Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 38
October 5, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
All aboard the charters?
Campus progress 101
School house walk
This week, Mike and Rick wonder why Texans don't like money, why Russian schools are resegregating, and how long before?02138?goes under. We've got an interview with a principal who paddles his students, and News of the Weird is plain inappropriate. There are no Mark Foley jokes in this 20-minute podcast.?
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / October 5, 2006
Charter schools have taught us much. Since Minnesota enacted America's first charter law in 1991, 39 states have followed suit and eager school reformers have created some 4,000 of these independent public schools. About 3,600 are still operating today, enrolling approximately a million kids, 2 percent of all U.S. elementary and secondary pupils. More than a dozen cities--including Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee--now have charter sectors that serve at least one in every six children. These numbers rise annually--and would balloon if the market were able to operate freely, unconstrained by legislative compromises, funding and facilities shortfalls, and local pushback from the school establishment and its political allies.
The first lesson is that the demand for alternative school options for children is intense--and plenty of people and organizations are eager to meet it wherever policy and politics allow them to. In Dayton, Ohio, today, more than a quarter of all kids attend charter schools; in New Orleans (a special case, to be sure) it's seven out of ten children. Many schools across the nation have waiting lists.
Lesson Two: Though critics warned that charters would "cream" the best-parented, ablest, and most fortunate youngsters, actual enrollments are dominated by poor and minority kids, ex-dropouts, and others with huge education deficits unmet by regular school systems--most often the urban school systems whose residents most urgently need decent alternatives.
Lesson Three: Whereas boosters and advocates, myself included, once
October 5, 2006
It was big news when, a couple of weeks ago, the interests of Harvard University's Public Relations department aligned with the interests of its Noblesse Oblige department, and did so without apparently discomfiting its departments of Admissions and Finance. The nation's highest profile institution of higher education unilaterally decreed that it was ending early admissions, a policy it now considers an offensive relic--unfair, elitist, and most likely racist, too. Upon hearing the news, Princeton tagged along.
Surely pundits can--and have and will--debate the merits of doing away with early admissions. What hardly anybody debates, however, is whether such concerns should really be the focus of higher education.
Front pages were splashed with the news: elite university strives to demonstrate its social progressiveness. Nowadays, it seems, universities are keener to position themselves as combatants in the nation's culture wars than to educate students.
Look at the headlines. When colleges are prominently featured, it's nearly always because they're intricately entangled in some social struggle (whether or not to admit a Taliban official as a student, whether or not to allow army recruiters on law school campuses, which offending corporation or nation to divest themselves of, etc.).
Sometimes those struggles have merit; sometimes they don't. But why do so few people find it odd that universities--where students go ostensibly to learn important things and refine their core intellectual skills--have evolved into pricey equivalents of nineteenth century Parisian cafés?
October 5, 2006
George Will has a problem that he may not have spotted, despite his usual perspicacity. He single-handedly put the "65 percent solution" on the map last year, only to see it discarded by Rod Paige (and virtually everyone else knowledgeable about schools) as "one of the worst ideas in education." He could have followed the simple maxim: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Instead, he's back, shovel in hand, this time with a complaint that the National Center for Education Statistics is trying to spoil this approach to education-reform via spending controls. Statstud and his colleagues, he claims, are now conflating spending on instruction with spending on "instruction-related activities"--pushing the national average for instructional expenditures above the 65 percent threshold and thereby throwing water on the reform scheme. In seeing a government conspiracy at work, Will gives NCES way too much credit. He may not entirely realize how unreliable federal data on school expenditures have always been, making the 65 percent standard nearly meaningless in the first place.
"Education's Moving Target," by George Will, Washington Post, October 1, 2006
October 5, 2006
Team spirit is paramount in the eyes of teachers at Bellaire Elementary in Hurst, Texas. That's how they explain their decision to reject--by a vote of 45 to 2--a $90,000 merit pay grant from the state. Texas's pay-for-performance plan is the biggest in the nation, rewarding high-performing teachers in high poverty schools. But teachers at Bellaire and approximately 2 percent of the Lone Star State's other 1,160 eligible public schools have refused the moolah (disbursed to schools to help them set up their merit pay systems), saying the program creates an inequitable and competitive environment. Rejecting the startup money means rejecting possible bonuses which will be paid in the spring. "Our teachers have a team spirit, and many felt this money would just pit teacher against teacher," said Bellaire principal Bea Cantu. This "teamwork" argument is oft-cited within the walls of the education system. But somehow players on professional sports teams manage to live with themselves--and create a winning spirit--even when the quarterback gets a bonus or the pitcher makes ungodly sums of money. Chalk it up to the strange culture of education--the heart of Soft America--which might take more than a few extra dollars to change.
