Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 45
December 9, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
A Sputnik moment for U.S. education
Higher expectations, leaner rations
Rhee-sons to cheer
Michelle Rhee speaks out, and puts students first
Seniority-based firing = dumb and unjust
A First Look at the Common Core and College and Career Readiness
Barely one third of students are prepared for what's next
On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character
Front line lessons on character and education
2010 Report Card on the Effectiveness of Teacher Training Programs
TFA takes the cake!
Inside School Turnarounds: Urgent Hopes, Unfolding Stories
It's harder than you think, really
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / December 9, 2010
Fifty-three years after Sputnik caused an earthquake in American education by giving us reason to believe that the Soviet Union had surpassed us, China has delivered another shock. On math, reading, and science tests given to 15-year-olds in sixty-five countries last year, Shanghai’s teenagers topped every other jurisdiction in all three subjects—by a sweeping margin. What’s more, Hong Kong ranked in the top four on all three assessments.
Though Hong Kong took part in earlier rounds of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the 2009 test marked the first time that youngsters anywhere in China proper participated. To be sure, it was only Shanghai—the country’s flagship city on which Beijing has lavished much investment and attention, many favorable policies, and (for China) a relatively high degree of freedom. But Americans would be making a big mistake to suppose that this Shanghai result is some sort of aberration.
If China can produce top PISA scorers in one city in 2009—keep in mind that Shanghai’s population of 20 million is larger than many countries—it can do this in ten cities in 2019 and fifty in 2029. Or maybe faster.
I have misgivings about PISA—about how it defines knowledge, what it tests, and how it tries to divorce itself from school curriculum. But its international rankings are widely trusted as a reliable barometer of how young people in different countries compare on core academic subjects.
How did Shanghai accomplish this? The OECD folks
Terry Ryan / December 9, 2010
Checker’s piece on the recent “Sputnik moment” for American education sent my mind reeling and my heart racing. According to the recent PISA findings, the U.S. is running in place educationally as other countries (e.g., China) accelerate improvements to their education systems. The United States faces becoming a second-class nation if we can’t figure out how to significantly lift student achievement. Having lived in Poland (one of the world’s fastest improving countries according to PISA data) for two and half years in the 1990s and being fortunate enough to travel to other parts of the world in the years since, I accept the reality that we are in a race with other countries to have the best educated and most innovative citizens in the world. The future will be dominated by the countries with the smartest people. As a parent of two young daughters, this fact both excites and scares me.
In Ohio, where I now live, lawmakers are girding themselves and their constituents for cuts of up to $8 billion out of a $50 billion state budget. As K-12 education comprises about 40 percent of that budget, it will face serious cuts in the next two years, with schools losing as much as 20 percent of the sums to which they’ve grown accustomed. Not only are we entering a new competitive global era but we’re doing so at a time of leaner rations. And not just in the Buckeye
December 9, 2010
What I've Learned, by Michelle Rhee, Newsweek, December 6, 2010.Taking off the gloves, by Chester E. Finn, Jr., Flypaper blog, December 7, 2010.Teachers' union target Michelle Rhee to raise $1 billion for education reform, by Amanda Paulson, Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 2010.
After a few weeks of relative seclusion, Michelle Rhee has jumped whole-hog back into the limelight, using an eloquent four-page Newsweek essay both to announce her new student advocacy organization, Students First, and to clear some of the air (and get some things off her chest) about her departure from D.C. Public Schools. As she boldly states in the piece, “I know people say I wasn’t good enough at building consensus, but I don’t think consensus can be the goal.” Instead of chipping away at the status quo through collaboration, Rhee is attacking the inherent “hostility to excellence that pervades our education system” through Students First. This will be a 501(c)4 “civic league” organization (think AARP or NAACP) that will support reform-minded candidates of either party. The goal is to push a critical mass of anti-establishment (she never directly says anti-union) candidates through to their respective political seats. Toward this end, Rhee is aiming for a billion dollars in donations (not a typo!) before the organization’s first anniversary. Groups like Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children have already proven the merit of such initiatives—though at
December 9, 2010
When layoffs come to L.A. schools, performance doesn't count, by Jason Felch, Jason Song, and Doug Smith, Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2010.
