Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 5
February 4, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
The budget's trial balloons
Uncorking Core Knowledge
Lost arc of language
Sweden robs the cradle
2009-2010 DQC Annual Survey Results
It's the Arne Duncan edition, as Mike and Rick discuss Duncan's new budget, new plan for NCLB, and (not so) new but so true comments on NOLA. Then Amber gives us the lowdown on the new "Hope, Fears and Reality" report and Rate that Reform stands up for dictionaries.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / February 4, 2010
This week saw the release of President Obama’s annual budget request, which outlines a proposal for overhauling the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a.k.a. No Child Left Behind. The ideas floated therein have promise, but no matter what Secretary Duncan and his boss would like to accomplish this year in education policy, the odds of completing a full-dress reauthorization of ESEA between now and the November election are vanishingly small.
That’s partly because of general Congressional dysfunction, partly due to toxic politics, and partly the result of competing agenda priorities. But the biggest single reason is that this massive statute has so darn many moving parts.
Those of us who focus on a handful of contentious issues prominently associated with NCLB (standards, AYP, school improvement, etc.) routinely forget that this edition of ESEA--the seventh or eighth since 1965--runs to more than ten major “titles,” over a hundred separate sections, and 1000+ pages. The overwhelming bulk of it has nothing to do with the vexing NCLB issues, yet every single page of it is fodder for dispute, debate, and amendment.
I refer to things like bilingual education, the “emergency immigrant education program,” “safe and drug-free schools,” “smaller learning communities,” and the late Senator Kennedy’s pet “Educational, Cultural, Apprenticeship, and Exchange Programs for Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Their Historical Whaling and Trading Partners in Massachusetts” (that would be Subpart 12 of Part D of Title V).
True, such programmatic obesity burdens every
Michael J. Petrilli / February 4, 2010
It’s a shame that President Obama’s 2011 budget request is likely to be roundly ignored by Congress, because it’s a pretty decent blueprint for the direction in which the federal government should head on education.
Why will it be ignored? Well, Congress ignores most White House budget requests. At least that’s the lesson of recent history. The legislative branch much prefers to do its own thing, especially when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars. Plus, the President is in a weak political state and that gives his friends and fair-weather friends on Capitol Hill even fewer reasons than usual to do his bidding.
But in the make-believe world that policy wonks inhabit, we can cheer the more elegant aspects of this proposal, even if they will never see the light of day. Most notable is a subtle shift away from big formula grants like Title I and toward competitive programs, in the spirit of the Race to the Top. To be sure, the vast majority of dollars would still go out via formula, but the plan would start to move money away from quasi-entitlements for school districts and into incentives for states and districts to tackle serious reforms. If your goal is to leverage federal funds into meaningful change, that’s certainly the way to go. Adding a billion dollars to Title I won’t buy anything, from a reform perspective. Putting another billion dollars into the Race to the Top might.
February 4, 2010
A New York Times bestseller currently declares “free” to be a “radical price,” and incomparably better than “inexpensive.” Perhaps said book was on E.D. Hirsch’s nightstand recently, because he’s decided to give his Core Knowledge curriculum away for free. While it will continue to charge for its other products (and charge for a printed and bound version of the curriculum), his foundation stands to lose $100,000 a year--one-eighth of its operating budget--by giving away its most fundamental resource. (Previously it would have run you $35.) But in our current “incoherent system,” Hirsch sees this as a small price to take advantage of “a moment when we really could change the direction.” And this moment comes thanks to the Common Core State Standards Initiative; Core Knowledge plans to align its curriculum sequence to the standards that result from that effort. Core Knowledge originally criticized the draft CCSSI standards for being weak on content and heavy on skills; but it is now hoping to bolster them by providing a top-notch supplement. There’s a growing suspicion that “common core standard aligned” will be the new catchy marketing ploy for curriculum developers everywhere; as of yet undecided, of course, is how said alignment will be determined or moderated. For now, though, CK’s curriculum is a great place for districts looking for new CCSSI-ready content.
“Core Knowledge to Link Curriculum to Core Standards,” by Catherine Gewertz, Education Week, February 1, 2010 (subscription
February 4, 2010
Literacy purists bemoan ‘kids these days’ and their inability to understand and appreciate the beauty and substance of written language. What with instant-messaging and texting, they just don’t want to learn grammar and syntax. But what about the million-plus legally blind Americans who passed through our school systems functionally illiterate? According to the National Federation of the Blind, only 10 percent of visually-impaired Americans can read Braille. Audio technology, argue some, has made Braille antiquated; as e-books replace paperbacks, text-to-speech technologies replace cumbersome Braille books. But others highlight the link between the form and structure of words and sentences and brain activity and coherence of thought. One study found that students who did not know that we capitalize proper names, or how to use punctuation, for example, had highly disorganized through processes--“as if all of their ideas are crammed into a container, shaken and thrown randomly onto a sheet of paper like dice onto a table.” Further, Braille literacy means you’re twice as likely to be employed. (This is partially because audio-only readers require expensive technologies to function in intellectual/white-collar professions.) However this debate shakes itself out, we’re pretty sure Gadfly wouldn’t be the same read aloud.
