Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 11
March 18, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
Fickle on federalism
Detroit, the city with a plan
Hail to the Kansas City chief
Ships passing in the Atlantic
Poor in spirit
Big bang theory
Andy back in time for the Masters
It?s all ESEA all the time this week, as Andy and Mike square off in debate over the Obama Administration?s reauthorization blueprint. Then Amber tells us about charter-school teacher evaluations and Stafford wants to know is it Conn-ec-ti-cut?
Michael J. Petrilli / March 18, 2010
“[This plan] will fundamentally change the federal role in education. We will move from being a compliance monitor to being an engine for innovation.”
--Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, March 17, 2010, before the House Education and Labor Committee
“In coming weeks and months…we will be announcing a number of compliance reviews to ensure that all students have equal access to educational opportunities.”
--Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, March 8, 2010, at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama
Arne Duncan’s schizophrenia on federalism, in full display in recent weeks, is hardly an isolated case; you might say this condition is endemic to Washington right now. Education reformers on both sides of the aisle are torn between pressing their preferred policies from the shores of the Potomac and acknowledging that Uncle Sam is too far removed from the realities of schools, communities, and classrooms to do much good without doing lots of harm. But rather than a sickness, this represents a healthy trend, for it means that the policy elite are actually considering whether to shrink the federal role.
This would be quite a reversal. Since Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the feds have been piling mandate upon mandate, creating new rights for students, responsibilities for schools, and expectations for school systems and states that they cannot possibly meet. Perhaps
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / March 18, 2010
For five good reasons, conservatives should take seriously the potential of the newly released (in draft form) “common” education standards to strengthen U.S. education.
First, they’re good, solid--indeed very ambitious--academic standards for primary and secondary schooling, at least in the two essential subjects of English and math. Students who attained them would be better off--readier for college, readier to get good jobs, readier to compete in the global economy--than most are today. (An overwhelming majority of states, according to analyses by Fordham and other organizations, currently rely on standards that range from mediocre to abysmal.)
Second, they respect basic skills, mathematical computation, the conventions of the English language, good literature, and America’s founding documents. That’s why they’ve been endorsed by the likes of E. D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Foundation, and Lynne Munson of Common Core.
Third, they emerged not from the federal government but from a voluntary coming together of (most) states, and the states’ decision whether or not to adopt them will remain voluntary. Each state will determine whether the new standards represent an improvement over what it’s now using.
Fourth, they do not represent a national curriculum--though to gain traction they’ll need to be joined by solid curricula, effective instruction, and quality testing.
Fifth, one little-noted benefit of properly implemented common standards is a better-functioning education
March 18, 2010
Detroit on the up-and-up? Its leaders have a plan to pick their schools up by their bootstraps--two plans in fact. First, there’s Excellent Schools Detroit, a collaborative venture spearheaded by the Skillman Foundation, which wants to bring New Orleans-style reform to the Motor City, to be jump-started with $200 million in private investment. (Think: mayoral control, a “recovery” school district, Teach For America, etc.) Robert Bobb, the Detroit Public Schools’ financial manager (and de facto superintendent), has a plan, too. It focuses mostly on “right-sizing” the district. He wants to close forty-four schools and one administrative building in June and thirteen more schools in 2012. By eliminating 50,000 excess seats, Bobb calculates that the closures will save the district $31 million this year alone. He hopes to funnel that cash into the renovation of twenty-two schools that remain open and to implement a new plan in every building to deal with mounting school violence. We applaud Detroit’s new “can-do” attitude; let’s just hope there’s the political will to make it happen.
“State, District Leaders Press School Transformations,” by Dakarai I. Aarons, Education Week, March 16, 2010 (subscription required)
“Detroit schools plan: Total transformation,” by Chastity Pratt Dawsey and Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki, Detroit Free Press, March 10, 2010
“More than 40 schools in Detroit, Michigan, set to close under plan,” CNN, March 17, 2010
March 18, 2010
More right-sizing in the Midwest. Last week, at the urging of its superintendent, John Covington, the Kansas City (Missouri) school board made the gutsy decision to close nearly half its schools. Since a 1985 court mandate to address the segregation and chronic failure of the district’s schools, Kansas City has attempted to draw students back from surrounding suburban schools by offering attractive amenities such as an Olympic size swimming pool, an indoor track, and a mock trial court. Guess what: It didn’t work, and district enrollment has continued to fall--from 35,000 students to 18,000 over the last decade alone--while already-low achievement has stagnated. With near to empty classrooms and a surfeit of costly facilities, the district is nearly bankrupt. The board’s plan to shutter nearly half of its schools is unprecedented--and a more thoughtful way to save pennies than most other ideas attracting attention these days. We hope that Kansas City implements this project with a shrewder and more sophisticated approach than it did the last.
