Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 32
August 24, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
Framing the status quo
Careful what you ask for
Overreaching on overachievement
The camera doesn't lie?
Shop 'til you drop
State High School Exit Exams: A Challenging Year
Michael J. Petrilli / August 24, 2006
Last month, University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein penned a provocative Wall Street Journal op-ed showing how both the conservative and liberal blocs on the Roberts Supreme Court inconsistently apply basic Constitutional principles in support of their own policy preferences.
Specifically, he examined when the justices find it appropriate to defer to the judgment of executive branch officials in reading the meaning of vague statutes. In one high-profile case (about special military tribunals), conservatives deferred to the president's discretion over foreign affairs, while the liberals weighed in with their own interpretation of the relevant statute. On another high-profile case (about protection of the wetlands), liberals deferred to the expertise of the Army Corps of Engineers, while the conservatives weighed in with their own interpretation of the relevant statute.
How did the two sides determine when it was appropriate to defer to the executive branch's judgment? Epstein argues it wasn't a matter of high principle, but of ideology. Both cases, he suggested, show that conservatives trust the president and military while liberals trust bureaucrats and regulatory agencies.
This interest-driven inconsistency with respect to core principles is also readily apparent in today's education policy debates. Here the challenge is not so much vague statutes as vague research--with people embracing quite different standards depending on the issue.
August 24, 2006
Polls are focused measures of public opinion and policymakers and--especially--politicians tend to take them seriously. But a poll is like a piece of plastic sheeting: if transparent and free of bias, public opinion shines through; if colored by a particular agenda, certain wavelengths of public opinion are filtered out.
Which brings us to the 38th Annual Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. Prevalent bias has been a problem with this organization's past surveys. This year is no exception.
It begins by presenting respondents with this choice--Would they prefer reforming the existing public school system or finding an alternative to it? Not mentioned is the possibility for competition or synergy between and within systems. As framed, the question suggests to poll-takers that public education is a zero-sum game. And not surprisingly, most respondents said they strongly prefer sticking with the existing system.
It's the first of many examples of how the Kappan frames questions to ensure that the educational status quo looks good.
Here's another. The report crows that people's ratings of their local public schools "are near the top of their 38-year range.... Approval ratings remain high and remarkably stable." True, but that doesn't mean the public is particularly thrilled with the performance of public schools overall. Two-thirds of respondents gave the nation's public schools a grade of C or lower. Local schools fared only slightly better, receiving As and Bs from fewer than half of
August 24, 2006
Katrina brought a lot of devastation, but also a chance to convert New Orleans into America's shining example of school reform. Of course, the city schools were already well down the road to collapse before the hurricane arrived last year (New Orleans had 55 of the 78 worst schools in Louisiana); the devastation simply accelerated the timetable for reform. A forthcoming Education Next article describes how charter supporters have worked to make the Crescent City America's first majority-charter city. But not all has gone according to plan. The Times reports that, with more students returning than expected, charters are turning away children (as are the few traditional public schools that have opened, and which were late in hiring new teachers). This leaves parents none too happy with either brand. With due respect to Pottery Barn, charter advocates didn't break the New Orleans school system but now they own it. These back-to-school struggles indicate just how hard rebuilding it is going to be.
"Rough Start for Effort to Remake Faltering New Orleans Schools," by Susan Saulny, New York Times, August 21, 2006
"After Katrina, School Reforms Make New Orleans Most Chartered City in U.S.," BusinessWire, August 23, 2006
August 24, 2006
See Jane. See Jane study. See Jane's mom insist she take five AP courses, study six hours each night, perform 20 hours a week of community service, and earn a black belt in karate, all to impress Stanford's admissions officers. See Jane have a nervous breakdown. The Washington Post's Jay Mathews doesn't doubt Jane's story, but he doesn't think it typical. Hence his assault on The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, part of a growing number of hand-wringing books and pitying studies of how we work our children too hard. In a handful of overwrought and upscale communities such as Winnetka, Scarsdale, and San Marino, "Jane's" story may be the norm, says Mathews. But across the length and breadth of the land, most students aren't working anywhere near that hard--a fact made clear by NAEP scores, studies of college freshmen, and AP data. "Our real national problem," says Matthews, "is not that we ask most teens to do too much, but too little." In other words, it's not just Jane's addiction to overworking we need to worry about, but all the "plain" Janes, too.
