Tuesday, March 31, 2009

DLC Head Harold Ford Defends DC Opportunity Scholarships, Praises Pres. Obama's Courage

In a recent opinon column in the Mar. 26 issue of Politico newspaper, former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr. praises President Obama's courage and resolution on school reform. Ford is current chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).
President Barack Obama...called for higher standards, more charter schools, merit pay and eliminating bad teachers....
Ford clearly identifies the public-school Establishment that he expects will oppose genuine reform:
Obama expects that special interests will oppose his reform agenda. Those who do will fight vigilantly to hold onto the failed schools that shame us as a nation.

But their actions will put them against the best interests of our children and on the wrong side of history.
Ford says the past anti-reform efforts of the Establishment lead one to expect more of the same from them. He mourns the death of opportunity scholarships in the District of Columbia, "tragically... killed by Senate Democrats":
Teachers unions and education groups have expressed opposition in the past to ideas like merit pay and charter schools. They are strongly opposed to a successful voucher program in Washington, D.C., which tragically was killed by Senate Democrats in the omnibus spending bill that passed the Senate last week.
But Ford says we have reason to hope, because when it comes to education policy, President Obama will be a brave and tenacious leader:
On behalf of the nation's children, Obama is prepared to take on members of his own party and the special interests.
Perhaps, most interesting of all, Ford calls for a mass movement of aroused parents. With a combination of "missionary zeal and political sophistication," an organized grass-roots force of well-informed parents could apply effective and lasting pressure:
It is also time we wake the sleeping giant: the parents who have children attending public schools....Parents — motivated by wanting a world-class education for their children and being highly informed and organized — could bring persistent pressure to members of Congress to adopt an agenda of change to fix our failing schools.
Ford describes well the hopes that President Obama has created for genuine school reform. We should also consider seriously Ford's thoughtful proposal of a mass organization of parents committed to student success.

What do readers think of Pres. Obama's response thus far to the impending demise of DC opportunity scholarships?

UPDATE (3/31/09) For an alternative view of President Obama's courage on school reform, see Richard Cohen's Mar. 24 column in the Washington Post. Here is the relevant excerpt:
[I]n domestic matters, Obama's image has become muddled. He remains more popular than credible. Where does he draw the line? Not at tax delinquency, clearly, and not at earmarks, clearly, and not at real school reform, which he advocates but has done little to implement.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

They Keep the Formulas in Place for a Reason

The Sunday New York Times today has a front page article on the Obama administration's decision to channel its stimulus money to the states using existing formulas. Times reporter Sam Dillon writes:

In pouring rivers of cash into states and school districts, Washington is using a tangle of well-worn federal formulas, some of which benefit states that spend more per pupil, while others help states with large concentrations of poor students or simply channel money based on population. Combined, the formulas seem to take little account of who needs the money most.

As a result, some districts that are well off will find themselves swimming in cash, while some that are struggling may get too little to avoid cutbacks.

The story reports that Democratic members of Congress say they want to keep using the old formulas to save time in disbursing money. But there's more to it than that.

The best recent analysis of the Title I formulas was done by Susan Aud for the Heritage Foundation. Here's a condensed executive summary of her findings:

  1. Formulas have become increasingly complex and obscure;
  2. Distribution of funds is characterized by seemingly unintended variability;
  3. Amounts reserved for administration significantly dilute what reaches the classroom;
  4. Title I's Education Finance Incentive Grant encourages states to equalize spending across school districts, despite the fact that this is an unproven education reform strategy; and
  5. Rather than delivering effectively on good intentions for helping poor children, congressional action over eight reauthorizations has led to a convoluted, bureaucratic system that is less student-centered, less transparent, and therefore less accountable to the public.
Here's a link to a column by Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg on Aud's study.

The truth is the members of Congress keep the formulas in place for a reason. The Democratic Leadship Council (DLC) pinpointed that reason some years ago:
The reality is that the allocation of Title I dollars is based more on politics than on need, on a formula geared to spreading these important federal dollars thin and wide.
In essence, the DLC was saying (and I would concur): Congress's not targeting Title I money narrowly on students from poor households is no accident.

CAVEAT CONSUMPTOR: It's not how much money there is for schools but rather how it is spent and what the incentives are for productivity and performance. Economist Rick Hanushek calls the issue of whether money matters “trivial,” saying that “the research neither says that resources never matter nor that resources could not matter” but only that “providing resources without changing other aspects of schools … is unlikely to boost student performance.”

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Smearing the Evidence on Reading Instruction -- And Admitting It

Robert Pondiscio has a Mar. 20 post on the Core Knowledge blog about the controversy surrounding Australian whole-language proponent Brian Cambourne's candid effort to smear phonics-based reading instruction -- by associating it (wrongly) with hating to read.

Professor Cambourne sent a mass e-mail to reading teachers, Pondiscio writes:

suggesting they flood an education minister’s office with emails linking phonics to “readicide”, which Professor Cambourne describes as ”the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools,” The Australian [newspaper] reports.

Professor Cambourne’s suggestion was in response to the official’s announcement of the nation’s “[upcoming] first direct comparison of phonics-based reading methods with other techniques.”

When The Australian newspaper asked Professor Cambourne why he didn't present evidence for whole language and against phonics, he invoked "framing theory," as related by the newspaper:

When the email was quoted back to him, Professor Cambourne said he and his colleagues had to rely on cognitive science’s framing theory. “It’s a way of making ideas change based on new theories rather than just denying or trying to argue with people you can’t argue with,” Professor Cambourne said.

“When you rely on evidence, it’s twisted. We can also present evidence, but we never get a fair hearing. We rely on the cognitive science framing theory, to frame things the way you want the reader to understand them to be true - framing things that you’re passionate about in ways that reveal your passion.”

“We have to use the same kind of tactics that have been used to demean and demonise whole language,” Pondiscio reports that Prof. Cambourne said before adding that, if The Australian reported his words: “I will deny I ever said this.”

I would supplement Pondiscio's post as follows: Sad to say, but Professor Cambourne has been reading too much of George Lakoff's foolish advice to liberals that they should lie in order to win. Instead of Lakoff, Professor Cambourne should have been reading Steven Pinker's disemboweling of Lakoff's cognitive relativism in the Oct. 9, 2006 issue of The New Republic. I can only give a brief excerpt here, which does not in the least do justice to Pinker's wonderful article (you should read the whole thing):

Lakoff tells progressives not to engage conservatives on their own terms, not to present facts or appeal to the truth....Instead they should try to pound new frames and metaphors into voters' brains. Don't worry that this is just spin or propaganda, he writes: it is part of the "higher rationality" that cognitive science is substituting for the old-fashioned kind based on universal disembodied reason....

I would not advise any politician to abandon traditional reason and logic for Lakoff's "higher rationality."

