Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 26
July 15, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
Harvard wimps out on testing
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em?
Neo-colonialism meets neo-paternalism
Of chest kicks and headers
The podcast team comes down with a case of World Cup fever, as Mike and Stafford discuss whether Gates is too powerful, teachers' union charter authorizers, and dropout recovery program accountability. Then Amber tells us about NCES' charter impact study and Daniela makes a film in a school bathroom.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / July 15, 2010
To oppose “results-based accountability” in education is close to a taboo nowadays, a position so antithetical to the spirit of the age that few dare mention it. Let us, therefore, declare ourselves shocked and saddened that Harvard University, in so many ways a pacesetter in education, is embracing that very position.
Starting in September, courses in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) will no longer routinely require “final” exams. For most of Harvard’s existence, any professor wishing to forego the practice of final exams required formal approval to do so by the entire faculty. At least since the 1940s, professors were required to submit a form to opt out of giving a final exam. But in fall 2010, professors will need to file a specific request to opt in. Dean of undergraduate education Jay M. Harris is already predicting reducing the academic calendar by a day or two in response to the eased testing burden.
Moreover, general exams—requiring seniors to demonstrate mastery of the fundamental knowledge of their major—are given in fewer and fewer departments. Even Harvard’s new General Education courses will abjure finals. We are left wondering: Without exams to prove it, how can students be sure that they are “generally educated” when they graduate? How can the institution itself be sure? Or doesn’t it care?
Some will say that other student work products—term papers, especially, but increasingly multimedia projects, too—are better gauges of learning than cumulative exams. Associate Dean
July 15, 2010
Minnesota, birthplace of charter schools, may soon claim another frontier: becoming the first state to allow a teachers' union to be a charter authorizer. Antithetical, you say? One of the hallmarks of most charter schools is their lack of unionization, which allows more flexibility to hire, fire, and assign staff, and to structure the school day differently. Furthermore, one must wonder how a union will cope with shutting down one its own schools if it’s not up to par, staffed as it will be with its own union members. But the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers thinks it can handle these situations. Indeed, it chose to apply for the sponsorship role even though the state last year raised the qualifications for charter school sponsorship, and a bunch of districts and nonprofits gave up authorizership in response. MFT president Lynn Nordgren says the union wants to “get out from under [the] bureaucracies”—the pile up of “programs and rules and systems”—that “weigh down” schooling. Fair enough. Minnesota has a history of “teacher-owned schools”; why not union-owned schools? Looks like a teachable moment to us.
"Mpls. teachers' union wants power to authorize new charter schools," by Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio, July 9, 2010
July 15, 2010
If we were to list the lessons learned from charter schools, it would probably look like this: By breaking down bureaucratic and procedural barriers, these schools have opened the education market to innovators, fresh thinking, and experimentation. But simply unlocking the gates didn’t necessarily produce quality—good rules are different from no rules. That’s basically the thinking behind economist Paul (son of Roy) Romer’s “charter cities” movement, which is, in fact, inspired in part by his father’s work in education and charter schools more generally. Traditional development theory says that freedom and prosperity go hand-in-hand. Romer believes that smart business regulation and a business-friendly culture are what really attract investment, instead of just freeing a Third World economy from, for example, authoritarian control. Thus his plan: If you give a swath of land in a developing country to an “enlightened” (i.e., First World) government, which in turn establishes smart business regulation and a culture of investment, not only will investors and ideas flock to the site, but the areas around the it—and eventually, even, the whole country—will be inspired to replicate its model governance structure. You might call it “neo-colonial” development. Romer points to Hong Kong, whose British business climate inspired economic reform on the mainland, as his model. We’d take his analogy one step further: The best charter schools, as we learned from David Whitman, are neo-paternalistic, seeking to immerse poor youngsters in a middle-class, achievement-oriented milieu. Culture matters,
July 15, 2010
WALL-E becomes a teacher? Robotics labs around the world are experimenting with a new role for robots: educator. The concept behind it is simple, namely that interactive teaching is much more effective than the passive kind. So it makes sense that RUBI, a University of California San Diego, MIT, and University of Joensuu robot that was tasked with teaching nine toddlers Finnish, had results on par with a human—and significantly better than language tapes. In general, researchers see robots as a supplement to human teachers, not a replacement. Though many of the ‘bots can internalize and scaffold information—making future decisions based on past experiences—there are obvious limitations. Interestingly, the ‘bots are most effective with younger and/or autistic children, who ostensibly can get past the fact that their playmate/teacher is not human, and can then interact with them. Autistic children particularly benefit from the robots’ unlimited patience, a quality no human can replicate, and the ability of robots to perfectly mimic the child’s movements, one of the main ways (“synchronization”) that such children relate to others. As for the future, engineers are convinced they can fine tune how robots “learn” so that it’s mostly self-guided. Then the question might be not if robots can be teachers but how and when. And then the NEA will need to decide: Organize the robots or not?
