Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 48
December 18, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
A 'third way' for Arne Duncan?
A holy plea
No money, no standards?
Fourth and long
'Tis the season
On Tuesday, President-Elect Obama ended weeks of speculation by selecting Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan to be his secretary of education. The conventional wisdom is that Duncan is a "consensus" pick, bridging the Democratic Party's major divide on education.
The camps on either side of this divide have been described, variously, as the establishment versus the reformers, incrementalists versus disrupters, or, by some, the true progressives versus closet Republicans. Let us add another pairing: the System Defenders versus the Army of the Potomac.
System Defenders--including the teacher unions, other traditional education groups, and their friends on Capitol Hill--believe that the public school system is basically sound but needs additional resources to be more effective. Their view of the federal role resembles the pre-NCLB version with scads of programs and complexities--albeit a lot more money and a lot less accountability.
Meanwhile, members of the Army of the Potomac--including civil rights groups such as Education Trust, "New Dem" bastions such as Education Sector and the Progressive Policy Institute, and putatively bipartisan initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Commission--hold generally sound instincts about reform. They see unions and school boards as barriers to achievement and equity gains; they favor holding schools to account for results; they would reward success; and (up to a point) empower parents. Their Achilles heel is a near-boundless faith in Washington's ability to accomplish these and more whopping improvements in K-12 education. They
December 18, 2008
Shame on the Washington Post. A recent barrage of charter school coverage by said paper, including a front page story brazenly entitled "Public Role, Private Gain," has wrongly raked a civic minded business man over the metaphoric coals. He's Thomas A. Nida, chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board, the primary authorizer of charter schools in DC, and an employee of United Bank. The problem, alleges the Post, which these days seems to prefer muckraking and scandal mongering to accuracy or fairness, is that United Bank makes loans to DC charters and Nida's yearly bonus is partly derived from the loans he generates. This may be true, but without Nida there would be no loans at all--and that's something worth considering. Before he stepped in, banks typically thought charters--especially loans for their facilities--were too risky. Thanks to Nida, DC charters have an advocate who can explain in bankers' lingo that charters are a worthwhile investment. Given the number of states where it is virtually impossible to win such a loan--and the number of charter schools unborn or handicapped as a result--this is an important role to play. (Let us tell you about Ohio sometime!) While it's always good to watch for conflicts of interest, which may or may not exist in Nida's case, sometimes these are trumped by the public benefit of, in this case, an honorable and hard-working fellow who has done great good for D.C.'s
December 18, 2008
As the year of Catholic schools draws to a close, Rev. Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, weighs in on the challenges facing inner-city Catholic schools. His take is noteworthy because only last year he shocked the Catholic community by announcing that seven D.C. parochial schools would be converted to charters. The case he makes in this article is that in D.C., Pittsburgh, and other cities where he's served, he has tried to save as many Catholic schools as possible. But it's a losing battle so long as costs far outstrip what poor families can pay. Ultimately, concludes Wuerl, "The Catholic Church cannot be expected--out of the free-will offerings of the faithful and other donors--to continue to provide such a wide-serving system of successful schools all by itself." He calls for "partnerships" with the business community and the public--in other words, privately or publicly funded scholarship programs. We, too, support these sorts of "partnerships," but we're not quite ready to absolve the Church's leadership of its responsibility here. If Catholics don't stand up for Catholic schools, no one else will either.
"How to Save Catholic Schools," by Donald W. Wuerl, America, December 22, 2008
December 18, 2008
Here's an original (and fallacious) thought: when times get rough, absolve children of the need to learn math. That, at least, is the story coming out of Oregon, where budget woes have allegedly forced the state to drop its brand-new graduation requirements in algebra, geometry, and statistics. Set only six months ago, the new bar would turn the already existing high school state math test into a graduation requirement for this year's crop of 9th graders. But since more than half of sophomores typically fail the exam on the first try, the state board of education felt it would be too daunting a challenge to ramp up student performance in time to require total math literacy by 2012. We can't help but wonder if this is a lawsuit-avoidance strategy, as some courts have looked askance at states that set tough graduation expectations but don't provide all manner of extra help to struggling students. Or maybe the economy is just an easy excuse for policymakers to take the easy way out. You know what they say: when the going gets tough, the tough... run in the other direction?
