Ode to Weird Al

Pardon the Gadfly

Mike and Dara talk school discipline, teacher-prep programs, and high school exit exams.

Amber's Research Minute

Amber gets practical about school choice. Making School Choice Work Michael DeArmond, Ashley Jochim, and Robin Lake, (Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education, July 2014).

Mike: This is your host Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at edexcellence.net. Now, please join me welcoming my cohost, the Weird Al of education policy, Dara Zeehandelaar.

Dara: How did I know you were going to say that?

Mike: I love these news songs that Weird Al is out with. I have to admit, I’m a big Weird Al fan. I mean, go figure. Word play, parody singing, he's got it all. Do you have a favorite Weird Al song?

Dara: I don’t find him particularly funny or entertaining?

Mike: What, are you serious?

Dara: Yeah, and this is not just now? This has been since whatever the … in the 90s and “Eat It.”

Dara: See, I just … I think that he's clever, but it’s not really my cup of tea, maybe for the same reason that I can’t stand karaoke and I really don’t like cover bands, either.

Mike: Oh, Dara. What is this?

Dara: I hate fun. I hate fun, Mike.

Mike: There it is. You have now alienated most of our listeners, all right, with all of that.

Dara: I hate fun.

Mike: You are somebody who likes to go run for fun. That right there is a sign.

Dara: I’d rather listen to the original, and if that means a DJ instead of a cover band at a party, then fine.

Mike: You don’t listen to Weird Al because of the music. You listen because of the funny lyrics.

Dara: Okay.

Mike: “Just eat it. Just eat it.” That is my favorite, I have to say.

Dara: Why?

Mike: Because I never quite understood the original lyrics on that one, “Just beat it.” Anyway, “Just Eat It,” that was a great song.

Dara: It’s funny. I never really … I knew you—

Mike: You don’t like puns either, do you?

Dara: I knew you … It’s because I hate fun and I’m not funny.

Mike: You know …

Dara: I knew you were going to come in and ask me …

Mike: You know, the ironic thing is—and I hope this is irony, but maybe it’s not—is that Dara’s actually very good at our April Fool’s Day Gadfly efforts. She comes up with some of the best ideas. You are funny.

Dara: Because I’m always the straight man. I’m the last with the joke. I’ll think of the punchline like two hours after the joke, so I can do the straight stuff, but I’m not … I’m just not very clever, Mike, it’s true.

Mike: If you haven’t, check out Weird Al’s new song “Word Crimes.” It’s an ode to those grammar hawks like Pamela and a lot of fun. Okay, let’s play Pardon the Gadfly. Pamela, kick us off.

Pardon the Gadfly

Pamela: Mike, in today’s Gadfly, you argue that the Obama administration’s application of disparate impact theory to its school discipline enforcement policy is an enormous mistake. Can you elaborate?

Mike: It’s a really, really big enormous mistake? Is that what you had in mind?

Pamela: Yeah, about that.

Mike: Okay, yeah. Here's the deal. Dara, look, totally understand the point that there are schools out there that are not doing school discipline well. They don’t have a strong school culture. They resort to a lot of suspensions and even expulsions, and in some of these schools, you look at the numbers, and it’s mostly black and Latino boys who are being expelled and suspended in high numbers.

The office of civil rights looks at this and says, “We've got to do something about this.” Okay, I certainly understand that there may be schools out there that are not doing this well, and that might even be discriminating, and it’s the job of office of civil rights to deal with that.

Here's the problem. They’ve come out with this policy that said explicitly to administrators, “Even if you have a policy that is race neutral, and you apply it in a race neutral way - okay, there's no evidence that you’re treating, in other words, African-American kids differently than white kids - you can still be found guilty of discrimination if it has a disparate impact.” In other words, if you end up suspending more black or Latino kids than white or Asian kids, I think that’s nuts. What do you think?

Dara: From a former teacher perspective, I had no idea what the discipline policy at my school was. I didn’t even know how to discipline a student should that occur. I think that this is perhaps giving too much credit that there is actual thought put into these policies. I mean, at my school, discipline was handled by one person. It was the assistant principal.

Mike: You were at a big high school.

Dara: I was at a large urban school, and beyond that, I had no idea how my school handled discipline. Suspension, in-house suspension, sent home. Search me. I think in order for any discipline policy to work, you have to … In order for any discipline policy to work, you have to acknowledge that most people have no idea what they’re doing.

Mike: You mean the teachers don’t have a good strategy, and that the schools don’t have an actual plan. I mean, you go into some of these high-performing schools, including high-performing charter schools and some Catholic schools, and they do. They have a school-wide approach to these issues, and they say very explicitly, “Here's how we handle these things. Here's how we try to create a positive learning environment.”

