Table of treats

With so many topics vying for attention, no one entrée will do for this meal. Instead, herewith, a series of what the fancy chefs call "small plates."

Peer Review

The "Reading First" ruckus has resurfaced an old problem: misplaced Congressional faith in "peer review." If it actually worked the way that chairman George Miller and a bunch of his colleagues say it should (i.e., an objective bunch of incredibly well credentialed know-nothings make decisions devoid of human judgment), then (a) no program funded by the federal government would ever change, whether it was highly effective or a waste of billions and (b) the executive branch could be radically downsized and much of its work replaced by formula-driven or pork-barrel programs. In reading, for example, we'd revert to the model of the all-but-useless Reading Excellence Act for dispensing federal dollars.

What these Capitol Hill denizens seem not to understand is that, without close oversight and energetic intervention, peer review of federal grant programs invites log-rolling and rewards status-quoism. Each hand washes the other; no risks get taken; nothing novel gets tried. The only folks "qualified" to participate earned that credential by working in and with the present system and sharing its beliefs; the only panels "representative" of a field are a hologram of the ways things are done today in that field; and the surest outcome of such panels' deliberations is to spread the money across the field's established interests. In primary reading, for example, a pure peer review panel would be exquisitely balanced between whole-language types and phonics proponents; would consist entirely of producers and pay no heed to consumers, and would dole out the dough accordingly. "Reading science" would have little to do with it.

When I was an assistant education secretary back in the late medieval period, I spent perhaps a third of my time selecting peer reviewers and panels that had a fighting chance of doing things differently, doing things right--and doing things the way I thought they should be done. Staying out of the legal rough, sure, but absolutely not hitting down the middle of the fairway. That's why I was there. Else a computer could have done the job--or Congress could have earmarked every dollar for its friends and constituents.       

In a 1982 Education Week commentary (see here), I noted that "the outside-review process evolves, at least in part, into an extension of Administration policymaking and priority setting. And the reviewers become, at least in part, extensions of the presidential appointee who heads the agency. It is altogether reasonable for him to select reviewers who share his values, his instincts, his convictions, and his hunches. In this sense, the peer-review process is necessarily and properly ‘political.'"

Twenty years later, I wrote that "The hardest thing I did when I held Russ Whitehurst's job...was try to make the OERI's peer-review process work in ways that yielded useful input for decisions without being captured by each field's old boys'/girls' networks, people who could be counted upon to ensure that nothing significantly different would ever be tried. I also had to second-guess some of the career staff's own preferences and friendships, which usually overlapped the old-boy networks. No doubt some will say I abused the peer process; I would say that I strove to protect the OERI's work from the most common forms of abuse." 
           
So far as I can tell, that's exactly what the much-abused Reading First team did, too. Hoorah for them. As a result, kids are reading better and NCLB can boast at least one effective program.

Private Schools & Public Educators

Toledo named its new school-system superintendent on May 5 after giving up on its preferred choice, William Harner. A West Point graduate, Army veteran, and currently a regional superintendent within Philadelphia, Harner took himself out of the running because the Toledo school board wouldn't agree to let him live in a fancy suburb or to pay his teen-age daughter's tuition to a well-regarded private school.

Think about this for a moment. This public-education leader was seeking to exercise school choice for his own child, choice that took him to private schooling--and he wanted his compensation package to cover the cost. Some will say shame on him. If he believes in public education, he should commit his own family to it. Others will appreciate the fact that sophisticated educators know what works in K-12 schooling, that the same things don't work equally well for every child, and that the right to tailor one's kids' schooling to their needs and priorities is a right that every parent should have--and not just those who have bargaining power.

So instead of a leader who is discerning about what works in schools or what a properly reformed education regimen consists of, Toledo settles for a thirty-year veteran of that city's public schools, John Foley. You can bet that he'll toe the party line and put up with the conditions, but at the expense of children who will continue to wither academically. Toledo got its man, but what a cost to pay.

The STEM Mania

Congress is tumbling all over itself to foster "competitiveness" by authorizing new dollars for "STEM" (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) schools and education programs. The reasoning seems to be that India and China will eat America's lunch unless we boost our young people's skills in these fields.

It's not partisan, either. The big competitiveness bill passed the House by a remarkable 389-22 on April 24; its Senate counterpart soared to an 88-8 victory the next day. Several states--Texas, Ohio, and more--are hastening to develop STEM programs of their own.

The Administration is grumbling (in timeworn OMB fashion) that such measures worsen the proliferation of programs and the duplication of agency responsibilities. (They would draw the National Science Foundation deeper than ever into the education field.)

Grumbling is indeed called for, but for different reasons. It's fine to foster science and math achievement among the young, but the STEM-winders misunderstand the true roots of American competitiveness: the creativity, versatility, restlessness, energy, ambition and trouble-shooting/problem-solving prowess of our people. "STEM" skills alone won't get the job done. True success over the long haul--economic success, civic success, cultural success, domestic success, national defense success--calls for a broadly educated populace with flowers and leaves as well as stems. We need to develop problem-solvers, innovators, and entrepreneurs, not just "technologically literate" workers. That calls for liberal arts education, not just engineering and technology but also literature, art, history, and civics.

Mile-High Aspirations

The sound you hear emanating from Denver may be the sound of glaciers cracking. If so, hurrah for this form of atmospheric warming and let's hope it goes global. In a truly extraordinary and long "open letter" published on April 25th in the Rocky Mountain News, Denver superintendent Michael Bennet and every single member of the Denver school board called for a radical overhaul of their district, most of it triggered by the effects of school choice, the hemorrhage of pupils out of the district, and the realization that Colorado's schools of choice--charters, mainly--have freedoms to be different that district-operated schools (due mainly to state regulations and collective bargaining) lack. "[W]e have forced the district," they wrote, "to compete with two arms tied behind its back. In this era defined by choice, we have been reluctant to allow our school district to depart from the old way of doing business and embrace new approaches. As a result, the district has been slow to respond while other schools have been able to market richer academic environments for our kids like extended day, different uses of time, smaller class sizes, and focused and thematic academic programs."
     
To address this problem, they set forth seven principles that, taken together, would yield a very different sort of school system: decentralized management, empowered principals, career paths for teachers, higher expectations, better monitoring of performance, and greater transparency. 
   
Still somewhat abstract, yes, and of course the devil resides in the details. But Bennet and his colleagues deserve accolades for taking a pickaxe to the glacier.

Sorry, no room left for dessert.

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