Center on Education Policy

The Center on Education Policy is the small outfit led by veteran Democratic House education staffer Jack Jennings. Last month, it published a 40-page report (prepared by staff member Nancy Kober) on achievement gaps between black and Hispanic students on the one hand, whites and Asians on the other. The topic is important and timely, especially considering that current White House and Congressional ESEA action centers on ways of narrowing these gaps. The C.E.P. report offers plainly stated data, much of it drawn from such oft-trod sources as NAEP and SAT scores. (Less familiar is evidence of an achievement gap at the time of entry into school.) This report offers no grand insights as to what causes these gaps-it summons the usual mix of school, home and societal factors-nor does it break new ground in advancing gap-closing strategies. The central thrust is that "testing and accountability" aren't sufficient. Instead, the report argues, policymakers need to "be bold in providing the full range of strategies, supports, and resources required to raise achievement among Black and Hispanic children....". But of course the report does not begin to offer a "full range" of strategies. Everything it recommends is...

Achieve Policy Brief

Achieve, Inc., the organization formed by governors and CEO's to track and promote standards-based reform in American K-12 education, recently published a short "policy brief" dealing with the vexing issue of how high to set the bar for high-school graduation. In particular, this 7-pager grapples with whether a state should "set the bar high and risk a backlash when large numbers of students fail to reach it" or "set it relatively low and risk allowing students to continue to graduate without attaining the necessary knowledge and skills." The brief, unfortunately, does a better job of framing the problem than offering solutions. But it gives a few examples of how states have tackled the issue; urges higher education and employers to become more intimately involved with bar-setting (by creating, for example, a "unified system" of high school exit and college entrance); and sketches some "promising practices". Contact Achieve, Inc. at 400 North Capitol Street NW, Suite 351, Washington DC 20001; phone (202) 624-1460; fax (202) 624-1468; or surf to www.achieve.org.

The American Federation of Teacher's magazine, American Educator, offers several gems in its most recent issue. Kay Hymowitz asks what it means for kids when parents have foresworn their traditional role and turned themselves into advocates, friends, and providers of entertainment for their children. Walter McDougall explains why an understanding of geography is fundamental to true education. There is a collection of tributes to pathbreaking reading expert Jeanne Chall, gathered from colleagues, students and friends. Dennis Denenberg laments the replacement of real-life heroes by cartoon heroes and suggests ways of bringing real heroes to life for kids. Finally E.B. White biographer Scott Elledge tells the story behind Charlotte's Web and explains what makes the book great. If you'd like a copy of one article or the whole magazine, send a fax to the American Educator (attn: Yomica) at 202-879-4534.

As I write, the House of Representatives has just completed floor action on the education bill and the Senate is expected to return to it soon. The Senate has a bunch more amendments to consider, some of them important, some of them even germane. The House (under White House pressure and facing Democratic defections) rebuffed all efforts to make major changes in the committee-drafted bill, which is to say it kept the testing provision, deep-sixed all voucher attempts and sidestepped "Straight A's". With the Senate-House conference still in the future, the final shape of this measure is remains somewhat cloudy.

Several points are worth noting, however, starting with the fact that this is an immense piece of legislation, more than 900 pages long. Tucked into it are hundreds of provisions dealing with everything imaginable, from "impact aid" to school technology to Indian education to sundry teacher issues. Numerous pork-barrel projects and narrow-interest programs are protected. All sorts of weird provisions can be spotted. Their implications will roll on for years to come. Yet the number of people who have actually read the full text of both Senate and House bills can probably be counted on one's fingers. Few lawmakers voting...

 By Howard Fuller, PhD and Kaleem Caire.

This report, co-authored by the original founder and current head of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, presents a strong argument suggesting that school choice opponents deliberately mislead the public about features of the nation's preeminent school choice program in Milwaukee, WI, as well as school choice issues generally. The many examples presented, in great detail, are convincing as well as appalling. Some of the deceptions spread should be familiar: voucher programs "cream" the best students away from public schools; participating private schools get to handpick the students they will serve (even NBC's Tom Brokaw perpetuated this one on the Nightly News, despite the fact that the Wisconsin law clearly prohibits it); voucher programs are meant to destroy public education; and voucher programs do not improve the academic achievement of voucher students. (If you have any doubt that these accusations aren't true, please visit www.schoolchoiceinfo.org or email me at [email protected].) The report also examines how school choice opponents disingenuously equate school choice with the "Balkanization" of society and racial segregation. Fortunately we have Milwaukee-based leaders of the school choice movement ready to fight for the truth...and for the kids....

