Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 33
August 28, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
What to do about mediocre teachers?
Same rift, different place
A year to remember
An inky distraction
Thelma and Louise
This week, Mike and Rick discuss Denver, school choice, and tattoos. Research Minute takes a week off, and Education News of the Weird is retired for Rate That Reform!
Michael J. Petrilli / August 28, 2008
If there's one idea that unifies education analysts on the left, right, and center, it's the almost-religious belief that "improving teacher quality" is the surest way to boost student achievement. So it was music to many reformers' ears when, in 2007, McKinsey & Co. released its global report on education and argued that "the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers." Further, wrote the authors of the report (including guru Sir Michael Barber, a former aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair), "the top-performing systems we studied recruit their teachers from the top third" of each cohort of college graduates; other systems should do the same, they insisted. It's easy to understand why so many philanthropists and policymakers have put their eggs in the "superstar teacher" basket.
Unfortunately, it's a basket with many holes. A month ago I explained why the obsession with teacher quality is myopic. For a variety of reasons, it's highly unlikely that the United States will ever draw anywhere near all of its teachers from the top third of their college classes. And it's just as unlikely that we'll succeed in redistributing teachers so that the high-flyers teach in the most disadvantaged schools. So what, I asked, is Plan B?
Some readers took my arguments as overly defeatist, so let me explain myself--and edge a little closer to Plan B. By all means, education policymakers and practitioners should do all they can to
August 28, 2008
Political conventions, it must be said, have lost their brio. (Nielsen reports that television ratings for them have declined unremittingly since 1980.) Which is not to say nothing interesting will happen this week in Denver; indeed, something already has. On Sunday was held the "Ed Challenge for Change" event, at which such nationally prominent Democrats as Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former Colorado Governor Roy Romer convened to decry the lousy state of American public schools and challenge their party to do better. A big part of their message: reformers need not be shy about bucking the demands of teachers' unions. From the Rocky Mountain News: "‘We have been wrong in education,' Booker said of his party and its alliances with teachers unions that put adults before children. ‘It's time to get right.'" Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, told Education Week that she was "really pissed" about the meeting. "This was a couple of mayors, and I very much appreciate their efforts. But they're tearing down the people who they need to lift up," she said. Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., and Booker are not "a couple of mayors." They're national leaders, and we couldn't be happier with the strong, reform-minded stand they took on a national stage.
"Lesson plan: Put kids over teachers," by Nancy Mitchell, Rocky Mountain News, August 25, 2008
"Union Tensions at DNC," by Michele McNeil, Campaign K-12,
August 28, 2008
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd seems to have learned a lesson or two from the education policies of his conservative predecessor, John Howard. Rudd is moving toward a transparent accountability system that will show parents how their children are faring academically and show the state how schools that enroll similar student populations fare against one another. "There may be a bit of argy bargy on the way through but I think it's time to do this," said Rudd. He predicted a backlash from teachers' unions. But , "we're prepared to have an argument if that's necessary ... you can't simply allow our kids to be in schools which are consistently underperforming." Quite true. Seems that what's happening in Denver is happening Down Under: Liberals concerned with doing right by poor kids are finally revolting against the unions.
"Prime minister to take on unions over education reform," by Samantha Maiden, The Australian, August 28, 2008
August 28, 2008
It's been more than twelve months since Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty named a relative unknown as the city's schools chancellor. Hard to believe, considering the tremendous amount of change that Michelle Rhee has wrought in that time. From closing failing schools, to cutting dead weight from the central offices, to hard-ball negotiations with the unions to radically revamp teacher pay, Rhee has done more in one trip around the sun than probably all of her predecessors did over their combined tenures. Equally amazing is the way she has extinguished critical flare-ups. This is due, in large part, to her ability to absorb and outlast the tirades of her opponents (and her stalwart support from Fenty). Last school year, she attended 370 community meetings, at more than a few of which parents screamed at her. An unnamed source told the Washington Post, "Those who scream the loudest were used to winning," but Rhee's position was, "We aren't going to let a vocal minority make a decision for us." And so far, she hasn't. Here's hoping for another successful year.
