Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 44
December 17, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Price-free isn't cost-free
Party of Nein
Gold cross, clenched fist
Snooki gets snookered
The Promise of Proficiency
Mikes stalker voice
Mike and Rick reunite to finish out the year with a bang (even though Mike's voice was a froggy whimper). This week, they discuss the tracking-detracking debate, Kevin Williamson's treatise on price transparency, and the future of Detroit. Then, Amber tells us about a new study on teacher turnover in charter schools and Rate that Reform talks pregnancy.
'Twas the week before Christmas, and Race to the Top
Was the vendors’ obsession and focus nonstop.
The consultants were drafting proposals for states
With smug affirmations of positive fates,
While chiefs in their gray suits and governors, too,
Looked to Arne for dollars—please, more than a few.
In Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) infamously asserted that “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
In K-12 education, we submit, greed can be good, albeit ugly; but ensuring that children and taxpayers eke real benefits from the education market demands that consumers be at least as discerning as the suppliers are ardent. Today, that is too rarely the case.
We’re veteran champions of entrepreneurs, for-profits, out-sourcing, competition, deregulation, and kindred efforts to open public education to providers other than government and operators other than bureaucrats. We’ve served on boards of some of these organizations, advised them and generally supported them.
We’ve zero sympathy for hypocritical establishment grumps who aver that these “nontraditional” providers have darkened the previously-pristine world of public schooling with the stain of self-interest. That world has long been dominated by adult “stakeholder” groups that are at least as self-interested as anybody in the private sector. They’ve been shielded by a government monopoly that has ill-served children and taxpayers alike while resisting every effort to reform it or render it more efficient.
Yes, many of today’s for-profit and non-profit operators are self-promoters out to make a buck--and some are little more than snake-oil salesmen.
December 17, 2009
If only the health care system were as transparent as the market for yoga classes. Every medical procedure would have a clear and incontrovertible price tag, no patient would be banned from consulting the doctor of his choice (as long as he’s willing and able to pay), and risk would be incorporated rationally into premium prices. Or so goes the argument in this lively National Review free-market tractate. As Kevin Williamson puts it, “A good rule of thumb: Fear the man who says he will make things rational by ignoring reality--and ignoring prices is ignoring reality.” While his treatise only touches on education, and he may be overly idealistic about the feasibility of putting a price tag on the wares of private or public bureaucracies, the general point about transparency is certainly worthwhile. Per-pupil spending in education continues to rise, yet it’s difficult to know exactly where all the money is going. Luckily, a handful of analysts are doing some difficult and overdue data-mining: most notably, the Finance, Spending, and Productivity Project at the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education. They’ve put price tags on art courses vs. math courses (hint: the latter cost a lot less), and on sports vs. extended school hours. Other researchers have found that consumers (parents) actually modify their opinions significantly when they have access to the price (salary) of teachers. And let’s be honest, it’s rare that government bureaucracies take a close-enough look
December 17, 2009
Quick! Somebody translate Tom Loveless’s latest Fordham study, Tracking and Detracking, into German. A recent education-reform proposal in Hamburg, Germany (one of two German city-states, which make their own education policy like the other German Länder), has sparked a heated debate about tracking. Today, Hamburg students attend Grundschule, or elementary school, until age 10, at which point they enter one of six different high school tracks based on their academic records and teacher recommendations. The state government’s proposal would extend elementary school from four to six years, meaning students would enter secondary education at 12 (equivalent to grade 6) instead of 10 (grade 4); reduce the number of high school tracks from six to two, both of which would offer the Abitur college entrance examination; and eliminate parents’ right to choose their children’s schools, since pushy middle-class parents often game the system. “Social distance is diminished when children learn longer together,” explains Hamburg’s education minister, Christa Goetsch. This view is compounded by the fact that a middle-class Hamburger is 4.5 times more likely than a working-class child with the same grades to get into the most academically-oriented high schools--and secondary-education tracks are highly predictive of socioeconomic status and future career path. The state of Berlin (the other city-state) has already extended Grundschule to age 12 with nominal effect, but minimizing tracks and eliminating choice are untried in the German system. Even supporters of American-style tracking, such as this fly,
December 17, 2009
New York’s Catholic-school parents have had enough. The state is supposed to reimburse these schools for programs mandated by Albany. But the state has not paid up since 2003, and added a new payroll tax last May to bail out the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. This payroll tax applies to all public and private schools in the twelve counties served by MTA, but a last minute provision ensured that public schools would get reimbursed at the end of the year. The tax has already added up to $460,000 for the Diocese of Brooklyn and $680,000 for the New York Archdiocese. That’s on top of the missing $243 million owed parochial schools in these twelve counties for state-required programs. At a recent 1000-parent-strong rally on Staten Island, church leaders revealed that they may have to raise tuition by $500 a student to cover the new tax and the funding shortfall. Parents who can’t afford a tuition hike to bridge this gap may have to pull their children out next year--which would of course increase the state’s education costs, as those kids start attending public schools at full taxpayer expense. If the Church won’t stand up for the future of Catholic schools, maybe parents will.
