Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 6
February 9, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
The mad, mad world of education research
By Douglas Reeves
The President's Budget: A thought experiment
NCLB's Majority interest
Pride and progress
Will learn for iPods
Danger: High-flying students
Douglas Reeves / February 9, 2006
"What? Me Worry?" Alfred E. Newman, Mad Magazine's mascot since the late 1950s, delivered this signature line whenever the world around him was going, well, mad. So, too, it seems, those working in the field of educational research.
That's the upshot of an important study by Peggy Hsieh and Joel R. Levin, which ran in the Journal of Educational Psychology and chronicles ed researchers' continued retreat from accepted research methodology. In this case, randomized experiments.
Randomized experiments, aka field trials, whereby an experimental group that receives an intervention (say, Whole Language) is compared with a control group that receives no intervention, have been standard operating procedure since rats were first run through mazes. But who needs control groups in the age of feelings-based research? Never mind that it's the theme song of Russ Whitehurst and the federal Institute of Education Sciences.
Hsieh and Levin report that "The percentage of total articles in these four journals [Cognition & Instruction, Contemporary Educational Psychology, Journal of Educational Psychology, Journal of Experimental Education, American Educational Research Journal] based on randomized experiments decreased over the 21-year period in both the educational psychology journals (from 40 percent in 1983 to 34 percent in 1995 to 26 percent in 2004) and the American Educational Research Journal (from 33 percent to 17 percent to 4 percent)."
To be sure, education is not the only field to succumb to the allure of fact-free debate. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton report
Michael J. Petrilli / February 9, 2006
Conventional wisdom posits that the President’s 2007 Budget is nothing but a collection of recycled education policies (and cuts). The same old private-school choice proposal that never goes anywhere. The same high school reform plan that crashed and burned in 2005. The same 40-odd programs proposed for elimination that Congress always spares in the end. Even the same funding levels for most major programs.
But what if we view the budget plan as a forward-looking document, rather than a hit parade from the past? What if we consider it masterful foreshadowing, providing hints of the Administration’s intentions for next year’s reauthorization of No Child Left Behind?
One thing becomes clear: the Administration is finally grappling with what to do about truly bad schools—those that have been “in need of improvement” for five or six years and now face “restructuring.” The number of those schools is about to rise dramatically, and the Texas crowd seems to be acknowledging that the sunlight and shame of test-score data won’t be enough in and of themselves to lift such failed institutions out of their funk.
The President offers two reasonable ideas. The first is a thoughtful (if awkwardly named) choice program, America’s Opportunity Scholarships for Kids. A retooled version of previous Administration proposals, this would target children in “restructured” schools with tuition grants of up to $4,000 or expand the allotment for supplemental services (free tutoring)
February 9, 2006
Ed policy gurus are buzzing this week about Rep. John Boehner’s unexpected ascent to House Majority Leader. Boehner (R-Ohio) is the former House Education Committee chairman, and his departure has many wondering how this move will affect NCLB and its impending reauthorization, as well as scads of other programs. So far, the news is good. NCLB proponent Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-California) is poised to take over Boehner’s former post. And Ed Week’s Michelle Davis predicts “Rep. Boehner is sure to keep an eye on the law’s [NCLB’s] progress.” If nothing else, Boehner’s win proves that the rumored Republican/conservative rebellion against NCLB hasn’t reached calamitous levels in the halls of Congress (though it’s pretty clear there is some backlash in statehouses and at the grassroots level). If Republicans were truly sore about NCLB, it’s unlikely they would have elevated Boehner to Majority Leader. So for now, dear readers, rest a bit easier—the “Washington Consensus” on NCLB remains intact.
“Boehner Goes From Education Panel to Majority Leader,” by Michelle R. Davis, Education Week, February 8, 2006
“McKeon may chair key House panel,” by Lisa Friedman, Los Angeles Daily News, February 9, 2006
February 9, 2006
Jay Mathews tells a touching story of struggle and triumph, chronicling a low-income Alexandria (VA) school’s battle to meet NCLB’s adequate yearly progress (AYP) definition. Since it found itself on the “needs improvement” list in 2004, and losing students to other, better-performing schools, Maury Elementary School embraced wide-reaching internal reforms. Mathews highlights those efforts, which range from community involvement (volunteer tutors for additional after-school lessons) to conducting intricate statistical analyses (assessing the school’s writing test scores with a Data Disaggregator). And installation of a dynamite principal. After all the hard work, Maury made AYP for 2004-5. Parent Mary Jo Smet, who has a third-grader enrolled there,, said the school’s recent success was “a confluence of energy and effort” from parents, teachers, and students. The hard work doesn’t stop, though, and Maury must continue its academic gains in order to stay off the “needs improvement” list. But the school’s story offers hope—and quantitative data to back it up—that determination and a little elbow grease can turn the tide.
“A Study in Pride, Progress,” by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, February 2, 2006
February 9, 2006
Introducing another bad idea in contemporary K-12 education. The New York Times reports that many schools, plagued by truancy (and attendant problems both with test scores and state funding formulae), now bribe kids to come to class. At Chelsea High School, located in an impoverished community outside Boston, students earn $25 for each quarter of perfect attendance. But that's chump change. Krystal Brooks won a canary yellow Ford Mustang from her school, and Fernando Vasquez pocketed $10,000 from his. Because so few education ideas yield results, Brookings Institution senior fellow Tom Loveless said, "If something works, the ideological burden not to do it has to be huge." Loveless's point is well-taken: why not provide students with incentives that mean something to them in the present tense? But, cars?
