Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 47
December 14, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
Relight the torch
Where's the teach?
Yuan a podcast?
This week, Mike and Rick demand more pledging, less union meddling, and longer speeches from Bill Gates. Our interview with Graham Down about liberal arts curricula is real, and it's spectacular, and Education News of the Weird is all about One Teacher's Left Behind. Fish rot from the head, we're told.
December 14, 2006
Interest in classical humanism, the "traditional" liberal arts, has fallen sharply in recent decades, and nowhere more so than in American K-12 education.
Grounded in the worlds and ideas of the Greeks and Romans, and transmitted to us through the European middle ages and the Renaissance, classical humanism aims to teach students about the ideas, arts, persons, and events that constitute the "Western tradition." It's a model for the liberal arts that engages students with the intellectual and cultural traditions that gave rise to the culture and society they take for granted today. Yet it is also a model that has everything going against it.
The intellectual tradition of classical humanism carries a whiff of elitism, not to mention Eurocentricism. It was developed, transmitted, and evolved through society's upper strata, and undeniably centered in Europe and North America. Some of its most prominent modern advocates have died, such as Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Jacques Maritain, and Paul Gagnon. Several of today's most eloquent defenders, such as E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and Diane Ravitch, are nearing retirement. Unfortunately, there are precious few among the young generation of scholars and educators to keep the classic liberal arts flame burning.
Other approaches to the liberal arts, however, are blazing away. Three are especially vigorous: process inquiry, cosmopolitanism, and activist academicism.
At its core, Process Inquiry is the belief that what matters most are the disciplinary methods of inquiry, which
December 14, 2006
"Homophily." The word means "love of the same," and it recently landed in the New York Times Magazine's 6th Annual Year in Ideas, listed directly after "Hidden-Fee Economy, The" and directly before "Human-Chimp Hybrids."
There's nothing particularly new about homophily; we've long known that, generally speaking, opposites don't attract. People tend to associate with others who are like them. But what drew the Times Magazine's attention is how markedly homophily has increased in the information age. Technology--often touted as the great integrator, the catalyst that will cause anachronistic walls of separation to crumble--is actually helping people separate themselves from others in myriad ways (see here, here, here, and here).
Similarity breeds connection, and despite there being no shortage of paeans to integration, people have a definite and observable inclination to self-segregate (see here, for example). Unsurprisingly, schools conform to this trend. When parents are allowed educational choice to send their children to any number of schools, racial diversity doesn't seem to be a primary concern (see here and here).
When choosing either diversity of choice or creating diversity within those choices, people pick the former. And our increasing homophily is, in large part, related to the vast array of choices and niches society now offers (see here). Where choice exists in education, separation occurs--conservative parents tend to choose "back to basics" schools, while liberal parents choose
December 14, 2006
Spokane business teacher Scott Carlson doesn't think the Washington Education Association (WEA), of which he is not a member, should be able to raid his paycheck to fund its political causes without his permission. Oddly, the Washington state Supreme Court disagrees. The court found that the potential benefits to 4,000 non-WEA member teachers who sued (to regain individual sums of $50 to $200) were relatively small compared to the "heavy administrative burden" of requiring the WEA to gain written approval from each teacher before using his or her money for union-backed politics (in other words, to follow the law). The case will be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in January. But while we wait for that verdict, consider: The WEA's mission has something to do with representing the interests and voices of Washington's teachers--why does that apply only to teachers whose political views jibe with the union's? And why should Scott Carlson and his peers be compelled to associate with the WEA in the first place? Maybe he can go teach in a union-free charter school. Oh wait, the WEA already used his money to kill that idea, too.
"State of the Unions," by Stephen Moore, Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2006
December 14, 2006
Last week, Gadfly noted Philadelphia Mayor John Street's bold strategy of threatening parents of truant students with jail time. Forget the students--what about the teachers? According to the school district, a staggering 6 percent of its 11,000 public school teachers (660 of Philadelphia's finest) are absent each day. When confronted with the number, union executive Jerry Jordan pointed out that it's actually "remarkable how good our teacher attendance is, particularly in light of building conditions. Many buildings are quite old, and falling down." So teachers stay home on days when they expect their schoolhouses to crumble? District officials, however, think truant teachers are motivated less by fear of falling bricks than by the details of their contracts. Philadelphia teachers who don't use all their sick days can cash them out at retirement for 25 percent of their value, a low percentage that, school leaders say, creates an incentive for teachers to use all the sick days they have each year. Their theory's only problem--most private sector jobs don't allow employees to cash out unused sick days for any percentage. Time for a crackdown. Maybe Mayor Street could lock up teachers who play hooky alongside the city's irresponsible parents--a new take on parent-teacher night, for sure.
