Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 11, Number 8
February 24, 2011
Opinion + Analysis
Midwest unrest: The view from Washington
What?s a reform-minded Dem to do?
Midwest unrest: The view from the front line
The collective-bargaining struggles of Ohio
The long arm of the Common Core
CCSS assessments and charter autonomy: an adversarial relationship?
If I'm going down, I'm taking everyone with me
Adult interests win out again in Motown
The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation???s Worst School District
A great story with an uncertain ending
Student Achievement in Massachusetts??? Charter Schools
For charter schools, at least, urban is better
Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It
Ron Wolk wants power to the people
Qaddafi Rhee and other zealots
Fordhamite for life Liam Julian goes another round on the podcast, as he and Mike discuss the clashes in the Midwest, the self-sabotage of Detroit, and what?s so irksome about Michelle Rhee. Amber shows that not all charter schools are created equal (the urban ones are better) and Chris gets out the whip against corporal punishment.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / February 24, 2011
|Click to listen to commentary on the unrest in the Midwest from the Education Gadfly Show podcast|
As union protests in Madison, Columbus, and elsewhere loop continuously on cable TV, it cannot be easy to be an education-reform-minded Democrat. They’re honorable folks; their commitment to bold education reform seems genuine; and they’ve generally been willing to push for a host of promising changes in policy and practice that rub teacher unions the wrong way. (Well, not vouchers!) They’ve been reasonably candid in fingering those same unions as obstacles to programs and initiatives that put kids’ interests first.
At the same time, most of them have labored—especially the elected officials and wannabes—not to burn all their union bridges. Some of the most prominent of them (starting with Messrs. Obama and Duncan) have even created opportunities to “reach out” to union leaders with encouraging words if not actual hugs. And the many billions shoveled from Washington into public-education coffers these last two years—billions devoted almost entirely to preserving teacher jobs—have gone a long way to salve whatever wounds were caused by support for charter schools, achievement-linked teacher evaluations, etc. The basic stance of reform-minded Democrats vis-à-vis the unions seems to be “tough love”—and it’s no stretch to observe that the signs of love have exceeded (certainly in cash value) the tough bits.
Now it’s getting harder for them. The 2010
Terry Ryan / February 24, 2011
The Midwest is in turmoil over proposed changes to state laws that deal with collective-bargaining rights and pensions for public-sector employees, including teachers and other school personnel (as well as police officers, state employees, and more). Madison looks like Cairo, Indianapolis like Tunis, and Columbus like Bahrain, with thousands demonstrating, chanting slogans, and pressing their issues. (Fortunately, nobody has opened fire or dropped “small bombs” as in Tripoli.) Economics are driving this angst: How should these states deal with their wretched fiscal conditions and how should the pain be distributed?
To address these problems, Republican lawmakers and governors have proposed major changes to collective-bargaining laws and pension systems. In Ohio, Senate Bill 5 would continue to afford teachers the right to bargain collectively over wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. But the bill would also make profound alterations to the status quo, including: requiring all public-school employees to contribute at least 20 percent of the premiums for their health-insurance plan; removing from collective bargaining—and entrusting to management—such issues as class size and personnel placement; prohibiting continuing contracts and effectively abolishing tenure; removing seniority as the sole determinant for layoffs and requiring that teacher performance be the primary factor; and abolishing automatic step increases in salary.
Not surprisingly, these changes are being fiercely resisted by the Buckeye State’s teachers, their unions, and their political allies. Battle lines are forming, and we at Fordham—as veteran advocates for “smart cuts” and “stretching the school dollar”—have been drawn into the fray. In the past week, I testified at a legislative hearing on key education
February 24, 2011
|Click to listen to Mike interview Rick Hess on this topic
Adoption of the Common Core standards comes with a slew of benefits for states—including the high-quality standards themselves, as well as the economies of scale that might come from collaborating with other states on tests, curricula, and more. But as the two federally funded assessment consortia go about their work and flesh out their plans to develop tests aligned to the Common Core, danger lurks. One big challenge arises from their enthusiasm for “through-course assessments”—interim tests that students would take three or four times a year in lieu of a single end-of-year summative assessment. Frequent testing for “formative” purposes is not a new idea and, when limited to diagnostic uses, can be a welcome tool in a teachers’ toolbox. But the intent of the PARCC consortium is for these quarterly tests to count; the results would roll into a summative judgment of whether students—and their schools—are on track. That makes some sense from a psychometric perspective—the assessments can be more closely aligned to what students are actually learning in the classroom, and won’t be subject to the all-or-nothing measurement errors that can stem from once-a-year testing. But there’s a huge downside, as Rick Hess pointed out on his blog last week: It creates powerful incentives for schools to align their own curricula and “scope and sequence” to the quarterly
February 24, 2011
|Click to listen to commentary on Detroit's budget balancing from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
The Detroit Federation of Teachers has once again proven: It would rather sink the DPS ship than head alee into unfriendly waters. Most recently in Motown, the state superintendent approved a plan from emergency financial manager Robert Bobb to close roughly half of the district’s schools and increase high school class sizes to an unwieldy sixty students. Bobb may have originally proposed the plan, which he himself calls ill-advised, as a strong-arm tactic to force the otherwise recalcitrant union into opening the black boxes of teachers’ benefits and pension packages. Yet the union stranglehold on the district remains intact. By refusing to rethink salaries and pensions, DFT may be defending its members, but its shortsightedness is surely pushing the Motor City toward bankruptcy. Sadly, this predicament is unsurprising—Detroit finished dead last in our 2010 report on the best and worst cities for school reform.
