Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 48
December 20, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
Why teachers like Mike
Head Start, poor finish
Closing the Cumberland Gap
Ideas with merit
That Jamie Lynn
This week, Mike and Rick talk incentive pay in Dallas, Head Start, and the power of unions. Fordham's Jeff Kuhner talks about the 2008 presidential contest, but Education News of the Weird was tied up at the time.
December 20, 2007
"The popular value of ________ creativity and autonomy as high priorities must give way to a willingness to follow certain carefully prescribed ________ practices."
Replace the first blank with the word "doctor," the second with the word "medical," and you've constructed a commonsense sentence that will garner nods of agreement. Replace the first with "teacher" and the second with "instructional," however, and you've got on your hands a 40-year-old dogfight.
The above sentence is originally found--with the words "teacher" and "instructional"--on the Direct Instruction website. One also finds out on the website "that 32 of 34 qualifying studies demonstrated a positive effect of Direct Instruction on student achievement" and that the practice, which provides teachers with scripted classroom-lessons, is effective in improving academic performance in a bevy of subjects and has a positive effect on students' social skills.
Yet, despite the reams of data showing Direct Instruction's effectiveness, the approach remains controversial, in large part because of educators who find its methods stultifying. The practice is being attacked nationally and locally. After administrators in Providence began this year using Direct Instruction in seven of the city's lowest performing elementary schools, Roger Eldridge, a dean at Rhode Island's Feinstein School of Education, told the Providence
Michael J. Petrilli / December 20, 2007
Mike Huckabee made news--and history--last week when the New Hampshire affiliate of the National Education Association endorsed him for president in the upcoming primary--the first time it ever recommended a GOP candidate. (It picked Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side--no surprise there.) His support from teachers stems partly from his policy views (his apparent opposition to vouchers* and support for art and music education, which he calls "weapons of mass instruction") and partly from his outreach efforts (this summer he addressed the NEA convention--the first Republican presidential candidate ever to do so--plus he met personally with the New Hampshire union).
But that doesn't fully explain Huckabee's appeal to teachers. After all, he also supports policies that they oppose, such as teacher testing and abolishing tenure. While he's expressed reservations with No Child Left Behind, he hasn't proposed scrapping it, as the unions would prefer. And while "reaching out" to strange bedfellows can make headlines, it rarely yields endorsements.
The Huckabee-teacher connection reveals something about politics that is likely to transcend New Hampshire: Teachers, like Huckabee, tend to be culturally conservative and economically populist. And they like these views packaged in an optimistic, positive message. To the degree that people like to support candidates whom they can relate to, Huckabee is a natural fit for the teacher vote.
First, consider teachers' values. The conventional wisdom says that most teachers are die-hard liberals, trying to foist a secular worldview on their hapless students. But
December 20, 2007
In July 2003, President George W. Bush visited a Maryland elementary school and called for legislation to "hold Head Starts [sic] accountable for getting the job done." Last week, he reluctantly rubber-stamped a bill that contains almost none of the reforms he advocated. "I am deeply disappointed that the bill ends the National Reporting System, our only tool to examine consistently how Head Start children are performing in programs across the nation," he said in a signing statement. "I am also disappointed that the bill fails to include my proposal to protect faith-based organizations' religious-hiring autonomy." He didn't even mention that Congress ignored his idea to block-grant the program to the states, or to move it next door to the Department of Education. Representative Howard "Buck" McKeon, the ranking GOP member of the House Education and Labor Committee, put a more positive spin on the occasion, boasting that the bill "reflects Republican principles for reform: accountability, transparency, and a focus on school readiness." With "reform" like this, we're thankful that NCLB reauthorization ground to a halt in 2007--and hoping for the same in 2008.
"Bush Signs Head Start, With Qualms," Education Week, Alyson Klein, December 19, 2007
December 20, 2007
Rhode Island's 5,000-student Cumberland School District has hit a rough patch. Its state funding has dropped by $6 million over the last decade. And in neighboring Massachusetts, student test scores in districts with similar demographics are nearly double those that Cumberland is able to muster. But the city's mayor, Daniel McKee, has a plan. He is spearheading an ambitious, from-scratch initiative to replace the current public-school bureaucracy with a network of charter schools. He plans to bring in proven charter operators to run the schools, and his proposal, in addition to improving quality, will also make school budgets more transparent and cut costs. Gadfly hears that an old friend (who knows much about successful charter schools) is doing much of the plan's heavy lifting, too. Kudos to this small town for thinking big.
