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Posts published by “Ulrich Boser”

A New Law is Put To the Test

Ulrich Boser 0

This article ran in US News and World Report in March of 2004. You can find it online here.

The No Child Left Behind Act, the federal education-reform bill signed into law just over two years ago, takes a carrot-and-stick approach to improving school performance. But the Somers School District in northern Connecticut has been so frustrated with the stick--the labeling and sanctions (including the possibility of state takeover) faced by schools that don't meet federal standards--that last year it rejected the carrot. After Somers High School was placed on an academic watch list for what local officials consider trivial reasons (it tested 94.3 percent of its students rather than the required 95 percent), the district refused some $45,000 in No Child Left Behind money. That's only a small fraction of the system's $15 million annual budget; school leaders say the extra funds just weren't worth the hassle. "To say the money comes with strings attached is an understatement," says Superintendent Thomas Jefferson. "It comes with ropes and anchors."

Somers is one of a growing number of districts and states rebelling against the new education law, which President Bush championed with bipartisan support. The legislation requires not only annual testing but also score breakdowns by race and socioeconomic status to ensure that schoolwide averages don't mask failure for some groups. It also calls for students in failing schools to receive money for outside tutoring or to be given the option of transferring elsewhere.

Educators don't quarrel with the goal of boosting student achievement, but many resent the way the law is being implemented. Legislators in over a dozen states--including Maine, Virginia, and Washington--have passed or are considering symbolic resolutions calling for more flexibility and funding under the 700-page law. Critics, including many Republican state legislators who aren't typically at odds with the Bush administration, have a litany of objections, notably the law's heavy costs and what they view as its infringement on local control.

For its part, the Bush administration has taken steps to stop the backlash. It has eased accountability requirements for non-English-speaking and disabled students, thus lowering the number of schools that will be labeled as failing. But it has also warned states that if they drop out of the program, all of their federal education funding for disadvantaged kids--not just No Child Left Behind grants--will be cut. That could mean a revenue loss of almost 15 percent in some poorer districts.

Still, the protests are likely to continue. This year, some 6,000 schools were labeled "in need of improvement." That number could increase to 25,000, or about one third of the nation's schools, as more of the law's accountability standards kick in over the next two years. Says Diane Rentner, deputy director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy: "The big fights have yet to come."

Bulger Captured: Will Gardner Art Follow?

Ulrich Boser 0

 

James "Whitey" Bulger, the infamous Boston mobster, was arrested by the FBI on Wednesday night. He had been on the run for 16 years, despite appearing on America’s Most Wanted a dozen times with a $2 million reward for his capture.

 

But will his arrest lead to the return of the Gardner art? I don't believe Bulger has access to the Gardner art. The museum does not have any information tying him to the case either. Indeed, there aren't any concrete clues of a Bulger angle. All of Bulger’s old associates—Stevie Flemmi, Kevin Weeks, Pat Nee, John Martorano—have turned state’s witness, and not one of them had ever fingered Bulger for the museum robbery. In all of the Bulger wiretaps and court documents and surveillance records, there had never been any mention of the paintings.

 

To be sure, I imagine it's possilbe that Bulger made some phone calls after he learned of the theft and it's certainly possible that he knows--or thinks he may know--who did rob the museum. But really I think the more important take-home of this all is that publicity makes a tremendous difference, even decades after the crime was committed.

In other words, one great Boston crime mystery has been solved. If the musuem and the FBI keep up the publicity--and they been doing a great job over the past few years--there will be just one more mystery to go.

Planning a visit to the Gardner museum?

Ulrich Boser 0

Going to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston? Obsessed with the unsolved 1990 heist? I wrote up some advice for people who're planning to visit the museum and interested in the case:

--Start on the ground floor. Imagine it to be March 18,1990, about two in the morning. The room would be dark and shadowy. A few revelers would be out on the street, stumbling their way home. Some bats might be skittering through the museums's galleries.

--Look at this theft schematic from The Boston Globe to get a sense of how exactly the thieves moved through the building. If you're feeling particularly inspired, follow the room-by-room movements of the thieves.

--Visit the Dutch Room. Stare into the silk wallpaper behind the empty frames. Wonder about the whereabouts of the paintings. Maybe bring John Updike's poem "Stolen" and read it quietly to yourself.

--Check out the wooden cabinet near the door to the Dutch Room. Note the tiny holes on the side of the cabinet, right next to the door frame. They come from the screws that once secured the small artwork to the cabinet, and in many ways, they're all that's left of the Rembrandt self-portrait.

--Dwell on the mysteries of the case by visiting the Short Gallery. Ask yourself some of the questions that continue to haunt investigators today: Why did the thieves spend over an hour in the museum but only steal 13 items? Why did the crooks steal knickknacks like the finial from the top of the flag pole but not the near-by Michelangelo? Why did the two men never visit the third floor where the Titian hangs in all of its splendor?

