Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 22
June 18, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Global grades for U.S. states
Don't count Ohio out just yet
Say Shalom to another quasi-religious charter school
Charlotte's lemons get squeezed
The end of free public schools?
The Nation's Report Card: Arts 2008
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / June 18, 2009
How much more "international benchmarking" does American education actually need? Gary W. Phillips's inspired new study of how U.S. states and (some) districts are doing vis-à-vis the rest of the world suggests that we already have a heckuva lot of performance information available right under our noses. We just needed Phillips, a veteran top official at the National Center for Education Statistics, now at American Institutes of Research (AIR), to show us how to analyze it.
What he's produced (under AIR's aegis) is a set of metrics that enables readers to see how the math performance of students in countries that participated in TIMSS in 2007 compared to the performance of U.S. students on NAEP (in grades 4 and 8) that same year. What makes this possible is that the underlying TIMSS and NAEP "frameworks," assessments, scoring schemes, and sampling arrangements are sufficiently similar in this subject; math is also a subject that every state must test via NAEP and that a handful of big-city districts test via NAEP's "trial urban district assessment" (TUDA).
Phillips superimposed an American-style grading system on TIMSS countries' academic performance--and then used statistical manipulations to devise an equivalent grading system for U.S. states and cities.
In 4th grade math, for example, country grades ranged from B+ (Hong Kong, Singapore) down to D (Iran) and "below D" (Columbia, Kuwait, etc.). The international average was a C; the OECD (wealthy, mostly-western countries) average was C+; the U.S. grade was
Terry Ryan / June 18, 2009
The "Great Recession" has been painful for all Americans, but especially cruel for Ohio cities like Youngstown, Toledo, Canton, and Fordham's hometown of Dayton. According to a recent analysis by Moody's, "Nine of the 15 metros with the largest decline in economic output were in Florida, Michigan and Ohio." In looking ahead, it is clear to analysts, politicians and business leaders that those cities that do the best job of keeping and attracting well-educated young people will pull out of the recession faster and be in the best position to grow and thrive when the economy revives.
For this reason, it was disheartening to many political, civic, and community leaders in Dayton to hear Bill Nuti, the New York City-based CEO of National Cash Register, explain why he was moving Dayton's last Fortune 500 Company to Atlanta after 125 years in Ohio. Among the Atlanta area's attractions, Nuti cited "the high availability of a skilled work force" and the presence of "a lot of young, educated people." Even more stinging were the words of an anonymous source in the Georgia governor's office who told the Atlanta Business Chronicle that, "They can't recruit talent to move to Dayton, Ohio."
Is all hope lost for aging Midwestern cities like Dayton?
Not necessarily. This was one of the important findings from Fordham's new study "Losing Ohio's Future: Why college graduates flee the Buckeye State and what might be done about
June 18, 2009
Can you really take religion out of a religious school? That was the question on many minds when seven D.C. Catholic schools went charter last fall (and when NYC Catholic schools pondered a similar strategy this spring). Now a similar question is being asked about a proposed Hebrew-language charter school in New York City: Can you really have a public school based around a religion-steeped culture--minus the religion? Unlike the Catholic conversions, the Hebrew Language Academy (HLA) will not have to remove icons from its walls or subtract religious classes from its schedule. But it must wrestle with how to teach character and culture without an over-reliance on God, the Torah, or the Talmud. School founder Sara Berman explains that the school simply aims to offer students "a great curriculum and a great way to learn Hebrew." But others expect HLA to spell trouble for (expensive) private Jewish day schools, now that Jewish parents will have a (free) alternative that they can supplement with (low-cost) religious instruction after hours. Such competition isn't unhealthy; furthermore, Gadfly isn't much bothered if the lines between religious instruction and public schools get blurred a bit more. The Supreme Court has already ruled that the Constitution permits publicly-funded vouchers to support religious schools. It's but another half step to allow parents to choose publicly-funded religious charter schools, too.
"Hebrew Brouhaha," by Thomas W. Carroll, The New York Post, May 29, 2009
June 18, 2009
"Michelle, why would you agree to be photographed with a broom on the cover of Time magazine?" That was D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray's top query when he sat down with the no-nonsense schools chancellor a few months ago. That visual image, for many, illustrates Rhee's tenure in the nation's capital--gutsy but alienating--and Bill Turque of the Washington Post investigates why in a long review of her two years at the school system's helm. Turque uses all the phrases--"quest to upend and transform," "passion, urgency and a conviction," "national following as standard-bearer"--that one must use to describe Rhee and her first 24 months. But he also explores some of her shortcomings and the lessons she should learn from them: That her national celebrity status alienated teachers and parents in the District; that her burgeoning money coffers couldn't sway the union on pay, performance, and tenure; that she needed to play, at least, some politics; and that her "well-intentioned reforms" might lead to "new problems." These are generally fair and Rhee has moved to address many of them. But as the author notes, she "has lost none of her zeal," and in a district as troubled as D.C.'s, Gadfly knows we need zeal like hers in spades.
