Public/Private Ventures

The recent focus on improving student achievement has brought renewed attention to the what schools are doing. However, this report suggests that policymakers should not be so quick to rush out when the dismissal bell rings. After-school, weekend, and summer programs can also play an important role in the academic and social development of youth. This new report by Public/Private Ventures discusses the hurdles faced by school-based after-school programs. Though the authors claim to have examined 60 after-school programs in 17 cities across the country, the report's findings are a bit slim. Nevertheless, Challenges and Opportunities in After-School Programs examines important considerations involving physical space, student participation, and transportation. Obstacles it identifies include the increased wear and tear on school buildings, the inability of programs to reach the most at-risk children, and the shortage of after-school transportation to take participants home. The report alludes to the positive academic impact of after-school programs, but it offers few suggestions in this area. Steering clear of program content, it tackles more pragmatic questions of implementation. In the end it concludes, "policymakers and funders...must balance optimism about the programs' potential with some degree of caution," for programs "face very real challenges in finding adequate resources." If this nuts-and-bolts approach interests you, surf to www.ppv.org/content/reports/esssummary.html, or call Public/Private Ventures at 215-557-4400 to request a copy of the report....

National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation presents this study on Urban Systemic Initiatives, a math and science reform program, as proof of the program's success in boosting math and science test scores in urban districts. Enrollment among minorities in higher-level math and science classes is up in the 22 selected districts, more students are taking the ACT and SAT college entrance exams, and student performance on state standardized tests shows significant gains. But before applauding this seemingly successful reform movement, it is worth noting that an earlier report reviewed here-Beating the Odds: A City-By-City Analysis of Student Performance and Achievement Gaps on State Assessments by the Council of Great City Schools-found strikingly similar gains in 55 major urban districts, most of which did not participate in an Urban Systemic Initiative. While Urban Systemic Initiatives may have influenced results in the 22 participating districts, without any control group of districts for comparison, it is impossible to know whether this reform works. To view this report on the web, go to http://www.systemic.com/usi/booklet.htm For hard copies, send requests to Systemic Research Incorporated at 150 Kerry Pl., 2nd Floor, Norwood, MA 02062.

National Center for Education Statistics

The National Center for Education Statistics has just issued an important analysis of black-white differences in various economic and educational outcomes. The main finding is not surprising: the higher the prior academic achievement of blacks, the narrower the gaps between blacks and whites in young adulthood-and sometimes the gaps close entirely. For example, "for young adults with similar levels of prior educational achievement [defined as parity on earlier tests of math and/or reading], black-white gaps in unemployment rates were at least one-half smaller than for young adults as a whole. Among men with similar levels of prior educational achievement, black-white gaps in annual earnings were at least two-fifths smaller than for men as a whole. Black women with levels of prior educational achievement similar to white women earned as much as, or more than, their white counterparts." Similar gap-narrowings are visible in college attendance and completion rates. As for the achievement gaps themselves, in math the black-white gap narrows in elementary school, widens in junior high and doesn't change during high school. The reading pattern is more erratic. The authors do not say what causes what. They do not make predictions or policy recommendations. They acknowledge that other factors besides education are at work. They merely report, with exhaustive documentation, that similar levels of black-white educational achievement are associated with more similar attainments by black and white Americans during young adulthood. You may already have supposed this to be so-but here's 44 pages of evidence....

Education historian Maris A. Vinovskis is the author of this thorough, fact-filled and perceptive 270-page volume subtitled "Improving the R & D Centers, Regional Educational Laboratories, and the 'New' OERI." Much of the material in its five chapters has appeared elsewhere, but it's extremely valuable to have this all in one place. The first chapter is a close look at the work of the OERI-funded and university-based "centers." The second takes a critical (but not hostile) look at the infamous "labs." The third examines the crummy, lobbyist-whipped job of "oversight" of the labs and centers by Congress. The fourth recounts and appraises the structural reforms of OERI during the 1990's. And the fifth (and timeliest) recaps Vinovskis's thoughts on how this all might be done better in the future. He never strays too far from his material, so this is no polemic. There are times when one might wish he drew stronger conclusions. But this is a careful, balanced, nuanced work, likely to hold considerable interest for aficionados of education research in general and the federal efforts therein in particular. The ISBN is 0-472-11210-4. The publisher is The University of Michigan Press, most easily found on the web at www.press.umich.edu.

