Governance

On Sunday, Mike spoke to the New York State Council of School Superintendents. These were his remarks as prepared for delivery.

Thank you for the kind invitation to speak to you today. I know that some of you are wondering what the folks at the Council were thinking in inviting me. Certainly there are a lot of angry people on Twitter wondering that. I hope that by the end of my talk, it might make a little more sense.

The title of my talk is “How to End the Education Reform Wars.” But as I’ve thought more about it, I’ve decided that this isn’t exactly the right title. That’s because you, as superintendents, don’t have it within your control to end this war. That’s because it’s not really about you. Especially here in New York, it seems clear to me that it’s a war between the governor and the unions, as well as between the reformers and the unions. It’s also a fight between the governor and Mayor de Blasio.

So the real question is how you can navigate these wars. A better title for my speech might be, “How to Survive the Education Reform Wars.” And how can you do so in a way that allows you to do good work for kids?

With all due respect, let me suggest three principles that might guide your advocacy work—to stand up for what’s right for kids while distancing yourself from the worst instincts of the unions:

  1. Be the voice
  2. ...

One of the most important developments in urban education over the last two decades has been the rapid expansion of school choice.

To some, this represents the happy, if unexpected, marriage of public education and free enterprise thinking—diversification of providers, growth of school options, and empowerment of parents.

But an underappreciated and counterintuitive contributor to this progress has been the reform-oriented technocrat. Indeed, in the years to come, if civil society and families are to make more decisions and the government is to make fewer, policymakers have a critical role to play.

For a century, we relied on the district system to deliver urban public education. There was a single government provider, it controlled all aspects of its schools, and students’ school assignments were based on home addresses. Countless policies and practices (related to facilities, transportation, accountability, and much more) evolved with that particular system in mind.

But as that system is slowly replaced by one marked by an array of nongovernmental school providers, parental choice, and the “portfolio management” mindset, new policies (undergirded by a new understanding of the government’s role in public schooling) are needed. That requires new government activity, much like the transition from a state-controlled to a private enterprise economy requires new rules related to property rights, lending, contracts, and currency.

Though the excellent new CRPE report “How Parents Experience Public School Choice” focuses on how families navigate choice-based systems, the new role of government is front and center.

Four examples are illustrative. First,...

Scott Pearson

When we talk about high standards, accountability, and school choice, one essential element is often overlooked: giving parents and education leaders information they can actually use. It’s one thing to produce data, but quite another to make it useful—easily understood, comparable, and actionable.

The District of Columbia has reaffirmed its commitment to making good data available in its second annual publication of Equity Reports. These reports provide unprecedented levels of information on how well each public and public charter school in the District of Columbia serves all students. By providing apples-to-apples comparisons of schools and presenting the results in a format that is easy to understand, the reports signal potential problems, help school leaders focus on areas where schools need to improve, and guide parents as they make decisions about their child’s education.

This is an important step in addressing some of the most critical issues about equity in public education: How successfully are we closing the achievement gap between black and white students, and between low-income and more affluent students? Are we suspending children of color at higher rates than white students? How well are we serving students with disabilities? These data will lead to tough and important conversations at schools and around the District as we dig into the underlying causes of the results we now are able to see.

Moreover, our Equity Reports tackle perennial charter school pain points head-on: Do charter schools push students out mid-year? Do they accept students all year, in all grades?...

The sudden departure of Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, caught many by surprise—including Starr. That’s a depressing sign of a dysfunctional school board, one whose members failed to signal serious concerns with their superintendent, even as recently as last fall’s school board elections.

If the board has any hope of recruiting a talented new leader for MCPS, among the largest districts in the country with more than 153,000 students, it needs to be crystal-clear about the direction it wants the system to take. As an MCPS parent and incorrigible education reformer, let me offer a few suggestions.

