The Economist : NCLB Version 2

Thursday, March 24, 2011

…..Ten years ago Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a bold effort to improve America’s schools. On March 14th Mr Obama announced that he wants to pass a new version by August. It could be one of his most important feats. But it will not be easy. The main problem is that politicians still disagree on Washington’s role in education. The federal government provides less than 10% of the money schools spend. But NCLB, the most recent incarnation of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, gave the federal government unprecedented influence. States must set standards of achievement. Schools that fail to make progress face sanctions. NCLB exposed the dismal performance of schools. But it has also demonstrated how clumsy Washington’s hand can be. A requirement for “highly qualified” teachers turns out to have helped keep states from hiring good ones. State standards diverge wildly. NCLB’s main goal, for all pupils to be proficient in reading and maths by 2014, is unrealistic. And thanks to an odd way of judging schools, more than 80% may be labelled as “failing” this year.

Mr Obama has already offered one new model: dangle carrots for reform and hope that states bite. The stimulus offered more than $4 billion in grants for states that made certain changes, such as lifting caps on the number of charter schools and devising new ways to evaluate teachers. No state had to apply for the grant programme, Race to the Top, but 46 did. With the new version of NCLB, Mr Obama can go further. He wants to set clear goals but give states more flexibility in meeting them. His plan would fix NCLB’s most obvious failings, such as neglecting to track the progress of individual pupils. Only the worst schools would face dramatic intervention. Districts would evaluate teachers on a range of factors, including pupil performance. Such plans would seem ripe for bipartisan compromise. Gene Wilhoit, director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, thinks that Mr Obama has moved in the right direction. Many of the president’s priorities, such as improving teaching, overlap with those of conservatives. But Republicans are wary. John Kline, the chairman of the House education committee, frets that states spend too much time complying with federal rules. Race to the Top had good goals, but poor implementation. He is dubious about the proposed interventions for failing schools—a concern he shares with the teachers’ unions. Mr Kline’s party now faces an awkward choice. If the Republicans pass a new version of NCLB, they will give Mr Obama a victory. But if they do nothing, Democrats will blame them for failing to fix a law that voters have come to hate.

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China has some of the world’s best schools, according to the latest sweeping study of global education systems, with Shanghai taking first place and Hong Kong fourth.
Korea took the second spot and Finland the third in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, published on Tuesday.  The tests, which were taken in 2009, assessed the reading, science and maths skills of 15-year-olds from state schools in all 34 OECD member states, as well as in a host of other nations and regions.

Shanghai and Hong Kong were not representative of the whole of China, but Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on education to the OECD, said the country should not be underestimated. “They have agile, mobile schools and a lot of parental pressure,” he said.  Citing further, as yet unpublished OECD research, Mr Schleicher added: “We have actually done Pisa in 12 of the provinces in China, [and] even in some of the very poor areas you get performance close to the OECD average.”  Among the OECD countries, Korea moved into top place. Finland took second place, with Canada and New Zealand taking third and fourth slots respectively. Crowded around the OECD average sat Germany (16), France (18) and the UK (20).  The US came in at 14th among the OECD countries, but its localised school system was extremely variable. Schools in the north-east US are equal to those in the seventh-placed Netherlands. In the Midwest, they are equivalent to 12th-placed Poland, in the west, they are as good as those in Italy (23rd). Schools in the south are as effective as those in Greece (25th).

The OECD reports corroborate other research that finds the solution to problems in schooling are rarely solely about money. “You only explain about 10 per cent of the performance variability with resources alone,” Mr Schleicher said.  The best school systems enjoyed a “combination of accountability and autonomy”, he added, where the government collected data and had the “capacity to intervene . . . but at the same time they leave schools considerable discretion”.  He was also critical of selective school systems, which are not used by the top performers. “Many European countries still believe that students have different destinations that should be met with different expectations,” he said.  Rising heterogeneity within school systems, caused by inequality, was a growing problem for schools. Mr Schleicher said: “If you just keep the status quo, you are at high risk … because the challenges for schooling are increasing.”

