Friday, July 15, 2005

Brownback backs off

The WaPo editorializes today that it's a good thing the Senator from Kansas backed off his effort to expand the voucher program outside the city limit and lift the $7,500 limit to the vouchers:

...[T]he federal program is still in its five-year trial period; the first group of nearly 1,000 low-income voucher students enrolled only last fall. Initiating a major change such as what Mr. Brownback proposes might be premature, especially since the existing experiment has not been fully evaluated.

This is one of the biggest problems with reformers of all stripes. Moderate success can turn into disaster when things are rushed. Expanding a program after its first year of trial is not a good idea.

According to officials of the Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit organization that operates the voucher program, as many as 80 students offered scholarships for this fall may be unable to use them because private high schools in the District lack space. The space crunch will only worsen as elementary school students now enrolled in the program move up into higher grades. Concern about the capacity of D.C. private schools to accommodate the demand is, therefore, well-founded. It appears, however, that at this point in the year any congressional action to change the program's rules will not occur in time to assist voucher recipients looking for high schools this fall. For that reason, too, Mr. Brownback was right to hold off.

This will continue to be a problem for voucher proponents. Well established, solid private schools only have so much space. If the program expands too rapidly it is undeniable that all manner of shady educapitalists will rush in to fill the void. For all those conservatives who think public schools waste public money, wait'll you get a load of those guys. It wouldn't be pretty.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

It's simple: We get what we pay for

Bilingual, ESL, and compensatory education programs cost a lot. We know that. But it is maddening how often conservatives sound like parrots in response to calls for much needed funding increases (part of parrot played here by accountability cheerleader Sandy Kress in a superb article by Gary Scharrer in today's San Antonio Express News):

State District Judge John Dietz, who last year declared the Texas school funding system unconstitutional, issued extensive "findings of fact" involving hard-to-teach students, but they largely ignored the cost of an exemplary, effective program, said Dallas lawyer Sandy Kress, a key architect of President Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation.

"I see no findings of real fact about what works and what that costs. I see nothing about spending that works well and spending that doesn't," Kress said. "I suspect that the plaintiffs would prefer to talk about more money."

Advocates for more money always talk about more teachers, programs, interventions, libraries and materials, Kress said, but "an exclusive focus on quantity of dollars — as opposed to an insistence that the dollars be well-spent — will not get the job done."

Who among public school advocates would say talking about spending dollars well is a bad idea? There is no "exclusive focus." It's a sham and a lie. The focus is two fold: increasing funding and improving performance. One without the other is ludicrous; they are inextricably linked

Look, people, this isn't difficult: you know as well as I do that you get what you pay for. In this state at least, we're paying for a second rate education for most of our citizens and that's what we're getting.

Despite Kress and others' portrayals, advocates for increased funding are generally sensible people, not the wild eyed tax-and-spend-liberals conservatives make them out to be. But it is undeniable that, at least in Texas, most of our schools are grossly underfunded. Consider the facts:

Past studies indicated schools needed at least 40 percent more to adequately educate those students. A more recent study by Lori Tayor, a Texas A&M University economist, found districts needed an extra $1,960 per low-income student.

A House proposal would not significantly change the allocation for low-income students...

That's not a lefty liberal spouting this stuff: Lori Taylor was commissioned by the Republican controlled Legislature to produce the study that they promptly ignored.

Back to the article:

More than half of the state's 4.4 million public school children come from low-income families, and a growing number of them have trouble navigating the English language, according to the Texas Education Agency.

The number of low-income children, mostly from Hispanic and African American families, increases each year. The number of Anglo students continues to decline.

It costs more to educate low-income children and students with limited English
proficiency. But lawmakers aren't talking much about that as they struggle to reform the public education system and pay for school property tax cuts.

In Texas, "education reform" means "property tax cuts" for the wealthy and net tax increases for the rest. This is a travesty. And it's potentially ruinous to the future of this state:

The growing number of low-income students and an expanding achievement gap will cause a decline in average Texas household income, state demographer Steve Murdock warned.

Unless current trends change, he said, today's Texas children will become the state's first generation whose future will be less prosperous than their parents'.

"Education is the single best predictor that we have for household incomes," Murdock said.

Last year, about 2.3 million Texas schoolchildren, or 52.8 percent of the total public school enrollment, came from low-income families, according to TEA statistics.

To repeat his words: "Unless current trends change, today's Texas children will become the state's first generation whose future will be less prosperous than their parents'."

