Back to local control?

As the party of local control, Republicans should reject the federalization of education policy, writes Diane Ravitch in the Wall Street Journal. An education historian, Ravitch now opposes Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

Ravitch is half right, responds Checker Finn on Education Gadfly.

She pinpoints genuine shortcomings in NCLB and failings in a number of other federal education programs, and correctly observes that many of the school-reform efforts and innovations of recent years have not yielded the desired achievement gains.

But local control isn’t the solution, argues Finn.

The weak and generally stagnant academic performance of most American school kids, our scandalous achievement gaps, the country’s sagging performance vis-à-vis other countries, the skimpy preparation of many teachers and principals, the shoddy curricula, the fat and junky textbooks, the innovation-shackling union contracts, the large expenditures with meager returns — these are not the result of an overweening federal government. They are, in fact, almost entirely the product of state and local control of public education — as it has traditionally been defined and structured in the United States. They are the product of failed governance, bureaucratic mismanagement, and the capture of the K-12 system by powerful organizations of adults who assign lower priority to kids’ needs than to their own interests. They are maladies caused by, and worsened under, the aegis of the very system that Diane trusts to cure them.

Finn wants to vest control in individual schools that “control their own personnel, budgets, schedules, and curricula,” and in parents “free to choose among — and fully-informed about—a wide array of quality schools (and other education delivery systems, including virtual education).”

In his vision:

Washington supplies additional funds to underwrite the education of disadvantaged and special-needs kids, it pays for innovation through competitive-grant programs, it conducts research and supplies a wealth of assessment and other data, and it safeguards individuals from violations of their civil rights. That’s about it.

Every school an independently run charter? I’m not sure that’s doable.

By the way, in an earlier post, a commenter alleged that Ravitch changed sides in the education debate out of pique because her “life partner” had been denied a job by Joel Klein, when he was chancellor of New York City schools.  I think this is untrue and unfair. People who disagree with Ravitch’s current views don’t question her integrity or sincerity, nor do they gossip — at least not when I’m around — about her personal life.

Educational bankruptcy

Turning around bad schools will be harder than turning around Chrysler or GM, writes Checker Finn on National Review.

To be sure, schools are smaller than giant corporations, but they’re at least as burdened by employee contracts, long-term obligations, community roots, political entanglements, all manner of vendors and suppliers, and “shareholders” in the form of children and parents that depend on them. And because they are public agencies rather than private firms, there is nothing quite like “Chapter 11” through which they can be stripped of their debts and obligations, reorganized, and given a fresh start.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has no direct power to close “dropout factories” and other failing schools, Finn points out. That’s up to states and local districts.

. . .  our education system has proven as inept at intervening in failed schools as it is skilled at spotting them. Districts responsible under federal law for “reconstituting” them nearly always opt for the least intrusive option — changing the curriculum or perhaps replacing the principal rather than shutting them down and starting afresh.

As CEO of Chicago schools, Duncan was willing to close schools — and he had a lot of failing schools to close.

As Education secretary, Duncan’s levers are billions in federal “stimulus” spending, which can be used “to bribe states and districts to get serious about school reconstitution,”  the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, which could defund “slacker schools,” but probably wont, plus “sunlight and jawboning, in an effort to persuade state and local officials to take serious action — and embarrass those that falter.”

The teachers we want

In Getting the teachers we want in Education Next, Rick Hess laments the U.S. tendency to hire ever more teachers, dipping deeper into the talent pool, rather than paying more to the best candidates.

If policymakers had maintained the same overall teacher-to-student ratio since the 1970s, we would need 1 million fewer teachers, training could be focused on a smaller and more able population, and average teacher pay would be close to $75,000 per year.

It’s time to rethink teaching, Hess writes. We can’t hire 200,000 smart 22-year-olds every year and expect them to teach for 30 or 40 years.

