Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 20
June 4, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Declaring educational bankruptcy
Three strikes and you're in
Putting the 'ouch' in voucher accountability
Spencer Heidi and Rick
This week, Mike and Rick discuss the 46-state pledge for national standards, Andrew Coulson's proposal that DC pick up the tab for its dying voucher program, and the place of texting and cell phones in schools. Then, Amber tells us about a depressing new report on teacher self-sorting by student demographics and Stafford cuts the College Board some slack on Rate That Reform.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / June 4, 2009
Turning around bad schools is harder than turning around Chrysler, GM, or AIG--but our fearless, tireless, irrepressible new federal administration seems bent on doing this, too. Just listen to Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the topic of closing and "reconstituting" failed schools.
To be sure, schools are smaller than giant corporations, but they're at least as burdened by employee contracts, long term obligations, community roots, political entanglements, all manner of vendors and suppliers, and "shareholders" in the form of children and parents who depend on them. And because they are public agencies rather than private firms, there is nothing quite like "Chapter 11" through which they can be stripped of their debts and obligations, reorganized, and given a fresh start.
Duncan is bent on changing this. He has no power to do so directly but insists that he will persuade state and local school systems to close thousands of dreadful schools, sometimes termed "dropout factories," starting with at least 250 in 2010 and rising to 1,000 a year. (The U.S. has about 88,000 public schools, of which some 6,000 have already been designated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as long-term failures in urgent need of "reconstitution." Thousands more will soon join them.)
As academic standards, assessments and "accountability systems" have gained traction in American primary-secondary education in recent years, districts and states have become adept at identifying bad schools on the basis of their woeful results as documented
Stafford Palmieri / June 4, 2009
With all the positive press surrounding high-achieving charter schools, it's not surprising that they've turned into the education reformer's go-to point of comparison. And so, when Jay Mathews wrote earlier this week that districts could learn a thing or two from high-flying charters about performance-based pay for teachers, I was intrigued--especially because, as Mathews made clear, these schools generally don't pay their staff that way.
Instead, the reward for teaching in great charters is a great work environment--a culture of success, where strong performance is praised, and, more importantly, shoddy work holds consequences.
Mathews explains that successful charters are wary of performance pay because such a compensation system could pit teachers against one another. It would also refocus the spotlight away from student performance and back on the squabbles of adults.
But we have to be careful. Just because charter schools don't do merit pay doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't experiment with it in traditional public schools. Why? Because, when it comes to individual teachers, charter and district schools start from a completely different premise: in most charters, teachers can be fired, usually without much hassle, while in traditional, unionized schools, they cannot. Put another way, teachers are pitted against one another--for their very jobs.
This is an important distinction because it means that charter schools already have an incentive scheme that encourages good work: if you don't perform, you'll get fired. That's not to say that pay is equal across all
June 4, 2009
This week's news that 46 states plus the District of Columbia have signed up to pursue common education standards is a big deal but it's also potentially a big nothing. If this effort leads to rigorous national standards and tests in reading and math, historians will view this milestone as historically significant. But nobody has yet committed to anything of the sort. It's not too hard to say "we're interested in participating in the development process"--which is about all that's happened so far. It's something else to convince state legislatures and boards of education to jettison home-grown standards for the national variety, much less to use a common test with common cut scores to denote proficiency. (Recall the states' promise to measure high-school graduation rates using a common metric--a bold statement that later evaporated when the going got tough.) And it's anyone's guess as to how the standards will turn out. Still, we're heartened that the politics of national standards have shifted enough that all but four states feel comfortable contemplating playing ball. Let the games begin.
