Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 25
June 28, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
Reflections on the year now ending
Bad news 4 school leaders
Memphis jazz, Boston blues
A lovely engagement
This week, Mike and Rick chat about MBAs, fidgety 20-somethings, and making money off poor kids. Our own Liam Julian tells us why he was suspended in high school, and Education News of the Weird is marvelously spun.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / June 28, 2007
With so many schools in session well into June and others starting early in August, it sometimes feels like July is all that remains of yesteryear's three-month "summer vacation." Heading into the 7th month, therefore, and with Gadfly looking forward to an Independence Day break, some reflections on the 2006-7 school year seem fitting. Here are ten such:
Test scores rise (and fall) more slowly than the Dow or the temperature, but they can and sometimes do rise. This year, the Center on Education Policy confirmed state reports of promising early-grade gains in math and reading. Unfortunately, the year also brought mounting evidence (most recently from NCES) that, when it comes to "proficiency," many states have low expectations--and these may be getting lower. (Fordham is in the midst of our own examination of this and we'll have more to say on the topic presently.)
- It's not smart to monitor oneself, however, especially in a high-stakes era, and if the U.S. doesn't come up with better forms of independent education auditors--better, that is, than having local and state education agencies devise their own tests and spin their own results--we are going to lose faith in the measurement system itself. It was not so long ago, after all, that Dr. John Cannell's "Lake Wobegon" study found just about every state reporting that just about all of its pupils were "above average."
Michael J. Petrilli / June 28, 2007
Today's Supreme Court decision striking down Louisville's and Seattle's race-based student assignment plans will surely lead to much gnashing of teeth, recriminations, and accusations that America is slipping back to the era of Jim Crow. Politically-correct experts, educators and advocacy types will express outrage and declare their intent to find a way--any way--to ensure that the remaining handful of white students in urban districts attends schools otherwise populated by African-American and Hispanic children.
They're wrong. Not because we shouldn't feel guilty that so many of our urban schools are racially isolated. Of course we should. And not because Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of an integrated society isn't compelling. Of course it is. But the surest route to such a society is to help all children achieve academically, prepare for higher education as well as jobs with futures, and enter the great American middle class. Because here's the good news: middle class black children living in suburbs are much more likely to attend racially diverse schools than poor urban black children are. The way forward is through social and economic progress--which starts with academic progress. That means shaking up the urban school systems that produce such abysmal results.
So urban education--and community--leaders: If you really care about the future of black and brown students, here's your to-do list.
- Stop hiring poorly-educated individuals for teaching positions. Insist that teacher candidates score above the 50th percentile on a national exam such as Praxis or pass
June 28, 2007
It's amusing to find phrases such as "BONG HITS 4 JESUS" amidst the stiff legalese of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion. But unfortunately, the recent ruling in Morse v. Frederick has turned Gadfly's laughter to disappointment. First the good news: in a 6-3 decision, the Court held that Principal Deborah Morse did not violate student Joseph Frederick's First Amendment rights when she suspended him for holding up at a school parade a banner with the aforementioned phrase. It was a clear victory for Principal Morse, who could have faced crippling financial penalties. But it was a giant setback for educators overall, because the court decided the case on such narrow grounds. Justice Alito wrote that a school may only restrict speech that "a reasonable observer would interpret as advocating illegal drug use." If in the future students opt to disrupt school in other ways--advocating the joys of vodka, say, or the right to bear arms in tenth grade--it seems such cases must be litigated on a one-by-one basis. The lone voice of reason belonged to Justice Thomas, who wrote that "it cannot be seriously suggested that the First Amendment... encompasses a student's right to speak in public schools." Most are, after all, minors. Do six-year-olds have a Constitutional right to free speech? Twelve-year-olds? School leaders need to maintain order and discipline over their charges. They shouldn't need to employ on-site lawyers to do so.
June 28, 2007
Incoming Boston school chief Carol Johnson boasts an impressive track record. But will she be able to translate her Memphis victories into a Beantown success story? Not if the local teachers union has anything to say about it. The Boston Globe features a savvy story about Johnson's efforts to clean up chronically failing Memphis schools by tossing out poorly-performing principals and classroom teachers. About bringing such tactics to the Bay State, Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman told the Globe, "That can't be on the table. It doesn't do anything but engender fear and hostility." Well, it also seems to engender academic success. Johnson's approach helped test scores rise in Memphis, notably the scores of minority students. Boston teachers and their leaders would do well to give themselves an education--about what works in schools and about whom schools exist to serve (i.e., students, not teachers). Then, they should get out of Johnson's way.
