Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 21
June 11, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Which personal experiences matter?
By Andy Smarick
Fill in the blank
A sloping buttress
Jumping to conclusions
'Because of You,' Tony Bennett
A graduating granny
NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein: What Parents, Teachers, and Policymakers Need to Know
By Stafford Palmieri
Andy Smarick / June 11, 2009
The Obama administration has made Judge Sonia Sotomayor's life story a central part of her introduction to the nation. They have focused attention on her inspiring, only-in-America path from public housing through elite institutions of higher education to the top of the legal profession.
Judge Sotomayor also clearly believes that her personal narrative is relevant. She has said that race and gender do influence judges' views and--somewhat notoriously--that a Latina's richness of experience would enable her to make better decisions than a white male.
More broadly, the issue of personal narrative seems to be of keen interest to the Obama team. The president's humble beginnings and work as a community organizer and his wife's progress from Chicago's south side to Princeton and Harvard were key elements of his campaign.
But every life is full of lessons and experiences. The interesting question is which events and examples inform President Obama's and Judge Sotomayor's thinking and conclusions on questions of public policy.
If all of the formative events in their lives play into this calculus, both could be expected to take positions contrary to standard liberal orthodoxy on one important front: school choice. For unlike the millions of minority boys and girls who grew up in poverty and were assigned to tragically underperforming public schools, both President Obama and Judge Sotomayor were fortunate enough to attend private schools, including Catholic schools. Obama, it should be noted, has continued this tradition, sending his children to private
June 11, 2009
When the news broke last week that math scores were up across the Empire State, Gadfly's initial impulse was to be skeptical. We've grown accustomed to watching test results on state assessments go up like a rocket, only to later see flat lines or minimal gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and other external gauges. Though Gadfly sometimes discovers that he was wrong and that the gains are for real, in this case, it appears that his doubts were warranted. A New York Daily News analysis by Jennifer Jennings, a Columbia University doctoral student formerly known as the blogger Eduwonkette, found that "it has gotten easier to teach to the test [in New York] as the questions have gotten easier to predict." Jennings told the Daily News: "It's the lesson of the financial crisis, and it's the lesson here--you can't just trust the numbers, you have to look at what the numbers mean." Because similar questions appear on the test every year, teachers can figure out which material is likely to be assessed, and by which kinds of prompts, and can prepare students accordingly. We'd like to believe in the "Buffalo Miracle"--that city's scores rose as much as Gotham's--but then again, we'd also like to believe that the Dow will return to 2007 levels by the end of the year. Neither seem quite credible. We eagerly await New York's 2009 NAEP results.
June 11, 2009
Substituting portfolios for conventional tests to assess students with special needs is hardly a new practice. But when "special needs" takes on an ever-expanding definition, Gadfly begins to wonder: Is this really about making schools look more effective than they actually are? Though only a small fraction of the total tests given in the state, the number of portfolio assessments given in Virginia ballooned to more than 30,000 in 2007-08 from 15,400 in 2006-07--and portfolio passing rates ballooned along with it. In Fairfax County, for example, of youngsters evaluated by portfolios in 2007-08, 94 percent passed in reading and 84 percent in math, whereas in 2006-07, only 79 percent passed in reading and 70 percent in math. At fault, it seems, for this increase in alternatively-tested students is an ever-expanding list of qualifying "disabilities" (vague disorders like "information processing disability" now reside alongside Down Syndrome), making it much easier to escape traditional testing requirements; of course, a larger percentage of higher-functioning portfolio-tested students might also account, in part, for the increase in passing rates, too. But the combination of much lower passing rates on traditional assessments and the fact that portfolios remain a dubious measure of student achievement leave us wondering if this is just another ploy to pad achievement rates. As one parent aptly remarked, "It benefits the state, not the child, to say they are at grade level when they are not." Indeed. Let's hope VA gives
June 11, 2009
