Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 12, Number 19
May 17, 2012
Opinion + Analysis
The dilemma of academic diversity
On integration and differentiation
NAEP: thermometer or diagnostician?
Know thy limits
Big change—for the better—at College Board
Challenging the science status quo
Here’s hoping “next generation” also means “better”
Scores are down but advocacy’s on the rise
From the Boardroom to the School Board
Local control a la the business community
Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story
Ember Reichgott Junge: Present at the revolution
“GASB Won't Let Me" - A False Objection to Public Pension Reform
Don’t kick the pension can down the road
School Turnarounds: Evidence From the 2009 Stimulus
The Gadfly’s "grand swap"
Checker joins Mike on the podcast to recount his recent investigation of gifted education in Asia and predict the outcome of California’s waiver gambit, while Amber has some issues with a recent report on the Common Core’s potential.
Review of the National Research Council's Framework for K-12 Science Education
yes Paul Gross / October 4, 2011
Representatives from twenty states are hard at work developing Next Generation Science Standards—and using as their starting point the National Research Council's recently released Framework for K-12 Science Education. This review of that framework, by Paul R. Gross, applauds its content but warns that it could wind up sending standards writers off track. This appraisal find much to praise in the Framework but also raises important concerns about a document that may significantly shape K-12 science education in the U.S. for years to come. Download to learn more.
Michael J. Petrilli / May 17, 2012
Today marks the fifty-eighth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, so it’s fitting that the lead article in this morning’s New York Times is about America’s growing diversity. “Whites Account for Under Half of Births in U.S.,” the headline reads. The story immediately focuses on the issue of schools. “The United States has a spotty record educating minority youth; will older Americans balk at paying to educate a younger generation that looks less like themselves? And while the increasingly diverse young population is a potential engine of growth, will it become a burden if it is not properly educated?” Good questions.
What's the point of an integrated school with segregated classrooms?
Photo by woodleywonderworks.
Yet, despite our student population’s diversity, the number of diverse schools, as imagined by Brown, remains limited. Upwards of 40 percent of black and Latino students still attend racially isolated schools (where white pupils represent less than 10 percent of the enrollment). And the average black or Latino student attends a school that is 75-percent minority. Meanwhile, more than four in five white students attend schools that are majority-white—even though whites barely make up 50 percent of our school population. (All of these data are from Gary Orfield’s Civil Rights Project.)
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 17, 2012
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is indisputably the country’s most valuable tool for tracking student achievement over time, and it’s become ever more valuable as it has added subjects (nine of them now), boosted its frequency (at least in reading and math), reported results at the state level (and, for twenty pioneering cities, at the local level, too), and persevered with a trio of “achievement levels” (basic, proficient, advanced) that today are the closest thing we have to national academic standards.
Should the NAEP be more than a thermometer for the nation's academic progress?
Photo by Joe Seggolia
But NAEP only reports how our kids (and subgroups of kids, political jurisdictions, etc.) are doing. It doesn’t explain why. And in an era when achievement is barely ticking upward, despite America’s forceful efforts to reform the system so that it will soar, it’s no surprise that NAEP’s governing board, vigorously chaired nowadays by former Massachusetts Education Commissioner (and Fordham trustee) David Driscoll, wants this well-regarded assessment apparatus to become more useful in diagnosing what is and isn’t working and why.
One route to enhanced utility is to deepen and widen the “background questions” that NAEP asks of students, teachers, and principals in conjunction with the assessment. There
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 17, 2012
The College Board has grown somnolent and secretive in recent years, raking in huge sums (though it's officially nonprofit) from fees paid to take its well-known tests (APs and SATs above all, as well as sundry other services, such as an online system for matching kids with colleges), while neglecting its social mission, playing little role in the ed-reform wars, and blocking outside researchers from its trove of valuable data. (It much prefers to spin the test results itself.) Enter David Coleman, one of the brighter (and younger) stars in the ed-reform firmament, a major author (and booster) of the Common Core standards, and a passionate, energetic, strong-willed, and persuasive fellow. In October, he'll take the helm of the College Board and, because he can be counted upon to do what he says he's going to do, we can anticipate that "over the next few years, the main thing on the College Board’s agenda is to deliver its social mission. The College Board is not just about measuring and testing, but designing high-quality curriculum.” A worthy change, a smart and timely move, a swell use of the College Board's vast resources, and, potentially, a hefty boost to America's quest to see that its educators have the wherewithal to teach things worth learning. The College Board already contains the means of determining whether the kids have learned it—and considerable capacity to incentivize them to do so.
Tyson Eberhardt / May 17, 2012
Last Friday, Achieve released the first draft (of three) of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), an attempt to create “common,” multi-state standards for that critical subject. Using a framework developed by the National Research Council (and reviewed fairly favorably by Fordham last fall), experts from twenty-six states worked with Achieve to draft the new standards, said to be “rich in content and practice, arranged in a coherent manner across disciplines and grades to provide all students an internationally-benchmarked science education.” It remains to be seen whether these common standards will avoid the pitfalls that plague too many state standards (Fordham will offer its own feedback to the drafters in a few weeks). "Commonness" alone doesn't guarantee they will be better than the status quo. Still, this is an important step in a multi-year process that, done properly, may significantly alter U.S. science education. The timing is right because, regardless of how the NGSS drafts stack up, something needs to change. Our recent study of state science standards revealed a dismal situation: A majority of states received a D or F grade in the review, with the national average a low C. By this time next year, when the third and final draft of the NGSS is supposed to be ready, states will be able to determine whether they're better or worse than what they have today. For far too many, they could scarcely
The Education Gadfly / May 17, 2012
Test scores plummeted on Florida’s eighth-grade writing test, prompting education officials to lower the standard for passing and opponents to crow about the futility of "test madness" this week. That reaction is more troubling than the results: Scores dropped because policymakers had raised the bar and the test got tougher. Still, this episode may foreshadow the discomfort and argumentation that many will experience when Common Core standards start causing proficiency rates to fall.