The L.A. Times’s muckrakers offered up another doozey this week—now targeting the practice of last hired, first fired. In L.A., hundreds of promising new instructors were forced out by the one-two punch of budget cuts and seniority protections. According to the Times, 190 of them ranked in the top fifth in raising scores. Four hundred ranked in the top 40 percent. Not only did this quality-blind policy cause LAUSD to evict some of its most promising talent, but it also disproportionately forced out teachers in poorer areas of the district, who are often younger and less experienced. At Liechty Middle School in Westlake, for example, more than half of the teaching staff was initially let go. (Some were later hired back, but in the end, about a quarter of the school’s teachers lost their jobs.) Lietchy wasn’t alone on this. The Times analysis shows that sixteen schools lost at least a quarter of their teachers, all but one of them in South or Central Los Angeles. Further extrapolating, the Times also finds that far fewer teachers would have lost their jobs if the district had based its firings on performance instead of years in the classroom. (Veteran teachers have higher salaries, irrespective of their contributions to the classroom. So, fewer would have to be let-go to reach
Janie Scull / December 9, 2010
ACT, Inc., A First Look at the Common Core and College and Career Readiness, (Iowa City, IA: ACT, Inc., 2010).
Though previous work has shown that, in a majority of states, the new Common Core state standards are a vast improvement over current academic standards, no one has yet measured how today’s students may fare when the switch is flipped. Enter this ACT report, which purports to align the Common Core standards to the ACT tests in English, mathematics, reading, science, and writing to estimate current student competency in light of these higher standards. The report matches ACT test questions with related Common Core standards and finds that, as expected, alarmingly few students are college- and career-ready according to Core expectations. Overall, only 40 and 34 percent of them are proficient in reading and math, respectively. The analysis delves further into the standards and finds equally discouraging data—only 31 percent of 11th graders comprehend reading materials on grade-level. For science materials, this percentage drops to twenty-four. Thirty-three percent are sufficient in the categories of “creating equations” and “geometry.” While these results are mere estimates—aligning ACT test items to the standards is by no means an exact science, as few states administer the ACT to all of their students and as yet we have no “cut scores” or definitions of proficiency attached to the Common Core—they are a sobering reminder of the pain that lies ahead as the country moves
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / December 9, 2010
Samuel Casey Carter, On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Publishers, 2011).
Casey Carter made a splash, as well as a valuable contribution to the field, with his earlier (2000) book, No Excuses, showing how inner-city schools can succeed academically despite the challenges in their students’ lives. Now he’s back with a dozen case studies of extraordinary public schools (including charters) that not only succeed academically but also do well at infusing strong personal character traits into their students. The schools differ in myriad ways but have some defining traits in common. They all hold a strong belief that culture determines outcomes and so provide a nurturing but demanding environment, committed to student success. The book (jointly published with the Center for Education Reform) is inspiring, invigorating, and hopeful—not least because it ends with reasonably concrete advice to states and communities that would like to develop more successful schools.
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / December 9, 2010
Tennessee State Board of Education, 2010 Report Card on the Effectiveness of Teacher Training Programs (Nashville, TN: Tennessee Higher Education Commission, December 1, 2010).
Add Tennessee’s newly released report card—required by state statute—to the growing number of studies that bring into question the efficacy of teacher training programs provided by education schools. While this is the third such report issued by the Volunteer State, it marks the first time there have been sufficient data to include some of the state’s alternative training programs. Since many other influences come into play once teachers get far removed from their training experience, the study is limited to teachers with one to three years of experience who teach math, ELA, science, or social studies. Analysts examined teacher effects relative to average district gains for a fairer measure. They focused only on teachers ranked in the highest and lowest quintiles relative to the statewide distribution (not the middle) to determine which institutions produce the most and least effective teachers. The results are another gold star sticker for Teach For America. Of the forty-two programs examined, TFA was the only one to consistently produce highly effective teachers in reading, science, and social studies based on student performance data. Vanderbilt University was the only education school to consistently produce highly effective teachers—but only in math. Tennessee State produced some of the least effective teachers in both math and reading. Even when compared to veteran
December 9, 2010
Laura Pappano, Inside School Turnarounds: Urgent Hopes, Unfolding Stories (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).
This new book takes a case-study approach to school turnaround efforts, weaving a “narrative web” as it profiles schools nationwide that have seen large improvements in student outcomes. (Taft Information Technology High School in Cincinnati, for example, brought its graduation rate up from 25 percent to 95 percent over a seven year period). The author investigates turnarounds from all angles and finds, unsurprisingly, that there is no one model for school improvement and large-scale change isn’t likely to come quickly. We find in these pages an honest look at a handful of success stories, a few failures, and the people involved in both. The book addresses the policy context for turnarounds; the moral, political, and social forces at play; the disparate approaches that leaders take; and the critical role that teachers play. The text is accessible and engaging. Regrettably, success stories in this realm are like needles in a haystack. (Check back next week for the latest study from Fordham, which will offer some hard data on this topic—and, unfortunately, a more depressing message.)