Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 6
February 7, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
Much ado about not much
This week, Mike and Rick chat about Britain; Washington, D.C.; and the president's new budget. We introduce a new segment: Jeff Kuhner's Education Outrage (he's mad!), and Education News of the Weird is hooked on phonics.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / February 7, 2008
It's gratifying to publish one's memoirs but also a little scary. People keep asking if this is the end. Am I retiring? Dying, maybe? Will there be anything more?
Let me hasten to assure (or, in some cases, dismay) you by dismissing all such allegations. I'm not quitting or even hunkering down--though I'm spending a bit more time with my two little granddaughters and a bit less at the office, much to the relief of Fordham's fantastic team. But some people publish more than one volume of memoirs--and since baby Alexandra arrived after the book and its dedication were put to bed, I might just need to do a second volume for her sake.
The challenge of this book was intertwining what was happening in American education over the past half century with my own occasional Zelig-like appearances on the policy scene and with the education-related parts of what was happening in my life and family during the same period. Readers and reviewers will decide how well I pulled this off.
For now, let me be a little self-indulgent and extract four short passages from the book that, I hope, convey some of its flavor and a few of the lessons I've learned.
The summer I graduated from Exeter, I went through the brand-new Colorado Outward Bound School, high in the Rocky Mountains. For most of the summer, I worked as a counselor at the Dayton YMCA day camp and mowed
February 7, 2008
President George W. Bush released his 2009 budget on Monday, and Gadfly is struggling to summon the energy to care. By the time Congress acts on these proposals, it will probably be December and the President will be the lamest duck since Daffy. Said differently, this budget is dead on arrival. Which is a shame, because it's actually a decent statement of Uncle Sam's proper priorities. Included are Bush's "Pell Grants for Kids," a beefed-up teacher incentive fund, and restored funding for Reading First (one of only five "effective" Department of Education programs). Gone are the days when Republicans tried to out-bid Democrats on education spending--always a losing proposition. The education groups are howling about "level funding" for education overall but c'mon--it's an election year. Do you really expect school funding not to get a hefty increase?
"Bush Budget Proposes Level Funding of Education Dept.," by Alyson Klein, Education Week, February 4, 2008
February 7, 2008
Washington, D.C., council member Marion Barry just doesn't get it. The District, under the capable stewardship of young leaders such as Mayor Adrian Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, is rejecting the wasted potential of its past for the promise of the future. But Barry remains clueless, which is why he led protests--that nobody attended--against Rhee's plan to shutter 23 under-enrolled public schools. Of course once Barry finally figured out that lots of D.C. parents may want to close half-full buildings to make the system more efficient, he changed his tune. Less than 24 hours after calling Rhee "bullheaded," Barry switched sides and said, at a news conference announcing the final decision on the closures, "this is a historic day." Rhee was less platitudinous. She had set up 23 public meetings around the city, at which she and her associates planned to answer questions about which schools would be shut down and why--and almost nobody showed up to them either. "I would much rather come to a meeting where people are passionate and yelling at me than those rooms I walked into and no one was there to speak for any of the kids," Rhee says. "That was really alarming to me." Perhaps both Barry and Rhee, different as they are, are victims of the same villain: parental apathy. Fixing that will be tougher than downsizing District schools.
February 7, 2008
In 1965, then British Education Secretary Anthony Crosland said, "If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every f***ing grammar school in England." He didn't, but his heirs are still trying. English grammar schools are selective state-run schools; students must pass an exam to attend them. But Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labor government thinks they smack of elitism, and that they unfairly discriminate against low-income and minority children. A new government-backed report, therefore, recommends that grammar schools do away with entrance exams and enroll pupils through a lottery system. Piffle. The U.K.'s 164 grammar schools offer talented students, regardless of their backgrounds, challenging classes. Similar schools exist in the U.S. Virginia's Thomas Jefferson High School, for example, requires an entrance examination, and it was recently ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the best high school in the country. Paying customers can access such avenues toward academic excellence, so why shouldn't less affluent families have the same privilege? Ruining selective schools is one British fad of which, like the Spice Girls, America should steer clear.
"Scrap grammar schools, says report," by Andrew Porter, Daily Telegraph, February 4, 2008
"Head teacher hits out at plan to scrap grammar school system," by Cathy Neligan, Halifax Evening Courier, February 5, 2008
Coby Loup / February 7, 2008
Thomas Toch and Robert Rothman
Education Sector's latest report recommends several ways for school districts and states to improve how they evaluate teachers. The suggestions are based on "comprehensive evaluation systems" that involve a much deeper examination of teachers' instructional practices than traditional reviews by principals. In setting up their case for these comprehensive models, the authors provide a tremendously helpful overview of several new and innovative approaches to teacher evaluation, including the well-known Teacher Advancement Program (TAP). They also do a fine job of dissecting these programs in the context of school-system politics and show how districts and states can secure the buy-in of teachers and their union leaders. Interested readers will find much value in these sections. But they should be skeptical of the report's conclusions. The evaluation models that the authors consider worth emulating emphasize instructional practice, with little regard for outcomes. They are big fans, for instance, of Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching, on which TAP is based, and which focuses on Planning and Preparation, The Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities--not one measure of what students actually learn. The authors recognize the incompleteness of their approach, but defend it by arguing that standardized test scores provide an unfair measure of learning and that proper teacher ratings generally align with student achievement anyway, so why measure outcomes? Both arguments rest on the too-common assumption that teachers should be given the benefit
Year Two Evaluation of the Achievement Challenge Pilot Project in the Little Rock Public School District
February 7, 2008
Gary Ritter, Marc Holley, Nathan Jensen, Brent Riffel, Marcus Winters, Joshua Barnett, and Jay Greene
Little Rock was an early adopter of merit pay for teachers, and it looks like the gamble is paying off. Researchers reviewed student data for the five schools participating in the Achievement Challenge Pilot Project (ACPP) and found students at these merit-pay schools outperformed peers in other schools in math, reading, and language. These gains were also true for minority and low-income students, quelling fears that merit pay would steer teachers away from the traditional underperformers. The data are straightforward, but the perceptions of ACPP teachers are less so. On the whole, teachers didn't characterize themselves as being more innovative or working harder after the ACPP began. (That's too bad.) Nor did they perceive internal competition, increased negativity, or neglect of low-performing pupils (possible side effects commonly cited by critics of merit-pay plans). (That, of course, is good.) But it leaves us wondering: what, then, caused those test scores to rise? Maybe it wasn't the merit pay program after all--or perhaps the teachers aren't being straight with the researchers--or even themselves--about their reaction to the new incentives. This is an area worthy of much more research. Check out the study here.