Strong, Persuasive Opinions



"Wolfgang! Mike! Stop wasting time. You have to take the state tests."


The federal No Child Left Behind law stifles originality and forces teachers to focus on preparing students for tests, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said yesterday. Although Clinton voted for the act in 2001, she criticized the program as underfunded and overly restrictive.
"While the children are getting good at filling in all those little bubbles, what exactly are they really learning?" Clinton asked delegates at the National Education Association of New Hampshire's annual meeting in Concord. "How much creativity are we losing? How much of our children's passion is being killed?"
In addition to overhauling what Clinton deemed the test-based approach to education, the New York senator called for universal preschool, higher teacher salaries and schools that emphasize self-discipline and respect, not just test scores. Clinton also criticized what she described as the outsourcing of tutoring and other services to private companies.
"This is Halliburton all over again," Clinton told reporters, adding that many of the companies likely have "very close ties" to the Republican Party. "We have these contracts going to these cronies who are chosen largely on a political basis, and we have nothing to show for it."
The No Child Left Behind law requires school districts to provide tutoring and other services to schools that don't meet standards. Clinton said that private companies have reaped $500 million annually from the arrangement but aren't held accountable for results.


Charter Schools and Student Performance

On Saturday, President Obama delivered a radio address on education and he didn't shrink from saying that American high school students are trailing international averages. He sketched out details of a bill his administration is now pushing to revise the No Child Left Behind Act. He proposes to preserve testing requirements but create a better measuring stick, require teachers be evaluated by performance (not credentials), and use carrots instead of sticks to encourage progress.
But nothing in the speech or his proposed legislation hints at the need for school choice and competition. Charter schools went unmentioned. One worries that his view of markets in education differs little from the one offered by Diane Ravitch on these pages on March 9 and in her new book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." In that book, she offers a naïve and static view of markets. "It is in the nature of markets that some succeed, some are middling, and others fail," she wrote.
Twentieth century economist Joseph Schumpeter saw it another way. In his view, it is in the nature of markets that middling firms are "creatively" destroyed by good firms, which are themselves eventually eliminated by still better competitors. Ignoring this basic economic principle, critics of charter schools and other forms of school choice see no hope for competition in education. These critics ask us to leave public schools alone apart from creating voluntary national standards—speed zones without traffic tickets, as it were. Yet few doubt that public schools today are troubled, as the president noted on Saturday. What the president left out is that the performance of American high school students has hardly budged over the past 40 years, while the per-pupil cost of operating the schools they attend has increased threefold in real dollar terms. If school districts were firms operating in the market place, many would quickly fall victim to Schumpeter's law of creative destruction.
Ms. Ravitch and other critics of school choice reverse causation by blaming the sad state of public schools on events that occurred long after schools had stagnated. They point, for example, to President Bush's No Child Left Behind law (enacted in 2002), mayoral governance of schools recently instituted in some cities, and the creation of a small number (4,638) of charter schools that serve less than 3% of the U.S. school-age population.
To uncover what is wrong with American public schools one has to dig deeper than these recent developments in education. One needs to consider the impact of restrictive collective bargaining agreements that prevent rewarding good teachers and removing ineffective ones, intrusive court interventions, and useless teacher certification laws. Charters were invented to address these problems. As compared to district schools, they have numerous advantages. They are funded by governments, but they operate independently. This means that charters must persuade parents to select them instead of a neighborhood district school. That has happened with such regularity that today there are 350,000 families on charter-school waiting lists, enough to fill over 1,000 additional charter schools.
According to a 2009 Education Next survey, the public approves of steady charter growth. Though a sizeable portion of Americans remain undecided, charter supporters outnumber opponents two to one. Among African Americans, those who favor charters outnumber opponents four to one. Even among public-school teachers, the percentage who favor charters is 37%, while the percentage who oppose them is 31%.
A school can have short-term popularity without being good, of course. Union leaders would have us believe that charter popularity is due to the "motivated" students who attend them, not the education they provide. But charters hold lotteries when applications exceed available seats. As a result—and also because they are usually located in urban areas—over half of all charter students are either African American or Hispanic. More than a third of charter school students are eligible for the federal free or reduced lunch program.
To identify the effects of a charter education, a wide variety of studies have been conducted. The best studies are randomized experiments, the gold standard in both medical and educational research. Stanford University's Caroline Hoxby and Harvard University's Thomas Kane have conducted randomized experiments that compare students who win a charter lottery with those who applied but were not given a seat. Winners and losers can be assumed to be equally motivated because they both tried to go to a charter school. Ms. Hoxby and Mr. Kane have found that lottery winners subsequently scored considerably higher on math and reading tests than did applicants who remained in district schools.
In another good study, the RAND Corp. found that charter high school graduation rates and college attendance rates were better than regular district school rates by 15 percentage points and eight percentage points respectively. Instead of taking seriously these high quality studies, charter critics rely heavily on a report released in 2004 by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The AFT is hardly a disinterested investigator, and its report makes inappropriate comparisons and pays insufficient attention to the fact that charters are serving an educationally deprived segment of the population. Others base their criticism of charters on a report from an ongoing study by Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (Credo), which found that there are more weak charter schools than strong ones. Though this report is superior to AFT's study, its results are dominated by a large number of students who are in their first year at a charter school and a large number of charter schools that are in their first year of operation.
Credo's work will be more informative when it presents findings for students in charters that have been up and running for several years. You can't judge the long-term potential of schools that have not amassed a multi-year track record.
To identify the long-term benefits of school choice, Harvard's Martin West and German economist Ludger Woessmann examined the impact of school choice on the performance of 15-year-old students in 29 industrialized countries. They discovered that the greater the competition between the public and private sector, the better all students do in math, science and reading. Their findings imply that expanding charters to include 50% of all students would eventually raise American students' math scores to be competitive with the highest-scoring countries in the world.
What makes charters important today is less their current performance than their potential to innovate. Educational opportunity is about to be revolutionized by powerful notebook computers, broadband and the open-source development of curricular materials (a la Wikipedia). Curriculum can be tailored to the level of accomplishment each student has reached, an enormous step forward.
If American education remains stagnant, such innovations will spread slowly, if at all. If the charter world continues to expand, the competition between them and district schools could prove to be transformative.
Mr. Peterson, a professor of government at Harvard University and a Hoover Institution senior fellow, is author of the forthcoming book "Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning" (Belknap/Harvard University Press).

