Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 20
May 18, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
By Martin A. Davis, Jr.
California judge fails his exam
Spellings stiffens spine
Take this job and shove it
Education policy, up in smoke
This week, Mike and Rick light up California for its half-baked jurisprudence, smoke out why Tampa Bay-area teachers are so sullen, and have an enlightened conversation about whether students caught with drugs should lose their federal student aid. Tom Loveless talks arithmetic, and News of the Weird is a scream. Whoop there it is, all in 15 minutes!
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / May 18, 2006
A lot of American students are firing up their computers to get the tutoring help they need. A typical session goes something like this:
An instant messaging-type window opens, and the conversation-often an audio one--begins. "Hello, Brian. This is Ralph. Let's continue last week's review of algebra."
Only Ralph isn't Ralph-he's Raj. And he isn't sitting in a call center in Chicago, but a call center in Calcutta. He also has a Ph.D. in economics and several years experience teaching at the high school and college levels.
But Raj doesn't carry a teaching credential from any American state. Moreover, because Brian's school has been on the failing list for three consecutive years, the U.S. company that hired Raj is paying him with Title I funds.
And that's the rub, Rob Weil of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) tells the Washington Post. (See the story here.) "Quality control doesn't end at 3 o'clock when the school bell rings," he said. "If you need a highly qualified teacher in school at 2:59, you should have a qualified teacher as a tutor after school at 3:01."
On one level, his position is fair. There are lots of tutors out there, and those who provide Supplemental Educational Services (SES)-an NCLB provision that provides tutoring for students in failing schools (see here and here)-and are paid with government funds ought to be monitored for quality. Indeed, federal law requires this. If providers can't prove that
May 18, 2006
As the law now stands, young adults convicted of a drug-related offense are ineligible for federal student aid. It sounds reasonable on the surface. But ultimately, the policy fails on both economic and moral grounds. And it actively works against the main goal of K-12 education: getting students to college and keeping them there (provided they do the work and meet standards).
Defenders of the policy, embedded in the Higher Education Act which is now up for review, make compelling arguments. Reasonable people agree that drug use is unhealthy (not to mention illegal). Withholding student aid dollars from drug abusers, the law's proponents say, establishes an added disincentive to dabble in illicit substances. Economic theory says that slapping an extra "tax" on drugs-in this case, the loss of federal student aid-will lower their appeal to youngsters. Such an action is good for both the government and for dissuaded potheads.
And then there's the emotional argument: the government should not be paying those who break its laws, especially because drugs cost money-money that could be going toward tuition and books (or food and job training).
But here's why those arguments fail.
Eighteen-year-olds are not noted for their rational thinking. It's naïve to assume that the high school senior, offered some marijuana at a party, will base his or her inhalation decision on calculations
May 18, 2006
Last week, an Oakland superior court judge struck down the Golden State's mandate that all high school students pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) to graduate. The class of 2006 is the first to face the requirement. Consequently, the more than 46,000 students who repeatedly failed the state's reading-and-math exam (which tests prospective high school graduates on middle school level knowledge) will now receive a meaningless diploma. Judge Robert Freedman defended the decision this way: "There is evidence...that shows that students in economically challenged communities have not had an equal opportunity to learn the materials tested." He's correct-no one can defend the shoddy education that many public school districts provide-but the solution is not for the state to lower its exit expectations. State Superintendent Jack O'Connell, who authored the graduation requirement during his tenure as a legislator, said California will appeal the decision in an effort to "maintain the integrity" of the test, but this matter will likely linger in the courts for a long time to come. Students have multiple opportunities to pass-and this year, the state provided an additional $65 million to tutor struggling seniors. Russlynn Ali, director of Education Trust-West, points out that without the exit exam, "We have even less leverage to...ensure that all students master the basic skills they will need to succeed in college and in the workforce. If we lose the CAHSEE and the accountability attached to it,
May 18, 2006
This past week brought three signals that Secretary Spellings and her team are emerging from their "flexibility" phase and ready to rumble with the education establishment. First, Assistant Secretary Henry Johnson warned nine states that some of their federal funding is at risk unless they start taking NCLB's "highly qualified teachers" requirement more seriously. "At some point," Johnson told the Associated Press, "there was, I suspect, a little bit of notion that 'This too shall pass.' Well, the day of reckoning is here, and it's not going to pass." Boom. Then, Spellings announced the 17 members of the new National Mathematics Panel, many of whom are traditionalists who eschew the fuzzy math enamored by the profession. Veteran math warriors Tom Loveless, Hung-Hsi Wu, and Wilfried Schmid, one of the authors of the Fordham review of state mathematics standards, are among her bold selections. Finally, and most significantly, she announced that her growth-model pilot program will initially be limited to just two states (Tennessee and North Carolina), keeping it from becoming another loophole that states can drive a truck through. She maintained her tough but appropriate stance that only certain kinds of growth models can make the grade-specifically, those that expect schools to show significant progress with students who are far behind. That won't satisfy the anti-accountability crowd-North Carolina's new system provides reprieve to merely 40 schools out of 900-but it's the only defensible