If you're a New Yorker making $500 for nine months' work, you've got a bum gig--if you aren't in elementary or middle school, that is. Indeed, some New York City fourth and seventh graders can earn up to $250 and $500, respectively, for good performance on a collection of 10 assessments. The Sparks program, Harvard economist Roland Fryer's tri-city and 59-school experiment, is a privately funded two-year pilot that tests the relationship between monetary rewards and academic achievement. According to a New York Post analysis, it seems to be "working," at least in the Big Apple; the majority of participating schools in that city saw math and reading scores jump nearly 40 percentage points from last year to this. (Of course, scores were up across the metropolis, but by much smaller margins.) Well, duh! It seems reasonable that the promise of cash rewards for scoring well on a set of tests would be an effective motivator for students to take the same set of tests seriously--and for scores to improve. But whether learning has increased, too, remains to be seen. The problem here, though, is the Post's (and not Fryer's) "analysis." To prove the correlation between monetary rewards and real achievement gains, pay-for-grades programs must be tested against a reliable independent assessment--one whose scores don't carry cash rewards. Otherwise it's possible that Fryer's experiment is demonstrating that, under normal circumstances, lots of kids don't give their all on state
June 11, 2009
Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett is crooning an aggressive school reform tune these days. Alas, he may not have the much-loved silken voice and silver hair of our favorite "King of Broken Hearts," but he certainly has plans to take Indiana schools and students from the "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" to the "Good Life." For starters, he wants to transition to value-added student assessment, something that's sure making us "Smile." Bennett explains: "If a child enters fifth grade and is reading at second-grade level and that fifth-grade teacher gets that child to read at fourth-grade level, I don't think it's fair to call anyone a failure." He hopes to turn districts from "Rags to Riches" with his plans to update the teacher seniority system and end the practice of last hired-first fired; when district leaders wonder "Who Can I Turn To?" [sic], the answer will be talented, not tenured, teachers. He also wants to enforce 180 full-day instructional time requirements, which means no more shortening school days "Time after Time" for teacher conferences and professional development. Plus, he's a fan of charters and improving the teacher preparation programs at his state's universities. Props to Bennett; we need strong leaders who aren't afraid to say no to "Anything Goes." In fact, he might be "Just in Time."
"Education boss wants to tilt focus on students," by Meranda Watling, JCOnline.com, June 9, 2009
June 11, 2009
When it comes to the transformational power of the Advanced Placement program, Jay Mathews is a true believer. Even if students fail the test, at least they had "a chance to accustom themselves to the foot-high reading assignments and tortuous exams they will encounter in college," he explains. And if college is not on the horizon? They'll still "discover that those AP skills are just what they need to get the best available jobs or trade school slots." The value of the AP experience for individual kids cannot be denied, but Mathews' analysis has a fatal flaw: He ignores the other students in these classes--the ones who can pass the tests and do want to go to selective colleges. Should they suffer through dumbed-down classes to accommodate these trade-school aspirants just for the "experience"? Not necessarily, and many teachers of AP classes agree. In fact, in our recent survey of AP teachers (which, incidentally, Mathews cites--and then ignores), over half argued that "only students who can handle the material" should take AP classes. So when Mathews asks "what harm does it do?," our response is: a lot. "AP for all" can quickly become "truly rigorous courses for none."
"Is AP for All A Formula For Failure?," by Jay Mathews, The Washington Post, June 8, 2009
June 11, 2009
Ninety-year-old Eleanor Benz understands better than most that learning is a lifelong process. In the midst of the Great Depression in 1936, she left high school a few months shy of graduation to work and support her parents and six siblings. Then she married. And she had 15 children. And life got a little busy. Benz managed to squeeze in typing and bookkeeping classes at night school, but she never got that high school diploma, an oversight she considered her greatest disappointment in life. When Benz's children learned of this, they contacted the principal of Lake View High School, her suburban Chicago alma mater, who was more than happy to help. And at her 90th birthday celebration, her family presented her with her diploma, gown, and cap (with a 1936 tassel), and a wooden 1930s replica of her former school. Benz was "ecstatic"--she immediately donned her cap--but also realistic. "You know nowadays, even a high school graduation isn't enough. You need to go to college." While we'd have rather seen Mrs. Benz finish her coursework and earn her diploma properly, we'll be content with knowing that she probably learned more in 11 and a half years in 1936 than many a student graduating with a full 12 in 2009.
