Sunday, February 25, 2007

Grades Rise as Reading Skills Drop in H.S. Study

Yet another report underscoring what a poor job our schools are doing educating children.  This is exactly right:

The Bush administration, which has been pressing to expand testing in high school under the federal education law, No Child Left Behind, seized upon the results as proof that high schools were not measuring up.

“The consensus for strengthening our high schools has never been stronger,” Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a statement released in advance of the report. “Students must be challenged to succeed, and schools must prepare them with the tools necessary to thrive in college and a competitive 21st century workforce."


Grades Rise as Reading Skills Drop in H.S. Study

Published: February 22, 2007

WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 — Today’s high school students are taking seemingly tougher courses and earning better grades, but their reading skills are not improving, according to the results of a national assessment released here today that cited grade inflation as a possible explanation.

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Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio

The Education Gadfly with a review of a promising new report that outlines a comprehensive program for how Ohio can develop a world-class K-12 educational system.  Some good ideas here that can be adopted more broadly.
A world-class vision of a world-class education

For as long as we can remember, certainly for the past decade, K-12 education in Ohio, as in many other states (see here), has been defined by intermittent, piecemeal reforms and initiatives. Much of it has been partisan and self-interested. The result is many layers of accumulated efforts, like an archeological site at Jericho or Olduvai Gorge. The result is not world-class performance, the narrowing of achievement gaps nor the development of a high-skills, 21st Century workforce. Such woes may be especially acute in regions such as the Midwest that urgently need an education makeover in order to have a fighting chance of an economic makeover, but in fact they're true across the land.

Sometimes good makeover advice arrives at the national level, as in the fine recent report from the National Center on Education and the Economy (see here). That kind of advice is hard to follow, however, because we lack good national mechanisms for doing so and because the main responsibility for K-12 education in America remains state-specific.

Once in a blue moon, a state gets the advice it needs for a full makeover (see here and here). This month, Ohio received a smart, ambitious, comprehensive plan that deserves attention well beyond Buckeye State borders, even though its implementation is the responsibility of Ohio leaders. Ten days ago, the Ohio State Board of Education received a remarkable 137-page report (available here) that it had requested from Achieve, Inc. With funding from the Gates Foundation, Achieve commissioned McKinsey & Company, one of the world's foremost consulting firms, to examine Ohio's K-12 system and report back on how the Buckeye State could become a world leader in education by 2015. The lead author of the report is Sir Michael Barber, former chief education policy advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio sets two big goals: 1) creating a public system of education as strong as any in the world; and 2) helping Ohio close its persistent academic achievement gaps, which have been largely impervious to earlier school reform efforts. The Achieve/McKinsey/Barber report then organizes its reform agenda around three attributes found in world-class systems:

  • High challenge -- sets ambitious learning expectations and lays them on the people most responsible for producing such achievement, notably teachers, principals, superintendents, and students themselves.
  • High support -- provides the necessary resources to, and builds the capabilities of, those same people so that they can deliver the necessary results.
  • Aligned incentives -- includes both positive incentives and negative consequences for meeting (or failing to meet) those expectations of student achievement.

To reshape Ohio's K-12 education program in line with those attributes, the report puts forth seven broad recommendations and a host of smaller ones that, if implemented together, would put Ohio squarely on course to educational excellence.

1. Ensure readiness for college and the global economy by raising Ohio's standards and improving assessments. The McKinsey team recommends revising academic standards to make college readiness the overarching goal of the K-12 system. Performance against more rigorous standards would be measured by a streamlined assessment program which, at the secondary level, would include "end of course" exams in core subjects.

2. Empower principals. Central to improving classroom instruction is helping principals better control the instructional leadership of their schools. The report recommends giving them authority over hiring and staffing decisions, school budgets, and instructional choices such as curriculum. In return, they would be accountable for student outcomes, academic achievement chief among them.

3. Set clear expectations for teachers and align evaluation, professional development, rewards and consequences. Teachers, too, would become more accountable. Merit and performance pay, plus professional learning opportunities, would give teachers incentives to hone their skills and to innovate. Chronic underperformers would be objectively evaluated and, if unable to improve, removed from classrooms and school buildings.

4. Support students in meeting high expectations. The state would develop a comprehensive diagnostic process for identifying and addressing pupils' academic and nonacademic needs. Incentives such as college scholarships would help ensure that all students are encouraged to pursue a college-prep curriculum.

5. Ensure that funding is allocated fairly, efficiently, and accountably.
Ohio's long-broken school-funding system would be replaced by a state-dominated weighted funding plan wherein per-pupil amounts, adjusted to the specific needs of students, would follow them to the schools they choose to attend (very much in line with our Fund the Child proposal). Devolving most financial decision-making to principals, districts would become school-support entities providing critical services such as financial management, transportation, special ed, etc. Increased transparency would help state policymakers gauge the true price of a world-class education and ensure that taxpayer dollars are well-spent.

6. Increase effectiveness of school and district ratings and improvement. The state would align its annual rating system to reflect performance against federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets. Troubled schools and districts would receive support through a diagnostic system akin to the British "inspectorate" system. Outside school "doctors" would help district and school leaders pinpoint weaknesses and chart a course for improvement, which might include professional development for teachers, targeted interventions, and complete school restructuring.

