Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 8
February 21, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
Teachers' union psychology 101
By Mike Antonucci
Cross the unions: Yes he can?
Partial Win for Sunshine State
Three cheers for dead, white men
Closing the Expectations Gap 2008
By Coby Loup
This week, Mike and Rick discuss Barack Obama's comments on vouchers, the battle between charter schools and Catholic schools, and whether Fordham's new report is really "laughably reactionary." Jeff Kuhner serves up an Education Outrage of the Week, and Education News of the Weird sacrifices for fashion.
Mike Antonucci / February 21, 2008
Fordham's latest report, The Leadership Limbo, is a valuable resource. It's inevitable, though, that I approach this issue from a somewhat different angle, considering what I do: focus on and cover the inner workings of the teachers' unions. I believe that to fully understand the collective-bargaining contracts that rule district-level operations, one must first understand those who implement them and the unions that help to create them.
A spate of studies have examined collective bargaining, and they all focus on the realities of running and managing a school district or school in the face of union demands and requirements. What is missing, in The Leadership Limbo and elsewhere, is any examination--hell, any mention--of the realities of running a teachers' union.
The reason teachers' unions love the traditional salary scale, for example, is not some blind devotion to their industrial union roots. It's because that's the only system that keeps member squawking to a minimum and assures the prime internal imperative: That the union be the sole source of teacher advancement, benefit, and protection. If you receive a raise or promotion based on your own performance, why do you need a union? If a math teacher in a low-income school can receive more money than a kindergarten teacher in a wealthy suburban school, the math teacher doesn't need the union (he's making more money based on his performance) and the kindergarten teacher doesn't need the union (he hasn't seen an extra dime).
February 21, 2008
It is not per se wrong to enjoy watching movie star Scarlett Johansson sing breathily about change in America. Millions have, in fact. They've logged on to YouTube and viewed the "Yes We Can" video, in which a divided screen shows Barack Obama on one side, giving a campaign speech while, on the other, actors and musicians sing the words the Illinois senator speaks.
The whole thing is all very uplifting and nice but it undeniably falls into the "fluff" category in which more than a few pundits are beginning to classify Obama's talks. David Brooks writes in his New York Times column, "If that video doesn't creep out normal working-class voters, then nothing will." Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, notes, "It is not ‘the politics of fear' to remind Obama's legions of the blissful that, while they are watching Scarlett Johansson sway to the beat ... people are making plans to blow them to bits. (Yes, they can.)"
Obama is on a ten-state primary contest winning streak. Now the press wonders: Where's the beef?
Here's some. Obama was asked last week by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel what he thinks about the city's high-visibility school-choice programs, including its voucher system. "I think we should foster competition within the public school system with charters and anything that works we should try to scale up and replicate," he said. Another
February 21, 2008
Florida's State Board of Education this week approved newly revised science standards after a long process that, in its final stages, turned contentious over the subject of evolution, a recurrent problem topic for Florida as for several other states. The 4-3 vote enshrined evolution in the Sunshine State's curriculum. But as part of a last-minute compromise made to mollify Darwin's detractors, the wording of the standards was changed to specifically present evolution as a "scientific theory." Board member Kathleen Shanahan said, "Do I believe the theory of evolution? Absolutely. But I believe there's more to explore." The new wording will, presumably, allow such exploration to take place. We're uneasy about that possibility. Students need to be taught science in science class, not encouraged to conjure up their own theories about the origin and development of species. Evolution enjoys unanimous support among serious scientists and should receive similar support in school curricula.
"Evolution joins curriculum," by Ron Matus, St. Petersburg Times, February 20, 2008
February 21, 2008
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee seems to understand the "fierce urgency of now." The third part of PBS education correspondent John Merrow's fine ongoing series of reports on Rhee's efforts to turn around the D.C. school system depicts a tough-minded leader, unflagging in her commitment to produce real change. Confronted with stale but loud rhetoric from union leaders and District council members, Rhee listens attentively and responds politely (but firmly) that she will not back down from her plans to close 23 schools and cut dead weight from the city's bloated and profoundly ineffectual central offices. So far, no one has called for her head, though one observer interviewed for the segment thinks that "storm clouds are gathering." But there are signs that the storm will blow over. The once-indomitable Marion Barry saw his recent protest over school closings sputter out when no one attended it. And the city council voted overwhelmingly (10-3) to allow Rhee to thin the central office staff. The seas of D.C. politics are rough, but so far Rhee has steered a steady course. She's apparently in it for the long haul, too. The Washingtonian reports that she just bought a sizable house in the District.
