Short but sharp

Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and Diane Ravitch debate school budget cuts in New York City — in 140 characters or less on Twitter.

I’m up to 954 followers on Twitter, where I tweet as JoanneLeeJacobs.

Racing to the top

The “Race to the Top” — $4.35 billion in federal funding to push education reform — starts today.

States must let student test scores be used to evaluate teachers and principals,  writes Michele McNeil in Education Week. That would force California and New York to change state law to qualify for funds.

This is Education Reform’s Moon Shot, writes Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a Washington Post op-ed. The department’s never had this much money to hand out before. There are 19 points, but four basic ideas are critical:

— To reverse the pervasive dumbing-down of academic standards and assessments by states, Race to the Top winners need to work toward adopting common, internationally benchmarked K-12 standards that prepare students for success in college and careers.

— To close the data gap — which now handcuffs districts from tracking growth in student learning and improving classroom instruction — states will need to monitor advances in student achievement and identify effective instructional practices.

— To boost the quality of teachers and principals, especially in high-poverty schools and hard-to-staff subjects, states and districts should be able to identify effective teachers and principals — and have strategies for rewarding and retaining more top-notch teachers and improving or replacing ones who aren’t up to the job.

— Finally, to turn around the lowest-performing schools, states and districts must be ready to institute far-reaching reforms, from replacing staff and leadership to changing the school culture.

It’s fair to evaluate teachers based on students’ progress, says President Obama in a Washington Post interview.

So what we can say is that if a kid comes in and they gain two grade levels during the course of that single year, even if they’re still a little behind the national average, that tells us that school is doing a good job.

Linking teacher pay to test scores is a big mistake, argues Robert Pondiscio.  Teachers already focus too much on scores and too little on the big picture.

It’s The Carrot That Feels Like a Stick, writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. He likes the reform ideas but dislikes the Washington Knows Best tone. If the states are forced to go along, they’ll implement reforms half-heartedly.

This is a draft, not the final proposal, so it’s possible the administration will bend on some of its 19 points.

Eduwonk hopes the department will hold the line, denying grants to states that aren’t serious about change. He notes NEA president Dennis Van Roekel claims to be “absolutely in sync with where they’re going,” except for performance pay, charter schools and linking student and teacher data.  Eduwonk writes:

It’s akin to saying they’re on board with Duncan’s ”moon shot” except for the parts about rockets, rocket fuel, astronauts, engineers, and mission control.

Michael Umphrey wants students and parents to change — or else.

(Obama) could send the school money directly to the parents in the form of vouchers, threatening to cut it off if the kids grades don’t improve. He could turn off cell phone service for kids whose GPA drops below C. He could give each honor student one of those unsold General Motors cars while revoking drivers licenses for any student who gets an F.

Hmmm. Would a GM car be a sufficient motivator?

It’s difficult to figure out how much a teacher or a principal has contributed to students’ learning.  I think we’re in the early stages of figuring this out, not in the so-obvious-everyone-should-do-it stage.

One standard shall rule them all

Though 46 states and Washington, D.C. are backing the creation of common math and English standards, figuring out what all high school graduates should know is a challenge, reports Politics Daily. Experts are trying to meet an end-of-July deadline.

The goal is for students to be career and college ready, meaning that they could make a C or better in first-year college classes without having to take remedial courses. Expanded groups of experts will set standards for grades K-12 by the end of December.

Federal standards efforts went awry in the past.  This campaign was started by governors.

“What’s really changed is that it’s almost always now teachers who say, ‘When are we going to get over this nonsense that math in Mississippi is different?’ “from math in another state, says Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has “pledged up to $350 million to help develop tests that would measure whether students are meeting the new standards.”

ACT and College Board experts are trying to develop fewer, clearer and higher standards than in most states. They’re looking at freshman course syllabi and exit surveys to determine what students need.

“They’re really looking for what students should be able to do to truly be ready for college,” says (Chris) Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the groups overseeing the process along with the National Governors’ Association and a Washington-based group called Achieve. “It means taking out some of the things that aren’t really important, including, he says, “whether or not kids should read Shakespeare. Most of the studies say Shakespeare is not critical.”

We’re going to dump Shakespeare? Lynne Munson of Common Core at the eagerness to “throw out possibly the brightest star of our literary heritage and replace it with … well, we don’t yet know.”

