Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 22
June 7, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
Pensions pinching schools
Don't take our word for it
Crema the crop
The Condition of Education 2007
The Nation's Report Card: Civics 2006
This week, Mike and Rick talk civil rights, redshirts, and why veteran teachers in St. Louis aren't all that. Grammar Girl stops by to chat, and Education News of the Weird is rowdy and unrestrained.
Terry Ryan / June 7, 2007
"More money for better schools" is a mantra that can be heard across the nation. The problem, districts will have you believe, is that state budgets are being cut, that local voters are tightwads, and that, in places such as Detroit and Cincinnati, charter schools are taking away funding and thereby preventing the districts from delivering a quality education to every child.
These timeworn protests pale, however, in comparison to the real damage being wrought by state teacher pension funds, too many of which are siphoning precious dollars from classrooms at alarming rates. This is an issue with national implications. But we know it best in our home state of Ohio, where the State Teachers Retirement System (STRS) faces a looming fiscal crisis.
STRS, and by proxy its members and Ohio taxpayers, is currently shouldering an unfunded liability of about $20 billion (well over $4,000 per Ohio household). The system is also riddled with perverse incentives that seriously hinder teacher recruitment and mobility. Such incentives have multiplied and ramified over a number of years and through a series of well-intended ad hoc fixes seeking to keep decent teachers in the system. Unfortunately, these fixes have rendered the system even more complex and costly. One band-aid on the system, for example, allows many teachers to collect their pensions while continuing to work full time in the classroom (i.e., "double dipping"). This at a time when STRS assets fall far short of its
Diane Ravitch / June 7, 2007
The recent release of English Language Arts scores for grades 3-8 by the New York State Education Department was treated as a cause for celebration by the New York City Department of Education. Chancellor Joel Klein said that the scores showed that "the system is clearly moving forward."
Actually, the news was not all that positive. None of it was terrible, but the scores were mainly flat or declining. Overall, in grades 3-8, 50.8% met the state standards. This represented an increase of one-tenth of 1% over the scores in 2006, when 50.7% met the standards.
- In grade 3, the scores dropped by 5 points, from 61.5% in 2006 to 56.4% in 2007.
- In grade 4, they dropped nearly 3 points, from 58.9% in 2006 to 56.0% in 2007.
- In grade 5, they dropped by 0.6, about half a point, from 56.7% in 2006 to 56.1% in 2007.
- In grade 6, they increased by 1 point, from 48.6% in 2006 to 49.7% in 2007.
- In grade 7, they increased by a tad more than a point, from 44.2% in 2006 to 45.5%.
- In grade 8, they increased by 5.2 points, from 36.6% in 2006 to 41.8% in 2007.
The big news, according to the Department of Education spinmeisters, was not that scores in grades 3-7 were either declining or flat, but that scores in eighth grade were up significantly. They downplayed the curious fact that eighth grade scores were up across the state by
June 7, 2007
Once upon a time, charter school advocates believed in letting a thousand flowers bloom, then uprooting any weeds among them. Now comes more evidence from the Texas hothouse that such garden maintenance is a lot harder than we imagined. Consider Jesse Jackson Academy in Houston, infamous for its low test scores, financial irregularities, and bona fide cheating scandal--and its ability to stay open, despite the Texas Education Agency's repeated attempts to close it. Jackson got its start in 1998, when the state board of education caved to political pressure and approved every school that applied for a charter. Now a spokeswoman for the TEA--which had urged the state board to approve only a handful of applicants that year--explains that "It's a very difficult process to close a charter school. That's why we try to get them to turn in their charter voluntarily. Otherwise, it takes thousands of hours of work and years to do it." Some of the best charter schools in the state have urged the legislature to shut down the many schools that should never have opened, but lawmakers declined. Looks like the weeds will keep stealing Lone Star State media sunshine in the years to come.
"Cheating's off the charts at charter schools," by Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker, Dallas Morning News, June 4, 2007
June 7, 2007
Just last week, Gadfly encouraged Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) administrators to buck up, fix the scoring problems that plagued their 2006 reading assessments, and keep the faith (see here). Now Ron Matus, an education reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, offers his own defense of standardized assessments in a thoughtful opinion piece. Through his reporting, Matus has seen high school kids who "for all intents and purposes couldn't write" go on to pass their courses and graduate with ease. A teacher Matus respects once told him that he gave a student--a 17-year-old who was reading at an elementary-school level--a B just for trying. "It's complicated," the instructor said. Such experiences have led Matus to conclude that teachers may not always know best, that grades are often meaningless, and that maybe external tests aren't such a bad thing. They might actually help expose poor student performance and demand some accountability from teachers and school leaders who were, before testing, sometimes willing to let kids slip through the cracks. Well said, Ron.
