Governance

In a 2011 Education Next article called “The Middle School Mess,” Peter Meyer equated middle school with bungee jumping: a place of academic and social freefall that loses kids the way the Bermuda triangle loses ships. Experts have long cited concerns about drops in students’ achievement, interest in school, and self-confidence when they arrive in middle school. Teachers have discussed why teaching middle school is different—and arguably harder—than teaching other grades. There’s even a book called Middle School Stinks

In an attempt to solve the middle school problem, many cities are transitioning to schools with wider grade spans. Instead of buildings for grades K–5, 6–8, and 9–12 (or any other combination that has a separate middle school), districts are housing students at levels ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade on one campus. To determine if a switch to K–8 grade span buildings is in the best interest of Ohio districts, I took a look at the research, benefits, and drawbacks surrounding the model.

Research

A 2009 study examined data from New York City to determine if student performance is affected by two measures: the grade spans of previously attended schools, and transitions between elementary and middle school buildings. New York City provided the perfect laboratory for such a study, since it houses a large number of elementary and middle schools with a wide variety of grade spans that are managed under the same educational policies. The study found that students attending K–8 schools earned significantly...

In a previous post, I explained competency-based or “mastery” grading: a restructuring of the common grade system that compresses everything from course tests, homework, and class participation into a system that assesses students based entirely on whether or not they’ve mastered specific skills and concepts. (For a look at how mastery grading works in practice, check out how schools like Columbus’s Metro Early College School and Cleveland’s MC²STEM high school, and even suburban districts like Pickerington, make it work). In this piece, I’ll discuss some additional benefits and drawbacks of mastery grading.

Mastery grading is innovative in that students only move on to more complex concepts and skills once they mastered simpler ones. As a result, the failure to master on the first attempt isn’t “failure.” It’s a chance for students to receive additional instruction and support targeted at specific weak spots, work hard, master key concepts, and move on with a firm foundation in place.

For teachers, the possibility of meaningful achievement data that is disaggregated by child and skill and directly drives instruction should be drool-worthy. Imagine knowing at the beginning of the year—before ever giving a diagnostic assessment—what your new students have fully, partially, and not-yet mastered.

To be clear, implementing mastery grading effectively will take a shift in mindsets, habits, and practice, and it will increase the administrative burden at first. Teachers will have to be true masters of their content. They will also be called upon to plan even further in...

Rick Hess opens his book, The Same Thing Over and Over, by asking readers to imagine the following scenario:

How would you respond if asked for a plan to transform America’s schools into a world-class, twenty-first century system?

Then imagine that there is one condition: you must retain the job descriptions, governance arrangements, management practices, compensation strategies, licensure requirements, and calendar of the existing system.

Hopefully, you would flee just as fast as you possibly could.

Red tape stifles innovation, dynamism, and entrepreneurship in public schooling, while creating a culture of risk aversion and defensiveness. These latter two are hardly the features of nimble organizations that can adapt to a changing world; rather, they are the marks of decaying institutions.

Here in Ohio, state leaders are taking note. On several occasions, both Governor John Kasich and Senate President Keith Faber have expressed their desire to “deregulate” public education. That is great news. Yet the task of deregulation is not a simple one. It requires carefully distinguishing the areas where the state has a valid regulatory role from those where it should defer to local, on-the-ground decision making.

The regulatory framework that we at Fordham have advocated is “tight-loose.” In a state policy context, this implies that the state, vis-à-vis districts, should be tight on districts’ results but loose on how they achieve them. In other words, Ohio policymakers should set rigorous academic goals for schools, assess whether they are meeting them, hold them accountable for results—and...

This post has been updated with the full text of "A troubling verdict."

This is how it starts: You work with these kids all year. You teach them how to do fractions or find the main idea. They struggle; they make mistakes. They get it. They forget it. You keep at it. Some days you go home with tire tracks on your back, but you come back the next day. They’re your kids, even the ones who push your buttons. Especially them.

