THE EDUCATION GADFLY

A Weekly Bulletin of News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 9, Number 6. February 12, 2009.

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This week on The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: In defense of Jewish History Month


Overview

From Checker's and Mike's Desks

News and Analysis

Recommended Readings

Flypaper's Finest

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Short Reviews

Announcements

Errata

About Us

From Checker's and Mike's Desks

Advice for Arne
At press time, your boss's stimulus package was hurtling toward final passage. We still don't know how much you're getting of what you wanted. But one thing is certain: you're going to have more discretion over more federal dollars than any education secretary in history. Which is not entirely a blessing. Remember the adage, "be careful what you wish for"?

Getting money out the door of 400 Maryland Ave S.W. is harder than it might look, particularly if you want the dollars to do some good (which you do) and when you don't have much of your own team on board yet to help you (which you don't).

Especially challenging will be your innovation fund. Details are sketchy but it looks like you'll have the authority to make grants to states, districts, and nonprofits to support a wide range of reform initiatives. Doing this quickly--and without the appearance of cronyism--will be a whopping challenge.

The rest of the education stimulus package will be tricky, too. If the short-run economic goal is to save 600,000 teacher jobs, as you have stated, then districts need to be able to use this flood of federal funds to "supplant" state and local dollars that are otherwise on the chopping block. At minimum, that's going to take much written guidance to the field, for it overturns decades of ESEA practice. It might take new regulations, too. And how can you make sure that, in the rush to get money to communities to save jobs, some of that money doesn't get skimmed off or used inappropriately? (Someone will inevitably try to use the funds to buy football uniforms; what are you going to do about it? If you don't do anything, what will the GAO and Inspector General say later?)

The management task ahead is enormous. But do not despair. Here are some bits of advice, much of it hard-earned from mistakes made during our time in government service, and some of it culled from other Education Department alums.

1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. The second the President signs his name to this stimulus bill, every governor, state chief, and local superintendent in the land will have a thousand questions for you. When will the money start flowing? How much will I receive? What strings are attached? What hoops must I jump? What can I use the money for? Can I use the dollars to make up for other budget cuts? How can I stay out of trouble with your auditors? And on and on and on. And the truth is: you won't have answers for all of them, at least for some time. Figuring out this stuff will be messy and tedious. But don't wait till all the t's are crossed before you communicate with the field. That was a mistake made by the Bush Administration in the early days of NCLB and it created a vacuum that led to anxiety, distrust, and generally a bad start. On an almost daily basis, you should be holding conference calls or virtual town meetings with interested parties so you can tell them how things are coming along. Even though you'll have to admit not knowing all the answers at first, being a constant presence and showing that you are listening to everyone's concerns will buy you some time and goodwill. You're already off to a good start on this front; keep it going.

2. Bring in key partners from Day One. Another mistake some of us in the Bush Administration made was trying to figure out our policies in detail internally before selling them to the Hill, the states, the career staff, etc. There are two problems with that "conveyor belt" strategy. First, it takes forever. Second, you set up adversarial relationships. Try a more collaborative approach. Invite key Congressional staffers to spend the next two or three months working at your side at the Department. Invite them (or their bosses) to key meetings. Reach out to governors and state chiefs. Sit down with your Inspector General to help you craft policies that achieve the goals of the stimulus package while minimizing the chances of waste, fraud, and abuse. Also ask her to review your plans for managing discretionary dollars. Trust us. A big reason the Reading First program went down in flames was because the IG never understood that it was meant to advantage certain vendors (with evidence of effectiveness) over others. Save yourself later pain by making the IG your friend. And open your doors to the expertise of senior careerists. You've got some good ones. They understand stuff like grants and contracts and can help keep you out of trouble.

3. Hire managers, not just policy experts. Another mistake most administrations make is to select senior officials based primarily on their known policy positions and their cheering sections in the field. You don't have that luxury. You need political appointees in key roles (like Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education) with experience managing big, complicated organizations and processes.

