Flypaper

The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the OarWhen Fordham released The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar, which argued that smaller is better when it comes to state education agencies, the education community took note. Andy Smarick, a coauthor of the report, is in violent agreement with the folks over at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, and even state chiefs are open to these ideas. Here’s some of the best commentary about the white paper (so far):

Paul Hill, founder of CRPE, writes,

Slogans are useful, but they can mislead. We can’t just “blow up” the old governance system, we also have to build a new one. We need superintendents and board members to “relinquish” old regulatory functions, but we must also design new agencies that delegate, not abdicate, their responsibility to kids, parents, and communities.

Also from CRPE, research analyst Ashley Jochim notes political pitfalls:

Today, chiefs’ ability to weather their time at the helm depends greatly on their political skill, fortitude, and good luck. Transformation of SEAs will require a serious effort to convince governors and legislators that states can play a more constructive role, and that doing so will lead to real benefits for children. Reformers are starting to make that case intellectually but have barely begun addressing it politically, saying why elected officials should support state actions

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I keep up on Common Core news religiously. In the last few weeks, I’ve amassed a stack of 30 articles and reports, trying to come up with a clever, cogent argument for what they mean when considered together.

With so many tangled veins in the debate—and with so much venom coursing through each—I almost gave up. But this morning, while reading a new account of supposedly mounting state-level opposition, it hit me: at least for the moment, the common element of recent Common Core news is the resilience of the standards themselves.

When I looked across all of the news, I was struck by the cacophony of political sound and fury amounting, in the end, to almost nothing. The coverage reminded me of the well-orchestrated pre-fight hype of a heavyweight championship bout—a match ultimately memorable not for the dramatic or unexpected outcome but for the staged antics at the weigh-in or the endless jawboning from both camps.

My allusion to debate qua entertainment isn’t metaphor. One of the moment’s top CCSS critics is, well, a professional entertainer. Some public supporters haven’t exactly elevated the debate either, resorting to name-calling; see this piece referring to opposition as “incredibly stupid” and the normally levelheaded David Brooks accusing opponents of partaking in a political circus.

Major news outlets have predictably picked up the mano a mano motif. The New York Times ran a front-page story on the GOP’s internecine battle. Time magazine covered...

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Among the many problems facing American K–12 education, we don’t have enough highly effective, minority, or male teachers.

Two recent reports from the Center for American Progress (CAP) underscore the first and second of these three shortfalls. As for gender, you can take a look at the NCES data—or just take my word that there are more than three female teachers in U.S. public schools for every male teacher.

If you had to choose, would you rather have your child taught by a highly effective teacher or one who shares his or her race and/or gender?

Of course you’d prefer all of the above, but you may have to face the reality that not many families can have it. I’m reminded of the timeworn conundrum presented to impatient, parsimonious, quality-minded customers by any number of prospective vendors and contractors: “Yes, we can do it better, faster, or cheaper—but we cannot do all three at once. Pick no more than two.”

In a perfect world, you might want your child to be taught by someone who “looks like” him or her and is also highly effective in the classroom. But effective teachers of any race are hard to come by. There just aren’t enough of them, especially in schools serving poor kids. And the pay isn’t good enough to lure huge numbers of others away from more lucrative opportunities. For decades now, American public education has invested its ever-growing budgets in more teachers...

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My colleague Julie Squire and I recently published a report on reforming state departments of education. We argue most state-level reforms ought to be driven by entities other than the SEA, which should focus on a narrower, but still important set of responsibilities.

Our report was intended to challenge the dominant view (i.e., state reform requires a more muscular SEA) and explain how a new approach might be implemented.

We recognized that our take was sufficiently different so as to require not just a strong theoretical base and plenty of evidence but also measured recommendations and explicit cautions. We aimed to produce a sober assessment of current conditions and guarded optimism about a new tack. This is why we dedicate an entire section to the problem and another to the risks of our argument.

We’re fortunate our paper has been taken seriously by a number of serious people, including those who largely agree, those open to a discussion, and those with reservations.

In the last category fall two sharp observers who’ve produced responses warranting attention. Not coincidentally, both are affiliated with CRPE, which has studied systemic reform for ages and dedicated significant recent bandwidth to SEA reform. To cut to the chase, I enthusiastically agree with most of what both have written.

The first is a smart piece by Paul Hill, CRPE’s founder and a researcher who’s thought deeply about the theory underpinning our piece and that theory’s application to...

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On the surface, the story of the US Department of Education’s recent letter to Indiana about its ESEA-waiver noncompliance writes itself. According to the feds, the Hoosier state promised a bunch of stuff, isn’t delivering, and deserves to be called into the principal’s office.

But I encourage you to read the letter—my gut tells me this is the K–12-policy version of a Rorschach test.

In short, the Department has placed conditions on IN’s flexibility request and is requiring the state to submit a plan for how it will implement high-quality standards and assessments in the next school year.

On the first score, ED determined the state hadn’t implemented sufficient interventions for troubled schools and wasn’t adequately monitoring implementation of content standards and educator evaluations.

On the second, ED is seriously holding IN’s feet to the fire regarding its recent legislative action related to Common Core and PARCC. Both were part of the state’s waiver request, and now both have been put aside via state law. Given this, Uncle Sam is demanding a new plan for how the state intends to meet the standards-and-assessments conditions of ESEA flexibility.

I bet lots of folks will read ED’s letter, and think, “Hooray! The Department is serious about its new accountability rules!” Indeed, the ESEA waiver application had clear requirements, and the state made promises, got the flexibility, isn’t meeting its obligations, and is now being held accountable. (Fans of Common Core and PARCC specifically, and tough standards...

