“Nothing lasting thrives in a hostile environment. Just as too many charter supporters are hung up on defending all charters all the time, their tireless opponents are bent on creating false distinctions and are constantly attacking them from every imaginable direction. Double standards and hypocrisy are in ample supply on both sides.”

Chester E. Finn, Jr., Terry Ryan and Michael Lafferty, Ohio Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the frontlines, 2010

This quote summed up a key lesson learned from the charter school experience in Ohio over the first decade of its controversial life. Three years later, the lesson still rings true. And no doubt the long political struggle around charter schools has hurt the state’s overall charter school quality (great operators have far friendlier states to choose from), made it difficult for Ohio to improve its charter law (this struggle has been characterized by zero-sum battles at the state house), and retarded the power of charter schools to fulfill their potential (hard to thrive in hostile environments).

We’ve not shied away from taking on radicals on either side of the debate. Many in the charter community dislike us because we think accountability for school performance as measured by standardized tests is as important as school choice itself. Meanwhile those on other side don’t like us because we support school choice and indeed authorize 11 charters in Ohio.

We’ve not shied away from taking on radicals on either side of the debate.

In recent weeks, however, the anti-charter crowd...


Foreign policy isn’t all that Margaret Thatcher and her team had in common with Ronald Reagan and his. The 1980s also saw much crossing of the Atlantic—in both directions—by their education advisers, too. Bill Bennett, for example, hosted U.K. education secretary Ken Baker on multiple occasions, and the Downing Street staff team, too. We reciprocated.

The U.S. and the U.K. were both awakening to being “nations at risk,” due in no small part to the parlous state of their public education systems, and reformers in both countries were pushing for big changes—changes that their respective “education establishments” didn’t want to make.

On both sides of the sea, standards, assessments, accountability, and school choice were surfacing as ideas, and becoming policies and programs. The teachers’ unions didn’t want any of this, but it was beginning to happen anyway, as was the gradual disempowerment of what the Brits call “local education authorities”—and the delegation of greater authority to the school level.

It happened faster on their shores, mostly because the central government in London wasn’t gridlocked—the Tories were in firm control at the time—and because its decisions were (and still are) the ones that counted. (At least in K–12 education, the British government resembles one of our state governments more than our federal government.)

Here’s a good summary of the U.K.’s 1988 Education Reform Act, perhaps the high-water mark of “Thatcherism in education,” and its aftermath. (This was written in 2004 by Christopher Woodhead, who served as Britain’s chief inspector of schools in the...


In September 2011, Jay Greene’s and Josh McGee’s Global Report Card rattled America’s sleepy suburbs with its declaration that none of America’s affluent districts performed at a level that would place them among the top third of developed nations’ PISA results. This new report from America Achieves, finds essentially the same thing for middle-class schools (as gauged by PISA’s somewhat shaky indicators of socioeconomic status). U.S. students in the second-to-top SES quartile (i.e., 50th–75th percentile) are bested by students of similar demography in twenty-four countries in math and fifteen in science. (These same U.S. students are also outdone by Shanghai’s poorest quartile of pupils.) Alarming, yes, but maybe not too surprising. What’s probably more consequential about this short report—and the trove of online data that underpins it—is that it signals the beginning of an ambitious effort to bring PISA testing (and international comparing) down to the school level. Some 105 U.S. high schools took part in the pilot, supported by several major foundations, and beginning in the autumn, every American high school that is game to submit to this kind of scrutiny can join in. There is terrific potential here to awaken those sleepy suburbs to the state of learning in their own smug schools. There are, to be sure, limitations. Schools don’t necessarily have to make their results public. (A lamentable concession, in my opinion, though it may boost participation.) And because PISA tests fifteen-year-olds, they haven’t been in the high school long enough for its...


