Saturday, April 09, 2005
Earth Mother Cracks The Whip!
Self-described "earth mother" Margaret Spellings says she's going to get tough on Texas on behalf of students with disabilities. Grab your Birkenstocks and some trail mix, you don't want to miss this one!
Haycock V. Huskies!
Unless you care nothing at all, one way or the other, about No Child Left Behind you'll want to read this account of yesterday's shootout at the Sternberg Corral.
Lots of tea-leaf reading about the department's new NCLB strategy. Yesterday's announcement was one of three things:
*Nothing more than a clever way to basically keep on doing what they've been doing, but now they look more reasonable and states like CT even more like outliers.
*The beginning of the big walk back, hold on to the "core idea" of the law, while quietly allowing states to evade all of its particulars.
*A genuine effort to try to take things more on a state-by-state basis while ensuing that the basic principles of disaggregated accountability and transparency are respected.
Only time will tell…however be sure to read, and read between the lines, this statement by House Ed and Workforce Chair Boehner and ranking Democrat Miller. Word is, not pleased…
The big loser yesterday was the disability community. Though they're feared as a lobbying force, they've been completely outflanked here as NCLB critics have trotted out anomalous examples and bad state practices to argue against holding schools accountable for educating the overwhelming majority special needs kids who do need, and are entitled to, access to the mainstream curriculum.
The rule allowing one percent of all students to take alternative assessments was not completely arbitrary, there was actually math behind it and at one point the White House, under the leadership of Ms. Spellings, was resisting efforts to raise that cap and overturned three percent back in 2002. The three percent cap has some math behind it, too, but is also somewhat arbitrary. However, at some point you have to draw a line and give schools, districts, and states the ability to appeal for additional flexibility if the line doesn’t work for them. But rather than communicate effectively with states and school districts and put in place a robust appeal/waiver process the Department is instead dancing around with numbers. In terms of the mathematics, they vary community to community and state to state. But, if you're going to err in this, isn't it better to err on the side of forcing the adults to seek a waiver rather than opening a loophole up for kids to slip through?
The reality is that most students in special education do not have profound cognitive disabilities. Over half have learning disabilities and, sadly, many of these are just students who were not taught to read well (pdf). Many more have disabilities that demand attention but do not demand an alternative curriculum but rather access to the mainstream curriculum. The disability community, however, did not succeed in making that case to the media and the myth that the law was requiring wildly inappropriate practices for kids with, for instance Down Syndrome, has firmly taken hold.
Not a banner day for special needs kids.
Finally, can't help but note that the Bushies rode into office claiming they were going to end the waiver culture (not as riveting a culture as the culture of life, sure, but a culture nonetheless). Guess we won't be hearing much more of that!
Press release and some details on the Department of Education's new NCLB strategy. Here is the Secretary's speech. Interesting to see how all this will work in practice. First blush, could be some sensible case-by-case flexibility or the beginning of a really big walk back if they want the news stories to go away. Unlikely to assuage the critics in any event, though expect praise in the next few days.
More disenchantment with Utah's war on NCLB in the minority community. Via Jenny D.
Charter researcher Gary Miron, who seems to be everywhere these days, has a new study out on charters in CT. News article here, no link to the study yet, sorry.
Update: Study here (pdf).
If you're interested in the issue of scientifically-based research in education, the National Academies' report Advancing Scientific Research in Education is now available free online and can be downloaded.
Wash Post's Dobbs previews today's action.
Provocative article by James Popham in Edutopia, the newsletter of the George Lucas Educational Foundation decrying some of today's testing policies. But, Popham's complaints seem to have more to do with the expansionist nature of today's standards (which were originally intended to have the distilling effect he seeks) and consequently assessments than with just testing itself.
In terms of unaligned or "insensitive tests" add this as one more reason the Bush Administration's unwillingness to seriously invest in state assessments is inexplicable. Sure, the testing industry is pretty stretched right now but more money would help with quality.
Two interesting NYT stories. Michael Winerip looks at Urban Academy in New York through the eyes of one student. Really interesting part of the story though is the bit on Princeton Review's recommendation writing service, which some high schools are using. Don't robo-recommendations sort of defeat the whole purpose of personal recommendations?
Also, Alina Tugend looks at the growing enthusiasm for military style academies.
NCLB Causes School Violence Part II
Part I from last year here. Part II, from the St. Paul Pioneer Press. After every tragic school shooting there used to be an out-of-context spasm about violence in schools. Now will there be a spasm about how No Child Left Behind causes, even if just indirectly, these episodes? The article does make an important point about more support for at-risk students but sets up a false choice between academics and social engagement and using a tragedy like this is in poor taste anyway.
Title I Monitor via Educationnews has a good write-up of the forthcoming change to the "one percent rule" for how to count assessments of severely disabled students. There may be more to this regulation than just an across the board raising of the cap. Note the strong resistance from the special needs community.