"Better or Worse, It's Rhee's School System Now," by V. Dion Haynes, Washington Post, August 25, 2008
August 28, 2008
The story goes like this. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev hands his successor two letters and tells him to open them when he, the successor, encounters a tough situation. The first such situation arises, the first letter is opened, and it reads, "Blame everything on me." Works like a charm. Another tough time arises, and the successor opens the second letter, which instructs him, "Sit down and write two letters." Arlene Ackerman, the new CEO of Philadelphia's schools, seems to have ambitiously torn open the first of these hypothetical envelopes (which would have been sealed by Paul Vallas, who is now running schools in New Orleans) before any crisis even had a chance to fester. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, "Ackerman said the 167,000-student system she inherited lacked cohesion and follow-through." She told the newspaper, "We're causing our own problems by not thinking in a systemic way." She went on to call the small schools championed by Vallas "fiscal drains," to decry the functioning of the central office, and to say, in an unveiled rebuke of her predecessor, "Innovation for the sake of innovation is not something I'm interested in." Perhaps Ackerman is playing politics (there is no love lost between the City of Brotherly Love and Vallas), or perhaps she really did inherit a mess. Regardless--now she has only one letter left!
"New city schools chief outlines her to-do list," by Kristin A. Graham, Philadelphia Inquirer, August
August 28, 2008
Woe to the Maori pupil in Louisiana's St. John the Baptist Parish, the school board of which is embroiled in a bit of a tattoo controversy. It all began when Principal Patricia Triche banned (visible) tattoos in her high school, East St. John. Superintendent Courtney Millet supported Triche's decision, but board member Patrick Sanders had concerns: 1) Triche did not inform the board of her decision, 2) parents are calling him to complain about the new rule, and 3) the regulation may violate students' rights. Then fellow board member Albert "Ali" Burl III piled on by noting that enforcement of the tattoo ban at East St. John would be altogether impossible (he did not explain why). But Millet was steadfast. Tattoos are signs of risky behavior, she said, and tattooed persons could contract serious blood-borne diseases. Schools, therefore, should not promote body art. But Burl chimed in again and said Millet shouldn't be making rules for public schools when her children attend private schools (again, he failed to explain his logic). And so it went. Would that the St. John the Baptist Parish district spent such energy debating how to raise student achievement!
"School board can't agree on student tattoos," by Sandra Barbier, New Orleans Times Picayune, August 22, 2008
August 28, 2008
The 2008 SAT data are out: average scores in reading, math, and writing went neither up nor down since last year. The College Board applauds this consistency, though, because larger numbers of minority and first-generation students took the SAT in 2008 than in 2007. Because more such students were taking the test, some say, one might have expected the scores to decline; that they didn't, smirked the College Board, is reason to celebrate. (ACT recently made a similar point about its own test.) Problem is, the actual scores of minority test-takers are not reason to celebrate. The 2008 results of both black and Hispanic students, in math, reading, and writing, were down from last year. The scores of white students, by contrast, were up. So we have a widening racial achievement gap in SAT scores. It's also clear that woefully few high school seniors are actually ready for college-level academic work. This report offers lots of other data, too, including score breakdowns by gender, family income, English language skills, and high school GPAs. The College Board also provides state reports, but in only 21 states plus the District of Columbia do 50 percent or more of the kids take this test. You can find it all here.
Stafford Palmieri / August 28, 2008
This report wants to know how many students would benefit from increased public-school choice, especially the kind that involves crossing the border between districts. Not too many, it finds. School capacity and driving distances limit options, even when students are permitted to cross district lines. The report also notes that, despite 46 states having some type of open-enrollment law, and 42 with inter-district choice, 80 to 90 percent of students in low-performing schools remain in them. Author Erin Dillon used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping technology to discover high-performing schools within a 20-minute driving radius of a low-performing school. She assumed that the high-performing "receiving schools" could increase their capacity by 10 percent to accommodate transferring students. These limiting assumptions--20 minutes and 10 percent capacity--have been criticized as too conservative but Dillon herself explains that once travel time is expanded beyond 20 minutes, increased access and subsequent competition for spots in receiving schools negates any benefit. More interesting is how Dillon identifies her low- and high-performing schools. She rates them on a 1 to 5 scale, but labels them "high" and "low" performing based on how they compare to their neighboring schools, rather than on their absolute scores. To be labeled high-performing, a school has to be 2 quintiles above its low-performing counterpart; in other words, a school that by absolute standards is mediocre could be termed high-performing in Dillon's study. Seems reasonable. The overall