The Education Gadfly

News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation

Volume 3, Number 9.  March 13, 2003




From Checker’s Desk (editorial comment by Chester E. Finn, Jr.)


News and Analysis


Recommended Reading

·         Colorado legislators ready to approve K-12 voucher program

·         Budget shortfalls fuel the anti-charter fire

·         Teachers union may dominate L.A. school board again

·         Save Everyday Math for another day


Short Reviews of New Reports and Books

·         Capitalization under School Choice Programs: Are the Winners Really the Losers?, Randall Reback, National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, December 3, 2002

·         Miles to Go… Reflections on Mid-Course Corrections For Standards-Based Reform, Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform, 2002

·         True Private Choice.  A Practical Guide to School Choice after Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Marie Gryphon, The Cato Institute, February 4, 2003




Help Wanted





From Checker’s Desk (editorial comment by Chester E. Finn, Jr.)

Is Alternative Certification Perishing?


You might have thought that alternative certification of teachers was more vibrant, robust and widespread than ever, considering how many states now claim to have some form of it--45 of them plus D.C., reports alt-cert watcher Emily Feistritzer--and its warm embrace last June by Education Secretary Rod Paige.  


Think again. In truth, something bad is happening to alternative certification: it’s being turned into a teacher-preparation “program”--and regulated into a near facsimile of traditional programs.


In its original, uncorrupted form, alternative certification is a status conferred on individuals who satisfy their states that they are fit to be turned loose in public-school classrooms despite NOT having passed through teacher-preparation programs. It was to be public education’s way of liberating itself to do what private schools and most charter schools have long been free to do, namely to hire the best people they can find, with or without formal teacher training. It was also a way of saying to able liberal-arts graduates and career changers who are willing to try teaching that yes, you are welcome in our classrooms without first having to go back to study in a college of education and jump through a lot of regulatory hoops.


The key point is that alternative certification is conferred on individuals based on evidence that they know their stuff and pose no danger to children. It’s what would enable a former governor to teach civics in a public high school, a bright MIT chemistry major to teach science, or a retired newspaper editor to teach English composition. It was NOT to be a training program.


How might a state certify someone who didn’t pass through an approved program? Easy. By doing a background check, giving the candidate a subject matter test and perhaps an oral exam, checking his college transcript, seeking references from those who know him well, maybe asking him to teach a practice lesson in front of a jury. Perhaps such screenings would lead only to a provisional form of certification that could be made more definitive on the basis of a month or year of successful classroom practice, attested to by the new teacher’s principal or supervisor or by assessment evidence that the new teacher’s pupils were gaining satisfactory knowledge and skills.


That’s how its pure version works. But powerful forces are now striving to turn alternative certification into a training program and then regulate it into close conformity with conventional teacher preparation. That’s because the teacher-training-and-licensure crowd--which detests pure alt-cert and finds its own power, status and revenues menaced by its spread--has concluded that alternative certification cannot be blocked altogether and therefore must be tamed and put into a box.

This strategy is familiar to anyone who has watched the charter-school movement these past few years, as its enemies realized they could not stonewall charter schools entirely and therefore shifted tactics to keep them few, weak, ill-funded, ill-housed, and subject to ever more of the regulatory burdens that beset conventional public schools. At day’s end, if that strategy succeeds, charters won’t be any different from the regular schools to which they were meant to be alternatives--and nobody will bother with them, especially considering how hard it is to get them up and running.


Thus with alternative certification. The teacher unions, ed schools and custodians of canonical “teacher professionalism” such as the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) have resolved to minimize its threat by transforming it from “route” into “program” and then regulating the heck out of it.


Watch how often the word “program” is now affixed to the phrases “alternative certification” and “alternate route.” Education Week’s latest Quality Counts does this not only with labels but also by devoting half of its big chart (on “State Alternative-Route Programs”) to the ways in which states currently regulate such “programs” by requiring “pre-service training” and “mentoring components.” The authors of Quality Counts solemnly declare that “Experts agree that such elements are crucial to producing a well-trained teacher workforce”--thus swallowing the view that “training” is what alternative certification is about.


