Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 31
August 17, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
March of the pessimists
Conversations about God
Keeping score in Ohio
Reform of higher ed dead?
Please come to Boston
Bloomberg and Bush: Bring it (national standards) on!
Back-to-school: That's haute
ACT National and State Scores
This week, Mike and Education Sector's Sara Mead chat about Bush-Bloomberg opacity, schisms between ed reformers, and how not to offend atheists. We have an interview with Checker Finn, the original Education Gadfly, who talks about Buckeyes, and Education News of the Weird is a gem in the rough with an albatross on its back. All in under 20 minutes. This podcast has so much gravity, it should be its own planet!
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / August 17, 2006
Backward reeled my mind upon discovering that the New York Times's liberal education writer Diana Jean Schemo and conservative icon Charles Murray (writing recently in the Wall Street Journal) share essentially the same defeatist view of education: that schools aren't powerful enough instruments to boost poor kids' achievement to an appreciably higher academic plane due to the many other forces (family, neighborhood, poverty, heredity, etc.) tugging them downward.
It's true that mediocre schools, of which the U.S. has far too many, have great difficulty overcoming those forces. But it's equally true that outstanding schools do it all the time.
Fifteen years ago, in a book titled We Must Take Charge, I reported a surprising and alarming calculation: that an American child with perfect attendance at a conventional public school from (full day) kindergarten through high school would, upon reaching his/her 18th birthday, have spent just 9 percent of his/her hours on earth under the school's roof-and 91 percent elsewhere. That ratio still amazes me but you can calculate it for yourself. The numerator consists of 13 (years of school) x 180 (days per year) x 6 (hours per day). The denominator consists of 18 (years alive) x 365 (days per year) x 24 (hours per day). I didn't even take account of Leap Year.
To be sure, the 91 percent includes sleeping time, but even when you make that adjustment you find that non-school time exceeds school time by
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / August 17, 2006
As a nation, we're generally uncomfortable talking about religion in the public square, in part due to our long history of church-state separation, in part because religion is considered a private matter.
While the experience of religion is personal, the effects that the institution of religion exerts on society and the ideas it generates are not. Max Weber demonstrated religion's impact on history as well as anyone ever has in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, his classic study on the relationship between Protestantism and the rise of capitalism in the West.
After three decades of downplaying religion's importance in the K-12 curriculum, the subject is thankfully making a comeback. For many students, this means learning more about religion in history and literature classes. It's about time. To believe that anyone can fully understand Constantine, the Just-War Theory, or Osama bin Laden without a basic knowledge of Arianism, Augustine, and the differing interpretations of jihad in the Quran is foolishness.
But recent flare-ups over teaching religion in public schools (see here and here) still make teachers and districts leery about broaching the subject.
Fear not, says Charles Haynes at the First Amendment Center. Religion can be taught well without setting off a holy war in the community. As evidence, he points to the Modesto City Schools in California, one of the very few districts in the nation that requires
August 17, 2006
Residents of the Buckeye State are celebrating more than Ohio State's pre-season ranking as the #1 football team in the land. On Tuesday, the state released its 2005-2006 student achievement data and school rankings--and at first blush the news is good. All of Ohio's major urban districts have moved out of Academic Emergency, the lowest category. Charter schools did well, too. The number of them mired in the two lowest ratings dropped by 30 percent. Dayton's charter schools are now outperforming their district counterparts in math and reading in all but one grade (see here). Despite this evidence of progress, however, 68 percent of Ohio districts and 40 percent of the state's schools--considerably more than last year--failed to make adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. There are several possible explanations. Of greatest import, Ohio's own new rating system considers students' growth from year to year, while NCLB does not. The tests themselves are somewhat different, too. So it's tricky to make year-to-year comparisons when the measuring stick has changed. As we've seen in other places (see here and here) the disparity between glowing state results and dismal federal ones leaves parents and the public confused about whether their schools are good or not--and about whom to believe.
"Some schools feel left behind," by Jennifer Smith Richards, Columbus Dispatch, August 15, 2006
August 17, 2006
We reported a while back on the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which was established by Margaret Spellings to evaluate whether the nation's colleges were, among other things, producing educated graduates and charging affordable rates. The commission approved a report of its findings last Thursday, and although the final document (according to the New York Times) urges "a broad shake-up of American higher education," some of its toughest provisions were watered down. Earlier report drafts, for example, said "states should require" public colleges to evaluate their students with standardized tests. The final version simply said universities "should measure student learning" with such tests. Yes, that would still be progress when compared with current reality, and if we hadn't seen the early drafts we'd be giving three cheers. Two would seem more appropriate now. The commission's extremely able chairman, Charles Miller, couldn't entirely overcome establishment resistance--a problem caused largely by Secretary Spellings's initial decision to stack the panel with higher ed establishmentarians. Meanwhile, Kevin Carey, writing in the Washington Monthly, makes clear just how poorly some of the country's top universities are educating their students and how unaccountable they are. These institutions often get away with it, Carey notes, by suppressing data which would bring their shortcomings to light. Are we destined for another 20 years of hearing that America has "the best higher education system in the world?"
