Friday, January 28, 2005

NCLB updates

A few schools and districts in Illinois are considering a lawsuit against the Ed. Dept. because of NCLB. It's hardly news because we've heard about hundreds of these possible lawsuits before and nothing has come of them. But this one is interesting because of the grounds on which they would sue: that NCLB conflicts with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).

A lawyer for the Ottawa High School District has suggested a strategy in which about seven districts would join in a suit seeking to clarify apparent contradictions between the No Child Left Behind Act and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

The disabilities law calls for students with special needs to be taught under individualized plans, but No Child Left Behind requires them to take the same standardized tests as other students their age.

Putnam County is one of 201 Illinois districts that have failed for two consecutive years to meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards, specifically because of the performance of special education students on tests for grades higher than their instructional levels, Struna said.

Because those test results are tied to federal Title I funding, failing to meet the progress standards for two more years could result in the district losing some $40,000 that currently aids another target group, Struna said.

"If we fail for two more years, we have to take money away from low-income kids and spend it on special ed kids," he said. "What kind of sense does that make?"

What strikes me here is the logic of going after the evident contradiction between NCLB and IDEA. How can you have an Individual Education Plan (IEP), which is required for all special ed students, and then require every one of them to be assessed in exactly the same manner?

And across the country, in Idaho, the right wingers are trying to undermine NCLB by crying -- wanna guess? -- local control. I dislike NCLB, but I hate this argument. What are you gonna secede if you don't get your way? Want to nullify the Act of Congress? Whatever. I thought that went out of style in the mid-19th century. This is a boring, old, and really stupid strategy. The right of the federal government to require states to meet requirements to receive federal money has been consistently upheld by the courts. If Idaho wants to give up several hundred million dollars in federal money then they can get out tomorrow. But they won't do that, everyone knows it anyway, so why not go after NCLB in a way that might work?

Hello? Idaho?

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Two sides to the research coin

Here's a thought provoking article from Edweek that speaks to one of the biggest problems with the current approach to understanding academic achievement: We're measuring it with only one system. Quanitative research has ascended to the point that qualitative research isn't even on the fringe anymore. It's not in left field, it's out of the park. And that's dangerous. It's dangerous because it inhibits our ability to understand what is happening in schools. Numbers aren't enough. They're important but they can't tell you everything that's going on.

I look at it like this. We're fighting a forest fire. We've got many ways to put it out. We can use water hoses, we can drop fire retardant from planes, we can set backfires, etc. Would you recommend using only one method to put out the fire? Hell no! Use 'em all. You use whatever tools you have.

In education we have two main tools for understanding what's happening in schools: quantitative and qualitative studies. To use only one is stupid at best and harmful at worst.

But it's expensive, cry qualitative critics. Yes, it is. If you aren't willing to spend the money to improve our educational systems than we're wasting our time. Period. You get what you pay for. You want cheap, one dimensional indicators, that's what you get. But I forget myself: the current administration doesn't do nuance.

Subversive animated bunnies threaten our way of life

I had my differences with Eduwonk earlier this month, but I've gotta give credit where it's due. I was getting ready to write an invective against Spellings' ridiculous (and hateful) power play with PBS, but I'll instead refer you to Eduwonk's absolutely hillarious take on the matter. I laughed out loud. The highlight:

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the Department of Education, Margaret Spellings throws a big bone -- a rabbit bone to be precise -- to the Republican base. PBS is preparing to distribute an animated show about maple sugaring in Vermont that apparently involves a farm run by two "mommy" bunnies. Spellings has pushed back and PBS has pulled the show. Thank goodness she's on the case! Children were at risk of becoming lesbians, or worse still maple farmers, or even, God forbid, bunnies!

Yes, with everything going on in education the United States Secretary of Education is focusing on animated lesbian bunnies in her first days on the job. They could have just brought Bill Bennett back if this was the game plan.

Nice. The one he posted later in the day was even funnier. Andrew Sullivan had some more serious thoughts on the matter.

Update: Just noticed that Friday's Boston Globe has an editorial on the matter. If you want to write a letter to Spellings expressing your displeasure, click here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Paige's Good Riddanc-- er, Farewell

I try to be open minded. Really, I do. So I sat down to read Rod Paige's farewell (to the Heritage Foundation-- we weren't off to a good start) earnestly trying to see his point of view. And I did. It was a good speech. I find myself having a very hard time disagreeing with the logic of charter schools, for example. But here's where he lost me:

Has [NCLB] caused some heartache? Of course, it has. Those who believe that "Some children just can't learn" also believe that "Some schools can't do anything wrong." Despite years and years of widely publicized failure, it adds up to "let's just continue the status quo" and being satisfied with the performance that we're getting now. It all adds up to what President Bush calls the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

I can tell you first hand that this exists. I believe that it is an attitude that is an offshoot of slavery and Jim Crow, nursed by well-meaning people and tolerated by some members of the civil rights establishment who should know better.

This is unforgivable. And low. And shameful. To suggest that people who don't agree with NCLB are somehow bigoted makes me sick. It's fine to say I'm stupid and wrong and all the rest-- but racist?!? C'mon. Just because someone disagrees with NCLB doesn't mean that they think nothing should be done to improve the educational system for minorities.

This is the type of stuff they had Armstrong Williams peddling, too: Listen up black people, anyone who opposes this law is against you and your race. It's bull shit, plain and simple. Bush said yesterday that no more commentators would be paid: "Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet." Yes, it should, but so far it can't. It should be able to stand without paying journalists and without branding opponents as Jim Crow apologists, but it can't. If it could, they wouldn't do it.

