Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 18
May 4, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
It's all about the authorizers
Voucher trouble from Key West to Kennebunk
Ignoring charmed schools in Charm City
This school would rock
A school board renaissance?
Rick Hess sings the?National Charter Schools Week Blues
This week, Mike and Rick debate the finer points of Maine constitutional law, pontificate on why Baltimore's school leaders refuse to learn from success stories in their midst, and put under the microscope PEN's new report about public opinion of NCLB. Nelson Smith discusses National Charter Schools Week, and News of the Weird has a serious case of Stockholm syndrome. This ain't your father's 15-minute podcast!
Over the past decade, champions of bold K-12 education reform, ourselves included, have often termed charter schools the most promising innovation. It's fitting that this week-National Charter Schools Week-educators, reformers, and policymakers are examining where the charter movement stands and where it's headed.
Here's what we see: charters are educationally diverse (though they can be grouped into useful categories). That they face severe obstacles both financial (see Charter School Finance: Inequity's Next Frontier) and political (here's one such example). And perhaps most importantly, that authorizing-the act of actually chartering or licensing these schools-is the key to creating high quality charter schools (see our new report, Trends in Charter School Authorizing). Indeed, chartering is the most promising educational innovation of our time-and the one that could have the greatest impact if embraced and replicated by the traditional public-education system.
To be sure, there's little you can find in charter schools that doesn't also exist somewhere in the vast and varied world of public and private schools. But the process of authorizing new public schools-allowing them to open, overseeing their progress, shutting them down if necessary, but not actually running them, as traditional school districts do-is entirely new. This radically different approach to school regulation points to a promising "third way" between the laissez-faire approach of most voucher programs and the crippling red tape of the traditional school system.
Getting the balance right is hard
May 4, 2006
Last month, the Washington Post's David Broder wrote a column
trumpeting the value of teaching civics to American students. He
interviewed Sandra Day O'Connor and former Colorado Governor Roy Romer
(now serving as Superintendent of Los Angeles's schools), both of whom
are spokespersons for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (CMS).
A trip to CMS's website reveals many applause-worthy sentiments-indeed, simply acknowledging the importance of civics education is commendable.
Yet both CMS and Broder's fawning column make the same mistake that plagues many civic education initiatives. Instead of proposing that students learn civics through rigorous study of historical events, meaty biographies of important Americans, or lessons that integrate American history and politics with philosophy and character education, CMS offers a different model. One that puts the cart before the horse.
CMS offers "six promising approaches to civic learning" of which "Guided discussion of current local, national, and international issues and events" is one. What does this look like? The organization envisions teachers discussing "issues students find personally relevant ... in a way that encourages multiple points of view."
The problems with this proposal are legion. It says that issues discussed be limited to those that "students find personally relevant." One wonders how relevant most 14-year-olds would find many international events, such as the recent country-wide protests in Nepal or Chinese President Hu Jintao's U.S.
May 4, 2006
Private scholarship programs faced turbulent waters up and down the Atlantic coast this week. In Florida, a constitutional amendment to undo the state Supreme Court's anti-voucher decision failed in the Senate by one vote, and although the Senate may reconsider the issue, it seems unwilling to do so (patience is waning). The stakes are high, especially for the hundreds of low-income students participating in the Opportunity Scholarship Program who are headed back to crummy public schools unless the governor and his allies prevail. Meanwhile, Maine's supreme court ruled that lawmakers are free to exclude religious schools from the state's "tuitioning program," which allows, Vermont-style, rural families to send their children to private schools at government expense (in the absence of a nearby public school). But there is a silver lining. According to the court, the legislature is free to add the religious-schools option if it wants to. The Institute for Justice-which argues that excluding religious schools from the program is tantamount to religious discrimination-is hinting at an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Here's hoping for smoother sailing on the shores of the mighty Potomac.
"Senate reverses, keeps hope for vouchers alive," by Joni James and Letitia Stein, St. Petersburg Times, May 3, 2006
"Bush suffers voucher defeat," by Letitia Stein and Steve Bousquet, St. Petersburg Times, May 2, 2006
"Court: State still can't fund religious schools," by David Sharp, Central Maine Morning
May 4, 2006
Several weeks ago, Baltimore managed to thwart a state takeover of several failing schools, including seven of the city's twenty-three failing middle schools (see here). This week, another story brings the Baltimore school district's bureaucratic inertia into sharp relief. City officials say the reason there's been little progress toward improving middle schools is a dearth of high-quality models to replicate. Yet the Baltimore Sun managed to find two high-achieving middle schools without leaving the city limits (and Cheri Yecke offered yet another local alternative). So what's the real problem? The high-achieving schools- Crossroads Academy and KIPP's Ujima Academy-are charter schools. And though Alexandra Hughes, assistant to the Baltimore schools CEO, pledges that the district plans to use "some of the things that are working for the charters," Jason Botel, the KIPP principal, doesn't buy it. "There hasn't really been a concerted effort for a dialogue," he said. Gadfly isn't surprised. The Sun points out that in order for Baltimore to replicate successful charter school features, the city would need to rethink "the educational bureaucracy." Heaven forbid!
