Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 2
January 14, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
Is 2010 the Year for NCLB?
Refinancing education's personnel
Randi's political prowess
Charter School Performance in New York City
Stafford makes Rick cry
This week, Rick and Stafford contemplate eleventh-hour RTT-minded legislation, the most creative ideas from AEI's and Fordham's conference on school finance, and Randi's overtures on teacher quality. Then Amber explains the new NAPCS state charter law rankings and Rate that Reform forgets English.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / January 14, 2010
The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald F. Seib is wise in the ways
of Washington and practiced at reading its political entrails. But is
he right to think that K–12 education is the great centrist issue of
2010--and that it will reignite the Democrats’ prospects by appealing to
independents and least a few Republicans? Hmmm.
In a column on Democratic “opportunities to disperse storm clouds,” Seib wrote the other day that party leaders need to “find an issue that is popular in the political middle,” that some Democrats think education is such an issue, and that “Education Secretary Arne Duncan is taking steps that have actual bipartisan appeal.” As examples, he cited “forcing changes in ossified education systems by making states actually compete to win federal grants” and “helping parents with college access and affordability.” He says we should “look for more from the president on that.”
This may well happen as budget and state-of-the-union time draws nigh and the White House settles on its themes for the year ahead. Even without opening the Pandora’s box of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the administration’s “Race to the Top” (RTT) program will focus the attention of educators and state and local officials during 2010, and the administration’s final decisions on RTT will signal much about its approach to education policy and the federal role therein.
Arne Duncan and his
Stafford Palmieri / January 14, 2010
Human capital discussions in education nowadays typically start with the problem of “incompetent” teachers and what to do about them. The very notion of wholly-inept instructors in children’s classrooms inflames the emotions (think Steven Brill’s colorful New Yorker piece) and sometimes leads on to discussion of such other HR issues as tenure, compensation, hiring and firing rules, and evaluation. But “incompetents” are also a sort of distraction, as nobody thinks they comprise more than a tiny fraction of the total teacher workforce. When it comes to reforming HR practices, we might be better served to start with the challenges of mediocre-to-average teachers (and principals, too, for that matter) as they are far more numerous and cost taxpayers--and children--far more.
Teacher salaries and benefits typically comprise at least half of education budgets—and other school employees bring the total personnel cost to about three-fourths. At our “Penny Saved” conference on Monday, devoted to finding (and illustrating) ways that school systems can produce better results while spending less money, HR issues came up in virtually every discussion. It was evident that any serious budgetary reform in education is going to involve a serious rethinking and resizing of school staffing. So will any serious quality reforms. (You can access the conference papers here. They repay attention.)
Over the last forty years, we increased the size of the U.S. teaching profession both in absolute terms (47.9 percent between 1980 and 2006, for example) and
January 14, 2010
In her Tuesday speech at the Press Club, AFT President Randi Weingarten attempted to take the teacher-policy steering wheel back from Arne Duncan, who’s been driving since the Race to the Top motoring began. The big news is her willingness to reconsider due process rules and to revamp teacher evaluations. Ms. Weingarten also recognized that her members value quality teaching above job protection. This is all welcome and deserves applause. But much of her speech was decidedly not news. Lots of longstanding union agenda items were restated, albeit with new rhetoric (“tools, time, and trust”) and some important reforms were conspicuously absent (e.g. tying these new evaluations to compensation). Also worth noting is Ms. Weingarten’s clever attempt to co-opt and redirect one of the most effective sallies against her organization’s agenda. For years, reformers have charged that union-backed uniform pay scales, swift tenure, and copious job protections were relics of the bygone “industrial age” in K-12 education. In the speech, however, she re-defined this “age” as one of standardized testing. Finally, it’s worth noting the timing. In the last few weeks, many unions have been scolded in local media outlets for opposing their states' RTT applications and rejecting important reforms. You don’t have to be a cynic to wonder whether this speech was about repositioning the AFT.
“A New Path Forward: Four Approaches to Quality Teaching and Better Schools,” speech given by Randi Weingarten, National Press Club, Washington, D.C., January 12, 2010
January 14, 2010
Some things are just not surprising: Mark McGwire’s steroid usage, the incompetency suit against Octomom’s fertility doctor, and states backing off graduation test requirements in response to political pressure. Twenty-six states now use passing some kind of test as a diploma requirement, and most if not all of them have faced political pressure that has led to weaker tests, lower standards, and myriad alternative routes to graduation. Some simply pushed off the implementation date, fearing plummeting graduation rates. The result, says one expert, is that “the exams are just challenging enough to reduce the graduation rate, but not challenging enough to have measurable consequences for how much students learn or for how prepared they are for life after high school.” Graduation rates are tricky things, of course, but revelation that the politics of graduation rates are all but unmanageable in state capitals makes one wonder about the upcoming use of the “common core” assessments that Secretary Duncan is about to pay for. They’re supposed to be aligned with standards that are supposed to be aligned with college readiness. But why should anyone suppose that states that sign on to use them will suddenly grow the backbone to actually hold students to college-readiness-level passing scores on them?
