Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 12
March 20, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
Traditional math > arithmetic
NCLB giveth, Spellings taketh away
The job of a lifetime
On imitation and flattery
Smart accountability, perhaps
Now with double the outrage
This week, Mike and the New America Foundation's Sara Mead discuss Spellings, Baltimore, and the NIEER. Jeff Kuhner is outraged about Pell Grants for rapists, and Education News of the Weird just can't hold it.
March 20, 2008
Despite enormous efforts to improve high schools, progress has been slow and uneven. But one important educational innovation, virtual schooling, can greatly accelerate the pace of reform.
Nationwide, virtual schools are popular and growing rapidly. Over 700,000 k-12 students took virtual courses during the 2005-06 school year-almost double the estimate of students taking online learning courses just three years earlier. Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, and South Dakota recently became the latest of the two dozen states to establish state-run, virtual high school-programs. And, for most students, virtual schooling doesn't replace traditional high schools, but integrates with and enhances what they have to offer.
Though online education is controversial in some circles, research shows that it can be as effective as traditional classroom-learning. More importantly, the best virtual schools excel in areas that reformers have already identified as crucial to high-school improvement: more personalized learning environments, highly qualified teachers, challenging coursework, and relevant learning opportunities. A recent analysis of k-12, distance education research published by Learning Point Associates, an educational research organization, underscores that point: "Virtual schools may represent the best hope for bringing high school reform quickly to large numbers of students."
But in many states and districts, virtual schooling initiatives are not included in systemic high-school improvement strategies. For example, many states are attempting to raise graduation standards and increase the level of rigor in their schools' curricula, but they neglect to consider how virtual schools can help.
Michael J. Petrilli / March 20, 2008
Just like many education philanthropists, education reporters tend to tread carefully around issues of curriculum and pedagogy. It's not hard to understand why; anyone who spends their working lives outside of the classroom is naturally leery about appearing to tell teachers how to do their jobs (myself included).
Perhaps out of this concern, some reporters revert to a simple, if simplistic, journalistic approach: when covering debates around the teaching of math or reading or other subjects, they present the story as a struggle between opposing camps. And their preferred narrative is the truce: the two warring factions, each with extreme views, find middle ground in a common-sense approach that even your average newspaper-reader can understand.
So it was with the media's coverage of the National Math Panel's final report, released last week. The Wall Street Journal even put this narrative in its headline: "Education Panel Lays Out Truce In Math Wars." The New York Times said the report "tries to put to rest the long, heated debate over math teaching methods."
Many papers quoted Larry Faulkner, the panel's chairman, who declared, "There is no basis in research for favoring teacher-based or student-centered instruction. People may retain their strongly held philosophical inclinations, but the research does not show that either is better than the other."
But is this narrative true? Was the math panel's report a compromise? Hardly. The report is a major victory for math traditionalists, with its
March 20, 2008
The Washington Post reported Monday that No Child Left Behind has pressured schools to raise the achievement of students with disabilities. The mother of Stephen Sabia, who has Down syndrome, explained that "he's been exposed to literature and other academics at a level I don't think he would have without [NCLB]." But by Tuesday, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings had announced a "pilot program" that could ease this constructive pressure, at least in the states that choose to participate. Her idea, which has some merit, is to "differentiate" between really bad schools that fail across the board, and mediocre schools that fail one or two of their subgroups-such as special-education students. The Department of Education promises that "differentiated accountability is not about lessening the focus on all students reaching grade level in reading and mathematics." Let's hope so, because without strong oversight, this approach could take us back to the 1990s, when suburban schools got a clean bill of health from state accountability systems even when they failed to educate their poor, minority, or special education students. For the sake of the Stephen Sabias of the world, here's hoping that doesn't happen again. (See this "Fordham Factor" video-cast for more.)
"Law Opens Opportunities for Disabled," by Maria Glod, Washington Post, March 17, 2008
"U.S. Eases ‘No Child' Law as Applied to Some States," by Sam Dillon, New York Times, March 19, 2008
March 20, 2008
While the Empire State was agog over Spitzergate, New York's union-friendly state assembly quietly passed a bill that will preemptively quash any attempts by school districts to factor student test-scores into tenure considerations. The measure is unsubtly aimed at the Big Apple, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg is hawking outcomes-based personnel policies, such as evaluating teachers by their students' standardized-exam gains. Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said she had not pressed for the legislation. If you believe that, you probably also think George Mason is headed to the Final Four, because massaging legislatures, especially in New York, is a key union strategy that allows them to bypass the time-consuming process of negotiating policies into local collective-bargaining agreements. (Although unions are pretty fierce at the bargaining table, too: see here.) Unfortunately, this approach also negates the power of district and school leaders to experiment with promising reforms. Bloomberg has vowed to fight back. Using test scores to remove lousy teachers before they get tenure is a great idea (one being pushed by some on the left, too), and if this bill stands, it won't happen in New York.
"Bill Would Bar Linking Class Test Scores to Tenure," by Jennifer Medina, New York Times, March 18, 2008
March 20, 2008
President Bush's "Pell Grants for Kids" proposal was dead on arrival but may nonetheless have a positive impact. Education Week reports that Illinois Democratic Congressman Rahm Emanuel "is developing a plan that would allow parents of children attending low-performing schools to enroll their children in a charter school-or any other public school-and the federal government would supplement the budget of that school." Emanuel's plan even has the same name as the president's. It ain't perfect, of course. Sister Dale McDonald of the National Catholic Educational Association called it a "stimulus package for charter schools" that does nothing for struggling private institutions. But even on its best day, when the sun is shining and the cherry blossoms blooming, the current Congress won't allow federal funds to flow to parochial schools. Emanuel's plan targets the same disadvantaged youngsters that the president's proposal would and it offers them expanded educational options. Charter schools, which currently receive only 78 percent of the money regular public schools do, would also get a financial boost. Gadfly is eager to learn the specifics. Consider his interest piqued.
