Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 33
September 17, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Health care and an educated citizenry
The City of Brotherly Bickering
Teach for Quality
A portrait of the library as a bookless room
Education at a Glance 2009
NPR hires Mickey
Rick is out of retirement! He and Mike discuss the ascension of Senator Harkin to chair of the HELP committee, Philly's proposed changes for charter-school expansion, and the exodus of books from a prep school library. Then Amber tells us about the effects of Katrina evacuee students on the achievement of receiving schools and Rate that Reform disses MTV.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / September 17, 2009
What kind of education would one need to make sense of the current health-care debate? As America rethinks its academic standards and international competitiveness, this is not a bad time to ask what U.S. citizens and voters (and taxpayers) need by way of knowledge and skills to follow the hottest domestic policy issue of the day and to form reasonable conclusions about what they do and don’t like about the various options, packages and arguments on the table.
Today’s elites seem certain that John Q. Public is irremediably ignorant about, and perhaps oblivious to, this debate, thus susceptible to being persuaded, brainwashed, maybe cowed. Some Democrats are convinced that the insurance industry is creating “movements” bent on misleading and confusing people and planting suspicion in their heart, while at least one GOP Congressman (and more than a few conservative pundits and talk show hosts) says President Obama is lying. All these folks seem to assume that the masses cannot possibly understand the debate. But must we accept that as a given? What would it take?
Basic literacy and math skills obviously come first. Lots of numbers, cost projections and ratios are being tossed around, and so are many sophisticated words, phrases and concepts.
Some “21st Century skills” are called for, too (even if one believes, with me, that these skills were just as important in prior centuries). One must, for example, be able to get behind the words, slogans, claims and counterclaims to
September 17, 2009
A current proposal from the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) would force charter schools that want to increase their enrollments or reconfigure their grade levels to do so as part of the contract renewal process (which occurs every five years), instead of through a separate, less-regulated process of amendment. Under the new rules, charters seeking to expand would need to submit, along with their regular renewal paperwork, a supplementary form specifying their academic, financial, managerial, and other plans for expansion; they would also need to have made AYP for at least the preceding two years. Charter operators say this process is unduly burdensome, will stunt their growth, and cripple their nimbleness. "If the same criteria were applied to neighborhood district schools that this charter-school policy sets, none of [them] would meet the mark," said David Rossi, chief executive of Esperanza Academy Charter School. It’s certainly reasonable to expect charters (and other schools) that want to grow or change in material ways to be able to justify the alteration. But couldn’t the SRC come up with a speedy method for vetting those justifications?
"Plan would limit charter schools' independence," by Dafney Tales, The Philadelphia Daily News, September 11, 2009
September 17, 2009
Surprise! TFA is serious about teacher quality. Not only do they recruit and retain the most qualified applicants, but they also boast a professional development program that puts most to shame. In an analogy that makes our stomachs turn, TFA veteran Mitchell London explains, “To compare the TFA support and that provided in my high school would be like comparing the greatest crème brûlée you’ve ever had to a piece of French toast wrapped around a stick of butter.” Yuck. Still, critics who complain that TFA encourages a culture of carpet-bagging amateurs in for a two-and-out foray into public teaching should consider the following: TFA spends $20,000 per teacher per year on improving teacher effectiveness. New corps members are expected to meet quantitative targets, either by reducing achievement gaps 20 percent, advancing their students 1.5 grade levels, or meeting 80 percent proficiency. But they get help in doing this. Rigorous valuations by TFA program directors and access to a growing portal of thousands of exemplar teaching videos and user-rated teaching material make it far easier for TFA teachers to get what all professional development programs are supposed to provide: real exposure to best practices in action. And all of this has been developed in the last five years, proving TFA’s agility and adeptness at self-improvement. Here’s to a winning combination of qualitative and quantitative feedback.
“Growth Model,” by Stephen Sawchuck, Education Week, September 11, 2009 (subscription required)
September 17, 2009
Who were Julius Caesar, Leif Ericsson, and Charles Darwin? Know the answer? Well that’s because you, dear reader, are not a recent or current product of British schools—state, independent, or otherwise--where the Romans, Vikings, and Victorians, amongst others, can be skipped in history class so that students have time to learn how to use social networking sites like Twitter. Outrageous? We agree. A recent study (pdf) by the Historical Association, a British research organization that focuses on the study and preservation of history, found that thousands of students drop the subject at age 13. And 48 percent of schools report that 11 and 12 year-olds spend only one hour a week in history class. But it gets worse. Thirty percent of secondary schools don’t even teach history as a stand-alone subject in the upper grades. And only thirty percent of students take the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) history test at age 16. Though these data were collected from just 700 teachers at 644 schools, if representative, they present a troubling trend. How can students be citizens of the 21st century if they know nothing about the preceding ones?
