Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 2
January 12, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
Education's sweet dream
By Martin A. Davis, Jr.
Florida vouchers: What comes next?
By Libby Sternberg
A.P.: In or out?
Cheaper by the dozen
Second thoughts about second chances
Skin is in
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / January 12, 2006
There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of people in that society, who feel that they have no stake in it; who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have a stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don't have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it.
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Atlanta's Auburn Street at the turn of the 20th century was known as the "richest negro street in the world," a vibrant community of black businesses and learning. Locals called the area Sweet Auburn. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it home.
But in the years following Dr. King's death in 1968, Sweet Auburn crumbled - as did Harlem, Chicago's Southside, and other predominantly black inner-city communities. Wealth gave way to poverty, and K-12 education collapsed. Today, Sweet Auburn survives, with the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site at the center of the community. But standing in the middle of the site, one can be forgiven for looking around and wondering if King's dream of equality has died - especially equality in education.
It is no small irony that the King site is encircled by a black, metal fence that protects the historic area and its tens of thousands of visitors annually from the run-down community that rings it. Despite recent efforts to restore Sweet Auburn to its former luster, a park ranger told me two
Libby Sternberg / January 12, 2006
Now that the Florida Supreme Court has struck down the state's Opportunity Scholarship Program (which provided students in repeatedly failing public schools vouchers for use at private schools), it's important to evaluate that decision's implications for education in the Sunshine State and beyond.
Those agreeing with the Court's decision immediately urged voucher supporters to surrender. "Focus on improving public education," they said, "not on politics." Besides, voucher opponents argued, the Court's ruling affects only the 700-odd students who actually received Opportunity Scholarships. No big deal.
Wrong. It is a very big deal. Not only because Opportunity Scholarships were canned via an overreaching legal interpretation, and not just because the students impacted directly were by all accounts thriving in their new environments, but because the Court's decision will undoubtedly affect thousands of additional students.
Writing the Court's majority opinion, Chief Justice Barbara Pariente concluded that the Opportunity Scholarship program "diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools that are the sole means set out in the Constitution for the state to provide for the education of Florida's children" (italics added).
Pariente also objected to state funding for "schools that are not 'uniform' when compared with each other or the public system."
There are two flaws in the majority's logic. First, it boldly implies that public schools are the "sole means" by which the state may educate its students. Nowhere is that specified in the state
January 12, 2006
Are A.P. courses gateways to college and a better life, or roadblocks to high-level learning? Maybe it depends. For many school districts, especially those serving middle-class communities, A.P. classes are the pinnacle of their academic offerings, as well as something of a status symbol. So they vigorously promote A.P. enrollments by picking up the $89 tab for each exam or offering bonuses to teachers whose pupils pass the tests. "A.P.'s are not for the elite," says one superintendent. "They're for the prepared. And it's our job to prepare these kids." But the elite don't always harbor such egalitarian sentiments. In fact, many top-notch private schools are shunning the A.P. curriculum because teachers must move so quickly to cover all the required material. "[The A.P. courses are] not as valuable as what we could be offering on our own," snorts one private school guidance director. And competitive colleges, aware of A.P.'s growing popularity (and also aware of its lessening prestige), are increasing the test scores that incoming students must post for receipt of university credit. Fancy private schools dumbing-down their standards, regular public schools pumping up theirs: it's a novel way to close the achievement gap, but it just might work.
"The Two Faces of A.P.," by Tamar Lewin, New York Times, January 8, 2006
"Surviving a Midlife Crisis," by Andrew Mollison, Education Next, Winter 2006
January 12, 2006
The new alternative certification program (which turns mid-career professionals into public school teachers) in Pinellas County, Florida, has hit some bumpy patches. In this year, the program's first, it had a 25 percent attrition rate. District superintendent Clayton Wilcox admirably took responsibility, saying that administrative commitment to the program was lacking. The local teachers union certainly isn't committed to alternative certification: "It doesn't cost us a nickel to hire someone from a college of education," said the union rep. "If the district is paying for this, we ought to be getting something better than what we're getting for free." Teachers with greater maturity and stronger academic credentials - such as those recruited by good alternate route programs - are better than what districts get "for free." Unfortunately, as long as they lack the funding streams available to schools of education (e.g. state-subsidized tuitions, student loans), and as long as their participants find themselves in unsupportive, mind-numbingly inefficient surroundings, alternate route programs will struggle to expand, even if they and their teachers are an excellent investment in the long run.
