Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 37
September 28, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
A "niche" case for the core
They know something "aboot" education
The brothers Bush
Fig leaves and frescoes in Frisco
Keeping Watch on Reading First
A niche for everyone
This week, Mike and Rick discuss the finer points of French pronunciation, the treasures of the Canadian frontier, and Eddie Murphy's lessons for closing the achievement gap. Tennessee's Reading First director, Jim Herman, laments the disgraceful events surrounding the program in recent days, and News of the Weird sees no evil.?This 20-minute podcast is all that and a bag of chips.
Michael J. Petrilli / September 28, 2006
The brouhaha over the federal Reading First program illustrates everything that's wrong with government today--not the alleged improprieties, but a twisted government culture that prioritizes "proper procedures" over actual results and that looks for scapegoats and fall-guys when the going gets tough.
Let's recap what happened. On Friday, the Department of Education's Inspector General issued a scathing report that accused Reading First officials of steering dollars toward preferred programs such as Direct Instruction (DI)--a reading strategy with massive evidence of effectiveness--by putting fans of the program on the review panels that decided which state applications would be funded.
As Chris Doherty, Reading First's director, said in a now infamous email: "You know the line from Casablanca, ‘I am shocked that there is gambling going on in this establishment!' Well, ‘I am shocked that there are pro-DI people on this panel!'"
After all, his direct orders from Congress and the President were to ensure that Reading First dollars went only to certain reading curricula--those that had been proven to work.
In 2001, when Congress created Reading First as part of the No Child Left Behind act, it represented a sharp break from past policy. Rather than being agnostic to the specifics of teaching and learning, with monies from this program Uncle Sam would fund only reading programs that are based on "scientifically-based reading research." In other words, instead of letting a thousand flowers bloom, the feds would hand-pick a few roses and daffodils
September 28, 2006
When "core curriculum" supporters like E.D. Hirsch, Jr. do their advocating, it goes something like this:
"In order to gain power in our democracy and economy, children must develop ‘cultural literacy' in a common core of knowledge so they can function in a world where interactions and understandings are greased by shared reference points and allusions."
Such a view always had a lot going for it, but now the core curriculum's case seems to be growing even stronger.
A good indication of that comes from The Long Tail, a new book by Chris Anderson, who edits Wired magazine and is a former Economist reporter. Anderson's premise is that the blockbuster--the all-encompassing "it" product that unites people from sundry backgrounds--is in irrevocable decline, and that niche marketing is rapidly taking its place.
"If the twentieth-century entertainment industry was about hits," he writes, "the twenty-first will be equally about niches."
The author uses well-known companies such as Netflix and Google to support his thesis.
While 90 percent of movies rented at Blockbuster Video stores are new releases, 70 percent of Netflix rentals, from a library of over 60,000 DVDs, are from the back catalogue.
Take, for another example, the online music retailer Rhapsody, which has a library of about 1.5 million songs. It's reasonable to expect lots of people will click on the top 50,000 or so songs, and that's certainly the case--50 Cent, Michael Jackson, and '70s rock bands still
September 28, 2006
Had our attempted conquest of Canada in the War of 1812 succeeded, the U.S. education system might very well rank much higher than it does today--and Alberta would be the reason why. Were Alberta its own country, it would rank among the top four nations worldwide in math, reading, and science achievement, according to the OECD's 2003 PISA study. How does this vast and wild expanse of alpine forest and prairie do it? Simple: a system of standards and accountability that should be the envy of the NCLB faithful, complete with a solid core curriculum; clear achievement goals; and high-quality, province-wide exams, which have all made Alberta the brightest jewel in the Queen's crown. Alberta's success also stems, in large part, from the bold innovations of its capital city. Edmonton's extensive system of school choice has proved extremely successful, especially because its schools are anchored by provincial standards and tests. It was also the first district to implement weighted student funding, a reform which helped turn around its struggling schools in the late 1970s. We Americans could learn a thing or two about education by listening to our northern neighbors--if we can get past their funny accents.
