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New Jersey just released new report cards for all schools in the state. The information now available, including indicators of college- and career-readiness and excellent “peer school” comparisons, is invaluable. And it is deeply discomfiting for many of the state’s complacent schools and districts.

While the reports reinforce just how tragically low-performing the state’s urban districts are, they also show that the preening of many leafy suburban communities is unwarranted. Said state commissioner Chris Cerf, this data “will make clear that there are a number of schools out there that perhaps are a little bit too satisfied with how they are doing when compared with how other schools serving similar populations are doing.”

In other words, lots of schools and districts brag about their AP and IB programs, graduation rates, and so forth. But when you look at their AP passage rates and SAT scores, you quickly see that things aren’t so rosy. Far fewer kids than thought are truly prepared for post-secondary work.

Then when you compare some of these contented schools to other schools serving student bodies with similar demographics, you see that they are actually significantly underperforming their peers.

This should serve as a wake-up call to lots of New Jersey communities. A number of states with sophisticated school-rating systems, like Florida, have been providing such warnings to middle-class and affluent areas for some time.

I’m hopeful that such efforts will force parents, teachers, administrators, and school boards to undertake some tough...

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John Merrow’s expose on cheating in Washington, D.C., doesn’t look good for former D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee and current chancellor Kaya Henderson. Indeed, it’s hard to dismiss “two highly placed and reputable sources,” not to mention the missing memo*

Let’s be clear, however: This is hardly evidence of Atlanta-style wrongdoing. We have no reason to believe that Rhee (or Henderson) encouraged cheating or covered up illegal behavior. It’s more likely that they simply exercised poor judgment in not treating the evidence of cheating more seriously.

Critics are bound to say that all reforms that Rhee stands for—teacher evaluations, tenure reform, and school choice—should be dismissed. But let’s not abandon education reform and accountability at the expense of our students, which getting rid of testing surely would.

Instead, to borrow from Michael Petrilli on the Atlanta cheating scandal, let’s “mend it, not end it.”

Did Michelle Rhee know about the cheating? The evidence is strong.

Should we investigate the D.C. cheating in 2008–10? Maybe.

And should we look at improve standardized testing to curb cheating and to improve student learning? Absolutely.

 * Rhee noted that both the D.C. Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Education's Inspector General have already conducted an investigation, which concluded that there was no widespread cheating....

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I get lots of emails from aspiring ed-policy wonks, so this first bullet is for that wayward crew. Understanding the annual federal-budget dance is key to your decent into wonkery. The pre-release, behind-the-scenes process is really quite interesting—e.g., negotiations between the Department, White House, OMB, and other associated agencies. That culminates in a series of documents (from formal congressional submissions to accessible fact sheets) that provide a picture of the administration’s priorities, or at least what the administration wants to public convey as its priorities. (This is just Phase 1; Congress takes over from here.) You might want to spend 30 minutes familiarizing yourself with these products and their contents—you can get your feet wet on this annual ritual and impress your friends at dinner parties! (“Once again, ED’s trying to make a go of TLIF, huh?”)

Per the budget request itself, the initial documents are generally purposely gauzy and vague; this is, after all, partially a public-relations exercise. So there’s only so much we can know until all of the gory details are released. But here are some quick thoughts: More for i3? Quietly chugging along but very interesting ARPA angle. Money for charter replications? Great, but how about the DCOSP? High school redesign? Start new schools, don’t remake old ones. Flat-line-formula grant programs (Title I, IDEA)? Meh. Another push for TLIF? I’m a TIF fan, and these changes are generally good with me. More turnaround money for dysfunctional districts? Egad.

I met the...

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This is Jurassic Park

Mike and Dara go beyond the Triassic in this week’s podcast, discussing a pre-K tax on tobacco, the new NGSS, and Texas’s two-step on graduation standards. Amber gets competitive with a discussion of school choice in Milwaukee.

Amber's Research Minute

Principals’ perceptions of competition for students in Milwaukee schools,” by Susanna Loeb and Matthew Kasman, Education Finance and Policy 8 (1): 43-73

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)....

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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...

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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.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan
The 1980s saw much crossing of the Atlantic by education advisers.
Photo from the Wikimedia Commons

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...

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Under Ohio state law, public schools will be required to have a teacher evaluation system in place by July 2014. Half of the teacher evaluation formula is to be based on student learning growth on exams. For some subjects, this puts schools in awkward situation of having to evaluate for example, gym or art teachers—subjects that don’t have established exams and tests.

The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) has published manuals for evaluating teachers of these hard-to-measure subjects. But, as Terry Ryan recently reported—some of these guidelines border on the absurd.

Even the august champion of teacher evaluations, Bill Gates, worried about “hastily contrived” teacher evaluations. He writes in the Washington Post:

Efforts are being made to define effective teaching and give teachers the support they need to be as effective as possible. But as states and districts rush to implement new teacher development and evaluation systems, there is a risk they’ll use hastily contrived, unproven measures. One glaring example is the rush to develop new assessments in grades and subjects not currently covered by state tests. Some states and districts are talking about developing tests for all subjects, including choir and gym, just so they have something to measure.

Mr. Gates reiterated his point by citing Ohio’s recent gym teacher evaluation manual as an example. Gates’ commentary provoked responses, from Anthony Cody in Education Week and Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.

Gates is right to point out the...

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Andy Rotherham deserves respect as one of the most thoughtful proponents of education reform, as well as an impressive institution-builder. He and I probably agree on 90 percent of the issues, though we have sparred at times over the federal role, the balance between “excellence and equity,” and sundry other topics.

My greatest frustration, though, has been his unwillingness to offer full-throated support for school vouchers.

Maybe he’s finally ready. In a blog post yesterday, he predicted that if current reform efforts stall, the future will bring a “low-accountability environment coupled with much more choice” and pointed to the Indiana voucher program (recently upheld by that state’s Supreme Court and hailed by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post) as a sign of things to come.

What Andy may not fully appreciate is that Indiana’s voucher program has accountability in spades. As David Stuit and Sy Doan explain in their recent report for Fordham, School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring? , the Hoosier State has an “annual performance-accountability rating system” for participating private schools that is based on the results of state assessments—the same tests that public school pupils take. Indeed, the fact that private schools will soon be held accountable under Common Core standards and assessments has become a major issue in the Hoosier State—because it gives palpitations to the right, not the left! (Other recently enacted private-school-choice programs, including those in Louisiana and Alabama, also include significant testing and accountability requirements.)

So if...

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The World is Phat

Mike and Kathleen bust some podcast moves, taking on Thomas Friedman over “innovation education,” revamped teacher-evaluation systems whose results look suspiciously last season, and the Atlanta test-fraud scandal. Amber is the mayor of mayoral control.

Amber's Research Minute

Mayoral Governance and Student Achievement: How Mayor-Led Districts Are Improving School and Student Performance by Kenneth K. Wong and Francis X. Shen (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress, March 2013).

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