May 18, 2006
A recent St. Petersburg Times survey found that last year over half of the Tampa Bay metro area's teachers considered leaving their jobs, and that "41 percent of teachers with 15-plus years' experience look back on their careers and wish they had chosen another profession." The dissatisfied teachers' complaints weren't all about salaries, either. Lack of autonomy in the classroom, overweening school bureaucracy, and constant testing were major concerns as well. But Pinellas County (St. Petersburg) Superintendent Clayton Wilcox isn't buying it. While he expresses concern over the survey's results, he denies that "everything was good in the old days" before high-stakes tests. "If that was the case," he asked, "why weren't we getting [good classroom performance] before?" Wilcox has a point, but so do micromanaged teachers. Here's a compromise. Districts should emulate charter schools and demand that students achieve academically, but not dictate how professional educators run their classrooms. Yes, it's all about the kids. But leaders must also remember that we need high-quality teachers-who are satisfied in their profession-to catalyze the student achievement we all desire.
"Teachers troubled with job, poll says," by Thomas C. Tobin and Melanie Ave, St. Petersburg Times, May 14, 2006
May 18, 2006
Michael Maxwell, a high school teacher in St. Joseph, Missouri, was suspended from work this week after asking his class to write an essay about the person they would most like to murder and how they would do it. The macabre nature of this project was exacerbated by the fact that Maxwell is an industrial technology teacher (the class formerly known as SHOP), and he gave the writing assignment to his drafting class. One wonders why drafting students are writing horror stories, especially when drafting class is such a swell place to construct a murder implement. Sadly, news reports didn't elaborate on how the students' essays turned out, though Gadfly can't get gory scenes from Child's Play 2 out of his mind. Our guess for most popular subject and method? Paris Hilton, with a candlestick, in the kitchen.
"Mo. Teacher Suspended Over Assignment," Associated Press, May 15, 2006
Michael J. Petrilli / May 18, 2006
U.S. Department of Education
Policy and Program Studies Service
At first blush, this weighty publication appears to be much the same as the National Assessment of Title I Interim Report (reviewed here). To be sure, there's overlap. This report was included in the Congressionally mandated Interim Report-a compilation of federally funded Title I studies, several of which were not yet published. But there's plenty of new material here that provides fresh insight into the early years of implementing No Child Left Behind at the state, district, and school level. (The study provides data from 2001-02 through 2003-04.) Some highlights from the nationally representative survey:
- Schools identified as "in need of improvement" are increasingly concentrated in big urban districts. That's no surprise because states' various games and gimmicks (such as excluding subgroups from accountability unless they are large enough) most often let suburban schools off the hook.
- Among a menu of school improvement efforts (such as adopting new math and reading curricula or boosting teacher collaboration), only one strategy consistently helped schools get off the "needs improvement" list: aligning curriculum and professional development with state standards.
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / May 18, 2006
Occasional Paper 119
In today's struggle to advance charter schools, who's wagging the dog? In this fascinating look at the complex world of local and state-level politicking over charter schools, Kirst argues that the war for charters will be won not by high-power Washington-types in suits, but by the rag-tag collection of leaders and organizations working to establish charters across the nation. "At the national level," Kirst writes, "charters are part of political competition between two competing advocacy networks that want to expand or constrain school choice." However, this struggle between the two superpowers "obscures the wide variety of charter school political action that takes place at the state and local level." He outlines the wide variety of local and state-level groups both for and against charters, and the multifarious ways in which they operate. Kirst provides insight into why, for example, a proposed conversion charter school in Sacramento generated a political firestorm, while a proposed start-up charter in the same city garnered barely a complaint. Or why Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown couldn't sell his idea for a National Guard military charter to local leaders, but had no trouble selling it to state officials. The legion of variables at the state and local level means that the charter war is not as simple as being on the choice side or the traditional public school side. "The winner between the two major competing advocacy coalitions," Kirst concludes, "will vary