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December 2011 Archives

The Intrusion of Religion in Schools

It's disturbing to learn that public schools persist in promoting religion despite landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963. The latest reminder comes from Jefferson, S.C., where the American Civil Liberties Union has sued the Chesterfield County school district for the continuing promotion of religion in several of its schools ("Battling Anew Over the Place of Religion in Public Schools," The New York Times, Dec. 28). Specifically, a preacher at a school assembly was permitted to describe how Jesus Christ saved him from drugs. But as the Times reported, similar violations of the separation ...


Private Funding of Public Schools

The Bridgeport Education Reform Fund in all likelihood will mean nothing to most people. But ignoring the fund is a mistake because it is a model that figures to play an increasingly prominent role in the funding of schools in the years ahead in this country. Although the present venue is the largest city in Connecticut, whose schools were taken over by the state in July after the superintendent was fired, the strategy has the potential to spread to other underperforming school districts. What is troubling is that the $400,000 in the fund has come from wealthy donors who ...


Testing Gone Wild

The news that New York State will lengthen its math and language arts tests for elementary and middle school students to three hours beginning this April is another reminder that common sense is woefully lacking in the accountability movement. According to John King Jr., the state's education commissioner, the change is part of the effort to "fine-tune tests of student performance" ("State Tests Extended to About Three Hours," The New York Times, Dec. 19). I'd be very interested in knowing exactly what King means by that statement, and how he justifies his decision. When I taught English in the Los ...


A Narrow View of Community Colleges

Long plagued by an acute inferiority complex, community colleges are on the threshold of a new era that has the potential to remake their image. Yet at the same time, it's important to acknowledge that the transformation carries with it certain risks. I was reminded of this after reading Rahm Emanuel's op-ed in The Wall Street Journal ("Chicago's Plan to Match Education With Jobs," Dec. 19). He argues that community colleges need to be regarded as the "first choice for high-skill job training," rather as a "last ditch effort for remedial education." The only way to upgrade the reputation of ...


What Lessons Do Military Base Schools Offer?

It's tempting to conclude that the success of schools on military bases in narrowing the achievement gap between black and white students has relevance to public schools. At least that's what reformers will likely maintain after reading Michael Winerip's informative column ("Military Children Stay a Step Ahead of Public School Students," The New York Times, Dec. 12). After all, it's hard not to be impressed by the latest results from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. In reading, for example, there was an 11-point gap between black and white fourth graders at the military base schools. This compares with ...


Refining School Rankings

Americans love rankings. They serve as a quick and easy way of determining who or what is better than others in the same category. I understand their appeal, but I wonder if rankings do more harm than good because they fail to take into account vital nuances. Consider rankings of hospitals and schools. In a column in The New York Times, Peter B. Bach, M.D. wrote that "researchers at Dartmouth College publish rankings of hospitals and states based not on how successful they are at preventing deaths of patients who are very ill, but on how much they spend ...


Read the Fine Print About School Choice

As readers of this column know, I've long supported parental choice of schools. But at the same time I've always cautioned about its limitations. Now comes the latest caveat that free-market reformers don't want you to know. It's important to bear it in mind because 13 states enacted school choice legislation this year, and 28 more states have legislation pending. The setting is the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest. In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, Leslee Komaiko, the mother of a first grader at a charter school in the mammoth system, explains how ...


How Do Teachers Know What Students Know?

In dusting the shelves of my home library recently, I came across a paperback published in 1961 that has uncanny relevance to the debate today about mass testing (The Schools, Anchor Books). Martin Mayer was a reporter and editor who spent 30 months visiting about 150 schools from as far east as Helsinki to as far west as San Francisco. In the process, he interviewed more than 1,500 teachers. His provocative and insightful comments are a reminder that so much of what we consider new today has in fact been around for a long while. In particular, Mayer reminds ...


What About History Education?

So much of the nation's attention has been focused on literacy, numeracy and science since No Child Left Behind became law that history has been lost in the shuffle. A new book by David Feith titled Teaching America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) calls the situation a "crisis" ("Boot Camp For Citizens," The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 9). I'm troubled by the neglect of the subject as much as Feith is, but I hasten to point out that fears about students' knowledge of history are not new. In the 1830's, Horace Mann, secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, decried the historical ...


Using Standardized Tests to Evaluate Teachers

The demand seems so reasonable: Evaluate teachers on the basis of how much their students have learned. After all, if schools exist to educate, then what's wrong with asking for evidence that they are successful? It's a fair question. The problem is agreeing on what kind of evidence to accept. At last count, 23 states and the District of Columbia assess teachers in part by their students' standardized tests ("Nearly Half of States Link Teacher Evaluations to Tests," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 26). Fourteen more states permit districts to use the data to fire ineffective teachers, according to a ...


Closing Failing Schools

Education marketeers argue that closing persistently underperforming schools is necessary in order to provide students with the education they are entitled to. The strategy has great intuitive appeal to taxpayers who are fed up with efforts to turn these schools around. But this approach promises far more than it can deliver for reasons that are poorly understood. Chicago, home of the nation's third largest school district, stands out as the best example. Even before No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, the Windy City had a long history of school closings. It's particularly important to bear this fact in ...


Social Darwinism in the Classroom

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City told attendees at an M.I.T. conference on Dec. 1 that if he had it in his power he would slash the number of teachers in half and double the salaries of the remainder, his remarks went viral ("Bloomberg: If I Had My Way I'd Dump Half of NYC's Teachers," CBS New York, Dec. 1). Bloomberg acknowledged that his strategy would result in much larger class size, but he refused to back down. "The best thing you can do is put the best teacher you can possibly find and afford in ...


Drawing the Line on Parental Involvement

If there's one thing everyone agrees on in the education of children, it's the importance of parental involvement. Until recently, the issue has largely focused on parents monitoring homework, attending open house, and responding to requests for a conference. But lately another aspect has come to the fore. In the face of severe budget cuts, parents have stepped forward to provide generous donations to the school their children attend. Their largess has resulted in the addition of art and music classes, instructional aides and extended library hours. The problem has been that not all schools have been the fortunate recipient. ...


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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