Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 24
June 19, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
Can we be equal and excellent too?
Tempest in a data-pot
In search of Motown's mojo
In the eye of the beholder
Watch out, Queen Elizabeth
Diplomas Count 2008
This week, Mike and Rick chat about whether we can be excellent and equal, whether the College Board is too obsessed with race, and whether Detroit is too obsessed with having bad schools. Jeff Kuhner thinks Canadians are great, unless they frequent soothsayers, and Education News of the Weird spikes the punch bowl.
That's the question John W. Gardner posed in his seminal 1961 book, Excellence. We've asked it again in 2008. We wondered, in particular, how high-achieving (some say gifted) youngsters are faring academically in the era of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that focuses on boosting the achievement of poor and minority students. The question is more important than ever, considering how much America's future depends on the brainpower of the country's best and brightest. If they're being neglected, we're all in trouble.
Many of the answers revealed in our new Fordham Institute study aren't surprising, though they're illuminating. Low-achieving pupils (defined as the 10 percent with lowest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) made big strides from 2000 to 2007, gaining sixteen points (on NAEP's 500-point scale) in fourth-grade reading, eighteen in fourth-grade math, and thirteen in eighth-grade math. NCLB and state-level efforts to impose standards and accountability on the schools are plainly boosting the kids who need it most--surely a good thing.
Meanwhile, however, the performance of high achievers is unimpressive at best. Their scores haven't fallen, mind you. But neither have they risen much. Their recent trajectory is "languid," according to Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, the study's lead analyst. But "languid" doesn't cut it in today's competitive world.
Teachers, we learn from a companion survey, feel pressured by No Child Left Behind to focus on the needs of the worst-performing youngsters. Three fifths
June 19, 2008
There's no sign that reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 (ESRA, to its friends) has even made it onto Congress's to-do list, but controversy is beginning to dog one key element of it: the part that affords the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and its Commissioner (currently Mark Schneider) and the education data for which they're responsible some independence and protection from political and bureaucratic abuse. This dispute is well described by Debra Viadero in the latest Education Week. On one side we find IES director Grover "Russ" Whitehurst and his policy advisory board, seeking to tame and subordinate the government's main education statistics agency. On the other side, we find just about everyone who has any respect or concern for the integrity and trustworthiness of education data. The symbolic focus of the disagreement is whether the NCES commissioner should be appointed by (and serve at the pleasure of) the IES director or continue to be nominated by the president (to a fixed term) and subject to Senate confirmation. Guess which side is right?
"Debate Erupts on How to Pick Chief of U.S. Schools Data," by Debra Viadero, Education Week, June 18, 2008
June 19, 2008
Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C.'s Congressional representative, took to the pages of the Washington Post to explain why she is not--Post editorials and facts aside--intransigent on the issue of vouchers for the capital city's poor kids. "I believe we can get beyond the controversy and recrimination concerning the controversial D.C. School Choice Incentive Act," she wrote. Holmes Norton's way to get beyond those icky things, of course, is to do what she desires--namely, allow the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to (currently) about 1,900 low-income kids to attend private schools, to expire. But she's certainly not against parochial schools! So she says. Holmes Norton tells readers, in her meandering op-ed, that "this city owes more than it can repay to the Catholic schools that have remained in this largely Protestant town rather than following their parishioners to the suburbs." Why, then, wouldn't she want more of D.C.'s worst-off youngsters to attend those excellent schools with the help of government dollars? Why not give D.C.'s Catholic schools, several of which have had to reconstitute as charters to avoid closing altogether, the attendance boost they could sorely use? Luckily, it looks like D.C.'s vouchers will survive at least in the short-term--no thanks to she who is supposed to represent its beneficiaries.
