Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 30
August 9, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
Not by geeks alone
Trapped in persistent danger
Ed reform editors
In a globalizing economy, America's competitive edge depends in large measure on how well our schools prepare tomorrow's workforce.
And notwithstanding the fact that Congress and the White House are now controlled by opposing parties, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are bent on devising new programs and boosting education spending.
Consider the measure--the America Competes Act--that recently passed Congress and is on its way to the president's desk. The bill will substantially increase government funding for science, technology, engineering, and math ("STEM" subjects). President Bush, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid support this initiative. Nearly all of the 2008 presidential candidates endorse its goals. And 38 state legislatures have also recently enacted STEM bills. The buzz is as constant as summer cicadas.
Indeed, STEM has swiftly emerged as the hottest education topic since No Child Left Behind. They're related, too. NCLB puts a premium on reading and math skills and also pays some attention to science. Marry it with STEM and you get heavy emphasis on a particular suite of skills.
But there is a problem here. Worthy though these skills are, they ignore at least half of what has long been regarded as a "well rounded" education in Western civilization: literature, art, music, history, civics, and geography. Indeed, a new study from the Center on Education Policy says that, since NCLB's enactment, nearly half of U.S. school districts have reduced
August 9, 2007
Last Saturday in Newark, three young people--two of them enrolled in college, one just months away--were fatally shot, execution-style, on the playground of Mount Vernon School, where six-year-olds attend class during most of the year.
Last month, Senator Barack Obama was in Chicago, telling an audience that the number of public-school students who were violently killed in that city over the past year (nearly three dozen) exceeded the number of Illinois soldiers killed in Iraq during that time.
It's tragic when students are victimized outside their schools. But far too often, the nastiness outside school walls seems to find a way inside--even more tragic, if that's possible. And far too often, students have no way out.
Urban classrooms may be safer than urban streets, but that doesn't mean they're safe enough or that kids feel secure in them. A 2006 national survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 6 percent of 14,000 high-school students said they had missed at least one day of class in the previous month because they felt threatened while in school or en route. Nor is school violence a uniquely urban phenomenon. (Columbine High School, for example, is in relatively bucolic Jefferson County, Colorado. Virginia Tech is in normally peaceful Blacksburg.)
The latest edition of the Education Department's Indicators of School Crime and Safety shows a rise in the number of school homicides, the percentage of schools experiencing violent crimes, and the percentage
August 9, 2007
The editors at the Indianapolis Star have written many a perceptive piece about the shortcomings of Indiana's schools (see here and here, for example). Their latest pair of education-related editorials is similarly spot-on. The first attacks the use of exit-exam waivers, which allow students who repeatedly fail the state-mandated Graduation Qualifying Exam to collect their diplomas despite their apparent inability to read and do math at a ninth-grade level. According to the editors, "at 52 high schools [in Indiana], 10 percent or more of graduating seniors receive diplomas despite failing the GQE," and at some schools as many as 35 percent of graduates failed their GQEs. The editors rightly note that waivers are "degrading the value of diplomas." The second editorial illumines state and school districts' inability to accurately track high-school seniors--to know who's dropping out, and who's graduating. In one egregious example, Indianapolis Public Schools handed out 1,300 diplomas when it started the year with only 969 seniors. Eh? Kudos to the Indy Star for not letting all this shoddiness go unnoticed.
"Too many waivers means too many kids leave unprepared," Indianapolis Star, June 28, 2007
"Let's get real about Indiana school data," Indianapolis Star, August 1, 2007
August 9, 2007
There was much to praise in Judge Sharon Gleason's late June decision rejecting claims that Alaska's schools are underfunded, and noting that traditional concepts of "local control" must be abandoned when schools repeatedly fail to educate kids. But there was much to criticize, too. In her ruling in Moore v. State of Alaska, Judge Gleason wrote that, despite being adequately funded, some schools were not giving students "a meaningful opportunity to acquire proficiency." Thus, she continued, high schoolers shouldn't be required to pass the state's exit exam to get their diplomas. Poor logic, that. If high-school diplomas in Alaska are to be worth anything, they must be tied to an objective external assessment of some kind. Some students in The Last Frontier are undoubtedly receiving flawed educations, but dropping the exit-exam requirement--i.e., lowering expectations for schools, teachers, and students--is a surefire way to make the situation even worse (note Indiana's experience, above). Bad schools exist in Alaska as well as other jurisdictions. But if states allow them to continue to churn out uneducated graduates year after year, they make positive change unlikely.
