Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 18
May 8, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
Is fatalism the alternative to romanticism?
Wishing for a Massachusetts miracle?
The Dumbest Generation
Thinking Outside of the University
Wave that thing
This week, Mike and Rick discuss why some kids shouldn't go to college, the Reading First study is flawed, and Randi Weingarten lies so much. Jeff Kuhner is outraged about L.A., and Education News of the Weird has bite.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 8, 2008
Charles Murray's forthcoming education book looks like a humdinger, as most of his have proven to be. Like the others, this one will be provocative, heterodox, and controversial. I look forward to August when we can see the whole thing. But like any astute author, he's already dribbling out portions of it to whet appetites and create buzz.
There was the trio of controversial Wall Street Journal op-eds back in January 2007. And now there's a long, tough-minded essay in The New Criterion titled "The age of educational romanticism." It's worth your time, being smart, perceptive and honest in so many ways--and yet sorely misguided in so many others.
Murray is not the first to barbecue educational romanticism. Among his distinguished forebears is E. D. Hirsch, whose terrific 1996 book, The Schools We Need--and Why We Don't Have Them, brilliantly illuminated the strange "thoughtworld" of ed schools and educators who view children's learning as a naturalistic development more akin to the random blooming of a wild flower than the product of systematic cultivation.
Note, though, that Hirsch (and Diane Ravitch, not to mention such honorable antecedents as William Bagley and Isaac Kandel) faults educational romanticism for its misguided and ultimately ineffectual beliefs about teaching and learning. Murray's critique is very different: what he terms romantic is the belief "that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better."
May 8, 2008
We'd like to stop writing about Randi Weingarten, really we would. But her ongoing antics simply don't allow it--and as she nears the leadership of the national American Federation of Teachers she has to be taken seriously. Elizabeth Green reports in the New York Sun that Weingarten's United Federation of Teachers has no plans to compromise with hizzoner Michael Bloomberg, who wants the authority to remove from the payroll teachers who, well, don't teach. The educators in question, part of the Absent Teacher Reserve, are those whom no principal wants to hire, and sizable numbers of the reservists have simply stopped looking for jobs altogether. They are content to sit around, play cards or whatever, and receive a paycheck for it. Weingarten is apparently just fine with this. In a letter to the regrettable reservists, she wrote that "the UFT will not reopen the contract to negotiate any change in the terms and conditions of your employment." Furthermore, she suggested to the press that a significant proportion of reserve teachers are not idle but are actually working in schools. The city's deputy chancellor of education, Chris Cerf, dismissed Weingarten's claim out of hand: "I believe there is no possibility that her number is accurate." Cerf also called her musings a red herring, and he's right. The issue is not whether several reserve teachers out of many are truly working; the issue is whether the city can dismiss those teachers who aren't
May 8, 2008
To receive a high-school diploma in Massachusetts, one must at least pass the MCAS (or make one's way through a reasonably challenging alternative path.) Nonetheless, according to the Boston Globe, "thousands of Massachusetts public high school graduates arrive at college unprepared for even the most basic math and English classes." Such students must therefore take remedial courses and many drop out, all of which, the Globe notes, will "cast doubt on the MCAS exams as a predictor of college readiness." But that's a misleading statement, because the MCAS is actually a fine predictor of college readiness: those who barely pass it are more likely to take remedial courses in college than those who ace it. Some would argue then that the test's passing score should be raised to indicate true readiness for college. Says Paul Schichtman, who coordinates testing for the Lowell schools, "Your high school diploma needs to be a credential for a two- and four-year school, and it's something that we take very seriously." We agree--and that's the spirit behind the American Diploma Project, with which we've been proud to be associated. Yet the Massachusetts board of education, not so long ago, declined to raise the MCAS passing score, and they did so for a reason. How large a fraction of its youthful population can America stand to have walking the streets having been denied their high school diplomas, even after they've attended dutifully, passed their courses, and
May 8, 2008
The Wake County school district, in Raleigh, North Carolina, is doing everything in its power to annoy parents and encourage those who can afford private schools to patronize them. A state appellate court ruled on Tuesday that Wake can force a pupil who is zoned for one of the county's year-round schools to attend it. (Some parents previously objected to their children's placement in year-round facilities, and last year a lower court sided with them.) A poor winner, the district reacted to the appellate ruling with contempt for the families it ostensibly serves. "These people need to go where they're supposed to go," said Beverley Clark, vice chairwoman of the school board. Wake Country claims that year-round schools can house more children, and that enrolling pupils in such facilities is the only way the district can manage its weedy population growth. School officials don't mention that the district's harebrained plan to integrate its schools socioeconomically (such that no one facility enrolls a student body that is more than 40 percent low-income) is crowding certain schools. Amy Leinfelder, who began homeschooling her children after their school went year-round, said, "I feel so badly for all those kids who will be forced to go to year-round when it doesn't work for their families." But in Wake County, public schools don't serve families, they socially engineer them.
