Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 35
September 14, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
National testing goes international
By Kevin Donnelly
Adrian Fenty: A mayor for everybody?
A Vegas star
Dead prose society
No Longer the Only Game in Town: Helping Traditional Public Schools Compete
By Martin A. Davis, Jr.
Five minutes, Dad!
This week, Mike and Rick chirp about Fenty's haircut, strategies for good HOUSSEkeeping, and whether Bangalore is the new Cambridge. We've got an interview with Andy Smarick that will rock your socks, and News of the Weird isn't hurting anybody, man. If this 20-minute podcast is played in a forest, and nobody hears it, do bears have computers? Think about it.?
Kevin Donnelly / September 14, 2006
Welcome to Australia, home to kangaroos, dingoes, and an increasingly vocal debate over establishing national education standards.
Aussies have been involved with this debate for quite some time. And because, like the United States, our governmental system is based on the federal model, and our constitution grants the job of educating children to the states, there may be something to be learned from our experiences. The first lesson is that rushing to do the job and executing it poorly is nearly as bad as not doing the job at all.
In the early 1990s, Australia produced documents that outlined what students nationwide should be covering in eight key learning areas. The documents were immediately and rightly criticized for providing curriculum descriptors that were vague, overly generalized, difficult to implement in the classroom, and politically correct. Moreover, traditionalists rightly chastised the documents for devaluing literacy and numeracy.
So in 1993, Australia's education ministers decided not to endorse these documents and the states and territories went back to, or refreshed, their own standards. Australia's first attempt at developing a national curriculum thus failed.
Today we're trying again. This time, Canberra's developing so-called Statements of Learning in key subjects such as mathematics and English that describe "the essential knowledge, skills, understandings and capacities that all students should have the opportunity to learn" at key stages in schooling (years 3, 5, 7, 9).
From Melbourne to Broome, and Brisbane to Perth, supporters are basing their case for the Statements
September 14, 2006
On Tuesday, District of Columbia voters handed Adrian M. Fenty a decisive victory in the city's Democratic mayoral primary. In the District, where John Kerry took 89 percent of the vote in 2004, the winner of the Democratic mayoral primary is all but assured of being the city's next chief executive.
So Fenty--a 35-year-old, D.C.-born triathlete--will replace the ubiquitous, bow-tied Anthony Williams as leader of the nation's capital city.
Why should this matter to anyone outside the Beltway? Because Washington is also one of the nation's leading laboratories for urban school reform. Twenty-five percent, some 17,000, of its K-12 students attend charter schools, and another 1,700 are enrolled in private schools with the aid of federally-funded opportunity scholarships. The demand for both charter schools and vouchers far exceeds their current supply. Moreover, the school system itself, by common consent, remains broken, ineffectual and extremely expensive.
Thus, it's worth considering how a Fenty administration may affect education reform in the District.
Williams, a Democrat, supported the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program when it was proposed in Congress in 2003. The legislation was introduced by two Republicans, supported by President Bush, and feverishly attacked by many prominent Democrats such as Ted Kennedy.
Nonetheless, Williams (along with Senator Diane Feinstein) bucked the party line, opposed union bosses and political insiders, and threw his support behind the initiative. He said, "At the very least, we should experiment with choice in this city. If people are afraid to at least
September 14, 2006
Way back in 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) launched the "math wars" by pushing constructivist, "fuzzy" math onto the nation's schools. But a new report from NCTM amounts to unilateral surrender, admitting that youngsters need to learn basic skills such as arithmetic and long division so they'll be prepared for higher math functions down the road. The new policy statement also tackles America's "mile wide, inch-thick" math curriculum, urging the United States instead to emulate our Asian competitors, who follow the "less is more" maxim. Report author Sybilla Beckmann explains that it "tried to identify the really key things, the things a student has to focus on for progress." Gadfly and his fellow math bugs have long argued for teaching basic math skills; we salute NCTM's newfound wisdom in this matter. Now, we pray, states (and textbook publishers, test builders, etc.) that slavishly follow NCTM's lead will revise their own standards and instructional materials, thus gradually reintroducing common sense--and math competence--into American schools.
"Report Urges Changes in the Teaching of Math in U.S. Schools," by Tamar Lewin, New York Times, September 13, 2006
"New Report Urges Return to Basics in Teaching Math," by John Hechinger, Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2006 (subscription required)
September 14, 2006
Gadfly tries to flutter his wings on the sunny side of issues and therefore resists chiding Secretary Spellings for her recent flip-flop on "highly qualified teachers." It's true, as others have noted, that her decision to allow states to continue to determine whether their veteran teachers are up to snuff by using a portfolio approach--the "High Objective Uniform State Standard of Evaluation" (HOUSSE)--only rewards gamesmanship. To be sure, we'd be better off if all teachers, including experienced ones, had to show their stuff by passing a rigorous exam in each subject they teach. No, she's not going to press for anything like that. But we've spotted a silver lining: the current "HQT" provisions are a nightmare for charter schools, and the HOUSSE option makes their lives an ounce easier. After all, many small charters ask their teachers to instruct students in multiple subjects and passing teacher tests in each of them can be time-consuming and expensive. Plus, some charters use an integrated education approach that doesn't easily match up to the available Praxis exams. We've never believed that charters should have to follow the HQT rules anyway--remember "flexibility in return for accountability?"--so we're happy to cut them some slack. Every once in a while, unintended consequences can be good.
