Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 5
February 2, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
South Carolina: the next Florida?
Don't fix it, just sell it!
The twilight zone
President Bush's revamped second-term education agenda came into sharper focus on Tuesday night: improve math and science achievement, quoth he. This quest, however, while well intended and much needed, is likely to be impeded by the chief legacy of the President's own first-term education agenda: the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
The U.S. math/science crisis is the source of well-warranted anxiety about our economic competitiveness in a "flattening" and globalized world, and stems from two related problems. Too few young Americans are prepared for - and actually take - advanced courses in high school and college; and too few of their teachers have mastered these subjects themselves.
No Child Left Behind made some headway on these fronts, first by demanding explicit academic standards and an end to the "soft bigotry of low expectations," and second, by insisting upon a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom. It has yielded some important successes. Our public schools and those who run them are focused as never before on narrowing the stubborn achievement gaps between black and white, and rich and poor. States have also tightened their requirements for teachers, requiring them to demonstrate subject-matter knowledge before entering the classroom. These reforms are starting to pay off; the latest National Assessment results show reading and math scores edging up for low-income, African-American, and Hispanic fourth graders.
But NCLB has also yielded some troublesome results. Because it judges schools solely by students' prowess in
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / February 2, 2006
Floridians are keeping a watchful eye on South Carolina these days, for two reasons. First, former University of Florida coach Steve Spurrier jumped to the University of South Carolina last year and has the Gamecocks bearing down on the overrated Gators. And now, just when the Florida Supreme Court is tackling the state's successful education reform programs, the South Carolina legislature is close to passing the nation's most significant expansion of school choice in some years, including a much-improved charter school program. A year-long struggle to establish a statewide charter school district has finally cleared the senate. Barring complications in the house, where the bill was introduced, Governor Mark Sanford should have it on his desk for signing tomorrow.
South Carolina's original charter law, passed in 1996, put authorizing authority in the hands of local districts, period. Not surprisingly, it has failed to create many new schools, since most districts hate charters. In rural Lee County, for example (where adult illiteracy exceeds 40 percent), the district for two years has refused to grant a charter to MLD Academy, a values-based school with a back-to-basics approach, despite an order by the circuit court to do so.
If the bill passes, the new statewide charter authorizer - the South Carolina Public Charter School District - would be housed in the state education agency, but overseen by an independent 11-member board.
"The appointed board will be pro-charter," David Church, executive director of the South Carolina Association
February 2, 2006
The Boston Teachers Union is out to quash chah-dah schools using its big gun - the union contract. Its recently released 32-page contract proposal now being negotiated includes a request that the school system spend $100,000 a year to recruit charter families back to district schools. That money would pay for two letters, mailed to charter parents twice a year, which tout the virtues of traditional public schools. It would also cover transportation costs to bring charter parents to a week of district school open houses. "The school department has not done enough to retain kids and recruit kids," says union boss Richard Stutman. "We're trying to light a fire under them." Here's a radical thought: try giving parents a real reason to come back to your schools. Bells and whistles are nice, but quality education is a better bet. You might start by scrapping the other 31 pages of your contract proposal.
"Teachers' union eyes charter school students," by Tracy Jan, Boston Globe, January 27, 2006
February 2, 2006
Has the trust - busting Joel Klein re-emerged to supplant the top-down know-it-all reformer? One can hope. Last month he announced that an additional 150 schools would be placed in his "autonomy zone" (besides the 58 schools there already), making them eligible for greater freedom from oversight. His aides promise to cut layers of bureaucracy and create a system "with schools at the top." And "The Chalkboard" reports that former Edison Schools executive Chris Cerf will help lead the reorganization effort. This all sounds promising. But as weary, veteran New York reformer Sol Stern told Gadfly, it won't matter unless principals are allowed to ditch the "workshop model" and whole language reading approaches - pushed by Klein thus far - in favor of something that actually works in the city's zillion classrooms.
"Schools Chancellor to Give Principals More Autonomy," by David M. Herszenhorn, New York Times, January 20, 2006
February 2, 2006
Washington state is again enmeshed in a testing imbroglio. Should high school seniors have to pass the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) to graduate? Neal Starkman, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer guest columnist, has a solution to appease all sides of the debate. "It's a degree for students who fail the WASL. It's the A.G. degree - Almost Graduated." Starkman's plan is simple. "Here's how it works: I'm a student who doesn't take tests well, principally because I can't read or write.... I take the WASL and I flunk it. Then I take it again and I flunk it. Then someone reads it to me and mouths the answers, and I flunk it. So what happens to me?" Well, you receive your Almost Graduated degree, and you feel just fine. In seriousness, legislatures across the nation face pressure to back down from graduation exam requirements and allow multiple re-takes, alternative exams, and exemptions. Recall, please, that standards can't effect positive change if they collapse at the first signs of pushback, and weak-tea tests that waste everyone's time are worse than no tests at all. Note to lawmakers: Be firm about your accountability demands, and you'll see results. Or you might as well offer an A.G. degree.
"A.G. degree almost as good as a diploma," by Neal Starkman, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 30, 2006
Michael J. Petrilli / February 2, 2006
Chris Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski
National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education
Teachers College, Columbia University
You may be asking yourself: Isn't this the 147th study to examine the performance of public, private, and charter school students on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)? Yup. (To catch up on previous episodes of "Charter School Research Death Match," click here, here, and here.) And didn't new test results that showed gains for charter schools come out just a few months ago? Yup. And didn't this Lubienski duo come out with a virtually identical study last year? Well, yes, but the New York Times inexplicably found their most recent paper newsworthy nonetheless. Here's what the study claims: "This analysis of US mathematics achievement finds that, after accounting for the fact that private schools serve more advantaged populations, public [district] schools perform remarkably well, often outscoring private and charter schools." After controlling for student and school-level variables, public schools "significantly outperform" Catholic schools, and trounce conservative Christian schools. Charter schools trail public schools in the fourth grade but outperform them by eighth grade. So is this study the death knell for the school choice movement? Hardly. As the Friedman Foundation's Greg Forster explained last year in a National Review Online critique of the original Lubienski & Lubienski study, because the NAEP data do not track individual students over
February 2, 2006
Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters
Education dogma, and innumerable studies published in education journals, has long pegged school retention (holding back students who have not demonstrated understanding of grade-level academic material) as bad policy. This report posits that the dogma may be wrong. In 2002, Florida began requiring third graders to score at the Level-2 Benchmark (the equivalent of NCLB "Basic") on its state assessment test in order to be promoted to fourth grade. Thus, the report's authors were able to compare low-scoring third graders in 2002, who were subject to the new retention law, with low-scoring third graders the year before the law was enacted. They found that on subsequent tests, students identified for retention (whether or not they were actually retained or qualified for an exemption) fared better than youngsters for whom retention was neither a legal requirement nor a visceral threat. Students who were held back experienced the largest relative improvements. So, why have past studies linked student retention with negative consequences? Perhaps because those analyses typically evaluated subjective retention - wherein individual teachers decide about a particular student's readiness to advance - instead of objective policies, such as Florida's, which rely on test scores. Subjective policies consider intangible factors and give "no way to isolate the effect of being held back, much less to make reasonable conclusions about the effects of retention on a student's academic achievement or the probability of his dropping out."