NYT editorializes on No Child Left Behind and pushes back on Utah. A common criticism you hear -- that Eduwonk doesn't share -- is that the NYT editorializes on its news pages. Maybe, but that's certainly not the case with regard to education. Too much to pull quote, read this one.
Also, Senator Dodd (D-CT) is re-introducing his NCLB reform/repeal bill again this week. Long list of signatories on a letter supporting it. However, right now that letter is more noteworthy for who is not on it: Council of Great City Schools, American Federation of Teachers, Council of Chief State School Officers, and National Council of La Raza...not a unified front...
New book from Economic Policy Institute about charter schools, in particular last year’s “dust-up” about the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) charter school report. Overall, a good indication of what’s genuinely new in here can be found in the title, “The Charter School Dust-Up", which is unoriginal itself. Nonetheless, there are a few parts that reward close reading though those interested in the state of play on charter research can save a lot of time and just read this essay by Paul Hill and continue to look on a state-by-state basis for good and bad policy and achievement data. Few thoughts:
First, it is worth noting that EPI is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT head sits on EPIs board of directors and there is a financial relationship. Obviously, none of that is dispositive in terms of this or any other product, but it’s certainly relevant context about a book that purports to objectively analyze the dust-up about an AFT study. It's a poor reflection on Teachers College Press, the co-publisher, that they didn’t insist on such a basic and relevant disclosure.
Second, two buried ledes. #1, in the end, the book is arguably more about the AFT’s position on No Child Left Behind than it is about charter schools. EPI seeks to forge a consensus that no schools should be judged by snap-shot testing. In fact, in doing so, they chastise the AFT and The Times for “over-interpreting" the NAEP data in their reporting.
Couple of problems with this consensus. For starters, NCLB allows states to average test scores over several years so the accountability mechanism is not really a "single test" as some critics contend. More importantly, in terms of research, yes, value-added studies are ideal and work like the recent Ladd report about North Carolina is a good benchmark to strive for. But if every state had data like North Carolina we wouldn’t be having this debate about charter school performance in the first place! Right now relatively few states have the data capacity to facilitate this sort of analysis. Likewise, states are similarly mostly ill-positioned to put in place value-added accountability systems in lieu of NCLB's current provisions despite the flavor of the month character of the rampant enthusiasm for them. In most states it's a solution that is still many years away and also introduces all sorts of other issues and biases. In the meantime, something has to be done in terms of school accountability. And, technical issues notwithstanding, make no mistake, the core politics of NCLB won’t abate with value-added. It’s a sure bet that right when the time comes when there will actually be consequences for some adult in a low-performing school somewhere, many of the same folks calling for value-added now will suddenly become very versed in and vocal about all the technical shortcomings of value-added methodology and some new, more fair, and better alternative will be heralded on the horizon. (This latter point is generalized and not directed at the national AFT which is in a different place than the NEA on the accountability question right now.)
The, albeit gentle, criticism of AFT and The Times is buried lede #2. Yes, even EPI and its hired guns couldn’t eat that uncooked. Yet they criticize Eduwonk (actually quoting from this blog, which is really quite flattering though overdone, it's just a blog after all), for calling the AFT report a “hatchet job”. Apparently there is some subtle distinction between a hatchet job and a deliberate over-interpretation of data to score public relations points? The reader who can best explain the difference wins a free anti-NCLB folk song CD. Second prize is two CDs! Worth nothing that others who criticized the AFT report like U of Washington’s Celio (“one of the most unsophisticated, low-level analyses I've ever seen”) are not mentioned. Gotta be careful...too many examples of people calling it a hatchet job might give readers the impression that it was, well, a hatchet job. This is relevant mostly because it’s an indication of what most of the book is about: Score settling from last August and other disputes (the long-running debate on voucher studies gets dragged into this…).
For instance, the book also goes to great lengths to show that some charter school supporters are hypocrites because they’ve used NAEP data and other test scores one way at one time and another way at another. In many cases this is true but it’s not news. This blog pointed it out at the time, so did AEI’s Rick Hess, and CRPE’s Paul Hill among others. There’s hypocrisy on all sides of this debate. Recall that the day after the AFT-NYT incident Paul Peterson and several colleagues responded with an op-ed in the WSJ pointing out that the AFT was now talking from both sides of its mouth about NAEP test scores. Big fun for partisans, sure, but more heat than light in terms of the real questions at hand. Likewise (and in another questionable moment for TC Press), this new book repeatedly describes charter school supporters throughout as “charter school zealots”, but duly notes that the phrase zealot is not used pejoratively. Seriously. This is what it’s coming to. All this would actually be quite entertaining were the stakes not so high for the kids who don’t have the luxury of watching this debate unfold from a distance or savoring its abundant absurdities.
