Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 27
July 30, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
The great graduation-rate debate
By Stafford Palmieri
Obama, failing to learn from Bush's lessons?
By Frederick M. Hess ,
Swishing the dirt around
If a reformer can make it here...
Single-minded and criticism-shy
Patrolling the Apple store
Mike is a chicken Andy is a cheater
Mike declares the podcast coup over as he returns from his travels. He and Andy Smarick, now officially a routine guest host, discuss Duncan's Race to the Top criteria, Fordham's new graduation-rate primer, and Florida's template "poof" phrases on the state test. Then Amber, much tanner and rested but still bringing a research punch, discusses CEP's latest report on the test score "plateau effect." Stafford finishes up with a teacher party gone wild--and paid for with public dollars--on Rate that Reform.
Stafford Palmieri / July 30, 2009
President Obama's attention to high school dropout rates has brought an already-contentious issue to the national scene. The U.S. can hardly be expected to compete in a global economy with so many of its young people failing to make it to and through their senior years, or so the argument goes. "[Our] high school dropout rate has tripled since the 1970s," Obama told the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on March 10, 2009. But had it really? Where had Obama gotten his numbers? Immediately, members of the education community disputed his figures. How we calculate the number of students dropping out and graduating is a key element to the graduation-rate debate, yet one little understood. The fact is that the exact same body of students can have vastly different completion rates, depending on how you calculate them. And No Child Left Behind's consequences for schools, districts, and states that fall short on this front make comprehending these rates that much more pressing.
That's why Fordham asked Christine O. Wolfe, herself a former federal official and Hill staffer who worked assiduously on this issue, to explain these complex formulae and the cogitation surrounding them in a new primer, titled "The Great Graduation-Rate Debate." In these twenty pages, she lays out the most commonly used rates, how they are calculated, where they get their data, and what kinds of assumptions they make. Then she discusses why some rates have prevailed over others,
It appears increasingly likely that President Obama and Secretary Duncan are at risk of doing to charter schooling, merit pay, and school "turnarounds" what the Bush administration did to educational accountability. That's not meant as a compliment.
The Bush team took the sensible and broadly-supported notion of holding schools accountable for their returns and then pursued a vision that is so prescriptive, so overwrought, and so divorced from a coherent rendering of what the feds can actually do that they managed to largely unravel a solid bipartisan commitment in support of the underlying idea. As a result, most of the country wants to see NCLB overhauled or dumped outright.
What's easy to forget, of course, is that NCLB was once enormously popular. In Bush's first couple of years, it was touted as a triumph of bipartisanship and a signal accomplishment. Similarly, Messrs. Obama and Duncan are today basking in laurels for their "Race to the Top" efforts. (This four billion dollar program, part of the stimulus package, will reward reform-minded states with big incentive grants.) But what did Bush in was not his support for accountability, which continues to enjoy broad support in principle, but his effort to force onto states a particular vision of accountability that paid too little heed to organizational dynamics, or the predictable perils of implementation.
The Bush Administration learned the hard way that, while Uncle Sam can coerce states and school districts to do things they don't want
July 30, 2009
Detroit's schools are in a pickle and state-appointed emergency financial manager Robert Bobb is ready to extricate them from the brine. Two weeks ago, he announced that the district would hire four outside firms to take over seventeen failing high schools. Now, 2,600 teachers and staff at 41 more failing schools will have to reapply for their positions. He's using the NCLB clause stating that (Title I) schools that have been failing for five or more years must face sweeping changes. At first glance, this move seems promising; principals will be able to pick their own staff and low-performing teachers and administrators will face termination. And kudos to Governor Jennifer Granholm for appointing a tough-hitting manager who's not afraid to upset the status quo. But we're doubtful the shake-up will prove itself worth the commotion. See, the newly vacated positions can only be filled by current district employees. There will be no new hires. And teachers who are not rehired will be asked to attend a "Reconstituted Schools Selection Fair" in early August; in fact, a District letter to teachers in the 41 specifically says they "have not been noticed for lay-off." What's this all mean? That this attempt to clean house is just churning the water. We can only hope that these jobless-but-not-fired teachers don't wind up twiddling their thumbs on full pay in a Detroit version of New York City's "rubber rooms." Bobb, take note: Agitating
July 30, 2009
Gadfly couldn't be more pleased that Hunter College ed school dean David Steiner will be moving to Albany in October as the new New York state education commissioner. Steiner brings ample reform credentials to the table. He's probably best known for helping start Teacher U at Hunter, an innovative teacher preparation program run by leaders from three of the best charter school organizations around (Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First). He's also a big proponent of preparing teachers to teach a strong liberal arts curriculum (read his chapter in Fordham's Beyond the Basics) and he was one of the first researchers to take a long hard look at the syllabi of top-ranked ed schools. (He found that most were unfortunately dominated by constructivist and progressive thinkers.) There's a new reform Sheriff in the Empire State, and we hope he shapes up those teacher prep scalawags or makes 'em skedaddle.
