Monthly Archives: November 2007

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Turns out firing people isn’t supposed to be adversarial

teacher-policy experts say [New York City] is going about the job of removing incompetent teachers the wrong way. Tom Carroll, the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a research and advocacy group based in Washington, criticized the approach as “adversarial.”

Leo Casey Gets E-Whacked! By A Mouse!

Fun as this would be, it sounds just too good to be true…especially because the Stossel thing turned out to be a boon for ABC! But who knows…more than a technical glitch? Could the mouse be that vindictive?

Update: Uh oh. Does it matter if a story is true or not so long as it catches mice? Mike A. says technical errors are the culprit here rather than retribution and has some evidence. Looks like the mouse is off the hook. Update II: I didn’t realize that AFTie Ed had gone into full moralizing mode over this…he saw it as a teachable moment and a lesson, and now I suspect others will, too, just not the way he’d hoped…

Programming Note

I’m traveling next week to Boston and Chicago so posting will be pretty light, but Michael Goldstein, of gone wild fame but now known as Agent 99, will be here all week guestblogging. I’m sure he’ll have more on the high school rankings and other goings on.

US News Pulls Rank!

US News has a new ranking of American high schools out today. The list is here, my take on what it means and why it matters here, and here is a paper explaining the methodology (pdf). WaPo story here, local and regional here.

A bit of background. In 2006 Sara Mead and I criticized Newsweek’s high school rankings. First, in this paper and then we subsequently debated the issue of what makes a good ranking with Jay Mathews, The Washington Post reporter who developed the Newsweek method called the “Challenge Index.” I’m obviously biased (because I had a hand in helping come up with this new method) but think it addresses the problems that Sara and I raised to the extent they can be addressed (a) with the data available today and (b) in an inter-state ranking. And, it represents measures that are more aligned with what high schools are expected to do today. So, as the kids say, props to US News. This list also shows the power of the work that S & P is doing on education and why Schoolmatters is a great resource (and it shows why S & P’s Paul Gazzerro is such a badass in our field).

Basically, the US News method doesn’t abandon the college prep focus of the Challenge Index. Instead, it augments it with a couple of screens intended to ensure that schools under consideration are providing a good education overall to their study body, and especially to disadvantaged students, as well as good college prep.

There is a lot of data on this list but a few quick takeaways that jump out already. Rural schools are under-represented on the list, obvious implications for policymakers there in terms of college-prep courses like Advanced Placement. Charter schools are over-represented, that’s indicative of the number that are focusing on college prep for urban kids. And some states are over/under represented. Lessons there, too.

The fact that the top high school is a selective one will cause some to write off the whole list. But, while 1 in 5 schools on the list are selective, that means 4 in 5, including some schools with diverse student bodies, also make it into this elite company. And, there are selective high schools that don’t make the cut. So it’s a leg up but not a determinent. The distribution of high poverty – high minority schools on the list should at once offer us some lessons but also call attention to the scale of the challenge. In other words, it’s a list that does showcase some of the best schools out there but doesn’t sugar coat the equity problems that exist today.

Mind-Readers Among Us!

Per this post from a while back, The American Prospect posted a clarification, sort of, a few weeks ago.

Recall that Richard Rothstein and Larry Mishel wrote recently in a cover story that, Rick Hess and I had written to the effect that we:

“worry that the urgent “competitiveness agenda” could be derailed if we are distracted by a focus on equity-improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. Attention will now have to be turned, they conclude, to further improving the technological savvy of those already primed to succeed.”

Problem is, we wrote no such thing. As Rothstein and Mishel now acknowledge:

Hess and Rotherham now complain that, while their essay stated that the educational goals of equity and competitiveness are in conflict, they did not explicitly say that equity should be sacrificed to competitiveness. We acknowledge this, and are happy to correct the record in this respect.

That’s apparently not enough to get The Prospect to actually, you know, correct the paragraph, just to add a link for “further discussion” to our objection and a fantastic response.

In the course of acknowledging that we didn’t actually write this, buried, natch, beneath a paragraph pointing out all the things we don’t dispute, Rothstein and Mishel argue that I nonetheless must be thinking it! It’s the “clear implication” they say. To be clear, this is notwithstanding that (a) as they acknowledge we didn’t write it (b) I’ve written the opposite and they know this (c) Rick and I actually held an event to debate the issue where again the inaccurate nature of this characterization was made clear and (d) our objection to that characterization now. In other words no textual grounding for the assertion, no context, and two authors saying, ‘no, that’s not what was meant.’ Otherwise, they’re on very firm ground.

In addition to endorsing mind-reading as a legitimate method of policy analysis and journalism, Rothstein and Mishel seem to argue that if I didn’t very secretly think that the equity argument should be derailed by the competitiveness argument why would I raise any tension between competitiveness policies and equity ones since equity is so firmly carrying the day?

Perhaps that would be at least somewhat convincing if indeed no one at all were talking about competitiveness and advanced students and so we were manufacturing a controversy out of absolutely whole cloth. But in fact it’s a complete misreading of the environment today. Sure, in the No Child Left Behind-era equity policies are dominant but you can hardly open The Washington Post op-ed or news pages without reading another piece about how gifted kids are being shortchanged by NCLB. Meanwhile on the Hill there is an ongoing debate about how much No Child’s accountability policies should focus on high-performing students. And, the President recently signed a competitiveness bill. You get the idea, a lot of people are trying to change the emphasis. In fact, in their article Rothstein and Mishel point out that a lot of people are, well, talking about competitiveness a lot. In other words the tension Rick and I document is a very live issue right now and as we show in the article this has been a historical tension and back and forth for the last 50 years. It’s nothing new.

