Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 37
October 7, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
Is a Democratic Congress good for school reform?
In a word: no
A charming contract?
Is Baltimore's approach to performance pay and teacher professionalism worth cheering?
Mo' money, same problems
Read my lips, turnarounds just don't work
From Cadillac to Chevy
Excitement of pension reform sweeps the nation
The Charter School Experiment: Expectations, Evidence, and Implications
Charter skeptics find the evidence mixed
High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do
Social studies teachers love their country, too
Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling
The clash between the public and private aims of education
Janie resents your social network
Mike and Janie argue over bipartisanship, explain findings from our recent report on ed schools, and second-guess President Obama. Amber messes with Texas, and Remmert counts slowly in Rate that Reform.
This article first appeared (in slightly different form) on National Review Online.
We’ve previously recorded our doubts about congressional Republicans when it comes to education reform. They don’t have much of an agenda, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan co-opted much of what they had. They’re mostly MIA on the whole issue. To the extent that they’re focusing at all, they hint at atavistic yearnings for states’ rights and local control, despite ample evidence that those don’t often yield good results for kids.
The problem is that the prospect of the Democrats retaining control of Congress is at least as unpromising and arguably worse.
In the great education-policy schism of the Democratic Party, while President Obama and Secretary Duncan generally come down on the reform side, their fellow Democrats in Congress generally land on the establishment side. The administration wants resources and reform; the Hill wants to take the money and run.
Sure, the 111th Congress gave us Race to the Top, but that was a drop in the bucket compared to the $100 billion “stimulus” fund of which it was part. And just a few months ago, Democratic lawmakers put federal taxpayers on the hook for another $23 billion in “edujobs”—without demanding a scintilla of positive change from American schools in return. The motto of leaders like Tom Harkin (D, Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, could be “Spend more, reform less”—hardly a winning formula for
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / October 7, 2010
This piece first appeared in slightly different form on the National Review Online blog, The Corner.
If ratified by union members on October 14, Baltimore's new teacher contract will move the "Charm City" a modest distance into the 21st century; but it's nowhere near "monumental"—as school system CEO Andres Alonso has termed it—and much of it depends on decisions that haven't yet been made. The most important of these is exactly how to link teacher evaluations to student academic achievement, which is supposed—under Maryland's Race to the Top commitments—to count for half of those evaluations. A vast, lumbering statewide committee of educators has just begun to ruminate on how this is to be done. The state's weak testing system makes it a major challenge, however, as does the commitment to apply it to all teachers even though no useful test data are available for many of them.
Supposing that somehow gets worked out and put into practice within the term of this three-year contract, Baltimore's teaching workforce will earn considerably more—money that a hard-pressed city and state may or may not be able to find during these lean times—and the ancient lock-step "salary ladder" will be replaced by a "career ladder" that individual teachers can move up on the basis of their performance. Top pay will rise above $100,000 and a few decisions previously made downtown will be delegated to individual schools.
Not bad—and yes, these changes were "bargained" by labor and management, not forced down anybody's throat. But those who would claim
October 7, 2010
Champion on the Ropes, by Jennifer Smith Richards, Columbus Dispatch, October 3, 2010.
Champion Middle School (Ohio’s lowest-performing, located in the state capital) is gearing up for a “turn around”—again. Several previous attempts have proven unsuccessful. In 2005, the district reconstituted Champion and replaced most of its staff, yet the school remains awash in discipline problems (2,300 incidents last year) and heartbreakingly low achievement (11 percent of its seventh graders are proficient in math). Nor are the school’s customers happy; 60 percent of parents who live within its boundaries choose to send their child to another Columbus middle school. Yet $3 million in federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) money has been earmarked to turn Champion around once and for all. Among other things, the money will be spent to develop better discipline practices, buy new technology, and pay for a “schoolwide rally to excite students about learning.” Come on, who are we kidding? If we were serious about helping students at schools like Champion, we would be shutting the school down and re-opening it under completely different (i.e., non-district) management. But who knows: maybe that rally will do the trick after all.