"FCAT tests us; so what?," by Ron Matus, St. Petersburg Times, June 3, 2007
June 7, 2007
The St. Louis Cardinals isn't the only organization in town striking out on a regular basis--the city's school system is whiffing a lot these days, too. As if they hadn't done enough damage (see here), school board members now want Superintendent Diana Bourisaw to terminate the district's recently renewed contract with Teach for America. Here's their stated reasoning (although with a state takeover of the district looming, one wonders if the school board doesn't have more nefarious motives): Why pay for 90 young teachers who are committed for just two years when veteran teachers are facing reassignment or job loss because of declining enrollment and shrinking budgets? Well, here's why. When the game's on the line, you want your best player at the plate. And TFA is that player. Administrators and other teachers like the TFA Corps members, and district officials hail their track record of improving student performance. Bourisaw hasn't made a decision yet, but we're worried about what she might do. (Younger teachers nationwide are often the first to go when money's tight, as happened recently in Dayton.) Sure, TFA may not save St. Louis's schools, but why bench your star when the game is on the line? Even embattled Cardinal's manager Tony LaRussa knows better than that.
"St. Louis schools may oust Teach for America," by Steve Giegerich, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 2007
June 7, 2007
They take their coffee seriously in Washington State, and school district employees are no exception. The Seattle Public Schools administration building has a self-supporting deli that offers espresso drinks brewed from a $6,000 machine (which, according to spokesmen, has paid for itself). The Tacoma district admin building has espresso carts, which are run by special-education students, who gain work experience and barista skills. But the Edmonds School District takes the cake. It recently purchased a $15,000 espresso machine for its administrative offices. The coffee doesn't come free; if employees want a doppio, they have to pay for it. But the prices are cheaper than Starbucks, and thirsty staff members don't have to leave the building for a quality cup. Revenue funds the food-service operation (and will also pay for a certain $15,000 coffee pot). Gadfly, a caffeine addict, wonders: Is the Edmonds School District hiring?
"District's new espresso maker brews up a few questions," by Lynn Thompson, Seattle Times, June 6, 2007
Answering the Question that Matters Most: Has Student Achievement Increased Since No Child Left Behind?
Michael J. Petrilli / June 7, 2007
Center on Education Policy
The first thing you should know about this blockbuster report from the Center on Education Policy (CEP) is that its title is a bit misleading. Yes, the study examines student achievement and gap-closing trends since NCLB's enactment, but no, that's not the question that matters most. Because what most policymakers and analysts actually want to know is whether the landmark federal law "works"--has it caused achievement to increase or decline. Here the good people at CEP are honest: "It is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine the extent to which these trends in test results have occurred because of NCLB." So with that caveat in mind, let us return to our regularly scheduled review. The news is basically positive: student achievement on most state reading and math tests has gone up since 2002 and achievement gaps have narrowed. Gains are particularly impressive in elementary school math. Students have posted less progress on state reading tests and in middle school. Such patterns are consistent with recent findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, though states are reporting greater progress on their own tests than on NAEP. This raises a critical question: Can we be sure that state tests haven't gotten easier since 2002? For an answer, stay tuned for a report of our own, due out in a few months. Meanwhile, check out the CEP study here.
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / June 7, 2007
National Center for Education Statistics
At nearly 350 pages, this year's Condition of Education is shorter than last year's. And though some persistent problems remain (dropout numbers, for example, are still murky, and the data are frequently two years old, or more), NCES Commissioner Mark Schneider and his crew continue to refine and improve this hallmark report. The 2007 edition contains a special section on high school course taking, including an in-depth look at the explosion in students taking AP courses. Their number doubled between 1997 and 2005, with the greatest gains made by Hispanics (up 213 percent) and blacks (up 177 percent). On the down side, while white and Asian scores on AP tests remained fairly constant over those years (hovering around 3 out of a possible 5), Hispanic scores fell from 3.1 in 1997 to 2.5 in 2005. (Are schools forcing more students into AP classes than are able to do the work, or are there too few good teachers to teach them? Or both?) Other information that caught this reviewer's eye:
- The amount of time spent on homework by high school sophomores reportedly rose between 1980 and 2002, and so, too, did the percentage of students coming to school without their homework completed.
- Overall spending per child is up, with most of the new money going to capital outlays and interest (which makes some sense, because the student population is projected to rise every year from now to
Coby Loup / June 7, 2007
National Center for Education Statistics
As conscientious Gadfly (and newspaper) readers know, the 2006 NAEP U.S. history exam showed some recent gains in students' understanding of the nation's past. Not so for civics. Although the share of fourth-graders who possess at least "basic" knowledge of civics inched up from 69 percent in 1998 to 73 percent in 2006, for eighth- and twelfth-graders the trend line is flat. Why did fourth-graders (who rarey study civics anyway) improve while older students didn't? Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews quotes experts who say that "Higher scores in fourth-grade history and civics go along with the recently reported higher [fourth-grade] reading scores." The Department of Education is touting this logic, too. But nobody seems able to explicate why history scores rose in eighth- and twelfth-grade but civics outcomes didn't budge. Still, the need for progress is obvious. Consider: only 43 percent of twelfth-graders "described the meaning of federalism in the U.S.," and just 28 percent of eighth-graders "explained the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence." For more depressing news, see the report here.