4. Use your bully pulpit to offer a vision. Most state education departments will be overwhelmed by the task of getting these funds flowing to school districts. That will probably lead to paralysis and a compliance mentality. We saw this during the Katrina relief effort. Hundreds of millions of dollars sat unspent in government coffers because state and local officials weren't sure what they could allocate the money toward. So they waited for direction from Washington rather than take chances that could get them in trouble. A similar dynamic is likely this time around. You need to offer them swift, clear guidance about the nuts-and-bolts of spending this money. But just as important is to encourage states (and districts) to push the envelope, be creative, and use this opportunity to embrace meaningful reform. Your rhetoric about "racing to the top" is a good start, but you should encourage your partners to think big about the entire stimulus package.

5. Be transparent. This is already an Obama administration mantra and for good reason. Particularly when implementing your innovation fund, there's no such thing as too much transparency. That's because discretionary federal dollars are like boiling oil, at least in education. Instead of statutory strings attached, there are non-statutory risks. Two are paramount--and have plagued previous education secretaries. First, when you give money to the QRS organization or project, you're not giving it to the XYZ group. That will anger the XYZ folks, who will complain to you, to the White House, to the Congress, and to the media. If complaining doesn't lead to their palms, too, being crossed with federal dollars, they will lambaste you, QRS, and the program itself. That's another big part of what got Reading First into deep trouble--grumps from those who did not get funded. (Read more here.) And second, you will be accused of favoritism, of giving money to your friends, admirers, and political backers. (But why would you give money to your enemies?) That's what happened when Rod Paige steered dollars toward worthy but controversial organizations such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options or the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. Some of us on his team erred by distributing these dollars in an opaque manner via "unsolicited proposals." Don't. You'll be much better off if you hold bona fide grant competitions for these dollars--especially if you end up supporting groups with known ties to your team, such as New Leaders for New Schools or Teach For America. This will slow you down a bit but it's worth it.

Historically, Congress has given education secretaries chicken feed by way of discretionary money. It has wanted to direct the flow of federal dollars, whether via formula or via earmark or via competitive-grant programs, which are heavily constrained by legislative language and priorities. The economic crisis besetting the country is changing many things, however, including what sorts of ventures Uncle Sam is getting into, what he's paying for, and how he's going about it. Like everybody else, we hope it succeeds. We're also slightly envious; the administrations we worked in had only miniscule sums to spend on their own priorities. But please consider our advice; it may reduce the odds that you'll get burned by the oil now beginning to bubble in that giant cauldron.

By Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli

News and Analysis

On the outside looking in
As tough economic times spread from coast to coast, a glance at the evening news offers images of hardship and despair. Down-on-their-luck workers standing in unemployment lines; small businesses shuttered; foreclosure notices on house after house. But here's another sorry sign of the times: more schools slamming doors shut to keep certain children out.

For ages, some high-performing, elite school systems have hired border guards and sleuths to detect and deter kids sneaking across the district lines to attend their schools. It's one of the ugliest features of American public education. And the recession is making it worse by slamming more doors, sometimes in really nasty ways.
 
Just last week, a Clayton County (Georgia) mother and her brother-in-law were convicted of felony misrepresentation because the mother allegedly moved in with her sister in nearby Henry County in order to enroll her son in a Henry County high school. The court ordered Mom to pay back $1,200 in school fees, amongst other things. Clayton County has been bleeding students since last fall when it lost accreditation. But instead of picking itself up and dusting itself off, the county government is determined to sequester students in Clayton's failing schools--and arrest parents trying to do right by their children.

Then there's Beverly Hills School District in sunny California. Yes, that Beverly Hills. For many years, they offered a variety of "opportunity" permits to students living outside the district, in part to encourage greater socioeconomic diversity in their schools. Until now, the district has received approximately $6,000 in state aid per out-of-boundary student. But Beverly Hills is about to become one of California's "basic aid" districts, like other wealthy enclaves such as Palo Alto, Montecito, and Carmel, meaning that it will receive minimal dollars from state coffers. And guess what: Non-resident students parents are starting to be called "freeloaders." The district has already decided to issue no new permits; now it's contemplating kicking out permit students already enrolled.