Reference : The Financial Times, Dec 8th 2010

FOR America’s children the education system is often literally a lottery.  That is the main message of a new documentary about America’s schools, “Waiting for ‘Superman’.” Made by the team that gave us “An Inconvenient Truth”, and supported with the sort of marketing budget that other documentary makers can only dream of, it is intended to create a surge in public support for education reform at least as great as the clamour to do something about climate change generated (for a while) by Al Gore’s eco-disaster flick.  The timing could hardly be better.  The “jobless recovery” is finally bringing home to Americans the fact that too many of those who go through its schools are incapable of earning a decent living in an increasingly competitive global economy.  The number of jobs advertised but not being filled is increasing even as the unemployment rate stays resolutely high.  And despite its depressing enumeration of the failure of so many schools, particularly in poorer urban areas, its miserable ending, and the bleakness of its title, the movie also has a message of hope: there are good schools and teachers in America, whose methods could make its education system as good as any in the world if only they were allowed to.

That truth, recognised by anyone who has spent even a few hours in, say, a KIPP charter school, is an inconvenient one to the teachers’ unions, which the film rightly identifies as a big chunk of kryptonite standing in the way of a dramatic rescue for the children of America.  For example, the film features efforts to reform the school system in Washington, DC, led by Adrian Fenty, the mayor, and Michelle Rhee, his combative schools chief, including a scene where Ms Rhee’s offer to double salaries for teachers in exchange for them giving up tenure and accepting “merit pay” (performance-related wages) is rejected by the unions.  Right on cue for the launch of the film, Mr Fenty has just lost his local Democratic Party primary to a more union-friendly rival, so Ms Rhee may well be leaving.  The $1m spent during the campaign by the American Federation of Teachers played a crucial role in Mr Fenty’s defeat.  The teachers’ unions have resolutely opposed efforts to pay good teachers more than mediocre ones, to fire the worst performers, and to shut down schools that consistently fail to deliver a decent education.  This, coupled with underfunding in poor areas, has resulted in a shortage of good schools; so the few that are worth getting into are hugely oversubscribed, with places allocated by the public lotteries which provide the grim climax to the movie.  Ms Rhee upset the unions by refusing to accept all this, closing dozens of schools and firing 1,000 teachers, including the head of her own children’s school.

Perhaps the most important thing about “Waiting for Superman” is that it is liberal, Al Gore-friendly types who are highlighting the fact that the teachers’ unions are putting their worst-performing members before the interests of America’s children.  Class(room) war may be about to break out within the Democrats.  Teachers’ union members are a vocal group within the party; but its rising stars—such as Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, who has just persuaded Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, to donate $100m to improve the city’s schools—are making school reform a priority.  To be fair, the unions are not all bad.  As Bill Gates has pointed out, they are taking part in an initiative funded by his foundation to develop new measures of teacher performance, which could be the basis for a form of merit pay.  Moreover, he notes, reform cannot succeed without the support of the majority of teachers.  Even so, the fact is that the teachers’ unions are the primary obstacle to reform—which presents leading Democrats, and above all, Barack Obama, with a crucial test: will they be willing to confront a core part of their membership in the interests of America’s children?  Mr Obama has gone further than many expected in pushing school reform, not least by setting up the Race to the Top competition for additional money.  If he has any doubt as to which side he ought to be on, he need only ask that bellwether of public opinion, his old friend Oprah Winfrey. She recently invited Ms Rhee onto her show, where the audience gave her a standing ovation.

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Greenfield Public Schools has partnered with K12 Inc. to launch the first full-time statewide virtual public school in Massachusetts.  It’s also described as the state’s first “virtual ‘Innovation School'” under new legislation designed to ease the way for districts to establish their own alternative education programs.  The Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield (or “MAVA@Greenfield”) will serve primarily K-8 students, with just a limited number of high school applicants to be accepted from specific regions for the 2010-2011 school year. (The high school program will be expanded over time.) A total of 500 students will be accepted initially.

