Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 24
July 9, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Patrick's puzzling proposal
When failing is passing
From sunset to sunrise
Rick offers Christina advice
Andy Smarick, filling in for beach-bound Mike, and Rick discuss Arne Duncan's speech to the NEA, Deval Patrick's latest plan to turn around Massachusetts schools, and emphasizing more math in preschool. Then Amber tells us about an AIR report that compares the achievement of Massachusetts and Hong Kong and Rate that Reform talks weddings--between teacher and student! Finally, we say goodbye to Christina "NPR-voice" Hentges, who moderates Pardon the Gadfly for the very last time.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / July 9, 2009
To the occasional consternation of colleagues and friends who are more interpersonally sensitive and politically correct, I've been known to define "consensus" as an agreement or state of affairs that leaves all parties equally unhappy.
That formulation has recurred in recent weeks as I've watched the speechmaking and some of the early priority-setting of Education Secretary Arne Duncan: It's almost as if they were calculated to rile and challenge all of his department's traditional constituents and stakeholders--and some reformers as well.
He's been telling state leaders that they need to amend their laws--lifting charter-school caps, for example--to qualify for federal "race to the top" funding. He's been admonishing the charter crowd that it has to purge its ranks of crummy schools and embrace a mission it has long eschewed, namely the use of chartering to reconstitute failed district schools. He's been telling district chieftains that they must get serious about closing such schools--lots of them. He's been insisting to Congress that it appropriate dollars for such unpopular-with-Democrats programs as the Teacher Incentive Fund, which--quelle horreur--supports innovations like performance-based pay.
Most recently, at the NEA's annual Fourth-of-July convention, he told union big-wigs that they need to get with the program when it comes to paying really good teachers more and--eek--ridding schools of chronically ineffective instructors.
If he were a Republican, he'd have been heartily booed and perhaps walked out on--that's if he were invited at all. As it was, Duncan's reception by
July 9, 2009
We were lukewarm on Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's "Readiness Project" last summer, but it seems that a year's time has made some of its elements slightly warmer. Patrick now seeks to allow the state to take over the 30 worst failing schools, render moot portions of teacher contracts that pose impediments to reform, and clear the path for the state to repair broken schools. The new powers, which would allow Patrick to change school leadership, teacher contracts, and curriculum, and possibly bring in outside operators, would also allow him to create his signature "readiness schools." (Like other Bay State charter-lite options, these would maintain district oversight and unionized teachers.) The dirty thirty would be returned to their districts' mercies eventually, most likely under the readiness model. While we applaud Patrick's push for changes, including some pushback against restrictive union contracts, state takeovers have a notoriously rocky history. And we're not sure Massachusetts needs yet another version of charter-esque schools (it has two already) when the real thing would certainly do the job, and better. But accompanying legislation reveals that Patrick is also planning to lift the charter cap in "high needs" areas, which would apparently make room for both his readiness schools and more charters. (This is a change from last summer, when Patrick planned to freeze charters as an incentive for districts to accept readiness schools. Could charter-friendly stimulus dollars possibly be affecting his
July 9, 2009
Around this time last year, schools in Texas were waiting with bated breath for their state report cards. This year, the pressure's a little less intense. That's because, under Texas's six-month-old revamped accountability system, some students who fail statewide tests will still be counted as passing--so long as they're on track to pass at some point before they graduate high school. Growth models like this one have been slowly catching on in many states in the hope of softening NCLB's binary scoring scheme. And of course there's much talk of replacing simple "proficiency" determinations with value-added metrics in the next round of NCLB itself. But here's one question left unanswered: What happens if, when the fated "passing" year arrives, a student still doesn't pass? The answer: Nothing. That's because the Texas Projection Measure, as the system is called, never tempers score predictions with reality. Say a sixth grader fails TAKS but is projected to pass in eighth grade; if that same student actually fails in eighth grade, the school is not penalized. Instead, projections readjust, and our former-sixth-now-eighth-grader's scores are now calibrated to predictions for passing the eleventh grade test. As Education Trust's Daria Hall explains, "From a school perspective, a student never has to actually be proficient. It's always projected into future grades." Though the Texas Education Agency says the tool is still "evolving," this system resembles the opposite of survival of the fittest.
