Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 13
March 27, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
What's eating Gordon Brown?
Sunshine State dark age
Running to Roget
Accountability that even a teacher could love
Separation of church and class
School Choice Yearbook 2007
March 27, 2008
Classes will be affected by class resentments if British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, have their way. While both men offer beaucoup platitudes about increasing the skills of Britain's workforce and its global economic competitiveness, their government is, contemporaneously, attempting to dull the few sparkling parts of the U.K.'s educational system.
In 1848, William Thackeray skewered Britain's famously hidebound habits in his Book of Snobs. Thackeray, in his younger years, was actually educated at a redoubt of such snobbery: Charterhouse, a top English "public school." (Public schools in the U.K. are independent schools similar to the burnished prep academies of New England, except the British versions are typically older and even stuffier.) Today, to board at Charterhouse (founded 1611) will cost $52,000 a year. Brown, educated at state-run institutions, has always found this public-school elitism distasteful.
Charterhouse and its ilk are not simply pricey, though--they also offer excellent educations. But unreconstructed Laborites like Brown don't seem to care; regardless of the educational merits of public schools, their exclusivity still grates. Those resentment-flames are further fanned because Charterhouse, like other public schools and many of Britain's other, less-elite independent schools, is classified as a charitable organization and therefore receives substantial tax exemptions.
Those exemptions are now, however, no longer guaranteed. Last month, the government's Charity Commission made clear that it would begin holding all independent, non-state schools to more-rigid charitable standards. It is not enough to
March 27, 2008
The evolution debate in Florida grows tiresome, and not only because Ben Stein--he of somnolent monotone--is now involved, but because it keeps reiterating the same, tired points albeit in different ways.
Stein trotted to Tallahassee earlier this month to offer a preview of his forthcoming documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which chronicles the supposed classroom suppression by "Big Science" of any theory that competes with evolution. Lawmakers were allowed to see the movie; the press and public were not.
Stein was also hanging around the Capitol to promote the "Academic Freedom Act," sponsored by Republican Sen. Ronda Storms and Rep. Alan Hays. The bill, which yesterday passed a Senate committee, would allow teachers the right "to objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views" of evolution. Stein said at a news conference, "This bill is not about teaching intelligent design. It's about freedom of speech."
Casey Luskin--who works for the Discovery Institute, which supports intelligent design--echoed Stein's sentiments and said the bill would protect only teachers who choose to educate students about scientific objections to evolution. Luskin, however, believes that intelligent design is science.
There they go again. If this bill passes, of course, the tedious debate will revive: Is intelligent design science or isn't it? Let's avoid this exhausted topic for a moment, though, and examine other reasons why making the "Academic Freedom Act" a law is a lousy idea for
March 27, 2008
As members of the Massachusetts State Board of Education rack their collective brain by searching for kinder words than "underperforming" with which to label sorry schools, the board's only student member, Zachary Tsetsos, seemed to be also the only one with any common sense. "Why are we spending time on this?" he asked. "I'm not concerned about what title we give these schools. Let's work on fixing them." Gadfly agrees; the Board would do well to abandon its multi-month hunt through the thesaurus for ways to obscure the obvious and bolster educators' self-esteem. (If decades of research into self-esteem has shown us anything, it's that true self-esteem results from bona fide accomplishment, not fake pumping-up.) The "underperforming" tag is intended to designate the school so labeled as failing to meet accountability standards. Weakening the language ("Commonwealth priority" is one suggested change) will only confuse everyone. Reality: many students are underperforming, and so are many schools, even in Massachusetts. To change that, their schools require administrators and a state board that engage in substantive reforms, not semantic gymnastics.
"Education Leaders Seeking Gentler Euphemisms for Failing Schools," Associated Press, March 22, 2008
March 27, 2008
Good leaders know that the buck stops with them; others need to be reminded. So reasons the Mississippi Board of Education, which pushed through the state's House of Representatives a bill to remove underperforming superintendents from their jobs, even if they were elected by the public. (Yes, in some states local superintendents are still elected.) Unfortunately and oddly, voters selecting education officials too seldom consider educational performance and student achievement, so this tonic is more than appropriate. But the details matter. The current Mississippi plan would fire superintendents after two years of poor district performance, which isn't much time to turn around a miserable situation. Nor is it clear that Mississippi superintendents who take over terrible districts and make major gains while still falling short of certain benchmarks will be spared the guillotine. Nonetheless, the idea behind the bill is the right one: If educators are held accountable, so, too, should their bosses.
