Most ed reformers are drawn to their calling by one, or sometimes both, of two considerations: civil rights and economics. The first concern addresses the achievement gap between mostly white, upper-class students and their mostly minority, low-income peers. That this gap exists--and that it's shameful and unacceptable--is undeniable.

The claims of the economics crowd, however, are less unassailable. Landmark report after landmark report warns us that, unless we adopt the following thirty-six-point plan to fix our schools, we face a future of indentured servitude to the emerging behemoths of the East. But, in fact, there's little evidence to support such claims, just as there wasn't in the eighties and nineties when Japan was on its supposedly inexorable march toward world domination.

Thankfully, Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews has written an accessible and persuasive response to the economic armageddon crowd in the latest Wilson Quarterly. Choice lines:

Our best public schools are first-rate, producing more intense, involved, and creative ??A-??plus students than our most prestigious colleges have room for. That is why less-known institutions such as Claremont McKenna, Rhodes, and Hampshire are drawing many freshmen just as smart as the ones at Princeton. The top 70 percent of U.S. public high schools are pretty good, certainly better than they have ever been, thanks to a growing movement to offer Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate ??courses.

Our real problem is the bottom 30 percent of U.S. schools, those in urban and rural communities full of ??low-??income children. We


Backed against the wall by recent labor controversies, the United Federation of Teachers has launched a counter-offensive:

The city teachers union is accusing education officials of using a double standard by yanking teachers from classrooms when they're accused of wrongdoing but letting similarly accused principals stay on.

The complaint seems to stem from a single incident in the Bronx where a principal was accused of employing corporal punishment but has not been disciplined.

Two things jump out here. First, why take for granted that managers should be held to the same standards as other employees? Principals--just like movie-theater managers, law firm partners, and vice presidents for national programs and policy at education think tanks--have different duties and responsibilities than the employees they lead. Central administrators, therefore, should have different criteria for evaluating the performance and behavior of principals and teachers. It's not a double standard--it's an entirely different set of standards, and it's a perfectly sensible approach for any hierarchical organization.

On the other hand, in practice, most urban school district central offices seem to do a pretty poor job of overseeing their principals (although some are trying to buck the trend). The UFT may very well be right that the principal in question deserves some kind of punishment. And I suspect (thanks to feedback from an NYC teacher) that there are several teachers in the rubber rooms and on the Absent Teacher Reserve who are there not because they're poor teachers, but...

Liam Julian

Over at Quick and the Ed, Kevin Carey turns in a lengthy post, replete with percentages and bullet points, that draws lessons from Ed Sector's newest report, Waiting to Be Won Over. His second sentence shocks, then awes, then shocks again:

In recent decades, America has experienced a steady de-unionization of the private sector workforce. This is a real problem, particularly in an era of declining economic security and increasing inequality (problems that partially stem from de-unionization itself).

To??assert that??the loss of jobs in, say,??Michigan and Ohio stems from de-unionization??certainly has originality going for it, if not much veracity. To??maintain that the??steady decline of Ford and General Motors--neither of which can compete with Japanese car makers in large part because they pay something like $2200 more in labor costs per car than does Toyota--is??the??product??of de-unionization is... well, it's definitely new.??

Further down the post, Carey writes about public sector unions??and notes "the??fact that most teacher are quite open to reforms of traditional labor arrangements that many teachers unions fail to actively support at best, and oppose at worst."

His first example is that "55% [of teachers] agreed that the process for removing teachers who are ???clearly ineffective and shouldn't be in the classroom' is ???very difficult and time-consuming.'" Somehow, this statistic??doesn't??transport me to joyfulness. That just over half of k-12 educators find "very difficult and time-consuming"??the Byzantine process of attempting to fire a??public-school teacher is, instead, a tad??depressing.??It doesn't say much for the teachers themselves,...

While childlike Liam takes Checker to task for questioning the incalculable contributions of twenty-somethings, in Boston they're rehiring retirees in the wake of laying-off young teachers. And in this case, the local teachers union head gets it right:

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said that by relying heavily upon retirees to return to their old jobs, the school system risks never training a new generation of workers.... "Institutionally, it's a weak way to replace your skilled employees," Stutman said.

Hmm, teachers unions standing up for younger teachers over older ones? This is new.

Liam Julian

Another interesting bit in The Gadfly is this piece, which describes how thousands of Massachusetts students who pass the MCAS and graduate high school nonetheless have to take remedial courses at 2- and 4-year colleges--i.e., they're not ready to do college-level work. Many drop out.

The MCAS is supposed to be one of the nation's toughest exit exams. So if thousands of students who pass it can't get along at university, this should alert policymakers to a piece of common sense that has, in the age of No Child Left Behind, become taboo: Not every student can or should attend college.

The "all kids to college" push is something of an unquestioned mantra in ed-reform circles, which has always puzzled me. Of course the only way all students, or even most students, will get to college is if college admission (and by extension, college degrees) means nothing. We already see this happening in states that have attempted to tie high school graduation to high school exit exams; they can either make receipt of high school diplomas an easier task or export more dropouts to the streets.

