Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 9
March 5, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Vouchers: Not so radical anymore
Foolish in Fresno
Elite not elitist
Cold cheese is better than no cheese
Get on the ball already
No cheese sandwich for you
This week, Mike and Rick contemplate Deval Patrick's appointment to the Achieve board, English language learners' stellar strides in Maryland and Virginia, and the chilly reality of a cold cheese sandwich. Then Amber tells us about a new math curriculum study from IES and Rate that Reform tackles classroom refrigeration.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / March 5, 2009
My feet aren't frozen, but as the march toward national or "common" academic standards trudges through deepening snow, they're getting chilly. Evidence is mounting that those who take curricular content seriously may not like what we find at the end of this road, and I worry that America could be headed toward another painful bout of curriculum warfare.
Recall that the foremost arguments for national standards are that a big modern country on a shrinking, competitive globe needs a single set of minimum expectations for all its schools and kids, whether in South Dakota or South Carolina; that having fifty different sets fosters confusion, low standards and noncomparable data; and that the federal No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) has made a vexed situation worse.
But that doesn't mean national standards are inevitably superior to what states (and others) have developed, and it's possible they won't turn out to be. So far, I've accumulated seven worries.
First, both teacher unions have now joined this quest. It felt okay when Randi Weingarten came out for national standards, considering that the American Federation of Teachers' positions on standards and curriculum (though not assessment and accountability) have been sound--sometimes downright inspiring--since Al Shanker's day. But I cannot be the only person whose heart sank when Dennis Van Roekel announced that the National Education Association was also joining the "partnership" previously consisting of governors, state school chiefs, Achieve, the Hunt Institute, and a couple of
Michael J. Petrilli / March 9, 2006
There's been a lot of chatter the past few weeks about President Obama's efforts to shift the American political center sharply to the left. Universal health care, caps on carbon emissions, and steeply progressive taxation have in recent years been considered "liberal" positions. Obama wants to redefine them as the middle of the mainstream.
So did Secretary of Education Arne Duncan just move the education policy center slightly to the right when he told the Associated Press's Libby Quaid that the 1,700 Washington, DC children participating in the city's federally-funded voucher program "need to stay in their school"? "I don't think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where they're happy and safe and satisfied and learning," he said.
Well, not so fast. As others have pointed out (here and here), Duncan didn't actually voice support for continuing the program indefinitely; rather, he would keep it on life support until all of its participants graduate from their current schools. And Duncan himself was careful to say that "I don't think vouchers ultimately are the answer."
But what's truly interesting is why Duncan doesn't think they are "ultimately the answer." It's not that he's worried that vouchers will drain public schools of needed funds, the chief complaint voiced by teachers unions and their allies in the education establishment. And he didn't say anything about the separation of church and state, another primary concern of many opponents. No,
March 5, 2009
Defaulting on a $2.3 million loan may spell the end of Fresno, California's KIPP Academy, one of the few high-performing middle schools in the district. The school needs a $5 million grant from the state to stay afloat, but the Fresno Unified School District is withholding its much-needed endorsement. The reasons are documented in a 63-page report of grievances, including the complaint that KIPP hired uncredentialed teachers and didn't follow state testing protocols. The district also alleges that KIPP Academy's principal--who mysteriously quit two weeks ago--used excessive disciplinary tactics. From 3,000 miles away, it's tough to tell what really happened. But we do know that Fresno's inept leadership signed one of the worst collective bargaining agreements in the country and that Fresno's KIPP Academy academically outperforms its traditional neighbors. We also know that parents are fighting like cats and dogs to keep this school open. Fresno Unified might want to try working hard and being nice rather than bullying the competition.
"Backers of KIPP Academy Press Case," by Anne Dudley Ellis, Fresno Bee, March 2, 2009
"Former KIPP Academy principal denies accusations," by Jim Guy, Fresno Bee, February 23, 2009
"KIPP Supporters Rally at Fresno Unified Board Meeting," by Ashley Ritchie and Winston Whitehurst, KMPH Fox 26, February 26, 2009
March 5, 2009
Will Garden State voc ed schools give traditional high schools a run for their money? Seems that way--and in more ways than one. Vocational schools, long the ugly stepchild of the education system, have taken on a new and more alluring persona in New Jersey--complete with stem-cell research labs, advanced robotics classes, and seven different academies with specialties ranging from medicine to the arts. (A few weeks ago, we discovered that Massachusetts has seen a similar uptick in vo-tech quality.) Parents are swooning over the new options; Bergen County Academies, for example, receive seven applications for every available seat. But local school districts are unenthused; similar to the arguments used against charters, districts whine that these high tech, high performing voc ed schools, typically run by counties, are funneling off both students and funds--and providing undue competition to their low tech traditional neighbors. "To think that we need a Bronx Science in Hackensack leaves a lot to be desired, because most of our schools can handle these students," complained one local superintendent. Last time we checked, we wanted our kids taught by the school system, not "handled." And at the rate parents are picking these new vo-tech schools over their traditional counterparts, we're pretty sure they don't want their children "handled" either.