"46 States, D.C. Plan to Draft Common Education Standards," by Maria Glod, The Washington Post, June 1, 2009
"4 states yet to agree to standards for academic rigor," by Ledyard King, USA Today, June 1, 2009
June 4, 2009
Policymakers, what do you do when your state's newly adopted high school exit exams might result in a precipitous drop in graduation rates? Give failure a pass. Yes, that's right; if you're a Minnesota high school student, you have two options when it comes to the allegedly "extraordinarily challenging" eleventh grade math exit exam: pass once or fail three times. Either will get you a diploma. This seemingly nonsensical policy is apparently the result of dismal marks on the math graduation test for the class of 2010, which was piloting the new slate of graduation tests. The Minnesota legislature is now worried that such abysmal scores will yield a flood of dropouts. But don't worry, soothe the pols of St. Paul, these three-strike-and-you-get-to-first-base success stories still have to pass the rest of the graduation requirements in order to score a diploma. (Like completing ridiculously easy high school courses?) We're not placated. Perhaps the math test is indeed too hard (one independent analyst estimates that a student who barely passes it would score in the 75th percentile on the ACT; we're seriously skeptical) but now its results are also meaningless, along with a Minnesota high school diploma.
"Minnesota's must-pass math test goes by wayside," by Emily Johns, The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, May 30, 2009
June 4, 2009
The original voucher pioneer, Milwaukee, is now pioneering voucher regulation. The Wisconsin legislature's latest budget proposal includes a host of new stipulations for schools participating in the choice program, including administering the state's assessment to voucher recipients (previously they could use one of several nationally-normed tests), employing only teachers with at least a bachelor's degree, and meeting the same amount of minimum instructional time as public schools. The final regulations were the result of intense negotiation, and, unsurprisingly, not all parties emerged satisfied. But long-time voucher advocate Howard Fuller termed the end product "a decent result" and we're inclined to agree, at least about the testing part. Twenty years into the voucher movement, we've learned the hard way that competition alone isn't a sufficient form of educational quality control. Vouchers are an important component of ensuring every child has access to a high quality education--but receiving public dollars means some public accountability, too. Wisconsin would have been wiser to adopt our "sliding scale" solution--the more dollars a school receives from vouchers, the more transparency and accountability it should face--and it's hard to justify regulating such "inputs" as teacher credentials and instructional hours. But voucher supporters need to acknowledge, as Fuller does, that private schools, too, must produce evidence that publicly-financed pupils are actually learning.
"Budget proposal includes new rules for voucher schools," by Alan J. Borsuk, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, June 1, 2009
"School Reforms on the Brink," editorial, Wall
June 4, 2009
Rejoice! Off comes the ball and chain that is Abbott v. Burke. This notorious court case of the early 1980s sought to equalize education spending across New Jersey by shoveling loads of extra state dollars into 31 poor communities ("Abbott districts"). But demographics have shifted in the Garden State over the past quarter century, redistributing the poverty that Abbott once sought to remedy and making the Abbott designations largely obsolete. When Governor Jon Corzine tried to fix the situation in late 2007 by tying dollars to needy students instead of districts, his funding formula was taken to court. That formula has actually been in place since July 2008, but the justices were in no hurry to make up their minds. Thankfully, the wait is over. The New Jersey Supreme Court has finally declared Corzine's approach constitutional, calling it a "thoughtful, progressive attempt to assist at-risk children throughout the state of New Jersey, and not only those who happenstance reside in Abbott districts." Gadfly will shed no tears over the reversal of this long-antediluvian decision.
"N.J. Court Approves Shift in School Funding," Associated Press, May 28, 2009
"Court Backs New Jersey Aid Revision: Less Focus on Poor Schools," by Winnie Hu, New York Times, May 28, 2009
"Editorial: Helping more children," Philadelphia Inquirer, May 29, 2009
June 4, 2009
Politicians often get themselves into hot water for "flip-flopping" on an issue. Jefferson Township High School students learned this lesson the hard way--and literally. These Ohio high schoolers, days away from year's end, planned a daring defiance of authority: they would stand up to their school's no-flip flop rule by all wearing flip flops on the very same day! The school wouldn't possibly suspend all of the offenders, right? Wrong. "It was mass defiance," cried the outraged principal, Mattie White. Even worse, prank planning spread like wild fire via illicit text-messaging. (Quelle horreur!) Students ignored repeated warnings, she explained, and all of them deserved their two-day separation from school. (Students, on the other hand, were probably beachy-keen about their unexpected two day vacation.) What a lot of flap over a little flip (flop).
