Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 19
May 20, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
Now that's expensive!
Skip college, go votech?
Ballyhoo at Bighorn
Why Boys Fail
Bridging new differences
Andy and Mike discuss the resolution of Central Falls? saga, if too many students are going to college, and whether it?s more likely that the Tooth Fairy will eat dinner at Mike?s house or Arne Duncan will return unused Race to the Top dollars to the Treasury. Then Amber tell us about new research that asks whether effective teachers are so in part because of a good fit with their school culture, and Janie fondly recalls a memorable high school science lesson.
No Child Left Behind can be summed up in four words: good ideas gone awry. Unfortunately, one key part of the Obama Administration’s “blueprint” for overhauling the landmark federal law might perpetuate that legacy for another ten years. In particular, the President wants to intervene in schools with large achievement gaps—a well-intentioned instinct that, if implemented sloppily, could punish racially integrated schools for teaching white students too well.
Let’s start with a little context. The most consequential part of the Administration’s NCLB plan isn’t about school turnarounds, or merit pay, or even teacher effectiveness. It’s the call to focus federal accountability efforts on the very worst-performing schools in the country—and to leave the rest alone (or to the mercy of the states). This would be an enormous change, and would take pressure off the vast majority of the nation’s schools.
The proposal makes eminent sense, for, as Secretary Arne Duncan said when releasing his boss’s plan, ED can't micromanage 95,000 schools from Washington and instead needs to focus on a smarter, more targeted federal role. Obama and Duncan would still publish achievement results for all schools—disaggregated by race, income, special education status, etc.—but the typical American school would be more or less off the hook from federally-mandated sanctions.
But there’s an obvious downside to this approach: It pulls back from the notion that all schools should be held accountable for the performance of all of their students. It would
May 20, 2010
What’s the price of common sense school reform? If Central Falls is any guide, the answer is sit-ins, protests, and demonstrations, a strongly worded rebuke by the President of the United States (and his Education Secretary), and grandiose rhetorical battles played out on the opinions pages of every major newspaper. The recent consensus reached by superintendent and union head in this small mill town is commendable; the plan, we hear, even strong. To wit, Francis Gallo not only got her original six requested concessions (to provide after-school tutoring, for example), but another half-dozen on top of them. But let’s put this in perspective. A school is failing—chronically. Should it really take three months, national press coverage, and bitter rebukes from national union leaders to add… 30 minutes to the school day? Good grief!
“RI school district agrees to rehire fired teachers,” Associated Press, May 16, 2010
May 20, 2010
Conventional wisdom says that a college degree equals a better job, higher lifetime earnings, and a happier life. But is college the only way to live the American Dream? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only seven of the thirty fastest-growing jobs in the next decade will require a bachelor’s degree; and among the top ten, only two will. Postal carriers, nurses’ aides, and store clerks could make a much better investment of the time and money spent on a bachelor’s (or associate’s) by, say, taking vocational courses in their chosen profession. And that’s the argument of a few top economists, who allege our obsession with getting more kids into college is really just shoving a one-size-fits-all solution on a problem that merits a diversity of answers. We’re certainly open to that argument—and concerned about the rhetoric that “college is for everyone.” But at a time when only about 30 percent of Americans have a college degree (of either variety), is this really our most pressing education “problem”?
“Plan B: Skip College,” by Jacques Steinberg, New York Times, May 14, 2010
“College for All? Experts Say Not Necessarily,” by Alan Scher Zagier (AP), Boston Globe, May 13, 2010
“A Lament for the Class of 2010,” by Joe Queenan, Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2010
May 20, 2010
Steven Brill thinks that Race to the Top era will be the teachers’ unions’ undoing. It’s a combination of forces, he explains—five to be exact: a cadre of hard-hitting reformers; a new crop of ed-reform friendly Democratic pols; high-powered foundations giving billions to ed reform initiatives; a charter-school movement providing a stark backdrop to the incompetency of many traditional schools (sometimes in the same building); and RTT itself, which, Brill explains, “before Duncan had dispensed a nickel” had set off “more school reform than [the country] had seen in decades.” But the battle certainly is not over. In perhaps the most piquant theme of Brill’s NYT Mag exposé is the structural and procedural problems with RTT—game-playing if you will. For example, not a trivial number of states checked all the boxes for “stakeholder support,” only to include the final language of their memoranda of understanding in their application appendix with this gem: “Nothing in this M.O.U. shall be construed to override any applicable state or local collective-bargaining requirements.” Then there’s the huge variation in the grading standards of the so-called neutral and well-trained competition judges (explained more fully in Brill’s recent Ed Week piece). So while movement in state capitals has been encouraging, we can’t help but wonder if most of the promised—or even legislated—reforms are like NYC Chancellor Joel Klein says: “telling a woman you’ll marry her in the morning.”