Not just to lie in an obvious fashion, but to admit that you are doing so. Please, Professor Cambourne.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Booker T. Washington: Advocate for Black Education

Historians David Beito of the University of Alabama and Jonathan Bean of Southern Illinois University have an interesting article on African-American educator and civic leader Booker T. Washington in the March 23 National Review.

To progressives, Washington's creed of self-help, opportunity, business achievement, and rejection of self-pity wasn't politically correct. Washington sought a "blotting out" of racial prejudice in civic and business life. But he didn't think African-Americans should rely for their economic advancement on government aid and political remedies. As Beito and Bean point out, "Liberals don't have much use for Washington." He was simply too bourgeois.

Washington succeeded in life in important measure because of his diligence in school, at the Hampton Institute. He went on to be the first president of the Tuskegee Institute.

Beito and Bean (drawing on the important historical work on Washington of Robert J. Norrell) point out that Washington had "no small role" in the "spectacular" rise in African-American literacy in the American South between the end of the Civil War and the early years of the twentieth century. Among other things, he encouraged philanthropist Julius Rosenwald (of Sears Roebuck) to contribute money toward the building of thousands schools for African-Americans throughout the South.

Washington stressed effort and intellectual disciple in school as necessary to student progress. Beito and Bean quote Washington, in a 1898 letter to a Birmingham newspaper, writing:
Each day convinces me that the salvation of the Negro in this country will be in his cultivation of habits of thrift, economy, honesty, the acquiring of education, Christian character, property, and industrial skill.
That same year, Washington made this point again in a speech in Chicago:
[W]e in the black race [shall acquire] property, habits of thift, economy, intelligence and character, [and each make] himself of individual worth in his own community.
Beito and Bean quote Washington as writing that "any man, white or black, with education" can find a job or create work for himself if he is willing "to begin at the very bottom."

Washington's message was a gospel of self-help through hard work, determination -- and education.

UPDATE (3/21/09) You have to have a subscription to National Review to read its article online. But Beito and Bean have also published a related piece on History News Network (HNN), which unfortunately doesn't cover Washington's views on education as fully.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

How Regular Schools with Regular Teachers Could Replicate the Results of High-Powered Charters

Education Sector's Steven Wilson in an important AEI pamphlet (drawn from an earlier scholarly paper) looks at the talent that has contributed mightily to the success of high-performing charter schools. He then discusses how regular schools with regular teachers can achieve the same success.

First, Wilson asks, "Do the 'no excuses' schools depend on rare human capital?" He finds that they do:

I found that more than half of the...staff members [of the six high-performing Boston charter schools that he studied] had attended elite undergraduate institutions (Barron's "most competitive" rank), and fully 83 percent had attended at least a "very competitive" college (Barron's third-highest rank)....

I examined the educational background of the academic staff of eight "no excuses" charter schools outside of Boston....As with the Boston-based...schools, faculty members were most likely (37 percent) to have attended institutions in Barron's "most competitive" category; 56 percent had attended "highly competitive" schools or better, and 77 percent attended "very competitive" schools or better.

Wilson also looked at the qualities that "no excuses" schools seek in teacher candidates. One exemplary charter school looks for prospective teachers who graduated from a top-tier college with good grades and a major in an academic discipline and, moreover, who:

  • have a "history of getting high student achievement, tight discipline and culture";
  • believe that "measurable student achievement is the number one goal"; and
  • "[like] standards, statewide testing, and accountability."

Student achievement is a part of a teacher's evaluation at this charter school.

Wilson then points out that prospective teachers having "the educational credentials and commitment" sought by such charter schools are scarce.

How then to get the effective teaching that's needed? Of the two solutions that Wilson considers, one is the most promising. It is "making the job manageable."

Wilson asks us to consider the teaching force once again:

Imagine the broad swath of career educators who, though they may not have attended elite colleges and universities, are nonetheless committed to rigorous academic standards, the continuous improvement of their craft, and a path to college for every child. Could they be equipped with a powerful set of tools that would permit them to produce gap-closing results...?

Consider the job of the "no excuses" teachers....These schools often expect teachers to devise curricular and pedagogical systems largely for themselves....If teachers neither had to remedy years of prior failed schooling nor forge their own tools, then the job would be far more manageable.

In the course of Wilson's discussion of existing effective programs, the reader gathers what Wilson thinks is needed (as re-phrased by me) -- namely, schools with:

  • a solid, step-by-step curriculum;
  • a "no excuses" culture;
  • a focus on college-preparatory academics;
  • teacher-led, whole-class instruction;
  • clear lesson-plans aligned with state standards;
  • regular, frequent diagnostic testing;
  • classroom discipline;
  • explicit teacher accountability for performance; and
  • a school principal with the power to make key decisions.

All this has to reside, Wilson says, in an institutional setting (work-rule and pay flexibility, local district policy, state law) that allows such schools to thrive.

If these components are there, Wilson contends that regular schools can have KIPP-like results without Teach for America/Ivy League-grad teachers.

Wilson recognizes that a major obstacle to putting into effect this promising proposal for success is the"thought world" of K-12 education:
Ironically, such systematic approaches pose a challenge in recruiting teachers. Many career educators have a long-standing aversion, fanned by unions and schools of education, to external oversight. Powerful norms protect the teacher's "autonomous sphere of private discretion" and are more likely to celebrate teacher innovation than measurable effectiveness.
Waiting for enough Superman-teachers and Superwoman-teachers is waiting for Godot.

Instead, Wilson's proposal could give regular teachers the tools to succeed and the incentives to excel professionally.

Does DC Union Want It To Take Longer Than Forever to Fire Teachers?

Andy Rotherham and Richard Whitmire have an article in The New Republic on AFT President Randi Weingarten. In it, they divulge some details about the counter-offer of the teachers' union in DC contract negotiations. It seems that the union, as things stand, wants to make the firing of teachers more complex and protracted than it already is:
...[T]he counter-offer, which hasn't been made public, would complicate rather than streamline [the teacher-firing] process in D.C. ... [It wraps] teachers even more tightly in tenure protections and extend[s] the termination process....If adopted as currently proposed, [DC schools chancellor Michelle] Rhee's hurry-up reforms would be throttled back to a glacial pace and students would suffer.
Rotherham and Whitmire point that some people contend that, in the mirror-world of labor negotiations, this complexifying proposal is "actually a signal from Weingarten that she's open to negotiating and moving in Rhee's direction."

We'll see.

UPDATE (3/22/09) D.C Wire had a blog post on Michelle Rhee's reaction to the union's counter-proposal -- the counter-proposal that I discussed above. Rhee reported to the DC Council: "There are some fundamental issues we can't come to agreement on....Both sides are drawing a line in the sand."

10 Toughies for Arne

AEI's prolific researcher and research impresario Rick Hess has a provocative guest-editorial in today's (Mar. 19) issue of the Gadfly. Hess poses some challenging questions for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Hess has good insights into the logic of the situation that Secretary Duincan finds himself in. I have condensed his queries somewhat:

1. ...[You've...indicated a concern about wasteful spending and ensuring that the money is well-spent. Would you regard it as a problem if the money is being spent inefficiently but is creating jobs?...

