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Over the last few weeks, we've witnessed the spectacle of “outrage” at learning that two major figures in the school reform wars (Leonie Haimson and Michelle Rhee) send their children to private schools.

I'm not interested in rehashing all of the usual debates. I do want to point out that there's public, and then there's “public.” In other words, some of the people expressing indignation, I suspect, may send their children to “public” schools that are much more “private” than most private schools. And starting in September, I will be one of those parents (as anyone who has read my book knows already).

Yes, it's true: Wood Acres Elementary, in Bethesda, Maryland, is a “private public school”—a term that Janie Scull and I coined in a 2010 report for the Fordham Institute. These are “public” schools that serve virtually no poor students. They are open to anyone—anyone who can afford to live in their catchment zones, that is. 

We found 2,800 such schools in America back then; I suspect the numbers haven't changed much since.

But here's what you might want to consider: New York City, where Haimson lives, has exactly zero such schools. Nashville, Tennessee, where Rhee's daughters live, has exactly zero. The greater Washington, D.C., area, where many of us policy wonks live, has about seventy. 

So before we “public school parents” cast the first stone, let's get serious. Public schools can be just as exclusive—often more exclusive—than private schools. Government funding does not bestow...

Clearing the air

Dara and Daniela fume over the RNC’s Common Core action, consider the implications of Alabama’s move to the ACT, and clear the air over Florida’s teacher-evaluation mess. Amber probes Caroline Hoxby’s plan to close the college-admissions information gap facing high-achieving, low-income youngsters.

Amber's Research Minute

Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner (Stanford, CA: Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, 2013).

Federal due-process requirements for special ed are far more onerous, costly, and stressful than they need to be. That’s the gist of this paper from the American Association of School Administrators (the first in what the AASA promises to be a series on retooling special-ed). After surveying 200 superintendents, the group found that every due-process complaint costs the district an average $10,500 in legal fees—and that many districts end up consenting to parental requests that they consider “unreasonable” or inconsistent with IDEA. The resulting recommendations are straightforward: Bring in third-party facilitators to guide any IEP meetings that are going poorly (in North Carolina, which utilizes facilitators in this way, fewer than 20 percent of facilitated IEP meetings end in adjudication) and, if IEP facilitation and optional mediation fail, hire an independent expert to evaluate students and act as an IEP-creator-of-last-resort. These are sensible proposals that will have significant effect in lawsuit-crazy cities like D.C. and NYC. Congress should consider AASA’s recommendations: IDEA needs an overhaul, and this is a good start.

SOURCE: Sasha Pudelski, Rethinking Special Education Due Process (Alexandria, VA: American Association of School Administrators, April 2013).

Despite sterling academic records and substantial financial-aid opportunities, high-achievers from poor families rarely even apply to America’s elite colleges and universities. In a previous study, researchers Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery attributed this to an information deficit: These kids (the researchers excluded kids who attend “feeder” schools) tend to reside in small towns located far from selective colleges and attend high schools with overworked, ill-prepared counselors and student bodies less attuned to selective college admissions. This follow-up study, conducted by Hoxby and Sarah Turner, examines one potential solution: thoughtful, tailored information about selective college admissions that is delivered to students’ doorsteps. In 2009, Hoxby and Turner established the Expanding College Opportunities (ECO) program, which randomly mailed college informational packets to thousands of high-ability seniors (12,000 of them in 2011–12). The main finding: Sending students informational materials—especially materials that offered clear financial-aid information—caused these youngsters to apply to and matriculate at colleges of greater selectivity at greater rates. Even more noteworthy, the packets cost just six bucks a pop to produce and mail. The upshot: Instead of languishing in (or dropping out of) a college beneath their abilities, they’ll seek out a campus suited to their gifts. If, as the authors suggest, ECO (or a kindred program) is scaled to reach all of the nation’s high-flying, low-income kids, it could seriously shrink the college-opportunity gap; here’s hoping.

SOURCE: Susanna Loeb and Matthew Kasman, “Principals’ perceptions of competition for students in Milwaukee...

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...

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....

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...

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)....