To be sure, there are some terrific “programs” out there--Teach for America is probably the best known--that provide compressed and intense training for people who then become candidates for alternative certification. May such programs grow and flourish. But we ought to continue to view them as programs by which people become more promising candidates to obtain alt-cert from the state. They are NOT “alt-cert programs” that the state (much less the feds) should regulate.


Yet Uncle Sam, too, seems to have succumbed to the programmatic version of alternative certification. In final regulations detailing how the “highly-qualified teacher” provisions of NCLB will be interpreted, the Education Department declared that teachers may be considered “highly qualified” if they are participating in “an alternative route to certification under which the teacher (1) receives high-quality professional development that is sustained, intensive, and classroom-focused,…(2) participates in a program of intensive supervision that consists of structured guidance and regular ongoing support for teachers or a teacher mentoring program; (3) assumes functions as a teacher only for a specified period of time not to exceed three years, and (4) demonstrates satisfactory progress toward full certification….”


This means that Washington’s weight will now press states to view alternative certification not as an individual’s status, but as educator-designed and heavily-regulated training programs with most of the earmarks of conventional teacher preparation programs. Moreover, such programs will confer only a temporary credential on teachers who must then become “fully certified.”


This is far from where Secretary Paige was six months earlier when he wrote of “alternate routes” (in his “Annual Report on Teacher Quality”) that “Academic standards must remain high, while burdensome requirements must be kept to a minimum. An alternate route that takes two years and thousands of dollars to complete is an alternate route in name only.” Indeed, Paige urged “streamlining” traditional certification programs “to focus on the few things that really matter: verbal ability, content knowledge, and, as a safety precaution, a background check.”


The kind of alt-cert program that the Education Department now evidently seeks, however, will cost many thousands of dollars, an expense to be borne largely at the district level where the mentoring/ induction/ supervision must be provided. Part of the value of “pure” alt-cert was that teachers would be judged by results and competencies rather than inputs. Now we must look for costly inputs, which in a time of tight budgets could further chill the whole enterprise. 


What happened between June and December? Evidently alt-cert’s foes came down hard on the executive branch and basically got their way. This would matter less if the states were still in charge of teacher certification. Innovative jurisdictions could then continue to experiment with pure forms of alternative certification. But with Uncle Sam now policing their compliance with NCLB’s dictates, we have reason to worry that the alt-cert “route” is fast acquiring the same contortions and hurdles as the regular kind. It’s like turning an interstate highway back into a twisty gravel road.


“Alternative Teacher Certification--An Overview,” by Emily Feistritzer, The National Center for Education Information, 2002,

Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge:  The Secretary's Annual Report on Teacher Quality, US Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education, 2002,  See especially
“alternate routes to certification: a model for the future” in chapter 2 and “alternate routes to the solution” in chapter 4.



News and analysis


Linking elementary and secondary education to college


Today, 88 percent of 8th graders expect to attend college, but many of these students will either not qualify for admission, not be permitted to enroll in credit-bearing courses, or never complete a degree. Why are so many high school graduates unprepared for college- level work? A new report released by the Bridge Project at Stanford points the finger at the disjuncture between K-12 and postsecondary sectors of education. According to the report, students and their parents are sent conflicting and vague messages about what students need to know and be able to do to enter and succeed in college. High school assessments stress different knowledge and skills than do college entrance exams, and the coursework in high school often bears little relationship to college courses. The disconnect between K-12 and postsecondary education undermines student aspirations to attend (and succeed in) higher education, the report charges.


