Friday, March 31, 2006Questioning Vouchers
Boardbuzz happily bathes in the warm glow from the top line finding from this St. Pete Times poll about school vouchers in Florida. Now I'm no fan of vouchers, but I do get tired of polls with poorly worded questions about them. The SPT asked respondents:
Some people say that state funds should only go to public schools. Others say the state of Florida should pay for private schooling if the public school a child attends is failing. In this situation would you be for or against giving state funds to private schools?
The problem is the sentiment captured in the final line: "giving state funds to private schools." Sure, that's part of the issue with vouchers but it's not a clean way to ask the question because it loads it. I haven't seen the entire poll so I don't know if they asked the question in multiple ways but I'd bet that if you asked it with an emphasis on parents being able to chose schools, even private schools with public money, you'd get a different result.
Now it may well be that Floridians oppose vouchers and are really serious about reforming their public schools, I'd like to think so, you just can't be sure from questions like this. And, to the extent that public school supporters take false comfort based on bad information, that's a problem. Incidentally, along these lines it's cold comfort that the SPT is happy that their poll jibes with the PDK poll, which has problems of its own.
Now I know how all those suckers who pay good money to watch a heavyweight bout that ends in the first round feel...or perhaps more likely how you'd feel if you'd just watched George Foreman fight Little Orphan Annie.
For the past few months the head of the Economic Policy Institute, Lawrence Mishel, has been touting a graduation rate doomsday weapon that would discredit the existing consensus about grad rates and make everyone reconsider the issue. Regular readers will recall that last we heard from Monsieur Mishel he was hawking an EPI produced booklet purporting to objectively examine the whole AFT-charter school episode without disclosing that the AFT pays part of his salary. Teachers College Press got a little egg on their face for publishing it without disclosing the funding issue.
A week or two back Mishel finally took on graduation rate experts Jay Greene, Chris Swanson, Gary Orfield*, etc...in Ed Week. But the debate is embarrassingly one-sided, decide for yourself: Here's Mishel's salvo and here is a response from Greene, his colleague Greg Winters, and Chris Swanson, formerly of the Urban Institute now at Ed Week. Worth fully reading both. Perhaps the actual Mishel paper, which Greene, Winters, and Swanson say they could not get their hands on, will be more impressive and we'll revisit accordingly if that's the case (and for the record, I would love it if the grad rate numbers were better than we think).
Right now, the bottom line is that to buy what Mishel is selling this time you have to believe that all these folks, not just favorite ed establishment villain Greene (a) clumsily overlooked this "gold standard" of data that Mishel found (b) didn't understand it and/or (c) are all out to unfairly castigate the public schools.
The debate is more about data sets than methods: Mishel uses the Current Population Survey and National Education Longitudinal Study data while Greene, Swanson, etc...use Common Core of Data (CCD) from the Department of Education. A second is a subsidiary methods issue, Greene etc...make calculations based on the CCD using their own methodology (there are some differences between Greene's method and Swanson's method) while Mishel uses the reported results in these other datasets with some adjustments for GEDs. And, that's a third issue with this debate more generally: There is definition of terms confusion not only in terms of different ways of looking at the dropout issue but also about on-time graduation versus completion. The rates of high school completion one gets depend on whether GEDs are included, in other words students who don't finish in four years but do subsequently earn a degree. Again, read both Ed Week pieces, too much to excerpt here.
It's worth noting is that even though the Greene method, Swanson method (pdf), and John Robert Warren's method (pdf) vary, they all land roughly around the same numbers providing some convergent validity in terms making public policy (though there is a debate about the differences among them and other methods). Put another way, despite Mishel's apparent efforts to say there is less of a disaster going on than it might appear, there is a very serious dropout problem. As states develop better data systems to track students this methods debate will become less important though new issues will invariably arise. But for now these methods are the best at hand. That's one reason why the National Governor's Association adopted a compact (pdf) incorporating them. In other words, barring some new evidence at the 11th hour, this debate is largely over.
*Mishel (and the AFTies who predictably jumped all over this) conveniently forget to note that Harvard Civil Rights Project co-director Gary Orfield is right there with Greene, Swanson, et al...kinda makes you think this might be a little political...Orfield complicates the villainous conservatives out to ruin the public schools storyline too much. Funny side note: In their excitement the AFTies even confused Paul Peterson and Jay Greene (all those bad men look alike to us!).
Via Williams at The Chalkboard who offers some NY context, will someone please get these guys some professional public relations help...stuff like this just kills the public schools...
Update: There is even more!
I think this is the first press release for our new little girls...and it's about teacher quality and civil rights no less...
Per the below, someone please take Sherman Dorn's money.