"Oregon to delay math requirement for graduation," by Betsy Hammond, The Oregonian, December 12, 2008
December 18, 2008
Here's a hypothetical that's sure to alarm a San Diego Chargers fan: What if Ryan Leaf had been granted tenure? For those who aren't in the pigskin-know, quarterback Leaf was second pick in the 1998 NFL draft, meaning that he was the crème de la crème of college football players; yet two years later, with a pitiful 15 touchdowns to his name, the Chargers dropped him like a bad habit. The point? It's nigh impossible to tell if a college QB--or, to make Malcolm Gladwell's analogy, a teacher candidate--will make it in the pros. "The school system has a quarterback problem" explains Gladwell, acclaimed New Yorker writer and, most recently, author of Outliers. He's mostly right; we have few tools to tell in advance whether a teacher candidate will prove an effective educator. (Though a brand-new study just added a few tools to our toolbox.) The best teachers, like the best QBs, have a certain je ne sais quoi that can't be measured by paper credentials, examination scores, and past non-teaching achievements. Gladwell's solution is four-fold. First, open the (classroom) door to "anyone with a pulse and a college degree." Then, evaluate teachers only "after they have started their jobs, not before." To attract and keep those that pass muster, up-end the salary structure so that apprentice teachers are paid apprentice salaries and master teachers master salaries. And fourth, dissolve the automatic bestowing of tenure that
December 18, 2008
A substitute teacher in Britain has landed on Santa's naughty list this year. Annoyed by her youngsters' rowdy excitement over the fat man's impending arrival, the teacher blurted out to the class: "It's your parents who leave presents on Christmas Day!" Imagine the instant transformation: pure glee to pitiful heartbreak. While it's true that most tikes treat substitute teachers with less than proper deference, this particular "supply teacher" (as the Brits call ‘em) deserves a swift boot down the chimney. The class of seven-year-olds "burst into tears." Come on, scroogy supply, you should know better! Not surprisingly, fuming parents weren't satisfied with a bag of coal; the school has promised not to hire the substitute again. But thankfully, this Christmas story has a happy ending. To salvage the innocence of his sobbing progeny, one parent (Santa's helper no doubt) had a brilliant idea. "We told him that she [the teacher] did not believe in Father Christmas because of her religion and he's fine now." Let's hope this teacher learned her lesson.
"Primary school teacher who told children: ‘Santa does not exist' is fired," Daily Mail Reporter, December 11, 2008
December 18, 2008
Amanda Datnow, Vicki Park, Brianna Kennedy
Center on Educational Governance
USC Rossier School of Education (commissioned by New Schools Venture Fund)
This study examines the use of data in four high schools, two of them mid-sized district schools and two small charters (all serving poor children), focusing on its use in the classroom and as a tool for teachers. Through interviews and observation, the authors describe how these schools use data to set goals, implement "user-friendly" data systems, align their curriculum and assessment systems, and share information. At one school, for example, an "information platform" provides data not only to teachers and school leaders but to parents as well (although only about their own children). This same school has a second data system, which acts as a "bridge training program" to help students "plan for post secondary options." It includes an individualized electronic portfolio for each student that is monitored by a guidance counselor and can be accessed by school staff. The report also gives brief attention to the use of data for management purposes, namely, how to run schools effectively (as Rick Hess and Jon Fullerton urge in A Byte at the Apple). For data systems really to succeed, the authors argue, a school must create a common "culture" of data use; since culture can vary not only from school to school but also from department to department, it's an acute problem in most high schools. Unfortunately, the
Teacher Turnover, Tenure Policies, and the Distribution of Teacher Quality: Can High-Poverty Schools Catch a Break?
December 18, 2008
This comprehensive report neatly summarizes what we know about teacher effectiveness, turnover, distribution, and tenure--and their relation to the overrepresentation of low quality teachers in high poverty schools. Miller and Chait start off by examining the concept of teacher quality, arguing that traditional qualifications and licensure matter far less than value-added measures and experience. While allowing that value-added measures aren't perfect, they note that these are "at least as good as subjective ratings made by principals, at least where the very most effective and very least effective teachers are concerned." A noteworthy point, considering that it's often this same principal subjectivity that tenure advocates cite as justifying tenure in the first place. Next up is teacher turnover. Miller and Chait build the case that not only are high-quality teachers distributed unevenly thanks to poor working conditions, HR practices, and personal preferences, but that teacher turnover patterns exacerbate the disparity. "Effectiveness breeds contentment," they say, i.e. effective teachers are more likely to stay put. But high-poverty schools often have fewer effective teachers to begin with, and the good ones often leave quickly for better schools or other lines of work. Why? In this realm, opposites do not attract. Good teachers want to work alongside other good teachers, and teachers generally seek schools where they share "an ethnic or cultural affinity." Thus, "a vicious cycle" is born wherein bad schools attract fewer effective teachers and then lose them to better schools, making
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / December 18, 2008
George Noell, Bethany Porter, R. Maria Patt, and Amanda Dahir
Louisiana State University
This first-rate value-added study helps to fill a gaping hole in teacher quality research, namely, what impact do teacher prep programs (TPP) have on student achievement? The study, commissioned by the Louisiana Board of Regents, examined seven such in Louisiana (the only ones to have met the study criteria, which included having at least 25 graduates, either in their first or second years of teaching). These included five university-based programs and two private providers. Researchers looked at state test achievement data from 2004-2007 for students from 70 districts in grades 4-9. After linking student and teacher data and drawing a comparison group of experienced teachers (who had similar class compositions) to new TPP teachers, the researchers analyzed the data through a rigorous statistical model (hierarchical linear modeling, which acknowledges that students are "nested" in classrooms and classrooms "nested" in schools). The results, which controlled for students' prior achievement and demographics, showed that one alternative provider, the New Teacher Project (TNTP), and two university-based programs, University of Louisiana at Monroe and Northwestern State University, demonstrated consistent positive results for students across four core content areas (math, reading, language arts, and science). The New Teacher Project, in fact, did especially well preparing math teachers; TNTP math teachers outperformed more experienced teachers in this subject area by higher (though not statistically significant) margins. Part of a series on teacher