While the overall picture may be depressing, a number of states and organizations are making efforts to get the K-12 and higher ed systems to work together to unify the signals sent to students about what they need to learn in high school. In Texas, for instance, students who take the high school exit exam will soon be told whether their scores are high enough to indicate that they are ready to handle college level work. The Standards for Success project launched by researchers at the University of Oregon will soon release a report outlining the knowledge and skills needed by students to succeed in college, and the College Board has expressed interest in using the standards to make changes to the SAT so that it more accurately measures the skills needed for college. The American Diploma Project is bringing K-12 and postsecondary educators together with representatives from business to help states ensure that their high school graduation standards and assessments accurately reflect the knowledge and skills that higher education and business really require.


What’s oddly missing are demands from higher education institutions that state K-12 systems start producing high school graduates who are ready to handle credit-bearing work in college. That’s partly because as the Bridge Project report notes, high drop-out rates do not pose a problem for postsecondary systems when new students keep attending college in sufficient numbers. According to the American Diploma Project, U.S. businesses and institutions of higher education spend an estimated $16.6 billion on remedial education and training each year. Businesses may be spending their own money to provide this remedial training, but institutions of higher education are able to pass these costs along to students.


Betraying the College Dream: How Disconnected K-12 and Postsecondary Education Systems Undermine Student Aspirations, by Andrea Venezia, Michael Kirst, and Anthony Antonio, Stanford University Bridge Project, March 4, 2003,


“Texas making strides toward link to public schools, college,” by Linda Wertheimer, The Dallas Morning News, March 10, 2003, (registration required)


“Oregon Study Outlines Standards for College Preparedness,” by Sean Cavanagh, Education Week, March 5, 2003,


The American Diploma Project,



Recommended reading


Colorado legislators ready to approve K-12 voucher program


Two school voucher bills have won approval in the Colorado Legislature, one each in the House and the Senate.  Both bills would make publicly-funded vouchers available to low-income, low-achieving students trapped in failing public schools who would like to switch to private school, including religious schools.  A handful of prominent Democratic and Hispanic leaders in the state, notably Attorney General Ken Salazar, have broken ranks to support vouchers as a way of addressing the achievement gap. Louisiana and Texas are also considering voucher proposals.


“Colorado Poised to OK Vouchers for Needy Pupils,” by Erik Robelen, Education Week, March 12, 2003,


“Colorado nears voucher approval,” by Valerie Richardson, The Washington Times, February 27, 2003,


New online college for teachers offers certification and degrees


Teachers (or prospective teachers) wishing to earn certification or degrees can now take advantage of an online program offered by Western Governors University (WGU) and partially financed by the U.S. Department of Education. The Teachers College at WGU, a virtual university that received accreditation last month, will offer associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in education. The university itself does not offer any courses; it awards degrees based on evaluations of student competencies, which can be gained through experience or by taking online courses through institutions that have formed partnerships with WGU. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige praised the program, which he said would help school districts meet the “highly qualified teacher” requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act.


“Western Governors U. Opens a New Online College for Teachers,” by Dan Carnevale, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 11, 2003, 


Budget shortfalls fuel the anti-charter fire


With many states being forced to slash education budgets because of the overall economic downturn, opponents of charter schools are trying to seize the opportunity to kill new charter laws, to put a moratorium on the granting of new charters, and to reduce funding for already cash-strapped existing charter schools.  Their argument is that the experiment with charters is a luxury that we cannot afford when economic times are tough.  Of course, proponents have long argued that charters are not a luxury, but rather are central to efforts to introduce competition and choice into our traditional public school system--and most charter schools are funded at lower levels than traditional district schools, anyway, thus saving money for the state.


“Charter laws are targeted in fiscal tilts,” by Caroline Hendrie, Education Week, March 5, 2003,


Teachers union may dominate L.A. school board again


In 1999 Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire Eli Broad helped elect a new reform-minded school board for the L.A Unified school district.  The teachers unions have fought back, though, and on March 4, two union-backed candidates defeated reformist incumbents supported by Riordan and Broad (and their political action committee, the Coalition for Kids) for seats on the school board.  Another race, involving union-backed incumbent David Tokofsky, is still too close to call, but if he retains his seat, union-supported candidates would control four seats on the seven-member board. The success of the union-backed candidates was attributed to the union’s willingness to outspend the Coalition for Kids, $1.4 million to $1.1 million.  Union-backed board members have already promised to win teachers pay raises and to reduce class sizes in grades four through 12, despite state budget cuts.


