Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 8
February 25, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
One gutsy guy
Fringe goes mainstream
Why the AFT should be an afterthought
Going to the Gallo(w)s
It's snow laughing matter
Human Capital in Boston Public Schools
Rick relocates to snowy locales, while Andy sits in. This week, he and Mike discuss Fordham's new paper on "private public schools," Obama's announcement to tie Title I to "career-and college-ready" standards, and Tim Pawlenty's metaphorical use of the nine-iron, all while listening to Nico Petrilli (that's Mike's son) rap. (There's an app for that.) Amber's away too, so we skip to Rate that Reform, where Stafford gets exercised about Webcamgate.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / February 25, 2010
Is America’s civil-rights leadership looking out for the essential interests of African-American children? Former education secretary Rod Paige says no. His hard-hitting new book, The Black-White Achievement Gap, co-authored with Elaine Witty, is a trenchant, courageous, plainspoken indictment and cri de coeur.
Paige is appalled that the black-white achievement gap is as wide and persistent as it has proven to be. He correctly regards it as the principal impediment to the economic advancement, social strengthening, and full integration of African Americans. And he is outraged that such venerable organizations as the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus haven’t made closing that gap their top priority.
He and Witty (long-time dean of education at Norfolk State University--and Secretary Paige’s sister) devote the first half of their book to documenting the achievement gap and explaining its origins and persistence. They pull no punches here. After recounting a bleak and sometimes horrific history, they ask “to what extent does the legacy of the Negroes’ historic educational experiences [slavery, Jim Crow, etc.] account for the current gap in academic performance?” They declare that “while history is important, it is not destiny” and that it is something to be overcome, along with a host of contemporary challenges, not something to accept as permanent rationalization for an insoluble problem.
They are, in fact, confident that the problem can be solved, provided that leaders (and in due course followers) themselves come to believe that it can be solved, that
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / February 25, 2010
Even though they still haven't seen the light of day in draft form, much less been joined by any assessments, the evolving "common core" standards project of the NGA and CCSSO is already being laden with heavier and heavier burdens. This is enormously risky and, frankly, hubristic, since nobody yet has any idea whether these standards will be solid, whether the tests supposed to be aligned with them will be up to the challenge, or whether the "passing scores" on those tests will be high or low, much less how this entire apparatus will be sustained over the long haul.
Moreover, every reader of ed-blogs and Education Week knows that the main reason the long-promised public draft of the K-12 standards is going to be at least two months later than originally intended is because big internal fights are raging over what should be in those standards--and how long and user-friendly they should be. Will they include whole number arithmetic? Advanced algebra? Actual literature? Quality literature? And more.
Everyone knows the early drafts have been the object of much discord. How confident can we be that what will emerge from these tussles and dust-ups will be coherent, complete, and sufficiently demanding without being overwrought? If this national standards endeavor were a new drug for fighting swine flu or breast cancer, the FDA would subject it to rigorous long-term "field trials" to determine both its safety and its efficacy before releasing it
February 25, 2010
Milwaukee Public Schools faces a conundrum that might be familiar to systems nationwide. The district needs to rein in exploding healthcare and retirement costs, but must overcome a recalcitrant teachers union, which has outsized influence on the school board. At issue is the district’s 77 percent “fringe benefits” rate; that means that the cost of a typical employee in benefits alone is 77 percent more than the employee's pay. (It’s usually more like 30 percent.) If you include unfunded liabilities, namely retirement promises made to teachers and other staff, that percentage rises to nearly 104. In other words, an employee costs the district twice as much as their salary…in benefits. The biggest offender is health care, where the district offers two plans, but provides no incentive for employees to choose the cheaper option; further, the district picks up the employee contribution tab, as well as the employer's. But if you’re a superintendent or school board member who even thinks about taking on these unaffordable perks (in order to, say, avoid cuts to services that actually benefit kids), prepare to be run out of town. We hope you have a steady steed, Mr. Thompson.
“Opinion: MPS faces a crisis in both accountability and democracy,” by Bruce Thompson, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, February 20, 2010
February 25, 2010
“How much attention should we pay to AFT?” queries Mike Antonucci. His answer: not much. Since the reign of Al Shanker, we’ve regarded the American Federation of Teachers as the more open-minded of the two national teachers’ unions. (“Open-minded” being a relative term here.) Sure, it has only a quarter as many members (it claims 1.4 mil; Dept of Labor says membership was 889,347 in 2009) as its sister National Education Association, but that hasn’t stopped current AFT prez Randi Weingarten from making her voice heard in the national education reform conversation. But turns out that a whopping two-thirds of AFT’s membership is in New York State alone. Furthermore, AFT affiliates are mostly located in big cities, such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and of course, New York City, which means that these big locals tend to overshadow, and overpower, the state affiliate. The NEA on the other hand has a hierarchical structure, where policy comes from the top and filters down to the local groups through the state branches. So what does this mean? Antonucci explains: AFT locals don’t need the parent organization to survive, so what Weingarten says and what her locals do are two completely different things. Can’t say we’re quite ready to put our reform faith in Dennis Van Roekel.
“How much attention should we pay to AFT?,” by Mike Antonucci, Education Intelligence Agency Communiqué, February 22, 2010
February 25, 2010
When Frances Gallo, Superintendent of Central Falls, Rhode Island, announced two weeks ago that she was going to fire all the teachers at the perennially failing Central Falls High School, teachers (not surprisingly) went ballistic. Gallo is acting under the direction of State Superintendent Deborah Gist, who ordered a few supes to choose one of Secretary Duncan’s four turnaround options for their lowest-performing schools. Remember that Gallo first opted for a more limited reform plan (“transformation”), but union recalcitrance to her six requests quickly sent her in the other direction. (The district only has one high school, so school closure or “takeover” by an independent organization was unrealistic.) Now the local school board has approved, Gist has given her sign off, and Duncan is sending accolades all the way from Washington. Turning around schools is no easy matter on paper. In real life, it’s even messier. But for the superintendent of the smallest, poorest city in the nation’s smallest state, having her battle for student achievement turn into a national story might have been hardest of all. The good news is that Gallo is getting “résumés from all over the nation” to fill the soon-vacant positions. Maybe this tiny mill town has a brighter future after all.