ALEC delayed (again) a final vote on a resolution opposing the Common Core last Friday; perhaps this reprieve will give its education task force members a chance to realize that requiring states not to join a voluntary program isn’t exactly the best way to protect their right to decide such matters for themselves.
In a Wall Street Journal editorial yesterday, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) revived a bold proposition that he had first aired—to President Reagan!—three decades ago, namely, that Uncle Sam take over full funding of the Medicaid program and leave states (and districts) as sole funders of K-12 education, i.e., Uncle Sam butts out. Alexander shows that this would save states billions while also disentangling two very messy policy domains. It was a good idea back then and it’s a good idea today, albeit one that will predictably elicit howls both from federal budget hawks and from those who don’t trust states to run (and pay for) their own schools. Bravo
Layla Bonnot / May 17, 2012
We’ve often questioned whether the local school board remains the best governance model for public education. We’re not sure whether the Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce (ICW) shares such fundamental concerns, but it is certainly interested in improving the school boards we’ve got. Its new report profiles a baker’s dozen highly variable district boards, drawing from these case studies characteristics of successful school boards—and of the other kind. Top-notch boards (determined by whether they are linked to improved student achievement) have: limited and clearly defined responsibilities (limited to core, high-level, and strategic goals); stability (essential for reform, but not an end in itself); effective board training (which can help overcome dysfunction); and positive relationships with superintendents (with both parties proactively communicating). Struggling boards (those marred by infighting, financial issues, and low student achievement) also share some common traits: They are often voted in during “off cycle” elections (with limited voter turnout dominated by interest groups), are highly politicized, and have large (and diverse) constituencies. One treatment for ailing school boards, according to the ICW, is (not surprisingly!) strong business-leader engagement. Take Austin, for example. That city’s Chamber of Commerce, through task forces and published reports, pushed an otherwise complacent AISD board into urgent action. And in Atlanta, the business and civic communities have convened the board of their education PAC (EduPAC
Lisa Gibes / May 17, 2012
Folks today speak of Ray Budde, Ted Kolderie, and Al Shanker as fathers of the charter-school movement. But what of its mother? Ember Reichgott Junge, former Minnesota state senator, authored the nation’s first charter legislation. This personal account takes readers through the complete history of chartering in Minnesota, chronicling passage of the original bill in 1991, the resistance it got from unions, and subsequent amendments to the law. (Originally, there was an eight-school cap on charters in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and only licensed teachers could create and operate schools. Now, there is no charter cap and schools are granted waivers from stifling state laws.) The factual accounts make the book worthwhile but the personal anecdotes laced through the text are what make it compelling. Drawing on this history, Reichgott Junge explains some lessons that can be learned from it—and that apply to modern education-reform efforts that go well beyond charters (e.g., today’s push for digital learning). Among them: Don’t leave accountability to chance; define explicitly the reform and its goals (think of the confused perception many still hold of charter schools—and how this may have been avoided with early, explicit explanation); and avoid legislating on operations or governance (dictating board make-up or specific financial decisions suppresses innovation). There is much work remaining before charters move past their “adolescence” (per Reichgott Junge) and further shape innovation in
Chris Tessone / May 17, 2012
Rahm Emanuel famously remarked that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Yet that is exactly what many defenders of the defined-benefit (DB) pension system would prefer to see happen. This tough budgetary time, they argue, is not the moment for dramatic overhauls to the traditional arrangement, such as moving to a defined-contribution (DC), cash-balance, or hybrid plan. Such changes, they assert, would increase costs to the system in the short-term. This brief from the University of Arkansas’s Robert Costrell rebuts that proposition. It is dense and jargon-heavy, but its thesis is spot-on: There will be no greater costs to pension systems overall by switching away from DB plans. Not in the short or long term. (To nerd out for a moment: Costrell makes this case by profiling how various states interact with the reporting requirements of the Government Accounting Standards Board [GASB]—and what their transitions away from DB plans have actually meant for their efforts to pay down unfunded pension liabilities.) But for those seeking ammunition with which to counter-attack the most common defense of an unsustainable system, Costrell’s brief packs quite the punch.
Robert M. Costrell, “GASB Won't Let Me” - A False Objection to Public Pension Reform (Houston, TX: Laura and John Arnold Foundation, May 2012).
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / May 17, 2012
In 2009, Fordham fellow Andy Smarick wrote: “School turnaround efforts have consistently fallen short of hopes and expectations.” And we’ve generally agreed. This research from Thomas Dee scuffs up that pristine position, however, at least a little. It examines first-year impacts of the federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) program (background here and here) in California. Dee analyzed data from roughly 2,800 schools situated just above and below the eligibility cut-off for SIG funds (eighty-two of which received SIG awards, averaging roughly $1,500 per pupil)—looking specifically at schools that opted for either of the two most popular models: transformation or turnaround (more on those here). Dee found that SIG reforms raised the scores on California’s Academic Performance Index by an impressive thirty-four scale points over the course of one year (2010-11). Before the interventions, the average SIG-eligible school scored roughly 150 points below the state’s performance target of 800, which implies that SIG closed this gap by 23 percent. (Still, API is a complex metric, and it is not clear what this means for average student-level growth on the California Standards Tests.) Dee found the most improvement in the turnaround schools (where the principal and most of the staff is replaced) and in schools that had been the “lowest-achieving.” That said, CA’s “lack of progress” schools (Title I schools that posted very minimal improvement in the five years before undergoing SIG intervention) were not significantly impacted by