7. Give all students access to high-quality, publicly-funded school options. The McKinsey team insists that young Ohioans be able to attend any (public) school in the state, including but not limited to district-operated and charter schools. This report echoes recommendations (see here) by national charter-school organizations (including Fordham) to shutter the poorest performing schools; encourages high-performing networks and schools to open; strengthens the accountability of sponsors; and recommends funding parity (including facilities funding) for solid performers.

In all, Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio offers a compelling, optimistic and ambitious vision. For it to gain real traction in the months ahead, however, it needs bipartisan support. Which it deserves. As we size it up, there's much here to appeal to Republicans and Democrats alike.

Four reasons why Democrats should take this report seriously:

1. It calls for more equitable funding for needy kids and urban districts.
2. It seeks support and incentives for teachers and school administrators working with the toughest students.
3. It calls for increased charter-school accountability.
4. It takes educator professionalism seriously and empowers principals and teachers to get the job done.

Four reasons why Republicans should take this report seriously:

1. It promotes markedly increased school choice and equitable funding for schools of choice.
2. It calls for fiscal transparency and more efficient, productive uses of education dollars.
3. It advocates merit and performance pay for teachers and principals.
4. It would make it easier to replace underperforming educators.

There is plenty here for lawmakers, educators, and citizens to consider. (Of course there could be more. We looked in vain, for example, for mention of alternative preparation-and-certification pathways for teachers and principals.) But it would be a mistake to pick the report apart and focus only on its isolated elements. For its real power is the interaction of its parts. For instance, instruction isn't likely to improve without serious accountability measures at the principal and teacher levels. Weighted student funding doesn't fulfill its potential absent greater autonomy for principals. A diverse portfolio of high quality charter schools may never exist without a thorough "house cleaning" of poor performers and more equitable funding for good ones. And until there's better data-collection and greater transparency at all levels, these ambitious reforms may never get off the ground at all.

Nobody in Ohio or elsewhere will like everything in this report. It doesn't pander--well, it only panders a little--to vested interests. Rather, it looks over the horizon and explains clearly what the state's education reform agenda should look like. We hope that warring factions, elected and appointed officials, and community leaders can suspend their short-term schemes and think big and comprehensively. Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio points the way.

by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Terry Ryan

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

My new school reform resource page

On an almost daily basis I encounter people who share my belief that one of the most important issues facing our nation is the mediocre performance – and, in many cases, outright failure – of many of our public schools and the result that tens of millions of our children, especially low-income children of color, never get a fair shot at the American Dream. 
The people I meet often want to learn more about school reform -- what works and what doesn't, what an agenda for change looks like, etc. -- so I just put together a resource page at that links to the most compelling information I’ve identified, collected and written.  I'd welcome any comments.

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A critique of Everyday Math

In response to my last email about different approaches to teaching math, a friend commented:
This past fall, I worked with a child going to PS 29, which uses Everyday Math.  At the start of the 3rd grade, he was already 1.5 years behind grade level. Everyday Math did not serve him well.  He was slow at problem solving, and often got lost using very complicated ways of solving simple addition and subtraction problems. I tutored him on nights and weekends using Singapore Math, a back to basics curriculum, and brought him to grade level in about 5 weeks.
For more information, your readers can go to

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A Defense of Everyday Mathematics

NYC uses Everyday Math, so I inquired about this and Andres Alonso, Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, sent me the following:

New York City takes a balanced approach to teaching mathematics: we want students to have knowledge of and facility with basic algorithms and skills, and we develop students’ conceptual understanding and problem solving abilities. We focus on children learning mathematics.

Everyday Mathematics, a research-based program funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is our k-5 mathematics curriculum. New York City Public Schools follow the standards set by the New York State Education Department, which provide the kind of grade-by-grade guidance that many other states are beginning to develop.

We have extensive evidence that Everyday Mathematics works. Recently the What Works Clearinghouse rolled out long-awaited ratings on the effectiveness of math programs for the elementary grades. This study showed that Everyday Mathematics has "potentially positive effects" on achievement compared with more traditional math programs (i.e. Houghton Mifflin Mathematics, Saxon Elementary School Math, and Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Elementary Mathematics) which were found to have "no discernible effects" on learning.

A large study of students using Everyday Mathematics in Washington State found that they outscored a matched comparison sample of non-Everyday Mathematics-using students on the computation section of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Using the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) as a means of measuring student achievement of the State’s rigorous academic standards, it was found that the percentage of Grade 4 students in a sample Washington State district passing math standards before Everyday Mathematics was fully implemented was 38%. After six years, in 2005, that percentage has moved to 68%, a 30 percentage point increase within the district and a seven percentage point higher score than the state average score.

