Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 1
January 8, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Why Obama's stimulus plan may retard education reform
By , ,
Classroom to nowhere
New Year, new buzz word
As President-Elect Barack Obama and his Congressional allies shape--and debate--their big economic-stimulus package, governors are pleading with them to include hundreds of billions for state governments that face whopping deficits. Most analysts of the stimulus measure will ask whether such spending will truly goose the economy, whether Obama kept his campaign promises, or how much of the bill is just pork. But those who worry about k-12 education should be asking: will it be good for education reform? And to date there's ample reason to suspect that the answer will be "no."
We cannot yet be certain what will be in the package, although several pieces have already leaked from Team Obama, including investments in school construction and broadband access. But those little amuse bouches will likely be dwarfed by the big entrée: state budget bailouts. Since most states spend one-third to one-half of their funds on education, any federal "revenue sharing" will amount to a huge infusion of cash into public-school classrooms. With Obama advisors hinting that the state portion of the bailout could reach $200 billion, that probably means upwards of $70 billion, maybe $100 billion, for primary-secondary education. Considering that Uncle Sam currently contributes about $40 billion per annum to the public schools, that's a plate-and-tummy filler indeed.
Good deal, right? Well, the teacher unions and school establishment certainly think so. To them, the argument for sparing schools from painful budget cuts is self-evident. One influential Washington-based lobbyist recently
January 8, 2009
Education, welcome to the party; Wall Street is over by the bar and Detroit is shaking it on the dance floor. Indeed, with Uncle Sam handing out money like education professors hand out As, it was only a matter of time before schools got in line for a piece of the pie. We've already explained what's wrong with bailing out state education budgets (see above), but the stimulus package's support for school construction deserves attention, too. According to the AFT, schools could do with $255 billion in "maintenance, new construction, renovation and retrofitting for computer technology." The NEA places those costs at $360 billion. It's true that some schools are in dire need of repairs but let's get something straight. These construction projects will not improve student achievement, despite wishful thinking. Spiffy new buildings and shiny new desks do not translate into higher levels of learning. Many a fabulous charter school makes do in cramped quarters, for instance; a series of Taj Mahal-esque school buildings in Kansas City failed to boost either learning or integration in that city; and tiny Third World private schools, operating in spaces we'd barely call a room, let alone a classroom, prove that teaching and learning do not depend on surroundings. The point? If Congress wants to spend stimulus dollars on rebuilding schools instead of bridges, that's fine, but let's call this what it is: a public works project, not an education reform
January 8, 2009
Gadfly has previously noted the flaws and weaknesses inherent in "21st Century Skills" (here, here and here, for example) and others have done the same but few have been as eloquent and perceptive on this topic as veteran Washington Post journalist Jay Mathews, whose multi-part commentary this week deserves close attention by anyone the least bit tantalized (or mystified) by this juggernaut.
"The Rush for 21st Century Skills," by Jay Mathews, The Washington Post, January 5, 2009
"The Latest Doomed Pedagogical Fad: 21st Century Skills, The Washington Post, January 5, 2009
January 8, 2009
If it weren't enough that the "21st century skills" crowd is bent on distracting American educators, they've made a splash on the other side of the pond, too. Faced with complaints that the British primary school curriculum is too traditional (20th century if you will), the government has decided to give it a facelift. Unfortunately, explains The Economist, it seems that "as well as losing fat, education will see a lot of meat go too." Implemented in 1988, the national primary curriculum brought rigor and uniformity to a previously haphazard elementary system. But incorporating cross-disciplinary and social issue classes have come back into fashion and the newly (as of July 2007) formed Department for Children, Schools and Families is battling with how to balance teen pregnancy, child health, juvenile crime, foreign languages and more with English, history, math and the like. Leading the effort is Sir Jim Rose, a former chief inspector of primary schools, who proposed in a December report replacing fourteen subject areas with six woefully mushy and politically correct "learning areas"; history and geography, for example, will become "human, social and environmental understanding." Too bad one in five British students leaves primary school unable to read and write. News flash: classes on eating more fruits and veggies are unlikely to teach them to do so. In sum, The Economist hits the nail on the head when it opines, "You cannot teach children everything. But that is
January 8, 2009
While we're all in a lather over 21st century skills, the elegant, practical skill known as cursive handwriting appears to be going the way of the horse-and-buggy. The problem is two-fold. First, the advent of technology and its requirements--typing and text messaging--means students are using pen and paper much less than in days of old (you know, the 1980s). But compounding the problem is that schools have stopped teaching cursive to youngsters. Teachers report that when students handwrite assignments, their manuscription is strictly in print, literally; reading cursive is like tackling another language. "It's a bit like going for a root canal for them," explains Mark Bradley, a teacher at Rio Tierra Junior High in Sacramento. On a recent timed writing exercise, just one of Bradley's 65 students wrote in cursive. But does it even matter? Well, if you want to sign your name, enjoy a letter from your grandmother, or read the "secret" cursive notes of an older sibling it is. Furthermore, studies have shown that cursive is important for cognitive development because it requires "fluid movement, eye-hand coordination, and fine motor skill development," explains Frances van Tassell, an associate professor at University of North Texas. Seems flowing penmanship is more than just flowery embellishments; it'll be a sad day when Gadfly's grandchildren can't read his Christmas cards.
