Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 47
December 13, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
Sources of charter-school mediocrity
Higher-ed diversity done right
Bigotry is back
Who will be the fittest?
Why not weapon-proof schools?
The quiet storm
This week, Mike and Rick talk about developing talent; Winerip's illogic; and separating students by race, gender, etc. Tom Loveless stops by to talk about his new Brown Center report (reviewed below), and Education News of the Weird hits the campaign trail.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / December 13, 2007
A version of this editorial appeared as an op-ed in the December 11, 2007, Columbus Dispatch.
Why are so many charter schools mediocre? What went wrong? In reflecting on the Ohio experience, particularly in the charter-saturated terrain around Dayton, and taking maximum advantage of the benefit of hindsight, I've spotted 10 contributing factors. I offer them as a navigation aid for state decision makers and community leaders in Columbus and other Ohio cities--with the important caveat that Buckeye State charter schools, by and large, are presently doing as well as nearby district schools and that the state is blessed with a handful of outstanding charters that anyone would be proud to send their kids to and spend their tax dollars on.
1) Lax authorizing. Beginning with the Ohio Department of Education and continuing into today's sponsorship bazaar, negligence, haste, and greed have characterized too many of the entities charged with ensuring the competence and viability of would-be school operators, then monitoring their performance and intervening when results are weak. Quantity trounced quality, timidity trumped courage, and politics overpowered wisdom.
2) Unfussy consumers--and not just in Ohio. Many families are desperate to find a refuge for their kids from unsafe, unfriendly, dysfunctional district schools. Such considerations understandably take precedence over academic performance. That's compounded by meager information about school effectiveness, a dearth of truly outstanding schools, a shortage of effective advisors and brokers, and the propensity of student-hungry charters to make
Michael J. Petrilli / December 13, 2007
George Will doesn't much like the federal government, and he certainly doesn't much like the federal government getting involved in education. So it comes as no surprise that he doesn't like No Child Left Behind. More precisely, he loathes it.
He's a smart guy who's often right. In this case, however, he's just partly right. He's right that "NCLB was supposed to generate information that would enable schools to be held accountable for cognitive outputs commensurate with federal financial inputs." Yet much of that information is not trustworthy--such as the law's absurdly implemented "persistently dangerous schools" tally. And there's no denying that even the law's most important measures--assessments of student learning in reading and math--are open to abuse. Will cites the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's own Proficiency Illusion study to show how, under the law, "most states retain the low standards they had before; some have defined proficiency down."
But it's hard to believe that his solution--letting states choose to ignore the law, as a way station to getting the feds out of k-12 education altogether--would make things better. He contends that "America always is more likely to have a few wise state governments than a wise federal government"--and that's why he supports Michigan Congressman Peter Hoekstra's proposal to let states receive their NCLB funds via block grants--with no strings attached.
To be sure, he's correct that "a few" state governments have acted wisely in this domain. According to
December 20, 2007
Universities have long complained that far too many of their incoming students are ill-prepared for the rigors of college; the problem is particularly acute for low-income and minority students. Several institutions are actually doing something about it. The University of California (Davis, Berkeley, San Diego), Stanford, the University of Chicago, the University of the Pacific--all have set up charter high schools in recent years to help students get the skills and knowledge necessary for higher-education success. Gadfly says bravo. The more connections between k-12 schools and universities, the better. Such partnerships often result in more rigorous high-school curricula while helping university-based educationists to see for themselves what works in the classroom and what doesn't. (Dare one hope that such knowledge will catalyze change in the ed schools?) So far, the results are promising. When East Palo Alto Academy, a charter high school set up in part by Stanford faculty, was opened in 2001, its ninth-graders couldn't write more than several sentences or do basic multiplication and division. Now, test scores are rising, and many students are responding favorably to the beefed-up curriculum. "We're showing those gains," said Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor who helped establish the school. "But it's been a process." Indeed--a process one hopes will continue.
"Colleges set up charters as pipeline for students," by Laurel Rosenhall, Sacramento Bee, December 8, 2007
December 13, 2007
2007 may be known as the year when the "soft bigotry of low expectations" made a comeback. It started with Education Week's dubious "Chance-for-Success Index" (motto: demography is destiny) and is finishing with another doozy from Michael "No Excuse Left Behind" Winerip. The New York Times columnist read a recent ETS study about student academic achievement and came to the startling conclusion that families matter. This is news? Winerip's unique (and uniquely irrational) contribution is to argue, first, that student learning is largely "beyond the control" of schools, and second, that "high quality day care and paid maternity leave" could "make a difference" were it not for "government's inadequate support." Yet factors beyond schools' control, according to ETS and Winerip, include student absenteeism and how much television youngsters watch. Tell that to schools such as KIPP and Amistad, which track students down when they don't show up and crowd out TV time with tons of homework. As for Winerip's optimism about day care and maternity leave: where's the evidence that they help close achievement gaps? Show us some numbers and Gadfly might flit onto that bandwagon. In the meantime, how about trying to improve the schools?
"In Gaps at School, Weighing Family Life," by Michael Winerip, New York Times, December 9, 2007
December 13, 2007
Evolution debates are lighting up the opinion pages of Florida newspapers. On one side are supporters of proposed revisions to the state's science standards, which, if approved by the Board of Education early in 2008, will include the "e-word" for the first time in 11 years. On the other side are creationists and their allies, of which board member Donna Callaway is one. She recently told a newspaper that evolution "should not be taught to the exclusion of other theories of the origins of life." On the state's science-standards website, thousands of people have posted comments on the proposed revisions. One read, "I am so sick that people have become so brainwashed into thinking that evolution is true." Evolution is not a belief of the brainwashed. It's a widely accepted scientific theory; indeed, it's the basis of modern biology and much else. If creation debates take place in philosophy classes, well and good, but science classes need to stick with scientific topics, not speculative religious ones. Especially now, when everyone is worried about America's lagging scientific prowess, it's foolish to retard scientific understanding. In 2005, we gave Florida's science standards an F, and their omission of the "e-word" was part of the reason for the failing grade. Serious science standards must include evolution. Just ask any scientist.
