Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 17
April 27, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
The Gangs of New York II: The Reading Wars
David v. Goliath
Children are our future
This week, Mike and Rick take shop class to task, debate whether unions should keep their hands off charters, and ask why all EMOs can't be more like Edison. Checker's furious at Oprah, and Education News of the Weird is unstructured and silly. I pity the fool who doesn't have 15 minutes for this week's show!?
April 27, 2006
Americans are becoming acutely aware of our high schools' failings. Recent media exposure and fresh data (see here) have shown almost 30 percent of students leave high school without a diploma. To put it bluntly, one third of American students drop out.
Nobody disputes that the situation is untenable. (Well, except for these folks.) Yet, the dismal dropout percentage has remained relatively steady since the 1970s. That 30 percent of students don't receive high school diplomas is unacceptable, but it's even worse that education leaders have been unable, or unwilling, to do much about it. Many school reformers say that every child in America's schools can and should go to college, and that American K-12 education should focus exclusively on pushing students toward the university. To their credit, others have embraced initiatives such as the American Diploma Project, which strives to prepare graduates for college and work (and which the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation helped to launch; see here). But initiatives such as ADP do not go far enough to keep high-risk American students in school.
To be clear, the push toward college should indeed be the major force in American public education. Higher education is worthwhile on many levels. Those who undertake post-secondary education, besides gaining unquantifiable satisfaction and benefits, also open for themselves a wider spectrum of career options.
But it's not enough. When
April 27, 2006
Few wonky education articles make good movie scripts, but this excellent New York Magazine piece by Robert Kolker might be the exception. It details the battle over the Big Apple's reading program; the stakes are high. In one corner is Lucy Calkins and her Balanced Literacy program, a whole language approach in sheep's clothing. In the other corner is the "scientifically-based reading research" camp, which looks to thirty years of data showing how most children learn to read. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein backed Calkins when he mandated Balanced Literacy in nearly all of the city's 743 elementary schools in 2003, and he declares it a success. Not so fast, counters Diane Ravitch, who notes that Gotham's leap in fourth grade reading achievement occurred between 2002 and 2003-before Klein's reforms were put in place. Furthermore, to appease critics of Balanced Literacy and qualify for federal Reading First grants, Klein instituted small, supplemental phonics programs in 49 schools that, lo and behold, raised fourth-grade literacy scores for students in those schools by about 20 percent (double the increase in the rest of the school system). See, Mr. Commissioner, curricular choices do matter-and phonics-based reading programs are a knock-out.
"A Is for Apple, B Is for Brawl," by Robert Kolker, New York Magazine, May 1, 2006
April 27, 2006
Scott Montgomery Elementary School in Washington, D.C., is suffering from flagging enrollment. A new KIPP school, set to open in the District in July, is having trouble finding affordable real estate. The solution? Buddy up. In a first-of-its-kind move, the principals of Scott Montgomery and the newest KIPP Academy worked out a plan to share buildings and collaborate on teacher training. Students would attend Scott Montgomery from kindergarten through fourth grade and then would move upstairs to KIPP for grades 5-8. D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Clifford B. Janey backs the idea, but he isn't getting much support from his bosses. School Board Vice President Carolyn N. Graham has urged the two school leaders to revamp the plan. "We want to fully embrace a working relationship with KIPP, but we don't want to do it to the detriment of our student body and financial viability," she said, worried that the move would mean the loss of even more students and dollars from DCPS. But the greatest detriment to the D.C. student body surely isn't an innovative arrangement to provide better education for its students, it's the quality of the district public schools themselves, which are among the worst in the nation. If Graham is concerned that her financial viability might be in trouble, we suggest getting D.C.'s schools back on track. Teaming up with the most promising urban reform model in the nation is a good way to start.
April 27, 2006
Might charter schools begin the downfall of teacher unions? David Kirkpatrick, Senior Education Fellow at the U.S. Freedom Foundation, thinks so. He outlines the difficulty unions have faced organizing charter schools, mainly because it's inefficient for six figure-earning union staff members to target individual schools. Here's why. When unions organize districts, they get all the schools simultaneously. Should those district employees strike, parents and students have precious few alternatives but to meet their demands. But charter schools are managed autonomously, and if teachers at one charter strike, well, the students can attend another school. This, says Kirkpatrick, is a win-win situation. Teachers in most charters enjoy a more professional working environment and fewer bureaucratic hassles. Students and parents are pleased with increased educational choice. And taxpayers benefit because charters receive fewer dollars, "and they must succeed or fail with those dollars since they have no taxing power." Some unions are fighting back (see here), but it's a losing battle. Is that Reg Weaver's résumé on Monster.com?