-Paul Peterson


Can Race to the Top Save Struggling Schools?


The Race to the Top program—a $4.35 billion pool of money of which every state in the country can compete for a share—has only been around since it was introduced in late July. A comment period followed that extended into late August and the first phase of applications is expected sometime in December, with a second phase scheduled for next year.
While there's a chance some elements of Race to the Top could change, as Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his staff pores through the suggestions and comments to see if any are worth incorporating, there's plenty of information available for experts and education officials around the country to offer their initial opinions about what's good and not so good about Race to the Top.
There's Much to Like About Race to the Top
That's the general consensus shared by most states and education experts. "If it is done right," said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4-million strong American Federation of Teachers, "it can promote innovation and promote promising ideas."
Race to the Top focuses on four areas—or "assurances"—that each state is expected to include in its application for grant money. Those assurances include:

That's the main vision behind Race to the Top—together with an emphasis on charter schools—and education consultant Adam Gamoran said the program makes sense.
"He (Duncan) orchestrated a funding system so states are required to demonstrate progress and plans to qualify for these funds," said Gamoran, director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, the largest and oldest university-based research center in the country. "His use of the funds is aligned with the priorities in (Race to the Top). In my view these goals are very good ideas, so there's a good chance Race to the Top funds will lead to improvements."
But Concerns About Charter Schools, Testing Assessments and Rural States Remain
Even supporters of Race to the Top have some concerns about the enormously involved program. Just how involved is it? In its own draft guidelines released in July, the Department of Education estimated an application would take 642 hours to put together. Just how long is that? Well, there's only 720 hours in all of September.
Charter schools
There has been considerable concern about the focus on charter schools as an alternative to boost student performance.
In Iowa, there are only 8 charter schools in the state, and a law that caps the total at 20. Officials like Jeffrey Berger, chief financial officer who also is in charge of governmental relations for the education department, wonder why have charter schools been anointed as the savior for public education?
"If you look at charters specifically, there's no evidence that the mere designation of charters means much, as far as education," Berger said. "Those charters that do well have good teachers and good resources."
Weingarten of the AFT issues a familiar refrain regarding charter schools:
"(T)he issue is not whether we should have charter schools but do you have good ones and are they accountable like public schools. The issue we've seen—whereas 17 percent of charter schools do better than the public schools in the neighborhood—34 percent are doing worse than public schools in their neighborhoods. We want to level the playing field. We're not against charter schools, but accountability should be present."
Rural States
Another concern about Race to the Top deals with the question of whether the program takes into account the unique circumstances of rural states.
Armando Vilaseca, Vermont's commission of education, will say that "rural states have some different issues." But he doesn't feel Race to the Top is unfair. "I think when you are secretary of education and you look at this thing in a national perspective, that you need up looking at the large urban areas. And that makes sense," Vilaseca said.
Officials in Montana aren't so sure.
"In Montana we have so many small school communities that the notion of introducing a charter school on top of that really doesn't make any sense," said Madalyn Quinlan, chief of staff in Montana's Department of Public Instruction. "Even in our urban areas, our largest school district has 15,000 kids. It just doesn’t seem to make sense in Montana."
Quinlan, who says state officials could decide to not even submit an application, wonders how rural states can remove poor-performing teachers or potentially close down problem schools. "There isn't a whole new group of teachers ready to move in. That's not the situation in Montana. We're working to build capacity."
How do you improve struggling schools? Gamoran, the education consultant, sees this as the toughest of the four assurances for the states to handle. "We do not know the answer to how to turn around low performing schools. Of the four priorities, by far the hardest one is turning around chronically low-performing schools. If this were easy we would already be doing it."

