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  • The Importance of STEM In The Early Grades

    by Stan Litow on May 5, 2011

    Our guest author today is Stan Litow, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs at IBM, President of the IBM Foundation, and a member of the Shanker Institute's board of directors.

    This is a difficult year for city and state leaders. They are struggling mightily with how to cope with both declining revenues and escalating costs, resulting in painful short term decisions about what to cut, how to cut, and ways in which basic or vital services can be maintained. Sadly, we have heard far too little these days about where to invest and how to invest in order to produce longer term benefit and mitigate longer term costs.

    As people focus on education, it has been common wisdom that business leaders and those concerned with the bottom line have an interest in education too, but that interest is focused solely on STEM, or Science Technology, Engineering and Math. And that focus is placed on the later grades such as middle and high schools. It is undeniable that STEM is important, especially if we are to nurture the next generation of innovators. To do so, we must invest more creatively to improve teacher quality and student outcomes. But we can not address these challenges by limiting our focus to secondary education. While career pathways are great motivators for teenagers and young adults, we simply can not wait until high school - or even middle school - to prepare students and capture their imaginations. We must start earlier, much earlier. In that effort, early childhood education is vitally important.

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  • Unions And Pensions: Unfunded Culpability

    by Matthew Di Carlo on May 4, 2011

    The Pew Center on the States just released an updated report on unfunded liabilities of state pension (and retiree health) systems. The figures are sobering. In FY 2009, state pension plans were funded at an average of 79 percent, meaning that they were short about one dollar for every five that projections suggest they’ll need to meet their obligations.

    While there’s no doubt about the troublesome implications of these findings, there’s a lot of disagreement as to causes. Lately, governors and state legislators (of both parties, but mostly Republicans), as well as dozens of commentators, have tried to lay the blame on the public sector workers, to whom the pensions are owed – seeking to restrict these workers’ collective bargaining rights, with the claim that this will help control the cost of benefits.

    The unfairness of blaming public sector workers – and their unions – should be pretty clear. By all accounts (also here), the primary reason that pension plans are in trouble is that the 2008 collapse of financial markets decimated the value of pension fund investments (the early 2000’s recession also seems to have played a role). Add to that an aging population (there is an increasing percentage of retirees as a share of the population, and they are living longer), as well as the failure of many states to make their required contributions during good times, and you have a fairly comprehensive explanation for the pension "crisis."

    Nevertheless, some have argued that public employee collective bargaining has exacerbated states’ pension problems – after all, more than their non-union counterparts, union members have tended to trade current salaries in favor of increases in deferred benefits. In that case, we might expect that states with higher densities in public sector union membership will have larger unfunded pension obligations. These differences need not be huge, but it’s reasonable to anticipate that they would be discernible. Let’s take a look.

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  • Mixed Messages

    by Matthew Di Carlo on May 3, 2011

    Today is National Teacher Appreciation Day, as well as National Teacher Appreciation Week.  In various ways, millions of people are thanking their teachers for having made a difference in their lives, including President Obama, who held an official function at the White House today honoring the National Teacher of the Year.

    But a couple of other things are happening today as well.

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  • Tunisia Needs International Supervision For The Upcoming July Elections

    by Radwan A. Masmoudi on May 3, 2011

    Our guest author today is Radwan A. Masmoudi, President of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, D.C. A version of this post has appeared on other sites that follow political developments in the Muslim world.

    As head of the Tunisian High Council for Political Reforms and the Achievement of the Goals of the Revolution, Dr. Iadh Ben Achour has declared his opposition to international monitors for Tunisia’s July 24th elections.  He says international “observers”   -- essentially a pro forma intervention -- would be acceptable. This is a mistake and represents a misplaced emphasis on sovereignty and a major retreat from the post-revolution commitments of the interim government—including the president and former prime minister, both of whom recognize that Tunisia has never organized free and fair elections, and most Tunisians won’t accept the election results without international supervision or at least monitors.

    The “sensitivity” about foreign intervention has been used (and abused) by oppressive governments and regimes around the globe, helping to set the stage for massive election fraud. We have been down this road before, under Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, and the other Arab dictators. True sovereignty belongs to the people, and the best way to protect that sovereignty is to ensure that the elections are free and fair. Today, many Tunisians do not believe that this interim government is capable of organizing truly free and fair elections, and are afraid that these elections—as in the past—will not reflect the will of the people.

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  • Revisiting The CREDO Charter School Analysis

    by Matthew Di Carlo on May 2, 2011

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

    Most people involved in education policy know exactly what you mean when you refer to “the CREDO study." I can’t prove this, but suspect it may be the most frequently mentioned research report over the past two years (it was released in 2009).

    For those who haven’t heard of it (or have forgotten), this report, done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), which is based at Stanford University, was a comparison of charter schools and regular public schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Put simply, the researchers matched up real charter school students with fictional amalgamations of statistically similar students in the same area (the CREDO team called them “virtual twins”), and compared charter school students’ performance (in terms of test score gains) to that of their “twins." The “take home” finding – the one that everybody talks about – was that, among the charter schools included in the analysis, 17 percent had students who did better on the whole than their public school twins, in 37 percent they did worse, and in 46 percent there was no statistical difference. Results varied a bit by student subgroup and over time.

