Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 5
February 1, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
Reading wars redux
Fie on fatalism
Vouchers over Easy
School bored politics
Next time, use Kinko's
This week, Mike and Rick chat about the FDA, why Spitzer loves the folks at Ed Sector, and Al Gore. Mike speaks Sanskrit and boasts about his yoga skills with our interviewee, and Education News of the Weird is all choked up.
For more than three decades, advocates of "whole-language" reading instruction have argued--to the delight of many teachers and public school administrators--that learning to read is a "natural" process for children. Create reading centers in classrooms; put good, fun books in children's hands and allow them to explore; then encourage them to "read," even if they can't actually make out many of the words on the page. After all, they can use context clues and such. Eventually, they'll get it. So say the believers.
Seven years ago, the National Reading Panel (NRP) issued a report that was--well, that should have been--devastating to whole-language proponents. It identified five essential elements that every child must master in order to be a good reader: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Early-reading programs that fully incorporate these five elements into their materials and methods are properly termed "scientifically-based reading research" (SBRR) programs.
But what should have been the death knell of whole language programs has instead become a new ticket to prosperity. For instead of accepting NRP's conclusions and truly reworking--or ending--their products, they've relabeled themselves, reworked their marketing materials, added happy talk about the five NRP elements, and now claim to be SBRR programs. Only they're not.
More than a few people have been fooled, including the leaders of such large districts as Denver, Salt Lake City, and New York City. How could so many professionals be misled? Some, no doubt, craved
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / February 1, 2007
School reforms come and go. But educational determinism, it appears, goes on forever. By which I mean the view that schools are essentially powerless to accomplish much by way of learning gains, no matter what is done to or about them. That is because--take your pick--they don't have enough money/time/experienced teachers; or students face so many problems in their lives that it's folly to expect schools to do more with them; or kids lack the innate ability to acquire more skills or deeper knowledge, regardless of how their schools may change.
That's three different arguments, of course. The first is most apt to come from educators and experts who contend--forget four decades of post-Coleman evidence to the contrary--that there's some sort of linear relationship between what goes into schooling by way of resources and what comes out by way of learning. Hence if we crave more of the latter we had best cough up more of the former.
The second--I've long thought of it as the "Gee, Officer Krupke" argument--is typically heard from well-meaning liberals (e.g., Richard Rothstein) who earnestly want income to be redistributed, health care provided, families propped up, racial barriers eased, and so on. They see kids, especially disadvantaged kids, facing non-school challenges that swamp what schools can accomplish. Solve those larger societal problems, they say, and educational achievement will flourish. (The latest Quality Counts from the publishers of Education Week contains a whiff of this.
February 1, 2007
When New York elected Democratic attorney general Elliot Spitzer to succeed Republican George Pataki as governor, nobody knew exactly what tack he would take on education. During the campaign, Spitzer was prone to accusations of being, as his opponent noted, "all things to all people." While he supported some union initiatives (such as lowering class sizes), he also supported some reform-minded goals (such as raising the cap on charter schools).
But in good political fashion, he was always vague about specifics.
No more. Spitzer's January 29th "Contract for Excellence" speech at the State Education Department put some flesh (and many dollars) on the bones of his reform vision, centering on three types of accountability--financial, programmatic, and performance.
Yes, it includes some parts that are questionable, such as its emphasis on lowering class sizes. No, it said next to nothing about content and curriculum (though, to be fair, New York State already has some of the nation's best content standards). Yes, it pours out gobs more money for schooling. Says the New York Times, "$1.4 billion in added education spending statewide for the coming fiscal year, increasing to $7 billion in added annual spending after four years."
So what's to like? Mainly this, from Spitzer: "There will be no more excuses for failure. The debate will no longer be about money, but about performance."
He appears not to be kidding. If you're in any way involved with a New York
February 1, 2007
As we reported a few weeks ago ("Nothing easy in the Big Easy,"), every day brings new challenges to New Orleans's schools. The latest problem is a matter of "capacity": the state-run Recovery School District simply doesn't have enough room (or teachers) to serve all of the city's current students. So Reverend William Maestri, the (soon-to-be-retiring) superintendent of the city's Catholic schools sprang into action. After learning that over 300 children were waitlisted by the Recovery District and are currently school-less, Maestri announced that he will find a seat for them in his schools, regardless of their parents' ability to pay tuition. Meanwhile, his archdiocese is pushing the state to adopt a publicly funded voucher program. Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan quickly registered his objections to such altruism. "It's somewhat predictable that the archdiocese and Father Maestri would use this as the staging point for something [vouchers] they've long pursued," he said. We doubt the 300 students now able to attend school share Monaghan's revulsion.