“Mass School Closures Approved in Kansas City, Mo.,” Associated Press, March 11, 2010
“Kansas City to close 26 schools. Unprecedented move in U.S.?” by Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 2010
“Money and good intentions won’t fix our schools,” by Joshua Dunn, Education Next Blog, March 16, 2010
March 18, 2010
It’s time for another split with jolly ol’ Blighty. Despite sharing many ills, such as uneven academic performance across different demographics, private schools besting public ones, and inner-city schools stuck at the bottom of the achievement heap, the Brits are trying to escape some of the very remedies the American system is currently pursuing--more than a few of which we modeled on theirs! National standards, national tests, national curriculum--the UK has them all. But the Conservative Party, favored to win in the upcoming May elections, now claims that these educational bedrocks are “stifling” British schools and children. It’s true that more school choice in England would be a good thing, but to scrap their national standards, tests, and curricula would be a gargantuan mistake.
“Between the U.S. and Britain, an ideological parting,” by Anne Applebaum, The Washington Post, March 16, 2010
March 18, 2010
Americans are richer than ever, yet no happier than in the early 1970s. So Richard Bok asserts in The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being. In this longish New Yorker piece, Elizabeth Kolbert reviews the latest research on being happy--and the news is anything but. Turns out money can’t buy happiness; getting a raise won’t make you feel any better, nor will moving somewhere warm or having kids of your own. One possible explanation is the “hedonic treadmill”: We quickly adjust to increases in quality of life--to our smart phones, vacation homes, and luxury cars. Or it might be that we’re relativists. As soon as all our friends buy iPads too, our new toy loses its luster. So what might this mean for education? Here’s one thought: If we’re trying to get all kids “college- and career-ready” so that they might be rich when they grow up, we should be careful not to presume that they will be happy, too.
"Everybody have fun," by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, March 22, 2010
March 18, 2010
There’s a new show in town, and it’s called “Arne Get Your…27 Shotguns.” That’s reportedly what the Education Department is purchasing to replace old firearms used by its Inspector General. Well, well, well. This gives a whole new meaning to “bullet points.” Silver bullets, anyone? And Race to the Top finalists had better bring their armor. In all seriousness, the office put out a statement explaining that the OIG “is the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Education and is responsible for the detection of waste, fraud, abuse, and other criminal activity involving Federal education funds, programs, and operations. […] The acquisition of these firearms is necessary to replace older and mechanically malfunctioning firearms, and in compliance with Federal procurement requirements.” Yikes! Will AK-47’s be next at 400 Maryland Avenue SW?
“Education Department buying 27 shotguns,” by Valerie Strauss, The Answer Sheet Blog of The Washington Post, March 11, 2010
March 18, 2010
Stephanie Saroki and Christopher Levenick
It is no secret that big-city Catholic schools face a crisis of human capital and shifting demographics. In this short, useful book, the Philanthropy Roundtable provides donors (and others) with guidance on how to safeguard the future of Catholic schools in today’s adverse climate. Particularly noteworthy are its Ten Great Ideas in Need of Funding, which divide neatly into recommendations to parishioners and reforms for policymakers.The authors’ ideas for improving Catholic schools are strikingly similar to the Obama administration’s education platform for public schools, including the creation of incentive prizes, performance management tools, and the use of technology to aid productivity. Even though it is structured as a guide for donors, the report contains important recommendations for policymakers, Catholic school administrators, and laity alike. Read it here.
March 18, 2010
Rachel E. Curtis and Judy Wetzel (eds.)
Harvard Education Press
If the last Harvard Education Press volume to propose a fancy new framework for boosting teacher and principal quality hadn’t come out just six months ago, this book would be a bigger big deal. To be certain, it sets forth plenty of promising great ideas for retaining, evaluating, and promoting teachers and principals. But that first tome, A Grand Bargain for Education (find our review here), did much the same thing back in August. Not only is the timing close, but so are the big concepts: smart use of value-added data for teacher evaluation and feedback; a new salary scale with tougher tenure requirements; the reduction or elimination of the automatic salary bump for earning a master’s degree; and accountability for principals equally based on their schools’ quantitative and qualitative data. Both books even include contributions from the same author--former Denver uber-teacher and negotiator, and current Department of Education advisor, Brad Jupp. Still, there’s plenty of worthwhile (and some fresh) material here. In a chapter on lessons from the private sector, for example, the authors introduce the idea of “total rewards,” which means thinking of benefits in broader-than-usual terms. There’s also some smart thinking about managing and incentivizing “second stage” (i.e., tenured) teachers who may be less motivated to try new things. Worth a look, despite being déjà vu. You can find it here.