Monday, October 17, 2005


Note the unbelievable bit I have highlighted in red. Is there hope for sanity yet?

I came to visit the Meadowcliff Elementary School. ... About 80% of Meadowcliff's students in the K-to-5 school are black, the rest Hispanic or white. It sits in a neighborhood of neat, very modest homes. About 92% of the students are definable as living at or below the poverty level, a phrase its principal, Karen Carter, abhors: "I don't like that term because most of our parents work at one or two jobs." This refusal to bend to stereotypes likely explains what happened last year at Meadowcliff.

Students' scores on the Stanford achievement rose by an average 17% over the course of one year. They took the Stanford test in September and again in May. Against the national norm, the school's 246 full-year students rose to the 35th percentile from the 25th. For math in the second grade and higher, 177 students rose to the 32nd percentile from the 14th. This is phenomenal. What happened in nine months?

Meadowcliff has two of the elements well established as necessary to a school's success--a strong, gifted principal and a motivated teaching staff. Both are difficult to find in urban school systems. Last year this Little Rock public school added a third element--individual teacher bonuses, sometimes known as "pay for performance." Paying teachers on merit is one of the most popular ideas in education. It is also arguably the most opposed idea in public education, anathema to the unions and their supporters. Meadowcliff's bonus program arrived through a back door.

Karen Carter, the school's principal, felt that her teachers' efforts were producing progress at Meadowcliff, especially with a new reading program she'd instituted. But she needed a more precise test to measure individual student progress; she also wanted a way to reward her teachers for their effort. She went to the Public Education Foundation of Little Rock. The Foundation had no money for her, and the Little Rock system's budget was a nonstarter. So the foundation produced a private, anonymous donor, which made union approval unnecessary.

Together this small group worked out the program's details. The Stanford test results would be the basis for the bonuses. For each student in a teacher's charge whose Stanford score rose up to 4% over the year, the teacher got $100; 5% to 9%--$200; 10% to 14%--$300; and more than 15%--$400. This straight-line pay-for-performance formula awarded teachers objectively in a way that squares with popular notions of fairness and skirts fears of subjective judgment. In most merit-based lines of work, say baseball, it's called getting paid for "putting numbers on the board."

Still, it required a leap of faith. "I will tell you the truth," said Karen Carter. "We thought one student would improve more than 15%." The tests and financial incentives, however, turned out to be a powerful combination. The August test gave the teachers a detailed analysis of individual student strengths and weaknesses. From this, they tailored instruction for each student. It paid off on every level.

Twelve teachers received performance bonuses ranging from $1,800 to $8,600. The rest of the school's staff also shared in the bonus pool. That included the cafeteria ladies, who started eating with the students rather than in a nearby lounge, and the custodian, whom the students saw taking books out of Carter's Corner, the "library" outside the principal's office. Total cost: $134,800. The tests cost about $10,000.

The Meadowcliff bonus program is now in its second year, amid more phenomena rarely witnessed in "school reform." Last year's bonuses were paid for by an anonymous donor; this year the school board voted to put the pay-for-performance bonuses on the district's budget. The Little Rock teachers union thereupon insisted that Meadowcliff's teachers vote for a contract waiver; 100% voted for the waiver. Another grade school, with private funding, will now try the Meadowcliff model.

The Meadowcliff program has the support of both Little Rock's superintendent, Roy Brooks, and Arkansas' director of education, Ken James. Superintendent Brooks, who was recruited from the reform movement in Florida, has cut some 100 administrative positions from the central bureaucracy and rerouted the $3.8 million savings back to the schools.

At his offices in the capitol building, Director James calls himself an "advocate of pay for performance" for a couple of reasons. Financial incentives of some sort are needed, he says, to stop math and science teachers from jumping ship to industry. And school districts like Little Rock's have to innovate fast because jobs and population are migrating internally, mostly into northwestern Arkansas. The Springdale district alone, he says, near Fayetteville and Bentonville, "hired 180 new teachers this year." Little Rock has to find a way to hold its best teachers. The teachers I saw at Meadowcliff Elementary seemed pretty happy to be there.

