Flypaper

Last week, Mike Petrilli issued a “stump speech challenge” asking his fellow education wonks to come up with talking points that members of Congress might use to bolster the case for annual testing.

Be careful what you wish for, Mike. Challenge accepted. Here’s my bid:

When you and I think back on our school days, we remember football games and school dances, the high school musical, and—if we’re lucky—that unforgettable teacher who put just the right book in our hands at just the right time. One who inspired us or opened our eyes to our own potential—and what was waiting for us in the world right outside the classroom window.

What will our children remember when they think back on their school days? I fear too many will just remember taking tests.  

And that’s not right.

At the same time, I hear an awful lot of cynicism about the efforts we’ve been making in the last few years to make our schools better. Some people say that all this testing is just a big game to label our schools a failure, privatize education, demonize teachers, and line the pockets of testing companies and textbook publishers. 

And that’s not right either.

So it’s time to have an honest, no-nonsense conversation about our schools, teaching, and, yes, testing. But let me warn you in advance: If you’re involved in education—whether you’re a teacher, parent, policymaker, or union leader—you might not like some of what I’m going to say. But it’s...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Daily News.

Talk about glaciers melting! The high-profile-yet-nearly-immobile education policies and politics of the Empire State may have cracked last week, the result of rapid climate change within New York’s Democratic leadership.

Two changes, actually, both of them dramatic.

The easier one to describe was veteran Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s arrest last Thursday by the FBI on federal corruption charges, accused on multiple counts of using his government position to enrich himself. It’ll take a while for the judicial machinery to clatter and crank.

In the meantime, he has already agreed to temporarily vacate the powerful role that he has occupied and has used to foil, frustrate, delay, and defenestrate many an important education-reform initiative within the state legislature—at least those opposed by the teachers’ unions whose foremost champion he has been.

Whew. Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving fellow.

Silver’s demise would not, in and of itself, cause New York to raise the cap on charter schools, much less enact a tax-credit scholarship program, both hated by the union and its buddies (a list that extends beyond the speaker). But the week’s other climatic—perhaps climactic—change significantly boosts the prospects of these reforms and more: Governor Andrew Cuomo’s awesome (and radically union-unfriendly) education-reform agenda as laid out in his State of the State address and budget proposals.

The list includes revamped (and...

GOING PRIVATE
History and journalism teacher David Cutler writes a compelling piece in The Atlantic about the divide between public and private school educators. Questioning the animosity that often surrounds teachers of private school students, he calls for educators from all types of schools—charter, public, private, home—to come together and share best practices. 

OLD ENOUGH TO TEETHE, OLD ENOUGH TO READ
Early literacy efforts are critical for the developing child, and a new initiative based in California and Alabama has enlisted doctors to help parents speak and read to their kids. Researchers at the University of California will examine results of the program to determine its success. This comes in light of a recent (Fordham-reviewed!) study that found a similar program using text messages to remind parents to engage in more early literacy activities to be successful.

SHELDON SILVER COULD NOT BE REACHED FOR COMMENT
As expected, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a new plan to reform New York’s educational system in his State of the State address yesterday. Specifically, he wants to increase the number of charter schools in New York City and require schools to service a set portion of poor and disadvantaged kids. And in a big move for any Democratic governor, Cuomo is supporting a scholarship-tax-credit program, already supported in the state by many Republican senators.

TEACHER, GRADE THYSELF
In Wisconsin, a new approach to teacher assessments could set a helpful example for other states. In...

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of personal reflections on the current state of education reform and contemporary conservatism by Andy Smarick, a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  The previous posts in this series can be seen herehereherehere, here, and here.

It takes enormous conviction to take on longstanding arrangements. We remember great reformers—Dr. King, Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony—as much for the certainty behind their zeal as for their deeds.

As David Brooks wrote about revolutionaries like Mandela and Lincoln, they believe in “objective and eternally true standards of justice,” follow them faithfully, and are indignant when they’re violated.

Zealots of all types, whether virtuous or not, attract like-minded, like-constituted followers. But the reform leader has a particular need for devoted comrades. He’s picking a fight with the establishment, and he needs folks who’ve got his back.

Consonance in views and disposition has benefits. It displays a united front, allows for consistent messaging, and engenders an esprit de corps.

But when a group is of one opinion and convinced of the righteousness of its cause, virtues can distort into vices. Unified becomes monolithic; principled becomes doctrinaire; daring becomes rash; confident becomes unrepentant; progressive becomes unrestrained.

Accordingly, opponents can actually aid reformers. They can serve as a ballast helping to ground the reformer, serving as a moderating influence on his proclivity for excess. A reasonable opponent helps reveal the location...

Editor's note: This testimony was presented at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions onFixing No Child Left Behind: Testing and Accountability on January, 21, 2015. It additionally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Next.

Chairman Alexander, Senator Murray, Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. I would like to begin by congratulating the committee on putting the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at the top of its legislative agenda for the 114th Congress. Nothing is more important to our nation’s future than ensuring that we provide all children with the opportunity to reach their full academic potential. Congress cannot do that on its own, but it can help by addressing the very real shortcomings of the most recent reauthorization, No Child Left Behind, and restoring the predictability with respect to federal policy that state and local officials need to carry out their work.

As you move forward with this important work, however, I would urge you not to lose sight of the positive aspects of No Child Left Behind. Above all, the law’s requirement that students be tested annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school has provided parents, teachers, and other citizens with detailed information about students’ performance in these foundational subjects – and therefore the extent to which they have mastered skills that are prerequisites for other educational goals. This information has called...

