Since 1994, high schools in Los Angeles have been able to name as many valedictorians as they like rather than singling out one top student. To avoid making any good students feel bad, some schools had 30, 40, and even 90 valedictorians this year. See "We're All Number One!" by Jill Stewart, New Times Los Angeles, July 5, 2001

The National Education Association (N.E.A.) would rather die than let parents choose their children's schools-but this week it voted to let them decide whether or not their kids will take tests! What's the difference? It seems the country's largest teacher union is willing to empower parents so long as the empowering coincides with the self-interest of teachers, in this case by crippling state and national testing programs that can be used for student (and perhaps teacher) accountability.

Self-interest is the key. It's the one constant in nearly every action of the N.E.A. and most of the actions of its rival/partner, the American Federation of Teachers (A.F.T.) Adult self-interest, to be accurate. Teacher self-interest, to be yet more precise. The educational well being of children may be invoked. But it's usually a decoy, a bit of spin meant to garb the adult self-interest in something less naked.

Self-interest isn't a bad thing. It's the essence of capitalism. It's the core of most countries' foreign policies. (It's also what makes packs of wolves bring down caribou and thieves snatch purses from old ladies.) What's hypocritical is self-interest that pretends to be something else. And patterns of self-interest that lead organizations to profess one thing and do another.

The teacher unions don't always work against quality education for children. The A.F.T., in particular, has a distinguished record of studies, reports and journals (especially its outstanding quarterly, American Educator, whose departing editor, Liz McPike, will be much missed) that press for high standards, sound...

As Congress wraps up the ESEA reauthorization process, standards-based reform has taken center stage. Soon, the debate over "adequate yearly progress" and other exciting details will end, and a timeless question will re-emerge: motivated by these new incentives, how should schools transform themselves in order to increase student achievement? According to Uncommon Wisdom, a report by Mass Insight, the answer lies not in the halls of Congress, but in the schools and districts that are already making large gains. Aiming to identify specific "best practices," the report profiles nine Massachusetts schools (and one district) that outperform their demographic peers on state tests. The snapshots result in suggestions ranging from improved teacher collaboration to increased classroom time to enhanced use of student-level test data. However, school culture transcends all. In each of the high-achieving schools, the report observed a "common focus - a laser-like focus on higher standards for students - and a readiness to take on even the most intractable barriers to change." Mass Insight has only released the executive summary of the forthcoming report, slated for publication this fall. View the summary online at http://www.massinsight.com/meri/Building%20Blocks/e_bb_press.htm or request a hard copy by calling 617-722-4160.

In this working paper on the misalignment between consumer demands and the pedagogy of teacher professionals, J.E. Stone (a professor of educational psychology and the founder of the Education Consumers ClearingHouse) takes a close look at teacher training in Texas, starting with Learner-Centered Schools for Texas, A Vision of Texas Educators, the document that guides teacher training in the Lone Star State. This document emphasizes pedagogy that "implies teaching fitted to the learner's unique characteristics" rather than methods that achieve learning outcomes. Stone argues that the focus on learner-centered instruction is based on ideology rather than evidence, and that it interferes with students' acquisition of the knowledge and skills prescribed by the curriculum. He offers value-added assessment as an alternate way of measuring whether teachers use instructional methods that boost student achievement. Value-added assessment measures teacher effectiveness while taking into account student differences, and has been adopted by several districts in Texas as well as the state of Tennessee. While Stone tends to lump all learner-centered teaching into a general category of ineffective teaching practice, he does a good job of demonstrating how Texas teacher certification tests and training programs undermine the public's expectation: high student achievement as measured by standardized tests. He also urges state policymakers to examine how fads and failures enter the educational community and the cost to the public. To view or obtain a copy of the report go to http://www.independent.org/tii/WorkingPapers/TeacherTraining.html or call the Independent Institute at 510-632-1366. To browse the Education Consumers ClearingHouse, go...

The discipline problems that many of today's teachers-even elementary school teachers-have to deal with may shock delicate readers. What's wrong with kids today? See "Schools Awash in Bad Behavior," by Linda Perlstein, Washington Post, July 11, 2001

A year after the University of California system made changes in its admissions policy designed to increase campus diversity, Hispanic admissions soared 18%. But many of these newly admitted students may have benefited from a loophole in the admissions policy that has created an unintended reward for speakers of second languages, reports Daniel Golden in a June 26 article in the Wall Street Journal.

