The Education Gadfly THE EDUCATION GADFLY

A Weekly Bulletin of News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 8, Number 21. May 29, 2008

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This week on The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Elven shoed


Contents

From Mike's Desk

News and Analysis

Recommended Readings

Flypaper's Finest

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Short Reviews

Announcements

About Us


From Mike's Desk

U.S. schools' next big problem: The cost of teacher obesity

The childhood obesity epidemic has lately been much in the news. Last week, the Washington Post ran an extensive series about it, and this week the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the number of overweight youngsters may have reached a plateau. (A high plateau--in 2006, fully 16 percent of children were ''obese,'' and another 16 percent were significantly overweight. That adds up to one kid in three.)

In all such pieces, the media could not help but focus on schools and their role in solving the problem. The media--and the public--always seem to think that schools should fix whatever is the social crisis du jour. This illustrates a fundamental lack of respect (or, perhaps, appreciation) for schools' primary mission: to develop the intellectual and academic capabilities of their charges.

In this case, however, the media's focus on schools overlooked a separate and at least equally consequential (and closely related) problem that should be a major concern of school systems: the teacher obesity epidemic. That's because the health insurance costs associated with treating overweight teachers and other school staff are taking a major bite out of public education budgets. I estimate that these costs come to at least $2.5 billion annually--more than Maine spends on its entire k-12 system in a year.

This calculation assumes that the obesity rate among people who work in k-12 education is the same as that for the population as a whole: about one-third of all adults. (I can't think of any reason why it would be lower--and if you've been to many educator gatherings lately, you wouldn't think so, either.) It also assumes that that the costs associated with treating obese educators are similar to those for the population as a whole, where these expenses account for at least six percent and as much as eleven percent of America's health care bill. (This includes the higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, etc. associated with excessive weight.) According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, schools spend about 16 cents on health insurance for every dollar they pay in salaries. And the National Center for Education Statistics reports that, in 2004-2005, our schools spent about $260 billion on salaries. Do the math and you arrive at the eye-popping figure of at least $2.5 billion per year for obesity-related health care for school system employees.

That's a lot of money--dollars that could be used in the classroom instead, boosting teacher salaries or lowering class sizes, buying better software programs or doing any number of other things that might actually help students learn more. A study by the Prichard Committee, a Kentucky-based education reform group, found that 83 percent of the growth in education spending in that state from 1992 to 2004 was gobbled up by rising health care and pension costs. If taxpayers feel like they keep pumping more money into our public schools without getting much in return, plump educators might be one reason why.

What might schools do? First, stop giving health care away for free. Thanks to over-generous collective bargaining agreements, many teachers pay little or nothing for health insurance, making them oblivious to the cost of medical care. In New York, Philadelphia, and San Diego, for example, the district picks up the entire cost of health insurance premiums for teachers. (New York City picks up the tab for their families, too. And that's without even getting to the sticky, pricey issue of former and retired teachers and their families.)

''Free healthcare'' is probably not the motivating factor for Super-Sizing one's order at McDonald's or ordering three pizzas for a group that could easily get by with two. But asking teachers to shoulder some of the burden of paying for their medical expenses would provide at least a nudge in the right direction.

It's not unlike paying taxes. When most of us were young, earning a low salary, and thus paying few taxes, we tended to ignore debates about the size of government. As we earned more, however, and found ourselves paying thousands of dollars a year in taxes, questions about government costs and efficiency got much more relevant. It's my money at stake now; and I don't want government wasting my money.

So it is with health care. If insurance isn't costing us anything, we become oblivious to the news that health-care costs are soaring. But if those soaring costs start to take a bite out of my paycheck, I become more sensitive to the ways people waste (and overcharge for) health care. Perhaps it will make me want to be healthier in order to keep my bill from rising--but just as importantly, it will make me more aware of how the behavior of others is biting into my take-home pay. In subtle ways that starts to put a stigma on unhealthy behavior.

Smart school systems would also subsidize wellness and prevention programs to help their employees exercise, lose weight, and get healthy. (Corporations have been doing this for years--not out of love but out of concern for their bottom lines.) They could offer (and help pay for) Weight Watchers-type programs on school grounds. They could ensure that the school cafeteria offers healthy options. High schools could make their gym and fitness facilities available to teachers; even elementary schools usually have mats on which yoga or Pilates is possible. And they might discourage the parade of cakes, brownies, doughnuts, and other goodies that make their way regularly into the faculty lounge.