UNSTATED
President Obama’s State of the Union address last night was a brassy, wide-ranging expression of liberalism (it also answered the prayers of listeners nationwide by lasting less than an hour). But nowhere in the speech did the president broach the topic of testing and No Child Left Behind. A political move? Mike and Mike discuss.

SAME SPEECH, DIFFERENT CAPITOL
If last night’s excitement somehow didn’t sate your appetite for policy laundry lists translated into turgid, focus-grouped rhetoric, be sure to check out New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address in Albany tonight. The word is that Cuomo will use the occasion to lay out a pro-reform agenda that might include lifting the cap on New York City charter schools.

DEPARTMENT OF WOODEN SHOES
The Hechinger Report has a thoughtful look at education in the Netherlands, where an intriguing bargain has been struck between schools and the government: Children there spend a greater amount of time in class (some two-hundred days a year, or nearly a month more than the average school year in the United States), and in exchange, teachers and principals are granted far more authority over class size, curriculum, and every other conceivable detail of student life.

STUDENT-PRINCIPALING
Education Week’s Arianna Prothero offers a look at the much-feted KIPP principal-training program. The charter network’s Fisher Fellows are instructed in how to found and lead schools, with a special emphasis on the...

Arizona last week became the first state to make passing the U.S. Citizenship Test a high school graduation requirement. Governor Doug Ducey signed into law a bill mandating the test after the measure passed the state’s Republican-controlled House and Senate in a single day. And that’s really about all the deliberation that should be needed for other states to follow Arizona’s lead. It’s a no-brainer in more ways than one.

Here are some of the questions on the test:

  • What are the first ten amendments to the Constitution called?
  • Name two rights in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Why do some states have more representatives than others?
  • Who is the governor of your state now?
  • How old do citizens have to be to vote for President?
  • Who is the President of the United States?

These are among 100 basic questions on American government and history published by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization service. It’s not particularly challenging stuff. Those seeking citizenship are asked up to ten of the questions; six correct is a passing score. Arizona students will need to get sixty of the hundred questions correct in order to graduate—the same ratio as immigrants to our country seeking citizenship.

It’s curious to note that the federal government—by law and tradition, and quite correctly—makes no curricular demands on its schools or knowledge demands on its native-born...

Editor's note: This editorial originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Austin American-Statesman.

At noon on Tuesday, January 13, the Texas Legislature convened its eighty-fourth legislative session. Like many previous legislative sessions, many hours of discussions will be devoted to improving Texas education. Like many previous legislative sessions, legislators will no doubt enact new state education policies aimed at improving Texas schools.

Despite massive new education policies from previous legislative sessions, and after decades of effort, tons of money, and volumes of educational punditry and political debate, we are left with relatively little to show for considerable effort. As we go forward with future education policies, it seems wise to pause and ask an important question. Why has so much previous education policy delivered such meager improvement?

Indisputably, that question has multiple answers. But one of the most critical answers is too often overlooked: Previous state education policy has been minimally integrated with education practice. Put another way, there has been, and there still is, a cavernous gap between education policy and education practice. In order for education policy to be an effective catalyst for improved school outcomes, it must influence education practice—and education practice is under the direct control of education practitioners. These practitioners have meager influence on education policy.

Previous state and federal education policy has ignored a cardinal truth: When schools improve, that improvement will be primarily due to the actions of people in the...

The word around town is that support for annual testing among rank-and-file members of Congress—in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle—is dangerously low. They are constantly hearing complaints from their constituents about the overuse and abuse of standardized tests, and many are eager to do something about it. We policy wonks may see the value in such tests (Brookings has been especially effective in making powerful arguments for keeping them), but parents and the public are fed up.

To be of service, here’s a crack at some “talking points” that members of Congress might use when the testing issue comes up at town hall meetings and the like. I strongly suspect that some of you can do much better. Give it a try! How would YOU explain to your fellow citizens the need for annual testing?

I understand that many of you feel strongly that there’s too much testing in our schools. You can’t throw a rock inside a school without hitting a standardized test; every time your son or daughter turns around, they are taking some test designed by some far away bureaucrat or testing company.

And you’re right. There is too much testing, and it’s taking time away from real learning—from art and music, from social studies and science, from time for play and exploration.

And there’s little doubt that all of this testing is stressing out our kids and our teachers.

Right...

THIRD-RATE ORATORY, FIRST-RATE FUN
President Obama’s annual State of the Union address will be held tonight, and while polarizing K–12 policy is likely to be absent, early childhood and higher education will get plenty of air time. On the docket for these two subjects: the president’s free community college proposal, along with an idea to streamline child-care tax benefits and incentives for families with young children. Be sure to hop on Twitter during your SOTU viewing party for a special edition of the EWA’s buzzword bingo.

RELAX, THEY WON'T REVOKE YOUR PASSPORT
Arizona will be the first state to require high school students to pass a civics test, the assessment that all candidates for U.S. citizenship must take. A poll found that 77 percent of responders support this new requirement. Before you decide on the wisdom of the policy, see if you can pass the test.

AND YOU THOUGHT LUTEFISK WAS BAD
While Scandinavian countries top global rankings in many education metrics, a new piece in the Washington Post suggests that they are not the utopias they are sometimes made out to be. It seems that even the “happiest countries on Earth” struggle with racial tension, a slowing economy, and high youth unemployment (to name just a few). What does this mean for education? For starters, we need to be realistic when looking to other countries as potential models. But as Chester E. Finn, Jr. and...

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