Education tasting menu

Tonight, Chef Finn has prepared four courses. Bon Appetit!  

The "65 Percent Solution"

A well-meaning young business entrepreneur has started a well-meaning organization called "First Class Education," (http://www.firstclasseducation.org/) whose sole mission is to get states to enact laws requiring schools to spend at least 65 percent of their "operating budgets" in the classroom. That straightforward idea appeals to such thoughtful critics as George Will and, now, to such reform-minded states as Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Advocates claim that many billions of dollars now spent on various school overheads and low-priority activities would be spent on actual student instruction if this policy were put into place.  

Well-meaning, to be sure, and consistent with the oft-noted fact that school systems spend vast sums on lower-priority activities than teaching and learning. But, like most formulaic solutions, it's too simple-and apt to retard other important reforms that K-12 education also needs.

An example of how it's too simple: School libraries and librarians aren't counted as "classroom" expenditures. Yet field trips are.

An example of how it may hold back other valuable reforms: distance-learning offers enormous potential to bring high-quality instruction, and instructional materials, into student's lives, whether in the classroom, at home, or at the local Girls & Boys Club. For some kids, it's the best way. Yet the technology revolution, the capital investments, and the salaries of gifted instructors and curriculum developers on the other side of the nation or planet presumably don't count as expenditures "in the classroom." To shackle a state's or school system's education budget to such a formula may serve to freeze the status quo and deter far more powerful means of educating children.

Simple external controls have both the virtues and the shortcomings of simplicity. Remember wage and price controls as means of curbing inflation? It turned out that what had to be done was to solve the underlying economic problems. Same with schooling.

Why Not the Obvious Solution to Teacher Shortages?

State after state and city after city are lamenting their shortages of teachers in general, math and science teachers in particular, and "highly qualified" teachers above all. The Maryland Department of Education reported this month that just 42 percent of Baltimore teachers meet the federal definition of "highly qualified," even as California education analysts predict a shortage of 100,000 teachers in that state over the next decade. Why, for Pete's sake, are they not pursuing the obvious remedies, namely differential pay, alternative certification, slashed red tape, portable pensions, and all the rest? Such measures were even recommended in Maryland by Governor Ehrlich's 2005 commission, but nobody there has lifted a finger to implement them. Of course, we know why not. Adult vested interests-teacher unions, ed schools, etc.-don't want such reforms, and (as the California Teachers Association showed Governor Schwarzenegger last November) they'll fight hard and spend lavishly to sustain the status quo. In Maryland, Ehrlich is running for re-election and, at least in the education sphere, he's lavishing money on that selfsame status quo and rocking no boats. Pity.

Three Cheers for Taft
Ohio's beleaguered GOP governor started his final year in office with a "state of the state" address that contains at least one really good idea-his "Ohio Core" initiative. In Taft's words:

"One in four freshmen don't [sic] come back for a second year. Forty percent of college freshmen will never earn a degree. For too many, a high school diploma is not a passport to success, but rather a broken promise....We know that Ohio students who take a rigorous core curriculum are less likely to require remedial course work and are more likely to succeed on the job, or in college.... Here's the plan:

"First, require all students to take rigorous course work that will prepare them for the workforce or college-this means four years of math, including Algebra II; three years of science, including biology, chemistry and physics; four years of English; three years of social studies; and at least two years of a foreign language. To give families and schools time to prepare, the core curriculum should apply to students in the graduating class of 2011.

"Second, make completing a rigorous core curriculum a condition of admission to Ohio's state-funded four-year colleges and universities.

"Third, move all remedial education to Ohio's two-year campuses, where costs are lower.

"Fourth, require all students to take a college and work-ready assessment in their junior year to help them know if they're on the right course to be prepared for life after high school.

"Finally, add a measure to the School Report Card to indicate how well high schools are preparing students for college and work.

"We must also help students earn a college degree more rapidly at lower cost. We should give every high school student in good standing the opportunity to earn at least one semester of college credit while still in high school."

Can Taft deliver? The K-12 system will balk at raising standards further when so many young people are already failing the Ohio Graduation Test; the state's famously standoffish university system may welcome applicants who have completed Taft's proposed "core," but that doesn't mean they'll necessarily be accepted-or admitted into credit-bearing courses; and the community colleges are already gagging at being cast as "remedial" institutions. Still, in the spirit of the American Diploma Project, Taft is nudging the Buckeye State in the right direction. And he's not the only one working to give high school standards a boost. Florida Governor Jeb Bush's new A++ plan pushes for tougher core curriculum study in the Sunshine State (see here).

And since getting there will also require more and better high school science and math teachers, what about a major move toward alternative certification and lowered entry barriers for Ohio, too? (For additional information about the Taft plan, see here.)

The Limits of Achievement Comparisons

The New York Times seems fixated on publicizing bad studies that paint traditional public schools in a good light and charter/private schools as failures. Since the paper's editors aren't dumb, it must be ideological. The latest outrage was Diana Jean Schemo's effort to lend credibility to a miserable piece of work by the self-styled "National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education" at Columbia University's Teachers College. Inexplicably funded by the National Center for Education Statistics-thus giving it the cachet of a "federal study"-this analysis, like all achievement analyses based on NAEP data, can tell you about student achievement differences but not about whether the schools caused them. Schemo misleadingly quotes Howard Nelson of the American Federation of Teachers: "studies seem to show that charter schools do no better, and private schools do worse." But these are "snapshot" data, not longitudinal or value-added data, and the most one can do with them is say that "students attending X schools score higher/lower than students attending Y schools." Analysts know nothing about where those kids were when they entered the school, how long they've been there, or what gains they may or may not have made while enrolled there.

As for efforts to "control" for student demographics and suchlike, that's a battleground of methodological disputation. Anyone sophisticated at this sort of analysis is able to devise "controls" and "adjustments" that can pretty much make data jump through whichever hoops one favors. (One could control, for example, for the race and income of patients in maternity hospitals versus cancer hospitals, yet still have radically discrepant death rates based on inherent differences in the severity of their medical problems upon entry.) I do not claim (or believe) that private schools are inherently more effective than public. I've sensed for ages that their achievement edge may have more to do with their admissions policies and the kids' families. But my parallel observation of charter schools also indicates that the relatively low achievement of some of their students owes much to the awful experiences those youngsters had in their previous district public schools, before entering the charter world. Snapshot analyses can tell you none of this. Shame on the Times for pretending otherwise.

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