Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 11
March 13, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
Why so cruel to home school?
Five school reformers walk into a bar...
The patron saint of busy
The NEA should hire Spitzer
This week, Mike and the National Council on Teacher Quality's Sandi Jacobs discuss whether liberals should support Reading First, the worst teachers deserve $10,000 to quit, and the best teachers deserve $125,000 to teach. Jeff Kuhner is outraged about lawyers, unions, theft, and Elliot Spitzer, and Education News of the Weird is, psst... yo... got any Milk Duds?
March 13, 2008
A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, tells us that California's Second District Court of Appeal was correct to rule last week that parents without teaching credentials cannot educate their children at home--i.e., that most of the 166,000-odd home-schooled students in the Golden State could be truants and their parents may be violating the law.
Duffy missed a fine opportunity to keep quiet when he said, "What's best for a child is to be taught by a credentialed teacher." This echoes other union honchos and even former California Superintendent for Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, who wrote in 2002 that all schooling in her state needed to be supervised by professionally trained teachers. Furthermore, Eastin noted, "Home schools are not even subject to competition from private schools, where the marketplace would presumably ensure some level of quality and innovation."
Such statements are derisible. Los Angeles Unified school district enrolls some 700,000 students taught by the credentialed teachers that Duffy represents, and a mere 33 percent of those pupils are proficient on reading tests, only 38 percent hit that mark on basic tests of math, and 56 percent never graduate. What's best for a child, it seems, has little or nothing to do with the credentials Duffy cherishes.
Furthermore, it strikes one as particularly noxious when the head of a big-city teachers' union, the members of which are failing to educate a stunning amount of their charges, advocates for a court
Michael J. Petrilli / March 13, 2008
Okay--it was a restaurant, not a bar, where Green Dot's Steve Barr, AEI's Rick Hess, venture philanthropist Vanessa Kirsch, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and Gates Foundation alumnus Tom Vander Ark sat down with writer Paul Tough for a New York Times Magazine "roundtable" on education philanthropy. (Find it here.)
Their question: If you were to advise a billionaire on how to spend his largesse on k-12 education, what would you recommend?
This kitchen cabinet cooked up some nourishing nostrums, all related to shaking up the system. Barr, for example, would fund outsiders--"disruptive forces" like the KIPP guys circa 1995. Vander Ark argues for public-policy investments. And Hess calls for a focus on basic infrastructure, like "legal and business support" to help programs such as The New Teacher Project grow. Building a market in education, he continues, isn't just about creating new options: "It's a little bit like the mistake we made in planning for the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003: if we create a vacuum, good stuff will happen."
Indispensable ideas, but in light of Sol Stern's recent troublemaking with regard to "incentivists" versus "instructionists," it's striking how Tough's roundtable discussion never reached the classroom. In a 5,000 word forum on education, these words did not appear once: instruction, curriculum, reading, math, history, literature. This "incentivist" thinking is a fair reflection of the state of the "new" education philanthropy. Staffed mostly by smart MBAs
March 13, 2008
The central offices of the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., school districts are slimming. Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso this week proposed to cut more than 300 central-office jobs, which will allow him to plug a $40 million budget shortfall and reroute another $70 million directly to schools. He also plans to give principals, who now control a mere $90 of the $13,000 spent annually on each of their students, much more monetary discretion. Fifty miles south, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee recently dismissed 98 central-office employees, which sparked yet another eruption of indignation from city council members, district officials, and union leaders. One former employee warned that "when a lot of people are let go from that office it hinders building the infrastructure for the system because you don't have people with historical knowledge." Historical knowledge of what? Of years of corruption, declining academic achievement, and failed reform? Fortunately, the plans of Alonso and Rhee mark real efforts to break with their districts' checkered pasts. Let's hope the two leaders can survive long enough to see them through.
"Firings Cut Payroll by $6 Million," by V. Dion Haynes and Theola Labbé, Washington Post, March 12, 2008
"Alonso to cut central school staff," by Sara Neufeld, Baltimore Sun, March 11, 2008
"D.C. Schools Chief Fires 98 Workers," by V. Dion Haynes and Yolanda Woodlee, Washington Post, March 8, 2008
"Workers, Council Question Firings," by V. Dion
March 13, 2008
There are sound ways to encourage more students to enroll in AP classes. But the tack of Seattle's Roosevelt High School, which will require all its sophomores to take at least one AP course next year, is not one of them. The city's chief academic officer called Roosevelt's plan "a great idea for exposing students to all the rigorous thinking of an AP course" but neglected to consider that some high-school sophomores (those who cannot read, perhaps) are unprepared for such rigors. They will not do well in any AP class the standards of which live up to its labeling, and their presence will likely harm their peers who are prepared. A better approach is that of Duval County (Jacksonville), Florida, where high-school teachers target their AP selection by identifying students with unpolished academic potential and then nudge them into the tough classes. The teachers also provide those students with extra support. A danger exists, though: That AP classes may come to be seen less as places for the strongest students to soar--to engage in exhilarating academic lessons and lively discussion--than as tools for challenging moderately talented pupils. School leaders should hesitate before denying that the latter detracts from the former.