As John Edwards might have said, it doesn't have to be this way. Consider Arizona, which boasts one of the best "open enrollment" programs in the land. There, kids may attend any school in the entire state. (There are, admittedly, practical geographic and school capacity limitations to this arrangement.) And, importantly, state dollars follow kids to their new schools. As a result, schools in financially-strapped Mesa, for example, are competing for students as a way to raise revenue and closet budget shortfalls. In other words, Arizona's system encourages schools to open their doors to non-residents, rather than shut them.

Budgets are only bound to get tighter. States should incentivize districts to serve as many children as they can, regardless of their zip code. Public education is meant to be just that: public. Such policies might even bring some happier images to the evening news.

By Stafford Palmieri

Recommended Readings

Bloomberg bails out Brooklyn's Catholic schools
Will New York's mayor henceforth be known as Michael "Noah" Bloomberg? Perhaps, if the bishop of the Brooklyn diocese, Nicholas DiMarzio, could rename him. DiMarzio recently likened the former financial guru to the Ark's captain for throwing the diocese a "lifeline" after the two agreed on a plan to convert four struggling Catholic schools to charters. The diocese announced earlier this year that fourteen Catholic elementary schools in Brooklyn and Queens would close in May due to declining enrollments and empty coffers. Fortunately, hizzoner and Pope's representative have an example to emulate: Washington, D.C., which saw the conversion of seven Catholic schools to charters last year. New York's plan follows a similar strategy: The city would lease the buildings, current students would be guaranteed seats at the new school, and all things religious would be removed. But the plan, to our mind, is bittersweet (separate and apart from the solely bitter news that ten Catholic schools in Brooklyn will apparently close altogether). While conversion will save these four schools, receiving public dollars means eliminating the religious grounding that makes parochial schools unique. Nor is Bloomberg exactly a saint; his high-powered fundraising for his own public schools likely squeezed out private dollars that might have kept these Catholic schools Catholic. But as one parent explained, if they can't keep the schools open as is, going charter "is the next best thing."

"Mayor and Bishop Propose a Plan to Save Schools," by Javier Hernandez, New York Times, February 8, 2009

"N.Y. Catholic Schools Explore Conversion," The Associated Press, February 7, 2009

"Catholic schools set to close may get second lease on life as charter schools, Mayor says," by Kathleen Lucadamo, New York Daily News, February 7, 2009

More charter school unionization
If the decline of Catholic schools is disturbing trend number one, this is disturbing trend numero dos: highly celebrated and successful charter schools being unionized. Just a few weeks back, teachers at two KIPP schools in New York announced that they would unionize. Now teachers at the Los Angeles Accelerated School, (ironically) chosen by TIME Magazine as the 2001's elementary school of the year for being free of "red tape that often chokes other institutions," have offered the figurative olive branch to United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). Bad news. The problem is that the staffing decisions and long hours common to charter schools are part of their model--and key to their success. Unionization, at least when accompanied by thick, burdensome collective bargaining agreements (UTLA's is "phone book sized," according to the LA Times), typically inhibits the very things that make charter schools, well, charters, and these particularly successful schools, well, successful. Although we're convinced unions and charters mix like oil and water, it may be just wishful thinking to hope this trend goes the way of big Wall Street bonuses.

"L.A. charter staff reaches out to teachers union," by Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times, February 9, 2009

Million dollar teachers
Calling all recent unemployed college grads! Hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of teachers in the Anne Arundel County, Maryland school district earn over $100,000 per year in salary alone, not to mention extremely generous benefits and a guaranteed pension that can bank as much $2 million buckaroos for a person of normal life expectancy. Starting salaries clock in at a nice round $40,000, too--not including $15,000 in health, dental, and vision benefits. Surprised by these figures? You're not alone; according to Education Next, Americans underestimate average teacher salaries by 30 percent. That's because recruiting groups like the Maryland Teacher Shortage Task Force and the National Education Association continue to downplay the fiscal benefits of teaching, counting on the altruistic nature of young idealists to form the base of new teachers. Countless top candidates are deterred from teaching by the rumors of low pay, so why all the secrecy? If districts really want to recruit the best and the brightest, it's time to get out there, scream from the rooftops, advertise on billboards, do anything to make it public: Teaching = $$$!