2. ...[W]e know that much of "what works" today consists of elite charter schools bolstered by talented staff, missionary zeal, and philanthropic support. These commodities are in limited supply, and history shows that early successes fueled by them are tough to replicate at scale. How will you ensure that funding...doesn't slosh dollars into [unscalable] boutique programs...?

3. [Skipping over this one for the moment.]

4. In Chicago, ...most of your successes entailed introducing reforms like merit pay pilot programs and charter schools on top of and around the existing school system....Do you think the "on top of and around" strategy is viable for transforming K-12 schooling across the country?

5. ...Do you think it possible to craft a substantial, game-changing merit pay plan that the AFT and NEA will endorse?...

6. ...[T]here is scant evidence of [early-childhood] programs delivering big, sustained benefits for large numbers of children. How can we be confident that the money will fund difference-making programs and not simply pad enrollment or staffing levels?...

7. ...[T]here are many...restrictions [that are less formal] than caps that also hinder charter schools, including unfriendly state and federal regulations, facilities headaches, and teacher certification policies. Do you intend to use your office...to spotlight those barriers and, when possible, to remove them?

8. ...In light of disputes over the merits of "21st century" skills, which the President has explicitly advocated, and concerns that good standards might be crowded out by bad ones, how confident are you that [the creation of national standards] would end well?...

9. The President has said...that if [state and local] officials don't spend the stimulus funds wisely that he will "call them out and put a stop to it." In your view, how would we know if these funds are misspent?...

10. ...History suggests that universal access tends to encourage a decline in rigor and the relaxation of standards....[H]ow do you intend to police [higher education to prevent such a decline]?

My personal favorite is this one:

3. The President announced his intention to "scrub" the budget for wasteful or inefficient programs. Which programs have been identified in the Education Department?

Throughout, Hess asks what Secretary Duncan is concretely willing to do if money is wasted or if programs don't produce.

Whether Secretary Duncan ever explicitly answers these questions in words, he will have to answer them through his actions.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Al Sharpton & NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein Call for Tenure Decisions & Pay Based on Performance

The Rev. Al Sharpton and New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein blog today (Mar. 13) on The Huffington Post calling for basing teacher pay and tenure decisions on performance.

Sharpton and Klein say that "the shortage of effective teachers in high-poverty schools" stems less from the deficiencies of teachers than from a failed system for encouraging teachers to improve and retaining effective teachers. "It's the system, stupid--and it desperately needs reform."

Sharpton and Klein point out that throughout a teachers' career, that teacher's ability to boost student learning "is poorly assessed (if at all), and virtually never linked to consequences--either positive, as in the case of awarding merit pay, or negative, like being dismissed for poor performance."

A similar problem exists with tenure decisions by school districts:

A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality reports that "only two states require any evidence of teacher effectiveness to be considered as part of tenure decisions. All other states permit districts to award tenure virtually automatically."

Since 2006, two of the nation's most populous states--California and New York, home to more than 600,000 teachers--have even enacted laws that effectively bar school administrators from considering a teacher's impact on student performance in teacher pay and tenure decisions.

Sharpton and Klein quote Bill Gates:

It is astonishing to me that you could have a system that doesn't allow you to pay more for strong performance, or for teaching in a particular school....That is almost like saying "Teacher performance doesn't matter"--and that's basically saying "Students don't matter."

Not Following Through on "Follow Through"

Andrew Coulson has a post on Cato@Liberty relating to the federal Follow Through evaluation of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Coulson writes:

At a cost of over a billion dollars, [Follow Through] demonstrated that one instruction method, “Distar,” clearly outperformed 21 others. Distar was #1 not just overall, but in each of the subcategories of reading, arithmetic, spelling and language. It placed a close second in promoting advanced conceptual skills, and was even the most effective at boosting students’ self-esteem and responsibility toward their work. Nothing else came close.

So, Coulson asks, "What happened?" He points out that American public schools did not follow through on Follow Through. Distar was not widely adopted around the nation. Moreover, most of the schools that had adopted it in these early days have since abandoned it. Their performance plummeted as a consequence. "End of story," Coulson says.

Coulson contends that the reason that public schools didn't follow through on Follow Through is the absence of private enterprise, competition, and pluralism in K-12 education. In contrast, E.D. Hirsch Jr. would say that the reason is the pervasive "thought world" of Progressive education in K-12, a thought world that abhors Distar teaching methods.

(For an account of the aftermath of the Follow Through evaluation, look here. For further information on Engelmann-Becker Direct Instruction (the basis of Distar), look here.)

Pres. Obama Mistakenly Contends That Dropping-Out Is "Quitting on Your County"

In his Mar. 10 speech on education, President Obama outlined his policy initiatives. But he also had this to say to young people who are thinking of dropping out of school:

[D]ropping out...[is] quitting on your country, and it's not an option -- not anymore.

Granted that political speeches often contain exercises in hyperbole, in this case President Obama went too far. He is saying that dropping-out is akin to treason.

America is free country -- and part of freedom is freedom to do unwise things. It is truly unwise (for the vast majority of people) to drop out of school. But they should be free to do it.

We should counsel young people against dropping-out; we should have research-based programs that discourage it and that try to get people to come back to school. (The Doing What Works website is scheduled to post research-based material on dropout prevention later this year.) But we should not end dropping-out by blocking the possibility.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

We Should Escape the Babble of K-16 Standards, If We Can

Michael Kirst blogging at College Puzzle has an insightful post (Mar. 12) on the lack of alignment between (1) K-12 standards and tests and (2) college admissions and placement tests.

Kirst points out that the two testing systems only overlap in Advanced Placement courses. He says that:

[Forty-nine] states (all but Iowa) set K-12 standards and assessments...without talking with higher education institutions and state boards for higher education....

Higher education, Kirst says, pays attention to "the upward trajectory of pupils" -- for example, an admissions test’s capacity "to predict student performance in the first year of college."

The K-12 systems pay attention to high school graduation and meeting annual state and federal growth goals.

In the past, Kirst has pointed out that a lack of alignment between K-12 standards-and-testing and college admissions deprives the K-12 accountability system of support from a civicly-engaged constituency: the parents of college-bound children. In this post, he points out that the lack of alignment leads to college students having to take remediation course on subject matter that they should have learned in high school.

Kirst points out that university officials say that K–12 tests "have not been evaluated to see how well they predict freshman grades." But he says "such evaluations are not difficult to conduct."

I would be interested in hearing good reasons why we can't have grades (advanced, proficient, basic, below basic, and the like) on K-12 tests aligned to college admissions and placement levels and why we can't have admissions achievement tests aligned to placement levels . The existing "babble of standards," as Kirst terms it, sends unclear signals to students (particularly, Kirst notes, those from low-SES families).

