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[Editor’s note: This is the fourth 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 herehere, and here.]

Andy’s odyssey: Part four

The most convincing argument against conservatism is that by defending longstanding institutions it ends up protecting longstanding injustices.

Yes, there is a prima facie case for preservation: It’s sensible to safeguard things that have stood the test of time—libraries, respect for elders, voluntary community associations, the Western canon, charity. But enormous harm is done by protecting old, immoral institutions, like serfdom, honor killings, and the denial of women’s suffrage.

A corollary of the preserve-first approach, that change should occur gradually, promises wise, prudent adjustments. But it too can injure grievously. Ending the military targeting of civilians—once a common wartime practice—needed to happen immediately, not slowly. This understanding is reflected in Gladstone’s adage, “Justice delayed is justice denied;” Goldwater’s admonition, “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue;” and Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail rebuke of those advocating patience.

The dark sides of preservation and gradual change have been illuminated by the events of Ferguson and a recent Atlantic article on reparations. They illustrate with agonizing clarity why dramatic change is sometimes required; provide insight into the tragic...

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READY OR NOT
This is the year when nearly every state must begin using assessments aligned to the Common Core, or other “college-and career-ready” standards, Education Week notes. And unlike last year, “this year’s achievement results will be a cornerstone of states’ public accountability reporting.”

THIRD PLACE
The United States ranks third (trailing Switzerland and Singapore) in competitiveness, based on several factors, including “an excellent university system,” according to a new report from the World Economic Forum. In education, the U.S. is seventh (of 144 countries) in higher ed; in primary ed, the U.S. ranks thirty-sixth.

BRITISH CODING INVASION
All students in the United Kingdom will learn computer coding as young as age five starting this year due to curriculum changes. In the U.S., “very few elementary age students are learning to code in U.S. schools, though the nonprofit Code.org is trying to change that,” reports Education Week.

DIVERSITY? WHAT DIVERSITY?
Heard the one about how U.S. schools have never been more diverse? County-level maps produced by the Urban Institute show schools are actually less likely to be diverse than before. Blame housing patterns.

“THE BOOK THAT GOT TEACHING RIGHT”
The New Yorker rediscovers “Up the Down Staircase,” the 1965 best-seller and “the most enduring account we have of teachers’ lives,” and discovers it’s out of print.

“I WAS A BIT OF A UNICORN”
Noted Glenn Peters as one of very few male preschool teachers in New York. According to NPR, “barely 2 percent...

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Long before today’s education-reform movement was born, indeed long before A Nation at Risk, there was the Council for Basic Education (CBE), founded in 1956 by such notables as Jacques Barzun, Hyman Rickover, and Mortimer Smith. They believed, as do we, that “there is an intimate relationship between a healthy democracy and the ideal of excellence in education.”

For nearly half a century, CBE fought the good fight for excellence in American K–12 education, for rigorous standards, excellent teaching, and curriculum built upon serious content. For decades, it was very nearly the only voice to caution about the excesses of progressivism, relativism, and equity-at-the-expense-of-quality.

And for more than twenty years, from the dawn of special education to the enactment of Goals 2000, this invaluable organization was captained by A. Graham Down, who passed away on Saturday, a day after celebrating his eighty-fifth birthday at his beloved Cosmos Club.

Equipped with a plummy Oxbridge accent, as befits a superbly educated gentleman—history, music, education, and more—who moved to the U.S. from England at age twenty-five, Graham was as close to a Renaissance man as we have known in person. A dedicated and accomplished musician, widely read in many fields, a devotee of the humanities and the English language, a passionate education reformer, a raconteur and bon vivant, a tireless leader, fine writer, and owner of a grand sense of humor, his long career included stints as head of the College Board’s Advanced Placement program, book reviewer for Education Next,...

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THE SITUATION IS FLUID
Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham takes a second look at a much-discussed study that seems to indicate charter schools raise test scores, but not “fluid intelligence.” The results are “fascinating, but they are also easy to misinterpret,” he writes.

BOSTON COMMONS
Boston is getting a “chief of education,” who will cultivate relationships with allschools in Boston—public, charter, parochial, and private—plus Boston’s colleges and universities—“although he will not have direct power over those institutions,” notes the Boston Globe.

LACKING LEADERS, THE SEQUEL
Writing at Slate, Dana Goldstein says the school principal “just might be the most important figure in school reform.” But you already knew that.

OPT OUT OF...VACCINATIONS?!
California parents are deciding against vaccinating their kindergarten-age children at twice the rate they did seven years ago, the Los Angeles Times reports. Health experts say that’s contributing to the reemergence of measles.  

UNCHARTERED WATERS
Seattle’s First Place Scholars today becomes the first charter school to open in the state of Washington.

ARE YOU READY FOR SOME STEM?
TIME Magazine reports the San Francisco 49ers have a plan to bring in sixty kids a day from Bay Area schools for daylong STEM education programs, focusing on the engineering of stadium construction and the physics of football.

SCREECHING TO THE TEST
As Lee County, Florida opts out of opting out, Fordham’s Petrilli notes that school boards might take similar “symbolic actions,” but “at the end of the...

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SEPTEMBER SURPRISE
Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and Cato’s Neal McCluskey—from opposite sides of the Common Core debate—coauthor an op-ed calling on both sides to “stop fighting over basic facts, and tackle crucial questions,” like will Common Core improve outcomes?”