"Some schools refuse to write off cursive," by Melissa Nix, Sacramento Bee, December 30, 2008
"The dying art of cursive," by
Stafford Palmieri / January 8, 2009
Education and Society Program, The Aspen Institute
Arising from a multi-year effort by the Aspen Institute to examine the development of human capital in education, this paper offers an in-depth analysis of Singapore's teacher preparation and development system. It uses both the findings of a multi-country Aspen study and the firsthand knowledge of its author, former ED superstar Susan Sclafani, to lay out the ways in which that small Asian land could serve as an example for the U.S. system, despite the vast differences between the two countries. Above all, notes Sclafani, the Singapore system is coherent, manifested literally in its centralized teaching preparation school, the National Institute of Education (NIE), and figuratively in the careful evaluation and choice of specific strategies that make up the nation's education policy. The NIE's rigor and selectivity translate into respect for the teaching profession. Sclafani argues that Teach For America may have captured the same caché that attracts Singapore's top students to NIE; that there are 25,000 eager, smart, and well-educated America college students vying annually for coveted TFA slots, she says, signals kindred readiness and willingness. But being accepted into NIE is just the beginning. During the teacher candidate's practicum ("student teaching" in the U.S.) and the first few years of full time teaching, a Singapore teacher is meticulously evaluated and deeply supported in myriad ways. These are just a few of the strategies that Singapore employs to maintain its
January 8, 2009
Editorial Projects in Education
January 8, 2009
The 13th edition (!) of Education Week's annual report combines the expected state report cards with a special focus on a previously under-studied population: English-language learners (ELLs). The former don't differ much from states' grades in earlier years and we find the nation as whole receiving a less-than-stellar C+ on students' chances-for-success index (we remain doubtful on its validity). On the other hand, its findings on the nation's 4.5 million ELL students are new and interesting. For example, fewer than ten percent of 4th and 8th grade ELLs scored "proficient" or higher on NAEP's math test in 2007--compared to 34 percent of students as a whole. Since ELL enrollments in twenty states more than doubled from 1995 to 2005 and more than one-quarter of ELLs nationally failed to make progress toward English-language proficiency, the report indicates that increased attention is needed in order to understand who ELLs are and what programs and policies are actually working for them. Furthermore, ELLs speak more than 100 native languages and there is a significant shortage of teachers who are fluent in many of those tongues. This report offers a welcome in-depth look at both the challenges and opportunities facing a previously under-studied population. Education Week provides all of it free online to subscribers; printed copies can be obtained for a small fee. All can be accessed here.
January 8, 2009
National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve
This report recommends five steps that the U.S. should take toward international benchmarking, a move necessitated by an increasingly global economy and job market and America's mediocre performance on tests measuring the skills our students will need to succeed in said global economy. Unlike many similar reports based on international performance, this one (and the initiative behind it) is primarily driven by state leaders. The ideas, as Mike and Checker have already noted, are fundamentally sound. Briefly, the report suggests that we push for common, internationally benchmarked standards among states; ensure that textbooks and other instructional materials are aligned with those standards; model our human capital practices on those of high-performing countries; hold schools and states accountable; and evaluate performance by comparing student achievement and growth internationally. In all cases, we should "draw on lessons from high-performing countries" (see above). For example, most top-performing countries not only carefully align curricula and standards in the same way but also teach similar content in the same order and at the same grade levels. Finally, a review of this report would be remiss without mentioning its emphasis on addressing inequity. Only focusing on "the next generation of elite 'rocket scientists'" isn't sufficient; on the contrary, the authors claim, "closing achievement gaps is not only compatible with a global competitiveness agenda, it is essential for realizing that agenda." You can read