Harold J. Noah (emeritus professor at Teachers College, Columbia) and Max A. Eckstein (emeritus professor at Queens College, CUNY) have written this disturbing book about education fraud and chicanery. They spotlight student cheating, credentials fraud and misconduct by professionals. The first of those topics regularly makes it into the news, but they also offer alarming and less familiar examples under the second and third headings. Most of their evidence of credentials fraud involves diploma mills, but they also illustrate forgeries and falsifications. Professional misconduct includes helping students cheat, plagiarizing other scholars' work, fabricating research findings, and suchlike. Noah and Eckstein do a better job of spotlighting these problems than of explaining their origins and devising solutions. Progressive educators both, they track the rising incidence of fraud to the intensifying of "competitive pressures," notably mounting emphasis on test scores, which boosts the incentive to cheat, etc. But that's not all. They even finger the local property tax as a source of this problem! As expected, they urge a lessening of competitive pressure by reducing the importance of test-driven accountability. They tread very lightly on other possible solutions, such as more rigorous enforcement of standards, better proctoring of tests, more careful checking of credentials, etc. But even if you don't find merit in their explanations and remedies, you will very likely widen your eyes at the evidence they uncover of the incidence of education fraud. The ISBN is 0-7425-1032-8. The publisher is Rowman & Littlefield, 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, MD 20706. They...

The arguments that teachers make against merit pay are nothing new, according to Steven Malanga. When merit pay was introduced into American industry in the 1980s, many grumbled that the contributions of individual workers couldn't be measured. But while developing performance-pay systems that work takes time, many believe that the introduction of merit pay was crucial to the boost in productivity that American firms began to experience in the late 1980s. In an article in the latest City Journal, Steven Malanga examines how merit pay has been used in the private sector and how teachers in Cincinnati, Iowa, and Denver are experimenting with it today. Read "Why Merit Pay Will Improve Teaching," by Steven Malanga, City Journal, Summer 2001. Not available online; for more information about the magazine, see http://www.city-journal.org

Inasmuch as last week's column was about chickens (Chicken Littles, to be precise) it's fitting that this one is about canards-the loud-quacking kind-that need to be put out of their misery and cooked fast.

Roaming the education reform field, I've encountered many ridiculous statements hurled at those who seek major changes in the K-12 delivery system. My purpose here is to respond to a half dozen of the most absurd.

First canard: "You'd let anyone into the classroom to teach, without having them meet any external standards."

The truth: This canard is generally voiced by people who assume that the way to get better teachers for U.S. schools is to regulate entry ever more stringently via state certification and a requirement that everyone complete a state-approved and nationally-accredited training program. But why is this the only option? Private schools are free to hire whomever they like, as are many charter schools, and they seem to be doing fine. Why can't that freedom be extended to regular public schools as well? Each school should be able to select and deploy its own teaching team-and be held accountable for their classroom results. The state's role-here come the external standards-should be to ensure that candidates can be trusted around children (hence a "background check" is called for) and are knowledgeable about their subjects (which can be determined by testing them and/or requiring that they majored in the subjects they will be teaching). Whether they're effective in class must be determined by the school...

Two new working papers released by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggest that having high grading standards and grouping students by ability (i.e. tracking) lead to improvements in academic achievement. For more, see "Do High Grading Standards Affect Student Performance?" by David Figlio and Maurice Lucas at http://papers.nber.org/papers/W7985 and "School Choice and the Distributional Effects of Ability Tracking: Does Separation Increase Equality," by David Figlio and Marianne Page at http://papers.nber.org/papers/W8055

A long piece by Linda Perlstein in the Washington Post Magazine's Education Review issue explores how schools and teachers have lost our trust and how they might restore it. "Suspicious Minds," by Linda Perlstein, Washington Post Magazine, July 22, 2001. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A11086-2001Jul17.html

For the first time, the US has lost its world lead in college completion rates. The UK, New Zealand, Finland, and the Netherlands all have higher percentages of young adults with college degrees than we do. Jay Mathews considers whether we should be worried in "The New Completion Competition," Washington Post Magazine, July 22, 2001. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/23/nyregion/23SCHO.html?searchpv=day01