"Area students suspended after 'mass' flip-flop prank" by Amelia Robinson, Seen and Heard Blog of The Dayton Daily News, May 28, 2009
The Widget Effect: Out National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness
June 4, 2009
The New Teacher Project
This revelatory study, with as much detail, rigor, and thoroughness as one could possibly want, proves what we've long suspected: the formal process of teacher evaluation as it exists today is a sham. While similar results came out recently in a Los Angeles Times investigative story, this study replicated the finding in 4 states (Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, and Ohio) and 12 districts of varying sizes and types. The data, which come from new surveys and compilations of electronic and paper teacher evaluation records, plus 130 interviews with district leaders, unveil a system of perfunctory and meaningless back-patting. It's a system where, even in the lowest-performing districts, all the teachers receive the equivalent of "A"s from their principals; where 92 percent of rookie teachers and 99 percent of tenured teachers rate their own performance as 7 or higher out of 10; and where "evaluations tend to have no consequences, positive or negative." The indictment continues: only 10 percent of failing schools--none at all in Akron--issued even one unsatisfactory rating to a teacher in the last year. The good news is that teachers and administrators seem to understand that the system is broken; for example, Chicago administrators believe that 7.5 percent of tenured teachers should be dismissed for poor performance, though, alas, 0 percent are actually terminated. The authors briefly describe some of the legal and organizational hurdles that block useful evaluation, and suggest that the
Student Demographics, Teacher Sorting, and Teacher Quality: Evidence from the End of School Desegregation
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / June 4, 2009
C. Kirabo Jackson
Journal of Labor Economics
We know that schools with lots of poor kids tend to have less effective teachers while schools with wealthier kids tend to have better ones. What we know less about is why. This study by Cornell economist Kirabo Jackson suggests a disturbing possible explanation. He examined teacher movement patterns in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools between 2002 and 2003, which was the year this 137,000-student district ended its 30-year-old busing policy. The result was a naturally-occurring and rare situation where the demographic makeup of schools very quickly converged to that of their surrounding neighborhoods. And it provided Jackson with a unique opportunity to observe teachers' reactions to changes in student demographics while other school and neighborhood characteristics (as well as teacher demand) stayed the same. The results are disquieting. Schools that had an influx of black students as a result of the policy change also saw a decrease in the number of high-quality teachers--both black and white--as measured by years of experience, value-added scores, and certification scores. For the average school that was 60 percent black (before the policy change), a 15 percent increase in black students (after the change) translated into a .3 standard-deviation decrease in teacher quality. In the end, this study refutes the idea that the relationship between teacher quality and student demographics is merely a product of residential segregation. Rather, teachers sort themselves according to student demographics, with some apparently
Stafford Palmieri / June 4, 2009
This study asked a simple question: what can we learn from the content standards of our international neighbors? The U.S. appears to be the only economically-advanced nation whose education system's primary focus is a set of basic skills. By contrast, other countries concentrate on content, like Archimedes and Shakespeare, and trust that math and reading skills will be taught through exposure to this material. And their trust is not misplaced. A host of international assessments reveal that students in countries that emphasize a broad liberal-arts-style education over mastery of basic skills tend to learn those basic skills better than their skills-focused American counterparts. The bulk of this report consists of case studies of the top scoring nations on PISA. Particularly revealing are the excerpts from various tests and standards, including reading samples, images, and graphics. Their common theme is a focus on knowledge, like historical chronology, famous passages from literature, and important scientific discoveries. Amongst the profiles are informative chapters on curriculum narrowing (or, rather, the absence of it abroad), content specificity, and what "comprehensive" education means outside the U.S. Ultimately, explains Common Core President Lynne Munson, these countries could serve as models for state-level (or, for that matter, national) overhauls of academic standards. Read it here.