Add education to a long list of federal policy issues that vex and perplex today’s fractured Republican Party. It’s not so troublesome at the state level, where dozens of GOP governors have, over the years, proven their mettle by promoting higher standards, greater accountability, and wider parental choice. But in Washington, Republican presidents and members of Congress have struggled mightily to find an approach that both embraces reform and respects a limited federal role.

Washington and education
We need to be more humble about what Washington can do.
Photo by The Associated Press

That’s the right needle for Republicans to thread. Though Democrats never admit it, Washington is clumsy at best, and wildly incompetent at worst, when it comes to improving schools from the shores of the Potomac. That should surprise no one—at least three levels of bureaucracy separate the secretary of education from actual classrooms. Federal carrots and sticks, no matter how carefully grown or carved, can’t overcome this fundamental challenge.

Yet abdication isn’t a realistic option for Republicans, either. Partly that’s because of politics....

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.
- Ecclesiastes 3:1

To every thing there is a season
To every thing there is a season.
Photo from the Wikimedia Commons

For more than four years now, we at the Fordham Institute have been arguing for a federal education policy of “Reform Realism”—one that is reform-oriented but also realistic about what Washington can effectively achieve. It’s a compromise position of sorts, putting us between the “Army of the Potomac” (lefty reformers who have never glimpsed a problem that Uncle Sam can’t solve) and the Local Controllers (Tea Party types who want zero federal role in education, thank you ma’am). We further fleshed out our vision two years ago with our ESEA Briefing Book and list of 10 recommendations to imbue that key federal law with Reform Realism.

Halfway through 2013, we find ourselves examining another set of ESEA bills and in the midst of another...

In this study on the potential impact of No Child Left Behind on student achievement and education inequality, analysts John Chubb and Connie Clark bite off a big topic that’s perhaps more than they can chew. First they demonstrate that the nationwide gains on the NAEP exams (in math and reading in grades four and eight) in the NCLB era (2003–11) were over twice as large as those during the pre-NCLB era (1992–2000). (By omitting 2000–03, they avoid NCLB’s transition years—which also happened to be a time of explosive progress in achievement.) Black, Hispanic, and low-income students made particularly large gains. Then Chubb and Clark turn to state-by-state differences and note that progress varied widely—ranging from almost fifty-point gains (in Maryland and D.C.) to nearly no growth or a loss (Iowa and West Virginia). Controlling for socioeconomic status and starting test scores, the analysts find a gap of forty-five scale points between the largest and smallest gainers—showcasing an oft-ignored state-to-state achievement gap, according to Chubb and Clark. From there, they take a qualitative look at ESEA waivers from states that have made lots and little progress on NAEP during the NCLB era. They conclude that being serious about reform—such as...

Antonio Gramsci
Sometimes, it helps to just laugh.
Photo by Nomadic Lass

The ESEA-reauthorization bill released by Senate HELP committee Chairman Tom Harkin this week is advertised as getting “the federal government out of the business of ‘micromanaging’ schools’” and offering states significant “flexibility.” As I told the New York Times, that claim is laughable. Here are forty policy questions which Chairman Harkin could have let states or local school districts answer, but didn’t. (In contrast, Senator Lamar Alexander’s bill remains silent on all forty, leaving these issues to the states or localities.)

Early Childhood Guidelines and Standards

1.   States must adopt “early learning guidelines” that address “infants, toddlers, and pre-school age children.”
2.   The guidelines must address “language, literacy, mathematics, creative arts, science, social studies, social and emotional development, approaches to learning, and physical and health development” for “each age group.”
3.   The guidelines must “address the cultural and linguistic diversity and the diverse abilities of young children.”
4.  ...

GadflyThe D.C. charter board has rejected the application for the proposed One World Public Charter School, whose high-status organizers include a former Sidwell Friends principal—due in part to “multiple grammatical and spelling errors” in the application. The board also rejected six other applications while okaying just two: a Montessori elementary and an adult-education program, both of which had been turned down in previous years and came back with stronger applications. Hat tip to the D.C. charter board for showing us how quality authorizing is done.

The online-education provider Khan Academy—with a little help from a $2.2 million Helmsley grant—has announced a plan to develop online, Common Core–aligned math tools for teachers and students. Hat tip number two!

After a bit of competition from within the ranks, the always-controversial Karen Lewis has been reelected to lead the Chicago Teachers Union. You get the champagne, we’ll get the party hats, and CTU will break out the celebratory lawsuits.

On Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that three more states—Alaska, Hawaii, and West Virginia—will be granted...