Tax Credits: "Bullet-Proof in Court"

Adam Schaeffer has a post on Cato@Liberty on today's (Mar. 12) decision by the Arizona court of Appeals upholding the constitutionality of the business tax credit program:

Education tax credits are taxpayer funds and therefore cannot run afoul of state constitutional provisions regarding the use of government funds. It really is just that simple....[E]ducation tax credits have proven bullet-proof in court.

Schaeffer says that education tax credits "are the future" for school choice. I agree that tax credits have the fewest constitutional problems as a source of all-school opportunity scholarships.

NAEP Tries Interactive Assessment That Tests Students' Ability to Formulate & Perform Experiments

today (Mar. 12) that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science test, which has been administered across the nation in recent weeks, includes an interactive computer feature, given to a subset of children. This section of the test aims to assess student skills and understanding, such as "the ability to formulate and and perform experiments," that cannot easily be tested in other ways.

The new NAEP test has students making decisions and drawing conclusions based on data stemming from experiments. This, test writers hope, allows for "a better measure of depth of knowledge."

This may prove to be a way to combine skills, conceptual understanding, and objectivity.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bye-Bye Tutoring

Swift & Change Able has a recent (Mar. 9) post on the effort by the public-school Establishment to crush after-school tutoring programs for children. Each year more and more children participate in these tutoring programs. (Participation in 2004 was five times what it was in 2003, for example.)
School administrators never liked SES and choice. They see these programs as taking money out of their pockets (never mind that the funds are sent out to serve students). So they in most cases have done everything possible to prevent parents and students from availing themselves of them. Then they say demand is anemic - see? they were right all along - and that the programs should be terminated.

Swift & Change Able points out that the largest study so far of the tutoring program, done by RAND (2007), said that:

"In five of the seven applicable districts, students scored better in both reading and math in the first year of participating in the services and even better in the second and subsequent years.

Students participating for multiple years enjoyed gains twice as large as those of students participating for just one year.

African-Americans, Latinos, and students with disabilities all recorded positive achievement results.

All these gains were statistically significant."

The way that the Establishment seeks to crush tutoring is through the arcane process of
"waivers of Title I set-asides." Such waivers by the Obama-administration U.S. Department of Education will allow districts to avoid putting money into tutoring.

& Change Able sums up the situation aptly when he entitles his piece "AASA to After-School Tutors: 'You're Fired.'"*

*AASA=American Association of School Administrators

Is Pres. Obama Continuing the Ed Policies of Pres. Bush (43)?

Andy Rotherham has a post on Politico that clarifies the issue of policy continuity between the Obama and Bush (43) administrations. Rotherham says that there is "some overlap" between the education agendas of President Bush (43) and President Obama, as there was between President Bush (43) and President Clinton, and between President Clinton and President Bush (41). Rotherham says that "anyone expecting radical deviations from the path we’re on will likely be disappointed" by President Obama's policy proposals.

For the past fifteen years or so the dual and complementary ideas of standards and accountability and expanding school choice – at least within the public system – have largely driven the education debate, so it’s not surprising that there is a fair amount of common ground today.

After all, some of Bush’s key allies on the issue were Democrats in Congress including current leaders like Senator Kennedy and Congressman George Miller.

And today’s...reform thrusts have a bipartisan pedigree tracing to reformist governors from both parties.
Rotherham thinks the thing to watch for is not changes in policy (I respectfully disagree with Andy on this) from one administration to another, but President Obama's political skill (certainly important, I agree) in dealing with critics and interest groups on the path to getting the reforms (like merit pay) that President Obama calls for.

I wonder if another possibility isn't continuity of rhetoric, but changes in actual policy.

What Exactly Is the Stand of Teachers' Unions on Merit Pay?

Intercepts (Mike Antonucci) makes an important distinction today (Mar. 11) about the stand of teachers' unions on merit pay. Intercepts points out that the National Education Association (NEA) currently says that its opposition to merit pay is only opposition to pay “based on student test scores.” The union also currently says that any merit-pay plan should be arrived at through collective bargaining, rather than imposed.

But the picture conveyed these days is actually misleading. The NEA as a matter of policy opposes all K-12 merit pay under all circumstances.

Intercepts goes carefully over the actual wording of the resolutions adopted by the NEA's governing assembly. Intercepts concludes:

[The] NEA opposes merit pay, performance pay, or any other method of pay that replaces the traditional salary schedule, collectively bargained or not (except for higher ed).

The union may support pay that supplements the traditional salary schedule provided it is bargained, does not pay to fill hard-to-staff schools or subjects, and is not based on “education employee evaluation, student performance, or attendance.”

That last provision is important. It doesn’t say “student test scores,” it says “student performance.” It doesn’t say “education employee evaluation by a principal or other administrator.” It says “education employee evaluation.”

Intercepts thinks President Obama’s notion of merit pay "falls well short of replacing" the traditional salary schedule. But Intercepts is convinced that President Obama "does actually mean performance pay," and that he is in fact "at odds with [the] NEA" on the issue.

Head Start, 21st-C Skills, Multiple Choice, Productivity -- Is Pres. Obama Missing What's Important?

Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution responded briefly to President Obama' speech on education policy. But he also pointed back to his (Whitehurst's) Feb. 4 analysis of the President's stimulus plan. In this earlier analysis, Whitehurst made several important points on preschool education, 21st-century skills, testing formats, and school productivity:

Early Childhood

On early childhood, we should not be satisfied with more programs, “like Head Start.” A rigorous national study of Head Start found positive effects in some performance domains at the end of a year in the program, e.g., naming letters of the alphabet, but not in others, e.g., vocabulary. Most children in the study were still far below average in school preparation skills on exit from Head Start. We can do better, and there is a lot of evidence on effective preschool programs to lead the way.

21st-Century Skills

The president’s call for assessments that measure 21st century skills such as creativity and entrepreneurship is fraught with danger and difficulty. There are serious questions about whether it is possible to teach someone to be creative in a general sense, disconnected from expert knowledge in particular domains. In any case, the definitional and measurement challenges are huge.

Instead of chasing abstractions, it would be more productive to construct standards that reflect what the best experts in particular fields agree that students need to know and be able to do to be competent in those fields. That will surely involve problem solving, creativity, and the like, but anchored in content rather than floating free.

Pres. Obama's Opposition to Multiple-Choice Tests

[P]lease, Mr. President, no more talk about needing to teach students more than how to bubble in answers on tests. Any assessment expert will tell you that very complex skills can be measured with multiple choice test questions. The issue is what we are expecting students to learn, not the structure of the test item that is used to determine whether they’ve learned it.

Efficiency & Productivity

What about efficiency and productivity? We spend more on education per student than any other nation. Shouldn’t we be pursuing ways to get more out of our current investments before we double down?

Whitehurst is asking the questions that the education-beat journalists should be asking.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Character Counts -- And Can Motivate Students

The March 13, 2009 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education has an interview with Stanford education professor Bill Damon on character education.

