Tilting at WindmillsThis is the brave tale of Alan Bersin, superintendent of San Diego Unified School District from 1998 to 2005, and his aspiration to bring about rapid, systemic reform across that sprawling district. At attorney by training and experience, Bersin was new to school administration. But he moved swiftly, replacing the bloated, inefficient bureaucracy he had inherited with three distinct branches focused chiefly on improving instruction through centralized curricula, direct coaching, and observation. San Diego’s teacher union, however, viewed such moves as power grabs rather than legitimate reforms. Relations only got worse when Bersin implemented a prescriptive plan to curtail social promotion and increase instruction for high-need students—without teacher input. The union, upset at his top-down management style and his simultaneous embrace of charter schools, set out to change the composition of the school board and stock it with anti-Bersins. Never mind that overall student achievement had gone up and achievement gaps had significantly narrowed during his tenure. Bersin’s successor was then chosen to make peace between the union and the school district, and of course this peacemaking process undid just about all of his significant reforms. And the wheels keep spinning.

SOURCE: Richard Lee Colvin, Tilting at Windmills (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013)....


Kudos to the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Digital Learning Now! team: Its new fifty-state analysis of digital-learning policies offers a comprehensive, navigable, and timely look at the state-policy landscape for digital and blended education. The report scores each state’s policies against DLN’s ten “elements of high-quality digital learning” (including student access, funding, and quality choices), measured by the group’s thirty-nine underlying “metrics,” or policy criterion by which states are officially scored. Under “funding,” for example, is the metric “funding is provided on a fractional, per course basis to pay providers for individual online courses.” Overall, Utah comes out on top, garnering the lone A-minus. Another five states—Florida, Minnesota, Georgia, Virginia, and Kansas—earn Bs. Twenty-one states register Fs. The report doesn’t simply shame those with inadequate digital-learning policies, though. It provides numerous best-practice cases of states that passed quality digital-education legislation in 2012, including Georgia, Louisiana, and Rhode Island. And through its interactive web module, the report articulates state-specific recommendations. Most importantly, it stresses the need to ensure the quality of digital instruction through state policy—even though it stumbles a bit over how to define or ensure that quality. (According to the report, forty-four states have “quality content” for digital courses, which they define as content “aligned to state standards or the Common Core.” But it makes no mention of who determines or verifies that alignment—or if it is done at all.) Still and all, there’s much value here for everyone engaged in state-level policy for digital learning.



GadflyThe Obama administration’s budget proposal was late to the party and is mostly a big yawn—at least when it comes to K–12 education. The big-ticket items, such as they are: level-funding for Title I and IDEA; new efforts to promote STEM education and tweak American high schools; and a Race to the Top for higher education. The real firepower is reserved for the President’s well-designed Pre-K plan, which would be the biggest federal expansion into early childhood since the creation of Head Start, to be financed by a huge increase in cigarette taxes. Were it not for Congressional realities, it might even be something to get excited about.

After changing part of the exam it uses to determine which four-year-olds are eligible for the coveted gifted-and-talented slots in its public schools, New York City has (very slightly) reduced the number of children who qualify. Yet most of the high scorers still came from the city’s richer areas—a problem, given that they altered the test precisely in order to combat the influence of income-related factors, such as test-prep programs. And (at the risk of sounding like a broken record) there still aren’t enough suitable options for gifted children.

Researchers from Yale, MIT, USC, and Stanford, with a little pocket change (i.e., a $10 million grant) from the National Science Foundation, are experimentally placing...


Ohio’s public schools and parents will soon see a revamped local report card, starting in August 2015. The new Report Cards will display A-F ratings for all public school district and building (traditional and charter). The grading system will have six components: achievement, progress, gap closing, graduation rate, K-3 literacy, and prepared for success. The new rating system was enacted under House Bill 555, which was signed into law in December 2012.

The new grading system improves upon Ohio’s outgoing report card system in three substantial ways:

  • Greater rigor: Under Ohio’s current grading system 387 out of 610 school districts received an Excellent (A) or higher rating in 2011-12. The new grading system, however, will increase the definition of an A rated district. In the Ohio Department of Education’s simulation of districts’ 2015 report cards, 30 districts received an A for performance index (part of the achievement component) and 25 districts received an A for annual measurable objectives (part of the gap closing component).[1]
  • Increased transparency: Ohio’s new A-F rating system is more transparent and understandable for parents and the general public. Gone are the days when mediocre districts could hide behind Continuous Improvement (C), or the harmless “below” value-added rating. In are letter grades for each indicator, giving the public a clearer understanding of how well their district does in comparison to statewide performance benchmarks.
  • More inclusive view of school and student performance: Ohio’s current rating system is largely based on two indicators: performance index,
  • ...
  • Cuyahoga County plans to begin the College Savings Account Program which will open a college-savings account, with $100, for every kindergarten student in the county.
  • An audit from a private consulting firm has made suggestions for Toledo Public Schools that would save them $100 million over five years.
  • The Ohio Department of Education released rankings for the state’s 832 traditional school districts and charter schools based on their value-added scores.
  • Catholic schools in Ohio are in the process of adjusting their lesson plans in response to the Common Core

In Ohio, there are over 600 traditional school districts. Some are large (the largest is Columbus City Schools at nearly 50,000 students) and some are small (the smallest being the “island” district, Put-In-Bay, with 71 students). But do these entities—school districts—actually matter in relation to student achievement? That’s the question Grover Whitehurst, Matthew Chingos, and Michael Gallaher of the Brookings Institution examine, in the aptly-titled report, Do Districts Matter?

