Friday, March 26, 2010

Gone Sugarin'

It may be quiet around here for a bit as we're spending the next week or so with family. So if you're looking for Race to the Top news or a musical recommendation, you're on your own for a while.

Hope you're enjoying some springtime weather, where ever you are!

Photo: John Sheppard

Are Mass Teacher Firings A New Trend?

Per this recent Education Optimists post about teacher firings in Central Falls, Rhode Island, word comes that a Georgia high school is also firing its entire staff.
A failing Savannah high school is firing its entire staff in an effort to avoid further sanctions from the state and to make the school eligible for up to $6 million in federal money, officials said Thursday.

The 200 employees at Beach High School — including the principal — will work there through the end of the year but will not be rehired for that school, said Karla Redditte, spokeswoman for the Savannah-Chatham County school district.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What should I major in?

A column in the Columbia University newspaper caught my eye. A woman was try to explain to her father why she had chosen the major she chose.

She, like most college students, thinks she is making an important life choice here. She is, but she is confused about which choice she is making.

Why do college have majors? If you understand that, then the decision will become clear. All universities in the United States, even those that don’t claim to be, are modeled after the concept of the research university. This means that the professors at the school are primarily interested in research. Not only that, research dominates their lives so much that teaching is very low on their priority list. More importantly, when they teach, they are teaching what are basically research subjects.

So, when a psychology major wants to learn about people’s minds he or she winds up learning how to run experiments and how to do statistics because that is what researchers in psychology do.. When a computer science major wants to learn to become a proficient programmer they wind up learning mathematical theories connected with programming because that is what their professors research.

The major exists as a way of routing students on one track of becoming researchers. There are, of course, a few problems with this model. For one, most students do not want to become researchers. For another, those that do want to pursue PhDs soon realize that they could have majored in most anything and been accepted into a PhD program of their choice if they did well enough in college.

Students major in biology or chemistry because they want to became doctors (a field that actually requires next to none of the biology or chemistry that one learns in college.) They major in economies when they want to became business people because, at schools like Colombia, there is no business major but there are plenty of economists who do research.

In fact the concept of major is meant to move students into advanced courses in a department, namely the research seminars, which are really all the faculty actually want to teach anyhow.

When my son asked me what he should major in (he was also at Columbia) I told him “subways.” I did that because he loved subways. Now of course there is no subway major at Columbia, or anywhere else. I told him to pick and choose courses that related to his main interest and that the major he wound up in would not matter at all to anyone.

And this is my advice to students in all colleges. The major requirement is not there to serve your needs, so serve your own. Pick any courses that interests you as you attempt to determine a plan for your life. It really doesn’t matter. If your college offers real training in areas that lead to jobs and you think you might want one of those jobs, by all means major in that. But most people change their plans in life many times, so the answer to “what should I major in?” is simple enough.

It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. What matter are the choices that you make later. If you pick a major that narrows your choices then you made a bad selection.

You're Fired!

I am deeply troubled to read columns like this ("Improve education, fire bad teachers") -- both the title and the content -- from a reputable source like the Center for American Progress (CAP). Much as the likes of FOX News are in desperate need of balance and breadth of perspective, so is this column.

Where is the discussion about the need to support teachers to become more effective through improved preparation, stronger induction and mentoring, and job-embedded professional development? What about more than a throwaway line about the role of teacher evaluation systems to provide constructive feedback to help teachers identify strengths and weaknesses and help them become more effective?

I don't mean to pick on CAP too harshly, for some of its prior reports (such as this one) approached the teacher effectiveness issue more comprehensively and accurately. But if all we do is focus on firing teachers, without addressing other elements of teacher quality policy, we're going to dig ourselves into a hole that we'll never crawl out of. While stricter license and tenure requirements and more meaningful teacher evaluation systems might weed out truly ineffective teachers (a small minority), it won't do anything to help the vast majority teachers become more successful without a clear focus on individualized teacher development.

Another recent example of oversimplification and the repetitive 'teachers suck' mantra appeared on the pages of Newsweek masquerading as an actual news article. (I'm glad I canceled my subscription years ago.) The authors pontificated that, "Nothing, then, is more important than hiring good teachers and firing bad ones." Um, OK. Nothing, huh?

We need a broader vision here, folks, along the lines that the Obama Administration has articulated in its initial ESEA blueprint. It is not as simple as just firing more teachers. Columns like these do not convey the complexity and comprehensiveness of the policies, practices and implementation that is needed to truly improve teacher effectiveness across the board. They simplify the problem and cast the responsibility for educational failure solely on teachers.

