Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 9
February 28, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
The opacity of hope
What a difference a mile makes
I'm thinking of a number...
Teachers gone wild
This week, Mike and Rick talk Common Core, student pranks, and two schools--so close, yet so far. "Unemployed" school bus drivers are the Education Outrage of the Week, and Education News of the Weird does not compute.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / February 28, 2008
Yes, I've learned plenty in the 57 years since I entered 1st grade in Dayton, Ohio's Fairview Elementary School, and the four decades since I taught social studies at Newton High School in Massachusetts. Let me share a dozen of the most profound lessons.
- Great, committed teacher/adviser/mentors, high standards, a focused curriculum, a culture of achievement, and plenty of hard work by students well aware that real consequences attach to their performance--what more does a successful school need? Yes, I'm talking about the Knowledge Is Power Program and Amistad, the Academy of the Pacific Rim and Stuyvesant, and others of today's super-schools. But I'm also talking about the Catholic schools of the 1960s and my own time at Phillips Exeter Academy, where by senior year I was awakening at 3 a.m. to study. It paid off, for me and lots of others. (I was able to skip my freshman year at Harvard.) But it was sink or swim--and those who treaded water were sometimes invited not to return for the next semester.
- People are good at different things--and plenty of human traits matter besides academics. At the Colorado Outward Bound School in 1962, those who excelled had physical prowess, street (and mountain) smarts, stamina, and the ability to forge and lead a group. Integrity and impulse-control mattered, too, I deduced, when my tent-mate, a youthful auto thief sent to Outward Bound by a Denver judge, ate our four-day food
February 28, 2008
Common Core, an organization devoted to bringing content-rich instruction to U.S. classrooms, was born this week. Susan Jacoby's new book, The Age of American Unreason, was born two weeks earlier. It seemed fitting to welcome the former by reading and reviewing the latter.
The Age of American Unreason shares much with Common Core, notably the belief that all students should receive a variegated education that exposes them not only to science and math but also to music, literature, history and the arts. This is, however, but one of Jacoby's arguments; the others are multiple and diffuse. She begins her first chapter, for example, by bemoaning the "plague" of the word "folks."
"Only a few decades ago," Jacoby writes, "Americans were addressed as people or, in the more distant past, ladies and gentlemen." But now, she tells us, "folks" predominates--an indication of just how debased American speech has become. From "folks" (which reinforces anti-intellectualism, says she) Jacoby moves on to "troops" (which reinforces the public's thinking about war casualties in "a more abstract way") and ends up with Don Imus's infamous remarks about the Rutgers female basketball team.
Jacoby then lists several different slurs and writes, "The awful reality is that all of these epithets, often accompanied by the F-word, are the common currency of public and private speech in today's America." They are? Where's the evidence? The claim doesn't ring true among people I know.
This is the
February 28, 2008
We stand corrected. Last week, Gadfly posited that perhaps Barack Obama has an open mind when it comes to school choice. After all, he did tell the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about that city's voucher program, "If there was any argument for vouchers, it was ‘Alright, let's see if this experiment works' and if it does, then whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids." That sentence seems to suggest--actually, it seems to state unequivocally--that if vouchers are shown to help learning, the senator from Illinois would support them. Wrong. His campaign, undoubtedly ruffled that they may lose favor with a certain as-yet-uncommitted-to-any-presidential-candidate teachers' union, sent Education Week a clarifying statement. Obama's words were apparently taken "out of context"; the senator has always opposed vouchers and still does, his campaign says. Words taken out of context? Baloney. One of two things is going on here: Either Obama, in his bid to win Wisconsin, decided to lie to the Journal Sentinel and pretend to support proven-effective voucher programs, or he is actually open-minded but being censored by his campaign. Either way, it's a giant disappointment.
