Archives for May 2011

Carnival of Homeschooling

For the Memorial Day edition of the Carnival of Homeschooling, hosted by Why Homeschool,  Crazy Homeschool Mama contributes F is for Freedom.

Gates’ money is everywhere

Bill Gates is putting his billions into education advocacy, writes the New York Times. That includes “financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, ” creating new advocacy groups and “bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations.”

“We’ve learned that school-level investments aren’t enough to drive systemic changes,” said Allan C. Golston, the president of the foundation’s United States program. “The importance of advocacy has gotten clearer and clearer.”

The foundation spent $373 million on education in 2009, the latest year for which its tax returns are available, and devoted $78 million to advocacy — quadruple the amount spent on advocacy in 2005. Over the next five or six years, Mr. Golston said, the foundation expects to pour $3.5 billion more into education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy.

“It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” Berkeley Education Prof. Bruce Fuller tells the Times.

Researchers are careful about criticizing big-spending foundations, says Rick Hess. “Everybody’s implicated.”

The Gates Foundation funds the Education Equality Project, Education Trust, Education Week and public radio and television stations that cover education policies, the Times notes. (And a whole lot more.)

Harvard, for instance, got $3.5 million to place “strategic data fellows” who could act as “entrepreneurial change agents” in school districts in Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere. The foundation has given to the two national teachers’ unions — as well to groups whose mission seems to be to criticize them.

The Gates Foundation is not Dr. Evil, responds Rick Hess, who says his “implicated” quote referred to all education foundations, not just Gates.  He’s written in the past that few researchers bite the hand that feeds them — or might feed them in the future.

“Academics, activists, and the policy community live in a world where philanthropists are royalty–where philanthropic support is often the ticket to tackling big projects, making a difference, and maintaining one’s livelihood. Even individuals and organizations who also receive financial support from government grants, tuition, endowment, or interest groups are eager to be on good terms with the philanthropic community.”

The Gates Foundation’s efforts to influence public policy through research and advocacy resembles “the Ford Foundation’s decades-long effort to change educational finance policy through the far less democratic approach of litigation or Ford’s current giant investment in promoting a very particular equity agenda,” Hess writes.

I’ve been writing Community College Spotlight for a year now. I’m paid by the Hechinger Institute for Education and the Media at Teachers’ College of Columbia, which uses grants from, among others, the Gates Foundation. Many of the initiatives to improve community college graduation rates, redesign remediation, offer dual-enrollment opportunities for high school students and improve college readiness are funded, in part or full, by the Gates Foundation. I’m dubious about dual enrollment for struggling students: If  they can’t handle high school classes, how they can handle college classes? Nobody’s told me to cheer for every Gates idea. On the whole, I think the foundation is investing intelligently in the search for solutions to the most critical problems in education.

BTW, a recent comment accused “billionaire education reformers” of trying to push all students to a bachelor’s degree, regardless of their academic preparation or motivation.  This is not true of Gates. The foundation is heavily invested in improving community college programs that lead to a vocational certificate or associate degree.

The Gates Foundation is very, very influential in education because it puts lots of money behind the programs and policies that its people think are going to improve education. They’re not infallible. But what’s the alternative? Give billions to do the same thing only with laptops for the kiddies? That’s not going to happen.

College is the best mobility strategy

College is the best mobility strategy — but watch out for debt.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  Community college transfers let elite colleges add a little socioeconomic diversity.

Rhee survives smear campaign

Stop smearing Michelle Rhee, writes Richard Whitmire, author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District.

NCEE: U.S. reforms don’t match Korea, etc.

U.S. education policy should emulate the world’s top performers — Finland, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Ontario, Canada — concludes a report (pdf) by the National Center on Education and the Economy.

“The most effective way to greatly improve student performance in the United States is to figure out how the countries with top student performance are doing it, build on their achievements and then, by building on our unique strengths, figure out how to do it even better,” Marc Tucker, NCEE’s CEO, said in a statement.

While none of the top performers test students annually, they require students to pass a national, comprehensive, standardized “gateway test” at the end of middle school and again at the end of 10th grade. “Because the exams are very high quality, they cannot be ‘test prepped;’ the only way to succeed on them is to actually master the material,” NCEE says.

Other recommendations include the reallocation of money — spending more on paying quality teachers and less on state-of-the-art school facilities, new textbooks, and administrators. The report also recommends that states take more of a responsibility for funding schools, moving away from the majority local-funded system the country uses now.

After praising the new Common Core Standards in math and English, the report calls for adding more subjects to create a national curriculum, notes the San Jose Mercury News.

In the five exemplary countries, national curricula also cover science, social sciences, arts, music and often religion, morals or philosophy.

Improving teacher quality is critical, the report finds, suggesting moving credential programs to high-status universities and raising entrance requirements.

In Finland, for example, only one in 10 applicants is accepted into teacher-training programs, which take five or more years to complete. By contrast, in 2008, U.S. high school graduates intending to major in education scored in the bottom third on their SAT college-entrance exams. “We cannot afford to continue bottom fishing for prospective teachers while the best-performing countries are cream skimming,” the report said.

Small classes are a waste of money, the study says. “Of all the strategies available to improve student performance, decreasing class size is among the most expensive and least effective.”

Ed Week has more on the report and the debate it’s set off.