Moreover, one can believe that there is a long-term competitiveness challenge but also see a more near-term equity problem. That happens to be what I believe and think that equity policies should take precedence now when hard choices inevitably have to be made. I worry more about what it means for the country that we tolerate 50 percent dropout rates for minorities than what it means that more Chinese students are going to college. One of those is an immediate challenge for America, the other a generational one. Others, including Hess, see it differently and it’s an important debate to have as a predicate to some clarity in the policies.

The point that Rick and I made in our article is that while it’s easy to say we can just do it all and ignore that debate, there are actually hard choices that have to be made around policies. For instance you can’t hold schools accountable for everything at once. As Rothstein himself has pointed out in other settings a standard can’t be both very advanced and attainable by all students. These tensions are too often misunderstood in policymaking and policytalk leading to confused policies that try to do everything, whipsawing educators in the process.

But, of course, sometimes people just want to confuse. When the RothsteinMishel article originally came out I assumed this was just an overzealous research assistant trying to score points with the powers that be at an organization and a quick clarification would take care of it. Turns out that was too charitable. I’d speculate more about what they’re up to but, alas, I can’t read minds.

There’s Gonna Be A Fight After School…But What About Striking A Deal Instead?

The after-school research debate continues. A new study (pdf) making the rounds up on Capitol Hill, purports to show the wrongness of the 2005 Mathematica study (pdf) on federally funded after school programs. Ed Week’s Viadero reports here.

There is at once less and more here than meets the eye.In the less department: The basic punchline is that if you go out and find really high quality after-school programs, they’re good for kids. Wow. I also hear it gets awfully cold in Chicago in the wintertime. The effect sizes in the new study seem a little too good to be true but I don’t think you’ll find many people that dispute the underlying premise.

Problem is, not every program is a high quality one and the federal government spends almost a billion dollars a year on after-school programs. In fact, in most of the attention to extending learning time almost no one mentions that the feds are already in that game in a big way through the after-school program and also some Title I funds (via No Child Left Behind’s tutoring provisions per Sherman Dorn’s comment below).

That’s why the Mathematica study offered more analytic leverage than this new one, it was randomized (for students at the elementary school level and schools at the middle school level). In other words a random selection of programs, not a deliberate sample of good programs. Unfortunately, Viadero covered that more like a horse race than just explaining the issue to readers. But this is education…methods…we don’t need no stinkin’ methods!

Still, program quality problems are (a) hardly surprising considering how quickly these programs came on-line and (b) not a reason to just cut the funding as many congressional Republicans want. See this paper for more on all that.

So, in the more than meets the eye department, here’s a radical idea to address two (maybe three) problems: Why not convert the entire after-school funding stream into portable vouchers (call them “coupons” or some such thing if it goes down easier) that eligible families can use to purchase after-school services either via traditional after school programs or through the various supplemental services programs that have sprung up in the wake of No Child Left Behind? At the same time, eliminate the supplemental services (eg tutoring) provisions of Title I, which are something of a disaster anyway and distract from the intended purpose of that program. But, means-test the program so that it’s aimed at low-income kids.

This would be one step to (a) get on top of the quality problem in after-school by introducing some actual competition though you’d still need some sort of certification process for providers, something that’s been a joke under the current law (b) possibly turn the supplemental services idea into a more effective one by making it a genuine “wrap-around” for at-risk kids and (c) it might be enough of a choice program to ease the demand for vouchers and, as in 2001, put together enough of a coalition to pass a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind without vouchers becoming a flashpoint. What you’d basically have would be a billion dollar program through repurposed dollars that you could target to poor kids in struggling schools to get them extra help.

By empowering parents you’d get around the fox guarding the henhouse challenges of No Child Left Behind’s tutoring provisions but school districts could also compete to serve these kids or encourage parents to pool the dollars for various programs.

The burgeoning after school industry won’t like it, nor will the public school establishment (though taking supplemental services out of Title I might ease their pain a bit), and middle class parents will be pissed if this impacts their after-school programs, but it just might be good for poor kids…

Irony…Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Some Freedom Of Action

From Toledo:

The Toledo Public Schools teachers’ union president wants to take the district’s lowest-performing school, remove the principal, and let teachers supervise themselves.

“Our proposal is that there would be no administrators and it will be totally teacher-led,” said Francine Lawrence, Toledo Federation of Teachers president…

…The idea has several hurdles, including state law that requires administrative leadership in schools and the Toledo Association of Administrative Personnel union’s contract that states there will be a principal in every school…

…David McClellan, president of the principal’s union, said he hasn’t seen Ms. Lawrence’s written proposal.

“I have heard she presented something to the board and that it is totally in opposition to our contract,” Mr. McClellan said.

“It is a very obvious violation of our agreement, and we are not going to let that happen.”

Ms. Lawrence said her goal is to increase student achievement.

This amusing impasse aside, it’s worth noting that Lawrence’s plan seems to have some elements to help get around this issue although decisonmaking and execution can be a challenge under this model.

Update: Mike A. is on this, too, and on board…

Smarick Goes Paradigm Shift!

New Ed Next is worth checking out, a lot of interesting stuff. In particular, Andy Smarick’s provocative article about charter schools and urban school districts demands a read. I don’t agree with it, seems he under-estimates the challenges of scale, politics when ideas move to scale, and that ultimately the goal is to turn these districts into high-performing organizations but it’s well worth reading. And, my critique notwithstanding, he basically calls for some oil-spotting, which seems a good strategy for reformers.