Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 4
January 26, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
Religion and schools
The religion police
FERPA: As bad as it sounds
Do-it-yourself education diversifying
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / January 26, 2006
Recently I found myself both mourning the Florida Supreme Court decision that invalidated the Sunshine State's Opportunity Scholarship (aka exit voucher) program and applauding the federal court ruling in Pennsylvania that barred intelligent design from the science classroom.
Both events speak, in part, to the role of religion in K-12 education and in our public policies bearing on schools. So why, I asked myself, did I react so differently to these two decisions?
In the Dover, PA case, Judge John Jones termed "intelligent design" a form of religion and said that, as such, its inclusion in the public school curriculum violated the First Amendment's "establishment" clause. Florida's highest court used a different constitutional basis for quashing the state's voucher program (the "uniformity" clause), but the suit had originally been brought to, and decided by, the lower courts on grounds that the program, by paying tuition in sectarian schools, violated the "Blaine amendment" to the Florida constitution, which disallows the flow of public funds to religious entities. The effect, however, was similar: in the court's view, private schools, including religious schools, are not legitimate destinations for state public-education dollars.
I'm no attorney, but to my eye the Florida judges made bad education policy. Moreover, they got there via reasoning very different from that which led the U.S. Supreme Court to okay the Cleveland voucher program in the 2002 Zelman decision.
In that case, the justices held that, so long as the parent, not
January 26, 2006
Christian creationists aren't the only devout Americans expressing angst over K-12 school curricula. Of late, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims have joined them. In California, for example, Hindus are pressing to change how their faith is described in state history texts. This dust-up started when the state curriculum commission offered for review (as part of California's infamous "state adoption" system) several history textbooks aimed at sixth-grade students. The Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), a Hindu nationalist group, demanded substantial changes. Among them, that the state refute the well-established theory that Hinduism was created not by Indians, but by Aryans from the Central Asian steppe lands. Publishers are also feeling this kind of pressure. Oxford Press altered a textbook (written for American K-12 schools) when Jewish groups complained about its statement that the biblical account of the Exodus isn't supported by archaeology and Egyptian records. Likewise, Prentice Hall has rewritten some of its textbooks based on complaints from Muslim groups such as the Council on Islamic Education. Religious controversy - it isn't just about Darwin anymore.
"New Battleground in Textbook Wars: Religion in History," by Daniel Golden, Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2006 (paid subscription required)
"India history spat hits US," by Scott Baldauff, Christian Science Monitor, January 24, 2006
January 26, 2006
Though the Bush Administration talks nonstop about the essential role of rigorous research in informing education policy and practice (see here for example), it has made little progress removing one of the biggest barriers to such research. So reports Education Week in a front-page examination of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act - or FERPA. First passed in 1974 and designed to protect student privacy, the law's strict regulations keep scholars from accessing student-level data - which they want to use not to probe the lives of Johnny or Mary but to track and analyze academic gains by blocks of kids from one year to the next. Explains Hoover Institution fellow (and 2004 Fordham prize winner) Eric Hanushek, "It's a simple matter that, if we want our schools to improve, we have to make it possible to do some of the fundamental research on what affects achievement.... If we stop that, we're stuck." Scholars' best hope may be Assistant Secretary of Education Tom Luce, who ran into his own FERPA headaches in his previous life as the head of the data-centric Just for the Kids, and who now oversees the Department's policy shop. If anyone can loosen the law or its accompanying regulations, it's Luce.
"Scholars Cite Privacy Law as Obstacle," by Debra Viadero, Education Week, January 18, 2006 (paid subscription required)
January 26, 2006
Time was that "diversity" in the home-school movement referred to the handful of hippies that showed up at meetings and protests along with throngs of white Christian fundamentalists. No more, says Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute. "There's an obvious ... change," he tells the Baltimore Sun. "In some local...conferences, the majority...is African-American or Hispanic." Jennifer James, founder of the National African-American Homeschoolers Alliance in North Carolina, says black parents are tired of watching their children struggle academically. Frustrated by the dearth of quality public school options, many have vowed to do a better job themselves. Perhaps homeschooling's widening appeal will serve as a wake-up call to shoddy public schools: Offer a quality education, or your students will vote with their feet. (And not just those wearing Birkenstocks.)
