Jewish World Review Sept. 13, 2004 / 27 Elul, 5764

Joanne Jacobs

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Consumer Reports

Charters, Choice... and Tortillas? | Charter students outperform non-charter fourth graders in nearby schools, according to Caroline M. Hoxby, a Harvard economics professor.

Charter students were 3 percent more likely to be proficient on their state's reading exam, and 2 percent more likely to be proficient in math.

While the American Federation of Teachers' negative findings relied on 3 percent of fourth-grade charter students, Hoxby analyzed scores for "virtually 100 percent" of fourth-graders in charter schools and compared them to students at the nearest public school, reports the New York Post.

California charter schools showed greater improvement than traditional public schools on the state's Academic Performance Index, writes Dan Weintraub in the Sacramento Bee.

According to the  California Charter Schools Association, the latest numbers from the Academic Performance Index — the official measure of how well schools are progressing toward state goals — show that 64.4 percent of charter schools achieved gains from 2003 to 2004, compared to 61.1 percent of non-charter schools.

Charter schools, meanwhile, increased their scores on the index by an average of 12.9 points, compared to 7.3 points for non-charter schools.

California now has 537 charter schools with 180,000 students.

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Because of No Child Left Behind, suburban schools that do a decent job educating affluent children may earn low rankings if they fail to educate black, Hispanic, low-income or disabled students. That's the point of the law.

Yet it's missed once again by the New York Times, which focuses on the angst of well-off families who don't want their local schools marked down for leaving children behind.

Eduwonk wonders why the Times is siding with the haves against the have-nots. The story quotes mothers in a Chicago suburb worrying whether colleges will look down on applicants from a school labeled “needs improvement.”

And a friend, Donna Siefer, voiced another worry: How would real estate agents finesse the bad news to potential home buyers? That rang bells for Diane Bolos, president of a Hinsdale South fund-raising group.

"Yeah, did Congress consider what labeling a school would do to property values?" Mrs. Bolos asked.

Eduwonk comments: "There was a time when Timesmen would be outraged by such naked self-interest at the expense of the disadvantaged. Comforting the afflicted? Whatever..."

In Miscellaneous Objections, Ryan Sager, a very young New York Post editorial writer, says NCLB inevitably will be watered down when it causes too much discomfort to the comfortable and powerful.

The pattern is familiar. A law like NCLB is passed, demanding that all schools meet "high standards." But then something completely predictable happens: Schools, with no extra resources, with no extra freedom to run themselves, with the exact same student populations they've always been serving, don't improve all that much. Communities are outraged that their schools are failing, teachers unions look bad and so do the politicians.

So the standards are loosened.

Public education reform is only as strong as the political will to enforce it.

To put it mildly, that will is never very strong. There will always be teachers unions (one of the most powerful forces in American politics), racial grievance-mongers, soft-hearted parents, lazy bureaucrats and a host of others who will say: To hell with it.

Lack of choice is the root problem, writes Sager. And the Bush administration hasn't done much for choice, especially charters. Students can transfer from failing schools under NCLB but they'll have a hard time finding better schools to attend.


According to the "teachability index" developed by Manhattan Institute researchers Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster, today's students are 8.7 percent more teachable — that is, less prone to disadvantages that affect learning — than they were in 1970.

Children’s physical health and economic security have substantially improved, and preschool enrollment has grown dramatically. While other factors have presented increased challenges — broken homes and students whose native language isn’t English are more common — these changes have been more than offset by ongoing improvements in children’s well-being.

North Dakota, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and South Dakota have the most teachable (least disadvantaged) students. Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and the District of Columbia have the hardest-to-teach kids.

In looking at academic outcomes relative to "teachability," the study found "states with more school choice or stronger accountability testing demonstrate better school performance." Montana, Colorado, Kansas, Texas, and North Carolina rank best on the School Performance Index; California, Alabama, Mississippi, Hawaii and the District of Columbia are the goats.

Utah, Idaho, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arkansas get the most performance for the buck. Lowest on the School Efficiency Index were Alaska, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and the District of Columbia.

Of course, there have to be many ways to weigh students' disadvantages.

Starting Equal, Falling Behind

Black and white kindergartners from similar socioeconomic backgrounds start kindergarten with  virtually equal reading and math skills, say two researchers writing in Education Next. But, by end of first grade, the black students have fallen behind.

Hispanic kindergartners start out behind but catch up to whites of similar backgrounds. Roland G. Fryer Jr. and Steven D. Levitt found smaller achievement gaps for children born in the early 1990s compared to earlier cohorts, perhaps indicating "the current cohort of blacks has made real gains relative to whites."

Once students enter school, however, the gap between white and black children grows, even after controlling for observable influences. We speculate that blacks are losing ground relative to whites because they attend lower-quality schools that are less well maintained and managed as indicated by signs of social discord.

Tortilla Flap

At the University of Arizona, graduating students express their exuberance by tossing tortillas at commencement. President Peter Likins, determined to stamp out tortillas, has canceled the university-wide graduation ceremony scheduled for December in favor of smaller ceremonies at each of the colleges. In 2003, Likins vowed to down the edible discs, reports the Arizona Daily Star, which doesn't say why the president cares.

"Unless our peculiar practice of throwing tortillas ceases, we may be obliged to cancel future all-university commencement ceremonies, leaving our graduation celebrations to the individual colleges," Likins wrote.

The tortillas continued to fly.

But are the students responsible? Alistair Chapman, the student body president, "said a video from the May 2004 commencement showed most of the tortillas were thrown from the audience. He said he believes security at the doors, similar to that at basketball games, would eliminate that problem and is needed anyway for a crowd of 14,000."

Kimberly Swygert  envisions proud parents being frisked for tortillas as they enter the UA stadium.

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JWR contributor Joanne Jacobs, a former Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer, blogs daily at She is currently finishing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, Joanne Jacobs