Education policy 2009: A year in review

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 schools, mind you. Same students. Same teachers. Same achievement. What's different--sometimes drastically different--are the arcane AYP rules that vary from state to state.

Such variation surely existed before NCLB. Does it matter that it exists now?...Read the rest here.

By Chester E. Finn, Jr., Michael J. Petrilli, and Amber Winkler

"The accountability illusion," From Checker’s, Mike’s, and Amber’s Desks, February 19, 2009

On universal preschool…
President Obama has pledged to spend $10 billion more a year on "zero to five" education, and his 2010 budget makes a $2 billion "down payment" on that commitment. (Billions more are already in the "stimulus" package.) Any number of congressional leaders want more preschool, as do dozens of governors. Not to mention the National Education Association and the megabucks Pew Charitable Trusts, which is underwriting national and state-level advocacy campaigns on behalf of universal pre-kindergarten. At least three states are already on board.

Underlying all this activity and interest is the proposition that government--state and federal--should pay for at least a year of preschool for every American 4-year-old. One rationale is to boost overall educational achievement. Another is to close school-readiness gaps between the haves and have-nots. 

Almost nobody is against it. Yet everybody should pause before embracing it. 

For all its surface appeal, universal preschool is an unwise use of tax dollars. In a time of ballooning deficits, expansion of preschool programs would use large sums on behalf of families that don't need this subsidy while not providing nearly enough help to the smaller number of children who need it most. It fails to overhaul expensive but woefully ineffectual efforts such as Head Start. And it dumps 5-year-olds, ready or not, into public-school classrooms that today are unable even to make and sustain their own achievement gains, much less to capitalize on any advances these youngsters bring from preschool. (Part of the energy behind universal pre-K is school systems--and teachers unions--maneuvering to expand their own mandates, revenue, and membership rolls.)...Read the rest here.

By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

"Slow the preschool bandwagon," From Checker’s Desk, May 14, 2009

On anti-intellectualism in American schools…
"She was hungry, loved politics, had charm and energy, loved walking onto the stage, waving and doing the stump speech. All good. But she was not thoughtful. She was a gifted retail politician who displayed the disadvantages of being born into a point of view (in her case a form of conservatism; elsewhere and in other circumstances, it could have been a form of liberalism) and swallowing it whole: She never learned how the other sides think, or why."

--Peggy Noonan, "Farewell to Harms," Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2009

It's well known that feelings about Sarah Palin tend to run from red hot to ice cold, and for her supporters, statements like the one above are to be dismissed as ugly, unfair caricatures, developed at the hands of the liberal media and their acolytes of Beltway and Manhattan insiders.

And those supporters might be right. I've never met Sarah Palin; I don't know for sure how her mind works, or what she's read, or how thoughtful she might be. Like most Americans, all I know is what I've seen on television, in her speeches, debates, and interviews. Based on all of that, Noonan's characterization seems plausible.

But here's why it matters: There are lots of people in America who never learn "how the other sides think, or why." And that's a big problem for our country, and one that's likely only to grow worse as our education policies focus obsessively on making young people "college and career ready," the mantra repeated constantly by government officials, major foundations, and policy pundits across the political spectrum.

Sarah Palin was ready for college (five of them in fact). She was ready for a career (in the demanding commercial fisheries industry). But is that enough? Is it enough for any of our young people, even if they don't plan to run for higher office? Don't they need to be ready for citizenship, too?...

Duncan and his team are pushing for structural changes in the system; they, like most reformers these days, are ignoring the "stuff" of education--what students actually need to learn in order to become good Americans....But these Democratic reformers had better be careful. An obsessive focus on nothing but basic skills in reading and math, which can be chopped into little bits of data with which we can make all manner of decisions, will result in a generation of students who will make Palin sound like Socrates....Read the rest here.

By Michael J. Petrilli

"Sarah Palin, anti-intellectualism, and the plight of the liberal arts," From Mike’s Desk, July 16, 2009

On the stimulus…
The Department of Education reported the other day that, of the $97.4 billion in economic-stimulus funding that Congress steered its way, 69 percent was “obligated” by September 30th....In other words, Washington spent almost $68 billion more on education in fiscal 2009 than it otherwise would have. Though this is less than 10 percent of total “stimulus” spending, it’s a whopping big number by historic standards of federal aid to schools and colleges.