Such efforts can make a difference. Last year, the American Federation of Teachers highlighted a program in Minneapolis whereby the district paid for ''wellness-related expenses ranging from exercise equipment to health club memberships to behavior modification programs such as smoking cessation, weight loss or stress management classes.'' Health insurance claims dropped by 10 to 15 percent among teachers who participated in the program.

There's another benefit: how better to encourage chubby children to exercise and eat right and lose weight than for them to see their heroes--their teachers--do so?

As schools wrap up for the year, and school boards fret about straining budgets, here's a suggestion education leaders might take to heart: encourage your staff to get some R and R this summer, sure, but encourage them to exercise and eat right, too.

by Michael J. Petrilli

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News and Analysis

Rheewind on school funding

Why is District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, the darling of education reformers (usually including us), eliminating one of the few promising features that greeted her in the D.C. public school system? Is she a control freak, even when she shouldn't be?

Rhee plans to scrap D.C.'s weighted student formula (WSF), which was put in place in 1998 by then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to encourage equity in school funding, combined with greater budgetary transparency and school-level autonomy. Rhee's decision is no mere ''budget formula change,'' as a Washington Post headline would have us believe. WSF is a comprehensive reform and a profoundly important one. By developing school-level budgets based on per-pupil funding amounts that vary with students' needs, WSF is efficient, fair, and transparent. District-centered models (such as Rhee plans to reimpose) are not. They control funding from the central office and allocate teachers and other resources to schools based on arcane staffing formulas, political considerations, or the whims of bureaucrats. They sap control and autonomy from principals--especially ironic in this instance as Rhee is also firing weak school leaders and scouting all over the place for strong ones.

WSF bases its funding levels on the students that each school serves. A pupil from a disadvantaged background, for example, brings more dollars--actual dollars, not dollars in the form of staff members, etc.--to his school. Needier schools get more cash and can spend it on staff, on services, on library books, technology, longer days, whatever is needed.

The type of system to which Rhee would return allocates teachers to schools and then allows budgets to be driven primarily by the sums of their salaries. Thus, a school that employs lots of veteran teachers, who get fatter paychecks, ends up with a larger budget than another school just down the road. (To compound the problem, veteran teachers tend to flock to schools enrolling easier pupils.) Marguerite Roza and other analysts have found that such nuances can lead to huge funding inequities between schools in the same district--inequities that may be worse than those between districts or between states.

It's absurd to see Rhee assert that this change will bring greater equity to D.C.'s classrooms. And if certain schools or students are currently being short-changed, as Rhee says, the WSF ''weightings'' could be tweaked to better target specific types of students. In a school system averaging nearly $15,000 per student per year, there's plenty of money to do many things. If decade-old WSF weightings aren't suited to 2008, change them.

Why is this crackerjack education executive making this poor choice? The story her office told the Washington Post is that seizing budget control will ''help her make good on a core promise: to provide every D.C. school with art, music, and physical education teachers.'' But if she wants principals to focus on these subjects or hire more staff in these areas, why didn't she just ask them to do so? They work for her (she just fired 24 of them, after all). Is it because she doesn't trust many of those who remain to make wise budgetary decisions? Or is it because she really wants to micromanage everything everywhere in the sprawling system?

Instead, Rhee has stripped all her principals of their budgetary powers. One wonders how she expects to fulfill the first stated goal of her Year 1 Plan, to ''aggressively recruit top school leaders,'' when she has removed from D.C. principals the authority to manage their schools' resources? Consolidating power in the central office in this way is a step backward. Every industry other than education seems to have learned that decentralized decision-making, coupled with accountability (and strong unit-level leaders), is the way to develop high-performing organizations.

by Eric Osberg

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Recommended Readings

Obama on offense

Yesterday, Barack Obama decided to capitalize on John McCain's total, no-caveats embrace of No Child Left Behind. The Illinois Senator, speaking at the Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts: ''I believe it's time to lead a new era of mutual responsibility in education... This starts with fixing the broken promises of No Child Left Behind.'' Obama went on to say that he believed in higher standards, believed in putting quality teachers in every classroom, believed in closing the achievement gap, but that he didn't believe that NCLB's current iteration did those things well. It's the safest bet in Vegas that most Americans agree with him. John McCain's team responded by criticizing Obama's Senate record. ''While in the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama has never spearheaded education reforms, which despite his lofty rhetoric, demonstrates his weak leadership on an issue that is critical to the economic strength of our country,'' said McCain's spokesman. That's it? Sheesh.

