cities as well, including Seattle, Cincinnati, and Houston. It's notable that this school finance system, which decentralizes power and instills greater parental choice among city public schools, is so staunchly supported in San Francisco. Frisco parents typically "don't support education tax credits or school vouchers" and are generally opposed to charter schools. Yet this initiative has the (worthwhile) potential to make the regular public schools more charter-like. And as a forthcoming Fordham Institute manifesto will demonstrate, weighted student funding is starting to win favor with policy thinkers of all stripes. You might even call it a seismic shift in education policy, San Fran style.
"The Agony of American Education: How per student funding can revolutionize public schools," Lisa Snell, Reason Magazine, April 2006
April 20, 2006
Astute observers of urban political campaigns know better than to be surprised when candidates "play the race card"; but how often does this happen when both opponents are black? Cory Booker is the frontrunner to take the reins of Newark, New Jersey from longtime Mayor Sharpe James, but Booker's catching flack from his closest competitor, Deputy Mayor Ronald Rice. Rice has charged that Booker's support of school vouchers makes him the "New Jersey point-person of the far-right Christian wing of the Republican Party," and he called Booker a proxy for "ultra-white, ultra-conservative" power. Never mind that Booker is a black Democrat. Thankfully, those demagogic tactics don't seem to be working. The Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers' Council of New Jersey, says, "I think a majority of citizens in Newark want school change by any means necessary." Surely that goes double for impoverished parents fed up with shoddy public schools. So Booker can count on the support of Newark's families; Rice can keep spewing venom and count on the local teachers union.
"Voucher Issue a Touchy Topic in Newark Race," by Damien Cave and Josh Benson, New York Times, April 17, 2006
April 20, 2006
It seems that the cultivated Old Europe ennui of countries such as France and Italy has migrated from the continent, hitched a Chunnel ride, and taken a foothold in the land of Thatcher, Disraeli, and Burke. The Independent reports that British teachers are embracing boring lessons as "preparation for life" and have called for more of them. At a recent conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, supply maths instructor Zoe Fail garnered loud cheers when she said, "Children are not bored enough.... Being bored encourages thinking skills and imaginative play." Barry Williams, a lecturer from Cambridgeshire, agreed, and he told a reporter that those who find his teaching dull simply miss its many "nuances and subtleties." Brits, beware this trend. The French and Italians can embrace stasis because their countries and cultures are rife with things to do when bored (painting water lilies, say, or making love) and relaxing locales. But Bournemouth Pier is not Cote d'Azur, Newcastle is not Bordeaux, and fish and chips is not gnocchi alla Romana. The UK's students need to be entertained in class, if only to keep them from gazing out the schoolhouse windows at acres of fog-shrouded peat bogs. Come on, England! You started the Industrial Revolution-now don't go wobbly.
"Boring lessons 'are preparation for life'," by Oliver Duff, The Independent, April 14, 2006
April 20, 2006
Institute of Education Sciences
U.S. Department of Education
When Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, it also required production of a National Assessment of Title I that would evaluate both the implementation and results of the program's major provisions. This is the first volume of the interim report (a final report is due out in 2007), and it focuses on implementation. Within it, key Title I components-such as those related to state assessments, school choice and supplemental educational services, achievement scores, and teacher quality-are closely examined. Some results are shameful. For example, a whopping 49 percent of districts notified parents about their children's supplemental services and school choice options after the school year had already begun. On average, notification occurred five weeks following the first day of classes. This is unacceptable, and it helps explain why only 38,000 students (out of an eligible 3.9 million) took advantage of school transfers in 2003-2004. Some in Congress noticed this massive failure, and they've sounded the alarm. The new chairman of the House Education & the Workforce Committee, Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA), said, "I'm particularly concerned that parents are not being informed quickly enough if their child's school is not making adequate yearly progress. In fact, this late notification seems to be impacting a parent's ability to take advantage of school choice and supplemental educational services options under the law." Indeed it is. Another disturbing item showed that, when parents
April 20, 2006
Jane L. David and Larry Cuban
Education Week Press
Cutting Through the Hype is true to its title. This book is for those befuddled by edu-jargon, or simply unfamiliar with the latest in education policy. It's a primer that gives good background information and, for the most part, smartly evaluates recent education reforms such as standards-and-accountability and school choice. The authors explore three key questions: What are the realistic expectations of these highly touted reforms? What trade-offs do they involve? and, What can be done to increase their successes? Each of the three major sections-system of schooling, school organization, and teaching/learning in the classroom-provides an easy, readable walk through some of education's major reform movements. Curriculum reform, professional teacher development, and declining academic achievement in middle schools (among many other topics) are given a fair, brisk treatment. The authors acknowledge that standards-based reform, test-based accountability, and school choice (all hallmarks of No Child Left Behind) have brought about some successes, but they believe the right blend of reforms has yet to be achieved. For them, successful reform is about balance-coupling high standards with strong curricula and teaching, holding schools accountable while providing adequate funding and support, and giving school choice options to low-income families. At times, the recommended solutions state the obvious without providing concrete suggestions. For example, the authors conclude that the achievement gap is best closed by "providing funds and keeping pressure on schools...without setting unrealistic expectations and