Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 3
February 18, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
Good learning, Vietnam!
Hizzoner's hat trick
Cracked bell, round 2
Nothing easy in the Big Easy
No smoking, please
This week, Mike and Rick talk about big changes in the Big Apple, the rabble-rousing Charles Murray, and the time Mike dressed up as a cheerleader. Our interview is a sign of things to come, and News of the Weird gets medieval on you.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / January 18, 2007
An authority on Vietnamese education I don't pretend to be, but a recent trip yielded a couple of surprises.
First, even Vietnam, still in many respects a doctrinaire communist nation, is opening up its education system (both elementary/secondary and postsecondary) to competition and privatization, including for-profit providers. A natural consequence, most likely, of the country's accelerating efforts since 1986 to liberalize its economy in order to be more effective on the world market. (See here and here.) Like those who run its immense northern neighbor, Vietnam's overlords seem to think they can have it both ways: capitalism sans political freedom.
Second, even Vietnam, which still tends to ration access to certain opportunities and services according to people's rank (and Party membership), is moving toward uniform national academic standards that all students must meet at the end of secondary school--via a standard national test--in order to gain access to any of the country's proliferating (but still scarce) institutions of higher education.
Mine was a touring holiday, not a professional expedition, so most of what I gleaned about education in Vietnam came from looking out the van window, talking to our guides and reading the local English-language morning newspapers.
I learned that Vietnam has a very high rate of basic literacy, thanks to free and compulsory primary education (through fifth grade) and the even more consequential fact that most Vietnamese parents take their children's education seriously. (The latter pattern is common in East
January 18, 2007Gov. Crist, you've no doubt seen the latest headlines: Florida education stinks.
You've no doubt read the articles citing Education Week's recent study that ranked the Sunshine State 31st in the nation.
You've no doubt read the editorial pages, encouraging you to stop focusing on accountability, and, instead, to raise taxes and dump more money into failing schools.
Governor, you should ignore the headlines and the editorial advice. Here's why:
At first glance, Florida's schools don't look good: In fourth-grade reading, for instance, only 12 states perform worse; in eighth-grade math, only 14 states do.
But it's not enough to just take a snapshot of where Florida's students are right now. What you most want to know--and can only tell by looking at multiple pictures, taken over time--is whether your schools are catching up, falling behind, or keeping pace.
Unlike many of your counterparts in other states, when looked at this way you find considerable good news. Florida is catching up--rapidly. It's one of just three states in the nation to make statistically significant improvements in math and reading for its most disadvantaged students in the last decade (see here). That positive change is happening because of the innovative, accountability-based reform ideas that have been at work in Florida's schools over the past eight years.
At the fore is Florida's state accountability system--the A+ Plan--which preceded the federal No Child Left Behind law. A+ is arguably the most
January 18, 2007
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg looked slightly presidential yesterday, calling for major tax relief for Big Apple citizens while forwarding an ambitious, thoughtful education reform plan. Like any good politician, he exaggerated the academic gains made under his watch, but his trifecta of bold proposals earns him absolution. Most controversial is his bid to make teachers earn tenure rather than receive it automatically--and to support principals when they need to pull the plug on ineffective instructors. Next up is a whopping enlargement of his "empowerment schools" initiative, which demands tougher accountability for results from school leaders in exchange for considerably greater freedom to run their schools as they think best. And, saving best for last, he embraced a phased-in version of the Fund the Child approach to "weighted student funding," explaining that "the funding gaps between comparable schools can top a million dollars or $2,000 per student, year after year. That's not right and we're going to fix it." Hooray. And the "ideas primary" has begun.
