Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 4
January 29, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Will the recession kill school reform?
Yes we can (close the achievement gap overnight)?
Grading the graders in the Sooner State
A new (Bos)tone on charters
Batter up, Colorado
2009 Annual Letter from Bill Gates
Rick won't be my facebook friend
This week, Mike and Rick discuss new legislation in Colorado to give parents time off for school events, the wrongful condemnation of Ohio's voucher program, and the real story behind the "Obama Effect." Amber then tells us about a new study from the Department that reveals some disturbing budgetary news for professional development and Rate That Reform gets another driving lesson.
Few deny that we're living through a time of immense change on many fronts. Just the other day, William Kristol wrote in his final New York Times column that Barack Obama's election signaled an end to the modern conservative era; pretty much everyone agrees that the federal response to the banking crisis indicates the end of a certain sort of freewheeling capitalism. Let us now add another marker: this time of economic hardship may also be the end of modern school reform.
How so? Because of what turns out, in retrospect, to be a tragic flaw in the strategy of many reformers in recent decades: offer the education establishment a lot more money in return for a little reform. Understandable, sure, and in many state capitols and along the banks of the Potomac there probably was no other way to go about it. But what happens when the extra money dries up? When even the pre-reform money sinks into the recessionary soil? During flush times, buying reform seemed to make a certain kind of sense and to be relatively low risk, a bit like buying a big new house or fancy new car. During hard times, however, that turns out to be the very definition of unsustainability.
The current fiscal climate is tough--and apt to get even tougher. In the short term, that's because, as AEI's Frederick M. Hess has pointed out, school budgets, funded largely on the basis of
January 29, 2009
It seems three researchers have some provocative news: President Obama may already have eliminated the black-white test score gap. But the findings, and the accompanying Kool-Aid sodden New York Times article, have all the makings of an infomercial: lots of pizzazz, not so much substance. The study, which is suspiciously as-of-yet unpublished, found that a black-white performance gap on 20 Graduate Record Examination questions administered before the election disappeared after Obama's swearing-in. Could it be true? Previous research has documented a "stereotype threat" (i.e., black students become anxious about confirming a negative stereotype when asked to report their race on tests, and end up doing worse), so maybe Obama's historic rise has made African Americans feel better about their race, and thus about themselves, leading to higher scores? Perhaps, but not likely. The study suffers from major methodological maladies: "self-selection bias" (participants volunteered to take a test versus being randomly selected) and a small sample size--approximately 400 people. The Times should have been more skeptical--but then again, that's like asking Sarah Palin's fan club to question her grammar.
"Study Sees an Obama Effect as Lifting Black Test-Takers," by Sam Dillon, New York Times, January 22, 2009
January 29, 2009
Last week, when Barack Obama said that "those of us who manage the public's dollars will...do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between and people and their government," he must have had Oklahoma in mind. A new proposal from the Oklahoma Business & Education Coalition would create an independent agency to manage the state's testing and accountability program. Those functions are currently handled by (elected) state education superintendent Sandy Garrett, and department that she leads. Understandably, she's not too thrilled about this idea, calling it "more bureaucracy." But Sandy should know better. Having the state education agency evaluate its own performance is like having students grade their own tests. With those kinds of perverse incentives, it's no wonder Oklahoma is bragging about good news while its students are lagging. In fact, this is such a good idea that other states should steal it for themselves--"sooner" rather than later.
"Oklahoma legislators seek fixes to school performance," by Julie Bisbee, The Oklahoman, January 16, 2009
January 29, 2009
Has Governor Deval Patrick done a 180 on charters in Massachusetts? If you were to believe the latest coming out of Boston, that's certainly how it sounds. Patrick has announced he's willing to lift the long-standing and long-lamentable Bay State charter cap, as long as new charters cater to the neediest students (English Language Learners, special education students, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, and those at risk of dropping out). Massachusetts limits the number of charters statewide and by individual school district; so while approximately 60 more charters can open in the state as a whole, many needy urban districts like Boston are near the local cap--9 percent of district spending. Patrick's proposal would increase that local cap to 12 percent from 9 percent in the 50 lowest performing districts. Sounds promising. But while we'd love to take Patrick at his word, there's reason to be skeptical. The governor has been under pressure from charter advocates since a recent study found charter schools massively outperform Boston's traditional and pilot schools. Could his change of heart be just a PR stunt? We hope not, since this could be a dynamite way to offer students more choices and save state dollars to boot.