Damon holds that now and in the past almost all parents and teachers believed that there were certain personal virtues that it was necessary for all students to acquire, including "respect, honesty, diligence, kindness, fair-mindedness, [and] temperance."

But in the 1980s, Damon says, he was troubled about moral relativism that was influencing American intellectuals and that was "beginning to trickle down to schools, the media, and other places that shape the values of our children."

By the end of the 1980s, Damon says:

Self-esteem had become the holy grail of child rearing, and parents were advised to avoid "traumatizing" their (supposedly) fragile children by asserting authority and urging children to strive for excellence, take on challenges, and control their behavior according to ethical strictures.

Lately, Damon notes criticism has come from a different direction. He points out that certain critics of "values clarification" and other character education programs have argued that they can be so weak that they are actually subversive of acquiring the virtues.

In fact, the most searing criticism these days has come from [those who have] the concern that character educators fail to promote moral standards strongly enough. One critic [sociologist James Davison Hunter] has complained that the programs do not deal sufficiently with matters of good and evil and thus are actually leading to "the death of character"!

Damon's current aim is "to make a case for the importance of purpose in youth development":

Students learn bits of knowledge that they may see little use for; and from time to time someone at a school assembly urges them to go and do great things in the world. When it comes to drawing connections between the two — that is, showing students how a math formula or a history lesson could be important for some purpose that a student may wish to pursue — schools too often leave their students flat....

The message of my work is that schools need to give students a better understanding of why they are in school in the first place — that is, how the skills students are learning can help them accomplish their life goals. That is the only way to really motivate students in a lasting way....

Damon says he has found that "men and women who have done exceptionally good work in their careers" could readily answer "questions about what they were trying to accomplish and why....[T]here was an elevated purpose, always on their minds, that drove their daily efforts."

Monday, March 9, 2009

Money (or Other Prizes) for Student Success?

D-ed Reckoning had a top-notch Mar. 5 post on extrinsic rewards.

The post begins with a dissection of a poorly-done article on the subject in the New York Times. This dissection is both analytical and fun to read.

But the most important part of the post is its summary of what psychological research tells us about extrinsic rewards

The problem isn't that all "extrinsic" rewards can backfire, just poorly designed extrinsic reward systems....The basic rule is to never use a stronger motivational system than you need to get the job done.

If praise and grades will do the job then there's no need to implement a token reward system, such as cash or rewards for grades. If a token reward system is needed to motivate a child, then use the least invasive rewards that'll motivate the child to engage in the desired behavior (i.e., learning) and fade out the system as soon as possible. For example, trying rewarding with free time or other reinforcing activities before offering cash, candy, treats, or other tangible rewards.

No prize for the New York Times.

Does Money Per Se Lead to Learning (in Ga.)?

Economist Ben Scafidi of Georgia State has completed a study analyzing 25 years of education spending in the state of Georgia. It shows, Scafidi writes in the Mar. 9 Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Investing more taxpayer funds in education does not produce greater student achievement. ...[P]er-student spending over the last generation (adjusted for inflation) more than doubled in Georgia, while at the same time public high school graduation rates fell. This dramatic increase in operational spending led to large decreases in class sizes, huge improvements in instructional technology and large increases in administration.

Scafidi lays out the numbers and contrast the situation in Georgia with that in comparable states:

...In 1990, Georgia students were 41st in national graduation rates. Billions of dollars later, we rank 49th.

By contrast, 21 states spend less than Georgia and have higher graduation rates, including three that are highly diverse like Georgia. Arizona spends $2,500 less per student, yet has a graduation rate that is 23 percentage points higher than Georgia’s.

California spends $2,000 less per student, yet has a graduation rate that is 13 percentage points higher than Georgia’s.

Texas spends almost $1,000 less per student, yet has a graduation rate that is 12 percentage points higher than Georgia’s.

Scafidi contends that the solution is not more money, but rather greater productivity.

Dueling Math Books

The most recent Gadfly published a short review by the Fordham Institute's Amber Winkler of a new Mathematica study (for the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences) of four elementary school math curricula:

If you're looking for a truce in the math wars, this study is not it....The study found that students taught with Saxon Math (published by Saxon) and Math Expressions (published by Houghton-Mifflin) performed significantly better than those taught with Investigations (published by Pearson Scott Foresman) and Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics (also published by Pearson Scott Foresman).

Winkler points out that Saxon and Investigations are polar opposites:

Saxon math...is lauded by most traditionalists as the "Open Court" of math, and used in plenty of Catholic schools. On the other hand, the most constructivist math program of the four, Investigations, had the poorest results; this curriculum is described in the report as a "student-centered approach" that "focus[es] on understanding rather than ‘correct answers,'" and in which students "frequently create their own representations."

Studying "Texting" in Class

Emory University English Professor Mark Bauerlein has a post on Brainstorm on the current fad [promoted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)] of elevating students' leisure writing to the level of seriousness of their academic writing. The NCTE, Bauerlein writes, seeks "to ennoble leisure writing."

Speaking of the NCTE's proposed National Day on Writing to celebrate "21st-century literacies," Bauerlein says:

This agenda doesn’t make sense, at least not to me. Why devote a national organization’s energies and resources to a national day celebrating texting?

Bauerlein points out that students currently have a more reasonable perspective than the NCTE does on the importance of texting and the like:

...[W]hy in the world should [students] regard texting, posting, blogging, tweeting, and the rest as counting as much as class assignments? They aren’t graded, they don’t require research, they don’t observe grammar and punctuation and spelling, and they address peers, not adults. [Students] may consider their leisure writing as significant, but in a different way, sensibly recognizing the respective circumstances of academic and leisure writing.

Why spend classroom time and energy on studying texting? It's not as if schools are doing a good job today of teaching academic expository writing, like term papers.

Will the Stimulus Plan Improve Education?

Economist Rick Hanushek and attorney Alfred Lindseth are both nationally-renowned specialists on school finance. They recently wrote a post on the Princeton University Press blog on whether the stimulus plan of the Obama administration and Congress will actually improve education.

First, Hanushek and Lindseth detail the past record of pouring money, as they put it, into K-12 programs -- with rather modest results:

Over the past 40 years, we have almost quadrupled our per pupil spending (adjusted for inflation), but student performance remains essentially at the same level as it was in 1970. We have poured money into compensatory programs for disadvantaged students, into lowering class sizes, and into introducing new programs and technologies. These enormous expenditures have barely raised a ripple in student achievement according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

They say that the bill doubles the amount currently spent on unsuccessful programs in two major areas:

The stimulus package roughly doubles the amounts spent by the federal government for compensatory education (Title 1) and special education. A large portion of the package will make up for education budget shortfalls in each state, perpetuating other historical policies and practices that have failed to significantly improve student achievement over the last four decades.

