Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 48
December 21, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
By Eric Osberg
By Martin A. Davis, Jr.
Culture of acheatment
Gold-studded apples for the teacher
Just hold it
Student Achievement and National Economic Growth
It's the money that counts
This week, Mike and Rick talk about time machines, fedora-wearing politicos, and the benefits of sucking up. Checker Finn stops by and grants us an interview, and Education News of the Weird is, once again, purely puerile, even disgusting. Happy holidays, listeners!
Eric Osberg / December 21, 2006
When Fordham released Fund the Child, a manifesto proposing weighted student funding (WSF), we knew the concept was attracting unaccustomed sleeping companions. After all, WSF's supporters include those seeking better resources for poor and minority students, those wishing to foster innovations such as charter schools, and those aiming to empower school leaders. The manifesto's list of signatories attests to that diversity.
Big though the WSF umbrella is, it doesn't shelter everyone who simply wants more funding for needy schools. Consider the so-called "adequacy" proponents who have, with some success, taken to the courts to impose increased public-school spending on their states. Most vocal among this crowd is Michael Rebell, now at Teachers College and coauthor (with Bruce Baker) of a recent Education Week commentary that denounced WSF as a "silver bullet" idea and dismissed its potential to empower principals.
Not only do these charges misrepresent WSF, but those hurling them do few favors for the cause of equitable school funding. Even if courts force greater spending on schools in certain states, cities, or districts, today's dispersal mechanisms will continue to channel the dollars to the best-funded and least-needy schools. Worse, many of those dollars will be used in ways that have little to do with student achievement. (Kansas City famously spent its $2 billion windfall on such amenities as an arboretum, a planetarium, and a wildlife refuge [see here].)
The truth is that absent fundamental
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / December 21, 2006
It's the time of year when columnists sharpen their pencils and launch the annual bashing of public schools and other governmental institutions for taking Christ out of Christmas.
Mostly, the uproar involves the fear that we're losing our national soul by excising the religious--i.e., Christian--heart from our culture. "In a society already known for its selfishness and consumerism," writes John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, "it seems that a religious holiday would be an opportunity to celebrate something more essential...something that would remind us of our nation's history--one that is dominated by a spiritual and religious heritage."
The tragedy, however, is not that we're taking religion out of schools. Instead, it's that five years post-9/11 we still confuse teaching religion with teaching about religion. Failure to do the latter deprives our children of a deeper understanding of Western culture. That's the rallying cry of the Bible Literacy Project, which is working to improve K-12 students' understanding of the Bible's place in Western literature, language, and philosophy.
Even more sorely needed, however, is a "Muslim Literacy Project." Our K-12 schools rarely teach Islam well--if at all. And we are harvesting the bitter fruits of that legacy today.
According to a recent article in Congressional Quarterly, just a half-dozen folks out of a thousand employees at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad--BAGHDAD!--are fluent in Arabic. Perhaps more people would have been moved to study Arabic, one of the world's great languages, had
Michael J. Petrilli / December 21, 2006
Though they didn't make the Education Week list, surely two of the most influential studies of recent years were reports from The New Teacher Project about the impact of teachers' seniority placement rights in urban school districts.
The first, Missed Opportunities: How We Keep High-Quality Teachers Out of Urban Classrooms, showed that many qualified new teachers apply to teach in high-poverty urban schools but endless delays in the H.R. process eventually push them to the suburbs or out of teaching altogether. Such delays are caused in part by seniority transfer rights enshrined in collective bargaining agreements; veteran teachers have first dibs on open jobs, so districts can't offer those jobs to newbies until late summer.
The second report, Unintended Consequences: The Case for Reforming the Staffing Rules in Urban Teachers Union Contracts, looked closely at five urban districts and found that 40 percent of all vacancies were filled by teachers that principals were forced to accept.
Together, these studies paint a damning picture of the impact of seniority rights, which keep good rookie teachers out of high-need schools and force bad veteran teachers in. And they've spurred some changes at the state and district levels (see here).
December 21, 2006
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." So spake Emerson. Let us hope that District of Columbia mayor-elect Adrian Fenty possesses a great soul, for he certainly lacks consistency. In April 2004, then-council member Fenty strongly opposed Mayor Anthony Williams's school takeover proposal and said, "There's no evidence that a superintendent cannot run the school system well reporting to a community elected board." When running for mayor, however, Fenty suddenly reversed his outlook. Now he likes mayoral control of schools. Regardless, we're glad he's keen to reform the District's woeful schools, and his education consultants are set to release a detailed plan in coming days. It's heartening to watch the new mayor put his much-remarked youthful vigor into improving D.C.'s classrooms. It would behoove him, however, to remember his earlier insight, that mayoral control is no silver bullet but one small projectile in a larger battle.
