The Best and the Brightest, The Sequel

by Robert Pondiscio
June 1st, 2010

As states race to meet today’s second Race to the Top deadline, some are complaining the changes wrought by the program have not been sweeping or revolutionary enough. And then there’s David Warsh at Economic Principals.com. On reading Steve Brill’s latest bigfooting exercise into education reportage Warsh heard familiar and disconcerting echoes.

Remember the recipe for a policy disaster? Start with a handful of policy intellectuals confronting a stubborn problem, in love with a Big Idea. Fold in a bunch of ambitious Ivy League kids who don’t speak the local language. Churn up enthusiasm for the program in the gullible national press – and get ready for a decade of really bad news. Take a look at David Halberstam’s Vietnam classic The Best and the Brightest, if you need to refresh your memory. Or just think back on the run-up to the war in Iraq.

He’s just getting started. Warsh, a veteran economics reporter whose column ran in the Boston Globe for the better part of two decades, turns in the most scathing recent take on current education policy by someone not named Diane Ravitch, whose recent book he cites in the piece. Describing the competitive grant program as “a hammer-blow to the basic principles of public education” Warsh suggests a history lesson:

Obama and David Axelrod should take out some old Time and Life magazines, compare them to Brill’s Times Magazine article, and reflect on how the media pranced as Presidents Kennedy and Johnson blundered into Vietnam. They should read and discuss Diane Ravitch’s book. They should think long and hard about whether they are going to let Arne Duncan and his whiz kids put Obama’s presidency in greater peril than the Deepwater Horizon ever could.

Personally, I’m less than sanguine about RTTT, but not necessarily for the reasons Warsh, Ravitch and other cite. “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” the British scientist Ernest Rutherford famously quipped. With apologies to Rutherford, I’d offer that all education reform is either curriculum or accounting.

Listening to Teachers?

by Robert Pondiscio
May 27th, 2010

If you spend your edublog time on policy blogs rather than teacher blogs, you may have missed out an interesting story that has played out over the past few months, and which may be coming to a head this week.  Last November, Anthony Cody, a veteran science teacher, blogger and Obama supporter, wrote an open letter to the President expressing his frustration with many of the Administration’s policies.  The column soon morphed into what another veteran teacher-blogger, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, described as “a full-on social networking movement.”  A Facebook group (naturally) quickly attracted  2,000 members, eager to weigh in on ed policy as a network of independent teachers.  Letters were sent, polls were taken, and attention paid.  The climax occurred Monday, when 12 teachers including Cody, Wolpert-Gawron, and frequent Core Knowledge Blog commenter Nancy Flanagan were invited to participate in a 30-minute conference call with Ed Secretary Arne Duncan.

The climax was anti-climactic.  Technical problems plagued the call, few got a chance to speak, and the teachers walked away more frustrated than satisfied by their audience with Duncan.  “I want to find positive things to take from what unfolded, but it is challenging,” was Cody’s take on the call.  Flanagan’s synopsis is here.    End of story?  It might have been until yesterday, when Cody’s phone rang. 

It was Arne Duncan calling.

Charm offensive?  Earnest engagement?  Time will tell. Cody & Co. have already done the profession a solid by taking the first steps toward establishing a badly needed back channel for teachers, independent of the unions.

I Caught California Being Good!

by Robert Pondiscio
November 5th, 2009

It’s the oldest trick in the elementary school classroom management book:  using positive reinforcement to get children to behave in the hope of earning a reward or recognition.  When it’s time to clean up before lunch the teacher says, “Let’s see who’s ready to line up first.  I’m looking to see who has their desk cleaned up and is sitting up nicely.”  Suddenly 25 kids are racing to sit up straight with their hands folded on their spotless desks.  Works like a charm on seven-year-olds. 

State legislatures, too. 

President Obama’s education speech in Wisconsin reinforced the criteria the Adminstration wants to see in order for states to qualify for a piece of the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” fund.  What’s remarkable, however, is how much change in behavior is occurring in states just  hoping for a reward.  Like a first grade teacher, the President is essentially looking across the country and asking, “Who wants to be my special helper?  I’m looking for states that are doing the right thing and making good choices!”