Importantly, none of the spending on these programs emphasizes innovation or improvements over current practices. Moreover, the money will be allocated according to the politically determined patterns of the past with no effort whatsoever to distribute the funds based on demonstrated need.

And they point to impact aid as example of such ineffectual spending:

[A]n especially egregious element is the $100 million addition to the impact aid program.... [V]irtually every administration since the 1960s has tried to eliminate this program, but now it is being expanded.

Hanushek and Lindseth say their "biggest concern" is that "the stimulus program simply locks in a set of bad policies." (They do acknowledge that a few specific pieces of the stimulus package expressly direct funds to support innovation and improvement, but note that these amount to "less than two percent of the total.")

Two other valuable treatments of the implications (for education) of the stimulus package are by Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli on National Review Online and by Lance T. Izumi on FlashReport.

$29K Per Pupil in DC Schools

Last week, as Cato education-policy analyst Andrew Coulson reminds us, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan referred to DC public schools as a district with “more money than God.” Coulson (working with his research assistant Elizabeth Li) calculated the spending figure for the 2008-2009 school year. It is $28,813 per pupil. In his blog post, Coulson breaks down the figures.

This dollar amount is a reminder -- as Secretary Duncan himself has acknowledged -- that it is not money per se that leads to student learning.

UPDATE On March 9, 2009, Coulson updated his post. His revised calculation for K-12 public school spending is (a still quite high) $26,555 per pupil.

Should 2nd graders be tested (in Calif.)?

California state Sen. Loni Hancock has once again introduced legislation to end the testing of second graders.

Hancock cites too much "teaching to the test" and wants, she says, to reduce bureaucracy and to "let teachers teach."

But, Sen. Hancock, if I may address you directly, the principal purpose of state accountability tests is to see where schools are not performing well. We need to know this about how schools are doing with 2nd graders.

Los Angeles Teachers' Union vs. Diagnostic Tests

President and Vice-President of Community Advocates, respectively) posted an incandescent piece today (Mar. 9) on the Fox & Hounds blog on the opposition of United Teachers of Los Angeles to the school district’s diagnostic tests scheduled to be administered to students in two weeks.

The union has told the public that its members will “boycott a series of unnecessary assessment tests” that would result in “the loss of valuable instruction time spent prepping students for the tests instead of teaching.”

But union leaders are telling their members something quite different (namely, that the boycott is about protecting teachers' jobs, not about classroom teaching time for students). According to :

In a February letter to UTLA’s members its president struck a very different theme, clearly not about “education being a top priority.” He told teachers that the boycott was really about “everyone’s health care, class sizes” and that “jobs are on the line…now is the time for unity among members—not division.” Not surprisingly, the claimed pedagogic problems with the assessment tests aren’t mentioned in his teacher-directed communication.

In reality, the “periodic assessment” tests which UTLA finds so objectionable facilitate teaching the curriculum that these teachers are hired to instruct. The tests’ goal, as the [Los Angeles] Times has written, is “to give teachers insight into what students need to learn while there remains time in the current school year to adjust instruction.”

A statistical analysis by the [Los Angeles Unified School District] has found that the assessments “contribute to higher student achievement.” The District’s study found that, especially at the elementary level, students who take the full battery of four assessment tests during the course of the year are “much more likely to score proficient or advanced on the California Standards Test than similar students that either do not take the tests or take them only once or twice.”

The tests are designed to provide individualized data to the teachers, within 48 hours of having been administered, of what each student has mastered in English, language arts, math, science and social studies---core academic subjects. If teachers “prep” students for this test they are teaching the curriculum that it is their job to deliver, not teaching obscure skills that are only relevant to a test.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Checker Finn's Seven Worries about National Standards

Checker Finn, one of the nation's leading proponents of national standards, writes in Gadfly today (Mar. 5) that he has accumulated seven worries.

First -- National standards may well (because of the involvement of unions and other special interests) focus on resources, instead of focusing on mastery of academic content:

...I cannot be the only person whose heart sank when Dennis Van Roekel announced that the National Education Association [NEA] was also joining the "partnership."...What really formed icicles on my toes was his declaration that this move is perfectly compatible with the NEA's adoration of "21st Century skills" and "comprehensive" standards that include "accountability for child well-being, facilities and supplies." (Who else remembers the brouhaha over "opportunity to learn standards" in the early '90s?)

Second -- National standards may well be heavily influenced by the wooly "21-Century Skills" movement:

...Speaking of 21st Century skills, the more I learn about this woolly notion, the clearer it becomes that this infatuation is bad for liberal learning; a ploy to sidestep results-based accountability; somewhere between disingenuous and naive regarding its impact on serious academic content; and both psychologically questionable and pedagogically unsound. (For a terrific exposition of these problems, see here.)

Third -- National standards may well be heavily influenced by the unsound and ideologically-freighted PISA test:

...[S]ome [in the current national-standards effort] are...overly fond of PISA--that's the Paris-based OECD's international math/science/literacy testing program for fifteen year olds--and view it as the surest path to "international benchmarking" and multi-national comparisons. Yet Tom Loveless of the Brown Center at Brookings has recently unmasked PISA's ideological bias and misguided notions about what young people should know and be able to do.

Fourth -- National standards may well not include the great works of literature:

...[A]s revisions are made in Achieve's respected " American Diploma Project" (ADP) benchmarks--these are at the core of the common standards project--one hears reports of a major tussle over whether English should continue to include literature and list important literary works.

Fifth -- National standards may well narrow the curriculum:

...[I]f the common standards enterprise remains confined, like NCLB (and ADP), to English and math, it may further narrow what's seriously taught in school--with a malign effect on states that have a decently rounded curriculum that gives due weight to science, history, even art. (Picture what happens to history education in a state that joins a national project that wants no part of history.)

Sixth -- National standards may well be ignored, because they are not tested:

...[S]uppose that the emerging standards are sound. Yet nobody is talking about common assessments to accompany them, at least not in this lifetime. But without an agreed-upon test and "cut points" for passing it (or, if you prefer, demonstrating "proficiency") these standards will have no traction in the real world of NCLB and discrepant state accountability systems.

Seventh -- Given the existing American political landscape, national standards may well change at any (unpredictable) time:

...[M]ost troubling...is institutional instability. The United States of America in 2009 lacks a suitable place to house national standards and tests over the long haul.

Who will "own" them? Who will be responsible for revising them? Correcting their errors? Ensuring that assessment results are reported in timely fashion? Nobody wants the Education Department to do this. There's reason to keep it separate from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and its governing board.

Yet the awkward ad hoc "partnership" now assembling to pursue this process could fall apart tomorrow if key individuals retire, die, or defect; if election results change the makeup of participating organizations; if the money runs out; or if their working draft runs into political headwinds like the "voluntary national standards" of the early 90s.

Finn remains cautiously optimistic about national standards, at the same time, he has given us all a list of what to watch out for.

