Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 42
November 1, 2007
Opinion + Analysis
All in the family?
Swatting at another Gadfly
Steamed crabs and low expectations
Slow to change
The State of Connecticut Public Education
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / November 1, 2007
It's fairly widely agreed nowadays that schools should be judged by, and accountable for, their results, not just their intentions, services, or inputs.
NCLB version 1.0 embraced that view and determined that students' reading and math "proficiency," judged against absolute state-set standards, would be the way to hold schools (and districts) to account for federal purposes. Meanwhile, a lot of states had already developed their own systems that differed in various ways from each other and from NCLB. Some, such as Ohio's, considered more subjects. Some, such as Florida's, considered performance gains as well as absolute performance. Several set more than one standard, as NAEP had done with its well-known achievement levels labeled "basic," "proficient," and "advanced." (Strictly speaking, NCLB requires states to set three performance levels, NAEP-like. But only one of them counts.)
Much of the grumping, kvetching, and pushing-back against NCLB has to do with its simple, narrow conception of school results: just two subjects and one (absolute) level of performance in those subjects. The major complaints take four forms:
- Education is more than reading and math skills and excessive emphasis on those and only those leads to too narrow and mechanistic a school curriculum. (I've said that on a few occasions myself.)
- Schools are about adding to their pupils' learning, not just determining whether kids are already at or above some fixed level of performance; hence performance should be judged by achievement growth (i.e., "value-added"), not rigid cut-scores. Else we may
November 1, 2007
The latest report from ETS, The Family: America's Smallest School, is packed with data that show how a child's educational achievement is correlated with his family situation. If the youngster grows up in a poor, single-parent home where books are scarce--well, it doesn't bode well for his performance in school.
Thus, the authors (including the estimable Paul Barton) conclude, we must not ignore the family.
Who's been ignoring the family?
Jump back forty years. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak's August 18th, 1965, Wall Street Journal column was all about the famous "Moynihan Report," which was all about the family. Evans and Novak wrote that "based on unexciting census evidence," Daniel P. Moynihan had constructed a study showing "that broken homes, illegitimacy, and female-oriented families were central to big-city Negro problems."
In 1965, of course, poverty was the focus, and Moynihan blamed systemic family dysfunction for a goodly share of poverty's prevalence in America. In the 21st century, we are blaming systemic family dysfunction for educational achievement gaps.
Just as Moynihan was right in 1965, the folks at ETS are right in 2007: family situations matter. But what we have learned since 1965--at least what we should have learned--is that government is ill-equipped to repair dysfunctional families in fundamental ways.
Over the past forty years, the poverty situation in America has improved significantly, but the nation's family dynamics have worsened. In 1965, about 25 percent of black children were born outside marriage. In 2005--billions
November 1, 2007
On Tuesday, Kathryn S. Wylde, president & CEO of the Partnership for New York City and a well-known Bloomberg acolyte, prompted by City Hall and Tweed Court House minions and aided by a prominent public relations firm that also holds the Bloomberg account, took to the New York Post to heap calumnies on Diane Ravitch's objectivity, her trustworthiness as an education authority, even her commitment to educating all students. Wylde asserted that Ravitch's criticisms of New York City's school management "seem more tied to her unhappiness with the personalities in the Bloomberg administration than its policies." Wrong. Ravitch has forgotten more about education than Wylde ever knew--and Wylde (and the mayor and schools chancellor) should be grateful that Ravitch cares enough about public education in Gotham to follow and comment on it as closely as she has. Rather than attack Ravitch's integrity and motives (with, it seems, much help from Big Brother at City Hall), why not address some of her more potent criticisms? Yes, Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Klein have initiated some worthy changes. But some of their policies--loopy reading and math curricula, loopy mini-schools, etc.--deserve the kind of critical exposure that Ravitch (and a handful of other robust free thinkers) have given them. Some of their claims of victory rest on "creative" statistical applications. Ravitch ought to receive from Klein and his troops a rigorous intellectual debate. Instead, she receives ad feminem
November 1, 2007
There's something disconcerting about those who fight to make high school diplomas worthless, particularly when they claim to have the kids' best interests at heart. The latest salvo comes from Maryland, where state Superintendent Nancy Grasmick has just been granted (by an 8 to 4 Board of Education vote) her wish to allow students who twice fail one or more of their high school subject assessments to graduate by completing "projects" instead. Grasmick says the new approach will help young people who pass their classes but can't pass the tests. The intellectual disconnect here is stunning. If a student passes his algebra class but fails to pass an external exam evaluating his prowess in algebra, what does that say about Maryland's courses? About teacher grading practices? Of course, "projects" aren't inherently evil, especially if they're intellectually demanding, explore subject matter in depth and are rigorously and even-handedly evaluated. But if you think that Maryland is going to demand excellent work from kids that it has already let off the hook, if you think those students are going to be pushed to create worthwhile "projects," and if you think state officials are going to be punctilious about the standards and rubrics by which such projects are appraised--then we've got a nice bridge across the Chesapeake that we're looking to sell you. And if you think these politically-correct policy gyrations are really being done for the sake of the long-term well-being of today's young Marylanders, you
November 1, 2007
Como Elementary School in the Mississippi Delta may truly be one of the worst schools in the land. Its test scores are at the bottom of the state, and the state's scores are last in the nation. But a mere twenty minutes west of Como, across the Arkansas state line, things are looking up. This year, that state's Board of Education will consider a record dozen charter-school applications; the state recently relaxed its charter laws. Caroline Proctor, who directs the Arkansas Charter School Resource Center, said charter applicants are "naturally going to be drawn to this area and Delta" because of the number of underserved kids in the region. Unfortunately, the exceptionally restrictive charter law in Mississippi (which has only one charter school) means towns such as Como can't benefit from high-quality providers that may want to open schools in them. Improving education in places like the Delta takes innovation and a willingness to break with past orthodoxies. But politicians in Jackson seem bent on keeping their state last in just about everything--including being one of the last places to realize the potential of educational choice. Advice to Como parents: buy a raft, head to Arkansas.
