Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 7
February 14, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
The Leadership Limbo
Entering unchartered waters
Taking tests too far
Insecticide in our schools
Improving Teaching Through Pay for Contribution
All-Bran or Pop-Tart?
This week, Mike and Rick chat about bad teachers who are really good, keeping kids out of school to save tax dollars, and giving away L.A.'s middle and high schools. Education Outrage of the Week wonders, "Where's Petraeus?," and Education News of the Weird chirps in the evenings.
It's no real surprise that, after years of lurking menacingly in the shadows, The Contract has emerged into the spotlight, indeed has leaped to the top of the education policy agenda. Sooner or later, the purveyors of any number of flavors of school reform were bound to see their prospects entangled with teachers' collective bargaining agreements.
Consider the standards-and-accountability movement. In its early days, reformers focused on setting clear expectations for what students should learn, developing reliable measures of whether they were learning it, and spouting vague talk about holding "schools" accountable. Eventually, though, they came up against the plain reality that one can't really hold institutions accountable (especially when they're not legally distinct entities); one holds people accountable. And if those people are to include teachers, their union contracts are an unavoidable issue.
So too with the school choice movement. (Those disappointed by the weak response of school districts to vouchers and charter schools eventually blame union contracts.) The "teacher quality" movement. (How to transfer great teachers to poor schools if the contract works against it?) Or those, like us, who want to see stronger school leadership and effective management. Each has collided in some sense with collective bargaining agreements (and, in non-collective bargaining states, the formal board policies that substitute for such agreements).
So, all roads lead to Rome, and all reforms lead eventually to The Contract. Hence it's no wonder that the past few
Michael J. Petrilli / February 14, 2008
After his victories in this week's Potomac Primary, Senator John McCain is predicted to have greater than a 90 percent chance of sealing the GOP presidential nomination, according to the Iowa Electronic Markets. Assuming those predictions hold true, it's not crazy to ask what might come next for his one remaining serious challenger, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
Some people think McCain should offer the Baptist minister a spot on the ticket as a way to garner support from the party's religious conservatives. But picking an economic populist would demoralize fiscally-conservative Republicans. The Arizona senator may very well want a youngish domestic-policy guru with executive experience, but there are several other GOP governors to choose among.
A cabinet position is a much better fit for the guitar-playing preacher. And no address is more appropriate than 400 Maryland Avenue, home to the U.S. Department of Education.
Some Huckabee supporters might scoff; surely a plausible presidential contender deserves a higher office than one currently filled by Margaret Spellings, a policy wonk and former staffer. But look at the big picture. Some of the nation's most respected education secretaries--Republican Lamar Alexander and Democrat Richard Riley--also made their names as effective Southern governors. And consider the example of another great education secretary, William J. Bennett.
There are some striking similarities to the McCain Moment. Bennett served President Ronald Reagan, a
February 14, 2008
Is the charter movement--which has sputtered along, making steady but slow progress--finally ready to kick it into high gear? Signs in New York point to yes, say USA Today's Richard Whitmire and Eduwonk Andy Rotherham. In the latest Education Week, they write about how three top-performing Big Apple charter operators (KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools) have banded together to practice and promulgate successful methods of teaching and running schools. (Real "coopetition.") The schools don't compete for resources, or hoard their best practices. Instead, they work with each other in order to strengthen the whole group. And these organizations aren't just changing the way schools are run; they're altering personnel pipelines as well. A new program at Hunter College's ed school, under the capable leadership of Dean David Steiner, has founders of successful charter schools act as instructors (more here) for other charter-school- teachers to be. Scaling up such ambitious efforts is challenging, but KIPP and similar programs, like Teach For America, have shown that it can be done. If the "New York effect" catches on, the charter movement might just catch fire.
"A Defining Moment for Charter Schools?" by Richard Whitmire and Andrew J. Rotherham, Education Week, February 11, 2008
February 14, 2008
Before Sol Stern's City Journal article pitting "instructionists" against "incentivists," there was Ted Kolderie et al's white paper contrasting "innovation with school and schooling" with "system reform." The gist of both: neither the accountability movement nor school choice will ever deliver all the goods in education. But while Stern wants a return to traditional schooling, Kolderie's Education/Evolving crew seeks something rather different. "Changes in the economy are creating a need for skills and knowledge different from those sought by conventional school," they write. "We need to develop different models of schools." Perhaps--but haven't we been experimenting with new models of schools for decades? And haven't most of them faltered because they couldn't demonstrate that they helped students learn? Kolderie is right to promote education's "open sector" through stronger charter school laws. But he's not willing to accept that taxpayer dollars should go only to those schools that succeed against clear, measurable standards for what students should know and be able to do. This means messy fights between the "coverage" crowd and the "critical thinking" claque, but such is the price of public support. If that's too limiting, Kolderie can always make his pitch for innovation to the private school world, which is the original open sector. Good luck with that.
