Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 21
May 31, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
Teacher's little helper
Sunshine State snafu
The greatest generation?
Northern manners, Southern efficiency
So long, farewell...
This week, Mike and Rick talk about ''teacher proofing''; why Florida should be like the IRS; and LDH, which sounds like a drug but isn't. Punctuation Man stops by to chat, and Education News of the Weird is very good, sir.
Michael J. Petrilli / May 31, 2007
Can technology turn well-meaning but ill-prepared teachers into effective instructors? A new breed of education business is betting on it. While none claim that they are "teacher proofing" the classroom, several are building tools that aim to turn mere mortals into excellent teachers.
One class of products seeks to make teachers more efficient and productive. Wireless Generation, for example, offers software that turns handheld computers into diagnostic tools that quickly identify gaps in students' reading and mathematics skills. Data are instantaneously uploaded to a program that helps instructors analyze student performance over time and personalize their instructional strategies for each child.
Other products aim to enhance classroom instruction directly. For decades this has been the Holy Grail of the education technology industry. And for years the market has offered products like lesson-plan banks, tools to align lessons to state standards, and more recently, subscriptions to digital content providers (such as Discovery Education) that allow instructors to embed high-quality video, music, or graphics into their teaching. But early applications of this technology forced the teacher to play writer, director, and producer for each set of digitally enhanced lessons. That's a lot to expect from the average teacher and reinforces the inefficient practice of asking every teacher to reinvent the wheel.
Enter companies such as Agile Mind, which produces fully developed lessons in math and science that are rich with visualizations and simulations. This new generation
May 31, 2007
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) is the centerpiece of one of the best state accountability systems in the country, but it's far from perfect. Education officials in Tallahassee discovered last week that third-grade reading scores from the 2006 FCAT were inflated by human scoring errors, allowing many students who should have been held back to move on to fourth grade. Predictably, the glitch has fanned the anti-testing flames. Dan Gelber, Democratic leader of the Florida House, said that this error "confirms the danger of overemphasizing a single test." Bob Schaeffer, education director of the ill-named FairTest, agreed, saying that "Florida is a serial mis-user of test scores," and that accountability programs should weigh exam results against other evaluative factors. Gadfly's advice: Straighten out the kinks in FCAT scoring, make sure the mistakes don't happen again, and get back to providing Florida's kids a strong curriculum and holding them, and their schools, accountable for learning it.
"Last year's problem overshadows rising 2007 FCAT scores," by Bill Kaczor, Associated Press, May 23, 2007
"Despite mistakes, FCAT isn't going away," by Nirvi Shah and Tania deLuzuriaga, Miami Herald, May 25, 2007
May 31, 2007
Respectable historians have long warned students against "presentism," defined by Word Spy as "the application of current ideals, morals, and standards to historical figures and events." But what about "present-tense-ism," as illustrated by a recent Gallup Poll and described in Diane Ravitch's latest op-ed? Pollsters asked Americans to name the greatest president ever: an astounding 25 percent of Democrats picked Bill Clinton, while a whopping 32 percent of Republicans selected Ronald Reagan. Ravitch writes that to suggest these men "were ‘greater' presidents than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt is bizarre." Bizarre, but perhaps unsurprising, considering Americans' feeble knowledge of U.S. history. While the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress showed steady gains in the subject (see here), more than half of all twelfth graders were still "below basic." The consequences of this knowledge vacuum are severe. "We can't have thoughtful public discussions of issues," Ravitch writes, "when the public is so woefully uninformed about the past."
"First, Get the Knowledge," by Diane Ravitch, New York Sun, May 25, 2007
May 31, 2007
Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty can't seem to catch a break in his quest to take over the city's notoriously bad public schools. After assiduously massaging egos and playing urban politics so that the City Council would approve his takeover bid, Fenty has hit snag after snag. He had to overcome meddling legislators from Maryland and Louisiana (see here) and his own staff's slipshod school-plan plagiarism (see here). But now, more hurdles. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics ruled in favor of a group of residents who want to force a referendum on Fenty's plan. If the group can collect 20,000 signatures by June 12th (a monumental undertaking), a special election on the mayor's school takeover will be set for August. Just another way to stall meaningful reform of the District's classrooms. The tribulations surrounding this process have one upside, though: they reveal all too plainly how the city's blundering bureaucrats, multiple bosses, and red tape stifle promising ideas and kill innovation. Anyone who wondered how D.C. schools could remain so lousy for so long now has an answer.