“Catholic School Parents Angry at Albany,” by Lisa Evers, MyFoxNY, December 10, 2009
“Nearly 1,000 turn out to protest new state tax that hurts Catholic schools,” by Amy Padnani, Staten Island Advance, December 11, 2009
December 17, 2009
If you thought a reality TV show like MTV’s new “Jersey Shore” could never be educational, well, you were right. The new series, which features eight Italian-American boys and girls living together in a house in New Jersey for the summer of 2009, hit a new low, or rather, a cast member literally hit a new low--the floor. A bar outing last August turned sour when cast member Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi got decked in the face by an intoxicated jerk who had swiped the cast’s drinks off the bar. The video clip blazed around the internet, inciting a tabloid storm about whether or not MTV will include the violent segment in next week’s episode (they will not). So what’s the edu-angle? It turns out that the puncher was a New York public-school (gym) teacher named Brad Ferro. He’s since been put on administrative leave and placed in--you guessed it--a NYC teacher detention center, a.k.a. “rubber room.” Maybe now, Ferro can start his own rubber room reality show revealing the true goings-on inside possibly the worst compromise ever made between district and union. Of course, he’ll need his own nickname. Good thing you can generate your own “Jersey Shore” moniker online. From now on, Gadfly will be known as Thomas “T-Muscle” Fordham.
“'Jersey Shore' slugger is a Qns. teacher,” by Yoav Gonen and Lorena Mongelli, The New York Post, December 11, 2009
December 17, 2009
David Stuit and Thomas Smith
National Center on School Choice, Vanderbilt University
At first blush, charter fans will be none too pleased with this study on teacher turnover: It finds that nearly twice as many charter teachers left their jobs in 2003-2004 as did district-school teachers (25 vs. 14 percent) and, of those charter educators who exited, most forsook the profession altogether. Moreover, the odds of a charter teacher leaving the profession vs. staying in the same school are 132 percent greater than that of a traditional teacher. Charter teachers were also slightly less satisfied with their working conditions (mostly because of longer hours and less pay) and turnover at start-up charters was particularly high. Yet none of this is terribly surprising when considering the context. The turnover “gap” can be largely explained, for example, by the different types of teachers working at the two species of school, explain the authors. For example, charter teachers tend to be younger, meaning that their exit from the profession could be caused by typical 20-something career-switching. Still, that doesn’t mean all is well in the charter sector; the study also found that, at charter schools, voluntary “leavers” were more common than involuntary ones (involuntary teachers include those affected by school closures), and that the former often cited poor working conditions as the cause of their departure. Here’s hoping that those working conditions have improved in the five years since these
Janie Scull / December 17, 2009
Darrell M. West, Grover J. Russ Whitehurst, and E.J. Dionne, Jr.
Education is a nearly adumbered issue, according to this new paper that looks at national and local news coverage. Examining newspapers, news Web sites, television, and radio during the first nine months of 2009, the authors find that education-related coverage is just 1.4 percent of all news output; in comparison, government issues garnered 11.3 percent, foreign affairs 9.8 percent, and health care 9.2 percent. When education did receive exposure, it was usually focused on budget problems, school crime, and H1N1, rather than issues more directly associated with learning, such as curriculum, school reform, or teacher quality. With 74 million primary through postsecondary students enrolled in a system that “represents a fundamental mechanism for social and economic advancement and long-term civic engagement,” the authors contend that this paucity of substantive journalism is harmful. They suggest a number of recommendations: Schools should open their doors and encourage more news coverage; young people should take an active part in promoting communication of their school happenings; key players should host events to draw attention to problems and noteworthy solutions; and grant makers should aid struggling newspapers in reinstating more education coverage. News outlets themselves should reconsider education-reporting cutbacks and find more ways to integrate blogs and citizen journalism into their products. Oh, and we should all stop binging on holiday cookies and eggnog and eat spinach and skim
December 17, 2009
J.B. Schramm and E. Kinney Zalesne
Center For American Progress
We wouldn’t ask doctors “to develop a cure for a disease [without] knowing how the cure is doing in clinical trials,” so why do we ask high schools to prepare kids for college without any data on how they do when they get there? Not a bad question, now posed by an able duo writing for CAP. Over the last several decades, postsecondary education has become more important to economic success, so high school's goal has evolved from merely graduating students to preparing them for college. Yet the data systems need to catch up. The stats we now collect--standardized test scores, high school grades, high school graduation rates--may be correlated with a high school’s success, but the data that students produce in college--enrollment rates, college grades, college graduation rates--actually prove success. This paper shows the difference, through a series of case studies of schools and districts that have improved their test scores only to find powerful anecdotal evidence that their students arrive still unprepared at the college gate. Yet the college data do exist; we just need to make sure that high schools get access to them. This is happening slowly as states start to track students from (public) high school through (public) colleges, as entrepreneurs offer high schools limited college tracking data (for a fee), and as Uncle Sam pushes for more improvement. To accelerate these reforms, the authors