Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 12
March 22, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
Progress report on mayoral control in NYC
A pay plan with merit
Teaching to the middle
This week, Mike and Rick talk about how to pay educators, test four-year-olds, and train middle school teachers. Education Week's Mark Walsh stops by to discuss Bong Hits 4 Jesus, and Education News of the Weird is melting, melting!
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / March 22, 2007
Two of the worst federal education policy ideas in memory have made their way up Capitol Hill in recent days, one in a fuel-efficient hybrid occupied primarily by Democrats, the other in a gas-guzzling pickup full of Republicans.
The Democrats' bad idea (though plenty of GOP members of the House Education and Labor Committee voted for it last week) is to kill Head Start's "National Reporting System." Misleadingly depicted in the press as a "test for pre-schoolers," in fact this administration initiative--primarily the work of assistant Health and Human Services secretary Wade Horn in fulfillment of a 1998 Congressional mandate to evaluate Head Start programs with special attention to whether kids coming out of them possess key pre-reading skills--is more like a fifteen-minute oral interview of kindergarten-eligible four- and five-year-olds by their teacher to determine which of these skills they have. Two excellent background explanations can be found here and here.
The National Head Start Association and the rest of the Head Start establishment (believe me, it's as large, set in its ways, truculent, and defensive as the k-12 establishment) hate this. They have a forty-year-old iconic "child development" program that they absolutely, positively do not want to see turned into a pre-school program with heavy emphasis on cognitive skills, pre-literacy, pre-numeracy, and the rest. (It also needs to be noted that many of their members--Head Start "workers" as they were long
Diane Ravitch / March 22, 2007
Mayoral control in New York City is hitting some bumps in the road. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein regularly trumpet their "historic gains" in test scores. They say that since the mayor gained control, scores have gone up by 12 percent in reading and 19 percent in math. It turns out, however, that the New York City Department of Education has vastly inflated its gains by adding in the year that preceded implementation of the mayor's reforms in September 2003. A review of the New York State Department of Education website reveals that, in fact, there have been no historic gains.
Over three years of testing since the mayor's reforms were installed, reading scores for 4th grade students are up by 6.4 percent, or 2.1 percent per year (meaning that an additional 2.1 percent of students in that grade are meeting state standards each year). In math, instead of a gain of 19 percent, as the mayor's office claims, the actual gain over three years is only 4.2 percent (or 1.3 percent a year).
Normally, school leaders would be happy to have steady gains, but these are not "historic gains." The big gains of 2002-2003 (6 percent in reading and nearly 15 percent in math) were the culmination of improvements launched by Chancellor Rudy Crew (now in Miami) and Deputy Chancellor Judith Rizzo (now at the Hunt Institute in North Carolina), and sustained by Chancellor Harold O. Levy (now at Kaplan Learning). Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein had nothing to do
March 22, 2007
Performance pay for k-12 teachers is stalling in Florida, mostly because teachers hate the proposed plan. A few states to the left, however, some Arkansas schoolteachers are warming to the merit pay idea. It all started at Meadowcliff Elementary in Little Rock, where principal Karen Carter teamed up with publishing giant Walter Hussman, Jr., to implement a tiered system of performance bonuses for the school's employees. Unlike Florida's plan, where bonuses are limited to a certain percentage of teachers and are small (the top prize is $2,100), the Meadowcliff program rewarded all employees of outstanding schools, from administrators to janitors, with an average bonus of $6,800. Teachers rightly received the most cash, and the best teachers received the fattest checks. The program has since spread to neighboring schools, and Hussman has successfully lobbied the district and other donors to keep it going. The Sunshine State could learn something from the Natural State's example. Whether done at the state level or local level, merit pay on its own isn't worth praising; if you're going to do it, the details matter.