That's scary. And there ain't a whole lot going on to change current trends down here. So why is it being ignored:

"I think it's being ignored because most ... very property wealthy districts that matter to our legislative leaders do not have these special populations in the numbers that make it relevant for them," said David Hinojosa, a lawyer forthe Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a party in the lawsuit against the state.

I'd like to think that's not true, but there's precious little evidence to suggest it's not.

NAEP frenzy begins

The WaPo reports on National Assessmnet of Educational Progress (NAEP) results that show the achievement gap has narrowed for 9-year olds and slightly for 13-year olds, but not at all for 17-year olds.

The Ed. Dept. was quick to claim the good news but didn't touch the bad news. The NAEP admininstrators, however, were less quick to praise or blame:

Education secretary Margaret Spellings hailed the report as evidence that No Child Left Behind is working and that the achievement gap "that persisted for decades between minorities and whites has shrunk to its smallest size in history."

Winick [of the National Assessment Governing Board], by contrast, urged caution about attributing progress to No Child Left Behind and said that the narrowing of the achievement gap can be traced back to at least 1999, before the Bush administration took office. Other analysts noted that the NAEP study was conducted in the fall and winter of 2003-2004, in the early stages of the implementation of No Child Left Behind.

U. of California quits nat'l merit program

This story is especially significant when you remember that it was the UC system's objection to the SAT several years ago that led to the recent changes to the test.

It'll be interesting to see if UC's objection to the National Merit Scholars program prompts any changes in the PSAT or Scholars Program.

From the AP via CNN:

UC bows out of national merit scholarships

Thursday, July 14, 2005;
Posted: 10:36 a.m. EDT (14:36 GMT)

"This decision in no way indicates that we don't value academic merit at the University of California. The issue is how academic merit is defined," said UC Provost M.R.C. Greenwood, the highest ranking academic officer in the 10-campus system, one of the largest in the country.

Faculty challenged the merit scholarships earlier this year, saying the PSAT was not designed to be used as a cutoff tool, and calling the selection process unfair to low-income students and some minorities, who on average score lower than whites on standardized tests.

Education and the two Americas

The Economist weighs in on "the two Americas" and the education system's contribution to the problem.

Besides an uncharacteristic sloppy sentence ("...Latinos, who will account for one in five Americans by 2030, seem to be being assimilated just fine"), the Economist gets some other things wrong, too. Mainly, they point out growing disparities in wealth between the richest and the poorest, but fail to point to President Bush's disgraceful tax policies which only reinforce and widen the gap.

It's too easy to blame public schools for all of society's ills (e.g., growing economic disparities). It's easy, but it's not fair or honest.

That being said, their conclusion is an interesting one-- and, I think at least partially, accurate:

...[A] political solution of sorts is going begging. Republicans should be willing to spend more cash on schools in poor areas (including on teachers'
salaries) in exchange for the Democrats accepting structural reform.

They're right on with that on both counts. But they suggest that the kinds of structural reform that Democrats should endorse includes more testing and vouchers. I, of course, disagree.

Education reform has to be more than measurement. As I've said many times here in varying ways, you don't get taller by measuring yourself. We've got to focus on instructional improvements and structural reforms like lower class sizes, increased personalization of instruction, student internships, more arts and writing programs, greater use of technology, etc.

Notice all of those things I mentioned are ubiquitous in the elite private and public schools in America. If we are serious about providing opportunity for all students, they should be ubiquitous in economically disadvantaged areas, too.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

One-sentence paragraphs are bad

There's a mounting body of evidence that shows that teaching to the test has a deleterious effect on schools. Here's more:

"MEAP [Michigan's standardized test] is not what writing is about, but it's what testing is about," Ms. Karnes said. "And we know if we teach them the five-paragraph essay formula, they'll pass that test. There's a lot of pressure to do well on MEAP. It makes the district seem good, helps real estate values." [NYT]

There it is. Writing isn't whats really important, it's filling in a formula. How often does anyone in the real world use a five paragraph essay? Read a business plan, a newspaper story or column, an advertisement, a speech, anything -- where is the five paragraph formula? It's ludicrous and it's become a near exclusive focus in schools. Note the irony in the article from the New York Times yesterday:

... [T]he five-paragraph essay has become the law of the land: introductory paragraph; three supporting paragraphs, each with its own topic sentence as well as three supporting ideas; and summary paragraph.

Students lose points for writing a one-sentence paragraph.

One-sentence paragraphs -- as evidenced by the NYT writer -- clearly have no place in sophisticated writing.

