Published Online: October 12, 2010
Published in Print: October 13, 2010, as Blogs of the Week

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Better Luck Next Time, Zuckerberg


The only condition Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg attached to his $100 million gift to Newark Public Schools was that Gov. Chris Christie give control of the schools to Mayor Cory Booker. Now it appears Christie lacks the statutory authority to do so.

What did Zuckerberg get wrong? A couple things.

The greatest leverage that a donor has is not the money but the ability to use the money to leverage hard-to-win changes. District leadership reluctant to close half-empty facilities, overhaul operations, or push for cuts in benefits will find its path somewhat easier if such measures will open doors for new funding. Zuckerberg also missed an important opportunity to ensure his money would be well spent. Because, like Walter Annenberg learned more than a decade ago, the hope that even seemingly large infusions of cash will themselves make a difference in urban school systems is a pipe dream. Even $100 million, in Jay Greene’s memorable words, amounts to little more than a bucket thrown into the sea.

As young as he is, I hope he responds to any disappointment not by losing interest in schooling but by getting craftier with the next $100 million. —RICK HESS


What If the Unions Were Outlawed?

Teachers’ unions have been cast as a villain depriving students of a quality education for so long that any attempt now to rebut the charge is probably an exercise in futility. But there is another side to the story that needs to be heard. The best way to do so is to look at what would happen if teachers’ unions were outlawed.

Consider these scenarios: Principals would be able to fire in one fell swoop all teachers they regarded as ineffective without affording them due process. Where would the replacements come from? The most likely source would be Teach For America, enjoying favor these days among reformers. Yet there is little evidence that its recruits would do a better job than teachers who have been licensed through traditional programs. Principals could also run “their” schools as they see fit. But some principals abuse their position of authority to demoralize their faculty to the point that the best teachers transfer to other schools. In addition, states would not be constrained in maintaining caps on the number of charter schools, and here, once again, the evidence is mixed: Some charter schools are better than traditional schools; others are worse.

I can understand the frustration about the glacial pace of school improvement. When people are angry enough, they look for scapegoats. Teachers’ unions serve as an easy target. While the campaign being waged against them will serve as a safety valve for pent-up emotions, it will do little to improve student learning. That’s a vital distinction being given short shrift. —WALT GARDNER


Time to Stem the ‘STEM’ Tide?

OK, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve imbibed the Kool-Aid when it comes to using the phrase “STEM education” in blogs and stories. (For those not in the know, STEM is short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.)

A recent article in The New York Times challenges the widespread use of the phrase in education/science policy circles, calling it “odious and increasingly pervasive.” The article goes on to say that STEM education is “opaque and confusing.” Oh, and it sounds “didactic and jargony,” which apparently has led former astronaut Sally Ride to consciously avoid it in her travels around the country promoting science education.

The Times story notes that, based on one recent survey, most people don’t even know what STEM education is.

So, is it time to retire STEM from the vocabulary of education and science wonks? All I’ll say on the matter is that I have noticed that my blog posts tend to get more retweets when the phrase is in the headline. —ERIK W. ROBELEN

Vol. 30, Issue 07, Page 14

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