"By the Mississippi Delta, A Whole School Left Behind," by Peter Whoriskey, Washington Post, October 28, 2007
"Charter school invasion," by Jennifer Barnett Reed, Arkansas Times, October 25, 2007
November 1, 2007
Looks like Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Alan Borsuk made it only a few sentences deep into this new study from the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. If he'd read the thing more thoroughly, Borsuk would've realized 1) that the report is not an indictment of choice overall, and 2) that the study doesn't address private schools. But our fearless reporter didn't realize these two points and, consequently, his coverage of the WPRI report focuses on vouchers and beats-up on school choice. What the Journal Sentinel should have reported is that Milwaukee Public Schools is not currently doing a good job of empowering consumers to make effective educational decisions. The study (which, it should be noted, contains lots of methodological shortcomings) shows that only 10 percent of MPS parents consider academic factors and compare two or more schools before choosing one. The report's authors believe MPS must do a better job alerting parents to the wealth of educational options they actually have. Whoever wrote the Journal Sentinel article's headline may be willing, because of these snags, to throw in the towel on choice altogether, but WPRI--and Milwaukee parents, presumably--are not.
"Choice may not improve schools, study says," by Alan Borsuk, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 23, 2007
"The truth about choice in public schools," by George Lightbourn, Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, October 2007
November 1, 2007
The Bay Area's science and technology sectors are booming. But in the public schools, it's a different story. Some 80 percent of 923 area elementary-school teachers surveyed said they spend less than one hour per week teaching science, and 16 percent said they spend no time on science at all. The results show it: less than half of Bay Area students scored at or above grade level on last spring's California Standards Test in science. Seems we were onto something when we suggested teaching a broad liberal arts curriculum (including science) in schools. We assumed, though, that because of a growing emphasis on STEM learning, fear of China and India, and Thomas Friedman, subjects such as history and the arts would get short shrift. In San Francisco, however, it seems that science instruction is being cut, too. The locals had better wise up. How do you say Google in Hindi? In Mandarin?
"Science courses nearly extinct in elementary grades, study finds," by Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle, October 25, 2007
Martin A. Davis, Jr. / November 1, 2007
A better title for this report might be NAEP for Dummies. In a concise (13 page) presentation, Yeager gives readers a no-nonsense overview of the merits and shortcomings of using NAEP as a tool for understanding how students in America are performing academically. The report puts forth an overall favorable impression of the assessment: "NAEP, with its recent commitment to release math and reading data within six months of test administration, is an increasingly timely source of students' achievement information." The author asks only that the test's limitations be understood and not overlooked. Even when describing complicated topics such as the difficulty of comparing NAEP scores across grade levels or subjects, or how the varying numbers of ELL and special-education students that states choose to include and exclude from the assessment affect overall NAEP scores, the report keeps the discussion clean and jargon-free. For education policy types without a background in the difficulties of test design and results interpretation, this straightforward guide will make for good reading. Find it here.
Coby Loup / November 1, 2007
Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now
ConnCAN's second annual report on Connecticut's public schools is pretty gloomy. To start, only a third of minority and low-income students are meeting state goals on the Connecticut Mastery Test, compared with two-thirds of middle-class white students. And the gap is widening. Although pupils in all subgroups made similar gains on the state test in elementary school last year, by middle school low-income and minority students had fallen behind their white peers. In terms of income, Connecticut's 8th-grade gaps in reading and math are the widest in the country. Thankfully, a few daisies sprout through the weeds. The state's handful of charter schools, for instance, which serve substantially more minority and low-income students than traditional schools, made greater overall gains on the state test last year (10.1 points versus 4.1 in elementary school, and 6.9 versus 2.0 in middle school). The authors propose that such gains might be attributed to extended learning time at the charter schools (18.2 percent more time in elementary school and 12.2 percent more in middle school). The report also lists the state's top ten schools in various categories (performance gains, Hispanic test scores, etc.) and offers links to expanded "success stories" about them that begin to comprise a useful collection of best practices. Readers (especially advocates of adequacy lawsuits) should also note that, of the 20 largest districts in the Nutmeg state, the nine that gained more than