“The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand,” by Steven Brill, New
May 20, 2010
In our rush to reinvigorate science and math in our nation’s schools, have we left the humanities in the dust? Peter Berkowitz thinks so. “No doubt science and math are vital,” he writes. “But all of the attention being paid to these disciplines obscures a more serious problem: the urgent need to reform liberal education.” According to UNESCO, he explains, America’s K-12 system spends more time—and money—on math and science than almost any other country surveyed, yet has little to show for it in terms of achievement. Berkowitz again: “[S]cience and math education reform begins with the reform of liberal education, of which it is a part.” Translation: We can’t just overhaul one or two subjects; we have to overhaul the entire system. It’s a system that ties together the rich content of reading, writing, history, and philosophy, alongside math and science, into a package that teaches, amongst other things, how “to think independently about what kind of life to live,” “to pass reasoned judgment on public policy,” and “[to] properly evaluate America’s place in the international order.” In other words, to make critically thinking global citizens, we need to teach them rich and varied content of all the disciplines. Well said.
“Opinion: Why Liberal Education Matters,” by Peter Berkowitz, Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2010
Stafford Palmieri / May 20, 2010
National Center for Education Statistics
The much anticipated reading TUDA results for 2009 are out today—and the news is a bit surprising. Five cities saw statistically significant gains since 2002 in grade 4 (Atlanta, Chicago, D.C., L.A., and New York City) and two in grade eight (Atlanta and L.A.); Boston gained since 2007 in grade 4 but not grade 8 (it did not participate in 2002). Atlanta’s 2002-2009 gains were the biggest—fourteen points in both grades—while L.A., the other double hitter, saw gains about half that size in both grades. The only city to lose ground was Cleveland, whose scores went down in both grade 4 and grade 8. Unfortunately, the Forest City’s 2009 scores also clocked in below the national average for large cities in both grades, along with those of Baltimore, Detroit, D.C., Fresno, L.A., and Milwaukee. Atlanta, despite its gains, did not score significantly different from the national average, and neither did Houston or San Diego. Subgroup findings for our two big gainers are also worth noting. In grade 4 and grade 8, Atlanta’s white students scored higher than the national average for big cities, while black and free- or reduced-price lunch students tested about the same (there was not enough data for Hispanic students). On the other hand, L.A.’s black students were on par with big cities, while its other subgroups—white, Hispanic, and FRL students mostly clocked in below average. Check out the findings for
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / May 20, 2010
C. Kirabo Jackson
National Bureau of Economic Research
Would an effective teacher at school X be just as effective at school Y? Maybe not, says Cornell labor economist Kirabo Jackson. He examined linked student-teacher and school-level data from 1995 to 2006 in North Carolina to determine whether teacher effectiveness (as measured by student performance) changed depending on school environment. After controlling for a host of variables (including whether teachers simply moved to a school with better outcomes), he found that how well a teacher jives with the school environment (what he calls “match” quality) is as important in determining student achievement as teacher quality. In fact, about a quarter of what we now attribute to teacher quality should really be attributed to how well the teacher “matches” their school environment. A good “match” could mean that a teacher is more effective teaching low-income than affluent students, or using direct instruction than inquiry learning, or in a high-accountability than low-accountability school culture, for example. The effects in math are pronounced—namely that teachers tend to be more effective in that subject after they change schools (presumably to one that is a better match)—while there was no difference in reading. He also studied the types of schools and teachers with “high match quality.” Teachers with more experience have higher match quality in both math and reading, suggesting that it is the match not the experience that may produce higher student outcomes. With
May 20, 2010
Most current commentary focuses on two disturbing achievement gaps in American education: between our socioeconomic classes, and between the United States and its international peers. This book makes a considerable case for a third: between the sexes. It’s a cause on which the author has focused intensely in recent years—especially through his blog, whyboysfail.com, now at Ed Week—and this book is a lively and important culmination of years of research. The statistics speak for themselves: Even in white, affluent suburbs, boys are far more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems, to do poorly in school, and to drop out of high school and college. But stats are more alarming for poor and minority communities. Only 48 percent of black boys ever get a high school diploma, compared to 59 percent of black girls. An astounding 60 percent of black male high school dropouts spend time in prison by their mid-thirties. And it’s nearly impossible to find a public high school where black male students perform equally as well as their female peers. Perhaps the most important exception is (surprise, surprise) KIPP, about which Whitmire writes, “when you refuse to let even a single student slide by, you end up helping boys the most because boys are the big sliders.” He also finds hope in Australia, where the federal government has declared the gender gap a major problem and is implementing a targeted program
Daniela Fairchild / May 20, 2010
Meredith Honig, Michael Copland, Lydia Rainey, Juli Anna Lorton, Morena Newton
Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington
Here’s a surprise: District central offices are often disjointed, bureaucratic entities that operate with limited connection to the schools they oversee. But it doesn’t need to be so, argue these University of Washington authors, especially because a central office that’s tapped into its schools can be a powerful driver of reform. “Central offices and the people who work in them are not simply part of the background noise in school improvement,” the authors explain. This report offers a blueprint of how to “tap in,” using the case studies of three districts that appear to have transformed themselves: Atlanta Public Schools, New York City/Empowerment Schools Organization and Oakland Unified School District. The two main takeaways seem common-sensical: “reculturing” every department of the central office to think and perform in the context of improving student achievement and forming better, deeper relationships with principals. Above all, the emphasis should be on people and relationships, say the authors. “While structural changes [in the central office] can be helpful, a transformational strategy is fundamentally about remaking what people in central offices do—their daily work and relationships with school.” We’d counter that it’d be pretty hard to remake what central offices do—and to have them do it well—without the structural changes to back it up. But this is an interesting new take on