"Too Few Overachievers: Academically Stressed Students Aren't the Country's Norm," by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, August 21, 2006
August 24, 2006
Textbook publisher Pearson Scott Foresman is now offering an interactive software program in history and social studies aligned to state standards, i.e. programs whose content will differ from place to place. Not the worst idea, provided the state's standards are worthy and that students can trust the images on their computer screens. But many states have lousy history standards (see here and here) and textbook publishers bend over so far to be politically correct--and get their wares adopted--that they sometimes fall down. At McGraw-Hill, for example, photographic images of people in textbooks must be distributed as follows: 40 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African-American, etc. On top of that, 5 percent of these shots must be of people with disabilities, and 5 percent of persons who hold an AARP card. These same requirements don't apply to the models in the photos, though; most of the "disabled" students pictured are able-bodied kids sitting in wheelchairs. We've complained for years about the crazy textbook adoption process, but fair is fair. We say that at least two percent of the photo space should be allocated to right-of-center education policy professionals. (We have a few suggestions.)
"Aiming for Diversity, Textbooks Overshoot," by Daniel Golden, Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2006
"Calif. Schools adopt digital history program," by Laura Ascione, eSchool News, August 17, 2006
August 24, 2006
Beth Waldron complains about the money that parents spend on back-to-school supplies. She longs for the days when her parents bought her paper, pen, and pencils and sent her on her way. Today, she carps, it costs an average of $86 to outfit a child for school. Surely you jest, Beth. How are modern kids to make it through the year on a paltry 86 clams? Do you want your elementary kid using a cheap cell phone that distracts them from learning? Of course not! You have to get the LG Migo VX1000. For 50 bucks and a two-year contract, they get a kid-friendly phone with only five buttons that dials pre-programmed numbers. And you'll need the GPS software (Price: $10; Feeling of security: Priceless) that comes with it so you can track your child's whereabouts during the day. And what about all those heavy computer files children have to lug around? An assistant principal in Maryland says "it would be helpful if they all had a mass storage device to transport files between home and school." Cost $30. Gadfly figures you're at 90 dollars (not counting the two-year contract), and we're not even talking calculators yet. Nor fashionable backpacks. Get serious, Beth, a quality education costs. Now, will that be cash, check, or charge?
"Back to School, with cellphone and laptop," by Jeffrey Selingo, New York Times, August 17, 2006
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / August 24, 2006
Center for Education Policy
In this, its fifth annual report on state high-school exit exams, the Center for Education Policy delivers no big news but lots of interesting snippets. CEP reached four broad conclusions in this year's study:
- The number of states adopting new exit exam requirements is leveling off.
- State-wide controversy about exit exams tends to settle down in the years after diplomas are first withheld.
- States are generally moving toward greater flexibility in exit exam policies.
- Most states requiring exit exams provide remediation to those who fail the text, but the states don't always follow through on their promise to pay. Further, funds for remediation diminish in the years after the exam has been put into place.
But the more interesting information is buried deeper. For example: Of the 25 states requiring or phasing in exit exams, 20 use the tests to fulfill the high school testing requirements of NCLB. But eight of these 20 set even lower scores for awarding diplomas than for determining proficiency under NCLB. (The "Race to the Bottom of the Bottom"?) The study also finds that "having to pass an exit exam to graduate is just one of many factors that influence a student's decision to drop out, and does not seem to be one of the most significant factors." There are many more such tidbits. A most useful part of the report is the section profiling state exit exam systems. This synopsis provides a good
August 24, 2006
Steven Glazerman, Christina Tuttle, and Gail Baxter
Mathematica Policy Research
The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) devised its Passport to Teaching program to streamline the notoriously convoluted state certification process. The Passport program simply seeks, through rigorous examinations in subject content and professional teaching knowledge, to identify individuals competent to move into the classroom no matter how they were prepped for the role. This program removes barriers that currently keep skilled professionals from entering the classroom and can be especially beneficial to career changers (an engineer, say, who wants to teach high school math). This paper is the first of a series of studies examining whether Passport teachers, once in charge of instructing 20-odd students, actually do a good job. Only five states (Idaho, Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Utah) currently recognize the Passport program, and the total number of Passport-certified teachers in those states is miniscule. (The 2005-2006 school year was the first in which Passport teachers were placed in the classroom.) The program's small size allowed this paper's authors to interview 75 percent of the principals who oversee Passport teachers and asked them to rate Passport teachers against conventionally certified teachers-including those who had been teaching for decades. Overall, the Passport teachers received a positive assessment. "Principals rated Passport holders to be ‘as effective' as or ‘somewhat more effective' than ‘all other teachers [they had] observed in their career,'" according to the report.