Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 7, Number 38
October 4, 2004
Opinion + Analysis
The Proficiency Illusion
A tangible difference
No honeymoon for Alonso
Reg Weaver: Visionary
This week, Mike and Rick talk new Fordham reports, Baltimore, and r?sum?-building teachers. John Cronin stops by to talk about The Proficiency Illusion, and Education News of the Weird is under the gun.
No Child Left Behind made many promises. One of the most important of them being a pledge to Mr. and Mrs. Smith that they would get an annual snapshot of how their little Susie is doing in school.
But is NCLB-spawned information coming to Susie's parents and teachers truly reliable and trustworthy? This fourth-grader lives in suburban Detroit, and her parents get word that she has passed Michigan's state test. She's "proficient" in reading and math. Mr. and Mrs. Smith naturally take this as good news; their daughter must be "on grade level" and on track to succeed in later grades of school, maybe even go to college.
Would that it were so. Unfortunately, there's a lot that Mr. and Mrs. Smith don't know. They don't know that Michigan set its "proficiency cut score"--the score a student must attain in order to pass the test--among the lowest in the land. So Susie may be "proficient" in math in the eyes of Michigan educationists, but she still could have scored worse than almost all of the other fourth-graders in the country.
Susie's parents and teachers also don't know that Michigan has set the bar particularly low for younger students, such that Susie is likely to fail the state test by the time she gets to sixth grade--and certainly when she reaches eighth grade--even if she makes regular progress every year. And they also don't know that
October 4, 2007
We know that schools and school systems share a lot in common with businesses. Do they also resemble nations?
Ronald Bailey recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal an article titled "The Secrets of Intangible Wealth." His introduction: "A Mexican migrant to the U.S. is five times more productive than one who stays at home. Why is that?"
The answer, says Bailey, who gets his information from a 2006 World Bank report, is that the United States possesses incredible reserves of "intangible capital." Sure, the U.S. also has more machinery, natural resources, etc. than Mexico, but America's greatest advantage comes from assets that are largely invisible.
What the World Bank showed in its report--titled Where is the Wealth of Nations?--is that, when one tots up the value of the world's traditional capital (machinery, natural resources, infrastructure, etc.), the sum doesn't come close to the value of the world's wealth. A big part is missing. World Bank analysts call this missing component intangible capital--e.g., a skilled workforce, strong rule-of-law, trust in institutions, and more.
The most successful countries do well not because of their natural resources but because of their intangible ones. In affluent countries such as the U.S., intangible capital accounts for as much as 80 percent of wealth. In poor countries, the percentage is far lower--in fact, some such countries are so badly run that they actually have negative intangible capital.
Isn't it the same with high-achieving schools?
October 4, 2007
Gadfly now reads--courtesy of the Columbus Dispatch, a public-records request, and the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools--that indeed Attorney General Marc Dann was doing the teacher union's bidding when he (a) settled out of court an ill-conceived NEA lawsuit against charter schools (that he likely would have won if it had gone to trial) and (b) tackled low-performing charter schools on his own, sparing the union the bother, using the bizarre and legally questionable instrument of the Buckeye State's "charitable trust" laws--a strategy actually suggested to him by an Ohio Education Association attorney. We knew there was smoke. Now you can see the gun.
"Teachers behind Dann's strategy?," by Catherine Candisky, Columbus Dispatch, October 2, 2007
"Teachers union suggested attorney general sue charter schools," Associated Press, October 2, 2007
October 4, 2007
Bob Herbert can usually be counted on to dispense columns that are either off-base or banal. His latest piece is certainly banal (check out the title); but it's none too credible, either, because Herbert is calling for a "wholesale transformation of the public school system" that, were some politician to actually advance it, he, yes he, Herbert, would surely denounce. Not to say that the ideas he touts (removing bad teachers from the classroom before they get tenure; replicating great schools such as KIPP) aren't good ones. We're all for ‘em. But isn't this the same columnist who consistently writes that what schools need most is money (see here, among others)? Isn't this the same columnist who chastises education reformers whenever they ruffle some feathers (see here), and the one who seems to think race is the most important part of schooling? Herbert has advocated for the "status quo" in education for years; the "wholesale transformation" he wants (this week, at least) can't happen without sacrificing some of his own sacred cows. Maybe he's had a conversion experience recently--but that hope is probably off-base itself.
"Our Schools Must Do Better," by Bob Herbert, New York Times, October 2, 2007
October 4, 2007
New Baltimore schools CEO Andres Alonso is already in trouble. He wants to require teachers to spend one, weekly 45-minute period engaged in collaborative planning with their colleagues. And for that, the city teachers union has gone on the attack, scheduling a no-confidence vote on the CEO. Upon hearing that the union planned such a vote, a perplexed Alonso asked, "Why? Because I've done something wrong? Because I've hurt kids?" It's not about the kids, Mr. CEO--it's about the teachers. Since the school year started, the union has asked its teachers to engage in a "work to rule" protest, in which they do only what is absolutely required of them under the current labor agreement. According to union leader Loretta Johnson, the tactic is "going great... Principals are calling and complaining. Teachers did a lot on their own, before school, after school. And now teachers are saying, ‘I'm not going to do those things. I'm only going to do what's required.'" Sounds swell, Loretta! Now if Baltimore's teachers can just get students to fail all their classes, that foolish Alonso, who actually cares about students, will really be in trouble!
