Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 15
April 19, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
How to improve Reading First
By G. Reid Lyon
Viva la school trip!
Closing the Expectations Gap 2007
America, The Last Best Hope
I know it was you, Fredo
This week, Mike and Rick talk about supes, Catholics, and Cubans. We've got an interview with Jonas Chartock of the Charter School Policy Institute, and Education News of the Weird is one with the people.
G. Reid Lyon / April 19, 2007
Tomorrow, the House Education and Labor Committee will hold a hearing to consider the future of the much-discussed Reading First program, a key component of NCLB. While the hearing's title promises a focus on alleged "mismanagement and conflicts of interest" within the program, members of Congress would be better advised to concentrate on the future of federal policy in the domain of primary reading.
To consider the future, we're always well advised to start with a bit of history. Where did Reading First come from?
It came, above all, from mounting concern with the educational plight of far too many of our children. Despite honorable intentions, for years our governments, our educators, our media, and our scientists have been letting down kids, particularly poor kids and their families. When over 50 percent of underprivileged children keep failing in school and dropping out, something is not working.
Any effort to address that problem must begin with reading. An enormous proportion of young Americans cannot read well enough to learn about history, math, or science. Most such kids come from disadvantaged environments and many of their parents cannot read, either. Yet when it comes to educating these children, we continue to engage in practices and programs that have had no discernible effect on improving their reading capabilities.
For far too many years, the mainstays of instructional practices were superstition, tradition, and untested assumptions about how kids learn to read. Scientific
April 19, 2007
Noam Scheiber, senior editor at The New Republic, is none too pleased about what he calls the "cleverness problem" bedeviling top economic graduate schools. According to him, today's students and professors are far less interested in using the dismal science to investigate important issues (poverty, inequality, etc.) than in finding cute, clever ways to show causation between situations that have little or no practical consequence.
Demonstrating compelling causation--called clean identifying--is the holy grail of economic studies. And Scheiber isn't necessarily against it. He thinks clean identifying is well and good when applied to areas that deserve study (he gives as an example this paper about the correlation between education and future wages). But he also thinks the clean identification fetish for showing causation between unimportant, everyday occurrences has gone too far. Freakonomics might be to blame.
He's correct in a sense. The economics that garners headlines is that of the "cute" variety. Does it really matter if diplomats' parking tickets are correlated to their country's level of corruption (see here), or that Mexican men pay prostitutes a premium for unprotected sex (see here)? Economists are supposed to be solving problems, not noting largely worthless causations.
But in another sense, Scheiber gets it wrong, as noted by MIT economics professor Joshua Angrist. Angrist, who coauthored the aforementioned study of education's correlation to earnings, writes that he is "especially pleased when
April 19, 2007
Education reformers have long argued that school choice is already widespread--among the well-to-do. Foes counter that choice programs are nothing but a "life raft" to save a few while letting the ship sink. Here's a new twist: St. Louis firefighters--union members all--are steamed that state law requires them to reside in the city of their employ. With its public schools in turmoil (see here), these men and women in uniform want a life raft of their own, namely the right to move to the suburbs and take advantage of their good public schools. "I'd be living out in Fenton and sending my kids to one of the best school districts in Missouri--and not paying for it," one of the firefighters explained. Fanning the flames is a 2005 decision allowing veteran police officers to escape from city to county schools. We're all for educational freedom, so give the firefighters what they want. But how unjust if the same state legislature that recently rejected school vouchers for the city's neediest families gives the green light to this form of school choice for city employees. What's good for the rescuers is also good for those who need rescuing.
"St. Louis firefighters are battling city schools," by Jake Wagman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 17, 2007
April 19, 2007
A couple months ago, it looked like the Boston Archdiocese was actively cooperating with charter schools. No more. With enrollment in Catholic schools flagging (in part because charters are tuition free), Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley decided to take off the gloves. The Archdiocese now refuses to lease or sell school facilities to charters. Among the victims is high-achieving Boston Collegiate Charter School, which had been in negotiations to buy a church-owned building. That's over. To his credit, however, O'Malley isn't simply making life difficult for charters. He has also enlisted top business leaders to raise money for Boston-area parochial schools and is working to make those schools more efficient. Competition, we're confident, is a good thing. If the Catholic schools are able to pull off a, err, ahem, reformation, it's apt to benefit needy kids.
