When I first started reading this Slate piece by Alexander Russo ("Chicago School Days: Obama's lackluster record on education"), I felt my head spinning. Not only would I have to reassess my admittedly optimistic views of Barack Obama, I'd also have to concede that Russo might (in this case, at least) know what he's talking about.

Then I finished the article and reclaimed my equilibrium. As it turns out, I wouldn't have to change my mind on either front.

Here's the rub. Russo dives into an important dispute from a decade ago that is little known to national audiences: whether Chicago's local school councils???a.k.a., "mini school boards"???should have the power to fire school principals, as a 1988 law allows. At issue was an ugly history of minority-dominated boards firing white principals for little reason other than their race. By the mid 1990s, Paul Vallas, Chicago's then-superintendent, wanted to strip the boards of this authority because he was tired of good principals getting thrown under the bus. As a state senator, Obama shadow-boxed around the issue, Russo claims, and then eventually sided with the local boards once the issue was resolved in their favor (not surprising for a former community organizer).

I don't know whether Russo captured that part of the story accurately or not, but his analysis for what this could mean for NCLB is preposterous:

Based on Obama's actions in Chicago in 1999, it's hard to imagine him taking charge of the continuing debate

Liam Julian

Deciding such matters isn't easy. At the end of the day, though, California's court settlement is the right one. If high school diplomas are to have any integrity, if they are to represent that their possessors have acquired the minimum academic skills necessary for work, then all recipients must demonstrate that they can read and do math at a basic level.

It is no doubt difficult to deny diplomas to special education students who have put in gobs of time and effort to work their way through the grades. Certainly such pupils deserve something for their efforts (a certificate of completion, perhaps). But the bottom line (where one necessarily finds himself after doing the relevant syllogisms) is this: Any senior who cannot pass California's exit exam???which can be retaken indefinitely, beyond graduation, and on which the receipt of passing scores requires only the most basic knowledge and skills???is unprepared to competently fill most work positions in a modern economy. The signaling of work-related competency is, supposedly, what high school diplomas are meant for.

Liam Julian

Reportedly, police found equations in his freezer. (See here.)

In the latest episode of Fordham Factor, Mike hypothesizes that the addition of a writing component to the SAT exam may be partly responsible for the recent rise in twelfth-grade NAEP writing scores.

Is it possible that a privately-run, consumer-driven testing company could do as much if not more to improve student achievement than NCLB, which costs taxpayers billions of dollars?

Gadfly Studios


Liam Julian

Regarding Coby's earlier post: A much-overlooked aspect of the "cash for grades" idea is that it might???and, according to past research, probably will???create kids who will work for good grades only when they're being paid for it. Sometimes, it seems, policymakers get hung up on crafting incentives to induce good behavior without thinking about how the added incentives themselves are skewing relationships and detracting from other, naturally occurring motivators.

Kevin Carey (a.k.a. Mr. Quick) is less enamored with Jim Ryan's suggestions for fixing NCLB than I was (see here). Carey complains that Ryan "fails to notice that his proposed solutions completely contradict one another" because, on the one hand, he wants to eliminate annual testing, while on the other hand, he wants to include measures of student progress from year to year???which requires annual testing.

This is, to use a bloggy cliche, a classic "and a pony" policy agenda. NCLB can be improved, no doubt, but the people who wrote it weren't morons; there are some very real and difficult tradeoffs to contend with in formulating accountability policy, and one of them is the tension between the costs and burdens of assessment and the need for comprehensive information.

Fair point, Kevin. But you have to admit... his proposal for national testing???no matter how frequent???is downright brilliant.

Liam Julian

Some 300,000 students in the U.K. have asked that their national examination scores be given "special consideration," i.e. additional points, because, for example, they had a fever on test day. The number of successful appeals has risen by 9 percent since last year. (See here.)

At his high school alma matter yesterday, John McCain made his first major education speech (not just the first in this campaign???the first in his life, as far as I can tell). He voiced support for several sound policy ideas, including school choice and merit pay. But what's most worth noting was his rhetoric, particularly about teachers. Seeking to avoid the mistakes of another war hero, Bob Dole, who attacked teachers unions in his 1996 convention speech, and was made to look anti-teacher, he clearly wanted to side with excellent teachers while decrying the bureaucracies and unions that defend their incompetent peers.

Much of the speech is a stirring personal account of his days at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. He speaks glowingly of his favorite teacher there???William Ravenel, who was "as wise and capable as anyone could expect to be... loved English literature, and taught us to love it as well... He was simply the best man at the school; one of the best men I have ever known."

Then he broadens his praise to include all teachers???or at least all good ones:

Teaching is among the most honorable professions any American can join... Theirs is an underpaid profession, dedicated to the service of others, which offers little in the way of the rewards that much of popular culture encourages us to crave???wealth and celebrity... We should be wise enough to understand that those who work diligently and lovingly to educate the children we


In a recent video, Glenn Loury of Brown University and Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute discuss Mayor Bloomberg's "cash for grades" program.

MacDonald argues, and Loury more or less agrees, that the program institutes "a caste system" since it assumes that "some of us do things because we understand it's right, or because it's in our long-term self interest, whereas the other group we're just gonna treat like rats in a Skinner behavioral science exam."

Of course, the government frequently intervenes in the lives of those who presumably don't know what's in their long-term interest. Governments do what they do mostly to protect certain segments of society from themselves. Food stamps, housing projects, Medicaid, free or reduced lunch, NCLB???these all cultivate a kind of caste system. Americans have their very own untouchables just like everyone else.

The big difference is that the directness of the cash payouts in Bloomberg's plan reeks of paternalism, while in the examples above the nanny-state scent must travel through the byzantine air ducts of massive bureaucracies before it reaches our noses. When you get down to it, though, they're both stinky government cheese.