"Two Years of Hard Lessons For D.C. Schools' Agent of Change," by Bill Turque, The Washington Post, June 14, 2009
June 18, 2009
The Charlotte-Mecklenberg school district blazes another trail: making teacher lay-off decisions based on performance evaluations, not seniority. If that raised your eyebrows, prepare to have them meet your hairline. For coupled with these cutbacks, the district is also looking to hire 100 more Teach For America alums to fill its classrooms, and favoring TFA hires with satisfactory evaluations over more senior teachers. "The idea was that we have a relationship with these folks [TFA teachers] who are in the toughest schools and situations," explained school board member James L. Ross II. "We could build that long-term if these people can stick around." Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, offers a sage comment on the situation: "The unions need to be asking themselves why is it superintendents would even consider a strategy which looks so patently unfair to veteran teachers. They've got to come to grips with the fact that TFA is clearly bringing something to the table that other teachers do not appear to be bringing." Kudos to Charlotte for saying, "Bring it on."
"N.C. District Lets Go of Veteran Teachers, But Keeps TFA Hires," by Stephen Sawchuck, Education Week, June 12, 2009 (subscription required)
June 18, 2009
Tough economic times mean looking for creative ways to stay in the black. For schools short on options, this often means simply asking parents to pitch in a few coins, a practice widely seen on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, some British parents say these "voluntary" contributions are not voluntary at all--and they're feeling bullied by the schools' heavy-handed tactics. "Our accounts indicate you have not made a contribution," reads one letter from school to parents. "Our records indicate you have not contacted us," reads another. And if there's no room in one's family budget for educational generosity? You'll have to explain yourself to school leaders: "We always invite parents to write us to explain their circumstances and propose an alternative." But why are parents giving in? Because not paying means running the risk that their child will be excluded from school activities--or that a younger sibling won't get into the same secondary school as an older brother or sister. The schools are even demanding money from the pupils themselves. "If you try to evade paying," threatened one letter to a teenage boy, "then your sixth-form privileges will be removed." And they were (he was banned from the school common area), until the hassled lad used his Christmas money to satisfy his "voluntary" obligation. Since no system monitors how money is requested, there's no way to know how much schools are demanding--or receiving or spending. We know budgets are
June 18, 2009
If there's a riot in the Chino, California schools next month, blame it on...an accounting error? The state requires that pupils spend at least 54,000 minutes in instructional time each year and no fewer than 180 minutes on any one day. An end-of-year audit discovered that, on 34 days, instructional time at Dickson and Rolling Ridge Elementary Schools lasted only 175 and 170 minutes, respectively, even though both schools had exceeded the total minute requirement. Though the combined minutes lost could be made up with just a few extra days, state law says that any day under 180 minutes doesn't count at all--meaning unless both schools stay open for an additional 34 days, i.e., until July 31, the district could lose $7 million in state funds. What do the kids have to say about this debacle? Sean Cornish, age 10, sums up the general malaise thusly: "They think it's dumb, that they have to go to school for these extra days because some lady messed up." But if we think about this glass as half-full, these students might escape the typical "summer learning loss" of their peers with longer summers, though this seems a lousy way to introduce year-round schooling. Maybe someone should take advantage of this naturally-occurring experiment and find out.
"Chino district's error delays summer break by 34 school days for some students," by Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2009
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / June 18, 2009
Institute of Education Sciences
Has NCLB sacrificed art, history, and science on the altar of math and reading? Some say yes, others no, but actual data have been elusive. At least in the case of the music and visual arts, this NAEP report suggests some concrete (but complex) answers. NAEP has not gathered data in this area since 1997 (perhaps an indication of how NCLB has deflected our focus from these subjects) so, though not a causal study of NCLB's impact, this report does shed light on how the study of the arts has changed over the past eleven years. The assessment was administered to a national sample of nearly 8,000 eighth graders in both public and private schools; half were assessed in music, half in the visual arts. Student performance can at best be described as middling. Measured on a scale of 0-300, music scores range from 105 for the lowest-performing students to 194 for the high-flyers. Visual arts scores were very similar. (Unlike other NAEP tests, this one included a variety of assessment items, even asking students to create an original work of art. Thus results are not reported in terms of the familiar NAEP achievement levels.) And while comparisons can only be made between 1997 and 2008 on certain items, we see a significant decrease in music performance since 1997 while performance in the visual arts remained steady. Achievement gaps also persist: White and Asian scores
June 18, 2009
Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Columbia University
For journalists who cover education, keeping up with the newest buzzwords can be a heavy lift. These 30 pages attempt to illuminate the latest adage rolling off the tongues of principals and philanthropists alike: academic rigor. As Joanne Jacobs and Richard Lee Colvin, two of this primer's authors, explain, "everybody seems to be either promising rigor, demanding rigor, or deploring the lack of rigor in American schools...But translating that rhetoric about rigor into classroom reality will not be easy, and it will mean that journalists need to know more about the origins of the new push for rigor." To educate them, we find here a collection of short essays that approaches rigor from every imaginable angle. For example, two cognitive scientists explain the neuroscience behind rigorous learning. Teachers lend their opinions on how journalists can spot rigor in classrooms. There's an essay on career and technical education and the potential for rigor in those learning environments. And there's a piece on AP and IB courses that asks: "Are They Truly Rigorous?" The answer, the author finds, jibes with (and in fact, cites) our own report on AP and IB tests: That they are "mostly gold and mostly worthy of emulation." The compendium even lists eight solid story ideas and dozens of probing questions that journalists might ask when reporting on local claims of academic rigor; these alone make the