Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 9
March 2, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
Shame on the Land of Lincoln
News & Analysis
U.S. students lag behind their peers in other modern nations-and the gap widens dramatically as their grade levels rise. Our high school pupils (and graduates) are miles from where they need to be to assure them and our country a secure future in the highly competitive global economy. Hence, any serious effort at education reform hinges on our setting world-class standards, then candidly tracking performance in relation to those standards. Even when gains are slender and results disappointing, we need the plain truth. Which is why recent attempts by federal and state governments to sugarcoat the performance of students is so alarming.
Our most rigorous standards are those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federally funded testing program that began in 1969. At a time when many states, responding to the accountability prods of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, are embracing low performance norms for their students-and pumping out misleading information about how many youngsters are "proficient" and how many schools are making "adequate yearly progress"-NAEP functions as an indispensable external benchmark. It unblinkingly reported that only 29 percent of eighth grade public school pupils were "proficient" in math and reading in 2005. It also showed starkly that the results reported by many states are far too rosy. Observe here the contrasts between what states claimed and what NAEP found.
Not surprisingly, NAEP's role as honest auditor makes state officials
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / March 2, 2006
Editor' Note: Last month the Fordham Foundation announced the winners of its two annual prizes: Distinguished Scholarship, and Valor. This week, we profile the winners for Valor—Michael Feinberg and David Levin, founders of KIPP Academy. Last week, we profiled the Distinguished Scholarship winner—Caroline Minter Hoxby of Harvard University.
Their story has reached near-mythic proportions in education circles. Two young Ivy League grads who joined Teach for America and initially floundered as teachers mixed rigor with ritual to produce a model for learning that became the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP)-arguably the most successful, and surely the most famous, charter school brand in the country.
And while careful study played an important role in launching the duo from Penn and Yale into the rarified air of celebrity educators, so, too, did their relative innocence. "Knowledge is power," Feinberg says, "but ignorance is bliss."
Their odyssey began in Houston in 1993, where Feinberg and Levin took elementary school teaching positions as members of Teach for America. When they realized they could barely control their classrooms, much less teach students a great deal, they began looking for solutions. They turned to Harriet Ball, a teacher in Levin's school who used chants, rhymes, and games to keep order and impart knowledge, and whose success was plain to the eye. The two novice teachers spent hours with Ball, dissecting her approach and bringing it into their classrooms. They saw immediate results-and got immediate push-back from the
March 2, 2006
Last week, Illinois's education board lowered the score needed to pass its eighth-grade math test, an exam that almost half the state's students flunked last year. Board member David Fields cautioned that the decision to ease the cut score, coming on the heels of last year's relaxing of standards, might be viewed as "gaming the system." Might be? As the Illinois Business Roundtable put it, the state's latest move will result in "nearly 32,000 more students meeting Illinois's math standards on the basis of an administrative stroke of the pen." We'd note the obvious race to the bottom here-and underscore the points made by Ravitch and Finn above-but that phrase is wearing thin due to overuse. Sprint to the pits, anyone?
"State may ease test norms," by Diane Rado, Chicago Tribune, February 23, 2006
"Board lowers passing score on tough state math test," by Rosalind Rossi, Chicago Sun-Times, February 24, 2006
March 2, 2006
The prevailing wisdom is that TV is no friend of education. (They don't call it the "Idiot Box" for nothing, right?) But two economists from the University of Chicago conducted a study and found that TV-watching makes "very little difference and if anything, a slight positive advantage" in student test scores. The economists took advantage of a natural experiment, evaluating data from the 1940s and early 1950s, when television was introduced in different U.S. cities at different times. Unfortunately, the study did not control for what children watched, nor does it give precise information about how many hours children spent in front of their TV screens. These are awfully big limitations; the benefits of watching, say, the Texaco Star Theater in the 50s probably do not extend to children today spending their afternoons absorbing the latest MTV Real World marathon. When compulsive TV viewing takes the place of studying, pleasure reading, or active outdoor fun, it's not a good thing. And we've yet to see any study challenge that.