Finally, worth noting that the way the book was released was the policy equivalent of a drive-by. A private conference call with a handful of reporters and no advance copies circulated to people being criticized in the book. That’s no way to business and essentially no different than President Bush’s fraudulent “town meetings” on Social Security which have understandably enraged the Left and one can only assume EPI doesn't support. For what it’s worth, PPI’s schools project has never released major work products calling people names anyway (that's what the blog is for!). But when we do take on controversial or disputed issues, for instance teacher licensure, teacher pay, special education and so forth standard practice is to invite the critics to respond at the release event. For instance then AACTE president David Imig graciously agreed to debate Rick Hess when Tear Down This Wall was released. Teachers' union leaders Adam Urbanski and Brad Jupp and researcher Jane Hannaway reviewed Bryan Hassel’s Better Pay for Better Teaching and Don McAdams came to offer a spirited defense of school boards at the release of Paul Hill’s School Boards: Focus on School Performance, Not Money and Patronage. None of this is necessary for the pedestrian stuff that’s the day-to-day business of the advocacy and think tank world, but work offered up as serious criticism should be able to withstand public scrutiny and be offered in that manner and spirit.
What's actually unfortunate is that there are some interesting things in Dust Up worth reading for those willing to wade through the politics to get there. There is a section on demographics that while not as deterministic as the authors seemingly would like (in short there are problems with free and reduced price lunch data as a fine-grained proxy for poverty, and charters may underreport disproportionately, though the extent is not known and here skepticism gives way to point scoring*) does point to the need for better research about charter demographics. Similarly, there is discussion about Caroline Hoxby's recent study including an attack on her matching methodology based on demographics. EPI is right that the matching method falls apart if there are systematic differences between charters and comparison schools though the data are not granular enough to close that case right now. So stay tuned for plenty more back and forth on all that though it seems a little ridiculous to devote so much attention to one study, of basically one grade, that pretty much everyone agrees is as limited as most other current studies.
Some original research on charter demographics would be really useful though costly and cumbersome. A few years ago Jack Jennings tried to convene a group to come up with some standards for research on vouchers that everyone could agree on. It was a noble effort but mostly doomed by the ideological fervor of the debate. An attempt to do the same with charter demographics might meet a similar fate but is perhaps worth pursuing and something charter supporters would do well to take on.
Tipping their hand, EPI asks whether we can afford the risks of charter schools because while some will be very good, some will also be very bad. This risk-reward question is interesting in an academic sense (and good public policies and oversight can mitigate it in practice) but tragically comic against the backdrop of a system that loses half of the minority students that enter it. Still, as they think about quality, charter supporters would do well to remember the naturally conservative (change-averse) character of American education, the risk-averse nature of politics, and the public's tolerance for messy change.
Charter school supporters better realize that they're in a big fight. EPI didn’t just wake up and decide to go seek truth in the groves, there is an agenda here. Frederick Douglas reminds us that power concedes nothing without a demand. It also rarely concedes gracefully. So, to win this fight over time charter supporters better be serious about playing smart politics, dealing with low-performing charters (and yes, equal seriousness is necessary with regard to low-performing traditional public schools but such relativism is a weak defense and a worse offense) so that in a few years the numbers look manifestly different when charters mature more and more data is available. There is a kill the baby in the cradle quality to the recent barrage against charters, it's up to charter supporters as to whether it succeeds.
Finally, EPI makes a good point about the similar political challenges of closing public charter schools and other public schools. Charter proponents are at a crossroads in terms of dealing with such schools. Unfortunately, however, that they’ll have to do it fighting on two fronts where they're screwed one way if a school closes and another way if it stays open. But, welcome to life in today’s weird edupolitics where self-described progressives seek to discredit change at every turn and self-described conservatives are irresponsibly drunk on it.
*In an admirable rhetorical flourish, EPI notes that they don’t think charters are systematically “denying” free lunches to students. Look for the next book to be about how charters are actually, on average, deliberately starving poor children...
This is potentially interesting. Not because of the back and forth on vouchers, that's mindnumbing stuff except for the fiercest partisans on both sides. What's interesting is the money politics and whether there would even be big funding for a statewide voucher referendum in Arizona if voucher proponents choose to go that route. After the defeat of voucher referendums in California and Michigan in 2000, (particularly Michigan because the California one was really pie-in-the-sky stuff and even lefty voucher proponents opposed it) the word was that the big money behind the voucher campaigns was very reluctant to make big bets like this again because they just don't pay off.
Link via Educationnews.org
Jay Mathews writes about 30 great public and private high schools in The Washington Post Magazine. It is, understandably, a Washington-centric list but still good reading. Mathews takes readers questions about the list, and the larger issues, this afternoon in this Washington Post chat.
This NYT article shows why schools are a poor unit of analysis and and implicitly why disaggregated accountability, with all its warts, is necessary.