Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 8, Number 37
September 25, 2008
Opinion + Analysis
The community schools con
The Seven Outs
Playground politics: why accountability has more friends than school choice
This week, Mike and Rick chat about the election, the economy, and algebra. Amber tells us what it would take to get mid-career professionals into the classroom and Rate that Reform calls the police!
When Randi Weingarten introduced her brainchild, the "community school," in her speech accepting the presidency of the American Federation of Teachers, we found it sorely wanting. And, of course, we found it not the least bit new, either. Scads of existing schools already worship at this altar and 120 or so extant groups are already tied to the Coalition for Community Schools. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has been promoting this concept for 70 years or so, first in Flint, Michigan, then nationally, and now around the world. (See, for example, here.) And there's a vast literature on this topic. (Google "community schools" and you'll get a couple million hits.)
Surely Ms. Weingarten and her allies know all this. If anything is new under the sun, it's their proposition that every young American should have access to such schools-and that the federal government should make this happen and, by the way, ease off other stuff like standards and results-based accountability until that halcyon day dawns.
Ever since this proposition tripped off her tongue in July, indeed since the "Broader, Bolder" crowd declared itself in June and right up to and including yesterday's shindig at the National Press Club, we've found this idea gooey and emotional, focusing on the externalities of daily life that drip into America's classrooms-poor healthcare, single parent families, unemployment--rather than on what schools can do with the kids who actually turn up there. We
Michael J. Petrilli / September 25, 2008
Back-to-school time, soaring fuel prices, and a wobbly economy are all upon us, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that the papers are brimming with sad stories about schools getting slammed by skyrocketing costs and slumping tax revenues. "Hard Times Hitting Students and Schools," reported the New York Times recently. "Schools eye four-day week to cut fuel costs," declared Reuters.
And it's true that public schools from coast to coast are cutting back on "non-essentials": art classes, field trips, technology upgrades, and more.
But don't start crying into your coffee, because the appropriate reaction is anger, or at least exasperation, not empathy.
How come? Think about how businesses face downturns. If revenues shrink, costs must be contained. And in labor-intensive enterprises, that includes cutting staff. That's no happy task, but it comes with a silver lining: a period of belt-tightening can encourage companies to trim the fat by releasing their low-productivity employees and those in the least necessary roles.
But in public education--perhaps the ultimate labor-intensive enterprise--this option is almost always off the table. That's because powerful teacher unions have lobbied legislatures and school boards to adopt policies which require that schools follow a "last hired, first fired" approach to any layoffs--and which give lifetime tenure to just about everyone after a few years on the job.
These policies lead to preposterous outcomes. Consider the case of Homer Knightstep. A retired Army Ranger, he joined the estimable Troops-to-Teachers program and landed at an inner-city school in
September 25, 2008
In what has become a regular autumnal occurrence, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and Broward Country, Florida, school systems find themselves embarked upon yet another year of declining enrollments. And they're not alone. Big-city districts nationwide are shrinking faster than an Arctic icecap. So why are students fleeing these urban jungles for presumably greener pastures? Stiff competition from charter schools and other schools-of-choice may be partly to blame, but broader societal trends (middle class families continuing to decamp for the suburbs or to cities with stronger economies) are also factors. But shed no tears; the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes that a "shrinking enrollment is a call to arms, not a call to wave the white flag." Kudos to that sentiment; competition in particular is supposed to spur systems to improve. But if fewer students attend failing big-city districts, is that such a tragedy?
"Broward schools down 3,167 students," by Hannah Simpson, Miami Herald, September 22, 2008
"D.C. School Rolls Decline, Preliminary Tally Shows," by Bill Turque, Washington Post, September 20, 2008
"The Cleveland schools will keep getting smaller unless they get smarter," Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 22, 2008
September 25, 2008
That there still exist parents who have not yet extricated their children from Wake County's public schools is a marvel. Between its politically-correct school assignment system and its complete disregard for parental preferences, it's Example A of social engineering in action. (For background, just type "Wake County" into our website's nifty search engine--and weep.) In the latest chapter, thousands of parents have no idea whether their progeny will attend class on a year-round or traditional schedule. "We'll have to deal with it the best we can," said John Bailey, the PTA president of Knightdale Elementary School. "With Wake County, things are always uncertain." Year-round schedules allow school buildings to be used more efficiently and to serve more students and/or serve them more completely. Thus their implementation in Wake, where the population is booming. But if the district's student-growth projections are exaggerated, as they seem to be, it may convert some year-round schools back to traditional schedules. It seems no one is sure which schools or how many will convert. Some parents may find themselves with one child on a year-round schedule and the other its more traditional counterpart. Busy parents want answers, but the school board is reluctant to make any 2009 scheduling determinations just yet, in part because it's waiting on the North Carolina Supreme Court to rule on whether it can even compel pupils to attend year-round schools in the first place. (Note the word "compel.") What
September 25, 2008
Does Junior have a sour attitude? Tired of his aberrant adolescent behavior? Just drop him off at a local hospital to become a ward of the state. That's right. No need to ground him for attending that raucous party last weekend. Of course, you may have to move to Warren Buffett's neighborhood to pull this off. A three-month-old Nebraska law allows parents and legal guardians to leave a "child" at any state-licensed hospital without fear of prosecution. And that's just what happened last week when two different families surrendered their boys-ages 11 and 15-to Lincoln's BryanLGH Medical Center West. Just last night, a father left all nine of his children, ages 1 to 17, at Creighton University Medical Center. Does this mean that mom and dad can ditch surly kids to go on vacation? Gadfly sure hopes not. Most states have laws to protect infants from overwhelmed parents but Nebraska's take is a disturbing development; "child," according to Cornhusker State law, includes all minors up to the age of 19. Parenting doesn't come with an escape clause and Nebraska's new law is an outrageous attempt at one. Maybe Junior isn't the only one who needs an attitude adjustment.
