New Funds, New Rules in New Federal Education Law
Funding for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has been increased to over $22 billion, that's 27 percent more than last year. Along with the increase come new rules that continue a decade-long effort to push districts and states to adopt clear standards for student achievement, tests that can measure progress towards those standards, and accountability measures for using federal dollars in ways that lead to substantially increased student achievement.
Starting in 2005–06, all states will be required to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8. (Science tests for several grades come later.) States must also define "adequate yearly progress" for their students. For schools receiving Title I funds, the failure to make adequate yearly progress will bring a mix of assistance (such as technical help and extra funds) and consequences (such as allowing a school's students to attend other public schools or converting the school to a charter). In some cases, these actions could begin this fall.
The law will also require teachers and paraprofessionals to meet new criteria regarding their qualifications. These requirements will phase in, beginning immediately with newly hired paras and, next school year, with newly hired Title I-supported teachers. The law provides funds for paras and teachers to get the necessary training and education.
A National Treasure Tours the Country
In February 2002, the National Portrait Gallery launched a two-year tour of the country for "its most prized portrait"—Lansdowne, the famous painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.
The tour includes an extensive educational campaign, complete with a free 30-page teacher's guide (with lessons for elementary, middle, and high school students) and a poster of the painting, as well as an interactive Web site. These carefully constructed lessons, like "The Right Stuff: What Qualified George Washington To Be President" and "Giving Speeches," support United States History Standards for Era 2, Colonization and Settlement, and Era 3, Revolution and the New Nation.
Excepts from Current Publications
Changing the Educational Furniture, Not the Educational Substance
For the last 15 years, I have been studying the geological accumulation of education reforms in U.S. schools—the sedimentation of the last two or three geological eras. In a book I wrote with Penelope Peterson and Sarah McCarthy on the structure and restructuring of schools, the main finding we report is that changing structure does not change practice. In fact, the schools that seem to do the best are those that have a clear idea of what kind of instructional practice they want to produce and then design a structure to go with it.
Take block scheduling—the current structural reform du jour of secondary education. Sometimes it's used to address serious instructional challenges, like allowing time not just to complete a laboratory experiment, but to discuss it. All too often, the hard work of rescheduling only enables trivial changes. One teacher told me—and an aggregate analysis of block scheduling confirms the general truth of the anecdote—that block scheduling was "the best thing that's ever happened in my teaching career"—because now he "can show the whole movie." We can all agree that watching a whole movie is better than watching a part, but we can also agree that therein does not lie a major solution to our education ills.
That captures my take on structural reform. We put an enormous amount of energy into changing structures and usually leave instructional practice untouched. That message has been confirmed by Fred Newmann's work at the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, and other research. We're just now getting the first generation of aggregate studies on block scheduling, which, shockingly, show no relationship between its adoption and any outcome on student performance that you can measure. Of course, this is exactly what one would have predicted, given the previous research on structural reforms.
The reasons for this are pretty straightforward. Notice that I didn't say structural changes don't matter. They often matter a lot. There are problems in high schools that cannot be solved without making dramatic changes in structure, but in the vast number of cases there is no instrumental relationship between any change in structure, any change in practice, and any change in student performance. That is the big problem with the usual approaches to school improvement. We are viscerally and instinctively inclined to move the boxes around on the organizational chart, to fiddle with the schedule. We are attracted and drawn to these things largely because they're visible and, believe it or not, easier to do than to make the hard changes, which are in instructional practice.
By Richard F. Elmore of Harvard University. Excerpts adapted from the January/February 2002 edition of the Harvard Education Letter.
High School Culture Here and Abroad
With the cooperation of the AFS (formerly the American Field Service), the Brown Center conducted a survey of foreign exchange students in U.S. high schools during the 2000-01 academic year. Completed surveys were received from 368 students, about 73 percent of the sample. We over-sampled students from high-achieving nations: France, Sweden, Russia, Hong Kong, and Japan.
The response rate makes us confident that the survey findings are an accurate reflection of these students' opinions. Keep in mind, though, that exchange students are almost certainly not representative of their countries' students as a whole. It is safe to assume that they are excellent students, probably from families of above average wealth, attending U.S. schools that are above average in performance, and, while in the U.S., enrolled in classes designed for high achievers.
How do American classes compare?
The foreign exchange students found U.S. classes easier than classes in their home countries. More than half, 56 percent, described the U.S. classes they attended as much easier and 29 percent as a little easier. In contrast, only 5 percent found U.S. classes much harder and 6 percent a little harder.
Do American students spend as much time on schoolwork?
We asked exchange students to compare the amount of time U.S. students and students in their home countries devote to schoolwork. More than a third, 34 percent, said U.S. students spend much less time on schoolwork and 22 percent said a little less time. This compares with 11 percent who felt that Americans spend much more time on schoolwork and 14 percent who believed the U.S. students' time commitment was a little more. The figures reaffirm other surveys of international study habits. American students don't spend as much time studying—either in school or at home—as kids in other countries. The exchange students provide an interesting, counter-intuitive caveat to this finding, however. It isn't simply more homework that makes a difference. Estimates of how often math homework is assigned in the U.S. and abroad are almost identical.
How can American kids spend less time on schoolwork but have homework assigned just as often? Speculation is warranted here. Consistent with courses being easier, U.S. homework may be as frequent but take less time to complete. It could also be that students abroad spend more time preparing for class, studying for tests, and reviewing material previously covered—activities of good students that go beyond completing assigned homework.
American students don't spend as much time on schoolwork.
Exchange students were asked: "Compared to students in your home country, do you think U.S. students spend more, less, or about the same amount of time on schoolwork?"
Margin of error: +/- 5%
It's important to note that such activities are self-initiated. Students are assumed to do them—by teachers and by other students. It's what good students do. That is what is meant by a strong academic culture.
By Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution. Excerpts adapted from The Brown Center Report on American Education, 2001. Reprinted with permission by the Brookings Institution Press.
The AFT has named Ruth Wattenberg editor of American Educator, beginning with this issue. Wattenberg was previously the director of Educational Issues for the AFT. Her appointment follows the retirement of the Educator's longtime editor, Liz McPike.