Mayoral Governance and Student AchievementIn the world of education reform, the biggest, baddest elephant in the room is, without question, the broken manner in which American schools are governed. This latest attempt to dispel our romantic attachment to the traditional school board comes from Kenneth Wong, who has long studied the impact of mayoral control and who here examines the effects of it on student achievement and resource allocation. He and his colleague analyze eleven districts that were governed by some version of mayoral control from 1999 to 2010—meaning, the mayor had direct authority over at least some of the schools. They find that mayoral-control districts have generally improved district-wide performance relative to average school-district performance statewide, though the results vary from place to place. Specifically, five of the eleven cities (New York, New Haven, Chicago, Philly, and Baltimore) significantly narrowed achievement gaps, while the other six (Hartford, Harrisburg, Boston, Providence, Yonkers, and Cleveland) saw patchier outcomes. The researchers also looked at performance on the NAEP for the seven districts that participated in the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) and found that students in New York, Boston, and (to some extent) Chicago outpaced their peers across various subgroups. What’s more, an in-depth, school-level analysis in New York showed that mayoral control increased the percentage of students in a school who are proficient on state standards by 1 to 3...


GadflyThe dramatic test-cheating scandal in Atlanta—which has seen the indictment of thirty-five educators, including the former superintendent, for messing with the scores—has fingers pointed every which way. AFT president Randi Weingarten placed the blame squarely on our “excessive focus on quantitative performance measures,” arguing that the incentives make cheating inevitable. We disagree; we respect teachers enough to believe that most will resist wrongdoing, and submit that you don’t fix cheating by refusing to keep score.

Saturday’s New York Times sounded the alarm: The early results from states that have recently overhauled their teacher-evaluation systems have seen very little change, with 97 percent of Florida’s teachers still deemed effective or highly effective, 98 percent of Tennessee’s judged to be “at expectations,” and 98 percent of Michigan’s rated “effective or better.” This is certainly newsworthy (though Ed Week’s Stephen Sawchuk beat the Times to the punch). For our take, listen to this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast.

Policymakers in the Texas House of Representatives have passed legislation that would reduce the number of required high school courses, as well as the number of statewide end-of-course exams, thereby rolling back the Lone Star State’s present ambitious graduation expectations, damaging the value of students’ high school diplomas, and taking a big step back from college readiness. And we’re not the only ones who think so: Texas’s business leaders do, too....


When the charter school movement started twenty-plus years ago, charters represented a radical innovation in governance: School districts would no longer enjoy an “exclusive franchise” on local public schools; they would compete with public, independent, autonomous (but accountable) charter schools too.

Charter governance brief
In the last twenty years, American education and its charter sector have evolved in important ways.

Much has happened in the charter sector since then—in fact, what began as a community-led, mom-and-pop movement has evolved to include a burgeoning assemblage of charter school networks, as well. But the laws ruling charter school governance remain largely the same. It’s time for a reboot in order to address three critical problems.

First, state laws and authorizer policies often require a full-fledged governing board for every charter school, and these policies make no exception for high-performing charter networks (such as KIPP and Rocketship Education). Thus, replicating at scale is difficult. In fact, only ten states explicitly allow for networks to operate multiple schools under the oversight of one governing board* and three states (Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Iowa) explicitly prohibit the practice.

Second, management organizations—especially for-profits—often control their schools’ governing boards, leading to serious questions about accountability and conflicts of interest. The Fordham Institute, both as an education think tank and a charter school authorizer in Ohio, firmly believes that governing boards and...


The following is a real-life excerpt from a standardized assessment that Ohio plans to put to K–2 kids—and the only piece of this Gladfly that is 100 percent true.


1.   When you hop, it means that you start on one foot and land on the same foot.
2.   When you run fast, your hands should come across the center of your body.
3.   When you slide, you keep the same lead foot as you move sideways.
4.   When you skip, you step and hop on one foot and then with the other foot.
5.   When you jump, you should bend your knees as if you are sitting in a chair.
6.   When dribbling a basketball, you should always be looking at the ball.
7.   When rolling a ball, you should release the ball at the bottom of your forward swing.
8.   You should use your toes to kick a soccer ball if you want to kick it hard.
9.   For a good overhand throw, you should bend the elbow in the shape of an “L” behind the head before throwing.
10.   When you roll or toss a ball underhand, you step forward with the same foot as your tossing arm.
11.   When throwing to a target, you should follow through toward the target after letting go of the ball.
12.   When catching a ball at head height, point your fingers upwards.