On test day, you look over their shoulders while proctoring. You cringe. A careless mistake. Another one. You know they know this stuff. You’ve been over it enough. The one kid, he’s bright enough, but unfocused. Always rushing; always has to be done first. Use the remaining time to check your answers, you suggest. “I did,” he says.

Your finger comes to rest on his answer sheet. "Check this one."

This is how it ends: In an Atlanta courtroom, with eleven educators convicted of criminal charges in a cheating scandal dating back to 2001. Forty-four schools, 180 educators, thirty-five indictments. The ones convicted Wednesday face up to twenty years in prison. They were all found guilty under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Charges usually brought against mobsters and organized crime bosses were brought against elementary school teachers.

It’s hard to look at what’s happened in Atlanta without alarm and a bit of revulsion. How could this happen? What signal, spoken or unspoken, leads elementary school...

Ashley W. Jochim

We need to take issue with a point in Andy Smarick’s thoughtful review, published in Flypaper, of our new book, A Democratic Constitution for Public Education.

As Andy describes, the book proposes a new local oversight body for public education, the Civic Education Council (CEC). The CEC would have only two powers—annually approve a slate of independently run public schools to operate in the locality and hire a CEO. The CEO would be responsible for conducting the data analysis required to support CEC action and establishing systems to ensure fair treatment of students. The CEC would not have the authority to employ teachers, principals, or administrators other than a small number required to support the CEO.

Andy characterized this arrangement as a continuation of the district and predicted that the transition would never be made, based on the leopard/spots metaphor. But under our plan, the district would be replaced by an entirely new entity, based on new law and established with a totally different set of powers than local school boards now have. It is hard to see how this is the old “district” unless the term is used equivocally (i.e., at one time to describe an organization that operates schools directly and at another time to refer to a geographic area).

Andy also thinks that the role we assign the CEC in overseeing the transition to the new system will preserve the old district. Again, we disagree. 

Though the replacement of school boards with CECs would be complete and instantaneous, schools...

Andy delivered a shortened version of the following comments at a PPI launch event for Hill & Jochim’s new book, A Democratic Constitution for Public Education.

Thank you for having me here. I’m thrilled to talk about this great new book, which, incidentally, all of you should go out and buy immediately. I’m a big fan of Ashley’s work at CRPE, and Abby played a crucial role in advancing D.C.’s system of schools during her time as deputy mayor.

Paul’s and David’s contributions over more than two decades have hugely influenced my thinking. I’m honored to be on this panel with them.

There’s so much to like about this book, but I only have ten minutes. So for that reason, and because I’m generally a malcontent, I’m going to focus mostly on the questions and half-concerns I have. But please don’t infer anything other than this: I think Paul and Ashley’s book is terrific.

I’ll focus on three points.

First, the book does an excellent job helping the reader understand the district’s four categories of activities, which need to be disaggregated, repackaged, and reassigned as the district loses its place as the monopoly school provider.

Second, over the last twenty years, American cities have taken two different paths to systemic reform. This book’s recommendations land differently for cities in the different categories.

Third, unlike most books, Paul and Ashley’s could and should have an immediate positive influence in a number of cities.

The book helps us see that when the...

I didn’t see common enrollment systems coming.

When I started writing The Urban School System of the Future in 2009, I didn’t foresee the extent of the complications associated with parental choice in cities with expansive networks of accessible schools. At that point, the vast majority of city kids were still assigned to schools, and the conventional wisdom was that this would be the case for years to come.

My, how things have changed.

New Orleans is now a virtually all-charter system. Detroit and D.C. have about half of their kids in charters; in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Cleveland it’s more than 30 percent.

This growth is great. Kids in urban charters learn more in math and reading, and the benefits are being realized most by disadvantaged students. It’s forcing city leaders to rethink the operations, oversight, and governance of public schools (see Camden, Memphis, and Detroit).

But—as explained in a primer by CRPE—if cities simply add more choice schools in the absence of changes to the enrollment process, parents can struggle to find information on schools, be forced to fill out widely varying school applications, and then receive a staggered barrage of acceptance and rejection notices.