"School reform" is one of the greatest of the great white whales of American politics. It's by now virtually a mythical beast, chased by specialists, commissions, think tanks, governors. Gov. Bill and Hillary Clinton were famous Arkansas school reformers. With No Child Left Behind, President Bush has flung the reform fishing net over the whole country. The biggest urban school systems--New York, Chicago, L.A.--get most of the ink. But maybe the solutions are going to be found in places like Little Rock, where talented people can fly beneath the radar long enough to give good ideas a chance to prove themselves.


No Disaster Big Enough to Permit School Choice

Leftists know if the lose control of the schools, they are REALLY had-it

Katrina was one of the most devastating hurricanes to ever strike the United States. Federal, state, and local governments' responses to it, sadly, were almost as calamitous. For some politicians, though, there has never been a disaster big enough to convince them to loosen government's grip on the people. Just take a look at education: Whether it is parents from hurricane-ravaged Louisiana trying to get their children's education back on track, or just parents faced with hopeless public schools, government has consistently stood in the way of families trying to help themselves.

Recently, as part of its disaster relief package, the Bush administration outlined a plan to provide federal educational relief to the families whose lives were destroyed by Katrina. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the administration is "proposing up to $2.6 billion in funding for elementary, secondary and post secondary relief" including "up to $488 million to compensate families for the costs associated with attending private schools." That last part translates into federal school vouchers.

Without question, there are excellent grounds to oppose Bush's plan, including the vouchers. Perhaps the most compelling one is that the Constitution grants the federal government no specific, enumerated, power--the only kind it may legitimately exercise--over either education or disaster relief, and if the government has proven one thing in the aftermath of Katrina, it is its complete inability to handle anything it was not specifically designed to confront. This, however, is not even close to the objections to Bush's plan voiced by most of its opponents. They are happy to involve the federal government in both disaster relief and education. What they object to is any proposal that might give victims even a little educational freedom.

Sen. Edward Kennedy demonstrated this in a press release late last month. He said that although he applauded the administration's relief efforts, he was "extremely disappointed that [Bush] has proposed providing this relief using such a politically-charged approach. This is not the time for a partisan political debate on vouchers."

That said, pressed to not completely ignore the desires of the roughly one-third of parents in hard-hit southeastern Louisiana who had sent their kids to private schools before Katrina, Kennedy is reportedly preparing to offer them his own, big-government brand of assistance: a convoluted proposal to dispense through public schools all aid for displaced students attending private and religious schools. According to a recent report in Congressional Quarterly, Kennedy's plan would route all relief funds for students in private schools through local public school districts, which would then supply private schools with books, computers and teachers, as well as oversee all expenditures. In addition, all instruction would have to be taught on a non-ideological and non-sectarian basis.

Details of this proposal are still being worked out, so nothing is set in stone. But from what we have so far, it seems Kennedy's concept of compassion is either to push thousands of Katrina's youngest victims into public schools, or to push public schools under private school roofs.

Of course, government compassion ending when politicians and special interests might lose control is nothing new--education has proven it for decades. Kennedy, countless other politicians at every level of government, and special interest groups ranging from teachers unions to school board associations, have long preferred to trap students in disastrous public schools rather than give parents choice. Apparently, they aren't about to let some natural disaster change that.

Despite their objections, none of those who feed from the government trough can change the fact that the private sector has always been far more reliable than government, whether in education or disaster relief. Indeed, much as Wal-Mart provided water and filled prescriptions well before FEMA arrived in the Gulf Coast, private schools all over America, often at their own expense, took in refugee students before hearing a peep from Washington. Even the prestigious Phillips Academy in Massachusetts enrolled 19 displaced students according to Education Week, five of whom had attended public schools before the catastrophe. For politicians like Ted Kennedy, though, none of that matters. There will never be enough proof either of government failure or private sector success to justify getting government out of the way and letting parents take control of their children's education.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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