    There are good reasons why this analysis is mentioned so often. For one thing, it remains the largest study of charter school performance to date, and despite some criticism that the "matching" technique biased charter effects downward, it was also a well done large-scale study (for a few other good multi-state charter studies, see here, here, and here). Nevertheless, as is so often the case, the manner in which its findings are discussed and understood sometimes reflect a few key errors of interpretation. Given that it still gets attention in major media outlets, as well as the fact that the CREDO team continues to release new state-specific reports (the latest one is from Pennsylvania), it makes sense to quickly clear up three of the most common misinterpretations.

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  • The New Layoff Formula Project

    by Matthew Di Carlo on April 27, 2011

    In a previous post about seniority-based layoffs, I argued that, although seniority may not be the optimal primary factor upon which to base layoff decisions, we do not yet have an acceptable alternative in most places—one that would permit the “quality-based” layoffs that we often hear mentioned. In short, I am completely receptive to other layoff criteria, but insofar as new teacher evaluation systems are still in the design phase in most places, states and districts might want to think twice before chucking a longstanding criterion that has (at least some) evidence of validity before they have a workable replacement.

    The New Teacher Project (TNTP) recently released a short policy brief outlining a proposed alternative. Let’s take a quick look at what they have to offer.

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  • The Un-American Foundations Of Our Education Debate

    by Esther Quintero on April 21, 2011

    Being from Spain, one of the first things that struck me as odd about the U.S. education debate was the ubiquitous depiction of “bad teachers” as the villains of education and “great teachers” as its saviors. Aside from the fact that this view is simplistic, the punish/praise-teachers chorus seemed particularly off-key—but I wasn’t sure why. I think I may have figured it out. I think that it may be un-American.

    Let me explain. This is a nation that is supposed to be built around specific core values, such as individual effort, hard work, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions. If so, isn’t the fixation on teachers—to the seeming exclusion of students and parents—an indirect rejection of basic American principles?

    This is not a discussion of what the good/bad teacher doctrine misses —we know it misses numerous dimensions of the education enterprise—but rather, what this doctrine assumes and how these assumptions conflict with the values that one expects most Americans to hold.

    One problem with the narrow focus on teachers is that it views students exclusively as passive recipients of their own learning. Not to get too technical here, this goes back to a central question in the social sciences: namely, agency versus structure. Agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own choices. Structure refers to the conditions that shape and perhaps limit the range of alternative choices that are available. Western culture tends to favor agency over structure as an explanation for actions, a view which one would think would run particularly deep in the U.S.

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  • The High Cost Of Closing Public Libraries

    by Matthew Di Carlo on April 18, 2011

    Government budget cuts, at all levels, can have tragic effects. It will take us a long time to recover from the damage the current cuts have done and will do. There are many vital public services – such as health care, aid to the homeless, and schools – that we must do our utmost to protect. But, at least for me, there are few cuts more bothersome than the closing of public libraries.

    Sadly, these closings are happening all over the nation, including New York, Ohio, Michigan and elsewhere.

    At the same time, use of libraries has been increasing for years. In 2008, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the average person visited a public library 5.1 times, an increase of almost 20 percent since 1999. Of course, this use is not equally distributed – some people visit regularly, while others not at all.

    In part, this is because many low-income Americans rely on libraries, not only for books and periodicals, but as their primary source of internet access. As a result, the number of computers in public libraries has almost doubled since 2000.

    Let’s do some simple, illustrative math here.

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  • A Big Fish In A Small Causal Pond

    by Matthew Di Carlo on April 13, 2011

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

    In three previous posts, I discussed what I’ve begun to call the “trifecta” of teacher-focused education reform talking points:

    In many respects, this “trifecta” is driving the current education debate. You would have trouble finding many education reform articles, reports, or speeches that don’t use at least one of these arguments.

    Indeed, they are guiding principles behind much of the Obama Administration’s education agenda, as well as the philosophies of high-profile market-based reformers, such as Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee. The talking points have undeniable appeal. They imply, deliberately or otherwise, that policies focused on improving teacher quality in and of themselves can take us a very long way - not all the way, but perhaps most of the way - towards solving all of our education problems.

    This is a fantasy.

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  • Straight Up, Between The Lines

    by Eugenia Kemble on April 12, 2011

    Read carefully between the lines in Rick Hess’ recent blog post, “Can the Common Core Coalition Keeps [sic] Its Finlandophiles in Check?"

    Predicting a “fifty-fifty chance that the Common Core effort will dissolve into an ideological clash," Hess writes that in “one short document, the Shankerites managed to do much to undermine the loose confederation that had supported the Common Core." He also lumps a broad spectrum of signatories into one supposedly errant educational faction. People such as former U.S. Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Reagan appointee Checker Finn, George H.W. Bush appointee Charlie Kolb, George W. Bush appointee Susan B. Neuman, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, and the National Council on Teacher Quality’s Kate Walsh — all are labeled as being “a slew of left-leaning academics and consultants, dotted with my pal Checker Finn and a few long-retired Republican governors”—and the whole crew is charged with being “Finlandophiles." God forbid.

    What’s going on here? What have we wrought with the Albert Shanker Institute’s "A Call for Common Content?"

    I think Hess is doing more than cooking up a soup of crocodile tears and polemics. He’s clearly uncomfortable with the direction that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will take education in this country, but he's not willing to take a clear position either way. Given his dilemma, attacking a sound strategy for implementing the standards seems like little more than undermining them without the political risk of having to register a truly “straight up” objection. And this is not the first time he has attempted to evoke tensions among potential supporters of the Common Core standards. I cannot help but suspect that he has made up his mind, but can't quite bring himself to say so.

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