Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 28
August 6, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Regents wake-up call
A conflict of interest
I want my MTV
This week, Andy is back as guest co-host, joined by our Rick. They discuss the New York Times debate on standardized tests, whether Race to the Top needs a lesson in humility, and the chutzpah of teacher unions recruiting members at successful charter schools. Amber talks Master's degrees and compensation in her Research Minute and Rate that Reform grades the "pay-off-the-teacher-so-you-don?t-have-to-participate" tactic.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / August 6, 2009
Vacation gave me the opportunity to catch up with a bit of early American history, particularly the eventful last two decades of the 18th Century. During that extraordinary time, the thirteen colonies concluded their war of independence; forged the Articles of Confederation as a sort of first-draft constitutional framework for the new nation; found that arrangement unworkable in tackling domestic needs and international challenges; secretly drafted, during the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, a new Constitution that embodied a half-dozen key compromises and largely avoided the intractable issue of slavery; improved the document (and its political prospects) with the Bill of Rights; got it ratified; launched the new government with George Washington at its helm; worked through a series of tough issues and additional compromises during which the new governing arrangement both proved its viability and was shielded from forces of disunion; began to construct a new capital city; gave rise to two distinct political parties; and (in the 1796 and 1800 elections) demonstrated that the presidency was a temporary office, not a quasi-monarchy, and that power could transfer peaceably from one party to the other.
Wow. The world, I think, has never seen a more fecund or consequential period of governmental and political invention, combined with fine-tuning, test-driving, and careful nurturing.
American education today finds itself in a similar period of challenge. But can we muster the imagination, leadership, and persistence to devise a different and better arrangement?
Much as the Articles
August 6, 2009
When you get 30 out of 50 questions wrong on a test, you're supposed to fail. But not on the this year's American History portion of the New York State Regents Exam. According to Marc Epstein, the once-revered but now "hopelessly manipulated" Regents tests are plagued by a host of problems that make their results meaningless at best and fraudulent at worst--and the U.S. history component is a perfect example. First, its grading formula is so convoluted that ridiculously low raw scores equal passing weighted ones. (If you're curious, Epstein explains the formula here.) This is possible because subjective parts of the exam, notably the essay portion, are much more heavily weighted in the final score than are the multiple choice questions. These essays are typically document-based questions where students are asked to respond to a prompt. No previous knowledge of the subject matter, in this case history, is needed, even though this test is supposed to be testing subject matter knowledge. And there's more. The questions themselves tend to be laughably easy, especially on these prompt sections; for example, specific key words that get points from graders are often included in the question stem itself, meaning all that's needed to answer the question correctly is the ability to read and, perhaps, a smattering of common sense. This test needs a makeover.
"The Regents, Re-dunce," Marc Epstein, City Journal, July 31, 2009
August 6, 2009
The New York State Regents shenanigans will be just one of the big issues with which newly minted State Chancellor of Education David Steiner needs to contend. We noted his appointment last week, but his chock-a-block to-do list is worth a second inspection. Where should he start? Tom Carroll, President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability, offers a helpful list of priorities. In addition to tackling the testing problem, Carroll argues, Steiner should: increase the transparency of state report cards for parents; tie dollars to school performance ("If you simply reward corralling students, and not actually educating them, then you will have a lot of schools that corral students but don't actually educate them."); reform the state's bureaucratic charter rules, perhaps building off of his (Steiner's) own background working with top charter leaders on Teacher U; abolish "Carnegie units," an anachronistic way of measuring required seat time in lieu of actual learning, in high schools; and encourage his new agency (the state department of education) and bosses (the Regents themselves) to count more on research instead of responding to political pressures. Others (see here and here, too) are also ready to advise. Gadfly is glad he doesn't have Steiner's job but wishes him well.
