Flypaper

For two decades now, education reformers have promoted a two-track strategy for improving our schools. The first track is standards-based: Set clear, high expectations in core academic subjects; test students regularly to see which schools and students are clearing the bar; and hold schools (and perhaps also educators and pupils) to account for the results.

The second reform track is school choice: Allow parents to select among a wide array of education providers, encouraging innovation along the way.

We have argued for years that these two tracks are interdependent — even codependent. Let us explain:

Standards-based reform got underway in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in part as a reaction to A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report by President Reagan’s Commission on Excellence in Education. This reform track offered what Lamar Alexander called a “horse trade”: more autonomy for schools in return for stronger academic results. Previous waves of reform had focused on inputs, intentions, and regulation: boost the credentials and pay of teachers; increase course requirements for high-school graduation; mandate lower class sizes; etc. When that yielded paltry success, policymakers flipped the equation: less regulation but more focus on outcomes.

That only works, however, when the desired outcomes are clear. That’s the role of academic standards, which, if well crafted, provide guidance to teachers, parents, textbook writers, and test designers about what students are expected to know and be...

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Sarah Rosenberg

When it comes to education reform, school boards are often the redheaded stepchildren. Over the last two decades, mayors have taken over nearly twenty major urban school systems. “School boards are an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole,” said Fordham’s own Checker Finn. “Put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery.” Even school board members themselves admit that they “throw temper-tantrums, use off-color language, throw things, [and] threaten or insult board members, the superintendent, staff, or the public.” The bigger question then is: Do school boards even matter? Should we even have them? Two researchers tried to answer that question.

In Does School Board Leadership Matter?, Arnold F. Shober and Michael T. Hartney matched school-board-member survey data from 2009 with data about each participant’s district. The goal of their analysis was to determine whether school board members’ characteristics and opinions correlated with their districts’ student achievement and whether their districts “beat the odds” and outperformed what their student demographics predicted. What they found was promising: school board members who believe that improving student learning is their most important priority were more likely to serve in districts that beat the odds.

Considering school boards control the vast majority of the nation’s 14,000 school districts, this is good news. But the research does require a few caveats. First, the survey did not interview entire school boards; instead, they interviewed 900 school board members from 417 school districts. School boards can—and often do—have members with...

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Sonja Brookins Santelises

While the New York State United Teachers and the National Education Association have withdrawn their support for the Common Core State Standards, it’s important to recognize that the teachers’ actions had nothing to do with the standards themselves. This blowback is yet another example of how concerns about implementation are being conflated with the actual merit of the standards.

Even among educators committed to serving children in poverty and kids already performing far below their potential, there is widespread agreement that these rigorous standards will help move more of our young people toward true college and career readiness. The recently released Primary Sources survey found that nearly 75 percent of teachers expressed enthusiasm for the Common Core. Further, more than half said they thought the standards would be positive for most students.

What many object to are the rushed timelines for implementing the standards and tests, a lack of adequate support for teaching the standards, and the simultaneous rollout of new educator evaluation systems based partly on student performance on these brand new tests.

These are valid concerns. Expecting educators and young people to adjust to such sweeping changes within a year or two, as do current federal and state policies, is unrealistic. But our response to these concerns can’t be abandoning the standards themselves, for in doing so we would abandon the best chance we have had in a very long time to focus all of our schools on the things that will...

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All eyes are on the “extraordinary authority districts” in Louisiana (the RSD), Tennessee, (the ASD), and Michigan (the EAA). And for good reason, because as this excellent Hechinger Report article demonstrates, old-style state takeovers almost always disappoint. The article highlights cases in the Magnolia State where districts have improved modestly under state direction but have then fallen back down when returned to local control—a logical outcome when a suite of reforms does not accompany the takeover.

