Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 43
December 10, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Lynne vs. Goliath
The same old from Albany
Maoist reeducation...in Minnesota
Nature vs. nurture redux
The Nothing Curriculum
Tiger no longer a compliment
Mike and Rick are together again. This week, they discuss indoctrination in Minnesota ed schools, the worst education ideas of the decade, and whether David will slay the 21st Century Skills Goliath. Then Amber tells us about the new NAEP TUDA results in math and Rate that Reform locks the facilities.
By 2011, if the states stick to their policy guns, all eighth graders in California and Minnesota will be required to take algebra. Other states are sure to follow. In recent years, the conventional wisdom of American K-12 education has declared algebra to be a “gatekeeper” to future educational and career success. So onecan scarcely fault policy makers for insisting that every youngster pass through that gate, lest too many find their futures dimmed. It’s also well known that placing students in remedial classes rarely ends up doing them a favor, especially in light of evidence that low-performing students may learn more in heterogeneous classrooms.
But are all eighth graders truly prepared to succeed in algebra class? Might they--some of them, at least--be better off in ability-grouped math classes? Anybody raising such questions in the education world will be in the minority. Instead, many schools and districts have chosen to abolish low-level tracks and courses. Many have done away with all forms of tracking. But did they really believe that such seemingly simple changes in policy and school organization would magically transform struggling learners into middling or high-achieving ones? And were they oblivious to the effects that such alterations might have on youngsters who were already high-performing? Those were the questions we asked Brookings scholar Tom Loveless to answer in Fordham’s latest study, Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools.
The analysis looks at tracking in one of the leading states
December 10, 2009
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) has some powerful supporters, including the NEA, Cisco, Intel, and Microsoft. Fourteen states have also climbed aboard its effort to refocus American K-12 education on global awareness, media literacy and the like--and to defocus it on grammar, multiplication tables and the causes of the Civil War. Its swell-sounding yet damaging notions have been plenty influential--but the unmasking and truth-telling have begun, thanks in large part to a valiant little organization named Common Core. And new research validates this and other skeptics’ criticisms. Today the contest resembles David vs. Goliath--but remember who ultimately prevailed in that one.
“Motives of 21st-Century-Skills Group Questioned,” by Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week, December 4, 2009 (subscription required)
December 10, 2009
In what the New York Times generously described as “baby steps,” the Empire State’s appalling legislature last week passed several spending reforms designed to close the state’s $3.2 billion budget deficit. Education was not the biggest story, but teacher pension changes loomed large--and, for the most part, the unions won again. Most of the bill’s provisions protect veteran teachers at the expense of their younger peers. For example, new teachers (those hired after January 1) will contribute a larger share of their salaries to the retirement system. On the other hand, it slightly raises the retirement age (from 55 to 57). Meanwhile, other state employees saw their retirement age rise to 62. Why the discrepancy? ''We need the early retirement,” the head of the state teachers union told the AP. ''Teachers just don't make it to 62. It's a tough job.'' And there’s more: The plan bars school systems (and local governments) from offering 401k-type plans; Governor Paterson agreed to a “no layoffs” guarantee for the next year; and school districts are forbidden to change their health insurance benefits. Also included is a provision limiting private contractors, shifting those roles to public employees. While the pension changes overall will limit state costs--Patterson and House Speaker Sheldon Silver claim $30 to $50 billion over 30 years, roughly a 23 percent annual reduction--the pension bill is projected to increase 155 percent in the next three years. This ain’t pension reform. It’s
December 10, 2009
It’s no secret that schools of education teach all manner of nonsense. So when the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development launched its Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group, we might well have expected trouble. But the reality is worse than that. “Cultural competence” should henceforth frame the entire teacher preparation curriculum, the task force asserts, and aspiring educators must “be able to discuss their own histories and current thinking drawing on notions of white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression” and “articulate a sophisticated and nuanced critical analysis” of the American Dream, including “the history of demands for assimilation to white, middle-class meaning and values.” Or as ace journalist Katherine Kersten, who investigated these new changes, puts it, “teacher candidates must embrace--and be prepared to teach our state's kids--the task force's own vision of America as an oppressive hellhole: racist, sexist and homophobic.” Further, to ensure that the message doesn’t erode with time, once graduates go into the classroom their supervisors are supposed to undergo “a training session disguised as a thank you/recognition ceremony/reception at the beginning of the year.” Whenever you think it couldn’t get worse…
“Editorial: At U, future teachers may be reeducated,” by Katherine Kersten, Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune, December 2, 2009
“University of Minnesota Under Fire for Task Force's Discrimination-Based Teacher Education Plan,” by Diane Macedo, FoxNews, December 9, 2009
December 10, 2009
Is success genetic or environmental? For educators trying to change the prospects of disadvantaged youth, new research on this timeless question might have wide-ranging implications. Previous research on genetic “vulnerability” hypothesized that certain people (roughly a quarter of all humans) are genetically more prone to depression, anxiety, or sociopathic, antisocial, or violent behavior if they experience a particularly traumatic event or childhood. But, according to David Dobbs, these genetically vulnerable folks may actually have “heightened genetic response to all experience.” They call these folks “orchids,” who like their floral namesake, are volatile and nurture-dependent; for them, a supportive and happy environment will produce a super-successful rocket scientist while a disruptive or dysfunctional one may yield a bully or drug addict. These folks are the high-flyers--and also the most troubled denizens--of our society. (The other 75 percent of humans are “dandelions,” who without these “risk” genes can thrive in any kind of family or home situation. They are steady, stable, and survive life’s rough patches with resilience.) What does mean for education? That for the 25 percent of students who are “orchids,” perhaps the ones who act out the most in class, exhibit symptoms of ADHD, or bully others, positive experiences in school might have the potential to override or at least offset the negative ones outside of it fueling this behavior. That’s good news for schools catering the most troubled and disadvantaged youth.