There are smarter, better ways to approach the challenge at hand: expand the hiring pool beyond recent college graduates; staff schools in ways that squeeze more value out of talented teachers; and use technology to make it easier for teachers to be highly effective.

Schools fail to take advantage of teachers’ talents, he writes. The fourth-grade teacher who’s great at teaching reading should spend her time teaching reading; a math specialist should focus on math.  An aide might handle administrative tasks. Only 68 percent of classroom time is spent on instruction, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The challenge, in short, is to find ways to “squeeze more juice from the orange” by using support staff, instructional specialization, and technology to ensure that effective educators are devoting more of their time to educating students.

Specialization has worked in other professions, Hess argues. Surgeons don’t spend time negotiating with insurance companies; “not even junior attorneys are expected to file their own paperwork, compile their billing reports, or type letters to clients.”

Technology can reduce teachers’ administrative load and bring tutors and teachers to students in places where it’s hard to attract talent.

All this will require a new way of paying teachers, Hess writes.

Don’t expect to hire superstar teachers, writes Checker Finn on Education Gadfly.

. . . every time we find ourselves slipping into a “best and brightest” reverie, we should pinch ourselves. It’s folly to suppose that any occupation numbering more than four million people–and consuming one tenth of the educated workforce–is going to be staffed predominantly by superstars. Nor is it going to command superstar pay.

With “mere mortals” dominating the teaching force, “that calls for greater attention to structured curricula (including the scripted kind), to technology, to proven school designs, and to organizing the K-12 delivery system in ways that get the greatest possible bang from its relative handful of superstars.”

Recruitment incentives attract smart people to tough schools, according to a new paper on California’s $20,000 Governor’s Teaching Fellowship. The goal was to “get academically talented grads to teach in the state’s neediest schools and keep them there for four years,”  reports NCTQ’s bulletin. Quitters had to repay the state $5,000 for each unfulfilled year.

Universal pre-K: 21st century boondoggle

Universal pre-K will be very costly and largely ineffective, argues Checker Finn in the Washington Post.

In a time of ballooning deficits, expansion of preschool programs would use large sums on behalf of families that don’t need this subsidy while not providing nearly enough help to the smaller number of children who need it most. It fails to overhaul expensive but woefully ineffectual efforts such as Head Start. And it dumps 5-year-olds, ready or not, into public-school classrooms that today are unable even to make and sustain their own achievement gains, much less to capitalize on any advances these youngsters bring from preschool. (Part of the energy behind universal pre-K is school systems — and teachers unions — maneuvering to expand their own mandates, revenue and membership rolls.)

Florida, Oklahoma and Georgia are offering preschool to all four-year-olds. So far, expanded preschool access hasn’t raised school performance in those states.

“Fewer than 20 percent of 5-year-olds are seriously unready for the cognitive challenges of kindergarten,” Finn estimates. Preschool designed for their needs is intensive and expensive — and unneeded by most kids. 

. . .  while a few tiny, costly programs targeting very poor children have shown some lasting positive effects, the overwhelming majority of studies show that most pre-K programs have little to no educational impact (particularly on middle-class kids) and/or have effects that fade within the first few years of school.

Making pre-K “universal” makes it impossible to replicate the programs that have shown long-term effects.

Head Start seeks bail-out

Don’t bail-out Head Start, advises Checker Finn on Flypaper.

The National Head Start Association wants to get $4.3 billion for Head Start in the economic stimulus package.

Forty years of evaluations have demonstrated that Head Start does next to nothing to prepare its young charges — needy three- and four-year-olds — to succeed in kindergarten and beyond, and that whatever gains it yields quickly dissipate once the kids enroll in school.

The major reason it’s ineffective as a pre-school program is because it has no curriculum and little cognitive content, because most of its staffers are “child care workers,” not teachers, and because the National Head Start Association itself has defied every effort by policymakers to transform it into the pre-literacy program that it ought to be and that these kids truly need.

If funding were tied to a cognitive curriculum, would Head Start leaders buy into it?