Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 34
September 24, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Early childhood misstep
Conversions vs. turnarounds
Walk the line
Backlash to the backlash
When failing no one is failing everyone
Did you just double dip that chip?
The Fredericks of AEI
This week, Mike and Rick discuss the new Common Core standards, the low-bar graduation exam in Maryland, and South Africa's post-Apartheid inequalities. Then Amber tells us about Caroline Hoxby's new New York City charter study and Rate that Reform grades a double-dealer
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / September 24, 2009
While the Senate is consumed by health care, other problem topics are piling up. A recent arrival on its docket is the "Early Learning Challenge Fund," a complex federal pre-school collage, passed last week by the House with several worthy features but more than a little bad stuff. One hopes, with scant confidence, that the Senate will set it right.
The pre-school provisions are tucked into a massive student-aid overhaul measure that knocks banks out of the loan business and turns it over entirely to the Education Department and its contractors. That allegedly saves $1 billion per year to be used for the new early-childhood fund, which incorporates the Obama administration's intentions as well as House Education Chairman George Miller's. Dollar-wise, it's far smaller than the $10 billion per annum for "birth to five" that the president promised during his campaign, but the White House is also adding money to the budget for Head Start and other extant federal programs.
The "Challenge Fund" is meant primarily to leverage state-run early-childhood programs in more or less the direction that the Pew Foundation and its generously funded advocacy groups have been pushing--a direction that I recently examined and found lacking.
(News flash: multiple sources report that Pew is easing back from, if not abandoning, its quest for universal pre-school. This will, of course, make life harder for those advocates, though they're also funded by other foundations and, predictably, by the feds. I
Andy Smarick / September 24, 2009
I just returned from potentially one of the most portentous conferences in recent memory. If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, we may soon see big changes in the urban education landscape with major implications for tens of thousands of low-income students, charter schooling, choice, and Catholic education.
Hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives and Seton Education Partners, the event brought together about 100 people to discuss “Financing At-Risk Catholic and Faith-Based Schools: Exploring Alternatives to School Closures.” Obviously, I’m interested in this subject, and for some time, I’ve been trying to get others to realize that, given the paucity of great schools in urban America, it makes no sense to allow any high-performing, inner-city schools to disappear. But heading into the conference, I wasn’t so sure what could be accomplished. Those toiling in these fields already know about scholarships, vouchers, and tax credits; what could more palaver contribute?
While those subjects were discussed--including a compelling presentation by Scott Jensen of the Alliance for School Choice--the bigger story turned out to be everyone’s deep interest in the subject of converting struggling Catholic and other faith-based schools into charters.
I recently completed a long case study of the conversion of seven DC Catholic schools into charters, so I was up to speed on the subject and aware of the quiet interest of a number of dioceses in learning more. What I didn’t realize
September 24, 2009
Every day, hundreds of backpack-toting children cross the Lake Amistad Dam Bridge in Del Rio, Texas. This wouldn't normally be cause for complaint except that the bridge spans the U.S.-Mexico border and many of the children crossing that line are likely attending American public schools without student visas. Plenty of such crossings are legal--students and parents who’re U.S. citizens, green card holders, or recipients of student visas to attend private schools. In fact, many families have relatives on, and do their shopping in, both countries. But students who cross the border simply looking for a better free public education are breaking the law. That’s because public school attendance is based on residency, not citizenship. You don’t have to be a citizen—or even a legal immigrant—to attend a U.S. public school. In fact, a long-standing Supreme Court ruling forbids schools to ask about citizenship at all, making immigration status a nonissue. But you do have to be an inhabitant of a U.S. school district. We’ve long fretted over school systems that post guards at district borders to detect and repel children from the next district over, though those kids and their parents are seeking only a better education. But what happens when that border is not just a district line--or even a state border--but an international boundary between two countries? Adds a whole new dimension to the school choice debate.
