Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 9
March 1, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
The problem with nuance
The language police
Chartering a course to survival
Blue collars are red-hot
?No vamos a la biblioteca!
Forgive me, Father
This week, Mike and Rick talk about NAEP, militant Miami soccer moms, and a Fordham report's long-lost twin. Our interview is holier than thou, and News of the Weird goes Sub-Saharan.
Last August, Mike Antonucci's Education Intelligence Agency reported the findings of an internal AFT "communications audit." Chief among members' gripes was their union's "nuanced" position on No Child Left Behind. (As Gadfly readers doubtless know, AFT leaders have endorsed many aspects of NCLB while grumping about others.) As Antonucci wrote, "[Nuanced is] a pretty good word for an intellectual argument, but a terrible word for a PR campaign."
We empathize. Ever since one of us wrote that "NCLB as enacted is fundamentally flawed and probably beyond repair," we've watched our "nuanced" position cause confusion and consternation, and be outright co-opted. We've even been accused of flip-flopping, a rare allegation at the Fordham Foundation where we are more often charged with stubborn devotion to well-worn positions.
Still, we ought not be surprised. NCLB is a high-stakes law that gives rise to a high-stakes (and sometimes high-volume) debate. One could fairly expect hard-line opponents of that law to seize upon our seeming defection to press their cause. The NEA, for instance, emailed our misgivings about the national NCLB Commission report to Democrats all over Washington, or so we hear. Even Fordham Foundation frequent critic Gerald Bracey approvingly cited our work. This was alarming if not surprising. Yet it was also puzzling. Did these defenders of the education status-quo actually read the entire essay? How do they feel about lines like
Coby Loup / March 1, 2007
When Tom Vander Ark left the Gates Foundation at the end of last year, the edu-world curiously awaited his next move. During his dynamic tenure as the foundation's executive director of education programs, Vander Ark oversaw the distribution of $3.5 billion in scholarship and grant programs and helped build Gates's reputation for engaged and innovative (if not always successful) philanthropy.
It wasn't totally surprising, then, when a January press release announced that Vander Ark would become president of the cutting-edge X PRIZE Foundation (XPF), one of the few nonprofits that can claim to push the envelope as hard as Gates.
The brainchild of St. Louis entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, the foundation launched with a bang in 1996 by offering a $10 million prize (the X PRIZE) to the first team whose spacecraft could take three people into space and back, twice in two weeks. (He got the idea from the Orteig Prize, which in 1919 promised $25,000 to a pilot who could fly non-stop across the Atlantic--Charles Lindbergh, a previously unknown airmail pilot, won that prize in 1927.)
By 2004, when Mojave Aerospace Ventures took home the Ansari X PRIZE (renamed for a donor) for its SpaceShipOne, 26 teams from seven nations had spent 10 times the amount of the prize purse developing and building their entries. Compare that bang for your buck with NASA, which probably spends
March 1, 2007
Sergeant Joe Friday of Dragnet fame was content with "just the facts"; the Department of Education's Inspector General is not so humble. How else to explain his animus toward the Reading First program, recently found by OMB to be one of only four "effective" programs in the entire Education Department? This week's escapade features federal agents sifting through the five-year-old conference proceedings of the Reading Leadership Academies to prove that some (but not all) reading programs were highlighted as effective. Wait, it's a crime to bring attention to interventions that work? Isn't that the point of most conferences? Education Week, always hot on the trail of this alleged "scandal" (while chronically ignoring all manner of true outrages, such as the fact that most Education Department programs have been found not to work and yet continue to get funded, usually with more dollars each year), played its assigned role as faithful rapporteur. But it, too, has veered into interpretation, last week labeling former Reading First director Chris Doherty's "tone" as "aggressive and arrogant" because he...dared to enforce the law! Never mind that its own on-the-ground reporting has shown the program (and its "aggressive" management) to be a blessing. OK, everyone, time for a vocabulary test. Please define "cognitive dissonance."
"Ed. Dept. Allowed Singling Out of ‘Reading First' Products," by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, Education Week, February 23, 2007
March 1, 2007As if Catholic schools didn't have enough worries of their own (and their Church's) making (see here), now they are fretting over competition from charter schools. In New York City, some parochial school principals are greeting Gov. Spitzer's plan to raise the charter cap by 150 (50 of these new slots will be reserved for the City) with a cold shoulder. "If you had an opportunity to get your child into a school modeled on Catholic education," says Sister Marianne Poole--whose school has been losing children to a nearby charter school--"and it's free, of course you're going to do it." But where the New York schools see gloom and doom, Church leaders in Boston now see a model for renewal (dare one say for rising from the dead?). The archdiocese is consolidating three Brockton schools under one new roof and giving control of it to an independent board of directors. In essence, it's creating a Catholic charter school (see here)--the "district" (the archdiocese) is contracting with a private board to run the school. Said Rev. David O'Donnell, whose school was involved in the merger, "It's like Catholic education on steroids. It's going to be great." The archdiocese plans to expand this model to other schools as part of its 2010 Initiative to revitalize Catholic education. Can we hear a Hallelujah?
