Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 17
May 1, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
School size and the Goldilocks phenomenon
By Eric Osberg ,
Bullish in Baltimore
What's in a name?
Chickens coming home to roost
This week, Mike and Rick talk teacher absence policies, Cleveland classrooms, and changing racial identities. Jeff Kuhner doesn't like all the kids messing around on Myface, and Education News of the Weird is taking the day off to do some fishing. Click here to listen through our website and peruse past editions.
Like Goldilocks's search for the perfectly sized chair in the classic children's fable, educators have long sought the perfectly sized school.
Some have pushed for tiny schools. Ohio's KnowledgeWorks Foundation, for example, recommended in its 2002 report Dollars and Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools the creation of public high schools with a mere 200 students and elementary schools with 100 students (see here). The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation famously invested millions to start new, small high schools and break large ones into miniature units.
Results, however, have not inspired awe, and so the critics of small size as an instructional aid remain unconvinced. Fordham board member Diane Ravitch has long noted the limitations of smaller schools, especially that such schools are not able to offer a bountiful buffet of courses. Her critiques are well worth considering, and one can consider away here, here, and here.
But schools with fewer students have their benefits. One of the selling points for charter schools is that, because they are generally smaller than traditional district schools, they provide both a safer and more nurturing environment for students. Nationally, the average charter school enrolls about 560 students while the traditional district school has about 900. Studies indicate that teachers and principals in charters report fewer safety problems and that many good charters have the feel of a "community" or
May 1, 2008
An essay that every high-school freshman should be required to read but isn't is "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell. It begins with this line: "Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it."
So it was in 1946, and so it is today and worse. Most people now do most of their writing in emails, and so, we learn, various email formatting (a disdain for capitalization, an explosion of exclamation marks) will creep and be seamlessly integrated into other prose forums. Text-messaging students are already inserting emoticons--i.e., smiley faces, frowny faces, and other pictures that express generally the emotions that words might specifically--into their schoolwork. It is not unheard of to read in eighth-grade papers that "Plato lived b4 Aristotle."
Conventional wisdom holds that this slide is inevitable because language shapes itself. We don't shape it.
That claim is dubious and has also been around since at least 1946, when Orwell made mincemeat of it. He wrote that "an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form." The English language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."
An example of this popped up the
May 1, 2008
The requirement that states disaggregate test-score results by race is one feature of No Child Left Behind that receives near-universal praise. So dividing the data focuses communities on closing the achievement gap, for example, and it doesn't allow shiny test-score averages to hide the poor performance of particular student subgroups. But such a race-based approach has its problems, nonetheless, and it now appears that NCLB's chickens are coming home to roost. That's the inescapable conclusion from a recent exposé by the Sacramento Bee, which found 80 cases in California in which schools "got out of trouble" with NCLB by reclassifying the racial identity of their students. Will C. Wood Middle School Principal Jim Wong, for instance, had his staff ask the parents of four mixed-race children for permission to identify the youngsters as Caucasian. "You get a kid that's half black, half white. What are you going to put him down as?" Wong said. "If one kid makes the difference and I can go white, that gets me out of trouble." Wong's methods aren't admirable, they're even cynical, but he's undeniably responding to the incentives that NCLB provides. It's time to transcend NCLB's focus on race with a new focus on the performance of individual students.
"Schools reclassify students, pass test under federal law," by Laurel Rosenhall and Phillip Reese, Sacramento Bee, April 27, 2008
May 1, 2008
In the Big Apple, teachers who are "excessed"--i.e., replaced with teachers deemed more effective by principals--are put into an "Absent Teacher Reserve," which currently houses some 600 educators, all of whom receive full salaries and benefits and cost the city $81 million this year. To be clear: These 600 teachers are paid for doing nothing. Most school leaders don't want them, and a new report found that half of them had not even applied for any teaching vacancies through New York's online system. Now, wisely, the city wants to begin laying off those who for twelve months or more have languished in the Reserve, working on screenplays and playing Tetris on their iPhones. United Federation of Teachers boss Randi Weingarten is predictably outraged, claiming that "the D.O.E. is abdicating its responsibility to help the teachers who, through no fault of their own, have lost their positions." The statement defies all logic. Two-hundred miles south, opponents of a new D.C. agreement, which gives Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee power to reassign teachers at schools slated to close, are similarly off-base when they complain that it deprives educators at shuttering schools of the so-called "right" to follow transferring students. Do principals have no "right" to choose their own staffs? Do students have no "right" to competent teachers in their classrooms?
"$81 Million for Reserve of Teachers," by Jennifer Medina, New York Times, April 29, 2008
May 1, 2008
Gadfly has generally supported experiments that pay students for good attendance or test scores. And Baltimore's "Stocks in the Future," which gives middle school students up to $80 to invest in the stock market and lets them keep their earnings, is a model of what smart pay-pupils-for-performance programs should look like. It not only dangles dollars in front of youngsters, but it uses the money to spur interest in the material being taught--those who spend more time studying the ins and outs of Wall Street will learn more and have a better shot at making more money, too. What's key is that Baltimore is not inserting, willy-nilly, a monetary incentive where one may be inappropriate, or where it may undermine other positive incentives that already exist. Some ill-conceived student-pay programs do those things. But by tying dollars to economics education, or by, for example, rewarding improved English test scores with free books, schools use incentives wisely. Seems like an idea worth putting stock in.