"Key Democrat's Plan Would Boost Charter Schools," Education Week, David J. Hoff, March 13, 2008
March 20, 2008
Buckle up and hold on. Not only has Baltimore's schools chief Andres Alonso pushed through plans that would slash the number of his district's central-office jobs, but he also won approval last week to create five new combined middle/high schools (which will be run by outside operators) and require the staff at three other Baltimore schools to reapply for their jobs. In addition, Alonso put forth a budget that diverts money from the central office to classrooms and that allows principals to manage their own schools' dollars. His strategy is to plow forward at full-steam. At a recent City Council meeting, he quoted the racer-car drive Mario Andretti: "If you're driving and you feel you're in control, you're not going fast enough." In urban settings, where the problems besetting schools are legion, it's often insufficient to tackle one setback at a time and plod along methodically. Big-city superintendents have short tenures, so if they want to see change happen, they need to do a million things at once. That's how Paul Vallas went about his work in Philadelphia, for example: "Do things big, do them fast, and do them all at once." Baltimore's schools demand such treatment, and Alonso appears determined to administer it. Let's hope he doesn't crash.
"Schools chief races ahead with initiatives," by Sara Neufeld, Baltimore Sun, March 16, 2008
March 20, 2008
Florida state Senator Don Gaetz is pushing a bill that would grade high schools by measures other than just the state test, the FCAT. Gaetz, a Republican, said that "only about half of high-school students take the FCAT in any given year, yet the grade for the school is determined by what half the students do." The proposed bill would base 50 percent of high-school grades on the FCAT while adding other accountability measures to the mix: a school's graduation rate, student participation in AP and IB courses, and SAT or ACT results. It has bipartisan backing, and Governor Charlie Crist indicated his support, saying, "It sounds like a smart thing to do." Indeed it does, but one wonders how Florida will ensure, for example, that its graduation-rate calculations (notoriously sketchy) are valid, that schools are not manipulating the numbers, and that the inclusion of SAT scores won't create a perverse incentive for schools to dissuade students of middling academic achievement from taking college entrance-exams. In short, lawmakers must be wary of unintended consequences. Done right, Gaetz's proposals will strengthen Sunshine State accountability. Enacted thoughtlessly, though, his changes could weaken it.
"Gaetz: Alter school performance measure," by Donna Vavalla, Panama City News Herald, March 13, 2008
"Lawmakers look to lessen schools' reliance on FCAT," by Gary Fineout, Miami Herald, March 13, 2008
March 20, 2008
Governor's Committee on Education Excellence
The final report of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's Committee on Education Excellence (see here), released last week, finds that California's education system "turns common sense on its head." It blames this system for the Golden State's educational woes and notes that school leaders who achieve success have had to work around the rules and bypass the system. The Committee developed a series of inter-related priorities to "create a constantly escalating cycle of continuous improvement" in the state. In the area of teaching and leadership, the report recommends implementing merit pay, adding extra compensation for math and science teachers, and creating more professional advancement opportunities for teachers who want to stay in the classroom. The second "priority": funding. The report criticizes California's "categorical" system of financing, which distributes funds through over 100 discrete categorical programs and thus causes a maze of bureaucracy that distracts principals from their roles as "instructional leaders." The third priority is about streamlining governance and strengthening accountability. It emphasizes data collection. A "reality gap" between what Californians think is occurring in schools and what is actually occurring leads to complacency (from citizens and government) about education-reform efforts. The Committee repeatedly emphasizes that all of its reforms should be implemented as a package; piecemeal, a la carte tweaking, the authors write, may do more harm than good. This report is far-reaching and doesn't mince words. Will Californians follow its lead? Find it
Making Professional Conduct in Education More Intelligent: Using Knowledge and Skills to Enhance Moral Sensibilities (Dispositions)
Coby Loup / March 20, 2008
Jack Benniga, Mary Diez, Erskine Dottin, Sharon Feiman-Nemser, Peter Murrell, Hugh Sockett
Teacher Education as a Moral Community
This short paper exemplifies the kind of soft-hearted but hard-headed thinking that pervades so many discussions about teacher education. The particular topic under discussion here is whether ed schools should inculcate and evaluate teacher "dispositions," which the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) put at the center of its standards in 2000. Dispositions, according to NCATE, are the "values, commitments, and professional ethics that influence behaviors toward students, families, colleagues, and communities and affect student learning, motivation, and development as well as the educator's own professional growth." Nothing could be vaguer, of course, but many observers saw the language as a ploy to insert left-leaning morals training into ed school curricula. (In response to a paper by William Damon, NCATE removed from its standards the mention of "social justice.") What do the authors of this report think? They like the concept but believe it needs some fine-tuning. For instance, dispositions shouldn't be thought of simply as "attributes of an individual like beliefs or attitudes," but as "embedded in a context of action and activity." Furthermore, dispositions have a place in ed schools "as an aid cultivating aspects of ethical and moral teaching practice, and not as the inculcation of those aspects." Got that? All this opaque talk stems from the authors' belief that "the task of educating all