"Voucher drive gets fresh push," by Steve Ritea, New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 27, 2007
February 1, 2007
School board meetings are the choicest venues to stage a culture war this side of the O'Reilly Factor. The best battles, of course, pit religion against science, faith against fact. And just when you thought this struggle was going stale, here comes Al Gore and his global warming docu-drama An Inconvenient Truth. A national uproar has ensued after Seattle suburb resident Frosty (sic) Hardison wrote in a letter to his local school board, "No you will not teach or show that propagandist Al Gore video to my child, blaming our nation--the greatest nation ever to exist on this planet--for global warming." The board quickly imposed a "moratorium" on showing the video, and was then flooded with thousands of phone calls and emails from scientists around the country lambasting its decision. Almost makes you want to throw in the towel on common schools. But a common-sense solution is at hand for this case, as it is for many like it. Science class is for science; here, that means presenting the scientific consensus that climate change is happening, as well as the uncertainties about how much of it is caused by people and what can be done to alter it. As for the other battles--well, that's what current events class and debate club are for.
"Gore Film Sparks Parents' Anger," by Blaine Harden, Washington Post, January 25, 2007
February 1, 2007
To instruct students on the artistic technique of chiaroscuro, a Renaissance innovation that contrasts dark colors with intense whites, a typical teacher might display Baglione's Sacred Love versus Profane Love or Rembrandt's St. Peter in Prison. But at Adwick Washington Infant School in South Yorkshire, England, one teacher recently chose the more hands-on method of photocopying her student's head. While most of the tots participating in this "light and dark experiment" brought home images of their little white hands against a black background, the parents of five-year-old Luke Wilson received a xerox with some extra shades of gray--their son's face, with the hand of his teacher on top of it. Now Luke is suffering from serious eye irritation; doctors at Doncaster Royal Infirmary compared his symptoms to those commonly associated with "arc eye," or "welder's flash," which result from exposure to intense ultraviolet light. Luke's parents have not pressed charges. They seem more confused than anything else. It's been said many times: Hands-on learning is not a victimless crime.
"Teacher 'put boy's head in photocopier'," by Paul Stokes, Telegraph, January 26, 2007
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / February 1, 2007
Hardie Grant Books
If the problems facing America's schools seem too enormous, consider Australia. Like the U.S., Oz trails most of the industrialized world on TIMSS and other international assessments. But it seems slower in coming to grips with the damage that's been done to its education system over the past 30 years. Enter Kevin Donnelly, among the leading Antipodean education thinkers, who has chronicled how progressives hijacked the curriculum beginning in the 1970s and shifted the focus from traditional disciplines (English, history, science, and math) and norm-referenced testing to "child-centered" teaching and criterion-referenced tests with very wishy-washy criteria. The result is "transformational outcomes-based education," whose (im)measurables are driven by the belief that no child should ever fail. But Donnelly's book goes beyond fingering those who have undermined Australian schools (though he does this well). It also builds the case for a strong traditional curriculum (chapter 4), and outlines the states in Australia that are fighting back, as well as how they're doing it (New South Wales and Victoria, in particular). Much of the content will resonate with American readers--the struggles, for example, to root constructivism out of Australia's schools of education sound all too familiar. Still, much of the book will cause one to stop and appreciate, if only for a moment, how very far school reform has come in this country. Purchase it here.
Coby Loup / February 1, 2007
Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now
With this report the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) follows in the footsteps of Delaware's Vision 2015 project and outlines a comprehensive statewide school reform strategy--this time for the Nutmeg State. Like Vision 2015, this report was spearheaded by a large, well-credentialed Board of Directors and Advisors and is clearly serious about school reform. The reports are also similar in approach. Both call for expanding access to pre-school; improving recruitment and performance of teachers and principals; implementing a strong, value-added accountability system; and facilitating school-level innovation. On this last issue ConnCAN bests Vision 2015 with its explicit focus on charters. It recommends lifting Connecticut's exceptionally tight cap on charter growth (just sixteen schools statewide at present) and funding these schools at the same levels as traditional public schools. Its recommendations on improving principal and teacher quality are less strong. It argues for alternative certification and heavy recruitment from organizations such as Teach for America--undoubtedly positive steps. But the report is mum on teacher pay and vague on redefining the role of the principal. On finance, Vision 2015, which calls for weighted student funding, does better; ConnCAN's call for standardized accounting and increased transparency is important but doesn't go far enough. Overall, ConnCAN's report warrants attention, but one can get a much richer look at possible comprehensive state-level reform strategies by using it in tandem with Vision
February 1, 2007
This latest report from Education Sector is an invitation to begin a dialogue about school time (incidentally, the organization is hosting just such a discussion). The author does a swell job summing up the existing research about the pros and cons of extending the school day and school year, and she offers some sensible recommendations. But they are general and predictable. For example, the report notes that "the collection and analysis of time-use data in schools must be improved" and that "the value and success of time reform...depends greatly on context." True statements; also prosaic ones. Not to say that the report isn't worth a look. One who knew nothing about instructional-time issues could pick up this volume, read it over a leisurely lunch, and feel confident that he or she would not be at all ruffled if, over afternoon martinis, someone happened to say, "Now then, what's all this business about long school days?" Policymakers, too, can use it for a quick overview of the issue, the research, and the pros and cons. You can find it by clicking here.