October 7, 2010
Pension reform—not typically a hot political issue, nor one full of intrigue—has emerged as a major platform element for candidates running for governor, legislator, and state treasurer in many locales. As almost everyone is beginning to understand, the standard public-sector practice of paying out a guaranteed monthly stipend (called “defined benefit”) is proving fiscally unsustainable, the more so when joined to generous health-care benefits. The private sector has been shifting to defined contribution plans (think 401(k)). So how does America, in the face of entrenched public-sector practice and intense union lobbying, make a similar shift for its state and local employees—teachers included? We take the matter to the voting booths. On November 2, California voters in ten cities (including San Francisco and San Diego) will see ballot initiatives aimed at reining in public employee pension costs. Polls suggest that most of these Golden State voters favor some reform. Over on the East Coast, pension reform is receiving top-billing on gubernatorial candidates’ platforms. The Republican candidate for governor in Florida has already dropped $1 million on television ads slamming Democratic nominee Alex Sink, the state’s CFO, for losing billions of dollars by poorly investing the state’s pension funds. Equally big stories around pension reform are popping up in New York, Minnesota, Nevada and Oregon—to name a few states. This “things need to change” public sentiment has GOP candidates riding high, and those on Democratic tickets scrambling to find
Janie Scull / October 7, 2010
Christopher A. Lubienski and Peter C. Weitzel, eds., The Charter School Experiment: Expectations, Evidence, and Implications (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2010).
This edited volume seeks to summarize the performance of the charter school movement thus far. You won't be surprised to learn that the results are mixed. Charters have given families more choices, but parents don't always make wise ones. Charters, overall, deliver academic results similar to their district counterparts, but outcomes depend greatly on location and student demographic. And competition from charters has brought improved performance in some local district schools, but not very many. The volume, which begins with a history of the charter school movement, dissects the implications of these realities for the movement's future. Since its creation, public policy around charter schools has mutated and matured. The three original goals of the charter movement - access, innovation, and competition - may not be as relevant today as they once were. Stepping back and assessing charter policy, charter schools, and intra-school practices, the editors conclude with a few worthwhile considerations as the charter school experiment enters its third decade. They ask whether these schools have moved away from one monolithic model to incorporate many school types, and they push for a re-examination of the role of charters: Should they be creating a better school system, or simply better students? There's still work to be done on the charter front. But, from this mixed review, we
Citizenship, patriotism and political engagement are cornerstones of our republic. Yet not much has been known about the proclivities and practices of those with substantial responsibility for cultivating these values and habits—namely, the nation’s social studies teachers. This new AEI study sought to correct that by asking over 1,000 high school social studies teachers (from public, private and Catholic schools) what they are trying to teach their students. Some findings are reassuring. For example, over 80 percent of high school social studies teachers think their students should “respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings.” (That’s basically what the general public wants schools to teach.) But other findings raise red flags. Only 36 percent of teachers say it is “absolutely essential” to teach students key facts (like state capitals) and dates (like December 7, 1941). More alarming: only 24 percent reported being “very confident” that their students emerged knowing the protections provided by the Bill of Rights.
Gary J. Schmitt, Frederick M. Hess, Steve Farkas, Ann M. Duffett, Cheryl Miller, and Jenna Schuette, “High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do,” (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, September 2010).
October 7, 2010
David F. Labaree, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2010).
In this new book, Stanford Professor David Labaree offers a bleak reality-check on American public education, explaining that the system itself—in its structure and contradictory ideals—is to blame for the failure of education reform. In our competition between societal and personal aims for education—creating good citizens and curing social ills versus assisting individuals to prosper in a market economy—personal aims have won the day. It is the consumers of education, rather than its reformers, who shape its direction. Labaree offers an historical account of reform movements in American public schooling, explaining their inherent failure at each juncture. Though he remains at the 30,000 foot level, addressing such massive reforms as desegregation, academic standards and school choice in just a few pages each, Labaree does show how the complex organization of a four-level education structure and the loose couplings among those levels create insurmountable barriers for reformers. More fundamentally, he questions America’s education goals. In his final pages, Labaree offers defeatist recommendations to reformers: scale down your ambitions, be pessimistic, and remember that consumers—not you and your fellow reformers—are driving the system.