Ron Packard, founder and CEO of K12, said in a statement released earlier this month, “The Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield will be a school true to the goal of the state’s Innovation Schools legislation, providing excellent education programs designed to meet students’ individual needs.  Over 200,000 students have used the K12 program and we look forward to successfully serving students and families in Massachusetts.”  MAVA@Greenfield, like other schools associated with K12 Inc., is a tuition-free public school that will provide a computer, printer, and software to students, along with a stipend to cover Internet costs.  The school will follow K12’s online curriculum with individualized instruction and will provide students with hands-on learning materials as well.  Teachers will work with students via e-mail, chat, phone, and face to face meetings and will also facilitate field trips and other activities for students and parents.

The Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield is enrolling now and is expected to be operational in September.  Aside from the virtual academy, Greenfield Public Schools serves students in nine schools and special programs, including an earl learning academy, three elementary schools, one regular middle school, and one regular high school.  It also operates an eighth-grade academy, a science academy for sixth and seventh graders, and a therapeutic day program administered by its high school.

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While the rest of the world will experience increases in education IT spending this year, in the United States, information technology will be flat through the end of 2010.  But, according to research firm Gartner, growth will resume in 2011 and continue at least through 2014.  Worldwide, education has settled squarely into the middle of a trend toward single-digit increases in IT spending.  It will be up about 2.5% in 2010 compared with 2009, reaching $64.15 billion by the end of the year, according to a report released earlier this week by Gartner, “Forecast: Enterprise IT Spending by Vertical Industry Market, Worldwide, 2008-2014, 2Q10 Update.” (That’s up from about $62.61 billion in 2009.) Across all sectors, IT growth from 2009 to 2010 will be 2.9%, reaching more than $2.4 trillion by the end of the year, the report said. (That’s actually a downgrade from a previous forecast earlier this year.)

In the United States, the forecast isn’t so optimistic. According to Kenneth Brant, research director at Gartner, both K-12 and higher education spending in IT will remain flat: $12.115 billion for colleges and universities and $9.079 billion for primary and secondary institutions.  But the situation in education could have been worse.  Rishi Sood, vice president at Gartner, said the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) has kept education IT spending from going negative.  “… Without some of the additional funding from ARRA/Stimulus, education IT spending would have experienced negative growth,” Sood told us via e-mail.  “However, with this funding now included, we have kept the market flat.  The economic downturn has affected education spending since 2008 and forced significant revisions to IT spending priorities.”  According to Gartner’s Brant, the post-2010 recovery in American education IT will come about more quickly in higher education than in K-12.  In 2011, higher education IT spending will increase 2.9%, while K-12 will grow at a more modest 2.2%.  Overall education IT spending in the United States will increase 2.6%.  The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2009 to 2014 will be 2.9% across all education segments in the United States, according to Brant.  In K-12, that figure will be 2.8%. In higher ed, it’s projected at a more aggressive 3%.  So where are education institutions putting their tighter resources?  According to Gartner’s Sood, “Education organizations are making some tangible investments on two fronts: areas of IT to reduce long-term management costs and broadband/mobility services.”  He listed five areas toward which IT departments in education are shifting their focus, cited here nearly verbatim from an e-mail communication:

  • IT cost optimization;
  • Consolidation/rationalization;
  • Cloud-based services, particularly SaaS;
  • Broadband and wireless services; and
  • Content management.

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…..On August 4th a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found evidence of deceptive recruitment tactics by 15 of America’s leading for-profit colleges, including one operated by Kaplan, which accounts for the bulk of the profits of Mr Graham’s Washington Post Company.  Some of the colleges, which also included the giant University of Phoenix, insisted that the incidents—which ranged from misleading potential students about tuition costs and likely post-graduation salaries to encouraging them to file fraudulent loan applications—were isolated.  But the mood is turning against them.  For-profit colleges, which range from beauty schools to institutions that resemble traditional universities, were already under attack.  In June Steve Eisman, a hedge-fund manager who made a lot of money during the financial crisis by shorting bank shares, told Congress that the for-profit education business was as destructive as the subprime mortgage industry.  Congress already seems eager to add to regulations that the government plans to introduce in November.