First, MCPS needs to recommit to its core mission: dramatically raising student achievement. As Starr’s struggles with the board burst into public view, he made a last-ditch effort to convince its members, and MCPS’s many ardent constituents, of his commitment to narrowing the achievement gaps between poor and minority students and white and Asian students. I don’t doubt his sincerity. But the achievement gap is measured primarily by test scores, and Starr made his name by speaking out against tests. At the least, he sent a mixed message about his commitment to academic achievement.

It’s not entirely fair to blame him for that. Starr was hired in part because he represented a change in style...

Joshua Dunn

In “Collective Panic,” Martha Derthick and I argued that teachers’ unions dodged a major blow in Harris v. Quinn (2014) but that they should hold off on popping the champagne.

The court’s decision in Quinn indicated that a prized precedent, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), might soon be overturned. Under Abood, public sector unions could collect “agency fees” from nonmembers, but those funds could not be used for ideological or political purposes. The logic of Abood was that unless public sector unions could collect those funds by compulsion, nonmembers would “free ride” on the collective bargaining efforts of the unions.

Some have always questioned this logic. It’s not free riding if you never wanted the ride. It’s more like being clubbed in the head, tied up, and thrown in the trunk. Regardless, without the ability to punish these potential free riders, union membership would collapse. As Daniel DiSalvo has noted, “In nearly every state that permits agency fees, more than 90 percent of teachers belong to unions. In states that don’t allow agency fees, only 68 percent of teachers are unionized.” Since agency fees cost nearly as much as a full union membership, individuals see little reason not to join the union. Losing Abood would be a “crippling blow” for public sector unions.

In Quinn, Justice Alito argued that Abood created an “anomaly” that at best rested uneasily with First Amendment principles. Because public sector unions are public, all of their bargaining is political. Negotiating with the government means negotiating with taxpayers’ representatives. Thus, it is specious to draw a...

A few weeks ago, I used a graphic to show the four dimensions of federal accountability, each of which has a range of options. I then used this graphic to show the consensus for preserving NCLB testing.

Here I used it to show how eleven major ESEA reauthorization proposals address the other dimensions (remember, minimum federal accountability is on the left; maximum on the right). The total picture is as confusing as subway map.

But when broken down, the graphic reveals three distinct approaches, one of which offers the best chance at reauthorization.

Federal Prescription

Several proposals that appeared in the testing-alone graphic do not appear here because they didn’t take clear positions on the dimensions beyond testing. Of those remaining, four embrace what I call Federal Prescription. Their underlying logic is: If we want states, districts, and schools to get better results, the feds must tell them what to do.

NCLB is current law and represents the most expansive federal role on the table. It mandates and specifies performance targets (100 percent proficiency, Adequate Yearly Progress, etc.); creates mandatory, specified performance categories (“in need of improvement,” “restructuring,” etc.); and spells out the activities required for struggling schools.

The plan offered by House Democrats was similar. It would’ve required states to set performance targets for all students. States would’ve been required to identify “schools in need of support”...

According to this Education Resource Strategies report, State Education Agencies (SEAs) possess “a gold mine of untapped material”—vast amounts of school and district data collected annually. This information is currently used for accountability purposes or to inform research and policy, but the report calls for what may be an even more important data deployment to inform local decisions that could potentially help schools make the most of limited resources. For example, Maryville Middle School in Tennessee used value-added performance data on teacher effectiveness to match educator strengths with student needs. The result? Maryville has repeatedly outperformed all other schools in the state on student growth measures

A good example, yet it’s also a fact that raw data alone are not too useful. Helpfully, the report offers several ways in which SEAs can make this information more actionable for local education agencies. They can, for example, create their own analyses providing feedback on allocations of people, time, and money. Such analyses should examine the connection between resources and student achievement so schools and districts can deploy the most effective or relevant resources to the students who need them most.

Besides such sensible (if obvious) recommendations, this report serves to highlight what well-designed data systems can do. If we want to make the most of the resources within our current K–12 systems, data may be the most powerful tool we have.