''Obama tours Colorado school, touts education plans,'' by Judith Kohler, Associated Press, May 28, 2008

''Obama Wonks It Up in Education Speech,'' by Karl Vick, Washington Post Online, May 28, 2008

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That's bull, Durham

Durham, North Carolina, allows its public-school students a variety of educational choices: pupils in the district have been free to apply for any open spot at any public school. But now, it seems, that wise policy may be changed. The Raleigh News & Observer reports that a new school board proposal ''would grant transfers only to students seeking certain academic programs or those who have extenuating circumstances, such as a sibling or parent at another school, or child-care arrangements in another school's attendance zone.'' Are you a parent who simply prefers one Durham public school to another? Tough tobacco. Board members say they're concerned about overcrowding. But they're also (and probably more) worried that the district's transfer policy causes some schools to enroll student bodies that aren't ethnically diverse, or that it, according to Board Chairman Minnie Forte-Brown, leads to ''pockets of excellence'' throughout the system. (Excellence? We must rid ourselves of it!) Durham is moving in the wrong direction, and if it does eventually begin plucking from schools students who explicitly picked them, the district may realize its folly when the phones start ringing.

''Durham schools rethink transfers,'' by Samiha Khanna, Raleigh News & Observer, May 23, 2008


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More blood on China's hands

It is wrong to condemn children to bad schools. But it is dastardly to teach them in unsafe, shoddily-constructed buildings. The Chinese authorities are, it seems, quite guilty of the latter offense. Of the 61,000 people whose lives were ended by the recent earthquakes in Sichuan Province, over 10,000 were children crushed while attending class. The four-story Xinjian Primary School, for example, was completely destroyed; hundreds of students perished when the building's walls toppled. The New York Times showed photographs of Xinjian's wreckage to six engineering and earthquake experts, each of whom independently concluded that the school's columns had inadequate steel reinforcements and that its walls and floors ''did not appear to be securely joined together.'' Meanwhile, neighboring buildings, properly constructed, survived the quake. Corruption and lax enforcement of codes are to blame. China has done much for which it should be ashamed. Add the brazen neglect of schoolchildren to the list. Open the Olympics with a view of thousands of small coffins as well as pictures of tortured Tibetans.

''Chinese Are Left to Ask Why Schools Crumbled,'' by Jim Yardley, New York Times, May 25, 2008

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Cut-score cacophony

Yet another example of a state backing away from high standards. A committee, composed largely of Georgia teachers, included challenging new questions in the state's sixth- and seventh-grade social studies exams. Then, Georgia's Board of Education raised by nine points the score needed to pass those tests. Then, 70 to 80 percent of Georgia's kids failed them. The state knew in 2007, after scoring pilot questions, that tens of thousands of pupils would likely bomb the exams, but it nonetheless allowed testing to go forward, apparently because officials wanted to uphold rigid academic standards. (Imagine that.) Now comes the backlash. ''This is atrocious and unforgivable,'' said seventh-grade educator Jason Adams. ''This is the kind of thing where a heads-up to teachers would have been nice.'' (Heads-up, Mr. Adams! Your students aren't learning much about social studies.) State superintendent Kathy Cox heard the complaints, bowed to pressure, and dumped the social studies results, blaming them, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, on ''a vague curriculum and imprecise direction for teachers.'' Deafening now is the din from state and district officials who argue about what, exactly, could have caused such all-around low scores. An obvious point is rarely, if ever, mentioned: Perhaps students in Georgia simply don't know much history? Perhaps the problem lies not in the standards or the tests, but in the classrooms?

