Board's Eye View

While everyone is following New Jersey's public union bombshell vote, my friend E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center in Albany reports on a new maneuver by the New York State United Teachers to end run? the property tax cap being promoted by new Governor Andrew Cuomo.? ?As McMahon says, the cap is not even through the state legislature yet and NYSUT is trying to circumvent it:

An egregious fiscal abuse on its own terms, the bill (S.4067-A) would allow school districts across the state (except for New York City) to issue 15-year bonds to cover a portion of their rising teacher pension costs over the next several years ? at least $1 billion in all, by one estimate.? The measure was introduced two months ago at the behest of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) as a way of reducing pressure on teachers to make contract concessions.

The drama in Albany continues.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

Don't miss this morning's front-page New York Times story on public unions. ?Writer Charles Duhigg offers a comprehensive report on the mess we've gotten ourselves into by giving away public money, we now don't have, to public unions, which want more.? Duhigg understands the fundamental, and anti-democratic,? paradox in public unions' DNA:

[P]ublic workers have a unique relationship with elected officials, because government employees are effectively negotiating with bosses whom they can campaign to vote out of office if they don't get what they want. Private unions, in contrast, don't usually have the power to fire their members' employers.

Therein lies a problem.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

Leave it to Rick Hess to find the current lightening rod issue. The other day it was an interview with KIPP CEO Richard Barth, who was discussing the recent study of the network's success in getting kids through college: 33% of KIPP students who had completed eighth grade ten or more years ago (this was the early days) finished college within six years.? Rick's Q&A is worth the read to hear Barth talk about the challenges of tracking KIPP kids through college ?(something that the Christian Brothers (see here) have been doing for a while); about the lessons KIPP has learned (better expand to K?12); and, especially, about transparency (why would you sponsor a study that could make you look bad?). ?As Barth notes, in answer to the transparency question, one of the good things about funding studies like this is to remind their teachers ?how difficult this is?.? [T]his is the mountain we're climbing.? (No miracles here.)

But the issue that caught my eye was that of whether KIPP has anything to crow about.? In an early question to Barth, Rick says, ?some critics have asked? whether KIPP's long-term college graduation rates are ?really four times the comparable cohort, given that KIPP students have chosen to attend.? ?The key phrase here, of course, is ?chosen to attend.? And Hess is asking the question that has dogged charters from the beginning.? Do they succeed because they do a better job educating kids or because they select better,...

There are two stories in today's New York Times that merit some consideration. One is an essay about a sperm donor and the other is a pop history quiz (sorry, test-haters, it's multiple choice). ?What the two have in common is 12th-grade.? The essay writer, one Colton Wooten, we are told, ?graduated from Leesville Road High School* this month.?? And the Times test is taken from the infamous National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) history exam that got so much press this past week (see here and here).

Start with the test. As the headline asks, ?Are You as Smart as a 12th Grader??? Well, my guess is that the average adult American is probably as smart as the average 12th-grader, considering that only 12 percent of the NAEP sample of seniors were proficient in the history test.? But the questions are not easy ? everyone remember what the Ordinance of Nullification was? ? and the test, however golden a standard,? is probably a better measure of the nation's curriculum anarchy than of student knowledge.? (See my post on the national obsession with putting the assessment cart before the curriculum horse.)

Mr. Wooten's essay illustrates a different set of challenges for our schools; most specifically, how do you teach writing?? The young man's op-ed essay is wonderfully constructed and shows a mastery of the topic and of the writing craft that is far more mature than the standard 12th-grade fare I've read.

I

...

The answer, to my mind, is nothing that a good school wouldn't fix.

Perhaps you could convince me that we are taking two steps forward and only one step backward in our focus on educating ?black boys.?? (I hate the term more than the N-word.)? But most of the time it feels as if we're doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

So Education Week is reporting that ?Experts Call for Early Focus on Black Boys' Nonacademic Skills.?? When will the academic silliness stop? ?When will our scholars and policymakers admit that African Americans need an education just as much as Caucasians, Asians, et al. And that the duty of a school is to provide it, regardless of race or ethnicity?

The interesting thing, in my experience, is that many of our schools are equal opportunity failure factories; they can be just as insensitive to white social and emotional needs as to black social and emotional needs.? (Did the recent NAEP history scores bring on a wave of calls for ?white boy? symposia?) We keep shoving the responsibility for school failure on to the kids ? poor kids, black kids, disabled kids, tall kids, fat kids ? instead of focusing our efforts on making schools (I mean, the adults in them) responsive.? Schools that work tend to be just as good about providing a good curriculum as fixing water fountains -- and just as bad at both. (And as Kathleen suggests,...

