Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 8
February 26, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
National standards--not if but when
The Congressional barnyard
Who's LOLing now?
School Choice Yearbook 2008-09
Inside Urban Charter Schools
Leave room for the Holy Spirit
This week, Mike and Rick discuss increasing class size, increasing the federal role (and New York Times' na?vet?), and decreasing school years in Oregon. Then Amber gives us the low down on Tom Loveless's new Brown Center report on education and Rate that Reform explains the death of fun at school dances.
President Obama's address to Congress is earning plaudits for its honesty, candor, and can-do/will-do/must-do spirit. Rather than just picking out scapegoats to pin our economic woes on, the President took pains to explain that we're all responsible, that "we managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before." And he announced that the "day of reckoning" has arrived.
Tough talk and tough choices percolated through other parts of the speech as well: health care, foreign affairs, the upcoming budget, and more.
When he turned to education, however, that kind of truth-telling and trading-off of vexing options mostly melted away. Yes, he correctly pointed out that "countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow." Yes, he punched various poll-test buttons with well-timed mentions of "reform" and "teacher performance," of "innovative programs" and "high standards," of "achievement gaps" and "charter schools."
But the thrust of his education remarks was the historic "investments" (a.k.a. spending) he's directing toward schools and universities--in order to expand early childhood education, make college more affordable, and "prevent painful cuts and teacher layoffs that would set back our children's progress."
This is classic Obama, straddling the Democratic divide on education, just as he did so deftly during the campaign, striving to placate both the reformers within the party and the teacher union bosses. As with his approach to "nationalizing" (or, if you prefer, not nationalizing) the banks, he's trying
Stafford Palmieri / February 26, 2009
In 2006, Fordham published a report with the playful name To Dream the Impossible Dream, which outlined several plausible paths to national academic standards. That dream seems less impossible today. As No Child Left Behind's flaws increasingly come to light, the winds behind the national standards movement gain force. They were gale-like on Monday, at least, at our very own event about The Accountability Illusion. The panel of four Fordham trustees disagreed about plenty but they did agree on this: it is time--past time, even--to revisit the idea of national standards. But how do we get from here to there?
Three years ago, we saw four options: have the federal government take the lead and mandate state adoption of national standards (a.k.a., "the whole enchilada"); have a non-governmental body create the standards and let states opt in ("if you build it, they will come"); get states to collude in a bottom-up approach ("let's all hold hands"); and tap into the power of "sunshine and shame," i.e., maintain separate standards on the state level but make comparisons with national and international standards a lot more feasible and prominent.
Fast forward to 2009 and the "let's all hold hands" approach is gaining steam. Achieve's American Diploma Project already provides a voluntary third party auditing system for states wishing to up their standards to a nationally-accepted college readiness level. And just a few days ago, the National Governors Association unanimously
February 26, 2009
If you lead a charter school that's about to be closed for poor performance, how do you fight back? Well, you might misrepresent successful schools on the editorial page of your local newspaper. Sounds bizarre that but that's the tactic employed by Michael Mayo, executive director of Uphams Corner Charter in Massachusetts, whose charter has been revoked by the state. He tries to excuse his school's low test scores by taking a swing at paternalistic schools--and David Whitman's characterization of them in Sweating the Small Stuff--in the Boston Globe and wildly misses. According to Mayo, "In some of these schools, students don't speak from the moment they get off the bus until they get back on again" and others order students to "shun" those who are disobedient. We're not sure which schools he may have in mind but he's not describing any of the six profiled by Whitman. KIPP instructs students to talk only to teachers as a disciplinary measure but that's a far cry from Mayo's description. Nor do we suspect that any schools that would actually implement such short-sided strategies would enjoy long-term success. Further, he accuses these paternalistic charters of overdoing "compliance and routine" while sacrificing meaningful "robust relationships," "nurturing boundaries," and "enormous support." We're stumped; can you give us a page number reference, Mr. Mayo? Too bad about your school--and we don't doubt the number of challenges you faced. Boosting student achievement in the face
February 26, 2009
What has pork, cash cows, and ritual sacrifice? Why, the Omnibus Spending Bill of 2009, finally speeding through Congress. Yes, that's right, the plain ole budget for fiscal year 2009, which began, by the way, back on October 1, 2008. Democrats in both chambers sat on the bill hoping one of their own would grab the White House--and apparently for good reason. The version that House Democrats rammed through yesterday again zeroes out the Reading First program and also puts a sword through the heart of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship (a.k.a. voucher) program. But it provides mounts of dollars for Head Start and Title I, as well as earmarks-a-plenty (over $8 billion worth, according to one watchdog group). It wasn't enough to throw $100 billion at education via the economic "stimulus" package. House Dems are also intent on stripping out the few federal programs with true promise for poor kids. If this is because of their continued hatred of President Bush, let us remind them: he's back in Texas. It's time to move on. And this bill, of course, now moves on to the Senate.
