Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On Vacation

Due to holiday travel and my lack of regular access to a computer, Teachable Moment will be going on vacation until January 5. Happy holidays and best wishes for a great new year.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Getting a Head Start

It's nice when they get it right. Shortly after announcing that Arne Duncan would be the next Secretary of Education (a choice about which I'm cautiously optimistic), the report is that the Obama administration is going to be putting a massive investment into early childhood education. Estimates say it will be in the neighborhood of $10 billion. Amen to that.

I think that this is one of the smartest educational investments that we could make. Like drug dealers, we have to get to the kids early. The earlier, the better. We know that the achievement gap exists even before kids enter school. Kids in underserved communities start off their first day of kindergarten behind their more affluent peers. As time goes on, those problems get worse and the gap widens. Rather than invest heroic (and essentially unreplicable) efforts into the later grades a la KIPP, why not really focus our attention on preventing the gap from ever opening in the first place?

Here's the catch. Just throwing huge amounts of money at the problem won't solve it. Obviously, not all early childhood programs are the equally effective and so investment would need to be in programs that work. In addition, while we know that Head Start programs are effective at increasing school-readiness for at-risk children, we also know that the effects of Head Start dissipate over time to the point that it's as if they were never in the program to begin with.

The investment in early childhood education and making moves to create as near as possible a universal pre-k program is great. Now we need to make sure that effective programs are selected and that the support continues even after the kids enter school. There are some big problems on the road still, but this is a good first step.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Looking at Facts

Even after the selection of Arne Duncan t be the new Secretary of Education, the battle for the educational heart and mind of the Obama administration continues. Duncan is seen as a middle of the roader who could break in either direction for which direction to take school reform (because, yes, there are multiple ways to reform the schools).

Before Duncan's selection, the Boston Globe ran an editorial saying that Obama needs to appoint "an education secretary wedded to reform - not one inclined to settle for low standards." I could rant and rave now about how the choice is not between monolithic reform and the evil status quo, but I've covered that ground already so I'll let it slide this time. Suffice it to say that the Globe would prefer Obama to tack to the idealocratic side of the reform divide. (That's what they meant, even if they didn't know it.) This would mean adopting on a national scale the kinds of reforms that we've seen in New York and Washington D.C.

What's missing is an analysis beyond the hype of how effective those reforms really are. As was raised in the last issue of City Hall News, the New York reforms may not be all they're cracked up to be. Of course, Eduwonkette has made her blogging name establishing just that, so it's no great surprise.

In the debate over where the schools should go there's a lot of people shouting "Follow me!" and "Go that way!" What's missing (at least in the mainstream press) is a look at which direction actually makes the most sense after you cut out all the hyperbole and hype.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Matter of Conclusions

One thing that never fails to amaze me is how two people can start with an almost identical premise and set of facts and then leap to two radically different conclusions. My case in point is Malcolm Gladwell's meditation on teacher recruitment in last week's New Yorker.

Gladwell starts from the position that teacher quality has huge impacts on student achievement. Great teachers produce great results and bad teachers produce bad results. I'm with him so far. He then goes on to compare the process of finding great teachers to the process of finding great NFL quarterbacks. That is to say, it's pretty much impossible to do in advance. The only way to really know if someone is going to be a great quarterback is by putting them into an NFL game and seeing how they do. That's because there's nothing really like being in the NFL. Similarly, there's no truly equivalent experience to teaching in a classroom. (I've been there. I know.)

So far, I'm totally with him. Good teachers are important and it's next to impossible to tell who they'll be in advance. Makes perfect sense. But it's also where things start to come off the rails.

Gladwell's solution to the problem is that we should forget about teacher training programs, forget about teacher tenure, and rework the salary structure for educators. In theory I'm in favor of a reworked salary structure and I can even go along with some changes to the practice of tenure. But ditching teacher training? Isn't that the exact wrong thing to do?

