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Foreign policy isn’t all that Margaret Thatcher and her team had in common with Ronald Reagan and his. The 1980s also saw much crossing of the Atlantic—in both directions—by their education advisers, too. Bill Bennett, for example, hosted U.K. education secretary Ken Baker on multiple occasions, and the Downing Street staff team, too. We reciprocated.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan
The 1980s saw much crossing of the Atlantic by education advisers.
Photo from the Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. and the U.K. were both awakening to being “nations at risk,” due in no small part to the parlous state of their public education systems, and reformers in both countries were pushing for big changes—changes that their respective “education establishments” didn’t want to make.

On both sides of the sea, standards, assessments, accountability, and school choice were surfacing as ideas, and becoming policies and programs. The teachers’ unions didn’t want any of this, but it was beginning to happen anyway, as was the gradual disempowerment of what the Brits call “local education authorities”—and the delegation of greater authority to the school level.

It happened faster on their shores, mostly because the central government in London wasn’t gridlocked—the Tories were in firm control at the time—and because its decisions were (and still are) the ones that counted. (At least in K–12 education, the British...

Under Ohio state law, public schools will be required to have a teacher evaluation system in place by July 2014. Half of the teacher evaluation formula is to be based on student learning growth on exams. For some subjects, this puts schools in awkward situation of having to evaluate for example, gym or art teachers—subjects that don’t have established exams and tests.

The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) has published manuals for evaluating teachers of these hard-to-measure subjects. But, as Terry Ryan recently reported—some of these guidelines border on the absurd.

Even the august champion of teacher evaluations, Bill Gates, worried about “hastily contrived” teacher evaluations. He writes in the Washington Post:

Efforts are being made to define effective teaching and give teachers the support they need to be as effective as possible. But as states and districts rush to implement new teacher development and evaluation systems, there is a risk they’ll use hastily contrived, unproven measures. One glaring example is the rush to develop new assessments in grades and subjects not currently covered by state tests. Some states and districts are talking about developing tests for all subjects, including choir and gym, just so they have something to measure.

Mr. Gates reiterated his point by citing Ohio’s recent gym teacher evaluation manual as an example. Gates’ commentary provoked responses, from Anthony Cody in Education Week and Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.

Gates is right to point out the...

Andy Rotherham deserves respect as one of the most thoughtful proponents of education reform, as well as an impressive institution-builder. He and I probably agree on 90 percent of the issues, though we have sparred at times over the federal role, the balance between “excellence and equity,” and sundry other topics.

My greatest frustration, though, has been his unwillingness to offer full-throated support for school vouchers.

Maybe he’s finally ready. In a blog post yesterday, he predicted that if current reform efforts stall, the future will bring a “low-accountability environment coupled with much more choice” and pointed to the Indiana voucher program (recently upheld by that state’s Supreme Court and hailed by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post) as a sign of things to come.

What Andy may not fully appreciate is that Indiana’s voucher program has accountability in spades. As David Stuit and Sy Doan explain in their recent report for Fordham, School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring? , the Hoosier State has an “annual performance-accountability rating system” for participating private schools that is based on the results of state assessments—the same tests that public school pupils take. Indeed, the fact that private schools will soon be held accountable under Common Core standards and assessments has become a major issue in the Hoosier State—because it gives palpitations to the right, not the left! (Other recently enacted private-school-choice programs, including those in Louisiana and Alabama, also include significant testing and accountability requirements.)

So if...

The World is Phat

Mike and Kathleen bust some podcast moves, taking on Thomas Friedman over “innovation education,” revamped teacher-evaluation systems whose results look suspiciously last season, and the Atlanta test-fraud scandal. Amber is the mayor of mayoral control.

Amber's Research Minute

Mayoral Governance and Student Achievement: How Mayor-Led Districts Are Improving School and Student Performance by Kenneth K. Wong and Francis X. Shen (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress, March 2013).

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...