Arne Duncan was at the National Press Club (and on C-SPAN ) this morning, being his usual amiable, cheerful, and optimistic self. As someone who's been called those names too, I've got nothing against any of that. But to my ears he also sounded a bit naive when it??came to his expectations that the education stimulus will transform the nation's schools.

He's obviously perplexed that so few states have applied for the stimulus dollars, though he insists that all states will meet the coming deadline. Yet if he thinks that concerns about educational improvement are driving this process, well, I've got several million??Smartboards I'd be happy to sell you.

Here's the problem: There remains massive confusion at the state and local level about how these dollars can be spent. That's because the law itself is vague and in some respects contradictory. It's also because many politicians at the state level??want to??use the funds for politically expedient (but still understandable) purposes, like filling budget holes. With legislative sessions just wrapping up, there's still a lot of horse-trading and commotion going on.

But there's something more fundamental at play too. Simply put,...

Amy Fagan

The Washington Post's Jay Mathews dedicates his column today to discussing Checker's new book "Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut," in which Checker takes strong issue with the idea of universal preschool. Mathews says that leaders of the movement to expand preschool are "not going to like" the book, but that "its clarity and depth are hard to resist." He reviews a few of Checker's main points, disagreeing with him a bit at times. But Mathews concludes:

I haven't seen enough preschools, good or bad, to decide if Finn is right. But his analysis is a good starting place. There has been much written about the benefits of universal preschool. This report will inspire much more, both positive and negative, and help those of us overwhelmed by conflicting data to figure out the essentials, and see the weaknesses on both sides of the debate.

And if you're interested in reading more about this debate, Checker wrote an op-ed that ran in the Post?? earlier this month....

A few months ago, we reported that the NJ Supreme Court refused to kill off the half-dead and long-damaging Abbott v. Burke. Corzine, backed by the New Jersey legislature, had come up with a new funding formula that would no longer favor the 31 poor districts ("Abbott" districts) singled out by the case. (For reference, the 2008-2009 NJ budget allocated $4.1 billion to the 31, while the remaining 616 districts only got $7.8 billion for the whole lot of them.)??Yesterday, a NJ Superior Court judge in Hackensack upheld the new formula as constitutional, calling it a "thoughtful, progressive attempt to assist at-risk children throughout the state of New Jersey, and not only those who by happenstance reside in Abbott districts." Hallelujah and Amen!

These kinds of allegations really get under my skin. Why do all politicians who have anything remotely to do with public schools have to send their kids to public school? Isn't the reason that we all work so hard to reform the public school system because we think it doesn't quite work right? I think you'd be hard pressed to find a parent who'd run any kind of risk with their child's education if they could afford not to. That's not being a hypocrite. That's being a good parent.

It came to our attention that many of our loyal readers never received their Gadflies yesterday. We are so sorry to have deprived you of your weekly Thursday reading material! Don't worry, we think we've solved the problem (hopefully to never happen again) and, more importantly, we've also resent this week's issue, which should be arriving in your inboxes momentarily, if you haven't gotten it already.

And what an issue it is. First up, Checker takes a look at new numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When there are 3.4 million people in one profession (in this case, teachers), how can we expect them to all be super duper rock stars at their jobs or that we'd have enough money to pay them rock star salaries? Checker ponders. Then, read up on Joel Klein's Leadership Academy woes, charter schools in CA outsourcing their special education, Baltimore's plea for more more more TFA teachers, and how the Massachusetts Teacher Association believes basket weaving, balloon animal-making, and tie-dying are legitimate professional development courses (no really, we're not kidding). Further in, you'll find four terrific short reviews--Ed Next, NCES, CRPE, and Philanthropy...

To his great credit, Secretary Duncan has spent the last several months imploring the education world to spend stimulus money on reform-oriented projects. He has been explicit that states and districts should not use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to merely protect jobs. This $100 billion investment must generate meaningful change in the lives of students, he has emphasized, not sustain the status quo.