I like the perspective of one of the teachers featured in the article:

Ms. Karnes isn't totally against the formula. "For kids struggling, if you can give them a formula and they fill in the blanks, some will pass the MEAP test who wouldn't otherwise," she said. "But it turns into a prison. It stops you from finding a kid's potential."

Even for those that are not struggling, it's not bad to start with the five paragraph format because it's simplistic and manageable. But, as Mrs. Karnes so aptly put it, it becomes a prison. I've struggled with this in my own teaching. I try to teach my students what the norm is and then I encourage them -- and hopefully inspire them -- to go beyond it.

With the ever increasing focus on testing, that'll be harder to do.

Arts and NCLB

The Education Commission of the States (ECS) is holding its annual conference in Denver this week which will focus on the importance of the arts in education, a topic which is clearly not talked about enough in today's education conversations.

From the Rocky Mountain News:

The arts are seen as increasingly important, in part because subjects such as music and dance have the potential to develop the creativity that children need to succeed in a global economy, said Catherine Walker, the commission's communications director.

Creativity. Innovation. Imagination. All are indispensable to education. Kudos to the ECS for making this a focus.

But no education conference would be complete without a little NCLB love. On hand to assuage the fears of education analysts and policy makers everywhere will be Secretary Spellings:

Spellings will discuss states that have successfully raised student achievement and will talk about a "new, common-sense" approach to implementing No Child Left Behind.

I'll try to track down the text of her remarks later on in the week. She speaks tomorrow.

I wonder if anyone will ask her how she feels about the fact that the arts are increasingly crowded out of curricula and budgets as tests rise in importance as NCLB's mandates set in.

What would constitute a "new, common-sense" approach to that problem?

In defense of NCLB

In the interest of equal time, I feel compelled to point out an eloquent defense of No Child Left Behind that appears in this morning's Christian Science Monitor. Check it out here if you're interested.

Key paragraph:

The US Department of Education must continue to work closely with states to refine the law's regulations, and to learn from the experiences of states which already have rigorous testing. But the central thrust of NCLB - transparency by gathering statistics on essentially all students school by school through standardized testing in math and reading - must remain.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Stateline summary of NCLB resistance

There was an excellent report in the Pew Foundation's last week summarizing all of the mounting resistance to No Child Left Behind.

A sample, offered without comment:

According to Communities for Quality Education, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group tracking state actions on NCLB, 15 states (Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, Vermont and Wyoming) have considered legislation to "opt-out" of NCLB and forgo federal education funds, and four states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wisconsin) considered bills that would prohibit the use of state money to comply with NCLB.

...2005-2006 is the first school year that all states must have in place NCLB's central requirement that students be tested in reading and math annually in grades 3 through 8 and once in grades 10 through 12. This year, more than 6,000 schools -- about 13 percent of the number receiving federal funding – were rated "in need of improvement" because too many students failed the tests. The number of failing schools is down slightly from the previous year, but is expected to rise under stricter testing requirements.

Fifteen states are conducting or have finished studies on the cost of complying with NCLB, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Studies by Ohio and Texas estimated that the price to state taxpayers of complying with NCLB could run as high as $1.5 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively, each year. NEA, the teacher's union, contends that since the law's enactment in 2002, there has been a $27 billion shortfall in what Congress should have provided to meet the law's regulations. NCSL estimated a shortfall of $9.6 billion as of 2004. Twenty-five states are considering or have passed resolutions asking Congress to fully fund NCLB.

There is also an excellent sidebar to the report with links to reports on NCLB from many different organizations.

Takeovers or transformations?

Don't miss the article in the Christian Science Monitor which focuses on the first ever forced takeover (or transformation, depending on your point of view) of a public school. It's happening in Colorado where a law forces school closures after three years of failure; NCLB will require similar closings before the end of the decade-- and lots of 'em. So this takeover/transformation will be closely watched.

The Colorado law forces a takeover by a charter school (NCLB has no such specification so a private company could take over a school). The community voted to have a local group take over the school, but the state picked KIPP instead. My guess is that KIPP will experience success there. They do a lot right, including giving students a choice to attend. But not all charters/takeover agents are KIPP. From the article:

Skeptics say not all charters are equal

But critics of forced conversions point out that not all charter schools are KIPP, and shutting down a school offers no guarantee that its replacement will be better.

The law "presumes you've got a rational way of deciding this is the only way left for the school," says Gerald Bracey, an associate at High/Scope Educational Research Foundation and professor at George Mason University. "The idea [behind the charter movement] was that it was a way of improving student achievement, and that hasn't happened. Sure, it's happened in isolated schools, but it has [happened] in isolated public schools, too."

