Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 27
July 17, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
The genius of American education
Schools that do everything but teach
Narrowing the rhetoric
McCain speaks; Obama, too
Mostly the same Old Line
Don't mind the gap
Teacher Pensions: A Background Paper
Michael J. Petrilli / July 17, 2008
Even if education isn't at the top of the list for Senators Obama or McCain during this election season, it remains a major concern for governors and CEOs. That's because they see a direct link between educational achievement and economic growth. And this spring, Education Next published research by Hoover Institution scholar Eric Hanushek and colleagues that illustrated this link. The analysts found that, in general, the higher a country scored on international tests of math and science, the faster its economy grew from 1960 to 2000.
Of course, there was one whopping exception: our very own U.S. of A. Hanushek et al write, "The United States has never done well on international assessments of student achievement. Instead, its level of cognitive skills is only about average among the developed countries. Yet the country's GDP growth rate has been higher than average over the past century. If cognitive skills are so important to economic growth, how can we explain the puzzling case of the U.S.?"
They answer their own question by pointing to factors in the larger economy: our relatively free labor markets, minimal regulation of industry, lower tax rates, etc. They also suspect that our historical lead in achieving universal public education, and our excellent system of higher education, might deserve some of the credit.
But there's one obvious entity they don't mention: today's K-12 schools. Isn't it possible that the American primary-secondary education system might be doing something right?
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / July 17, 2008
A quarter century after A Nation at Risk, a growing number of America's education leaders appear to be abandoning hope for schools that significantly boost student achievement and are instead coming to view schools as multi-service community centers that do everything but teach. Which circumnavigates the vexing fact that bona fide achievement gains have proven difficult to bring about--and that a lot of educators don't want to be held to account for their pupils learning more.
The timing of this shift of focus couldn't be worse, however, as more states are beginning to report stronger test scores, at least in math and reading, thanks in no small part to the past two decades' fixation on standards, assessments, and accountability (see here and here). Meanwhile, America's standing on international comparisons continues to sag and employers despair over their inability to find adequately skilled and knowledgeable workers for our faltering economy.
Yet read closely the inaugural address of Randi Weingarten as president of the American Federation of Teachers, in which she promises to obliterate NCLB and the culture of testing (all the while professing allegiance to "standards" that have no meaning or traction if performance in relation to them isn't measured). Instead, she seeks a massive new program of federal aid to "community schools...that serve the neediest children by bringing together under one roof all the services and activities they and their families need." (Dental care, legal assistance, you name
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / July 17, 2008
The latest study out of the Manhattan Institute makes a mountain out of the proverbial molehill. While the report contributes importantly to a largely neglected area of research, it also overextends its findings. What's more, the suggestion of co-author Jay Greene that its discoveries provide evidence regarding the narrowing of the curriculum is somewhat disingenuous.
The study reports that particular fifth-grade students--those who were enrolled in Florida elementary schools that received in 2001-2002 an "F" from the state's accountability program--made test score gains in reading and math as well as in science the following year. (A similar pattern for science was noted in the comparison schools.) This is worth knowing--part of the accumulating evidence that "accountability works" to boost student achievement. But it's important to be precise about what this study does and doesn't show.
First, the methodological concerns: We start with the report's title, Building on the Basics: The Impact of High-Stakes Testing on Student Proficiency in Low-Stakes Subjects. Sounds nice, but this is not actually an impact study; it's a simple correlation study and can therefore make no causal claims. Moreover, its design does not acknowledge that data are "nested" within classrooms, schools, and districts, an altogether different problem about which another whole article could be penned.
And because the researchers had only one year of science data (the state science test was first administered in 2002-2003), they had to develop a proxy baseline score
July 17, 2008
A lot of people, and not just Republicans, have been waiting for John McCain to unveil his thinking about education policy. While Barack Obama has made multiple speeches on the subject (most recently to both teacher union conferences) and has elaborate position papers on his campaign website, the Arizona senator said little, except for tantalizing bits about his own education. Last month, however, McCain advisor Lisa Graham Keegan predicted that he would soon address this issue. She was right. Yesterday in Cincinnati, at the same NAACP convention that Senator Obama addressed on Monday, McCain framed an ambitious and fairly comprehensive array of education reforms and asked civil rights leaders to join him in pressing for them. Later in the day, his campaign website posted a reasonably detailed K-12 education plan. Speech and plan include some familiar GOP refrains (school choice, especially) but also move in such interesting directions as virtual education; giving budgetary authority to school principals; alternative certification for teachers; and several forms of differential pay, including more money for teachers who work in "troubled schools." It begins to look possible that education will turn into a bona fide election issue after all--and that differences between the presidential candidates in this sphere will actually prove interesting and salient. (McCain's speech is here; his plan is here.)