“Students warned to prove Texas residence or leave,” by Michelle
September 24, 2009
The first Massachusetts charter school to unionize (nearly a year ago) now has a collectively-bargained contract with its teachers. Charters in other jurisdictions have unionized, so what’s so special about this one? The contract includes a merit-pay provision! Not only are performance pay schemes typically anathema to collective bargaining, but this one, unlike most, is not a school-wide bonus. In fact, in the second and third years of the new contract, teachers will be placed in an eight-tier pay schedule based on their performance, with placement determined by a committee of teachers and administrators. State test scores will--regrettably--not be one of the criteria though other kinds of (unidentified) student assessments will be allowed. And while the details haven’t been completely hashed out, teachers will not have the right to appeal their performance-pay-scale placement. Head of school (and former this and that, including a less-than-stellar deputy schools’ chancellor for New York City) Diana Lam says that the Conservatory Lab Charter School is “dedicated to including teachers in the development of performance criteria and the professional development process.” When teachers unionize, there’s obviously dissatisfaction in the ranks that is not being addressed by the administration. They have the right to pull together and then (in most states) to bargain collectively. That they’ve bargained for merit pay is good. But how much sense does it make to devise a compensation system that’s basically a step pay scale with another name?
September 24, 2009
Fifteen years after the fall of apartheid, South African schools are flatly failing as vehicles of social mobility; many black schools are plagued by teacher absenteeism (despite the highest teacher unionization rate in the world), scant accountability, even less authority in the hands of principals, and achievement scores that rank below poorer African peers. A system that once swung way too far in one bad direction has now swung all the way in the other, seemingly incorporating the worst of the old U.S. system (no accountability, vast inequality, political cronyism) with the worst of the new (urban challenges, union tension, powerless school leaders). To remedy the situation, South African President Jacob Zuma is considering giving the Education Ministry more control over principal selection and giving principals more control over their schools. Critics fret that this move toward better management might result in authoritarian control. Sounds just like some of the very same issues we’ve dealt with within our own shores--halfway around the world.
“Eager Students Fall Prey to Apartheid’s Legacy,” by Celia W. Dugger, New York Times, September 19, 2009
September 24, 2009
What's the point of having standards if they're so low that everybody meets them? That’s the Q in Maryland this week following the announcement that only 11 of 62,000 students were denied graduation as a result of failing the state graduation exam (despite its many alternatives, loopholes, and escape clauses). The test, which was the source of some brouhaha when enacted and was supposed to boost academic rigor, covers biology, algebra I, American government, and tenth grade English; students who fail have the option to complete “bridge” projects that prove their competency in the subject material or apply for a waiver to graduate without meeting requirements. That so few failed is not all that surprising, though; state officials made clear when the test was enacted that almost everyone would pass the first year. Ironically, the Old Line State’s data release came one day after that of the new draft Common Core standards. We can only hope the former reminds the latter that having standards is only a first step; to make a difference, they have to be rigorous.
“Near-universal passing provokes debate on school standards,” by Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun, September 23, 2009
“Md. Says Graduation Stats Prove Exit Exams Work,” by Nelson Hernandez, The Washington Post, September 22, 2009
September 24, 2009
Talk about an entrepreneurial spirit! As if one salary were not enough in tough economic times, Raquel Downing is pulling two--by running a side business from her seat in one of New York City’s notorious “rubber rooms.” Seems Ms. Downing was placed in teacher detention in 2005 after being fired for insubordination from her post as an assistant principal. She sued and won, retrieving her taxpayer-funded $100,000 salary and benefits, while freeing up her days (in the rubber room) to make a few extra bucks on the side. Wielding a couple of phones and laptops, Downing sells CDs for children during her “work day.” (We can only hope none of the discs teach morality.) Downing even refused a job offer from the city, which would at least have retained her $100K pay, presumably to continue her double dealing. No one likes a double-dipper, especially when it’s more than just a chip.
“Principal is a 'double dipper',” by Angela Montefinise, New York Post, September 20, 2009
Stafford Palmieri / September 24, 2009
Caroline M. Hoxby, Sonali Murarka, and Jenny Kang
New York City Charter Schools Evaluation Project
This long-anticipated charter school study brings some very positive findings, at least regarding New York City. Using gold-standard lottery-based analysis, Hoxby and her colleagues compare the achievement of 93 percent of Big Apple charter school students who were "lotteried-in" with those public-school students who were "lotteried-out" in schools open through 2005-2006. This means that the authors took one population of students (those applying to typically oversubscribed charter schools) and compared the randomly selected ones who got in (lotteried-in) to the ones who didn’t (lotteried-out) and remained in traditional schools; this method controls for a host of typically immeasurable factors like student motivation and family attitude toward education. Turns out that, when compared with his or her lotteried-out counterpart, each year spent by a pupil in a charter school equals a three point gain on the state Regents test, above typical grade-level progress. That means that, after four years in a charter school, a lotteried-in student would score 12 points higher. Furthermore, students who were enrolled in a charter school from kindergarten through eighth grade scored roughly 30 points higher on the state math exam and 23 points higher on the state English language arts exam, than their lotteried-out complements who remained in a traditional public school. This report is chockablock with other interesting data, including common organizational and pedagogical themes in the charter schools that were examined, as well as
Time to Act: An Agenda for Advancing Adolescent Literacy for College and Career Success, Final Report from Carnegie Corporation of New York's Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / September 24, 2009
This lengthy report compiles much research on adolescent literacy and associated best practices. Though none of the information is new, this is a handy reference guide with five chapters: the latest research on adolescent literacy; the needs of teen-age readers and how these can be met in schools; how teacher professional development can be structured to meet these needs; what needs to happen at the school, district, state, and federal levels to support adolescent readers; and action steps for leaders and policymakers at all levels. The biggest misconception the authors seek to dispel is that literacy gains made by young children in the early grades “inoculate” them against future reading deficits. Instead, argue the authors, “adolescent literacy is a shifting landscape where the heights get higher, the inclines steeper, and the terrain rockier.” This is so for a host of reasons, including such factors as texts getting longer and words becoming more complex as students age. What to do? The report offers a plethora of suggestions, from extending what we learned from the Reading First project into the middle school years, particularly as it concerns data-driven instruction and quality professional development for teachers, to encouraging school leaders to ensure that all content-area classes have a strong literacy focus. But action steps for federal policymakers are less promising: Throw scads of money at the problem, by, for example, increasing Title I support for middle and high schools. It’s
September 24, 2009
Harvard Education Press
This is Karin Chenoweth’s follow-up to It’s Being Done, her 2007 profile of fifteen successful public schools (what she calls “an attempt to prove it’s possible to overcome demography”). This time around, she seeks to explain the secrets of their success. The eight schools she profiles herein tend to have well-defined, content-based curricula, clear standards and the “five elements of the ‘wheel’ of school reform”: “personal relationship-building,” “teacher collaboration,” “a laserlike focus on what students need to learn,” “formative assessments,” and “data-driven instruction.” In other words, no student falls through the cracks, teachers can learn from each other (and the schools invest in professional development), teaching is content- rather than skills-based, and testing is used as a diagnostic rather than the rubric for instruction. Yet despite her intentions, Chenoweth admits that these five elements are no cure-all. Actually, that's kind of the point. The schools she profiles all echo certain abstract themes but turn out to be surprisingly diverse in their cultures and methods. To those seeking a formula for replication and “scaling,” Chenoweth responds that she can only give them a framework to create their own school. The book is available for purchase here.
Janie Scull / September 24, 2009
Rollin Binzer, director
Dinosaurs of the Future Productions
September 25, 2009
This big-screen film tells the story of Providence St. Mel, an inner-city Chicago private school that for thirty years has boasted a 100 percent college acceptance rate. Founder Paul J. Adams III may contend that the success of this independent (formerly Catholic) K-12 school is no miracle--it’s “what we’re supposed to be doing”--but it’s certainly exceptional in a city where relatively few students even make it through high school. You’ll get the story of how Adams took charge of the school in the 1970s when it was abandoned by the Archdiocese and full of gangs, drugs, and violence. You’ll also hear about today’s instructional methods, which afford flexibility to the classroom while empowering the principal and holding teachers accountable. This is all wonderful--but can its success be replicated within the public education system? Turns out that in 2006, St. Mel opened its own charter school, Providence Englewood, to prove that it could. Unfortunately, the film only gives cursory attention to how what we’d deem the most interesting part of this story. We get a brief mention of difficult union negotiations but scant attention is paid to how Providence Englewood actually operates, for example, or whether lottery admission instead of academic prerequisites (St. Mel has an entrance exam) demands any modifications to the school model. Still, in just two years, the charter school has posted respectable score gains. But it’s surely an inspiring and tantalizing movie, even if it skips the most titillating