Speaking of balance, here are more of my thoughts....

UPDATE: Eduwonk and Claus von Zastrow make good points on this issue -- as does Diane Ravitch (here and here). Bill Maher offers his own 'new rule, raising the important issue of parental involvement.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Daily Drivel

It's hard to believe that the Wall Street Journal fancies itself a national newspaper while publishing this largely baseless, political clap-trap on its editorial page:
But national standards are no substitute for school choice and accountability, which are proving to be the most effective drivers of academic improvement.
First of all, to frame education reform as pitting national standards against choice/accountability is ridiculous on its face. It is a false choice. Plus, the Obama Administration's reform blueprint is so much more broad than that. About the only thing that the WSJ editorial gets right is in saying that national standards "won't magically boost learning" by themselves.

Secondly, the WSJ appears to be falling into the "silver bullet" mentality all too prevalent among simplistic education reformers. "Just run schools like a business!" Or, "[INSERT pet approach] is the answer." Yes, we've been down that road before .... small schools, merit pay, open classrooms. The WSJ apparently wants to contribute choice and accountability to the junkyard of spent shell casings.

Third, where is the research evidence to suggest that school choice and accountability should be in the driver's seat? The editorial offers no evidence. The presence of publicly funded vouchers is no panacea. Just look at Milwaukee's experience (here and here). At the recent meeting of the American Education Finance Association, the U.S. Department of Education's senior adviser Marshall 'Mike' Smith offered evidence that rates of gain in student test scores were lower after No Child Left Behind became law than before. We chided Margaret Spellings last year for touting the successes of NCLB on similar grounds. So much for bare-bones accountability.

Does the Wall Street Journal have any editorial standards? Or any shame?

UPDATE: Read Claus von Zastrow's take on this editorial on Public School Insights: "It doesn't pass the laugh test."

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Sky is Falling

As a child growing up inside the Washington Beltway, I learned early never to have much faith in politicians. Every few years new folks came to the city, promising "change" and leaving without having done much at all. The candidates and officials I did like never got the attention and promotions they deserved. And worst of all, those who claimed to be on my side were everlasting disappointments (read: Bill Clinton).

Somehow that cynical base inside me melted a little with the election of Barack Obama, and became a tiny puddle when he announced the American Graduation Initiative. Finally, a president who "got" it! As educators we were all working to prepare children for a full life, and that had to include a real shot at higher education. That meant finally giving sufficient resources to the colleges where the majority of those looking longingly at the American Dream were going to end up: community colleges.

My heart went pitter-patter when I heard Obama call community colleges an "undervalued asset" to the nation, one often treated like a "stepchild" and an "afterthought." I felt real hope for the world my kids would grow up in when he summoned the "can-do American spirit" of community colleges everywhere to help transform the American economy.

I thought things had really changed.

Well, it looks like I was completely and utterly wrong. Today the American Graduation Initiative sits on the chopping block, thanks not only to the money-grubbing hands of banks but also to the Democrats' fears of their powerful colleagues who throw their primary support to the nation's Historically Black colleges and universities. Community colleges will soon learn that their place in this society hasn't changed a bit-- they are expected to accomodate our national desires for widespread college-going while getting next to no support in return. The students they serve-- those without BA-educated parents or beaucoup bucks-- will get a worse fate-- locked out of the courses they need, crammed into overcrowded classrooms, expected to learn without any of the technological advancements of their counterparts.

This country has no heart for these kids. We claim to care enough to prepare them, to try and reform the k-12 system to get them ready for college-- but we won't take the necessary action to make sure college is ready for them. We're rethinking NCLB to set them up for what, exactly?

So here I am, back where I started. Deeply suspicious and cynical, wondering what all the work was for. And hoping, really hoping, that I'm wrong. Maybe the Senate will come to its senses. Maybe.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sunshine on Salaries

Ah, the joys of being a state employee -- our salary info is readily available to the public! Despite the UW System's efforts to keep that information quiet (salaries are very low, making it easy for other universities to lure us away), the Wisconsin State Journal put it online to ensure transparency. Here are some interesting tidbits:
  • 9 of the 10 best-paid employees in the UW System are men
  • 5 of the top 12 best-paid employees in the UW System are in athletic departments. Director Barry Alvarez earns $500,000 a year-- $85,000 more than Kevin Reilly (System president) and $63,000 more than Biddy Martin (UW-Madison chancellor). An assistant football coach earns five times more than yours truly.
  • The deans of Madison's law and business schools outearn the deans of letters & science and education by approximately 25%.
  • The chair of economics at UW-Madison earns nearly 2.5 times what the chair of economics at UW-Milwaukee earns.