They train the teachers on it, and the whole hope is to get to the point where you don’t have to suspend kids or discipline kids because you’re sweating the small stuff, and you're making sure that these problems don’t happen in the first place, but if they do happen, they have a plan for dealing with them, right? I totally get it. We should help schools get much better at this than they are today, but some of those charter schools still end up from time to time suspending kids, and in my view, that's okay. That’s important because you know what? It’s not just about the kids who get suspended, and what's the best way to handle their problems, maybe help them get back on the straight and narrow.

It’s also about all the other kids, and we know that disruptive students, one disruptive kid can have a huge negative impact on student achievement if teachers feel like they have no option but to keep that kid in the class.

Dara: Right, so I think that ultimately, I’m agreeing with you, but what I think is important is that you can’t … You can’t include something like disparate impact theory saying that a discipline policy has a disparate impact when it implies that there is a discipline policy to begin with.

Mike: Gotcha. Very, very good. Okay, topic number two.

Pamela: Also in today’s Gadfly, Boston middle school teacher Peter Sipe argues that ed. schools don’t prepare teachers well enough for the classroom, illustrating his point by comparing his ed. school experience with his wife’s medical school experience. Should ed. schools focus more on practical training, or should teachers continue to gain that with on-the-job experience.

Mike: Oh, Dara, this piece is just aggravating. It’s so well-written, but he shows … I mean, his wife’s in there cramming for exams learning practical things like, I don't know, how to cut open bodies and stuff, and he's sitting around talking education theory for hours on end. Why are our ed. schools seem so against teaching teachers practical stuff that might help them in the classroom?

Dara: Okay, you just said a lot there, Mike, and I will briefly say and not dwell on the fact that I highly disagree with the author.

Mike: Okay.

Dara: That training teachers and training doctors are two completely different things. Okay, so I’m going to put that aside for a second. Putting aside the faulty analogy here, the question that Pamela asks is should ed. schools focus more on practical training. The fact is, they do. Part of the traditional ed. school preparation is a large amount of student teaching.

Mike: Mmm-hmm (affirmative).

Dara: What they are lacking, however, is meaningful feedback and reflexivity on that student teaching experience.

Mike: Yeah.

Dara: I think it’s … You have to … Saying that ed. schools don’t have any practical training is misleading. They do.

Mike: All right, that’s fair. Student teaching.

Dara: There's very little guidance, and especially the fact that you unleash a new teacher in a classroom with zero supervision, there's another big failing, right, that you assume that once you’ve given them this training that they do have the practical skills and they have a once-a-year observation or maybe twice with the new teacher mentor or something like that. I think that really what is lacking here is meaningful practical preparation.

Is there too much theory taught in ed. schools? Probably, but saying that there is no practical knowledge is not entirely accurate, I think.

Mike: All right. Let me talk about my own experience. Many, many moons ago now, going through to ed. school, University of Michigan, right? I did this on the side, had my political science degree, and then I got my teaching certification on the side, and yes, I did student teaching, so that was practical, did not get a whole lot of great feedback, but otherwise, the courses I took, they were both super easy - I mean, everybody knew you were going to get an A without doing any work. It was totally different than my poli-sci classes, but also, they were all theory.

I mean, we sat around talking about Piaget. Fine, okay, but then you pick up the book, like the newish, recent book by Doug Lemov, and here he says, “Here's these practical things I’m going to teach you about how to be an effective teacher, how to stand in front of the room, what to do when the kids come in, how to make eye contact, how to ask questions.”

Ed. schools by and large have said, “No, no, no, we are not about that. That is vocational training. That is the kind of thing that might happen at one of those two-year community colleges. We are part of academia, and as part of academia, what we do is we talk about … We have a body of scholarship, and we share that, and we do research, and we share that too.” All of which is to say, well, fine, then you know what? Maybe four-year colleges should not be training teachers because they seem to think it’s below them to provide practical help for their teachers.

Med schools don’t seem to worry about this. I don’t think law schools, business schools … Most of these other professional schools seem to understand that part of their job is to help their graduates actually succeed on the job.

Dara: I think “n” of two here, right, I think that your experience is not what we should be aiming for and this idea that you can include vocational training into teacher preparation is absurd.

Mike: Thank you.

Dara: My experience was different from yours. I went through an alternative certification program, and half of my boot camp classes were theory, and we learned about Piaget too, but the other half, literally, one of classroom class assignments for our class was “What are you going to do on the first school? Write a first-year lesson plan.”

Mike: Good.