"The Other Half of the Strategy: Following up on System Reform By Innovating with School and Schooling," Education/Evolving, January 2008
February 14, 2008
A statewide task force in Maryland recommends requiring youngsters to stay in school until the age of 18 (today's pupils can leave legally at 16). This move, promises the task force, will keep more Old Line State students from dropping out, which may or may not be true. What's jarring is that the report's recommendations are being attacked not because of their validity or soundness, but because of their potential price-tag. According to the Baltimore Sun, "Baltimore lawmakers have been pushing the change for four years, but it didn't get to a vote in the General Assembly because of concerns over what it would cost." Maryland factors dropout estimates into the amount it budgets for education; hence decreasing dropouts means increasing costs, and apparently that doesn't sell in Annapolis. What a joke! Tax-paying Marylanders should take note: Their state is opposed to keeping kids in school because, well, it's more expensive than letting them hit the streets. Sheesh.
"Dropout Rate Targeted," Baltimore Sun, Ruma Kumar, February 11, 2008
February 14, 2008
High-stakes tests are useful in a lot of ways. This isn't one of them. According to the Palm Beach Post, several of Florida's previously fired teachers are being reinstated after an appellate court found that their students' test scores were not factored into the dismissals. A state law requires that student performance be part of any teacher evaluation. Legislators say that the law's intent is not to stop administrators from firing instructors they judge to be lousy, but to empower them to remove teachers who aren't delivering strong achievement results. Nevertheless, Bruce Belzer, a former second-grade teacher who was dismissed in 2005 for poor classroom performance, was recently rehired and given $168,000 in back pay because his students' test scores were decent. Consider: If a fourth-grade math instructor is unhinged, if his class is a wreck and rife with discipline problems, if observation has shown him to be irresponsible and irrepressible, then he should be let go. Principals must have autonomy in their schools, and one standardized test shouldn't trump their human-resources judgment. And to be fair, neither should a teacher be fired just because of lousy test score results. Student achievement data should be one factor in a teacher's evaluation--but not the only factor.
"FCAT tosses teachers lifeline," by Christina DeNardo, Palm Beach Post, February 11, 2008
February 14, 2008
Gadfly was repulsed, horrified, stunned to learn that several of his cousins, crickets to be precise, were recently consumed by a Florida middle-school principal in celebration/lamentation of his students' academic success. Bob Vicari promised pupils at Seminole's Osceola Middle School that were they to increase their numbers on the principal's list, honor role, and all-star behavior team, he would theatrically ingest live crickets (12.9 grams of protein per) in the school cafeteria. They did, and so did he. "He is such a proactive, kid-oriented principal," said sixth-grade administrator Susan Alvaro. "He'll do anything for the kids." Gadfly's disgust is tempered only by the fact that Vicari's stunt appears to have worked; Osceola's principal's list and honor roll numbers reached record highs this year, in no small part because of 12-year-olds eager to inflict pain upon authority. If youthful rebellion can be harnessed for positive purposes, such as studying harder, so much the better. But Vicari--why crickets? Dining on spiders is a fine middle-school motivator, and most of those eight-legged demons deserve to be eaten!
"Principal eats a bug lunch," by Thomas C. Tobin, St. Petersburg Times, February 7, 2008
Eric Osberg / February 14, 2008
Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel
NGA Center for Best Practices
This short paper from the National Governors Association is an indispensable primer on the merits of "pay for contribution" among teachers, of which there are many forms: additional pay for performance, for working "hard to staff" schools, for meeting "skill shortages," and more. The paper makes an especially useful contribution to the (occasionally heated) debates over these reforms by invoking data from other sectors, some of which have found bonuses to be more effective than salary increases in improving staff performance. It also reminds readers that there is very little evidence (except in high school math) linking teachers' advanced degrees to student performance. In fact, there is little evidence at all to suggest that current pay structures, which prize such degrees, bear any relation to what works best for students. As much as 97 percent of teacher performance appears to be explained by factors other than "degrees, certification, or experience"--virtually the only factors that determine pay in many schools today. Finally, the Hassels rightly point out that there is tremendous public support for offering better teachers better pay (up to 80 percent of those surveyed support it), but teachers' unions are often able to cow politicians into ignoring that widespread sentiment. One hopes the nation's governors will read this report carefully and follow the lead of (and perhaps improve upon) their pioneering peers
Coby Loup / February 14, 2008
Edited by Frederick M. Hess
Harvard Education Press
Frederick M. Hess's latest collection is what you might call an All-Bran book: it doesn't deliver the sugar-frosted goodness of, say, his 2006 volume Education Entrepreneurship, but if you just open up and spoon it down, When Research Matters will prove darn good for you. The book asks several important but neglected questions about how education research translates into policy. Or doesn't. To show the potential hazards of this process, Hess recalls in his introduction the famous Project STAR experiment, which found that class-size affects academic outcomes in a few, special circumstances--but has resulted in billions of dollars wasted on bulky class-size reduction programs that ignore the subtleties and caveats of the original research. The essays that follow examine, for example, the history of research influencing public policy, No Child Left Behind's push for "scientifically based research" (co-written by Fordham's own Michael Petrilli), research and the reading wars, research and the courts, and the incentives that drive education research. Most authors are skeptical about the current state of education research. Dan Goldhaber and Dominic J. Brewer point out, for instance, how "poor studies with results that fit a popular ideological perspective or serve stakeholder interests often dominate," especially in a sphere where government monopolies prevail. And quality research, notes William G. Howell in his chapter on public opinion, often fails to resonate with