A study of students in Philadelphia found that in 2001, prior to adoption of Everyday Mathematics, the majority of Philadelphia fifth graders (59%) were at the lowest level, Below Basic on the PSSA, compared to 22% of all fifth graders in Pennsylvania. At the same time, only 19% of fifth graders passed (Proficient or higher), compared to 53% of fifth graders in the state. Since the adoption of Everyday Mathematics, the achievement gap has been considerably narrowed with those students who attain a passing score nearly tripling between 2002 and 2005. In 2002, nearly 60% of fifth graders scored Below Basic and only 6% scored at Advanced. By 2005, only 28% scored Below Basic, a decrease by more than half, while 20% scored at the advanced level, an increase of more than 300%

Most importantly, we now have several years’ worth of state test data documenting the gains that our own elementary school students have made using Everyday Mathematics. For example, the percentage of City 4th graders meeting or exceeding grade standards has increased by 18.9 percentage points, from 52% to 70.9%, since 2002.

In the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP 2005) survey data on mathematics in urban school districts released earlier this year, New York City fourth graders who use Everyday Mathematics scored among the top urban school districts in the country. We continue to study developments in math education, both in this country and internationally. We are convinced that we are on the right track.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

A friend's comments

Another friend with some interesting comments -- I especially love the lunch counter analogy!

The school reform issue is a huge problem for the Democratic Party. However, I believe that there is still a strong possibility that the party will be able to finesse the issue. Hillary is already doing it—praising charter schools but bashing vouchers. As you know, I am militantly pro-charter (as well as pro-public magnet school, open enrollment, etc.). However, to deny poor parents the ability to use an existing private/parochial school on their block and tell them to wait (perhaps years) for a charter to show up is criminal. Imagine if the civil rights movement had taken the same approach and said: “We will build new lunch counters that you can sit at, but you can’t sit at the existing ones right there in your town. Just be patient.”

There is a very real possibility that the Hillary approach wins the day. Then you will see tepid, often symbolic support of charters—enough to buy politicians a “Sister Soulja” moment with the unions—but ten years from now, there will be very little progress. Ten years from now we will still be spending $20,000 per kid in Newark and graduating 40% of its minority students. There will be little islands of success, such as the number of KIPPs you can open in that time, but systemic, fundamental, market-driven reforms will still not have occurred. In the meantime, many private/parochial schools in the inner city will have shut down because the parents in the nearby neighborhoods wanting to use them can’t scrape together the tuition.

How do we change that? I don’t know. I think it might take the combination of Powell and Oprah to change the terms of the debate. Maybe more. But don’t kid yourselves---there is a very real and scary possibility that when we are in our 60’s things will be worse. I always say to myself, “when things get bad enough, then things will improve.” Right now Florida graduates 38% of its black males from high school. That’s not enough for people to demand radical change. Must it go to 0%? Would even that be enough?

I am open to all ideas on this. I worry about it every day. I have since 1997.

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Math: An Inconvenient Truth

Check out this interesting 15-minute video on YouTube called, Math: An Inconvenient Truth(, which walks viewers through traditional math, which teaches children algorithms, and compares it to various sorts of fuzzy math.  I know I'm wading into a very contentious area in which I'm far from an expert, but I think the way I learned math 30 years ago worked pretty darn well.  Given how dismally we're doing in math as a nation, why are we still messing around with fuzzy math?!

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Dems for Education Reform PAC launched in NY

Some fellow education reform crusaders and I recently set up a NY State PAC called Dems for Education Reform and hired a fantastic lobbyist, Michael Tobman, who's passionate about this cause, to spearhead our NY agenda.  First and foremost, we're focused on getting the charter cap lifted, but are certainly not limited to this. 

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No Child Left Behind: The Football Version

As an example of the pernicious borderline-racist nonsense that's out there, below is an email that was circulating the internet a couple of years ago:
No Child Left Behind: The Football Version

1.   All teams must make the state playoffs, and all will win the championship.  If a team does not win the championship, they will be on probation until they are the champions, and coaches will be held accountable.

2.    All kids will be expected to have the same football skills at the same time and in the same conditions.  No exceptions will be made for interest in football, a desire to perform athletically, or genetic abilities or disabilities.  ALL KIDS WILL PLAY FOOTBALL AT A PROFICIENT LEVEL.

3.    Talented players will be asked to work out on their own without instruction.  This is because the coaches will be using all their instructional time with the athletes who aren't interested in football, have limited athletic ability or whose parents don't like football.

4.    Games will be played year round, but statistics will only be kept in the 4th, 8th and 11th games.

5.    This will create a New Age of sports where every school is expected to have the same level of talent and all teams will reach the same minimal goals.

If no child gets ahead, then no child will be left behind.
This made me so angry that I took a stab at rewriting it:

No Child Left Behind: The Football Version

1.   All teams must play hard and do their best.  If a team is poorly managed and disorganized, it will be put on probation until it improves, and the coaches will be held accountable.  The children and their parents will not be blamed for the failure of the coaches.

2.    All kids will be expected to play.  Obviously, some kids will play with more skill than others, but all kids will be expected to work hard and perform at a proficient level.  Some kids may need to work extra hours to achieve proficiency.  The coaches will be expected to put in those extra hours with the kids to ensure their success.

3.    Coaches will not focus their resources solely on the handful of players who demonstrate unusual proficiency at an early age.  Coaches will be held accountable for the success of EVERY player.

4.    Games will be played year round, and statistics will be collected, analyzed and widely disseminated frequently.

5.    This will create a New Age of sports where every kid learns the necessary tools to succeed.

Just because some children get ahead, it's not acceptable that many children get left behind.

