Monday, March 26, 2007

Placeholder for Dissertation

This blog post by Whitney Tilson and noted by Eduwonk is in the direction or general vicinity of where I intend to go for my dissertation. I want to know what a lottery looks like. A circus lottery sounds like it could make for some solid descriptive inquiry. Bring it.

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Mad in March (about going to college and not graduating)

With great basketball comes great criticism of basketball? I find it hard enough to follow all the Madness each spring, but the folks for the Nation (Tom Engelhardt) and the Washington Post (Lindsey Luebchow, Kevin Carey) make March more maddening. How? By zooming in on such things like graduation rates, attendance, attrition, and academics. Topped off with a dollop of racism and don't forget the side of exploitation, and you got a recipe for crazy high add revenue and viewership.

It's easy to get caught up in it all. I love sports. But I'd be remiss to ignore the pressures and dangers an industry hell bent on the bottom line burdens our talented young people with. If nothing else, WAPO's bracket makes a mockery out of graduation rates in some of these programs. Of course the mockery doesn't end with athlete graduation rates.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Bong Hits, Jesus, and Right and Left Getting Along: Morse v. Frederick

The New York Times on Sunday published a story about bong hits and Jesus. What do these have to do with education? A lot actually. To be fair the story isn't about bong hits, but a great deal of the NYT story is about Jesus, specifically organized religion.

Before the Supreme Court this Monday is arguably the first explicit case regarding student dissent in the face of official authority since Tinker v. Des Moines School District's 1969 ruling that upheld the rights of students to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school. Tinker established that school officials may restrict a student's private speech only if the speech materially and substantially interferes with school operations. Students cannot be censured merely because the student advocates a position contrary to official government policy.

Morse v. Frederick (for a lot of background see this blog), this new case involving Joseph Frederick’s 2002 dispute with his principal, Deborah Morse, at the Juneau-Douglas High School in Juneau, Alaska, has become a legal battle where sides have been drawn along incongruous lines. On one side are the Bush Administration along with NSBA, several anti-drug organizations and Counsel Kenneth Starr, yes the same Starr who exasperated the Clinton Administration for years. On the other side are the ACLU; the National Coalition Against Censorship; and a host of largely right wing religious groups including: the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson; the Christian Legal Society; the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization based in Arizona that describes its mission as “defending the right to hear and speak the Truth”; the Rutherford Institute; and Liberty Legal Institute.

NYT quotes Prof. Douglas Laycock of the University of Michigan Law School in explanation of the strange bedfellows. “The status of being a dissident unites dissidents on either side." Simply put, free speech impacts across a spectrum human endeavors including smoking pot and worshiping God in an organized fashion. This really shouldn't surprise, but perhaps in light of the current Republican Administration's penchant for harnessing the Religious Right's zeal for political purposes, perhaps the odd bedfellows do surprise. Anyhow, the whole thing makes for interesting drama and fantastic case law history for those interested in the legacies of cases like Tinker, Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, and Saxe v. State College Area School District.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Money Laundering: The Establishment Clause Escape Act

Stanley Fish in his NYTimes Select column explains the largely rhetorical rhythm of the Establishment Clause. Like a silt island in a river turned to solid ground by fora and fauna, the Establishment Clause can be all but ignored by the current of taxpayer supported religion. Fish cogently argues the Establishment Clause's futility, and indeed I agree with him having studied some of the cases he cites like Everson v. Board of Education, Rosenberger v. Rector, and Mitchell v. Helms. Last week's ruling in California in favor of allowing tax-free bonds to be issued to support capital expenditures at religious schools is the latest in what Fish calls the Money Laundering Establishment Clause circumvention.

Laundering can take many forms, argues Fish, but after reading his blog I admit laundering is easy spot. Writing for the majority, Justice Joyce Kennard argued that no-tax bonds are “simply a mechanism by which the government extends available tax to private individuals." Kennard argued it's the private individual's choice as to whether he or she wants to buy the bond and support the school.

