Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 6
February 12, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Advice for Arne
Bloomberg bails out Brooklyn's Catholic schools
More charter school unionization
Million dollar teachers
In Defense of Jewish History Month
This week, Mike and Rick debate Arne's pot of discretionary boodle, the real salary potential of teachers, and the post-Obama fate of Black History Month. Then Amber explains why we should be suspicious of a new study on lead levels and achievement and Rate that Reform documents schools' Valentine's Day coping strategies.
At press time, your boss's stimulus package was hurtling toward final passage. We still don't know how much you're getting of what you wanted. But one thing is certain: you're going to have more discretion over more federal dollars than any education secretary in history. Which is not entirely a blessing. Remember the adage, "be careful what you wish for"?
Getting money out the door of 400 Maryland Ave S.W. is harder than it might look, particularly if you want the dollars to do some good (which you do) and when you don't have much of your own team on board yet to help you (which you don't).
Especially challenging will be your innovation fund. Details are sketchy but it looks like you'll have the authority to make grants to states, districts, and nonprofits to support a wide range of reform initiatives. Doing this quickly--and without the appearance of cronyism--will be a whopping challenge.
The rest of the education stimulus package will be tricky, too. If the short-run economic goal is to save 600,000 teacher jobs, as you have stated, then districts need to be able to use this flood of federal funds to "supplant" state and local dollars that are otherwise on the chopping block. At minimum, that's going to take much written guidance to the field, for it overturns decades of ESEA practice. It might take new regulations, too. And how can you make sure that, in the rush to get
February 12, 2009
Will New York's mayor henceforth be known as Michael "Noah" Bloomberg? Perhaps, if the bishop of the Brooklyn diocese, Nicholas DiMarzio, could rename him. DiMarzio recently likened the former financial guru to the Ark's captain for throwing the diocese a "lifeline" after the two agreed on a plan to convert four struggling Catholic schools to charters. The diocese announced earlier this year that fourteen Catholic elementary schools in Brooklyn and Queens would close in May due to declining enrollments and empty coffers. Fortunately, hizzoner and Pope's representative have an example to emulate: Washington, D.C., which saw the conversion of seven Catholic schools to charters last year. New York's plan follows a similar strategy: The city would lease the buildings, current students would be guaranteed seats at the new school, and all things religious would be removed. But the plan, to our mind, is bittersweet (separate and apart from the solely bitter news that ten Catholic schools in Brooklyn will apparently close altogether). While conversion will save these four schools, receiving public dollars means eliminating the religious grounding that makes parochial schools unique. Nor is Bloomberg exactly a saint; his high-powered fundraising for his own public schools likely squeezed out private dollars that might have kept these Catholic schools Catholic. But as one parent explained, if they can't keep the schools open as is, going charter "is the next best thing."
February 12, 2009
If the decline of Catholic schools is disturbing trend number one, this is disturbing trend numero dos: highly celebrated and successful charter schools being unionized. Just a few weeks back, teachers at two KIPP schools in New York announced that they would unionize. Now teachers at the Los Angeles Accelerated School, (ironically) chosen by TIME Magazine as the 2001's elementary school of the year for being free of "red tape that often chokes other institutions," have offered the figurative olive branch to United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). Bad news. The problem is that the staffing decisions and long hours common to charter schools are part of their model--and key to their success. Unionization, at least when accompanied by thick, burdensome collective bargaining agreements (UTLA's is "phone book sized," according to the LA Times), typically inhibits the very things that make charter schools, well, charters, and these particularly successful schools, well, successful. Although we're convinced unions and charters mix like oil and water, it may be just wishful thinking to hope this trend goes the way of big Wall Street bonuses.
