Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 42
October 30, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
Why school systems cannot lose weight
The three R's (recession, reform, and results)
The last hurrah
In the name of love
Red tape reprise
Rick Hess, non-voter
This week, Mike and Rick discuss the new NCLB regs, coupling collective bargaining with cutting district fat, and the controversial proposal for a gay high school in Chicago. Amber then enlightens us with her thoughts on the School Finance Redesign Project's new report and Rate that Reform talks Mustangs?motorized, not four-legged.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / October 30, 2008
There's plenty of evidence that state and municipal budgets are strapped these days, due to shrinking tax revenues from a faltering economy, declining property values, etc. It's also clear that a number of school systems are feeling the pinch. (See here and here, for example.)
In some places, particularly in the northeast and midwest, the revenue shortfall is exacerbated by eroding enrollments resulting from large-scale demographics and from people moving to more salubrious, prosperous (and, often, less heavily taxed) locales.
The question du jour is how, besides complaining and asking for more levies and such, are U.S. school systems responding to the fiscal crush.
Not well, it appears--and not surprisingly, because we've known for ages that they, like other public sector entities, are really great at growing and adding but really bad at shrinking and cutting. That's because the conventional wisdom in educator-land is that any reductions are bound to damage the quality of schooling, maybe even the level of student performance.
Yet the conventional wisdom sometimes harbors fallacies and illusions, too. Half a dozen such sophisms may be at work here.
First, the long-term trajectory of public school spending in the United States (like that of the stock market) is up, up, up, and more up, despite temporary bear markets. Spending per pupil on public education, expressed in constant 2005-06 dollars, was $4328 in 1970-71, $5438 a decade later, $7472 in 1990-91, and $9266 in 2004-05.
Second, despite the passage of more than
October 30, 2008
Dreading the pinch of a tight economy on your state's budget? You're not alone. According to the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, nearly every state experienced flat or declining revenues in the first half of 2008 compared to last year, and 39 states have developed "budget shortfalls"--gaps between expected revenue and planned expenditures.
Since virtually every state is constitutionally required to balance its books each year, large spending cuts in most states are a near-certainty--and with school spending making up such a large portion of most state budgets, reductions in k-12 education are almost inevitable. Six years ago, the last recession saw more than two-thirds of states cut funding for elementary and secondary schools.
What's an education reformer to do?
For starters, you can tuck away in the back of your drawer the innovative plan that requires billions in new spending. Recessions reward reformers prepared to cut--admittedly a rare breed.
Done right--and bravely--recession-induced budget cuts are an opportunity to leave a state's public education system stronger than before. Why? A recession can provide the political will to restructure education systems for the better.
Using facts and figures from Connecticut as an example, here are six ways that states and districts can save money by improving efficiency and effectiveness:
1. Let Money Follow the Child. Right now, many states are paying school districts to educate children no longer
October 30, 2008
If you can't beat ‘em, go around ‘em? That seems to be the latest Bush Administration strategy when it comes to No Child Left Behind. Having spent the better part of four years trying to persuade Congress to reauthorize the act to no avail, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has taken the matter into her own hands. How? Through new NCLB regulations announced Tuesday, with which she achieved many, though not all, of Dubya's legislative priorities. Among the final rules, some are technical (codifying Spellings's growth model pilot program, for instance), and others are eminently reasonable (ensuring that parents receive timely notice of their options under the law). But at least one is regrettable: within a few years, high schools will have to achieve a state-specified graduation rate for all of their subgroups, such as poor, minority, and disabled youngsters, or else be labeled "in need of improvement" (i.e., failing). While transparency around graduation rates is a worthwhile project (and we applaud Spelling's insistence that states measure grad rates in a uniform way), we worry about likely unintended consequences stemming from this new policy. Now that states know that students with learning disabilities or those with limited English proficiency must graduate in high numbers, won't that encourage some jurisdictions to lower graduation standards themselves? We've been through this before in the context of "proficiency." Republicans used to worry about these sorts of perverse incentives; now it's looking like
October 30, 2008
It's hard to miss the media firestorm over Chicago's latest educational innovation, the School for Social Justice Pride Campus. The school would cater to gay students who are teased and bullied at their current schools. If the school board approves the plan--it has delayed a vote until November 19--both straight and gay students will be eligible to attend Social Justice High when it opens in 2010. The would-be-principal, Chad Weiden, claims that the goal is "to really push back to make sure all schools are safe, supporting and affirming for all LGBT students and all students in the city of Chicago." Au contraire--promoting a culture of tolerance and respect in all schools would do that. Creating a school so that gays can feel safe just sends the message that it's okay to make them feel unsafe at other schools. As Rick Garcia, political director for Equality Illinois, explains, "There's no doubt there's violence and bullying of gay kids and something has to be done, but segregating them is not the answer. It doesn't stop bullying at other schools." Fact. Perhaps Garcia is right when he suggests, "maybe we need a school for the bullies."