This is what I don't understand about Diane Ravitch.? After several years (more or less) of fairly relentless criticisms of school reformers, she is back to her old self today, telling the New York Times that the new NAEP history? test results are ?alarming.?? ?Well, of course, they are. (Fordham has been talking about this for a long time.) As the Times reports, only 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the NAEP exam, considered the gold standard for measuring academic performance.? ?And there are lots more alarms where these came from.? But it would sure be great if Diane could come back to the reform fold and start writing again about how lousy many of our public schools are and making suggestions about how to fix them.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

In a recent post in Time Andy Rotherham asks whether it may be the ?end times for public charter schools? and he cites a number of setbacks in the charter world to whet your doubting appetites. But before draping the coffin, read Daniela's take on Andy's argument about Rhode Island ? ?Rhode Island has been on a whirlwind track toward education reform over the past couple of years? ? and Jamie's putting Ohio's charter picture in perspective -- ??Rotherham grossly oversimplifies the experience in Ohio.?

I would like to add another view from the trenches: and would suggest that Washington policymakers take a deep breath and understand that, in the provinces, most people still don't know what a charter school is.? Sure, as Rotherham suggests, ?the term `charter school' is increasingly meaningless? ? inside the beltway, that is. Outside the beltway, the term ?charter school? has never been meaningful. The powerful teachers unions, in small districts and large, have so demonized charters for so long, have so hamstrung local reporters and their Chamber of Commerce publishers, that most people ? and most education journalists ?? still think of the appearance of charter schools on the scene as the education version of the invasion of the body-snatchers.

For those interested, here's how, thanks to John Merrow, the modern charter school movement was invented (see history of charters).

But I have found that once people understand the reason for charters, and their advantages over their...

The new report from the National Research Council (with its come-hither title, Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education) is sure to add fuel to the anti-accountability fires. It concludes, pretty shockingly, that all these tests haven't made kids any smarter.? Though I worry that the study will enable a system that has successfully avoided accountability for too long, those of us in the curriculum first movement should gather some welcome I told you so chits from the report, which concludes that:

Test-based incentive programs, as designed and implemented in the programs that have been carefully studied, have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries.

And:

The evidence we have reviewed suggests that high school exit exam programs, as currently implemented in the United States, decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement.

No doubt there will be much parsing and gnashing of policy teeth over the meaning of the report. Education Week's Sarah Sparks does a good job gathering some early opinions. They range from that of Jon Baron of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy -- ?It's an antidote to what has been the accepted wisdom in this country, the belief that performance-based accountability and incentive systems are the answer to improving education,? ? to a ?stunned? Eric Hanushek -- ?What we've done to date hasn't been perfect; there are lots of obvious flaws in either results or program structure to date....

The Harmony Charter school opus in today's Times is a great read.? It's very long, over 4,000 words, starting on the front page and covering two full pages on the inside of the paper. But its author, Stephanie Saul, is a crack ?investigative reporter? and a 1995 recipient of a Pulitzer -- not an education writer.? The headline is a grabber: ?Charter Schools Tied to Turkey Grow in Texas,? as is the subhead:? ?Some Founders Belong to Islamic Movement.?? Saul tells the story of the Cosmos Foundation, which runs Harmony and is now the largest charter school operator in the Lone Star State, and focuses much of her attention on a ?close-knit network of businesses and organizations run by Turkish immigrants? that benefit from the $100 million in taxpayer funds Harmony receives to run its 33 Texas schools. ?Throw in a ?charismatic Turkish preacher of a moderate brand of Islam? whose followers have helped start 120 schools in 25 states, lots of male teachers from foreign countries, and you have the makings of an education potboiler.? ?The growth of these `Turkish schools,' as they are often called,? writes Saul, "has come with a measure of backlash, not all of it untainted by xenophobia.?

Though there don't appear to be any smoking guns here, the story should be read in conjunction with Jay Greene's limits and dangers of philanthropy essay, as it raises important issues about charter accountability ? in this case, it's less about academics...

The New York Times' education columnist Michael Winerip spoils another good story today.? Instead of giving us a profile of a great teacher evaluation program, he turns Jerry Weast's Peer Assessment Review system in Montgomery County, Maryland, into another excuse to throw punches at the school reform movement. ?One need not have to reject Jay Greene's interesting contention that ?organizations are incapable of innovating? in order to believe that education reform is possible in traditional school systems. But can't we at least applaud what Weast is doing in his 145,000-student district without having to follow Winerip down a somewhat slippery trail to conclude that Weast's success is Race to the Top's failure?

As Winerip rightly points out, the PAR program is a wide-ranging professional development system (invented, says Harvard Ed, in the early 1980s by teacher union leader Dal Lawrence in Toledo) ?that includes lots of mentoring by senior teachers and a ?panel? of teachers and administrators that actually votes to fire teachers. According to Weast, who has run the Maryland district since 1999, it took several years ?to build the trust? in teachers that ?we weren't playing gotcha.?? But in the 11 years since Montgomery County introduced PAR, reports Winerip, its panels have fired 200 teachers and persuaded another 300 to leave voluntarily ? this compared to just five teachers fired the previous ten years.

Sounds promising.? And Weast has been justly praised by many people for his successes -- which he is rightly...

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