I would add that No Child Left Behind has not led to significant narrowing of the curriculum. Schools have added a few minutes more a day for reading and subtracted a few minutes from other subjects. For National Center for Education Statistics data on this, please see:

21st-C Skills & Effective Lesson Plans

My friend Patrick Riccards blogs as Eduflack and today (Mar. 5) summarizes and endeavors to advance the debate on 21st century skills. He is correct in pointing out that skills have to be about knowledge and and that the two go together:

The debate over 21C skills should not be one between one set of curricular goals versus the other. This isn't core knowledge versus soft skills.

Riccards then goes on say that the need for students to have these skills (the ability to communicate effectively, critical reasoning, and so forth) necessitates certain teaching practices:

[O]ur focus should be on how we teach those core subjects that are necessary....How do we teach the social sciences in a manner that focuses on project-based learning and team-based activities?

This presumes that the effective way to teach the social sciences is project-based learning and group work. Perhaps it would be wiser to go topic-by-topic in the social sciences (and other academic disciplines). For each topic, teachers should have field-tested, proven lesson plans in which the learning approach is appropriate to the topic. Lesson plans that work -- lesson plans that are proven effective in getting the students to master the subject matter -- are what's needed. Students can only apply knowledge if they first have it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What Students Really Need -- Disciplined Minds

Several evenings ago, I went to an event at the Stanford Law School co-sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). There I picked up an ISI publication that reprinted a classic 1959 essay, "Education and the Individual," by Richard M. Weaver. I had read all of Weaver's essays on my own (they were not assigned by professors) when I was an undergraduate and graduate student. He is famous for his astringent insights on Edmund Burke and William of Ockam (trust me on this).

But I had forgotten "Education and the Individual," which is a critique of Progressive education penned at the time when the "life adjustment" version of Progressivism was riding high.

Weaver is witty when he describes "real world" topics that educators embraced to create schools subordinated to students' short-term, immediate interests:

[T]he student is invited to give his thought to the “dating patterns” of teenagers instead of to those facts which explain the rise and fall of nations.

Weaver argued that what Progressive educators of the 1950s sought to produce was a “smooth” individual adapted to an idealized welfare-state life, not a person of "strong con­victions, of refined sensibility, and of deep personal feeling of direction in life."

Weaver disagreed with Progressive-education theorist John Dewey, who held that "the idea of perfecting an ‘inner’ per­sonality," in Dewey's phrasing, was socially divisive and to be avoided.

Weaver worried that the Progressive educators of his day were training students for a conflictless, managed society:

[Progressive educators] do not contemplate adjusting students to life in its fullness and mystery, but to life lived in some kind of projected [ideal society], where everybody has so conformed to a political pattern that there really are no problems any more.

Adjustment to real life must take into account pain, evil, passion, tragedy, the limits of human power, heroism, the attraction of ideals, arid so on. The edu­cation of the "progressives” does not do this. It educates for a world conceived as without serious conflicts. And this is the propaganda of ignorance.

Weaver thought that a better alternative was a well-disciplined mind -- one schooled in the academic disciplines, and he scorned the Progressive simile that people develop naturally like flowers:

[A] disciplined mind is one that is developed and trained to think in accordance with the necessary laws of thought, and which therefore can provide its owner with true casual reasoning about the world. A person with a disciplined will is trained to want the right thing and to reject the bad out of his own free volition.

Dis­cipline involves the idea of the negative, and this is another proof that man does not un­fold merely naturally, like a flower. He un­folds when be is being developed by a sound educational philosophy according to known lines of truth and error, of right and wrong.

Finally, Weaver rejected the claim of Progressive educators that learning should flow only from following children's initial, natural interests:

Nothing today more needs recovering than the truth that interest develops under pressure. Man is not spontaneously interested in anything with an interest that lasts or that carried him beyond attention to superficial aspects.

Natural in­terest which is left to itself nearly always proves impermanent, disconnected, and friv­olous. It is only when we are made to take an interest in something that we become ex­posed to its real possibility of interesting us. It is only then that we see far enough into its complications and potentialities to say to ourselves, here is a real problem, or a real opportunity....

[O]ne of the invaluable things [formal education] can do is face [an individual] with the neces­sity of mastering something, so that he can find the real richness that lies beyond his threshold indifference to it. An interest in mathematics, in music, in poetry has often resulted from an individual’s being con­fronted with one of these as a "discipline”; that is, as something he had to become acquainted with on pain of penalties.

The subject there by its own powers begins to evoke him, and before long he is wondering how he could ever have been oblivious to such a fascinating world of knowledge and experience. From this point on his apprecia­tion of it becomes individual, personal, and creative.

Weaver was one of the most influential conservative intellectuals in the early days of modern conservatism. Weaver's criticism of Progressive education contains themes that are still worth pursuing today.

Jeb Bush Lauds Fla. Experience with Opportunity Scholarships

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has a column in the Atlanta Journal Constitution today (Mar. 4), in which he is hopeful about the effort of Georgia State Sen. Eric Johnson to bring opportunity scholarships to Georgia children -- such scholarships give low-income families access to high performing schools and can put competitive pressure on low-performing schools.

In his column, Jeb Bush gives a rousing defense of opportunity scholarships, citing particular their positive effect in Florida (where they were in place 1999-2006):

[R]esearch by Harvard and Cornell universities concluded that Florida’s choice programs...improved the quality of education in public schools. Fearing the loss of students, public schools developed innovative ways to help students succeed, such as offering Saturday morning tutorials and after-school intervention.

There is irrefutable evidence our education reform formula is responsible for Florida’s rising student achievement. Nearly a quarter of a million more children are reading at or above grade level today than a decade ago. Florida is scoring above the national average in reading and math. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Education recently recognized Florida as one of five states to close the achievement gap for minority students.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Diane Ravitch on 21st C Skills

On Feb. 24, I was in Washington, D.C. and attended a panel on 21st-century skills, sponsored by the new pro-liberal-arts group Common Core.

Diane Ravitch (NYU historian), E.D. Hirsch Jr. (author of Cultural Literacy), and Daniel Willingham (a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia) delivered prepared presentations, and Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), replied. The prepared presentation are available here and are well worth reading.

Ravitch has now written a hard-hitting blog post pointing out that the supposedly newfangled 21-century proposals are actually old hat -- "not at all 21st century." She says that calls to teach critical thinking skills, creativity, problem-solving, and cooperative group work have been around for scores of years and are something like "mantras," as she puts it, in America's schools of education. She summarizes the Feb. 24 presentations of Hirsch and Willingham as follows:

E.D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham were brilliant as they argued that skills and knowledge are inseparable. People do not think in the abstract; they need knowledge—ideas, facts, concepts—to think about. Dan Willingham showed in his presentation that the mind does not compartmentalize into skills and knowledge. Problems cannot be solved without having the relevant knowledge to think with.

