Additional Topics

Perhaps the most seductive trap in all of education reform is the idea of replication, a.k.a. “scaling.” A charter school is high achieving? Turn it into a CMO! A curriculum is achieving big results? Bring it into every classroom in its district! An instructional strategy is clicking with teachers? Take it nationwide! In theory, this makes sense, best practices and all that. We should multiply success and shun failure. If something is working, why not replicate it?

Copying success doesn't always lead to success.
Photo by Andre W.

Too often, though, replication falls short of these high expectations. It ends up more like an old-fashioned Xerox, where each new copy is a little fainter and blurrier than the one that came before.

In education, the Xerox effect often stems from a shift in focus. In the high achieving schools and classrooms so many seek to copy, teachers and leaders work together with their eyes firmly trained on the goal of improving student achievement. In replication schools, however, that focus is too often diverted from student outcomes to the faithful implementation of “proven” programs, systems, and tools.

What’s more, feedback in replication schools is too often aimed at how well the program is being implemented, rather than on whether—faithful to the model or not—teachers are driving outstanding achievement....

Carmakers hang their hats on J.D. Power and Associates’s annual safety ratings. Television stations live by Sweeps Week. And those interested in international educational competitiveness have the OECD’s annual Education at a Glance report. This vast compilation of data reports on the output of educational institutions (including achievement, graduation rates, equity, and labor-market outcomes); the resources invested in education (financial and human-capital, at the K-12 and higher-ed levels); access to education (including for pre-K youngsters and adult learners); and the “learning environment” (meaning class sizes, teaching time, examinations, etc.). The facts are interesting all by themselves. For example, the U.S. spends 7 cents less of each education dollar on teacher compensation than the OECD average (63 cents), but 8 cents more than average on non-teaching personnel (16 cents). (Caveat: While pension benefits are factored into this analysis, health-care benefits are not.) Further, the authors find that, even though evidence of the effects of class size on student achievement is weak, the student-teacher ratio has decreased in more than two-thirds of the countries studied, with a concomitant impact of education expenditures. Partake seriously of the data, but be careful not to overindulge in the report’s policy recommendations. While a few are palatable—adjust policy to allow effective teachers, irrespective of seniority, to spend more time teaching and mentoring their peers, for example—many others are stale.

SOURCE: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators (OECD Publishing, September 2012)....

College pennants line the halls of most high-performing charters. Selection Day (when students announce the colleges they’ve chosen to attend) feels much like NFL Draft Day. But, even though these students—prepared as they are—matriculate to college, graduation is far from ensured (as the Houston-based YES Prep charter network and KIPP have discovered). This study from Harvard’s Joshua Goodman and Sarah Cohodes offers perspective as to why these low-income, yet high-performing students may stumble: It comes down to college quality (not necessarily college affordability). The authors examined the impacts of the Adams Scholarship—which offers free tuition at Massachusetts public colleges for those who score in the top quartile of the state test—on college completion. They found that students who were induced by the scholarship to attend Bay State public universities (and forego a higher-quality private or out-of-state option) were 26 percentage points less likely to graduate. These students don’t drop out, then, because they enroll in colleges that are too hard; they drop out because they pick colleges that aren’t hard enough. (Thomas Sowell may not agree, but Paul Tough makes a similar point in his recent book: How Children Succeed—and others have as well.) Educators: This is yet another reason to push your students to set their sights high and push themselves to reach their full potential.

SOURCE: Sarah Cohodes and Joshua Goodman, First Degree Earns: The Impact of College Quality on College Completion Rates (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School, August 2012)....


Mike and Dara look at how the two parties’ education platforms compare and ask what it would take to shake up special education. Amber analyzes a decidedly unscientific look at education policy.

Amber's Research Minute

August 2012 Education Insider: Presidential Election by Whiteboard Advisors - Download PDF

Despite economic and educational premonitions, the twenty-first century does not inevitably belong to the Asian or Pacific nations. In this lengthy essay, Sir Michael Barber and colleagues explain how these nations must revamp their education systems to ensure continued growth and competitive edge. (Presumably the essay’s lessons would benefit the U.S. and other Atlantic nations as well, but those are not the targeted audiences for this piece.) Barber and his colleagues find innovation to be the doorway to twenty-first century global leadership. Yet, as they state, “this philosophy of everyone as an entrepreneur and innovator is not what underpins education anywhere in the world right now.” To unlock this potential, Barber calls for systemic reforms to current Pacific education systems: On the governance front, he pushes for an end to top-down bureaucracies that stymie innovation, the creation of autonomous schools, and private-school growth. He calls for strong academic standards for all (though he wades dangerously into the sullied waters of “twenty-first century skills” acquisition when doing so). He urges schools not to neglect the educations of their best and brightest. And he warns that, without prudent and thoughtful implementation, these would-be dramatic shifts will fizzle. Barber also laces the text with concrete examples of successful systemic shifts. But one has to wonder, why target this advice to the Pacific nations? Many in the U.S. are receptive, indeed eager, to heed it too.

SOURCE: Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly, and...

A couple of reports last week reanimated the debate about what to do with Catholic schools, which have been hemorrhaging students for the last couple of decades. The new challenge—“one of their most complex… yet,” writes Sean Cavanagh in Education Week—is charter schools. One, by former RAND economist Richard Buddin, was published by the Cato Institute; the other, by Abraham Lackman, a scholar-in-residence at the Albany Law School, in Albany, New York, is not out yet, but was summarized by Cavanagh in the Ed Week story. Writes Cavanagh,

Many charter schools tout attributes similar to those offered by the church's schools, such as disciplined environments, an emphasis on personal responsibility and character development, and distinctive instructional and curricular approaches.

