Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 31
August 16, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
Where we stand
NCLB: The big questions
All you can be
A perfect storm
This week, Mike and Rick talk about Arizona, Atlanta, Checker Finn, and Diane Ravitch. Professor Stefanie DeLuca, of Johns Hopkins, chats about why moving poor kids won't help them learn, and Education News of the Weird is bombastic.
We provoked a bit of a stir with last week's piece, featured in the Wall Street Journal and Gadfly, titled (by the Journal's editors) "Not By Geeks Alone." Most of that stir was intentional. We sincerely believe that today's STEM mania, combined with NCLB's narrow focus on basic reading and math (and test-taking) skills, combined with the newly enacted "competitiveness" bill that President Bush signed the other day, are having a deleterious effect on the American K-12 school curriculum--and very likely the college curriculum as well.
They are giving schools, teachers and students more reasons than ever--there were already too many--to neglect the humanities, to marginalize the arts, and to skimp on the social sciences. Moreover, they miss at least half of the true wellsprings of American competitiveness, which are not just skills but also knowledge, habits of mind, modes of inquiry, traits of character, among others. (For a longer exposition of this point, see our original essay and the longer Fordham volume that we edited, Beyond the Basics.)
The stir we did not anticipate came from friends worried that we had abandoned results-based accountability, turned against testing, and even declared war on standards.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. We support those important education reforms as ardently as ever. But we're also more mindful than ever of the truism that "what gets tested gets taught" and are alarmed that too narrow a conception of what schools are
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / August 16, 2007
As Gadfly recently noted , prospects for Congressional bi-partisanship for the renewal of NCLB are eroding. George Miller and Buck McKeon appear to hold very different views--this month, anyway--as to what's wrong, what's right, and what needs fixing, and how NCLB 2.0 should differ from the first iteration. This despite Miller's stated intention to bring an NCLB reauthorization bill to the House floor next month.
Conventional wisdom holds that this landmark law cannot be revamped--though it could probably be extended as is, just to keep the money flowing--absent a fairly broad consensus. Miller and Pelosi could indeed bring a bill before the House and possibly ram it through on a near-straight party line vote (though such a move would likely provoke more Democratic defections than GOP supporters) but it would come unglued in the Senate, where it's essential nowadays to have 60 firm votes for anything controversial. Which this would surely be.
The United States Congress these days is a near-to-dysfunctional institution. It accomplishes little of anything and less of importance. Call me cynical after too many years inside the Beltway but it appears to me that, on any but the most routine matters, lawmakers now act only when at least one of three (overlapping) conditions is met-and not always then. (1) There's a bona fide national crisis (e.g., 9/11, Katrina). (2) There's a huge public outcry. Or (3) there's a full-fledged Washington-style scandal needing to be redressed.
NCLB satisfies none of
August 16, 2007
It's tough to know what to make of them, those who cling to the idea that social engineering will cure the ailments of public education's sickest parts. John Edwards belongs in that camp. His solution to academic torpor includes forced socioeconomic integration of classrooms and the creation of "a million housing vouchers over five years to help low-income families move to better neighborhoods."
The latest blow to the assumptions of Edwards and his ilk comes from a pair of reports, featured in the forthcoming issue of Education Next. The reports illustrate, among other things, that children of low-income families who moved from high-poverty neighborhoods to areas where they had "substantially fewer poor and substantially more educated neighbors" showed no academic improvement.
This reinforces two points. First: Socioeconomic integration is not a panacea for educational ills. Second: As professor Stefanie DeLuca writes in Ed Next, "poor families are not just wealthy families without a bankbook." A move to the suburbs may have many positive consequences for low-income children--indeed, it may be a necessary condition for certain individuals to emerge from poverty--but it is surely not sufficient to improve their educational performance.
