A Holiday News Roundup — Shadowed by Tragedy

With the Newtown massacre still reverberating (there were funerals and the gun control controversies), the education policy world started to move to other issues last week. You can start catching up by taking the Education Next poll of the most important education stories of 2012 – but don’t stop there….


Poll: top education story of 2012


Match wits with the champions.


Vocabulary matters


“For all the talk about income inequality in the United States,” writes E.D. Hirsch, “there is too little recognition of education’s role in the problem. Yet it is no coincidence that, as economist John Bishop has shown, the middle class’s economic woes followed a decline in 12th-grade verbal scores, which fell sharply between 1962 and 1980—and, as the latest news confirms, have remained flat ever since.”  Hirsch, one of the godfathers of the modern school improvement movement, is always articulate and persuasive.  If educators would only listen.


Closing the reading gap with vocabulary and content


Kathleen Porter-Magee of the Thomas Fordham Institute makes much the same point as Hirsch:  “Research has long shown that reading comprehension and vocabulary are well-correlated. The results from the latest NAEP vocabulary assessment provide additional ammunition to those who argue that if we ever hope to address the reading gap, we must find a way to address the language and knowledge gap between our lowest- and highest-performing students.”


John Chubb on making Common Core work


Chubb, the temporary director of Education Sector, offers an important analysis of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, pronouncing it “the idea of the day,” but arguing that “it deserves to be. Higher achievement begins with higher expectations; if we can’t specify what more we want students to know and be able to do, we shouldn’t expect much in the way of progress.”  Chub takes us through the failures of the past, including the “hash” of previous state standards.  Though “history is not on [CCSSI’s] side,” Chubb argues here that “history need not be repeated.”


Abolish Social Studies


Though Michael Knox Beran does not take on the Common Core, he comes at the problem of American students poor academic performances by drilling down in one of the staples of the American school: social studies.  Beran argues in this City Journal essay that our social studies curriculum is something of a socialist plot, but we don’t have to worry about it turning out Maoists since it is such a “flabby” and “feeble” “pseudo-discipline.” He calls the language of our social studies textbooks the “dead level of inanity” and notes that third-graders of the 19th-century were reading (in the popular McGuffey Readers) Wordsworth and Whittier and nine-year-olds were tackling Addison, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, and Byron.  (Editor’s Note: the first mention of Shakespeare and Hawthorne in the CCSS (see here) is 9th-10th grade. Wordsworth, Whittier, Addison, and Byron don’t make the cut.  While the list of “text exemplars” in the CCSS is laudable, it’s unfortunate that they are in an Appendix.)


Bobby Jindal on equal educational opportunities


In an address at the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings earlier this month, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said that America is failing to provide equal opportunity in education and that teachers unions are responsible for blocking critical progress in education by opposing school choice. “Teachers’ unions exist for their own benefit, not the benefit of teachers,” said Jindal. “It’s time to bring American education out of the stone age and into the 21st century, a place where our choices are dramatically expanding, and a place where the old centralized government model is increasingly outdated and inefficient.” The speech coincided with Brookings release of an expanded version of its Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI), an interactive web application that ranks over 100 of the largest school districts in America on school choice and competition.


The Global Report Card


Speaking of interactive rankings, Jay Greene’s Global Report Card, produced for the George W. Bush Institute, will be an eye-opener for many.  You get a chance to compare your school district with any of the countries that are beating the pants off of America’s students.


Head Start:  still no lasting results


And speaking of Jay Greene, with this essay the endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas doesn’t so much take on Head Start as he does the U.S. Department of Education for covering up the research that shows that the long-lived and popular program for poor pre-schoolers isn’t working as intended.


The school-to-prison pipeline


What does seem to work in American education is the school-to-prison pipeline.  Too many students still make little progress after third grade, too many drop out and too many end up on the wrong side of the law. This is a must-see U.S. Senate hearing on the old but still important challenge of keeping kids off the track to incarceration. There are many reasons for the viability of this slippery slope, but this hearing offers a wonderful roundup of expert opinion on the subject.


