Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 31
August 26, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
America's best (and worst) cities for school reform
New Fordham study shows which
A big flop on Race to the Top
Where were Colorado and Louisiana?
RTT mostly got it right
Duncan deserves a B, the winning slate a C
Cyber schools need more quality control
Snooki meet Ponzi; Ponzi meet Snooki
SEC calls out NJ: No more pension fraud
School buildings for $100 million+? Yep.
ACT: The Condition of College and Career Readiness
A woefully low percentage of high school seniors are primed to succeed
Schott Foundation: Yes We Can: The 2010 Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males
African-American boys still face an uphill academic battle
Windsurfing was so 2004
This week, Mike and Rick discuss Race to the Top's round 2 winners, Fordham's latest report on cities' education "reform-friendliness," and the sensational LA Times story on value-added data. Then Amber gives us the scoop on the ACT's latest stats and Rate that Reform picks academics over aesthetics.
Reform via entrepreneurialism is all the rage in education circles, at least as revealed by magazine articles and conference keynotes. Think of Teach For America and New Leaders for New Schools, of KIPP and Uncommon Schools, of Wireless Generation, K12, EdisonSchools, SchoolNet, and so many more players that scarcely existed a few years back.
But how widespread is this spirit of innovation and enterprise in America’s major metropolises? Alas, not so much. Too few of our big cities turn out to have the talent, leadership, infrastructure, culture, and resources—both human and financial—to beckon enterprising reformers and then help them to succeed there.
That’s the core finding of Fordham’s newest study, America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform: Attracting Entrepreneurs and Change Agents, authored by AEI’s Rick Hess and two stalwart Fordham staffers, Stafford Palmieri and Janie Scull. But they found some positives, too: A handful of communities have succeeded in creating healthy reform environments. The actual, as Kant observed, proves the possible. If a few places can begin to resemble Silicon Valley when it comes to education reform, others could, too. Be warned, however, that it isn’t easy.
Let us be clear: This is a study of cities, not just school systems. We’re interested in the “conditions” that make education reform apt to gain traction in entire communities. It’s what Hess has previously coined an education “ecosystem,” the myriad factors that make education change likely to take root and blossom. He
Michael J. Petrilli / August 26, 2010
For those who may not believe in coincidence, consider: On Tuesday, Fordham released a brand-new study that found New Orleans to be the most reform-minded city in the country; Denver came in fourth. Also on Tuesday, the Department of Education shocked the known world by announcing that Louisiana and Colorado both came up short in Race to the Top, outdone by such reform stalwarts as Maryland (ha!) and Hawaii (guffaw!).
The full list of state winners also includes Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. (And, to be fair, D.C. and NYC also fared extremely well in the Hess analysis, coming in second and third respectively.)
This is a disastrous outcome for the Administration. Support for competitive programs, even among reformers, is apt to plummet as it becomes clear that the vagaries of peer reviewers and the prowess of grant writers are what drive results in such competitions, not true policy change, political courage, leadership or public commitment to reform. The lofty rhetoric of the Race to the Top has turned to farce.
One may well feel sorry for Arne Duncan and his team. By all accounts, it appears that they simply funded states in the order of their ranking by peer reviewers. There were no shenanigans or political gerrymandering, as far as I can tell. (While the White House must surely be happy with the outcome vis-a-vis Ohio and Maryland, where
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / August 26, 2010
On sober, morning-after reflection, let me say this about Race to the Top. Arne Duncan deserves at least a B for initiating and persevering with it. With a relatively small (by federal standards) amount of money, he has catalyzed a large amount of worthwhile education-reform activity in a great many places. And the directions in which he has bribed the system to move are important directions to move in. This wouldn’t have happened without the program’s competition-style design, with states vying for (relatively) scarce money. (It helped, of course, that states and districts are desperate for money!)
But determining the outcome of a high-profile grants competition is a tricky, risky undertaking. Had the Duncan team opted to use their own judgment, the outcome might have been better in terms of who won, but he would have been accused of playing mid-term-election politics and surely the White House (and influential Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the statehouses) would have inserted themselves into that process. Meaning that the outcome might not have been better.
Instead, the administration opted for strict adherence to “peer review” of the written applications that states submitted (as well as oral presentations, etc.) This is not a satisfactory system, either, as it is swayed by the selection of reviewers (not all of whom share the Secretary’s reform priorities), by the criteria and instructions given to them (and how they interpret those criteria), and by skillful grant-writers who are fully capable of asserting claims, plans and promises that
August 26, 2010
A decade later, Pennsylvania cyber schools go viral, by Devon Lash, The Morning Call, August 21, 2010
Cyber schools present myriad opportunities: Lower overhead costs, personalized instruction, and greater efficiency. Yet all those things are only as good as they are done well. And often they are not, it seems, at least in Pennsylvania. More than 23,000 students attend virtual schools full time in the Keystone State, one of the country’s highest enrollments. Yet most of those schools are failing to meet state standards. Of Pennsylvania’s eleven digital academies, five are in corrective action and five are “making progress,” while just one can show adequate yearly progress four years in a row. Thanks to the many lessons of the charter school boom, our vision here should be 20/20, if not 20/15: Innovative approaches to schooling that lower costs and give students more options should be lauded, but quality won’t magically happen by itself. Smart oversight and policies are needed, pronto. The virtual movement is exiting its infancy; now would be a great time to take on the quality-control challenge.
August 26, 2010
Legal Briefing: New Jersey Settles SEC's Pension Fund Fraud Charges, by Abigail Field, Daily Finance, August 19, 2010SEC Charges State of New Jersey for Fraudulent Municipal Bond Offerings, Press Release 2010-152, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, August 18, 2010
In its first ever suit against a state for securities fraud, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) accused New Jersey of misrepresenting as healthy its state employee and teacher pension funds to investors when it issued $26 billion in bonds between 2001 and 2007. New Jersey didn’t have the money to cover those loans and the predictions that it shared with the public about the state’s fiscal health were wildly optimistic—and largely untrue. With a new face in the governor’s mansion, the state quickly settled the case by promising to fulfill its financial commitments and thereby avoided paying fines to the SEC. Well and good. But this is just the tip of a big iceberg. State pension funds are mostly woefully unfunded, and neither the public nor current and future retirees truly grasp the scope of impending insolvency.
August 26, 2010
LA Unveils $578 Million School, Costliest In The Nation, by Christina Hoag, Associated Press, August 22, 2010
Think back to your high school—the maple-wood flooring, fine art murals, expansive manicured grounds, glass-ceiled atrium, state-of-the-art swimming pool, orchestra-pit auditorium…Doesn’t sound familiar? You must not have attended a “Taj Mahal,” a group of 100 or so public schools that cost more than $100 million to build. The newest member of this exclusive club is the $578 million Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex, due to open in Los Angeles this fall. It breaks the record for the most expensive public school ever, surpassing the $235 million whopper in New York City and the $185 million doozer in Brunswick, New Jersey. To be fair, some of the cost went to historical preservation, as RFK’s main building will inhabit the converted Ambassador Hotel, site of RFK’s assassination in 1968. And the industrial-style schools of the 1970s could surely use with some sprucing up. But nearly $600 million for 4,200 students in a 700,000 district—in a state that’s $20 billion in the hole—and counting—on education? Now that’s rich.
Kathleen Porter-Magee / August 26, 2010
The Condition of College and Career Readiness, (Iowa City, IA: ACT, 2010)
This analysis of the 2010 results from ACT’s college admissions assessment reveals the proportion of assessed students who are prepared for college-level work in reading, English, math, and science. (That means having at least a 50 percent chance of obtaining a B or higher in a first-year credit-bearing college course, or a 75 percent chance of getting a C.) As in earlier years, the findings are distressing: Fewer than a quarter of students met these college-readiness benchmarks in all four subjects, while 28 percent didn’t meet a single benchmark, and an additional 15 percent met only one. On the up side, the report did reveal a strong correlation between taking a core liberal arts curriculum in high school—four years of English and three years each of mathematics, science, and social studies— and meeting the benchmarks. Students who took additional courses beyond that core were even likelier to attain the benchmark scores. These data underscore the fact that all students need a rigorous, content-rich curriculum that is grounded in high standards—and the fact that we have a long way to go before all of them are truly “college and career ready.”
August 26, 2010
Yes We Can: The 2010 Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males (Cambridge, MA: The Schott Foundation, August 2010)
What if, instead of our current high-school graduation rate of 71 percent, the U.S. actually faced a rate of 47 percent? According to this report, that’s the situation for black males. In more than a few places, more black males enter prison than graduate from high school. In bottom-of-the-barrel New York State, their graduation rate is 25 percent. The report lays the blame on numerous doorsteps: Black males are punished more severely for the same infractions and more likely to be misclassified as needing special education. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The report illustrates with Newark, where due to a large influx of Abbott dollars, the graduation rate gap between white and black boys has closed significantly since 2001-02. The report implies that more money is what makes the difference, yet more resources, badly used, would hardly solve the problem. Still, this report reveals documents a large problem and reminds us of an important challenge for education policy and practice, with implications, of course, that go far beyond education.