Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 2
January 15, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Did Bush hurt the charter movement by trying to help it?
By Robin J. Lake
Voc not a joke
No news is good news
A bailout for private schools?
Informing the Debate: Comparing Boston's Charter, Pilot, and Traditional Schools
By Christina Hentges
It's pronounced "Arnie"
We're back! This week, Mike and Rick discuss unionized charter schools, bailing out state education funds, and Bush's education legacy. Then Amber tells us about a new study of Boston charter schools and Rate That Reform gets fishy. Click here to listen through our website and peruse past editions.
Robin J. Lake / January 15, 2009
It's ironic. The Bush administration, a strong proponent of school choice, may have done more harm than good in its quest to help the charter school movement. At least, the Bush administration failed to meaningfully move the charter sector forward beyond the improvements made under President Clinton. How could that be?
George W. Bush came into office at a time when the charter movement was growing at its fastest pace and it was politically correct for Democrats and even some teacher unions to support charter schools. Fast forward eight years. Although the charter movement continues slowly to grow, new school growth is heavily concentrated in a few states, most people still know little or nothing about what a charter school is, and their politics are divisive in most places beyond the Beltway.
Certainly the outgoing administration supported school choice. Bush's Department of Education quickly sprouted an Office of Innovation and Improvement, whose officials applauded charters and even expanded funding opportunities for them.
Indeed, many Bush policies were even helpful. NCLB's intense focus on performance and accountability shone needed light on some of the worst charters and provoked action where school districts, authorizers and other oversight bodies had been negligent.
Yet the administration also gave its blessing to policies that conflict with the charter concept. Subjecting charters to the Highly Qualified Teachers (HQT) provision of NCLB, for instance, was an inappropriate regulatory requirement for schools that are supposed to be free to innovate--in the personnel
January 15, 2009
Is there any education miracle that Massachusetts didn't perform over the past ten years? Here's another one: reinventing vocational education, public schools' oft forgotten and woefully downtrodden wayward cousin. But this ain't your grandpa's voc ed. Prodded by a slew of reforms, including the Bay State's high school graduation test and pressure from No Child Left Behind, Massachusetts's voc schools have risen to the challenge. "We do very well because of ed reform," explained Rogerio Ramos, principal of Diman Regional Vocational High School, where 60 percent of students typically go to college. Once known as schools for dummies, Massachusetts' voc schools have given a whole new meaning to interdisciplinary learning. Instead of the soggy drivel this phrase usually implies, the interdisciplinary part has meant bolstering the traditional technical-vocational curriculum with more reading, writing, math, and other core content. In other words, using opportunities like shop class to raise the bar, rather than bend it.
"Massachusetts' impressively successful vocational schools," by Julia Steiny, The Providence Journal, January 11, 2009
January 15, 2009
Arne Duncan's Senate confirmation hearing this week was by all accounts a smashing success--if you define "success" as making no waves, upsetting no constituents, and sending no signals about the Obama Administration's intentions in the education sphere. Nor was it a tea party attended only by Senate Democrats; quondam-Secretary-of-Education Lamar Alexander told Duncan that he was Obama's "best" cabinet pick. (Take that, Hillary!) Duncan was happy to play along, with risky statements such as "never before has being smart been so cool" and "we must build upon what works and we must stop doing what doesn't work." Eventually Duncan and his boss are going to have to make decisions that will frustrate either the establishment or reform wings of the Democratic Party, but don't expect that day to come anytime soon.
"Nothing but Praise for Duncan in Senate Hearing," by Alyson Klein, Education Week, January 13, 2009
"Duncan: Smart is Cooler than Ever," by Sam Dillon, The Caucus (The New York Times Political Blog), January 13, 2009
January 15, 2009
Don't bank on it, but public schools aren't the only ones feeling the pinch from our current economic crisis. Budget woes have also seen private school enrollments drop and financial aid costs rise. "We just couldn't keep writing the check," explains San Francisco parent Cynthia Hogan. "It was killing us." With rising college tuition looming just beyond high school graduation, parents are looking into other options. According to data from the Department of Education (impressively dug up by The Associated Press), private school enrollment has been dropping in the aftermath of recessions for decades; this year, however, the schools may be particularly hard hit. Already it looks like enrollment is down 120,000 students nationally (out of six million kids in non-public education). Unfortunately, Catholic schools, long teetering on the edge of financial disaster, may be struck the hardest, serving, as they do, many working and middle class families. If you're looking for another reason to pray for a speedy economic recovery, may we suggest you add this one to the list?