The irrational fear of for-profit education


You can always count on Rick Hess, head of the American Enterprise’s education wing, to bring rational thought and evidence to bear on hot topics.  One of these topics is “privatization.” Hess not only dashes the myth that our current public school system is non-profit (it is “a $600-billion a year business,” he says), but also suggests that for-profit organizations are not necessarily bad for kids.  “[T]he vast majority of K-12 spending goes to pay employee benefits and salaries,” he writes of our current public school system. “Meanwhile, school boards and superintendents have accepted crippling benefit obligations and dubious policies to placate employees and community interests. In a 2010 national survey by the American Association of School Administrators, 84% of superintendents said that their districts were cash-strapped—but less than one in three said they had considered trimming employee benefits or outsourcing custodial services or maintenance. The watchful eye of investors can lend for-profits a healthy discipline. The prospect of returns means that promising profit-seeking ventures can offer employees lucrative long-term opportunities and can tap vast sums through the private-equity markets. For-profits have a relentless, selfish imperative to seek out and adopt cost efficiencies.”


Tony Bennett takes over Florida schools


Having been tossed out of Indiana for pushing reform too hard and too fast, not everyone in Florida is happy to see this hard-charger take over the reins of the Sunshine State’s schools. “We’re in big trouble,” said Lisa Goldman, founder of Palm Beach group Testing is Not Teaching. Rick Hess has a good Q&A with Bennett.


The turnaround merry-go-round


That’s the title of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s recent forum on the question of what to do with failing schools. In the summary of this discussion (which included Andy Smarick, partner at Bellwether Education Partners and former deputy commissioner of education of the State of New Jersey; Carmel Martin, Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development for the U.S. Department of Education; and Jean-Claude Brizard, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools), TBFI calls attention to the fact that the federal DOE released “an analysis of the federal School Improvement Grants program, which invests in persistently underperforming schools with the expectation that they will turn around. The early results of its most recent $3-billion infusion, as described by Education Week: `mixed.’ Two-thirds of the schools made gains in math or reading scores, but the other third saw achievement decline. Program supporters contend that one year of data is not enough to draw conclusions about the program. Critics ask whether taxpayers should expend a single cent more on what they deem a failed experiment.”


Do we know what works?


Mostly not, says Mike Goldstein, founder of the MATCH Charter School in Boston, summarizing recent remarks by Harvard education economist Roland Fryer at a Match-sponsored “Friday night conversation.” It’s an interesting discussion.


Do charter schools work? A guide for the perplexed


This report by Collin Hitt, Director of Education Policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, which Hitt calls a “helpful guide to the most rigorous research available,” suggests that charter schools do work.


Advice from Dave Levin


In this interesting essay by KIPP co-founder Dave Levin, educators are urged to focus on “three ratios to improve classroom success.” The three are: positive interaction ratios, questioning ratios, and doing the work ratios.  While always stressing rigor and joy (the KIPP motto is “Work hard, be nice”) Levin suggests that teachers always ask themselves, “Are we having enough sustained, structured, and rigorous independent practice so that our students have sufficient `at-bats’ to develop and demonstrate mastery of what they are learning?” There are plenty of other words of wisdom from one of the nation’s most successful educators.


A Bloomberg valedictory? 


We are still a year away from saying good-bye to one of America’s most prominent modern mayors, but let the assessments of Michael Bloomberg’s three-term Gotham governance tenure begin.  This is a wide-ranging interview, but when asked about “regrets,” Bloomberg offers this:  “We haven’t improved the schools as much as we want. We’ve raised graduation rates from 40 percent to 60 percent, or whatever those numbers are, for minority kids as well as whites and Asians, but we’re still, I think, falling behind the needs of industry and the improvement in education elsewhere in the world. And we’ve done a better job than any other big city, far and away. But you eat your heart out and say, `If I’d been smarter, could I have done more?’ You can’t live your life that way. I mean, I’ve looked forward to coming into work every single day.”


And speaking of politics


Another interesting interview of a popular politician and successful school reformer:  Andy Rotherham talks to the 2016 GOP presidential frontrunner, Jeb Bush.



Happy Holidays from the CUNY Institute for Education Policy




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