If we want to see low-income students do better in school, we need to focus our efforts on schools, not on moving kids from Baltic Avenue to Boardwalk and everywhere in between. Poor parents need information about the good schools in their midst (information they're not currently receiving), and
August 16, 2007
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wants to know why people in positions of authority are keeping parents in the dark about the quality of their child's teacher, whom they will meet next week for the first time. "Many of those parents have no real idea of the teacher's capabilities," the editorial board explains. "They don't have access to the standardized test scores of that teacher's former classes, and they don't know how the teacher has been rated on evaluations. And that parental ignorance is deliberate." Tough but fair by our lights; after all, back in April we called for a "national database of information about individual teachers' instructional effectiveness, résumés, ratings by parents, and attendance records." (Florida is doing something similar to highlight teacher misconduct.) Yes, the devil's in the details; poorly implemented evaluation systems (such as Houston's) do nothing but create ill-will. But savvy parents don't just choose schools, they choose classrooms, and the education system should facilitate that process. Of course, as the AJC points out, such a "spotlight" might highlight "the dreaded teacher that nobody wants." That nobody wants, and that no child ought to have.
"Tell parents who good teachers are," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 13, 2007
August 16, 2007
Call it double-time, academic style. In March, the Pennsylvania National Guard launched a three-week GED prep class, completed in basic training, for those who signed up to serve but didn't finish high school. The program isn't easy (students are in class nine hours a day, and rise at 4:45 a.m. for physical training) but seems to be working. Of the 120 enrolled so far, 85 have received GEDs. The Army also has a national program, Education Plus, which promises GED training to past dropouts who enlist. Education Plus has helped 13,000 earn high their school equivalency diplomas. Critics say such programs erode the quality of troops. Gadfly doesn't know much about soldiering, but he does know something about the country's dropout crisis. Perhaps our high school leaders should spend some time on base to learn what the Army is doing right. Anything that can do in three weeks what high schools can't do in four years deserves attention.
"Strained Military Widens Doors for High School Dropouts," by Kimberly Hefling, Associated Press, August 13, 2007
August 16, 2007
In 2005, Demarcus Bolton learned that he was one of 20 Atlanta high-schoolers who would receive a $1,000 scholarship from City Councilman H. Lamar Willis's charitable foundation. Two years later, Bolton remains scholarship-less. After calling Willis's office repeatedly, he finally gave up. "I just let it go because I was tired of being lied to," he said. Bolton is also waiting on a Palm hand-held computer he was supposed to receive. Nikita Head, one of the 2005 winners, said, "It was like Oprah. ‘Everyone's getting a Palm Pilot!' We never got a Palm Pilot." Willis may have his hands full with more than angry 20-year-olds, though; he never registered his foundation as a charity, and the IRS never gave his organization a nonprofit designation. Investigations are underway. Willis's public relations manager quit last week, too, and issued a statement saying his boss "misrepresented facts." Which is flack-speak for "lied." Meanwhile, Bolton is doing fine, about to enter his third year at Savannah State University. Were he only able to check his email while talking to his girlfriend while planning a road trip to Poughkeepsie, he'd probably have already graduated.
"Student never received scholarship from city councilman's charity," by Cameron McWhirter, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 10, 2007
Coby Loup / August 16, 2007
Phil Gonring, Paul Teske, and Brad Jupp
Harvard Education Press
This book will tell you all you could want to know about ProComp, Denver's pioneering pay-for-performance (PFP) system for teachers. The spark for ProComp came in 1996, when NCTAF's What Matters Most report inspired Phil Gonring of Denver's Rose Community Foundation to explore possible teacher compensation reforms in the Mile High City. Over the next decade or so, Gonring (who co-authors this book with then-chief union negotiator Brad Jupp and University of Colorado Professor Paul Teske) would play a central role in bringing together union, district, state, and city leaders, as well as a big-time national donor or two, to create one of the most intriguing PFP systems in the nation. The book chronicles this period in great detail, highlighting important battles fought by a diverse cast of characters. Among these battles are a 72-hour negotiation to hammer out the details of a two-year pilot; a crafty, Rose-led effort to extend the pilot to four years; a come-from-behind organizing push to win the union's approval for ProComp; and a politically masterful campaign to pass the $25 million mill-levy that currently funds ProComp. These accounts give valuable insights into the dynamics of city education politics for reformers nationwide. The authors imply that the success of ProComp relied largely on the leadership and perseverance of entrepreneurial individuals (including many others than the authors themselves). Of course,