I'm sure you can find more-- have at it!

Friday, March 12, 2010

National Standards: how crazy is our government?

I have been mulling about writing a scathing commentary on the new idiotic national standards for education that have just been proposed. They are, more or less, the same standards that were rammed down the throats of Americans in 1892 by the President of Harvard. The government just seems to be want to make sure that no innovation or real change ever takes place in education in this century. They think our failed schools can be fixed by firing teachers and by having more tests. The idea that we might want to re-think a seriously broken system doesn't enter their minds.

I was going to say that, but why bother? I have said it many times before.

Instead, I want to point readers to an article recently posted in a congressional on line magazine that was written by my son. He is writing about transportation policy but really it is all the same. A dysfunctional government that can't get its head out of its lower regions.

And I might add, after you read it: that's my boy!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Stand Up for SAFRA

It's all about the bankers-- again. As I've said in this blog numerous times, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act is poised to dispense critical aid to low-income college students and the colleges they attend-- if the lending industry doesn't kill it first.

The savings that would result from a move to direct lending are substantial. Money would go directly to the neediest college students and to community colleges, a sector that is swamped and struggling in this recession. This investment in human capital is in so many ways a no-brainer-- it'll generate a large return, benefit folks in nearly every community in the country, and support the American dream.

Of course, the bankers will have none of it. In the current system they draw profits on the backs of students, lending them money and selling those loans to the government. They are so eager to hold onto those profits that they argue that the status quo is actually good for students. Disgusting, but not surprising. This is how the power elite maintains its position.

What's terribly sad is that some Democrats from states with pathetically low college attainment rates are actually buying into this hooey, giving credence to the banks' arguments that there are ways to save money while preserving their profits.

Senators Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jim Webb of Virginia ought to be ashamed of themselves. Just look at the state of their higher education systems:

  • Delaware ranks last in the nation in community college completion rates--just 10.8% of those who start at a two-year college finish an associates degree in 3 years.
  • Nebraska's commitment to low-income students is pathetic--for every dollar in federal Pell Grant aid to students, the state spends only 19 cents.
  • Arkansas has one of the largest black/white gaps in college completion in the country (16 percentage points)
  • Florida doesn't make college affordable--the state's poor and working-class families must devote 24% of their income, even after aid, to pay for costs at public four-year colleges.
  • Virginia is a place of great inequity--just 29% of black young adults are enrolled in college, compared to 42% of whites.

The children in these states deserve the support for an affordable higher education that SAFRA will provide. Their leaders should (quickly) stop stalling, develop backbones, and stand up to the banking industry.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

'Education Does Not Begin Or End At The Schoolhouse Door'

A lot of us in education policy get lost within our own locus of control. In my case, it's all about teachers. After all, teacher quality is the strongest school-based indicator impacting student outcomes.

Sounds good, right? Yes, and no.

While it is inevitable that one focuses on what one can control professionally, it is important to have a sense of the bigger picture. That goes for us in education. After all, research has shown that the influence of schools on student outcomes pale in comparison to family and social factors outside of schools' direct control -- especially, but not only, in the early years of childhood. So while it is critical that we concentrate education policy efforts around attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers, we also must attend to a variety of factors outside of schools that impact students' ability to learn and succeed.

This report (Promoting A Comprehensive Approach to Educational Opportunity) from Cross & Joftus, funded by the Mott Foundation, provides an important reality check to our typical tunnel vision. It also provides a series of recommendations to better coordinate a largely fragmented web of federal programs focused on children. It reminds policymakers and high-level government managers -- who have responsibility for interdisciplinary public policies -- that they need to think holistically and work in concert.

There are existing organizations and movements afoot -- Broader, Bolder, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Coordinated School Health Program, the Coalition for Community Schools, National Assembly on School-based Health Care, The Rural School and Community Trust, come to mind -- that take such a broader view of education and what it takes to fuel student success.

Some excerpts from the Cross & Joftus report:
The dominant assumption of American educational policy is that schools, by themselves, can fully overcome the impact of social and economic disadvantage on children’s development into thriving citizens.

The ... No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) ... perpetuated and gave further credence to the assumption that schools could fully mitigate the impact of low socioeconomic status on students’ achievement and that schools were also the chief cause of poor performance.