“Oh, I like the way California is linking teachers and test scores!  You too, Indiana and Wisconsin! What an excellent job you’re doing!  Uh-oh, Nevada is definitely not ready!  Let’s see who else is doing the right thing?   Oh, look! Illinois and Tennessee must really want Race to the Top money. Look how they have lifted their charter caps!   Louisiana is ready!  Delaware is ready!  New York?  Are you making good choices? Let me see…”

“The administration has done a good job of having a lot of states make a long-odds bet that they’re going to win Race to the Top funds, so they’ve shaped their behavior a lot in advance of a single dollar being awarded,” Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution tells the Christian Science Monitor.  “Most of what the administration is going to get [in terms of reform] it will get before the competition is actually completed.”

There must be some very shrewd former teachers at the DOE.

Curriculum: More Reform for Less Money

by Robert Pondiscio
October 15th, 2009

From Day One, among this blog’s raisons d’être has been to say to ed reformers of  every stripe “don’t forget curriculum.”  So it’s great to hear Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst say the same thing–and with cold, hard data to back it up.   In his latest Letter on Education, Whitehurst lays out an argument that should catch the eye of everyone who is focused on charter schools, teacher quality, early childhood ed and standards as the means of boosting student achievement.  He looks at the effect sizes of those reforms and reports curriculum effects have a much greater impact than all of them:

Further, in many cases they are a free good. That is, there are minimal differences between the costs of purchase and implementation of more vs. less effective curricula. In contrast, the other policy levers reviewed here range from very to extremely expensive and often carry with them significant political challenges, e.g., union opposition to merit pay for teachers. This is not to say that curriculum reforms should be pursued instead of efforts to create more choice and competition through charters, or to reconstitute the teacher workforce towards higher levels of effectiveness, or to establish high quality, intensive, and targeted preschool programs, all of which have evidence of effectiveness. It is to say that leaving curriculum reform off the table or giving it a very small place makes no sense. Let’s do what works for the kids, and let’s give particular attention to efficient and practical ways of doing so.

“We conclude that the effect sizes for curriculum are larger, more certain, and less expensive than for the Obama-favored policy levers,” writes Whitehurst, the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences.  He recommends the Administration “integrate curriculum innovation and reform into its policy framework.”

The Department of Education, through the Institute of Education Sciences, should fund many more comparative effectiveness trials of curricula and other interventions, both through its National Center for Education Evaluation and through competitive grants to university-based researchers. The Obama administration has clearly recognized the importance of comparative effectiveness research in health care reform. It is no less important in education reform.”

Can I get an amen?

In Case of Accidental Overdose

by Robert Pondiscio
September 28th, 2009

…administer more poison. 

Please explain to me how doing more of what’s not working will make it work better.

No Excuses

by Robert Pondiscio
July 17th, 2009

One of the biggest applause line in President Obama’s speech to the NAACP Thursday wasn’t in his prepared remarks–it came when he exhorted parents and children to take full advantage of their educational opportunities and make “no excuses.”

We have to say to our children, Yes, if you’re African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that someone in a wealthy suburb does not. But that’s not a reason to get bad grades, that’s not a reason to cut class, that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands – and don’t you forget that.  That’s what we have to teach all of our children! No excuses! No excuses!” 

The “Your destiny is in your hands…no excuses” bit was not in the President’s prepared remarks, but both Fox News and the Huffington Post put it in their respective headlines.

In education circles, of course, the “no excuses” meme has become shorthand for schools–and especially teachers–making no excuses for poor student achievement.  It reflects the deeply held conviction by some that a school can, should, must overcome all deficits in the children it serves, regardless of outside circumstances.  It remains an excellent rallying cry, if not a realistic standard by which to measure teacher performance. 

It’s refreshing to hear the standard applied to all actors in the process, not just teachers.  The response to Obama’s off-the-cuff remark clearly demonstrates the wisdom of crowds.

