Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 32
August 21, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
Education Olympics: The games in review
Just as sweet, by any other name
Big D gets a big F
Snug as a teacher in tenure
Guns 'n' classes
Save the World on Your Own Time
With the 2008 Summer Olympic Games nearing its endpoint, there's consternation in the air about the likelihood that China will best the United States in the gold medal count, and might catch the U.S. in medals overall. But with 95 gold, silver, or bronze finishes already to its credit, the United States Olympic team is performing many times better than our Education Olympics team--which as of press time is still without a single medal in this year's competition. Where's the consternation over that?
As loyal Gadfly readers may know, over the past two weeks the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosted the "Education Olympics" at www.edolympics.net. While our "coverage" of the games appears in real-time, the actual competition took place over the past several years, via international exams such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
That countries such as Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and New Zealand would dominate the games may not come as a surprise, and perhaps savvy readers aren't shocked by America's 20th place finish. But it's particularly depressing to glance at the events where the U.S. flopped completely. By far our worst showing was for our lowest-performing students. The United States placed 38th out of 57 countries in terms of getting our fifteen-year-olds over PISA's most basic achievement level in science. The United States has fifteen times more students than Finland does performing below this level,
August 21, 2008
Washington Post writer George Will is sharp as a tack, which is why he ends today's column, about David Whitman's new book, thusly: "Today's liberals favor paternalism--you cannot eat trans fats; you must buy health insurance--for everyone except children. Odd." Odd indeed that schools of education, teachers' unions, and the majority of the politicians who enjoy their backing continue, against all evidence, to reject k-12 paternalism and push for toothless, standards-less, fluffy, self-esteem-centered education. But it's fully baffling that the very people (most of them liberal) who run the paternalistic schools about which Whitman writes (KIPP, Amistad, SEED, etc.) would also reject the paternalism label, as most of them do. Eric Adler, the venerable co-founder of the SEED School, objected to the word and told Whitman that "calling a school paternalistic implies that its staff is asserting that it ‘knows better than others--like parents or the neighborhood'--which values schools should transmit." Of course, SEED's whole model is to actively remove students from their parents and neighborhoods and steep the pupils in values that they don't get at home. The progressive leaders of these paternalistic schools may not like the labeling, but they like the practice. Too bad they won't admit it.
"Where Paternalism Makes the Grade," by George Will, Washington Post, August 21, 2008
August 21, 2008
David Whitman's new book, which George Will wrote about today in his Washington Post column (see above), contains the word paternalism. Whitman uses it to describe a particular type of urban school that succeeds in teaching its poor and minority students largely because it focuses on discipline and hard work (and takes pride in both). Such a school is paternalistic because it substitutes a culture of hard work, respect, motivation, etc. for the culture that its pupils are likely to encounter in their neighborhoods--one of irresponsibility, crime, and vice. Sounds like the right word to us--and to Will. But the Post's Jay Mathews writes that he "hates" the word paternalism because it "carries one of the heaviest loads of negativity I can imagine." Mathews thinks the term connotes the "harmful doings of stiff-necked dads" and ignores the "warmth and respect" that these high-flying schools show their students. Some education bloggers strongly disagree with Mathews. Others are agnostic about the word (writing, for example, that the book's content is more important than its paternalism subtitle); Whitman himself tends to (somewhat) agree with this camp. Regardless of what you call 'em, though, these schools are doing awesome things--with that we can all agree.
"Great little schools without a name," by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, August 18, 2008
August 21, 2008
The Dallas school district has decided it cannot grade students by academic benchmarks because, evaluated thusly, the pupils have a tendency to fail. Therefore, the city is shifting to "effort-based" grading, which, according to the Dallas Morning News, is "designed to give students multiple opportunities to demonstrate that they've mastered class material." Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said that the new rules--which the News reports "require teachers to accept late work and prevent them from penalizing students for missed deadlines"--will assist in reducing the district's ninth-grade failure rate; each year, some 20 percent of ninth graders in Dallas's public schools do not advance to become sophomores. "Our mission is not to fail kids," said Hinojosa. Nor, it seems, is Dallas's mission to cultivate responsibility in the students it educates, hold youngsters to high standards, or prepare pupils for a reality in which deadlines exist and one is graded not on effort but on results. We've been through this before with Dallas. Someone needs to save that district from itself.
"Dallas schools plan to ease grading standards angers teachers," by Kent Fischer, Dallas Morning News, August 16, 2008
"Dallas ISD defends changes in grading policy," by Kent Fischer, Dallas Morning News, August 16, 2008
August 21, 2008
The Associated Press, which has been a little blue of late, tells us that the nation's trepidatious economy is affecting youngsters in the worst ways: "Children will walk farther to the bus stop, pay more for lunch, study from old textbooks, even wear last year's clothes. Field trips? Forget about it." (Not to be glib, but with childhood obesity grown commonplace, wouldn't longer walks, pricier lunches, and being forced to fit into last year's pants do some kids a lot of good?) Several economically squeezed districts, AP reports, have even instituted four-day weeks to save on utilities. In these perilous times, what won't schools cut? Staff, apparently. The AP mentions not one district that has fired some of its lowest-performing teachers. In the real world, of course, a company that encounters financial hardship looks to rid itself of its least useful or necessary employees. We know that the United States employs far more public-school teachers than it actually needs, and sadly, we also know that the least capable and most unnecessary of those excess educators will remain snug in their classrooms--through good times and bad.