“As School Exit Test Prove Tough, States Ease Standards,” by Ian Urbina, New York Times, January 12, 2010
Quality Counts 2010: Fresh Course, Swift Current--Momentum and Challenges in the New Surge Toward Common Standards
January 14, 2010
For better or for worse, Education Week’s annual Quality Counts feature, now celebrating its thirteenth birthday, is the closest thing we have to a comprehensive annual report card on American K-12 education. Unfortunately, it’s fraught with methodological weaknesses. (Last year’s was too.) The state-by-state grades--which will inevitably grab most of the headlines--are actually the least reliable component. The grading is at times arbitrary (teacher experience is used to measure teacher quality, an unproven correlation), unfair (is the annual income of someone who graduated high school in 1965 really a good reflection of a state’s education system in 2010?), and redundant (NAEP scores are factored into both the Chance for Success and K-12 Achievement indices, and both children’s family income and statewide adult income are factored into Chance for Success). Such problems are nicely illuminated by CREDO’s Margaret Raymond in a new piece in Education Next. Raymond also recalculates some of the state grades on a fairer scale, with striking results. We’re glad to see people are beginning to cast a critical eye on QC. Still and all, the raw data that EPE gathers are valuable and reward analysis. Also deserving a look is this year’s focus theme--common standards, of course--and a new “Math Progress Index.” The report is available here--free to online subscribers, or in print for a small fee.
Editorial Projects in Education
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / January 14, 2010
Finally, a strong, modern, quality-centered metric by which to judge the strength of state charter laws! The Center for Education Reform did pioneering and valuable work in this area but its metric is limited and somewhat archaic, having more to do with schools’ freedom from regulation than with their performance or their states’ accountability expectations. In this new report, the Alliance compares actual state charter laws with a model law that they developed, and ranks the forty states with such laws on elements like quality, accountability, and funding equity. “Quality control” measures (e.g., requiring performance-based contracts and having comprehensive charter school monitoring and data collection processes) are weighted the most heavily. Minnesota, DC, and California came out on top; Iowa, Alaska, and Maryland at the bottom. The indicators are presented separately so that state policyma kers, charter advocates, foes, and researchers alike can zero in on the elements that matter most to them. There’s a minor methodological quibble, however, which is more one of adequate explanation than analytical error; NAPCS fails to differentiate which scores derive specifically from state laws and which also derive from practice, which they took into consideration in three of the categories (e.g., on charter caps, they consider also if the state is at or approaching the cap). You can find the report itself and an accompanying online database of its contents here.
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
Stafford Palmieri / January 14, 2010
If you read only the coverage of this study, you’d come away with a vastly more negative view of TFA graduates than you should. So let’s put the record straight. The study asks whether the TFA experience “make[s] citizens”? The authors seek to compare the “civic engagement” of TFA “graduates” (those who finished two years of TFA), “dropouts” (those who began the program but did not finish it) and “non-matriculants” (those who were accepted but declined). They find that though graduates display the highest attitudinal scores on civic awareness, non-matriculants actually perform the most service. They attribute this difference to such factors as post-TFA burnout and disillusionment with TFA itself. That may be so, but TFA is an organization dedicated to recruiting and keeping talent in our nation’s classrooms, not creating Mother-Teresas-in-tr aining, even if Wendy Kopp commissioned the study herself. It is upon those metrics--and the effect that TFA teachers have on student achievement--that we should be evaluating the program. Even if you accept the premise of this inquiry, however, the findings are no black mark against TFA. For example, though “only” 89 percent of graduates said they voted in the last presidential election (compared to 92 percent for all three groups), that’s still 50 points higher than their similarly-aged peers. The lesson is that TFA doesn’t turn disengaged students into participatory citizens; rather, it tends to select the civic-minded from the get-go. You can order a copy
Janie Scull / January 14, 2010
This report adds to the pile of evidence that good charter schools elicit positive student achievement--and that something about New York City’s approach is worth understanding if not emulating. A follow-up to its June 2009 national study, CREDO undertook this one exclusively in Gotham. Lo and behold, it found that NYC charters have a significant positive effect on overall student achievement. In math, 51 percent of charter schools showed learning gains statistically larger than those shown by traditional district-operated schools, while 33 percent showed no difference and 16 percent fared worse. Gains in reading were less striking but still impressive. The study also disaggregated results by the number of years a student attended a charter, and found that, while first year charter pupils perform slightly worse than their district agemates in reading (and better in math), after three years their gains significantly outpace traditional school pupils in both subjects. Moreover, black and Hispanic charter school students perform significantly better than their traditional school counterparts. You can read it here.
Center for Research on Education Outcomes