Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 15
April 30, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Growing pains in the Advanced Placement program
Gun Control in the Wild West
The world needs firefighters, too
The nutty professor
Weighted Student Formula Yearbook
Meet the pecs: boom and bang
Rick is back from his booze cruise and ready to go. This week, he and Mike discuss Fordham's new AP report, taxpayers versus parents making education decisions, and Obama's first 100 days in office. Then Amber explains the long-term trends on the NAEP and Rate that Reform exposes itself (for a good cause!).
The Advanced Placement (AP) Program is enjoying a growth spurt in the United States. Over the past five years, the number of high-school students taking at least one AP exam increased more than 50 percent. There's probably no education program in America that's been expanding faster.
This is indisputably a good thing, right? After all, even our notoriously tough reviewers of state standards and curricula found AP generally worthy of gold star status. Furthermore, studies have shown that even when students score poorly on the exam (earning a 2) and don't receive college credit, they still achieve higher average GPAs in college than their non-AP peers (when matched on SAT scores and family income).
But isn't it possible that the opening up and rapid democratization of AP might jeopardize its quality, perhaps adversely affecting the education of the top students who are most capable of tackling rigorous academic work? Are their AP courses being subtly "dumbed down" as more and possibly less-prepared students flock into them?
We set out to investigate this question, with the help of the FDR Group and the Templeton Foundation, by asking AP teachers themselves what they see happening to the program. The result is our latest study, Growing Pains in the Advanced Placement Program: Do Tough Trade-offs Lie Ahead?
In a nutshell, we find their views about AP growth to be highly conflicted, mostly positive toward the program's expansion but tinged with concern that the quality
April 30, 2009
What's the best way to improve a negative perception? Change the reality feeding it. That's the constructive tack being taken by the new leaders of the Arizona Charter Schools Association (ACSA) as they crack down on their state's surfeit of low-performing charters. Arizona has long been known as the "Wild West" of the charter movement, what with its laissez-faire "let anyone try it" approach to launching these schools. Some have worked brilliantly, others not. Now, thanks to the leadership of ACSA, a new data model will track student scores on the state test (AIMS) to determine growth, a vast improvement over the current snapshot evaluations of performance. This will arm the state charter board, which to date has only shut down 18 schools in the movement's 15-year history--peanuts compared to the 475 still open. But now lots of schools are coming up for renewal, providing a rare opportunity to weed out the worst performers. Rebecca Gau, the association's chief researcher (and author of several Fordham reports), explains that "the market wasn't going to take care of this." Indeed. It's refreshing to see a charter association that will. (Especially since we know some other states where this should be happening today but isn't.)
"New tests sought for Arizona's charter schools," by Pat Kossan, The Arizona Republic, April 26, 2009
April 30, 2009
Say you're a parent in a school district whose population is largely Haitian, African-American, and Hispanic. And say this district's board is dominated by Orthodox Jews who don't send their children to public schools and aren't happy about paying both high taxes and huge private school tuition bills. And say the board just voted to close an under-enrolled district school to curb costs. That's the scenario playing out in East Ramapo and Lawrence, New York, to the predictable ire of public-school parents. As one put it, America operates on the principle of "governance with the consent of the governed" and these parents are not consenting. But this is simply an exaggerated example of the old problem of parents versus taxpayers; at any given time, only 20 percent of the U.S. population has children in the public school system, yet everybody pays for that system. Should the parent minority be able to overrule the other 80 percent who are just as financially invested in the system as those whose kids currently benefit from it? One might reasonably suggest to those York parents: if you don't like the decisions being made by your local government, get yourselves elected and make different ones.
"Rancor Where Private-School Parents Make Public-School Decisions," by Peter Applebome, New York Times, April 25, 2009
April 30, 2009
Within the education establishment, it's taken as an article of faith that schools should face budget cuts only after all other options have been exhausted. How about public safety? That's the debate playing out in Prince George's County, Maryland, a big Washington suburb now facing a massive budget shortfall. County leaders would like to spend less money on schools this year than is required by state law. "In a crisis like this, all of us must share the burden," said the County Executive. "This is absolutely critical for the totality of the well-being of our county." Ironically, he had to plead his case before the State Board of Education, which has jurisdiction over the matter. Not surprisingly, the district superintendent disagrees, fretting about an "adverse impact on the school system's ability to progress." It's true that PG County's schools have made big gains in recent years, and it would be a shame to see the momentum stall. But then again, unfought fires and unpoliced neighborhoods aren't so great, either.