First, since at least 2000, there has been a broad scientific consensus that “virtually every aspect of early human development, from the brain’s evolving circuitry to the child’s capacity for empathy, is affected by the environments and experiences that are encountered in a cumulative fashion, beginning in the prenatal period and extending throughout the early childhood years.” As James Heckman, a Nobel Prize economist, wrote, “Life cycle skill formation is a dynamic process in which early
inputs strongly affect the productivity of later inputs [especially schools]. Put another way, “education” does not begin or end at the schoolhouse door, and the “education” that children receive before they enter school significantly affects their success after they go through that door.

Second, the evidence does not support the view that the substantial gap closing that had occurred by the mid-1980s was entirely the result of schools, though schools did indeed contribute.

Third, despite the ongoing debate about whether or not schools alone can level the education playing field, the federal government has long been engaged in a schools-plus approach.
Read Deb Viadero's blog post at Inside School Research on the study as well.

Image courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension

Movement on Teacher Residency Requirements

As a follow up to my post last September ("Teacher Residency Requirements"), there appears to be legislative movement in both Illinois and Wisconsin to eliminate such requirements in Chicago and Milwaukee, respectively. Both cities require teachers to be residents in order to be employed in the public schools.

From District 299: The Chicago Schools Blog (Alexander Russo), 3/8/2010:
It's an age-old question for Chicago, which is one of few big cities to require teachers to live inside the city limits. Teachers complain about it. Once in a while they get caught living outside the city and have to move or leave their jobs. The recession in making jobs scarcer and the city more expensive. And now State Sen. Steans has introduced language [Residency Bill SB 3522 (Amendment 1)] that, with the support of the CTU, would remove that requirement.
From Wisconsin State Journal editorial, 3/10/2010:

Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature and the state's big teachers union are on the same side pushing for a smart school reform in Milwaukee.

They're backing Assembly Bill 89, which would prohibit Milwaukee Public Schools from requiring their teachers to live in the state's largest city.

My belief is that, while this might be good politics or even economic policy, it is bad education policy. In urban school districts that struggle to attract and retain talented and effective teachers, such a residency policy needlessly reduces the number of qualified candidates for teaching vacancies and lowers the quality of the overall selection pool.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Race to the Top Semifinalists Announced, Analysis

Today the U.S. Department of Education announced [video] that 16 states have been selected as semifinalists in Phase One of the Race to the Top (RttT) competition. Forty-one states (including DC) applied in Phase One.

States selected as semifinalists are:


These states will be invited to bring a team to Washington, D.C. this month for formal presentations before RttT reviewers. From those presentations, Phase One finalists will be selected. Non-selected states as well as those that did not apply during Phase One will be eligible to apply for funding in Phase Two, applications due on June 1, 2010.

I am somewhat surprised by the inclusion of New York, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, but that surprise is tempered significantly by the fact that 16 states(!) were selected as semifinalists. If there's any state that I'm surprised not to see on this list, it's Indiana and perhaps California, given what I thought was a strong application.

Sixteen states seems like a lot, given the Department's earlier suggestion that only a small number of states would be selected in Phase One and that there would be plenty of money left over for the Phase Two competition. We'll have to see if more states than expected are selected in Phase One, or if most go away disappointed in April and prepare to reapply in Phase Two. It certainly seems like the toughest decisions were not made at this stage of the selection process.

By and large, my assessment last week of the likely candidates was accurate. If I'm brave, and despite Rick Hess's protests, I may offer up my likely Phase One favorites before finalists are announced in April.

Compromise in Central Falls?

The Central Falls (Rhode Island) Teachers' Union, an AFT affiliate, has approached district superintendent Frances Gallo and signaled a willingness to compromise over several reform issues that last month led Gallo and the school board to recommend the firing of the entire staff at Central Falls High School. It appears that this story is still being written. Sometimes dramatic steps are what is needed to achieve compromise.

For more, check out today's Washington Post ...
"I am pleased to reassure the union their place in the planning process," Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo said in a statement. She said she welcomes union input in developing "a dynamic plan to dramatically improve student achievement" at Central Falls High School.

Gallo's statement followed an overture Tuesday from the Central Falls Teachers' Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. The instructors have offered support for a longer school day, as well as more rigorous evaluations and training, among other steps.

and Providence Journal stories...
Late Tuesday, Central Falls Teachers Union president Jane Sessums made the first move in a news release that said the teachers were willing to embrace a set of reforms that were very similar to changes Gallo initially proposed.

