Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 12, Number 26
July 12, 2012
Opinion + Analysis
Can schools spur social mobility?
Here’s hoping Charles Murray is wrong
A single-sex school for Prince Hal
One more valuable option for students and parents
Waivers: no state left behind
Twenty-six down, twenty-five to go?
Forget school: Summer break is what’s too easy
School-Based Accountability and the Distribution of Teacher Quality Among Grades in Elementary School
How the elementary-teacher-cookie crumbles
Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading
Text complexity is the new black
Mike is from Mars; Kathleen is from Venus
Kathleen and Mike wonder how to hold states accountable in twenty-seven different ways and debate whether gender-specific curricula make sense. Amber dives deep into census data on edu-spending.
Defining Strong State Accountability Systems: How Can Better Standards Gain Greater Traction?
Rigorous standards and aligned assessments are vital tools for boosting education outcomes but they have little traction without strong accountability systems that attach consequences to performance. This pilot study lays out the essential features of such accountability systems, intended to add oomph to new common standards and aligned assessments.
Michael J. Petrilli / July 9, 2012
One big idea animates virtually all of today’s earnest education reformers: the conviction that great schools can spur social mobility. Voucher supporters, charter advocates, standards nuts, teacher-effectiveness fanatics—we all fundamentally believe that fantastic schools staffed by dedicated educators can help poor kids climb out of poverty and compete with their affluent peers. And then Charles Murray comes along and throws cold water all over the idea.
Can fantastic schools staffed by dedicated educators actually help poor kids climb out of poverty and compete with their affluent peers?
This was my reaction last month when Murray visited the Fordham Institute to talk about his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Among his many interesting and provocative comments about the rise of a “new upper class”—one inhabited by the winners of America’s meritocracy—he made this rather disturbing statement: “The better the meritocracy, the faster social mobility will decline.” Checker Finn, our president and moderator, did a double-take. “Say it again?” So Murray did. “The better the meritocracy, the more efficiently you identify and reward talent, the faster that social mobility will decline over time.”
As it turns out, this wasn’t the first time Murray has made that argument. An earlier version can be found in his controversial book, The Bell Curve, written with Richard Hernnstein, and then restated in a 2010 Washington Post op-ed:
The more efficiently a society identifies the most able
Adam Emerson / July 10, 2012
Would Henry V have benefitted from an all-boys school? David Brooks, in his critique of the American school scene, doesn’t look to single-gender schools to re-engage children like the rambunctious and adversarial Prince Hal, but officials at the U.S. Department of Education surely had boys like him in mind when they relaxed restrictions on single-sex public education six years ago.
Perhaps Prince Hal could've used an all-boys school.
Photo by Kevin Rawlings.
Those revised Title IX regulations allowed single-sex education to flourish. Nearly 400 public schools nationwide currently offer single-gender classrooms (ten years ago, there were only a dozen) and another 116 schools exist to serve either all boys or all girls. The freedom to establish these schools comes with a sensible caveat: The option must be voluntary for families. An Associated Press report last week radiated more heat than light on this growth, but it reminded us of the move to engage children like Henry with the methods Brooks says may be more effective for some boys than others: competition over cooperation; boot camps over friendship circles.
Leonard Sax, the founder and chief executive of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, contends that some boys
Tyson Eberhardt / July 12, 2012
The Obama administration passed the halfway mark last Friday in its ongoing effort to dismantle the most vexing accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, one waiver at a time. By exempting Wisconsin and Washington from the ever-unattainable goal of reaching near-universal math and reading proficiency by 2014, the Department of Education brings the grand total of liberated states to twenty-six, with ten more (plus D.C.) eagerly awaiting word on their applications from Arne Duncan. Yet despite its importance in reshaping the federal role in education, the waiver program defies easy labels. Forget EduJobs or Race to the Top: ESEA flexibility is likely the Obama administration’s greatest contribution to education policy, but it may also prove to be a political liability in this fall’s election. Despite being driven by a Democratic administration in Washington, it’s welcomed by many Republican governors relieved to escape requirements dictated from D.C. It’s at once a necessity given congressional gridlock but also illegal given its end-run around the legislature. It purports to offer flexibility but in many ways ratchets up federal rulemaking. Unless Congress can make any headway in reauthorization, however, the real legacy of the waiver policy won’t be reshaping accountability (and teacher evaluation and standards, etc.) in dozens of states—it will be shifting the federal role in education from the Capitol to the White House.