"Schools Use Cash as an Incentive to Boost Attendance and Scores," by Sean J. Miller, Christian Science Monitor, April 29, 2008
May 1, 2008
A causal link between increased teacher absences and decreased student achievement exists. So it's no wonder that school leaders are looking for ways to keep educators in the classroom. "We have terrible attendance," said Van V. Lundy of Palm Beach County's school district, "especially on Friday." Researchers suggest that rewarding consistent attendance by paying teachers for unused sick days (either yearly or at retirement) is one good idea, as is altering the social structure of the school, so that teachers would have to call principals directly whenever they plan to miss a day. But few district programs that implement such thinking ever make it out of pilot status--because they're simply ineffective. "It seems to be that this, like so many other things, boils down to problems with the lack of penalties in k-12," said education economist Michael Podgursky. System-wide change may therefore be a long way off, but individual principals can still confront this problem in their own schools by encouraging a professional culture that frowns on teachers who abuse their sick days. If school leaders can engineer it so that slackers are ostracized in the teachers' lounge, it's a safe bet that attendance will grow better.
"Districts Experiment With Cutting Down on Teacher Absence," by Bess Keller, Education Week, April 30, 2008
May 1, 2008
The benefits of a value-added approach to school accountability, one that measures the test-score gains of individual students from year-to-year, is that it doesn't unfairly penalize schools that enroll large numbers of disadvantaged students. But it has drawbacks. Take, for example, the news that Cincinnati Public Schools may, now that Ohio has instituted value-added as part of its system, be judged "effective," which is the second-highest of the Buckeye State's five-tiered rating system. Even though CPS graduates students whose test scores are far lower than those of pupils in a nearby suburban district, the two systems could be judged equal. On one hand, CPS might be doing fine work, but on the other hand, most students who leave with CPS diplomas are by no means prepared to go on to college or fill a demanding job. An "effective" label thus gives a "false positive" to the community and education leaders that all is well, when it's not. Reauthorizers, take note.
"Could CPS rank ‘effective'?," by Ben Fischer, The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 26, 2008
May 1, 2008
Life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Life gives you students, make them teachers. That, at least, is the innovative policy used by Chalfonts school, in the U.K., which has dealt with teacher shortages by paying 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds $10 for each 50-minute class they teach. Generally, the older pupils teach classes of 11- to 16-year-olds. According to The Guardian, "John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers, said there was ‘every argument for older pupils to mentor younger ones,' but they should not be used as ‘quasi-suppy staff.'" Yes--Gadfly actually agrees with the union on this one. It's unfortunate that Jonathan Clarke, Chalfonts's vice principal, has a staff shortage, and it's too bad that, as he says, his student teachers are actually better than the supply teachers he occasionally receives. But allowing untrained 16-year-olds to teach class is simply a recipe for sour lemonade and uneducated youngsters.
"School pays pupils to fill teaching gaps," by Jessica Shepherd, The Guardian, April 29, 2008
Coby Loup / May 1, 2008
Melissa Roderick, Jenny Nagaoka, Elaine Allensworth
Consortium on Chicago School Research
Ed reformers sweat buckets over the achievement gap, but they pay less attention to the so-called "social capital gap" between those who are prepared to negotiate the winding path to higher education and those who aren't. This report suggests that many more high school graduates would make it to four-year colleges if only they had a little more basic, logistical assistance (in Chicago, at least). CCSR used data from their own survey and from Chicago Public Schools' postsecondary tracking system to examine "whether CPS students who aspire to four-year colleges are effectively participating in the college search and application process." What they found is disappointing but not too disheartening when one considers how relatively simple are the solutions. For instance, "the single most consistent predictor of whether students took steps toward college enrollment was whether their teachers reported that their high school had a strong college climate." Ordering some Ivy League pennants is no cure-all, but surely imbuing a school with a college-prep culture is easier than, say, overhauling its teaching corps or revamping its curriculum. (Educators looking for a model might visit a KIPP school.) The study also reveals that "Students who reported completing a FAFSA [i.e., the federal government's application for financial aid] by May... were more than 50 percent more likely to enroll than students who had not completed a FAFSA." This even
May 1, 2008
The Forum for Education and Democracy
On the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, this report berates current federal education policy, à la NCLB, for causing a backslide in academic progress. Yet its proposals are all Back to the Future. The authors of the report want a lot more money--they suggest pouring an additional $29 billion per year into public schools--even though there's no evidence that this will improve student learning. They bemoan the "federal strategy of attempting to improve schools through mandates and sanctions" and complain that "we have demanded results without transforming schooling." We should, it suggests, move from an accountability-based system to one focused more on equity and opportunity. That is, the report's authors believe the federal government ought to provide money without demanding increased student achievement. If that prescription sounds familiar, that's because we already tried it for decades, and it didn't work. If you must, read the report here. Even better, read this statement--drafted by Education Trust and other civil rights groups and signed by Fordham and many others--reaffirming A Nation at Risk's call for higher standards, here.