Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 10
March 11, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
Four is the new five
A charter grows in Harlem
Learning the art of teaching
The saga of scarcity
This week, Mike and Rick discuss the RTTT finalists (we're a bit late, but this is a weekly show!), ED's new push for civil rights, and whether school board members should be at least well educated to sit their posts. Then Amber tells us about a new Education Trust study that might be a bit too optimistic about the effects of NCLB on achievement than it lets on and Stafford says, Don't point!
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / March 11, 2010
I haven't closely examined the new draft "Common Core" math standards (and am in any case shy about judging them, having myself forgotten the difference between cosines and tangents), but the draft "reading/language arts/literacy" standards are pretty darned impressive. Some of what makes them impressive, however, is buried deep in their infrastructure and won't necessarily be obvious on first inspection. At least it wasn't to me. Not until one of the drafters walked me through them did I grasp what they've built here.
Besides doing justice to the "skill side" of English language arts (from early reading on up through sophisticated writing), they've taken language "conventions" and content seriously--and cumulatively--in a dozen ways. They've devised deft ways of incorporating literature (including means by which monitors of state/district curricula can gauge the quality and rigor of what students are actually asked to read). They've delicately balanced between "traditional" and "modern" approaches, between “basic” and “21st Century” skills, etc. They've imaginatively incorporated the reading sides of science and history as well as English per se. They've supplied plenty of compelling examples of what kids at various levels should be reading. And they haven't overpromised. Indeed, they state plainly at the very start that proper implementation of these standards hinges on also having a topnotch curriculum in place.
During the three-week comment period that started yesterday, many people will pore over these (and the math standards). Grumps will inevitably be sounded from many directions. Revisions will eventually be made. Nobody can
March 11, 2010
On Monday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that his department will expand its efforts in civil rights enforcement. Its civil rights division will monitor racial disparities in enrollment in college prep classes, school discipline, and teacher assignment. Like everything this sounds fantastic in the abstract. After all, who publicly declares that they oppose protecting civil rights?
The details, though, paint a more troublesome picture. First, the shamelessness is astonishing. This is the same Department of Education that can’t support a voucher program in Washington D.C. to help minority children escape the grinding incompetence of the D.C. school system. Now it wants to spend its resources determining whether schools in Fairfax County or Westchester have a disproportionate number of white kids in college prep classes. Someone’s priorities seem misplaced. Even Nixon would blush.
Second, it’s hard to see how Duncan can do much of this without running headlong into the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Parents Involved v. Seattle School District No. 1. In that case, the Court decreed that using race as a “tiebreaking” factor in school admissions policies is unconstitutional. Duncan plans on relying on “disparate impact” analysis to show, for instance, that school districts with a disproportionate number of white students in Advanced Placement classes are guilty of discrimination even if there is no evidence of intent to discriminate. The cure for that disparate impact will be “robust remedies” like early intervention programs and oversight of feeder patterns. The upshot is
March 11, 2010
What’s the easiest way to cut school spending? To cut schooling, of course--and districts across the land are turning to this boneheaded solution as they contemplate their dismal financial situations. This idea of replacing a regular five day week with four longer days is certainly not new--some rural districts have used it to slash commute times and transportation costs for many years--but its alleged cost-saving bona fides are enticing many more places to try it out. “The savings so far have been phenomenal,” boasts a spokeswoman for Peach County, Georgia. Yes, but longer days max out kids’ attention spans, parents are burdened with an extra day of child care duties, and three-day weekends mean Thursday’s lesson is a distant memory by Monday. This isn’t smart saving; it’s just the path of least resistance. We’re all for moving away from “seat time” as the measure of education, but this isn’t the way to do it.
