Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 17
May 14, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Expecting too much from government
Teacher shortage short-circuited
Work hard, take it easy
A loaded euphemism
The Research Nap?
This week, Mike and Rick discuss possible stimulus-stimulated reforms, whether grades should include more than just content mastery, and if we should letting students who pass their classes and the state test out of school early. Then Amber tells us about a (snooze-inducing) new ETS report on the achievement gap and Rate that Reform encounters Big Brother, school edition.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 14, 2009
(Don't read this if you're easily depressed. It's about the limits of government.)
Ever since I came into contact with government, both state and federal, and especially in the four decades since first going to work in it, I've been struck by the reality gap between what many Americans expect of it and what it's actually good at doing.
I've previously remarked that we tend to have the greatest faith in the prowess, efficiency, and effectiveness of whatever level of government we've had the least direct experience with. In other words, those who are deeply enmeshed in the toils of local or state government look to Washington to get things done, while those with long federal experience are apt to say "we'd better make sure that the states are responsible for meeting this next challenge."
In general, American government is better than some, worse than others. It's rarely corrupt and eventually completes most of what it sets out to do. In this it differs from, say, India, Russia, and most of Africa. But it's usually slow, plodding, feckless, and not very responsive. In this, it differs from Singapore--indeed, from much of East Asia, including even China, at least now and then. (China is a mixed bag. It seems to be hopeless at public health matters, for example, even food safety, yet had drilling equipment in place within two weeks of deciding to build a big public-works project. And the modernization of Shanghai, Beijing,
May 14, 2009
Steve Barr, labeled "The Instigator" by last week's New Yorker, is living up to his new sobriquet. He's launched (or instigated, if you will) a Parent Revolution to give voice to frustrated parents, put pressure on the LA Unified School District, and counterbalance the power of that city's teacher union. Seems Barr thinks putting the P back into PTA is futile. The pledge is simple: if more than half of a poor-performing school's parents sign up for the Revolution, Green Dot guarantees an excellent campus within 3 years. It will fulfill this promise with some equally simple leverage: if LAUSD does not clean up the school or let Green Dot take it over and transform it, Green Dot will open a ring of small charter schools around the school--and quickly drain it of students and funds. A newly revamped Parents Union gathers petition signatures to make such a threat credible. Mary Najera, one of the organizers, explains: "This is a legitimate threat to the school district. And this is how we have to play to be heard. This is going to steamroll." With an unlikely cast of supporters, including the Service Employees International Union, The Broad Foundation, and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, this move is gutsy and innovative. It also just might work.
"Parents are urged to demand more from L.A. schools," by Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2009
May 14, 2009
With money tight, the New York City Department of Education has issued an interdiction on hiring new teachers from outside. Instead, principals looking to fill faculty gaps will have to look within the system, in particular to teachers who were previously "excessed" as a result of unsatisfactory performance or downsizing. The casualties of this new policy are multiple but, while Teach For America and the NYC Teaching Fellows will only see their corps cut in half (the city presumably still has contractual obligations to these organizations), traditional ed school candidates and career-switchers are completely out of luck. "Suddenly, overnight, I am rethinking my entire career," explains substitute to full-time hopeful Larissa Patel. And she's not alone: many prospective teachers say they never anticipated that the Big Apple would run short on open teaching positions. Only special needs areas, such as bilingual special education and speech therapy, are exempt. But what's most troubling is that this policy seems to run directly counter to the previous practice of merely encouraging principals to hire excessed teachers (the district would pay the difference in salary if an Absent Teacher Reserve teacher was more expensive than a new-hire)--but not forcing them to do so. But since the district pays these excessed teachers full salary despite their limbo status, putting them to work will save the district some cash. In the meantime, it appears that the teacher shortage "crisis" has evaporated overnight.
May 14, 2009
Could New York learn a thing or two from Milwaukee? Definitely, if the newly-relocated Archbishop has anything to say about it. He's Timothy Dolan, who led the archdiocese of Milwaukee for seven years prior to his Big Apple appointment, and he believes that, when it comes to Catholic schools, Milwaukee's voucher program is "a genuine blessing." "The Catholic Church," he explains, "has always been an ardent advocate for parental rights in education." The problem, as he sees it, is that some Catholic leaders are ready to throw in the towel on their parochial schools. "What we have to ask ourselves is ‘Are they worth it?' And we say you bet they are. They're worth it because nobody does it better than the [Catholic] Church when it comes to education." To which we say, "Amen." There's no voucher law in New York, however, so Dolan has his work cut out for him. ("I know that the state of New York likes to consider itself kind of on the vanguard of enlightened progressive initiatives," he quips, "but in this regard Wisconsin is way ahead.") Still, he doesn't acknowledge any despair. That's because these "scrappy" parochial institutions have always fought for their survival. In fact, wrangling for every penny is part of the "pride and ownership among the people because, darn it, we fought for it...we do not take this for granted." But scrappiness alone isn't likely to save America's Catholic schools. Let's
May 14, 2009
Who doesn't count down the days to the end of school? For high school students in Mesquite, Texas, that day may be sooner than they think--provided they pass all their classes and the state tests. District leaders are proposing a deal for students: pass your classes and TAKS and you can get out of school a week early. They see it as a way to kill two birds with one stone: incentivize working harder, while making it possible to give students who are struggling more one-on-one tutoring time (during the last week of the year, at least). "It just seems like a great opportunity to work with a smaller number of students who may have some more intensive needs," muses district administrator Jeannie Stone. Sure, we should be careful about taking kids out of classrooms when they spend so few days in them as it is, but just as incentives work for adults, they work for teenagers, too. Further, unlike other green-tinged carrots, this one retains its orange hue, eschewing the realm of bribes in favor of that of rewards. It seems like there's little to be lost by giving this approach a try.