What has all that extra money actually bought? The main answer, trumpeted by the Obama Administration in a new 250-page document, is jobs, jobs, jobs….It’s a fact that employment was an explicit purpose of stimulus funding--Congress said as much--and with today’s jobless rate over ten percent only a churl would deny the humanitarian value as well as the political appeal of this. That said, turning schools into a jobs program--while well-run public organizations and private firms use the economic crisis to purge weak performers, cherry-pick talent, and position themselves to be more productive going forward--is a dubious way to tone them up for the 21st century.

And a tone-up--even a makeover--is what they need....

Primary-secondary enrollments rose by about 10 percent since 1970 but the teacher rolls grew by 61 percent during the same period--an addition of some 1.4 million instructional personnel....Let’s at least acknowledge that all these added employees have not boosted the performance of our schools and colleges. Seen in that light, today’s recession, however painful for individuals who might lose their jobs, could have had a useful purgative effect on the education workforce as in other fields....Such close analysts as Stanford economist Eric Hanushek estimate that substantial gains in pupil achievement would follow from (permanently) ridding K-12 education of the weakest ten percent of today’s teachers--even if that means adding a few pupils to the classrooms of those that remain....

The beneficiary teachers are surely grateful. Their unions are undeniably pleased.But this isnot the audacious change that was promised--and that is needed. Indeed, the fifty million young people who will end up repaying these ninety-seven billion borrowed dollars might want to inquire about a refund....Read the rest here.

By Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Frederick M. Hess

"Union jobs or education reforms?," From Checker’s and Rick’s Desks, November 12, 2009

On de facto segregation…
Try this education Rorschach. Imagine a public school that’s knocking the roof off of the state test. Its classes are led by energetic, passionate, thoughtful teachers who engage their students in rigorous study. The curriculum is rich and varied, with plenty of time for history and science, art and music, along with the 3 Rs. Its classrooms are orderly, its students respectful to one another and to adults. But it’s not dour; there’s a sense of joy, even wonder, at the school. It’s a lively, bright, warm place to be.

Now add this one wrinkle: all of its students are poor and black (or Hispanic). It is as “segregated” as Southern schools before Brown. Here’s the test: Do you think this school is unabashedly worth celebrating? Replicating? Viewing as a national model?

There’s no right or wrong answer, but the thought experiment illumines a divide within the education world. If you said “yes, this is a wonderful achievement that we’ve created these sorts of schools,” then count yourself within the (now-mainstream) education-reform community. You look at the typical KIPP school or Amistad Academy or any of the other “high flying” high-poverty, all-minority schools and say “see: it can be done.” You embrace the “no excuses” battle cry. Even schools full of poor and black/brown kids can achieve tremendous results--and we should have more of them.

If, on the other hand, you find this picture regrettable, somewhat sad, maybe even unsettling, your inclinations are more aligned with the traditional civil rights view. Sure, you acknowledge that great “black” schools are better than terrible ones, yet you don’t count this as a success, not really. After all, academic learning is just one part of schools’ missions; helping to create the next generation of citizens is another. And in our diverse, multicultural world, kids need to learn how to work and play with all kinds of people, not just those who look like them.

Here’s a related suggestion: What about creating a lot more racially- and economically-integrated charter schools? Both High Tech High and Denver School of Science and Technology, [for example], must forego federal charter start-up funds because they refuse to use a standard lottery. [S]chools like these need help. Federal law mandates that charter schools not use admissions requirements--if a school is oversubscribed, it must use a random lottery to decide who gets in. It’s not that they want to keep low-income kids out; rather, they want to make sure that enough low-income children can get in. Because these schools are so popular, including among savvy, middle class parents, the applicant pool naturally skews toward better-educated, wealthier families....Read the rest here.

By Michael J. Petrilli

"Is 'separate but equal' the best we can do?," From Mike’s Desk, December 3, 2009