The mistake Gladwell seems to be making is in thinking that teaching ability (like NFL quarterbacking) is an immutable trait – either you've got it or you don't. This is patently absurd and disregards any notion that teachers (or quarterbacks) can improve. Just because a teacher has a bad first year doesn't mean they won't have a great second year. Or fourth year. Rather than focus our efforts on bouncing people from the system, let's focus on making sure the people we do have are best equipped to handle the job we're giving them.

When I see that teacher quality is important and that we don't know who great teachers are going to be ahead of time, the conclusion I come to is that we'd better be investing our energy and resources into helping ensure that all teachers can become great teachers. It just makes sense.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Beyond Either/Or

I have to admit that I'm shooting from the hip a little bit with today's post because I don't really know all that much about Arne Duncan, Obama's pick for Secretary of Education. I've read a couple of things about him (not all positive) and have to say that I'm pretty happy with this pick.

It seems like right now a lot of people aren't sure entirely what to make of the choice. After all, ths guy is supported by both Randi Weingarten and Joel Klein. When faced with two petitions for Obama over the summer - one pushing the idealocrat get-tough approach and the other pushing the broader, bolder approach - Duncan signed both. Some are going to see this as a sign of wishy washiness or political opportunism. I see it as an indication that he doesn't view this debate as an either/or. In this sense, he could be the anti-Michelle Rhee, which may be the best thing to happen to the education debate in a long time.

Let's assume the best about Duncan and say that his straddling of the middle is because there are ideas of merit on both sides of the issue and that he recognizes that one side is not totally right and acting in good faith while the other side is trying to ruin the lives of millions of children. He would be absolutely right. There is no one silver bullet that will solve all of the educational problems in America. Anyone who honestly looks at the situation can see that.

The Times article says, "[Duncan] argued that the nation’s schools needed to be held accountable for student progress, but also needed major new investments, new talent and new teacher-training efforts." Obama could do a lot worse than to have someone with that attitude working for him.

Monday, December 15, 2008

More Phony Accountability

In case you were having even a moment of doubt, let me assure you that accountability is the educational mantra of the moment. In an editorial last Friday, the New York Times praised a program in Louisiana for gauging teacher and teacher training program effectiveness. The Times writes:
"The most striking innovation is an evaluation system that judges teacher-preparation programs based on how much their graduates improve student performances in important areas, including reading, math and science. Once the evaluation system is in place throughout the state, officials would be able to determine which programs are turning out first-class teachers and which ones still need work."

What's not mentioned is that the way that the state will be judging improvement in student performance is through standardized testing. Let's ignore for a moment that (as Eduwonkette has posted) the standardized tests given across the country can't really be used for measuring student progress from year to year. What really concerns me is how abstracted these accountability measures are becoming from real learning.

Consider this. What the Louisiana program is really measuring is which teacher-preparation programs best teacher teachers to teach to the test. That's what it comes down to. A college of education would be judged by the results twice removed from its actual program. In addition, a well-regarded school like Bank Street College of Education in New York would probably get panned in such a system because of it's progressive, test de-emphasizing approach.

Now, there may be a debate to be had over whether Bank Street is better or worse than a more traditional schooling approach. But let's actually have that debate. Let's not just assume the debate is over and now it's time to start measuring the results.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Get Them Early

As USA Today reported yesterday, a group of college presidents wants more students in this country to go to and graduate from college. Given the source, this is not terribly surprising news. As it stands now there are 3.64 million students enrolled in first grade. There are 1.49 million in their second year of college. Clearly something is getting lost in the middle to the tune of about 2.15 million kids. As the presidents phrased it, "a torrent of talent entering the nation's schools in kindergarten is reduced to a trickle 16 years later." Not a bad quote.

What's interesting then about the report (and USA Today's reporting on it) is that these college presidents focused on early childhood education - particularly a universal, voluntary pre-school program in low-income comunities - as one of the most promising ways to boost college graduation rates. It's like they've been reading this blog! The most promising way to close the achievement gap and make sure that all children are ready and able to learn is to start early so that no gap ever opens. It just makes sense.

