Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 21
June 3, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
After RTT comes the power of states
By Marc Porter Magee
Deal or no deal?
Wall Street gets bullish on charter schools
An education in the politics of special ed
Distractions are jinzhi!
The AP Arms Race: Is Grade-Weighting to Blame?
Rick takes on Tblisi
This week, Mike and Rick discuss whether we're getting $4 billion worth of education reform out of Race to the Top, the next big steps for the final Common Core Standards, and whether it's in the public's financial interest to reintegrate special education students into classrooms. Then Amber tells us about research on students' motivation for taking AP classes and Janie mourns the end of a unique college essay test at Oxford University.
Marc Porter Magee / June 3, 2010
On May 26, Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell signed into law a sweeping education reform bill that lifts the cap on high-performing charter schools, requires every district in the state to evaluate teachers based on their students’ achievement, and creates the state’s first alternative pathway to certification for principals. Like many states, Race to the Top was the rallying cry for supporters of these reforms in Connecticut. But what made the difference in getting reforms actually passed into law—while they stalled out in similar states like Minnesota and Indiana—was a focused, professional campaign led by ConnCAN, a Connecticut-based education reform advocacy organization where I’ve had the honor to serve as COO these past five years.
ConnCAN doesn’t run schools or recruit teachers. Instead, it works to improve public education by changing state policy. Year after year, ConnCAN has forged research and policy, communications and mobilization, and legislative advocacy into a powerful lever for change. Before Race to the Top, ConnCAN’s previous advocacy campaigns resulted in Connecticut’s first alternative route for teachers, sweeping data transparency rules, and a more than doubling of state funding for charter schools.
Over the last three decades, ed reformers have done a great job of generating new policy ideas for boosting student achievement but by and large they’ve fallen way short in building the advocacy infrastructure needed to turn these ideas into law. Where we have invested in advocacy at all, we have overwhelmingly spent these dollars in
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / June 3, 2010
I haven’t eyeballed the math standards yet but, based on a preliminary inspection, the proposed standards for “English Language Arts & Literacy” are even better than the very good draft released in March.
They’re clearer, better structured, more coherent–and very ambitious. The “text exemplars” (appendix b) are mostly terrific. The “samples of student writing” (appendix c) are helpfully analyzed and annotated. A lot of commendable “content” is tucked in among a well-crafted assemblage of important skills. And while I remain underwhelmed by the research base (appendix a), in the end standards have more to do with judgment than with science.
The four documents total a couple of inches of paper and I don’t claim to have mastered them. But I’ve seen enough to restate with fair confidence an earlier (and better informed) Fordham judgment, namely that millions of American school-kids would be better served if their states, districts, and schools set out in a serious way to impart these skills and content to their pupils rather than the nebulous and flaccid curricular goals that they’re now using.
We’ll be back with more. The Fordham team is presently engaged in substantive reviews both of the new Common Core State Standards and of current state standards in math and English language arts. We expect to produce those analyses in mid-July.
Until then, you’d be smart to examine the
June 3, 2010
New York charter advocates celebrated victory this week over the raising of “the cap”: 260 additional schools may now open in the Empire State. But the higher ceiling came with strings. Some are not too burdensome, such as requiring that, when charters and traditional schools share space, any renovations over $5,000 to the charter facilities include comparable updates to the traditional school. But others will be a lift—or are just plain unreasonable—like opening the door to state comptroller audits of individual schools, ordering that charters mimic the demographic makeup of nearby traditional schools, and banning for-profit operators. To wit, early reactions to the changes from the charter world were wary, though those same folks are now more positive after a few last-minute poison pills were dropped from the final law. The nearly 40,000 students on NYC charter waiting lists are surely the beneficiaries here, but their gain came at a hefty price.
“New York State Votes to Expand Charter Schools,” by Jennifer Medina, New York Times, May 28, 2010
June 3, 2010
JP Morgan is the latest member of the banking world to rally behind the charter school movement. It recently announced a well-articulated $325 million initiative to help build, expand, and renovate facilities of high-performing charter schools. $50 million in grants will go to community development financial institutions (CDFIs) to support their charter funding efforts, $100 million will be made available as “new markets tax-credit equity,” and $175 million will go toward debt financing. Those might sound like big numbers, but JP Morgan estimates that the initiative will help underwrite just forty charter schools. As with any public-private education venture, backlash against the proposal has been fierce. JP Morgan has posited the undertaking as “philanthropy,” which may be a stretch since the firm allegedly stands to profit from government tax credits for its “donations.” Valid, but mostly irrelevant. Let’s not confuse criticism for JP Morgan with the real issue at hand: A new willing and able funding source for already-underfunded charter schools in a desperately tight credit environment.
