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Sir Michael Barber is no stranger to education reform—indeed, he is well known to serious policy reformers, education leaders, and wonks in the U.S. and around the globe, thanks to his key roles in British reforms under Tony Blair, his penetrating analyses of diverse systems while at McKinsey, his writings on “deliverology” and other education topics, and—most recently—his work as “chief education adviser” at Pearson.

A Kindergarten graduation

What practically nobody (outside Pakistan) knew about Barber until a week or two ago is that he has also served these past three years as “special representative on education in Pakistan” for Britain’s Department for International Development (the U.K. counterpart to USAID). In that capacity, he has spearheaded a remarkable ed-reform initiative—indeed, an education transformation, albeit just getting beyond the pilot stage—in Punjab, the largest province in Pakistan with 94 million people. Considering that nearly all the news about Pakistan that reaches American eyes and ears is so grim—political upheavals, terrorism, assassinations, floods, poverty, corruption, illiteracy—I was blown away to learn that Michael and his team of change-agents in the Punjab government, with help from several international donors, have been successfully beavering away at this hugely ambitious endeavor to bring a decent education to children throughout that vast chunk of south Asia.

Now he’s described that project in a short, readable book that is informative and optimistic without trivializing the many challenges ahead,...

There’s a lot of interest in this question in ed-reform circles today; Alexander Russo sketches the line of thinking here. It’s understandable, considering how successful proponents of gay marriage*  have been in changing public opinion, state statutes, and, perhaps soon, constitutional law on the issue. If only education reformers could be so lucky!

Some of the lessons being bandied about include the following:

  • Picking one issue and rallying the whole movement behind it (gay marriage instead of gays in the military, for example)
  • Reframing the debate (in this case, from “gay rights” to embracing the “responsibilities” that marriage brings)
  • Making sure that movement leaders keep a low profile

So can we make a plausible education analogy? I think it’s a stretch, and not just because ed reformers love to appear on magazine covers. Gay marriage is fundamentally a moral issue. Legalizing it doesn’t cost taxpayers any serious money; it won’t balloon the deficit; there are no “vested interests” in terms of employee unions protecting their pensions or rapacious corporations seeking to make a fast buck. It’s simply a matter of inclusion and freedom on one side, tradition and gut feelings on the other. It’s a classic social issue.

Not so with education reform. Though all sides of its debates try to claim the moral high ground and use moralistic rhetoric, making schools work better is largely a management/service/governance challenge.

Take the question of “picking one issue” to rally around. Which would it be?...

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....

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...

Dublin City Schools does a small yet nice honor for its high-flying students. In the midst of balance sheets and income statements, Dublin City’s 2012 financial report  includes a page with the pictures of five students who achieved a perfect 36 out of 36 on their ACT exams. At the bottom of the page, underneath their pictures, was the short but sublime statement: “Less than five-tenth of one percent of the students taking the ACT nationwide will be able to accomplish what these Dublin Students have done.”

Though it’s a small honor—and yes, it’s buried on page 117 of a document that few people will lay eyes upon—Dublin City properly celebrates the hard work and smarts of these students. And, perhaps other schools could follow the lead of Dublin, and find ways to recognize the accomplishments of their high-achievers, even in official reports. For, it’s a powerful reminder to readers, amidst the tedium of governmental reporting, of the purpose of education in the first place—to give kids the opportunity to reach their full potential.   

The new “Common Core” math and reading standards have come under a firestorm of criticism from tea-party activists and commentators like Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin. Beck calls the standards a stealth “leftist indoctrination” plot by the Obama administration. Malkin warns that they will “eliminate American children’s core knowledge base in English, language arts and history.” As education scholars at two right-of-center think tanks, we feel compelled to set the record straight.

English language arts
Photo by susivinh

Here’s what the Common Core State Standards are: They describe what children should know and the skills that they must acquire at each grade level to stay on course toward college- or career-readiness, something that conservatives have long argued for. They were written and adopted by governors—not by the Obama administration—thus preserving state control over K–12 education. And they are much more focused on rigorous back-to-basics content than the vast majority of state standards they replaced.

The Common Core standards are also not a curriculum; it’s up to state and local leaders to choose aligned curricula. The Fordham Institute has carefully examined the new expectations and compared them with existing state standards: They found that for most states, Common Core is a great improvement in rigor and cohesiveness.

For decades, students in different states have been held to radically different...

Another effort is afoot to turn Title I, at least partially, into a scholarship program for low-income kids. I’d love to see this happen. Anything we can do to create more accessible high-quality seats for disadvantaged kids gets my vote. But this windmill has seen tilting knights since the 1970s. Someday we’ll get our Dulcinea del Toboso. But the Galicians of this administration would sooner leave such plans bruised and battered.

Three very interesting job-related items!

  • The very cool, very influential TNTP is looking for a VP of Strategy, Systems, and Policy. The person would lead the organization’s educator evaluation and other human capital systems design and implementation work. They’re looking for a bold, innovative leader with a breadth of experience who can quickly build credibility with high-level clients.
  • New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) is looking for a Managing Director of Human Capital Investments. This person will manage NSNO’s relationship with the nation’s leading human-capital organizations and will direct a $13 million grant program related to educator evaluation and compensation. If you’re interested or know someone who might be, contact HR Director, Jenny Katz,
  • NSNO’s Neerav Kingsland is also involved with a terrific brand-new human-capital organization called Hackstack EDU. The group, which just launched, uses an online platform and some innovative methods to match amazing teachers with amazing schools. It’s a free service allowing each interested teacher to create a personal profile, find schools that match his interests and abilities, and
  • ...

Unnecessary Censorship: Ed-Reform Edition

Unnecessary Censorship: Ed-Reform Edition

Featuring (in order of appearance):

Michael Petrilli - Executive Vice President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Amber Winkler - Vice President for Research, Thomas B. Fordham Institute
John Chubb - Interim CEO, Education Sector
Anne L. Bryant - Executive Director, National School Boards Association
Gene I. Maeroff - Founding Director, Hechinger Institute
Mike Miles - Superintendent, Dallas ISD
Christopher S. Barclay - President, Montgomery County Board of Education, Maryland
Geoffrey Jones - founding principal, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
Chester E. Finn, Jr. - President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Rick Hess - Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute

Springtime is at hand for America’s senior class—and for many of these graduating seniors, spring means daydreaming about college or a first job. Senioritis anyone? In a recent report, From High School to the Future: The Challenge of Senior Year in Chicago Public Schools, The University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research tackles the question of whether high school students’ entire senior year is one large case of senioritis. In other words, are senior years generally productive or wasted? To answer this question, the researchers analyzed the course-taking patterns of over 50,000 Chicago Public School graduating seniors, between 2003 and 2009.

The study’s key finding is that, for too many students, the senior year is indeed an unproductive and unchallenging academic year—far from a launching pad into college or gainful employment. In their analysis of student transcripts and follow-up interviews with students, the researchers found that many students chose to take easy elective courses that allowed them to “coast to graduation.” The researchers attribute this senior-year mess to the lack of an “organizing framework or common set of expectations” for what a rigorous and productive senior year looks like—for the college- and vocation-bound student alike.

Perhaps the only silver lining of this report is that the researchers found a solid quarter of CPS students engaged in an Advanced Placement (AP) heavy courseload (taking, on average, nearly two AP courses). Yet, even here, there is substantial variation in AP participation across CPS high schools, even among similarly qualified students....