Philly’s Schools Phuture?

During the research for my book, one of the most interesting and depressing tidbits I uncovered was that the handful of high-performing, high-poverty traditional public schools described in No Excuses had not been grown by their districts. The central recommendation of my book is that the “four principles of chartering” should be applied across all three sectors; that includes growing great schools of all types (charter, private, and district). Charter growth has been happening via CMOs for more than a decade now, but the Philadelphia Schools Partnership has found a number of district schools to expand. Interesting development.

Addressing Non-urban Poverty

It appears that, slowly but surely, the education-reform community is paying more and more attention to the needs of low-income kids in rural areas (more on this from Bellwether soon). For years now, the primary focus has been on America’s cities. Maybe it should come as no surprise that Teach for America is stepping forward; TFA has long had a number of non-urban outposts. Its new program is designed to train TFA alum for school leadership positions in rural America. This is a tiny...

A Nation At Risk: 30 Years Later

A Nation At Risk: 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago, A Nation at Risk was released to a surprised country. Suddenly, Americans woke up to learn that SAT scores were plummeting and children were learning a lot less than before. This report became a turning point in modern U.S. education history and marked the beginning of a new focus on excellence, achievement, and results.

Due in large part to this report, we now judge a school by whether its students are learning rather than how much money is going into it, what its programs look like, or its earnest intentions. Education reform today is serious about standards, quality, assessment, accountability and benchmarking—by school, district, state and nation. This is new since 1983 and it’s very important.

Yet we still have many miles to traverse before we sleep. Our students still need to learn far more and our schools need to become far more effective.

To recall the impact of A Nation at Risk these past three decades and to reflect on what lies ahead, watch this short retrospective developed by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Enterprise Institute: A Nation at Risk: Thirty Years Later.

I get lots of emails from aspiring ed-policy wonks, so this first bullet is for that wayward crew. Understanding the annual federal-budget dance is key to your decent into wonkery. The pre-release, behind-the-scenes process is really quite interesting—e.g., negotiations between the Department, White House, OMB, and other associated agencies. That culminates in a series of documents (from formal congressional submissions to accessible fact sheets) that provide a picture of the administration’s priorities, or at least what the administration wants to public convey as its priorities. (This is just Phase 1; Congress takes over from here.) You might want to spend 30 minutes familiarizing yourself with these products and their contents—you can get your feet wet on this annual ritual and impress your friends at dinner parties! (“Once again, ED’s trying to make a go of TLIF, huh?”)

Per the budget request itself, the initial documents are generally purposely gauzy and vague; this is, after all, partially a public-relations exercise. So there’s only so much we can know until all of the gory details are released. But here are some quick thoughts: More for i3? Quietly chugging along but very interesting ARPA angle. Money for charter replications? Great, but...

The U.S. Department of Education is on the verge of making an unprecedented and unwise decision.


Unless Secretary Duncan can be prevailed upon to reconsider, decades of education policy will be overturned and a federal agency will have assumed authority that should remain squarely in the hands of Congress and the states.

A group of California districts have jointly applied for an NCLB accountability waiver. So far only states have had proposals approved. It’s not the consortium’s application that’s noteworthy; it’s that the feds are taking it seriously. (Duncan evidently encouraged them, and the submission has been forwarded to peer reviewers.)

There’s very good reason to deny the application on the merits. The proposed accountability system relies too heavily on non-academic measures; sets the expectations bar too low; has weak interventions; and, most troublingly, trusts districts to hold themselves accountable. (Grave concerns about the plan’s achievement-gap implications have been raised by, among others, a former Bush administration official and Ed Trust’s head.)

But regardless of its content, this application—and similar district-accountability-waiver requests—should...

GadflyAfter attracting criticism for his description of how sequestration would impact schools (most notably, his comment that schools were already sending “pink slips” and that 40,000 teachers would be out of a job), Education Secretary Arne Duncan apologized for his “choice of words,” but emphasized that the cuts are still a big problem. Apology accepted—though we still miss the Arne Duncan who used to say that “doing more with less” was “the New Normal.”

After a school board election with a price tag in the millions, Los Angeles superintendent John Deasy’s job appears to be safe, at least for now. The board president, Deasy ally, and two-term incumbent Monica Garcia, won her district handily despite fierce opposition of the unions, though one-term incumbent and union ally Steven Zimmer won a close race versus a reform-y newcomer. Whether or not the reformers maintain a voting majority will be determined by a third race, which is headed to a runoff. Back to the trenches!

In an unprecedented move, Georgia...