"Teachers Union Wins Back the Power in L.A. Schools," by Solomon Moore and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2003,,1,2815772.story?coll=la%2Dnews%2Dlearning


“Runoff looms in narrowing schools race,” by David Pierson, The Los Angeles Times, March 7, 2003,,1,3063160.story?coll=la%2Dnews%2Dlearning


Standards-based reform leads to gains in Virginia


Since Virginia introduced its Standards of Learning (SOL) curriculum and exams in 1995 and 1998, respectively, not only have pass rates on the state exams risen steadily for all ethnic groups, but students in the state have scored higher on several national achievement tests, according to a study conducted by StandardsWork.  Average state scores on the SAT and the Stanford 9 achievement tests have risen in this period and more students have taken Advanced Placement tests and enrolled in International Baccalaureate programs since the SOL program began.


“Scores reported up with SOL test,” by Rosalind Helderman, The Washington Post, February 27, 2003,


“Study of the Effectiveness of the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) Reforms,” StandardsWork, Inc., February 2003,


 Save Everyday Math for another day


New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein has been getting a lot of grief from reading experts about Month by Month Phonics, the reading curriculum he has selected for all but the top 200 of New York City’s elementary schools. Now he’s beginning to hear from math experts about problems with Everyday Math, the math curriculum he has mandated for all but the top schools in the system. In this month’s City Journal, former Teach for America corps member (and former Fordham intern) Matthew Clavel describes what it was like to try to teach Everyday Math to fourth graders in the South Bronx. He questions the focus of the program on “critical thinking skills” that his students simply couldn’t exercise since they had yet to master basic skills. He also wonders why the curriculum dips into algebra and geometry before students can multiply or do long division. He saves his fiercest criticism for Everyday Math’s emphasis on “cooperative learning” exercises, which he said regularly caused his classroom to degenerate into chaos. Clavel eventually scrapped Everyday Math entirely and focused on trying to teach his students the basic skills they needed.


“How now to teach math,” by Matthew Clavel, City Journal, March 7, 2003,



Short Reviews of New Reports and Books


Getting it Wrong from the Beginning:  Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget

Kieran Egan, Yale University Press

September 2002


Canadian educationist Kieran Egan authored this provocative new book. For once, the dust jacket does a competent job of summarizing its essence: the book “traces the nineteenth century sources of many of our notions about education…shows how progressivist ideas have been responsible for the general ineffectiveness of our schools, and…assails the central progressive belief that to educate children effectively it is vital to attend to the nature of the child, particularly the child’s mode of learning and stage of development.” It’s a worthy volume. One wonders, though, why Egan fails to mention those who have plowed this ground before, often with greater depth and insight, analysts such as E.D. Hirsch, Arthur Bestor and Diane Ravitch. Should you want a copy, the ISBN is 0300094337, the publisher is Yale University Press and you can get more information at --Chester E. Finn, Jr.


Big City School Boards: Problems and Options

Paul T. Hill, Kelly Warner-King, Christine Campbell, Meaghan McElroy, Isabel Muñoz-Colón, The Center on Reinventing Public Education, The University of Washington

December 2002


Paul Hill and colleagues at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education authored this 28-page report, sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Several of its points parallel those that Hill set forth in a recent paper for the Progressive Policy Institute. [See]  Some are different, however, and they’re well worth your time, for this paper’s implications are far-reaching indeed. Beginning with the unarguable assertion that many of today’s urban school boards are dysfunctional, ineffectual and afflicted with “mission confusion,” Hill & Co. offer three bold remedies. First, broaden the board’s constituencies (via district-wide election or mayoral appointment) to reduce the extent to which members are beholden to narrow interests. Second, limit their powers to policy and oversight, getting them out of day-to-day management and patronage. Third, and most revolutionary, end their exclusive franchise to oversee schools in their areas--and add additional public-school sponsors via multiple boards or other “entities” that will engender competition and choice. The package is striking. You can find it at --Chester E. Finn, Jr.