Over the weekend, the Times wrote up the Too Small the Fail initiative, which is working with low-income parents to encourage them to talk to their babies and toddlers more. Hillary Clinton is among its founders. Here’s hoping it works; anything that gets disadvantaged kids off to a stronger start is worth pursuing. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t note that initiatives such as these are explicitly working to change the culture and behavior of low-income communities; Paul Ryan would probably be called a racist if he proposed such an idea.

The headline “Indiana Drops Common Core” has splashed across the national media all week. A more accurate headline might read, “Indiana May or May Not Have Dropped Common Core—We’ll Find Out in a Few Months.” What is certain, though, is that Indiana is in a pickle. Not only are its new draft standards worse than the Common Core standards they replace—but they’re worse than the ...

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Anyone concerned with improving the achievement, efficiency, operations, or other performance of school districts inevitably asks: Shouldn’t the board be responsible for doing this right? How much do school boards matter, anyway?

In the past, school boards have been characterized both as key partners in improving education and as foes of reforms that would benefit children. More recently, they’ve also been depicted as beside-the-point, structural relics of early-twentieth-century organizational arrangements that have little effect on what actually happens in classrooms or on what kids learn.

So which is it? When it comes to the elected leaders of most of the 14,000 school districts in the U.S., are board members critical actors in enhancing student learning, protectors of the status quo, or simply harmless bystanders? If they are critical, are they well suited to delivering the best results for students? And if they are indeed capable and willing to focus on student learning, do such qualities at the board level bear any relationship to academic results in their districts?

Until now, nobody had much evidence one way or the other. So, building on a large-scale survey (done in collaboration with the NSBA and ISBF), we set out to see whether school board members’ characteristics, knowledge, and priorities could be linked to district performance. To explore these questions, we enlisted Arnold F. Shober, associate professor of government at Lawrence University, and Michael T. Hartney, researcher in political science at the University of Notre Dame. Both have conducted significant previous research into...

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In an Education Week commentary essay about school boards in 2009, I wrote, “[M]y sense of things, after two stints on my local school board…is that school boards have been overtaken by the ‘educatocracy,’ by powerful trade unions, certified specialists, certification agencies, state and federal rule-makers and legislators, grants with strings, billion-dollar-contractor lobbyists, textbook mega-companies, professional associations, and lawyers—the list could go on.”

I am quite gleeful, therefore, that the new report from Fordham entitled Does School Board Leadership Matter? asks most of the right questions about school boards—and provides some very interesting and helpful answers for progress moving forward.

Complaints about school boards are legion—and well known—and they carry on. A few titles in the new report’s endnotes spell it out: “School Boards: A Troubled American Institution” (by Jacqueline Danzberger), School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy (by Gene Maeroff), and Beseiged: School Boards and the Future of American Politics (William Howell). The dates of these publications range from 1992 to 2010. And, of course, Checker Finn beat them all, suggesting in a 1991 Education Week commentary that we should probably “declare local boards and superintendents to be archaic in the 1990s, living fossils of an earlier age…. Local school boards are not just superfluous. They are also dysfunctional.”

“Under these circumstances,” I wrote in my 2009 Ed Week commentary, “it doesn’t surprise me that many people think school boards are irrelevant. They are. Boards do a lot of moving the chairs around on...

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Peter Cunningham

In a provocative piece in Slate recently, Fordham’s executive vice president Mike Petrilli asked why Euro-style tracking isn’t a better strategy for high-school students who are significantly below grade level. Here’s one response.

I do some work with a nonprofit organization in Chicago called Manufacturing Renaissance, which trains high-school students and ex-offenders for manufacturing jobs in the area. Austin Polytech Academy (APA) was founded in 2007 as a small high school to replace a larger underperforming school. Of the student body, 95 percent are low income, 13 percent are homeless, and 30 percent have diagnosed learning needs. The school’s graduation rate is 60 percent, and the average ACT score is just 14.5 on a scale of 36, well below the level deemed “college ready.” The students are precisely the ones who would be tracked toward career programs in a European-style education system.

