Thursday, November 25, 2004

Textbook stickers

I wrote last week about the stickers that will be placed in Biology textbooks in suburban Atlanta. They claim that evolution is "a theory, not a fact." Well, someone's come up with a few more textbook stickers. Check them out here, and be sure to read the ones towards the bottom; they're hillarious.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

What's in the water in Texas?

There's been something funny in the water in Austin lately. Unfortunately, it hasn't changed the thinking of the state's leaders.

The Governor's Business Council, a Gov. Bush invention, recently released a report on how to "make Texas public schools great." Predictably, one of their remedies is to expand charter schools in the state. Apparently they missed the report released by the Department of Education last week which covered the performance of charters in five states, including Texas. From the New York Times yesterday:

In Texas, ... the study found that 98 percent of public schools met state performance requirements two years ago, but that only 66 percent of the charter schools did.

So clearly we need more of them? Interesting.

The Austin Chronicle has an article this week that describes the background of the Governor's Business Council's report and how the GBC -- as the name would suggest -- does little else but lobby for Governor Rick Perry's plans. The Chronicle suggests that the GBC report is little more than an attempt to give Gov. Perry and the Republican Legislature cover for refusing (yet again) to substantially increase funding for schools in the legislative session which kicks off in January.

Monday, November 22, 2004

The challenge ahead

From the Christian Science Monitor:

As the latest report cards on schools and districts trickle out, they're giving the public a snapshot not only of the nation's education system but also of the successes and failures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), President Bush's landmark 2001 education law. So far this year, the results have been better than many critics expected: Student achievement is up, and the lists of schools on state watch lists because of poor academic performance are getting shorter in nearly every state.

None of this means the nation's public schools have suddenly become Harvards without the ivy. Some analysts, in fact, warn that the trend may be deceptive: The shorter watch lists, for instance, may have more to do with bureaucratic changes than academic gains. And next year, the target achievement levels students need to reach under NCLB will jump in many states.

I'm one of those analysts. The second warning -- that next year achievement levels rise -- is particularly important. We are beginning to hear, and we will hear with increasing volume and intensity over the summer, what a tremendous success NCLB is. We will hear that thousands of schools showed tremendous improvement. But we can't forget that that will only be so because NCLB only requires that schools pass only 16% of their students in each grade, in each subgroup, in math and reading only. 16%! Next year, it rises to nearly 27%, which will cause many more schools to fail. In two years, science tests will be added; since no one has seen the science tests, the failure rates will be high. And by 2014, the passing rate must be 100% in math, science, and reading, in all grades, in all 21 subgroups, to avoid the label of "needing improvement," -- or to avoid, in plain English, failing.

Don't believe the hype. "There are three types of lies," said Mark Twain, "lies, damn lies, and statistics." You can guess which category these assertions of NCLB success fall under.

Schools are improving only because the bar has been set low and the tests have been repeated for two years now. Familiarity breeds not only contempt, but results. (In fairness, some states do set standards higher than mandated by NCLB. But some have lowered their standards to make sure they don't fail.)

At this point, claims of victory and achievement by NCLB proponents ring very hollow.

The CSM article is an excellent -- and balanced -- one. It starts and finishes with the hopeful news of improved test scores and the decline of failing schools, but it also lists a panoply of problems with the controversial legislation. For example:

Boston, Chicago, and several other urban school districts were caught off-guard by another component of NCLB. For the first time this year, the law placed entire districts, not just schools, on the watch list. Besides, the federal government said any district that made the watch list had to hire private tutors, not rely on their own, to improve performance.

Chicago has said the prohibition means far fewer children will get help. The superintendent vows to keep supplying their own tutors. Boston - which was placed on the watch list because it missed its attendance goal by 0.2 percent - is also considering defying Washington.

Moreover, Jack Jennings, director of the Center for Education Policy, notes that a few school districts have landed on the watch list - even though they don't have a single failing school.

California has been particularly critical of NCLB. The state has its own accountability system, a model that tracks student achievement over time instead of school performance. California, along with 16 other states, has asked to use this system in place of NCLB. More than 300 schools showing significant improvement under its model have been labeled failing under NCLB, according to State Superintendent Jack O'Connell. "What concerns me is that those schools are going to have to change programs they know are working," he says.

