Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 6, Number 34
September 7, 2006
Opinion + Analysis
Know your enemy
By Martin A. Davis, Jr.
The Hidden Costs of Curriculum Narrowing
This week, Mike and Rick mock Malcolm Gladwell (and not because of his hair), praise the?Washington Post's Jay Mathews, and demand the right to sleep. We've got an interview with scholar Hillel Fradkin, who talks about teaching 9/11 in schools. And Education News of the Weird is protected by both the First Amendment and Larry Flynt. All packed into less than 20 minutes? Game, set, match.?
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / September 7, 2006
Weather doesn't attract people to Washington, D.C. The summers are often grey and humid, the winters grey and cold. But at certain moments, Washington can be among the most beautiful cities in the world. September 11, 2001, was such a day.
The air was crisp, the leaves showed the first hint of the fall colors to come, the sunlight was brilliant and the sky so blue that it hurt one's eyes to stare at it. But the grey returned quickly in the form of a cloud of smoke rising from the Pentagon.
Very few people that morning knew who our enemy was. But within days, the unsettling answer began to emerge: radical jihadists who see it as their duty to bring down liberal democracy. Five years later, our efforts to combat this new foe have brought sweeping changes to our government and lives, as we've entered into a reassessment of what it means to balance personal freedoms with national security.
How have schools changed over these five years? Not all that much. Whether perusing websites offering lesson plans about September 11, or reading the state standards addressing that day's horrific events, too many educators, it appears, remain more committed to helping students understand their feelings than understanding the enemy that we as a nation face.
"Know your enemy," wrote Sun Tzu, "and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster." It's important that our children know this new
September 7, 2006
Life was rough for charter school supporters immediately after the release of the recent National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) study of charter schools (see here). But newer test results out of Philadelphia and Massachusetts show that all the anti-charter hype was just more hypocrisy. In the City of Brotherly Love, charter schools, which are counted in the district's overall assessment under No Child Left Behind, saw their 2006 test scores dramatically improve over 2005's. They picked up the slack for other district public schools, which showed no gains over last year (such patterns have also occurred in Dayton, Ohio). And 30 percent of Bay State charter pupils performed "significantly higher" than their peers in district schools in reading and math, while another 60 percent performed as well as their district counterparts. Massachusetts Teachers' Association President Anne Wass offered this response to her state's results: "It doesn't put an end to the debate on charter schools by any means." That's reasonable enough--but where was Wass when AFT president Edward McElroy claimed that the NCES study "provides further evidence against unchecked expansion of the charter school experiment"? (Translation: This one study should put an end to the debate on charter schools.) And at least Massachusetts and Philadelphia gauged student performance over time, a more accurate, albeit still imperfect, method of evaluation than the one-time snapshot NAEP data on which the NCES study was based.
"Charters boost city
September 7, 2006
Free markets, for all their virtues, do a poor job of distributing public goods like education, right? Anti-capitalist gobbledygook, says columnist Robert Samuelson. The free market, and its extension into what he calls the "American learning system," explains how the U.S., despite being out-performed by other nations on any number of K-12 test comparisons, remains the world's most advanced economy. While our formal school systems fail to achieve at the level of those in other advanced countries, our relatively unfettered economy produces a wealth of educational resources that help feed its own growth. As examples, he cites community colleges and for-profit institutions, such as the University of Phoenix; online and computer-based courses; formal and informal job training; and self-help books. In contrast to stiff school systems that cater only to students following the traditional route, the American learning system is flexible and dynamic--it "provides second chances" and is "job-oriented." Samuelson smartly recognizes that we would still benefit from fixing our formal education system, especially the lax standards that plague U.S. K-12 schools. But meanwhile, we should be grateful that our entrepreneurial spirit continues to help pick up where traditional schools leave off.
"How We Dummies Succeed," by Robert J. Samuelson, Washington Post, September 6, 2006
September 7, 2006
Sixth-grader Abby Adam loves to send instant online messages to her friends, and she could just spend hours tinkering away on the social networking site MySpace.com. Thanks to Hermosa Drive Elementary in Fullerton, California, Abby was doing a lot more of both--on a school-issued laptop--until her mother, Shawna Adam, removed Abby from the school's computer program and returned the machine. "School was one big happy gabfest," Ms. Adam said. An increasing number of schools across the country are contracting with companies such as Dell and Apple to integrate technology into the classroom, and to issue laptop computers to students. Critics, however, say that school dollars could be put to better use, and that providing preteens with laptops may do more harm than good. Some kids are learning to rely on Google, rather than libraries, to meet their research needs. Surely schools should integrate more technology into their lessons. But they should also evaluate the effectiveness of such lessons ("one-to-one" instruction via laptop is supposed to boost student achievement yet no data prove that claim) to ensure that Abby and her friends are actually gleaning more from their computers than Ashton Kutcher's favorite ice cream flavor.