"McCain to NAACP: More education options," Associated Press, July 16, 2008
July 17, 2008
One cheer for Maryland. It posted big gains on its state tests this year. According to the Washington Post, "the share of students statewide who were judged proficient or better rose six percentage points in reading and four points in math, to 82 percent and 76 percent, respectively." Baltimore, for example, saw historic rises--reading scores are up an average of 11 points and math scores up an average of 8 points. State superintendent Nancy Grasmick attributes these gains to a culture of "laserlike analysis" of academic achievement in the public schools of the Old Line State. Maybe. But we'd feel more comfortable if Maryland were also posting gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which it hasn't. In fact, Maryland's NAEP scores haven't risen in a decade. Why the disparity? Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller says that Maryland's state test, "sets the bar defining proficiency very close to the ground" (we indicated as much in our report, The Proficiency Illusion), and who knows for sure if that bar is moving? It is definitely pleasing to see that the biggest test score jumps occurred in districts, like Baltimore, that enroll many low-income and minority students, and pleasing as well to see the gains continuing through the treacherous middle-school years. But we're unconvinced that Maryland deserves all the praise (see here and here) currently being heaped upon it. (There's a political wrinkle, too. Grasmick and Governor Martin
July 17, 2008
Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews thinks the ed reform lexicon needs a rewrite. He's particularly peeved by the term "achievement gap," which he observes is often used "in a way that suggests narrowing the gap is always a good thing, when that is not so." What if, for instance, the shrinking gap reflected not just a catching-up at the bottom but also a leveling-off at the top? In fact, that's precisely what's happening, as the Brookings Institution's Tom Loveless pointed out in Fordham's recent report, High-Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind, from which Mathews quotes liberally. The danger of such apparent gains for equity is that they shortchange the high-achievers who might grow up to be the nation's future economic and political leaders. Mathews hypothesizes that we have mistakenly "taken our concern about the income gap... and adopted the same vocabulary when we worry about how our children are doing in school.... I can understand distaste for people who build 50-room mansions with gold bathroom fixtures. But can anyone learn too much?" Probably not. The truth is that both America's lowest- and highest-performing students need to be learning lots more.
"Forget About the Achievement Gap," by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, July 14, 2008
July 17, 2008
For all the weight that high schools and colleges place on the ACT and SAT, they're in the dark about why students' scores are sometimes "cancelled." That's because of a 25-year-old policy whereby neither ACT nor the College Board will divulge the reason to a student's current or future school. It doesn't matter if the pupil has an upset stomach or was part of an elaborate and premeditated cheating scheme--each reason is simply reported as an innocuous cancellation. "What we're trying to do is make sure the scores that we send to colleges are valid. It's not our intention to go around punishing students who make mistakes or who've done something they shouldn't have done," said ACT's Ed Colby. Those words, translated to the real world, mean that several Los Angeles students who are suspected of paying their mutual buddy to take the ACT for them will have their scores canceled, but neither their high school nor their intended universities will learn of this unethical behavior. Is that as it should be? Isn't cheating just as important as a test score? The testing outfits' policy doesn't reflect the values that high schools strive to teach and that (we hope) colleges strive to identify in the students they admit.
"Cheating on ACT, SAT college entrance exams has few consequences," by Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2008
No Common Denominator: The Preparation of Elementary Teachers in Mathematics by America's Education Schools
Stafford Palmieri / July 17, 2008
Julie Greenberg and Kate Walsh
National Council on Teacher Quality
The National Council on Teacher Quality evaluated the syllabi and course requirements of elementary math teacher preparation programs across the country and found such programs to be woefully inadequate and to have wildly different ideas about how to produce effective elementary math teachers. The usual scapegoat for the poor math prowess of some elementary students--the comparatively low quantitative ability of their teachers (as evidenced by those teachers' low math SAT scores)--turns out to be just part of the problem. NCTQ found only ten of the seventy-seven elementary math education programs that it examined in forty-nine states to have adequate content and methodology course requirements and only one program (at the University of Georgia) earned truly high marks from the reviewers. Without any standardization of what elementary math teachers need to know, these programs are scattered in both content and methods. Many programs never get around to requiring future elementary teachers to study the content of elementary-school math (though other kinds of math may be on tap). And some have no math-methods courses at all. There's plenty more in this comprehensive report, which you can find here.
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / July 17, 2008
Janet S. Hansen
Committee for Economic Development
This multi-faceted look at teacher pensions describes the most widely used current plans, their likely sustainability, which teachers benefit from them the most, and options for their redesign. It echoes many findings from our Ohio-specific report on the same topic by economists Michael Podgursky and Bob Costrell, and from the same authors' recent Education Next piece on this subject. Hansen, too, finds that defined benefit (DB) plans (in which retirement payouts are calculated primarily through years of service and final salary) ill-serve many of the educators covered by them--and these are the plans that cover most public-school teachers. Those who fare well under such plans must work for a very long time in the same state or district, while those who exit the profession early or take a teaching job elsewhere suffer acute pension penalties. She contends that the usual alternative to DB plans, namely defined contribution (DC) plans, which are widespread in the private sector, aren't the best answer for teaching. They carry their own issues; the major one is that plan participants, as opposed to sponsors, bear the most risk. Hansen recommends a hybrid called a "cash balance" plan, which she says offers the best of both the DB and DC approaches. It's no secret that teacher pension systems are out of sync with current labor markets and career patterns--and unsustainably expensive, too. This easy-to-digest