"Teachers are truant, too, reform commissioner says," by Kristen A. Graham, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 7, 2006
December 14, 2006
Too bad Jimmy Carter is busy deflecting charges that he's anti-Israel and a plagiarizer--his prowess as an election observer was recently needed in Roseville, Minnesota. By most accounts, Jasmine White should be student council president of Central Park Elementary in said town. The eleven-year-old White beat her challenger, William Thomas, after handing out fortune cookies containing the message, "Vote for Jasmine for President." But Thomas's parents complained that such tactics were unfair, and after school administrators conferred with the other candidates, an Education Sector-style co-presidency was declared. (Of course, we know how these things turn out.) White's parents were rightly furious, and they pointed out that the fortune cookie campaigning had been cleared with school officials. And further, they argued, because of a technicality in the school's election laws, Thomas wasn't even eligible to run for president. All reasonable points, all to no avail. But young Jasmine didn't seem too bothered. She told reporters, resignedly, "I'm still kind of upset about it, but I think that they won't change it since it's been like two months." Probably she's right--it's time for the healing to begin.
"Hey, kids, welcome to democracy," by Doug Belden, St. Paul Pioneer Press, December 8, 2006
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / December 14, 2006
National Center on Education and the Economy
In the specialized universe of blue-ribbon panel reports on reforming U.S. education, this new planet gets an honors grade. Released today by a commission chaired by Charles B. Knapp and containing such eminences as Dick Riley, John Engler, Joel Klein, Rod Paige, Tom Payzant, and Bill Brock, it's mostly the work of Marc Tucker's National Center on Education and the Economy and, loosely, the successor to that center's influential 1990 report on skills needed by the American workforce. Sixteen years later, the topic is worth revisiting. The world economy has changed dramatically and so have the challenges that the nation and its workforce face. This report does an exemplary job of displaying and explaining both the challenges and the changes that need to be made--ten big recommendations--and painting a vivid portrait of what America would look like if we actually do those things. It's no simple laundry list; the recommendations are tightly linked and closely integrated. They include developing standards, assessments, and curricula that reflect today's needs and tomorrow's requirements, and they span and amalgamate several different reform strategies, drawing the essence from each. They're big and bold. No single faction in American education will like all of them--a universal level of unhappiness is one definition of consensus--and that's why implementation is going to prove a huge challenge. But this report could turn out to be a fit successor to A Nation at Risk.
Michael J. Petrilli / December 14, 2006
Christopher B. Swanson and Janelle Barlage
Editorial Projects in Education Research Center
The modern Thomas B. Fordham Foundation turns ten this year, and as part of our obligatory navel-gazing we set out to determine whether any of our research studies have had much influence on public policy. Regardless of the outcome, we thought we might learn something from the blockbusters of the past decade. For example, were the most influential studies also the best ones or did something else explain their prominence? So we contracted with the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, publishers of Education Week, to find out. They surveyed a host of education insiders, analyzed citations in academic journals, and tallied media hits. They computed scores across those three categories and identified 13 studies that stood head and shoulders above the rest. The list is indisputably eclectic. The studies range from large-scale assessments (National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS]) to evaluations of specific interventions (class-size reduction and vouchers) to commission reports (National Reading Panel, National Commission on Teaching and America's Future), to data analyses (Education Trust on teacher quality, Jay Greene on graduation rates). Alas, no Fordham studies made the cut, though we had a hand in the American Diploma Project, which did (tied for last place). The Research Center also queried insiders about the relative influence of organizations, individuals, and information sources in education. (Here we
Coby Loup / December 14, 2006
Edited by Robin J. Lake and Paul T. Hill
Center on Reinventing Public Education's National Charter Research Project
This set of essays on the state of U.S. charter schools is the second in a series from Paul Hill's Center on Reinventing Public Education. The first essay, by researchers Paul Teske and Robert Reichardt, combats the stereotype of charter parents as "ill-informed consumers who are led unwittingly to charter schools." Teske and Reichardt found that charter parents were in fact more likely than their non-charter counterparts to choose a school based on academic factors and that they were ultimately more satisfied with their chosen schools. The next essay presents lessons from Dayton, Ohio (where 1 in 4 students attends a charter school), for school districts struggling with competition from charters. Christine Campbell and Deborah Warnock suggest that threatened districts should offer parents "new options within the traditional district system," such as magnet schools; reach out to parents through advertising; and take oversight and accountability more seriously. Essay three, a slightly too-optimistic look at the age-old battle between charter advocates and teacher unions, essentially reproduces this paper by Hill, Lydia Rainey, and Andrew Rotherham, which, incidentally, was lovingly lampooned in a recent podcast interview. The final four essays all consider "how government institutions responsible for judging the performance of charter schools can do their jobs fairly and effectively." Among the suggestions is that we "move beyond the
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / December 14, 2006
Innovations in Education Series
U.S. Department of Education
This booklet looks at reforming high school via chartering. Starting with a list of 400 secondary charter schools that are meeting achievement goals under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the authors culled it down to eight high-performing schools that have graduated at least one cohort of students, most of whom went on to college or work. Two-day site visits were made to help uncover what makes these schools succeed. The findings are presented in two parts. The first describes six common traits that drive success at these seemingly heterogeneous schools. For example, all focus on college prep, are mission driven, team up with parents and community and hold themselves accountable. The second section profiles the individual schools, showing how the common traits play out in day-to-day practice. Those interested in high school reform won't find any sweeping policy correctives in these pages, but they will find some excellent models of high school education in the charter sector. Read the report here.