Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 33
August 30, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
The Suburban Schools Relief Act of 2007
A happy anniversary
The manufactured crisis
But I can sing!
Hip, hip, hoo-Rhee
Error prone, college bound
Michael J. Petrilli / August 30, 2007
The political strategy of George Miller and Buck McKeon, respectively the chairman and top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, has now come into focus: to get an NCLB reauthorization bill through Congress, appease the suburbs and those who represent them. This approach is smart and savvy and sometimes leads to good policies--but may also leave lots of kids behind.
At issue is a just-released "discussion draft" of their proposal to update Title I, the massive federal program that currently provides $13 billion to the nation's schools in return for tough accountability measures. While leaving much of the current program intact, Miller and McKeon would make several important tweaks that would be felt most directly in the country's leafy suburbs. Surely, this is no accident.
One key recommendation is to "differentiate" between abysmal schools that are failing across the board and marginal schools that are failing for only one "sub-group" of pupils. On its face, this is appropriate; one of the problems with NCLB is its clumsy, binary, pass/fail grading system. Either schools "make" adequate yearly progress, or they don't, and if they miss for two years straight they are designated "in need of improvement" whether they miss by a little or a lot. Because of NCLB's quirky rules, a suburban school with a 90 percent test-passing rate can receive the same label as an inner-city school with a 10 percent passing rate.
That's not fair, right? Shouldn't the first
August 30, 2007
Huzzah for Florida Virtual School (FLVS), which just turned ten! Such celebratory language is appropriate, for the Sunshine State, home to many school reform innovations, has yet again provided a successful model for reinventing k-12 education for the 21st century.
Those grumps at the National Education Association are trying to crash the party, though. The union is shocked, shocked, that some parents have the gall to become so involved in their children's education, helping them with their online lessons and all.
"There are concerns," NEA employee Barbara Stein told the Tampa Tribune this month, "about deputizing whoever happens to be at the kitchen table as a teacher." Klein fails to specify who, exactly, harbors such concerns, but we may assume that she sympathizes with the nameless disquieted.
Jean Miller, who directs the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at Florida's Department of Education, disputes Stein's depiction of Florida's online education programs. She told the Tribune, "In a virtual school, all teachers are certified in the state of Florida. You have a teacher confirming what students are mastering."
Okay, fine. But Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow has other "concerns." He criticized online education in general, saying, "School is much more than just an experience where you learn information." How so? Pudlow tries to clarify, but succeeds in muddling: "School is also a place where you learn about how different people are and how different people react." Like, to chemicals?
August 30, 2007
It's back-to-school season, which means it must be time for a prominent news outlet to decry the teacher-turnover "crisis." Enter the New York Times, whose front-page story quotes all the usual suspects saying all the usual things. "The problem is not mainly with retirement," explains the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. "The problem is that our schools are like a bucket with holes in the bottom, and we keep pouring in teachers." Perhaps that's true, but with a national attrition rate of eight percent, is teaching really any worse than other professions that attract lots of 20-somethings (see here)? Some contend that fewer teachers might even be a good thing. Nor is this challenge insurmountable. Some districts are taking common sense steps like offering bonuses for teachers in high-need fields or high-poverty schools. But others keep tripping over their own impenetrable hiring bureaucracies and minimal support for new teachers (who need more mentors like this). Tim Daly, the new president of The New Teacher Project, explains, "There isn't any maliciousness in this, it's just a conspiracy of dysfunction." Indeed.
"With Turnover High, Schools Fight for Teachers," by Sam Dillon, New York Times, August 27, 2007
August 30, 2007
All California asks of its twelfth-graders is to pass an exit exam (you get six tries!) that tests ninth-grade standards in reading and seventh-grade standards in math. Ninety-three percent of the class of 2007 passed it. Results from that class also showed rising success rates for African-American, Latino, and poor youngsters. White and Asian students continue to pass at higher rates, though, and state supe Jack O'Connell acknowledged as much: "We see some closing of the achievement gap, but we still need to do much more." But despite the mostly positive results, a few folks still insist that the exam requires too much of students. Liz Guillen, who works at a civil rights law firm, detects "a backlash [against the idea] that one test can be the sole indicator of a person's knowledge or qualification." The truth is this: If you can't read or do math at middle-school levels--and you have six chances to show that you can--that will be the sole indicator of your knowledge and qualification. Sorry, but that's how the world works. Some in California need to get with the program, stop denying reality, and chip in to get all kids up to the exit exam's most minimum of minimum academic levels.