"Real Choices for D.C. Students," by Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington Post, June 17, 2008
June 19, 2008
Detroit's school system is now $400 million in debt. And if its enrollment dips below 100,000, as is likely by autumn, it will no longer be a "Class A" district under Michigan law--which means that charter-school start-ups will be allowed in the city after a several year hiatus. Local politicians aren't thrilled about that possibility. "I just think it's a terrible time to introduce competition that does not have a track record," school board President Carla Scott told the Free Press. "It would financially cripple the district." (As if it hadn't crippled itself, not least by running schools from which tens of thousands of pupils have fled.) But by that reasoning we'd keep Toyota from importing more Priuses because they're beating the pants off GM and Ford. Instead, we expect American companies to, you know, compete, as GM is trying to do by racing its electric car through the development process. Protectionism is nothing new in the Motor City, but for the sake of that city's many needy children, let's hope it doesn't prevail this time around. The expansion of high-quality charter schools is exactly what Detroit needs.
"DPS expects a $400 million shortfall," by Chastity Pratt Dawsey, Detroit Free-Press, June 17, 2008
June 19, 2008
Performance-based assessment (PBA) was terminated in Vermont in the 1990s after a RAND study found that "inter-rater reliability" (i.e., the extent of agreement among portfolio graders) was largely AWOL. Now Rhode Island has revived PBA, even making it a graduation requirement. While most, including us, agree that PBA has its place in k-12 education (think music, arts, debate), we doubt that Rhode Island has solved the "subjectivity" problem that has historically plagued portfolio assessments. While it's true that some measurement rubrics, especially those designed to assess reading instruction in classrooms, boast impressive records of reliability, these are typically the exception, not the rule. Plus, how can assessors be qualified to judge such varied types of presentations, from lightsaber exhibitions, to egg-poaching demonstrations, to harmonica jamborees? Furthermore, states are famously reticent to bar students from graduating even when objective measures of those pupils' skills show them unambiguously unprepared for the real world and undeserving of a diploma. Will Rhode Island really hold back a student who flubs a flute recital?
"Showing What They Know," by Scott Cech, Education Week, June 16, 2008
June 19, 2008
The D.C. Public Charter School Board unanimously approved a proposal to reconstitute next fall seven financially struggling Catholic schools as secular charter schools, thereby increasing the number of D.C. charters by more than 10 percent. The switch will save the schools from closing, but will it save their Catholic character? Gadfly argued last year that allowing them to become charters while still retaining their Catholic flavor, a proposition seemingly legitimized by the Supreme Court in 2002, would make sense. But barring that: Much of the parochial-school success story has less to do with religion, per se, and more to do with a disciplined pedagogical style that emphasizes a broad-based liberal arts curriculum. We're not pleased when Catholic schools are stripped of their religious character, but there's still reason to believe that these newly ordained charters can flourish.
"7 Catholic Schools in D.C. Set to Become Charters," by Bill Turque, Washington Post, June 17, 2008
June 19, 2008
Stylistically, Britain is a country of contrasts unrivaled. On the one hand, the Royal Family and their upper-crust ilk, all classy in their tartans and tweeds. On the other hand, mod fashionistas, the inspiration for whom came to London in the form of Mary Quant minis and has had a solid run to this day, embodied in its newest guise by brash celebrities like David and Victoria Beckham and their multitudinous groupies. Adherents of the latter taste are getting a fresh boost over the clotted cream set, too, as Britain at long last embraces that least classy of American engagements, the high school prom. Apparently, U.K. youths, awash in pop culture like The O.C., American Pie-ish movies, and MTV, have demanded and been granted proms of their own. And they're pulling out all the stops: Yellow Lamborghinis (with drivers); $700 dresses and tuxedos; fancy-pants dinners; corsages; too much hair product; and shiny, shiny top-hats. The kids love it and, surprisingly, so do some of their parents. Sue Clarke, who spent close to $1,200 on her son's prom, told the Wall Street Journal that it was all worth it, just to see her son happy. "We didn't have proms or things like that when we were younger," she said. Perhaps that's because Margaret Thatcher wouldn't have stood for it.