"In Battle to Revamp D.C. Schools, Education Leader Faces Resistance," by John Merrow, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, February 7, 2008
February 21, 2008
Dead, white male authors are much maligned but not forgotten. Thousands of educators continue to teach F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, for example, despite repeated salvos from the forces of political correctness. Sara Rimer reports in the New York Times that high school and college teachers, as well as students, still identify with the book's main characters and its themes of aspiration and striving. Rimer notes that the story resonates especially with urban adolescents from first- and second-generation immigrant families. Jamaicans, Dominicans, Chinese, and Vietnamese students--all are enriched by The Great Gatsby's universality, belying goofy multiculturalist notions that "ethnic" kids should read works by authors of their same background. This not only deprives students of the vast richness of Western literature; it also leads to cultural balkanization. Bill Kristol reinforces the point in his latest New York Times column, in which he writes that the English poet Rudyard Kipling, for all his flaws, elucidated timeless truths about the nature of power. What is important about the works of Fitzgerald and Kipling, among many others, is not their author's race or gender or personality, but their ability to capture human truths that speak to readers generation after generation.
"Gatsby's Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers," by Sara Rimer, New York Times, February 17, 2008
"Democrats Should Read Kipling," by William Kristol, New York Times, February 18, 2008
February 21, 2008
We learn from Britain that requiring those whose fluency in a foreign language is being tested actually to speak in that language is "too stressful." This week, the U.K.'s Qualifications and Curriculum Authority abolished oral examinations for students taking foreign-language GCSE examinations. Schools minister Jim Knight calls the traditional testing method, which asks students simply to converse with their teachers for about ten minutes, "unrepresentative" and a "one-off way of testing a student's ability." Instead, teachers will grade students' speaking abilities by evaluating their classroom contributions during the course of several months, thereby reducing the anxiety of 16-year-olds. Forget that fluency means being able to speak and comprehend a language in any circumstance, even a somewhat stressful one. When Gadfly goes out on dates with fetching females, when he is attempting, for the seventh time in three minutes, to pass through the TSA metal detector, when he has set his clothing on fire--he does not suddenly begin communicating in an unintelligible way! One can either speak a language fluently or one cannot. Rather than abolish the 10-minute oral exam, the Brits ought to make students complete it while balancing on one foot and juggling.
"Never say Latin in the quango tango," by Oliver Pritchett, Daily Telegraph, February 20, 2008
"Oral tests to be dropped from language exams," by Matthew Taylor, The Guardian, February 18, 2008
Coby Loup / February 21, 2008
As with last year's edition of this report, the progress that states have made toward "aligning high school policies with the demands of college and careers" is slow and ambiguous. Achieve reports that eight more states have aligned their high school standards with postsecondary expectations (19 total); six more have enacted college- and career-ready graduation requirements (29 total though only nine administer a corresponding test); and three more have implemented P-20 longitudinal data systems (eight total). The numbers show that Achieve's American Diploma Project still has a lot of state policymakers to win over. To Achieve's credit, they've attached dates to a number of items so that states can be monitored as to whether the "commitments" they're making are real. But sometimes it's hard to believe that even actual accomplishments are real. For instance, Achieve counts Texas as one of the states that administers a college-readiness test to high school students. Yet recent news from Texas indicates that its exit exam is a joke: only 20 percent of students who fail the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills are actually prevented from graduating. Consider, too, that, according to the report, 11 of the 19 states that "require" students to enroll in a college- and career-ready curriculum allow them to opt out if their parents sign a waiver. The sturdy wall you see going up in the executive summary weakens a bit as one reads deeper.