SOURCE: Stephen Frank and Joseph Trawick-Smith, “Spinning Straw into Gold: How state education agencies can transform their data to improve...

Faced with enormous budgetary shortfalls, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) opted in May 2013 to close forty-seven schools, one of the largest instances of school closures in U.S. history. CPS then set about relocating more than ten thousand displaced students into higher-performing schools for the 2013–14 year. The district called the schools that absorbed the transplanted pupils “welcoming schools.” The policy was supported by research showing that students affected by closure benefit academically if they land in a better school. The welcoming schools were all higher-performing on CPS’s internal measures of performance; they also received additional resources to ease the influx of new students (e.g., pupil safety and instructional supports). So how did the policy play out? According to University of Chicago analysts, 66 percent of displaced students enrolled in their designated “welcoming school” in fall 2013, while 25 percent attended other neighborhood-based CPS schools, 4 percent enrolled in charters and a similar number in magnets. An analysis of student records indicates that distance from home, building safety concerns, and residential mobility were all significant reasons why one-third of the total went somewhere other than their welcoming school. Interesting, to be sure, but the study does not report anything about the academic results for CPS students in their new schools. (Stay tuned for a new Fordham study of how Ohio students fare after closure.) Overall, CPS crafted a reasonable though not perfectly implemented policy for reassigning students to better schools. While few places are apt to shutter schools on...

With all the attention that’s focused on teachers, principals must feel like the neglected stepchild of education reform. Evaluations, tenure, and the lackluster performance of teacher prep programs are all hot reform topics, and there’s no shortage of books and articles that obsess over all things teacher-relate. But what about principals? School leaders are responsible for nearly everything that happens in a school—from creating a positive culture and tracking data to evaluating instruction and hiring (or sometimes firing) the teachers who most affect student outcomes.

Research points to the challenges of recruiting and selecting effective principals. Most principals are chosen from employees who already work for the district. This isn’t a problem per se, except that districts often do a poor job of building skills in and smoothing the transition for those they select. Add to that the other hallmarks of the job, such as high pressure and low compensation, and it’s easy to understand why it’s so hard to find great talent.

This bleak picture begs the question: Is anyone doing it right?

A recent piece in Education Week looks at KIPP's principal training, which boasts “real-world practice” for its participants. One of KIPP’s six programs, the Fisher Fellowship, is a yearlong residency that includes an intensive summer workshop, one-on-one coaching with experienced leaders, and the opportunity to spend a year visiting high-performing schools across the country. Fellows receive salaries and benefits, allowing them to focus their time and energy solely on...

Faced with enormous budgetary shortfalls, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) voted in May 2013 to close forty-seven schools, one of the largest waves of school closings in U.S. history. Shortly thereafter, CPS adopted a policy aimed at relocating more than ten thousand displaced students into higher-performing CPS schools for the 2013—14 school year. The district called the schools that absorbed displaced students “welcoming schools.” This policy was supported by research showing that students affected by closure benefit academically if they land in a better school. The welcoming schools were all higher-performing on CPS’s internal measures of performance; they also received additional resources to ease the influx of new students (e.g., student safety and instructional supports). But how did the policy play out? Did displaced students actually enroll in their assigned welcoming school? According to University of Chicago researchers, 66 percent of displaced students enrolled in their welcoming school in fall 2013. Meanwhile, 25 percent of displaced students attended other neighborhood-based CPS schools, while 4 percent attended a charter and 4 percent attended a magnet school. An analysis of student records indicates that distance from home, building safety concerns, and residential mobility were all significant reasons why students did not attend their welcoming school. (Parent interviews also highlighted some of the issues in choosing a post-closure school.) The study does not report the academic results for CPS students post-closure. (Stay tuned for a new Fordham report in March on how Ohio students fare after closure.) Overall, CPS crafted a reasonable though...

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