"County Pits Schools Against Safety," by Nelson Hernandez, Washington Post, April 28, 2009
April 30, 2009
Remember how many analysts now say that improving teacher quality is loads more important than reducing class size? Well, famed Columbia sociologist Herbert J. Gans must not have gotten that memo. This week, he urges President Obama to think long term with his stimulus dollars, specifically, you guessed it, to shrink class sizes. Why? According to Gans, it would improve teacher performance, create more teaching (and construction) jobs, encourage "more equality," advance "democracy," and remove the "political glamour" of charter schools and vouchers. What happened to student achievement? Seems not to matter much to Gans: "Whatever reduced class sizes would do for students, the teaching profession might reap the greatest benefits." Let's put aside for a second the largely-agreed-upon fact that reduced class sizes are super expensive and will do nothing for students, save perhaps for the youngest tots. What's more troubling is Gans's apparent belief that federal policies should serve the adults working in the public school system and not the children served by it. Pooh on him.
"President Obama: Time for a Federal Small-Class Program," by Herbert J. Gans, Education Week, April 27, 2009 (subscription required)
Eric Osberg / April 30, 2009
This hefty publication from the Reason Foundation makes an important contribution to our understanding of weighted student formulas (or WSF, a.k.a. weighted student funding or student-based budgeting). Under WSF, generally speaking, education dollars follow students via formulae that take into account such factors as socioeconomic status, learning disabilities, English language skills, etc. and spending decisions are decentralized down to the school level (usually to the principal). Fordham's 2006 Fund the Child manifesto describes these principles in some depth, but the Yearbook is the first comprehensive examination of the 14 school districts currently using versions of WSF. Most useful is a checklist of ten "School Empowerment Benchmarks" to describe how WSF is being used in each locale, including fund allocation, principal autonomy, and school choice. (New York City and Hartford, CT have all ten elements; none of the 14 has fewer than six.) If there's one lesson to be learned, it's that WSF varies widely from place to place. For example, only NYC, Hartford, and Oakland have managed the difficult feat of using actual (instead of average) teacher salaries in their budgets; this is an important way of addressing school-level resource inequities. (And NYC is using a complicated method to phase this in since existing teachers are grandfathered in.) Other interesting differences: Baltimore and NYC weight funding based in part on individual student achievement at the point when they enter a school; Houston includes a "mobility"
Postsecondary Preparation and Remediation: Examining the Effect of the Early Assessment Program at California State University
April 30, 2009
Jessica S. Howell, Michal Kurlaender, and Eric Grodsky
California State University, Sacramento
What if you could find out that you aren't academically ready for college when there's still time left in high school to do something about it? That was the goal of the California Early Assessment Program (EAP), administered (voluntarily) to that state's high school students, with an assessment component offered at the end of the junior year. Did it help? Does providing early-warning information really get students better prepared for college? This study examines data from freshmen at California State University's Sacramento campus (CSUS) who were juniors in high school between 2001 and 2005. Since EAP did not become available until the 03-04 school year, this allowed the researchers to compare not only the effect of EAP on the need for remediation but also the effect of EAP on likelihood to enroll in college. On the first count, those who had participated in EAP were 6.2 percentage points less likely to need remediation in English and 4.3 points less likely to need it in math when they attended a typical CSU campus (this in a university system where 60 percent of freshmen require remediation!). Particularly troubling is that all of these remediated CSU freshmen completed the college preparation high school curriculum (i.e. they had presumably taken all the classes they needed to be college-ready) and had an average 3.1 GPA in the remediated subject. On the second
Laura Bornfreund / April 30, 2009
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
This fifth iteration of NAPCS's annual review of charter-achievement literature doubles the number of studies evaluated in the previous edition (to 140 from 70), taking into account a much wider scope of charter school studies. The Alliance adopted improved search methods this time around that revealed a host of previously undiscovered research sources from which to choose. Of particular note, several high quality charter studies (like this one and this one) were released in the last year--and found for the most part that students attending charter schools were achieving at significantly higher levels and more likely to attend college than students attending traditional public schools. Unfortunately, charter school studies in general lack methodological rigor, most notably the use of longitudinal data. Only 33 of the 140 studies met the Alliance's metrics for high quality ("panel studies")--and those were conducted in just 15 states, while 25 others have charter schools, too. Fifty-three of the 140 examined student achievement over time but did not use student-level data ("cohort change studies"); 70 used snapshot data, i.e., data from only one point in time ("snapshot studies"). Charter research, notes the report, is simply not keeping up with the sector's growth. And with all the innovative and informative practices happening in these educational incubators, it is more important than ever to have more complete information on their performance. Read the entire report here.