Reflections on the year now ending

With so many schools in session well into June and others starting early in August, it sometimes feels like July is all that remains of yesteryear's three-month "summer vacation." Heading into the 7th month, therefore, and with Gadfly looking forward to an Independence Day break, some reflections on the 2006-7 school year seem fitting. Here are ten such:

  • Test scores rise (and fall) more slowly than the Dow or the temperature, but they can and sometimes do rise. This year, the Center on Education Policy confirmed state reports of promising early-grade gains in math and reading. Unfortunately, the year also brought mounting evidence (most recently from NCES) that, when it comes to "proficiency," many states have low expectations--and these may be getting lower. (Fordham is in the midst of our own examination of this and we'll have more to say on the topic presently.)

  • It's not smart to monitor oneself, however, especially in a high-stakes era, and if the U.S. doesn't come up with better forms of independent education auditors--better, that is, than having local and state education agencies devise their own tests and spin their own results--we are going to lose faith in the measurement system itself. It  was not so long ago, after all, that Dr. John Cannell's "Lake Wobegon" study found just about every state reporting that just about all of its pupils were "above average." 

 

  • While test scores are undeniably the coin of the realm in today's standards-based education regime, the more so when placed under NCLB pressure, and while there's little doubt that "what gets tested gets taught," it's increasingly clear that making schools and teachers focus narrowly on test results, especially in basic skills, squeezes a lot of the juice out of the curriculum and out of the educational experience itself. That's why one ought not blithely join in today's mania for "STEM" subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) or lobby for new federal and state programs that focus on them. Here's an Independence Day thought for you: America's true competitive edge doesn't come from producing more engineers than India. It arises from the creativity, rebelliousness, and drive that result from a broad liberal education and the values and convictions that accompany such teaching and learning.
  • Besides STEM, pre-school is the Next Big Thing in education policy. Governors are pushing it. Teacher unions love it. Scads of experts are for it, as are any number of advocacy groups and deep-pocketed funders. Parents are delighted with the prospect that taxpayers will underwrite their day care needs. It does seem beneficial for disadvantaged kids--provided, of course, that it's real pre-school, not just child care. It may or may not be a good thing for middle-class kids. We'll never know, of course, unless the kindergarten readiness of participants and nonparticipants is carefully assessed. But as Wade Horn and his fellow Head Start reformers learned the hard way, "testing" four and five year olds is like poking a hornets' nest of interest groups and ideologues. What's most likely, therefore, is that a new educational entitlement will be created--and we'll never know whether it was necessary or what good it's doing or when it works and when it doesn't. 

 

  • School choice continues to spread, unstoppable now, despite the best efforts of its foes to contain it. More vouchers, more charters, more e-learning, yes indeed, but also more families voting with their feet by moving to places with schools (and jobs) that suit them better. Any number of rustbelt cities, for example, are simply being depopulated--and their school systems are shrinking as others grow.
  • Americans are cautiously open to a host of reforms, and none too pleased with the education status quo, particularly if they live in those rusty cities, but they're slow to grasp new concepts such as "performance-based pay" and "charter schools." They're willing to spend more on schooling, yet doubt that it'll do much good. Survey after survey indicates that they stubbornly cling to a few beliefs that ain't necessarily so (e.g. the virtues of smaller classes). Mostly, though, they bring common sense and traditional American values--merit, fairness, effort, etc.--to bear on all manner of expert-devised education nostrums.
  • That's one reason that variations on the theme of merit pay for teachers are creeping from city to city and state to state. There's much fumbling here and some setbacks, but the mounting trove of NCLB-generated student achievement (and value-added) data means that the effectiveness of individual teachers is getting easier to gauge--and to defend in "objective" terms.
  • "Brand name" schools are beginning to establish themselves around the land, as CMO's, EMO's, chains, franchises and networks get traction. Some, like Edison and KIPP, are far-flung and famous. (This is becoming true, as well, of at least two skeins of "virtual" schools, Connections Academy and K12.) Others, such as Achievement First, National Heritage Academies, and the Big Picture Company are more limited in celebrity and geography. Still others, such as the Coalition of Essential Schools and Core Knowledge schools, are less formal and cookie-cutterish. But with serious philanthropic and investment dollars backing the creation and replication of more such models and their replication, one can glimpse a future in which name-brand schools are as familiar--and ubiquitously available--as name-brand restaurants, hotels and gas stations. And not just for Americans. The irrepressible Chris Whittle, this time teamed up with a Dubai-based education entrepreneur, recently announced plans to build a worldwide network of pricey U.S.-style private schools to cater to the educational tastes of global elites (see more below).
  • You can forget NCLB reauthorization until after the 2008 election. No, nobody important is confiding secrets and we don't have an astrologer. But our reading of the political entrails says this is nowhere near ready to happen. Which may not be a bad thing, considering how little consensus there is regarding the changes that need to be made in this humongous set of federal programs--and how much is still being learned about them.
  • It's clearer than ever that any serious change for the better in education, whether at the building, district, state or national level, hinges on effective, courageous and sustained leadership--and it's clearer than ever that the system does its utmost to discourage, deter and deflect the sorts of people who might provide such leadership. The exceptions--Michelle Rhee being the latest--deserve applause, as well as money, political backing, and prayers. But why do we persevere with a set of arrangements that depend on mavericks for success?

Enjoy your break!

 

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