When he’s about to comment pointedly on some debate, the avuncularly pugnacious former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett occasionally prefaces his verbal fisticuffs by telling the old saw about the Irishman who sees two men fighting and interrupts to ask, “Is this a private fight or can anyone join?”

It is in this fine tradition that my friend and colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee took a scriven swipe at me yesterday.

You see, I’m in a lopsided fight with the failed urban district and its reactionary defenders. I say “lopsided” because, well, like Rocky in the 15th round, it can’t muster a defense. It’s ill served kids consistently for half a century. Even those who don’t like my left-right combination—bring it to an end and replace it with a true system of schools—never counterpunch with, “The urban district is doing great!” They know better.

I put my belt on the line this week against another glass-jaw opponent, The Broad Prize. This “award” has been feting failed districts for more than a decade now, and it shamefully crowned as this year’s winner Houston, where about one in ten African American eighth graders can read proficiently.

Like Tyson-Spinks, my match was over in about 90 seconds. But before The Broad Prize could fall through the ropes and I could have my victory interview with Ferdie Pacheco, Porter-Magee unexpectedly jumped in and puts up her dukes!

Her basic point is straightforward and irrefutable: What happens in...

Our country’s urban school systems are broken, and they can’t be fixed: That’s where Andy Smarick begins his book The Urban School System of the Future, and it's the basis for his recent post urging that the Broad Foundation stop giving prizes to urban districts.

The award winners, Andy argues, are better examples of the dismal state of education in urban centers than they are shining examples of what’s possible. And given the eleven years Broad has spent searching for success stories, now is the time to acknowledge the futility of the exercise. “No more blind faith in an institution with a 50-year track record of failure,” Andy writes. “End. The Broad Prize. Now.”

While Andy’s crusade to end the urban school district as we know it could be seen as a challenge to the defenders of the status quo, it’s really more a challenge to fellow reformers working within the existing education system: Stop wasting your time trying to fix the unfixable and focus your efforts instead on something that has some hope of success.

Strands of this argument have been carried forward by others, but Andy pushes them to a stark conclusion: The very structure of the current district system—its focus on continuity, stability, and uniformity—works against the high performance and continuous improvement that are required to meet the needs of our most disadvantaged children.

But the reality, as is often the case, is far less straightforward and involves a messy and often contradictory...

High school sports and other misadventures

In this week’s podcast, Dara and Brickman tackle Amanda Ripley’s condemnation of the athlete-centric culture in America’s high schools. They also take on GOP governors’ wobbliness on Common Core and the morally bankrupt Philadelphia teacher union. Amber holds us all accountable.

Amber's Research Minute

School Accountability, Postsecondary Attainment and Earnings,” by David J. Deming, Sarah Cohodes, Jennifer Jennings, and Christopher Jencks, NBER Working Paper No. 19444 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, September 2013)

One of the few things that nearly all sides of the education policy debate can agree on is that student achievement in urban schools and districts across the nation is distressingly low.

But that is where the agreement ends.

There is a complicated, rolling debate about the problem itself: whether this low level of achievement should be described as a failure of schools or a consequence of poverty, whether things are actually getting better and how, and whether our expectations about what schools can do are too high.

But even when we can reach some consensus on the scope of the problem, there is an even more hotly contested discussion about its solutions. Interestingly, though, conversations about how to improve achievement and reduce gaps seem almost myopically focused on systems and governance—how schools or districts are organized, how to hold them accountable, who should hold them accountable, and on. At the same time, claims about the potential of system-level and governance changes seem to both overestimate the impact system-level changes can have on student achievement at scale and studiously avoid what happens every day in the classroom.

It’s as if we were trying to improve cancer treatment with debates about how insurance companies reimbursed hospitals or whether states should provide financial oversight over billing rates, but without talking about how to improve the detection and treatment of the disease itself.

And the reality is that while we undoubtedly have school-governance challenges that need to be overcome, we also have a...

I stared at the tweet, dumbfounded.

Houston: 2013 Broad Prize finalist?

That can’t be.

I had recently dug through old city-level NAEP results. They were all terribly depressing. 

But Houston’s stopped me cold.

Somehow it had won the 2002 Broad Prize (for supposed urban district excellence) despite dreadfully low performance.  Worse, its scores are virtually unchanged nearly a decade later.

It’s being honored again?

This is what earns an urban district Broad Prize–finalist status?

San Diego is also a finalist and also participates in TUDA. So off I went searching for its data.

Maybe it will be better; Houston was probably just a mistake.

San Diego’s overall scores are slightly better than the appallingly low “large-city” average (8th reading, 27 percent vs. 23 percent). But it has considerably fewer low-income students than other participating cities: 61 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; in Cleveland it’s 100 percent; Dallas, 85 percent; Chicago and Baltimore, 84 percent.

Hmm. Does San Diego still have an advantage if we compare similar cohorts of students?

No. Its performance is as heartbreakingly low.

In Houston and San Diego, about one in ten African American eighth graders can read proficiently. Their low-income students do only the smallest bit better.

This is what earns...

