Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 14
April 10, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
Saving Catholic schools
Controversy? In our fair textbook?
A czar is born
Local control Obama?
Doing time at Cheektowaga
This week, Mike and guest co-host Coby Loup of the Fordham Foundation talk about Catholic schools, prison schools, and fat schools. Jeff Kuhner is outraged by bus drivers who can't hold it, and Education News of the Weird is, too.
Since 1990, some 300,000 children have been displaced from Catholic schools that closed during this period--twice as many as were impacted by hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Most of these youngsters live in America's inner cities, most are poor, and their beloved schools closed not because of physical destruction or flooding, not because of poor performance, but for lack of funding. If current trends continue, another 300,000 girls and boys are likely to lose their schools over the next two decades.
Before our very eyes, the great institution of the urban Catholic school is disappearing. Does it matter? Does anybody care? Who will do something about it?
Those are the questions addressed by Fordham's latest study, Who Will Save America's Urban Catholic Schools? We are hardly the first to sound this alarm, but our appraisal comes at a critical juncture. With Pope Benedict XVI to arrive in the U.S. next week, the nation's attention will focus on the Catholic Church and its institutions. A few weeks later, President Bush will host a White House conference on inner-city "faith based" schools.
Now is a good time to think clearly about the demise of Catholic parochial schools in urban America. This turns out to have two distinct elements: Catholic education for Catholic children and Catholic education for poor non-Catholics. These groups are different enough to call for distinct responses, some of which are already occurring.
When it comes to educating Catholics, for instance, Wichita is
April 10, 2008
Inaccuracies in school textbooks make Gadfly cringe. So does bias. Too many widely-used textbooks are sloppy and error-filled, not to mention banal. Many are also slanted, mainly to the left. Howard Zinn, for example, has peddled his anti-American stuff far and wide and received much acclaim for his trouble. Gary Nash, too. Don't look for investigative reporting to unmask these kinds of textbook flaws. But now that a few contentious assertions have been unearthed in a book written by right-leaning James Q. Wilson and John Dilulio, the Associated Press is beside itself to report the supposed scandal. High-school student Matthew LaClair, who first fingered the folio in question, American Government (a widely-used and generally acclaimed civics text), after perceiving it was "biased," said, "all the statements for the most part were...not giving a fair account of everything." It seems, though, that "all the statements" really means a few short sentences about climate change and church-state relations. Wilson and Dilulio, widely respected scholars both, had no comment. LaClair, who several years ago tape recorded a teacher making a religious remark in class, did have a comment: he's "not looking to cause a huge controversy." Neither is the AP, we're sure.
"Widely used government textbook under fire after high school student raises concerns," by Nancy Zuckerbrod, Associated Press, April 9, 2008
April 10, 2008
A recent New York Times article about the ambitions of United Federation of Teachers (UFT) boss Randi Weingarten is hardly revelatory to those of us in the ed biz, where everyone knows Weingarten is close to taking the helm at the American Federation of Teachers. But the Times piece includes some interesting bits nonetheless. For example, Weingarten says the two basic questions she always asks about policy are, "Is it fair for members, and is it good for kids?" Of course, she neglected to note that the first question's answer always trumps the second. How, one wonders, is banning principals from considering student test scores in evaluating whether teachers should receive tenure (see here and here) "good for kids"? Gadfly poses that puzzler to his friend Andy Rotherham, who gushed to the Times that Weingarten is "articulate and attractive" and said, in exemplary on-one-hand-on-the-other-hand style, that unions "exist to protect their members" but "most of the things that the teachers' unions want are in the interest of kids." We respectfully disagree. Former New York City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz got much nearer to the truth: "I think fundamentally the labor contracts make it extremely difficult to deliver high-quality education." Right. The United Auto Workers doesn't look out for the interests of Ford Explorers, and neither does the UFT protect the interests of students.
"A Schools Veteran Girds for a Broader Battlefield," by Jennifer Medina, New York
April 10, 2008
Free-lancer Alexander Russo recently investigated Barack Obama's involvement in Chicago's "local school council" debates of the mid-1990s. At issue was whether the councils (Russo calls them "mini school boards") should have had the power to fire principals, which several did for dubious reasons. As a state senator, Obama tiptoed around the arguments, Russo claims, and then supported the local boards after the disagreement was decided in their favor. Of course, it's hard to know whether Russo's account is accurate. But to conclude from the story as he does that a President Obama would sympathize with "local control" advocates over "testing hawks" is preposterous. Local control is the battle cry of school-district bureaucracies and citywide school boards. It is not the cry of individual schools and certainly not of civil rights activists, some of whom are the fiercest testing hawks around (e.g., Education Trust). Russo might better analogize Chicago's local councils to mom-and-pop charter schools, which are run by community-based boards. We await further word from the Senator's campaign team as to how forcefully he will advance and defend charters and chartering when key elements of his party's "base" (e.g., the aforementioned Randi Weingarten) seek to throttle them.