"New superintendent faces far different hurdles in Boston," by Tracy Jan and Maria Sacchetti, Boston Globe, June 24, 2007
June 28, 2007
Yale computer scientist David Gelernter is, like many parents, tired of public schools declaring war on deeply held moral and religious values, not to mention common sense. So he wants to abolish them. Gelernter is one of the smartest people alive and what he writes deserves to be read. (The essay noted here is drawn from his new book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion, which you can get from Doubleday, Amazon or your local bookstore.) On its face, Gelernter's argument parallels that of libertarians who argue that vouchers are the only solution to the country's deeply polarized population, since public schools can't possibly be all things to all people (see here, for example). But his argument is more nuanced and more interesting, because this state of affairs strikes him as historically preventable. Once upon a time, Gelernter explains, a consensus could be found as to what public schools should teach; you could find it in, for example, McGuffey's Readers, whose purpose was, among other things, "to exert a decided and healthful moral influence." But events of the intervening years--especially the radicalization of American universities in general and education schools in particular--undid this consensus. Now, he writes, we have no option but to exit from the institution of public schooling. We share Gelernter's frustrations, but public schools ain't going anywhere anytime soon--though fascinating new forms of them are coming on line. In the meanwhile, concerned parents should get
June 28, 2007
In the introduction to his book Crash Course, Chris Whittle calls himself "a renovation man." He's done a lot of renovating, too: "a Depression-era two-room log cabin," a "rambling apartment in one of New York's oldest apartment buildings." Now, it seems, he has moved on to mansions. The Financial Times reports that Whittle, who started Edison Schools (which enroll lots of low-income kids), is building Nations Academy--a network of 60 multi-million dollar private schools that will cater to mobile, international elites. If an investment banker in London needs to move the family to Hong Kong, no worries. The kids can simply transfer between cities from one Nations school to the next, without having to adjust to a new system or curriculum (they can even keep the same polo handicap!). A man instituting international education standards. A man after Gadfly's heart.
"Global network of schools planned," by Jon Boone, Financial Times, June 23, 2007
June 28, 2007
National Council on Teacher Quality
This report is the first in a series of "yearbooks" to be produced by NCTQ that rank the efforts of state governments to improve teacher quality. Actually, this is 51 reports, each of which analyzes a state's data, policies and practices. The results are mostly grim: The top of almost every state analysis is graced by such phrases as "unsatisfactory," "languishing," or "needs significant improvement." For example, 42 states do not require elementary teachers to have studied American history, 44 lack a genuine alternate route to certification, and 48 grant teachers tenure after four years or less (North Dakota gives tenure after only one year). But NCTQ isn't all doom and gloom. It energetically praises states with sound practices in key areas, lauding Florida's teacher-pay reforms, for example, and Pennsylvania's tough evaluation policies. Overall, the report is best read as a battle-plan for state governments, a call-to-arms that delineates clearly and succinctly the next steps for improving teacher quality. Find it here.
June 28, 2007
Florida's McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities (which allow students with special needs to enroll in private schools with government money) are indisputably popular. They now assist about 18,000 special-needs students and rank as the nation's second-largest voucher initiative, behind only Milwaukee. But Sara Mead (formerly at Education Sector, now at the New America Foundation) isn't convinced that McKay is as good as its numbers suggest. Her beef, though, isn't really with McKay--it's with vouchers overall. This report's biggest complaint is that McKay students "do not have to take the annual state tests." Thus, nobody really knows how much they're actually learning or if they're receiving quality services. The report also points to the limitations of parent-satisfaction surveys. One such survey--done in 2003 by Jay Greene--showed that parents who used McKay vouchers were much more satisfied with their private school experience. Duh, says Mead. If they were satisfied in the public schools, they wouldn't have left. And she points out that parents often defend low-performing schools (public or private) for sentimental reasons. Then again, McKay allows those parents to exercise a choice and, if their local public school isn't meeting their children's needs, enables them to shop for better options. That's a good thing, right? But now look at us: we're just rehashing the old voucher debate. As with this report, which gives a good overview of McKay and its history, but offers shopworn criticisms
Coby Loup / June 28, 2007
Institute of Education Sciences
When Congress approved a five-year pilot for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), it required an independent evaluation with "the strongest possible research design for determining the effectiveness" of the program. This is the first installment of said evaluation. The Institute of Education Sciences performed a randomized controlled trial and found that, after one year, there were "no statistically significant impacts, positive or negative, on student reading or math achievement for the entire impact sample." Glum-sounding, sure. But seasoned observers of school reforms were unsurprised at the results since it's rare to see gains after just one year. (Students had attended their new schools for only seven months before taking the evaluation's assessment, and it's well known that kids often temporarily slip backward after enrolling in a new school.) Moreover, "an additional 19 percent of the parents of students in the treatment group graded their child's schools 'A' or 'B' compared with the parents of control group students." (More on parents' views on OSP here.) The report also found that a couple of subgroups of higher-performing students performed better in math than their control group counterparts. Still, with the future of the program in jeopardy, here's hoping for stronger results in years two and three. Read the report here.