Capitalization under School Choice Programs: Are the Winners Really the Losers?

Randall Reback, University of Michigan

National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Teacher’s College, Columbia University

December 3, 2002


This paper, by PhD candidate Randall Reback of the University of Michigan, analyzes the impact of public school choice on school finances.  Specifically, he is interested in the effect that implementing a choice program will have on the tax base (in other words, housing prices, real estate taxes and ultimately school funding).  It’s no secret that in areas without choice programs, choosing a house serves as a form of school choice, and as a result, housing prices tend to be higher in districts with good public schools.  In theory then, if a public school choice program is implemented, housing prices should fall in those districts with the best schools, because one no longer must live there to access those schools.  The opposite is also true: districts with the worst schools should see an increase in housing prices, as the fear of confining one’s child to a sub-standard school no longer deters potential home buyers in that area.  Under a public school choice program, these lower-achieving districts will surely lose students (who transfer elsewhere) and will thus lose enrollment-based state revenue.  However, Reback wonders if this loss in revenue will be offset by an improvement in the tax base (due to higher home values and new home construction).  To answer this question, he analyzes Minnesota, which has had a statewide public school choice program since 1990, and finds support for his theory.  A decrease in a district’s enrollment was associated with an improvement in the tax base, and vice versa.  His calculations suggest that school choice might not financially harm bad schools; in fact, bad schools might actually notice a net gain in revenues.  Reback thus concludes that choice programs may not offer much financial incentive for schools to improve.  However, the report’s title belies several important caveats.  For one, these results might not generalize to other states; in California, for instance, the funding system acts to limit the local impact of property taxes.  Also, financial incentives are not the only form of competition created within choice programs; the simple loss of students may provide organizational and political incentives for schools to improve.  In the end, perhaps the most important point that Reback makes is that the effects he finds may influence whether choice programs are enacted at all, as families living in the best school districts are unlikely to support proposals that reduce their property values.  This report is written by an economist, for economists, so it’s not exactly light reading; but if you’d like to wade through the complicated statistics yourself, you can find the report on NCSPE’s website, at under “occasional papers.”  --Eric Osberg


At the Starting Line: Early childhood education programs in the 50 states

The American Federation of Teachers

December 2002


Early childhood education is the new frontier of education reform. This is as it should be. As noted in our earlier review of The Keys to Literacy, (see reading scores in the 10th grade can be predicted with surprising accuracy from knowledge of the alphabet in kindergarten. Early years learning matters enormously. As a result, there has been much debate recently in statehouses across the country, and in Washington, about how to help parents and professionals better prepare the nation’s youngest children for success in schools. In At the Starting Line, the AFT enters the debate by arguing for the extension of policies it has long-favored in K-12 education to pre-school education--improved teacher pay, more teacher training, more certification, and a more intensive curriculum. One cannot dispute the goal of helping all children develop the crucial pre-literacy skills needed for success in school. One has to question the logic, though, of extending a system that has not worked for many of the nation’s older children pretty much “as is” downward to younger and younger children. Nowhere in this report is there a call for getting parents involved in their children’s learning; in the view of this report, the experts will solve the problem if they are simply given enough money and training. The report urges “another $25 billion to $35 billion to extend free preschool programs of acceptable quality to all 3- and/or 4-year olds.” Could these resources be better used to help parents spend time with their children reading books or developing their children’s vocabulary through conversation? These questions go unasked, but should you want to see the report for yourself go to --Terry Ryan



