Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 1
January 5, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
Defining school violence down
Help is on its way
No gifts for gifted children
Counting to ten
Let them eat cake!
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / January 5, 2006
This past November, school violence again made headlines. The latest federal data was released in Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2005, which tallied and analyzed the incidence of theft, violent crime, and teacher victimization in 2003. Brimming with demographic stats, the Indicators highlighted a nontrivial decline in school violence over the previous decade. In particular, it noted that the incidence of victimization among 12-18 year-old students fell by almost 50 percent between 1992 and 2003.
Surely, not a bad thing. But hold the applause. In fact, the violence rate in U.S. schools held steady from 1999 to 2003 at an average of 70 incidents per 1,000 students among 12-18 year olds. Violent incidents include theft, bullying, teacher victimization, rape, sexual assault, aggravated assault, and murder. This means that about 1 in 13 secondary students experiences some sort of victimization at school during the year.
How alarmed should we be? Set aside for now the serious matter of whether such data are accurate. (Experts in the field say these federal reports understate the true incidence of school violence because the Education and Justice departments base their information on surveys and "academic studies," not actual episodes reported to police and other law enforcement agencies.)
Try also to set aside one's horrified outrage at the rare but recurrent high-profile shootings on school campuses, such as Columbine in 1999 and the past year's grim episodes in Minnesota and Tennessee. We are properly shocked and
January 5, 2006
It's better late than never; the thousands of children who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina are about to get federal assistance with their educations. While Congress took its time finalizing the package, the result is fair and reasonable. Importantly, it does not discriminate against parents who chose a non-public school for their displaced children. Aid is coming in two forms: 1) $645 million is earmarked for covering the costs associated with educating students who fled the disaster. States that took in hurricane victims will receive up to $6,000 per student ($7,500 for special ed students) they have accommodated. The money will flow to local school districts, who will cover the costs of displaced students attending both public and non-public schools. 2) $750 million will be distributed to both public and non-public schools in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas to offset the cost of re-opening their doors. Predictably, and shamelessly, NEA's Reg Weaver (a.k.a., "The Grinch") slammed the program, saying the bill is "the worst assault on public education in American history. For the first time ever, taxpayers will be forced to pay for a nationwide voucher program." While the program might be an important precedent, demonstrating Congress's willingness to support the education of private school students, it is mostly a compassionate response to a national tragedy. Still, as Eric Hanushek of the Koret Task Force on Education says, "We would hope that it doesn't take a natural disaster to get
January 5, 2006
What if the No Child Left Behind Act works as intended? That's the question addressed by Susan Goodkin in her perceptive Washington Post op-ed, which argues that the law's focus on boosting low-performing students to the "proficient" level (as defined by the states) is harming gifted and talented students who are already far above that meager designation of adequacy. NCLB punishes schools for not improving the test scores of low-performing students, but it assiduously ignores academically gifted youngsters who often languish in classrooms where they are neither challenged nor engaged. Concludes Goodkin, "NCLB may end up producing an entire generation of merely proficient students - a generation that will end up working for the science leaders produced by other countries." This charge deserves to be taken seriously - and examined with empirical evidence - rather than dismissed out of hand by NCLB supporters. Our education system should be designed to help all students achieve their full potential, and that's the only way NCLB will achieve its full potential.
"Leave No Gifted Child Behind," by Susan Goodkin, Washington Post, December 27, 2005
January 5, 2006
It's that time once again. Education Week has released its major (and as always, a bit unwieldy) annual Quality Counts report. This year's theme is "A Decade of Standards-Based Education." There are some bright spots, including an interesting regression model that shows increased student achievement linked to more-stringent state-level policies on standards, testing, and accountability. In the category of old news, NAEP scores from 1992-2005 display clear gains in math and flat-lined results in reading. (See here.) Another nonshocker: there is no correlation between equitable school financing and student achievement. (See here.) There's lots to read, including traditional state-by-state grades and analyses at the back of the book, and some thoughtful commentaries, especially one by Diane Ravitch calling for national standards and tests. Give it a read, but try not to lift it one-handed.
January 5, 2006
Just before the holiday season, some 5,500 Birmingham middle school students received an early gift: the option to leave their failing schools. The city's school system was planning to offer students in its 17 low-performing middle schools voluntary tutoring, rather than the option of transferring to one of the district's better-performing schools. A community group complained to the U.S. Department of Education, which promptly ordered the Birmingham school system to offer the youngsters their NCLB-guaranteed option to transfer. The district said it was simply trying to avoid a mass exodus and overcrowding with the tutoring offer, but the excuses sound disingenuous. This past August, BSS sent 3,000 letters to children locked in failing elementary schools offering them a transfer, and only 23 took them up on the offer. Some "exodus." Gadfly has faith that the Magic City can find a way to accommodate those middle school students who might just desire a better education than their chronically failing schools provide. Kudos to the feds for not backing down from this one.
