Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 20
May 24, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
Two Years, Ten Lessons
Hillary's pre-K blinders
I loathe Lucy
Wrong about the Pacific Rim
Who wants to be a pundit?
This week, Mike and Rick chat about Hillary Clinton, Antonio Villaraigosa, and D.C. parents. We have an interview with Professor Dan Goldhaber, and Education News of the Weird is sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 24, 2007
It feels like the Fordham Foundation has been sponsoring Ohio charter schools for decades. In reality, though, we’re at the two-year mark--not counting many prior months when we agonized over whether to take this plunge; tried to learn from others who were doing it well in other states; sought (without great success) to persuade and prepare other Ohio-based organizations to enter this fray; and subjected ourselves and our board to much analysis, cost-projecting and pro-con debate.
As the 2006-7 school year comes to a close, Fordham’s sponsorship “portfolio” contains just nine of Ohio’s 300+ charter schools (seven of these we inherited from the Ohio Department of Education when that agency got out of the sponsorship business in 2005). Not many, you may think, but sponsoring even this number has been no easy task. It’s taken a lot of work and we’ve learned a ton. It’s been healthy to emerge from the ivory tower to work closely with real educators trying to do right by real children--almost all of them poor, minority and ill-served by traditional schools--in real places. Someone once defined a think-tank as a place where reality is examined to see if it accords with theory. I’ve come to view sponsorship as a crucible in which education theories are softened and sometimes melted by the considerable heat that reality can generate.
Part of Fordham’s mission and mandate as a sponsor is to try to make sense of this
May 24, 2007
Hillary Clinton wore a multi-hued, child-constructed necklace as she announced on Monday her plans for nationwide, voluntary, pre-kindergarten education for four-year-olds.
Her proposal calls for the federal government to allocate to states $5 billion for the first year, gradually scaling up that commitment to $10 billion per annum. Individual states would match Uncle Sam's contributions dollar-for-dollar, and those with existing programs wouldn't be allowed to reduce their current pre-K spending (and let the feds pick up the slack), either.
This plan tries to be sound. It seeks, for example, to assure quality by insisting that all pre-K teachers possess at least bachelor's degrees. That's a simplistic, paper-credential approach to instructional quality control, to be sure, but it's hard to argue that four-year-olds should be taught--provided this is truly to be an educational experience, not just child care--by people who themselves never finished college.
Yet the Clinton plan misses another necessary step that would help ensure that nationwide pre-K is worthwhile: determining whether the program does kids any good by evaluating whether they learn what they should while participating in it.
Clinton made her announcement at North Beach Elementary School in Miami Beach, and she took time to praise the Sunshine State's own pre-K program, which voters authorized in 2002.
But she's conveniently forgotten (or failed to notice) that Florida's plan takes accountability seriously. This year, the state began evaluating how well its individual pre-K providers are preparing kids for
May 24, 2007
Years ago, in a youthful act of indiscretion, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had the phrase "Born to Raise Hell" inked into his arm. He's since had the tattoo removed, but inside observers of hizzoner's year-long effort to take over the city's schools, which ended abruptly this week, believe the saying still fits him well. A recent New Yorker profile by Connie Bruck takes exception to earlier newspaper reports that depicted Villaraigosa as a heroic and steadfast defender of a badly needed takeover plan, describing him instead as an impetuous, weak-kneed political opportunist. The mayor began to bob and weave when he realized that his takeover plan had upset his allies in the California Teachers Association. When he fell back on a weak compromise that was doomed from the start, supporter Eli Broad rebuked him; Villaraigosa replied, "How many billionaires are there in this town? Six, seven, eight? There's one mayor." He then entered a costly legal battle (which he lost) over a school takeover plan that neither side really wanted. Villaraigosa allies just won a majority on the L.A. Board of Education, which allowed him to leave behind the mayoral control fiasco and embrace another school-related victory. We wonder, though, if it's really a victory for L.A.'s kids.
"Mayor drops school fight," by Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2007
"Fault lines," by Connie Bruck, New Yorker, May 21, 2007
May 24, 2007
True or false: Educational progressives promote teacher creativity, while traditionalists support scripted lessons. If you said true, pick up the latest issue of Education Next and read Barbara Feinberg's article. It chronicles the lofty career of uber-progressive Lucy Calkins, creator of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, and beneficiary of a $5.4 million no-bid professional development contract from the (mayor-controlled) New York City school system. While Calkins became famous 25 years ago for her innovative and mostly laudable ideas about teaching young children to write, Feinberg explains that "over time, some of her methods became dogmatic and extreme, yet her influence continued to grow." Among her more idiosyncratic demands: children shall not write fantasy. "Once upon a time is against the law in our school," explained one six-year-old. A teacher's diary communicates the widespread frustration among the rank-and-file: "Sometimes I feel like I'm a robot regurgitating the scripted dialogue that's expected of us day in and day out." Did we mention that Calkins is supposedly a "progressive"?