The U.C. system began this year to assign increased weight to the SAT II achievement tests and less to SAT I scores. Students are now required to take SAT II exams in writing, math, and a third subject of their choice, which can include foreign languages. Golden reports that many applicants from immigrant homes who are native speakers of other languages are improving their prospects for admission by acing a language test meant for students whose first tongue is English. At Jefferson High, for instance, a predominantly Hispanic, low-achieving school in Los Angeles, students averaged 715 out of 800 on the Spanish exam but 390 on the verbal SAT and 402 on the math SAT.

There are other winners besides Hispanic students. Golden found that Asian-Americans whose first language isn't English scored 761 last year on the SAT II Chinese test, 752 on Korean, and 735 on Japanese. Steven A. Holmes reports in a July 1 commentary in the New York Times that the College Board has added new SAT II tests in foreign languages in response to lobbying by ethnic groups. Korean-Americans even got a...

The Educational Research Service's new study of high-performing districts expands on an appraisal of high-performing schools that it published three years ago. This one highlights four districts: Brazosport Independent School District (in Clute, Texas); Twin Falls School District (in Idaho); Ysleta Independent School District (in El Paso); and Barbour County School District (in Philippi, West Virginia). All four districts serve a significant number of low-income children, yet showed significant gains in student achievement over the past five years. The study found an unsurprising correlation between strong leadership, a culture of high expectations, clearly articulated goals and standards, and a combination of empowerment and accountability among school staff and student achievement. A key factor contributing to district success, however, was item-level analysis of assessment results so as to identify specific weaknesses in students' knowledge and skills. This helped schools to focus classroom and individual instruction on improving these areas. Extensive efforts to provide immediate and appropriate corrective instruction contributed to the impressive score gains that these four districts made. To order a copy of the report, surf to http://www.ers.org/CATALOG/description.phtml?II=WS-0420&UID=2001070509040164.12.103.182 or contact the Educational Research Service at 1-800-791-9308.

The summer issue of the American Federation of Teacher's magazine, American Educator, has several must-read articles. E.D. Hirsch explains that closing the achievement gap in reading will require that kids learn decoding skills and also that they work their way through a curriculum that develops knowledge of academic subjects; Louisa Moats describes what it takes to produce reading gains that endure beyond 4th grade; H. Wu shows how the proper study of fractions prepares students for algebra; and Diane Ravitch resurrects William Chandler Bagley, who was wrongly branded a reactionary for insisting-75 years ago-that all children should learn challenging academic material. American Educator is one of our favorite publications-issue after issue is genuinely worth reading-and we salute editor Liz McPike on another terrific example of journalistic excellence and education seriousness. If you'd like a copy of one article or the whole summer issue, send a fax to the American Educator (attn: Yomica) at 202-879-4534.

Children First America has issued an eight-page brief describing bold reforms that the Kiwis have made to their education system over the past decade and a half. New Zealand's powerful, unresponsive, and highly bureaucratic Ministry of Education was transformed into a body that hands block grants to local boards of trustees (one per school) and audits school performance against the requirements written into each school's charter by its own board. Every New Zealand public school and most private schools are now versions of "charter schools," and district-level boards have been eliminated. Private schools may get state funding equivalent to public schools (including capital funding), provided they meet certain facility code standards, teach the core curriculum, and instruct students for the prescribed number of days each school year. Authors Matthew Ladner of Children First America and Maurice McTigue, a former New Zealand Cabinet Minister, briefly examine what test scores reveal about the efficacy of these Antipodean reforms. The 1995 TIMSS math results show that New Zealand's 12th graders scored 22 points above the international average, while U.S. seniors scored 39 points below. Ladner and McTigue conclude their brief with a critique of U.S. authors Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd's recent book on school choice in New Zealand, When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale. This book asserts that school competition in New Zealand has not improved those schools that lost enrollments as a result of the nation's reforms. Ladner and McTigue argue that Fiske and Ladd fail to muster any evidence that...

Nearly all states post report cards on the internet that show parents (and others) how their children's schools are doing, but some of these report cards are more useful than others. The Heritage Foundation has created a web site that highlights the 10 best internet-based school report cards, explains why such measures are important, and includes links to school report cards in all the states. Check it out at http://www.heritage.org/reportcards/