Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 40
November 12, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Union jobs or education reforms?
Race to the Top: Stepping away from reform?
Follow the leader
The students who say Meep
This week, Andy and Stafford discuss Denver's plan to make charter schools abide by school assignment boundaries, Maine's teacher licensure confidentiality law, and what happens when increasing the charter cap in Tennessee doesn't yield any more charters. Then Amber tells us about the latest "Leaders and Laggards" report and Rate that Reform says "Meep!"
The Department of Education reported the other day that, of the $97.4 billion in economic-stimulus funding that Congress steered its way, 69 percent was “obligated” by September 30th. (The balance--including Secretary Arne Duncan’s much-discussed “Race to the Top” money--must get out the door by September 2010.)
In other words, Washington spent almost $68 billion more on education in fiscal 2009 than it otherwise would have. Though this is less than 10 percent of total “stimulus” spending, it’s a whopping big number by historic standards of federal aid to schools and colleges.
What has all that extra money actually bought? The main answer, trumpeted by the Obama Administration in a new 250-page document, is jobs, jobs, jobs. “The data,” boasts the Education Department, “indicate that approximately 400,000 jobs have been retained or created through the U.S. Department of Education ARRA grants. They reveal that the rapid distribution of this funding allowed States to fill significant education budget gaps in order to avert layoffs of personnel in public school districts and universities across the nation.” (Colorado, for example, salvaged or added 3,370 educator jobs with its $844 million.)
It’s a fact that employment was an explicit purpose of stimulus funding--Congress said as much--and with today’s jobless rate over ten percent only a churl would deny the humanitarian value as well as the political appeal of this. That said, turning schools into a jobs program--while well-run public organizations and private firms use the economic crisis to
Andy Smarick / November 12, 2009
They say you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. That just about sums up the difference between the Race to the Top’s “proposed priorities” and the final versions released today. Theinitial offerings were big and bold, reform-oriented to a fault, so much so that they attracted the ire of the unions and others. The final documents, though still displaying a clear reform bent, are a bit more measured and certainly more workmanlike.
This reflects a couple things. Unlike the drafts, these versions couldn’t be merely aspirational; they had to get into the weeds and deal with implementation issues. Also, the changes make it clear that the Education Department was influenced by the 1,000+ public comments sent through the federal register (and the who-knows-how-many grumbles and suggestions shared behind closed doors). As a result, the establishment’s fingerprints are visible in a number of places.
For instance, there’s a much greater focus on traditional interventions (like professional development and training) and the stuff of day-to-day district management (like developing meaningful teacher and principal evaluation systems). A bit of a yawner but nothing wrong here.
This bend toward the system does raise questions, however. Does the increased weight now given to “multiple measures” in teacher evaluations mean that student performance data might get crowded out? (And what exactly are “local instructional improvements systems”?)
The establishment’s wins also raise a few concerns. There’s greater leeway for districts to use less aggressive interventions with
November 12, 2009
What’s something that’s happened nearly every year for the last 100? (No, we’re not talking about the dashed hopes of Chicago Cubs’ fans.) School budgets have grown. Current “Great Recession” or no, reveals this Education Next analysis, over the last century per-pupil expenditures in U.S. schools have declined only twice (the Great Depression and World War II); student-teacher ratios have been cut in half; and teacher salaries have risen by 42 percent. Education’s privileged budget position has multiple causes: protected state constitutional status, a decentralized and diffuse structure, political appeal, and a multi-layered, multi-stream funding structure. Yet school districts continue to cry poverty. That’s partly because their budgetary planning sessions occur months in advance of the federal and state fiscal years (even in advance of budget proposals from presidents and governors.) So school boards and superintendents, whether angling for advantage, truly fearing the worst, and/or covering their behinds, warn of dire cuts, teacher layoffs, and other catastrophes. Yet when school opens in the fall, with the exceedingly rare exceptions noted above, U.S. classrooms have books, desks, teachers, blackboards, whiteboards, and smart boards galore. A note to those who fear for the financial future of education: You’re covered. If only the proper and efficient use of said funds were as guaranteed. Cubs fans, on the other hand, aren’t so lucky.
“The Phony Funding Crisis,” by Arthur Peng and James Guthrie, Education Next, Winter 2010
November 12, 2009
At least four states have halted, and three others have slowed, their standards-revision processes in anticipation of the Common Core version. This national standards movement, the first-draft fruits of which we reviewed a few weeks ago, is intended to guide standards-setting in all fifty states--and Secretary Duncan is using “Race to the Top” to incentivize states to take this seriously. So it makes sense in multiple ways (financial and organizational, to start with) that states want at least to examine the Common Core standards before proceeding with their own. It’s also a fact--oft documented by Fordham over the past 15 years--that most states, left to their own devices, set truly mediocre standards.
“States Slow Standards Work Amid ‘Common Core’ Push,” by Mary Ann Zehr, Education Week, November 6, 2009 (subscription required)
November 12, 2009
According to the Superintendent of Denver, Tom Boasberg, "Charter schools are public schools, and they must be public schools in every sense of the word." That's why he wants Denver's charters to accept all students within their geographic boundaries. The idea isn't really new, surprising, or troublesome; most charters must take all students who apply and some even abide by boundary rules. But Boasberg's thinking behind the move is cause for concern. Boasberg says that "effectively" there should be "absolutely no distinction between charter schools and district schools." But charter schools were founded as an alternative to, not copycat of, district schools; their very structure is the result of being released from various organizational restraints, such as the length of school day and year, and central office decision-making, such as staff hiring and firing decisions, that in fact define district schools. Boasberg's proposal seems relatively harmless; but if this decision foreshadows others rooted in the goal of erasing the "distinctions" between charter and district schools, then we've got a problem.