This week, however, the Vice President's office released a self-congratulatory report highlighting 100 projects that have been funded via the ARRA. Three of them are in the K-12 world (numbers????37, 38, and 45). Every single one touts job protection; not a one references reform.

"For the Alachua County School District, the budget????stabilization portion of the stimulus will be $9.1 million for school years 2009-10 and 2010-11.????Keith Birkett, assistant superintendent for planning and budget, said all that money will be spent????on teachers."

"Recovery Act funds are saving 139 teaching jobs in Seminole County,????Florida."

"Colquitt County School Board [Georgia] approved Monday new instructional positions that will be funded through the recently enacted federal stimulus program. The grants are expected to fund 12 positions within the school system."

Did ED not get to read the report before it...

I just sat through a very interesting presentation by Teach For America on the way they are using data to figure out which applicants have a better chance of success in the classroom. So this is being put to very good use.

It's remarkable how advanced they are in collecting, analyzing, and using this data (are most colleges of ed using regressions to measure the influence of college GPA, determination, leadership, etc.?) Also, in a room full of very smart academic types, the TFA team handled the questions with rigor and aplomb. Impressive lot.

The new "Condition of Education" report released today by the National Center for Education Statistics offers fresh evidence as to why some American kids need more and better preschooling but the "universal" approach is wrong. Fifty-five percent of three- and four-year-olds are already in preschool (2007), up from 47 percent in 1994 (See Indicator 1). Moreover, 33% of four-year-olds are proficient at "letter recognition" and 65% at "numbers and shapes" (See Indicator 3). Thirty-nine percent of four-year-olds are read to daily by a family member--and 50% are sung to (See Indicator 2). Not everybody, it seems clear, needs more than they're already getting. But some do. Among kids in poverty, African-Americans and those whose parents have less than a high-school education,??just one in five is read to at home on a daily basis. And proficient "letter recognition" among four-year-olds ranges from 52 percent for those with a parent who has some graduate education down to 16 percent among those with less-than-high-school-educated parents. This reinforces my contention that intensive but highly targeted pre-school services,??starting very young, is what America needs more of; not more middle-class entitlements for those who are already doing okay....

The Education Gadfly

Don't forget to register for Fordham's upcoming event, "The Cons and Pros of Universal Pre-K", coming up on Thursday, June 4 from 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM. This event coincides with the release of Chester Finn's new book, Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut. Prekindergarten is one of the most hotly contested topics in American education today. Finn's book challenges the orthodoxy of "universal preschool" while explaining the key issues that drive and complicate this contentious debate: Which children really need preschool? How many aren't getting it? Who should provide it--and at whose expense? What's the right balance between socialization and systematic instruction between education and child care? Where does Head Start fit in? What are reliable markers of quality in preschool programs? Finn concludes by recommending a tightly targeted but intensive (and highly cognitive) approach to preschool for the neediest children. The discussants can be expected to take issue with that conclusion.

Finn will present.?? Responding will be Steven Barnett (Co-Director, National Institute for Early Education Research), Neal McCluskey (Associate Director, Center for Educational Freedom, Cato Institute) and Sara Mead (Director, Early Education Initiative, New America Foundation).?? Richard Colvin (Director, Hechinger Institute on Education...

Regarding Mike's post below, I'm sure it depends on the type of reform. Firing practices certainly become more relevant in hard economic times, but on the other hand, standards-based reforms may fare better when there's money to pay for them. As the Washington Post reports today, Virginia may join Florida and Georgia in cutting testing budgets:

[Virginia Superintendent Patricia I.] Wright said the $380,000 a year saved through elimination of the [third grade history] exam could be used to construct new kinds of questions for math tests, put fifth- and eighth-grade writing tests online and bolster elementary reading exams.

And Andy points out below that North Carolina is making a similar move, cutting back on tests not required "for high school graduation or by federal law."

Budget woes would seem to give the anti-testing crowd an excuse they can use.