BEWARE THE "PHARAOH EFFECT"
The Wall Street Journal warns religious schools eager to take up NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's offer to subsidize preschool students that if they accept “favors from the government often they may come to regret the attached strings.”

NEW HISTORY WARS
The head of the American Historical Association defends the College Board’s AP History framework in a New York Times op-ed, noting a “once comforting story has become, in the hands of scholars, more complex, unsettling, provocative and compelling.”

IT WAS FUN WHILE IT LASTED
A new nonprofit called Education Post launched today in hopes of creating “an honest and civil conversation” about education...and was immediately attacked on Twitter....

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Last week, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal sued the U.S. Department of Education over the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), with a particular focus on the role that Race to the Top (RTTT) played in encouraging their adoption. And three days later, rumors arose that Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin might haul that same agency into court for revoking its No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver. Together these two suits bring some of the most criticized recent federal education policies under legal scrutiny. But President Obama’s conditional waivers are much more vulnerable to legal challenge than is his Race to the Top initiative. Here’s why:

Jindal’s lawsuit claims that the federal government has used legislation to incentivize state adoption of the CCSS. The complaint asks the court to (1) declare that these actions violate the United States Constitution and a number of federal statutes and (2) enjoin the federal government from continuing. There are a number of lenses through which the court could view these actions.

Let’s first look at the constitutional claim, which has virtually no chance of success. Louisiana alleges that the feds’ standards push violates state sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment, which reads: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

The federal Race to the Top program,...

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STRETCHING COGNITIVE LIMITS ON ACHIEVEMENT
Each year of attendance at an oversubscribed charter school increased the math test scores of students in the sample by roughly 50 percent over the typical students, EducationNext reports, but had no impact on their fluid cognitive skills.

TICK, TICK, TICK…..
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has received only 141 out of more than 500 contracts required for review to launch Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious universal preschool program. School starts September 4. That’s September 4, 2014.  

ICYMI: JINDAL SUES
And the story is getting some coverage: Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, Politico, and more. Petrilli’s take: “"Bobby Jindal is not going to win these lawsuits, but he is going to win politically just by staging the fight.”

HOW DO YOU GET TO CARNEGIE HALL?  TAXICAB, MAYBE...
Sorry, Malcolm Gladwell. It turns out that 10,000 hours of practice will not make you an expert. A new meta-analysis finds practice explains just 12 percent of skill mastery and subsequent success, Smithsonian reports.

STRETCH THAT SCHOOL DOLLAR
The Daily Beast highlights twenty-five schools that are “doing the most with the least;” and note the charter...

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photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

Being an education reformer is often frustrating. No matter how zealously we push an idea or how smart we think it is, sometimes nothing changes. Or—the Common Core is a recent example—we make fast, bold gains at the outset, only to see our efforts watered down, neutered, or repudiated outright. Sure, we take solace in education’s slow, steady improvement. But this, too, frustrates us because kids grow up fast and shouldn’t have to wait for the upgrades they needed yesterday.

The respected education innovator (and inaugural Charter School Hall of Famer) Ted Kolderie sums it up well in his provocative new book:

Trying endlessly to push change into an inert system makes no basic sense. A concept of education policy built on this theory of action does not work; is not practical…Nor does the effort to transform the system radically through political action succeed. It, too, is not practical. A political majority for radical change is almost a contradiction in terms.

Kolderie knows the reform struggles of the last thirty years as well as anybody, and The Split Screen Strategy: Improvement + Innovation does a fantastic job of showing the limitations of these faulty assumptions and naïve dreams.

Take charter schools, which have underperformed and proven unnecessarily contentious. Part of the problem is that their advocates early on lost sight of chartering’s original purpose:...

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Many of our recent ed-reforms—e.g. Teach for America, alternative certification, the Hamilton Project, and various “new teacher” projects—implicitly subscribe to the idea that great teachers are born, not made. Ed schools, too, largely consider “training” teachers to be beneath their dignity. Hence the path to instructional excellence is to welcome all sorts of smart people into the classroom via all sorts of entry paths, then weed out those who don’t cut it.

In her new book, Building a Better Teacher, veteran education journalist Elizabeth Green sets out to dismantle this notion.

If she’s right and the reformers are wrong it would be good news, for then we could devise purposeful strategies for improving classroom instruction at scale—and not subject kids to a trial-and-error process of teacher selection. This possibility makes Building a Better Teacher an important book. Alas, Green offers scant evidence to support the made-not-born thesis. Indeed, her biggest proof point—a lengthy examination of the teaching techniques pioneered by a small cadre of math teachers in Michigan—comes perilously close to undermining the case she sets out to build.

This narrative focuses on the work of Deborah Ball, currently dean of education at the University of Michigan. Back in the day, she was a gifted fifth-grade math teacher at Spartan Village Academy in East Lansing. While still a student at Michigan State (MSU), Ball and a colleague, an equally...

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The New York chapter of the United Federation of Teachers participated in an anti-police brutality rally this past Saturday, prompting the question of what exactly does the union stand for: teachers or a political agenda? Fordham’s vice president of research and coauthor of Fordham’s union-strength study, Amber Northern, explained to Fox viewers why the UFT’s decision to support this rally undermines their chief cause.

As Northern puts it, “the zebra is showing its stripes.” 

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