"Private schools pinched as aid requests rise," by Christine Amario and Libby Quaid, The Associated Press, January 12, 2009
January 15, 2009
It should come as no surprise that the economy has become the excuse de jour for all sorts of bad policy. It should also come as no surprise that charter school detractors are going after these alternative models yet again (see here, here, and here, too). The latest attacks come from districts in Utah and Massachusetts where anti-charter forces want moratoria on new schools. The claim? That charters are draining already-scarce district resources and districts shouldn't be financially responsible for schools they don't oversee. The inconvenient truth? Districts are being pressed by charter competition. The financial officer for one Utah district claims that districts have innocent intentions: "It's time we examine whether charter schools have lived up to their promise. I think there's a growing realization that they're more expensive to run than public schools," she explains. More expensive? Clearly she never read Fordham's groundbreaking analysis of charter school funding, which found that charters receive about 80 cents on the dollar compared to their traditional public school counterparts. Let's call this what it is: just another attempt to strangle charter schools in their crib.
"Districts Lobby to Halt New Charter Schools," by Kirsten Stewart, Salt Lake Tribune, January 8, 2008
"Raise the Cap on Charters," Boston Globe, January 10, 2008
January 15, 2009
Fishing enthusiasts beware. No longer will you find salmon, trout, catfish, or your other favorite scaly friend at the end of your line. If People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have their way, you'll be reeling in a sea kitten. What's a sea kitten, you ask? It's PETA's new name for fish. That's right, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals would like you start calling fish "sea kittens." Why? "We're hoping that by calling fish ‘sea kittens,' compassionate people who would never hurt a dog or a cat will realize that fish feel pain and fear just like furry and winged animals do," explained the group in a letter to the principal of Whitefish High School in Montana, Ken Paulson. But it gets better. The letter was intended to convince Paulson that Whitefish High should change its name to Sea Kitten High. No, we did not make that up. (Gadfly's imagination has limits.) "Schools strive for achievements in academics and sports," explained PETA campaign coordinator Ashley Byrne, "so why not add compassion to the list?" Whitefish Superintendent Jerry House was intrigued; perhaps, he mused, last year's National Federation of Fly-Fishers conference held in Whitefish would transform into a conference for the National Federation of Sea Kittens. (Again, not kidding.) If only such attention were paid to student learning.
"PETA seeks to rename high school Sea Kitten," by Michael Jamison, The Missoulian, January 8, 2009
National Assessment of Adult Literacy: Indirect County and State Estimates of the Percentage of Adults at the Lowest Literacy Level for 1992 and 2003
January 15, 2009
L. Mohadjer, G. Kalton, T. Krenzke, B. Liu, W. Van de Kerck, L. Li, D. Sherman, J. Dillman, J. Rao
National Center for Education Statistics
This report combines the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) and the 1999 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) to create a database of indirect estimates on the number of adults who lack "basic prose literacy skills" (BPLS) on the state and county level. NAAL and NALS each surveyed about 20,000 adults over the age of 16. Adults who lack these skills either can't read or understand any written English or can only locate basic information in short prose but nothing more. What does that mean? As USA Today put it, these adults would find it difficult "to read anything more challenging than a children's book or to understand a medicine's side effects listed on a pill bottle." An estimated 32 million fall into this category--or 1 in 7 adults. And this population is growing at an alarming rate. Between 1992 and 2003, the American population grew by 23 million; 3.6 million of those--16 percent--were lacking BPLS. While the report itself is mostly mind-numbing technical background, it is accompanied by a worthwhile and easy to use website that allows viewers to compare literacy rates by state and county.
Christina Hentges / January 15, 2009
A. Abdulkadiroglu, J. Angrist, S. Cohodes, S. Dynarski, J. Fullerton, T. Kane, P. Pathak
The Boston Foundation
This report evaluates Massachusetts's several types of school options: traditional public schools, charter schools, and pilot schools. (For those who may be unfamiliar with the last of these, pilot schools were born as the Boston Public Schools' (BPS) and Boston Teachers' Union's (BTU) 1995 response to charter schools; described by the authors as a "middle ground," they have curricular, staffing, and scheduling autonomy but retain a collectively bargained pay scale and seniority rights.) The report combines two parallel studies. First, analysts used Massachusetts state test data to track individual student progress over time and by school. This piece included all schools in the Bay State and controlled for observable characteristics (e.g. race, English language proficiency etc.) but not for such intangibles as student motivation. Second, analysts evaluated school lotteries to compare students who did and did not receive spots in charter and pilot schools; this portion sought to control for both observable and unobservable student characteristics but only evaluated schools and years where there were significantly more applicants than open spots and where lottery records were complete. The findings are telling: the authors found "large positive effects" on student achievement for charter schools, but none for pilot schools, when both kinds of choice-schools were compared with traditional public schools. In fact, pilot school students may actually lose ground in some areas compared