"Need Teachers? Show Them the Money," by J.H. Snider, Washington Post, February 8, 2009

Green valentines
Traditionalists often lament the disappearance of letter-writing, personal notes, and other niceties of a time gone by. But have they ever considered the environmental impact of all that stationery? Ruth Loucks's fourth and fifth graders at Brant Central School in Southwestern Ontario have such matters on their minds. Using their math skills, they determined that nine hundred pieces of paper would be consumed if each pupil gave a Valentine to every one of his or her classmates. Extrapolate that to all the classrooms in the school and the number grows to over 4,000. Contemplate the entire school district and over 400,000 Valentines would end up in landfills after the celebrations are over. "If we made a whole bunch of cards, it would take a whole bunch of trees, and they would all end up in the garbage," said student Jacob Weber. How true, Jacob! So the class developed a reasonable solution: each student will draw a name from a hat and create a single Valentine for just that person. But don't be fooled by the modesty of that idea. The students' aims are much larger. "If we wouldn't really buy as many Valentine cards, perhaps next year there won't be as many little Valentines in the stores," said little Sarah Frook. Sounds like Hallmark might be next in line for a bailout.

"Students look to end paper waste created by Valentine's Day cards," by Christine Brandt, The Walkerton Herald Times, February 10, 2009

Flypaper's Finest
A weekly selection of the best offerings from Flypaper, Fordham's blog.

A jobs bill worth supporting, Mike Petrilli
Regular Flypaper readers know that I've been skeptical of the stimulus package moving through Congress, at least as it relates to education. I'm worried that bailing out school districts will delay painful but necessary choices and reforms; that it sets a precedent for greater federal funding of education, which will inevitably lead to greater federal micromanagement; and that eventually, reformers are going to have to win battles without buying off the education establishment. But then I listened to President Barack Obama's comments from last night. I finally heard what I've been waiting for: a clear, compelling case for saving hundreds of thousands of teacher jobs…Read it here.

Michelle defends herself?, Stafford Palmieri
The lady with a mission has a soft side. This morning's Washington Post featured an editorial from DC Chancellor of Schools herself. I couldn't help but hear a sharply defensive tone throughout and be somewhat mystified by the whole thing. Is Madame Scorched Earth, to ad lib Weingarten's nickname for her policies, announcing the planting of a veritable forest? Or is she just trying to smooth things over after thoroughly alienating the District's teaching force? Three things, in particular, stuck out…Read it here.

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

In Defense of Jewish History Month
This week, Mike and Rick debate Arne's pot of discretionary boodle, the real salary potential of teachers, and the post-Obama fate of Black History Month. Then Amber explains why we should be suspicious of a new study on lead levels and achievement and Rate that Reform documents schools' Valentine's Day coping strategies. 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).

Short Reviews

Report Card on American Education: A State-by-State Analysis, 15th Edition
Andrew LeFevre
American Legislative Exchange Council
2008

This report presents an overview of educational inputs, outputs, and demographics, both nationwide and state-by-state, over the last ten years. It underscores the well-known fact that there's little discernible relationship between spending and achievement. In fact, what little relationship there is actually demonstrates that an excess of the former may have, in fact, hindered the latter by wasting money on failed policies--policies that may have gotten in the way of effective instruction and money that could have been used for approaches that actually work. To emphasize this point, the report includes scads of charts longitudinally tallying, by state, everything from the number of teachers to actual federal dollars received each year for education. It also ranks the states by such factors as average per-pupil expenditure, pupil-teacher ratio, and average salary of instructional staff. Some noteworthy findings: D.C. is top dog when it comes to average salary of instructional staff ($61,195) but dead last in achievement. And average per-pupil expenditures nationwide have approximately doubled since A Nation at Risk. Plenty of useful data here, though the report paints with a very broad brush and doesn't do much adjusting for demographics, differing costs, and such. You can find it here.

