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  • A 'Summary Opinion' Of The Hoxby NYC Charter School Study

    by Matthew Di Carlo on July 6, 2011

    Almost two years ago, a report on New York City charter schools rocked the education policy world. It was written by Hoover Institution scholar Caroline Hoxby with co-authors Sonali Murarka and Jenny Kang. Their primary finding was that:

    On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten through eight would close about 86 percent of the “Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap” [the difference in scores between students in Harlem and those in the affluent NYC suburb] in math, and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English.
    The headline-grabbing conclusion was uncritically repeated by most major news outlets, including the New York Post, which called the charter effects “off the charts," and the NY Daily News, which announced that, from that day forward, anyone who opposed charter schools was “fighting to block thousands of children from getting superior educations." A week or two later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg specifically cited the study in announcing that he was moving to expand the number of NYC charter schools. Even today, the report is often mentioned as primary evidence favoring the efficacy of charter schools.

    I would like to revisit this study, but not as a means to relitigate the “do charters work?" debate. Indeed, I have argued previously that we spend too much time debating whether charter schools “work," and too little time asking why some few are successful. Instead, my purpose is to illustrate an important research maxim: Even well-designed, sophisticated analyses with important conclusions can be compromised by a misleading presentation of results.

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  • What Do We Do When Second Graders Think Math Is Not For Girls?

    by Esther Quintero on July 5, 2011

    Although the past several generations have seen declining gender inequalities in educational attainment, gender-based differences in the fields of study we choose seem to persist (see here). For example, the percentage of women obtaining degrees in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields has remained exceedingly static in the last few decades (see here).

    In trying to explain this persistent trend, some conclude that (1) women are not as interested in these fields, and/or that (2) women just aren’t as good as men in these domains. But how would one tell whether these explanations are right or wrong?

    One problem is that people share specific, culturally based ideas about what men and women are and should be. Numerous studies demonstrate that the dearth of women in STEM fields can be directly linked to negative associations regarding girls and the sciences, and especially girls and math ability (see here and here).

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  • Remembering Elena Bonner; Honoring Andrei Sakharov

    by Arch Puddington on July 1, 2011

    Our guest author today is Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House.

    Two years ago, Elena Bonner, frail in body but not in mind or spirit, had this to say about conditions in Russia:

    The West isn’t very interested in Russia….There are no real elections there, no independent courts, and no freedom of the press. Russia is a country where journalists, human rights activists and migrants are killed regularly, almost daily. And extreme corruption flourishes of a kind and extent that never existed earlier in Russia or anywhere else. So what do the Western mass media discuss mainly? Gas and oil -- of which Russia has a lot. Energy is its only political trump card, and Russia uses it as an instrument of pressure and blackmail. And there’s another topic that never disappears from the newspapers -- who rules Russia? Putin or Medvedev? But what difference does it make, if Russia has completely lost the impulse for democratic development that we thought we saw in the early 1990s.
    Here, in a few sentences of remarkable insight, Bonner, who died recently, neatly summarized much of Russian reality today.
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  • What Do State And Local Governments Do?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 30, 2011

    Those who wish to dismantle public services in the U.S. seem to share a general belief – accepted, to some extent, even by people who generally support public sector spending – that government is a massive, incompetent blob. At the federal level, I have always found this somewhat strange, since around two-thirds of federal spending goes towards Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and national defense, programs that are generally popular and widely regarded as successful.

    Survey data indicate that people do trust state and local government more than they do federal government, but the level of confidence is still not particularly high. Americans also appear generally unwilling to pay higher taxes to preserve public services (except for education), and most accept that state and local government is too large and much of it is superfluous. But when people are asked about specific programs, they tend to respond favorably. This suggests, among other things, that people may have general perceptions of "government" without full knowledge of all the roles government plays.

    So, I thought it might be useful to take a quick look at how public dollars actually are spent. After all, it’s our money, and it’s always good to keep track of how our elected officials are spending it.

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  • Suppressing Democracy

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 28, 2011

    At a recent Shanker Institute conference, a guest presenter from the United Kingdom was discussing the historical relationship between public spending and democracy. I don’t remember the exact context, but at some point, he noted, in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact tone, that one U.S. political party spends a great deal of effort and resources trying to suppress electoral turnout.

    It’s always kind of jarring to hear someone from another country make a casual observation about an American practice that’s so objectionable, especially when you're well aware it's plainly true. And perhaps never more so than right now.

    There are currently several states – most with Republican governors and/or legislatures, including Wisconsin and Ohio – that are either considering or have already passed bills that would require citizens to obtain government-issued identification (or strengthen previous requirements), such as driver’s licenses or passports, in order to register to vote and/or cast a ballot. The public explanation given by these lawmakers and their supporters is that identification requirements will reduce voter fraud. This is so transparently dishonest as to be absurd. Recent incidences of voter fraud are exceedingly rare. Most of these laws are clearly efforts to increase the “costs” of voting for large groups of people who traditionally vote Democratic.

