Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 24
June 21, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
Federalism in the Land of Oz
Breaking up is hard to do
Church and charter
Can't touch this
Rats guarding Baltimore's cheese
This week, Mike and guest host Howie Schaffer chat about breakups in Philly, charter madrassas, and more automatons. Education News of the Weird is...''Food Fight''!
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / June 21, 2007
The United States isn't the only land where primary-secondary schooling was traditionally the responsibility of the states or provinces, while the national government played a minor, even peripheral role. Nor are we the only people now struggling to adapt that old decentralized arrangement to the realities of the 21st century, with its globalizing economy, rising mobility, instant communications, and ebbing affection for local idiosyncrasy--and agonizing over what mechanisms might best yield a measure of high-standard uniformity and accountability without shackling schools and educators to a deadening, politically vulnerable, bureaucratic sameness.
That something needs to change is clearer every day, as we observe the peculiar risks and odd incentives of a policy regimen in which states set their own standards and tests--and pay for the lion's share of education costs--even as they are held to account by Washington for their performance and told what to do with poorly performing schools. Yet we have neither the structures nor the trust to turn standards-setting over to Uncle Sam and little appetite for centralizing actual school operations.
Seeking a bit of perspective on such dilemmas, I recently spent a week talking with government officials, policy wonks, and educators in Australia. Its eight states and territories run the public schools, hire their teachers, and generally manage the delivery of primary-secondary education--averaging some 400,000 pupils each. With no "local" school systems, state bureaucracies and the elected state-level officials that oversee them have historically occupied the driver's
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / June 21, 2007
America is a youth-worshipping nation. Except, it seems, in the field of education, where gray hair and experience are frequently valued above all else. Hence the backlash against Michelle Rhee, who, at age 37, is seen by some as too young and green to head Washington's 55,000-student district.
The day following the announcement by Mayor Adrian Fenty (himself a spry 36) that he had selected Rhee as chancellor, Lee Glazer, founder of the anti-reform organization Save Our Schools, former mayor and now councilman Marion Barry, and council member Vincent C. Gray all made an issue of her youth and inexperience. (See here.) Things haven't improved much since, as columnists like Marc Fisher and Colbert I. King and a host of bloggers have kept the spotlight on her age and short resume.
Pooh. In business, in science, in engineering, in almost any profession one can name--save for education--we celebrate youth and its energy, ingenuity, and insight. One need only peruse several "40 under 40" lists to see that there is no shortage of individuals shouldering responsibilities as weighty as Rhee's and, by all accounts, enjoying great success.
For example, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, leaders of the New York-Presbyterian Healthcare system (82,000 employees) needed to rethink how to prepare for such disasters. They turned to Nicholas Cagliuso, now 32, who became coordinator of emergency preparedness for 43 NY-Presby sites
June 21, 2007
The relationship between Philadelphia's former superintendent, Paul Vallas, and the district's School Reform Commission (SRC) survived a bit of a rough patch about this time last year. So it's no surprise that as Vallas prepares to head south to run the schools in New Orleans, some folks are giving him a less-than-fond sendoff. Critics are pointing to the district's "surprise" $73 million budget shortfall, which surfaced in the fall, as a severe blot on his record. Vallas said he regretted being "too passive" on budget issues, but most observers seem to agree that the SRC, the city, and the state share responsibility for the oversight. For his part, Vallas claims that the SRC gradually took away the flexibility that had once allowed him to implement fundamental and innovative changes. "It begins to come apart piece by piece, and it begins with micromanagement," he said. "By year five, you're chopped liver." Strong executives usually clash with their boards, especially when things go wrong. And, as in Philadelphia, blame is often parceled out by both sides. Let's hope things work out a little better for Vallas in the Big Easy. That city's schools may not have time to endure any bickering.
"Vallas in with roar, out with rancor," by Susan Snyder, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 17, 2007
June 21, 2007
Can states fund religious charter schools without stepping all over the Constitution's anti-establishment clause? We think it's possible. And in the current issue of Education Week, Lawrence Weinberg and Bruce Cooper show how it's happening near Minneapolis. But is the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy altogether a good thing? Is it a harbinger of things to come? The authors certainly think so, crediting the high-performing school with walking "the fine line between serving a public purpose (educating children in a sensitive, culturally specific, values-oriented program) and being an Islamic religious school." "Its mission," the authors continue, "is clear and values-oriented, but not related solely to religion." (Gadfly knows that some will worry about balkanization of our "civic culture," but we're for choice, and not just the choices we like.) Fair enough, but don't expect a boomlet of religious charters. Selling people on public dollars for religious schools won't be easy. Lawsuits will surely be brought. But if such schools think through their missions carefully (and follow Weinberg and Cooper's good advice, such as creating a secular foundation to manage the schools' finances), we might just see miracles happen.
