Flypaper

Bright and early yesterday morning, Mike Petrilli joined Steven Scully at C-SPAN to talk Common Core. The good news? The conspiracy theorists weren’t watching—or maybe they had their calls screened out. (Though Mike still had to correct the record on curriculum, the federal role, and teacher input.) The best moment? Where Mike says our secretary of education has “some sort of Tourette Syndrome" when he mentions Common Core.

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When it comes to state education agencies (SEAs), ed-reformers have fallen into a sorry rut.

As states have emerged as primary drivers of much-needed changes in K–12 practice and policy, the SEA has become the default agent-of-change for a vast number of initiatives concocted by policymakers in state capitals and Washington alike.

Want a new teacher-evaluation system and more rigorous certification standards? Want to crack down on school violence and bullying? Want better assessments of school performance and improved interventions for low-performers? Want to widen broadband access and encourage blended learning?

Hand it to the SEA.

Given that this agency is the state’s primary (or only) K–12 administrative unit, one can easily see why decision makers have had this impulse.

Yet the SEA was originally designed—and then acculturated over decades—to distribute dollars to local districts and monitor their compliance with a lengthening list of federal and state regulations and categorical funding streams. It was never intended to lead complex, contentious, large-scale reforms that require original thinking, nimble action and constant adaptability. In other words, it wasn’t intended to carry out a huge fraction of the responsibilities that have recently been thrust upon it.

In our new report, The New SEA: At the Helm, Not the Oar, we propose that this plain fact be recognized and alternative arrangements made.

This does not mean we think the SEA has no role in education reform, much less that we...

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In recent years, policymakers and reform advocates have viewed State Education Agencies (SEAs) as the lead organizations for implementing sweeping reforms and initiatives in K–12 education—everything from Race to the Top grants and federal waivers to teacher-evaluation systems and online schools. But SEAs were not built—nor are they really competent—to drive such reforms, argue Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire in The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar [link]. And despite the best efforts of talented, energetic leaders, SEAs will never be able to deliver the reform results that their states need. This latest paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests a new governance approach, organized around what Smarick and Squire call the “4 Cs”:

Control: Return SEAs to their core functions of channeling federal and state dollars to districts; adopting statewide standards and assessments; creating and maintaining data systems; and monitoring compliance with applicable laws.

Contract: Contract with other organizations that are better equipped to accomplish education work, while ensuring that performance agreements with those organizations delineate outcomes and consequences for poor performance.

Cleave: Leave tasks that are well outside SEAs’ core competencies—such as charter-school authorizing and generating educational innovation—to other government entities or nongovernmental organizations.

Create: Encourage state leaders, both inside and outside government, to create new entities to take on much-needed reform work.

For more on the role of the SEA, tune into “State Education Agencies: The Smaller the Better?”...

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Michele Cahill, Leah Hamilton

The Carnegie Corporation’s Michele Cahill and Leah Hamilton, veterans of Joel Klein’s Department of Education in New York City, responded to a challenge posed by Petrilli with a thoughtful alternative view.

In Mike’s post on Monday, he asks if our schools have “an answer” for students who are unprepared for high school—a group that makes up, as he says, as much as 80–90 percent of students. He also points out, correctly, that all that many districts offer these students is a chance to muddle through four years (or more) in a large, comprehensive high school, in hopes of earning a diploma that by no means signals readiness for college or a career. It is an indictment of our educational system that many do not achieve even that.

Fortunately, there are models out there that show that it is indeed possible to structure high schools to do much more for underprepared students. A recent book by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane, Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge of American Educationfor example, describes what the authors call “high schools that improve life chances,” pointing in particular to small, nonselective high schools created in New York City by the Department of Education and New Visions for Public Schools. Explicitly designed according to a set of design principles that stress academic rigor and personalization, attention to youth development, strong community partnerships, and accountability for results, these schools have produced powerful results for students—many of whom fall squarely within the cohort of the...

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The Philanthropy Roundtable recently released an exceptional publication produced by an exceptional author.

Even though it’s meant to be straightforward guide for donors interested in charter schooling, were I teaching a course on K–12 policy and reform, it would be an assigned reading. Throughout From Promising to Proven, author Karl Zinsmeister provides thorough, trenchant analysis of this remarkable sector of public education. At its best, it serves as a fitting, even moving, encomium to the vision and work of the civically minded social entrepreneurs who’ve brought it to life.

This short book works masterfully on three levels.

On the surface, it is exactly what the doctor ordered if you’re a charter-intrigued philanthropist. It explains chartering practice and policy and describes the activities of the field’s leading organizations.

A cursory tour of the guidebook will leave the reader wiser about the distinctive characteristics of charter schools (autonomous, accountable, choice-based), its innovations (longer days and years, new approaches to staffing), and key strengths (increasing parental engagement, empowering educators).

The reader will also become familiar with the most important nonprofits in this space. These include direct-service providers (e.g., Building Excellent Schools, the Mind Trust, Charter School Partners), human-capital organizations (e.g., Relay, Sposato, the Ryan Fellowship), advocacy groups (e.g., charter associations, BAEO, 50CAN, Stand for Children), and foundations and intermediaries (e.g., the Walton Family Foundation, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Choose to Succeed, New Schools for New Orleans).

The guidebook also offers an extensive treatment of the sector’s most challenging policy issues,...

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Some music scholars believe that 50 years ago, the blues—the primordial indigenous American musical form—was on the brink of extinction. Its progenitors were fading away, mainstream America was uninterested, and the unsympathetic forces of musical evolution were marching on.