He points to studies that show charter schools keeping pace with public schools - but he questions the worth of that if the public schools are failing miserably.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has centered his plans for education reform on charter schools, proposing to make it far easier for failing schools to convert to charters. Under his proposals, failing schools could also be handed over to state-appointed management teams.

Under NCLB, failing schools will have options other than becoming a charter. But the predicted onslaught of school closings will probably produce large numbers of new charters.

"It's the most exciting thing to happen to the charter movement in a while," says Clemons. "If ... charter conversion proves successful, then that could be the next plane for education."

The danger, others say, is that it will be too much, too fast ...

Too much, too fast indeed. For every KIPP, there are ten Edisons, and a hundred other fly-by-nighters with little or no track record to suggest future success.

Whatever happens in the future, this case in Colorado is significant. It's the first takeover, but it certainly won't be the last.

Calling out the right wing

I usually don't like to respond to snarkiness, but for some reason Eduwonk just has it out for me and I can't help but to respond. According to Eduwonk:

Brink... finds it inexplicable that a black leader might support vouchers on

That's true. Because there is no substance. The arguments in favor of vouchers are so weak that I find it absolutely unbelievable that anybody -- black, white, Hispanic, whatever -- really believes they are a legitimate answer to the very real problems facing many of our public schools.

But Eduwonk does hit a very important point (hey, I'm extending an olive branch here, Wonk):

In the long run what those 14,000 parents [in the Milwaukee voucher program] want may not be great public policy (for instance, concerns about accountability notwithstanding, we can't afford two public school systems), but their desire is hardly irrational or illegitimate and Democratic elites better start paying attention and putting forward serious solutions to the educational problems they're facing.

The desire to seek opportunities for your children is most definitely rational and legitimate. Democrats who reflexively support public schools without addressing the underlying systemic problems with them are doing a grave disservice. So, Mr. Wonk, there I agree with you.

The problem is that groups like the Bradley Foundation aren't telling the whole story. Many of them aim to destroy public education and publicly say that's their goal. But they don't say that when marketing their voucher schemes. Instead they speak in lofty moral tones about "opportunity scholarships" and "parental choice" and the like.

It fits a pattern with the right wing. They purposefully try to confuse people to win them over to their side. Look at "personal accounts" instead of privatization in Social Security. Look at using 9/11 as a reason to invade Iraq. Look at the repeal of the "death tax" which is really a tax cut for the ultra-rich. There's a pattern here and they've extended it to education and they're recruiting local leaders to sell a message in communities that -- if they knew what the right wingers were really up to -- would kick 'em out the moment they set foot there.

Public schools have some problems and those problems need to be addressed. But they need to be addressed in a climate of honest debate. That is not happening. And that is what I'm criticizing. If you have a policy position, lay it on the table and defend it. Don't try to rename it, call it something it isn't, and foist it on an unsuspecting public.

That's what the right is doing; I'm just trying to call them on it. And I'm wondering why Eduwonk isn't doing the same...

Monday, July 11, 2005

The name's Bond

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond ripped into the Bradley Foundation Sunday in a speech to kick off the NAACP's annual convention:

Bond opened with an attack, saying, "Milwaukee is the home of beer, of brats and the Bradley Foundation," and blasting Bush for failing to appear at the NAACP's annual convention for the fifth straight year.

Bond explained his reference to the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation later in the speech, saying it is among entities that fund what he called "fraudulent" civil rights organizations.

He charged that the organizations appear to back civil rights but [instead] push school vouchers,... [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]

Indeed the Bradley Foundation has given hundreds of thousands to the Black Alliance for Education Options, or BAEO, a group that says they support school choice. School choice is only mildly controversial. What is wildly controversial is the real purpose of many of the right wing foundations behind BAEO and other groups like them.

I'm not very familiar with the Bradley Foundation, but many other funders of BAEO want to introduce free market competition to education on a wide scale. They believe public schools have outlived their usefulness and that the separation of church and state is unnecessary in public education. These are, to wildly understate the case, dangerous positions.

Chairman Bond called them out:

Such organizations have had black "hucksters" on their payrolls for 20 years, said Bond to thunderous applause.

"Like ventriloquist dummies, they speak in their puppet master's voice, but we can see his lips moving," he said.

Yes, and the puppet master resides on the extreme fringe of the right wing, supports overwhelmingly unpopular policy positions, and relies on others to carry the message... but pays them handsomely to do it.

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