"Clever red-necks," The Economist, September 21, 2006
September 28, 2006
When the lights flood Vaught Hemingway Stadium on Saturday nights, and Ole Miss fans raise the Rebel Yell from the stands, gentle Michael Oher is there savoring every moment. He never misses a game, though by all rights he shouldn't even be in college. Growing up homeless on the streets of Memphis, he was one of the lost. The public schools found it easier to pass, and ignore, him than to fail him. (He never attended third grade, but was promoted to fourth.) He also had a measured IQ of 80--ranking him in the bottom ninth percentile of the human race. But Briarcrest Christian School took a chance on him. Why? Because at 6'5", and 330 pounds, with speed to boot, he was a "freak of nature," an "aberration," that one-in-a-million man who can play the toughest line position in football--left tackle. You guessed it, Oher plays for Ole Miss. The New York Times Magazine cover story on him will make you cheer, and reflect. Had Oher been 30 pounds lighter, a half-second slower, a fraction less strong, he wouldn't have been noticed by Briarcrest's coach (and every college coach in America), and would still be on the street. The numbers of "lost" children are staggering. And they shouldn't require a physique like Oher's to have a chance.
"The Ballad of Big Mike," by Michael Lewis, New York Times Magazine, September 24, 2006
September 28, 2006
Brotherly spats are not uncommon, and fraternal one-upmanship is a time-honored tradition. It is a rare case, however, when one brother governs a state and the other governs a nation, and the two disagree, not over lawn maintenance, but over educational accountability systems. Yet such a scenario is playing out as the Bushes (President George and Governor Jeb) are butting heads over whether Florida's A+ plan or the federal No Child Left Behind Act is a better gauge of student and school performance. So far, Jeb has been the more outspoken, criticizing NCLB shortcomings and telling the press, "With all due respect to the federal system, [Florida's] accountability system is really the better way to go." And he has a point. Paul Peterson and Marty West, in a recent Education Next piece, found the federal law "badly flawed" and wrote that it doesn't do as well as Florida's "in distinguishing schools where students are learning more from those where they are learning less." Jeb has been careful, however, to give NCLB some credit, and he praised it for helping Florida focus on boosting achievement of the state's disabled and limited-English students. Wise move, Governor--atomic wedgie averted.
"As 2 Bushes Try to Fix Schools, Tools Differ," by Sam Dillon, New York Times, September 28, 2006
September 28, 2006
The Texas Education Agency's fine arts curriculum framework for fifth graders describes a model lesson from a real classroom: the teachers "replicate painting on the ceiling as the Renaissance painters did by taping butcher paper to the bottom of students' desks and asking students to lie on the floor to paint." It's a clever idea (at least for classrooms with clean floors) and a clear endorsement of the world's most famous example of Renaissance ceiling art, Michelangelo's glorious Sistine Chapel frescoes, which happen to depict naked figures in various postures for all eyes to behold. But then why would the Frisco (TX) school board suspend 28-year veteran teacher Sydney McGee merely because she permitted her fifth graders to stumble upon a nude sculpture on a museum field trip? In this rash act of censorship--apparently motivated by a complaint from a single parent--the board is not unlike Monsignor Sernini, ambassador from Mantua, who organized the so-called "Fig-leaf Campaign" to protest the exposed genitals on Michelangelo's ceilings. (Not unlike this other prudish leader from more recent history.) What's next: no more visits to the monkey habitat at the local zoo, either?
"Teacher reprimanded after student sees nude art on museum trip," Houston Chronicle, September 26, 2006
September 28, 2006
Center on Education Policy
Reading First, a grant program enacted as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, distributes federal money to districts and schools that use scientifically-based programs to teach children how to read. This CEP report evaluates the impact this billion-dollar-per-year grant program is having and reports much positive news. Of fifty states surveyed, thirty-five reported that reading achievement was improving (according to the views of state and district officials), and nineteen of these said that Reading First instructional programs were an important or very important factor in the improvements. Districts responding to the survey were even more enthusiastic. Ninety-seven percent of surveyed Reading First districts said Reading First programs had either an important or very important impact on raising student achievement. Among the more interesting pieces of information: 60 percent of Reading First districts said they had to adopt a different reading program in order to qualify for a subgrant, giving one some idea of how many unscientifically-based methods of reading instruction were previously being used in the nation's classrooms. One shortcoming of Reading First, according to the report, is that it could be better coordinated with Early Reading First, another federal program that's aimed at pre-kindergarten youngsters. This small bump aside, Reading First looks to be getting the job done. Read it here.