''State foresaw test problems,'' by Heather Vogell, Laura Diamond, and Alan Judd, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 22, 2008

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Good grammar

Capping off a debate described by one politician as ''contaminated and a circus,'' the Texas Education Board last week endorsed a back-to-basics approach to reading comprehension and grammar in the English standards for the Lone Star State. The board rejected a proposal (supported by various teacher groups) that called for submerging grammar instruction into general reading and writing lessons. Instead, the majority of board members (''social conservatives,'' grumped the Houston Chronicle) voted for standards that ensure grammar is taught independently of its language-arts cousins. Texas teachers are now howling that their suggestions were ignored. Alana Morris, a district-level language arts program director, said that because Texas students won't learn reading comprehension, ''we will continue to have boards like this with people who can't comprehend simple things like teacher input.'' Of course, the board did comprehend teacher input. It just rightly rejected the parts of it that weren't sound.

''English standards head back to basics,'' by Gary Scharrer, Houston Chronicle, May 22, 2008

''Texas Education Board rejects English teachers' input on new curriculum standards,'' by Terrence Stutz, Dallas Morning News, May 22, 2008

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A drag on standards Down Under

The drive to lower standards can take on ridiculous guises. See, for example, the case of 18-year-old Australian Nicholas Benjamin Siiankoski, who recently pleaded guilty to possession of Ecstasy. Justice George Fryberg sentenced him to three years' probation and 100 hours of community service. But the judge also added an interesting twist to the punishment. Since Siiankoski admitted to taking drugs since the age of 15, Fryberg ordered the teen to write a 3,000-word research essay--endnotes and all--on the harmful effects of marijuana and Ecstasy. Siiankoski had three months to turn in his paper. Ridiculous! cried the young man's lawyers. A 3,000-word assignment would be far too difficult for their client, who received low grades in school (possibly because he was high?). Fryberg caved and cut Siiankoski's sentence to 2,000 words. Bad idea, judge. Even pot-heads shouldn't be exempt from rigorous academic standards.

''Australian judge orders teen caught with Ecstasy to write essay on dangers of drugs,'' International Herald Tribune, May 23, 2008

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Flypaper's Finest

A weekly selection of the best offerings from Flypaper, Fordham's blog (from which you can now receive daily updates in your inbox).

OutMATCHed, Mike Petrilli
''This over-the-top, the sky-is-falling article from the Boston Globe is yet more evidence that the concept of 'standards' has taken a beating in public discourse. At issue is the MATCH public charter school, one of the nation's best, according to Newsweek....'' Read it here.

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Randi's (partly) right this time, Coby Loup
''Unions are wrong about a lot of things, but it probably is indeed the case that some principals value loyalty over competence and consequently make stupid personnel decisions. Most of them attained leadership positions by toeing the district line, and now they expect the same obedience from their employees....'' Read it here.

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The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Elven shoed

This week, Mike and Rick talk Georgia social studies exams, Texas English standards, and art and P.E. in Washington, D.C. Jeff Kuhner is outraged about madrassas in Fairfax County and Education News of the Weird is off the island. Click here to listen through our website and peruse past editions. To download the show as an mp3 to your computer, click here (no iPod required--this link will play through any music software on your computer, including Windows Media Player or RealPlayer). To subscribe to this podcast, or to get more information about how podcasts work, click here.

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Short Reviews

Paying for A's: An Early Exploration of Student Reward and Incentive Programs in Charter Schools
Margaret Raymond
Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Stanford University
April 2008

This study of the effectiveness of generalized student reward programs in charter schools is the first of its kind. Stanford analyst Margaret Raymond surveyed 186 charter schools and collected achievement data from 47 of them to determine whether employing various incentives--e.g., certificates of merit, college fund contributions, cash, for both academic and behavioral excellence--boosted student performance. The results were mixed but offer some cause for cheer. Overall, she found that using an incentive system is positively and significantly correlated with student achievement in reading, though not in math. However, her analysis also revealed that, when limited to the elementary school level, incentives lower performance. Raymond also ran analyses focusing on specific features of the programs that she measured. She found, for instance, that school incentive programs that secured the support of the principal, teachers, and staff were more effective in raising student achievement, as were those that operated in charter network schools, such as KIPP. The study carries a number of caveats, however. For one, all types of incentive programs--long-range and short-range, direct cash and scholarship--were lumped together. Also, when Raymond controlled for the neighborhoods where the schools were located (those in locales where many adults lack high school diplomas tend to offer more academic incentives), the positive correlations disappeared. Still, the study is a good launching point for future research on the topic, which is getting lots of attention around the land. Read it here.

