Reform School: What’s the federal role?

Jay Greene, a University of Arkansas professor of education reform,  and Joe Williams, director of Democrats for Education Reform, discuss the federal role in education on Reform School, a new PBS series by ChoiceMedia.TV.

‘Best practices’ says who?

Marc Tucker’s Surpassing Shanghai, which looks at “best practices” of schools in Shanghai, Japan, Finland Singapore and Canada, exemplifies the worst practices, writes Jay Greene in Education Next.

Tucker and his National Center on Education and the Economy colleagues describe characteristics of high-achieving countries’ schools, but there’s no proof they’ve picked the key factors, Greene writes.

Worse, Tucker’s recommendations ignore the “best practices” identified by his colleagues. He co-wrote the chapter on Japan and concludes that centralized control of education is a key to success. But every other case study highlights the importance of decentralization, writes Greene.

In Shanghai the local school system “received permission to create its own higher education entrance examination. This heralded a trend of exam decentralization, which was key to localized curricula.”

The chapter on Finland describes the importance of the decision “to devolve increasing levels of authority and responsibility for education from the Ministry of Education to municipalities and schools…. [T]here were no central initiatives that the government was trying to push through the system.”

Singapore is similarly described: “Moving away from the centralized top-down system of control, schools were organized into geographic clusters and given more autonomy…. It was felt that no single accountability model could fit all schools. Each school therefore set its own goals and annually assesses its progress toward meeting them…”

And the chapter on Canada teaches us that “the most striking feature of the Canadian system is its decentralization.”

Tucker also writes that high-achieving countries don’t use the market mechanisms favored by U.S. education reformers, such as charter schools and vouchers, notes Greene. However, the Shanghai chapter describes what it calls “the Chinese version of school choice.”

Canada also offers an “extensive system of school choice,” Greene writes.

Gates: Was the $5 billion worth it?

After spending $5 billion on education grants and scholarships, Bill Gates tells the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley,  “It’s been about a decade of learning.”

The Microsoft co-founder’s foundation is worth $34 billion, more than the next three largest foundations (Ford, Getty and Robert Wood Johnson) combined.

Small schools, an early Gates Foundation initiative, didn’t improve achievement. I was impressed by the foundation’s willingness to admit that.

Small schools improved students’ attendance and behavior, but “didn’t move the needle much” on college attendance, which is a foundation priority, Bill Gates told Riley.  “We didn’t see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that.”

The foundation decided to focus on curriculum — Gates strongly backs a core curriculum — and teacher quality — the foundation is researching what makes good teachers effective.

Many worry that a multi-billionaire has too much power, even if his intentions are noble. (And not everyone thinks they are.) And Gates tells Riley he’s trying to use his money to influence how public money is spent.

 Instead of trying to buy systemic reform with school-level investments, a new goal is to leverage private money in a way that redirects how public education dollars are spent.

However, the foundation’s approach is scientific, not political, Gates say.

“I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. “That’s partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don’t think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research.”

Gates supports charters — he’s a KIPP fan — but not school vouchers.

. . .  the politics, he says, are just too tough right now. “We haven’t chosen to get behind [vouchers] in a big way, as we have with personnel systems or charters, because the negativity about them is very, very high.”

Gates’ approach is doomed to fail, responds Jay Greene. While trying to influence education policy is sensible, “education does not lend itself to a single ‘best’ approach.” The foundation invokes science “to advance practices and policies they prefer for which they have no scientific support,” Greene charges.

Attempting to impose particular practices on the nation’s education system is generating more political resistance than even the Gates Foundation can overcome, despite their focus on political influence and their devotion of significant resources to that effort.

Greene’s part 2 on the Gates Foundation is here.

In a new mini-book, Greene advocates school choice as the way to create incentives for school improvement.  Here’s his interview with Jason Riley.

Community College Spotlight, which I write for the Hechinger Institute, is funded, in part, by Gates money. Gates is funding almost every innovative idea involving community colleges, notably research on how to improve remediation and boost graduation rates. I think it’s money well spent, though the research isn’t likely to find a silver bullet.

Columbus Day (boo, hiss)

Columbus Day has fallen out of fashion, reports AP. Some schools will be open today.  Others are teaching lessons that emphasize a darker side of Columbus. He didn’t “discover” America because the natives got there first. And the Europeans’ arrival turned out very badly for the native peoples.

In Texas, students start learning in the fifth grade about the “Columbian Exchange” — which consisted not only of gold, crops and goods shipped back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, but diseases carried by settlers that decimated native populations.

In McDonald, Pa., 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, fourth-grade students at Fort Cherry Elementary put Columbus on trial this year — charging him with misrepresenting the Spanish crown and thievery. They found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.

“In their own verbiage, he was a bad guy,” teacher Laurie Crawford said.

I went to elementary school in the benighted ’50s, but we knew that Columbus had “discovered” for Europe a world that had been discovered previously. We knew he was so lost he named the place the “West Indies.” And we knew that most of the natives had died from diseases for which they had no immunity. We also honored his courage.

