Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Child Labor, Child Abuse, and the New Schooling for the Poor

Posted to Schools Matter, 07.26.06

During the 1930s, child labor laws were finally taken seriously only after the jobs that children were doing in factories became essential to keep adult men from starving during the Depression. Mandatory school attendance laws were beefed up, and liberals could pat themselves on the backs that they had ended an era of child exploitation.

Well, there is a new war on childhood to combat for any remaining liberals who care to notice, and this one begins in poor neighborhood kindergartens (see Times story) that were intended, ironically, to remove children from the onerous world of adult work. Yes, test preparation has bled through to the children’s garden like an unstoppable dark stain that threatens to blot out our understanding of the healthy development of human children. Those deluded “educators” who still believe that the current era of education reform-by-testing is intended to close the achievement gap, are finding that they must begin earlier and earlier to impose a rigid instructional orthodoxy in hopes of displacing the implacable effects of poverty, the chief reason there is an achievement gap to begin with.

So work begins for poor children at an earlier age, replacing the essential play required for healthy psychological and social development, which is now reserved for zip codes where economic privilege allows for very different kindergarten curriculums. In the meantime, Poverty, the unseen elephant, continues to trumpet and the tear around the classroom where preoccupied teachers work to keep up the schedule of phonics drills, arithmetic drills, and bubble coloring that they are required to choke down their children with ever-increasing difficulty.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy—fit for the dull job that is planned for him in a dull world he will never be asked or enabled to understand.

Would you allow this for your child in her kindergarten? Or would you call it child abuse?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Nature vs Nurture (again)

In this NYT Magazine article David Kirp reviews recent studies on IQ heritability, including comparative studies of twins (who are genetically identical) brought up in different environments:

While there is a consensus now that genetic factors play a large role in IQ potential, environmental factors explain a good deal of the variation – and, notably, environmental factors play a very large role for children brought up in poor households. This is a direct refutation of projects like The Bell Curve, which argued that genetic factors are determinative.

Kirp says that this research is support for a universal preschool program. Matt Yglesias takes it in a slightly different direction:
The best way to cope with this would be to take steps to enhance the material living standards of poor adults. That would be a nice favor to the adults and would significantly reduce the challenges facing their children. Unfortunately, while the electorate has a reasonable willingness to try and do things to help out poor kids (because it's "not their fault" that their parents are poor) there's a lot of reluctance to providing serious assistance to poor adults who are deemed to "deserve" their fate. This is a significant political challenge, but I think the policy issue is reasonably clear -- the best way to help poor children is to help poor people generally.


Saturday, July 22, 2006

Don't Tell Me (What I Don't Want to Hear)

I don’t know why one might think that the Dept of Education would be less prone to intellectual dishonesty – but under this administration they certainly aren’t
[SusanG] Showing up this past Tuesday to pitch a $100 million school voucher program to Congress that would allow students in underachieving public schools to transfer their bodies - and taxpayer-provided $4,000 per pupil - to private schools, [Margaret Spellings, head of the U.S. Department of Education] admitted she hadn't read a report issued by her own department the previous Friday that found little difference between student performance in public versus private schools. . .

[USAT] She also would not comment on the long-awaited public/private study, saying she hadn't read the report in full and only learned of its release by reading about it in newspapers Saturday. The department on Friday morning had sent the results to about 11,000 people who subscribe to an Internet e-mail list. . . . Russ Whitehurst, director of the department's Institute for Education Sciences, which oversees research, said it had been made available to Spellings two weeks earlier, but that he hadn't talked with her about it.

Spelling also refused to comment on whether, under the proposed voucher plan, private schools would be held accountable under the same rigorous testing guidelines that No Child Left Behind policy requires of public schools. It's tempting to suspect she was dodging the question, but given her lamentable lack of familiarity with research for her own department, it's entirely possible that she simply doesn't know.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Russ Whitehead doesn't know Daniel

I would have preferred to label this entry, "Russ Whitehead doesn't know Jack," but we'll have to stick with Daniel because Daniel Levy and his fellow investigators are currently running the continuing Framingham Heart Study, originally started in 1948. The current obsession in Washington education circles is scientifically based research, because it's mentioned in the No Child Left Behind Act as a priority. Russ Whitehead has interpreted that to mean that randomly-controlled experiments (RCTs) are the gold standard of research.