-Bob Ross


Obama's "Race to the Top"

If you read the Oregonian Newspaper (and I’m certainly not suggesting that you do, though I often scan a copy with the somewhat guilty fascination of someone who just can’t help rubbernecking an auto collision on the freeway) you might have noticed the current bruhahah over President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative.
According to the “Race to the Top” website, here’s its program description:
“The Race to the Top Fund provides competitive grants to encourage and reward States that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform; implementing ambitious plans in the four education reform areas described in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA); and achieving significant improvement in student outcomes, including making substantial gains in student achievement, closing achievement gaps, improving high school graduation rates, and ensuring that students are prepared for success in college and careers.”
Now, this post isn’t about the “Race to the Top” program, or its details. To be honest, I was too lazy to do more than scan the basic information I’ve included above, which sounds an awful lot like ol’ Auntie Nancy’s “No Child Left Behind” bedtime story to me.
No, what caught my attention, in the back-and-forth arguments listed in the Oregonian, wasn’t what the program included, but what both sides seemed to overlook.
In the editorials, I found the following statements:

“Race to the Top” is a 4.3 billion dollar program designed to test “new ways of teaching.”
“Through the Race to the Top fund, President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan have laid out their broad vision for reforming America’s education system: smarter use of data, innovative ways of evaluating educators and new strategies to turn around schools that consistently fail.”
“Oregon’s ‘Race to the Top’ design team is composed of individuals who have little, if any, regular interaction with the students the program is trying to reach…there must be representation from those in teacher education programs who are training the next generation of teachers.”
“While many teachers and principles (sic) do impressive work, Oregon’s overall results for kids in mediocre. Only 15% of Oregon’s high school sophomores will graduate from high school and complete college…”
“Oregon should provide needed support to new teachers and principles  (sic), make professional development meaningful, and base educator evaluations on multiple factors (not just principle (sic) visits and test scores.)”
“I have an idea for fixing the school system. Hang on to your seats because it has nothing to do with testing. Find a way to cut the class size in all grades in half.”
Do you know what I DIDN’T find…what three words I never found listed ONCE in all the articles and editorials printed? These three words:
Nowhere in Obama’s plan, or in the pros and cons debated by my fellow Oregonians, did I find a single mention of parents, or parental responsibility for the education of OUR children. Not even a hint of it!
It isn’t being debated…it isn’t even being considered. We, as parents, are left out of the argument entirely. And you know whose fault it is…OURS!
Have we really turned over OUR children’s futures to a bunch of strangers that we “hope” will do their best?
Have we really decided that because they are paid (and not enough, believe me) it’s THEIR job, and we are somehow absolved of any responsibility?
Have we really decided that it’s easier to “hope” that OUR children are in the 15%, than it is to take a proactive role in OUR children’s educations?
Have we really decided that it’s easier to just blame the teacher’s when OUR kids are rebellious morons, than it is to sit down at the dinner table (or take a walk to the woodshed) and make sure OUR kids are doing their homework, and learning the three R’s? To contact OUR children’s teachers and see how they’re doing in class?
Apparently, we have.
Shame on us.
When I was a surly, lazy fourth-grader with a smart mouth, my future educational success was set forth when my teacher called my dad at work (who, btw, didn’t piss and moan about the interruption.) My father who came home that night with a 24-inch, by 3-inch, by 1/2-inch piece of pine board (which his co-worker had gleefully machined in the company’s shop) and applied it to my butt; the first of many such applications that led me to my high school graduation.
I was lucky enough to have a teacher who cared enough about me to risk a phone call, a mother who would spend hours going over my homework assignments with me, and (perhaps most importantly) a father who was willing to be interrupted, and to take responsibility for my educational performance by warming my ass when necessary.
If  “warming my ass” seems harsh to you…please note that I fully credit that parental encouragement for placing me in that increasingly rare percentage that achieved my high school graduation and went on to college. I can only hope that I will be ready, and willing, to do the same when and if my own daughter needs encouragement. I’ll also make sure that I’m willing to turn off the football game, or The Simpsons, or the company cell-phone, and spend time with her as she does her homework.
What about you?
It would appear that the teachers, the schools, and the government have given up on us parents as a means of effecting change in the educational system, and insuring that OUR children are prepared to graduate high school, successfully navigate college, and lead successful lives. It would appear that they have accepted full responsibility for the educational success or failure of OUR children, and are groping blindly for a way to do so.
Maybe they are right.
If so, shame on us.