But across the pond, in the 1950s and early 1960s, a gang of teenaged Brits, hailing from a nation still reeling from World War II’s devastation, happened upon imported records by U.S. blues legends like of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. These lads, connecting with the music’s enigmatic blend of sadness and hubris, studied with awe.

Years later, they would make it to our shores, with names like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, reintroducing the United States to something of its own creation and using it to plot an extraordinary path forward.

In 1993, Massachusetts passed the “Education Reform Act,” legislation that touched every important area of K–12 policy: increasing funding, toughening standards, upping accountability, introducing chartering, reforming teacher preparation, and more. It was arguably the most important state-level action of the standards-and-accountability movement.

Beyond it’s comprehensiveness, two aspects of the law stand out. First, over the next two decades, regardless of political party, the state’s leadership (governors, education commissioners, and state board members) remained faithful to its vision. Second, it helped Massachusetts emerge as one of the nation’s highest-performing states: as of 2013, according to the Nation’s Report Card and international assessments...

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We know from international data—PISA, TIMSS, and so on—that other countries produce more “high achievers” than we do (at least in relation to the size of their pupil populations). And it’s no secret that in the U.S., academic achievement tends to correlate with socioeconomic status, hence producing far too few high achievers within the low-income population. But is this a uniquely American problem? How do we compare to other countries?

To begin to answer these questions, Chester Finn and I looked more closely at the PISA 2012 results (in conjunction with a study we’re conducting on how other advanced countries educate their high-ability students). The OECD has a socioeconomic indicator it uses in connection with PISA results called the Index of Economic, Social, and Cultural Status (ESCS). Like most SES gauges that depend heavily on student self-reporting, it’s far from perfect, but to the best of our knowledge it’s no worse than most. In any case, it’s one of the few socioeconomic indicators that allow for cross-national education comparisons. It is derived from parents’ occupational status, educational level, and home possessions,[1] and it can be split into quartiles for a given country, wherein the bottom quarter has the lowest SES and the top quarter has the highest.

PISA results are reported, inter alia, according to seven proficiency levels, ranging from zero to six. Levels 5 and 6 are the highest. To get a feel for this demarcation, approximately...

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Of all the responses to my “you’re-not-college-material” essay, there’s one I find most compelling—and worrying. Namely, kids who aren’t “college material” aren’t “career- and technical-education material” either. Springpoint’s JoEllen Lynch says it well:

It’s a myth that CTE meets the needs of low performing kids from low performing schools. So, it depends on what problem we are trying to solve. Are we just looking for more models for students who enter high school fully prepared, or are we trying to create models that will address the needs of kids who are not? I think many people feel that CTE is an answer for the unprepared; this notion is not based on data or an understanding of the demands of good CTE schools.

I stand corrected. Since I wrote my Slate piece, I’ve learned much more about high quality CTE programs, including one I visited in Fordham’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio (the Ponitz Career Technology Center). This high school (with close ties to Dayton’s excellent community college) is even selective, only accepting incoming freshmen who score proficient on Ohio’s math or reading tests and who stayed out of trouble in middle school.

Assuming that Dayton is not an outlier and that Lynch is correct, this raises an obvious question: if CTE is not “an answer for the unprepared,” what is?

Cue RiShawn Biddle of Dropout Nation. He was not happy with my “college-material” essay, arguing that it earned me a...

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Laura McGiffert Slover

More than one million students. Sixteen thousand schools. Nearly 10,000 test items. This spring is a critical milestone, as PARCC states make history by participating in field tests. More than the numbers, however, the successful field tests mark a huge shift in how we do testing in this country.

PARCC states are creating tests worth taking, made up of texts worth reading and problems worth solving. They are designed to give teachers information and tools they can use to customize teaching and learning for each student, and give students test questions and tasks that are meaningful –the kind that great teachers routinely ask students. As a former teacher, I know that good testing, the kind that measures students’ ability to apply concepts, isn’t a loss of instructional time – it’s an opportunity to learn. That’s what we are aiming for with PARCC – learning experiences, not just memorizing facts and filling in bubbles.

The PARCC assessments mark the end of “test prep.” Good instruction will be the only way to truly prepare students for the assessments. Memorization, drill and test-taking strategies will no longer siphon time from instruction. As students work through well-constructed problems, they are asked to draw upon what they’ve learned and apply it to solve problems. Results will help teachers assist kids who are struggling and help identify those who are well on their way toward demonstrating the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the next grades and in whichever pathways they choose after high school....

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South Carolina has taken today’s testing drama to new heights. A few years back, the governor, chief, and state board chair all agreed to have the Palmetto State become a governing board member of the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) testing consortia. But as other states withdrew and new testing options emerged, the state legislature no longer saw participation in a consortium as necessary. So several bills have been filed to force an SBAC departure. The state chief, hoping to find accord with the legislature, recommended that the state board vote to willingly withdraw. The board voted against. Now the state chief has discovered the he has the power to withdraw without the state board’s blessing. Read this letter from the chief to the board. Remarkable stuff.

Indiana is now the latest state to release disappointing results from a new teacher-evaluation system. Though many of us hoped the Widget Effect would disappear, it’s becoming clear that changing statutes and regulations are only a small part of the equation.  

In Tennessee, it’s been tough reform sledding of late. The state’s cutting-edge policy on tying certification to value-added scores is no more. Now it looks like the state may back out of PARCC and issue an RFP for future tests. On the upside, new charter-school legislation is making its way to the governor’s desk; it would enable the state board of education to authorize charter schools rejected by local school districts. Of course,...

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