Obama to Lay Out Education Plan Today

by Robert Pondiscio
March 10th, 2009

President Obama goes to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington today to outline how his administration plans to improve education from “cradle to career,” Reuters reports quoting officials familiar with the President’s planned speech.

They said he would challenge U.S. states to adopt more rigorous standards of education, especially in reading and math. He would also explain how he plans to reward good teachers, redesign federal aid programs for students, and turn around underperforming schools.  Obama will note the large gap between the best and worst performing states with respect to reading and math, the administration officials said in a briefing.

The Wall Street Journal reports Obama’s merit pay proposal “would significantly expand a federal program that increases pay for high-performing teachers to an additional 150 school districts.” The President will also call for more charter schools and challenge states to lift limits on the number in operation, the paper says.

“How All Our Schools Should Be”

by Robert Pondiscio
February 11th, 2009

Ed reformers and charter school advocates were doing handsprings last week when President Obama visited Washington’s Capital City Public Charter School and praised “this kind of innovative school” as “an example of how all our schools should be.”

Does that mean that all schools should have “project-based learning,” “mathematics instruction based on problem-solving,” “science instruction that is hands-on and inquiry-based,” and “authentic assessment based on multiple measures, including student portfolios” just like Capital City does?

Fordham’s clever “Reform-o-meter” moved to red hot with the Obama visit, signaling the visit was a big win for ed reformers, but progressive ed blogger Tom Hoffman of Tuttle SVC saw things quite differently.

Obama didn’t go to a KIPP school, he didn’t go to one of Michelle Rhee’s schools, he didn’t go to TJ; he and his wife and his Secretary of Education went to a small, progressive, community-governed urban public school, exactly the kind of school I love and advocate for; he planted his feet and said ‘This kind of innovative school…is an example of how all our schools should be.’ I couldn’t ask for a more clear statement.

“Could we make a little hay over this please?” Hoffman wrote, calling out progressive ed bloggers. ”Cause you know if he went to a KIPP school first we’d never hear the end of it.”

Man’s got a point.

Stringulus Package

by Robert Pondiscio
February 10th, 2009

You had to wait until the very last seconds of President Obama’s news conference to get to his most substantial comments on education spending.  When he got there, in response to Mara Liasson’s question about the difficulties of forging a bipartisan compromise, Obama made it clear he favors using the stimulus package to create incentives for reform and used education as an example of one area where both Republicans and Democrats need to change their approach. 

Both Democrats and Republicans are going to have to think differently in order to come together and solve that problem. I think there are areas like education where some in my party have been too resistant to reform, and have argued only money makes a difference.   And there have been others on the Republican side or the conservative side who said no matter how much money you spend, nothing makes a difference, so let’s just blow up the public school systems. And I think that both sides are going to have to acknowledge we’re going to need more money for new science labs, to pay teachers more effectively, but we’re also going to need more reform, which means that we’ve got to train teachers more effectively, bad teachers need to be fired after being given the opportunity to train effectively, that we should experiment with things like charter schools that are innovating in the classroom, that we should have high standards.

“It does seem to signal that the president isn’t planning to boost education spending without asking for something in return from the nation’s school system,” Alyson Klein of Politics K-12 sums up.  The full transcript of the press conference is here.

Is Black History Month Still Needed?

by Robert Pondiscio
January 30th, 2009

February is Black History Month, an annual elementary school staple.  But is it still necessary and relevant in the Age of Obama?

The Chicago Tribune’s Exploring Race blog notes that Carter G. Woodson, the African-American historian and publisher of the Journal of Negro History, was pessimistic about whether African-American history would be accepted as part of mainstream history. So Woodson and his colleagues came up with the idea for Negro History Week during the second week in February, because it coincided with the birthdays of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.

Initially, Negro History Week was a way to highlight—to non-blacks— the myriad contributions that blacks have made to this country. But it also was designed to boost the self-esteem of blacks, many of whom were unaware of their own history. The observance later became Black History Month, which begins Sunday, and over the years, so much has changed—not the least of which was the recent inauguration of a man of color as the 44th President of the United States.

“Considering the reason for starting the observance,” asks the Tribune, “is there still a need to highlight black history in this regard?”