What Precipitated "No Child Left Behind?"


Don't Read, Don't Tell: Clinton's Phoney War on Illiteracy

President Clinton is to be congratulated for calling attention to a national disaster: the inability of 40 percent of American eight-year-olds to read on their own. Reading is the gateway skill. It opens the door to all other learning. It is essential for participation in the knowledge-based economy of the next century. The president is right to insist that every American child learn this indispensable skill by the end of the third grade. But the president's answer for this disaster does not provide a real solution. Under his proposed "America Reads Challenge," the government would recruit a million volunteers, many of them minimally trained college students, to teach children to read under the direction of AmeriCorps workers. The program sounds wonderful--we're all for voluntarism. But it diverts accountability from the colossal failure of the public-education system to achieve perhaps its single most important mission. Think about it. Forty percent of third-graders cannot read. What a terrible indictment of our public-education system! What more important responsibility do schools have than to teach reading? Almost every child can learn to read by the end of first grade, if properly taught. But schools aren't achieving this by the third grade. For this failure, heads should roll. All teachers or principals or school superintendents who have failed to teach 40 percent of their third-graders to read should be looking for a new job. If 40 percent of third-graders cannot read and nothing has been done about it already, then teachers and principals obviously aren't being held to the right standards of performance. Even more important, current methods for teaching reading must be completely overhauled. There are now 825,000 teachers from kindergarten to third grade whose principal job is to teach the three Rs. A high percentage of these teachers have master's degrees; almost all have been specially trained to teach reading. Obviously their training isn't working. The federal government already spends $8.3 billion on 14 programs that concentrate on promoting literacy, including Title I funding for school districts with high proportions of low-income or poorly performing students. If 40 percent of third-graders can't read, then this money has not been wisely targeted and the teaching philosophy must be faulty. Federal, state, and local governments spend another $40 billion a year on special education, with about half targeted at children with "specific learning disabilities." According to J.W. Lerner, writing in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, "80 percent of children identified as having learning disabilities have their primary difficulties in learning to read." Special-education reading methods don't seem to be working very well, either. According to research by B.A. Shaywitz and S.E. Shaywitz, more than 40 percent of high-school students identified as "learning disabled" drop out of school prior to graduation; only 17 percent enroll in any postsecondary course, 6 percent participate in two-year higher-education programs, and 1.8 percent in four-year programs. The loss of human potential is staggering. The 1993 National Assessment of Education Progress reported that "70 percent of fourthgraders, 30 percent of eighth-graders, and 64 percent of 12th-graders did not . . . attain a proficient level of reading." These students have not attained the minimum level of skill in reading considered necessary to do the academic work at their grade level. The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), released in 1993, revealed that between 40 million and 44 million Americans are unable to read phone books, ballots, car manuals, nursery rhymes, the Declaration of Independence, the Bible, the Constitution, or the directions on a medicine bottle. Another 50 million Americans recognize so few printed words that they are limited to a fourth- or fifth-grade level of reading. Illiterates account for 75 percent of unemployed adults, 33 percent of mothers receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children, 85 percent of juveniles who appear in court, and 60 percent of prison inmates. How has a nation that has dedicated so many resources to education allowed illiteracy to grow to such an unprecedented level? We can solve illiteracy now. Poor people, rich people, rural residents and city dwellers, all have an equal opportunity to master the skill of reading, if they are properly taught.


-Robert W. Sweet Jr. (1997)