"Chicago proposes Pride high school for gay students," by Susan Dosemagen, Medill Reports, October 9, 2008
"Daley voices concerns about gay high school," by Fran Spielman, Chicago Sun-Times, October 24, 2008
October 30, 2008
Remember those halcyon days of the late 1990s? Back when Americans enjoyed peace and prosperity, our political system could frivolously obsess about the meaning of "is," and charter schools were freed from bureaucratic red tape? Then along came the No Child Left Behind Act and its mandate that all teachers--including those at charter schools--be "highly qualified." Enter the International Community (charter) School in Atlanta, where a host of international teachers have found their jobs at risk because of this very provision. Even though these teachers, from such varied places as Rwanda and Bangladesh, are doing a bang-up job helping immigrant children who themselves just arrived in the U.S., the school's authorizer, DeKalb County, is now pushing for all staff to receive full teaching credentials in order to comply with the federal law. That's easier said than done. One teacher, herself a refugee, is struggling to get the local college to recognize her Burmese bachelor's degree. About her beloved charter school, the teacher says, "It's like my home. That's why I don't want to hear 'quit,' 'fire.'" DeKalb County: leave this school alone.
"'No Child' leaving charter school behind?," by Mary Wiltenburg, Christian Science Monitor, October 23, 2008
October 30, 2008
Chi-town, home of deep dish pizza, The Band, and an education reform powerhouse? That's John Simmon's take. To his mind, "Chicago leads the nation in the investment it has made in research that shows what works in education reform." In fact, if Simmons had his way, "any city--or president-elect--looking for research-based ways to improve education should turn to Chicago for lessons in how to do it right." Why? The Consortium on Chicago School Research, which Simmons finds to be the bee's knees of education policy shops-"a body of research on urban school reform that is without equal." CCSR has surely published some great research (see here and here, for example), but with all due respect, let's cut the hyperbole. After all, this is a city whose students perform at roughly the same level as those in Slovenia. What's next? Simmons trying to convince us the Cubs are the best baseball team in history?
"Next president can find ideas to fix schools in Chicago," by John Simmons, The Chicago Sun-Times, October 25, 2008
October 30, 2008
John Staud, ed.
Alliance for Catholic Education Press
Catholic schools may be closing right and left but it's not for lack of recent attention to the situation. 2008 has already brought Fordham's report and a White House summit and report on the topic. Now joining the conversation are the University of Notre Dame and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which in 2007 led a group of academics, philanthropists, religious leaders, and scholars in discussing a renewed effort to sustain and build Catholic education. This product of their gathering showcases remarks from panel presentations and offers reaction from Catholic-school scholars and administrators. In his keynote address to the conference, Carnegie's Lee Shulman argued that Catholic education must "become a robust field of scholarship--including scholarship of teaching and learning, of discovery and invention, of integration, connectedness and meaning, and of application and translations." The volume translates this charge into four primary areas of said field-building: a sustained human capital pipeline, enhanced study of religious education, the role of philanthropy, and models for renewing Catholic schools. Authors discuss tactics, such as university-diocesan partnerships to cultivate teachers and school leaders; reformed leadership curricula that meld Catholic values with standard management and instructional tactics; creation of academic "special interest groups" and scholarly journals for idea exchange; and thoughtful direction and management of philanthropic dollars. Yes, it's pretty wonky, the sort of stuff that academics usually propose, but one
October 30, 2008
Frederick M. Hess, ed.
Harvard Education Press
This collection explores how to cultivate more effective and quality-conscious educational entrepreneurship. Rick Hess, the volume's fecund and fervent editor, explains: "markets characterized by insufficient quality-control mechanisms, a lack of transparency, a scarcity of human or investment capital, and harmful regulatory and institutional barriers are more likely to produce mediocrity than effective solutions." Since innovation in education has great potential, it is imperative that we ensure that it rises beyond this mediocrity. Hess divides education innovators into two categories: capacity builders, who work on improving schools, and choice-based reformers, who use competition to weed out sub-par practices. The nine chapters discuss both kinds and offer a plethora of solutions: boosting human capital, attracting investment, increasing access to capital and funding, ensuring quality control, improving research and development, and removing barriers that hinder new providers. For example, Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek explore what the education sector can learn from other industries about recruiting, developing, and retaining talent. Larry Berger and David Stevenson of Wireless Generation discuss the barriers to entry for companies (such as their own) that provide learning tools for teachers. Fordham's Checker Finn discusses various forms of education quality control, suggesting that it may take experimentation in order to find the best methods for an entrepreneurial environment. And Hess' own chapter emphasizes that the development of education entrepreneurship requires dual attention to "tools"--products and services that can improve schools, teachers,
October 30, 2008
This report evaluates the current state of U.S. high school graduation rates and offers ideas for how to raise these historically unsatisfactory numbers. It notes that "the United States is the only industrialized country in the world in which today's young people are less likely than their parents to have completed high school." No doubt prepared to coincide with this week's release of new No Child Left Behind regulations (see above), the report intends to pressure states to aim high when setting their dropout-reduction goals. To that end, author Anna Habash calls out states that expect minimal progress on this front. In Maryland, for example, the 2006 graduation rate was 85.43 percent. But the Free State only requires schools to aim for improvements of 0.01 percent each year in order to stay out of trouble with NCLB. At that pace, Maryland won't reach its goal of a 90 percent graduation rate until 2463. For Maryland African American students, then graduating at 78.89 percent annually, that 90 percent target won't be reached until the year 3117. These are certainly compelling figures (a millennium?!) but raising graduation improvement rates is no panacea and could yield the same unintended consequences that plagued NCLB's "universal proficiency" mandate. Namely: if you require states to get all students or almost all students over any given bar, you create a temptation for them to lower said bar. The result could be diplomas