I'm even less blown away by this week's curriculum narrowing hysteria than I was when the NYT's story first ran on Sunday. The Center on Education Policy report is fine, in-line with their previous work, and is a useful source of No Child implementation data. The problem is, it's not as definitive as No Child Left Behind critics would like because it's (a) self-reported and (b) in this specific case not clearly reported at all and to the extent the data do point in a direction it's away from rampant cutting of other subjects to make room for math and reading. Worth noting, on the first issue that Russo says the Chicago case study is a mess.
On the latter, CEP tells us that "According to our surveys, 71% of districts reported that they had reduced time in at least one subject to expand time for reading and math in 2005-06." That's the data point, based on the findings for elementary schools, that landed in the top slot of the Sunday Times front page. I don't doubt that this is going on in some places (though it doesn't have to) but what we don't know are specifics like (a) exactly how much time is being cut, 10 minutes or 2 hours?, or (b) how much of this is attributable to NCLB, state policies, or even state and local budget issues being blamed on NCLB.
The CEP study doesn't help answer those questions, even really the time one, because when they drill down to examine time gradations in the survey CEP asks districts if they're cutting other subjects to make time for reading and math: (1) Somewhat/to a Great Extent (2) Not at All/Minimally (3) Don’t Know. Interesting way of measuring something as truly difficult to quantify as time. From a social science perspective, what the hell does "somewhat" mean anyway?
Now that notwithstanding, what the hysterics this week haven't told you is that even within this clumsy metric (which I think you can argue creates an upward bias) 64 percent of districts said they'd reduced social studies "minimally or not at all", 68 percent said the same thing about science, 76 percent about art and music, and 83 percent about physical education! In other words they couldn’t even say “somewhat.” That, says CEP, are the data on the great narrowing scare of 2006.
Russo basically says CEP is in the tank on this. Could be, CEP head Jack Jennings' quote in the Times was more gasoline than water on the storyline, but I'm not quite sure and will give them the benefit of the doubt. A good test will be the extent to which CEP lets this anti-NCLB brush fire they've fueled burn or tries to tamp it down. This "narrowing" finding has taken on a life of its own this week. Since making various monetary offers is apparently the order of the day, here's mine to sweeten the pot for CEP: I will donate $500 a charity of Jack Jennings' choice if CEP makes a high profile effort (widely circulated press release, open letter, etc...) to set the record straight.
Other related tidbits: (a) In the appendix CEP lists panelists at their NCLB forums. Word on the edustreet from reliable sources is that there was some back and forth with the civil rights crowd about the composition of at least one forum (b) here is NPR's "On Point" on the narrowing issue from Wednesday's show (c) I had thought the claim was that NCLB was unfairly labeling suburban schools as "needing improvement" when they were really good but just not doing well with one or two subgroups of kids...but now, apparently, it's that the law is unfair to urban schools...really hard to keep up with the talking points these days, you take a couple of days off and you're lost! But seriously, pace Willie Sutton, you would expect a law aimed at low-performing schools to touch a lot of urban schools, no?
Update: My colleague Tom Toch also makes an important point that we don't really know that these schools were so wonderfully rich before and it's a good bet that many were not.
I'm Rick Hess Bi*ch and rising academic star Marty West apparently want jobs in a Romney Administration if this valentine Boston Globe op-ed is any indication. They praise the MA Governor and presidential aspirant Romney for having the temerity to challenge the teachers unions with some reform proposals...Right, what a really bold and risky move! The NEA and AFT leadership are just sitting around debating whether they'll go with Romney or Virginia Senator George Allen or maybe that nice Brownback fellow in '08...
Romney spoke today at an AEI event releasing this Hess - West paper (pdf) on teacher collective bargaining. For the most part it's a smart, sensible, and important paper (some of it is drawn from this book) and Hess and West are as sharp as they come in this business and neither is a knee-jerk conservative at all. Reforming teacher collective bargaining contracts is going to be a major issue in the next several years as the increasing attention to it indicates. But at a time when even some teachers' union leaders are acknowledging that reform is necessary it's going to be a shame if this turns into a partisan food fight. Can't blame Romney for taking on an issue with some payoff but unless some high profile Ds step-up this threatens to make the substantive debate harder.
One reason for cautious enthusiasm about the charter school sector is the high quality of various intermediate organizations that have sprung up around it. For instance, look for big things from this new organization in Texas, The Charter School Policy Institute. Why is this encouraging, you say? Because many of these organizations are principle driven not merely lowest-common denominator organizations fighting for their weakest member. In some states (eg CA, MI, NY, TX*) state charter organizations have supported closing low-performing charters, that’s not an ethic you see a lot of in education overall…
*To clarify, the resource center in TX, not the state assn.
New Carnival of Education blogs is up here. Apparently they were picking on the AFTies at NCLBlog but I don't quite understand the issue.