"Fenty Takes Council Members on a Field Trip," by David Nakamura, Washington Post, December 9, 2006
December 21, 2006
Cheating has traditionally been the domain of desperate students. Now, desperate districts are joining the deceitful ranks. For years, pockets of teachers and administrators in Camden, New Jersey, have cultivated an "informal culture of cheating" as a means to boost test scores. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that many Camden teachers have received the same message from their superiors: "Raise scores by any means necessary...and many interpreted that to mean cheat." The Inquirer launched a ten-month investigation, combing through test results and school board investigations, to uncover hard evidence that corroborated rumors of cheating. And a state grand jury is now looking into the district's suspiciously high test scores from 2005. Who's the culprit? No Child Left Behind? Unlikely, considering that the Inquirer found that Camden's culture of cheating dates back to the 1980s. Talk about a need for restructuring.
"Cheating's roots deep in Camden," by Melanie Burney and Frank Kummer, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 17, 2006
December 21, 2006
This holiday season, P.C. comes to holiday gifting. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, school administrators around the country are cracking down on gift-giving from students and parents to teachers. Some think such gifts "create an inherent conflict of interest and temptation to compromise integrity that we really don't want to be part of." Others worry that teachers who don't receive gifts, and students who can't afford to give them, will feel left out. But not everyone's playing Scrooge. In the presumably lavish-gift-getting Beverly Hills Unified School District, the superintendent says she wants "staff and teachers to feel that students and their families can show gratitude." Some curmudgeonly districts, however, have taken gratitude out of the equation by setting up a Teacher's Holiday Fund to which parents contribute and from which teachers receive equal payouts. A less sincere and festive holiday gesture the Gadfly cannot imagine. School administrators, if your conscience is keeping you up at night, consider following L.A.'s quite reasonable policy: cap the gifts at $100 and let the kids spread some joy. (P.S. Gadfly has no policy prohibiting lavish gifts from readers.)
"A Pandora's box for teachers," by Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times, December 19, 2006
December 21, 2006
Schools used to have problems with students spinning bottles. Now the youngsters pee in them. That's what happened at Salisbury Middle School in Salisbury, Maryland, which recently enacted regulations requiring every student be escorted to and from restrooms by a staff member. But when no one was available to escort three male students from Jeff Coalter's class, they urinated in an empty Pepsi bottle (with their teacher's consent). The Delmarva Daily Times reports that "some of the urine had splattered on the back wall" and that "the boys were given hand sanitizers and paper towels for them to clean up the area." Assistant Superintendent Allen Brown would not comment on how, if at all, the teacher was disciplined, but he took care to assure parents that the situation was an "isolated incident." You mean there's no epidemic of classroom urination in Salisbury? Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job.
"Parents, students speak out on classroom potty incident," by Candice Evans, Delmarva Daily Times, December 14, 2006
"At school, a potty break gone wrong," by Candice Evans, Delmarva Daily Times, December 13, 2006
Coby Loup / December 21, 2006
Center for American Progress
If teacher quality is the "most important schooling factor influencing student achievement," as this report claims, why aren't we putting better teachers in failing classrooms? The University of Washington's Dan Goldhaber argues that teacher pay is among the main answers. To begin with, he says, the "single" or "uniform" salary schedule keeps talented individuals from becoming teachers. This argument isn't new, but Goldhaber presents interesting data to back it up. He determined that the average salary gap between teachers and non-teachers ten years out of college is $18,904 for those who hold a non-technical degree; for math or engineering majors the gap is $27,890. Goldhaber then looks at ways to narrow these gaps. Although merit pay, knowledge- or skill-based pay, and so-called "combat pay" (see here) plans may never bridge this yawning gap, he thinks they do minimize the financial sacrifices that a teacher must make, thus attracting more high-quality candidates. (As evidence, he cites a RAND study which found that a $1,000 increase in beginning teacher salaries lowers teacher attrition by three to six percent.) The last section outlines the main hurdles to implementing these reforms. Goldhaber's approach here is balanced--he doesn't give the unions the shellacking they deserve on this issue--but he's fairly optimistic. The Department of Education has recently launched an initiative that will fund merit and combat pay pilot programs in various states and districts.
Eric Osberg / December 21, 2006
Francisco O. Ramirez, Xiaowei Luo, Evan Schofer, and John W. Meyer
American Journal of Education 113
This paper seeks to rebut Eric Hanushek and others who have argued that there is a link between the math and science achievement of nations and their economic growth. But its authors don't entirely disagree with Hanushek. They conclude "that countries with high science and mathematics achievement scores tend to grow somewhat more rapidly than other countries. This finding is consistent with the main inference reported in Hanushek and Kimko (2000) and very much in line with mainstream education policy discourse in the United States." So what's the issue? Well, these authors believe the picture is distorted by the Asian Tigers--Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan--whose strong growth in the 1980s skews the results (the data examined span 1970 through 2000). Yet even after dropping the tigers from the analysis, a correlation still exists (albeit a weaker one) between math and science achievement and growth. Perhaps this is why Hanushek told Education Week that "Their basic findings support the idea that test scores are important, even when you take out the Asian nations." The authors are right that the math-science rhetoric can become overheated at times. (Let's hear it for a broad, liberal education for all.) But at day's end this paper is little more than a debate over the strengths of the link between test scores and GDP. You can find