"The church vs. charters," by Steve Bailey, Boston Globe, April 13, 2007
April 19, 2007
Manhattan's Upper West Side may be the most liberal neighborhood in the United States. So who's surprised that a public school there wanted to show kids real Communism, up close and in-person? In 2004 and 2005, students from the area's Beacon School took school-led field trips to Cuba, in violation of federal law. This year, the New York City Education Department found out about this unapproved shuttle diplomacy and forbade a 2007 visit. But the school went to Havana anyway. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have placed the matter under investigation. Klein told reporters, "It shouldn't have happened. We expressly said no." But New York Lieutenant Governor David Patterson, whose stepdaughter went on the 2005 trip, was less condemnatory. Describing the visit, during which students, among other things, interviewed a 15-year-old prostitute, Patterson said, "I've probably learned more, hearing about her experiences, than I have been able to read in books or watch in films about the Communist dictatorship." Then he reclined in his chair, lit a Cohiba, and returned to his game of dominos.
"Manhattan School Challenges U.S. Rules and Sends Students on a Spring Break Trip to Cuba," by David M. Herszenhorn, New York Times, April 17, 2007
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / April 19, 2007
Achieve, Inc. deserves kudos for this "second annual" survey of states' progress "on the alignment of high school policies with the demands of college and work," an outgrowth of the American Diploma Project and the 2005 high school summit. But applaud softly, please, because the data presented here don't show huge progress and some of them indicate progress in directions that may not bear scrutiny. Get beyond the executive summary and you will encounter glum news about how few states are really aligning their high school exit and college entrance expectations (in the sense of common "cut scores," not shared aspirational standards); how few have continuous data systems that bridge the K-12 to postsecondary divide; how few hold their high schools to account for the subsequent performance of their graduates; and more. Consider, for example, that in just one of fifty states (New York) do "postsecondary institutions find the state's end-of-course high school tests... challenging enough to determine whether incoming students are prepared to enroll in credit-bearing courses." Yes I know, it's barely two years since the summit--but it's 24 years since A Nation at Risk, which cast most of its recommendations in terms of beefing up high school expectations and (vaguely) linking them to college requirements. Achieve does good work and we at Fordham are proud of our affiliation with the American Diploma Project, but the evidence presented in this report suggests mighty slow progress by states in long-overdue
Beating the Odds VII, An Analysis of Student Performance and Achievement Gaps on State Assessments, Results from the 2005-2006 School Year
Coby Loup / April 19, 2007
Council of the Great City Schools
The hopeful tone of this latest installment of Beating the Odds is much the same as it's been the last six years. Once again we learn that the country's 66 Great City School districts are raising achievement levels while narrowing achievement gaps. This year's highlights: the percentages of fourth- and eight-graders at or above "proficient" in math and reading have all jumped by at least 8 percentage points and as much as 15 points since 2002. About half of the GCS districts reduced achievement gaps for poor and minority eighth-graders in math and reading; between 60 and 75 percent did so for fourth-graders. Unfortunately, like its predecessors, this report also points out that most urban districts still score below statewide averages in all areas. And the authors preface their findings with numerous important caveats, such as non-comparability of state assessments and the impossibility of testing for statistical significance due to lack of data. (We'd add another one: it's possible that the state assessments themselves are getting easier, which might help to explain these rosy findings.) Still, the authors point out that "the overall direction of the state numbers is corroborated by the most recent estimates from the National Assessment of Education Progress." And they're optimistic that states and cities will continue to improve their reporting systems. The ever-increasing volume of the city-by-city data and individual city profiles (the sections are so large
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / April 19, 2007
Volume II, From a World at War to the Triumph of Freedom
William J. Bennett
Thomas Nelson Publishers
Volume II of Bill Bennett's fine U.S. history is out this week. Clocking in at almost 600 pages, it recounts the country's saga from World War I through Ronald Reagan. As Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson (himself the author of a swell new biography of Einstein) says on the dust jacket, "Bill Bennett's wonderfully readable book...puts our nation's triumphs, along with its lapses, into the context of a narrative about the progress of freedom." This is not only an excellent work for anyone wanting deeper familiarity with American history--it (together with volume I, which Thomas Nelson published last year) would also be a superb textbook for an ambitious high school or college course.