Update: Columbus, Ohio no longer holds a Columbus Day parade, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Jay Greene has an interesting take on indigenous peoples and land theft.

Special ed vouchers cut disability diagnoses

Public schools identify fewer students as disabled if disability qualifies kids for a  voucher to attend another school, concludes a Jay Greene-Marcus Winters’ study released by the Manhattan Institute.

. . . the vouchers check public schools’ financial incentives to identify more students as disabled. Public schools may get additional subsidies when they shift more students into special education, but if they then make students eligible for special education vouchers, they risk having those students walk out the door with all of their funding.

“Nearly 1 in 7 students nationwide is now classified as having a disability,” Greene writes on his blog.  The 63 percent increase isn’t caused by a plague of disabling illnesses. It’s about the money.

A previous study found states that pay more for each student classified as disabled showed much higher rates of growth in special education enrollment than states that changed funding formulas to end financial incentives for identifying children as disabled.

Youth fiction without the whining

Mopey whining youth fiction got you down? Searching for books that don’t require young readers to stock up on anti-depressants, Jay Greene found Peak by Roland Smith and Among the Hidden, by Margaret Peterson Haddix.

There’s enough mopey whining to appeal to those feelings among adolescents, but there’s also action, politics, self-sacrifice, and triumph. That is, they’re good stories.

In Peak the protagonist is a 14 year-old child of famous mountain-climbers who gets into trouble for climbing sky-scrappers. He’s rescued from juvenile detention by being sent-abroad with his absentee dad who plans to get the 14 year-old to be the youngest person to summit Everest. But the plan is complicated by an intrusive reporter, Tibetan politics, and oppressive Chinese army officials — not to mention the harsh conditions of climbing the world’s highest peak. Along with the adventurous story of mountain-climbing, the book contains a fair dose of Tibetan-Chinese politics, and a strained father-son relationship.

Among the Hidden is the first of a 7 book series about a future dystopia in which the government has forbidden anyone from having more than two children to prevent famine and other overuse of resources. The protagonist is a third-child who was secretly born and raised on a remote farm.

In England, authors won’t be able to give school talks unless they register on a data base intended to screen out pedophiles. They’ll have to pay a fee of about $100. Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass (excellent!),  is leading the protest.

Standards and sausage

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have agreed to work on common K-12 standards. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have taken the lead.

When students get their high school diplomas, the coalition says, they should be ready to tackle college or a job. The benchmarks would be “internationally competitive.”

Once the organizers of the effort agree to a proposal, each state would decide individually whether to adopt it.

I’m with Flypaper, which compared states’ signing on to standards to people joining a health club in January. We don’t know yet who’s committed and who’s not.

Creating national standards is like making sausage, writes Jay Greene. Only harder to do well.

. . . when everyone gets into the sausage-making that characterizes policy formulation, it generally becomes clear that no one is going to get what they want out of national standards. What’s worse is that the resulting mess would be imposed on everyone. There’d be no more laboratory of the states, just uniform banality.

Of course, some people always hope that they’ll somehow manage to sneak their preferred vision into place without having to go through the meat grinder. That’s what is happening now with the National Governor’s Association effort at “voluntary” national standards. In a process completely lacking in transparency and open-debate, some are rushing to announce a national standards fait accompli.

He quotes Sandra Stotsky, who worries that the standards development process is not transparent, and Sandy Kress, who warns in an Eduwonk comment that states will get a lot less enthusiastic about standards when they realize how incredibly hard it is to agree on something decent.

Teaching unmeasurable skills

The Content vs. Skills War rages on:  Sandra Stotsky, a University of Arkansas professor, takes a shot at Harvard Professor Tony Wagner’s call for students to learn “21st century skills” for “survival” in the global economy.

Wagner does not seem to care if students can read and write grammatically, do math or know something about science and history – real subjects that schools can teach and policy-makers can measure.

Unfortunately, Wagner dismisses measurable academic content while embracing buzzwords like “adaptability” and “curiosity,” which no one could possibly be against, but also which no one could possibly measure. Do we really care if our students are curious and adaptable if they cannot read and write their own names?

Wagner also knocks the time spent on testing. But the research doesn’t support the claim that testing crowds out learning, Stotsky writes.

. . . my colleague Gary Ritter finds that here in Arkansas public schools the most tested students — those in grades five and seven — spend only 1 percent of total instructional time being tested, probably less time than spent in class parties or on field trips.

If our kids learned 20th century skills really well, wouldn’t 21st century skills be easy to pick up?  I’ve always used my content knowledge to question, communicate, explore, etc.  And I don’t see excess knowledge as a big problem for today’s students. There are kids who don’t know what to do with the facts they’ve crammed, but there are more who don’t know enough to think intelligently or usefully.

Update: Jay Greene piles on here and here, arguing that Wagner “shows no evidence that higher levels of critical thinking can be found in places or at times when there was less content and less testing.”