This notion seems to be the prevailing counterweight to the idealocrat reforms of heavy-handed accountability and high stakes testing. I think the difference couldn't be more stark. One approach offers a solution. The other approach offers nothing more than a measuring stick. It will be interesting to see which gains greater prominence in the years ahead.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Brain Damage

Here's some food for thought for you. According to a new study, kids who grew up in poverty have less developed brains than those who grew up in a more affluent setting. The difference is so pronounced that children's brains in this environment resemble those of adults who have suffered brain damage.

I like studies like this because they take what everyone kind of intuitively knows (kids who grow up in poverty are at a major disadvantage to kids who don't) and puts it in really stark terms (poverty = brain damage).

Strikes me as a pretty good argument for focusing our education reform efforts on more than the schools. That's definitely important, but we also need to look at the conditions that put those kids at a disadvantage in the first place. Schools can be part of the solution, but they are not the only cause.

(Thanks to Gotham Schools for highlighting this study.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What Was He Thinking?

Ahh, winter. The time when a major state's governor turns to thoughts of how to ruin themselves spectacularly.

It was about a year ago that New York Governor Elliot Spitzer imploded in what has to be one of the most incredible sex scandals in U.S. history, ending his reign in the Empire State. Not to be outdone, the Land of Lincoln has produced a pretty incredible political flop in its own right. Apparently, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was trying to sell Obama's seat in the senate. In Illinois, as in New York, when there is a vacancy in the Senate, the governor has the sole discretion to appoint a successor. Kind of like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Apparently, Blagojevich is on tape saying at one point, "I’ve got this thing and it’s [expletive] golden. And I’m just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing. I’m not going to do it." Incredible.

The question that jumps immediately to mind is: how did you think you were going to get away with this? What sort of crazed egotism must you be suffering from to think, "You know, I'll bet no one will catch me if I try to sell the senate seat of the president-elect to forward my own personal fortune." Moron. Keep in mind, this guy was the subject of a New York Times profile on November 13th under the headline Picking Obama Successor Puts Spotlight on Governor. The New York Times (kind of a well-known paper) is saying that there's a spotlight on you and you're engaging in blatant corruption? How dumb can you be?

As you can tell, I don't really have much to say about this other than that Governor Bonehead is dumber than I can fathom and that I can't imagine his successor won't be better. Of course, that may be what they said in Illinois last time.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Trouble in the Tribune

It's kind of weird that yesterday's news that the Tribune Company was filing for bankruptcy wasn't bigger news than it was. I mean, this is the company that operates the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and 10 other newspapers as well as 23 TV stations and a bunch of other "media holdings." When a company like that declares bankruptcy, you'd think that its headline on the New York Times front page would be at least slightly bigger than the headline: In a New Tux, Obama Seeks the Proper Tone.

Rather than be greeted as big news, most coverage seems to be taking the tone of: well, what did you expect? Everyone knows that newspapers are in trouble with declining readership, declining ad sales, and a general loss of revenue on all fronts. So when a huge chain like this hits the skids, it's taken as a matter of course.

I should point out that though it's filing for bankruptcy protections, Tribune is planning to continue its operations as before. (The fact that they're able to do so seems like a weird quirk in the bankruptcy code, but what do I know.) The point is, these major newspapers aren't shutting down. Yet.

The danger in my mind is that as the news gets more and more expensive, we're going to see it getting taken over by fewer and fewer mega companies. We've already been seeing that with chains like Gannett and Tribune owning scads of papers. If even the mega companies are starting to fail, we may see the rise of mega mega companies. The worry is that you'll end up with only one or two actual newspapers that just have branch offices to slap a different banner on to the same product. I can't help but think that fewer voices is not good for our democracy.