"Alien Invasion: High-School Prom Lands in England, Causes a Bother," by Jeanne Whalen and Isabella Lisk, Wall Street Journal, June
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / June 19, 2008
Patrick Wolf, Babette Gutmann, Michael Puma, Brian Kisida, Lou Rizzo, Nada Eissa
U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences
The political controversy about D.C. vouchers has swirled about (see above). And in the midst of the shouting arrived this report. What did it discover? In its early phases, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program appears to be taking small but promising steps in the right direction. Passed in 2004, the program is the nation's first federally funded k-12 voucher program and currently provides scholarship options to more than 1,900 low-income students. This second-year evaluation did not find statistically significant gains overall in reading, but three large subgroups, comprising 88 percent of participating students, saw improvements (though researchers report that they're not "robust"). Parental satisfaction is also on the rise; parents of students offered a scholarship were significantly less likely to "report serious concerns about school danger" than were parents in the control group (there was no difference in student satisfaction between the two groups, however). Although OSP is not demonstrating real fireworks after two years, it is sending sparks of encouragement to a program Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings calls the "lifeline of hope and opportunity" for so many D.C. youth. The full evaluation can be found here.
June 19, 2008
Editorial Projects in Education Research Center
This two-part report is the third in a series of graduation rate studies conducted by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. Using a standardized metric, the authors project that 1 in 3 (1.23 million) students who entered high school in the 2004-05 school year will not graduate in 2008. How to fix that? The report looks at P-16 councils--which are comprised of educators and sometimes policymakers, business leaders, and concerned parents who work to better coordinate what's taught in schools with what's expected in the work world, thereby making schools more practical and--it is to be hoped--keeping kids enrolled in them. Since 2005, such councils have become increasingly popular (40 councils now exist in 38 states), but their efficacy is tough to measure because so many are so new. (One wonders if their efficacy isn't also tough to measure because the councils' missions are often nebulous and their chief activity is often jawboning.) The report also finds that, while graduation rates overall remain appallingly low, a slow rise in each state's graduation rate is visible from 2001 to 2005. The 2005 national average graduation rate, 70.6 percent, is up 2.6 percent from 2001. See more here or check out this nifty interactive map that includes data from every school district in the nation.
Coby Loup / June 19, 2008
California Charter Schools Association
The evidence on charter schools vs. traditional district-operated public schools is mixed. Most of the rosiest analyses report findings that "give cause for cautious optimism" at best. This report out of Los Angeles continues that tradition. Analysts examined data from California's 2006-2007 Academic Performance Index (API)--a measure of how schools perform on the state exam--in order to compare a sample of L.A. charters to the "three most similar traditional public schools" in their neighborhoods (similarity being based on racial composition, parental educational attainment, and poverty levels). They found that 49 percent (a lot, but still a minority) of charters studied had higher API increases from 2006 to 2007 than their three closest traditional schools. They also found that, on a district-wide level, charters did better at narrowing the achievement gap between black and white students (though not between Latinos and whites). Also interesting: mature charters (older than five years) performed significantly better than both young charters and traditional schools. This finding, the authors suggest, points to the wisdom of giving charter schools time to develop before making rash decisions regarding their worth. The study has its limitations, of course. The authors note that, "Being primarily a descriptive analysis, this report cannot provide an understanding of how significant the results discussed are." Readers should also be warned that the prevalence of confusing, California-specific jargon will make it tough slogging for the layperson and/or non-Californian. You can
June 19, 2008
The Asian/ Pacific/ American Institute and Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy at New York University, CARE and College Board
June 9, 2008
This report's authors hope to kill the stereotype that all Asian-American youngsters are over-achieving math-science whiz kids who crowd into the nation's top universities. Teachers and principals, the report notes, often believe that Asian-American students are a "model minority" that will always excel academically, especially in science and math. Not exactly so. The authors show, for example, that less than half of the Asian-American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is actually pursuing Bachelor's degrees in the STEM fields. The report also claims that, contrary to widespread belief, AAPI students do not congregate only at private universities. In 2000, 101,751 AAPI students were enrolled in private four-year institutions, while 354,564 were enrolled in public four-year schools. Okay. But at the risk of sounding flippant, who cares? The National Center for Education Statistics found that, in the 18- to 24-year-old group, 60.3 percent of AAPI were enrolled in higher education compared to just 31.8 percent of blacks and 24.7 percent of Hispanics. Sure, there are many sub-sets of blacks and Hispanics, too, and their performance differs as well. Continuing this line of analysis, we're all unique individuals, right? The report can be found here.