Please tell that to my doctor. When I go in for my occasional checkups, he takes my vitals and plugs them into a well-known formula to predict 10-year risks of heart attacks. This formula comes from the Framingham Heart Study, which has contributed thousands of person-years of exposure to various heart risks from over 10,000 participants. Dr. Whitehead, may I introduce you to the term epidemiology? It's not randomly controlled, but it happens to be the best way to identify patterns of risks and consequences in a real, living population.

RCTs are great to test initial therapies in medicine. And I wish that we could invest more money into the type of validation for educational reforms that therapeutic drugs have to go through, not only before being approved for use in human beings but also in identifying side effects and following up on the consequences of broader uses. But RCTs only test narrow questions: does A work better than B in a certain context? They are only a part of medical research, and one could make a pretty good argument that they have been less important to increasing life expectancy than good public-health research. (Reality-check question: Who was the first person to single-handedly stop a cluster of cholera cases, and how?)

Of everyone invited to a 2002 Ed Department seminar on what scientifically based research is, only Stephen Raudenbusch acknowledged the silliness of saying only RCTs are science or even a gold standard. Or, if RCTs are a gold standard in medicine, epidemiology is the platinum standard. Shame on everyone who pretends otherwise.

More on the GOP voucher plan

More on the GOP voucher proposal. We’ve learned from the NCLB blueprint how these initiatives go – you tie the bill to a big burst of initial funding, as an enticement to get the structure built in, then gradually CUT funding over time so that the program is actually unworkable as originally conceived. Does ANYONE believe that the Republicans are interested in a permanent program to give low-income kids hefty stipends to spend on schools of their choice?
[Steve Benen] In reality, this isn't about expanding "opportunities"; this is about a sop to the GOP base, which wants to take steps towards privatizing education and subsidizing private academies.

The plan will give "the children of lower-income families . . . the same opportunities wealthier families have," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

Nonsense. The GOP, which recently rejected a modest increase to the minimum wage, wants children of lower-income families to have "the same opportunities wealthier families have"? I'm delighted to hear that. Maybe we can start with those families that can't afford the same kinds of housing opportunities that wealthier families have. And the same kind of health care. And the same kinds of transportation, nutrition, and political influence.

Also keep in mind, over the last two years, the Bush administration, which never fully funded its own education plan, has proposed cutting federal support for public education. And some of the same congressional Republicans who want private school vouchers because of their heartfelt concern for low-income children also cut funding for housing vouchers for low-income families.

With this in mind, the new school voucher scheme is a transparent charade. The GOP isn't worried about opportunities for low-income kids; they're worried about opportunities to make James Dobson happy.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Voucher Crusaders Sweating Bullets

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Tierney and the Earthquake Under the School Voucher Formation

Prometheus 6 provides a good antidote to John Tierney's desperate scrambling in the Times to salvage his Party's school privatization crusade. Since the research study was whispered out last Friday showing private schools no better than public ones, and some religious schools much worse, Tierney has been marched out to announce a new rationale for vouchering America and crushing the public schools. No longer is school privatization about getting children out of failing schools and into better ones--it is now about saving American taxpayers money by giving a reduced amount of public dollars to private church schools to provide the same quality of education that was a national disgrace, according to the cons, when it was done in a public school. Never mind that many of these discount church schools don't require teachers but, rather, script readers, and they offer none of the social and psychological and media and counseling and transportation services that are essential in most communities, especially in schools with large numbers of the kinds of children with lots of melanin that Tierney would like to stuff into religious indoctrination camps.

I have just one question for Tierney: Would he send his own child to one of these 3 thousand dollar a year church schools? I think I know the answer, and I suspect it would be the same one if I were to ask him if he would send his child to one of the poverty-riddled public schools? I think his child and every other child deserves better.

Posted at Schools Matter 07.18.06

Monday, July 17, 2006

Reflections on Teacher Recruitment

What is the PISA test? It's an international comparison, sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, of student achievement in reading and math, conducted on 15 year olds every three years (2000, 2003, . . .). Everyone around the world pays attention to this, but I'll bet most people in education in the US have no idea what it is. (I didn't.)