“Central Falls to fire every high school teacher,” by Jennifer D. Jordan and Linda Borg, The Providence Journal, February 13, 2010
February 25, 2010
RIP snow days. Viva virtual learning. The mid-Atlantic may have lost electric power, its dignity, and a week of work days when the white fluffy stuff blanketed the region in early February. But it didn’t lose learning time, at least for some students with enterprising teachers. Using internet chats and document uploading websites, teachers across the D.C. area were able to keep their students’ gray matter oscillating through telecommunication. One teacher observed that the “quality is even better” online, because students “have a little more time to think about [their responses]” to discussion questions. State achievement, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate test dates often cannot be changed, so losing as much as a week and a half of class time (as they did in Prince George’s County) can have seriously deleterious effects on learning. (Snow-day learning loss is, in fact, a documented phenomenon.) Though power outages and internet access limitations caused a few problems, for the most part, teachers and students were pleased with the productive use of their home-bound days. And when classes started up again, “we just picked up...as though the snow had never happened.” That’s good news, indeed.
“Classes, homework slid straight to Internet as snow fell,” by Michael Birnbaum, Washington Post, February 22, 2010
February 25, 2010
Nevada is broke. But don’t worry, you can help--by purchasing one of Governor Jim Gibbons’ new Education Gift Certificates. These handy-dandy mementos signify that you bought up some of Nevada's yawning deficit that’s going to force the layoff of hundreds of teachers; your contribution will go straight towards teacher salaries, and maybe keep one on the rolls. Education makes up more than 50 percent of the state’s budget, and the Silver State is $800 mil in the hole. That means Gibbons needs every single one of the roughly 1.9 million folks in the state over the age of 18 to give approximately $211. And that’s on top of their state taxes. Teachers find the whole plan "insulting." "Who’s gonna actually go in and buy these for teachers?" worried one educator. A legitimate concern, but with April 15 right around the corner, we can’t help but wonder: Are these contributions tax-deductible?
“Governor unveils education gift certificate,” Press Release form the Office of the Governor, ThisisReno.com, February 18, 2010
“Teachers call new Education Gift Certificate ‘insulting,’” by Andrew DelGreco, News4, February 19, 2010
Stafford Palmieri / February 25, 2010
Emily Cohen, Aileen Corso, Valerie Franck, Bess Keller, Kate Kelliher, and Betsy McCorry
National Council on Teacher Quality and Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education
This in-depth look at the state of Boston’s teacher hiring, firing, and recruiting procedures sure has ignited a firestorm. Commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, NCTQ analysts reviewed the collective bargaining agreement, school board policies, and district circulars for Boston Public Schools, comparing them both to school districts around Boston, which are the city’s main competitors in the teacher market, and other districts across the land. (This is their third city-level evaluation; see Hartford’s and Seattle’s here.) Researchers also went and talked to principals, teachers, parents, and community members to see how things really worked. The answer is not well. For example, the way Boston fills vacant teaching positions incentivizes principals to hide vacancies until the last minute and teachers who plan to retire are allowed to do so at any time during the year, since a teacher’s age, as well as tenure, are taken into account (teachers will teach through their mid-year birthdays and then quit). NCTQ’s solutions to these issues are relatively straightforward, as they would systematically unwind Boston’s complex rules. But the Boston Teachers Union is less than pleased with the critical assessment; having received a good faith draft copy for comment, they blast-emailed the embargoed draft to their members (and posted it on the web), along
Janie Scull / February 25, 2010
This workbook, the third edition of a joint venture of GreatSchools and Fight for Children, is a useful resource for any Washington, D.C. parent seeking the right school--and a fabulous model for other communities. It briefly profiles every school in the District--both public and private--listing details such as enrollment, foreign languages offered, special education services, and extra-curricular activities. For public schools, including charter schools, it also provides the percentage of students in each school scoring “proficient” on the 2009 District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS), as well as GreatSchool’s own academic rating of one to five stars. (Private schools are not required to report testing data.) The workbook is provided to parents at no cost; it also includes helpful information--such as lottery and application deadlines--and guidelines for parents not sure which school attributes should be considered most heavily. At this point, GreatSchools has only published “Choosers” in two other cities--Dayton, OH and Milwaukee, WI--but we hope that they expand this valuable resource to cities nationwide. Until then, you can rest assured that similar data for all cities can be found on GreatSchools.net. You can find the 2010-2011 D.C. School Chooser here.
Daniela Fairchild / February 25, 2010
National League of Cities; Institute for Youth, Education, and Families
This qualitative study concludes that America’s municipal governments are best positioned to better the lives of children, youth, and families. Education is but one piece of this. For the most part, the focus is how to get the community--parents, businesses, and philanthropy--more involved in education reform. The report considers three categories of such engagement: innovations, emerging trends, and established trends. In a case study format, it presents examples of how cities might use a nonprofit organization to recruit top-notch talent (such as Mind Trust is doing in Indianapolis) or use business practices to bring more transparency to schools (like Mayor Rick Baker’s "Mayor’s Mentors and More" in St. Petersburg, Florida). The report is comprehensive: It looks at a variety of issues, school-based and not, that can be affected by municipal involvement. That means that while it acknowledges that health and housing problems are hindering kids from their best performances in schools, cities--not schools--should lead the effort to solve them. Read the study, here.