"Obama and Vouchers," New York Sun, February 27, 2008
February 28, 2008
Broad Acres and Adelphi elementary schools are neighbors serving an impoverished corner of the Washington, D.C. suburbs that is home to thousands of recent immigrants. But because the first school sits within the affluent and well-regarded Montgomery County district, and the second resides in Prince George's County, an urbanized district with the typical challenges that label implies, their realities and resources couldn't be more different. Montgomery County has lavished all sorts of love on Broad Acres--a longer school year, smaller class sizes, full-day kindergarten, an army of ESOL experts, and more. It helps that the school receives $1,750 in federal Title I funds for every student; Adelphi gets only one-third as much. Moreover, Prince George's principals are tied down by one of the most restrictive teacher contracts in the country, while Montgomery boasts one of the better collective bargaining agreements. School-by-school reform efforts are great, but what's the takeaway from this story? It's the system, stupid. It's time we tackled antiquated funding systems, outmoded collective bargaining agreements, and all other manner of red tape that impede schools from success.
"Nearby Schools, Worlds Apart," by Daniel de Vise, Washington Post, February 26, 2008
"Some Teachers' Contracts Bind Reforms, Study Says," by Nelson Hernandez, Washington Post, February 25, 2008
February 28, 2008
Everybody knows Detroit has a dropout problem. But no one, it seems, can say exactly how bad it is. According to a new study by the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, just 31.9 percent of Detroit students graduate in four years. MSU researchers arrived at this figure using the so-called "cohort method," mandated by No Child Left Behind, which compares the number of high-school freshmen in a given year to the number of seniors four years later. This approach has its shortcomings; while it discounts the number of students who moved to charter schools or other districts, it does not track those who transferred to private schools or left Michigan altogether (this in a city that has lost about 4 percent of its population since 2000). Still, one suspects that the MSU researchers are nearer to the truth than the state, which guesstimates that 66.8 percent of Detroit youngsters finish all four years of high school. That's a whopping 35 percentage points higher than MSU's figure. Didn't Michigan sign on to the National Governors Association's "Graduation Compact" to improve and standardize graduation data? Whatever happened to that, anyway?
"Detroit schools grad rate: 32%" by Karen Bouffard, Detroit News, February 25, 2008
February 28, 2008
A recent study finds that one-third of American teenagers regularly post offensive language or manipulated images on the web, and over 25 percent of these online pranks target teachers and principals. Such hi-jinks are not always a laughing matter. Pupils can do irreparable damage when they falsely accuse their teachers of abuse, for example, so many educators are protecting themselves by taking kids to court. But is calling a lawyer the answer? Contemplate the so-called "Teacher Sux" example in Pennsylvania, in which a high school student posted on a website derogatory comments about a teacher ("she shows off her fat...legs"). The lawsuit claimed that the teacher, after viewing the online material, felt unable "to go out of the house and mingle with crowds." Insult-induced agoraphobia? A bit much, perhaps? Our schools do not need ever more lawyers and lawsuits to descend upon them. Most cases of the "cyber-bullying" of teachers should be handled by school administrators, in a common-sense manner, not in court.
"Teachers strike back at students' online pranks," by Patrik Jonsson, Christian Science Monitor, February 25, 2008
Coby Loup / February 28, 2008
Frederick M. Hess
A conversation that Susan Jacoby (see above) overheard at a bar on September 11, 2001, spurred her to write The Age of American Unreason: "‘This is just like Pearl Harbor," one of the men said. The other asked, ‘What is Pearl Harbor?' ‘That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,' the first man replied." Still at Risk, the maiden publication from Common Core (the executive director of which, Lynne Munson, recently spoke with Jacoby on NPR), seeks to shock and awe us with similar tales of Americans' ignorance of their own history and culture. CC tested 1,200 seventeen-year-olds' knowledge of such crucial topics as the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, Hitler and World War II, the Bible, and Orwell's 1984. Here's what it found: 43 percent knew the Civil War took place between 1850 and 1900; 67 percent knew the Bill of Rights guaranteed the freedoms of speech and religion; 77 percent knew Hitler was Chancellor of Germany during World War II; 50 percent knew that Job is best known for his patience and suffering; and 52 percent knew the central plot of Orwell's famous dystopian novel. That's a sampling of the most egregious examples, but there are plenty more. Of course, these kinds of surveys have sprung up before, so it's worth asking here why we care about the findings.