Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 13, Number 8
February 21, 2013
Opinion + Analysis
Can bad schools be good for neighborhoods?
School closures can do irreparable harm
When Tories quote communists
Tests and finances
Spread of Academic Success in a High School Social Network
Good grades are contagious
The Effect of ESEA Waiver Plans on High School Graduation Rate Accountability
A tad too flexible?
Does Athletic Success Come at the Expense of Academic Success?
You can have both athletes and mathletes
Gifted students and not-so-gifted lawmaking
Mike and Checker talk about the ethics of prepping kids for gifted tests, charter selectivity, and overpriced congressionally mandated commissions, and Dara gives fresh ammunition to helicopter parents.
When Teachers Choose Pension Plans: The Florida Story
In an era of budgetary belt tightening, state and local policy makers are finally awakening to the impact of teacher pension costs on their bottom lines. Recent reports demonstrate that such pension programs across the United States are burdened by almost $390 billion in unfunded liabilities. Yet, most states and municipalities have been taking the road of least resistance, tinkering around the edges rather than tackling systemic (but painful) pension reform. Is the solution to the pension crisis to offer teachers the option of a 401(k)-style plan (also known as a "defined contribution" or DC plan) instead of a traditional pension plan? Would this alternative appeal to teachers? When Teachers Choose Pension Plans: The Florida Story sets out to answer these questions.
Andy Smarick / February 21, 2013
Well-intentioned policy can do incalculable harm.
Photo by paul goyette
As a college freshman in an introductory sociology class, I was assigned the book There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. This story of two young boys trying to survive one of Chicago’s most impoverished and dangerous housing projects is absolutely heart-wrenching.
I won’t forget the book’s emotional grip, but equally influential to my intellectual development was the policy and political back story that explained how the boys’ toxic surroundings came to be.
Nearly two decades later, I’m still chastened by the book’s central lesson: A government policy developed by mostly benevolent leaders hoping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged—in this case, by razing old, low-income, ostensibly decaying neighborhoods in favor of gigantic public-housing skyscrapers—did incalculable harm to those it was designed to help.
This has been on my mind in recent weeks, as the national school-closure conversation has flared. Much of that conversation is familiar, but one assertion made by critics, namely that school closures destabilize entire neighborhoods, raises a question that hasn’t been discussed nearly enough. And though some might wave it away as irrelevant or worse, the lessons of the Kotlowitz book force me to take it seriously:
Can a bad school be good for a neighborhood?
Might there be compelling civic
E.D. Hirsch, Jr. / February 21, 2013
Who was Antonio Gramsci?
Photo from the Wikimedia Commons
Michael Gove, the British Secretary of State for Education, is a man who reads serious books on education and follows their arguments. In a remarkable recent speech, he mentioned some of the intellectual influences that have caused him to shake up the British education world by insisting that students begin learning facts again. One of those influences was my UVa colleague Daniel Willingham, and he even quoted from my 1996 book. But he said that the greatest intellectual influences on his educational thought were the writings of Antonio Gramsci. So here we have a Tory cabinet minister singing the praises of one of the most revered Communist thinkers of the twentieth century. What gives?
I don’t doubt that Michael Gove might have an impish sense of humor and take pleasure in suggesting to his shadow opponents in the Labour party and in the anti-fact party of educators: “Look, I’m just supporting what the most profound leftist thinker of the twentieth century had to say about education.” But Gove’s main aim was deadly serious. Gramsci was an astonishingly prescient and penetrating thinker whose work is all the more remarkable since it was written under depressing conditions—in prison, where he
The Education Gadfly / February 21, 2013
In a futile effort to counter the influence of test-preparation companies, New York City’s education department changed part of the test it administers to four-year-olds to determine whether or not they are gifted and talented. For parents who cannot afford to send their child to one of the city’s myriad private schools, a coveted and scarce seat in a public school gifted program is the best start they could give to their children. While many lament the unjust advantage that students with access to test-prep programs obtain, the true tragedy is the dearth of suitable options for all of the gifted children. For more, listen to this week’s Gadfly Show.