Of course taking the argument a step further complicates Kennard's reasoning. Remember that nothing is free, and tax-exempt bonds fall far short of amounting to nothing. Cheap ideologues bent on promoting religion cheaply with public funds can make the argument that to disentangle incidental versus direct benefits when it comes to funding religion is impossible. (i.e. where's the Money Lebowski!?) As long as the Establishment Clause can be confounded by diverting attention away from the true two-way Jeffersonian and Madisonian notion of protecting the state from religion and protecting religion from the state we'll all continue to pay for the advancement of religion whether we want to or not.

Thanks Dr. Fish for that hortatory entry.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

School Safety in Urban Charter and Traditional Public Schools: An Hypothesis

A new white paper published by the National Charter School Research Project (NCSRP) for the Center for Reinventing Public Education explores the issue of public school safety, specifically differences between traditional publics and charters. Key findings include: Key findings:
  • direct comparisons between charter and traditional schools are complicated;
  • threats to person or property and troubling behavioral problems exist in both types of schools;
  • teachers and principals in traditional public schools consistently report more frequent safety problems in their schools than do teachers and principals in charter schools; and
  • it is not clear what accounts for these differences.
Ugg. Not very helpful. I propose one hypothesis for variance between safety reported at charter schools and traditional public schools and it is based circuitously on a major finding in the NCSRP white paper: that principals report far fewer safety concerns or incidents than teachers report. This failure to report by principals (assuming it is really a failure to report instead of a failure on the teachers part to overreport) makes sense when you consider that school safety is a larger priority based on a principal's job priorities than a typical classroom teacher's priorities. Principals share a larger stake in school safety responsibility, therefore one could expect that a principal would want to paint a rosier picture.

The same reasoning can be applied to charter schools. Since most charter schools operate under a contractual agreement premised on negotiable renewal, charter schools spread the responsibility for success or failure across more folks. In other words, due to the negative impact of school closure, and the positive impact of increased autonomy, charter schools spread the responsibility around. One could argue that there are more stakeholders in a charter school than in a traditional public school. It is to the stakeholder's advantage to report roses.

Other ideas for the differences between safety reported between charters and traditional public schools hinted at in the white paper include what they call a "chicken or egg" problem (I call it selection bias); school size (charters are smaller on average); and dress codes and uniforms (charter schools have much higher participation rates regarding strict dress).

Some correlational data could be derived if environmental factors were introduced into this study. For my money I think NCRSP would account for most of the safety variance between the types of schools by selection bias and my hypothesis based on stakeholder failure to report.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"Teaching Policy to Improve Student Learning": A Solution Desperate for a Problem

A recent publication, Teaching Policy to Improve Student Learning: Lessons from Abroad, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, reflects on the global state of human capital in the education workforce. An excerpt follows:

"Traditionally, teaching in the United States has reflected a factory model. Novices have been expected to fill the same roles as 20-year veterans; teachers have been viewed as largely interchangeable; and salary has been based on years of education and experience rather than on differentiated roles and responsibilities or superior performance."

From this statement, the report's (advertisement's) author (reflector), Lynn Olson, makes a sweeping and egregiously unsubstantiated conclusion about how teachers careers must change. Fallacy follows:

"That model no longer fits a rapidly changing, knowledge-based society. When all students must be prepared to think for a living, teachers also must become lifelong learners."

I think what Olson would have preferred to have said would have been more complex, uglier, and taken up too much copy. Besides we all know what Olson means right? Right? No. We don't. Olson's statement, a better statement, might have gone something like this:

"Teachers are responsible for much of the learning in which young people participate. Since young people will continuously rely more on how they think than on a learned body of knowledge for their livelihoods we must change the way young people are taught. In order to change the way young people are taught we must focus on the young people's teachers. Changes in how young people are taught will come when teachers begin to model lifelong learning behavior to the point of embodiment. That is, the teaching career must be a mirror of the world of work teachers send our young people, their students, out into. Teachers must be lifelong learners."