"Chicago School Days: Obama's Lackluster Record on Education," by Alexander Russo, Slate, April 2, 2008
April 10, 2008
Deborah Meier, of New York University's school of education, believes the school district in Cheektowaga, New York, which bars underachieving and misbehaving middle-school students from extracurricular activities, is "like prison." Odd that Sondra LaMacchia, whose 14-year-old daughter Cortney attends a Cheektowaga middle school, doesn't appear similarly distressed. In fact, she supports the district's tough policy. Only after Cortney was forbidden from attending school dances, LaMacchia said, did the adolescent realize that studying is important. Similarly, after Melissa Gladwell, Cheektowaga Central Middle School's volleyball coach, benched a top player who didn't bring a progress report to practice, the youngster, says Ms.Gladwell, "never forgot again." The district policy may lead to some tricky situations (for example, should a low-achieving special education student be banned from all activities?), but those can be dealt with case-by-case. Cheektowaga's policy sounds right to Gadfly and, contrary to Meier's concerns, abiding by it is certainly easier than living in the big house.
"School's New Rule for Pupils in Trouble: No Fun," by Winnie Hu, New York Times, April 4, 2008
April 10, 2008
Five elementary schools in Philadelphia jettisoned machines that dispense soda for those that dispense juice, cracked down on candy sales and junk food, and gave prizes to pupils who ate roughage. Mirabile dictu, after two years their students were less fat! So concludes a study that will be released in the April issue of Pediatrics. Certainly it's wonderful to be reminded that healthful food leads to healthier kids, but it's scarcely news. Watch the scholarly "literature" for a study to ascertain whether schools with roofs keep students dryer than open-air classrooms.
"Philadelphia School Program Stopped Weight Gain in 2-Year Experiment," Associated Press, April 7, 2008
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / April 10, 2008
Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek
This terrific new book by two of my favorite young education innovators/entrepreneurs/consultants is worth your time, particularly if you want a high quality, high productivity, high performance, high purpose, and highly gratifying life--and assuming that, in your case (unlike mine), it's not too late. Through a series of interviews and mini-profiles of people such as KIPP's Mike Feinberg, Teach For America's Wendy Kopp, and SEED's Raj Vinnakota, Gergen and Vanourek do a swell job of applying the lessons of entrepreneurialism to people's entire lives, not just their formal careers, and of suggesting how you might do likewise. It's not about education per se, but many of the examples are. Check it out here or here.
Coby Loup / April 10, 2008
Zeyu Xu, Jane Hannaway, Colin Taylor
The Urban Institute and the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research
March 27, 2008
The authors of this report claim it's the first to measure the effects of Teach For America (TFA) instructors on student achievement at the high school level. They chose to carry out their analysis in North Carolina, where they could examine years of student and teacher data. They focus particularly on the state's End-of-Course (EOC) exams, which all schools must administer, and find that "having a TFA teacher is associated with about 0.12 standard deviations improvement in EOC performance... as compared with having a non-TFA teacher." When they control for classroom variables, such as student demographics and previous academic performance, the effect is "about 0.07 standard deviations, but it remains statistically significant." The authors also compared the "TFA effect" to other variables that might be thought to improve student achievement. To do this, they restricted their TFA comparisons to teachers who were fully licensed in their particular fields and, in another comparison, to those who had at least three years of experience. They found that students with TFA teachers performed better in both cases. The report, it should be noted, is not a randomized experiment, although the authors do employ some heavy-duty statistical methods to counter possible biases. Still, the report is good news for TFA supporters and should encourage more research on the program. Read it
April 10, 2008
Jeffrey R. Henig
It would seem to be a simple question: Do charter schools positively impact the academic performance of their students? Yet advocates and researchers arrived at dramatically different answers, even when working from the same data sets. That's the conclusion of Teachers College professor Jeff Henig, who examines the current state of education research, as well as its dissemination, in this provocative book. He identifies many factors that lead to conflicting conclusions and polarized uses of evidence in the charter debate: the spread of "new media," which pushes researchers and journalists to publish more quickly; the privatization of funding for education research, often from politically-motivated advocacy groups; the crucial fact that "no single, randomized field trial, no matter how well conducted, could have settled the question of how charter schools perform under changing circumstances"; and a simple disconnect between the aims of politicians, advocates, researchers, and journalists. This leads to yet more political posturing. Too often, Henig concludes, ideology trumps honesty. Order the book here.