"Bloomberg Proposes Overhaul of City Schools," by Maria Newman, New York Times, January 17, 2007
"Mayor Sets Schools Showdown," by Sarah Garland, New York Sun, January 18, 2007
"Hurry up and weigh," by Chester E. Finn, Jr., New York Sun, January 18, 2007
January 18, 2007
One nose-bloodying is enough for most of us. Not the brainy, pugilistic Charles Murray. He has resurrected his flawed Bell Curve argument in a three-part series of articles for the Wall Street Journal to try and convince us--again--that a person's IQ says all we need to know about what he can learn in school. Skeptical? "The easy retorts do not work," he says. Of students who go from below grade level to grade level and above, he writes, "That is an underachievement story," not evidence of rising intelligence. (So crackerjack schools like the Amistad Academy must magically recruit all of the underachieving students in town to their campuses; how else to explain their hundred-percent proficiency rates?) Of the possibility that IQ tests can be wrong, he writes, "I am not talking about scores on specific tests, but about a student's underlying intellectual ability." By Murray's estimate, only 25 percent of children (those with IQs above 110) are smart enough to go on to college. And for the other 75 percent? The lucky ones can be plumbers and mechanics (honorable professions both). The rest of you--well, that's not Murray's problem. He somewhat redeems himself in his third installment, calling for more attention for gifted students and a return (at least for some) to a classical liberal arts education. But it's not enough. It is notable, though, to see fatalism and educational determinism (and NCLB pessimism) emerging, for wholly different reasons, from
January 18, 2007
Amy Waldman's long and richly detailed account of New Orleans education reform, post-Katrina, follows the efforts of businessmen (such as James Huger, who opened a new charter school), longtime education bureaucrats (such as Robin Jarvis, who was put in charge of the Recovery School District), and outsiders (such as Daniel Hudson, an RSD principal). The struggles these leaders faced ranged from the mundane but predictable, such as lack of textbooks, teacher shortages, and leaky buildings, to the absurd, such as when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference likened Jarvis's activities to the Klan. Waldman depicts these protagonists as all-too-human, making their share of blunders and sometimes fighting one another instead of combating the situation. No matter. They all deserve recognition as heroes, because while others have abandoned the city and its children, they stay and fight for their future.
"Reading, Writing, and Resurrection," by Amy Waldman, The Atlantic Monthly, January 2007 (subscription required)
January 18, 2007
Title IX has inspired many an imbroglio since 1972, but the law's latest controversy is truly daffy. Responding to a parent's complaint about inequitable resources for girls, 14 high schools in upstate New York now require female cheerleaders to rouse the crowds at girls' as well as boys' basketball games "regardless of whether the girls' basketball teams wanted and/or asked for" them. An important caveat, since neither the cheerleaders nor the female athletes seem pleased with the situation. Amanda Cummings, cheerleading co-captain at Whitney Point High School, says it "feels funny" to cheer for girls. Many girls' teams, meanwhile, not used to such rah-rahing during games, complain that the cheerleaders are distracting. The districts, for their part, say the parents who forced the issue are interpreting Title IX in a sexist and archaic manner. "We regard our cheerleaders as athletes," says one district official, "while [proponents of the new mandate] are working on a 1970s' stereotype that cheerleaders are here to support the boys." May Gadfly suggest a better approach? Outfit some comely young lads with pom-poms and make them cheer for the girls' teams. That would be the spirit of Title IX at its finest. And the girls might even like it.
"Equal Cheers for Boys and Girls Draw Some Boos," by Winnie Hu, New York Times, January 14, 2007
Eric Osberg / January 18, 2007
This paper by the insightful and prolific Marguerite Roza analyzes eight common provisions in teacher contracts, showing how each contributes to overall education spending. For example, experience-based pay accounts for about 10 percent of the more than $500 billion America spends on K-12 education annually. Salary increases linked to educational credentials (e.g., a master's degree) and class size limitations each account for about 2 percent. The other contract provisions account for smaller percentages--sick, personal, and professional-development days; teachers aides; and excess health and retirement benefits (above those provided in other professions) each tally between 0.5 and 1.3 percent of total spending. Of course, even 1 percent of $500 billion is a big number, which brings us to the report's fundamental assertion. We spend billions on teacher perks with little or no evidence that the money is spent wisely, or wouldn't be better used to recruit stronger teachers, reward the best teachers, or target resources to the neediest students. This paper is best read as a national overview; it doesn't dig into specific examples or variations between states or districts. But it poses key issues. Have we made optimal tradeoffs in our public-education budgets or are they simply haphazard accumulations of myriad decisions made in years past? You already know the answer. But the unions don't want to hear it. The Washington Post caught Antonia Cortese of the AFT saying that the