“Detroit Schools’ Cuts Plan Approved,” by Matthew Dolan, Wall Street Journal, February 22, 2011.
Daniela Fairchild / February 24, 2011
This semi-authorized biography of Michelle Rhee tracks her tenure as an elementary school teacher, her leadership of the nascent New Teacher Project, and her time as chancellor of D.C.’s public schools. For those unfamiliar with her formative years, the book provides a compelling explanation of how she came to be obsessed with teacher quality (and with firing incompetent employees). And for those who didn’t follow the Washington Post coverage of Rhee’s D.C. whirlwind, the book offers an inspired narrative. Unfortunately, while Whitmire’s text is rich in research and peppered with interview quotes, his final assessment of Rhee’s legacy in D.C. is too vanilla. The five criticisms he does send her way (e.g. she sometimes had poor media judgment, she fought battles that did not need to be fought) could have come from any D.C. insider or avid Post reader. Furthermore, he doesn’t push hard enough on the question of whether Rhee’s reforms actually boosted student achievement—or are likely to in years to come. Still and all, education reformers interested in gaining a comprehensive perspective on Michelle Rhee (the person, not the action figure), or on finding some Waiting for ‘Superman’-like inspiration, would be wise to seek out and read The Bee Eater.
Richard Whitmire, The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint, 2011).
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / February 24, 2011
|Click to listen to commentary on the report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Weary of studies that lump charter schools together and treat them as a monolithic entity? This one, conducted by top-notch researchers at Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research and MIT takes a step in the right direction by parsing effects for urban and nonurban charter schools in Massachusetts. The report is a follow-up to two earlier evaluations that were limited to schools in Boston and Lynn. Once again, analysts conduct both a lottery analysis (comparing students accepted to oversubscribed charters with those who weren’t) and an expanded observational study (comparing students in middle and high school charters operating in the Bay State between 2002 and 2009, including the undersubscribed schools, to those who attended traditional public schools). Overall, the lottery analysis found that charter middle schools boost average math scores but have little impact on average English language arts (ELA) scores. But when the data were disaggregated by school type, researchers found that urban charter middle schools show significant positive effects on ELA and math scores. Nonurban middle schools have the opposite impact: zero to negative effect on a student’s ELA and math state test scores. In fact, while urban charter schools do especially well with minority and low-income students
Marena Perkins / February 24, 2011
Ronald Wolk, founder and longtime editor of Education Week, and creator of Quality Counts, presents a sobering message in this new book. As the title suggests, Wolk outlines why twenty years of American education reform have yielded no positive changes, hitting hard against standards-based learning, the fetish with highly-effective teachers, our obsession with testing, and more. Wolk proposes a second, parallel strategy—one he believes will upend the status quo and challenge traditional notions of the role and capacity of the education system. Specifically, he wants more individualized and experiential instruction, school choice, and alternative teacher preparation. “I find it hard to imagine that a new strategy would be any riskier or less effective than the system we have now,” Wolk writes. “Why should new ideas bear the burden of proof when the existing system is allowed to continue essentially unchanged even though it is largely failing?” Wolk’s turnabout may not be as dramatic as Diane Ravitch’s, but it’s a significant shift all the same: from a top-down standards-based reformer to a libertarian grass-roots choice advocate. Read the book and enjoy the ride.
Ronald A. Wolk, Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It, (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011).