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Finland—the tiny land of reindeer, snow, and saunas—burst onto the American education scene in the past decade as the unlikely poster child for the anti-reform movement. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t implore reformers to learn from this nation with low poverty, high achievement, and virtually no standardized tests—and abandon our support for standards- and accountability-driven reform. After all, Finland’s education system today is characterized by few top-down regulations, broad teacher autonomy, and virtually no centralized accountability. Given its success on international assessments, it must follow that U.S. schools would do better if we copied the Finland model.

Finnish reindeer
 Finland: Land of reindeer, snow, and a world-famous education system.
Photo from RukaKuusamo.com

Right?

Not exactly.

First, there has been some recent evidence that Finland’s successes may not be as miraculous as once thought (it slipped on the recent TIMSS math test). But more than that, to understand what is going on in Finland, a good place to start is with a November 2010 McKinsey study entitled, “How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.”

As part of their research, the McKinsey team studied twenty school systems around the world that had seen “significant, sustained, and widespread gains in student outcomes as measured by international and national assessments.” Among the most...

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It’s been a busy year here at the Fordham Institute. In January, we launched a revamped website, making content easier to find and featuring niche blogs aligned with our reform priorities. We kept our signature Flypaper blog and added Common Core WatchChoice Words, and Ohio Gadfly Daily. We have produced many timely, relevant studies, including our review of state science standards (State of State Science Standards 2012January), our extensive appraisal of teacher-union strength in all fifty states (How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions?, October), and a first-of-its-kind analysis of student mobility in Ohio public schools (Student NomadsNovember).

We would like to take this opportunity to wish everybody a happy new year and to thank you all for your readership. There is plenty more research and analysis in the pipeline for 2013. In the meantime, here are our most-viewed blog posts and videos from 2012.

The ten most popular blog posts

1. The fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States; Michael J. Petrilli / June 11, 2012

2. The Kindergarten Canon; Michael J. Petrilli / October 9, 2012

3. How will reading instruction change when aligned to the Common Core?; Kathleen Porter-Magee / January 27, 2012

4. Teach Like a Champion versus the Common Core: Do pre-reading activities help or hurt struggling students?; Kathleen Porter-Magee / February 3, 2012

5. Misdirection and self-interest: How Heinemann and Lucy Calkins are rewriting the Common Core; Kathleen Porter-Magee / August 6, 2012

6. The 50 zip codes with the largest growth in...

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Karen Lewis
Karen Lewis: the Anti-Ed-Reform Idol.
Photo from the Chicago Tribune.

If 2011 was the “year of school choice,” then 2012 was the “year of the resurgent teachers union.” And leading the comeback was Chicago’s Karen Lewis—fiery, forceful, and unabashedly oppositional. Call her the Anti-Education-Reform Idol.

Lewis dominated the education news in 2012. First there were the skirmishes over an extended day in the Second City (resulting in a longer day for the students, not the teachers). A lengthy run-up to the strike ensued, followed by the strike itself—which, as others have noted, surprised many of us by being a public relations success for the union and a galvanizing event for teachers nationwide.

Lewis ended the year with in-your-face comments about the Newtown tragedy and a fresh lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the shuttering of Chicago schools.

While Lewis appears unlikely to be able to challenge Randi Weingarten as leader of the AFT anytime soon, she is giving voice to many educators who feel frustrated by Weingarten’s reform-y talk and rhetorical concessions. We should expect a more strident unionism, especially in the cities, in the years to come.

This creates challenges and opportunities for reformers. The key will be seeing, with...

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Frank Macchiarola
Frank Macchiarola will be much missed.
Photo from the New York Times.

It's been years since I last saw Frank Macchiarola, whom I encountered most often during his extended tenure (1978-83) as New York City's schools chancellor back when Ed Koch was mayor—and long before the mayor was really in charge of education. But then and since, it was always a pleasure and a learning experience to bump into him, to share a meeting or meal with him, and so on. The son of a sanitation worker, he had a distinguished and remarkably diverse career in key positions in education (both K–12 and higher) and government, always in New York. He was student-centered, politically astute, tireless, very smart, entrepreneurial—and kind, generous, and decent. He'll be much missed, not least by me. We need more like him....

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A time for reflection

Mike and Daniela reflect on Newtown, and then look back at school reform in 2012. Amber ends the last podcast of the year on a more upbeat note with a look at Texas’s (effective) pre-K program.

Amber's Research Minute

The Effects of Texas’ Pre-Kindergarten Program on Academic Performance by Rodney Andrews, Paul Jargowsky, and Kristin Kuhne (New York, NY: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, November 2012)

Tony Bryk, Paul Hill, Terry Moe, and Paul Reville (among others) contribute to this wonk-studded volume, which was borne of a four-year Harvard working group and starts from the premise that today’s incremental reforms will not effect lasting change for K–12 education; rather, we must think bigger. To that end, the collection offers six provocative essays. While several extend current reform ideas (moving to a mixed model of government and market-based providers; addressing the disadvantages of poverty through social reform and wrap-around services; copying successful strategies of countries that improved rapidly), others are unique visions for the future. One would professionalize teaching through “network improvement communities” that allow educators to share research, instructional materials, and pedagogical insights across sites. Perhaps the most radical vision for change suggests that education tomorrow will not be synonymous with schooling, as access to knowledge from outside the classroom increases and youth engage in “lifewide” learning. (We would argue, further, that “schools” in the traditional sense might not even be the best vehicle for education delivery in years to come.) Taken together, the essays present a refreshing and forward-thinking design for education reform and reformers.

