Thursday, December 27, 2007

skoolboy's Top 5 Stories of 2007

I’m supposed to be posting about class size this week, and this is my final post. I thought about crunching some data on class size in New York City, to see if class size differences across schools are socially patterned. I still might do that at some point, but it would have taken more than a day to do it reasonably well—so I passed. I also thought about writing about the cost of class size reduction. The post would have gone something like this: class size reduction is expensive. But if it yields substantial long-term benefits, some of which can be quantified, we can think of it as an investment in human capital, with a positive return on each dollar invested. I might have done some of those “back-of-the-envelope” calculations that economists seem to love. (Why do economists always have a handy supply of envelopes on which to do these calculations? Must be to hold those fat consulting checks. Not that I’m bitter.) But that too would have required a lot of time, and I wasn’t inspired.

So I’m taking the easy way out: the top five most intriguing education stories of 2007: a skoolboy’s-eye view. Hope I’m not upstaging you, eduwonkette! Here goes, in no particular order:

The rise of the education blogs. I started paying attention to education blogs this year. The number has grown exponentially, and the proliferation of blogs has created new opportunities for parents, educators, advocates, and policy analysts (and students too!) across the U.S. and the world to engage with one another about education policy and practice. (The blogs that eduwonkette reads are listed on the right.) Two that I’ve found consistently interesting are Bridging Differences, featuring Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch, and (surprise!) eduwonkette. I’ve admired Deborah and Diane for a long time, but didn’t think they’d have much common ground to talk about. They’ve demonstrated that informed people with strong convictions can listen carefully to and engage with one another. It’s been a wonderful model of civil dialogue that I hope will continue for a long time. As for eduwonkette: how lame is it to flog the blog you’re guest-posting on? eduwonkette emerged a scant four months ago, but has taken the education blogosphere by storm. Okay, I’ll stop fawning like a, well, skoolboy. Keep an eye on EduDiva, who in her first month has made several thoughtful posts from the Gateway City.

The rise of the education “suits”. The trend of hiring leaders and managers drawn from outside of the education system has been accelerating. Two such outsiders drew a great deal of attention in New York City this year: Roland Fryer and Jim Liebman. Fryer is a young economist on the Harvard faculty who was appointed as the “Chief Equality Officer” of the NYC Department of Education. He’s the architect of a controversial plan to use cellphones as an incentive for students to get high scores on standardized tests. I don’t know Fryer, and wish him well; but I think he’s in over his head. One indicator of this is that press reports suggest that Fryer and his students, not independent researchers, will be evaluating the success of the initiative. I do know Liebman, and I do not wish him well. A Columbia law professor on leave at the Department of Education as “Chief Accountability Officer,” he’s designed an accountability system that is unintelligible, narrow, and internally contradictory, yet is being used to justify closing schools. Next year’s version may even be worse! Much of the mess he has created could have been avoided if he had been a better listener.

Michelle Rhee’s appointment as the Chancellor of the Washington, DC public schools. A Teach for America alumna who founded the New Teacher Project, Rhee faces the challenge of reforming a system with an astonishing legacy of inefficiency rooted in the organizational structure and culture of the system. Tinkering at the margins will do little to change this shameful picture. But bold strokes such as closing schools and converting central-office staff to at-will status will evoke strong resistance from elected officials and the public alike. It’s an open question whether Rhee will be able to persuade stakeholders to support radical change in how the District does business.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Not a sexy topic for policy wonks, but a critically important one that ought not be overlooked. The failure to invest adequately in rebuilding New Orleans is a national disgrace. Earlier this year, Paul Vallas, former head of the Chicago and Philadelphia school systems, was named to lead the Recovery School District, a district created by the state of Louisiana which houses most of the schools in New Orleans. Vallas is a proponent of what he calls a “diverse provider model” of school management which increases the role of the private sector in public education. Sociologist Carl Bankston, writing in the cyberpages of the Teachers College Record, suggests that, whatever Vallas might do, successful educational reform probably hinges on a sustained commitment to rebuilding the city.