"Vo-Techs Are a new Elite, Local Districts Complain," by Winnie Hu, New York Times, March 2, 2009
March 5, 2009
Economists take note: there is a free lunch, and it's a cheese sandwich. Albuquerque, New Mexico is facing a troubling problem: students who show up to school without their lunch money. (Mind you, these are children who aren't eligible for the official federally-funded "free lunch" program.) In the past, the district has absorbed the cost of delinquent lunch tabs--i.e. students who run up their lunch bill by not bringing the requisite green to pay for it. But this year, the number of unpaid lunch tabs has skyrocketed; the Albuquerque School District is on track to face a $300,000 bill if current trends continue. So instead of a hot lunch--or no lunch--the district has decided to serve these children a cold plate: cheese sandwich, piece of fruit, and carton of milk. Seems like a reasonable compromise, but some parents and community activists are outraged that empty-handed kiddies aren't getting the same hot meal as everyone else. Sorry, folks, but you should be thanking Albuquerque for its generosity; other districts say no moolah, no munchies. And a cheese sandwich is surely better than going hungry.
"No more lunch bills: Schools go after deadbeats," Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press, February 25, 2009
March 5, 2009
There are all sorts of new ways to let kids wiggle while they learn. But glance in the window of an elementary school classroom, and you may just see students wobbling behind their desks on stability balls. Seems these brightly colored inflatable balls aren't just a Pilates accoutrement after all. According to some teachers, stability balls actually increase student achievement by letting kids move (or bounce, as the case may be) while they learn. "I call it actively sitting," explained teacher Tiffany Miller. "The whole theory with the brain is that when your body's engaged, your brain's engaged." The kids are big fans, too; ten-year-old James Howell likes them because he can "get the wiggles out." While research from the February edition of the Chronicle of Kinesiology and Physical Education in Higher Education backs up the wiggle-room theory, too, it remains to be seen whether this trend will really catch on--or roll away.
"Teachers Ditching Class Chairs for Stability Balls," Kristen Wyatt, Associated Press, March 2, 2009
Achievement Effects of Four Early Elementary School Math Curricula: Findings from First Graders in 39 Schools
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / March 5, 2009
Roberto Agodini, Barbara Harris, Sally Atkins-Burnett, Sheila Heaviside, and Timothy Novak
Mathematica Policy Research for Institute of Education Sciences
If you're looking for a truce in the math wars, this study is not it. It is, however, a rigorous, in-depth review of four widely used K-2 math curricula. (If that seems small, take it in context: seven math curricula make up 91 percent of all that are used in K-2 nationally.) It's an experimental study in which 39 schools in four states were randomly assigned to one of four math curricula. Achievement data were collected from over 1,300 first grade students and analyzed using a rigorous statistical technique known as hierarchical linear modeling. The study found that students taught with Saxon Math (published by Saxon) and Math Expressions (published by Houghton-Mifflin) performed significantly better than those taught with Investigations (published by Pearson Scott Foresman) and Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics (also published by Pearson Scott Foresman). Since all four curricula are to some extent a combination of student-centered constructivist and traditional teacher-centered approaches, no faction is this battle emerges a clear winner. Saxon math, however, is lauded by most traditionalists as the "Open Court" of math, and used in plenty of Catholic schools. On the other hand, the most constructivist math program of the four, Investigations, had the poorest results; this curriculum is described in the report as a "student-centered approach" that "focus[es] on understanding rather than ‘correct
Stafford Palmieri / March 5, 2009
Robin Chait and Michele McLaughlin
Center for American Progress
It's been long understood that teacher quality is the number one determinant of student success that's under schools' control. Crucial to increasing the pool of talented teachers are alternative certification programs, which, done right, streamline entry to the classroom for adroit teacher candidates in high need areas or high need subjects. Unfortunately, as we found last year, few programs are done right; most offer the same hoops and headaches as traditional certification, just re-ordered. Robin Chait, of the Center for American Progress, and Michele McLaughlin, of Teach For America, agree. They point to New York City as one example, where teachers in alternative certification programs have to slog through unpaid summer training and then shell out $8,000-17,000 in tuition fees for debatably helpful education courses. This isn't always the fault of the program, however; both good and bad programs are oftentimes constrained or left unsupported by poor state policy. To rectify the situation, the duo offers three worthwhile objectives for states looking to improve: minimizing participant burden (e.g. cutting down on required course load); ensuring program quality (e.g. increasing minimum GPA requirements and raising Praxis cut scores); and encouraging innovation and growth (e.g. creating a specific alternative certification license, rather than using existing emergency or temporary licensing laws). That's a good start; you can find the rest here.