"All Roosevelt sophomores to take AP class," by Emily Heffter, Seattle Times, March 7, 2008
"Opening AP to All," by Catherine Gewertz, Education Week, March 12, 2008
March 13, 2008
An anti-union group hopes to expose how difficult it is to fire the most dreadful teachers. The Center for Union Facts is asking educators, parents, and students to nominate the "worst unionized teacher in America"; the group will choose ten winners (losers, really) and offer each $10,000 to exit the classroom posthaste. The nominees can collect the cash only if they allow their names and stories to be posted on the center's website, teachersunionexposed.com (which went live Tuesday). The group's president, Rick Berman, says he's simply "trying to jump-start a conversation" about the stranglehold teachers' unions have on public education. Gadfly admires Berman's passion and grit but wonders about his tactics. Spotlighting ineffectual teachers--public or private--and bringing transparency to classrooms is a fine idea. But Berman's approach may play into the hands of the unions, which will surely complain (actually have already complained) that "America's teachers are once again under attack." Plus, why would a horrendous teacher agree to be humiliated for $10,000? Certainly he could make far more by clinging to tenure.
"Group has severance plan for 'worst unionized teachers,'" by Greg Toppo, USA Today, March 11, 2008
March 13, 2008
St. Anthony School in Milwaukee exists today only because of the city's voucher program. In 1998, before the state supreme court allowed public money to fund religious schools, St. Anthony enrolled under 300 students. Now it has over 1,000 pupils (all but about a dozen attend on vouchers) and is thriving. The school has a back-to-basics view of learning, one that prizes phonics, for example, and Core Knowledge instruction. The students, almost all of whom are from Spanish-speaking homes, are occupied with work the entire day. "They're so busy," said teacher Jenni Madden about her fifth-graders. "There's no time for discipline issues." The kids aren't the only ones who have to adjust to St. Anthony's rigid atmosphere, though. The teachers do, too. Madden, like most of her colleagues, attended an education school that taught constructivist instruction, which allows students to do their own, self-guided learning. Such flim-flam doesn't cut it in Madden's real classroom, she says, or in St. Anthony School at large. Three cheers for the Milwaukee voucher program that allows hundreds of students to attend this fine institution, and three cheers for the teachers who, with the help of spot-on instructional methods, make a real education possible for their charges.
"Changes at St. Anthony Make It a School to Watch," by Alan Borsuk, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 8, 2008
March 13, 2008
A creeping malaise exists amongst British children, it seems. In February 2007, the United Nations Children Fund labeled U.K. youths the most unhappy in the western world. And why? The Association of Teachers and Lecturers, a national teachers' union, lays the blame at homework's feet. It has therefore proposed assigning to primary students no homework at all and setting strict limits for the amount that may be demanded of secondary students. The ATL's motion, on which it will vote at an upcoming conference, includes this: "Children should be able to explore, experiment, and enjoy their learning without feeling pressured." First, this is clearly an awful strategy that won't make students generally happier and will make them dumber. Second, it's odd that the same types who argue that schools can have only a minor effect on the academic achievement of their pupils (because family situation counts for so much more) are the same ones arguing that schools have an enormous effect on the happiness of their pupils. And third, prove us wrong: Find for us an angsty adolescent whose foremost aggravation is homework (and not unrequited love, say, or war), and we'll give up this think-tank thing for good.
"The anxiety epidemic: Why are children so unhappy?," by Richard Garner, The Independent, March 11, 2008
Coby Loup / March 13, 2008
Center on Education Policy
Although this report could be more rigorous in its methodology (on which more below), it touches an important issue: the suspected "narrowing of the curriculum" resulting from NCLB's emphasis on reading and math. CEP conducted a nationally representative survey of 349 school districts during the 2006-2007 school year. It found that elementary schools in 58 percent of those districts had, since NCLB went into effect, increased instructional time in reading by an average of 141 minutes per week. In math, 45 percent of districts had increased instructional time by an average of 89 minutes per week. As averages of total weekly instructional time spent on the subjects, these were increases of 47 percent and 37 percent, respectively. On the other side of the scale, weekly time spent on social studies decreased by 32 percent, science by 33 percent, and art and music by 35 percent--a real tragedy, but one that's thankfully receiving some attention (see here and here). As for the methodology, one must always approach self-reported data with caution, but in this case especially so because they come from the district level. Are we to believe that district officials have a clear picture of just how much time is being spent on specific subjects in the various elementary-school classrooms they oversee? Furthermore, many if not most of the district officials surveyed have their own opinions on the narrowing of the curriculum,