"House Passes Spending Bill, and Critics are Quick to Point Out Pork," by Robert Pear, New York Times, February 25, 2009
"Summary: 2009 Labor, Health & Education Appropriations," Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives, released February 23, 2009
February 26, 2009
Districts and states across the land are all making changes to save some change. A few are even eyeing the long-sacred cow of small class sizes. A few weeks ago it was Schwarzenegger taking some heat for proposing district flexibility to take class size reduction funds and use them for other purposes (unfortunately the measure didn't make the final budget); this week it's Florida and New York City, the former contemplating and the latter having already increased the classroom nosecount. This makes sense. Reducing class size by a few students--from 27 to 23 for example--has never been shown to have much effect on student achievement but it's enormously expensive. Undoing it, even partway, saves big bucks. University of Washington's Dan Goldhaber reasons this practice comes from a desire for easily measurable classroom changes--anyone can count the number of students in a room. "We know that teachers are the most important thing, but teacher quality is not stamped on someone's forehead," he explains. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg agrees: "If you have to have smaller class size or better teachers, go with the better teachers every time." Let's hope more states and districts jump on this bandwagon.
"Officials May Ease Rule on Class Size," by Christine Armario, Associated Press, February 22, 2009
"Class Sizes Makes Biggest Jump of Bloomberg Tenure," by Jennifer Medina, New York Times, February 17, 2009
February 26, 2009
Once upon a time, little Susie was sent to the office for the errant spitball or wayward paper airplane landing in Ms. Beasley's coiffed beehive. Fast forward to 2009 and Susie--or in this case, a 14-year-old troublemaker from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin--has instead landed herself in the pen for a misuse-of-technology infraction. Her offense? Refusing to stop sending text messages in class after repeated requests by her teacher to cease and desist. Next came the school's police officer, who demanded that she surrender the offending electronic device; to keep it out of reach, the technology-addled adolescent shoved it down her trousers. Suffice to say, it only got uglier from there (lying to The Heat, subsequent arrest, and unrepentant court appearance for her nimbled-fingered obsession). If that weren't enough, the persistent teen figured out how to sneak back into school twice (who says our kids don't know how to problem solve?), only to get slapped with a couple of bon voyage trespassing tickets. Which all leads us to conclude: kids are quite adept at 21st century technological skills, thank you very much. Now they just need to learn where and when their application is appropriate.