"Models of middle school success," by Sara Neufeld, Baltimore Sun, May 1, 2006
May 4, 2006
Imagine a school where Colin Powell teaches the finer points of diplomacy and Meryl Streep guides the newest batch of budding actors. It doesn't exist, but if it did, that's where New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof would send his kids. Kristof usually writes about international issues, but last Sunday he devoted space to skewering the American public school system that requires so-called "qualified" teachers. He even referenced Education Gadfly Show co-host Rick Hess, who argues that while principals may prefer graduates of teaching colleges, they should have the option to hire other outstanding applicants as well. Of course, the best private schools do just that. Kristof believes that the certification process is no more likely to produce good teachers than if schools simply hired bright, ambitious people. He cites programs such as Teach for America and Troops to Teachers, which have produced innumerable successes with "uncertified" and inexperienced folks. And there's an added bonus to opening up teacher hiring: Intro to Latin Dance with Ms. Shakira.
"Opening Classroom Doors," by Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, April 30, 2006 (subscription required)
May 4, 2006
Talk to education reformers about the potential for district school boards to bring about positive change, and they’re likely to channel Nietzsche: School boards are dead. But are they? May’s Governing magazine profiled the school board in our hometown of Dayton, Ohio, which over the past several years has measurably improved Gem City’s perennially failing schools. After recruiting committed people to serve on the board and implementing simple steps (by developing, for example, a partnership with the nearby University of Dayton), the city’s test scores rose, allowing the district to compete more effectively with local charter schools. Other cities—such as Houston, St. Louis, and Portland, Oregon—also have reform-minded school boards that run their districts like forward-thinking businesses. The vast majority of American school districts operate under elected boards, and Don McAdams, who directs the Center for Reform School Systems, has confidence those elected boards can be effective. “The voters don’t always send us ideal candidates,” he said, “but democracy’s a messy business.” Indeed, and that’s why it’s often a poor method for micromanaging schools. Nietzsche went crazy, so we’ll stay away from eschatological pronouncements and keep an open mind about the potential for school board reform. But we aren’t holding our breath.
“Battered School Boards,” by Rob Gurwitt, Governing, May 2006
May 4, 2006
Public Education Network
From September 2005 to January 2006, the Public Education Network (PEN) held a series of hearings around the nation where students, community members, and parents were invited to testify about their experiences with No Child Left Behind. The events were attended by some 1,500 people, 300 of whom "testified." This report summarizes the testimony, and from those 300 folks draws conclusions about the public's perception of NCLB. (Perhaps not surprisingly, those conclusions mirror PEN's longstanding views about the law.) Here they are in thumbnail: Although the public supports accountability, it rejects single, standardized tests as adequate evaluators of school effectiveness; the public rejects labeling schools as "in need of improvement" because the label is too punitive and may erode public support for those schools; the public thinks high-stakes testing causes students and teachers too much anxiety; the public is not receiving information about NCLB (such as data about school performance, or about opportunities for school choice or supplemental services) in a timely manner; and the public sees a disconnect between teachers deemed "highly qualified" and those who are able to engage students in the classroom. The report touches on other criticisms, and it offers some suggestions (broaden the definition of "highly qualified" teachers, for example), but informed readers won't find much new here. While PEN's hearings were no doubt useful for gauging the temperament in individual cities and districts, 300 testimonials can hardly be translated into
May 4, 2006
Center for the Future of Arizona & Morrison Institute for Public Policy
Latinos are the fastest growing population sector in Arizona, but their graduation rates in that state in 2004 lagged behind those of white, non-Hispanic students by close to 18 points. If those numbers don't improve, upwards of 10,000 Arizona Latino students per year could fail to graduate high school by 2012. This new study pinpoints key factors that contributed to improving performance in 12 predominantly Hispanic and low-income Arizona schools. Researchers compared these 12 schools to others similar in all but performance, looking for factors that led to academic success. Six elements stood out in successful schools: a clear bottom line (emphasizing achievement for every student); ongoing assessment (tracking student performance data); a strong and steady principal; collaborative solutions (effective work teams of consultants/teachers); sticking with the program (carefully choosing an educational program and "sticking with it"); and "built to suit" (customized instruction/intervention for students). For example, at Wade Carpenter School, students take online quarterly tests that track their academic progression, and teachers use these data to plan instruction around the "content clusters" in which students are weakest. This border school with almost 100 percent Spanish-speaking, low-income students has improved its test scores by almost 20 percentage points. Beat the Odds would've been much stronger if it presented in-depth profiles of the individual schools, rather than brief, snapshot examples. But overall, this is a useful report.