December 13, 2007
The New York Times Magazine just published its "7th Annual Year in Ideas," and sandwiched between Wave Energy and Wikiscanning one finds Weapon-Proof School Gear. The gear in question is the backpack; Mike Pelonzi and Joe Curran have invented a bullet-proof variety. For the past several years, these two firearms instructors have shot guns at bulletproof materials, trying to discover which would be both lightweight and cheap and, thus, appropriate for insertion into a fourth-grader's backpack. The inventors won't divulge what stuff they finally picked, but they say it's capable of stopping bullets from 97 percent of the guns used in school shootings--and knives, too. Scott Poland leads the crisis response team of the National Association of School Psychologists and dismisses the idea of Weapon-Proof School Gear. "Do you know how fast a bullet travels?" he asks. Nonetheless, 1,000 of the new backpacks have been sold, prompting this thought: What, exactly, is becoming of American k-12 education?
"Weapon-Proof School Gear," by Patrick K. Walters, New York Times Magazine, December 9, 2007
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / December 13, 2007
This report deserves your attention--and at 27 pages is thoroughly manageable, even at a busy time of year. Loveless and company tackle three "puzzles," i.e., "phenomena in education that, at first blush, do not make sense." And on two of these they shed valuable light. In part II, they examine the paradox that finds Americans prizing private schools even as private high-school enrollments stagnate. Their findings include financial considerations, yes, but also broader cultural and social forces. In part III, they look into the seemingly contradictory international evidence on "time and learning" and conclude that yes, more minutes of instruction per day (and more homework) do have a salubrious relationship with student achievement, at least in math. Where the study is more exasperating--insightful but also wrong-headed--is in its comments on NAEP. The valuable insights concern the thinness of mathematical content in NAEP's math frameworks and exams, and how NAEP's governing board and bevies of experts have seemingly compensated by setting lofty targets that students must hit on those exams to be deemed "proficient." Where the analysis slides off track is in its assertion that NAEP's proficient level is too high. Loveless invokes Gary Phillips's recent linking of NAEP and TIMSS results (in math and science only) to conclude that, because fewer than 100 percent of youngsters in places like Singapore are achieving at that level, it's nonsense to set it as the target for
December 13, 2007
Advocates for Children and Youth
It's not just teachers who struggle to stay in failing schools. Their principals are also completing very short tours. Researchers examined principal turnover in small samples of low-performing, high-poverty schools in three Maryland districts--Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Prince George's County--and found a relationship between turnover and student performance. In Baltimore City, 90 percent of the sample schools experienced at least one principal change in a five-year span. In Baltimore County, 57 percent of schools experienced two or more changes. Meanwhile, academic achievement at those schools was dismal. The quality of replacement principals is suspect, too: between 70 and 90 percent of them were first-time school leaders. To stanch the bleeding, Maryland governor Martin O'Malley recommended incentives, of upwards of $200,000 over four years, for principals at various failing schools. These issue briefs comprise a worthwhile snapshot of the relationship between turbid leadership conditions and failing schools. But they would benefit from some additional research into the actual correlation of principal turnover and test scores and why principals flee so quickly. You can find the three profiles and related analysis here.
Coby Loup / December 13, 2007
Robin J. Lake, editor
Center on Reinventing Public Education's National Charter Research Project
Looking for a great stocking stuffer? You could do worse than this report, which offers some enlightening thoughts and findings on charter schools. Breaking from the two previous editions, which focused mostly on external pressures facing charter schools, the 2007 report "explores what is going on inside charter schools themselves." Especially interesting are the chapters on principal leadership and teacher compensation. In the first, researcher Christine Campbell interviews New Leaders for New Schools co-founder Jonathan Schnur, who discusses the challenges of finding the highly capable managers necessary for leading successful, innovative charter schools. The teacher compensation paper asks why more charters haven't experimented with performance pay. The culprits: Restrictive state laws and stale thinking from principals and teachers who hail from traditional public schools. To get around such status-quoism, the paper recommends injecting "new blood" into the movement. Another chapter tackles the question of whether charter schools are "making the most of new governance options." Again the authors conclude that, given their relative freedoms compared to traditional public schools, charters could and should be stepping farther outside the box, exploring options like teacher cooperatives, public-private partnerships, and new school board arrangements. The volume also includes a chapter on charter school safety, by CRPE honcho Paul Hill and his colleague Jon Christensen, and one on "smart charter school caps," by Education Sector's Andy Rotherham. Wrap it up, put
December 13, 2007
William H. Schmidt, et al
It's been a less-than-stellar few weeks for U.S. performance on international benchmarks (PIRLS, PISA, etc.), and the hits just keep on coming. Not only are other countries producing higher-performing students; they are also doing a better job of preparing math teachers for their middle grades. Michigan State's Bill Schmidt, with collaborators from five other countries (Bulgaria, Germany, Mexico, South Korea, and Taiwan), found that American math teachers arrive in middle schools with less mathematical and pedagogical know-how than their peers in other countries. Aspiring teachers in the U.S. cover in college only 43 percent of advanced math topics; in South Korea and Taiwan, they study 79 and 86 percent, respectively, of such topics. This study is the tip of a future iceberg; Schmidt now heads the Teacher Education and Development Study in Mathematics, which will include 19 countries and survey aspiring teachers in alternative certification programs. Read the MT21 study here.