--Stop in the gift shop. Notice that the museum doesn't sell my book, The Gardner Heist, or any other book or movie or artwork devoted to the theft. The museum treats the caper very seriously--they don't want to be seen as commercializing their tragic loss. And that's a good thing.

--Remember that the Gardner is an intimate, powerful museum, a space devoted to the enjoyment of art. Don't focus only on the heist; enjoy the other artworks. One of my favorites is Sargent's El Jaleo on the ground floor. Can you hear the tap-tapping of the singer's foot?

--Be respectful. The museum was the victim of a terrible crime, after all.

This item first appeared in The Open Case magazine.

How Sysco came to monopolize most of what you eat.

Ulrich Boser 0

A hot dog from Yankee Stadium. Potato latkes from the Four Seasons in Manhattan. Sirloin steak at Applebee's. The jumbo cheeseburger at the University of Iowa Hospital. While it would seem these menu items have nothing in common, they're all from Sysco, a Houston-based food wholesaler. This top food supplier serves nearly 400,000 American eating establishments, from fast-food joints like Wendy's, to five-star eating establishments like Robert Redford's Tree Room Restaurant, to mom-and-pop diners like the Chatterbox Drive-In, to ethnic restaurants like Meskerem Ethiopian restaurant. Even Gitmo dishes out food from Sysco. Should you worry that one source dominates so much of what you eat?

Like any retailer, chefs need wholesalers that distribute goods cheaply and efficiently, and Sysco's 400,000-plus item catalog conveniently sells everything a cook needs to run an eating establishment. A little more than half of their products are brand names like Parkay and Lucky Charms. The rest are Sysco-packaged items like 25-pound bags of rice, half-gallons of salsa, boxes of plastic gloves, beer mugs, dish-washing detergent, not to mention 1,900 different fresh and frozen chicken products. Whatever a cook orders is delivered straight to the kitchen door at bottom-barrel prices: One Sysco invoice I got my hands on has a 25-pound bag of Uncle Ben's Converted Rice selling for $20.95, or about 84 cents a pound, while a 1-pound box bought through Amazon Grocery costs $2.09.

All of that seems relatively innocuous—restaurants need to make a profit, after all. But Sysco also hawks pre-packaged food. While chefs have long relied on shortcuts like freezing and using canned goods like beans and tomatoes, it's entirely different to pass off one of Sysco's thousands of ready-made items—ground beef burritosvegan tortellini,quiche Lorraine pietiramisu cake—as homemade.

The ingredients alone on some of the pre-made items are enough to make a restaurant-goer swear off eating out. Thebreaded cheese chicken breast, for instance, contains monocalcium phosphates, sorbic acid preservatives, and oleoresin in turmeric. The Serve Smart Chicken is particularly frightening. While it looks natural, it consists of parts of other chicken breasts mashed together into a single, chicken-breastlike block. As the company notes on its Web site, our "unique 3-D technology gives you the look and texture of a solid muscle chicken breast, at a fraction of the cost. … Available in four great flavors: teriyaki, BBQ, fajita and original." What Smart Chicken tastes like, I'd rather not know.

Restaurants make a mint from serving these pre-prepped foods, since the meals can be purchased in bulk and stored in a freezer for months. A box of 36, 4-ounce chicken Kievs, for instance, can be kept in an icebox for up to 180 days. And the savings from labor costs are considerable. Each reheated Angus country fried steak will bring in almost $5 in profits. In the words of Sysco, these meals require nothing more than the ability to "heat, assemble, and serve."

It comes as little surprise that institutions like hospitals, universities, and military bases flock to Sysco's pre-cooked foods. But well-regarded bistros and pubs have also begun to offer such items to save time and money. Recently, New York magazine reported that Thomas Keller uses frozen Sysco fries at his Bouchon bistros. (While a company spokeswoman wouldn't confirm the brand, she confirmed the use of frozen fries.) Mickey Mantle's Restaurant, an upscale sports bar, serves Sysco's pre-made soups, like Manhattan clam chowder and vegetarian black bean. And then there's Edgar's restaurant at Belhurst Castle, which has won numerous awards of excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. There, the kitchen takes Sysco's Imperial Towering Chocolate Cake out of the box, lets it defrost, and then sprinkles it with fresh raspberries before serving it to diners. "We've had a lot of success with that cake," executive chef Casey Belile says. The Edgar's menu, of course, does not list the dessert as a Sysco pre-made cake, but it does charge $8.95 for the experience.