"Bring on the bonus checks," by Ron Matus, St. Petersburg Times, March 18, 2007
March 22, 2007
We've had the standards-and-accountability movement, the school choice movement, and even the small schools movement. Are we finally witnessing the rise of an autonomy movement? So one might infer from Education Week, which spots at least five districts and three states that are experimenting with giving schools a lot more operational autonomy in return for strict accountability for results. Used to be that only high-performing schools, those that had already proved their mettle, were given autonomy. But Massachusetts is offering charter school-type freedoms--the ability to decide curricula, staffing, budgets, etc.--to four of its lowest-performing schools. That autonomy will be coupled with strict accountability, too. Such plans assume that failing schools will have more luck improving when they have something invested in the restructuring process. Similar autonomy ideas are taking hold in Nevada and Connecticut, and in New York City and Chicago, too. Sounds promising to us; bring on the All Regulations Left Behind era!
"Easing Rules Over Schools Gains Favor," by Catherine Gewertz, Education Week, March 16, 2007
March 22, 2007
This latest piece of the New York Times' series on middle schools finds this: There's no clear-cut formula for discerning who can handle the hormone-crazed kids in America's middle schools. But one Bronx principal has the right idea. Middle school teachers, he said, must "have a huge sense of humor and a small ego." That sums it up pretty well. But, of course, the usual suspects disagree. They think middle school teachers need--what else?--more ed school coursework and special "credentialing." Here's a better idea: Find those who naturally relate well to pre-teens; give these future teachers a solid, core academic education; and see what happens. It seems to work for Corinne Kaufman. The 45-year-old math teacher knows her material, and how to handle juvenile prankishness. When a student called her "fat lady," for example, she "calmly turned around ... [and retorted], ‘voluptuous.'" She then gave her students a vocabulary lesson they won't forget. We'd just as soon forget the whole middle school concept but until that day comes, hire more Corinnes, and let 'em do their thing.
"For Teachers, Middle School Is Test of Wills," by Elissa Gootman, New York Times, March 17, 2007
March 22, 2007
Eleven-year-old Alex Sorto, a student at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland, believes that eating broccoli will help boost test scores at his school. For now, however, Eastern's administrators are eschewing vegetables in favor of peppermints. Before students took the Maryland School Assessments, Principal Charlotte Boucher ordered 3,600 peppermint candies, which she believes help youngsters remain calm and focused. Lots of websites and some scientific studies support her conclusions, too, and athletes who have a sniff of peppermint before competition apparently have been known to perform better than those who don't. But we have doubts. Exhibit A: Peppermint Patty. The tomboyish friend of Charlie Brown certainly wouldn't have performed well on Maryland's standardized test--she habitually received D-minus grades and thought that Snoopy, despite his obvious canine attributes, was a funny-looking human. Quite frankly, Alex Sorto's broccoli suggestion, which would pump kids full of brain-boosting vitamins B and C and K, is a better, if less palate-pleasing, plan.
"The Power of Peppermint Is Put to the Test," by Lori Aratani, Washington Post, March 20, 2007
Getting Down to Facts: A Research Project Examining California's School Governance and Finance Systems
March 22, 2007
Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice
This whopper of a collection of studies--weighing in at 1,200 pages--"was not designed to recommend specific policies. Rather it aims to provide a common ground of understanding about the current state of California school finance and governance" to inform conversations about education reform in the Golden State. Fair enough. But it's hard to get super-excited when after $3 million, 18 months, and 22 studies, the main takeaways are things that most serious people already knew (albeit documented here in excruciating detail): California's system of school financing is broken, indiscriminately pouring money into schools won't help (resources must be used more effectively), teacher education is disconnected from classroom needs, etc. The project's introductory webpage calls it, "an unprecedented attempt to synthesize what we know as a basis for convening the necessary public conversations about what we should do." Well, maybe it will do some good anyway; Weighted Student Funding could get a boost from descriptions of California's education funding mess. There are lots of unserious people in the Golden State (many of them in the legislature). Perhaps they'll grow more serious about solving California's myriad education problems when (and if) they slog through all of this high-quality but often mind-numbing scholarship. You can find the reports here.