"Wake schools regain control over year-round plan," by T. Keung Hui and Kinea White
May 8, 2008
If you're a wealthy philanthropist keen to expand AP courses and pay more to the teachers who do the best job of teaching AP classes, Washington state wants you to buzz off. That's what it told the National Math & Science Initiative (NMSI), which was forced to withdraw a $13.2 million grant after officials in Olympia couldn't figure out how to accept the free money without violating the state's collective bargaining agreements. The NMSI said that in negotiations it "tried to be as flexible as possible," and it pointed out that other states were able to work around existing collective bargaining agreements and receive the grants. In the end, though, the group had either to revoke the grant or risk changing the program's essential character. Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association (WEA), said that the initiative, which would've started more AP courses and paid bonuses to educators whose students scored well on AP exams, was trying to set up a new pay system for local teachers. "That's not how it works in our state," Wood noted. Here's how it works: Because the WEA is completely intransigent about paying teachers for their performance, kids in Washington state will have less access to AP classes than they otherwise would. And a worthy national education program will have no base in Bill Gates's home state.
"$13 million grant for AP teachers lost over pay dispute," by Linda Shaw, Seattle Times, May
May 8, 2008
It is not insignificant that John McCain, who may be the country's next president, has hanging in his office a photograph of William Bee Ravenel III, or that McCain recently called Ravenel "one of the best men I have ever known." Ravenel was one of McCain's teachers at Episcopal High School, and the high praise he has garnered from the senator shows just much influence the best teachers can have in their pupils' lives. Journalist Ken Ringle, who attended Episcopal High School with McCain, writes in the Weekly Standard that Ravenel "had rigorous standards for grammar and writing," that he "revolutionized (and greatly updated) the English curriculum," and that he "gave standardized tests so often that the College Board exams were almost familiar to his pupils when they finally came around." But "Hamlet and Macbeth in his classes were not just plays; they were intensely human narratives with profound implications," Ringle notes. "The struggles of their characters, we came to understand, were in some sense the potential maps of our own lives." Ravenel's seriousness, his fun, the way he comported himself--all inspired and in many ways shaped a great American hero. Perhaps education is not absent from the GOP side of the 2008 elections, after all.
"A Hero's Life," by Ken Ringle, Weekly Standard, May 12, 2008
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 8, 2008
It's a little alarming when the publisher's website misspells the author's name. One pictures the culprit as a 23-year-old staffer with iPod and ear-buds who illustrates the point of this Emory University English professor's terrific new book: today's young people don't know squat in large part because the trappings of the "digital age" have addled their brains, distorted their priorities, and occupied all their time. It's a polemic, yes, but it's full of compelling data as well as even more compelling anecdotes and vignettes. Bauerlein faults the grown-ups, too, in a forceful chapter called "The Betrayal of the Mentors." (Short version: professors ennoble youth and its values rather than taming the former and correcting the latter.) "As of 2008," Bauerlein concludes, "the intellectual future of the United States looks dim. Not the economic future, or the technological, medical, or media future, but the future of civic understanding and liberal education. The social pressures and leisure preferences of young Americans, for all their silliness and brevity, help set the heading of the American mind, and the direction is downward.... It isn't funny anymore." Neither is this book, but you really need to read it anyhow. It can be ordered here.
Coby Loup / May 8, 2008
Center for American Progress
This study explores some of the more innovative and promising alternative certification programs and recommends ways to establish more of them. (The author, by the way, is a former Fordham Fellow.) The report operates on the premise that many of today's so-called alternative certification programs--which are supposed to offer promising teaching candidates a way to bypass the traditional, stultifying, ed school route--are just more of the status quo. (That premise is illustrated and documented by this joint Fordham-NCTQ study Alternative Certification Isn't Alternative.) A handful of alt cert programs, however, challenge traditional molds. Teacher preparation initiatives run by charter management organizations like High Tech High and KIPP are promising; they are designed "to meet the practical needs of new teachers" and give them direct exposure to the organization's instructional philosophies. Gatlin also discusses teacher intern programs, independent organizations such as Teach For America and The New Teacher Project, online offerings, community colleges, and teacher residency programs. Still, these are the exceptions, not the rule, due to archaic laws and regulations that keep such approaches from proliferating. She recommends breaking down such barriers by revising state licensure practices to reflect teaching competencies rather than coursework requirements; changing state law to permit more providers to operate; strengthening accountability standards for teacher prep programs; and providing federal funding to support alt cert options.This is a fine primer for anyone looking to know more about
May 8, 2008
Jennifer A. Kaminski, Vladimir M. Sloutsky, and Andrew F. Heckler
April 25, 2008
We all remember our math teachers who tried, valiantly, to communicate the mysteries of fractions by using analogies to pizza slices, or to educate about systems of equations by referring to trains traveling in opposite directions. It was and is assumed that real-world comparisons make it easier for students to understand abstract math. But new research from Ohio State University suggests that concrete examples might actually "hinder the ability to recognize the same concept elsewhere." Real-world problems (even when coupled with the teaching of the same concept using abstract examples) can decrease a student's ability to transfer their knowledge to new problems and situations. This research gives scientific backing to earlier recommendations by the National Math Panel that schools ought to focus more on teaching fundamental facts, math algorithms and operating procedures and spend less time in the rain forest. Ultimately, say the Ohio State analysts, "if a goal of teaching mathematics is to produce knowledge that a student can apply... then presenting mathematical concepts through generic instantiations... may be more effective than a series of ‘good examples.'" The short paper can be found here. Those with a taste for methodology can download supporting material here.