Throughout his tenure as Secretary, Arne Duncan has often told audiences, “Hold us accountable.” It’s an honorable sentiment from a public servant.

But it’s also a model of good behavior for those of us currently in the chattering class—commentators, pundits, critics, etc., who hold forth instead of fighting in the arena.

For some time now, I’ve been giving the Department a hard time about not releasing enough data on the performance of the SIG program—I’m trying to hold them accountable for the Secretary’s talk of turning around 5,000 persistently failing schools over the course of five years.

I suppose they will eventually give us some results, and I’m certain that I’ll have something to say about them.

But in the spirit of the Secretary’s refrain, I should be held accountable, too.

I publicly predicted—on numerous occasions—that SIG was not going to produce anything remotely close to the results the Department and others were promising. I was alarmed at how much we were spending on SIG and the awful track record of previous turnaround efforts, and I was sure that districts would pick weak interventions and that kids were going to continue languishing in these schools while we went about this misguided adventure.

Ultimately, the results will speak for themselves. But until then, here is a sampling of what I wrote more than four years ago. I caused a fuss about this program. If I got it...

Shut it down!

In this week’s podcast, Mike and Michelle debate whether to teach family planning in schools, whether an extreme love of sports hinders academic achievement, and whether Michigan’s “count day” is a great way to distribute state education dollars (hint: it’s not). Amber asks us not to mind the charter-district SPED gap.

Amber's Research Minute

Why the Gap? Special Education and New York City Charter Schools,” by Marcus Winters, Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington, September 2013.

Michael Casserly

There may be a lot to question about how the Broad Foundation makes its award selections every year, but its annual attempt to honor improvements in urban education does not warrant the bilious commentary by Andy Smarick about the recent choice of the Houston Independent School District. Smarick grounds his claim on the incorrect assertion that the award is given “for supposed urban district excellence.” In fact the prize is granted by the foundation for “America’s most improved public school districts.” Announcement of the prize states clearly, “These districts represent progress, not perfection.” Strike one for Smarick’s argument.

Smarick goes on to claim that Houston has made little progress academically since 2003. To bolster his contention, he selectively uses eighth-grade reading trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), something that the Broad Prize can’t use because only twenty-one of the seventy-five districts eligible for the prize participate in the Trial Urban District Assessment of NAEP. Still, Smarick might have noted that while eighth-grade reading proficiency remained low in the most recently available results (2011), Houston’s improvements since 2003 were twice as large as the nation’s gains and identical to the gains of the “distressingly low” large cities—which, by the way, include urban charter schools, Smarick’s favored delivery system.

Meanwhile Houston’s fourth graders, who Smarick also omits from his commentary, show gains three times as large as the...

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....