Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 10
March 6, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
The true story of Reading First
The education of John McCain
Make like a laser and focus
The write fight
Highly regulated principals
A certain Finnish je ne sais quoi
The patron saint of busy
Education Quality and Economic Growth
Ethically-challenged political appointee overrides the "merit" process and steers millions of federal dollars to preferred firms, including one that employs his wife, all the while foiling those who would favor a different outcome. The program's intended beneficiaries--poor, illiterate children--lose out. Then a courageous federal watchdog investigates, producing an exposé-style report that brings down the arrogant official, who resigns in disgrace and engages an attorney. The opposition party and media exploit the opportunity, score many points, and hold the incumbent administration accountable.
The Reading First tale you have read and think you know, the one above, is almost entirely fiction. As City Journal contributing editor Sol Stern reveals in our new report, Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First, the real Reading First story is far less salacious--and vastly less formulaic--yet much more interesting. Certainly it's more important. There were scandals all right, just not the ones that grabbed national headlines.
Four decades of rigorous scientific studies demonstrate that most young children need explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness in order to learn how to read. The Reading First program was designed to support these findings, giving the force of law to mountains of evidence on effective reading instruction; it asked recipients of federal dollars to choose reading programs that work. It didn't say they had to do that--unless they wanted to share in this particular bucket of money.
At the program's outset, we were
As the GOP worries whether John McCain, now anointed as the party's leader-in-waiting and November standard-bearer, is sufficiently Reaganesque to do right in the Oval Office, here's a point in the senator's favor: Like the Gipper, he doesn't consider education a top presidential priority. Indeed, McCain has said very little about the subject on the campaign trail, and his website barely touches it.
That's in vivid contrast to our last three presidents. Bush père campaigned to be the "education president" and swiftly convened the nation's first education summit. Clinton demonstrated his "third way" bona fides by pushing charter schools and school uniforms. And the incumbent Bush staked his claim to compassionate conservatism partly on his beloved No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) and its dramatic expansion of the federal role in education.
Such Oval Office advocacy and activism helped give life to some promising ideas--school choice and standards-testing-accountability in particular--but also created a myth and a monster.
The myth: The president can make our schools better. It's a myth that most citizens seem to believe. So do some candidates. Observe Senator Obama stating, during a recent debate, with a straight face and trademarked sincere look, that "we should not accept a school in South Carolina that was built in the 1800s, where kids are having to learn in trailers, and every time the railroad goes by the tracks, the building shakes and the teacher has to stop teaching." Excuse us, Senator, but what
March 6, 2008
The final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel will be released next week, and indications are it will contain several solid proposals while also avoiding many of the contentious "math wars" issues. According to the Wall Street Journal, the panel's big recommendation for fixing the country's "‘broken' system of mathematics education" is a "laserlike focus on the essentials." Essentialists ourselves, we think that's a fine idea. And the benchmarks the panel puts forth "mirror closely a September 2006 report by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics," which is cause for optimism because the 2006 document (unlike sundry earlier NCTM products) was well done (see here). Math panel chairman Larry Faulkner believes "it's time to cool the passions" that divide those who prefer traditional arithmetic instruction from advocates of "fuzzy math." Therefore, next week's report does not specify which instructional method is superior, nor does it take a position on whether students should use calculators in early grades. But a "laserlike focus" is fundamentally at war with fuzziness, so the panel's findings are certainly a positive development, maybe as important to math education as the National Reading Panel's were to reading.
"Education Panel Lays Out Truce In Math Wars," by John Hechinger, Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2008
March 6, 2008
David Gelernter turns in a brisk essay in the March 3rd Weekly Standard, contending that English, a beautiful language, has been hijacked by feminists who are ruining writing and depleting the supply of those in America who write well. They do this by inserting odd, abrasive phrases like "he or she" and "chairperson" into the vernacular. Gelernter is certainly correct that the first rule of writing ("keep it simple, concrete, concise") is regularly flouted today, but this is not entirely, or even mostly, the work of feminists. Much of the blame must be placed on our schools, which require their students neither to write nor to read great writing and, yet, are seemingly flummoxed when students cannot write. Universities are little better; the writing championed in campus classrooms is akin to Linear A in inscrutability. Learning to express ideas clearly is a basic part of any decent education--for boys and girls alike, if not for inanimate objects such as chairs.
"Feminism and the English Language," by David Gelernter, The Weekly Standard, March 3, 2008
March 6, 2008
From the Department of Bad Ideas: Creating federal certification for "highly qualified" principals. We would delight in eviscerating proposals like this, but Sheryl Boris-Schacter has already done a fine job of it. In a recent Education Week piece, Boris-Schacter--a living, breathing school principal--rejects the idea that education leadership can be improved or managed from Washington. "Legislated, standardized, and prescribed requirements leading to a new ‘highly qualified' principal status would stress professional educators already weary from endless accountability measures, wasted resources, and the inevitable paperwork that cuts into time for instructional leadership," she writes. Indeed. Boris-Schacter also notes that more mandates are likely to impede the recruitment of genuinely highly qualified individuals to lead schools. From the Department of Better Ideas: Allowing principals more autonomy but holding them accountable for the academic achievement of their schools' students. Dispense, please, with the arbitrary and muddled regulations. They haven't gotten us anywhere.
"Good Principals by Fiat?," by Sheryl Boris-Schacter, Education Week, February 27, 2008
March 6, 2008
Call it education's version of the French paradox. Students in Finland "have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells, and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don't start school until age 7." Yet Finnish pupils outscore nearly all their international peers on tests in reading, math, and science. How to explain Finland's bubble-filling superiority? For one, according to the Wall Street Journal, the country's teaching profession is "highly competitive," and teachers "generally have more freedom" (other reports disagree, though). Finns also "love reading," so much so that the government sends to parents of every newborn a gift pack that includes a picture book. And Finnish students aren't plagued by anxieties about getting into elite colleges because Finland doesn't have any. But perhaps the best way of explaining the Finnish paradox is this: Educators there teach the same types of students, nearly all of whom speak Finnish and grow up in comfortable households. This doesn't come close to describing the U.S. situation. American educators eager to learn from our Scandinavian friends should remember that what works for the Finns (walking around class without shoes, for example) won't necessarily work for us. We have too many tacks on the floor.
"What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?" by Ellen Gamerman, Wall Street Journal, February 29, 2008
March 6, 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
Coby Loup / March 6, 2008
Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann
The World Bank
In this important study for the World Bank, Hanushek and Woessmann argue that a nation's average level of "cognitive skills," as determined by student performance on math and science tests, is a more accurate measure of its human capital than the measures used in previous studies. The authors muster data from international tests dating back to 1964 to compare several nations' levels of cognitive skills to their GDP growth over the same period. (Because different international tests were administered over the years, they tied all the scores to NAEP, thus enabling them to establish a baseline for comparison.) They found, in short, that "countries with higher test scores experienced far higher growth rates." Furthermore, this correlation was significantly stronger than that between a country's growth rate and the years of schooling its students receive, which was a previously favored measure of human capital. Even after controlling for variables like geography, initial economic development, fertility, property rights, openness to international trade, and freedom of domestic markets, the authors found that "a highly skilled work force can raise economic growth by about two-thirds of a percentage point every year." Of course, they didn't account for such intangibles as creativity and innovativeness. Painful experience shows that, put in the wrong hands (those of a Senate committee, say) the researcher's scholarly chisel becomes a policy bludgeon. So read the report here (a