Dear Deborah,

I’m glad you brought up the topic of democracy. In future posts, I plan to explore the habits and attributes we hope to inculcate in our youthful, budding citizens, including a commitment to self-sufficiency. But today let’s continue the conversation about democratic governance of our public schools.

You and I have more in common than we might want to concede, in that we share a somewhat cynical view of politics. Namely, we see most political actors and institutions as acting out of self-interest. You, and many other liberals, are obsessed with “the rich,” worrying that they will buy elections and promote their own narrow interests (while becoming even richer in the process). I, and many other ed-reformers, am obsessed with the teachers’ unions and other “adult interest groups,” worrying that they will buy elections, run their own candidates, and promote their own narrow interests.

Yet look at what just happened in New York City: Neither the candidate of the rich nor the candidate of the unions won the Democratic primary. Bill de Blasio, untethered from both the 1 percent and organized labor, marched to an impressive victory. (Whether he actually becomes mayor depends, of course, on the November election.)

Maybe we both overestimate the clout of our respective boogeymen.

We also might want to consider that what we see as a clash of interests is really just a clash of ideology.

Consider this quote from Robert Samuelson, discussing lessons from the financial collapse of five years ago:

I concede: I’ve told...

This collection of case studies from the Center for Reform of School Systems’s Donald McAdams and the Broad Foundation’s Dan Katzir, intended for use in school-board-training institutes, explores the strategies used by twelve governance teams to implement major, district-wide reforms in nine of the nation’s largest school districts (four of which won the Broad Prize for Urban Education), during the 1990s and early 2000s. After one chapter on each of the teams, the authors dive into an analysis of which strategies worked best and why. In Houston, for example, the school board’s shared vision of a decentralized system helped empower schools to work together with community and business leaders in their areas. However, in Aldine, just a few miles north of Houston, board members centralized most of the decision-making. McAdams and Katzir note that, while some management styles worked well for some school boards, no single method was best for all of them. But through the case studies, one can discern four main characteristics of success that other reform-minded school boards might usefully consider emulating: Boards should pick a superintendent whose reform agenda aligns with theirs, strive for cohesion at all times, and—importantly—pay attention to the political environment of the district and community. While these may not be ground-shaking conclusions, they are presented clearly and thoughtfully. The cases are fast-paced and comprehensive in their retelling, and the book is replete with insightful observations worthy of reflection in districts looking to start their own reforms....

Education Next

It’s not exactly news that America’s education system is mediocre and expensive in international comparison. What’s less well known is that our schools’ ineffectiveness and inefficiency could have big implications for the country’s economic growth in decades to come. In a new book from the Brookings Institution Press, three of the world’s leading education scholars explain that nothing short of America’s prosperity is at risk due to our educational underperformance.

In today’s Education Next book club, Mike Petrilli speaks with all three authors—Eric Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann—about the evidence they bring to bear in Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School.

Additional installments of the Ed Next Book Club podcast can be heard here.

This post originally appeared on the Education Next blog. Check out the Education Gadfly Weekly for a short review of the book.

Why is the U.S. getting its butt kicked by other countries’ education systems? Amanda Ripley’s fine new book ultimately attributes most of the difference to culture, values, and priorities. She says, in effect, that we’ve got “the schools we deserve,” to borrow the title of a fine old book written by Diane Ravitch (back in the day!). True enough. But tucked away in Ripley’s pages are also a number of examples of how those other lands—her examples are Finland, South Korea and Poland—organize and govern their education systems, and these are illuminating, too, as well as being more actionable in the policy realm.  

Governance matters

Poland, for example, a country understandably allergic to strong central governments, reformed its education system after 1997 in part by empowering school principals to make teacher-hiring decisions. And Finland shut down its inferior ed schools! In Ripley’s words,

Finland’s landscape used to be littered with small teaching colleges of varying quality, just like in the United States….[Then] the Finnish government did something…that has never happened in the United States or most other countries. The Finns rebooted their teacher training colleges, forcing them to become much more selective and rigorous. As part of a broader reform of higher education, the government shuttered the smaller schools and moved teacher preparation into the more respected universities. It was a bold reform, and not without controversy.

Our states could do that, too....

Driving Quality: Can charter incubators solve the problem of too many mediocre charter schools?

Driving Quality: Can charter incubators solve the problem of too many mediocre charter schools?

Recorded December 7, 2011

Communities across the country are struggling to meet parental demand for high quality school options, including high-performing charter schools. Yet, with hundreds of new charter schools opening every year, not nearly enough of them offer the quality education that parents crave and kids deserve. Indeed, far too many fail to deliver education any better than the troubled neighborhood schools that they are meant as alternatives to.

But a new model for charter school growth has taken root in several cities and it appears to be boosting quality as well as quantity. Charter "incubators" are accelerating the launch and development of top-flight charter schools in communities that need them most. Incubators offer the promise of not only more school choice but schools that reliably deliver academic results.

Join us at the Fordham Institute to hear from leaders that are running some of the best of these new organizations. Co-sponsored by the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust), this discussion will analyze the key findings from a new policy brief by Public Impact, and provide lessons on how federal, state and local policymakers can help launch new quality charter schools while encouraging the culling of weak ones.