Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 23
June 12, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
Norton hears a boo
No small feat
Ben Franklin would cry
History opens eyes
Forget Al Sharpton
This week, Mike and Rick debate D.C. vouchers, L.A. walkout, and PA exit exams. Jeff Kuhner defends an accused terrorist, and Education News of the Weird is the blade that stands up gets mowed down.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / June 12, 2008
You've heard it a hundred times: "We really need to benchmark our education standards to the best in the world," or words to that effect.
For a while, such talk came mostly from business leaders concerned about American competitiveness on a shrinking, flattening planet. Of late they've been joined by governors, chief state school officers, policy wonks, and others with an interest in the quality and performance of U.S. schools (and colleges).
They're right, too. To the extent that preparing young Americans to compete successfully in the global economy is an important function of our education system (along with keeping us safe in a dangerous world), we must surely look beyond our borders. We have ample evidence from TIMSS, PISA, PIRLS and such about how our kids stack up alongside their age mates from other lands when it comes to academic achievement in core subjects. (Not nearly well enough is the short version. Here's a good source.) We also have plenty of data from the OECD and UNESCO about how U.S. schools and colleges compare quantitatively with the education systems of other countries. (Once we led on measures such as secondary school completion and tertiary participation, but no longer.)
Knowing that our results are dragging, however, is not the same as "benchmarking" our own education standards and practices to those of other countries. Simply determining which countries do better is akin to saying we know which horses are ahead
June 12, 2008
Teachers, we are told (mostly by teachers) are professionals--and they require treatment befitting such. Alas, the facts don't always support the claims. Take, for instance, last week's protest in Los Angeles, in which some 75 percent of that city's public-school educators left their posts and their pupils to stand outside their schools, wave signs, and demand that state budget cuts in education be rescinded. They were prompted to this display of unprofessionalism by the United Teachers Los Angeles, a union led by A.J. Duffy, who noted that any teacher not following his commands "will be crossing a picket line." One's mental image of a professional isn't usually that of a brow-beaten employee who, threatened by union bosses, is forced from his place of work onto the street and there made to march and holler. Professionals generally retain autonomy. They are devoted to their work. They do not leave their jobs whenever legislators displease them. They do not actively undermine the purported goals of their institution. Teachers: if you want to be viewed and treated as professionals, you'll need to act accordingly.
"Budget protest takes L.A. teachers out of classrooms," by Jason Song and Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times, June 7, 2008
June 12, 2008
"We have to protect the children, who are the truly innocent victims here." Absent context, one might guess that Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's non-voting congressional delegate, was decrying, say, the inadequacy of the nation's response to child abuse. Not so. The scourge against which Norton so hyperbolically railed is, in fact, a scholarship program that has allowed nearly 2,000 D.C. students to escape their failing district schools for a safer and sounder private education. Is anybody listening? Sadly, we hear that leaders of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program are increasingly doubtful about the prospects of Congress reauthorizing the vouchers, which narrowly passed five years ago behind a Republican majority. Sustaining this valuable program is going to require, inter alia, a major political initiative by Mayor Fenty. Else Delegate Norton will be proven right; the children will indeed be victims. And she will be among their victimizers.
"Fate of D.C. Voucher Program Darkens," by Valerie Strauss and Bill Turque, Washington Post, June 9, 2008
June 12, 2008
When Gadfly wrote, "Despite what our good friend Jay Mathews tells you, AP is not for everyone," he didn't expect that the selfsame Jay Mathews would then challenge him to a duel. Only in words, mercifully. The result is a rousing, even illuminating, exchange between this superb Washington Post reporter and our own Checker Finn. You can find it below.
"Is AP Good for Everyone?" by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, June 8, 2008
June 12, 2008
More glum feedback for the Gates Foundation's pricey initiative to create and support small schools--and others enraptured with smallness per se as an education reform strategy. First, there was this interim federal report on small learning communities, which found that they do little to improve student achievement. Now, there is this story out of Oregon where dropout rates for the small schools are just as dismal as those of the bigger high schools that they were designed to replace (i.e, still around 50 percent). Test scores and attendance haven't budged either. Fortunately, Gates leaders are paying attention. Says education chief Vicki Phillips (a recent Oregonian herself), "We have learned that small by itself is not enough. Good curriculum and instruction don't just show up...We need to get more dramatic results." Exactly so.