Eliciting a keen sense of deja vu, this year's AP Report to the Nation—College Board's tracking of AP course-taking patterns and exam pass rates—offers the same three takeaways as last year's report: Participation rates in the AP are fast on the rise (up 2 percentage points since last year and 14 since last decade). So are AP exam passing rates: up 1.5 percentage points since 2011 and 7 points since 2002. Still, minority involvement flounders, with less than a third of "qualified" Latinos and African American (as decided by PSAT scores) enrolling in an AP course. Expect further unpacking of what these numbers may mean for Common Core implementation, college-remediation courses, and
Andrew Saraf / February 21, 2013
Do students of a feather flock together, or are kids more like chameleons? This new study contends the latter, via evidence suggesting that students whose grades are higher or lower than their friends’ tend to become more like their peers over time. The researchers (members of a partnership between the National Science Foundation and a team of high school students) surveyed 158 teens at New York’s Maine-Endwell High School on the identities of their best friends, friends, and acquaintances, yielding three “social networks”; the authors then tracked all of these individuals’ GPAs over one year to compare their achievement with those in their networks. The results: Students whose peers outperformed them at the start tended to do better by the end of the year, while those whose peers underperformed them were more likely to see their grades slip. This effect was stronger among friends than among acquaintances or, oddly, best friends. The authors theorize that academic habits are “socially contagious” in much the same way as are fashions and fads (though they note that it could simply be, for example, that students “on the way up” tend to seek out and attract higher-performing friends—ditto students who are beginning to slide). Still and all, such findings may have important implications for ed policy. For instance, while lower-performing students may benefit from the company of stronger performers (at least if they become friends), could such mixing wind up harming high performers?
Brandon Wright / February 21, 2013
This new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education offers a troubling diagnosis: The thirty-five “NCLB flexibility” waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) may have had the unfortunate side effect of allowing states to skirt 2008 regulations that standardized the graduation-rate measurements and held schools accountable for raising those rates. Trivial this is not: Prior to these changes, reported graduation rates were often inflated and always difficult to compare (just like proficiency rates). The 2008 regulations set parameters for consistent, common graduation-rate calculations across schools, districts, and states. Through their ESEA waivers, however, eleven states have re-incorporated “alternative” measures of high school completion (e.g., the GED) in their graduation-rate tracking and reporting, possibly incentivizing schools to “push students towards a GED rather than a standard diploma.” The 2008 policy exposed the low graduation rates of pupil subgroups (minorities, English language learners, low-income students, and students with disabilities) that had previously been masked by averaging the student population; but eleven state waivers contain weak or no strategies for subgroup grad-rate accountability. An intriguing question—not considered here—is whether the 2008 regulation was responsible (at least partially) for the recent uptick in the national graduation rate—and whether the waivers will send that rate tumbling again. The
Daniela Fairchild / February 21, 2013
Balancing budgets in austere times requires hard tradeoffs; for schools (especially those hamstrung by restrictive collective-bargaining agreements), this often means nixing extracurricular and non-academic programs like music, the arts, or after-school athletics. This analysis by Jay Greene and his University of Arkansas colleague Daniel Bowen details how such an approach may be short-sighted. In an analysis of 657 Ohio high schools between 2004–05 and 2008–09, Greene and Bowen find that a school’s percentage of students participating in sports is associated with higher overall student performance and increased graduation rates. Specifically, the analysts find that a 10 percentage point bump in a school’s winning record (for football and boys and girls basketball) is associated with a 1.3 percentage point increase in said school’s graduation rate—and a 0.25 point bump in the percentage of students scoring proficient on the state test. Further, adding one sport to the available options for students (and controlling for multi-sport athletes) raised the graduation rate by 1 percentage point and the proficiency rate by 0.2. When ten additional students signed up for an athletic team, the school’s grad rate also increased by 1.5 percent and its percent proficient by 0.4 points (this all after controlling for school size, student demographics, and per pupil expenditures). While these results are relational, not necessarily causal, district leaders should take heed. Cutting sports programs may inadvertently fray a school’s academic prowess.
SOURCE: Daniel H. Bowen and Jay P.