Reading & Literacy

Teaching & Learning

July 14, 2004 8 min read
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Reading Scores Rose In New York City’s ‘Chancellor’s District’

In 1996, Rudy Crew, then the chancellor of the New York City schools, removed 10 state-identified failing schools from their community districts and established a “Chancellor’s District” to help jump-start their improvement. Ultimately, the chancellor removed 58 failing elementary and middle schools from local control and subjected them to a centralized management structure and a uniform set of interventions.

“Virtual District, Real Improvement: A Retrospective Evaluation of the Chancellor’s District 1996-2003,” is available from the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

An analysis released this month found that, compared with other New York City schools identified by the state as failing, known as Schools Under Registration Review, the elementary schools in the Chancellor’s District showed significantly higher 4th grade reading scores, even after controlling for greater increases in resources.

The study, by Norman Fruchter and his colleagues at the Institute for Education and Social Policy of New York University, found that schools in the Chancellor’s District benefited on two fronts: First, they saw jumps in the number of teachers per student, in the proportion of fully licensed teachers, and in per-student expenditures that were significantly greater than in other SURR schools.

Second, the percentage of 4th graders meeting the state’s reading standard increased from 12.3 percent in 1998-99 to 30 percent in 2001- 02, a significantly greater increase than in the other SURR schools. The proportion meeting the standard in math rose as well, but was not significantly greater than the increase in other SURR schools.

While those gains still left the schools in the Chancellor’s District far below the citywide reading average, the authors wonder: “Had the initiative not been terminated in 2003, would the upward curve have continued?”

“Something was working to improve outcomes in the Chancellor’s District schools that is not explained by increases in teacher resources or school-level expenditures,” they write. They point to the set of curricular and instructional interventions mandated by Mr. Crew, including reduced class size, extensive professional development for teachers, an extended school day and year, after- school learning programs, and a prescribed instructional program that included two daily 90-minute literacy blocks.

Myth-Busting, Washington Style

A business group that lobbies on educational issues has invoked a bevy of multicultural gods to help it defend the No Child Left Behind Act.

Humorously keying off Egyptian, Norse, and Hindu immortals, the Washington-based Business Roundtable designed a series of e-mails that challenge “myths” about the sweeping federal education law. The messages have been sent to members of Congress, media outlets, think tanks, education groups, and business people, said Susan Traiman, the director of the group’s education division.

“NCLB isn’t perfect, but misperceptions and inaccuracies are distorting the facts about it,” according to the e- mails. “These e-mails separate the myths from the reality.”

For instance, Thor, the Norse god of thunder, is depicted getting ready to hurl his hammer, just as some falsely believe the law is “hurling commands at the states from on high,” the group says.

Instead, the roundtable maintains, the law gives the states “full freedom” to implement the federal accountability provisions as they see fit and “unprecedented flexibility” in using federal money.

Other notions tackled by the messages are that the law is a plot to undermine public education, that it is “one size fits all” education reform, that it is an unfunded mandate, that it makes teachers dislike their jobs, and that it is narrowing the curriculum.

Most of those criticisms have been advanced by the National Education Association, perhaps the law’s greatest foe.

A union spokesman said that to call the conclusions myths “obscures the reality of what is happening in the schools” and the states, where everybody from teachers to legislators feels hammered by costly requirements with sometimes unintended consequences.

“The facts are that the law hasn’t made things universally better for kids,” said Michael Pons, the NEA spokesman. “But I wouldn’t say it’s the ruination of education either.”

Alternative Certification

Florida has become the third state to adopt the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence’s Passport to Teaching as an alternative route to teacher certification.

The state board of education voted 5-2 June 15 in favor of the program, which is composed of tests of subject-area knowledge as well as teaching practice. The certification is meant to attract midcareer professionals or others who haven’t been through a traditional teacher-preparation program.

Idaho and Pennsylvania are the two other states that have approved the program as a way to address teacher shortages. So far, 11 people have been certified through the ABCTE in those states.

The ABCTE was founded in 2001 by the Education Leaders Council, a conservative-leaning organization of state schools superintendents and other leaders. It has been recognized by the federal No Child Left Behind Act as an approved teacher-certification program and has received federal grants.

Critics, however, still question the practice of licensing teachers simply by giving them online tests and argue that most alternative-certification programs are unproven.

“It essentially bypasses the type of high-quality certification that Florida has required for years,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association.

Assessing District Responses

How districts respond to standards-based education may depend, in part, on district wealth and location, according to a new study.

John W. Sipple, an assistant professor of education at Cornell University, and Kieran M. Killeen, an assistant professor of education at the University of Vermont, surveyed superintendents, principals, and teachers in a representative sample of 121 New York state districts designed to reflect the full range of geographic and wealth diversity in the state.

They found that higher-spending lower-income districts were more likely to use test-taking strategies to improve student performance than districts serving more affluent communities. Rural districts, and those serving higher concentrations of poor students, also were significantly more likely to offer courses for a General Educational Development diploma in response to increased state standards. In contrast, districts serving higher-income communities were more likely to reduce class size. Larger and more urban districts also were more likely to offer summer school and additional hours of professional development for teachers than their more rural counterparts, perhaps because of economies of scale, the researchers speculate.

“Although underperforming students are mainly concentrated in our urban centers, the findings indicate that urban, suburban, and rural districts can differ substantially in the programs they utilize to meet state standards,” said Mr. Killeen.

“Context, Capacity, and Concern: A District-Level Analysis of the Implementation of Standards-Based Reform in New York State” appears in the July 2004 issue of Educational Policy.

—Lynn Olson, Bess Keller, & Linda Jacobson

The Science of Music

Carnegie Hall may not have been the likeliest place for a gathering of prominent scientists and former finalists in the prestigious Siemens Westinghouse Competition for Math, Science, and Technology. But once the students took their positions on the stage of the legendary music hall last month and began to play their chosen instruments, their connection to the world of music was clear.

Less clear, participants of the symposium in New York City agreed, is if a case can be made for a formal link between mathematics and science achievement and musical talent.

The Siemens Foundation, which sponsors the annual national competition for high school students, organized the June 17 symposium, “Beautiful Minds, Beautiful Music,” to explore the potential relationship between academic and musical skills.

Foundation officials gathered math and music researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other institutions to discuss what research says about the apparent phenomenon.

The discussion was interspersed with students’ performances.

The experts argued that despite compelling anecdotal evidence, the research is all but mute on whether proficiency in math or science goes hand in hand with skill in music, or vice versa.

“There are few human activities that involve so many parts of the brain as music-making,” said Robert Duke, a professor of music and human learning at the University of Texas at Austin. “Now, whether you’re going [to apply those skills] to be a mathematician or a poet or a sailor, I don’t think makes any difference.”

Other participants suggested that the hard work and commitment required to excel in math and science are traits that generally carry over into other parts of students’ lives.

These Siemens scholars, said Mark Jude Tramo, a professor of chemistry at the University of Notre Dame, “are incredibly diligent, they’re incredibly motivated, they have incredible capacities to sustain attention and concentration for eight hours beyond what all the other students are able to do, and that carries with it the math, the music.”

—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

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A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Teaching & Learning


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