September 28, 2006
This report blows the whistle on the Ivy League, darling of U.S. News and World Report's annual list of "America's Best Colleges," and shows that Harvard, Yale, and their ilk might be doing a worse job educating students than some supposedly third-tier institutions. Author Kevin Carey begins by dissecting the criteria used in U.S. News rankings and finds that only one indicator (graduation rate performance), representing a mere 5 percent of a college's final score, actually evaluates school quality. The other 95 percent of a university's U.S. News ranking is based on fame, wealth, and exclusivity. Carey continues by pointing out (with the available data) that schools at the fame-wealth-exclusivity hierarchy's pinnacle, while privy to applicants with higher SAT and ACT scores, don't always do a good job raising their students' abilities to a higher level. And when it comes to finding good jobs, a diploma from a top-tier institution might not matter as much as some people think. For example, Florida compiles an annual profile of its public university graduates who live in the state. Out of the state's nine largest public universities, six rank poorly in the U.S. News rankings. But it's from these six that the highest earning graduates hail. "The school ranked highest by U.S. News--the University of Florida--ranks second to last," writes Carey, "in terms of average earnings of graduates. This is not a one-year anomaly; similar numbers were reported
Getting Farther Ahead by Staying Behind: A Second-Year Evaluation of Florida's Policy to End Social Promotion
Jennifer DeBoer / September 28, 2006
Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters
This report continues last year's research, which studied the introduction of a test-based retention policy in Florida schools. That policy, enacted in May 2002, requires students in third grade to score at or above the Level-2 benchmark on the reading portion of the state's FCAT assessment in order to be promoted. (Only students who score at Level 3 or above are considered to be proficient for the purposes of NCLB evaluations.) The first study showed that social promotion is not as beneficial to student achievement as making low-performers repeat grades and found (like the comprehensive report on Chicago's elimination of social promotion) significant student academic improvement in the year following retention. Unlike the Chicago report, however, this new study finds that students subject to Florida's retention policy continue to perform markedly better than their peers even in the second year after being held back. The authors write that, "students lacking in basic skills who are socially promoted appear to fall farther behind over time, whereas retained students appear to be able to catch up on the skills they are lacking." The authors used two analytical models, first focusing on across-year comparisons, and then focusing on comparisons of same-age students who were either just above or just below the state's cut-off for promotion. The two models are intended to be redundant to account for each other's inherent statistical
Baltimore's "New" Middle Schools: Do KIPP and Crossroads Schools Offer Solutions to the City's Poorly-performing Middle Schools?
Coby Loup / September 28, 2006
The Abell Foundation
Not one of Baltimore's twenty-one traditional public middle schools met annual yearly progress requirements in 2006, but two charter schools--KIPP Ujima Village and The Crossroads School--did. This report from the Abell Foundation, which awards grants to improve education, healthcare, and other social services in Baltimore, examines how the two schools achieved this feat and suggests what the district can learn from their successes. Those familiar with KIPP will recognize many of the findings, which in many ways mirror the program's Five Pillars. First, the report lauds both schools' "clear and powerful vision[s]" and "high academic and conduct expectations," as embodied in the Commitment to Excellence at KIPP and the Parent/Student/Teacher Compact at Crossroads. Students also spend more time at these schools than they would at traditional public schools--the KIPP school day is 60 percent longer on average than a district school day; Crossroads' day is 20 percent longer. Principals at both schools are better trained and are given authority to make staffing and curriculum decisions. Finally, both schools focus heavily on outcomes, a commitment reflected by their strong reliance on assessments to gauge student progress. The report is refreshing because it doesn't simply recommend that failing middle schools adopt the successful practices identified in the report (although they should). Instead, Abell advises the district to "encourage successful current operators such as KIPP and Crossroads to open more schools" and to "add other operator-led schools