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November 2010 Archives

The Downside of Mayoral Control of Schools

Faced with the daunting task of turning around failing schools, a number of cities over the past 20 years put their mayors in charge of the job. Although this strategy ran counter to a long tradition of school board independence, it was seen as the most effective way to speed up the pace of reform. The most dramatic example was New York City, home of the nation's largest school district. In 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg convinced the state Legislature to grant him the power he sought. Whether he has been successful depends largely on who is queried. What is undeniable, ...


An Interview With the Director-Editor of "The Lottery"

Although Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman" has received the lion's share of media attention, it actually followed in the footsteps of "The Lottery," which was released in May after being shown at the Tribeca Film Festival the month before. Directed and edited by Madeleine Sackler, who was also a co-producer, the documentary focuses on the attempts of four desperate families to get their children admitted to the Harlem Success Academy through the use of a chance drawing. Despite the similarities between the two documentaries, I wanted to give Sackler an opportunity to respond to a series of questions about what ...


Eternal Vouchers

Just when it seemed as if vouchers were moribund, the school board in Douglas County, located south of Denver, announced it is considering allowing parents to use public funds to send their children to private schools. What makes the story unusual is that the county is one of the wealthiest in the nation, with median family income of $105,000 and only eight percent of students qualifying for free lunches. Never before have vouchers been attempted in an affluent suburban district with high-performing public schools, according to the Wall Street Journal ("Board Floats Voucher Plan," Nov. 20). To make matters ...


Schools of Last Resort

Whether the country is ready or not, parental choice of schools is here to stay. As readers of this column know, I support the policy because I believe that ultimately only parents know what is best for their children's education. But at the same time, it's important to realize the limitations of the strategy. The fate of children whose parents are not involved in their education unfortunately is given short shrift in the debate. If they are considered unavoidable collateral damage, then there's nothing further to discuss. However, I don't think most people will accept that outcome. New Zealand serves ...


Teacher Training Under Fire

With consensus mounting that teachers are the single most important in-school factor in student achievement, it's time to take a closer look at the programs designed to prepare them for the classroom. On Nov. 16, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed on the subject ("Training better teachers") and on the same day the Wall Street Journal ran a news article on the same issue ("Teacher Training Is Panned"). What emerges is a scathing indictment of the nation's 1,450 colleges and departments of education. Specifically, the charge is that too many teacher preparation programs focus far too heavily on ...


No Bull's-Eye for Parent Trigger Law

Promoted as a way of finally transferring power from school officials and teachers unions to parents where it rightly belongs, California's Parent Trigger Law is unlikely to have the impact its supporters hope. Under the law, if 51 percent of parents in a failing school sign a petition, the result could mean closing a school, firing all the staff and rehiring new teachers and administrators, or turning over the school to a charter operator. Despite the fanfare since the law went into effect in Jan. 2010, few parents have taken advantage of their new leverage to create change. That's not ...


The Gini Index and Educational Achievement

With reformers relentlessly demanding that schools produce measurable outcomes, it's curious that the Gini Index is rarely mentioned. I say that because what Italian statistician Corrado Gini wrote in 1912 has direct relevance to today's debate. Sometimes referred to as the Gini coefficient, it measures the range of income inequality in a society from 0 (no inequality) to 1(total inequality). Sweden, for example, has an index of .23, while Namibia has .7. The U.S. has one of the world's worst Ginis for an industrialized country at .468 in 2009. This is not surprising since wealth is being reconcentrated ...


Choosing School Chancellors the Wrong Way

The appointment of Cathleen Black to be chancellor of the nation's largest school district should come as no surprise to followers of the reform movement. Despite her lack of education experience (except for sitting on the board of the Harlem Village Academy but not yet having attended a meeting), Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose her to replace the departing Joel Klein, who moves on to become an executive vice president at News Corp. The trend of going outside the educational community to run troubled school districts will be applauded by those frustrated and angry at the pace of school improvement. They ...


Are School Tuition Organizations Constitutional?

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider this term whether school tuition organizations that were set up in Arizona in 1997 pass constitutional muster. The law permits residents of the state to contribute up to $500 that they would otherwise pay in taxes to a nonprofit school tuition organization. In turn, the STOs give scholarships to students to attend non-public schools. The only two conditions are that STOs can't award the scholarships to one school, and they must take financial need into consideration. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of taxpayers who challenged ...


Schools in China and U.S. Move in Opposite Directions

With China and the U.S. competing to be the world's superpower, it's a propitious time to take a closer look at the contrasting ways the two countries are attempting to reform schools. Although the U.S. has only 98,000 public schools serving 50 million students, compared with China's 600,000 schools serving 230 million students, both can learn from each other. Schools in China are slowly trying to break away from their emphasis on memorization toward adopting strategies that stress creativity. Until now, schools believed that the former was the best way to score high on the gao ...


The Other Kind of Testing

Is there another, better way of determining what teachers have taught and what students have learned than the standardized tests presently in use today? There is, but it is almost as controversial as the present approach. It's called performance assessment. It's not exactly new, but it's far more authentic. Performance assessment is applicable to any subject taught. It allows students to demonstrate their creativity and problem-solving ability more comprehensively than the standardized tests currently in use. Here's how it works. English teachers, for example, have students create portfolios of their essays over the semester. The work is initially graded by ...


Community Colleges in the Woodshed

Spared for years by criticism aimed at K-12 schools and four-year institutions of higher learning, community colleges are now in the dock for failing to perform their missions. The main venue is California, whose Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960 conceived community colleges as an affordable way for students to complete the first two years of college before transferring to a four-year school and for students seeking an associate's degree or career certification. In a report by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy, researchers found woefully low student transfer and completion rates at California's 112 community colleges serving ...


The Private Preschool Dust-Up

Competition for admission to coveted schools has been so well documented by the media by now that I thought I had seen it all. But a news article in the New York Times on Oct. 28 about the battle for acceptance to private preschools in New York City convinced me otherwise ("For Some Youngsters, a Second Chance at an Exclusive School"). The report described how children from some families are allowed to take the Educational Records Bureau a second time if their score the first time did not make the cut for admission. The E.R.B. is a one-hour ...


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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