Ravitch also relates an excellent point made by audience member Diana Senechal, a New York City elementary school teacher:

[Diana Senechal] had gone to the trouble of visiting the P21 Web site, where she reviewed suggested lesson plans in English. One activity was to have students read a story or play, then make a commercial or video with Claymation figures. Diana asked, “Why not discuss the ideas in the story instead of spending hours making Claymation figures?” Which approach is likelier to engage students in thinking critically?

Monday, March 2, 2009

What Children Should Know -- Setting Academic Standards

The Learning Institute has just published an interview with Sandra Stotsky, former Senior Associate Commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Education. (She is currently holder of the Endowed Chair in Teacher Quality at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville).

Stotsky provides extensive details in the interview on how Massachusetts rose to the top.

But perhaps the most valuable segments of the interview are her suggestions for Arkansas (or any state, for that matter) on how to create high-quality academic-content standards in English and math:

English Language Arts (ELA) Standards
Arkansas should look at the organization of the most highly rated ELA standards documents (California, Indiana, Massachusetts) and decide upon a small set of major strands. Then it should work out vertical or developmental progressions for substrands in each area. These substrands should show the major intellectual changes or highlights that are reasonable to expect of students over the grades: in reading fiction, poetry, drama, and informational texts; in completing a research paper; in writing expository and persuasive compositions; in learning oral and written language conventions; in developing speaking skills; in developing a reading and writing vocabulary; and in understanding and using media. The number of objectives in each strand should be reasonable. Standards documents should be frameworks for a curriculum, not the curriculum itself.

Mathematics Standards

[In Massachusetts], I drew on the services of a mathematics professor to make sure that the revised standards at each grade level were mathematically correct and in a coherent sequence for mathematical learning. We also reduced as much as possible the pedagogical material in the original document.... Here in Arkansas, the state should consider three steps in order to support a leaner and more coherent math curriculum framework:
1) It should involve several of the state's mathematicians as well as teachers at different educational levels in spelling out the math content to be taught from grade to grade;
2) It should use the recommendations in the National Mathematics Advisory Panel's report to guide what should be emphasized from grade to grade to prepare all students for an authentic Algebra I course; and
3) For international benchmarking, it should refer to what the high-achieving countries on the TIMSS assessment (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study) teach in their K-8 lean and coherent math curricula.

From my experience on the California State Standards Commission and elsewhere, this is excellent advice.

Regulatory Recapture: Fresno Unified vs. KIPP Charter

Regulations do not operate in an angelic world. More often than most people realize, politicians and bureaucrats use economic, safety, and sanitation regulations for political or personal ends. The Fresno Bee today (Mar. 2) has an excellent article on sabotage of the high-performing Fresno KIPP charter school by the local school district’s board of trustees. The local board is pointing to hiring regulations, safety rules, and the school’s strict disciplinary policy, as it blocks a grant application that is necessary for the school’s survival.

But as the Bee article points out, some KIPP supporters believe that the district (whose enrollment is falling) wants to recapture KIPP's students and the money that comes with them:

Many see it as a David-and-Goliath battle: a tiny charter school pitted against the mammoth Fresno Unified School District. Fresno Unified officials say it's not up to them whether the school stays open, but say the school has violated state and federal laws and has prompted safety concerns.

But supporters wonder whether Fresno Unified, with dropping enrollment, wants to capture KIPP's students....

The school posted an 850 on the state's testing index last year, the second-best score for a middle school in Fresno Unified. (Edison Computech scored 916.) The index ranges from 200 to 1,000, with the goal of at least 800.

For a little-known but classic account of the political use of regulations, see “Laissez-Faire and the Chinese Persecutions in San Francisco,” by Thomas Jacobsen, Rampart Journal of Individualist Thought (vol. 4, no. 3, Sept. 1968). Regulations on economics, safety, and sanitation were used by the Workingmen’s Party in San Francisco to persecute Chinese immigrants in the late 1870s.

Jay Mathews on Class Size

The Washington Post's Jay Mathews, one of the nation's premier education journalists, has an important column today summarizing the research on class-size reduction:

...[W]hen the Center for Public Education examined 19 studies of class-size effects that met its research standards, it reached two interesting conclusions. First, most of the studies focused on kindergarten through third grade, and most of the beneficial effects of smaller classes seem to occur in those years, when students are learning to read....Second, the studies showed little effect from class-size reduction unless the number of students was 20 or fewer, and little effect in middle or high schools.

The whole article is definitely worth reading -- particularly for its "thought experiments" for parents and for administrators.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Organic School Lunches: A Load of Manure?

My Hoover colleague and former FDA senior official Henry I. Miller had a letter to the editor in the Feb. 27 New York Times responding to a Feb. 20 op-ed calling for expensive organically-grown school lunches.

Dr. Miller wrote (in part):

[F]ood safety, environmental preservation and energy conservation are not promoted by “foods that are produced without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.” Such foods are expensive and inefficient, because they use more land and water than if modern techniques were employed.

Moreover, [restaurateur Alice] Waters is a longtime opponent of the use of the most precise and predictable genetic techniques to improve crop varieties, a view that is diametrically at odds with the writers’ desire for the federal government “to back environmentally sound farming practices.”

Class Size

A letter to the editor in today's New York Times (March 1), cites large K-12 classes during World War II as evidence that children can thrive under such conditions. The letter-writer is responding to a Feb. 22 article in the Times, which said:

...[A]s many states and school districts have rushed to reduce class sizes, usually to the low 20s, student achievement has not consistently improved markedly.

In California, a 1996 law provided schools with an extra $1,000 in state money for every student in the earliest grades whose classes had 20 or fewer students. The state quickly hired 28,000 new teachers, but many of them lacked experience or education credentials; a 2002 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that the best-qualified teachers fled poorer urban schools as the extra funds created jobs in wealthier areas, and that children who were in smaller third-grade classes did not have higher scores on fifth-grade tests.

In New York City, an Education Department comparison over the last two years between school report-card grades and average class size has found little correlation; in many cases, schools with better grades have bigger classes....

VP Joe Biden: Last Chance for Public Education

Vice President Joe Biden has told members of the Delaware teachers' union that the needed money for reform is now available and that this is the last chance for public education. His message in essence is: fix yourselves or die. As reported in the Feb. 28 News Journal:

Vice President Joe Biden asked 150 Delaware teachers Friday evening for help in transforming the nation's public education system.

"I genuinely need your help to make this work because, folks, look at it this way. We've been given all the ammunition. If we shoot and miss, if we squander the opportunity, tell me how long you think it's going to take for another American president to go and ask for more dollars to correct the education system," Biden said to the Delaware State Education Association members....

Citing about $105 billion that is coming to the U.S. Department of Education from the federal stimulus package, Biden said teachers will finally have the means to improve education.

..."The good news is, we have the resources. The bad news is that everyone is watching so we better do this right...,"Biden said.

Spending skeptics have sometimes asked spending proponents: how much? Vice President Biden has now given the answer: The amount in the stimulus package is enough to do the job.