"Church Schools Face Challenge from Charters," by Sarah Garland, New York Sun, February 27,
March 1, 2007
Passionate classroom debates over Nietzsche and Proust are not every student's cup of tea. And for too long, those who struggled with such approaches to learning found their way to auto shop or wood shop, and abandoned math, science, and history along the way. But some schools are wising up and using vocational ed to reconnect students to higher-level learning. Salvador Vergara, for example, hated math and eventually dropped out of high school. Amps and ohms, not classroom math and chemistry, were his thing. Until he entered and won a recent SkillsUSA competition in Los Angeles--where students compete in such categories as plumbing, cosmetology, architectural drafting, web page design, and welding--by wowing the judges with his electrical schematic. Now he understands that amps and ohms and how they work rest on those classroom lessons in math and chemistry courses. "I wish I'd known about this in high school," he said. Luckily for Vergara, he eventually found the training that his high school lacked, and he's now on track to make $100,000 a year as an electrician. (He also finished high school and is going to use that money to go back to college and earn a degree in psychology.) Just goes to show--doesn't matter how you learn that core course material--so long as you learn it.
"Works skills winning new respect," by Bob Sipchen, Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2007
March 1, 2007
The South Florida Giant Underground Weirdness Magnet is at it again. How else to explain the events that brought Miami resident Dalila Rodriguez together with a copy of Vamos a Cuba? Seems Ms. Rodriguez, a Cuban émigré--er, exile--removed the book from her son's school library and is refusing to return it because, she contends, it soft-pedals life on Fidel's Fantasy Island. The School Board had itself previously banned the book, but held off when the ACLU challenged its action. "[The school board] is leaving us in legal limbo" says Rodriguez, "so we're leaving them in limbo, too." For now the book is safely inside her "lockbox," where it shall remain. "It had some educational facts," she notes, "but it's still erroneous." We empathize with Ms. Rodriguez and her fellow Cuban exiles, but this form of book "borrowing" is just as bad as book banning. And if it catches on with other interest groups, we fear that library shelves across America will soon be barren. (Especially the biology section.)
"Cuban mom raids school library," by Tania de Luzuriaga, Miami Herald, February 22, 2007. (Print edition only)
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / March 1, 2007
National Center for Education Statistics
The Nation's Report Card: America's High School Graduates--Results from the 2005 NAEP High School Transcript Study
National Center for Education Statistics
The big news about these two studies is already out (See here and here). High school students are taking what on paper look like more-rigorous courses and are getting better grades, yet they're doing no better on the 2005 NAEP Reading assessment than 15 years ago. And their math scores aren't so hot, either (changes to the '05 NAEP Math assessment don't permit ready comparisons with previous assessments). What to do about this disconnect will be the topic of considerable debate for years to come. But there's more to these reports than what was blasted across newspaper headlines. Consider, for example:
- The news that black students scored significantly lower in 2005 in reading than in 1992 would, unfortunately, shock no one. But did you know that white students also performed worse? (Other racial/ethnic groups did not register a statistically significantly change.)
- Among assessment-takers who report neither parent finishing high school, just 17 percent scored at or above proficient in reading. Of those who report
Coby Loup / March 1, 2007
This report provides a concise overview of California's recent experiences with state and federal accountability systems. The Golden State's story (at least as recounted here) begins with the Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999, which installed a standardized testing system whose scores would be translated into an Academic Performance Index (API). Schools would then be ranked from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest) according to their students' API scores. Since that time, two accountability frameworks have accompanied the testing regime: the Immediate Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program, and the High Priority Schools Grant Program. A state-sponsored study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that, while API scores have improved substantially, the accountability regimes account for few of those gains. Among other things, AIR blamed implementation failures on lack of district support and the disconnect between the planning and implementation of schools' "action plans." The report also highlights friction between the state's accountability system and that conjured by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act. Like many states, what counts as progress in California doesn't count for "adequate yearly progress" under NCLB. California's response to NCLB's cascade of sanctions tells another common tale: 76 percent of chronically-failing California schools avoided a serious overhaul by choosing the "other major restructuring" option, i.e. the "loophole option," while only 2 percent reopened as charters (13 percent did nothing). The report closes with an overview of California's latest accountability