The markets sense weakness in the industry.  Shares in Apollo Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, are worth half what they were at the start of 2009.  The Washington Post Company has lost nearly one-third of its value since April. Shares in Corinthian Colleges have fallen 70% in the same spell.  Yet for-profit higher education is one of the greatest success stories in American business.  Since 1976, when it was founded by John Sperling, a history teacher at San Jose State University who was frustrated in his efforts to provide courses for students with full-time jobs, the University of Phoenix has grown into an institution with over 450,000 students.  Many of them study online, although the university also has more than 200 campuses across America.  It is now America’s second-largest university system.  Kaplan, best known for its test-preparation courses, is a 75-campus organisation with 112,000 students learning everything from law to nursing.  In the academic year 2008-09 America’s for-profit colleges enrolled 3.2m students, 23% more than the year before and 59% more than in 2004-05.  Cuts at public and non-profit colleges boosted the for-profit sector’s share of students to 12%.  Total revenues of the 3,000 or so for-profit colleges have soared to over $29 billion from under $10 billion a decade ago, calculates Jeffrey Silber of BMO Capital Markets.

According to critics such as Mr Eisman, this is a bubble like the subprime mortgage crisis, with a “churn ’em and burn ’em”, commission-driven approach to student recruitment and a ready supply of government-provided debt.  On this last point, at least, he is right.  The American government has an unusual model of financing higher education, in which it lends to students who decide at which educational institution they spend the money.  In most other countries, the government subsidises educational institutions directly.  “In the United States, for-profit colleges are competing for students directly with public and non-profit colleges; everywhere else, they are filling niches ignored by the traditional colleges,” points out Doug Becker, the boss of Laureate, a global for-profit outfit.  The recent GAO report offers anecdotal support for Mr Eisman’s view that much of the recruitment of students is predatory.  Also troubling was another report that found for-profit college students defaulted on their loans at a far higher rate than students at public or non-profit colleges.  This the government took as evidence that many students found their courses less useful than they had expected, so dropped out or stopped paying. Among the new rules expected on November 1st is a “gainful employment” requirement that would make a course eligible for government loans only if enough current or past students are repaying their loans.  The gainful-employment rule has been the focus of sustained attack by the for-profit colleges.  According to data in a recent government report, even courses offered by many of the leading colleges would fail the gainful-employment test as currently proposed.  Default rates of more than 50% are not uncommon—on the face of it, a shocking number.  But the government definition of default is wrong, argue the for-profit colleges, not least because it counts as defaulters students who have joined a temporary interest-only payment scheme offered by the government to help ease the transition from student to worker.  Mr Graham says the vast majority of Kaplan’s students are meeting their loan obligations.  Default rates at for-profit colleges are higher, they point out, because they educate a large proportion of students from poor backgrounds, whose parents did not go to university.  “If you are going to take a chance on a part of the population that is poorer and has no tradition of going to school, your dropout and default rates are going to be higher,” says Greg Cappelli, a co-CEO of Apollo Group…..The leading for-profit colleges hope to survive by putting their own houses in order and by calling for new regulations that apply to higher education as a whole.  And they make another, broader, claim.  When the full cost of loans and subsidies is added up they are significantly cheaper for the taxpayer, per graduate, than public and non-profit institutions.  Given the Obama administration’s ambitious plans to expand higher education, a rush to impose more burdensome regulations may not be such a good idea.


…..Although recent scandals suggest higher education needs to be better regulated, discriminating against the for-profit sector could do wider damage.  The notion that profit is too dirty a motive to be allowed in a business as fine as education is pervasive…..America has generally been more liberal; and, with the state and non-profit colleges cutting back, the for-profit sector has been doing startlingly well.  In 2008-09 some 3,000 for-profit colleges educated 3.2m students—59% more than three years earlier, and 11.7% of all students.  Yet recent government reports suggest that some of these colleges have a troublingly familiar business model: flogging a low-grade product to people who are paying with subsidised government loans.  The Department of Education reported that most students at many of these universities were defaulting on their loans. Similarly, an investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that even leading for-profit colleges such as Kaplan and the University of Phoenix had engaged in dodgy practices to recruit students and encourage them to borrow large sums to pay for their courses…..