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Quote from Crash Course

I love this quote from Chris Whittle's book, Crash Course (, a book I really enjoyed by the way:

Imagine that upon your arrival at an airline ticket counter, you are told that only 65 percent of the flights to your intended destination actually even arrive. The remainder crash en route. And, if you are a child of color, or poor, you are required to fly on special, poorly maintained planes of which only 35 percent make it.

Sounds crazy, right? But this is exactly the deal that, as a nation, we are serving up daily to millions of children in thousands of our public schools.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Shift Happens

Someone sent me the link to this presentation, which you can watch at:

Or, if you're like me and prefer to read things rather than sit through a presentation, I had my assistant transcribe it -- see below.

I can't vouch for the accuracy of all of these statistics, but they're pretty sobering about the challenges our nation faces -- and further underscore the need to vastly improve our public schools:

The 25% of the population in China with the highest IQ’s is greater than the total population of America.

In India, it’s the top 28%.

Translation for teachers: they have more honors kids than we have kids.

And here's a piece of trivia:

Name this country:

  • Richest in this world
  • Largest military
  • Center of world business and finance
  • Strongest education system
  • World Center of innovation and invention
  • Currency the world standard of value
  • Highest standard of living
It happened to them and, at the rate we're going, it will happen to us!

Did you know?

Size does matter.

If you’re one in a million in China, there are 1,300 people just like you.

In India, there are 1,100 people just like you.

The 25% of the population in China with the highest IQ’s is greater than the total population of America.

In India, it’s the top 28%.

Translation for teachers: they have more honors kids than we have kids.

Did you know?

China will soon become the number one English-speaking country in the world.

If you took every single job in the U.S. today and shipped it to China, it would still have a labor surplus.

During the course of this presentation, 60 babies will be born in the U.S., 244 babies will be born in China, 351 babies will be born in India.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that today’s learner will have 10 to 14 jobs by the age of 38.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 1 out of 4 workers today is working for a company whom they have been employed less than a year.

More than 1 out of 2 are working for a company whom they have worked less than 5 years.

According to the former Secretary of Education Richard Riley, the top 10 jobs that will be on demand in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004.

We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist; using technologies that haven’t yet been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.

Name this country:

  • Richest in this world
  • Largest military
  • Center of world business and finance
  • Strongest education system
  • World Center of innovation and invention
  • Currency the world standard of value
  • Highest standard of living

ENGLAND in 1900

Did you know?

The U.S is 20th in the world in broadband internet penetration (Luxembourg just passed us).

Nintendo invested more than $140 million in research and development in 2002 alone.

The U.S. Federal government spent less than half as much on research and innovation in education.

1 in every 8 couples married in the U.S. last year met online.

There are over 106 million registered users of MySpace (as of September 2006).

If MySpace were a country, it would be the 11th-largest in the world (between Japan and Mexico).

The average MySpace page is visited 30 times a day.

Did you know?

We are living in exponential times.

There are over 2.7 billion searches performed on Google each month.

To whom were these question addressed B.G. (before Google)?

The number of text messages sent and received everyday exceeds the population of the planet.

There are about 540,000 words in the English language about as 5 times as many as during Shakespeare’s time.

More than 3,000 new books are published daily.

It is estimated that a week’s worth of New York Time’s contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century.

It is estimated that 1.5 exabytes (1.5 x 10 to the 18th power) of unique information will be generated worldwide this year.

That’s estimated to be more than in the previous 5,000 years.

The amount of new technical information is doubling every 2 years.

For students starting a four-year technical or college degree, this means that half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study.

It is predicted to double every 72 hours by 2010.

Third-generation fiber optics have recently been tested by both NEC and Alcatel that pushes 10 trillion bits per second down one strand of fiber.

That’s 1,900 CD’s, or 150 million simultaneous phone calls, every second.

It’s currently tripling about every 6 months and is expected to do so for at least the next 20 years.

The fiber is already there. They’re just improving the switches on the ends, which means the marginal cost of these improvements is effectively $0.

Predictions are that e-paper will be cheaper than real paper.

47 million laptops were shipped worldwide last year.

The $100 laptop project is expecting to ship between 50 to 100 million laptops a year to children in underdeveloped countries.

Predictions are that by 2013 a super computer will be built that exceeds the computation capability of the human brain.

By 2023, when 1st-graders will be just 23 years old and beginning their (first) careers it will only take a $1,000 computer to exceed the capabilities of the human brain.

And while the technical predictions farther out than about 15 years are hard to make predictions are that by 2049 a $1,000 computer will exceed the computational capabilities of the human race.

What does it all mean?

Shift happens.

Now you know.

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Fool Me Twice; Toward a National Education Ministry?

Never let it be said that I'm not open to sharing alternative points of view!  (Heck, I might even change my point of view -- now THAT would be a first! ;-)
My friends at the Fordham Foundation, authors of the outstanding Education Gadfly, wrote in response to my last email, in which I praised the NCLB Commission's report:
Before you get too excited about the NCLB Commission’s proposals, you might give our NRO article a read [below] (A wonkier, somewhat kinder version ran in Gadfly [])  

Not all good ideas are good ideas to mandate from Washington.

Here's a summary of their critique:
With all the trappings of an IMPORTANT WASHINGTON EVENT, including the presence of the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate and House education committees, the Commission on No Child Left Behind yesterday unveiled a report that should be called “No Idea Left Behind.” That’s not meant as a compliment.

With George W. Bush’s signature domestic program, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, headed for reauthorization, this bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel, led by two stellar ex-governors and funded by Gates and other big-deal private foundations under the aegis of the august Aspen Institute, was supposed to provide a blueprint for the law’s rewrite.

Quantitatively, it succeeded. Its sprawling 200-page report, capped with 75 separate recommendations, proffers solutions to almost every problem ailing U.S. education. What it doesn’t do is sketch a coherent vision for NCLB version 2.0.


Fool Me Twice
No Child Left Behind again. Only worse.

By Chester E. Finn Jr. & Michael J. Petrilli, National Review Online

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NCLB opponents

Not surprisingly, there are many defenders of the status quo who are going nuts -- NUTS I tell ya! -- at how the renewal debate over NCLB is going.  Some group called The National Center for Fair & Open Testing issued the press release below, which said:

The Commission report contains numerous examples of flawed logic, unreasonable requirements and bad policy. These include:

- Using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and principals. This will only intensify teaching to the test, narrowing and dumbing-down education most severely for the nation's neediest children.


-  Creating multiple additional ways for schools to fail by mandating that science scores count in AYP and that subgroup scores count toward accountability when subgroup size reaches 20 - a number so small as to guarantee statistically inaccurate results.


-  Making assessment and accountability for students with disabilities more rigid, countering a demand by parents that their children be included in ways that are flexible and reasonable.


-  Encouraging uniform state tests, which will pave the way to reducing education to preparation for one national test instead of many different state tests

Let's go through these points one by one:
A) They object to "Using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and principals" and instead call for (from their web site): "fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial evaluations of students, teachers and schools. FairTest also works to end the misuses and flaws of testing practices that impede those goals."
This is the tired old canard trotted out by those who oppose accountability and who want to instead continue to use useless loosy-goosy metrics that allow failing teachers, principals and schools to continue their educational malpractice, year after year, with nobody the wiser and no consequences.  If they really want to help needy children, they should be demanding MORE testing, because I've NEVER ONCE seen a test of needy children that has failed to underscore how dire the situation is for these children and how much more needs to be done for them.
While no doubt many of the tests need improvement, the solution is NOT to abandon testing but to improve the tests!
B) As for including science, they should be embracing the expansion of testing to include more subjects -- that way, it's not narrowed and dumbed down.  And setting a standard for subgroup sizes closes a big accountability loophole, as some states were excluding subgroups of up to 200 students!
Each state now chooses the minimum number of students who must be present for a school to report on test results by ethnic and other groups. Some states set the bar so high that they largely sidestep the law’s full scrutiny. Texas, for example, sets the minimum at 200 students, while Maryland, at the other end, sets it at 5.
C) What they decry as "rigid" is closing another loophole that allowed schools to continue failing students with disabilities.
D) "Encouraging uniform state tests, which will pave the way to reducing education to preparation for one national test instead of many different state tests."  What's wrong with this?  We've tried letting states set their own standards and it's led to absurdities like this:
Its report compared the way in many states, students considered proficient in reading on the state tests were not considered proficient on the National Assessment. In Mississippi, for example, the state test found that 87 percent of fourth graders were proficient in reading. According to the national test, only 18 percent were.
Why should we as a nation hold 8th grade students in New York, for example, to a different standard in math than 8th graders in Arkansas?





The Aspen Commission's recommendations for reauthorizing the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, released today, amount to little more than NCLB on steroids.


Their predictable side-effect will be the further reduction of education to coaching for narrow exams that fail to support or assess high-quality student learning.


While the Commission claims that the public now accepts NCLB, numerous state and national surveys find that educators overwhelmingly reject the test-and- punish dictates of the law while parents reject the side effects of teaching to the test. The more the public knows about the law, the more they oppose it.


The Commission report contains numerous examples of flawed logic, unreasonable requirements and bad policy. These include:


- Using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and principals. This will only intensify teaching to the test, narrowing and dumbing-down education most severely for the nation's neediest children.


-  Creating multiple additional ways for schools to fail by mandating that science scores count in AYP and that subgroup scores count toward accountability when subgroup size reaches 20 - a number so small as to guarantee statistically inaccurate results.


-  Making assessment and accountability for students with disabilities more rigid, countering a demand by parents that their children be included in ways that are flexible and reasonable.


-  Encouraging uniform state tests, which will pave the way to reducing education to preparation for one national test instead of many different state tests


Our nation deserves a federal law that encourages a rich education for all rather than mindless test-preparation. A more rational approach is found in the Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind, now endorsed by 106 national education, civil rights, religious, disability and civic organizations. Follow-up reports with detailed recommendations will soon be released by the Forum on Educational Accountability, a working group of the Joint Statement signers.


The Joint Statement and other information on the failures of NCLB may be found at


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For Tavis Smiley, Promises to Keep

I'm embarassed to confess I'd never heard of Travis Smiley, but I just ordered both of his books.  It sounds like he has a great message.
February 15, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist

For Tavis Smiley, Promises to Keep

One of the better-kept secrets in the U.S. is the wide reach and extraordinary commitment of Tavis Smiley.

Mr. Smiley is reasonably well known as a media personality. He’s the host of a television talk show broadcast on PBS five nights a week and a weekly radio show. He’s also a regular commentator on the widely syndicated black-oriented radio program “The Tom Joyner Morning Show.”

But that doesn’t begin to capture the ever-widening swirl of activities, projects, programs and initiatives set in motion by this energetic, fast-talking, charismatic advocate and mentor, described by The Times’s Felicia R. Lee as “a cultural phenomenon.”

Largely out of the sight of the broader public, Mr. Smiley has quietly become one of the most effective black leaders in the nation. He’s always in motion, giving speeches, meeting with national leaders, conducting annual seminars on the “State of the Black Union” and offering how-to tips on important aspects of daily life for African-Americans.

Mr. Smiley constantly exhorts his followers and admirers to make better use of the traditional tools of advancement — education, hard work, citizen activism — to transcend the barriers of continued neglect and discrimination.

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Teach For America Setting Sights on Pre-K

It's great to see this expansion by TFA.
Teach For America Setting Sights on Pre-K
 Early-childhood pilot launched as interest in preschool rises.
Article Tools

The dress-up clothes, toy kitchen, and other dramatic-play items in Jessica Haskell’s classroom are crammed under a table when they’re not being used. Some of her overhead lights don’t work, and her 4- and 5-year-old students are crowded around tables instead of moving freely throughout the room.

None of it resembles the type of early-childhood learning environment the experts might recommend, and it could be enough to frustrate any teacher—even more so a rookie right out of college whose route to the classroom was the nontraditional Teach For America training program.

But Ms. Haskell, a 2006 graduate of Boston University, has been taught to make the most of a difficult situation, and her skills are being put to the test as one of the first TFA corps members in the program’s new early-childhood initiative.

“It’s hard to come in here with all these ideas about how you want to structure things, but you have to work with it,” said Ms. Haskell, 23, who teaches a split pre-K and kindergarten class here at Scott Montgomery Elementary School, in the Northwest part of the city near the Washington Convention Center.

Founded in 1990 by then-college student Wendy Kopp, the New York City-based TFA has prepared 17,000 teachers through a program that includes an intensive summer training course and four weeks of student teaching. Teach For America occasionally has had its recruits assigned to prekindergarten in the past, but last summer was the first time the organization specifically trained recruits to work in public pre-K classrooms.

That move reflects both a growing demand for early-childhood teachers and a demand from TFA corps members themselves, according to Catherine Brown, the director of Teach For America’s early-childhood initiative. Over the years, she said, participants assigned to higher grades have often said of their students, “‘If only I could have gotten to them younger.’”

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Money politics

This LA Daily News editorial underscores the need for Democrats for Education Reform:


Money politics

Special-interest cash fuels school board races

LA Daily News


IN the upcoming elections for Los Angeles school board seats, voters will face a tough choice: Which special interest do they want controlling our kids' schools?


In the big-bucks world of Los Angeles Unified School District politics, no candidate can get elected without the help of a powerful political machine. Big money is both the lifeblood of the old guard and our best hope for reform.


On one side of the ballot in March's election are the candidates controlled by United Teachers Los Angeles and other education unions - the coalition that has, for the most part, been running the LAUSD with such "great success" for the past three or four decades…

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How Not to Talk to Your Kids

I know I send out a ton of emails and I suspect very few of you read them all, so every month or two, when I come across an article that is a must-readI pull out my STOP THE PRESSES!
This article has rocked my world because the findings it outlines -- for example, that while praising children is good, the key is to focus on praising EFFORT, not intelligence -- have hugely powerful implications for educating children and are completely contrary to conventional wisdom.
(Interestingly however, they're totally consistent with what KIPP and other similar schools do.  Recall that KIPP's primary motto is "Work hard. Be nice."  In other words, the first part of this message is that, no matter where you are now (on average, 2-3 years below grade level for an entering 5th grader), if you work hard, you WILL learn and WILL achieve success.)
I found these results to be particularly amazing: a mere 50-minute class with one powerful message could have such an impact?!

No such qualms exist for teachers at the Life Sciences Secondary School in East Harlem, because they've seen Dweck's theories applied to their junior-high students. Last week, Dweck and her protégée, Lisa Blackwell, published a report in the academic journal Child Development about the effect of a semester-long intervention conducted to improve students' math scores.

Life Sciences is a health-science magnet school with high aspirations but 700 students whose main attributes are being predominantly minority and low achieving. Blackwell split her kids into two groups for an eight-session workshop. The control group was taught study skills, and the others got study skills and a special module on how intelligence is not innate. These students took turns reading aloud an essay on how the brain grows new neurons when challenged. They saw slides of the brain and acted out skits. "Even as I was teaching these ideas," Blackwell noted, "I would hear the students joking, calling one another 'dummy' or 'stupid.' " After the module was concluded, Blackwell tracked her students' grades to see if it had any effect.

It didn't take long. The teachers—who hadn't known which students had been assigned to which workshop—could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. They improved their study habits and grades. In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students' longtime trend of decreasing math grades.

The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.

Also, be sure to read this part about the self-esteem craze.  I've always thought that self-esteem should not be an INPUT, but rather an OUTPUT that comes from genuine achievement, so it's good to see the research backs this up:

Since the 1969 publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, in which Nathaniel Branden opined that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person, the belief that one must do whatever he can to achieve positive self-esteem has become a movement with broad societal effects. Anything potentially damaging to kids' self-esteem was axed. Competitions were frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise.

Dweck and Blackwell's work is part of a larger academic challenge to one of the self-esteem movement's key tenets: that praise, self-esteem, and performance rise and fall together. From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything—from sex to career advancement. But results were often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standards.

After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn't improve grades or career achievement. It didn't even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were "the biggest disappointment of my career."

Now he's on Dweck's side of the argument, and his work is going in a similar direction: He will soon publish an article showing that for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further. Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents' pride in their children's achievements: It's so strong that "when they praise their kids, it's not that far from praising themselves."

By and large, the literature on praise shows that it can be effective—a positive, motivating force. In one study, University of Notre Dame researchers tested praise's efficacy on a losing college hockey team. The experiment worked: The team got into the playoffs. But all praise is not equal—and, as Dweck demonstrated, the effects of praise can vary significantly depending on the praise given. To be effective, researchers have found, praise needs to be specific. (The hockey players were specifically complimented on the number of times they checked an opponent.)

Sincerity of praise is also crucial. Just as we can sniff out the true meaning of a backhanded compliment or a disingenuous apology, children, too, scrutinize praise for hidden agendas. Only young children—under the age of 7—take praise at face value: Older children are just as suspicious of it as adults.

Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies where children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer's findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it's actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it's a teacher's criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student's aptitude.

In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.


How Not to Talk to Your Kids

The Inverse Power of Praise.

What do we make of a boy like Thomas?

Thomas (his middle name) is a fifth-grader at the highly competitive P.S. 334, the Anderson School on West 84th. Slim as they get, Thomas recently had his long sandy-blond hair cut short to look like the new James Bond (he took a photo of Daniel Craig to the barber). Unlike Bond, he prefers a uniform of cargo pants and a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of one of his heroes: Frank Zappa. Thomas hangs out with five friends from the Anderson School. They are "the smart kids." Thomas's one of them, and he likes belonging.

Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he's smart. Not just from his parents but from any adult who has come in contact with this precocious child. When he applied to Anderson for kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. The school is reserved for the top one percent of all applicants, and an IQ test is required. Thomas didn't just score in the top one percent. He scored in the top one percent of the top one percent.

But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he's smart hasn't always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas's father noticed just the opposite. "Thomas didn't want to try things he wouldn't be successful at," his father says. "Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn't, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, 'I'm not good at this.' " With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn't.


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Thursday, February 15, 2007

An Instructive Moment-NOT!

The New York Times editorial page -- which, OTHER THAN the topic of school reform, I usually agree with! -- is sinking to new lows.  The latest is a silly hatchet job on Chris Cerf, one of the most passionate, committed and effective warriors for school reform in the country.
Chris used to work at Edison and had some stock options that might someday be worth something.  Edison does some contract work for the DOE, so there is certainly a potential conflict of interest, but it was handled properly: Chris disclosed his Edison position, recused himself from any business related to Edison, it was thoroughly vetted by the DOE's general counsel and all of the rules were followed to the letter. 
Despite there being no issue, to be squeaky clean, Chris decided to renounce his ownership of the Edison options -- to repeat: he VOLUNTARILY gave up something that might be worth MILLIONS of dollars to avoid even the APPEARANCE of impropriety!
So, in the bizzaro world of "gotcha" that enemies of meaningful school reform like to play -- and as final, indisputable proof that no good deed goes unpunished when it comes to trying to improve schools for our neediest children -- here's what happened next, according to the NYT editorial:
The Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council met on Thursday to address the privatization of school services. The group’s chairman asked Mr. Cerf whether he owned stock in Edison Schools, the for-profit education company where he was president before he joined the school system. When he said he did not, the chairman asked when he had sold his shares. Mr. Cerf refused to answer, referring parents to his financial disclosure forms. The answer, it turned out, was the day before the meeting.
Ooooooooo!  Now THAT deserves a lengthy story and a scathing editorial, which ends with this outrageous, snitty, nonsensical, arrogant comment: "An honest and open dialogue is less distracting for everyone than having parents feeling ignored and misled, and fuming on the sidelines."  Gimme a freakin' break!  Perhaps, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, Chris should have just answered "yesterday", but SO WHAT?!
February 10, 2007

An Instructive Moment

A meeting of an organization of New York public school parents this week turned into a lesson in how a school system can go wrong in trying to win parents’ trust. As chronicled in yesterday’s Times by Elissa Gootman, the parent group’s chairman asked Chris Cerf, a new deputy schools chancellor, a direct question about his finances. Mr. Cerf’s response was not untrue, but it was hardly forthcoming. School administrators will have to do better if they want to improve their standing with parents and the general public.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Kopp/Colbert comment

Another friend had a different take on the end of Colbert's interview with Wendy Kopp:

In contrast to your friend’s perception, I actually think that Colbert was caught off guard when the answer to the teacher question was no.  The way he was gearing up for it, I think he expected the answer to be Yes, and then he was going to make a joke.  When she said No, it was kind of awkward, and he really didn’t have anything to say, which is why he misspoke and then cut of the conversation quickly afterwards. Previous to that, he had done a good job setting her up to talk about the benefits of teach for America and make the points she wanted.

I figured he had Wendy on the show to bring attention to her organization and the issues.  I was actually very impressed by his doing this, I don’t know if I’ve seen her invited to any of the other late night shows.

I don’t know for sure the relationship Colbert has with his guest, but I don’t think his mission was to take cheap shots at TFA.  It was just a joke gone bad.

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Universal pre-K

A friend sent me this comment in response to one of my emails a couple of weeks ago in which I commented on Spitzer's school reform speech:

I was concerned by the statement that ‘Universal Pre-K is a great idea if done correctly”.  Not sure what you’re referring to, but thought I’d make a leap here and raise my concern:

As someone who used to teach Kindergarten in the Bronx, and someone who currently works in a high-performing charter school, I see your point, but also see a flaw in it.  While it would be ideal to have universal pre-k started without it being dragged down to the standards of many poor performing public schools, this is not feasible in the short-term.  Universal pre-k should not risk being delayed by disagreements between reformers and the status-quoers, it needs to happen IMMEDIATELY. 

Even in the horrible school I taught at in the Bronx, our kids would have been better off having the same lousy teachers teaching them in pre-K than they were staying at home all day watching endless hours of TV, in some cases watching domestic violence, etc.  They also stayed home and with few exceptions did not learn their alphabet, colors, numbers, how to tie their shoes, their phone number, address, etc.  All of these are basic Kindergarten standards that teachers waste time on remediating in Kindergarten because the kids didn’t get it at home before then.

I know that we should be forcing the system to teach even more in K and in pre-K.  And I know in an ideal world we would set up the new universal pre-K at that higher standard as it was implemented (and I think we should do everything possible to push that without obstructing the program) but I do not think we should waste a second getting universal pre-K in place even if the same lousy teachers have to manage it and teach it.  Even poorly done it is an important service.

Just my 2 cents.  Please accept my apologies in advance if I am misinterpreting your ‘if’! 

My "if" was rooted in studies that show that students who get Head Start and other types of government-funded early intervention, while initially showing gains, don't end up any better off in later years (I don't claim to be an expert on the research here -- I recall some studies that show greater impact as well).  The reason for the lack of impact is, I suspect, two-fold: A) The programs are not well run and/or well funded and the caliber of teachers is poor; and B) Even if there is positive impact initially, these gains are lost when the students then attend failing schools for the next 13 years.
Thus, this falls into the category of many other sensible interventions such as more money, smaller class sizes, longer school days, strengthening the tenure process, streamlining removal of ineffective teachers, etc.: each intervention, BY ITSELF, won't move the needle on student achievement, but each is a critical part of a COMPREHENSIVE reform plan.  So, count me as a supporter of universal pre-k, especially (not "if) it's well done and part of a broader reform plan.

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Teacher quality in NYC and Boston

Speaking of lousy teachers, I recently spoke with a teacher who taught for six years in a suburban area before coming to NYC and teaching here.  This is what she said:
My suburban school had good teachers, we were paid decently and nearly all had Master's degrees.  In contrast, when I came to New York and attended training and orientation sessions for new teachers, I was in shock at the low caliber of teachers.
When I asked what percentage of teachers in NYC were beyond redemption (I've asked this question of many knowledgable people and never heard an answer below 20%), she replied:
My experience is that 1/3 of the teachers are really good; 1/3 are OK and with good professional development (not the waste-of-time professional development we have now), could become decent; and 1/3 are hopeless and need to be removed as quickly as possible.
The 1/3 guess is interesting because it's EXACTLY the number a Bain & Co. study of Boston teachers came up with -- as the slide I've posted at shows, fully 1/3 of Boston public school teachers failed to impart ANY KNOWLEDGE WHATSOEVER over the course of a year!  These are very frightening statistics -- yet NOBODY knows them!

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How to fix the schools

A nice endorsement in the NY Daily News of Klein's plan to improve testing and data collection/analysis, so teachers can better teach students and top performing teachers can be identified and acknowledged (and underperformers can be improved or removed).

How to fix the schools

NY Daily News editorial, 2/12/07


The school reform plan outlined by Chancellor Joel Klein is based on the premise that students will learn more and schools will perform better if teachers and administrators closely track the progress of individual pupils. We've seen the future, and it works.

It's on display at Intermediate School 93 in Ridgewood, Queens, where George Foley (photo), an enterprising principal with a head for computers, developed a system for crunching student data. Foley plots English and math test results for every child in the school on graphs six times a year, and he shares the information with faculty.


If students score poorly in one area - finding the main idea in a paragraph, for example, or calculating perimeter - their teacher knows right away that they're slipping. If necessary, the teacher gets help with instructional skills. Teachers who boost achievement are applauded.

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