The state has estimated that 67 percent of its schools would fail to meet federally mandated targets next year. "What kind of accountability system would you have when over half the schools are" failing? asks Mr. O'Connel. Like nearly all NCLB critics, he insists his complaints aren't with tough standards or the goals of the law - just the implementation. With our model, he says, "we always give schools a shot at

NCLB needs to allow states like California to use alternative and proven accountability systems. They can't let them, however, fail minority communities. The challenge for the Department of Education and the House Education Committee is to balance flexibility and rigor. The degree to which the federal government can meet that central challenge will determine whether NCLB can achieve its laudable goals or if it will meet stiff resistance from schools, districts, and states that would cause its ultimate failure.

Effort to fix NCLB probably won't come from Dems

When Rep. George Miller (D-CA) appeared on PBS's Newshour last week (on the day Margaret Spellings was nominated by the President for Secretary of Education), he enthusiastically supported No Child Left Behind. Miller is the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.

Yet there are serious problems with No Child Left Behind. Few would deny this. So the question becomes: Who will challenge Bush, Spellings, and Co. to fix the problems? My prediction: Republicans.

We've seen this week that Republicans are tired of being Bush's lapdogs. They played that role in '04 for obvious reasons. Now they're playing hardball. Sensenbrenner and Hunter stood up to the President on the Intelligence bill; will anyone do the same -- since Miller seemed to signal last week that Democrats won't -- from the Republican side of the aisle on NCLB?

The problems are clear: The testing regime is too rigid, too severe, and, quite simply, too much. There's nothing wrong with testing to ensure that children are gaining valuable skills in reading and math. But testing every year -- with tests that teachers are very familiar with -- encourages teaching to the test and a dangerous narrowing of curriculum.

And the provisions of NCLB that require every subgroup (African-American, Hispanic, Low English Proficiency, etc.) to pass all of the tests actually makes it easier for schools without these populations (i.e., suburban schools) and discriminates against schools that have them (i.e., urban schools).

And the provisions that require "a qualified teacher in every classroom" hurt rural schools. The list could go on forever.

So what's to be done? First of all, keep standardized tests. Yes, that's right: don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Don't nix accountability. But change the tests every year so that teachers don't know what exactly will be on them and can't teach to the test. And don't be so quick to punish. Two years is not enough time to fix deep systemic problems. Also, loosen up the provisions that hurt urban and rural schools.

These things can be done if there is principled opposition. Since Democrats under the leadership of Miller have abandoned that mantle, it now must shift to the Republicans who no longer feel duty bound to support the President on whatever he wants now that the election is over.

I'll be following any dissent in the ranks very closely in the coming weeks and months and, of course, reporting it here.

Oh, and in fairness, Miller didn't completely support NCLB. He did express reservations about NCLB's funding. He also suggested that there would be a fight against expanding NCLB to high schools until the funding originally promised by the Administration is provided. For the full transcript of Miller (and Professor Diane Ravitch) last week on the Newshour, click here.

The view from Eugene, Oregon

Here's an excellent article about the affects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in Eugene, Oregon. One school -- Creswell Middle -- passed all grade levels in both math and reading in every subgroup -- except one: participation. Their special ed group failed because less than 95% of the students took the test. From the article in the Eugene Register Guard:

Here's what happened: In the fall of 2003, the boy, then a freshman at Creswell High, got bumped back to repeat the eighth grade. It had more to do with behavior than academics, officials said - in fact, the boy had aced the state assessment tests given the previous spring to all eighth-graders.

Because he'd done so well, when testing time came around again, his teachers decided he shouldn't have to take them a second time.

The Oregon Department of Education didn't see it that way. The boy was counted as
missing the test, dropping Creswell below the 95 percent participation rate.

This is where that magic word of flexibility comes into play again. There have to be provisions made to avoid punishing schools that really are successful but fail in one or two subgroups. No institution is -- or can be -- absolutely perfect. (Lord knows the Bush White House isn't.)

It'll be very interesting to see how Spellings answers questions about NCLB in her Senate confirmation hearings early next year-- if she has to at all. It's possible the Senators will give her a free pass and ask little in anything about the major problems of NCLB. I've already written about the dissatisfaction of incoming Chairman Senator Enzi (R-WY) who will take over Sen. Gregg's (R-NH) position on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee. Perhaps he'll ask some tough questions.

Here's hoping there are some tough questions.

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