“DPS unveils plans for changes in schools,” by Jeremy P. Meyer, Denver Post, November 10, 2009
November 12, 2009
Based on the reaction of the Maine Department of Education and the Maine Education Association, you’d think recent state legislation that loosens teacher confidentiality laws was going to unleash Enron II. Sending a slim sliver of sunshine into an otherwise black box of state data, the Maine legislature decided to release data on the aggregate number of yearly complaints against teachers and the number of teachers who lose or surrender their licenses each year. But the state’s DOE chose to interpret the law as applicable only since its passage--September 12. “That’s absurd,” exclaims Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. "I mean, we're not talking about something that would put somebody in jeopardy [since the data is in toto] by making the law retroactive." But DOE and MEA stand by the decision. "It would be unnecessary work on the part of the Department of Education or others who would have to compile that information. There's just no point in it,” reasons MEA executive director Mark Gray. Is there really no point in it or are there so many points state education officials worry about being speared? Maybe the state just doesn’t want to bother or maybe there’s a secret Ken Lay behind this story. We’ll have to wait and see.
"Sides argue over the release of teacher stats," by Lindsay Tice, Sun Journal, November 8, 2009
November 12, 2009
Iowa is also dealing with confidentiality issues--for the accusers of teachers. For the last nine years, the state attorney general’s office has been violating a law that protects investigatory documents by sharing filed complaints (for fraud, sexual misconduct, gross incompetence, and abuse) with teachers, including the identity of the complainant. Now, state officials have decided to stop sharing these files during the investigatory phase--and teachers are crying foul. They see this as a violation of “due process,” claiming they have the right to face their critics. Ironically, the teachers union was a huge supporter of, and helped push through, the now-violated legislation, which they hoped would keep unsubstantiated accusations under the radar. Sometimes facing your accuser, however, can get out of hand. A sexual-assault counselor reported being harassed and having her car broken into when she blew the whistle on a local teacher. (The state admits that the teacher in this case is being investigated.) Shame on the state department of education for playing fast and loose with this rule for so long--and the AG’s office for letting it happen. If an accusation is unsubstantiated, no one gets hurt by not knowing the identity of the complainant, and parents and community members won’t hold their tongue for fear of retribution.
“Education examiners weigh anonymity for teachers' accusers,” by Staci Hupp, Des Moines Register, November 6, 2009
"Board agrees to anonymity for teachers' accusers," by Staci Hupp, Des Moines Register blog,
Emmy L. Partin / November 12, 2009
Marcus A. Winters
Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
The latest in an autumnal flurry of charter school research, this report demonstrates that the presence of charter schools has a small positive impact on the academic performance of students who remain behind in New York City district schools. Most extant research on the topic relies on counts of charters within a geographical area to measure charter competition--i.e. the more charter options, the greater the presumptive competitive impact of charters on district schools in that community. This study takes a different approach to measuring competition: the percentage of students who actually leave a district school for a charter school from year to year. Using student-level data for NYC pupils in grades 3-8 over four years beginning in 2005-06, the author finds that, for every 1 percent of students who leave a district school for a charter school, reading proficiency among the students left behind increases by 0.02 standard deviations. (No effect was found on math scores overall, though the lowest-performing students did see a boost.) But it’s the methodology we should be celebrating (this is a very small effect, after all). The author contends that it translates better to urban areas than the geography-based approaches, which may be more suitable for statewide studies. If true, his report could pave the way for improved (and much needed) analyses of the impact of school choice (both vouchers and charters) at the
November 12, 2009
Edward Flores, Gary Painter, and Harry Pachon
Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, University of Southern California
This report uses longitudinal data from Los Angeles to examine what happens to English Language Learners’ achievement when theyare “reclassified” as fluent enough in English to move out of ELL programs. Analysts followed 28,714 students from sixth grade through the end of high school, tracking their ELL status, standardized test scores, pass rates in ninth grade, AP class enrollment, and dropout rate. The findings are stark: Students reclassified by eighth grade did overwhelmingly better than students who remained ELLs, and on some measures, they even out-performed English-only and initially-fluent speakers. Obviously, some of this effect could be the tail wagging the dog: It makes sense that students who learn English faster than their peers probably have the aptitude to do better in other areas. To address this concern, the researchers controlled for academic achievement in sixth grade (when the study began). Disparities persisted between reclassified youngsters and those who remained ELLs, though these were somewhat diminished. The report recommends four approaches to combat this kind of achievement gap: Put lots of resources into ELL programs in grades K-8 (both because getting reclassified makes a big difference and because not enough students are achieving that goal); emphasize to parents the educational value of children learning English; continue ELL programs into middle school (because getting reclassified can make a big difference as late as eighth grade);
November 12, 2009
Harvard Education Press
The final paragraph in Richard Elmore’s foreword to this book sets an appropriate tone. “I am no less skeptical about school boards, having read Walser’s book,” Elmore writes, “but I am a much better informed skeptic, and, perhaps, one who is slightly more willing to be persuaded of the future viability of local school governance.” For the education-policy audience, then, this book will not be a game-changer or convince the doubters. Nonetheless, as the title suggests, the intended audience is not policymakers but actual board members--and they may benefit from this concise collection of case studies combined with a few general lessons on what great school boards do well and how others could learn from them. (It also functions as a sort of history of American school boards.) With approximately 15,000 of them left, we should encourage school boards to “operate effectively in ways that can help raise student achievement in their districts.” Walser believes this is possible and she uses these pages to explain how. You can purchase a copy here.