"73 years, 15 kids later, Eleanor is a high school grad," by Maudlyne Ihejirika, Chicago Sun-Times, June 6, 2009
The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy
June 11, 2009
Commission on Mathematics and Science Education, Carnegie Corporation of New York and Institute for Advanced Study
Reminiscent of the post-Sputnik push, this high-profile commission report depicts what kinds of schools and school systems America needs if it is to attain excellence in math and science. Commission members started with the premise that the U.S. must make fundamental changes to the nation's schools and boost innovation. The report lays out an extensive menu of actions, reforms, and spending needed from state and federal governments, school districts, higher education, businesses, nonprofit organizations, unions, and philanthropy. It stresses mobilizing support for higher achievement; making math and science focal points of educational innovation and accountability; and creating common math and science standards with aligned assessments to account for the exclusion of science (in favor of reading and math) from other recent efforts (see here, here, and here). This last might be the most intriguing, since a Trinitarian view of curriculum merely leaves us pondering the fate of the rest of the "other subjects," like history. You can find a webcast of the report release and the report itself here.
June 11, 2009
Editorial Projects in Education
This third installment in Ed Week's 2009 annual reports series (2009 editions of Quality Counts and Technology Counts were published earlier this year, see here and here) is a timely collection of research and commentary on high-school graduation rates and college preparedness. Few of the results will shock or surprise, but it's a good resource to have, especially in light of the Obama Administration's stated goal of returning the U.S. to the top of the international college-completion rankings by 2020. At minimum, its data remind us how much progress we still have to make: The national high-school graduation rate is just under 70 percent, and roughly 20 points lower than that for minorities. While these numbers have all inched forward over the past decade, there was a slight nationwide decline (of 1 percent) from 2005 to 2006, the last year for which data were compiled. (It remains unclear whether this is an aberration, a trend, or a methodological glitch.) The report includes a district-by-district breakdown based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics, and uses the Department of Education's 2008-updated (to facilitate NCLB reporting) definition of high school graduation-receiving a traditional diploma within four years. Elsewhere, the Data Quality Campaign, Michelle Cahill of the Carnegie Corporation, and Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell laud Florida-style tracking and urge other states to use stimulus dollars to follow suit. You'll also find discussion of whether "college readiness"
Stafford Palmieri / June 11, 2009
Ann Kjellberg and Leonie Haimson, eds.
A Martian reading this collection of essays would find himself picturing an apocalypse of epic proportions in the education system of America's largest city. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is caricatured as an authoritarian cowboy shooting wildly from the hip, backed up by revolver-toting schools chancellor Joel Klein, whooping and hollering at his side. Though the book describes itself as an attempt to create an informed debate over mayoral control of public education in the Big Apple--the continuation of which is currently before the state legislature--it is, in fact, a nonstop attack on such control. To put it simply, "When Mayor Bloomberg took control of the public schools in 2002, that tradition--in which the mayor relied on and respected the professional judgment of educators--was abandoned, and the city embarked on a form of intrusive and authoritarian mayoral control unprecedented in the city's history." Written by a posse of academics, journalists, and activists with a keen interest in New York City public education, its chapters cover topics from class size and school overcrowding to Bloomberg's Panel on Education Policy, which replaced the school board, and the city's school "progress reports," which grade the schools independently of state and federal metrics. The verdict on all these is negative. Some of these criticisms are surely warranted. But nobody can legitimately say of this collection that it's balanced or impartial. You can download a digital copy for free