To answer this question, the researchers use student-level data from Florida and North Carolina for fourth and fifth graders, from 2000-01 to 2009-10. The researchers isolate the impact of the district on achievement, while controlling for the impacts of teachers, school-buildings, and student demographics in their statistical model. The key finding: School districts, in the aggregate, have little impact on student achievement, relative that of school buildings—and to an even greater extent—classroom teachers.

In addition to the aggregate district analysis, the researchers also consider whether some districts have a greater impact on achievement than others. Using data from 2009-10, they find that, indeed, there are districts that have strong positive impacts and districts that have negative impacts. The difference between an effective and ineffective district? Nearly a half year of student learning, according the report.

The report’s authors concede that they haven’t gotten to the bottom of why some districts are more effective than others. But, through this research, we have strong evidence that indicates there are great districts and laggard districts—and we’d likely find the same in Ohio’s collection of...


According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, the United States is experiencing an increase in the number of English language learners (ELL) served in the K-12 educational system. This includes Ohio as well—the Buckeye State schools are serving an ELL population that has nearly doubled since 1999. The chart below shows the increasing trend in ELL students in public schools—district and charter—from 1999 to 2012.

SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education, http://ilrc.ode.state.oh.us/

As the ELL student population grows in Ohio and the rest of the country, charter schools will inevitably enroll an increasing number of these students, meaning that they’ll have to develop the infrastructure to work with these youngsters. To address charter schools’ needs, The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) has released Serving English Language Learners: A Toolkit for Public Charter Schools. The report provides charter schools with guidance for developing a strong ELL program. The comprehensive report provides an overview of legal requirements, admission strategies, program options, teacher qualifications, and evaluations metrics. In addition, the report also profiles charter schools with exceptional ELL programs in five states: Arizona, California, Colorado, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Charter administrators with low ELL enrollment today may be inclined to disregard the findings of this report—especially the profiles of charters with high-densities of ELL students. But they ignore at their own peril. With a steadily growing ELL population, Ohio charter school leaders must stand ready and willing to adopt strong policies and programs...

  • There is much debate astir in Ohio and across the country about the Common Core and what it means for our children and their education. This recent piece from National Review Online was co-written by Fordham’s Kathleen Porter-Magee and is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the logic and history surrounding the Common Core.
  • Terry Ryan takes on the Ohio Department of Education’s manual for evaluating physical education teachers. The blog sparked debate in the pages of Ed Week (here and here) and the Washington Post, and was cited by none other than Bill Gates.
  • Fordham’s Emmy Partin will be speaking Saturday, April 13 at 10:00AM at Berlin Presbyterian Church in suburban Columbus as a panelist in the Ohio School Boards Leadership Council debate on the Common Core. Other panelists will include State Board of Education member C. Todd Jones, State Representative Andrew O. Brenner, and others. Details about the event can be found here.
  • In February, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Community Research Partners gathered with expert educational panelists in Cleveland to discuss student mobility in our schools. The discussion was taped and will air on public television next week. Tune in to your local PBS station or the Ohio Channel on one of the following dates/times: April 21 at 9AM and 5PM; April 22 at 1AM.
  • Today, in front of the Statehouse, hundreds of students, parents, and educators rallied to make it clear to Ohio’s policymakers that school
  • ...

Enticing our top college graduates to teach in America’s classrooms is a serious challenge, bordering on an epidemic in some of our poorer communities and neighborhoods. According to the 2010 McKinsey reportAttracting and Retaining Top Talent in US Teaching,” just under one in four of our entering teachers come from the top third of their college class. For high-poverty schools even fewer entering teachers (a mere 14 percent) are top third talent.

In the Buckeye State, the Ohio Board of Regents’ data corroborate McKinsey’s finding that neither the best nor brightest are entering Ohio’s classrooms as teachers. According to the Regents, the average composite ACT of an incoming teacher-prep candidate was 22.75, below the average ACT score of the overall incoming freshman class for relatively selective universities. The middle 50 percent of incoming freshman to the Ohio State University, for example, boasted composite ACT scores between 26 and 30.  

What deters the best and brightest from entering (and staying) in our classrooms is, of course, a complicated issue with many hypotheses: low pay, stressful working conditions, rigid  certification requirements, lack of prestige, and archaic remuneration systems that fail to reward high-performing teachers and backloads benefits are all plausible explanations.

Since 1989 Teach For America (TFA) has worked to improve this bleak human capital situation, and has brought the nation’s top college graduates into a small, but increasing slice of America’s highest need classrooms. In 2012-13, more than 10,000 young men...


The West Carrollton school district, just southwest of Dayton, is the latest Ohio school district to pass an open enrollment policy allowing students from any district in the state to enroll in one of their schools. West Carrollton Superintendent Rusty Clifford told the Dayton Daily News that, “Our purpose is to be the school district of choice in Ohio. We want to give any student in the state the opportunity to experience the same great education that students currently living in the West Carrollton district are experiencing.” West Carrollton serves about 3,800 students, 58 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged, and the district received an Effective (B) rating from the Ohio Department of Education in 2011-12.

Superintendent Clifford, Ohio’s 2013 superintendent of the year, acknowledged the decision to become an open enrollment district was driven by economics. “Our enrollment numbers right now are flat to slightly declining,” Clifford told the Dayton Daily News. District enrollment has declined about 13 percent since 1999 and Clifford argues, “In order to keep all of the great staff we have right now, we need to grow our student base. As we keep students, we can keep staff.” Each student that enrolls in West Carrollton from another district brings about $5,700 with him or her.

The Ohio Legislature approved an open enrollment policy in 1989, and under state law school boards are able to decide among three options:

  • Accept only students who are residents of the district;
  • Extend enrollment eligibility to students
  • ...