"Oregon's small-school experiment slow to see results" by Betsy Hammond and Lisa Grace Lednicer, The Oregonian, June 8, 2008
June 12, 2008
Another day, another state content to let its kids continue to earn meaningless high school diplomas. Pennsylvania's Senate Education Committee voted this week, 10-1, in favor of a bill that would give the legislature exclusive power to add graduation requirements, this in response to the state board of education's plan to require students to pass exit exams in English, math, science, and social studies. Senator James Rhoades, who chairs the Education Committee, explained that "testing could put increased pressure on kids and it could result in better behavior in school and more work, but kids who want to be successful are already doing that. The others will end up dropping out of school rather than face tests they find difficult." That's not what's happened in states that do have graduation tests, but who cares about the facts?
"Senate Committee Trying to Block Exit Exam Move," by Tracie Mauriello, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 10, 2008
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / June 12, 2008
Bill Bennett's superb two-volume U.S. history, America: The Last Best Hope, is beginning to be adopted as a text by school systems and is now accompanied by all manner of useful educator tools and its own hefty, bumptious (like Bennett himself) history-education-makeover project. Of particular value is the "Roadmap," with ample, high-quality online resources for both teachers and students, and "Team HOPE," a group of outstanding educators who are pushing for such a makeover. The non-profit Milken Institute is helping to make this happen (and involving a number of Milken prize-winning history teachers) as, of course, is Bennett's publisher. This is particularly timely in view of the strong recommendation of the new Bradley E Pluribus Unum project that the teaching of U.S. history get a lot more attention in our schools (and universities). You can find out more about "Team HOPE" and Bennett's books here and here. You can learn more about the Bradley Project here.
Allocation Anatomy: How District Policies that Deploy Resources Can Support (or Undermine) District Reform Strategies
Eric Osberg / June 12, 2008
Marguerite Roza, School Finance Redesign Project, Center on Reinventing Public Education
May 15, 2008
In this short exploration of how the central offices of two (un-named) districts allocate their resources to individual schools, Marguerite Roza starts with the bold premise that "the resource allocation system is the very way in which organizations make choices about means and ends." Unfortunately, her interviews with district personnel make clear that they often have no idea how their decisions affect either means or ends or much of anything in between. For example, a psychologist assigned to cover 10 schools spends much of her time at only one (which her child attends). But these staff members nonetheless say things like, "I have no input into district resource allocations... I don't get my own supply budget or anything." They seem not to realize that they and how they spend their time is the main resource allocation. One district believes it is targeting literacy coaches toward low-income students when in fact it simply assigns one per school. The examples included here paint a distressing picture of the talents (or lack thereof) of central office staffs. They also show that bureaucratically allocating staff to schools is a recipe for educational disaster. Far better would be to allocate budgets to schools and let their leaders match resources to their differing needs for teachers, literacy coaches, psychologists and all the rest. Roza takes no stand here on the merits of such
Many States Have Taken a "Backloaded" Approach to No Child Left Behind Goal of All Students Scoring Proficient
Coby Loup / June 12, 2008
Naomi Chudowsky and Victor Chudowsky
Center on Education Policy
NCLB asks all states not only to define "proficiency" in their own way but also to set their own pace for getting kids there by 2014. Some opted for an "incremental" approach whereby students would be expected to make modest gains each year while others "backloaded" their trajectories, telling Washington that they will produce most of the required test-score gains later on. (One might call this latter group the subprime borrowers of the NCLB racket; Gadfly basically did, back in 2003.) According to the Center on Education Policy, half the states took the incremental approach while 23 opted for "balloon mortgages." (Two others, Florida and Kansas, use a "blended trajectory," which really is just a less severe form of backloading.) This may or may not matter, considering the unreality of any state reaching 100 percent proficiency, at least if "proficiency" is meaningfully defined, which of course it isn't, in many states. Get the CEP analysis here.