News & CommentaryArchive
Feb 11, 2010
A Round-Up of Education Headlines
There have been a number of articles and reports published in the past few weeks pointing toward the value of clear evidence of what works in the field of education.
The impetus of much of the education discussion seems to be, in the case of US-focused pieces, the announced intention of by the Obama administration to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) to include a greater variety of measures for assessing school achievement. Currently the law relies on student achievement scores in reading and math to determine a school’s score. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the proposed accountability measures would “factor in student growth, progress in closing achievement gaps, proficiency towards college and career-ready standards, high school graduation and college enrollment rates.”
Speaking of Arne Duncan, the New Yorker published a profile of the education secretary in the February 1 edition (subscription only access). The piece touches briefly on Duncan’s proposed rewrite of NCLB discussed above and Duncan is quoted vaguely in the piece as saying that “NCLB had loose standards and tight prescriptions on what you have to do, and we want to flip that so instead we have very clear goals and a high bar but flexibility on how to get there.“ More interesting was the way the article highlighted the rift in education taking place right now between the “market forces” proponents (which Duncan largely supports) and the liberal traditionalists. The market reformers want to inject life and competition in the education space by offering more school choice and a broader range of extrinsic incentives for teachers and students (such as merit pay and student incentive programs). Liberal traditionalists are pretty much rallying around teachers’ unions and university education programs. This piece did not add any new information to that debate, per se, but it did inject a bit of reality into the market enthusiasm for charter schools and merit pay, namely by confirming that they are only “best guesses” at how to proceed. There isn’t a lot of evidence for any of them.
In the current battle for Race for the Top funding underway right now, wouldn’t a useful requirement of funding be that the state will conduct rigorous impact measurement?
In support of measurement, a December story on 60 Minutes highlighted Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone and the Promise charter school associated with it. The Harlem Children’s Zone is an area in central Harlem in New York City where Canada has made health services, parent training, literacy tutoring as well as a charter school ingredients in a effort to bring a generation of Harlem kids to college. This program was set up to be measured, and Harvard’s Roland Fryer published a paper in November, the results from which were highlighted on the spot. His findings show that primary school students of Canada’s Promise Academy had the same achievement scores in math and reading as New York’s white students, while middle school students closed the gap in math and narrowed it by 50 percent in English. The problem, Fryer says, is he still isn’t sure why. Community investments alone cannot account for the difference, so the magic pill may lie in some or many aspects of the Promise School (longer days? limited summer vacation? Saturday lessons? motivated teachers? student pay-for-performance?). Solving the mystery is a critical question given that Obama and Duncan have signaled their desire to ‘scale’ the HCZ model to other localities.
Turning to the developing world, a new UNESCO report on education in the developing world shows a slow-down in getting more of the world’s children enrolled in school in keeping with the Millennium Development Goal of universal education. More concerning is the real issue—the kids aren’t learning whether enrolled or not. Tests show developing world kids consistently scoring well below age-related markers in the poorest countries. Again, researchers are investigating whether school choice for parents, in the form of the inexpensive private schools promoted by James Tooley, or teacher incentives, in the form of merit pay, can help lift of the quality of the education. In the case of the latter, two studies in India, one on incentive pay by USC’s Karthik Muralidharan and another on attendance incentives by JPAL’s Esther Duflo, showed positive impact.