Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 44
November 16, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
NCLB: Who will run the table?
How to Manage Urban School Districts
This week, Mike and Rick question Kazakh journalism, Washington consensuses, the Midwest, and airline pay scales. Our interview is, like, hot, and News of the Weird reports from across the pond. Happy Thanksgiving!
Michael J. Petrilli / November 16, 2006
Not only did the Democratic Party take control of Congress in last week's election; it also captured a majority of the nation's governorships. And not just on the coasts; Democrats Chet Culver and Bill Ritter won open seats in Iowa and Colorado, and Democratic incumbents held onto their jobs in Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Now these progressive politicians need to face an uncomfortable question: What's the matter with Middle America?
What do we mean? Click here and ponder the states shown in blue. They are notable for their failure to make any (statistically significant) progress in getting poor and minority students to NAEP's "proficient" level over the past decade or more. Observe how many are in the nation's midsection. From Illinois across to Oklahoma, over to Utah and back to Wisconsin, it's an unsettling "no progress" zone that cries out for some explanation--particularly for anyone worried about the plight of disadvantaged children.
Education Week generated this map using data compiled by Fordham for our recent report, How Well Are States Educating Our Neediest Children? That study contains some good news: eight states made "moderate" progress in boosting poor/minority NAEP scores, meaning that at least two of three subgroups (African-American, Hispanic, or low-income students) gained in at least two of three subjects (reading, math, or science). These include a few each from the Northeast (Massachusetts and New York), the Mid-Atlantic (Delaware and New Jersey), the South (Florida and Texas),
November 16, 2006
Milton Friedman died today at 94. The Nobel-prize winning economist was, among innumerable other accomplishments, the intellectual father of school choice in America. We mourn his passing even as we celebrate his life and work. For additional information, see here and here.
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / November 16, 2006
Making sense of mid-term elections is akin to making sense of the opening break in a pool game. Casual observers sometimes believe that if the person breaking puts several balls into the pockets, he has the inside track on winning. But experienced players know it's how the remaining balls set up that determines the victor.
The opening break last Tuesday was obviously a good one for Democrats, as voters snapped the 12-year Republican hold on both House and Senate and a bunch of governorships as well. Much crowing ensued among the Dems, while the White House dusted off the "bipartisanship" dictionary that it shelved soon after No Child Left Behind cleared the Congress in 2001.
Among education watchers, the speculation began even before the election about how a Democratic "revolution" would affect NCLB's pending re-authorization in 2007 (though few believe it will happen then). Education Week rightly notes that both Rep. George Miller, the next chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, incoming (and returning) chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, stand behind the principles of NCLB (after all, they helped to write it) and that its key components are safe in their hands (though much-needed improvements aren't likely to occur).
So far, so good for those of us, whatever our party affiliation, who want to keep NCLB's heart beating. But the law's supporters can't rest easy, because this billiard table doesn't set
November 16, 2006
NEA President Reg Weaver must have been flying high without much oxygen when he lauded Southwest Airlines' no-merit-pay policy. "Southwest thrived by sharing ideas," he wrote, "building a strong, unified corporate culture, and--here's a radical notion--encouraging workers to help one another." What's radical is Weaver comparing the rule-bound, change-resistant public education monopoly to an innovative upstart born from deregulation. Sure, Southwest eschews merit pay, but it also pushes its employees to work harder and for less money than other airlines do. And, according to this case study, part of its success is due to the fact that its "unions are not interested in pushing their roles beyond the traditional collective bargaining and grievance functions they perform." Are you willing to take that deal, Mr. Weaver? In the meantime, let's get something straight: charter schools are the Southwests and Jet Blues (and, to be fair, the Independence Airs) of the education industry. Without deregulation and competition, having the Blob mimic Southwest's promising practices will amount to peanuts. Ooops. Pretzels.
"To boost students and teachers, steer clear of merit pay on the road to reform," by Reg Weaver, Christian Science Monitor, November 13, 2006
November 16, 2006
Despite its posturing, the Ivy League remains out of reach for most high schoolers. And entrance into many state "flagship" universities can be a long shot, too. Enter community colleges, which currently enroll some 6 million degree-seeking students and are attracting ever-more philanthropic dollars. California's Irvine Foundation, for instance, is giving to community colleges because it believes they are a crucial stepping stone for many high schoolers (especially poor and minority students) who may be intimidated by big four-year universities or who may not have the academic credentials to matriculate upon leaving twelfth grade. Moreover, these students are less likely to drop out if they see a clear path to postsecondary education. Community colleges are also getting into the teacher-training game, which creates additional competitive pressure for hidebound ed schools. Philanthropists take note: Harvard's endowment could buy a small country; community colleges are a better investment.