By Stafford Palmieri

Trends in preschool lead exposure, mental retardation, and scholastic achievement: Association or causation?
Rick Nevin, National Center for Healthy Housing
Journal of Environmental Research
January 2009

Could the incidence of mental retardation and lagging SAT scores be related to juvenile lead exposure? Quite possibly, suggests Virginia economist Rick Nevin, in a study published this month. There appears to be a strong statistical relationship between mental retardation, SAT trends, and blood lead levels in children between 1936 and 1990. As lead levels went up, SAT scores went down, and vice versa. A rise in lead levels was associated with an increase in mental retardation cases. If a causal relationship were true, this would be a shocking discovery. Unfortunately, these findings are somewhat compromised by less-than-sturdy analytic methods. First, the "unit of analysis" is the entire United States--not an individual, much less a state; such a large scope means it's much easier to mask other factors that may have impacted the findings. Second, Nevin uses the percent of students with mental retardation in special education as his mental retardation variable, but we know that definitions of special education categories vary widely across states and have changed substantially over the last 50 years. And finally, when treating SAT takers, Nevin controlled for the number of students speaking a foreign language at home and for the number of students taking SAT test prep courses--both factors that could impact scores--but he didn't control for economic status, which is more relevant. A more credible approach would emerge from a true longitudinal study that followed lead-exposed children and correlated individual-level data on mental retardation and achievement as they grew older. We should by all means protect kids from consuming lead, but the verdict is still out on whether doing so will send SAT scores through the roof--and the incidence of mental retardation into the cellar. The study is available for a fee here

By Amber Winkler

Announcements

Introducing Fordham's latest…
...Is a panel of Fordham Trustees (featuring David Driscoll, Bruno Manno, Rod Paige, and Diane Ravitch) on February 23 from 4:30-5:45. The topic: whether NCLB damaged school accountability--and whether President Obama can mend it. The report itself, The Accountability Illusion, will be released on February 19. Space is running out so RSVP to Christina Hentges at rsvp@edexcellence.net!

The truth about 21st century skills
Seems 21st Century skills have become all the rage, but do they deserve the kudos? Common Core will take on this very topic on February 24, 2009 from 1:30 to 3:00 pm. The event, entitled "What is the Proper Role of Skills in the Curriculum? A critique of the idea of 21st century skills," will feature panelists Diane Ravitch (Research Professor of Education, New York University), E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (Founder and Chairman, Core Knowledge Foundation), Daniel Willingham (Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia), and Ken Kay (President, Partnership for 21st Century Skills). Antonia Cortese (Secretary-Treasurer, American Federation of Teachers) will moderate. RSVP to info@commoncore.org.

Errata

Win one for the Gippar?
Gadfly must have been thinking fondly back to the days of yore when he misspelled the first name of one of our guest editorialists. The Center for American Progress's Mr. Miller spells his first name Raegen, not Raegan.

Still going strong
In case you were curious about last week's Gadfly email title ("Time to retire"), we are here to assure you: neither we nor Mr. Gadfly are planning to superannuate. Our email server, which tends to have a mind of its own, snipped off the last half of our feature editorial's appellation. The email subject line should have read "Time to retire 'last hired, first fired.'" You can breathe a sigh of relief now.

About Us
The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Amy Fagan, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Christina Hentges, Ben Hoffman, Hannah Miller, Eric Osberg, Stafford Palmieri, Michael J. Petrilli, Laura Elizabeth Pohl, Katie Wilczak, Amber Winkler, and Yusi Zheng. Have something to say? Email us at thegadfly@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 also 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, ce.edexcellence.net. To read archived issues or obtain other reviews of reports and books, go to www.edexcellence.net and click on the Education Gadfly link.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute 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. (For Ohio news, check out our Ohio Education Gadfly, published bi-weekly, ordinarily on Wednesdays.)The Institute is neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.