Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 28
July 24, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
In which I differ with a friend
By Diane Ravitch
Checker responds to Diane
Checker responds to Randi
Racy and classy, in a bad way
What's in a revision?
Short and sweet
Rock 'n' fail
Getting up at 8, it's crazy
This week, Mike and Rick chat about Washington, D.C., Saudi Arabia, and Miley Cyrus (who, if she ever entered Saudi Arabia, would be stoned within seconds). Amber brings us a lonely Research Minute, and Education News of the Weird is dope.
Diane Ravitch / July 24, 2008
My longtime friend Checker Finn wrote a critique of Randi Weingarten's inaugural speech as President of the American Federation of Teachers. Checker chastised her for endorsing the idea that schools should help the neediest kids by offering health services and social services in addition to their customary academic fare. Checker notes, rightly, that Randi's vision echoes the manifesto of the "Broader, Bolder Approach."
Checker warns that this means that Weingarten and people like me are "abandoning hope for schools that significantly boost student achievement" just at the time that more states are reporting "stronger test scores" in reading and math. He labels ours a call for "schools that do everything but teach."
I couldn't disagree more. I care as much about academic achievement as Checker or anyone else in the world, but I don't see any contradiction between caring about academic achievement and caring about children's health and well-being. Will it help or harm children's academic achievement--most especially children who are living in poverty--if they have access to good pre-K programs? Will it help or harm children's academic achievement--most especially the neediest children--if they have access to good medical care, with dental treatment, vision screening, and the like? Will it help or harm children's academic achievement--the children whose lives are blighted by the burdens of poverty--to have access to high-quality after-school programs?
Checker argues that the "‘broader, bolder' crowd" (me, Weingarten, Tom Payzant, Richard Rothstein, Marshall Smith, etc.) are making
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / July 24, 2008
It's never easy to disagree with Diane--not only is she a friend and colleague of long-standing, as well as a Fordham trustee, but also she's so often right about education. I've found over the years that when she and I work at a difference of opinion for a while, we usually discover that the domain of true disagreement is small. I believe that's the case here, but I'm pretty sure that's not true with regard to Randi Weingarten and many of the other "Broader, Bolder" signatories.
I'm convinced that many of them really are trying to change the subject, diverting attention away from U.S. schools' mostly-woeful academic performance while letting schools and educators off the hook for academic results by adopting the well-worn Rothstein story line about how we mustn't really expect kids to learn more until this or that other social problem is solved. Diane sincerely believes, as she says plainly here, that schools can and must work harder and more fruitfully on academics while also addressing some of poor kids' other needs. I agree. To me, however, it's akin to the arguments set forth by the Education Equality Project--the other recent manifesto that came out around the same time as the Broader, Bolder one.
Those folks, too, are concerned above all with poor and minority kids but contend that those kids are being ill-served by far too many schools today and that properly reformed schools alone can make
Randi Weingarten / July 24, 2008
Mike Petrilli is spot-on in this sense: Clearly, a good education is much more than test scores. He's right about the importance of extracurricular activities in providing that education--and I hope he'll agree that we should find ways to make sure kids in our highest-poverty schools have access to those kinds of activities. But as a former social studies teacher who taught my students civics and debate, I know that the skills to which Mike refers also can and should be learned in the classroom--not just after 3 p.m.--while students are debating the causes of the Civil War, drawing conclusions from science experiments and planning group art projects. I'm stating the obvious when I say that No Child Left Behind's testing regime has left little time for these kinds of in-class activities.
As for Checker's suggestion that my proposal leads to "schools that do everything but teach," let me say this is not an either-or approach. Relying on testing and sanctions, NCLB's message to teachers and schools has been: It's all you. In other words, if teachers would just work harder and care more, all our students would succeed. Teachers, by themselves, even without additional support from families or the community, can help kids immensely, especially if they can work one-on-one with students, are well-trained and have access to excellent curriculum materials. But teachers alone can't get kids all the way to proficiency, when disadvantaged children typically enter school
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / July 24, 2008
Because I'm mostly home playing grandpa to a four-year-old this week (and doing my small part to assure that at least one small child is ready to succeed in school and beyond), this must be very brief. To my eye, Randi's explanation is clearer and better balanced than her speech was, maybe because it lacks some of the crowd-pleasing anti-NCLB rhetoric. I'm sorry not to see her even acknowledge that NCLB, for all its flaws, has done at least one good thing for American K-12 schools, which is to focus attention as never before on their academic performance and to shine unprecedented beams of sunlight on that performance. Ending NCLB's focus on standards and assessments would, I fear, place the performance of many U.S. schools back in the cave-like darkness that previously enveloped it. My one other comment to Randi is that the praiseworthy academic performance of the AFT-run charter school in New York that she rightly boasts about seems to have occurred without any new multi-zillion-dollar federal cradle-to-grave social services program--and with all the pressures (for both good and ill) that come with NCLB in its present form.