July 9, 2009
Sometimes you have to take one step backward to go two steps forward. That's more or less what happened in New York State when the clock struck midnight on July 1, the long-scheduled date for "sunset" of mayoral control of Gotham's schools. The State Assembly had done its part and passed a bill that kept Mayor Michael Bloomberg in charge of the nation's largest school district, as he has been for the last seven years. But then, the State Senate--or, more specifically, Democrat John Sampson--staged a political stand-off that left the Senate unable to vote on the bill before the clock ran out. The vote's deadline came and went; sunset indeed fell; and at 1 p.m on July 1, five borough representatives, a few Bloomberg deputies, and hizzoner himself convened to resurrect the New York City Board of Education. Ironically, by slamming on the voting brakes, Senator Sampson ceded more control to the mayor, at least for now, than the current bill languishing on his desk would vest in City Hall, since Bloomberg's crew was delighted to immediately sign power back over to him and reappoint Joel Klein as chancellor. And with the help of those cooperative borough presidents and supportive new board members (and the abandonment of scare-tactic rhetoric), Bloomberg and Klein opened summer school for 120,000 students without a hitch. Whether mayoral control of the Big Apple's schools has been a success remains a topic of much
July 9, 2009
School-less school districts? There are more than 285 of them across the land; but as of fall 2010, that number will decline by 26, thanks to New Jersey. Governor Jon Corzine has just signed legislation that would close down the twenty-six in an effort to "[reduce] the size of government," "[develop] greater efficiencies over time," and ease tax burdens. And the districts slated for extinction? Not so thrilled. See, a no-school-district is a sneaky way for affluent towns to avoid taxes. Residents of the town of Tavistock, for example--by "town" you should read sizable golf course with a population of 20--fear they'll have to pay property taxes on their lavish homes to benefit the nearby district that actually has pupils, instead of their current low taxes and an annual $14,805 tuition-style payment for their one outsourced student. But perhaps Tavistock's residents have forgotten that once they leave their green, 18-hole island, public education is paid for by all citizens. Sadly, the Garden State isn't the worst offender. Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont each had more than 50 such school-less bureaucracies as of the 2005-2006 school year. Let's hope they soon follow New Jersey's lead.
"Book closes on NJ school districts without schools," by Geoff Mulvihill, Associated Press, June 30, 2009
July 9, 2009
It's Trivia Night on a lazy summer evening and the MC bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Jones, he of 6th grade science and big baby blues. Wonder why? Because it is Mr. Jones, and he's gotten himself a second gig. Central Massachusetts is seeing an influx of teachers moonlighting for extra cash on their summer vacations--as trivia moderator at the local tavern. According to owners of the hosting establishments, teachers' adeptness at crowd control and tendency to possess wide-ranging knowledge make them the perfect candidate. Bob Carney, a trivia-night organizer, explains the phenomenon thusly: "Teachers are knowledgeable. They know how to control a room full of people. And if you can handle a 10-year-old, you can handle the occasional drunk." For many bar owners, that skill set has turned their worst nightmare into an anticipated (and lucrative) event. Teachers seem to be getting a similarly rewarding, and perhaps therapeutic, experience. "We spend our days urging students to think deeply about complex ideas," explains assistant principal Joel Bates. "And then that night, we're at a trivia event asking, 'Who was the lead singer for Def Leppard?'" Can't stump Gadfly with that one.