“Students, Meet Your New Teacher, Mr. Robot,” by Benedict Carey and John Markoff, New York Times, July 10,
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / July 15, 2010
Patrick Wolf, Babette Gutmann, Michael Puma, Brian Kisida, Lou Rizzo, Nada Eissa, and Matthew Carr
Institute of Education Sciences
This is the final report of a four-year evaluation of the not-quite-dead-yet D.C. voucher program. If you recall, year three’s positive results were released last year right around the time the program lost federal funding. (Find year two results here.) Those positive results have largely dissipated—this final report finds that overall reading and math scores were not significantly impacted by participation in the program after at least four years (some students have been in the program longer), though to be fair, the impact falls just short of statistical significance in reading. But a D.C. voucher did significantly improve a student’s chance of graduating: The mere offer of a voucher raised by twelve percentage points the probability of a student graduating and by twenty-one percentage points the odds of those who actually used the voucher (i.e., took it to a private school). Parents of voucher-receiving students were also significantly more satisfied with their private schools and thought the schools much safer than parents of control group students. For a rigorous gold-standard study—the type that usually finds “no effects” for anything—this is not too shabby. If only Congress had paid attention. Read the results here.
Transforming the High School Experience: How New York City's New Small Schools Are Boosting Student Achievement and Graduation Rates
July 30, 2010
Howard S. Bloom, Saskia Levy Thompson, and Rebecca Unterman
The small-schools movement is a damaged brand, thanks to research showing that “smallness” is not enough when it comes to boosting achievement, especially for disadvantaged pupils. So it would seem that this study by MDRC, which finds positive effects in New York City’s “small schools of choice” (SSCs), is notable for saying otherwise. But, as the authors put it, these schools “are more than just small”—they were created through a rigorous application process, and they had to fulfill other criteria, such as serving traditionally disadvantaged communities. Even more important, however, is that they were created to replace roughly twenty large failing high schools have been closed for chronic low performance since 2002, proving that school closure and opening new schools is possible on the large scale. (Indeed, these schools collectively serve about 45,000 students—roughly the same size as the entire Houston high school population.) MDRC analysts tracked 21,000 NYC students who applied to a ninth-grade SSC lottery between 2005 and 2008; some got into a small school and some did not, thus creating a randomized sample (think lottiered-in, lotteried-out charter study design). The results were strong: SSCs increased the likelihood, year by year, of students being on track to graduate. For example, at the end of the second year at a SSC, students had on average accumulated 22 credits towards graduation, while non-SSC students had just 19. This translated,
Daniela Fairchild / July 15, 2010
Tom Ferrick, Jr. and Laura Horwitz
Philadelphia Research Initiative, Pew Charitable Trust
Comparing parental satisfaction in district, charter, and Catholic schools in Philadelphia, this analysis examines the City of Brotherly Love’s K-12 school-choice landscape. The city has seen the same trends as many other urban areas: District and Catholic enrollment is declining, while charter enrollment is booming. How do parents feel about these trends? To find out, researchers polled about 800 parents and conducted focus groups with a subset of them; they also interviewed teachers, city administrators, and others, and visited a handful of schools in person. They found that charter and Catholic schools have higher parental satisfaction rates (95 percent, for both) than their district counterparts (77 percent). And, even more importantly, parents are not “philosophically wedded” to any one type: Parents think about schools individually, rather than as systems, and they don’t care what type it is so long as a safe, caring environment at little to no out-of-pocket cost. District-school frustration ran deep: Indeed, charter or Catholic school parents who had once sent their children to district schools were the most disillusioned about the latter, and even district school parents who were upbeat about their own child’s school were not enthusiastic about the system as a whole. The authors predict that enrollment trends will continue: District and Catholic schools should brace for continuing decline, while charters will expand. And unfortunately, charter schools may force Catholic schools