Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 45
December 30, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
New Year's Resolutions 2010
Weird science--even for Berkeley
Attention Kmart shoppers
680 hours, 58 minutes left
Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence
By Janie Scull
December 30, 2009
Join us as we revisit some of 2009’s highlights (and lowlights), from NCLB to the stimulus, from Sarah Palin to de facto segregation.
On No Child Left Behind…
Take away all the jargon, emotion, envy, confusion, and embarrassment and much of the No Child Left Behind debate comes down to this: Which schools are good, which are bad, and does NCLB do a decent job of telling the difference?
The short answer, provided by a major new study from Fordham and the Kingsbury Center at the Northwest Evaluation Association, is no, not by a mile.
The analysis is complex and the report is long but its premise is simple: Take a set of real schools, pretend that we can drag them across the map and drop them down in various states, and see how many would make "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP) in each place. If the U.S. had something akin to a shared notion of what it means to be a good or bad school, we wouldn't see a whole lot of variation.
Yet we found nearly the opposite. In a few of the 28 states we studied (e.g., Wisconsin, Arizona), almost all of the elementary schools in our sample made AYP, while in other jurisdictions (e.g., Massachusetts, Nevada), almost none did. Putting it bluntly, most of the schools in our sample would be considered failures in some states but perfectly okay, even praiseworthy, in others. These are the same exact
December 30, 2009
As 2009 comes to a close, it’s time to look forward as well as back. For many folks, it’s a time to consider purposeful ways of making the future different from the past (stop smoking, lose weight, quit kicking the cat, etc.). But instead of boring you with our own ambitious resolves for 2010, we spent our time pondering what other folks in the education policy world should be doing next year. (Ok, we admit, we tacked one of our own onto the end.) After all, that’s what a Gadfly does--it comments on the doings of others. Here’s hoping that our New Year’s Resolutions 2010 for Other People come true.
1. President Barack Obama resolves to shut down New York City’s rubber rooms--right after he closes Guantanamo. Unlike with Gitmo terrorists, though, he shouldn’t bother looking for jurisdictions to take those teachers.
2. Gene Wilhoit and Dane Lind resolve to get Texas and Alaska to sign on to the Common Core initiative by adding curricular units on “Lone Star History and The Art of Secession” and “The Contributions of Hockey Moms to American Society.”
3. Michelle Rhee resolves not to appear on John Merrow’s Newshour segment more than once a week.
4. Brad Ferro, public school gym teacher in the Bronx and current rubber-room inmate, resolves to take anger-management classes, at least while the reality TV show cameras are rolling.
5. Greg Toppo resolves to keep his tweets to fewer than ten a day.
December 30, 2009
In this thoughtful U.S. News piece, Andy Rotherham sticks up for one of America’s most marginalized populations of students: the incarcerated. There are more than 100,000 behind-bars juveniles around the country, and they attend school just like other students, but do so in prisons or youth detention centers. The difference is that school comes to them, meaning, obviously, that they have no choice in the decision of which school to attend. That’s why it’s important that their schools be effective. Rotherham looks at the daily struggle to provide a quality education in two such institutions, New York’s Riker’s Island and Virginia’s Youth for Tomorrow. These schools are often burdened with ineffective teachers, low expectations for achievement, and students with needs more intense than their outside-the-bars peers. Yet these schools and their students are not given much attention; and “[t]o the extent [they] are discussed,” explains Rotherham, “the conversation often turns on diminished expectations or futility.” Similar troubles plague other kinds of alternative schools, where students may not be behind bars but are typically removed from the general school population for a specific reason. And though we could argue that these children took away their own choices by breaking the law, “We cannot simultaneously demand ‘zero tolerance’ and fail to build a network of quality alternative placements,” rightly reasons Rotherham.
“Prison Students Illustrate the Shortcomings of Public Schools,” by Andrew Rotherham, U.S. News and World Report, December 22, 2009
December 30, 2009
Berkeley High School has long faced a stubborn achievement gap between its white and minority pupils. What to do? At a recent meeting of the school's governance council, a proposal was put forward to eliminate science labs, which predominantly serve high-achievers, so as to redirect resources to underperforming students. Though the measure is only in its infancy, a council vote on whether or not to consider the idea was virtually unanimously in favor. Not a good sign. BHS presently offers twenty-six lab classes (out of ninety-eight total science classes), in subjects from chemistry to human anatomy and physiology. Science teachers at the school are understandably aghast but council member Paul Gibson claims that information presented to the council makes it sound like the labs are mostly populated by white students. Even if that's so, isn't the answer to make rigorous labs more accessible to minority students, rather than to jettison an effective learning environment for their peers? And even for race- and class-obsessed Berkeley, isn't this a bridge too far?
"Berkeley High May Cut Out Science Labs," by Eric Klein, East Bay Express, December 23, 2009
December 30, 2009
Charter schools have a notoriously difficult time finding facilities, so they take put down in all sorts of incongruous places: churches, office buildings, warehouses. Next up, a former Kmart. This Blue Light Special rang in to the tune of just under $1 million for an 88,000 square-foot store outside of Memphis. “We’re going to bring that building up to first-class status,” croons Reverend Anthony Anderson, founder of Memphis Business Academy, the school that will occupy the space come August 2010. Where shelves of pastel-colored Martha Stewart towels and racks of Jaclyn Smith clothing once enticed frugal shoppers, students will sharpen their minds in state-of-the-art computer labs. With the purchase, the five-year-old school will be able to combine its middle and high school sections in one building and boost total enrollment from 400 to 700 students. Maybe Mr. Bluelight should be the new school mascot.
"Charter school buys old Kmart," by Alex Doniach, Memphis Commercial-Appeal, December 24, 2009
December 30, 2009
What do you get when schools are on vacation, lawmakers are in recess, and readers are distracted by the holidays? Fluff. This Boxing Day, New York Times readers were treated to a titillating story--on page A14 no less--about the number of hours the federal Department of Education estimates it will take states to complete their Race to the Top applications. Let’s just say that states have their work cut out for them. 681 hours worth. (Sam Dillon, author of the piece, allays confusion thusly: “Not 680, not 700, but 681 hours.”) How much is that in HR terms? One fulltime civil servant working for seventeen weeks. And it’s 39 more hours than July’s time estimate, since the Department says the rules have become more complicated. Such estimates seem to be required by the Office of Budget and Management, though ED says states are free to spend more or less time on their applications. As for the states, most find the number laughably low, having already devoted many more hours to this task. Ah, the holiday season. Now, how will you recoup the two minutes you just spent reading this?
“Extra Homework Applying for Education Grants,” by Sam Dillon, New York Times, December 26, 2009
Janie Scull / December 30, 2009
Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork
Psychological Science in the Public Interest
It is not easy to take on the illustrious Howard Gardner and the widespread belief in American ed schools that children’s “learning styles” differ in significant ways and must be taught to appropriately. But UVa psychology professor Dan Willingham began the debunking process in 2004 and this literature review continues it. The authors looked for rigorous studies that satisfied three methodological criteria: Students were divided into learning-style based groups, students were randomly assigned a type of teaching method, and students in all groups had to sit for the same test. Then, in order for the positive findings to hold water, the study had to have strong findings: that a student with one learning style achieves the best outcome with a method that differs significantly from another instructional style achieving the best outcome for students with other learning styles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such rigorous studies are scarce; and when they do exist, they provide no evidence that differentiated learning-style instruction has a positive effect on student achievement. The bottom line is that this fad, like others before it, is probably groundless, and we may want to reconsider the many dollars invested in its implementation and use. You can read the report here or find it for free here.
Universal Access to a Quality Education: Research and Recommendations for the Elimination of Curricular Stratification
Daniela Fairchild / December 30, 2009
Carol C. Burris, Kevin G. Welner, and Jennifer W. Bezoza
The Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice
Arriving just days after our own report on detracking in Massachusetts, the Great Lakes Center takes a look at the effects of tracking on low-level learners. It should be noted that this outfit is a pseudo research front for the teachers’ unions of the Great Lakes states (Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, etc.) and spends most of its energies and resources bashing studies that they don’t like. That said, this report’s conclusions are not completely off the wall. The authors plainly abhor tracking, or as they term it, “curricular stratification,” calling it both racist and classist. Not only are low-level classes disproportionately filled with minority students, but a minority student with the same grades as his white peer is more likely to be placed in a low-level track. Surely they are right that no child should be relegated to watered-down classes or dead-end tracks to nowhere. And encouraging more students to take rigorous courses is altogether praiseworthy. If only the report stopped there. It also tells states to eradicate tracking completely (they even include sample statutory language) and admonishes districts to routinely evaluate the makeup of classes to check for de facto tracking. They also favor PR campaigns aimed at parents and communities on the benefits of detracking. It’s one thing to lop off the lowest tracks in a
Measuring Principal Performance: How Rigorous Are Publicly Available Principal Performance Assessment Instruments?
Stafford Palmieri / December 30, 2009
Christopher Condon and Matthew Clifford
Learning Point Associates
This short brief from Learning Point Associates takes a look at eight widely-used principal evaluation systems. To be considered, systems had to serve the purpose of performance evaluation, be publically available, and pass psychometric tests of reliability (answers are consistent when a test-taker retakes the test, all other factors constant) and validity (the assessment areas had to be realistically measurable). Of the eight systems that qualified, one was the clear winner: the Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education or VAL-ED. It also happens to be the newest of these systems (created in 2006). Perhaps the advent of more data and the development of newer data-driven technologies and methods have improved the prospects of principal evaluation. Analysts cited VAL-ED’s “360-degree approach” and twenty minute-seventy-two item format as strengths of the system, which also produces a quantitative assessment profile instead of the more common qualitative evaluation, and makes the important connection between teacher and principal ratings. This got it a high score in the validity category. But most notable was its nearly perfect score on the reliability metric, meaning test scores were stable and consistent for each individual who took the test. As the role of effective principals in forging and leading effective schools becomes clearer, principal evaluation matters more. For those who want to know more about the current state of these systems, this is a good place to start. Read it