A??university diploma has no intrinsic value. So when we hear that all kids must go to college because??the good jobs employ only those who possess??at least a Bachelor's degree, we can be confident that (suspending disbelief) when everyone in America finally does attend college, the good jobs will demand applicants with Master's degrees. And so it goes.


Liam Julian

The Gadfly is up. Checker wrote a nice essay this week rebutting Charles Murray's claim, in The New Criterion, that??to believe "that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better" is merely romantic.

Also in The Gadfly, Checker reviews Mark Bauerlein's new book, The Dumbest Generation, the title of which refers to my generation. Checker notes a misspelling of Bauerlein's last name on the publisher's website, and fingers the perp:

One pictures the culprit as a 23-year-old staffer with iPod and ear-buds who illustrates the point of this Emory University English professor's terrific new book: today's young people don't know squat in large part because the trappings of the "digital age" have addled their brains, distorted their priorities, and occupied all their time.

Well.??Earlier this week, I also??learned from a very respected journalist at a very respected publication, that "nobody cares if a 25-year-old reads something, thinks really hard, and then writes his opinion about it."

Perhaps that attitude is one reason why lots of journalists are these days taking jobs as bartenders; history shows that 25-year-olds who think really hard should not be ignored. Just last night I read in Malcolm Gladwell's article in the newest New Yorker ("The Innovators Issue") that Alexander Graham Bell "knew the answer to the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph" after taking a walk in the woods and sitting by a swiftly flowing river. He invented the...

Liam Julian

Tom Stanley-Becker is an AP dropout. The young man writes today in the Los Angeles Times:

The problem with the AP program is that we don't have time to really learn U.S. history because we're preparing for the exam. We race through the textbook, cramming in the facts, a day on the Great Awakening, a week on the Civil War and Reconstruction, a week on World War II, a week on the era from FDR to JFK, a day on the civil rights movement--with nothing on transcendentalism, or the Harlem Renaissance, or Albert Einstein. There is no time to write a paper. Bound by the exam, my history teacher wistfully says we have to be ready in early May.

AP and IB are rigorous programs (as we've noted), and when compared to the usual public-school classroom experience, they dazzle. But for students who want to learn more than surface facts, who desire a deep and engaging dialogue with the material they're covering, AP and IB can be profoundly unsatisfying. Educators have every incentive to "teach to the test," and no incentive to encourage their classes to think critically or to spend time penning essays that do more that recite facts. AP and IB programs can suffer from the same problems that hurt NCLB.

Some say: "But AP and IB students must learn the basic facts first; they can react to them later."??But "later," which presumably means "in college," often never??comes because??university freshmen??are no longer required to...

Liam Julian

Mike has been all over the connection between Obama and Bill Ayers. Today, Bob Novak is on it, too; he thinks that Obama, who called the terrorist-sympathizing, America-hating Ayers just "a guy who lives in my neighborhood," will have to offer voters a more thorough explication than that.

Obama supporters should hope any such explication is better than the one??put forth??by Stanley Fish, law professor and New York Times blogger, who justified his own association with Ayers by noting that people should not be held accountable for the actions of their acquaintances. That's baloney. It's also shockingly relativistic. It also won't convince voters in Ohio. It also violates what everyone's mother told him in first grade.

And while the sins of Ayers's past are disturbing, so are his present sins--i.e., the drivel that he continues to publish and proffer. In one of his latest blog posts, for example, Ayers suggests that teachers structure their lesson plans to??encourage the ideas in Whitman's Leaves of Grass, such as "love the sun and the earth and the animals, despise riches, give alms to anyone who asks... dismiss whatever insults your soul," etc. Ugh....

No, I'm not referring to this survey from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, though there are some promising tidbits. (Six in ten parents express interest in enrolling their children in charter schools once they are described as "independent public schools that are free to be more innovative and are held accountable for improved student achievement.")

I am referring to the fantastic news (hat tip to Alexander Russo ) that reporter Diana Jean Schemo is leaving the New York Times . Schemo wrote the infamous 2004 front-page story, "Nation's Charter Schools Lagging Behind, U.S. Test Scores Reveal ," which was an AFT-aided hit job on the charter movement. (Read all about it in Jeff Henig's newish book on the topic .) She also completely politicized the paper's coverage of the Reading First program (see here and pages 28 to 31 here ) and, in a 2006 column , finally admitted her own skepticism that schools can do much good for kids in poverty:

A growing body of research suggests that while schools can make a difference for individual students, the fabric of children's lives outside of school can either nurture, or choke, what progress poor children do make academically.

Russo reports that Schemo is now working on a book about the Naval Academy. That's too bad for the Academy--but good for K-12 schools....

Liam Julian

Yesterday, we noted that Kevin Donnelly, authority on all things related to Aussie-ed, was displeased that Victoria was offering its teachers a massive, across-the-board pay raise decoupled from accountability. With principals, though, it's another story.