"Charter Schools and Teacher Unions: Ultimately Incompatible?," by David W. Kirkpatrick, EducationNews.Org, April 21, 2006
April 27, 2006
Mark McCaig-who has a beard, holds a master's degree from Harvard, and is purportedly an expert in birds, shark teeth, and shiatsu massage (it's unclear if that's an exhaustive list)-works for Fairhaven School, outside Washington, D.C. But though McCaig manages the institution, don't call him a school administrator. At Fairhaven, "adults teach but are not teachers. They lead but are not administrators." And the students-well, they don't do much of anything and pretty much come and go as they please. The only rule is that they spend at least five hours at the "school" between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. While there, some youngsters play basketball, others muck around in the nearby creek, and a few sit and chit-chat with each other or talk on their cell phones. And for this, families pay $6,680 per student, per year (less for siblings). You may be tempted to think, for example, that playing video games all day, which is perfectly fine at Fairhaven, isn't much of an education. But McCaig answers that charge with an interrogative of his own: "What is an educated individual?" Hmm. Sitting alone beneath his fig tree, Gadfly ponders McCaig's question. He'll get back to us in seven days; in the meantime, don't send your kids to Fairhaven.
"Learning on Their Own Terms," by Nick Anderson, Washington Post, April 24, 2006
Michael J. Petrilli / April 27, 2006
American Institutes of Research
In December, we reported on an AIR study of comprehensive school reform models designed for the elementary level. Now AIR is back with a similar look at "education service providers" (ESPs)-companies that manage public schools. The headline is a biggie: Edison Schools show moderate evidence of effectiveness in terms of boosting student achievement; the six other ESPs studied (Imagine Schools, Leona Group, Mosaica, National Heritage Academies, SABIS, and White Hat) do not. That such a major finding (Edison works!) from a government-funded research group would go unnoticed by the nation's news media (save for a small web-only item from Education Week) is a bit surprising. Is it because the press doesn't care for meta-analyses, since there's nothing new to report, or is the media guilty of an anti-privatization bias? Regardless, you should check out the study's executive summary, which graphically depicts the review's effectiveness ratings across five categories. What becomes obvious is the dearth of rigorous research on any of the companies but Edison. (And four of the seven apparently refused to provide any information to the researchers.) There are reasonable explanations. For one, many of these ESPs are still relatively new and don't yet serve the large numbers of students that are needed for rigorous large-scale studies. Still, for reasons of political necessity if not continuous improvement, one would think these companies would see the worth
April 27, 2006
Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters
Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
Leaving Boys Behind is a misnomer. What purports to be a study on the gender gap is actually a discussion about the methodology of calculating graduation rates and about the methodology's results. The authors used enrollment and diploma counts from the U.S. Department of Education's Common Core of Data (CCD) to determine public high school graduation rates for the nation, individual states, and the hundred largest school districts. These statistics are further broken down by race and gender. Overall, about 70 percent of the class of 2003 earned a high school diploma. While 78 percent of white students and 72 percent of Asian students graduated, the picture is even more disastrous for other ethnic groups. Only 53 percent of Hispanic students and 55 percent of African-American left high school with diplomas. The gender gap is real, too. Females are graduating at higher rates than males, most significantly among minorities (58 percent of Hispanic females and 59 percent of African-American females graduate, while only 49 percent and 48 percent, respectively, of males in each group do). Results in the big urban districts are especially devastating. But the report offers no analysis. That boys are under-performing is hardly news (see here and here), and the minority achievement gap is never far off the radar. But what accounts for this gender gap? Can anything slow the
Compounding Challenges: Student Achievement and the Distribution of Human and Fiscal Resources in Oregon's Rural School Districts
Eric Osberg / April 27, 2006
The Rural School and Community Trust
This short report posits a controversial conclusion: Student achievement depends on school funding. The author examines 132 of Oregon's rural school districts and finds that in 2003-04, the 66 "higher-achieving" districts received more funding per-pupil than the 66 "lower-achieving" districts. Achievement is not based on individual test scores, but rather on the percentage of district students who reached overall "proficiency" on state assessments in math and reading. But is the achievement of these districts actually caused by funding levels, or is it merely related to funding because of other underlying, causal factors (such as family income)? The author's answer: The funding-achievement relationship "has nothing to do with the fact that districts that spend more might have lower levels of poverty, better qualified teachers, or better educated adults." Nor, the report tells us, is achievement strongly influenced by school size (an important consideration in a state with many small school districts). But the author analyzes only three mitigating variables (poverty level, teacher qualifications, and district adult education level), and readers shouldn't discount that other factors-demographic or cultural-may influence student learning and funding. The paper also dodges the important question of why higher spending might lead to better schools in rural Oregon. (One can discern from the data that smaller class sizes are linked to higher achievement, but the report never explores in depth the class size-achievement relationship.) And finally, it would have