Oh, and Mr. Paige about that L-word you referred to in the beginning of your speech (legacy), yours is Armstrong Williams. Congratulations on a job well done. Everyone who follows this stuff know that you were a front man for NCLB with little input in writing it. Kress and Spellings handled most of that. But you handled the PR; that was your gig. And what a wonderful job you did. Enjoy that legacy, OK?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The f-word

A new sign that the Ed. Dept. will not be more flexible in the coming year:

Federal officials give no ground on teacher standard ruling

Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. - U.S. Department of Education representatives who visited with state officials on Tuesday gave no ground on a December ruling that rejected North Dakota's standards for elementary school teachers.

And further, they continue their counterintuitive strategy of pissing off lawmakers:

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., who did not attend Tuesday's meeting, said he believes the Education Department is hurting North Dakota students rather than helping them.

"Rather than advancing the goal of better schools, I think they're jeopardizing much of the quality education taking place in North Dakota," he said.

He said the fact that middle school teachers now also are being told they do not meet the proper standards "is clear indication of a federal bureaucracy run wild."

Pomeroy said the Education Department is reviewing his contention that under the law, it approved North Dakota's plan for guaranteeing "highly qualified" instructors when it did not reject it within 120 days.

"I think litigation needs to be clearly considered," he said.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said he met with Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and urged her to reverse her department's ruling regarding North Dakota teachers.

"This is exactly what we feared with 'No Child Left Behind' - that Washington wouldn't recognize the flexibility we need in rural states to meet the new 'highly qualified' standards for teachers," he said.

There's the ol' f-word again: flexibility. Doesn't seem to be a lot of it around the Education Department. The Bushies better hope they don't need Conrad or Pomeroy's votes for an expansion of NLCB. Doesn't look like they'd get 'em.

Equity isn't all about money

Equity in schools is not just about money. Yes, it has a lot to do with money, but there's also the question of teacher quality: Is it fair that suburban schools typically hire away the best teachers from urban and rural schools leaving those schools with inexperienced teachers?

But if the poorer schools had more money they could keep those teacher, right? Wrong. Teachers leave urban and rural schools for many reasons and money is rarely at the very top of the list. Working conditions prove time and time again to be the most important factor. The bottom line is equity is impossible if the wealthier districts get the lion's share of experienced, effective teachers.

This problem must be addressed. It's absolutely vital to the enterprise of improving public education and ensuring equity.

So who's working on the problem? The good people at the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality (SECTQ). They wrote a letter to the President on the occasion of his inaugural to lay out a program for ensuring teacher quality in the poorest schools. It takes about 10 minutes to read but has decades' worth of good ideas.

Most impressive about SECTQ is that they rely heavily on teachers to craft their policy proposals. It sounds obvious but policymakers rarely do it. The network of teachers they founded has an absolutely fantastic website. I've added it to the blogroll at right; I highly recommend you check it out, but only when you've got some time. There's a lot there.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Time weighs in

Time magazine believes that expanding NCLB to high schools will be a tough sell:

[Bush's] proposal is generating little enthusiasm on either side of the aisle.

Democrats like Representative George Miller of California, who helped write the bill and rallied others to vote for it, are withholding support this time, complaining that the Administration has not provided enough money for current testing. Bush also faces recalcitrance in his own party. Many conservatives feel the act involves excessive federal intrusion into local schools. Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, who leads a group of more than 90 House conservatives called the Republican Study Committee, has not only come out against the President's high school initiative but also called the act "one of the things we need to undo from the first Bush term." Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Senator and former Secretary of Education, said Congress first has to be sure No Child Left Behind is working in Grades 3 through 8 before he will back the new plan. Even Ohio Representative John Boehner, who has been the most vocal Republican supporter of the act, has refused to endorse Bush's proposal. Said a senior House Republican aide: "I think the White House is aware it has some selling to do."

Ultimately, Boehner will support the expansion. He hasn't endorsed it, but he hasn't said anything negative either. But as I pointed out a long time ago, Democrats and the far right wing of the party (e.g. Rep. Perce) will be much harder to convince. I've misunderestimated him before, but I don't see this getting done -- unless he can come up with lots more cash for education to persuade the Dems which would render the conservative Republicans' resistance meaningless.

NCLB conference

If you live in the Madison, Wisconsin area, be sure not to miss this. No matter what you believe about education policy, debate and discussion of the issues are important. This looks to be an excellent event.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Houston Superintendent sees the light

This article's especially significant-- and I think it gives a slither of hope to those of us who believe that testing should not be the top priority:

Houston school Superintendent Abe Saavedra said Saturday he wants to strip down the school district's bureaucracy and shift its focus from testing to teaching.

Houston?!? Where the "Texas Miracle" propelled Rod Paige to the head of the Education Department and inspired the most sweeping reform in education in nearly 40 years? Yup, the Houston Superintendent is tired of testing:

Saavedra's suggestion marks a major shift in thinking at HISD, which built a reputation under former Superintendent Rod Paige for tracking student learning with a battery of testing.

Right now, HISD relies heavily on TAKS performance to determine how high school principals are doing and whether they qualify for financial bonuses. That's not enough, Saavedra said.

"If we improve our instructional programs, our scores will improve," he said. "We don't have to chase test scores."

But of course we have to chase test scores. Isn't that what No Child Left Behind is all about?

In fairness, in a conversation I had with Sandy Kress (one of the architects of the embattled law), he insisted that the testing should not -- and need not -- drive teaching. The testing, he said, should only be there to ensure that students have a minimum competency in reading and math. It sounds reasonable enough, but when principals' salaries are tied to performance, and teachers' jobs are tied to performance, it is not hard to see why the tests are, in fact, driving classroom activities.

Bravo to Saavedra for speaking out against this dangerous trend in education. For a contrarian view, the ever cynical Susan Ohanian is less than excited.
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