The company has a long history of championing frozen foods. Sysco founder John Baugh has been quoted as saying, "frozen foods taste better than anything I could grow in my garden." He started the company in 1969 when he saw an opening in the food services marketplace for a large, national distributor that would beat out local competitors through its sheer size. At the time, Baugh owned a small frozen-food company in Houston, and he convinced eight other regional food distributors to join forces to form a national conglomerate. Within a year of its start, Sysco posted more than $100 million in sales, and for the next 30 years, snapped up more than 150 local food distributors, becoming the largest in the nation. The company is about 50 percent larger than its next-largest competitor and five times bigger than the third-largest player; its boxes and cans are now as common in restaurant kitchens as salt and flour. A very partial listing of its better-known customers can be found here.

Some obvious food trends have helped Sysco's rise to Wal-Mart-like dominance. In 1970, households spent 34 percent of their food budget on dining out, compared to almost 50 percent today. And as small, local farms have closed down to make way for strip malls, restaurants increasingly depend on regional and national food processors to supply them with basic ingredients. While Sysco has smartly capitalized on all of this as the middleman between individual food distributors and the kitchen door, it's also earned the ire of gourmets, who portray the company as a leviathan that destroys local economies—and good taste.

But many quality restaurants, like Tree Room, use Sysco responsibly—shying away from pre-made items they can disguise as their own. Bardia Ferdowski of Bardia's New Orleans Café in Washington, D.C., purchases only raw and unprocessed Sysco products such as flour, potatoes, and beef, and receives frequent deliveries so that ingredients are as fresh as possible. For its part, Sysco has also been upping the quality of some of its offerings. It now distributes more locally grown meats and produce, and teams up with companies like artisanal cheesemongerMurray's to deliver specialty foods. Chef Tom Hosack of Hudson's at the Heathman Lodge in Vancouver, Wash., for instance, buys most of his greens through Sysco, and they're almost all regionally grown.

And not every cook has the time—or the money—to spend every afternoon foraging for fresh heirloom tomatoes at the local farmer's market. Nor do they need to. Many of Sysco's products—the meat, the vegetables, the fruits—are not that different than what you'll find at your local supermarket. But no restaurant diner should pay a chef to defrost and heat. Cooks are called cooks for a reason.

This article first appeared in Slate in 2007.

Do Schools Challenge Our Students?

Ulrich Boser 0

You might think that the nation’s teenagers are drowning in schoolwork. Images of sullen students buried in textbooks often grace the covers of popular parenting magazines, while well-heeled suburban teenagers often complain they have to work the hours of a corporate lawyer in order to finish their school projects and homework assignments. But when we recently examined a federal survey of students in elementary and high schools around the country, we found the opposite: Many students are not being challenged in school.

 

Consider, for instance, that 37 percent of fourth-graders say that their math work is too easy. More than a third of high-school seniors report that they hardly ever write about what they read in class. In a competitive global economy where the mastery of science is increasingly crucial, 72 percent of eighth-grade science students say they aren’t being taught engineering and technology, according to our analysis of a federal database.

These findings come at a key time. Researchers increasingly believe that student surveys can provide important insights into a teacher’s effectiveness. When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released findings from their Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project in 2011, they found that student feedback was a far better predictor of a teacher’s performance than more traditional indicators of success such as whether a teacher had a master’s degree or not. The mounting evidence on the importance of student surveys has also been shaping policy at the state and local level, and a variety of groups dedicated to the improvement of teaching—such as the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that works to advance policies and practices to ensure effective teaching in every classroom—have been incorporating student surveys into their teacher evaluation and certification process.

Given the significance of this growing body of research on student surveys, Lindsay Rosenthal and I examined one of the richest sources of national student survey data and conducted an analysis of the background surveys of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Known as the Nation’s Report Card, these assessments are administered every two years by the National Center for Education Statistics. We looked specifically at the student questionnaire, which collects student-reported information on demographics and classroom experiences.

In reviewing the data, we examined a number of issues that track current debates over education policy and research. Given the recent debates over academic standards, for instance, we looked closely at issues of rigor and student expectations. Do students think that they are being challenged enough? Do teachers engage students in deep learning opportunities? We were also interested in issues of access since students provide an important, classroom-eye view of the resources that are available to them. Are all students being given access to the types of learning opportunities that they need to be prepared for college and the modern workplace? Are those resources distributed fairly among different types of students and schools?