Constructive suggestions are rare in a debate that has mixed a lot of rhetorical cant with a big principle.  The cant is more obvious.  The American right cites Barack Obama’s proposals as another sign that he hates capitalism.  Yet not only abuses plainly occurred but for-profit colleges are hardly poster children for free enterprise: they are already heavily regulated, not least because most of the loans to students are provided by the government.  The left, from its non-profit redoubts, claims that these are big businesses exploiting the little guy.  The principle?  Concentrate on the quality of the education, not the ownership.  All sorts of colleges seem to have been guilty of shabby marketing.  They should be treated the same. Good rules—such as Mr Graham’s one—should apply to non-profit and for-profit colleges alike.  Singling out for-profits for special attention risks depriving students, and America at large, of the full benefits in innovation and cost-effectiveness that the profit motive has generally brought to higher education.  That really would be “socially destructive”.

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Business schools pride themselves on being ahead of the curve when it comes to management theory and innovation.  But their record is considerably less impressive when it comes to the implementation of cutting-edge technology such as e-book readers, Apple’s iPad and social networking, where students continue to outpace their tutors.  So expectations were high a year ago when seven US colleges, including two business schools, University of Washington Foster School of Business and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, signed up with Amazon to test the online retailer’s large-screen Kindle DX e-book reader.  Some even thought that with students able to load class materials and textbooks easily on to the 10-ounce device, the era of lugging textbooks around campus might finally be over.  Of the seven schools that participated in the Kindle pilot, Darden worked most closely with Amazon to convert many of the case studies it uses in first-year classes to the Kindle format, and selected 62 students and 10 faculty members for the pilot.  But while students liked some of the Kindle’s features, such as the big screen and the ability to store hundreds of case studies and books on the device, most were unhappy overall with the user experience, says Michael Koenig, Darden’s director of MBA operations.

Although the device allowed students to highlight text and make notes, many complained that it was difficult to use these features and said the Kindle was more suitable for casual reading than for the classroom.  In fact, by the second semester, most students had abandoned their Kindles, choosing instead to read case studies on their laptop or on paper.  In a mid-term survey, the pilot scheme participants were asked: “Would you recommend the Kindle DX to an incoming Darden MBA student?”  “A total of 75-80% answered ‘no’,” says Mr Koenig. Kindle-using students were then asked: “Would you recommend the Kindle DX to an incoming MBA student as a personal reading device?”  A total of 90-95% said “yes”.  “What that says to me is that Amazon created a very well-designed consumer device for purchasing and reading digital books, magazines and newspapers,” says Mr Koenig.  However, he believes it is not yet ready to take a lead role in the Darden business school classroom.  But Mr Koenig insists the trial was informative. “We learnt a lot and are much more prepared as a top-tier business school to face the complex challenges of digital content distribution for all future Darden students.’’  For the moment he believes e-book readers are too rigid for use in the classrooms of Darden, where the Socratic method and case-based pedagogy mean students must be nimble.  “You must be highly engaged in the classroom every day,’’ he says, adding that the Kindle is “not flexible enough . . . It could be clunky. You can’t move between pages, documents, charts and graphs simply or easily enough compared to the paper alternatives.”  Daniel Turner, associate dean of the masters and executive education programmes at Foster, expresses similar views. “It’s not quite ready for prime time in higher education.”

Meanwhile, some business schools, particularly those that are smaller and more innovative, have switched their attention to Apple’s iPad launched this year.  Among them, Grenoble’s Ecole de Management in France will select 40 students this month to be part of an “innovation” laboratory at the heart of the school, aimed at testing, among other innovations, the pedagogical advantages of the iPad.  “The iPad is perfectly suited in terms of its vast experimental learning capacity,” says Béatrice Nerson, deputy director at Grenoble.  “We want to imagine new ways of making use of it.”  Grenoble plans to use the iPad to develop applications, make more intuitive use of its e-book reader capabilities, give access to online classes and distance learning and to provide access to faculty publications via the e-book store.  For the past 22 years, Grenoble students have been asked to have a PC.  “The question now is to find out whether the iPad will replace PCs,” says Marc Humbert, head of the Innovation Laboratory.  “We may find that the iPad is less ‘intrusive’ than a PC, which, when open in the classroom, is like a barrier between the student and faculty.”

Reference : The Financial Times Sep 6th 2010.