“Schools’ New Math: The Four-Day Week,” by Chris Herring, Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2010
March 11, 2010
Aren’t elected officials supposed to represent the interests of their constituents? Not according to Harlem’s State Senator Bill Perkins, who insists that charters are just “hype.” Really? Today Harlem contains twenty-four charters, one of the highest concentrations for an area its size, educating 7,500 of the neighborhood’s 50,000 public school children; another 5,700 opt for local private or parochial options. That’s “more school choice per square foot than any other place in the country,” boasts Harlem-located Success Charter Network founder (and former NYC councilwoman) Eva Moskowitz. And parents want more, more, more. This year, there were 11,000 applications for 2,000 spots; 7,000 students remain on school waiting lists. Yet Perkins and State Assemblyman Keith Wright are trying to cut charter per-pupil funding and restrict a single operator to educating no more than 5 percent of a district’s students (though how this will play out in NYC’s 32 “local districts” is not clear). Perkins also led the charge against raising the state’s charter cap. He compares the mass migration from traditional schools to charters to a burning building. “[City leaders] should tell you there is a fire, and those who are responsible should find out what is causing that fire, not just create a new place for those who flee and leave the rest inside to burn there.” A better metaphor is to say that these charter schools might finally be “lighting a fire” underneath bad public schools, encouraging them to
March 11, 2010
Good news: Teaching and learning are back in vogue. This brilliant article by GothamSchools’ Elizabeth Green is the latest in a series of prominent pieces that begin to pry open the “black box” of the classroom, a topic that has been largely ignored in the policy sphere in favor of structural reforms. Green asks: Can we teach good teaching? Doug Lemov, a founder of the highly-regarded Uncommon Schools chain of charters, was plagued by the problem of “good people failing.” So he hit the data, looking for teachers whose students were excelling, and then interviewed, observed, and studied these successful instructors to find specific behaviors that might be taught to other teachers. (This is very similar to Teach For America’s effort that we reported on last week.) The result is Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College, which will be published in April. There’s No. 22: The Cold Call, which might also be known as the Socratic Method, or No. 43: Positive Framing, which encourages commands using “do” rather than “don’t.” Lemov is seeing promising results so far. Perhaps more importantly, he’s pushing against the reform movement’s conventional wisdom that great teachers are born, not made. With three million classrooms to fill, and not enough “superstar teachers” to go around, that’s good news indeed.
“Building a Better Teacher,” by Elizabeth Green, New York Times Magazine, March 7, 2010
March 11, 2010
Gadfly got bored with the deluge of Michelle Rhee coverage last year. But she’s back, this time (or should we say, again) squaring off against AFT prez Randi Weingarten, in an article that offers some insight into the personalities of two power women. According to Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert, these two ladies are nothing less than “the two principal actors on the most important stage in the ongoing drama of school reform in America.” We probably wouldn’t go that far, but their going-on-three-year battle does capture something else: How the two of them sometimes alienate the very people they seek to convince. Both women enjoy the support of large communities--a national teachers union and a growing education-reform community--but Weingarten is known for being imposing, evasive, having a temper, and prone to high-flying (and often misleading) rhetoric, while Rhee is blunt, outspoken, and cold, to the point, some say, of rudeness. (Though Kevin Johnson has managed to win her heart.) They call it a “schoolyard brawl,” and we’re inclined to agree. Who’ll win this death match remains to be seen.
“Schoolyard Brawl,” by Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert, Newsweek, March 7, 2010
March 11, 2010
Petula Dvorak, a staff writer at the Washington Post, desperately wanted to enroll her sons in a public school outside her up-and-coming D.C. neighborhood. So, like thousands of other parents, she entered the District’s “out-of-boundary” lottery. “It’s an opportunity to pretend that you live in Georgetown or Chevy Chase or Palisades,” she explains, “while staying in your crummy little house with high property taxes and no parking. Hooray!” But she didn’t hit the jackpot; she’s sitting at 182, 117, and 29 on waiting lists at various elementary schools around the city. On one parent forum, she reports, someone wondered whether to “work the waiting list, Manhattan style.” (Sounds ominous.) The desperation is palpable; with too few good public schools to go around, and private schools out of reach for many during a recession, Dvorak and her peers know that they’re “taking a leap of faith at the non-so-great schools and entrusting them with our kids.” The lesson for policymakers? Demand for school choice may be strong--and not just in Harlem--but frustration ensues when the supply side is not up to the task at hand.