"And for Perfect Attendance, Johnny Gets... a Car," by Pam Belluck, New York Times, February 5, 2006 (free registration required)
February 9, 2006
In addition to ensuring that all kids succeed academically, No Child Left Behind aims to make schools safer. But when crafting this part of the law, the feds overlooked a major hazard: cheerleading. According to the Columbus Research Institute, cheerleading participation between 1990 and 2002 increased by a mere 18 percent. The number of cheerleading injuries over that same period, however, more than doubled. Senior cheerleader Allysa Voborny thinks the statistics illustrate a definite problem. Comparing cheerleading to karate, Voborny said, "It's much more dangerous up in the air; you can fall to the ground." Quite true. Why, then, are sports such as karate, kendo, and skeet shooting-terra firma activities, all-usually judged too dangerous for schools, while cheerleading squads are allowed to toss their members willy-nilly into the air with the full complicity of teachers and administrators? "We need to have accountability," said Rhonda Blanford-Green, an assistant commissioner with the Colorado High School Activities Association, "not only for our cheerleaders that perform, but for our coaches." One suggestion: classify cheerleading accidents under NCLB's "persistently dangerous" schools provision. With standards and sunshine, cheerleading may finally be able to clean up its act and shed its rough, daredevil image once and for all.
"The rising risk of cheerleading," by Heather Simonsen, Salt Lake Tribune, February 8, 2006
"Forget the pom poms," by Connie Steiert, Vail Daily, January 31, 2006 (free registration required)
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / February 9, 2006
Edited by J. Wesley Null and Diane Ravitch
Information Age Publishing, 2006;
Henry T. Edmondson III
ISI Books, 2006
Diane Ravitch, American education's foremost historian and voice of reason, and Wesley Null, a young, reform-minded education professor, are the perfect pair to re-introduce the world to eight educators who long ago foresaw the dangers of "progressive" education. Those men-Bagley, DeGarmo, Felmley, Harris, Kandel, McMurry, Ruediger, and Sheldon-are all but unknown today, Ravitch says, "because in the great pedagogical battles of the twentieth century, they lost." They believed "in the importance of preparing excellent teachers for our schools" and "should not have been forgotten." The rueful tone of Ravitch's foreword is balanced by Null's fire-breathing introduction. "The profession of teaching will continue to decline unless its leaders-especially the profession's younger leaders-read and learn from the authors who produced the essays that are found in this volume." That's because these leaders understood that education is a moral problem, not an intellectual one. Intellectual problems exist so that others can think about more intellectual problems, Null says. Moral problems require decisions that lead people to act. The great framer of many of education's intellectual problems (and contemporary of many of those profiled in Forgotten Heroes) is, of course, John Dewey. The education world still worships at his shrine, but Henry Edmondson doesn't think it should. In John Dewey & the Decline of American Education, he writes that "Dewey is not most interested in the
February 9, 2006
Jens Henrik Haahr, et al.
Danish Technological Institute
The European Union commissioned this thick report-which crunches data from the PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS surveys-to uncover ways for European schools to improve basic-skills education. Among its findings: countries should focus education resources on their lowest-performing students. When this is done, the authors write, "A high degree of equality in achievement scores within countries (i.e., a low variance around the mean) can be achieved without compromising the overall level of achievement scores in reading, mathematics, and science." But the report goes on to claim that, when students are "divided into separate groups according to their academic performance," the gaps widen between high- and low-achievers. This, it speculates, could be because schools that separate students based on academic ability generally provide less attention to struggling youngsters than to their savvier peers. Although the researchers claim it is possible to cultivate equality without sacrificing quality (they cite Finland as an example), more often than not schools' formulae entail holding bright students back while waiting for others to catch up. Just as struggling kids deserve extra instruction, high-flying achievers deserve to have their singular needs met, too. Of course, NCLB has come under criticism for lavishing attention on the bottom tier of test-takers to the detriment of academically gifted youngsters, who are often ignored. This report's recommendations-Edusocialism, really-would lead to a far worse situation.
February 9, 2006
Policy Information Center, Educational Testing Service
The achievement gap usually refers to the chasm between low- and higher-performing students. But, as this study makes clear, disparities are just as pronounced among separate groups of high-achieving students. For example, in 2002 the top fifth of Latino test-takers scored means of 598 and 646 on the SAT verbal and math sections, respectively. Their white peers’ mean scores were 65 points higher on the verbal section and 74 points higher in math. Yet of the hundreds of studies reviewed for this report, hardly any “acknowledge… that high-achieving students might need support and that this support might differ from what is needed by their lower-achieving peers.” It’s tempting to think that smart youngsters, regardless of socio-economic situations or ethnic backgrounds, will turn out just fine. But as these data show, that’s not always true. Bright Latino students, who often come from low-income families and have parents with little education, are particularly susceptible to becoming frustrated or discouraged with schoolwork and the school environment. These kids require just as much encouragement, support, and instruction as their lower-performing peers, albeit in different ways. They, too, need goals, and information on where academic achievement can lead (college). But too often, they don’t receive it. Even when Latino students earn good grades in high school, register for the SAT (not an insignificant step), and do well on the exam, many still make poor college decisions.