APA is also surrounded by hundreds of small and medium-sized manufacturing companies desperately in need of trained workers to replace an aging workforce. By some estimates, there are 20,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the Chicago region alone and 600,000 nationwide.

To meet this need, APA began offering a career-education program that offers students work-ready credentials from the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS). To date, more than 150 APA graduates have earned more than 250 work-ready NIMS credentials. More than half of the students get paid work experience while in high school, and about two-dozen APA graduates have gotten jobs upon graduation. Starting wages are between...

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Are the nation’s 90,000-plus school board members critical players in enhancing student learning? Are they part of the problem? Are they harmless bystanders?

Those are the questions that Fordham’s newest study, Does School Board Leadership Matter?, seeks to answer. Among the takeaways are the following:

  • Board members, by and large, possess accurate information about their districts when it comes to finance, teacher pay, collective bargaining, and class size. Whether they were knowledgeable from the outset or surround themselves with savvy staff and administrators, many are making decisions from an informed point of view. 
  • But such knowledge is not uniformly distributed. Surprisingly, members who were never educators themselves are more accurately informed than their peers who once were (or still are) educators. Likewise, political moderates appear to have more accurate knowledge than their liberal or conservative counterparts.
  • A district’s success in “beating the odds” academically is related to board members’ focus on the improvement of academics. Unfortunately, not all board members have this focus.
  • Board members elected during on-cycle, at-large elections are more likely to serve in districts that “beat the odds” than those chosen by voters off-cycle or by ward. In some localities, how board members are elected may deter the best and brightest from taking on these key roles. 

What does this mean for education governance? School board members and their attitudes do matter—so it’s important to take seriously who gets elected and how. Even as we strive to bring about structural...

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My doubts and disgruntlements with elected local school boards span three decades.

I don’t dislike boards or board members. However, this whole governance structure—the local “district,” the elected board, the board-appointed superintendent, and so on—strikes me as archaic, an arrangement that made more sense in 1914 than in 2014, when most of the money comes from states and more and more of the decisions are (or should be) made at the state level, the building level, and the family level.

My discontent also stems from the fact that too many communities—especially those facing the greatest education challenges—now have boards consisting not of the ablest and most civic-minded people in town but, rather, of aspiring politicians, single-interest cause pushers, and disgruntled former employees of the system itself.
In my view, we're overdue for a comprehensive governance overhaul of American public education.

Nevertheless, I also recognize that the vast majority of U.S. kids today attend schools that remain under the purview of elected local school boards and their members. Call it reality.

That being the case, it does matter who ends up on these boards, where they come from, how they're chosen, how much they know, and what their priorities are. Indeed, it can matter a great deal—as our new Fordham analysis shows. This means that so long as school boards are in charge, we should take their members seriously, recognizing that children...

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Sean Lynch

Upon reading Michael J. Petrilli’s recent article, “Kid, I’m Sorry, but You’re Just Not College Material,” I was encouraged to see a major publication shining light on some of the many benefits that career and technical education (CTE) has to offer. Petrilli’s facts are absolutely correct: CTE programs open doors to new career-exploration opportunities, lower high-school dropout rates, and can engage at-risk students with interesting curriculum.

However, there is a key point that my colleagues at the Association for Career and Technical Education and I feel is important to emphasize in this discussion: CTE is a component of academically challenging, rigorous education for all students, be they high fliers or at risk. It’s important to balance our attention between acknowledging CTE’s benefits in engaging struggling students with their coursework and ensuring that every student has the knowledge and skills needed for success in both college and careers.

Students should work with their mentors at home and in school to identify their ideal career path and obtain the education they will need to succeed, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. School counselors play a crucial role here by building bridges between students and an education that prepares them for the career they want—and oftentimes, those are in-demand careers in CTE related fields that provide respected, high-wage positions. And it’s certainly not a choice between attending a four-year college or participating in CTE, because the majority of students who explore CTE programs...

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