July 24, 2008
Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine included a piece titled The Next Kind of Integration, which was about school districts that have, since the Supreme Court's ruling last year regarding the race-based student-assignment plans of Louisville and Seattle, restructured their own plans to make them less race-based, more "race conscious" (Justice Kennedy's words), and more class conscious, too.
Identifying problems with these new plans and the jurisprudential logic that produced them is akin to shooting fish in a fishbowl. The scaly carcasses can be scrutinized here.
Buried beneath the dead seafood and likely overlooked by most is one tiny sentence from the Times Magazine article that is particularly troubling. Here it is: "This study underscores Ronald Ferguson's point about the value of seating students of different backgrounds and abilities in class together, as opposed to tracking them." (Italics mine.)
Some background: Diversity defenders have realized, it seems, that elaborately engineeered school-assignment policies that bus pupils from one side of a district to the other and limit parental choice are unpopular. They've also realized that justifying such Rube Goldberg assignments with fluffy diversity language--students will be exposed to different types of people, different ideas, etc.--just doesn't cut it with parents whose children are forced to attend class far from home and who want a compelling reason for it.
Thus, diversity defenders have now adopted "increasing academic performance" as their casus bussi. We're told that schools that mingle neat combinations
July 24, 2008
Jonathan Alter offered Barack Obama, free of charge, some darn good advice in the July 21st Newsweek. Will the senator from Illinois take it? "Now Obama needs to embrace a Grand Education Bargain--much higher pay for teachers in exchange for much more accountability for performance in the classroom," writes Alter. He continues: "Good teachers need to be rewarded with more pay and respect for being members of our noblest profession. They need more resources. But they also need to be removed from the classroom when they fail to improve. Obama occasionally says as much, but goes fuzzy when it comes to how." No doubt such a "Grand Education Bargain" (which we've heard about before) would be tough for any Democrat, not just Obama, to enact, especially because that party is so beholden to teachers' unions and their unmanageable demands. But still, Alter cuts the candidate no slack. "And the next time [Obama] addresses them," Alter writes, "he should tell the unions they must change their focus from job security and the protection of ineffective teachers to higher pay and true accountability for performance--or face extinction." Tough words. Will Obama heed them, or even come close?
"Obama's No-Brainer on Education," by Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, July 21, 2008
July 24, 2008
"Please revise," indicates your editor, his note scrawled in red ink atop your latest submission. So you do. You rework the major points, you tighten where needed, you revamp and polish and tweak and shift around. That is, after all, how revision is done. Not, it appears, in Saudi Arabia. That country, which supposedly revised its textbooks after a 2006 analysis found that not a few of them contained hate-filled messages about hurting Jews and other unbelievers and so forth, has released a "revision" that, unfortunately, still contains passages about hating and hurting unbelievers and so forth. The Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom released last week a report, about which Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum wrote, that found that (in Applebaum's words) "the only textbook revisions have been superficial and the most disturbing part of the books' message--that faithful Muslims should hate Jews and Christians--remains." There's much wrong with American schools, but at least they aren't actively manufacturing odium.
