Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 23
June 25, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Revolutionaries tempered by reality
The CREDO conundrum
Philly's pressure cooker
Mike and Rick virtual twins
This week, the dynamic duo pledge a pact of eternal twin-nery (with bracelets!), while they discuss Philly's passing pressure, the new "Broader, Bolder" brief, and the demise of 400 Maryland Avenue's little red NCLB schoolhouses. Then, Amber gives CREDO's charter school achievement report a hard shake and Rate That Reform debates classroom video surveillance.
Michael J. Petrilli / June 25, 2009
There's some consternation within the education establishment right now with what it sees as Arne Duncan's obsession with charter schools. There he is, warning states that they will lose out on "race to the top" funds if they don't eliminate their charter school caps. There he is, arm-twisting legislators in Tennessee to pass a stronger charter law. There he is, speaking at the National Charter Schools Conference about the key role that charters are expected to play in the stimulus-driven transformation of our system, including the reconstitution of failed district schools.
But to the perturbed establishment I say: Take the long view. The fact that the school reform world is so invested in the charter movement will help you over time, if only because said reformers are learning how hard it is to boost student achievement and how unjust first-generation accountability systems are for gauging school performance.
This isn't an entirely new development. Five years ago, when the New York Times published a front-page, AFT-seeded story about NAEP results that showed charters to be trailing their district-operated peers, charter advocates suddenly discovered "value-added assessment." It wasn't fair, they argued, to base judgments of school performance on such one-time "snapshots." Schools needed to be judged on the progress of their students over time. To which the establishment replied, "Hey, we've been saying that for years about No Child Left Behind. Welcome to the party."
And so it came as no big surprise when
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / June 25, 2009
A perennial question: How does the performance of students in charter schools and students in traditional schools compare? CREDO set out to answer this question in a longitudinal analysis of roughly 2,400 charter schools, operating in 16 states and comprising roughly 70 percent of the US charter school population. Let's break it down. Fundamental study design: Sound. Findings: Mixed. Explanation of analysis: Sloppy. Let's hit them in turn.
The methodology is based on a "virtual twin" approach. Specifically, each charter school student was matched by demographics and test scores with a student from the traditional public school (TPS) he or she had attended before switching schools (i.e., the "feeder school"). Then, gains in math and reading for the two groups of students were evaluated and the student-level results extrapolated to determine whether a charter school was serving its students better, the same, or worse than its matched TPS. Absent a randomized study, this is a reasonable approach to this kind of comparative analysis, and one that helps ameliorate, though not eliminate, selection bias (i.e., inherent differences between charter and traditional public school students).
Next, the findings. On average, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that mirror the gains of the matched TPS; 17 percent of charter schools made more progress in math; and 37 percent post math gains lower than their TPS counterpart. In reading, charter schools students do a bit worse than their TPS peers but the difference
June 25, 2009
While their large neighbor to the south shrinks the teacher pool, Connecticut legislators look to expand it, by creating more paths to get teachers into the classroom. In a special session last week, they passed a bill containing several laudable provisions: Teachers who've completed alternative certification programs and want to teach hard-to-staff subjects will be able to sit for a competency exam rather than being required to complete further class work; Teach For America will be able to expand beyond its current three school districts (Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven); and teachers certified in other states will have fewer hurdles to clear in order to teach in Connecticut. "We've just opened up major avenues to bring great teachers into the classrooms where they are needed," said lawmaker Andrew Fleishmann. The outcome didn't look as rosy at the end of regular session, when the bill stalled in the face of partisan wrangling. But further review by lawmakers--and a fervent advocacy effort led by school-reform powerhouse ConnCAN--propelled the bill to the governor's desk. This end-of-the-school-year victory promises a better start for Connecticut students come autumn.