SOURCE:

Jal Mehta, Robert B. Schwartz, Frederick M. Hess, eds. The Futures of School Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2012)....

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That it’s taken me so long to write about the horrific acts of violence perpetrated on Newtown, Connecticut, is one indication of how torn up I’ve been about it. As the father of two small boys, this one really hit home. May God bless the children, their educators, and their families.

Sandy Hook Elementary
 I can’t get Sandy Hook out of my mind—nor, in one sense, do I really want to.
Photo from the International Business Times.

When we—the Fordham team and many of Flypaper’s readers—pick ourselves up and turn back to our day jobs, the work of school reform, there is an unavoidable question: What does Sandy Hook mean for that work? For our mission of bringing excellence to America’s schools and ramping up opportunity for all children? For the public discourse in which we engage?

One possible answer: nothing. As tragic an event as it was, it’s only loosely related to education policy. A deranged man with access to high-powered weapons chose an elementary school as his target. He might have chosen a hospital, a day camp, or a circus performance. As Americans, it’s absolutely appropriate to debate whether stricter gun controls or reforms to our mental-health system or greater security barriers might help to reduce the likelihood of such awful events occurring in...

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This week, Student Achievement Partners—the group co-founded by Common Core architects David Coleman and Jason Zimba—announced a partnership with the NEA and AFT to develop and disseminate Core-aligned curriculum at no cost to teachers, thanks to a three-year, $11-million grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. As Kathleen Porter-Magee noted in yesterday’s Common Core Watch, “Given the dearth of quality, CCSS-aligned materials available to teachers who are already working to align their practice to the new standards, this additional investment is welcome.” We eagerly await the materials.

A task force convened to determine whether D.C. charter schools ought to give admissions preference to nearby students came up with a verdict on Friday: While the District should allow charters that move into closed public school buildings to give neighborhood preference, other charter schools should not be compelled (or even allowed) to do so. This is a sensible compromise that will ease the burden on students transitioning from schools that are closing while maintaining a central tenet of the charter school idea: to be open to all students, regardless of home address.

As part of its “30 under 30” series, Forbes magazine identified thirty Millenials taking the education world by storm. We saw a few familiar faces (shout-outs to Catharine Bellinger and Alexis Morin of Students for Education Reform, Jon Cetel of PennCAN, and Patrick Herrel of the Mind Trust). These are young people who do think about...

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Universal pre-Kindergarten programs, beloved by many education advocates and policy wonks, also have some critics (ourselves included). The critics aren’t anti-kid or unworried about Kindergarten readiness. Rather, they argue that states should target their limited resources at pre-K programming for youngsters truly in need. This CALDER study, which examines the impact of such a program in Texas between 1990 and 2002, backs that assertion. Drawing upon a huge sample of “at-risk” children, analysts compared those who participated in Texas’s PreKindergarten Early Start (PKES) program to those who didn’t. They found that PKES participation was linked to higher academic achievement in reading and math and lower likelihood of being held back or receiving special-education services. Two more items of note: These achievement data were collected in third grade, showing the staying power of the PKES program (positive effects of Head Start begin to fade after first grade). And the PKES program’s per-pupil cost is less than half that of Head Start in Texas. The report concludes, “Even modest programs can achieve important gains” for disadvantaged youth. A question naturally arises: What is the PKES program doing differently than its counterparts, many of which have been found wanting? We think we’ve found the answer: In Texas, even pre-K has standards and curriculum—and they’re aligned with those of the K–12 system.

SOURCE:

Rodney Andrews, Paul Jargowsky, and Kristin Kuhne, The Effects of Texas’ Pre-Kindergarten Program on Academic Performance (New York, NY: National Center...

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Vigil for Sandy Hook
I can’t get Sandy Hook out of my mind—nor, in one sense, do I really want to.
Photo from the International Business Times.

That it’s taken me five days to write about the horrific acts of violence perpetrated on Newtown, Connecticut, is one indication of how torn up I’ve been about it. As the father of two small boys, this one really hit home. May God bless the children, their educators, and their families.

When we—the Fordham team and many of Flypaper’s readers—pick ourselves up and turn back to our day jobs, the work of school reform, there is an unavoidable question: What does Sandy Hook mean for that work? For our mission of bringing excellence to America’s schools and ramping up opportunity for all children? For the public discourse in which we engage?

One possible answer: nothing. As tragic an event as it was, it’s only loosely related to education policy. A deranged man with access to high-powered weapons chose an elementary school as his target. He might have chosen a hospital, a summer camp, or a circus performance. As Americans, it’s absolutely appropriate to debate whether stricter gun controls or reforms to our mental-health system or greater security barriers might help to reduce the likelihood of such awful events occurring in...

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