"Teen arrested for texting in class," by Michael George, TMJ4 Milwaukee News, February 24, 2009
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / February 26, 2009
The Brookings Institution
This slightly tardy report offers a trio of unrelated but highly engaging--indeed downright provocative--studies. First up is PISA, and whether using it as a model for national or state benchmarking efforts is a good idea. (More on this in a bit.) Second, Loveless looks at the 1990s' aggressive push to get more kids into eighth grade algebra (enrollment has nearly doubled since 1990) and the deleterious effects of doing so. (The Brown Center already released this part back in September.) Finally, Loveless contemplates the performance of city school districts compared with other districts in the same states and finds--encouragingly--that 29 of 35 city districts narrowed the gap between their test scores and state averages from 2000 to 2007 (New Orleans posted the biggest gains). But it's the PISA study that should warrant the most attention, since NGA and other national groups have viewed that test as the holy grail of international standards and assessment*. Loveless presents a stinging indictment of PISA's political correctness and manipulative approach to student attitudes--wholly inappropriate for a test of science. This is because PISA asks lots of questions about self-efficacy in science, as opposed to science content itself. While PISA finds the correlation between the two positive, Loveless finds otherwise--the more confident its kids are in their science abilities, the lower that nation's scores. But who cares? This isn't a test of confidence. It's supposed to be
Christina Hentges / February 26, 2009
Chapter 5, "Bureaucracy Can't Teach"
W.W. Norton & Co.
Although much attention has been paid to the unique cultures of high-performing charter schools (see here and here, for starters), Philip Howard applies a new lens: legal. Why, the accomplished attorney asks, can't teachers more easily instill a "Work Hard, Be Nice" (à la KIPP) culture at any school? His answer: legal regulations. They are, he concludes, the ultimate hurdle to creating a strong school culture. Howard first walks the reader through the sea of rules governing everything from pedagogy to classroom cleaning procedures. As he shows, legal considerations often prevent teachers from disciplining and removing students. Teachers' lack of control over routine and classroom management leaves them demoralized, disengaged, and unable to support a larger school culture. What would he do differently? Let teachers manage their classrooms and couple that independence with a system of thoughtful accountability, such as setting out criteria for student discipline. Not a bad start, but let's keep our eye on the objective data. As David Whitman showed us in Sweating the Small Stuff, there's no zero-sum game at these high-performing charters when it comes to academic quality--as measured by test scores--and a strong culture; instead, the two go hand-in-hand. You can buy the book here.
Eric Osberg / February 26, 2009
Geoffrey Goodman et al.
Alliance for School Choice and Advocates for School Choice
This second edition of the Alliance's Yearbook mainly updates its inaugural publication without adding significant new content. And prospective readers should note that the authors answer the question "What is School Choice?" in a specific (and perhaps limiting) way: "To us, school choice puts parents in charge of their children's education by letting them choose the best schools for their kids, whether public or private." Thus, charter schools and public-sector open enrollment programs are not tabulated. Still, it's useful for what it is: a trove of data, charts, and details on vouchers and tax credits. In the 2008-09 school year, for example, an estimated 171,000 children are participating in 11 voucher programs and seven scholarship tax credit programs, spread across 10 states and the District of Columbia. Digging in, we find that these programs have grown modestly in the last year (8 percent more students) but tremendously since 2004 (nearly doubling). State profiles offer details on each program, and the resources include organizations that can help the curious politician draft choice legislation. Even as threats loom to kill the extant D.C. voucher program, the authors offer an upbeat prognosis for the future: Democratic support, they say, is growing; school choice bills are sprouting up in nearly every state (if not often becoming law); and even teachers support choice (as first reported in
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / February 26, 2009
Katherine K. Merseth et al.
Harvard Education Press
With 4,000 diverse charter schools scattered across the land and with critics, opponents, and analysts leveling forests to publish criticisms of charter schooling as a failed experiment, it's refreshing and heartening to find another thoughtful analysis of successful charters. (Of course, David Whitman's analysis came first.) The Harvard ed school's Kay Merseth, with a platoon of research helpers and fueled by a federal research grant, spent a lot of time examining five high-performing (urban) charters in the Boston metro area to see what makes them tick--and what they have in common. The resulting book is first rate--insightful case studies of individual schools followed by analytic chapters on "cross-school themes." Perhaps unsurprisingly, these themes include school culture, leadership, personnel, "structures and systems," and curriculum and instruction. It's no cookbook or instruction manual; it doesn't tell you how to create a successful charter from scratch much less how to turn around those that are lacking. But it lucidly describes, depicts, and explains the crucial elements that these five schools have put into place that very likely account for their success. You can order a copy here.