“School lottery makes a game out of education in D.C.,” by Petula Dvorak, Washington Post, March 5, 2010
Stafford Palmieri / March 11, 2010
When it comes to national standards, Neal McCluskey is no fan, and this paper explains why. He starts by complaining that there’s no proof that national standards will boost achievement. “The first question that needs to be answered before fundamentally altering the status quo is whether a given reform will work.” Fair point. But did we know for sure that charter schools or private school choice programs would “work” before we launched them in the early 90s? McCluskey also asserts that the national standards movement is addressing the wrong problem, and is thus the wrong solution. It’s not that employers and colleges can’t differentiate between high and low quality applicants, or the high or low standards to which they were educated, but that districts don’t have an incentive to change their practices. To accomplish that, we need to empower parents and schools with greater choice. In fact, continues McCluskey, school choice “would lead to standards that would be meaningful, but also sufficiently flexible so that unproven ideas could compete, and inevitable human failures wouldn’t be inflicted on everyone.” We absolutely agree that parents should have lots of choices, inside and outside of our education system. But standards (linked to assessments and transparent data) will give them information with which to make good choices. This much we’re sure of: Standards are abysmally low in many places, and while national standards are no cure-all for pupil achievement,
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / March 11, 2010
Natasha Ushomirsky and Daria Hall
The Education Trust
This report asks an important question: What happens to low-performing schools over time? Specifically, how many schools stay low-performing, how many make significant gains, and how many fall somewhere in between? Analysts for The Education Trust examine five years of grade 3-8 reading and math data from Indiana and Maryland. (Only the reading findings are discussed in this report.) They conclude that from year one to five, a whopping 64 percent of Maryland’s low-performing (defined as in the bottom quartile) elementary and middle schools improved faster than three-fourths of the schools in the state. Indiana’s low-performing schools weren’t so successful; during a similar five-year period, over a third of them stagnated, over a third ranked as high-improving, and nearly a quarter fell somewhere in between. But should we now conclude that Maryland has mastered some magical turnaround strategy? No, because the way the EdTrust analysts define and measure “improvement” is problematic on three grounds. First, they failed to account for regression to the mean--the statistical phenomenon whereby scores on the extreme end of a distribution will naturally move towards the average over time. So surprise! Low-performing schools averaged more growth. Second, they couldn’t look at individual student progress over time (they had only school-level results) so they looked at the percentage of students reaching the “proficient” level instead. But because Maryland’s proficiency cut scores are so low, many of its initially
Janie Scull / March 11, 2010
Kalman R. Hettleman
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
The author (a former Baltimore school-board member and veteran reformer) views his new book as an attempt “to turn on its head conventional wisdom about how to reform the education of America’s poorest students.” As his title implies, he wants reformers to focus on what happens in the classroom as much as they obsess about what goes on in legislative chambers. Furthermore, he wants a no-holds-barred bigger role for the federal government, based on the premise that state and local governments have failed in the education realm. Perhaps most controversially, Hettleman declares that we need to prioritize “equity” over “excellence.” We don’t always agree with Hettleman--and you may not either--but his contrarian thinking is apt to stimulate your own. You can order the book here.
Daniela Fairchild / March 11, 2010
Andrew Campanella and Ashley Ehrenreich
Alliance for School Choice
According to this report, 2009 was “the school choice movement’s most challenging year to date.” While perhaps over-dramatic, this pronouncement does highlight the fact that choice gained ground in some areas while it lost in others. The Pennsylvania and D.C. voucher programs suffered. But new programs became law in Indiana and Arizona, four other states (Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, and Utah) added programs, and four more programs (in Georgia, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wisconsin) survived attempts to dismantle them. Student enrollment in the various types of choice increased 5 percent in 2009 to nearly 180,000. (The authors have in mind vouchers, tax credits and such, not charters and myriad other forms of “public-school choice.”) There’s also some new research here (and some repeat findings from 2008 and 2007), rounded out with the usual heartwarming stories, state profiles, and pictures of children on the picket line. It might have been a tough year, says the Alliance, but they’re ready to declare it a victory. Read round three here.