The increasing influence of philanthropies in public education. We are witnessing a consolidation of power and influence that is rooted in new alliances among philanthropies, school leaders, and the business community. School leaders, starved for public resources, have allowed philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation to dictate school reform strategies in exchange for new private monies. Some new initiatives are worthy of support and experimentation; others are downright goofy, and school leaders should know better. But here’s the real problem, in my view: the rich, and the people they hire to administer their foundations, are different from you and me. The elite social circles in which they travel are increasingly removed from the day-to-day concerns of public school parents and students, and the educators who serve them. School districts that hire senior executives on the grounds that they know how to talk to these elites and loosen their pocketbooks are creating a divide that is increasingly difficult to cross.

I’m sure eduwonkette would join me in encouraging you to post your own top stories of 2007. So thanks, eduwonkette, for letting me guest-post for a few days, and we now return you to our regularly-scheduled programming.


DT said...

We're going to look back at 2007 as the year when social science began to explain how NCLB failed and why its approach is inherently flawed. More importantly, it was the year when presidential candidates, many more congressmen, teachers,voters, and most of the civil rights communities concluded that the law's standardized testing is irremedially broken.

The Executive Summaries of reports by the CEP, RAND, and Mass Insight were diplomatic about NCLB reporting "mixed" results and giving comfort to the Bush spin machine. But the actual texts and evidence in the bodies of the report were virtually indistinguishable from the findings in studies which were reported as debunking NCLB supporters' claims. Their consensus conclusions was that student performance was rising dramatically from 1992 to 2002, and the achievement gap decreased by 10%. The focus should be on middle school where students had 5 to 6 years of NCLB "reforms," and in that case progress largely stalled after 2003.

Massive studies in Chicago showed that NCLB might have helped performance of the "Bubble Kids" but it may have damaged lower performing students, and they explained the reason. Accountability-driven reforms in the 90s set goals that were reasonable. NCLB goals were manifestly impossible for the poorest schools depriving teachers and students of hope. Morever, Chicago invested $50 million in SES tutoring but only increased reading scores by .4%.

Despite the spin, studies revealed a virtual consensus on the NCLB toolkit. The transfer provisons failed. High quality after-school tutoring produced success. Online tutorials, on the whole, produced no gains. SES tutoring increases ranged from .06 to .08 of a confidence interval depending on the study. Gerald Bracey persuasively explained that that translates into "billions down the tubes."

Similarly, we learned that NCLB may not have narrowed the curriculum as much a feared for middle class schools, but the narrowing was worse in high poverty schools.

Despite the differing headlines, recent research has shown equally disappointing results in school turnarounds. Even the Florida study (Rouse et. ai.) that is proclaimed as finding support for hard accountability as a mechanism of reform acknoweldged that 85% of the student gains were attributable to increased investments, "gaming" the system, and other factors, and that the oversight damaged morale and may have contributed to other negative effects. "The Turnaround Challenge," the CEP, and John Hopkins research shows, however, why the instruction-driven, hard accountability approaches have failed. NCLB forced reformers to gamble everything on a narrow portion of the intellect. High poverty schools, they demonstrate are "complex ecosystems" and we need to address their full social, emotional, and physical dimmensions. Ed Week reports that a new study of 207 programs will soon reinforce those conclusions.

When I went to Iowa with the Obama campaign I was struck by the message their voters were sending to all candidates. Being the home of Iowa Testing Service, Iowans never bought into the NCLB accountability and they are proud of their schools. Conversely, Republicans, led by a former teacher with the backing of 60 conservatives, have turned against it. Conservative like Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn have condemned its testing, and Fordham has contributed more knowledge of its inherent flaws. I am most gratifed that all but two civil rights organizations have repudiated the law's primitve testing regime.

And the bottom line is that teachers are voting with our feet. Polling data shows that the law is about as popular as Bush and his war. Who would try to implement NCLB II?

After a year like this, we should approach of reauthorization with confidence. We probably have two years to draft a law that is consistent with the principles of a humane and full education for law.

John Thompson

EduDiva said...

Thanks for the shout-out.

I'll try to think of some education top stories in between eating those Christmas cookies, opening presents (better late than never) and seeing Body Worlds (yea!). might be a few days.