"History in danger as only 30% of pupils take subject at GCSE," by Ian Drury, Daily Mail, September 14, 2009
"History is being forgotten from GCSE curriculum, fear school teachers," by Polly Curtis, The Observer, September 13, 2009
September 17, 2009
Many years hence, as the students of Cushing Academy hold their faces close to their electronic book readers, they probably won't even know of those distant days of yore when people discovered literature by browsing shelves. That's because the prep school west of Boston donated most of its 20,000 book collection this year to local schools and libraries to make room for a new technology-riddled learning center. "When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books," said James Tracy, Cushing's headmaster. A $500,000 renovation will fill the former athenaeum with laptop-friendly study areas, three large flat-screen TVs, a coffee shop (with a $10,000 cappuccino machine), and 18 electronic book readers from Amazon and Sony. School officials argue this is the right move; a review of library records one random day last spring showed only 48 checked-out books, 30 of which were children’s selections, out of their 20,000-book collection. But librarian Liz Vezina, who has overseen Cushing’s bibliotheca for seventeen years, doesn’t think she’ll be getting used to the switch anytime soon. “I’m going to miss them. I love books. I’ve grown up with them, and there’s something lost when they’re virtual. There’s a sensual side to them--the smell, the feel, the physicality of a book is something really special.” We can already hear a scream coming across the sky from librarians around the world.
"Welcome to the library. Say
Janie Scull / September 17, 2009
Marilyn Thomas and Crystal Collins
Southern Regional Education Board
Drawing upon many recent studies that highlight the positive correlation between middle and high school achievement, this report from SREB stresses the importance of aggressively raising standards and improving curricula across the middle grades. Looking at state and NAEP test scores of its 12 member states, SREB concludes that modest gains over the past five years do not diminish the need to do more to ensure that middle schools are adequately preparing students to succeed in high school. Studies have shown that declining individual achievement in the middle years is a serious problem--high school dropout indicators can be traced as far back as sixth grade--but schools have too often focused in this critical early-adolescent period not on academics but on concerns with identity, self-respect and such. (See Fordham's report on this topic by Cheri Yecke.) To curb these troubling trends, SREB has five recommendations for states: rework reading curricula to implement effective instructional strategies; restructure math curricula so that eighth graders can reach Algebra prepared (as opposed to simply having all eighth graders take Algebra, ready or not); provide an accelerated catch-up curriculum for students who enter middle school not on grade level; improve certification and professional development for middle school teachers; and engage students in educational and career planning. None of these moves is exactly revolutionary--or applicable only to middle school--but it never hurts to reemphasize them again during
September 17, 2009
Dr. Ben Chavis with Carey Blakely
New American Library
Part biography, part case study, and part pep talk, this book tells the story of the wildly successful American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS) and its charismatic, take-no-prisoners, leader, Ben Chavis. As readers of Fordham’s Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner City Schools and the New Paternalism already know, Chavis took over AIPCS in 2000, at which point the school was failing in many ways. He faced rampant drug usage, 65 percent attendance, the lowest test scores in Oakland, CA, and the imminent threat of closure. He promptly fired the entire faculty and staff and instituted a new educational model--now called AIM-Ed--focused on “high expectations,” “free market capitalism,” “family culture,” and “accountability and structure.” In his first year, he raised attendance to 95 percent and by 2003-04, AIPSC had the best scores of any public middle school in Oakland, never mind its heavily minority and impoverished student body. But if this turnaround can be called a miracle, so too can the length of Chavis’ tenure. He is, to say the least, unorthodox, provocative, and politically incorrect. Throughout the book, as at the school, he seems to intentionally provoke those who might disagree with him, claiming that Democrats “pimp” poor people and calling one school board member “part of those far-to-the-left liberals who in my opinion are worse than the Ku Klux Klan.” His disciplinary methods have been extravagant, not to say
Stafford Palmieri / September 17, 2009
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
This annual publication from the OECD always carries a wealth of information, mostly more of the same depressing news about lagging American achievement. But this edition, which focuses on four areas (education levels and student numbers; economic benefits of education; paying for education; and school environment), has a nifty new section: TALIS, OECD’s new Teaching and Learning International Survey. It surveyed some 73,000 lower secondary teachers in 23 countries (16 OECD members and 7 partner countries) during the 2007-2008 school year, asking them about four main topics: professional development, pedagogical beliefs and practices, teacher evaluation and feedback, and school leadership. Unfortunately, the U.S. did not take part in the survey, but from some similar American data sources, such as the NCES Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) and the New Teacher Project’s recent report The Widget Effect, we can see that many lands are tackling the same issues we find within U.S. schools. For example, only 9 percent of teachers reported that evaluations had a moderate or large impact on their salary (read: merit pay). Almost three-quarters of them reported that fellow teachers would not be dismissed for ongoing poor performance. And a third or more of teachers in Austria, Ireland, and Portugal reported that no evaluations, internal or external, had occurred in their schools in the last five years. The survey also found that teachers, who reported their own pedagogical beliefs in