"The Saudi Guide to Piety," by Anne Applebaum, Washington Post, July 22, 2008
July 24, 2008
Maryland students were said to have made impressive gains this year on their state test. Naturally, our first reaction was to wonder how that happened when the state's NAEP scores are stagnant. And sure enough, we find out that this year's Maryland School Assessment was shorter than last year's, and that this year's test questions hewed more closely to the state curriculum than they previously had. Do these changes make a real difference? Do they call into question the results' integrity? Deputy State School Superintendent Ronald A. Peiffer doesn't think so. He said that a shorter test simply meant students "weren't as tired this year." But that "doesn't mean [the test] wasn't as difficult." According to the Baltimore Sun, Harcourt Assessment Inc., which oversees Maryland's state testing, found this year's "test was equivalent to the one given in 2003, the year the test was first used, and to subsequent tests. But the panel also concluded that the changes in the test had contributed to the large increases in the fifth- and seventh-grade scores." So, the changes did or did not affect test scores? Either way, as our own Amber Winkler pointed out in the Sun, Maryland's definition of "proficiency" is among the lowest in the nation. Who knows how much its kids actually know?
"MSA changes may have raised scores," by Liz Bowie, Baltimore Sun, July 18, 2008
July 24, 2008
No good can come of this. In recent years, ever since the Beastie Boys slung their anti-school rhetoric on the airwaves, pop singers' lyrics have attacked educational institutions with alarming frequency and ferocity. The latest instance: Teen sensation (and Hannah Montana star) Miley Cyrus's new song "Breakout," which begins, "Every week's the same / Stuck in school, so lame / My parents say that I'm lazy / Getting up at 8, it's crazy." Cyrus then dives into the tune's infectious chorus, which promotes nothing less than anarchy: "We're gonna breakout / Everyone we know / We're gonna have some fun / We're gonna lose control." This type of nonsensical nattering makes one yearn for the wholesome days of Kris Kross, those delightful young men who didn't know front from back but who nonetheless crooned so delightfully about school-related responsibility in their hit "I Missed the Bus." The chorus still brings tears to Gadfly's bug eyes: "I missed the bus / I missed the bus [ohh] / And that is somethin' I will never, ever ever, do again." Not to mention that Mr. and Mrs. Kris Kross brooked no nonsense: "Standin' on my block like a fool / for (1) I'm all alone and (2) the bus is gone / (3) if I miss school this weekend I'll be at home." No school, no play. Responsibility comes first. This message is, sadly, wholly lost on
Coby Loup / July 24, 2008
Christine Campbell and Brock J. Grubb
National Charter School Research Project
Because charter schools are (supposedly) free to chart their own academic and institutional courses, they need strong principals. But according to this report, we're doing a poor job of producing such capable leaders. NCSRP surveyed leaders at thirteen "specialty training programs for charter school leaders" that focus explicitly on preparing principals and asked them what they teach, how selective they are, what kind of mentoring they provide, etc. (Fordham took a similar approach in last year's survey of teacher alternative certification programs.) The findings were mixed. The authors were encouraged by the fact that the programs "put a special emphasis on apprenticeship and support," which traditional prep programs often lack. Several of the organizations also "differentiate training based on principal experience." And these programs are fairly selective, too; New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS), for instance, turns down ten applicants for every one it accepts. On the other hand, the report's authors still see three major weaknesses. First, these programs are simply "not focused on the areas in which principals say they need most help," namely "in-school politics, educating diverse populations... and preparing for increased testing and accountability." Instead, they spend an inordinate amount of time on topics like financial management. Second, due to the lack of data connecting student achievement to a principal's tenure, it is difficult to gauge just how effective these programs actually are.
Stafford Palmieri / July 24, 2008
Institute for Higher Education Policy
The Institute for Higher Education Policy's (IHEP) new report takes a look at American standards for higher education and finds them wanting. What, for example, does a bachelor's degree truly mean? According to IHEP, we might benefit from understanding and perhaps emulating the Bologna Process, an agreement among 29 European education ministers in 1999 to set national standards for higher-education program requirements. The accord pegged the definition of a bachelor's degree to the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) such that one year of study anywhere is now equal to 60 ECTS credits in all signatory countries. By endowing associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees from American public universities with greater transparency, value and uniform meaning, IHEP suggests, U.S. college students and graduates would become more attractive to global universities and employers. It will be time consuming and difficult, warns the author, veteran higher ed analyst Cliff Adelman, to hash out these standards and requirements, but if a few states take the lead, the advantage they will garner for their students will be a powerful incentive for their neighbors to follow suit. If that reasoning sounds familiar, it's because it's also the likeliest route the U.S. could take toward common national standards for K-12 education. Both projects are daunting but worth trying. Find the report here.