Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 10
March 19, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Ten questions for the Secretary of Education
By Frederick M. Hess
Tough choices, or not
Arne, meet Jerry
KIPP the converter?
Mike is back but, alas, without any Argentinean headphones. This week, he and Rick discuss the troubles with teaching ELL students, the strength (or lack thereof) of federal levers in education, and KIPP's flirtation with turnaround schools in Philadelphia. Then Amber tells us about the effectiveness of educational software and Rate that Reform reviews Ebay basics.
Frederick M. Hess / March 19, 2009
These are heady times in education policy. The $110 billion in education stimulus spending and tens of billions more in the omnibus budget have launched a frenzy of activity. Meanwhile, President Obama gave a handsome and well-received speech last week to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce which drew plaudits from both reformers and the teachers' unions--no mean feat.
The point man for the Obama administration's efforts, the youthful, Harvard-educated, well-spoken Arne Duncan, has quickly become an icon in the celebrity-starved world of education policy. Indeed, at his Senate confirmation hearing, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) opined, "Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe you are the best." Watching Secretary Duncan operate in the early days of an administration on a self-described mission to transform education, a slew of questions have emerged. Chalk it up to a restless mind, but here are ten queries that I would very much like to hear the Secretary answer.
1. While making the case for the stimulus package, you repeatedly cited a University of Washington study that reported 600,000 jobs were at stake. Indeed, the first directive in your Department's guidance on stimulus spending is "spend funds quickly to save and create jobs." Yet, you've also indicated a concern about wasteful spending and ensuring that the money is well-spent. Would you regard it as a problem if the money is being spent inefficiently but is creating jobs? If yes, what are you prepared
March 19, 2009
On a scale of one to unlikely, this set of bedfellows deserves at least an honorable mention. The National Education Association has joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to sign on to the sweeping and provocative 2006 report by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, "Tough Choices or Tough Times." The report suggests making states the sole funders of schools while also centralizing teacher recruitment, training, and certification at the state level. It also proposes a host of comprehensive changes to standards, college readiness, and teacher pay scales. But don't forget the fine print. A pesky press release asterisk informs the careful reader that the NEA "strongly disagrees" with the report's recommended elimination of defined-pension benefits for teachers. But the report explicitly argues that the only way to afford increased starting teacher pay and other warm-and-fuzzy reforms is to recoup dollars from overly-generous retirement promises. That's one of the "tough choices" alluded to in the manifesto's title. So the NEA is really saying that it will take the money and leave the tough choices for someone else. Sounds like business as usual.
"NEA, More States Sign On to 'Tough Choices' Changes," by Catherine Gewertz, Education Week, March 16, 2009 (subscription required)
March 19, 2009
With the economy headed south, it should probably come as no surprise that teaching has turned into one desirable profession--especially for mid-life career changers who may or may not have been recently laid off. The trend, however, dates further back than Lehman Brothers' implosion. Since 1997, the number of career-changers has steadily increased, after remaining flat at roughly 6,000 per annum for most of the 90s. In 2007 alone, there were approximately 62,000 ex-bankers, scientists, and writers stepping up to the blackboard. Luckily for these folks, Secretary Duncan is fully behind them. "One of the only benefits of living in such tough economic times now is that you have folks getting laid off and looking for work," he explains. "We want to help get them into the classroom." Now, with more money than ever, and the experience of working with Chicago Teaching Fellows under his belt, let's hope he uses his discretionary pot to put his money where his mouth is.
"Interest surges in leaving other jobs for teaching," by Libby Quaid, Associated Press, March 17, 2009
March 19, 2009
Even on a faraway beach, Gadfly turned gleeful at word of the president's speech last week, what with its clear call for states to "adopt world-class standards" and "stop low-balling expectations for our kids." In a recent interview with Newsweek's George Will, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan picked up on the theme. "We have been lying to children and their parents because states have dumbed down their standards," he said. "Sometimes, you have to call the baby ugly." But, considering the limits of federal authority in education, will the Obama Administration be able to back up the tough talk with real action? As the Economist observed, the president's plans for creating stronger standards "consisted largely of pleading with states and school districts--which actually run the show--to do a better job." Will shares the concern: "Duncan may be about to receive an education in the difficulty of defeating local inertia from afar." That's probably true--unless Duncan and co. are willing to use the stimulus funds to push states--rather than just plead with them--toward higher expectations.
"Calling the Baby Ugly," by George Will, Newsweek, March 14, 2009
"The teacher-in-chief speaks," The Economist, March 12, 2009
March 19, 2009
We've long known that "last hired, first fired" rules cost districts cash and undermine teacher quality to boot. It's taken him his fifteen-year tenure, but Rhode Island education commissioner Peter McWalters finally agrees. He recently ordered persistently underperforming Providence to give principals more say in who's hired and who's fired and base staffing decisions on student need and teacher quality, rather than seniority. McWalters' legal cover for such a bold move--which violates the city's collective bargaining agreement with the Providence Teachers Union--is a 1997 state law that allows him to progressively become more involved in a district that's been failing for three or more years. Providence is coming up on seven. McWalters says he's just following the research. We're certainly heartened by this move but we can't help but wonder what took him so long to see the light--and notice McWalters himself is about to retire. Maybe another state chief will be bold enough to follow in McWalters' footsteps--and long before he or she has one foot out the door.