For more, see:,2987,en_32252351_32235731_1_1_1_1_1,00.html

It's worth reading Barry McGaw's analysis of the last two tests. McGaw is the former Education Director of OECD, and a very sharp analyst. He's a professor at the University of Melbourne:

While McGaw's main focus in this talk is Australia, there is a lot to learn from his charts and analyses about US schooling as well. The punch line: US performance in reading and math is both lower overall, and also much less equitable, than most of the countries we would regard as "peers" in education.

But that's not primarily what drives this posting. What interests me is a comment from a workshop held here in Tasmania a couple of weeks ago, on the state of teacher education. A major focus of the conversation was how to recruit more good people into teaching, and the impediments to doing so. Australia's (relatively good) performance on the PISA test was noted, but people asked what was different about the countries that truly excelled. Predictably, here as in the United States, a major barrier to recruitment and retention is the low priority and status accorded teaching.

And this made me think, for a country that was truly interested in improving and providing a more equitable education -- and specifically in improving the overall quality, diversity, and availability of good teachers for every school in the country -- wouldn't priority number one be better recruiting? I think of those flashy and super-expensive commercials the government produces to entice young people into enlisting into the Army or other military services -- ads which are ubiquitous during sporting events, MTV, and other youth-attracting tv shows.

The national budget for military recruitment and advertising is hard to pin down:

This site says about $3 billion:

But the total is probably much greater than that -- the Army budget alone was $1.3 billion in 2005:

A better guess is well over $4 billion:

I mention this not to bash aggressive military recruitment (not today, anyway) -- although, did you know that the "No Child Left Behind legislation mandates that school districts receiving federal funds send the military names, phone numbers and addresses of all high school seniors and grants recruiters access to students on high school campuses"?

Rather, I just want to ask the simple question, What difference would it make if the federal government spent $4 - 5 billion a year promoting the virtues of teaching, praising the commitment and sacrifice of teachers, and making the career of teaching an appealing career choice? What if the President went out of his way to praise teachers with the frequency and passion that he praised soldiers? Would the status and visibility of teaching be different if it were accorded the same kind of respect?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Follow-up on Public/Private Comparisons
The Depressing Truth
By Matthew Yglesias

Well, events abroad are pretty depressing on their own. Nevertheless, I think this study comparing private schools to public schools is pretty depressing as well. What it shows, roughly, is that once you implement standard demographic controls, kids in private schools do about as well (or as poorly) as kids in public schools. The good news is that this offers a solid talking point against school vouchers, thus bolstering everyone's ability to adhere to the liberal orthodoxy in good conscience.

The bad news is that this once again highlights what seems to me to be the depressing truth about education: Once you control for demographic factors, nothing seems to make a dramatic difference. The trouble here, obviously, is that it would be really fantastic to implement some education reforms of some sort that would dramatically improve poor and minority students' performance. But there don't seem to be any really great solutions in the offing. That, in turn, highlights the vital importance of trying to directly tackle poverty and inequality rather than hoping that the school system -- even an improved version of it -- can redress inequities that arise elsewhere in the social and economic system.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

New Study Shows Public Schools Outperform Privates

In case you need more evidence that NCLB has NOTHING to do with improving public schools, but rather crushing them under unrealistic and unfunded policy mandates, and thereby opening up the market for private and parochial school competitors
[NYT] The Education Department reported on Friday that children in public schools generally performed as well or better in reading and mathematics than comparable children in private schools . . . The report. . . also found that conservative Christian schools lagged significantly behind public schools on eighth-grade math.

The study, carrying the imprimatur of the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the Education Department, was contracted to the Educational Testing Service and delivered to the department last year.

It went through a lengthy peer review and includes an extended section of caveats about its limitations and calling such a comparison of public and private schools “of modest utility.”

Its release, on a summer Friday, was made with without a news conference or comment from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. . .

A spokesman for the Education Department, Chad Colby, offered no praise for public schools and said he did not expect the findings to influence policy. . . . “We’re not just for public schools or private schools,’’ he said. “We’re for good schools.”

[NB: I find this last comment especially outrageous. This is the federal government, funded by public money, saying that it feels no PRIMARY responsibility for the development and improvement of the public school system]