"Miss. House Passes Accountability Bill For School Superintendents," Associated Press, March 19, 2008
"Board of Education pushing bill to hold superintendents accountable," Clarion-Ledger, March 17, 2008
March 27, 2008
Ever since the release of his biography of Al Shanker, Tough Liberal, Richard Kahlenberg has been busy penning articles about the education issue du jour, asking always: What would Shanker do? His latest is an Education Week commentary that on the twentieth anniversary of the charter school idea asks whether or not the schools that sprung from it have fulfilled the purposes for which Shanker originally found them suitable. Kahlenberg thinks no. For example, charter schools teachers are often un-unionized. "Not surprisingly," writes Kahlenberg, "lacking a collective voice, teachers in charter schools turn over at almost twice the rate of public school teachers." The connection is misrepresented. Modern industries in our modern economy consider it normal for talented people to jump from one profession to the next. That district schools don't experience such turnover is indicative 1) of the stasis that union representation brings and 2) of the type of person who may choose to teach in a district-school environment, not that charter-school teachers are dissatisfied with their jobs. Kahlenberg's other shaky points are too numerous to refute here, but suffice it to say that evaluating the effectiveness of charter schools by whether they meet education expectations of decades past is a method of distinctive illogic.
"The Charter School Idea Turns 20," by Richard Kahlenberg, Education Week, March 26, 2008
March 27, 2008
The Hillsborough County school district (Tampa) has adopted a secular academic calendar, according to which religious holidays are not free days: the school must go on. For Good Friday, however, the district announced that it would excuse all absences--whether for religious reasons or not. To complicate matters further, some parents received the news via telephone message while others did not. The result: eight in ten students failed to show up for class on Good Friday. Many pupils no doubt skipped church for the beach (and all sorts of scripture-flouting activities), while those who came to school watched movies, stared at the wall, and daydreamed about the beach. In other words, no actual learning took place. Bad move, Hillsborough County. A district that declares a secular academic calendar should enforce it. Or it should cancel school and tack the time on at the end of the year. One or the other. School days are precious and deserve serious treatment from districts, parents, and students.
Michael J. Petrilli / March 27, 2008
Sari Levy, Van Schoales, and Tony Lewis
Piton and Donnell-Kay Foundations
It's been over a year since the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce made the inspired recommendation that America's teacher compensation system be turned on its head. Rather than sending the vast majority of goodies to veteran teachers and retirees--in the form of generous, stable, risk-free pensions--more dollars should be targeted to new teachers in the form of higher salaries and incentive pay, the group argued. We agreed wholeheartedly and last summer released a groundbreaking analysis, by Robert Costrell and Michael Podgursky, of Ohio's teacher pensions system that showed how its "peaks and valleys" created perverse incentives for young and old teachers alike. (They expanded their analysis in this Education Next article.) Now two Colorado foundations have sponsored a similar review of the Denver Public Schools (DPS) pension system--and found similar problems. The Donnell-Kay Foundation's executive director, Tony Lewis, said it well: "It is great if you plan to stay with DPS your entire career and it is lackluster if you don't." Want proof? The study looked at the total compensation DPS teachers earned--both salaries and accrued pension benefits--and found that DPS teachers reap approximately $450,000 in their first decade of teaching, $600,000 in their second decade, and a whopping $1.4 million in their third. To be sure, that's partly a function of the district's
March 27, 2008
Alliance for School Choice and Advocates for School Choice
This volume is straightforward, no-nonsense stuff. Choice is good and so is more of it. Kids and parents seem to agree: Over the past five years there has been an 84 percent increase in school choice enrollment, with 150,000 kids participating this school year. Sixteen choice programs currently operate in nine states plus D.C.--all-time highs for both the number of programs and the number of states with programs. The Yearbook surveys individual states and their school-choice laws and explains, in terms of graduation rates, academic achievement, competition, and parent satisfaction, why the continuing rise in choice legislation and programs is worth celebrating. According to the report, for example, Milwaukee's voucher students have graduation rates eleven percent higher, reading-test scores eleven percent higher, and math-test scores six percent higher than their non-voucher peers. Down south, 92.7 percent of parents whose students receive Florida's McKay Scholarships (vouchers for pupils with disabilities) are satisfied with their children's education, whereas only 32.7 percent were satisfied with the public schools their children previously attended. The report also includes a simple guide to assorted flavors of vouchers. And it makes special mention of school choice's bipartisan support: "Three-quarters of school choice victories in 2006 and 2007 were won in states where Democrats controlled either the Governorship, Legislature, or both." Among African Americans, 68 percent support vouchers for low-income children to attend private schools (61 percent of Hispanics feel the