by Emanuel Tobier (Manhattan Institute, May 2001)

How much money would it take to turn around New York City's failing public schools? Would unlimited resources even make a dent in the achievement gap? In a May 2001 Manhattan Institute Civic Bulletin, Emanuel Tobier presents seven facts that ought to be considered before placing more cash into the hands of the Board of Ed. Among his troubling findings: 1) even as the average amount spent per pupil has risen by 48 percent since 1970, only 50 percent of the City's students graduate high school within four years; 2) only 55 percent of current spending goes toward instruction; and 3) New York State (and City) spending already approaches the highest in the land. Tobier doesn't deny that more money might help New York City's struggling schools, but he sensibly concludes that how the dollars are spent is far more consequential than how many of them are spent. Check out the bulletin online at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cb_26.htm.

Fans of "direct instruction," and those who would like to learn more about it, will want to examine this new report from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. It was catalyzed by three facts: (a) Direct Instruction, properly done, is a teaching method (and curriculum) that is known to be effective, particularly with younger children and especially in reading. (b) Direct Instruction is nonetheless shunned by most of the public education establishment, notably including teacher preparation programs. (c) Despite that, Wisconsin has elements of what might be termed a D.I. insurgency or, at least, underground movement, i.e. some schools are actually using it. So scholars Mark Schug, Sara Tarver and Richard Western went off to investigate how Direct Instruction works "on the ground." The result is interesting and heartening. D.I. indeed works?though its implementation is a challenge for many teachers, meaning that their training would have to be recast in order for it to be used extensively. Yet its use could minimize the extent and cost of remediation and some special education. This one is worth your while. Contact the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Inc. at P.O. Box 487, Thiensville, WI 53092. Phone (262) 241-0514. Fax (262) 241-0774. E-mail [email protected]....

Crack education journalist Jay Matthews reacted to anti-testing articles in a thoughtful column appearing only in the electronic version of the Washington Post. He wonders why parents of schoolchildren in Scarsdale didn't ask their principals and teachers why they let state-mandated tests scare them into test prep activities that reduce time for inspired teaching when the test would surely have been a cinch for their kids. He observes that ending the state testing system could mean returning "to the days of baby-sitter schools, when low-income kids were kept as comfortable as possible until being handed a meaningless high school diploma and dumped on the job market."

"Trying to Clear Up the Confusion," by Jay Mathews, Washington Post online

On May 23, 2001, the New York Times ran three major stories demonstrating cognitive dissonance about educational approaches. On the front page, we learned about Ms. Moffett, a first-year teacher assigned to a low-performing school who is extremely frustrated because she is required to follow lesson plans instead of doing what she wants, which is to demonstrate her creativity. Her mentor teacher advises her to adhere to the instructions that come with the "Success for All" reading program, but Ms. Moffett clearly feels cheated, and the story line implies that it's unjust to bar this novice teacher from "doing her own thing" with students.

The nearby column by Richard Rothstein, the newspaper's regular commentator on education, warns that homework increases the gap between students from middle-class and low-income homes, because advantaged parents can help their children. Rothstein warns that it is "unconscionable for educators to exacerbate inequality by assigning homework" unless government first supplies afterschool study centers.

To complicate matters, a news story on the same day contradicts both Ms. Moffett's yearning to be creative and Mr. Rothstein's dire warnings about the deleterious impact of homework done at home. Kate Zernike writes about the stunning success of public schools in...

In a sideshow to the main debate over ESEA, the Senate passed an amendment on May 3 that would add $18.1 billion to the federal budget for special education over the next 10 years and would change special ed funding into an entitlement that Congress would be required to fund regardless of budget considerations.  This measure has drawn criticism from the White House and others for not addressing the need to reform special ed before pumping more funds into it. 

What would "reform" of special ed look like? Rethinking Special Education for a New Century, a new collection of 14 papers released last week, catalogues the most pressing problems of the federal special ed program and offers some principles to guide the program's reauthorization in 2002. Published jointly by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Progressive Policy Institute, the report recommends—among other things—that Washington make IDEA performance-based rather than compliance-based and focus on prevention and early intervention wherever possible.

 In a New York Times article on May 13, Kate Zernike shows how the Greenwich, CT school district has done similar things, balancing its special ed budget and bringing the percentage of children in special education down from 17 to...