"Teacher plan has dropout issue," by Donna Winchester, St. Petersburg Times, January 8, 2006
January 12, 2006
This week, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by a Nobel-laureate economist - and it wasn't Milton Friedman espousing the benefits of vouchers! Indeed, it was a column undercutting the school reform movement that Friedman helped spawn. James J. Heckman asserts that "a major finding from the research literature is that schools and school quality contribute little to the emergence of test-score gaps among children. By the second grade, gaps in ranks of test scores across socioeconomic groups are stable, suggesting that later schooling has little effect in reducing or widening the gaps that appear before students enter school." He continues by saying that "the best way to improve schools is to improve the students sent to them." This is best done, in his view, by investing in high-quality preschool initiatives such as the Perry Preschool Program. We have no complaints with rigorous, academically oriented, early childhood programs (see Eric Osberg's short review, below), though these are few and far between, and we would agree with Heckman that the track record of the K-12 system is uninspiring. But that's precisely why we need to implement strategies (like those in place at the KIPP Academies and other "culture of achievement" schools) that can, and do, give poor and minority students a fighting chance. Giving up on the schools' ability to turn around students' lives not only lets educators off the hook for poor pupil performance, it is akin to writing
January 12, 2006
Michigan's West Ottawa Public Schools has instituted a no-tolerance policy that's stunning in its immediacy, breadth, and severity. Because of safety and allergy concerns, every furry classroom pet will be summarily removed from schools. Assistant Superintendent David Zimmer justified the decision by citing a "need to be sensitive to the concerns of the whole community.... That's the same reason we've established peanut-free zones in schools where there are students who are allergic." But animal lovers need not fear. The district's hairless pets - which include a few snakes, a naked mole rat, and a Madagascar hissing cockroach (an insect featured on "Fear Factor") - were deemed classroom-safe. But the West Ottawa brass is behind on its medical reading. A study in the March 2005 issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that cockroaches are perhaps the worst instigators of asthmatic symptoms in children (see here). In the district's defense, however, it should be noted - Madagascar hissing cockroaches do not eat peanuts.
"School district expels classrooms' furry pets," Associated Press, January 7, 2005
Privatization "Philly Style": What Can Be Learned from Philadelphia's Diverse Provider Model of School Management
January 12, 2006
Jolley Bruce Christman, Eva Gold, and Benjamin Herod
Research for Action
Following a state takeover in 2001, Philadelphia's formerly blighted schools are today awash in Paul Vallas's innovative reforms (and a few bad ideas that he has presided over). These include: 1) permitting private management companies (EMO's) to run individual schools; 2) establishing a district-wide core curriculum and a system of benchmark exams; 3) placing the middle school grades in K-8 schools and creating smaller high schools; 4) adopting a district-wide zero-tolerance discipline policy; 5) and mandating extended-day programs. But not everything's coming up roses - perhaps because some of these reforms are working at cross-purposes. The authors suggest that private management companies are not raising test scores any faster than are district schools, and that no one provider (in a crowded field) stands out as much more effective than its competitors. The study also notes that the vigorous marketplace competition envisioned by Philly's school reform architects has been significantly diluted. Instead of competing against each other, providers are focused on working together to ensure the system's success as a whole. And while that cooperation sounds nice, it works against the competitive marketplace. Meanwhile, seemingly positive districtwide reforms (such as instituting a core curriculum and benchmark exams) had the unintended consequence of further weakening provider autonomy and eliminating distinctions among management companies. The fear now is that weakened competition may lead to complacency on the part of the management
Eric Osberg / January 12, 2006
The National Institute for Early Education Research, Rutgers University
W. Steven Barnett, Cynthia Lamy, and Kwanghee Jung
This short paper examines state-funded preschool programs in five states - Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia. In a nutshell, it finds that these state-funded preschool programs have "statistically significant and meaningful impacts on children's early language, literacy and mathematical development, with some evidence of an enhanced program effect for print awareness skills [understanding the fundamentals of print reading, e.g. words run from left to right] for children in low-income families." (They don't find any significant impact on "phonological awareness," a skill that aids in early reading acquisition.) The authors studied the skills displayed by a sample of kindergarten students, some of whom attended preschool. The study provides evidence that preschool indeed matters - though, as the authors make clear, the programs they evaluated appear to be of unusually high quality. Each requires its teachers to have four-year degrees with certifications in early childhood education. Thus, it's no surprise they find positive effects "at least 2 to 3 times as large" as a recent study of Head Start (see here). The report illustrates that academically-oriented pre-K staffed by well-prepared teachers can make an impact and put young students on an early path toward success. Their paper is available online here.