“JP Morgan Chase Creates $325 Million Fund Initiative for High-Performing Charter Schools,” JP Morgan Press Release, Market Watch, May 4, 2010
“Banking Giant Offers Financing for Charter Schools,” by Mary Ann Zehr, Education Week, May 28, 2010
June 3, 2010
Richard Nyankori, D.C.’s top special education official, has found himself at the confluence of red tape, angry parents, budget cuts, and education’s sacred cow. Needing to streamline the DCPS budget to help fund the District’s new teacher performance pay program, Nyankori announced nearly out-of-the-blue that over 200 special education students would be returning to the “least restrictive environment” of public school from their (district-paid) posh private school placements. D.C. has long been labeled “unfit” to serve much of its special needs population, hence the outside placements. But the external services will run the district $283 million this year—or $105,000 per pupil. Count it. Surprised and angry parents came out en masse to a special education “reintegration” briefing, where Nyankori said he’d “take the whip” for DCPS’ abrupt announcement, and assured parents that the transition would be smooth. There’s no denying that SPED is an indispensable though expensive venture, but $100,000 per kid?! There has to be a way to do this better.
“D.C. Special-Ed Chief Apologizes for Mishandling Private School Removal Plan,” by Bill Turque, Washington Post, May 28, 2010
June 3, 2010
We often lament the distractions of the Internet for American students. In China, they do something about it. As the country gears up for its annual college entrance exam on June 7 and 8, the provincial government in central China has shut down all of the area’s Internet cafes to “encourage” students to study. As one local government official explains, “Besides Internet cafes, there's not much else in town the kids can waste time with." We’re not sure which is worse: That there’s nothing else to do in central China ‘cept surf the web, or that an authoritarian government is censoring its residents’ access to information. American educators: Keep this in mind the next time you complain about having no control over what your students do with their free time.
“Town shuts Internet cafes to help teens focus for college entrance exams in China,” Associated Press, June 1, 2010
Stafford Palmieri / June 3, 2010
Yale University Press
In this frank and hard-hitting book, Stuart Buck takes aim at the black cultural stereotype of “acting white.” He explains that the “careless” implementation of desegregation spawned an “us” vs. “them” racial academic identity. To wit, it was mostly the black schools that closed and the black teachers and principals who were fired; in one sweep, black students lost their community centers and their black role models, and education became the realm of “white” folks. Since humans are naturally “tribal” beings, it became increasingly socially unacceptable for black teenagers to repel group norms, a.k.a. “act white.” To be clear, Buck means this as explanation of a cultural phenomenon—one that will have be taken into account if any serious closing of the achievement gap is to occur—not a call for re-segregating schools or as another excuse for the lagging achievement of black students, boys in particular. Neither is it empirical, though he does cite tons of research by others that support his thesis. But though it is surely a touchy subject, it’s one that is actually already implicitly acknowledged and explicitly addressed by many of the “no excuses” schools, where academic achievement and school spirit are championed as “cool” behavior. This is reflected in Buck’s suggested solutions, which include fostering a sense of group success over individual achievement, encouraging more black teachers, especially black men, into the classroom, and allowing specialized, even racially homogeneous if
Janie Scull / June 3, 2010
Kevin G. Welner, Patricia H. Hinchey, Alex Molnar, and Don Weitzman, eds.
Think Tank Review Project
Everyone knows that the Think Tank Review Project just loves Fordham publications, and this volume doesn’t disappoint. A collection of “scholarly” reviews of various reports published by education think tanks—including yours truly—the book brings a scrutinizing eye to the overall quality of think tank output. The authors’ overarching goal is to encourage an open dialogue about the methodological rigor of reports published by (almost exclusively) “free-market” think tanks. They focus on these organizations because, as the authors write, they have “dominated” the think tank sector in terms of resources and output. The authors conclude that most free-market think tank publications do not meet minimal standards of research quality—they are poorly designed, biased, and non peer-reviewed. In that sense, this book and project does serve an important role: keeping think tanks honest. It is immensely important to ensure that data are sound and methods are robust, and that bias does not outweigh objective analysis. Still, the book’s overall voice would be stronger if not for the reviewers’ own subjective focus on free-market think tanks. (And we’re heartened that the Project has just started to more regularly review the work of left-of-center groups too, like Education Trust and the Center for Education Policy.) As the authors make clear in the introduction, they disagree with free-market-ers’ “constrained set of education policies,” such as privatization and school choice (not surprising,
Daniela Fairchild / June 3, 2010
University of Texas Dallas, Texas School Project
Does grade weighting bribe students into taking more Advanced Placement classes than they otherwise would? Kristin Klopfenstein thought it possible, hypothesizing that this “arms race” not only negates the positive effects of advanced course work by substituting quantity over quality, but works against lower-achieving, and often minority, students who don’t know how to game the grade weighting system. The rationale behind grade weighting (or assigning more GPA “weight” to harder classes like AP, International Baccalaureate, and dual-credit) is simple: If we don’t make advanced classes worth “more”—usually 10 or 25 percent more than a non-honors class—students will skate by on the easy classes to maintain their class rank, especially in states that give preferential state university admission to the top 10 or 15 percent of each high school class. So Klopfenstein surveyed 911 four-year high schools in Texas—which uses the “percentage” college admissions rule—on their grade weighting procedures in the 2003-04 school year, and compared them to the number of students taking APs, the school demographics, and the school college admission history. She finds—using an extremely complex and somewhat opaque econometric model—that grade weighting does not have a discernable effect on whether students choose to take AP courses or not, and that this is true regardless of students’ socio-economic status and/or ethnicity. Pushing students who are not ready for AP classes into them has all sorts of negative effects, so