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A map of the world

Since the PISA-results bomb dropped last December, myriad reports have been released, op-eds written, and dinner conversations had comparing the American education system to high-achieving OECD nations. Some of them have been pretty smart. Others have been reasonably vapid, if well-intentioned. And almost all seem compelled to hail Finland. If only our system could be more Scandinavian, they croon.

Absolutely there are some elements of the Finnish system that should be lauded and emulated (their rigorous teacher training and constant loop of peer-feedback are big ones for me). But turning our schools into a United States of Finland will no sooner skyrocket our children's achievement than adopting whole-hog the policies of South Korea (with its strict, albeit slackening test-based culture) or even Poland or South Africa (which have been marking sharp gains in student achievement since stepping from the shadows of the Soviet Union and apartheid, respectively.

Thing is, there is no perfect system. And touting one in its entirety blinds us from some important points regarding international comparisons and takeaways.

Here is what we should be considering:

The Devil is in the details:

Sweeping comparisons of entire education systems make for explosive headlines and engaging reading (and fun ?what if? or ?if only? games). But when it comes...


Here's one for you:

    Rosa Parks : Civil Rights Movement ::? _________ : Current Education Reform Movement

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="203" caption="Photo by ElvertBarnes"][/caption]

It's a trick question (er, analogy). We don't have one. We don't have a sweet little old lady, smartly chosen by the movement to be our rallying point. We don't have an ever-perfect individual, or even one who can be deified as such.

Instead, the reform movement is spearheaded and kept running by myriad ?real? people, all with their own strengths?and their own imperfections. Take Michelle Rhee?who, for better or worse?has come to personify the reform movement; she's a spitfire. She's passionate and intelligent and has proven herself to be (through Students First) a fantastic mobilizer. But, she can also be abrasive and has been known to trample collaboration in her race to improved teacher quality.

Yet, I wonder: Is that really a bad thing? Do we need a Rosa Parks for this generation's civil-rights movement? I don't think we do. I think our real people, who make real mistakes, are exactly what the doctor prescribed.

Yet, as the fallout from Paul Tough's recent New York Times Magazine article painfully shows, reformers are reticent to accept this Rx. For those who haven't yet read the article, Tough raised some tough questions about the ?no excuses? culture of the reform movement. Notably: How can reformers claim to embrace a ?no excuses? (no excuses for...


Over the past decade, Detroit's population has declined by 25 percent. Since its heyday in 1950, the city has contracted by about 40 percent. (It now sits at about 700,000, making it the 18th most populous city in the country.) Coupled with this exodus is a gang of usual social ills (some causes of the flight, others caused, or exacerbated, by it)?emptied buildings lead to urban decay, companies having difficulty attracting talent leave in search of stronger human-capital pipelines, idle and disaffected youth turn to street gangs for income and worth.

And the schools suffer. In Detroit (though this problem isn't unique to Motown), school buildings are only filled to half-capacity. Parents who can have plucked up their children and quickly deposited them in neighboring suburban districts with more resources and better teachers.

Couple these general issues with the particulars that ravage Detroit Public Schools?a long history of corruption among city officials, abysmal student achievement (just look at the latest fourth-grade NAEP results), a steadfast and ridiculously antiquated system (including a hell-bent teacher union)?and you've got the ultimate dog's breakfast.

And things just don't seem to be getting better. Of course, this isn't for a lack of trying. You've got to praise Teach For America, which has recently pushed its way back into Detroit after a union-forced seven year hiatus. Kudos should also go out to the work the Skillman Foundation is doing on the ground in the city, as well as to the...

Laurent Rigal

Over at The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead asserted a few weeks back that ?when it comes to education, red states rule.? He bases this finding on data collected for Newsweek's recently released high school rankings.? (As it turns out, three of the top ten schools in the country are in right-to-work Texas?and two more are in Florida, also a right-to-work state.) Unfortunately, this article is just more evidence of an increasingly common education-policy trend. Far too often, statistics, scores, and school rankings are flaunted as proof of grandiose policy victories, no matter how thin the ties are or valid the original data collected is. Looking at Jay Matthews's rankings of the best-performing high schools in the nation, for example, the top five schools (which draw from wealthy communities or have rigorous admissions standards) cannot validly be compared to run-of-the-mill neighborhood schools. And to assert, as Mead does, that the existence of these top-tier schools settles the debate on whether right-to-work states provide better education is a bridge way too far. (To be clear, my gripe isn't with Texas's or Florida's education systems, which are generally solid, but with the cherry-picking of data.) Using these rankings to draw conclusion on the quality of an educational system of a state as a whole has absolutely no validity. There is no demonstrated causality between the level of achievements of the top high schools in a state and the overall quality of the public education system.

It's not just the Meads...


Times are tight for school budgets, which is one reason Fordham and others have dedicated new attention and energy to doing more with less. Being conscious of cost-effectiveness is about more than pinching pennies, however; it also enables schools to get the very best quality for the dollars they spend on services.

Nathan Levenson, managing director of the District Management Council and a former district superintendent in Massachusetts, highlights this in an interview today with StudentsFirst, talking specifically about special education and early intervention:

I like to simplify this topic, and assert that only three things really matter in early intervention -- reading, reading, and reading. The stats are clear -- reading is the gateway to all other learning. Children who struggle in reading are over-referred to special education and often never catch up. This is especially sad, since we have "cracked the code" on how to teach reading. The National Reading Panel and the What Works Clearing House spell it out. Some districts feel they don't have enough money to implement a best practice reading program, but our studies have shown that typically it costs 1/2 to 1/5 as much as the current mish-mash of elementary support programs. The obstacles aren't dollars, but focus, turf battles, silos, and other organizational self-imposed barriers.

The mentality that schools don't have enough resources ? despite marked increases in per-pupil spending over decades ? can lead to blaming every failure in education on a lack of resources. Levenson's experience...


South Carolina is in hot water with the Education Department over the state's failure to meet federal maintenance of effort requirements for special education spending. ED is threatening to dock South Carolina $111 million in federal aid after rejecting a waiver request. The Palmetto State has cut SPED support for three years running due to budgetary pressure.

Federal mandates are coming under attack across the board, often for good reason. Idaho has announced it will refuse to comply with NCLB ? not ask for a waiver ? while the Council of Chief State School Officers is planning to blitz Arne Duncan with waiver requests. In South Carolina's case, however, lawmakers felt they couldn't continue to privilege special education students over every other recipient of state dollars. The state could, of course, have made its case more compelling by matching spending cuts with an agenda of effectiveness in education services, possibly?following Massachusetts' example of outsourcing services to more cost-conscious providers.

The federal response ? that states should allow special education spending to balloon in a time of fiscal austerity when everyone else in the school system is pressured to be more efficient ? is senseless. Washington's mindless maintenance of effort rules simply distort local budgets in favor of certain groups of students, regardless of local needs or resource constraints. As a result, ED is inserting its own judgment into the South Carolina budget process, which it has no business doing.

? Chris Tessone...