"A primer for success," by Thomas W. Carroll, Albany Times Union, August 2, 2009
August 6, 2009
When recently released graduation rate statistics were greeted by the business community with a hefty dose of skepticism, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott decided to call on employers, and the Texas Association of Business in particular, to voluntarily stop hiring folks who haven't made it through that teenage rodeo--high school. "It would send a powerful message to these kids to stay in school," Scott said, adding that the diploma-less hiring freeze would also be "better for businesses and better for the state in the long run." Though it's not clear how Scott's idea would turn into viable policy, creating real-world stakes for kids to weigh before dropping out or failing to complete their graduation requirements is certainly innovative. Graduation rate numbers are likely to go down once the Lone Star State fully implements last fall's stricter federal reporting regulations and schools will start feeling the pressure to push more students across the finish line. (Our recent graduation rate primer explains more.) Unlike those changes, which are likely to fall victim to system gaming, changing the rules of employment seem most likely to encourage students to keep playing.
"Texas education chief suggests voluntary ban on hiring dropouts," by Terrence Stutz, The Dallas Morning News, July 31, 2009
August 6, 2009
Two editorials in the past week point to a widening realization across the political spectrum that U.S. teacher unions serve their members, not students. The Wall Street Journal illustrates this point with a piece about two episodes that clearly place union demands at odds with school quality. The New York City case, which we discussed last week, was finally resolved when Joel Klein exploited a contract loophole to keep parent-financed teachers aides in schools. But in Baltimore, the union has gone after the highest-performing school in the city, and in some subjects and grades, the state, demanding that its teachers be paid more. The school can't afford the pay raises and is being forced to cut staff and hours, two of the very things that make it so successful. The LA Times, a less likely union-basher, also makes an earnest appeal for the United Teachers Los Angeles to reprioritize. Its editorial chastises UTLA's efforts to undermine a new LA Unified School Board resolution that would allow charter operators, community organizations, and the union itself to open 50 new schools; after years of softball reforms that have yielded soft results, invigorating "the district with new models...has to trump union concerns," the paper writes. The clearest example of the shifting landscape in LA-LA land is Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former UTLA organizer himself, who is now pleading with his former union colleagues for cooperation. Maybe this media attention from
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / August 6, 2009
Christopher T. Cross, Taniesha A. Woods, and Heidi Schweingruber, eds.
Center for Education, National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences
Even as too little attention is paid to preparing pre-schoolers for the reading/literacy demands of the primary grades, the math side of school readiness has been even more shamefully neglected. Riding to the rescue is a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, chaired by Christopher Cross. It has produced a long (what do you expect from the N.A.S.?), deadly earnest (ditto) and very researchy (likewise) but ultimately valuable report. Turns out that little kids are far more capable of math learning than is commonly recognized (and they readily engage in it when given the opportunity). Unsurprisingly, it also turns out that competent adult help does them a world of good in this area--and that disadvantaged youngsters need more such assistance. Turns out, further, that today's early-childhood arrangements generally slight this part of learning--from state standards right down to classroom (and day-care-center) practice. And, of course, we learn that much can and should be done to rectify the situation. You may weary of the panel's 21 conclusions and 9 recommendations--the latter, of course, follow straightforwardly from the former and mostly end up looking obvious--but the Academy has well served the cause of school readiness in America by giving this topic the attention that it warrants. You can find it (for a price) here.
August 6, 2009
Marguerite Roza and Raegen Miller
Center for American Progress
For teachers in many states, obtaining a Master's degree in education is just about the best investment they could make. In New York, for example, a teacher who puts down some $7,000 for a one-year Master's program is contractually guaranteed to earn a permanent salary bonus of $7,109 (on average) every year following completion of the program. It should be no surprise that, in that state, a full 78 percent of teachers hold Master's degrees. (It's worthy to note that a MA is required in four of the five pathways to obtaining a Professional Certificate in the Empire State.) But like Bernie's guaranteed returns, this safe and lucrative investment masks a frightening reality: Master's programs in education are pretty much useless when it comes to improving teacher effectiveness. Which means, according to Roza's and Miller's analysis, that New York spends $1.1 billion--and the country as a whole, $8.6 billion--every year to reward essentially-frivolous degree-grubbing. (And that tally excludes the vast sums, often public dollars, spent on Master's of Education tuition every year.) The authors don't oppose rewarding graduate degrees, but say the education system should reward those that make a palpable difference, like advanced study of science and math. If bonuses and raises were tied to attainments that matter, like Master's degrees that improve teaching effectiveness, teachers would be more likely to invest in them. And their