"Study Finds Test Scores Not Lowered by Television," by Elisabeth Jensen, New York Times, February 27, 2006
March 2, 2006
Readers learn from a Los Angeles Times op-ed that all is not well with the kindergarten set. Meet Ricky, whose Mommy is worried because her son is being forced to write his name, not only in capital letters, but with a mixture of the upper and lower cases. It gets worse. Ricky’s mom is alarmed that kindergarten is becoming “a 30-hour-a-week job. There’s nightly homework; finger painting is a rare treat; and as for naps, there just isn’t time.” And what’s to blame for this fascistic regime of rationed coloring contests? Standardized testing, of course. “Higher test scores mean more cash,” Mommy tells us, though it’s not quite clear whose pockets she has in mind. So kindergarten teachers—Sesame Street Gordon Gekkos, perhaps, twisted with merit pay greed—work their classes to the bone. (P.S.: Merit pay in LA? That’s news to us.) “If school is drudgery from the start, it’s no wonder that the Los Angeles Unified School District has a high dropout rate.” Mommy, we know you mean well, but teenagers in South Central aren’t leaving school because of extended handwriting practice as 5-year-olds. They’re more apt to drop out because they never learned to write (or read). If you want little Ricky to become a bon vivant, you might take him to France—where they start teaching real academic skills at age three (Quelle horreur!) and still manage to imbue learning with joy.
“My kid, a
Michael J. Petrilli / March 2, 2006
Julian R. Betts and Tom Loveless, Editors
Brookings Institution Press
This collection of academic essays starts with an appropriate premise: school choice is here to stay, so the focus of research should be on getting its details right. This book does an admirable job of raising important questions. How do parents make their school choice decisions? What happens to students who stay behind in non-choice schools? How does school choice impact racial integration or the development of civic values? Why do "choice" schools perform better than regular public schools? But it provides frustratingly few answers and little fresh data. For instance, in their chapter "How School Choice Affects Achievement," Loveless and Frederick M. Hess discuss the attraction of "looking inside the black box" of choice schools to understand why many of them outperform their rivals, but they admit that their essay "offered more questions than answers." Elements that make choice schools effective-such as high parental participation and strong student engagement-might be replicable within an expanded choice system, Loveless and Hess argue, but they also might not. This volume's greatest strength is building a stronger theoretical base for future research. For example, Betts argues that, while the education realm will never be a perfect market, there are many reasons to believe that more competition is almost always better than less. Another helpful piece, this one by Brian Gill, provides some context for policymakers concerned with using choice to promote racial and economic
Eric Osberg / March 2, 2006
Center on Education Policy
February 28, 2006
Restructuring is the last resort of NCLB and of California's state accountability system. Schools that repeatedly fail to achieve adequate yearly progress are to be dramatically reshaped, and that reshaping process may take a variety of forms. The report illustrates that, when faced with a range of restructuring options, California schools and districts have almost always opted for the least disruptive. Seventy-six percent of California schools in restructuring took paths such as hiring academic coaches and appointing leadership teams to oversee schools. More-drastic restructuring routes such as replacing staff (an action that just 28 percent took), contracting with an outside organization (14 percent), or reopening as a charter school (2 percent) were far less popular. The paper's just-the-facts approach may frustrate readers who hope to draw conclusions about what works and what doesn't; it's simply too early to know. The "results" described in the case studies are not actually results; they're examples of school restructuring (e.g., offering professional development, altering the school day, or adding for students a program on study habits) intended to bring about better results. Nonetheless, it's clear that even seemingly small changes cause real anxiety among teachers. The report also notes that the state department of education "decided to land right in the middle" between a hands-on approach and leaving restructuring decisions to the districts (the level of state oversight varies from one state to the next). One hopes a future report can