"Activists Push to Allow Vote on School Plan," by David Nakamura, Washington Post, May 30, 2007
"Schools Takeover Could be Delayed," by David Nakamura, Washington Post, May 24, 2007
May 31, 2007
Brett Bradshaw doesn't like traditional exams. "Standardized tests are just snapshots that measure mostly the ability to recall facts," he told the Los Angeles Times. Bradshaw--director of strategic communications for the Coalition of Essential Schools--prefers evaluating student knowledge through exhibitions, i.e., oral presentations. His organization, which promotes exhibitions, has 250 member campuses, some of which actually do a good job teaching their students. At one of them, Los Angeles's Wildwood School, which charges $24,425 per year in tuition, Joshua Koenig recently gave his graduation presentation about the challenges of trading stock options and climbing Mt. Rainier with his father. Koenig will attend the University of Michigan next year, where stories about mountain journeys may not cut it in Geology 101; Koenig has never studied for a real final exam. If some parents want to pay $100,000 for their students to attend high schools without tests, so be it. But this exhibition stuff, while suitable for some subjects, is not a good basis for evaluating students. It's been around forever, doesn't work at scale, and adds little of value to the larger education-reform debates. Someone should alert the Times.
"More schools are ditching final exams," by Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2007
May 31, 2007
Not since William Jennings Bryan halted the march of science by winning the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 have creationists had a more glorious day. On Monday, the Creation Museum opened its doors for business in northern Kentucky, with a stated mission of restoring the Bible to its "rightful authority" in society. An arm of AiG (Answers in Genesis) ministries, the Creation Museum aims to show once and for all that the earth is no more than 10,000 years old, and that dinosaurs and man walked together in the Garden of Eden. (Which may explain why Eve ate the forbidden fruit. When you've got a Deinonychus competing for your food supply, you take what you can get and don't ask questions.) Some educators worry what this could mean for the future of the Bluegrass State's science curriculum. Fear not, says an AiG spokesman. We're not "an activist group ... regarding ... getting materials into public schools." Instead, they'll settle for getting books such as Evolution Exposed: Your Answer Book for the Classroom--available for $15.99 in the museum gift shop--into visitors' hands. And let matters evolve from there.
"Natural History, Bible-style," by Jane Lampman, Christian Science Monitor, May 24, 2007
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / May 31, 2007
David L. Kirp
Harvard University Press
Forthcoming, August 2007
The good folks at Harvard University Press are sinking a lot of energy and resources into promoting this defense of pre-school education. And why not? With the interest level in pre-K education rising, they stand to sell a lot of copies. But before you buy yours, be aware of what you're getting. First, Kirp, a respected policy analyst, is clearly convinced that pre-K education for all is a policy idea whose time has come. He makes this case in the book's first four chapters by examining the research to date on this topic (from neuroscience to the Perry study, and from economic analyses to case studies). Though he does a good job surveying what's been done, he has little patience for critics of that research, clumping them as conservative political ideologues looking to preempt another big-government program. To be fair, Kirp doesn't believe all is right in the pre-K world--he's especially critical of child care programs masquerading as pre-K programs--but skeptics of universal pre-K reading this aren't likely to change their stripes. The second half of the book, however, will be of interest to anyone involved in education policy, and the pre-K battle in particular. Kirp has pieced together how foundations (Packard and Pew), politicians (Jim Hunt and Zell Miller), and states (Oklahoma and Georgia, among others) decided to take on this issue, how they launched their campaigns, where they succeeded and
Coby Loup / May 31, 2007
May 29, 2007
A third of California's elementary students are classified as English Learners (ELs) and, by the rosiest estimate, only 60 percent of them will be reclassified as English proficient by seventh grade. The remaining 40 percent, according to Joanne Jacobs, will remain at serious risk of "falling behind in school or failing to master the skills needed for success in middle and high school." The reason for this, Jacobs suggests, is not necessarily that they haven't mastered English, but that their district has continued to classify them as ELs regardless of their English skills, putting them on a track which deprives them of educational opportunities available to their "proficient" peers. Blame here lies with the classification system, as well as the unintended consequences of a well-meaning law. California funds ELs 13 percent higher than non-EL students, but once they master English the extra funding goes away. Thus, districts have an incentive to continue classifying students as ELs even when they're not. Also problematic is the lack of statewide consistency in English proficiency cut-off scores; some districts set the bar too high, keeping students "on an ‘EL track' that leads nowhere." Standardizing the California English Language Development Test and California Standards Test cut-scores, Jacobs argues, would help clarify what level of English skill should be expected from ELs. All good points, but this paper's focus on the pitfalls of EL classification practices leaves one wondering how