"Mesquite schools' proposal would let students score days off for passing TAKS, classes," by Karel Holloway, Dallas Morning News, May 11, 2009
May 14, 2009
It might be the worst Canadian import since Celine Dion: Ken O'Connor's dubious notions about "standards-based" grading. This Toronto-based consultant, who dubs himself "The Grade Doctor," argues that students shouldn't be dinged for missing deadlines, assignments or tests or, for that matter, cheating. "In a standards-based system, grades need to be as pure measures of achievement that we can make them and they should not be inflated by good behavior or deflated by ‘bad' behavior," writes O'Connor. (It seems the only thing shoddier than his ideas is his grammar.) You might think that educators, who themselves resist being evaluated by "pure measures of achievement," might think twice about these noxious ideas. But alas, O'Connor receives up to $8,000 per day to flog these nostrums and apparently has plenty of willing customers. It may come as no surprise that the Wake County (NC) Public Schools, that bastion of dumb ideas (try here, here, here, here, and here, for starters), is one of them. We're with Wake teacher Jennifer Rosa, who worries that "students are quickly learning that they do not have to be held to deadlines and timelines." We suspect they are also learning that their school administrators are lacking in critical-thinking skills.
"Wake woos guru on grading," by T. Keung Hui, The News & Observer, May 11, 2009
May 14, 2009
Ah, the unexpected consequences of budget woes. Low on funds, the Warwick High (PA) class of 2010 couldn't afford silver picture frames and gold money clips--pricey prom mementos from years past when class coffers were, ahem, loaded. But when the impish teens submitted the prom party favor purchase order to the school, they referred to their desired alternative knick-knack as simply "prom souvenirs"; sounded innocuous enough, so the principal quickly signed off. When the 450 trinkets arrived in time for the cafeteria gala--draining the class's paltry treasury, no less--school administrators were dismayed to discover that, in teenage parlance, "souvenirs" actually meant "shot glasses." Assistant principal Scott Galen admits the purchase "sends the wrong message," but we're more concerned this incident could send other things too, like teens to jail for underage drinking or alcohol-related driving incidents. It might be a good idea for the school to take a second look at the "souvenir" suggested for graduation.
"Pa. high school orders shot glasses as prom favors; official says party committee low on funds," Associated Press, May 13, 2009
Christina Hentges / May 14, 2009
National Governors Association
This issue brief provides a concise yet informative look at how governors can help replicate some of America's high-performing charter schools (KIPP, YES Prep, Green Dot, etc.). The authors find four main barriers to replication: state caps; cumbersome reporting requirements; discrepancies between charter and district school funding; and limited access to physical facilities. They recommend that governors looking to expand charter schools address these obstacles by establishing concrete measures of charter-school quality (obviously including student achievement) and shoring up reporting systems and governance requirements to balance strong oversight with necessary flexibility for the schools. They also urge governors to widen charters' access to facilities, appoint a specific governing body to further expansion, and rectify funding disparities. Each admonition is helpfully peppered with tangible lessons various states that have already attempted to expand high-performing charters. Although much of this brief is old news for charter aficionados, it's a great primer for governors; kudos to the NGA for wading into this topic. You can find it here.
Eric Osberg / May 14, 2009
Coalition for Student Success
This paper from the Coalition for Student Success (of which Fordham is one of 56 members--and growing) suggests five priorities for states and districts to make sound use of the $100 billion in stimulus funding for education created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The big five: developing common (i.e., national) standards; improving the use of data (in particular, following the recommendations of the Data Quality Campaign); conducting "meaningful" teacher evaluations; turning around some schools and closing others; and developing classroom- and school-based reforms to help "struggling" students (i.e., those who are at least two grades behind). All of this is sound advice, and the few pages of elaboration on each provide useful examples and supporting arguments. Perhaps most helpfully, they include specific steps that state and district leaders can take. For example, to strengthen teacher evaluations, governors or chiefs should "require that tenure and retention decisions be tied" to them. Superintendents should revamp seniority-based staffing rules and bring in outsiders to establish a "baseline" of how the district's teachers perform against "a meaningful standard." Much of what's suggested in here won't be easy to accomplish, of course, and one fears that many states and districts will gratefully accept their federal billions without making these kinds of changes. (Arne Duncan insists that such places won't qualify for his $5 billion incentive kitty.) Here's hoping leaders aim higher. The paper concludes with a