"Saying No to School Laptops," by Jessica E. Vascellaro, Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2006 (subscription required)
September 7, 2006
Malcolm Gladwell--author of Blink and The Tipping Point, bestselling books on shelves from Miami to Mombasa--recently pontificated in The New Yorker on school discipline. His piece denounces the "age of zero tolerance" by pointing to, of all people, Robert Oppenheimer. Apparently, in 1925, a youthful and disaffected Oppenheimer nearly poisoned his Cambridge tutor (on purpose). But rather than expel (or jail) Oppenheimer, university officials were lenient. For covering his instructor's apple with noxious chemicals, the future quantum theorist was placed on probation and ordered to see a psychiatrist. Gladwell laments that schools (in his words, once "home to this kind of discretionary justice") have fallen prey to unbending and often unwise disciplinary rubrics. To be sure, zero tolerance policies have their drawbacks, as do mandatory sentencing guidelines for judges. But Gladwell's suggested replacement is almost as bad--it seems to relieve youngsters of any responsibility whatsoever. He writes that "making a fetish of personal accountability conveniently removes the need for institutional accountability." Okay. But sometimes outside circumstances and mitigating factors are simply irrelevant. Oppenheimer or not, fruit defilers should be severely punished. Also, one shouldn't pose such a stark dichotomy between personal and institutional responsibility--it's not an either/or scenario. If we've learned anything from our battles over educational accountability, it's that both are needed to catalyze behavioral change.
"No Mercy," by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, September 4, 2006
September 7, 2006
School superintendent Roger Schmiedeskamp of Manning, Iowa, is learning the hard way that applying modern management principles to public education can be risky. Greater transparency? Aggressive community outreach? Stripping away all pretense? These ideas may sound reasonable in theory, but implementing them in practice has landed Schmiedeskamp--who posed half-naked for a charity calendar--in hot water. (He was Mr. August, appropriate for back-to-school, while other Manning civic and business leaders assumed responsibility for the other eleven months.) Parent Kathy Swanson complained to state officials: "There definitely needs to be a reprimand." She found particularly distasteful the picture's milieu (Mr. August was sitting in a classroom desk). Parent/farmer Gary Rieschl called it "soft-core porn." Hogwash. Superintendent Schmiedeskamp, we salute your entrepreneurialism and willingness to take risks, and stand behind you...way, way behind you...all the way.
"Superintendent takes flak for calendar," Associated Press, September 2, 2006
Michael J. Petrilli / September 7, 2006
Craig D. Jerald
The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement
Last April, we reported on a study by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) that claimed the No Child Left Behind Act is pushing schools to abandon subjects such as history and the arts. Here's how that study's press release put it: "The Center also found that a majority of districts surveyed--71 percent--reported having reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematics, the topics tested for NCLB purposes." That shocking finding grabbed a headline on the front page of the Sunday New York Times and ushered in weeks of debate about how to save the "lost" curriculum. Enter savvy analyst Craig Jerald--formerly of Quality Counts and Education Trust. In a 6-page issue brief for the federally funded Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, he looks at all extant evidence on curricular narrowing and decides that CEP's conclusions are much exaggerated. His words on the CEP study itself: "[It] actually found that about one third of districts reported that their elementary schools had reduced social studies and science 'somewhat' or 'to a great extent,' and about one fifth said the same of art and music." "Somewhat" could have been five minutes or five hours a week--it's impossible to know. Still, that doesn't mean the curriculum isn't narrowing. Jerald finds some mild evidence that there
September 7, 2006
Matthew DeBell and Chris Chapman
National Center for Education Statistics
As districts and schools make sensitive decisions about how best to allocate taxpayer dollars, questions arise over the usefulness of sinking large sums into technology (see "Luddite oversight," above). Mostly, these technology questions involve computers and how best to integrate them into classroom lessons. This report, which relies on aging (2003) data, summarizes student computer and internet use. Its findings seem to support those arguing for greater integration of computers in schools. That's because a digital divide still exists (although it's declining) between students of different races and socio-economic backgrounds. For example, black students are 7 percent less likely than their white peers to use a computer, and 21 percent less likely to use the internet. Eighty-four percent of poor students use computers, while 93 percent of students who are not poor do (the gap in internet use is even larger). The report also concludes that schools are a help in bridging the digital divide. Twenty percent of students access the internet at only one location (for most, it is school), and of them, 60 percent are members of families in poverty. Understanding computers and being able to use technology with ease is becoming a requirement for success not only in high-tech jobs, but at the university level and in many types of so-called "unskilled" labor positions. Students without such knowledge are at a disadvantage. On a more positive note, the gender