"School's out, but factoids are in for teachers," by D.C. Denison, Boston Globe, July 1, 2009
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / July 9, 2009
Harvard Educational Review
Vol. 79, Number 2, Summer 2009
There are fever swamps on the left, too, and when it comes to education they appear to drain into the editorial offices of the Harvard Educational Review. I don't think you really want to read this special issue--400 pages worth--of that once-illustrious journal but you may want to know that it exists. With entries from 27 students (from 2nd grade on up) and 20 more-or-less-grown-ups (a mix of practitioners and scholars), it mostly views Barack Obama in messianic if not divine terms. (One item is even titled "Obama, Where Art Thou?") But it's a whole lot more skeptical about his education policies and, in particular, about his choice of Arne Duncan, who is seen by multiple authors as deeply suspect because of his commitment to standards, tests, and results-based accountability. (They regard such things as antithetical to "social justice.") The editors rounded up a lot of the usual suspects--Henry Giroux, Maxine Greene, even FOB Bill Ayers--as contributors, and many of their contributions throb with passion, self-righteousness, and a deep aversion to almost every important education reform innovation of the past half century. The one worthwhile exception is a longish piece by Linda Darling-Hammond, who headed the Obama education-policy-transition team, and who does a praiseworthy job of explaining where the President is "coming from" with regard to education issues. But I'd encourage you to skip the rest! (If you cannot resist, it's available here.)
Christina Hentges / July 9, 2009
Joanna Smith, Caitlin Farrell, Priscilla Wohlstetter, and Michelle Nayfak
Center on Educational Governance, University of Southern California
It's been a big summer for charter school quality, with Arne Duncan's NAPCS conference speech and a much discussed study by CREDO. This USC team (which includes former Fordham Fellow Caitlin Farrell) goes behind the scenes to investigate a structural arrangement that might be expected to advance such quality: charter management organizations (CMOs). It's the most expansive overview to date--that we can recall--and nicely complements other CMO reports. Based on their criteria (non-profit, common instructional philosophy, central office management, three or more schools, and plans to grow), the USC analysts found 39 CMOs operating in the U.S. They interviewed leaders of 25 (others declined or did not respond) and share several useful statistics. Most CMOs are less than a decade old. Together, they operate schools in 26 states. Approximately 70 percent operate 10 or fewer schools, and the majority operates K-12 schools. CMOs garner significant support from such philanthropy heavyweights as the New Schools Venture Fund and the Gates Foundation, and in some cases they also receive assistance from state legislatures. Yet CMO founders vary in their motive and strategy: Some focus on helping a specific city or regional area, while others concentrate their efforts where laws are most receptive to charter schools. Unsurprisingly, the CMO model has grown in popularity. Whereas early CMOs mostly grew out of
Stafford Palmieri / July 9, 2009
Center for American Progress
As its title indicates, this paper is a plan to rethink and rework the tenure of public-school teachers. Tenure, explains author Baratz-Snowden, is "a concept much misunderstood, and often unfairly identified as the major obstacle to assure that all children are taught by effective teachers." It is not, she insists, a fatal flaw, just a practice in urgent need of reform. The key lies in teacher evaluation systems, tools that Baratz-Snowden admits, and others have repeatedly shown, are mostly useless in their current form. Baratz-Snowden has some suggestions for creating better ones, such as establishing clear and precise teaching standards, including a professional development component that would provide feedback, and incorporating evidence of student achievement (through multiple measures such as portfolios and teacher-designed assessments, in addition to standardized test scores). But that's not all. Tenure evaluations should take into account "teachers' teaching and learning environment," since school environmental factors (like leadership, availability of supplies, and safety) affect an educator's ability to perform. And dismissal processes, she believes, must be developed in collaboration with teachers. The need for teacher buy-in seems strange (though not unexpected) since she refers numerous times to relations between "management and labor," but seems to believe they should be treated as professionals making faculty-style decisions. Still, she proffers three promising examples: Toledo, Minneapolis, and Green Dot's collective-bargaining agreement with the Los Angeles teachers' union. All of these maintain union