I like the idea of gateway exams — but what’s the plan if lots of students fail? Most top-performing countries use those exams to decide who should go to a college-prep high school and who should go to a career-prep school.  That would be a humongous change for the U.S.

Recruiting teachers only from the top of the class would reduce the number of black and Hispanic teachers. Are we OK with that?

NCEE doesn’t like change on the fringes, such as charter schools. It calls for aligning the education system. A national curriculum in all subjects backed by national gateway exams would do that. The top performers tend to have a college-entrance exam too. We could stop sending high school graduates to college to take eighth-grade math. Are we ready to make all public schools march to the beat of the same drummer? I can see the attraction, but it makes me nervous.

Soldier earns valedictorian honors

After working 12 hours a day as a hazardous materials specialist at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, Army Staff Sgt. Dysha Huggins-Hodge studied in the computer lab, determined to complete an associate degree at Anne Arundel Community College on schedule — and to earn A’s. Now stationed in Maryland, the 4.0 student gave the valedictorian speech at her graduation last week.

Also on Community College Spotlight: Women earned 62 percent of associate degrees and 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees in 2008-09.

Teacher training in math doesn’t help

Intensive, well-designed training didn’t improve seventh-grade math teachers’ knowledge or their students achievement in a federally funded study by the American Institutes for Research and MDRC.  From Education Week:

The program studied was “far more intensive and extensive—and better—than the typical professional development” that teachers receive, noted Elizabeth Warner, an economist at the federal Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance, and the project officer for the study.

Over two years, teachers were supposed to get 114 “contact hours” of training on how to teach about rational numbers, including summer institutes, one-day follow-up seminars, and in-school coaching visits.

Teachers with one or more years of training did score higher on “knowing what types of graphic representations will best convey specific ideas clearly, and knowing the common student misunderstandings.”

But training didn’t lead to higher student achievement.

Teachers’ general math knowledge, which wasn’t affected by the training, correlated to significantly higher student achievement, the study found.

A similar study on early reading, completed in 2008, “showed no statistically significant impact on student achievement after teachers were exposed to one of two year-long staff development program,” notes Ed Week.

Study: Tests lead to few learning gains

Test-based accountability systems have demonstrated little or no effect on learning and weak safeguards against “gaming” the system, concludes a National Academies of Science report.

A committee of education experts analyzed 15 test-based incentive programs, notes Education Week.  These included No Child Left Behind, test-based teacher incentive-pay systems in Texas, Chicago, Nashville and elsewhere, high school exit exams in various states, pay-for-scores programs for students in New York City and Coshocton, Ohio and experiments in teacher incentive-pay in India and student and teacher test incentives in Israel and Kenya.

On the whole, the panel found the accountability programs often used assessments too narrow to accurately measure progress on program goals and used rewards or sanctions not directly tied to the people whose behavior the programs wanted to change. Moreover, the programs often had insufficient safeguards and monitoring to prevent students or staff from simply gaming the system to produce high test scores disconnected from the learning the tests were meant to inspire.

Test-based accountability often encourages teaching test-taking strategies or drilling students who are closest to meeting the proficiency cut-score, the report found.

Accountability based on graduation rates encourages schools to push out unsuccessful students, so they can be counted as transfers rather than drop-outs.

High school exit exams have decreased graduation rates by 2 percentage points, the report estimated.

While school test scores have risen under NCLB, student achievement gains have been tiny on NAEP, which schools have no motivation to game.

Wanted: Education entrepreneurs

The Mind Trust is taking applications for fellowships to help education entrepreneurs develop, build and launch “break-the-mold” ventures. Fellows receive two years of salary ($90,000 a year!), benefits, a $20,000 start-up stipend and support from the trust.

Fellow Celine Coggins created Teach Plus, which is training teacher leaders Fellow Earl Martin Phalen’s Summer Advantage USA gives disadvantaged students summer learning opportunities.

Top young scientists are immigrants’ kids

The Intel Science Talent Search is considered the Nobel Prize of high school science: 70 percent of 2011 finalists are children of recent immigrants, concludes a study by the pro-immigrant National Foundation for American Policy. The Math Olympiad also is dominated by children of immigrants, the study found.

Of 40 Intel finalists — the brightest science students in the U.S. — 16 have parents born in China, 10 in India, one in South Korea and one in Iran, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Only 12 had U.S.-born parents, including winner Evan O’Dorney.

“You see it here in Silicon Valley. It’s like planting a vigorous sapling and giving it Miracle-Gro,” said Menlo Park father Vivek Wadhwa, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s School of Information and a native of India.

“Here you take the cream of the crop,” from their birthplace abroad, “then put them in some of the best schools in the world “… these students are really, really competitive and work very hard, inspired by their parents, and represent all the American ideals.”

Almost all of the finalists’ immigrant parents came to the United States on H-1B visas, which require exceptional job skills.

The Indian-born parents of finalist Nikhil Parthasarathy of Mountain View both have PhDs.  Dad works at Microsoft; mom teaches chemistry at a private school.

Finalist Rohan Mahajan, whose Indian father works for Cisco, researched methods of improving the efficiency of photo-electro-chemical cells, which could improve solar energy. Something much more simple also motivated him.

“I got interested in energy production,” he said, “because whenever we went to India the power always went out.”

These kids are very smart — and they work very hard.