“‘No Child’ Law Whittled Down by White House,” by Motoko Rich, New
The Education Gadfly / July 12, 2012
While art, music, and history tend to get the headlines when they’re pushed out in favor of more math and reading instruction, the CDC reports that physical education is being cut nationwide too, despite a genuine obesity epidemic. When there’s still plenty of fat to be found in education budgets, savings gleaned from narrowing the curriculum carry too high a cost.
While charter schools may soon enroll more students than district schools in D.C., charter growth in surrounding areas remains mired by suburban complacency and fears over lost funding for district schools. All of which misses the point: Even if the suburban schools are great (a shaky assumption), why wouldn’t students benefit from a broader range of options and schools competing for their attendance?
The Texas GOP has been catching flak (and appropriately so) for adding opposition to “critical thinking” skills to its 2012 platform because they have the “purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” There are plenty of sound pedagogical reasons to oppose weak curricula focused on hard-to-define and harder-to-apply “critical thinking” skills: With any luck we can focus on those rather than the nonsense emanating from the Lone Star State.
School-Based Accountability and the Distribution of Teacher Quality Among Grades in Elementary School
Much research has spotlighted the “dance of the lemons”: the shuffling of mediocre-to-bad teachers from one school to another. But is the same thing happening between grades within schools? This CALDER report by Helen Ladd and Sarah Fuller investigates. Tapping North Carolina’s robust set of data (from 1995 to 2009), Ladd and Fuller examine two research questions: First, are teachers in the upper elementary grades (3-5) of higher quality than those in the lower elementary grades (K-2)? And second, do school-based accountability policies (i.e., No Child Left Behind and North Carolina’s state-level accountability system, known as the ABC system) contribute to these differences by filtering the better teachers into the tested grades and shuffling the lower-quality teachers into those that are untested. The upshot? Teachers in the upper elementary grades do indeed have higher licensure-test scores (the proxy these researchers used for effectiveness, as teachers in lower grades have no value-added scores to analyze). What’s more, the advent of the NCLB accountability era (2003-2009 for this study) increased the gap in teacher quality between the lower to upper grades and the tendency of schools to move teachers of higher quality from the lower to upper grades and vice versa. (Though this same disparity—to a lesser extent—was also seen during the pre-accountability era, 1995-96, and the ABC accountability era, 1997-2002.) From these findings, Ladd and Fuller conclude that accountability policies induce pressure to perform in the tested grades, thereby disadvantaging children
Kathleen Porter-Magee / July 12, 2012
As Common Core implementation heats up, a fiery debate is emerging among reading specialists. It is stoked by the books we assign students who are below grade level—whether we ask them to read “just right” texts (those at a student’s individual reading level) or “grade-appropriate” texts. For years, teachers have been assigning the former, working to ensure that struggling students can read without getting too frustrated. The Common Core now asks teachers to assign grade-appropriate texts (and offer as much scaffolding as needed for below-grade readers). This book from the International Reading Association offers convincing support for this new approach. It argues that our current focus on “just right” books undermines student learning in three ways. First, assigning these texts makes reading too easy. Students will not improve their reading skills if they aren’t challenged and given above-level texts. Second, the “just right” theory overlooks the important role that instruction should play in improving comprehension and building knowledge. Students learn more—and their comprehension improves more dramatically—when they read more challenging and difficult texts with appropriate scaffolding and support from the teacher. Third, the “just right” strategy focuses on teaching skills rather than teaching texts. In isolation, reading skills are pointless. The only way to develop these is to use them while actually struggling through texts. Unfortunately, while the book’s first chapter offers a fantastic framing of this