October 2010 Archives

Selective Use of Evidence to Improve Schools

When New York City's Education Department announced on Oct. 20 that it intends to release the ratings of 12,000 teachers based on student test scores, United Federation of Teachers immediately said it would seek a court order to block the move. These developments are reminiscent of what took place in late August when the Los Angeles Times published a database of 6,000 teachers in third through fifth grades that ranked their effectiveness relative to their colleagues. The difference was that the Los Angeles Times calculated the value-added after obtaining the data under the state's Public Records Act. In ...


Stripping Teachers of Freedom of Speech

(For my related essay on how teachers are being hamstrung by court decisions, see "Rules for Schools: Dealing with Delinquents" in the Oct. 26 issue of The American.) The latest reminder that freedom of speech for teachers in K-12 is an illusion came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati on Oct. 21. In Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of the Tipp City Exempted Village School District, the court ruled that teachers cannot make their own curricular decisions. The case came about when high school English teacher Shelley Evans-Marshall was fired after 500 parents ...


Poverty v. Culture in Student Achievement

If the role that poverty plays in student achievement was not already controversial enough, the debate is bound to become even more contentious as a result of renewed interest in the influence of culture on academic performance. The New York Times published a front-page story on Oct. 17 that traced the resurgence of what anthropologist Oscar Lewis called the culture of poverty (" 'Culture of Poverty' Makes a Comeback"). Although researchers have known for four decades that poverty and culture are intertwined, they shied away from the latter as an explanation to avoid being labeled politically incorrect. But as pressure has ...


Caution on For-Profit Schools

(Last of a three-part series this week on innovative schools.) At the same time that for-profit colleges are campaigning hard to justify their existence in the face of harsh criticism from Congress, for-profit schools are in increasing demand from desperate parents. Since I've already weighed in on for-profit colleges ("Are Proprietary Colleges Worthwhile?", July 2), I'll confine my remarks to for-profit schools. New York City is the epicenter of the for-profit trend. Long known for its list of expensive non-profit independent schools in grades K-12, New York City is feeling the presence of these newcomers. The New York Times focused ...


Reading Between the Lines About Small Schools

(Second of a three-part series this week on innovative schools.) Press releases are known for accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative in order to mold public opinion. So it came as no surprise when I received news marked for immediate release on Oct. 15 from the Alliance for Excellent Education. Datelined Washington D.C., the Alliance reported on an MDRC study titled "Transforming the High School Experience: How New York City's New Small Schools Are Boosting Student Achievement and Graduation Rates." MDRC is a nonpartisan research group dedicated to improving programs that affect the poor. The study looked at ...


Charter School Growth Carries a Price

(First of a three-part series this week on innovative schools.) At first glance, the dramatic increase in the number of charter schools across the country seems to assure their place as the No. 1 player in the parental choice movement. But news reports published just two days apart raise questions about how much confidence can be placed in them. On Oct. 7, The New York Times focused on the LEARN School Network in Chicago ("Charter Education Expanding in Chicago"). Greg White, the chief executive, was forced to rely on two $1 million grants last month from Oprah Winfrey's Angel Network ...


Assertions Are Not Evidence in School Reform

Ever since the accountability movement gained traction, critics have subjected the public to an endless recital of the ills afflicting schools. In response, reformers have offered their solutions with the zeal of missionaries trying to convert the masses. The latest example was "How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other education leaders," which was published in the Washington Post on Oct. 10. Putting aside the emotions their names conjured up, I tried to find something convincing in their remarks. But what they said about charter schools, high-stakes tests, competition, performance pay etc. were assertions. ...


The Lessons Learned about Testing in New York

In an investigative report that was supported by charts and graphs, The New York Times on Oct. 11 revealed how New York State officials ignored warnings from experts for more than a decade about the way tests were being misused to create the illusion of progress ("On New York School Tests, Warning Signs Ignored"). The front-page story was a case study of assessment legerdemain in action. What it showed was that a singular obsession with test scores had distorted the entire assessment process, undermining confidence in the claims made by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein. In publishing the ...


Expecting Too Much From the Best Teachers

It's an article of faith among reformers that recruiting teachers from the top tier of their class will assure top performing schools. The latest example of this thinking was an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Oct. 10 ("Why aren't our teachers the best and the brightest?"). Paul Kihn and Matt Miller of McKinsey & Company cited Finland, Singapore and South Korea's policy of drawing 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of their high school and college classes as the secret of their schools' success. By contrast, Kihn and Miller assert that the cause of the sub-par ...


Teacher Seniority On the Ropes

If a judge approves the settlement of a lawsuit proposed by the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, teacher layoffs would be subjected to striking new rules. In a front-page story on Oct. 6, the Los Angeles Times reported that the sacrosanct last-hired, first-fired policy would be replaced by a strategy requiring no school would lose a disproportionate number of teachers ("Settlement limits L.A. teachers' seniority protection"). The tentative agreement does not eliminate seniority entirely in considering layoffs. However, it undercuts the traditional basis for issuing pink slips. The impetus for the change was a lawsuit filed ...


What If Teachers Unions Were Outlawed

Teachers unions have been cast as the villain for depriving students of a quality education for so long that any attempt now to rebut the charge is probably an exercise in futility. The latest reminder of their alleged pernicious influence was an editorial in the New York Observer on Sept. 28 that recited the usual bill of particulars ("Head of the Class"). But there is another side to the story that needs to be heard. The best way to do so is to look at what would happen if teachers unions were outlawed. Would their disappearance make a significant difference ...


Recruiting Outside Education to Improve Education

With great fanfare, the George W. Bush Institute announced on Sept. 29 that it plans to mount an ambitious campaign to recruit principals from outside educational circles. The initiative, called the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership, will look for candidates with business, sports and military backgrounds in the belief that a new breed of school leadership is sorely needed. School districts are indeed faced with waves of principal retirements, as baby boomers reach the end of their careers. But whether the Bush Institute can produce the 50,000 K-12 principals by its target date of 2020 is doubtful. According to ...


Suicide of Teacher and Published Rankings

When the Los Angeles Times decided to publish the rankings of 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers based on how much progress their students made in English and math on standardized tests, it rationalized the move by arguing that taxpayers have the right to know the results. On August 30, I wrote that the Times had made a serious mistake ("Why Not Name and Shame Teachers?). But I never imagined for a minute that it would have such a tragic outcome. On Sept. 28, the Times ran a story about the suicide of 39-year-old Rigoberto Ruelas, who taught fifth grade ...


The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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