Dara: Teaching icebreaker activities. Teaching classroom management.

Mike: Good.

Dara: I did have some of that practical training in my experience. Interestingly, obviously, my theory classes were taught by university professors. The practical classes were taught by teachers.

Mike: Yeah, makes sense. By the way, can we get Piaget out of the curriculum? I mean, that guy just really annoys me. How about Paulo Freire, for God’s sake. You didn’t have Paulo Freire.

Dara: I did have Freire. I liked Freire.

Mike: You liked Freire? Are you serious? He tried to run the schools down there in South America. It was a complete disaster.

Dara: Not until grad school, all right.

Mike: Pamela, topic number three.

Pamela: During the Common Core transition, 21 states will continue to make students pass exit exams in order to graduate from high school, and 10 of these states will switch to tougher Common Core aligned tasks. Anne Hyslop argues in a recent policy brief that unless states address the possible consequences, this could be a disaster. How should states handle this?

Mike: So Dara, this is not going to be a disaster because I can’t imagine any state is going to be dumb enough to say, “Hey, we’re going to use a much tougher test, and we’re going to set these super high cut scores, and we’re not going to change our policies around graduation requirements at all.” Anne is right to say that states have to figure out a plan and how they’re going to handle this transition.

Dara: I think that is an excellent point. We’re not headed towards disaster, and obviously states have to thing strategically about this, but they already did this the first time they implemented a high school exit exam. For example, in California, students take the CAHSEE, the exit exam, in the 10th grade for the first time. They have up until the 12th grade to pass it, and it’s already aligned with the state standards, just not necessarily at a 10th grade level. This question of high school exit exams aligned to state standards is not a new one, and it hasn’t been disastrous yet.

Mike: All right, but what states will need to do, most likely, is they had to set two different passing scores, right? The whole promise of Common Core is to have a high cut score that meaningfully measures college and career readiness. For 11th graders or 12th graders, you say, “If you hit this score, we predict that you will be able to go take credit-bearing courses in college or get a decent paying job.” You’ve got to make sure that is maintained.

That should not be the level that you have to hit in order to graduate from high school because we’re pretty sure that the first few years it’s going to be something like a third of our kids who are hitting that level, and we are not going to flunk two-thirds of the kids and not give them high school diplomas. That means you got to set a lower level as well that indicates more some kind of basic literacy and numeracy. That is what should be tied to high school graduation.

Dara: I think I agree with you and all, so channel checker for a moment, which is to say that a smart exit exam system will also be used by the state university system, and instead of having an SAT or an ACT or something like that, that you have this test whose results can be applied more universally. Again, it’s do you get a diploma? Are you college and career ready, and for entrances into the high education system.

Mike: That’s a tough one, I have to say. I don’t think we’re going to much success in getting colleges to use it for their admissions necessarily, but there is a move to make them or encourage them to use it for placement. They’ve got these other tests out there. They use Accuplacer and other things to decide if the kid ends up in remedial education, and the hope is say, “Hey, if you pass the park or smarter balance at the college and career-ready level, that should mean that you do not have to take a remedial course.” End of story.

Dara: It was worth the plug.

Mike: It was worth the attempt, Dara. Very nicely said. Okay, that’s all the time we've got for Pardon the Gadfly. Now it’s time for everyone’s favorite, Amber’s Research Minute.

Amber’s Research Minute

Amber, welcome back to the show.

Amber: Thank you, Mike.

Mike: So Amber, Dara loves Weird Al. I’m just wondering if you do too.

Dara: Dara does not.

Amber: I used to think he was pretty creepy. Still think he's kind of creepy?

Mike: He did used to look … He still looks a little creepy.

Amber: Yeah, the hair and the lankiness, I don't know.

Mike: I’m not asking you to kiss the guy. I just want to know like do you find his songs funny?

Amber: Oh, funny. I mean, I guess in some elementary school way, right?

Dara: I just don’t find him particularly entertaining, that's all.

Mike: I am now out on a limb.

Dara: Did Nico find him entertaining, Mike?

Mike: I did have Nico watch “Word Crimes,” and yes, Nico thought it was very funny, especially the line about hitting the guy over the head with a sledge hammer or something like that. That stood out to Nico.

Dara: So, makes sense.

Mike: Fine. They always say never ask a question you don’t know the answer to. All right, you and Dara. No sense of humor at all.

Amber: Sorry.

Mike: What you got for this week, Amber?

Amber: We've got a new report out from the Center for Reinventing Public Education called Making School Choice Work. It surveys 4000 parents and interviews other civic leaders in eight choice-rich cities: Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indy, New Orleans, Philly, Washington DC, and helps …

The report’s purpose was to help civic leaders in these cities, help them improve their existing choice system, regardless of whether these parents have kids in charter or traditional schools.