And Buddin, whose report is more broadly aimed at measuring the impact of charters on all private schools, says,

[C]harter schools are pulling large numbers of students from the private education market and present a potentially dev­astating impact on the private education market, as well as a serious increase in the financial burden on taxpayers.

As both Adam Emerson and Kathleen Porter-Magee have already pointed out, Catholic schools were in decline long before charters came on the scene. Between 1960, when Catholics educated one out of every eight American school-age children (5.2 million) and 1990, when charter schools first came on the scene, 30 percent of the 13,000 Catholic schools in the U.S. closed (with enrollment plummeting to 2.5 million). In fact, since the pace...

Michael Harrington could easily have been describing McDowell County, West Virginia when he wrote in The Other America that “everything that turns the landscape into an idyll for an urban traveler conspires to hold the people down. They suffer terribly at the hands of beauty.” Home to breathtaking views of the Appalachians, this sparsely spread community near the Kentucky and Virginia borders contains some of the worst public schools in the nation and is plagued by drug abuse and chronic unemployment. According to the Register-Herald of Berkley, West Virginia, “72 percent of students live in a household without gainful employment and 46 percent of McDowell County students do not live with their biological parents.” The poverty rate for students is 49 percentand McDowell has the highest instance on prescription drug overdoses in the nation.

Think Harlem Children's Zone for an entire rural county.

Attempting to change the social and educational dynamics behind these statistics, organizations including the American Federation of Teachers, Alliance for Excellent Education, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Verizon, and the United Mine Works have begun an ambitious five-year plan to write “a new chapter” for this community: Reconnect McDowell. What makes this reform initiative so unique is the full-spectrum approach these organizations are taking to change the education, economic, and social realities facing McDowell’s impoverished students and residents—think Harlem Children’s Zone for an entire rural county.

Just as in Harlem, school reform will be a major aspect of the process. Currently, just 26...

Bob Vanourek

It’s been called “one of the most brazen cheating scandals in the nation.”

The Crescendo charter-school network in southern California combined strict academics with arts and music, and its schools’ past test scores were impressive—but, apparently, tainted. According to a recent Los Angeles Times report that cited two separate investigations, principals of the Los Angeles-area schools—following orders from the founder and CEO—gave copies of upcoming state tests to teachers to study, and perhaps also to students to practice and prep using actual questions from the test itself.

Taking a test
Cheating scandals won't stop until we learn something from them. 
Photo by Casey Serin

The investigations blamed John Allen, Crescendo’s founder and CEO. According to the L.A. Times, “Allen’s biggest fixation was test scores.” Sources noted that he was driven by a desire to be “better, better, better, best.” At one point, he reportedly told the staff at one school, “You better score a 900 this year” (out of 1,000 points possible on California’s Academic Performance Index). Apparently, there were threats to principals and teachers if they didn’t “get with the program.”

As word leaked and an investigation began, Crescendo’s teachers were allegedly told to deny having seen the test: A cover-up was added...

Results from the umpty-fourth Phi Delta Kappan (PDK)/Gallup survey of Americans regarding public education released today, and they include some important revelations.

  • Support for the Common Core academic standards is strong and opposition weak (50 percent believe the standards will improve the quality of education; 8 percent hold they will decrease it).
  • The public divides right down the middle (a 52-48 split) over including students’ academic results in teacher evaluations.
  • For the first time, support for charter schools declined a bit since the previous survey (70 percent in favor in 2011, 66 percent this year), and it’s more partisan than before, with Republicans in favor at the 80 percent level, Democrats at 54.
  • At the same time, support for vouchers is rising, with 44 percent now positive even though the PDK/Gallup folks relentlessly phrase their voucher question in the most off-putting way possible: Do you “favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?”
  • Almost two thirds say they’d be willing to pay higher taxes to improve urban public schools. And a plurality (for the first time) says that “lack of financial support” is the biggest problem facing public schools. Yet when it comes to Uncle Sam solving that problem, a whopping majority (60 percent) says that balancing the federal budget is more urgent than improving the education system.
  • But not for illegal immigrants! Almost three in five Americans oppose providing them with public education.
  • ...

While this weekend had plenty of noteworthy education news, today I would like to note the passing of a friend of mine, Staley Keith, who made me understand something about schools and racism. He died just after the Center for Civil Rights Remedies released a troubling study on race and school suspensions and would have nodded knowingly had he seen it. Writes Gary Orfield, head of the Civil Rights Project, which published the study,

The findings in this study are deeply disturbing. Students who are barely maintaining a connection with their school often are pushed out, as if suspension were a treatment. The statistics on the use of suspension for African American and special education students are cause for great concern. We already know that African American males are disproportionately placed into categories of special education that are associated with extremely poor outcomes. We now see that these same students face incredibly high rates of suspension. Every dropout costs society hundreds of thousands of dollars over the student’s lifetime in lost income, and removing a large number of students from school undermines a community’s future. In a society that is incarcerating a large number of African American young men, with terrible consequences for their families and communities, these results are simply unacceptable. We can and must do better for young people whose future is at stake.

As Mike pointed out the other day, the report, called “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion...