Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 29
August 5, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
The testing mess
By Sol Stern
Curriculum: the missing link
By Eugenia Kemble
There they go again
Goliath takes on Goliath
It takes a village
Redefining its constituency?
Making the most of summer break
Better Benefits: Reforming Teacher Pensions for a Changing Work Force
By Eric Osberg , Jamie Davies O'Leary
Wherein we sweep behind elephants
Rick and Mike bring the heat this week as they discuss extending the school year, the Congressional teacher-jobs bailout that simply won't die, and Michelle Rhee's D.C. teacher layoffs. Amber's off this week, so we skip straight to Rate that Reform, which appraises Newark's impending "Teacher Village." Is a charter school-residential-retail complex a good idea?
Sol Stern / August 5, 2010
The only thing surprising about last week’s revelation that the fraction of New York City students passing the state’s reading and math tests had dropped by an average of 25 percentage points is that anyone was surprised at all. Student pass rates dropped precipitously all across New York State for one reason, and one reason only: State education commissioner David Steiner and Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch decided to make the tests less predictable this year, and to raise the “cut scores” required for students to reach each of four designated achievement levels—below basic, basic, proficient (i.e., “passing”), and advanced. Student achievement levels had risen spectacularly from 2007 to 2009 because a different group of Albany education authorities decided to lower the bar for proficiency by reducing the cut scores.
Such elasticity in the definition of student achievement is one of the nation’s most serious education problems. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 left the door wide open to massive test inflation by stipulating that all American students “will be proficient” by the year 2014—and imposing a series of increasingly onerous sanctions on districts and schools that do not move fast enough toward that goal—yet allowing each state to develop its own tests and set its own standard for “proficiency.” Since men are not angels, it was inevitable that state and local education authorities would lower the proficiency bar to make themselves look good politically and
Eugenia Kemble / August 5, 2010
In a July 21 New York Times cover story, reporter Tamar Lewin rightfully noted “the surprise of many in education circles…” that 27 states had already committed to adopting the new Common Core academic standards developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Lewin goes on to attribute this surprise to “states’ long tradition of insisting on retaining local control over curriculum” (emphasis added). With this simple statement—the equating of standards with curriculum—the author perpetuates an egregious error in the understanding of education policy. Though the politics of local control touches both standards and curriculum, educators and the public will never get policy right as long as too many conflate the two.
The creation, promotion and acceptance of the Common Core Standards does represent a sea change in the way this country is coming to think about its education system. These advances follow from “wave one” of reforms, begun during the Clinton years with the passage of Goals 2000, as well as acceptance of the idea that states should develop high academic standards. “Wave two” was a distorted follow-up, characterized by pumped up federal intervention enshrined in the test-based accountability of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Now comes Obama with another mix of “reforms,” the most promising of which take up, yet again, the standards agenda. As a recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute report suggests, the clarity, rigor, and coherence of the new Common Core Standards for mathematics and English
August 5, 2010
You know it’s an election year when the Democratic Speaker of the House recalls her comrades from summer break to Washington for an emergency vote to bail out the nation’s schools. This action might be wrapped in the garb of “economic stimulus” but its true intention is to stimulate the party’s base—the teachers’ unions—whose enthusiasm is sorely needed if catastrophic losses are to be avoided in November. Gadfly understands that the $10 billion edujobs fund—to be offset, so they claim, by future cuts in food stamps!—will have the beneficial effect of keeping some very good—and young—teachers from getting pink slips. Hooray for that. But it will also further kick down the road the inevitable belt-tightening that awaits our bloated education system—starting with the removal of America’s ineffective teachers, a step that Eric Hanushek says will actually improve student achievement. For almost two years, President Obama has been calling for an “Era of Responsibility.” This is more evidence that such an epoch has not yet arrived.
“US Senate clears way for 26 billion dollar spending bill,” Associated Press, August 4, 2010
August 5, 2010
Open-source technology has been slow to break into education. It’s not hard to see why: The purveyors of the tools and content that technology would revolutionize—textbook publishers, in particular—are keen to guard their distribution channels and their profits. Virtual charter schools have been the primary users so far; since their instruction is conducted online, making/using online content that is editable and free is the obvious next step. So what happens when a tech exec declares war on the publishers? Watch Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems, as his new venture, Oracle, takes online, open-source textbooks to the nation’s school systems. Those systems, he points out, spend $8-15 billion every year on textbooks. What if we could lower that cost to…zero? The biggest roadblock is in Sacramento and Austin, where legislators of the two biggest textbook markets choose and approve texts for use in their states’ public schools. But California, at least, seems to be coming around. It’s no simple matter, though. What happens to quality control? Accuracy? Do we really want students learning from the, ostensibly, “collective” knowledge of the internet (think: Wikipedia)? Then again, done right, breaking down the textbook monopoly would likely improve the quality, lessen the bias, and lower the exorbitant cost of K-12 materials. That would be a win for everyone except, of course, the publishers.
“$200 Textbook vs Free. You Do the Math,” by Ashlee Vance, New York Times, July 31, 2010
August 5, 2010
If given the option, would you live, work, sleep, and socialize all in the same place? According to Ron Beit, the answer is yes. That’s the choice he’ll be presenting to a cadre of teachers who will staff Teachers Village in Newark’s historic but blighted Four Corners District. Approved by the city a few months ago, and set to break ground this summer, the $120 million complex is to include three charter schools serving 1,000 students and 221 residential units for their teachers, and presumably others. Nearby, a complementary retail corridor would be installed, and down the road, a hotel, condos, and a parking garage. The purpose is multifold: Rejuvenate a dying neighborhood, boost a flagging economy, attract young professionals looking for an urban lifestyle, and present (presumably) more good charter options to Newark’s low-achieving population. We hope the accompanying charter operators are as top-notch as this plan is ambitious.
“Charter School Teacher Villages being constructed in New Jersey,” by Danny Weil, The Daily Censored, July 31, 2010
August 5, 2010
Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus has some choice words for the civil rights crowd: “I know Kanye West said the George W. Bush didn’t like black people, but are civil rights groups really insinuating that Barack Obama doesn’t care about black children?” As it turns out, there is something more “galling” than teachers unions lobbying against school reforms that are good for kids. It’s civil rights groups complaining that Race to the Top dollars aren’t being funneled adequately to minority students, and that some of Obama’s other pushes, such as charter schools, are bad for minority neighborhoods. “At least the teachers unions are, presumably, acting in the economic self-interest of their members,” she says. In a letter released last week by the NAACP, the National Urban League, and five other big organizations, they alleged just these things. Obama was scheduled to speak to the Urban League a few days later and he pushed right back. But there’s more to Marcus’s observations than this tiff between the Oval Office and the Civil Rights lobby. By focusing on the lowest-performing schools—through i3, School Improvement Grants, Race to the Top, the ESEA blueprint, and the bully pulpit—one could argue that Obama is not only not ignoring minority students, but focusing on them. After all, they are disproportionately enrolled in the very schools that are the focus of these programs, policies, and dollars.
August 5, 2010
“Summer learning loss” is well documented and distressing. Millions of kids laze around during the long summer vacation and forget chunks of what they had learned by June. This problem is most acute among those that can least afford it: low-income students without the resources or opportunity to attend summer camp or enrichment programs, and whose parents may not push hard on out-of-school reading. That’s one reason many high-performing charter schools operate virtually year round. (By contrast, states would rather cut the already-too-short school year—remember the Hawaii debacle?—to save money.) But extending the regular school year may not be right for everyone. So say some education entrepreneurs who see summer as an opportunity to experiment with innovative new curricula, hire excellent but unconventional teaching staff, and execute programs not allowed under traditional public-school protocols. Why keep kids longer in schools that are failing them for 180 days a year? Summer vacation may be an archaic relic of our agrarian past, but it’s also an opportunity for all sorts of learning.
“The Case Against Summer Vacation,” by David von Drehle, TIME Magazine, August 2, 2010
Eric Osberg , Jamie Davies O'Leary / August 25, 2010
Chad Aldeman and Andrew J. Rotherham
Alderman and Rotherham mince no words: Teacher pensions are a huge problem. First, they drain state and district budgets: The total public pension liability—much of which is owed to teachers—facing the states approaches $500 billion under the most conservative assumptions. In other words, the average American owes nearly $1,500 to his state’s public sector retirees, and each Alaskan owes a whopping $5,133. Second, the “defined benefit” structure of most pension plans was designed for a workf orce that stayed in one job for a career; today, however, employees often switch careers, which means old-style pensions may actually deter high-quality teachers from entering and staying in education. By comparison, the private sector mostly uses “defined contribution” plans. The names say it all: In the former, the benefit—i.e., the payout in the unknown future—is defined, based on a formula that factors in things like years on the job; in the latter, the contribution—i.e., how much the employer pays into the fund now—is what’s set, with no guarantees for future value. This short-term/long-term disconnect undergirds pension politics, too: Politicians have a natural incentive to reward teachers with improved benefits when times are flush, while state laws, even constitutions, often prevent them from ever decreasing benefits when times are scarce. So what to do? The most interesting suggestion here is the little known “cash balance” plan, in which employees have portable accounts that grow based on