Of course, in a few years the loss will hardly be noticed, as someone wise once pointed out: “He that is robb’d, not wanting what is stolen, / Let him not know ‘t, and he’s not robb’d at all.” (Othello, Act III, scene 3)

Massachusetts’ standards are the best we’ve got, Munson argues. If common standards aren’t that rigorous, why bother?

Gadfly’s Mike Petrilli wants a broad liberal arts curriculum that goes beyond “the utilitarian and narrow drive toward college and work readiness,” which has been embraced by Democrats and Republicans.

While the right celebrates anti-intellectualism, “the left remains uncomfortable saying that there is a body of knowledge that all young people need to master in order to be prepared for life in our democracy.”

Before you know it, Shakespeare’s as dead as a royal Dane in the last act of Hamlet. History, being unessential for college or work, is history.

Beware the Witchery of Words

Over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli calls on us to treat our education opponents fairly. “Both opponents and proponents of ‘school reform’ tend to vilify the other side with caricatures,” he writes. “Union bosses are power-hungry Machiavellians who want to keep poor children trapped in failing schools. Reformers are greedy capitalists determined to outsource our public education system to the highest bidder.”

Meanwhile, Robert Pondiscio proposes an “Ed Reform Devil’s Dictionary,” which would help us understand what certain commonly employed phrases actually mean. For instance, a “real reformer” is “someone who agrees with me.”

Michael John Demiashkevich referred to this sort of verbal trickery as “the witchery of words.” In An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1935), he writes:

This sophistic logic is at the basis of wholesale assertions which would omit all gradations, distinctions, and nuances found in the realities of life. The sophistic logic consists in reasoning to the effect that A is either B or non-B. In reality things are not so simple, and A can be both B and non-B at one and the same time; in some of its aspects A can be B and in some other aspects non-B. The ancient sophists (see p. 153) worked out a whole set of samples of tricky sophistic reasoning. With the help of these samples they trained their disciples toward amazing verbal trickery. Many such samples are recorded in Aristotle’s work, De Sophisticis Elenchis (On Sophistic Refutations).

How would the ancient sophistic logic play out here? Someone can tell you that you are either pro-child or pro-adult; take your pick. In reality, there can be considerable overlap and interaction between the two. Or another example: in a professional development meeting, teachers might be told that the “old” ways of teaching are outdated and we must embrace the “new.” Actually the division between “old” and “new” is not so clear, and teachers have been combining older and newer techniques for centuries.

In unveiling trickeries and employing courtesy, let us become even sharper in our arguments. Let’s engage over the ideas, as Petrilli suggests. Treating each other decently is not the same as proclaiming that “I am right, and you are right, and all is right as right can be!”

Diana Senechal

Killing D.C. voucher hopes

A week after 200 low-income Washington, D.C. families were offered $7,500 vouchers, Education Secretary Arne Duncan canceled the scholarships. No new children will start at private schools in the fall; those already attending will lose voucher aid in another year, unless Congress reconsiders. As the Washington Post editorializes, this makes it easier for congressional opponents to end the voucher program for good, despite a new study showing reading gains for voucher students.

(The decision) comes despite a new study showing some initial good results for students in the program and before the Senate has had a chance to hold promised hearings. For all the talk about putting children first, it’s clear that the special interests that have long opposed vouchers are getting their way.

. . . By presuming the program dead — and make no mistake, that’s the insidious effect of his bar on new enrollment — Mr. Duncan makes it even more difficult for the program to get the fair hearing it deserves.

The voucher families have missed the deadline to apply to many public charter schools or to apply for transfers.  Their kids will be stuck in their neighborhood district-run public schools.

Duncan has a boss, points out Jennifer Rubin on Contentions. His name is Barack Obama. He doesn’t send his kids to D.C.’s district-run public schools.

Duncan wasn’t lying when he said he didn’t know about the follow-up study’s positive findings, writes Grover Whitehurst, former director of the Institute for Education Sciences.

Update: At Flypaper, Mike Petrilli prints the letter the Education Department sent to parents who were offered vouchers, then told the scholarships were cancelled.  It expresses “regret” for the “confusion” and promises to do “everything possible to help ensure that your child is in a safe school environment that offers strengthened academic programs.”  Since transfer and charter deadlines have passed, “everything possible” isn’t much.

Petrilli suggests more honest wording:

“Because Democrats in Congress have voted to rescind funding for this program after next school year (despite the fact that a recent evaluation shows it to be a success, a rarity for federal initiatives), we have unilaterally decided to rescind your child’s scholarship effective immediately.”

It’s not too late for President Obama to step in. Send the Seals!