“My heart skipped a beat,” Gallo said after reading Sessums’ proposal. “I thought, ‘They are basically saying they want what we want for the first time, with the kind of assurances I need.’ … This brings the union back with us, in the conversation about meaningful reform. It’s where they should be.”

Less than 24 hours later, Gallo opened the door with a news release of her own, saying she was excited by the prospect of reaching agreement with the teachers.

Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist, whose order to improve the struggling school sparked the mass firings, said she was encouraged by the rapprochement between the two sides.

“Our focus in everything … is how to ensure the children in Central Falls receive an excellent education,” Gist said, “and that is always going to be improved when all the adults are working cooperatively together.

Related blog posts:

Central Falls Redux (2/26/2010)
Rhode Island District Fires All Of Its High School Teachers (2/24/2010)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What Really Goes on at College: the humanities are overrated

Here is a part of an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education that came out today:

“The results of an important new cross-disciplinary survey of humanities departments make it clear that the humanities remain popular with students and central to the core mission of many institutions . The bad news: The survey found less-than-rosy job prospects for the rising generation of scholars. The good news: the great majority of the humanities departments surveyed—87 percent—said that their discipline was included in the core requirements at their college or university.”

I would find this article hilarious if it weren’t so sad. But it is a very good example of what is wrong with our university system. There are no jobs for English and History majors and no faculty openings for PhDs in those fields, but nevertheless the humanities survive at universities. How do they survive? By making the humanities offer required courses that every student must take.

There is nothing wrong with the humanities in principle. We imagine that people might learn more about life, to be better people, to understand issues that have plagued mankind, and be able to think well what it means to be human. So the humanities must be good stuff right? Here are some courses picked at random from the Yale catalogue:

ENGL 265b, The Victorian Novel
ENGL 158b, Readings in Middle English: Language and Symbolic Power
ENGL 305b, Austen & Brontë in the World
ENGL 336b, The Opera Libretto
HIST 166Ja, Asian American Women and Gender, 1830 to the Present.
HIST 168Ja, Quebec and Canada from 1791 to the Present.
HIST 201Ja, The Spartan Hegemony, 404-362 B.C.
HIST 202Ja, Numismatics.

I am sure that these are fine courses taught by serious scholars. But that is exactly my point. When people glorify the study of the humanities they fail to mention that these are scholarly subjects of very little use to the average college student. Universities require that students take them because universities don’t want to fire the professors they already have and they need to teach something. But, with a few exceptions, they are not teaching students to think better about life, they are teaching students about a narrow part of the scholarly domain in which they do research.

Here again we have the clash between the research university and what students expect to learn when they go to college.

The Chronicle of Higher Education represents professors and they think its great news that students are being required to take the courses that professors want to teach. I think this is awful news. Students need to learn to live in the real world. There are very few scholarly jobs so there is no practical reason to teach such courses. If these course teach human skills, as we all assume, that would be great, but they don’t.

Scholars need to stop running universities.

As I have said many times I don’t think Yale has to change. We need to produce some scholars after all. But there are 3000 colleges in the United States all copying Yale’s model.

Musical Elective Of The Month: March 2010

After a lengthy "sabbatical" focusing on the birth of our daughter, I am back at the turntable, offering up a Musical Elective Of The Month. I was reminded of not offering up a recent musical suggestion this past Friday evening, when Sara and I went to see Justin Townes Earle -- the subject of the last Musical Elective back in November -- at the High Noon Saloon in Madison.

The Musical Elective Of The Month is Kim Taylor.

Kim, a Cincinnati-based singer/songwriter, jumped out at me through Pandora Radio because of her song, "My Dress Is Hung." From her music I hear country, jazz and soul influences and she has been described by critics as offering "emotional songwriting" and "smoky vocals."

She has independently released two full-length albums (including 2006's I Feel Like A Fading Light) and two EPs. Her new EP, Little Miracle (December 2009), is a digital-only release for now, and is available on her web site [below].

WXPN's David Dye offers up a nice profile of Kim, as well as some selected tracks from World Cafe, in this piece for NPR Music. There was also a great profile of Kim in Paste Magazine in August 2009.

For more, visit Kim's official web site, or her Facebook or MySpace pages.

My dress is hung beside the bed
And I usually pray to it instead
Keep me honest cuz I'd rather lie
Keep me young and keep me satisfied


For past Musical Electives, please visit here.