"Back to School: Shaky Economy Hits Kids," by Libby Quaid, Associated Press, August 18, 2008
August 21, 2008
Author Charles Edward Chapel writes in Guns of the Old West, "Considerably cared for and used with skill, a gun would argue loud and persuasively for you against man and nature when both were hell-bent on your immediate personal destruction." Perhaps the chaw-spittin' school board in Harrold, Texas, has recently been reading Chapel--it just voted to allow the town's teachers to carry pistols in their classrooms. Harrold is thirty minutes by car from the sheriff's office, but it's only a tumbleweed's roll from a busy highway that could bring to the community's schools all sorts of transient bad news. Allowing educators to be armed, the school board reasoned, will discourage those who might harm students. Superintendent David Thweatt explained, "Why would you put it out there that a group of people can't defend themselves? That's like saying 'sic 'em' to a dog." Not just any gun-lovin' pedagogue can now tote a Colt revolver in his lunch pail, however. Teachers who want to pack heat must be licensed to carry a gun in Texas, apply for authorization by the district, receive special training in crisis management, and use ricochet-proof ammunition. No word yet on those who wish to carry grenades.
"Texas School District OKs Pistols for Staff," Associated Press, August 15, 2008
August 21, 2008
As he did in his 2007 Wall Street Journal series, Murray lambasts in Real Education the entire k-12 education establishment--not just standardized testing, say, or teachers' unions--for building its house on sand. The sand, in this case, is the belief that the academic horizons of all students are virtually endless. Murray doesn't believe they are. He believes an individual's IQ translates into academic capability in a definite and predictable way--i.e., those with higher IQs will be better at academics. To deny this is, the author writes, "educational romanticism," which has led, inter alia, to colleges that enroll students who are drastically unprepared to attend them (and who, in many cases, don't want to be there but feel forced to earn a B.A.). Murray also believes that pushing so many academically deficient people into college means that their other skills go unnoticed and unrefined. It's no secret that Murray's ideas about the immobility of academic ability have irked some (such as our own Checker Finn). But despite Murray's relatively rogue views about student ability, many of Real Education's proposals are unremarkable. Ideas such as allowing gifted children to accelerate in the classroom, teaching a pre-determined core curriculum, expanding school choice, and providing a safe and orderly classroom environment have long had much support in ed reform circles (from Fordham: see here, here, and here, for starters). Even the book's suggestions about preparing
Coby Loup / August 21, 2008
Oxford University Press
Stanley Fish thinks college professors have two main duties: 1) "introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry they didn't know much about before," and 2) "equip those same students with the analytical skills that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research should they choose to do so." What they should not be doing is precisely what so many of them now openly aim to do: "develop moral capacities," "foster the conditions necessary for a deliberative democracy," "promote social justice," and so on. These duties, Fish argues, are best reserved for "preachers, therapists, social workers, political activists, professional gurus, inspirational speakers." In pressing this distinction, Fish picks apart claims that academic freedom and free speech entitle one (in Fish's words) to substitute a soapbox for the teacher's podium. In one passage that illustrates his point especially well, Fish revisits Columbia president Lee Bollinger's controversial remarks upon introducing invited speaker Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran. When Bollinger told Ahmadinejad that he felt the need to express his "revulsion at what you stand for," he was, writes Fish, "saying implicitly, ‘here's where Columbia University stands.'" A better approach, the author argues, would have been to "academicize" rather than politicize the proceedings, by posing questions and objections "in a way that distanced them from their emotional force"--"Many are worried that... How would you
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / August 21, 2008
Center on Education Policy
The Center on Education Policy has been following the progress of state high school exit examinations since 2002, and this is its seventh (!) annual report on the topic. This edition focuses on the move away from some types of exit tests (e.g., minimum-competency exams) and toward end-of-course exams that assess mastery of specific classes. Currently, only four states have policies requiring these end-of-course exams, but eleven will by 2015. The big story, however, is that in 2007-2008, 23 states had some type of exit exam and withheld diplomas from students who failed them (68 percent of America's high school population had to pass an exit exam to graduate). This sounds like tough love, but it may just be coddling in disguise. States rarely make public, for example, how many students pass their tests via an "alternative path to graduation" (e.g., substitute exams, waivers, "multiple indicators of mastery," production of original finger paintings, etc.). And they don't tell how many pass exit exams, which may be of dubious rigor, only after numerous retakes. The lack of reliable state data is exacerbated by the accompanying lack of national data, too. And it's profoundly unfortunate that a state with an exit exam would allow a student who doesn't pass it to graduate nonetheless. CEP estimates that 74 percent of the nation's high school students will be affected by exit exams by 2012. Affected how is a question