Update: The Homies are having their carnival, too.
NY Sun's Gerstein reports on the fallout from the admission by Jennifer Delahunty Britz, of Kenyon College, about discrimination against girls in admissions.
Also, good debate in the USA Today today about single-sex public options for girls. USA Today ed board says bring 'em on, NOW's Kim Gandy says, no, it will lead to segregation. I just do not get the opposition from women's groups to this idea. and frankly think they're ill-serving the people they purport to represent by seeking to deny them a choice. No one is proposing mandatory single-sex education, which I would oppose. These are voluntary programs in the public sector.
If public schools offer single-sex options and parents choose them isn't that a good way to increase choices and customization in public education rather than force parents who want something different to go to the private sector for it? And, to date the single-sex charter schools are promising. There is bipartisan support for the idea, Senator Clinton and Senator Hutchison have been leaders on it, for instance.
With this immigration debate President Bush again finds himself closer to Senator Kennedy than the base of the Republican party. Thing is, while last time -- on No Child Left Behind -- the Republicans grudgingly went along because Bush was riding high, now he's not looking like such a good bet for them. Tom DeLay post-No Child from this article:
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) confessed to Rush Limbaugh that he "voted for that awful education bill" only to support President Bush. "I came here to eliminate the Department of Education so it was very hard for me to vote for something that expands [it]."
Hard to see that happening again...
An email box full of good tips after a few days away, here are a few:
As I've said, you should read the AFT's American Educator, one of the best edupubs out there. The new issue focuses on content rich curricula for the early grades with a feature article by E.D. Hirsch.
At the eSchoolNews - Discovery Learning meeting they had a panel on edublogs featuring the winners of their 2006 blog awards. I was otherwise engaged but Sara Mead, who was there for the birth of Eduwonk, attended.
Wow. Perhaps I was wrong about national standards; if they're ready for them in SC then they'll sell anywhere.
School choice advocate Mathew Ladner wants to buy you a steak with all the trimmings:
The first person in the nation who can send me two random assignment school-choice studies showing significant declines in either academic performance or parental satisfaction will win a steak dinner. I'll even throw in drinks and dessert — the whole nine yards. You have one month to send the studies to Mladner@goldwaterinstitute.org. Feel free to forward this to your anti-school-choice friends and invite them to play. The more the merrier.
NACSA reports that "Forty-four applicant groups have applied to run charter schools in New Orleans as part of the redevelopment of the storm-ravaged city."
Interesting Aspen Institute - Annenberg report on Boston (pdf), what's happened, what's important during the leadership transition there.
Thanks to all the different blogs that posted nice notes about the birth of our girls, much appreciated.
Many personally profound takeaways from the experience but one wonky one, too. The hospital we used is the only one in the area that takes all comers so the post-partum program is strong and geared toward mothers who might not follow-up on good post-natal care for their children. Reaffirmed for me that governors who are working to create better policies in this area, home visits, education, etc...are really onto a good idea that will reap savings and improve the quality of life for a lot of kids down the road.
Boardbuzz will really have their hands full now! Cory Booker, a promising up-and-coming Democratic pol who happens to strongly support school vouchers now has the inside track to become the next mayor of Newark, NJ. The incumbent, Sharpe James, has decided to step aside. Big generational implications and educational ones, too. Booker is emblematic of a new class of urban pols and he'll be a national leader on the school choice issue.
Good debate/discussion about high school exit exams from NPR's Talk of the Nation last week.
Was It Over When The Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor?
Big Sunday NYT front page splash about the pressure that No Child Left Behind's emphasis on reading and math is putting on other subjects like history, social studies, music, etc...Everyone not riveted by George Mason was chattering about it. Couple of thoughts:
First, the survey that the piece advanced is the most useful piece of work the Center on Education Policy does. It's a lot of data on NCLB implementation that no one else has. But, it's not bulletproof and the story didn't get into the details of it.
Second, reading (and math) is fundamental, as they say. How exactly are students supposed to engage with other subjects if they're not reading well? Though they vary by state, overall state tests are not wildly unrealistic in what they measure.
Third, there are plenty of schools that are doing a great job with the basics but also provide an engaging and rich place for kids. In fact, though stories like this are often cheered by folks who don't like standards, they do teachers no favors. America's teachers can walk and chew gum and the mantra that we can't teach all this stuff erodes respect for them. There is something of a false choice here and some examples of schools doing both might have been good context for readers.
Fourth, there is an issue of time here, both how much and how it's used. Some students will need more time on these subjects and that requires fresh thinking about the school day and year. In terms of how it's used, it's worth mentioning again that if you're not doing a good job teaching math or reading for x hours a day, there is no guarantee that x + y will get you there either. This is where using data to evaluate and inform instruction is key. More is not necessarily better.