"A Hunter Dean is to Lead State's Education Dept.," by Jennifer Medina, New York Times, July 28, 2009
July 30, 2009
Gadfly would be the first to admit he's gotten his wings a bit sticky over at Flypaper; the best blogging is provocative, which sometimes provokes angry reactions. Michele Kerr, a recent graduate of the Stanford Teacher Education Program, learned that lesson the hard way. A mid-life career changer, Kerr knew she didn't see eye-to-eye with STEP's social justice bent ("philosophically out of sync with the program," was how she put it), but she figured it was a good opportunity. But that didn't mean she was going to sit by quietly. Indeed, she commented on her philosophical disagreements to a program instructor at a reception for accepted students in spring 2008. And that's when the trouble started. The program first tried to keep Kerr out on "legal grounds," something she discovered when an email, meant for someone else, was mistakenly sent to her. So Kerr got a lawyer and started a blog, "Surviving Stanford," on which she shared her thoughts on a variety of education-related topics, including her disagreements with STEP's progressivist tendencies. Suffice to say, program administers were less than pleased, accusing her of a host of transgressions. They went so far as to threaten Kerr's graduation from the program by deeming her unfit for teaching, though she had good grades and was doing well at her student-teaching stint. Kerr finally did graduate but as Jay Mathews, who narrated Kerr's saga in his Washington Post column, pointed out, "In her
July 30, 2009
Violent video games are no new addition to the world of electronic entertainment; it seems hardly a jump, skip, or hop, then, to find iPhone apps with those same violent tendencies. But not all material is acceptable for target practice. RetardedArts, developer of the iPhone app "Zombie School," was a bit slow on this realization. (We should have been tipped off by the name of said company, but alas, we were optimistic.) This game is what it sounds. Picture Night of the Living Dead and Robin Hood rolled into one, except the zombies and their potential killers are school children. Yep, that's right, this app is about school violence, specifically human students killing zombie students with bows and arrows. Hello, lawsuit! But RetardedArts still doesn't get it: "Zombie School is not promoting school shooting; it's rather promoting elimination of zombies to protect the humans," they explained in a statement after the app was yanked. Right, except the humans are age 12 and this repugnant game eerily reminds us (and Apple, apparently) of Columbine and Virginia Tech. Good riddance.
"School-Shooting iPhone Game Removed from App Store," by Brian X. Chen, GadgetLab blog, Wired Magazine, July 20, 2009
July 30, 2009
Naomi Chudowsky and Victor Chudowsky
Center on Education Policy
Move over, Mt. Everest! The Center on Education Policy has found no proof that the so-called "plateau effect" in testing is widespread. Originally used to describe Florida's 1977-1997 test score trajectory, the term "plateau effect" is now commonly used in policy discussions when increases in test scores appear to taper off after larger initial gains. CEP set out to expand on that lone Sunshine State study; they found 16 states with 55 test score proficiency "trend lines" between 1999 and 2008 that met their criteria: The test had to remain substantially unchanged; it had to be given for 6 to 10 years starting in 1999 or later; and the state had to have kept its cut scores unchanged over that period as well. Only 15 of the 55 trajectories (or 28 percent) showed conclusive signs of a plateau for the percentage of students who scored "proficient," while 21 showed steady increases and 19 zig-zagged. The most striking conclusion--appropriately labeled an "informed conjecture"--is that NCLB may have had a lot to do with gains in 20 of the 55 trend lines between 2003 and 2004--the year when NCLB really got rolling. It's important to remember that this report looks at trends for the percent of students reaching "proficient" every year, not average scores for all pupils. So it's still possible that students are, on average, hitting a plateau on the
July 30, 2009
Executive Office of the President, Council of Economic Advisers
Foreign capital. Trade deficits. High quality education. Inventory investment. As a question in a game of "which one of these is not like the other," that one's a cinch. Yet this report from the President's economic council finds education and economics to be deeply entwined. It examines how, after the worst recession since the Great Depression, America can and should prepare its workforce for the future. In particular, jobs will increasingly require critical thinking abilities, instead of specific technical skills. But the path to gaining these skills does not lie solely in the direction of what we now know as "21st Century" skill-based standards and their ilk, explains the report. Rather, high quality primary-secondary education must focus on "strong basic skills," "quality instruction," "high standards," "rigorous assessments," and "strong accountability," too. The report also finds that the education industry is "expected to contribute most substantially to job growth," as students look to become educators and administrators; we, too, found that science and math majors in our home state of Ohio were also interested in the education field. Though this report devotes the majority of its pages to post-high school training, the bottom line is that our economic crisis should be addressed from the bottom up--and the bottom starts young. It's an important reminder from a new administration that strong standards, teacher quality, and accountability reform are not only beneficial to the
District of Columbia Public Schools: Important Steps Taken to Continue Reform Efforts, But Enhanced Planning Could Improve Implementation and Sustainability
July 30, 2009
Government Accountability Office
Never known for sugar-coating, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) made no exception in this review of education in Washington, D.C. This report was commissioned by Congress, which wanted to review the progress made since passage of the 2007 Public Education Reform Amendment Act. That act gave Mayor Adrian Fenty control over schools and heralded the arrival of his hard-hitting schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee. The GAO review used both quantitative measures (e.g., test scores) and qualitative data (e.g., lots of interviews). Analysts also looked at four other cities with mayoral control (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and New York City) for comparison purposes. The authors acknowledge that D.C.'s battle is steeply uphill and its myriad problems deeply ingrained. Yet they also conclude that the steps taken by the mayor and his chancellor have had mixed results. By launching so many different initiatives so quickly, Rhee may have overwhelmed the schools. And some of her reforms (especially regarding the financing and staffing of schools) have worked out to the detriment of at least a few schools. The good news is that DCPS has recognized these shortcomings and is moving to fix them. Of course it still has a long way still to go. One assumes that DCPS leaders will read it carefully. You can read it here.