Among our findings:

  • Many schools are not challenging students and large percentages of students report that their school work is “too easy.”If students are going to succeed in the competitive global economy, they need to be exposed to a rigorous curriculum. But many students believe their class work is too easy. Twenty-nine percent of eighth-grade math students nationwide, for instance, report that their math work is often or always too easy. In some states like Virginia, nearly a third of middle-school students reported their work was often or always too easy.This finding was consistent across grades and subject matter. We found that 51 percent of eighth-grade civics students and 57 percent of eighth-grade history students report that their work is often or always too easy. Elementary school students also revealed that they aren’t being challenged by their math work—37 percent of fourth-grade students reported that their math work is often or always too easy. Among high school students, 21 percent of 12th-graders said their math work was often or always too easy, while 56 percent and 55 percent respectively found their civics and history work often or always too easy.
  • Many students are not engaged in rigorous learning activities. Almost a third of eighth-grade students report reading fewer than five pages a day either in school or for homework. That’s below what many experts recommend for students in middle school. Eighth-grade students across the country also report that they rarely write lengthy answers to reading questions on tests: approximately one-third of students write long answers on reading tests twice per year or less.

The issues are similar at the high school-level. Thirty-nine percent of 12th-grade students, for example, say that they hardly ever or only once or twice a month write about what they read in class. Nearly one-third said they write long answers on reading tests two times a year or less. Moreover, almost one-third of 12th-grade reading students say they rarely identify main themes of a passage when reading, and almost 20 percent said they never or hardly ever summarize a passage.

Note, however, that these data do not measure the quality of the work that students are performing in class—and the quality of the work can make a big difference in how much students learn. Students might be reading just a few, very rigorous pages every day, for instance. But given overall low reading scores—and the degree to which more reading promotes more learning—we believe these results should be cause for alarm.

  • Students don’t have access to key science and technology learning opportunities. For today’s students, being prepared for college and the modern workforce means having access to high-quality curriculum materials in critical subject areas like math and science. But our analysis found that most teenagers say their schools don’t provide important learning opportunities in science and technology. For instance, 72 percent of eighth-grade science students say they are not taught about engineering and technology.
  • Too many students don’t understand their teacher’s questions and report that they are not learning during class.Nationwide, less than two-thirds of middle school math students report that they feel like they are always or almost always learning in math class. Similarly, just under 50 percent of 12th-grade math students said they feel like they are always or almost always learning in their math class.Students also often report difficulty understanding their teacher’s questions. Twenty-five percent of middle school math students report that they sometimes or hardly ever understand what their teacher asks. Thirty-six percent of12th-graders report they sometimes or hardly ever clearly understand what their math teacher asks.
  • Students from disadvantaged background are less likely to have access to more rigorous learning opportunities.All students, regardless of their family background, should have access to a high-quality education. But our analysis of student feedback found that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have the same access to robust learning opportunities. Consider, for instance, that 74 percent of higher- income fourth-grade students report that they often or always understand what their science teacher is saying, compared with just 56 percent of lower-income fourth-grade students. Among middle school students, 80 percent of higher-income middle-school students report often or always understanding what teachers ask in math class. In contrast, just 70 percent of low-income students report often or always understanding their math teacher. Meanwhile, 66 percent of higher-income 12th-graders reported they often or always understand what their math teacher is saying, compared with 60 percent of low-income students.There are also racial gaps in some areas. For instance, in the fourth-grade 73 percent of white students and 72 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander students said that they clearly understand what their science teacher talks about. In contrast, only 56 percent of black; 54 percent of Hispanic; and 58 percent of Native American and Alaska Native students say they do. In middle school, 83 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander students and 79 percent of white eighth-grade students report that they clearly understand what their math teacher is saying. But only 67 percent of black students; 70 percent of Hispanic students; 69 percent of Native American and Alaska Native students report understanding their teacher.To be clear, there were not opportunity gaps in every area that we looked at. We examined disaggregated data for all of the relevant background questions and we reported the results only for questions in which there were significant gaps.

Our analysis leads us to the following recommendations:

  • Policymakers must continue to push for higher, more challenging standards. To ensure that all students are ready for the global economy, we need to expect more of our students and schools they attend. The Common Core standards are one way to help states and districts make progress on this issue, but far more needs to be done.
  • Students need more rigorous learning opportunities, and our nation needs to figure out ways to provide all students with the education that they deserve. Too many students report not being engaged in class. They don’t understand what their teachers are teaching them and they feel like they are not learning. Our nation can—and should—do more.
  • Researchers and educators should continue to develop student surveys. We hope this report launches additional research into the use of student surveys. Researchers such as Ronald Ferguson, senior lecturer in education and public policy and director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, have made significant advances which we describe below. But we need to know much more about these tools, and what they reveal about the student experience.

Over the past few years, many states have engaged in promising reforms that address the issues we raise in this report. But our findings suggest we need to do far more to improve the learning experience for all students. We hope that the interactive state-by-state maps available on our website—together with the findings and recommendations in the following pages—will inspire engagement with students’ perspectives in the search to find new and better ways to provide students with the knowledge and skills that they need to succeed.

This report was written together with Linsday Rosenthal. The full report is available at the Center for American Progress.