Thomas Jefferson once said that if he had to choose between having newspapers or a government, he would pick newspapers. There's no word about his preference if there's only one.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Need to Break Free

There are very few things that get me actually upset, but the column that David Brooks wrote last Friday did the trick. I'd just written the day before that the choice in education reform was not a stark one between the Rhee/Klein/Idealocrat reform and nothing. That's a false choice put forward by people who want their ideas to be the only ones considered. Obviously, David Brooks doesn't read this site or he wouldn't have written a lead like this:
"On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards. On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms."
That's right, the choice is between charter schools and superficial reforms. Nice try David.

First of all, there's more evidence to support the idea that smaller class sizes (an apparently superficial reform) support student learning than that charter schools have a similar impact. For someone who's into tough accountability standards, you'd think that evidence would play a part in his reasoning.

Of course, Brooks probably didn't do a whole lot of research for this column. He's not an education specialist and so he went along with what the mainstream theme of education coverage tells people to think. Namely that Michelle Rhee stands for education reform and everyone else stands for the status quo of failing schools. Until we can break through that barrier, we aren't going to be able to have a real discussion about education reform.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Testing Mania

If you're interested in getting the mental gears turning, check out this piece by John Goodlad in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It goes on a little bit long, but it's worth reading as it kind of gives the history of how we came to our current educational state under No Child Left Behind.

My favorite part in the article comes pretty early when Goodland writes, "I did not see any point in trying to fix what was not broken but should be terminated. ... Our proclivity for testing has been around a long time and probably will continue to be. The challenge is to choose wisely what and how we test."

The point I'm taking from that is not that NCLB is not working the way it's supposed to, it's that the program is working, but that it's just a bad idea. Hear, hear.

NCLB was not what brought us to our testing mania. Goodland pretty convincingly lays out that we were on a long road toward that end. NCLB is the culmination of that mania. It's the official enshrinement of the "accountability" movement at a national level.

I'm not against accountability. I am against the obsession of casting a single test score as the sole basis for our educational system. As Diane Ravitch writes in a pretty great posting on her blog, "By making test scores the sole gauge of progress, one can expect to see cheating and test prepping, and other quasi-legitimate and outright illegitimate ways of reaching the only goal that matters. When teachers, principals, and students are given rewards and punishments for only one measure, that measure may well rise, but at a cost."

That cost is becoming more and more clear as our testing mania continues.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Human Capital Gap

For all the talk about the failures of our public schools to get kids prepared for college, it's kind of easy to forget that even kids who are qualified may not be able to go. According to a report released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the cost of college is increasing to the point where it's going to become more and more of a luxury, even without a recession.

According to the report, from 1982 to 2007 the median family income rose by 147%. During that same time, the cost of attending college skyrocketed 439%! That's almost three times as high. The cost of attending a four year public college eats up 28% of the median family income while attending private college would drain 76% of that income. The way that things are going, it's looking like it may not matter how well we prepare kids to be ready for college. If they can't afford to go, they won't. And then where will we be?

Robert Reich correctly points out that for all the billions we're spending bailing out various sectors of our economy, we're not focusing our attention on the human capital that will drive our economy forward in the future.

I've frequently said that we should set up a system in this country whereby tuition to state colleges is paid for for all qualified students who enroll. That payment could come in the form of tax credits or just outright payments to the schools. I know that the costs of such a program would probably be staggering. But what's the cost of making college a luxury that few can afford? How much are we really willing to pay for that?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

With Her or Against Her

In case there was any doubt, Michelle Rhee has officially hit the big time both in the world of education and in the wider world of magazine readers with her cover profile in Time Magazine. While I'm glad that issues of educational advocacy and reform are deemed worthy of being on the cover of Time, I'm not 100% sure that I like that Rhee is the face of the movement.