"In Alaska, school equality elusive," by Yereth Rosen, Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 2007
"Exit exam unfair," by Katie Pesznecker, Anchorage Daily News, June 22, 2007
August 9, 2007
Who knows schools better, outside consultants or internal operatives (principals and teachers)? The British government is betting on the latter. It's experimenting with a program that pairs principals ("head teachers") of successful schools with their counterparts in less-successful ones. Schools involved in these partnerships usually have similar demographics, grade levels, and sizes. The pairs of head teachers collaborate on, for example, how to balance school budgets and meet academic standards. Teachers and staff are involved, too: successful educators are paired with those who need extra assistance, and they may help with curriculum planning, classroom management, etc. The best head teachers in the program aren't just seeking to clone their success, though. They are less like drill sergeants than advisors and mentors. Challenges exist, most significant among them the question of how an individual head teacher can attend to two schools at once. But early results are promising. Savvy American reformers would do well to keep an eye on how this program develops. Perchance it will prove itself worth adopting in the colonies.
"In England, Top ‘Heads' Oversee Two Schools at Once," by Lynn Olson, Education Week, August 1, 2007
August 9, 2007
National Assessment of Educational Progress
The Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress has added an economic twist. A new NAEP report details the results of an economics assessment administered to 11,500 high school seniors across 590 public and private schools. It finds that even though many American kids remain, for the most part, economically illiterate, the dismal science has gained a curricular foothold in recent decades: 65 percent of students say they've taken a formal economics course in high school. On the test, 60 percent of students were able to identify what contributes to an increase in the national debt, and 46 percent were able to read a supply-and-demand graph to explain the consequence of price controls. Only 11 percent, however, were able to explain how a change in the unemployment rate affects spending, production, and income, and more than a third of students thought money deposited in a checking account sits in a vault until withdrawn. These are telling data, and most of the report is stuffed with similarly interesting observations. Generally, though, the big picture in economics resembles that in other subjects examined by NAEP. For example, "higher levels of parental education are associated with higher scores" and "students in large city schools score lower than students elsewhere." Still and all, this first-of-its-kind study serves an indispensable service: getting economic education on the national radar and appraising the current state of student knowledge of this
Information Sharing Could Help Institutions Identify and Address Challenges Some Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Students Face
August 9, 2007
U.S. Government Accountability Office
This report concludes that not all Asian American and Pacific Islanders become high-performing college students (who knew?). The authors note that while this demographic category does receive a percentage of American college degrees disproportionate to its size (eight percent of degrees for five percent of the nation), various ethnic groups within the category remain disadvantaged, particularly Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong. The GAO believes the "Asian-achiever" stereotype is actually hurting less-privileged Asian students and recommends that postsecondary institutions share information about recruiting and retaining Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who lag academically. What's more, they think the Secretary of Education should facilitate this sort of collaboration. Missing is any meaningful discussion of the root cause of post-secondary difficulties: poor performance in k-12 classrooms. The report's mission is admirable, but its conclusions are obvious. The country's focus should be on providing high-quality education for all who truly need it, be they Hispanic, Hungarian, Hmong, or Dutch-Irish. Find the study here.
To Teach or Not to Teach? Teaching Experience and Preparation Among 1992-93 Bachelor's Degree Recipients 10 Years After College
Coby Loup / August 9, 2007
National Center for Education Statistics
This study uses nationally-representative survey data to examine factors responsible for movement in and out of the k-12 teaching profession (in public and private schools). The survey tracked for a decade a random sample of individuals (with various majors) who received their bachelor's degrees in 1992-93. Of that graduating class, 11 percent were teaching ten years later and 9 percent had taught at some point but had left the profession by 2003. Almost 20 percent of those who left did so to raise their families. Eighteen percent left for jobs outside of education, and 15 percent exited for other jobs in education. Approximately 13 percent exited because of low pay. The report also breaks these data down by demographics. Some of the data are revealing and important. For example, 45 percent of teachers with degrees in science, math, or engineering left for jobs outside of education while those with degrees in the arts and humanities or social studies were less than half as likely to exit the field. Or this: among the 11 percent of 1992-93 degree recipients still teaching in 2003, 93 percent said they were satisfied with their jobs, and 67 percent expected to finish their careers as teachers. Students scoring in the bottom quartile on college entrance exams were more likely to become teachers than those in the highest quartile. But students with higher GPAs were also more likely to become