August 30, 2007
Trouble overseas. A six-year study of the United Kingdom's early years education, a pre-school initiative that started in 1997 and has cost taxpayers over $40 billion, has found, according to the Telegraph, "that children's development and skills as they enter primary school are no different than they were in 2000." Just this month, though, the country's "minister for children" announced an $8 billion expansion of the Sure Start program--yeah, the one that hasn't worked. The Guardian jumped to defend the venture in a recent editorial. But columnist Alice Miles, writing in the Times, said that the dismal results are to be expected: "In my experience, most playgroups and nurseries generally do little of anything but babysitting." These government-funded services should do more, of course, but even a cursory glance at the official frameworks meant to guide them makes one's eyes glaze over: "aspects" divided into "components" divided into even more subheads. Curiously missing is anything of academic worth. You want an early-childhood program that works? Make learning the focus.
"Unsure start for those who most need help," by Alice Miles, The Times, August 29, 2007
"Early learning education plan a failure," by Gary Cleland, The Telegraph, August 28, 2007
August 30, 2007
Michelle Rhee, the District of Columbia's dynamic new schools chancellor, is already impressing parents, teachers, and the ever-cynical media with her no-nonsense style (she wants to fire bureaucrats and slim down the central office) and refreshing sense of urgency. Washington Post columnist Colbert King thinks she's ready to take on the city's "central-office hydra" with her "feistiness, a gift for fancy footwork and a good head for the urban fight game, all of which should keep her standing, at least for a while." His colleague, columnist Marc Fisher, seems equally impressed with her honesty: "Rhee is telling it straight: This thing is broken, period." Furthermore, parents "nearly swoon" at her impatience with mindless bureaucracy. "I am going to kick down the barriers," Rhee told Fisher. To be sure, both King and Fisher have been around the block; they've witnessed the system swallow six other superintendents in 10 years. And no doubt, the real task of improving student achievement is yet to come. But if leadership is about creating momentum for change and a hopeful vision of a better future, Rhee is heading in the right direction.
"Rhee vs. the Central-Office Hydra," by Colbert I. King, Washington Post, August 18, 2007
"Three Reasons to Cheer for Rhee's Fast Start," by Marc Fisher, Washington Post, August 28, 2007
August 30, 2007
It is no longer sufficient for ambitious high school seniors, bent on impressing college admissions committees, to distinguish themselves through their accomplishments. Now they're being encouraged to make creative errors. Steven Roy Goodman is an independent college counselor who advises his clients to purposefully screw up their applications. "Sometimes it's a typo," he said. "I don't want students to sound like robots. It's pretty easy to fall into that trap of trying to do everything perfectly and there's no spark left." Admissions committees don't seem to echo Goodman's thinking. They are looking for authentic applications, sure, but most say authenticity usually comes through in creative essays or extracurricular activities that demonstrate passion. Gadfly thinks that high school grads should combine the two recommendations: i.e., make a mistake--a creative, authentic one--and then write about it passionately. For example, try robbing a 7-11 with a banana (perhaps in a banana suit), and then write your college essay about the experience, examining it through the lens of Neruda's "La United Fruit Co." Or just get good graids.
"A typo may help your college application," Associated Press, August 22, 2007
August 30, 2007
The latest SAT scores are out, and average reading and math scores declined. In the critical reading portion--which used to be called "verbal"--the average score was 502. That's one point lower than last year's average; it's also the lowest reading score in 13 years. The College Board is sticking to its line: scores are down mostly because the pool of test-takers is larger and more diverse. Some point out, though, that the SAT's test-taking population was also growing larger and diversifying during the first part of this decade, when scores rose. What's clear is this. More kids are going to college, which is mostly a good. One wonders, though, if sending unprepared students into the halls of higher education will do those youngsters more harm than good. Will they rise to meet the new academic expectations, or will they drop out? Will universities challenge their less-prepared students, or dumb-down their educations to suit them (and keep them from dropping out)? Read the report here. Get state-by-state data here.
Eric Osberg / August 30, 2007
National Charter School Research Project, University of Washington
This short report from the National Charter School Research Project (part of Paul Hill's Center on Reinventing Public Education) looks at charter school management organizations, both nonprofit and for-profit. It's not a systematic analysis but rather a discussion of challenges that these entities face and the strategies they pursue as they manage (and attempt to grow) their networks of charter schools--perhaps shedding light on why fewer than 10 percent of charter schools are associated with management organizations (as of 2005). The analysts interviewed ten such organizations, including Aspire, High Tech High, KIPP, and Edison, and identified a handful of common problems. One such: Because charter schools face political uncertainty in many states, and navigating this consumes a great deal of time and resources, a management organization might be forced to narrow its geographic focus. Perhaps the most distressing problem they cite is "the tyranny of business plans." Their interviews suggested that even non-profit outfits are often pressured by funders to grow too quickly. A related question is whether charter management groups should enforce uniformity across their schools (as franchises typically do) or allow local variation. Both approaches exist. The Big Picture Company, for example, gives "each local site...encouragement to innovate around the design," while White Hat Management reports that it has "a very specific education model." The authors don't take sides, but they help the reader understand the tradeoffs. This report is