"The Science of Success," by David
December 10, 2009
Just when you thought reality-TV had sucked the life out of your every brain cell, the creators of the TV show “Lost” figure out a way to wring out the last drop. They think of it as a way to keep the show’s cult following intellectually engaged. It’s called Lost University, a virtual college whose curriculum delves into various academic fields woven into the show’s plot lines, and features professors from U.S.C. and U.C.L.A. Current offerings include PHI 101: I’m Lost Therefore I Am (taught by three philosophy professors), PHY 101: Introductory Physics of Time Travel (taught by one CalTech researcher and two physics professors), HIS 101: Ancient Writing on the Wall (taught by a Professor and a PhD student who specialize in Egyptian hieroglyphics), and SCI 101: Jungle Survival Basics (taught by the cast and crew of the show, who are no doubt “experts” in such matters). Students are assigned rigorous reads on topics like quantum physics, the works of ancient philosophers, and such titillating page-turners as Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. You can’t make this stuff up. But what about a primer in medical science for ER fans? A bit of history about the Korean War to explain old M*A*S*H episodes? Or explain American frontier living for Little House on the Prairie? Parse issues of race and poverty with Good Times? Investigate astronomy and space exploration à la Star Trek?
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / December 10, 2009
Institute of Education Sciences
Here we find new results from the Mathematics NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment, a.k.a. TUDA, which measures fourth and eighth-grade math (and, in other years, reading) in some of the nation’s large urban school districts. Eighteen districts participated in 2009. Between 2007 and 2009, we learn, the average math scores across these cities rose in both grades. But individual results for the eleven cities that participated in both 2007 and 2009 were fairly bleak: only Boston and Washington D.C. made gains in fourth grade and only Austin and San Diego did so in eighth; other cities had flat scores. The long-term data are more promising. Compared to 2003, the 2009 average math scores were higher in eight of ten participating districts in 4th grade and in nine districts in 8th grade. Although it’s difficult to spin one tale from this patchwork, one storyline worth mentioning is that TUDA is voluntary. Participation has steadily increased since its inception in 2003, even though the results usually bring bad news. You can find it here.
Emmy L. Partin / December 10, 2009
Craig D. Jerald
The Center for Public Education
Hoping to calmly and critically evaluate the grandiose promises of the 21st century skills movement, this paper systematically looks at three things: how changing world conditions have impacted skills requirements; which kinds of skills, based on this new world order, will be most important going forward; and what districts and schools should do about it. The world has become more automated and globalized, meaning jobs formerly done by humans in a specific location can now be admirably completed by computers half-way across the world. Further, argues Jerald, workplace success in the 21st Century relies on the layered interdependency of “foundational knowledge” (core academic content), “literacies” (ability to apply content), and “competencies” (ability to call on literacies), not on a simplistic skill set learned in the abstract. Finally, what are the implications of these findings for school districts and schools? Though he spends a mere two pages on this important question, Jerald does hit some key points. There can be no “either or” thinking about the relationship between skills and content knowledge; 21st century skills (or applied literacies and broad competencies, as Jerald calls them) are best taught within traditional disciplines and there is good reason to be skeptical of stand-alone lessons related to these skills; America’s expansive curriculum needs to be focused on fewer, deeper concepts; and athletics and extracurricular activities play an important role in developing many of these skills, thus
December 10, 2009
Miriam Kutzig Freedman
School Law Pro and Park Place Publications
This little flipbook takes a critical look at special education in America and offers twelve suggestions to improve it. The author argues forcefully that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is no longer adequate (though it has played an important role heretofore) and that special ed itself needs an overhaul. She contends that IDEA has become too inclusive, now covering many children for whom it wasn’t meant and who don’t necessarily need special education. (Just 30 percent of kids currently covered by IDEA are estimated to have severe disabilities.) Moreover, today’s special ed regime serves to hold capable kids to lower standards, costs a lot of money, and encourages schools to give extra attention only to kids with diagnosed disabilities, which can mean less attention for others. Besides all that, the bureaucracy that has sprung up around IDEA has become overwhelming, as has the litigation, which further serves to pit parents against schools. Powerful stuff, and available for purchase here.
December 10, 2009
This latest report from Education Sector summarizes the operational challenges that face nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs) as they attempt to grow and support their networks of charter schools.
The report profiles a who’s who of nationally recognized CMOs (Achievement First, KIPP, Uncommon Schools), highlights successes, and documents challenges (e.g., high student attrition, finding and retaining quality teachers and school leaders, putting CMOs – and their schools – on a path to financial sustainability). The challenges won’t be a surprise to anyone connected with charter schools, and an underlying message of the report is simply that when it comes to developing a sustainable CMO operation that provides a high quality education to poor urban students, CMOs are learning as they go. It is also apparent that successful networks identify potential problems early on and immediately make a course correction. The ability to identify problems and implement a successful correction strategy – just as in other domains – separates the truly excellent performers from the rest.
Growing Pains concludes with a number of recommendations aimed at policy makers, including eliminating requirements that every charter school have its own board of directors, eliminating caps (or using “smart caps,” see here), providing successful CMO networks access to facilities and expanding the federal Public Charter School Program grant to permit funding facilities, and allowing public schools that deliver results, including charters, to not just be equally funded, but receive