"L.A. charter staff reaches out to teachers union," by Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times, February 9, 2009
February 12, 2009
Calling all recent unemployed college grads! Hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of teachers in the Anne Arundel County, Maryland school district earn over $100,000 per year in salary alone, not to mention extremely generous benefits and a guaranteed pension that can bank as much $2 million buckaroos for a person of normal life expectancy. Starting salaries clock in at a nice round $40,000, too--not including $15,000 in health, dental, and vision benefits. Surprised by these figures? You're not alone; according to Education Next, Americans underestimate average teacher salaries by 30 percent. That's because recruiting groups like the Maryland Teacher Shortage Task Force and the National Education Association continue to downplay the fiscal benefits of teaching, counting on the altruistic nature of young idealists to form the base of new teachers. Countless top candidates are deterred from teaching by the rumors of low pay, so why all the secrecy? If districts really want to recruit the best and the brightest, it's time to get out there, scream from the rooftops, advertise on billboards, do anything to make it public: Teaching = $$$!
"Need Teachers? Show Them the Money," by J.H. Snider, Washington Post, February 8, 2009
February 12, 2009
Traditionalists often lament the disappearance of letter-writing, personal notes, and other niceties of a time gone by. But have they ever considered the environmental impact of all that stationery? Ruth Loucks's fourth and fifth graders at Brant Central School in Southwestern Ontario have such matters on their minds. Using their math skills, they determined that nine hundred pieces of paper would be consumed if each pupil gave a Valentine to every one of his or her classmates. Extrapolate that to all the classrooms in the school and the number grows to over 4,000. Contemplate the entire school district and over 400,000 Valentines would end up in landfills after the celebrations are over. "If we made a whole bunch of cards, it would take a whole bunch of trees, and they would all end up in the garbage," said student Jacob Weber. How true, Jacob! So the class developed a reasonable solution: each student will draw a name from a hat and create a single Valentine for just that person. But don't be fooled by the modesty of that idea. The students' aims are much larger. "If we wouldn't really buy as many Valentine cards, perhaps next year there won't be as many little Valentines in the stores," said little Sarah Frook. Sounds like Hallmark might be next in line for a bailout.
"Students look to end paper waste created by Valentine's Day cards," by Christine Brandt, The Walkerton Herald Times,
Stafford Palmieri / February 12, 2009
American Legislative Exchange Council
This report presents an overview of educational inputs, outputs, and demographics, both nationwide and state-by-state, over the last ten years. It underscores the well-known fact that there's little discernible relationship between spending and achievement. In fact, what little relationship there is actually demonstrates that an excess of the former may have, in fact, hindered the latter by wasting money on failed policies--policies that may have gotten in the way of effective instruction and money that could have been used for approaches that actually work. To emphasize this point, the report includes scads of charts longitudinally tallying, by state, everything from the number of teachers to actual federal dollars received each year for education. It also ranks the states by such factors as average per-pupil expenditure, pupil-teacher ratio, and average salary of instructional staff. Some noteworthy findings: D.C. is top dog when it comes to average salary of instructional staff ($61,195) but dead last in achievement. And average per-pupil expenditures nationwide have approximately doubled since A Nation at Risk. Plenty of useful data here, though the report paints with a very broad brush and doesn't do much adjusting for demographics, differing costs, and such. You can find it here.
Trends in preschool lead exposure, mental retardation, and scholastic achievement: Association or causation?
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / February 12, 2009
Rick Nevin, National Center for Healthy Housing
Journal of Environmental Research
Could the incidence of mental retardation and lagging SAT scores be related to juvenile lead exposure? Quite possibly, suggests Virginia economist Rick Nevin, in a study published this month. There appears to be a strong statistical relationship between mental retardation, SAT trends, and blood lead levels in children between 1936 and 1990. As lead levels went up, SAT scores went down, and vice versa. A rise in lead levels was associated with an increase in mental retardation cases. If a causal relationship were true, this would be a shocking discovery. Unfortunately, these findings are somewhat compromised by less-than-sturdy analytic methods. First, the "unit of analysis" is the entire United States--not an individual, much less a state; such a large scope means it's much easier to mask other factors that may have impacted the findings. Second, Nevin uses the percent of students with mental retardation in special education as his mental retardation variable, but we know that definitions of special education categories vary widely across states and have changed substantially over the last 50 years. And finally, when treating SAT takers, Nevin controlled for the number of students speaking a foreign language at home and for the number of students taking SAT test prep courses--both factors that could impact scores--but he didn't control for economic status, which is more relevant. A more credible approach would emerge from a true