Common enrollment systems can help solve this.

They use a single application that allows families to rank their preferences, then match students with schools using an algorithm that takes into account student priorities and school characteristics.

A number of cities are headed...

Was Phil Jackson really a great coach? Despite his reputation as the Zen master of hoops, I’ve never been convinced. After all, Kobe, Shaq, and His Airness would have made any coach look like a genius, and there’s never been a natural experiment quantifying Jackson’s impact.

Inside the classroom, a similar question lingers. In a recent study of district evaluation systems, Grover Whitehurst, Matthew Chingos, and Katharine Lindquist found that teachers with high-performing students were far more likely to be rated highly by observers than those with low-performing students. Moreover, this pattern was not the result of better teachers being matched with better students. Rather, observers were biased towards teachers with higher-performing students—the Phil Jacksons of the teaching world.

As the authors of the study make clear, eliminating this bias by adjusting for student background characteristics is relatively straightforward. So why aren’t we doing this already? A few weeks ago, Luke Kohlmoos of the Tennessee Department of Education argued against such adjustments, suggesting they were a “disservice to students and teachers” that would take us back to the bad old days of lower expectations for black and brown students. According to Kohlmoos, if we “systematize” lower expectations through classroom observations, teachers and students will stoop to meet them.

Obviously, we don’t want “lower expectations” for teachers or students, but when it comes to adjusting observation scores, it’s worth asking how those expectations are communicated and whether they are really “lower” in any meaningful sense.

Start with teachers: Why...

Thank you Chairman Cupp, Ranking Member Phillips and members of the House Finance Subcommittee on Primary and Secondary Education for giving me the opportunity to present testimony on House Bill 64. My name is Chad Aldis, and I am the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

In general, we are supportive of most of Governor Kasich’s proposed education changes. Some of the provisions that we believe are critically important include:

  • Taking tangible steps to reduce the amount of standardized/state testing without weakening our state accountability system
  • Providing regulatory relief to schools
  • Moving toward reducing the impact of caps and guarantees in the state funding formula, as they distort the needs of districts and build funding inefficiencies into the system
  • Opening the door (and providing funding) for schools to experiment with competency-based/mastery learning
  • Strengthening the EdChoice voucher program
  • Improving Ohio’s charter school sector

To expound a little bit on the charter reforms: Fordham has spent a significant amount of time over the past year looking at Ohio’s charter school sector and has sponsored national experts to study the state’s charter schools. With that research in mind, we believe that some of the provisions proposed by Governor Kasich are critically important, and we encourage the House to include the following:

  • Requiring all charter sponsors to be approved by the Ohio Department of Education
  • Improving the ability of ODE to take action against low-performing sponsors
  • Allowing ODE to factor school quality into the equation when deciding
  • ...

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of personal reflections on the current state of education reform and contemporary conservatism by Andy Smarick, a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The previous posts in this series can be seen hereherehereherehere, here, and here.

Many reformers work to ensure that every child has access to great schools. Similar universal aspirations have inspired countless others—the recognition of unalienable rights, the elimination of poverty, the fair distribution of resources.

Indeed, the question of how to define and realize “justice” has consumed philosophers for centuries. A key lesson from this Everest of scholarship is that all approaches require tradeoffs.

Unfortunately, our field doesn’t talk much about tradeoffs, and we certainly don’t talk about philosophy. You’ll not find in your conference program, “Plato, Aquinas, and Nietzsche: The Metaphysics of Annual Testing.”

But this is not to say that reform is philosophy-free. Conservatives led this movement twenty-five years ago; their skepticism of government monopolies and public sector unions and commitment to empowering parents and diversifying options owed much to Smith, Mill, and Friedman. 

Today, progressives dominate education reform, and progressivism is stirred by calls for “social justice” and transfixed by economic inequality. Accordingly, the word “equity” is ubiquitous in our world.

TNTP recommended an “equity fund.” TFA launched Leadership for Educational Equity. The administration’s recently released its vision for educator “equity plans.”

The late philosopher John Rawls is this...

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