"Big Givers Turn to Poorly Financed Community Colleges," By Karen W. Arenson, New York Times, November 13, 2006
November 16, 2006
New Zealand high school students are getting a break on their national exam this year. "Text speak," the system of acronyms and abbreviations used in cell phone text messages, will be permitted in student responses on some sections of the test (but not, TYVM, the English test). The Qualifications Authority, which oversees the nation's exams, decreed that any answer which "clearly shows the required understanding" will be accepted, even if that understanding comes through in a language used primarily by kids. Critics are concerned for obvious and sound reasons: slang devalues the English language and signifies a breakdown of educational standards (not that New Zealand was doing too well before), etc. But blogger Phil Stevens said it best. "Nzqa [New Zealand Qualifications Authority]: u mst b joking," he wrote, "or r u smoking sumthg?"
"Officials: Students can use ‘text speak' on tests," Associated Press, November 13, 2006
Jennifer DeBoer / November 16, 2006
National Center for Education Statistics
2005 was is the first time NCES conducted its Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) for science. The report is now out and, as in other subjects, poor and minority kids in these ten big cities don't do well. This study compares these cities' test results to national averages and urban scores in general. Some of the ten score higher than others, some lower; some score higher than cities-in-general, others don't. All urban results are below the national average, but the achievement gaps in TUDA cities are not significantly different from national achievement gaps. No trend data are yet available. Almost as alarming as those gaps, however, is the attempt at positive "spin" that the National Assessment Governing Board is putting on the results. For starters, check out the "slide show" here (which offers no real news). Then read the report's text and see if you encounter any mention at all of the fact that "proficient"--reached by far too few, especially poor and minority youngsters--is the level that everyone is supposed to reach. NAGB seems content with "basic"--at least for these kids. Have they, too, succumbed to the soft bigotry of low expectations? The text report can be accessed here.
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / November 16, 2006
This concise report on charter schools in Michigan brings welcome clarity to the confusing history and status of chartering in the Great Lakes State. It is another in the excellent series, previously published by the Progressive Policy Institute, examining how charters are faring across the nation. With some 230 schools enrolling almost 100,000 students, and a political climate that even James Carville would find challenging, Michigan's charter landscape is vast and varied. Mead explains how tiny Bay Mills Community College--a tribally controlled school on the Upper Peninsula--busted the state's cap on charters to become a major authorizer; how and why Detroit blew a chance to receive 200 million private dollars to build 15 charters; and how Education Management Organizations have created strong schools while undermining public trust. Of the charters themselves, Mead notes that their efforts to improve student achievement, while exceptional in a few instances, have been modest in general. Compared to nearby district schools, charters do marginally better. But compared to traditional public schools statewide, charters have considerable ground to make up. Mead's recommendations for improving Michigan's charters are sound (with specific suggestions to address the state's charter school cap and its funding problems), if sometimes predictable ("improve quality in mediocre charter schools," "close low-performing schools," "improve ... data collection," etc.). Important reading, both for Michiganders and for all charter mavens. Read it here.
Coby Loup / November 16, 2006
Ruth Curran Neild and Robert Belfanz
Turning it Around: A Collective Effort to Understand and Resolve Philadelphia's Dropout Crisis
Philadelphia has a dropout crisis. Project U-Turn's dual reports on this topic offer some important insights that could help policymakers tackle the problem more effectively. Their main virtue is the use of cohort data, which track a particular group of students over time instead of simply looking at a one-year snapshot. By doing this, the authors show not only that 40 percent of students leave Philadelphia high schools without graduating, but also which youngsters are at greatest risk. They argue that "about half of the dropouts in the city's public schools can be identified in the 8th grade" depending on whether students attend school 80 percent of the time and whether they fail either English or math. Factor in predictors for at-risk ninth-graders--attending school less than 70 percent of the time, earning fewer than two credits, not being promoted to tenth grade--and you've identified 80 percent of the dropouts. Other places, such as New York, have undertaken similar data-gathering projects (see here). Now the challenge is turning insight into action; the report's City-Wide Action Agenda is a good start. Read the reports here.
November 16, 2006
Stacy Childress, Richard Elmore, and Allen Grossman
Harvard Business Review
This study, carried out by the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP), a partnership between Harvard's business and education schools, examined 15 urban districts in hopes of identifying management practices that are most effective in raising student achievement. It begins by noting that districts are not businesses and should not be run like businesses (unclear, though, why all the recommendations sound like material straight out of Management 101). Contrary to reformers who stress devolving power to individual schools, these authors argue that a strong central office is necessary. Look at charter schools, they implore, victimized by their own autonomy and in need of central organizations (authorizers, charter management organizations, networks, etc.) that construct "accountability systems, share best practices, and recruit and retain teachers." Recommendations follow for districts to get their acts together. On balance, there's little new here. The trick isn't identifying an effective framework; it's implementing it. And the major problem in these districts isn't lack of know-how, but politics. If you persist in wanting to read the report, you can find it here (but you'll need a credit card--this is Harvard, after all).