August 17, 2006
The editorial page writers at the Los Angeles Times see trouble in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plans to take over L.A.'s fractured school system. But rather than blasting his ideas, they take readers on a journalistic tour of Boston, where mayoral control has improved the city's schools (although they're still far from perfect). Consider Richard J. Murphy Elementary School--a high-minority, high-poverty institution that features uniforms and a results-oriented principal. Oh, and 70 percent of its alums enter Boston's elite "exam schools," reserved for those who get top scores on entrance exams. "Murphy has benefited from an unfettered mayor...a strong superintendent...and an empowered and talented principal," the Times's editors wrote. Villaraigosa's plan, by comparison, would put everyone--and thus no one--in control, do nothing to limit the power of the unions, and leave curriculum choices to educators in individual schools. Villaraigosa has already visited both Chicago and New York to observe those city's education mayors. But judging from his less-than-admirable actions since those trips, perhaps a trip to the home of the bean and the cod would set him right. But the mayor doesn't seem likely to embrace any change of his muddled plan, and those who should be advocating for such change have, unfortunately, acquiesced to Villaraigosa's compromises. Who loses? L.A.'s kids.
"Learning From Boston: A Bad School Made Good," Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2006
August 17, 2006
Two heavy-hitters recently jumped into the NCLB reauthorization fray. Florida Governor Jeb Bush and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined forces in a Washington Post op-ed to defend NCLB from its critics and offer some suggestions for improving it. Most of what they write is bland: make standards meaningful, encourage student gains, recognize degrees of progress, and reward/retain high-quality teachers. But they raised a few eyebrows by calling for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to become the official benchmark for evaluating the rigor of state standards and the veracity of state test results. In other words, they came up to the brink of national standards and tests. (But they stepped back, out of respect for the "role of sovereign states in our federalist system.") Perhaps our forthcoming report on national testing (see here) will convince them to take a bolder plunge.
"How to Help Our Students" by Jeb Bush and Michael R. Bloomberg, Washington Post, August 13, 2006
August 17, 2006
Clothing companies are salivating over this year's back-to-school buying binge. And why not? Brand Keys, a market research company, forecasts a 15 percent rise in back-to-school clothing sales. The jump looks to be directly tied to the heightened sartorial tastes of buyers, in this case teenagers who would now much rather spend their parents' cash on the latest styles from Marc Jacobs than the latest iPod from Steve Jobs. Technology is out; looking good is so in. Further, as Gloria Baume of Teen Vogue explains, the blurring of fashion distinctions between "what is ‘child' and what is ‘adult'" means that the same styles modeled by 20-year-old runway vixens are suddenly appropriate for 13-year-old playground divas, such as Tessa Sprauer. "I never wear anything literally like basic," Sprauer said. And why would she? It's a known fact that fancy designer clothing leads to academic success. Look at Elle Woods, the sorority ingénue of Legally Blonde, who, dressing with unparalleled panache and in blinding shades of pink, establishes herself at Harvard Law School and ends up giving the class commencement address. Remember, kids: Confidence never goes out of style.
"An Impressionable Age," by Ruth La Ferla, New York Times, August 10, 2006
August 17, 2006
This report is a mixed bag. On the one hand, national ACT scores rose slightly but (statistically) significantly in 2006--the average composite score was 21.1 (out of a possible 36), up from 20.9 in 2005. Yet most students are still likely to struggle once they reach college classrooms. But good news first. ACT scores in 2006 are at their highest point since 1991, with both males and females and all major ethnic groups making gains. More than 1.2 million 2006 high school graduates, 40 percent of the nation's senior class, took the test (compared to 1.4 million who sat for the SAT). Now the worse news: while the percentage of students who met or exceeded ACT's College Readiness Benchmarks rose, the majority of test-takers are still apt to encounter problems in first-year college courses. For example, only 27 percent of them met the Benchmark (a score of 24) in science, thus demonstrating readiness to succeed in college biology. Just half attained the Benchmark in reading. Taken together, barely one test-taker in five hit the mark on all four ACT exams--English, math, reading, and science. ACT believes the low percentages indicate that too few high school pupils are taking challenging core curricula. The organization's CEO, Dick Ferguson, said, "A student can take four years of math courses in high school, but if the content of those course doesn't cover essential knowledge and skills needed in college and work,
August 17, 2006
James Harvey and Lydia Rainey
Center on Reinventing Public Education
Almost two dozen education leaders gathered in January to consider ways to multiply the number of successful charter schools in urban areas. This report, a record of the proceedings, contains panelists' questions, concerns, and proposed solutions to problems that stymie charter school expansion. The group discussed five major topics: 1) the challenge of bringing charters to scale, 2) ensuring that quality isn't sacrificed to growth, 3) the problems associated with partnering with school districts that are politically unsympathetic to charters, 4) the challenges posed by charters' own governing boards, and 5) the helpful and hurtful roles that foundations play in bringing charters to scale. Speakers offered sobering details ("How long would it take, at the current pace of supply generation, to achieve a tipping point of 20 percent in each of our [target] markets? The answer is 85 years."); and hard-nosed reminders ("Parents in Harlem want what everyone else wants. They want safe, good schools. Charters? Who cares? Unless charter means better--then everyone cares."). Everyone agreed that charter schools face a tough uphill slog. Perhaps you already knew that, but you can read this report here.