"Some schools pass up bonuses," by Terrence Stutz, Dallas Morning News, October 2, 2006
October 5, 2006
School choice is a good thing. But what about when it leads to racial isolation? In Pinellas County (St. Petersburg) Florida, a district rule capping black enrollment in any given school at 42 percent has been around since 1971. But it ends this year. Students just beginning elementary, middle, and high school (i.e., kindergarteners, sixth graders, ninth graders) will be allowed to apply to any district school of their choice. And judging from a recent survey of parents, increased racial isolation could follow, because a majority of parents (black and white) plan to send their children to schools near home--homes located in racially homogeneous neighborhoods. Uncomfortable with such de facto segregation, the Pinellas School Board considered retaining the rule but was advised by legal counsel that such a move would probably be overturned in court. (In fact, the Supreme Court will hear two similar cases this December.) Pinellas parents, like those everywhere, should have the right to send their children to schools they choose. And the district, instead of obsessing over social engineering, should focus on making every one of its (many) schools academically excellent, attractive to parents of every race, and worth sending one's child to.
"School choice: close to home," by Donna Winchester, St. Petersburg Times, September 28, 2006
October 5, 2006
Teachers are used to hearing creative excuses for tardiness. But only at New York City's Manhattan School for Children might one hear such protestations as "I was up all night finishing some important paperwork for Trump," or "I had a late reservation at Joel Robuchon's new spot." Precocious students? Not quite. These wrenching explanations come from parents, who are required to serve a 20-minute detention if their children arrive late to school. Principal Susan Rappaport believes it's up to parents to "make the breakfast, get the children dressed, and get them to school on time." Does this aggressive approach work? Apparently. Some parents who were forced to serve time reportedly said "they felt humiliated and won't show up late again" (at least until the next transit strike). One imagines, however, that the program will become less effective when parents realize they don't actually have to follow the disciplinary demands of school administrators. "Sorry, but I can't do detention today--big presentation at the office. But I might squeeze you in for lunch next week."
"School gives detention to parents who get their kids to schools late," Associated Press, October 2, 2006
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / October 5, 2006
Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation
Among the most damaging charges leveled against private schools--and against states using public funds to create vouchers that give more students access to them--is that they are more racially isolated (i.e. homogeneous) than public schools. The Milton and Rose Freidman Foundation, among the staunchest of voucher advocacy groups, has addressed that allegation with this report by Greg Forster. He finds not only that it's untrue, but that "segregation levels in private schools are not substantially different from those in public schools at the school level; that private schools are actually less segregated than public schools at the classroom level; and that private schools participating in voucher programs are much less segregated than public schools." Forster blames faulty methodology in previous segregation studies for leading people to believe otherwise. Many such studies, he contends, use the racial make up of administrative units such as school districts or private school systems as "the standard against which segregation in individual schools is measured." This method fails, however, because it masks segregation caused by and within the administrative unit itself. If, for example, the racial make up of a suburban district is 98 percent white and the school being measured is 98 percent white, the school is officially "integrated." But nobody believes it's actually integrated. Instead, Forster writes, segregation should be measured against the racial make up of the larger metropolitan unit in which a
October 5, 2006
This report--based on a survey of superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents--asks school leaders to appraise the institutions they head. Not too surprisingly, more than half of the nation's superintendents consider their local schools to be "excellent." Even more alarming, almost four out of five superintendents and principals say low academic standards are not a problem where they work. Pollyannish? Depends upon which side of the education divide you sit. Administrators in predominantly minority and low-income schools are far less content with the status quo than their counterparts in mainly white districts. Many of the principals in less cushy environs admit to serious problems with dropouts and low academic expectations. This report does a good job identifying opinions of local school leaders and demonstrating a wide gap between the views of local education leaders and the reality of most U.S. schools and school systems. Read it here.