"2 boys left at Neb. hospitals under 'haven' law," by Jean Ortiz, Associated Press, September 15, 2008
"Father leaves 9 children under safe haven law," KETV 7, Omaha, September 25, 2008
September 25, 2008
This study examines the effectiveness of five Bay Area KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools. By analyzing test data, interviewing staff, holding focus groups with families, observing activities, and conducting surveys, the study hopes to determine if KIPP--a network of highly-praised schools that sets high academic and behavioral expectations, requires extended class time, and carefully tracks student progress--is truly as spectacular as proponents say--and why. The results are, frankly, mixed. The study finds that KIPP students do indeed make above-average progress compared with national norms and that fifth graders who enter KIPP with below-average scores significantly outperform peers in public school by the end of their first year. Could this success possibly be due to "cherry-picking" the brightest students? Researchers confronted this allegation head-on and found it false. In fact, Bay Area students with lower scores on the California Standard Test were more likely to choose KIPP than higher-performing students from the same neighborhood. Unfortunately, however, the lowest-performing students were also more likely to leave their KIPP school for various reasons, including moving to another neighborhood, finding it "not the right fit," and searching for schools better equipped to handle children with special needs. A full 60 percent of students who began fifth grade in the 2003 cohort left before completing eighth grade. Despite high attrition rates, we're pleased to see KIPP's drive for self-evaluation. If only all charter schools could be so transparent and bold. Read
September 25, 2008
Brian L. Carpenter
National Charter Schools Institute
The book begins, "Except for global warming, healing your inner child, and achieving financial success in life, I doubt few other topics have been as exhaustively written about as organizational strategic planning." Is the author unfamiliar with love, war, religion, and Paris Hilton? But things improve a bit when author Brian Carpenter spins a tale about fictional Breezy Palms Charter School, the board of which is composed of regular, down-to-earth, moose-field-dressing folks who have good intentions but no strategic plan. And so, because its students are not achieving at high academic levels, Breezy Palms has its charter revoked... almost. The authorizer decrees that the school may stay alive, but only if its board (spins straw into gold?) presents a fully-baked strategic plan that sets forth exactly how Breezy Palms will improve. Enter The Seven Outs, viz. figure out, find out, scope out, write out, carry out, measure out, shout out. By constructing its strategic plan according to The Outs' guidance, Breezy Palms' board impresses the authorizer and hangs onto its school. The book's second half delves deeply into The Seven Outs and describes how these can be applied to actual schools, not just fictional ones. While some of the lessons are simple--"Thinking," for instance, is listed in a diagram as a "High Value Task" (somewhere, Descartes is smiling)--we know that lots of charter boards have little idea what they're doing, and so
September 25, 2008
Brown Center on Education Policy, Brookings Institution
This study considers the consequences of more students taking advanced math courses in high school--and their prerequisite, algebra, in eighth grade. Pushing students to take more advanced classes was intended to increase poor and minority youngsters' math skills and equalize access to higher level classes; Tom Loveless finds, however, that these initiatives did more damage than good. Poor preparation in younger grades has meant that algebra retains only appellative vestiges of its former self. Loveless examines the lowest tenth of scorers on the 2007 eighth grade math NAEP and finds that over 28 percent of them were enrolled in algebra, compared with just 8 percent in 2000. So why the low scores? These students, overwhelmingly poor blacks or Hispanics at large urban schools, were woefully unprepared for anything resembling algebra; in fact, they averaged well below a fourth-grade math level. Their misplacement means that teachers, even "algebra teachers", must increasingly focus on basic skills remediation at the expense of the intended curriculum and the students who are ready for it. No wonder that while eighth grade math scores have generally risen since 2000, the scores of those in advanced classes have actually declined. Poor students of color deserve equal access to high level math courses. But, as Loveless rightly argues, we need to improve math testing, instruction, and accountability at the elementary level first so that students can succeed