    Others have commented on the politics behind these efforts. I’d like to put them in context.

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  • College Isn't Quite The (Self-Perceived) Middle Class Ticket It Used To Be

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 27, 2011

    In a previous post, I presented some simple data on “subjective class identification," which is the practice of asking people to place themselves within a class structure. The data show that, despite constant political rhetoric appealing the U.S. “middle class," more people actually consider themselves to be working class than middle class, and that this hasn’t changed much over the past thirty years.

    I also noted that there is even a fairly significant “working class presence” – about 25 percent – among the highly educated (those with a bachelor's or higher). This struck me as interesting, given the fact that having a college degree is sometimes called “the ticket to the middle class," and also given that the income advantage for college graduates – the “college wage premium” – is substantial (and it's actually increased over the long term). I found myself wondering whether the relationship between having a college degree and “gaining entrance” to the middle class (at least by one’s own judgment of his or her class position) had changed over time. In other words, when it comes to subjective class identification, is college less of a middle class “ticket” than it used to be?

    I couldn’t resist taking a quick look.

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  • New Teaching Resource Highlights Voices Of Leading Pro-Democracy Muslims

    by Shanker Institute Staff on June 24, 2011

    The Albert Shanker Institute has released "Muslim Voices on Democracy: A Reader"—a free, downloadable publication that highlights the speeches, articles, and ideals of pro-democracy Muslims. It is designed as a resource for high school teachers to use in American classrooms, as they seek to help students make sense of the complex forces at work in the Muslim world.

    You can download the publication (PDF) here.

    The individuals featured in this collection include intellectuals, union activists, dissidents, and journalists. Although the voices of women are featured throughout the publication, it contains a special section devoted to their unique challenges and contributions to the democratic political dialogue. The publication also features a glossary of terms and a list of resources for further study.

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  • Student Surveys of Teachers: Be Careful What You Ask For

    by Esther Quintero on June 23, 2011

    Many believe that current teacher evaluation systems are a formality, a bureaucratic process that tells us little about how to improve classroom instruction. In New York, for example, 40 percent of all teacher evaluations must consist of student achievement data by 2013. Additionally, some are proposing the inclusion of alternative measures, such as “independent outside observations” or “student surveys” among others. Here, I focus on the latter.

    Educators for Excellence (E4E), an “organization of education professionals who seek to provide an independent voice for educators in the debate surrounding education reform”, recently released a teacher evaluation white paper proposing that student surveys account for 10 percent of teacher evaluations.

    The paper quotes a teacher saying: “for a system that aims to serve students, young people’s interests are far too often pushed aside. Students’ voices should be at the forefront of the education debate today, especially when it comes to determining the effectiveness of their teacher." The authors argue that “the presence of effective teachers […] can be determined, in part, by the perceptions of the students that interact with them." Also, “student surveys offer teachers immediate and qualitative feedback, recognize the importance of student voice […]". In rare cases, the paper concedes, “students could skew their responses to retaliate against teachers or give high marks to teachers who they like, regardless of whether those teachers are helping them learn."

    But student evaluations are not new.

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  • Q: Do We Need Teachers' Unions? A: It's Not Up To Us.

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 21, 2011

    I sometimes hear people – often very smart and reasonable people – talk about whether “we need teachers’ unions." These statements frequently take the form of, “We wouldn’t need teachers’ unions if…," followed by some counterfactual situation such as “teachers were better-paid." In most cases, these kinds of musings reflect “pro-teacher” sentiments – they point out the things that are wrong with public education, and that without these things unions would be unnecessary.

    I’d just like to make a very quick comment about this line of reasoning, one that is intended to be entirely non-hostile. The question of whether or not “we need teachers’ unions," though often well-intentioned, is inappropriate.

    It’s not up to “us." The choice belongs to teachers.

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  • Teacher Quality Only Matters If Students Come To School

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 20, 2011

    The “no excuses” mantra in education started with an irrefutable premise: Nobody should use poverty as an excuse to tolerate dysfunctional pubic schools. For some (but not all) people, it eventually became an accusation as well, hurled at those who brought up the fact – often in a perfectly reasonable manner – that there is a strong, demonstrated relationship between income and achievement. But in its most virulent form, “no excuses” fosters the colonization of additional problems for which schools and teachers can be “held accountable."

    Former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her fiancée, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, were hosted by the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service for a discussion on education that aired on C-Span a few weeks ago. The moderator asked the panelists for their views on the dismal conditions in many cities, and how that relates to efforts to improve neighborhood schools.

    Rhee recounted a story from the final year of her chancellorship, in which she visited a school unannounced, arriving early in the morning. Many of the classrooms were mostly empty. When she inquired, she was told that attendance was low because it was Friday and raining. Rhee said that she was horrified, but continued to tour the school. She finally found a classroom that was full, and asked one of the students about the class. The student told Rhee that this was her favorite teacher.

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