"The Lucy Calkins Project," by Barbara Feinberg, Education Next, Summer 2007
May 24, 2007
It's a narrow path along a slippery slope that Charles Fadel et al are walking in the pages of Education Week. They argue correctly that today's children require an education that builds their problem-solving skills and creativity, and they're on mostly solid ground when complaining that NCLB fosters instructional practices that focus on a narrow, basic-skills curriculum. But when they suggest developing a set of standards and assessments that concentrate on learning "strategies" and not content knowledge, Fadel and his crew start to slide down the embankment. That their suggestions are based on shoddy thinking is evident, for example, in this statement: "Asians generally teach students how to apply knowledge to novel situations more successfully than do schools" here. We beg to differ. If American schools offer anything for Asian nations to model, it's that we turn out entrepreneurs and innovators in vast numbers (numbers that Asian countries envy). The U.S. should continue encouraging creativity in the classroom, but that creativity must be based on a broad, liberal arts curriculum that gives students a solid educational foundation. Creativity without content isn't worth much.
"Assessment in the Age of Innovation," by Charles Fadel, Margaret Honey, and Shelley Pasnik, Education Week, May 18, 2007
May 24, 2007
When Florida Governor Charlie Crist signed a law last week mandating daily 30-minute sessions of physical activity in elementary schools, he didn't do it on the playground. Instead, Crist and several lawmakers headed to the Miami Dolphins training camp to throw footballs, gawk at NFL stars, pick up personalized jerseys, and (oh yeah) sign a bill. To demonstrate how the NFL pertains to children's fitness, Crist said that he "made [his] best grades during football season." That makes sense, because riding the pine as a back-up quarterback on a bad Wake Forest team probably left the future governor with ample time to study--even during games. (After his sophomore year, Crist transferred to Florida State, where a number of students have an absolutely marvelous time and graduate without studying at all.) If the event seemed unrelated to elementary education, it had a galvanizing effect on the adults, at least. Representative Martin Kiar exclaimed that it was "the coolest bill-signing ever." One wonders, though, if Kiar was secretly disappointed that Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who also attended the signing, didn't suggest a nautical after party on Biscayne Bay. Regardless, it was an event for adults that had little to do with yet another state mandate for its already-burdened schools.
"Law mandates a daily dose of activity for school kids," by Beth Reinhard, Miami Herald, May 18, 2007
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / May 24, 2007
The Education Schools Project
With all due respect to Arthur Levine, this report series (of which Educating Researchers is the third) is misnamed. It should be Notes From the Front. As former head of Columbia University's Teachers College, Levine has both the trust of the ed school establishment, and the respect of the policy world, which helps him to report from the front lines about the wars waging within and around America's 1,206 schools, colleges, and university departments of education. This time, he delivers a stinging critique of the world of education research, much as he previously did for teacher and administrator training (see here and here). He boils the problem down to three points: The amorphous field of education itself, with its many fields, subfields, and specialties that examine everything yet seldom find anything that makes much difference; doctoral programs that award inconsistent degrees (PhDs to practitioners and EdDs to researchers); and under-resourced graduate programs that lack the funding and faculty expertise to crank out top-flight researchers. The report sets forth the history that led to this muddled mess, without excusing it. Rather, Levine issues a stalwart call for reform. Among his suggestions: 1) allow only the best-funded and best-staffed universities to prepare education researchers--and shutter the lesser programs. 2) Diversify the remaining programs' research missions, so that schools specialize in well-defined fields of study (as Vanderbilt does, for example, in special ed). And
The Evolution of School Choice Consumers: Parent and Student Voices on the Second Year of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program
Coby Loup / May 24, 2007
Stephen Q. Cornman, Thomas Stewart, Patrick J. Wolf
Georgetown University Public Policy Institute
This study of parent and student attitudes toward Washington, D.C.'s, Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) is by no means a definitive evaluation of that ongoing experiment (Congress approved a five-year trial run in 2003). The authors interviewed 110 families and assembled their anecdotes into several broad observations. Still, it gives readers a good look into the program's workings. Two major findings were that "the majority of parents are active and knowledgeable school choice consumers" (another recent study showed much the same) and their consumer skills became more nuanced over time. Second-year participants, for example, were more likely to care about whether their children received direct teacher attention and attended schools of high academic quality, while first-year families were more concerned with immediately salient matters like safety and class size. The study's second part focuses on the "opportunities or challenges" that participating families have experienced. On the positive side, the authors found that parents became more involved in their children's education after beginning the program and that they believe their children are experiencing greater academic success in new schools. These same parents expressed concerns, however, that they might inadvertently "earn out" of the program--i.e., boost their income to a level that would disqualify them for the scholarship. (Congress lifted the eligibility threshold for family income from 200 to 300 percent of the federal poverty line in 2006,