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Note: This post is part of our series, "Netflix Academy: The best educational videos available for streaming." Be sure to check out our previous Netflix Academy posts on Ancient Asian Cultures; the early American civilizations; Ancient Greece; Ancient RomeNative American culturesChristopher Columbus and the Age of DiscoveryColonial America and the Revolutionary Warthe American founders;  movie adaptations of classic children’s booksAmerican folk heroesdinosaursaquatic lifeinsectsfrogs and other amphibiansreptilesbirds; and mammals.

We’ve made it this far into our Netflix Academy series without much controversy, save for a few folks on Twitter who had some choice words for Christopher Columbus. Something tells me that the topic of “human evolution” will put that lucky streak to an end. Nonetheless, it’s a crucial part of any curriculum, as it’s a cornerstone of modern biology. Plus, in my humble opinion, it’s totally fascinating. I’m particularly enamored with the BBC’s “Walking with Cavemen” production, which just might be my favorite educational video on Netflix. Creationists will surely disagree. Everyone else: enjoy!

Special thanks to research interns Andrew McDonnell, Elisabeth Hoyson, and Liz McInerney for helping to compile these lists.

Best videos on human evolution

1. Walking with Cavemen

Walking with Cavemen

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Apart from Pulitzer Prizes and such, reporters seldom get much credit.

In general, those they cover in a positive light still think the journalist didn’t tell the full story. Of course, those on the receiving end of a tough article, forever accuse the reporter of all types of malfeasance. And then there are those of us in the chattering class who always seem to think the reporter should’ve taken a different approach, ferreted out other issues, and included other voices (typically ours).

I guess this is the price journalists pay for having such significant power (and, in the eyes of detractors, too little accountability). As Mark Twain said, never pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrel (yes, it’s dated, but you get the gist!).

I like the work of lots of education reporters, and I should probably praise some of them more. But it always feels a bit icky to say nice things about folks who might want to use you as a source. Reporters’ credibility could be challenged if they rely on those who butter them up.

But I’d like to take this chance to express my appreciation for the great work over many years by Michele McNeil of Education Week and Politics K–12. Michele has covered some of the most interesting issues, and she’s always done it smartly and thoroughly.

Some ambitious journalists view it as their duty to comfort the afflicted...

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As legislatures wind down their spring sessions nationwide, Oklahoma is one of the few remaining states with an ongoing, unresolved debate over the Common Core State Standards. Unfortunately, it appears that the Sooner State may follow Indiana’s route and repeal the standards. As the Oklahoman points out in a powerful editorial today, that won’t solve any political problems for Oklahoma Republicans; the Tea Party opponents of the Common Core in Indiana are madder than ever.

But those political considerations are far from the best reasons for Oklahoma to stand strong and not revert back to its old standards (which is what local Common Core opponents are suggesting). The most important factor is that those old standards, while relatively solid, had significant shortcomings—shortcomings that make them incompatible with college and career readiness:

  1. Few objectives were devoted to informational texts. This is a problem for two reasons. First, informational texts—otherwise known as nonfiction—allow students to gain important content knowledge that will allow them to become proficient readers. It’s this focus on content knowledge that is one reason we at the Fordham Institute (and Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr.) are such strong supporters of the Common Core. Second, research demonstrates that many students struggle in college because they have not had enough exposure to informational texts in the K–12 system; addressing that preparation gap is a major goal (and positive feature) of the Common Core. What’s more, Oklahoma’s old standards were neither detailed enough about the literary genres students should
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As anyone in education knows, the Common Core debate has become heavily politicized over the past year. What that means is that the true education issues at stake—for instance, whether the standards for English and math are challenging enough or, conversely, age appropriate—are taking a backseat to arguments over macropolitics and ideology.

Opponents on the right like to label the Common Core as “ObamaCore” and joke that schools were promised, “If you like your curriculum, you can keep your curriculum.”

As a conservative supporter of the Common Core who has racked up thousands of frequent-flier miles traveling to legislative hearings in state capitals nationwide, I find this fear of centralized control a misplaced, even willful false alarm sounded by people with other political agendas. To be sure, I don’t want the federal government meddling in curriculum issues and can point to many examples where Washington regulations—on matters of spending, “highly-qualified teachers,” and student discipline—have done more harm than good. I’m relieved the federal role in the Common Core has been relatively small.

Yet the history of education reform in the United States makes clear that efforts to foist top-down changes on the nation’s schools never get anywhere quickly and never produce real uniformity. Invariably, they’re met, for better or worse, with resistance and confusion—or, to say it more positively, with adaptation and customization.

The Common Core issue will prove no different. It won’t lead to...

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It looks to me as if one of the most acclaimed reforms of today’s education profession—not just in the U.S. but also all over the planet—is one of the least examined in terms of actual implementation and effectiveness. How often and how well do instructors, whose administrators and gurus revere the concept of differentiated instruction, actually carry it out? How well does it work and for which kids under what circumstances? So far as I can tell, nobody really knows.

I’ve been roaming the globe in search of effective strategies for educating high-ability youngsters, particularly kids from disadvantaged circumstances who rarely have parents with the knowledge and means to steer them through the education maze and obtain the kind of schooling (and/or supplementation or acceleration) that will make the most of their above-average capacity to learn.

As expected, I’ve found a wide array of programs and policies intended for “gifted education,” “talent development,” and so forth, each with pluses and minuses.

But almost everywhere, I’ve also encountered some version of this assertion: “We don’t really need to provide special programs, classrooms, or schools for gifted children because we expect every school and teacher to differentiate their instruction so as to meet the unique educational needs of all children within an inclusive, heterogeneous classroom.”

A thoroughly laudable goal, say I, but how realistic is it? How well is it being done? And does it really meet...

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