Miles to Go… Reflections on Mid-Course Corrections For Standards-Based Reform

Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform



This volume represents the final work of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform, which after twelve years in existence held its final meeting in June 2002.  Here, the Forum presents a collection of short essays on standards-based reform topics written by a diverse set of authors.  From Sandra Feldman of the AFT to Deborah McGriff of Edison, and from Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond to our own Checker Finn, these writers each tackle a unique aspect of standards-based reform.  In fact, the essays generally stray from discussing standards themselves to delve into topics such as public engagement, parental involvement, and union contracts.  However, in doing so the authors make clear that in fact all aspects of our education system are impacted in one way or another by the movement toward more rigorous and well-defined standards.  Their basic message is that simply imposing standards from above will not be sufficient; rather, those inside the system need the training, leadership, resources and curricula to meet these standards.  The variety of viewpoints presented here lends credence to the basic message that there is still a long way to go before standards-based reform can be declared a success.  Informative and easy to read, this work provides a neat summary of some of the challenges facing American education today as well as a varied set of viewpoints on the ideal solutions.  The Education Week Press is the publisher and copies are available by calling (800) 346-1834 (singles copies are $9.99 including shipping and handling). --Eric Osberg


True Private Choice.  A Practical Guide to School Choice after Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

Marie Gryphon, The Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 466

February 4, 2003


In this report, Marie Gryphon, an attorney for the Cato Institute, summarizes the details of the Zelman Supreme Court case and offers school choice advocates what is essentially a how-to guide for developing a choice program that would likely pass constitutional muster.  In addition to clearly explaining the test the Court used to determine whether the Cleveland case offended the establishment clause of the First Amendment, Gryphon advises choice advocates to avoid plans that would not pass the Zelman test, even if in theory they would be protected by the free exercise clause of the same Amendment.  To read this analysis, go to --Kathleen Porter


Achieving More: Quality Teaching, School Leadership, Student Success

The Governor’s Commission on Teaching Success, Ohio

February 20, 2003


 In November 2001, Ohio governor Bob Taft appointed a blue-ribbon “Commission on Teaching Success” to rethink teaching and teachers for the Buckeye State’s public schools. Ably chaired by Nationwide CEO W.G. Jurgensen, it had 46 members, mostly representative of public education’s so-called “stakeholders.” Parents, employers, private-school people, newspaper editors and other informed agents of the “general public” were in short supply. Given its slanted and establishmentarian make-up, some of this group’s 14 recommendations (contained in its newly issued 48-page report) are unexpectedly visionary, such as differentiated compensation for teachers, tying teacher standards to the state’s academic standards for schools, a pilot “career ladder” and greater use of alternative certification (in the upper grades). Unfortunately, most of the rest of its conclusions and suggestions are predictable, conventional and either banal or wrong-headed, above all the suggestion that policies for training, certifying and setting standards for teachers and administrators should be set by a new “educator standards board” to be comprised entirely of--what else?--stakeholders. Aaargh. Talk about urging the governor and legislature to place the foxes in charge of the poultry. In sum, a mixed bag of a report, like most such sprawling committee efforts. If you’d like to see it anyway, visit  --Chester E. Finn, Jr.





Fordham Foundation seeks nominations for 2004 education prizes


The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is now seeking nominations for its second annual Prizes for Excellence in Education.  Two prizes of $25,000 each are awarded to researchers, policymakers, and/or practitioners who have done outstanding work in education reform in ways that accord with the Foundation’s core principals.  If you know an exceptional leader who has toiled away advocating or working for educational change, go to for details on how to nominate him/her for this prestigious honor.



Help Wanted


Manhattan Institute seeks Research Assistant/Press Officer


The Manhattan Institute is seeking a full-time Research Assistant/Press Officer for Education Policy for its new office in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  Candidates should have at least a bachelor’s degree and an interest in education reform.  For more information, go to



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