"Legislature Approves Proposed Teacher Certification Changes," by Daniela Altimari, Hartford Courant, June 21, 2009
"Key education bill passes in special session," by Elizabeth Benton, New Haven Register, June 22, 2009
June 25, 2009
Teachers from myriad Philadelphia high schools are complaining of palpable pressure to pass undeserving students on to the next grade. It comes in the form of memos, meetings, and even personal phone calls. "We have to give fake grades," revealed one teacher. "We're not asked to educate our kids. We're asked to pass them," explained another. "I'll get a phone call saying, ‘Are you sure he earned a 58? Are you sure it wasn't a 65?'" noted a third. A June 7 story in the Inquirer prompted Philly superintendent Arlene Ackerman to disavow the practice and order an investigation. One early casualty is a ludicrous district policy that set a minimum grade for failed assignments at 50, instead of zero. (Ackerman axed that amid the brouhaha.) Also blamed is the amount of paperwork required to fail a student, while passing holds no similar bureaucratic hurdles. Most troubling is that pass rates on courses, which teachers allege have been twisted into an assessment of their effectiveness, are a contributing metric to school report cards. The result, of course, is a classic perverse incentive for schools to move lagging students onward rather than reporting the truth about their performance. Though this situation seems a quagmire, the morale of this story is not: Social promotion does a grave disservice to students, to schools, and to teacher morale and professionalism.
"Teachers cite intense push to promote," by Kristen A. Graham and Martha
June 25, 2009
A school in Orlando, Florida, is giving new meaning to the adage "visualize your success." For Mollie Rae Elementary, which went from a F to an A on the state rating system in just one year, focusing on pupil achievement was just one part of the winning formula. Turns out the school needed actual visual help, too, in the form of prescription eyeglasses for many of its pupils' pupils. "We tested 100 percent of our (530) students with the help of [University of South Florida]," explained principal Kathryn Shuler. "We found that some of the students weren't improving because they couldn't see." Squinting students couldn't make out the homework on the board or the words in their text books. If only school improvement were always this straightforward. Unfortunately, Mollie Rae's pupils might not be the only ones who need some ocular assistance. With 62 percent of Florida public schools receiving As on state metrics, but only 23 percent making Adequate Yearly Progress according to NCLB calculations, state administrators might want to check their own glasses.
"Glasses Help School Go From F To A," Click Orlando, June 18, 2009
June 25, 2009
Corinne Herlihy, James Kemple, Howard Bloom, Pei Zhu, and Gordon Berlin
MDRC, one of the contractors that worked on the Institute of Education Sciences' final impact study of Reading First (RF), takes a second look at said study in these eight pages. In sum, RF may have been more successful than IES let on. First, MDRC explains, the timing of RF's grants made it harder for the program to show an impact. The first sites to get their RF money were also the sites that happened to be already using curricula in the mold of RF, which meant that the schools that had the longest window for RF to have an effect were already using RF materials. In fact, many districts were already using RF-recommended curricula by the time the program was fully implemented, thus limiting the effects that could specifically be attributed to RF. These schools, unsurprisingly, showed little improvement as a result of RF. The schools that were not already using RF-like curricula typically got their money later. These schools, which usually served disadvantaged students, had much greater room for improvement with RF's help. Unfortunately, IES's study methodology didn't account for the differences between these "early award sites" and "late award sites." Second, the actual 7-10 minute increase in "core elements of scientifically based reading instructional time" seen in most RF schools was too small to have a significant impact. (But, in schools where the
State Test Score Trends Through 2007-08, Part 1: Is the Emphasis on "Proficiency" Shortchanging Higher- and Lower-Achieving Students?
June 25, 2009
Center on Education Policy
In this review of post-NCLB state test scores, CEP questions the fate of low- and high-performers under current "proficiency" metrics. Has an emphasis on a quantifiable middle point meant ignoring the tail ends of this bell curve? The answer, according to this study, is no; low-achievers and high-achievers aren't doing worse on average, even as NCLB encourages schools to zero in on the "bubble kids" just below proficiency. In particular, the study suggests that students in all age groups, in all subjects, and at all achievement levels are scoring at higher levels in 2008 than in 2002, at least on state tests. Those in the "proficient-and-above" category tended to see the largest gains, though that might be because state tests are designed to measure the performance of students near the "proficiency" line most accurately. However, state tests may not be the best way to examine gains by high-achieving students. Because most tests are set at laughably low levels, the best students tend to "top out" on them; we can't get an accurate read of their performance. Furthermore, the study merely reported whether there are more or fewer students at the "advanced" level (itself a target that's not necessarily all that advanced in most states), not whether the top students themselves made significant gains over time. This is a profound distinction, and one that is addressed in Tom Loveless's Fordham study from last year, which