"What About Religious Charter Schools?" by Lawrence D. Weinberg and Bruce S. Cooper, Education Week, June 18, 2007
June 21, 2007
Is it some new form of abstinence education? Or does the principal of Kilmer Middle School have a Howard Hughes-like aversion to touch? No one knows for sure, because no one can get close enough to Deborah Hernandez to find out why she won't permit physical contact of any kind on school grounds. (Even her school mug shot looks to have been taken at 20 paces.) Give your girlfriend a hug? No, no. High-five your buddy? Uh-uh. Brush up against someone in the hall between classes? Don't even think about it. Her rule, she tells a Washington Post reporter (by phone or email, we presume), is meant to preserve personal space. Kids, Hernandez argues, don't know what's too far. "You get into shades of gray," she says. They'll complain, "If he can high-five, then I can do this." Ah yes, the old slippery slope argument. Still, there's one upside to Hernandez's extreme keep-your-hands-to-yourself approach. Monitoring school dances is a breeze.
"Va. School's No-Contact Rule Is a Touchy Subject," by Maria Glod, Washington Post, June 18, 2007
June 21, 2007
Gary Barnes, Edward Crowe, Benjamin Schaefer
National Commission on Teaching and America's Future
This study quantifies the costs of teacher attrition in five districts, and it finds that schools are losing a lot of money every time a teacher leaves them--recruiting, hiring, and training new teachers is expensive. In the small, rural district of Jemez Valley, New Mexico, each "teacher leaver" costs $4,366; in Chicago, each costs $17,872. And in urban districts (this study looked at two: Chicago and Milwaukee), "low school performance and high poverty were correlated with high teacher turnover." NCTAF has also created a "Teacher Turnover Cost Calculator" so that other school districts can determine just how much money they're losing whenever a teacher walks out the door. But is the teacher attrition rate really so unusual in a rapidly-evolving job market, in which employees (especially talented 20-somethings) job-hop every two or three years? Maybe not (see here). Regardless, the report's recommendations for combating teacher attrition won't work. NCTAF recommends, for example, investing in new teacher support and development, and that districts upgrade their data systems to make clearer the costs of turnover. To channel the Clinton folks, can I be quoted yawning? Districts that want to hang on to their good teachers (and attract new ones) could start by bucking the unions, embracing common sense, and instituting some form of merit pay. It might also help if schools didn't pay chemistry
Coby Loup / June 21, 2007
This report makes some persuasive points on behalf of virtual high schools (defined as online programs that supplement traditional schooling options, which currently enroll lots more students than full-time "cyber schools"). According to Tucker, virtual schools offer at least three major benefits. First, they personalize student learning. At the nation's second-largest state-run program, Florida Virtual School (FLVS), for instance, students "can choose a traditional, extended, or accelerated pace for a particular course." A second benefit is that they attract nontraditional teachers. Instructors at the Georgia Virtual School are almost exclusively part-timers. They're "stay-at-home moms, dads, or retirees" who find the flexibility of teaching online more manageable than a traditional teaching career. Moreover, because the virtual classroom is "more transparent" than a traditional classroom, administrators can better monitor its instructors. FLVS has a custom-built student data system that is reviewed frequently by school leaders to monitor teacher performance. (Such systems are still a pipe dream for administrators in many traditional school districts.) Finally, virtual schools encourage performance-based funding models. Again, Florida is a model. At FLVS, "funding is based on students' successful completion of their courses," and "a student's full-time school may not deny access to courses offered by FLVS." This puts a great deal of pressure on FLVS to produce results--a degree of pressure that few traditional schools experience. Tucker still thinks there is room for greater transparency in, and wider access to, virtual schools,
June 21, 2007
EdSource's third evaluation of California charter schools largely affirms conclusions from its 2005 and 2006 studies (e.g. strong performance of middle schools, faster academic growth of classroom-based charters over virtual ones). But the distinguishing characteristic of the new analysis is the researchers' use of statistical regressions to delve deeper into observable trends. The report tackles charter school performance on two fronts: comparing charter and non-charter schools and analyzing differences in academic performance among types of charter schools (conversion, virtual, managed, etc.). All the usual data suspects are examined, including the state's Academic Performance Index, NCLB's Adequate Yearly Progress, and California's School Characteristics Index (SCI) (which scores schools based on composite information about English learner status, parental education, and student demographics). Yet, despite the wealth of data, results are mixed. Neither charter elementary nor high schools demonstrate big achievement differences from their non-charter peers, whereas charter middle schools outperform non-charter middle schools by a statistically significant and durable margin. Further, schools overseen by a management organization outperform those run independently. While not earth-shattering, this study is a solid addition to charter school research. See for yourself here.