I was originally going to call this post "I Hate Michelle Rhee." It would be a much more provacative title, to be sure, but it also wouldn't be particularly accurate. In the first place, I don't know her, so saying that I hate her would be a little unfair. I don't even really hate what she's trying to do with the DC schools system. I mean, she's trying her best to fix problems that have seemed intractable for decades now. I even agree with some of her solutions.

What worries me about Rhee is her stylistic similarities to George W. Bush.

I know that seems like unfair criticism. After all, Rhee talks in coherent sentences, is clearly intellectually curious, and cannot fairly be called a lightweight for her job. But beneath those surface differences lies the core of sameness.

As Bush famously declared early in the war on terror, "You're either with us or you're against us," so too does Rhee paint a manichean picture of school reform. You're either with her version of how to change the schools or you're in favor of preserving the status quo of a failing system. As Bush was immune to criticism (or at least it didn't change his actions) Rhee writes off those who oppose her. As she says, "Have I rubbed some people the wrong way? Definitely. If I changed my style, I might make people a little more comfortable. But I think there's real danger in acting in a way that makes adults feel better. Because where does that stop?" Where Bush was content to basically go it alone in Iraq, Rhee is following the same course in the DC schools. And we know where that stops. Everyone needs allies and in her unwillingness to compromise on anything in order to make "adults feel better" she is alienating many of the people she will need if she actually wants to create real change in the system.

We've seen where a purely black and white worldview gets us in the world. There needs to be some acknowledgement that there are shades of grey. This isn't to say that Rhee should give up and capitulate to the forces of intertia, but that's not really the choice here. The choice is between working with people who share your goals (because who's really against providing kids with a good education?) but may disagree with your methods and choosing not to work with people unless they're willing to support you 100%.

I worry that Michelle Rhee, in choosing the path of most resistance, is setting herself up to be less successful than she could otherwise be. Given her prominence on the issue, if she fails it's going to have huge impacts on education reform for years to come.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The System Isn't Broken

I've been saying for years now (and even put it into one of my first posts on this site) that the entire educational system is not broken. We keep hearing about how all schools are a mess and how the only way to fix things is to demolish the whole system and start over. This simply isn't true. Anecdotally, we all know that there are great public schools and even public school systems out there. I was the product of one myself. We also know that if there's an achievement gap there have to be some schools that are working otherwise instead of a gap we'd just have everyone on the bottom rung of educational achievement.

It's not that the entire school system doesn't work. For most people it works pretty well.

Not content to just have you take my word for it, here's some data. First, the United States ranks second of all the countries in the world in terms of GDP per capita and GDP per employed person. In terms of GDP per hour worked, the U.S. is fourth in the world. Obviously, we're somehow managing to produce an effective, efficient workforce. Not only that, but we're the world leader in patent applications. We file twice as many patent applications as the next closest country. So not only are we effective and efficient, we're also innovators.

Does any of this sound like a country with an irretrievably broken education system? If the entire system were really failing, would we still be able to produce as well as we do as a country?

I don't think we would. I'll say again, the system as a whole is not broken. What is broken is the schools that serve low income students in urban and rural settings. There's no question that we have an achievement gap and that it needs to be closed. We just don't need to blow up the whole system in order to do it. Rather, we need to target our efforts on those schools and school systems that aren't working. As our president-elect might say: this is a job for a scalpel, not a hatchet. We need to keep that in mind when we talk about education reform.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Truly Black Friday

Every so often something happens that makes me start to doubt the very fabric of our civilization. I'm not talking today about terrorism in India or famines or plagues or anything like that. I'm talking about the Wal-Mart worker who was trampled to death by shoppers last Friday. First, thousands of shoppers burst their way into the store, trampling one of the workers who had opened the doors. The throng was so intense that it took several minutes for police to clear space around the trampled man in order to give aid. Even then, people continued to jostle and push the police.

This is civilization?

I get that Friday was the start of holiday shopping season and I know how people can get swept up into a group mentality. But if all it takes for order to break down like that is for Wal-Mart to offer a sale, we may be in trouble here.