The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Japan is overhauling its elementary-secondary education system. According to the Education Ministry, explains Craig Coley, "in place of 'overemphasizing intellectual education' schools will teach more 'zest for living.' The curriculum will stress creativity and independent thinking."

This is great news for America and bad news for Japan. Just as the U.S. shows signs of recovering from the excesses of progressivism, Japan plunges in. Perhaps its children can now look forward to an overdose of "relevance," encouragement to learn whatever they like, teachers who see their roles as "guides on the side," and nobody held responsible for meeting external academic standards.

When that day dawns, we'll no longer feel that Japan has superior schools. U.S. children will surpass their Japanese age mates on international assessments of math and science. And Japan will ooze deeper into the fever swamps of goofy education ideas.

Perhaps I exaggerate. It's difficult to imagine a land as top-down, buttoned-down, homogenized and precise as Japan ever turning its kids loose to learn whatever tickles their fancies. Not, in any case, until Japanese trains stop arriving at the precise moment and place that the timetable dictates.

Still, the Education Ministry's Rainbow Plan, aka Education...

Senator James Jeffords may have made special ed reform even less likely when he let it be known that the White House's refusal to boost spending for this program was part of the reason for his decision to leave the GOP, writes Michelle Cottle in this week's New Republic.  She explains why real change is unlikely and why that's most unfortunate for children.

"Reform school," by Michelle Cottle, The New Republic, June 18, 2001.

Terry Moe's important new Brookings book has a title meant to recall his and John Chubb's influential 1990 work (also published by Brookings), Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. This volume should have an impact, too. Based primarily on a massive 1995 survey, it analyzes U.S. public opinion on vouchers more thoroughly and exhaustively than anyone has ever done. While opinion is not the only proper basis for policy, in a democracy it's mighty influential. Moe's findings are not easily summarized in politician-style sound-bytes, however, because on these matters the American public feels several different ways at the same time. It certainly believes in public schools and, for the most part, is satisfied with its public schools. Yet it also thinks private schools do a better job and, if money were no object, many people bent on seeking the best schools for their children would move to them. Hence they'd welcome vouchers. But they care not just about the abstract "market principle" of vouchers. They also have strong views about how a voucher program should work. Perhaps their two most important opinions are (a) that a voucher program should include church-affiliated schools but (b) all schools participating in a voucher program...

The recent domination of U.S. spelling bees by home-schooled students isn't hard to explain: many of their parents see rote memorization as a valuable learning technique, while this old-fashioned practice is frowned upon by most teachers who learned their craft in schools of education.  John Derbyshire explores how indispensable memorization is to advanced learning in a National Review article that's loaded with clever mnemonic devices (e.g. "One idle damn Sunday, Dad killed cheating thief and lied to cover it," as a way to remember the Ten Commandments).

"Thanks for the memories," by John Derbyshire, National Review, June 25, 2001. Article not available at www.nationalreview.com.

In Washington, DC, where the high school graduation rate is only 57 percent, what happens to the other 43 percent?  Many later try to earn their diplomas by passing the GED, but only 34 percent of those taking the GED exam in DC pass it (compared to 70 percent nationwide).  In this week's Washington City Paper, Garance Franke-Ruta puts a human face on these glum statistics in a long cover story on dropouts trying to turn their lives around. 

"Filling in the blanks," by Garance Franke-Ruta, Washington City Paper, June 8, 2001. http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/cover/cover.html

National Center for Education Statistics

The federal government's National Center for Education Statistics publishes two indispensable volumes each year, without which nobody has essential data at hand. One is The Digest of Education Statistics, consisting of hundreds of pages of numbers sans interpretation or commentary. The other is the more selective and subjective Condition of Education. The latest edition is just out. Weighing in at almost 300 pages, it is largely free of the creeping politicization that beset some of these volumes in the late Clinton administration. And it's full of telling factoids and trend lines. Here are a few from the section on teachers:

  • Among (1992-93) college graduates who became teachers (within 5 years of graduation), 55 percent majored in education. (So much for subject mastery.)
  • Those who didn't prepare for teaching careers while in college but became teachers anyway were more likely (35%) to have scored in the top quartile of their entering college class than those (14%) who both prepared to teach and became teachers. (Sounds to me like praise for alternative certification.)
  • Those who taught in private schools were more likely (33%) than those who taught in public schools (15%) to have ranked in
  • ...

The Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE) wanted to determine whether the state's ed schools were tailoring their teacher training programs to the state's academic standards for students as well as to new performance standards (set by the state Board of Education) for schools of education. The CCHE asked the National Association of Scholars (NAS) to examine four teacher ed programs. In turn, the NAS commissioned a study by David Warren Saxe, a professor of social studies education at Penn State (and a member of the Pennsylvania state board of education). His report was submitted to Colorado authorities last year but has only now become public.  After examining reams of documents describing the teacher training programs (which were provided by the ed schools themselves) and visiting all four schools, Saxe has penned a devastating critique.   His report paints a vivid picture of ed schools bowing to the gods of progressivism and national accreditation rather than to traditional academic content and effective instruction, notwithstanding state policies requiring the latter. Saxe finds many of the training programs to be overly politicized, with courses and training sessions emphasizing social justice, cultural relativism, racism and homophobia.  Much of the coursework is at best irrelevant...

The charter schools of the Lone Star State have been much in the news of late, particularly as the legislature grappled with a possible moratorium on their creation. That didn't happen, but people are understandably interested in how they're doing. After all, by 1999-2000, there were 142 such schools enrolling nearly 25,000 youngsters. How are they doing? The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) commissioned two Texas A & M economists to examine four years worth of charter data. The most encouraging result: Texas's so-called at-risk charter schools (about half of all the state's charters, each serving more than 75 percent at-risk kids) showed stronger pupil achievement gains than regular public schools. But the other charters aren't. The authors also note that many youngsters entering a charter for the first time, especially if it's a brand new school, experience a one-year drop in scores on the Texas statewide tests. They comment that, at a time when many new charters are opening and many children are newly enrolled in them, "A one-year look at average changes in test scores for charter students will mainly capture the decline in performance of the new entrants." They further observe that charters are serving "a disproportionately...

In a commentary published by the Hoover Institution which appeared in assorted magazines this week, Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby explains how she overcame her skepticism about standardized testing when she realized how cost-effective it is as a tool to foster desirable education change. For the same money a typical district spends annually on student testing, she estimates, it could reduce class size by two-thousandths of a student, raise teacher salaries by one quarter of one percent, or offer two hours of after school activities per year. Testing, she concludes, is no cure-all but it's more powerful than other uses of the same money.

"Conversion of a Standardized Test Skeptic," by Caroline Hoxby, Hoover Institution, May 31, 2000

Bill Sanders's system of value-added analysis, which sorts through mountains of student achievement data to identify the effect that teachers and schools are having on student performance, is one of the important analytic breakthroughs of the past decade in education. But it's complicated and a lot of people don't yet understand it. For a wonderfully simple explanation, see a recent piece in the Rocky Mountain News by Linda Seebach.

"New Tools Measure School Performance," by Linda Seebach, Rocky...

I'd immediately drop my membership in Phi Delta Kappa, an educators' honor society of sorts, except then I'd lose my subscription to its eponymous monthly magazine, and that would mean losing touch with the conventional wisdom that I sometimes need to orient myself. With rare exceptions, you can count on this for education geo-positioning: you want to be pointed approximately 180?? from where the Kappan is headed. This is especially true of Anne Lewis's monthly "commentary" from Washington and Gerald Bracey's absurd "research" column. These are entirely predictable and utterly tendentious (though at least Ms. Lewis doesn't have the gall to also name an annual "report" after herself!) So are the editor's letter and the appalling monthly report from Canada by a left-wing teachers' union activist. But even after ignoring the regular chaff, one must contend with the articles. Occasionally there's something worth reading. (As former Senator Russell Long remarked, even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then.) In May, for example, we find a decent piece by Michael Kirst and colleagues on some unintended consequences of California's sweeping class-size reduction program. But then we also find a dismaying essay by the eminent (and usually sensible) education telejournalist,...