In order to reach the conclusion I believe Olson meant to say--that in order to make lifelong thinkers we need lifelong learners--I had to propose a major leap of faith. Since when did the preparation of a lifelong thinker require a lifelong learner? Show me a study. Any study. It's kind of ridiculous that smart people everyday make wild assumptions based upon little evidence beyond a gut feeling. Yet here it is.

Make a claim that lifelong learning increases engagement and helps retain teachers and maintains the efficacy of their teaching. Make a claim that we should design more robust curricula designed to enhance and promote thinking above rote knowledge. But don't imply that we live in a knowledge-based global economy so the education workforce must be out of touch.

I actually like most of the recommendations outlined in Teaching Policy to Improve Student Learning: Lessons from Abroad. Ideas like strengthening induction, salary differentials and incentives, career advancement beyond traditional salary steps, Lesson Study in Japan, pay-for-productivity, and a careful balance between cooperation and competition all deserve consideration. Most of the publication highlights ideas that often get overlooked. Too bad I had to struggle past a policy solution in need of an ill-conceived policy problem to get there.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Bush, NCLB Reauth: Sweeping Up Ed Thousands of Students at a Time

Bush, the Boston Globe reports, wants something decent to sticky to his legacy. EE says rots of ruck. The commander in chief wants reauthorization for NCLB this year. So much for the bets against reauth (pdf). Of course, this doesn't mean Bush'll get what he wants.

Bush challenged the Congress to not change the act too much--"don't change the core." Whatever that means. "Watering down No Child Left Behind would be doing thousands of students a disservice," he said. Apparently Bush is a little fuzzy on how much of an impact NCLB is having. NCLB only affects thousands!?!? I can picture him now. Bush up late at night with Laura. Scratching at his hair. "Laura, I just don't git it. Why all the fuss over a few thousand kids? I mean, seriously. The states and unions just need to let the thing alone. No Child is doing a lot of good for thousands of kids."

The U.S. enrolls 48.8 million public school students.

The rest of the article is a fluff piece about the school in New Albany that Bush visited (Silver Street Elementary School) and the Dems wanting more money for those thousands of kids whose education could be watered down if Congress acts wrongly.

"Laura how much money do these God damn Democrats want for a few thousand kids? Bleeding my government dry! Amateurs."

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Could Lesson Study Make Me Sweat All Interview Long?

In a rare nod to the personal I went on an interview the other day, and I plan to reflect a little. The interview was my first with a school system in several years and the interview was nothing like any number of recent interviews I've had in the private sector. To be fair I'm dealing in a credentialed field where most of the screening has purportedly already happened. I also stand out some on a resume with a variety of education related activities. I've got high test scores, I've student taught, I have a valid state license, a master's degree, and God help me, a Ph.D. in the offing. I still can't help but be reminded that large school systems need warm bodies. If a school system can nab a warm body who is also able, then great, but a pulse is wonderful thing indeed.

Is this an unfair and primitive take on teacher recruitment? Sure it is. Still, I'm left pondering the usual, only this time within the framework of personal anecdote. If teachers were paid the way private sector professionals were paid would my interview have been casual? The interview might have been different if the teacher career were different. If the teaching field paid lower wages upon entry with differentiated pay scales based on need and skill, but also offered opportunities to gain significant performance based promotions I'd have sweat some serious bullets.

I stand on the shoulders of a lot of smart edufolk when I say that solid starting wages are only part of a policy solution to attract and keep talented professionals. The possibility for significant advancement in a field can make the difference between a career and a job. This is one of the reasons why I think teacher led reforms like Lesson Study paired with actionable promotion possibilities show so much promise. There can and should be career advancement in teaching beyond a jump to administration and NBPTS.

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