"R.I. Chief Orders Providence to Relax Staffing Rules," by Stephen Sawchuck, Education Week, March 18, 2009 (subscription required)
March 19, 2009
Philadelphia superintendent Arlene Ackerman hopes to reform the city's most troubled schools by converting them into charters--and KIPP's on the short list to help. Ackerman "really [likes] their model" and KIPP Philadelphia CEO Marc Mannella feels confident they will "be able to fit somewhere in this plan." But will all this brotherly love make up for KIPP's inexperience in the field? Conversions are notoriously tough (see here and here), and KIPP's record in the area is decidedly weak. It's no wonder, since a conversion will mean KIPP has to change the very model that makes it so successful: starting in fifth grade and carefully adding one grade per year thereafter. On the other hand, an organization like Philly-grown Mastery Charter Schools--another Ackerman favorite, with three successful conversions under its belt--might be the better suited for the job. We appreciate KIPP's dedication to the students in Philly, but sticking to what it does best is a better bet than wasting resources in an area that's not its forte.
"Charter operators see opportunity in district restructuring," by Martha Woodall, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 12, 2009
March 19, 2009
High school students who are newly arrived from another country, sans English skills, present a time crunch dilemma for educators. "High schools have to make a pragmatic choice when it comes to these kids," explains Peter B. Bedford, a history teacher at Cecil D. Hylton School in Woodbridge, Virginia. "Are you going to focus on educating them, or socially integrating them? This school has made the choice to focus on education. The best tools we can give them to function in this society are their diplomas." To that end, Hylton's English language learners attend a "school within a school," where curriculum is intensive, state tests stand preeminent, and interaction with the mainstream student body is practically nonexistent. So while all of Hylton's ELL seniors got their diplomas last year, the majority work in the same low-wage, unskilled labor jobs as their parents because they lack the language and practical skills to apply to community colleges, much less four-year universities. That may sound unproductive, but the opposite--mainstreaming these students--often leaves them discouraged, floundering, and likely to fail the state test or drop out. This is a tough situation that may have no easy solution.
"Where Education and Assimilation Collide," by Ginger Thompson, New York Times, March 15, 2009
March 19, 2009
Reselling a couple of $60,000 classroom trailers should bring in a nice chunk of change, right? So thought district officials in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Enter anonymous district bureaucrat, charged with selling the costly portable learning spaces on eBay. Confident he (or she) could make such a transaction with no assistance from eBay's own help pages, his own colleagues, or perhaps even his own brain, this smarty pants drew up an advertisement minus one key bit of information: a minimum bid. Enter anonymous eBay browser, who happens to think one of these metal boxes would be a nice accoutrement to his lawn-strewn pink flamingos (and cost the same, too), and enters a bid of $1--and wins. Too bad for East Stroudsburg, eBay sales are final and subject to legally binding contract law, which means the district just sold a $60,000 trailer for the price of a quarter pounder off the dollar menu (or at least before it became the dollar or a little bit more menu). One can only assume the next asset being liquidated in Eastern PA is the job of the (ir)responsible bloke.
"Online boo-boo costs eastern Pa. school district thousands in sale of used classroom trailer," Associated Press, March 5, 2009
March 19, 2009
Teachers voices are often absent from education policy debates. For twenty-five years, MetLife's annual teacher survey has sought to provide a corrective. Most notable in the latest iteration is how happy teachers seem to be; two-thirds feel satisfied with their careers, feel respected in society, and believe their salary is decent. A full 75 percent of teachers would advise a young person to pursue a similar career. These findings stand in stark contrast to the conventional wisdom about teaching: that it's a tough, miserable, underpaid job. (Granted, teachers might be feeling particularly grateful to have steady jobs in the current economic environment; when the survey was administered, the Dow was in the midst of its free-fall.) Still, the news is not all good. Sprinkled throughout the 190-page report are grim reminders of the achievement gap's persistence: teachers in urban schools are more likely than those in rural or suburban settings to cite lower school standards, lack of teaching materials, and high district dropout rates. Nearly half of teachers say poverty hinders learning for at least a quarter of their students, while 22 percent say students' struggles with English do the same. There's a lot more, too, including findings about teachers' views on technology, relationships with parents, and standardized test. Find it here.
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / March 19, 2009
Larissa Campuzano, Mark Dynarski, Roberto Agodini, and Kristina Rall
Mathematica Policy Research for the Institute of Education Sciences
This experimental study examines a small slice of the educational technology pie: educational software programs. A second-year follow-up, it examines 10 reading and math programs (by grade level/subject and individually) in twenty-three districts to determine whether students who use them outperform those who don't. For the most part, the answer is no. The outlier was Algebra I; students using Algebra products as a whole scored significantly higher than students who didn't in year 2 (although not in year 1). Individually, only one of the ten--LeapTrack from LeapFrog Schoolhouse--had a positive statistically significant effect on test scores. But before we condemn the other programs as a waste of time and money, there are several study factors that might make us reconsider. First, overall usage of the products was much lower than publishers' recommendations (most programs recommended students use the product 15-30 minutes three times a week as opposed to once-a-week, which was the study average); second, school districts in the study volunteered to implement particular products, so differences in district characteristics may impact a product's effectiveness; and finally, we have no idea how teachers may have modified the use of the software products since classroom observations/teacher surveys were not included as part of the study. Still, it's a worthwhile read and adds to our understanding of one of the many forms of