"Charter schools score in budget," by James Vaznis, The Boston Globe, January 28, 2009
January 29, 2009
Sounds like Colorado heard Obama's clarion call for responsibility loud and clear. Centennial State citizens and lawmakers spent the better part of last week debating the merits of a bill to promote parental and community involvement. Specifically, HB 1057 would guarantee that working parents receive up to 40 hours of unpaid leave per academic year to attend school events--like parent-teacher conferences and student plays. While the PTA and teacher groups are ecstatic, many business organizations have blasted the bill as unfair to small companies, citing the excessive monetary burden in an already sagging economy and the hardships levied on other employees. These are understandable concerns, and 40 hours per year is probably excessive, though proponents are right when they point out that students whose parents are involved in their education tend to do better. Calling for parents to step up to the plate goes only so far if you can't get to the plate in the first place.
"Showing up for the kids," by Susan Greene, editorial, The Denver Post, January 8, 2009
"Businesses blast mandatory time-off bill," by Bob Mook, Denver Business Journal, January 22, 2009
January 29, 2009
Is Ron Huberman, president of Chicago Transit Authority, the perfect guy to keep Windy City students on the right track? Mayor Richard M. Daley seems to think so. He has named him to fill Arne Duncan's moccasins as he heads to 400 Maryland Avenue. Daley says Huberman's problem-solving management style will keep Chicago Public Schools' trains running on time. But he won't be driving alone. An internal disagreement--and an understandably angry passed-over chief education officer--has resulted in a two-person partnership: Huberman will share the job with Barbara Eason-Watkins, Duncan's former right-hand woman. But who will be the engineer on that train? We gotta wonder if Huberman's resumé has prepared him for leading CPS. Certainly, some of the same rules apply--no eating and drinking except in designated areas, single-file when ascending the stairs, and punctuality, a must. As for Chicago students, we simply hope they make it to class on time--before the doors slide shut.
"CTA President to run Chicago Public Schools," by Fran Spielman, Chicago Sun-Times, January 26, 2009
January 29, 2009
National Endowment for the Arts
After two recent doom-and-gloom surveys--2004's "Reading at Risk" and 2007's "To Read or Not to Read"--the National Endowment for the Arts has emerged with some surprisingly positive findings about the state of literacy in the U.S. As he was leaving his post, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia crowed that this new study marks a "turning point in recent American cultural history." (Maybe President Obama deserves credit?) Unfortunately, a closer look shows that the study doesn't quite buttress that prediction. The report evaluates the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a federal survey of more than 18,000 adults; it found that, for the first time in the survey's 26 year history, literary reading (defined as reading any novel, short story, poem, or play) has risen among adult Americans. The trend holds true regardless of gender, race, education level, or age group. Good news. What the NEA spends less time discussing, however, is that while the absolute number of book-reading adults grew from 2002 to 2008, the number of book-reading adults as a percentage of the U.S. population declined. Furthermore, gains in reading came exclusively from prose fiction; the percentage of adults reading drama and poetry declined and no data were gathered for prose nonfiction. So while we're pleased that literary reading is on the rise, especially for young adults and those who did not complete high school, the future of reading
Stafford Palmieri / January 29, 2009
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill Gates channels Warren Buffet this month in his very first Annual Letter. This twenty-page treatise reflects on his transition from full-time at Microsoft to full-time at the Foundation. His segment on U.S. education is chiefly noteworthy because he focuses on areas--charter schools, in particular--that got scant attention in his own foundation's new education strategy released in November. Gates correctly notes that "almost all" of the "school models that worked the best" with BMGF dollars were charters; he now hopes to replicate them. But he knows he must overcome state charter caps and underfunding to be successful. "Educational innovation and overall improvement will go a lot faster if the charter school limits and funding rules are changed," Gates explains. Let's hope he does to these barriers what he did to Netscape: crush them without mercy. You can read the whole letter here (portions also featured in the Washington Post); his remarks on education start on page nine.
January 29, 2009
National Institute for Literacy and National Center for Family Literacy
This report presents findings from the National Early Literacy Panel, convened in 2002 to synthesize available research on effective teaching methods and methods of parental support for literacy in children under age five. It expands on the work of the 2000 National Reading Panel to address four areas: skills in young children that predict later literacy success; programs and instructional methods that foster literacy skills; children's characteristics that facilitate or inhibit those skills; and the effect of children's environments on those skills. Six "precursor" skills in particular had significant impact on later literacy if mastered between birth and kindergarten: knowledge of the alphabet; phonological awareness (ability to distinguish between sounds); rapid automatic naming (RAN) of random letters or digits (ability to swiftly name a sequence of them); RAN of objects or colors; ability to write isolated letters or own name on command; and phonological memory (ability to remember spoken information for a short period of time). Other areas like oral language (ability to produce or comprehend spoken words) and reading readiness (defined as a combination of alphabet knowledge, concepts of print, vocabulary, memory, and phonological awareness) were not found to have a consistently predictive effect on later literacy. This bulky and technical report is not itself an easy read; but since it is chock full of helpful advice for educators, we hope a user-friendly guide will be available soon. Meanwhile,