"Teachers union is taking on Alonso," by Sara Neufeld, Baltimore Sun, October 1, 2007
October 4, 2007
Negar Azimi's New York Times Magazine piece about Teach For America might be new, but her criticisms of the program are not. Take, for example, the idea that TFA is for college graduates a "résumé-burnishing pit stop before moving on to bigger things." That may be partly true--but so what? If a high-achieving 22-year-old works long hours in a needy school for two years before moving to Goldman Sachs, isn't that a good thing? TFA alumni are mostly an impressive bunch. Many are destined to become leaders in their professional fields, and if they take with them an up-close perspective of how bad public schools can be, and what it might take to fix them, so much the better. Plus, many TFA alumni never considered a career in education. But now, after their two-year stints in the classroom, some have become deeply involved in educational reform. TFA is changing the mold, and it can expect pushback and nitpicking from the "business as usual" crowd. It's too bad that Azimi gives such a platform to the naysayers.
"Why Teach for America," by Negar Azimi, New York Times, September 30, 2007
October 4, 2007
In Washington, D.C., school success is measured by the most basic of yardsticks. This year, for example, all 146 schools in the District opened on time, and almost all of them had the supplies they needed. Parent Denise Patterson said that, for the first time she could remember, "the schools are clean." Minor successes, perhaps, but minor successes are scarce in the nation's capital, which has long had one of the most blighted public-school systems in America. The new chancellor, Michelle Rhee, a reform-minded former teacher (via TFA, Ms. Azimi!) brought on board by reform-minded Mayor Adrian Fenty, has vowed to change D.C.'s classrooms--and she's vowed to mow down bureaucracy, too. Most importantly, Rhee wants to redefine success. Clean schools will be the norm, as will schools whose students are high academic achievers. Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, worries that people like Rhee are "set up as saviors," only to be "crucified when they fall from grace." Nonetheless, Rhee is off to a running start, and she doesn't seem too worried about any impending fall.
"Education Leaders Attempt Reform in Washington, DC Schools," by John Merrow, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, October 1, 2007
"New Orleans School Chief Tackles Rebuilding Shattered System," by John Merrow, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, October 2, 2007
Failing Our Students, Failing America: Holding Colleges Accountable for Teaching America's History and Institutions
Eric Osberg / October 4, 2007
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, American Civic Literacy Program
September 18, 2007
The main finding of this report won't surprise Gadfly readers: American college students know frighteningly little about U.S. history, government, foreign policy, and the market economy. On a test of 60 questions, a sample of 14,000 college freshmen and seniors answered correctly barely 30. (You can test yourself online here; the average Gadfly score is 56/60, so it's obviously not impossible.) But this interesting report also provides a wealth of detail behind the headline. It ranks fifty postsecondary schools based on the scores of their students, and one won't be surprised to find Harvard and other ivies at the top. But when the scores of freshmen and seniors at each school are compared, to gauge the actual learning taking place during their college careers, Harvard slips to 17th, Brown barely cracks the top 40, and Duke, Yale, and Cornell come in dead last. At the top? Two schools with little more than local reputations: Eastern Connecticut State College and Marian College (Wis.). The authors speculate that our prestigious universities have neglected the foundations of many disciplines to focus on esoteric topics and emphasize "thinking critically." Probably they're right. (One is also reminded about the ancient quip about why Harvard is such a great repository of knowledge: because its students arrive with so much and leave with so little.) The analysts also report that students who did best on the
Coby Loup / October 4, 2007
Sara Mead and Andrew J. Rotherham
This report illustrates the maturing outlook of the charter school movement. Over the last five years, the folks at Education Sector (previously at Progressive Policy Institute) examined charter laws and practices in twelve states whose charter-school enrollments represent about 75 percent of the U.S. total. This overview analysis shows where things can go wrong with charter schooling and how to tighten the bolts going ahead. Charter authorizing (a.k.a., "sponsoring") is a key issue. A number of problems seem to plague authorizers: unclear roles and responsibilities, inadequate resources, and limited public oversight. Fortunately, though, states are beginning to demand more from their authorizers; for example, California and Arizona now "prohibit school districts from authorizing charters outside their boundaries" because they have little incentive to ensure quality and are too far away to practice oversight. Charter advocates, too, have increasingly recognized the importance of quality authorizing (see Fordham's own revelations here). The report also examines such issues as funding, caps, data, and burdensome regulations. (Another good recent paper from Ed Sector proposes "Smart Charter School Caps," which means "eliminating any cap for ‘proven' schools that have demonstrated outstanding gains for students," and basing caps on the level of authorizer capacity.) The report closes with solid recommendations. Find it here.
October 4, 2007
Carl F. Kaestle and Alyssa E. Lodewick, eds
University Press of Kansas
This collection of essays looks at education policy in today's world of standards-based and data-driven reform. Yes, it's really that broad. The essays highlight the increased involvement of the federal government in education funding and school reform; the growth of interest groups; the history of pre-K programs, including Head Start. And more. You can learn more about it here.