"Home schooling draws more blacks," by Rona Marech, Baltimore Sun, January 23, 2006
January 26, 2006
Are vermin running amok in U.S. schools? The Chicago Tribune reports that portions of Bowen High School's cafeteria were closed "after inspectors from Mayor Daley's Dumpster Task Force discovered a mouse infestation problem there." And the Raleigh News & Observer reported last week that "Wake Forest-Rolesville High School is beginning to resemble a roach motel." But Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Terre Haute, Indiana surely tops the "unwanted guests" category. It seems that crows have landed en masse at the school. So audacious a bird, the crow, that even blaring Alice Cooper music couldn't scare them away. (Perhaps the school should simply have hung Alice Cooper posters on the walls.) But the folks in Terre Haute don't back down easily; they roll in the heavy artillery. This week, the school was to begin firing (every 20 minutes, every day from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.) a liquid propane cannon that produces booms of 130 decibels. Possibly they should have checked first with Decatur, Illinois, which previously tried similar anti-crow cannon tactics but succeeded only in shattering windows. Psst...call the crow whisperer.
"Mice shut down hot lunch service at Bowen cafeteria," Chicago Tribune, January 18, 2006 (registration required)
"School battles roaches," by T. Keung Hui, Raleigh News & Observer, January 18, 2006
"Terre Haute crows face cannon blasts," Associated Press, January 20, 2006
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / January 26, 2006
Frank McCourt; Scribner; 2005 and Jean-Paul Brighelli; Jean-Claude Gawsewitch ??diteur; 2005 (Available only in French, through Amazon)
Frank McCourt (the author of Angela's Ashes and a veteran teacher in the New York public schools) is a remarkable storyteller and talented writer. So it's no surprise that his new best-seller, Teacher Man, has its moments. One with his literary gifts and 30 years teaching experience to draw upon can hardly miss. Unfortunately, McCourt finds a way. He grumps about everything: The students who, at times, he appears to care little for; administrators who make his days miserable; and the friends who don't understand how hard his life is. To be sure, discontent with education's establishment isn't a bad thing. Some have channeled such frustration into great achievements (e.g. KIPP Academies, Aspire Schools, Open Court Reading System). But McCourt has no such interest. He isn't out to improve education, but to celebrate teachers - the great ones, the truly bad ones, and everyone in between. To really appreciate how banal most of his latest ramblings are, pick up Jean-Paul Brighelli's new work (available only in French), The Manufacture of Cretins: The Programmed Death of School. Like McCourt, Brighelli is a best-selling author (albeit in France) and a discontented teacher. But there the similarities end. While McCourt whines, Brighelli casts his lot among the growing contingent of teachers fighting back against an elite-dominated French education system that ignores the immigrant and poor students
January 26, 2006
Justin D. Baer, Andrea L. Cook, and Stephane Baldi
American Institutes for Research
The news media pounced on this study about college students' shaky literacy and blamed the universities for those shortcomings (see here, for instance). In so doing, they missed the more important point: literacy problems incubate much earlier than college. Consider the report's disquieting finding that 30 percent of students in 2-year colleges and 20 percent in 4-year colleges have "quantitative literacy" levels at Basic or below. That means such skills as balancing a checkbook, figuring a tip, or calculating interest on a loan. These simple skills should be mastered by fifth grade. Do we expect our universities to offer remedial courses on price comparison and tip calculation (TIP-102: Generosity has a number) for befuddled literature and geography majors? Where academia falls down is in its refusal to set meaningful standards for entry; if every student had to demonstrate his or her ability to read, write, and compute before matriculating, much of this problem would vanish. Here's my advice: skip this report and pick up the National Center for Education Statistics report on adult literacy (reviewed here) instead. Assuming, of course, that you can read it.
An Evaluation of the Effect of D.C.'s Voucher Program on Public School Achievement and Racial Integration After One Year
January 26, 2006
Jay R. Greene and Marcus A. Winters
Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute
One of the primary purposes of Washington, D.C.'s, Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) - a federally sponsored voucher program launched in 2004 - is to test the effectiveness of private school choice as an educational innovation. To that end, it has spawned several independent evaluations (like the one we reviewed here), along with the Congressionally-mandated impact evaluation (whose first-year results are reported here). This third study asks two fresh questions about the program. First, has it increased racial integration in D.C. schools? And second, has OSP created a "competitive effect," boosting the academic performance of public schools in the District? The study did find that OSP has provided more opportunities for integrated schooling in D.C. (specifically in private schools), but - not surprisingly - the academic effects of OSP vouchers on the District's public education system are minimal. To determine OSP's academic influence, the authors looked at test score gains or losses in District public schools between 2003-04 and 2004-05. Further, they looked at those schools' locations. In theory, a smaller geographic distance between a public school and voucher-accepting private school should correlate with increased competition. Thus, the authors could measure voucher effects on public schools' performance by evaluating test score gains or losses through the lens of geographic proximity. And "while using proximity [of public schools] to competing schools has proven a workable