by Coby Loup

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Managing School Districts for High Performance
Stacey Childress, Richard F. Elmore, Allen S. Grossman, Susan Moore Johnson, eds.
Harvard Education Press
2007

This bulky "case book" seeks to apply business-school teaching methods to the preparation (or mid-course tune-ups) of education leaders (superintendents, mostly). Edited by four Harvard faculty members (two at the ed school, two at the B-school) and published by the Harvard Education Press, it sorts 19 case studies into 5 categories: "Making Coherence Concrete," "Finding and Supporting Personnel," "Building a High-Performance Organization," "Managing Schools Across Difference," and "Sustaining High Performance Over Time." Each 20- to 30-page case study is accompanied by a few questions to provoke discussion, but optimal use of this tool clearly depends on gifted instructors who can elicit, elucidate, and enlighten through probing questions and analysis rather than the more traditional use of textbook and exhortation. You can learn more here.

by Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools
Charles M. Payne
Harvard Education Press
2008

This generally depressing, but also candid and gutsy, book by University of Chicago (social work school) professor Charles Payne is perceptive in its explanations of why so many reform theories and schemes have left so little lasting impact on America's urban schools. Though Rick Hess and David Tyack and Larry Cuban (among many others) have trod similar ground in the past, Payne does a good job with his mostly-sociological look at much of what's been tried and why its effects have been so evanescent. Chicago is his primary case in point. Especially worthwhile is his final chapter on the blindspots and follies of both conservative and progressive school-reform ideologies--and the very last paragraph of his epilogue, evoking how little about the core of education has changed since the lessons his own father learned in the classrooms of a great African-American eighth-grade teacher named William J. Moore. You can find out more here.

by Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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Implementation Study of Smaller Learning Communities
Abt Associates
May 2008

Small schools (also called schools-within-schools and small learning communities) have received much attention in the last few years, particularly because the Gates Foundation has provided extensive funding for them. The idea behind them is that large high schools are impersonal and smaller units offer students a more individualized and presumably better education. This study by Abt Associates examines data from 119 grantees of the federally funded Smaller Learning Communities (SLC) Program; all received initial funding in 2000. The results are less than overwhelming, though analysts do report a significant positive trend in the percentage of 9th-grade students being promoted to 10th grade during the post-grant period as well as a reduction in violent incidents. Lest they be accused of ''the-evaluator-doth-protest-too-much-(or not enough)-syndrome,'' the researchers also delineate a number of methodological caveats including pointing out the absence of a valid comparison group and the fact that results are based on school-reported data which vary greatly in quality and accuracy. Find the lukewarm findings and numerous caveats here.

by Amber Winkler

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Announcements

Jeb Bush and Donald Duck

Florida is never sunnier than in June. And on the 19th and 20th of that month, the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the James Madison Institute are hosting the Excellence in Action Education Summit in Orlando at the Walt Disney Contemporary Resort (Disney's Anachronistic Resort is booked on the same days, we hear, by the NEA). It features a great line-up, including former Governor Jeb Bush and his mother. Several of us will be speaking, too. Learn more about the event here.

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About Us

The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays, with occasional breaks) by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Contributors include: Chester E. Finn, Jr., Natascha Brooks, Christina Hentges, Liam Julian, Jeff Kuhner, Coby Loup, Eric Osberg, Michael J. Petrilli, and Amber Winkler. For Ohio news, check out the Ohio Education Gadfly, published bi-weekly (ordinarily on Wednesdays). Have something to say? Email us at letters@edexcellence.net. Would you like to be spared from the Gadfly? Email thegadfly@edexcellence.net with "unsubscribe gadfly" in the text of your message. You are welcome to forward Gadfly to others, and from our website you can even email individual articles. If you have been forwarded a copy of Gadfly and would like to subscribe, you may either email thegadfly@edexcellence.net with "subscribe gadfly" in the text of the message or sign up through our website, http://www.edexcellence.net. To read archived issues or obtain other reviews of reports and books, go to http://www.edexcellence.net and click on the Education Gadfly link.

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is a nonprofit organization that conducts research, issues publications, and directs action projects in elementary/secondary education reform at the national level and in Ohio, with a special emphasis on our hometown of Dayton. The Foundation is neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.

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