"U.S. orders city to allow middle school transfers," by Gigi Douban, Birmingham News, December 21, 2005
January 5, 2006
As if the NEA's pretending to care about helping schools and students wasn't bad enough, we now know it doesn't really care that much about helping teachers, either. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial highlighted how the nation's largest teachers union - that is, an organization ostensibly dedicated to bettering the prospects of, yup, teachers - spent about a third of last year's member dues on political goals, many of which have little to do with improving educators' lives. (How does Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition help teachers?) Further, the NEA "has a $58 million payroll for just over 600 employees, more than half of whom draw six-figure salaries." But that doesn't mean the union isn't looking out for you, teachers of America. The NEA website opines: "As the national voice of more than 2.7 million public education employees, NEA knows that too many educators have been denied professional pay for too long.... Toward this end, NEA supports a minimum salary of at least $40,000 for all teachers in our nation's public schools and at least a living wage for every education support professional." Hear, hear! Living wages for all teachers! And caviar, Cuban cigars, and bottles of Cristal and 1986 Ch??teau Mouton Rothschild for the union reps who so dearly love them!
"Teachers' Pets," Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2005
Eric Osberg / January 5, 2006
American Institutes for Research
As reports go, this one is as close to a thriller read as it gets. In this brief but fascinating analysis American Institutes for Research (AIR) brings fresh, and surprising, insights to the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) results for students in grades 4 and 8, and the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results for students aged 15. Many folks have used these results to demonstrate our schools' mediocrity relative to those in other nations, especially at the secondary school level. For example, our own Mayhem in the Middle report noted that "in math, our fourth graders were at the international average, but by eighth grade, students in 27 other countries scored higher than U.S. students, with significant differences in 20 of those." (These numbers are based on 1995 TIMSS scores.) While AIR doesn't dispute such points (in fact, it finds "consistently mediocre U.S. results on all three assessments"), it does say the reality is not so simple. To begin, the three assessments (TIMSS-4, TIMSS-8, and PISA) tested different countries. When one examines our relative standing against a common subset of those countries, we fare the same across all three assessments - U.S. scores do not plummet as the children age (we're consistently ranked 8th or 9th out of 12 nations). But this is just the beginning. Noting that TIMSS focuses on content knowledge, while PISA emphasizes real-world
Libby Sternberg / January 5, 2006
The Education Trust
We know a lot about closing achievement gaps among the very young, but what about among adolescents? This report examines ways to improve American high schools for the 9th grade students who are already behind. Because the focus is on poorly achieving students, the authors didn't look to ritzy schools with high-flying test scores for insights. Instead, they only examined ones with high-poverty, high-minority populations and compared so-called "average-impact" high schools (those whose students achieve, on average, below state test standards) with "high-impact" high schools (those whose students post, on average, achievement data in line with their states' averages) in order to determine the characteristics that distinguished one type from the other. Researchers talked to students, teachers, and administrators and collected class schedules, student transcripts, and assignments. They conducted multiday site visits and observed classroom instruction. The results don't surprise. "High-impact high schools are clearly focused on preparing students for life beyond high school - specifically, college and careers," while average-impact high schools concentrate merely on graduation. Moreover, while schools in both categories offer support for new teachers, average-impact high schools focus on personal and social interaction among staff, while high-impact high schools spend far more time on imparting new arrivals with curriculum and instruction advice. Creating a culture of achievement, setting high expectations that correlate to set standards, and encouraging students to challenge themselves academically is a recipe for success. It's not a panacea for
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / January 5, 2006
Donald R. McAdams
Teachers College Press
Veteran Houston school reformer (and 12-year school board member) Don McAdams, who also leads the Center for Reform of School Systems, authored this 175-page handbook for urban board members who want to reform their school systems. As former Education Secretary (and former Houston superintendent and school board colleague) Rod Paige says in the foreword, the book offers "a comprehensive theory of governance described by a simple conceptual framework that encompasses all the work of a reform board. Everything is here: from big ideas about core beliefs and theories of action for change, to the fundamental relationships and processes by which boards and superintendents work together, to the leadership responsibility boards have to build community support for sustained change." This volume may not get as large a readership as would benefit from it - so have a look, and spread the word. You can obtain ordering information here. (Be warned: it's pricey for a paperback.)