"McKee unveils plan for ‘Municipal Academy,'" by Marcia Green, The Valley Breeze, December 12, 2007
"Cumberland proposes regional school system," by Philip Marcelo, Providence Journal, December 14, 2007
"Rhode Island Coalition Aims to Start Network for Regional Charters," by Scott J. Cech, Education Week, December 18, 2007
December 20, 2007
Dallas education administrators are learning a valuable lesson: teachers are reluctant to work in tough classrooms, even if you pay them $6,000 extra. This year, the city tried to lure its best teachers into hard-to-staff schools by offering them $6,000 annual bonuses as "combat pay." Sixty-five educators appear to have switched to the struggling schools--which is not a despairingly low number, but it's not a high one, either. According to researcher Eric Hanushek, combat pay will only entice large numbers of teachers in Texas to switch schools if bonuses are at least 45 percent of their base pay, or about $20,000. Furthermore, other factors--school climate, student behavior, etc.--are simply more important to them than the bottom line. Still, Dallas has done some things right. In a particularly smart move, it offered extra cash not only to transferring teachers, but also to successful educators currently on staff at the neediest schools. Next, the city should work to improve the climate and behavior inside those schools (perhaps by offering big bonuses to principals who do just that). And the lesson for districts nationwide is clear: when contemplating teacher bonuses, think big.
"DISD bonus plan draws few teachers to struggling schools," by Kent Fischer, Dallas Morning News, December 16, 2007
December 20, 2007
The soft bigotry of low expectations has reared its ugly head again. Bennett Lieberman, principal of Central Park East High School in New York City, recently told his teachers in a memo, "If you are not passing more than 65 percent of your students in a class, then you are not designing your expectations to meet their abilities." Whether his motives were pure or not (probably not: under New York City's new school grading system, Central Park East could improve its grade by passing more students), Lieberman's approach is wrong-headed. Senior Richard Palacios said his school is "already too much of an easy ride" and guessed that only three or four kids regularly show up for his math class. Will lowering expectations bring back these truants? Most failing students themselves say no. Lieberman's memo also cautioned his teachers that "most of our students... have difficult home lives, and struggle with life in general." No doubt that's true, but it's all the more reason to reinforce the culture of hard work and high expectations that's missing from so many students' homes. Dumbed-down classes produce dumbed-down kids.
"Dumb down class, asks principal memo," by Ethan Rouen and Erin Einhorn, New York Daily News, December 13, 2007
Coby Loup / December 20, 2007
A recent Fordham Institute/NCTQ study of so-called "alternative" teacher certification programs found that they're not really that different from the traditional ed school route: entrance standards are equally indiscriminate and ongoing support is equally inadequate. Among a smaller sample of well-known recruiting programs, however, one might expect to see some pronounced differences--if not for the alt-route programs themselves, which are basically the same no matter where you enlist, then at least for the unique qualities of the recruits. Public Agenda thought so, and they surveyed 224 educators who went through Teach For America, the New Teacher Project, and Troops to Teachers to get a sense of how their early teaching experiences differ from those of their traditional-route peers. For those familiar with these programs, the findings aren't very surprising. These alt-route teachers were more likely to say that "wanting to help underprivileged children was one of the most important factors for entering teaching" (71 percent vs. 44 percent) and that "they are assigned the hardest-to-reach students" (64 percent vs. 41 percent). Alt-routers were also more dissatisfied than their traditional-route peers with their school leaders: They were much more likely to grade their leaders "fair" or "poor" on "Providing instructional leadership and guidance" (64 percent vs. 32 percent) and "Supporting you in handling discipline problems" (59 percent vs. 20 percent). Interestingly, far fewer alt-route teachers felt they were prepared for their first year of teaching (50 percent
December 20, 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.