No joke....

Ann T. Oxydent

You don’t get on the cover of Time by being a wilting flower, and central to Michelle Rhee’s meteoric rise and media prominence has been her meticulously crafted image as a take-no-prisoners, Lord-of-the-Flies-conch-wielding, butt-kicking executive. But what if her hard exterior surrounds a marshmallow middle? That’s the central allegation of this unauthorized exposé by Rhee’s younger daughter. “My mother’s no ‘Tiger Mom,’” writes Tee Hee Rhee. “She’s a total pussycat.” And that’s certainly the impression created by the book’s anecdotes. It reports, for instance, that Rhee has enrolled both girls in a Waldorf school, “where we learned to whittle before we learned to read.” And that Rhee refused to allow them to play soccer—“not because we suck—we don’t!,” according to Tee Hee, but because “Mommy was worried about the ‘corrupting effects of competition.’” “Maybe she was tougher when we were babies,” speculates the adolescent author, “but after enough trips to Aspen anyone will go soft.” Both Michelle Rhee and the StudentsFirst press secretary declined to comment on the book, but insiders report that, on hearing of its publication, Rhee senior gave wee Rhee “a big hug,” reminded her that she “loves her no matter what,” and offered to add a second weekly therapy session to her daughter’s regimen.

SOURCE: Tee Hee Rhee, Free Radical (Sacre-pimento, CA: DaughtersFirst Publications, 2013)....

Sebastian Thumb

By some accounts, 2012 was the year of the MOOC—Massive Open Online Courses. Entrepreneurs and universiy administrators alike crowed about the “paradigm-shifting” potential of this new approach to delivering higher education. (Dom Pander Ark, for example, exclaimed "it’s even bigger than my ego.”) And politicians across the spectrum welcomed news that bargain BAs are finally within reach. So leave it to wet-blanket economist Erik Poxby to poop on the party. In a new NBER working paper, he estimates the likely longevity of brick-and-mortar universities as MOOCs gain in popularity (and students gain degree credit): “They’ve got about a year,” Poxby concludes. “Maybe two for the Ivies.” In related news, NCES Commissioner (and super smarty) Jack Buckley announced suspension of the IPEDS post-secondary data-collection program. You connect the dots.

SOURCE: Erik Poxby, “The Financial Sustainability of Free Higher Education Courses” (Crimebridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2013).

April Mays

New research unveiled at this year’s AERA conference documents a disturbing trend among the nation’s secondary schools: Between 2001 and 2012, high school graduation rates regularly spiked in late May and early June, ballooning from near zero to a staggering average of 78 percent. This $400 million, eleven-year study analyzed all 26,749 secondary schools in the United States, employing a differentiated ANOVA regression-correlation curved-linear analysis on microdata from each of the fifty states. Controlling for a host of variables, from student demographics to the number of NASCAR fans per county, analysts demonstrated that no random variation in graduation rates could have yielded the observed rate. Instead, they concluded that the spike is caused by heightened—and unfair—accountability pressure arising from No Child Left Behind: School officials artificially inflate graduation rates in May and June after realizing that their rates in preceding months were far below federal standards. This pattern is repeated year after year. In an equally worrisome finding, the analysts discovered that teacher- and school-administrator-absence rates jump at nearly the same time and actually increase through July and early August. Researchers posit that these employees, ashamed of their data manipulation, take leave in order to conceal their culpability.

June Phenomenon

SOURCE: Perry Dox and Shirley U. Jest, “The June phenomenon: Graduation rates and teacher absenteeism,” Boring Journal of the AERA, February 2013....