“Braille Illiteracy is a Growing Problem,” by Bill Glauber, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 2, 2010
“With New Technologies, Do Blind People Lose More Than They Gain?,” by Rachel Aviv, New York Times Magazine, December 30, 2009
February 4, 2010
Think your child is going to school too young? Don’t move to Sweden. In Mother Svea, children enter preschool as young as twelve months. That’s what the government encourages, at least, so that it can make sure its youth are looked after by “trained professionals.” More than 80 percent of two year-olds are in preschool, including many immigrant children, whose native cultures often times encourage keeping young children at home. The Swedish government believes it’s good for children to be in school--and good for their foreign parents, who learn Swedish ways from their progeny. And the government is doing its part to encourage enrollment. By the end of 2010, for example, it will start paying immigrants to take fulltime Swedish language classes, civic orientation, or job training for two years after they obtain residency, ostensibly forcing those parents to find daycare for their children--in a Swedish preschool. Not everyone is on board with the new push. Last year the center-right Christian-Democrats won a small victory with a new monthly allowance for parents who choose to keep their children at home until that terribly old age of...three. Here in the U.S. of A, we’ve long-debated the merits of early intervention on academic achievement. But what about the social and cultural benefits? Sweden says that’s an agenda worth supporting it its own right.
“Starting them young,” The Economist, January 28, 2010
Expanding Choice in Elementary and Secondary Education: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education
What role should the feds play in school choice? That is the question teased out in this report, one of four from the Brown Center on various aspects of the federal role (the other three are forthcoming). First of all, explain the authors, we need to reconceptualize how we think about choice by moving past our idealistic visions of it--any student can attend any school on the government’s dime--and accept the empirical reality that only a small percentage of students attend schools of choice, despite significant recent growth, and many of those schools aren’t any good, or any better than traditional options. But thinking about choice as a tool for giving students more options and improving low-performing schools, on the other hand, provides common ground to choice supporters and detractors. And that’s where the feds step in. One of the main constraints on choice today is parental access to school information. Typically, they get the wrong numbers, too late to do any good, and in incomprehensible technical jargon. The reauthorization of ESEA provides the perfect conduit to create a better system. A new version of the law could tighten up school report card and notification of choice deadlines, presentation, and readability; it could incentivize districts to offer open enrollment programs where there are no “default” schools, forcing parents to make a decision, even if that still is the neighborhood school; and it could require schools to provide more relevant information
February 4, 2010
This fifth edition of the annual National Charter Research Project series wants to know if charter schools will go mainstream. (Find 2008’s here.) Its six chapters (including one from Fordham Ohio’s Terry Ryan) look at how far charters have come (boosted in part by the current administration’s attention), how further they must go, and the “critical tests” that must be passed to get them there. For example, Ryan’s chapter focuses on the need for strong leadership in turnaround efforts, based in Fordham’s experience turning around a failing charter school it then-authorized; this is a particularly pertinent issue in light of the current administration’s call to turnaround the country’s 5,000 lowest-performing schools. Such leaders, cautions Ryan, can make or break the attempt. Other chapters consider how to create effective charter school governing boards and predict how the relationship between charters and teachers’ unions will develop in the future. (The AFT represents eighty charters nationwide.) But this report is known, in particular, for its yearly update on the charter landscape. Most noteworthy is the fact that charter enrollment increased 55 percent from 2004 to 2009, from approximately 900,000 to more than 1.4 million. But that growth has been geographically uneven; most charter schools are in cities, and some states still don’t even have charter school laws. And many states are nearing their charter caps; according to CRPE’s calculations, there is currently room for 955 more schools, 517 of which are in California.
February 4, 2010
Since 2005, the Data Quality Campaign has been encouraging states to beef up (or in some cases, create from scratch) their longitudinal data systems to conform with a list of ten “Essential Elements.” These include, for example, a statewide student identifier that tracks kids, a statewide teacher identifier that tracks teachers, and student-level enrollment and test data. In this latest update on that endeavor, we discover that twelve states have managed to master all ten, while another thirty-five have put in place at least eight. This is promising in light of the campaign’s original goal (and the states’ respective promises) to put these in place by 2011. But now that states have these data systems, they need to actually use them, and most aren’t, according to DQC’s complementary ten recommended “State Actions.” For example, only ten states are actually sharing individual student data with their teachers, and several states seem to be doing virtually nothing with the great data they’ve collected. You know what they say: Use it or lose it. Read an overview of the findings here and find state-by-state data and other materials here.
Quality Data Campaign
Janie Scull / February 4, 2010
The title of this paper says it all--when female elementary school teachers are anxious about mathematics, their female students pay the academic price. The study looked at seventeen first- and second-grade female-led classrooms at the beginning and the end of the school year. Each teacher completed a test of math anxiety, a condition, explain the authors, which is not a reflection of ability, but of how fear inhibits the math-phobic from tapping into their knowledge. By June, female students taught by math-anxious female teachers were performing worse on math achievement tests than female students taught by teachers with no math anxiety and than boys overall. The authors hypothesize that this can be explained by gender stereotyping, which they tested by having students illustrate a story about two (gender-unidentified) students, one who was good at math and one who was good at reading. Girls in classrooms with math–anxious female teachers were more likely to draw a boy who was good at math and a girl who was good at reading. Unfortunately, math has long been known as the weakest subject for elementary school teachers--and over 90 percent of them are female. Yet another reason for more rigorous content preparation and/or elementary math content specialists? You can read it here.
Sian L. Beilock, Elizabeth A Gunderson, Gerardo Ramirez, and Susan C. Levine
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences