Voice of the People

by Robert Pondiscio
September 30th, 2008

Alexander Russo at This Week in Education has a nifty poll up on his site (a good idea that I plan to steal) asking his readers everything from “Who’s your favorite education reporter?” to “Who will be the next Ed Secretary?”  He’s also asking readers to name their favorite ed blog (and we’re pleased even to be on the short list) but another poll question raises an issue: What does A-Rus have against Fordham?  The last question is ”Whether you always agree with them or not, which DC-based education group or think tank do you think does the best (highest quality, most useful) work?”  All the usual suspects are there: Ed Sector, The Education Trust, Rand, Brookings, but no Fordham Foundation??  There is a place for write-ins, however.

He also fails to list Elizabeth Green of the New York Sun in the best reporter category.  Alas, word came today that the NY Sun is folding.  Bad news for those who follow the New York ed scene.  But it’s a great day for whoever ends up hiring Green.  She’s too good to remain a free agent for very long.

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What’s Yours Is Mine

by Robert Pondiscio
September 30th, 2008

In Louisiana, some school districts are giving credit for high test scores to schools the students don’t attend.  It’s called “re-routing.”  East Baton Rouge, Jefferson and Iberville Parishes, “re-route” the test scores of students from seven magnet schools to the public schools those kids would have otherwise been assigned to.

Jefferson School Board member Judy Colgan, defends the practice, arguing the magnet schools were draining neighborhood schools of their brightest students and lowering their test scores. “I’m not saying magnets shouldn’t have their own set of scores,” she tells the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “They do have their own scores, and they are always at the top of the list. But we felt that because the neighborhood schools were losing those higher achievers to the magnet schools, it was only fair that their scores go back to the home-based schools.”

Huh??!?

Barry Erwin, the head of Council for A Better Louisiana, a Louisiana think tank, blasts the practice, calling it “pure deception” and “a sham.”

“Re-routing” scores in this fashion has a number of bad consequences. First, it allows school districts to create a false and inaccurate impression that some schools are performing better than they are. That’s not transparent and it’s not right. It also hurts the magnet schools because it makes it impossible to track their performance and could prevent them from receiving rewards they might earn from the state’s accountability plan. Perhaps even worse, it artificially raises the scores of some schools that may be in danger of takeover by the state because they are low-performing – and in doing so bypasses the intent of our school accountability system.

It’s hard to view this as anything other than a way to evade accountability, and state education officials are said to be examining the practice.  Woody Allen said it best: No matter how cynical you are, you can’t keep up.

Hiring and Firing

by Robert Pondiscio
September 30th, 2008

Jay Mathews, the dean of education reporters, takes a strong stand on teacher retention, arguing that giving principals the unfettered power to hire and fire teachers is “crucial” to closing the achievement gap.

This is a difficult choice and a hard time for D.C. teachers. They are fine people who have chosen a tough profession and put their hearts into their work. Many fear being judged by principals who were not skillful teachers themselves and have little clue as to what helps kids learn and what doesn’t. But I don’t see any way the city’s children are going to get the instruction they deserve — the imaginative, fun-loving, firm teaching found at schools like KEY — unless principals are given the power to hire and fire teachers based on demonstrated skill and improved learning in class.

Mathews cites the example of the KIPP DC:KEY Academy, where principal Sarah Hayes dismissed two teachers who were not cutting it, despite efforts to improve.  “If KEY were a traditional school, Hayes’s only reasonable option would have been to mentor the teachers, note her dissatisfaction on their evaluations and recommend that they not be kept after a two-year probation,” he writes.  “That is the way it goes in most school systems. Staffing rules, tenure agreements and low expectations tend to favor weak teachers unless they do something awful.”

Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad…

by Robert Pondiscio
September 30th, 2008

In a two-week trial of a cash incentive program for students at a Washington middle school attendance and punctuality have improved. Grades have not.  The Washington Post’s Bill Turque takes a look inside a school that is aggressively implementing the controversial concept.

The Northwest Washington school’s 307 students are among the roughly 3,000 middle-schoolers eligible to earn as much as $100 every two weeks — to a maximum of $1,500 for the academic year — for showing up on time, not disrupting class and getting high grades. Students have been buzzing about the pilot program, called Capital Gains, since they learned in late August that their school had been selected.

The program, as you might have guessed, is the brainchild of incentives guru Roland Fryer.  Every two weeks, students are evaluated on 10-point scales according to a series of performance indicators. “All schools in the program are required to review behavior and attendance, which means showing up on time for every class,” the Post reports.  “Individual schools can choose other criteria, including grades, homework, class participation and adherence to the dress code. Each point is worth $2.” 

For the first two pay periods, beginning Oct. 17, checks will be distributed by school staff. Later, they will be deposited directly into student-owned savings accounts at SunTrust Bank. Students will be able to access the money with or without their parents, and no one can withdraw money without the child, officials said.

Last week, it was announced the Fryer will lead a new education research center at Harvard University, which will monitor efforts to close achievement gaps.  Incentive programs, not surprisingly, will be the first idea under Fryer’s shiny new $44 million microscope.

Update:  I’m still agnostic on incentives, but a reader at Eduwonkette nicely summarizes the ick factor that many educators feel about it.  “The soul-crushing aspect of Fryer’s theoretical framework is that it lets the curriculum and the teacher and the school entirely off the hook,” observes Citizen X. ”It’s a much more cynical view on students living in poverty. They don’t care, they are only motivated by material objects that they don’t have, they have to be bribed into “learning” (or at least learning to get a better score on a bubble sheet).”