"Ed. Dept. Eases Teacher Quality Rule," Associated Press, September 7, 2006
September 14, 2006
The superintendent of Clark County schools (Las Vegas), Walt Rulffes, is asking the state legislature for an expansion of his new school autonomy experiment, which has been running for less than two weeks. The program bestows upon Vegas principals more decision-making authority in return for increased accountability--much like Joel Klein's "empowerment schools" in New York City. So far, Rulffes's approach is receiving good reviews from teachers and administrators, who have responded positively to their new authority (though even the most ardent supporters say it's too soon to declare the experiment successful). But that hasn't stopped the superintendent from pressing the state legislature to implement the new management strategy in as many as forty Clark County schools--up from the current four. Teachers unions back Rulffes so long as the money for the empowerment schools comes from the legislature, and not from the existing district budget. The Clark County experiment does cost money; teachers are compensated, for example, for the program's extended school days (thirty extra minutes each day that can be used for more staff development, more class time, etc.) and extended school year (five days longer). Nevada has a biennial legislative calendar, so Rulffes has to act fast, or it could be two years before he gets another shot to increase the number of empowerment schools. It will be up to the legislature whether more accountability is a good bet. Gadfly would gamble; the odds look good.
"The freedom to teach," by Emily Richmond, Las
September 14, 2006
To all you would-be term-paper buyers: caveat emptor! The New York Times decided to put the burgeoning number of online essay-writing companies to the test. Promising original, A-level work, these firms cheerily take your topic (and your credit card number) and promise to produce prose and arguments sure to bring tears to your teacher's eyes. For fees ranging from $50 to more than twice that amount, a Times editor bought and received papers that included these gems: "Many people consider [Brave New World] Huxley's most important work: many others think it is his only work." And this: "Although many similarities exist between A Brave New World and ... 1984, the works books [sic] though they deal with similar topics, are more dissimilar than alike." You don't say. SuperiorPapers.com saved itself the embarrassment by simply not delivering the paid-for paper, or even an original excuse for failing to do so. The writer, the company said in an email, is "facing some technical difficulties," and requested a 24-hour extension. Where's a good homework chewing dog when you need one?
"At $9.95 a Page, You Expected Poetry?," by Charles McGrath, New York Times, September 10, 2006
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / September 14, 2006
Christine Campbell, Michael DeArmond, Kacey Guin, and Deborah Warnock
Center on Reinventing Public Education
This report provides two case studies on how traditional school district leaders are responding to the challenges of choice and competition. The districts selected for study are Dayton and Milwaukee, both because of their commonalities (declining enrollment as students opt for schools of choice, and large numbers of poor and minority pupils,) and because of their differences. Milwaukee's district is large, its management is decentralized, and its schools aren't shielded from financial realities because dollars tend to follow students to their school of choice; Dayton's school system is small with centralized management and schools are largely shielded from financial realities because school funding is based on programs and teachers, not enrollment. Because it's aimed at traditional school leaders, the report reads like a primer on market economies. Thus: "a district and its schools need to know where they stand in the market" and "principals [should] pay attention to the demands of choice." This won't be news to reformers. They may, however, appreciate the analysis of how Milwaukee's and Dayton's different district management strategies affect how the districts respond to reform pressures. In Milwaukee, for instance, where principals have considerable latitude in hiring staff and setting budgets, the district has "answered choice with choice" by creating neighborhood schools, district sponsored charter schools, partnership schools, new small high schools, etc. Because dollars are closely tied to students,
Coby Loup / September 14, 2006
Diana W. Rigden
Reading First Teacher Education Network
This report from the Reading First Teacher Education Network (RFTEN) points to stagnant NAEP reading scores and asks an important question: Are elementary teacher licensure tests aligned with "the essential components of effective instruction as defined by scientifically-based reading research (SBRR)"? The author evaluated eight licensure exams--five developed by Educational Testing Service (ETS) and three by National Evaluation Systems (NES)--and measured them against the SBRR's five essential components as defined by the National Reading Panel: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary development, and reading comprehension. Encouragingly, she found that tests developed specifically to measure a teaching candidate's knowledge of reading--ETS's Introduction to the Teaching of Reading and NES's Foundations of Reading, for example--generally pass muster. So why the crummy NAEP scores and the moans that have accompanied them? The problem, it seems, is that "most states require future elementary teachers to take multi-subject licensure tests that have few items directed explicitly to the teaching of reading." (It is unclear what exactly "most states" means.) ETS's Elementary Education: Content Knowledge and Middle School English Language Arts are two such culprits. This observation has been made before; indeed, Rigden's report closely resembles Sandra Stotsky's own recent evaluation of licensure tests, which looked at five of the eight exams Rigden reviews. Rigden also recommends, however, that the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which sponsors the RFTEN project,