Three key findings: One, the majority of parents are actively choosing a school for their child, though they also report considering just one or two schools, so the natural question is how many options are there to begin with, and then on that question, about half report that if their current school was not available, there were no other schools that would satisfy them.

Number two, parents identify a number of barriers to choosing schools, including inadequate information, transportation, and a lack of quality options. Not understanding which schools their child was eligible to attend was the most often-cited barrier. Those challenges were not unique to the charter or the district sector.

Last, responsibility for schools often fall to multiple parties: school districts, charter school authorizers, state agencies, and so on and so forth, and too many cooks in the kitchen makes it difficult for parents to navigate information they found, so we know this. Phoenix has 28 school districts. Houston has 19. If you think about a charter operator trying to coordinate an enrollment timeline, for instance, and having to negotiate agreements with all those districts would be a nightmare. They give you some pragmatic examples of what these governance challenges, how they’re impeding quality school choice.

In the end, they recommend that in some cases, we need to change laws to ensure districts and charter authorizers are working together. Maybe we need to address … Governance seemed to be the big thing that they ended up with because you just got a morass of different people with their hands in the pie, and they cannot coordinate, and parents are confused in some cases. Anyway, I think some of this stuff we knew, but to have this information out of the mouths of parents is exceedingly helpful.

Mike: That point about governance, Robin Lake from CRPE  has been writing about Detroit especially, though I think this probably certainly applies to cities in Ohio we know too where you’ve got multiple authorizers, many of whom aren’t there in the city. They’re all of the state of Michigan, and they may be authorizing schools that are not very good, right?

Amber: Right.

Mike: There's nobody in charge, right? There's nobody … Somebody in Detroit, if the mayors say, “Hey, we've got to shut down these bad charter schools,” there’s not a lot … He can’t do it, right?

Amber: That’s right.

Mike: On the one hand, you say, “Look, this is dynamic. There's a free market. There's a lot of competition.” On the other hand, it feels a little bit like the wild west, and when you’ve got a real quality problem, say, “I don't know how to get our hands around this.” It’s a problem.

Amber: It’s a problem.

Dara: Did they have any recommendations or observe any differences in cities that had a common application?

Amber: Not that I am aware of. The drilldown they did was Denver, and what they're going to do, I mean, they said … I mean, it’s apparently a whole body of work. The next reports are going to drill down in each of these cities, so I’m anticipating that they’ll address that question in upcoming reports.

Mike: You would think that the common application should help, and that’s something that’s important. Look, CRPE does great work on just getting these details right. In my view, the big argument on school choice is over. I can’t imagine that we’re going to …

Mike: We’re not going to go back to a day when parents don’t have choices. Now the question is, how we make the system work, as they said in the title here. How do we get the infrastructure? How do we deal with quality? How do we deal with these different trade-offs around flexibility and regulation. All of these things, which in some ways are very wonky and technical, but they’re critical.

Dara: Isn’t this striking that the key barrier from a parent’s point of view is “Can my kid go to that school? Are they allowed?”

Mike: Sure, sure, yes.

Dara: How do I find out if they’re allowed?

Mike: How do I find out? It’s confusing.

Dara: That’s the most basic question, right?

Mike: You would think that GreatSchools and some of these other folks that are focused on providing parent information, this should be fixable. I mean, we should be able to figure out a way to get good information to parent that … That one … There are some other problems that might be harder to deal with, right?

Dara: Right, so like a charter support organization, like here in DC, like The Focus, like a group like that.

Mike: Yeah, sure, or something that's really parent facing, like GreatSchools that says, “We’re going to make sure that parents have a way, either online or in some kind of walk-up, walk-in center where they can get clear information on “Here are the choices. If you want sometimes within a mile of your house, here's what you might look at. Three miles, five miles.”

Dara: That’s right.

Mike: Here's the best information we have in terms of whether these are quality choices. I mean, that should be doable at this point.

Amber: I agree, like a central warehouse, right? A parent’s not like, “Okay, I've got to call the charter school up the road,” or if you asked your district school, like, “What are my options?” Not a huge incentive there to answer that question, which we found out in previous research.

Mike: Absolutely. Good. Okay, thank you, Amber. That is all the time we've got for the Research Minute and the Education Gadfly Show. Until next time.

Dara: I’m Dara Zeehandelaar.

Mike: And I am Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute signing off.

Announcer: The Education Gadfly Show is a production of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute located in Washington DC. For more information, visit us online at edexcellence.net.