School Finance

by Michael Hansen

Foreword by Michael J. Petrilli and Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.

Press Release

In the overwhelming majority of American classrooms, pupils are divided roughly equally among teachers of the same grade in the same school. Parceling them out uniformly is viewed as fair to teachers—and doing otherwise might be seen as unfair. Parents might wonder, too. But what if more students were assigned to the most effective teachers, leaving fewer in classrooms presided over by weaker instructors? What would be the impact of such a practice on student achievement?

That’s the intriguing question that Right-sizing the Classroom: Making the Most of Great Teachers tackles. The idea is straightforward: Give the better teachers more kids and weaker teachers fewer—then see what happens. It’s a common-sense option with many supporters (including Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, sundry wonks, most parents, even teachers themselves).

Using data from North Carolina, economist Michael Hansen, senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, looks at what right-sizing the classroom can mean for academic achievement. His results, in brief: As the best teachers teach larger classes and the weakest teachers progressively smaller ones, the net result is improved student learning—for all...

As the dust settles after the November 5th election in Columbus, it may be instructive to parse the 69 percent to 31 percent trouncing that Issue 50 (a combined 9.01-mil levy and bond issue) experienced.

The victors: No cheaters, no charters—no new taxes

If Winston Churchill was correct and “history is written by the victors,” then the takeaway is “no cheaters, no charters.” A group of this name was the most organized foe of the ballot issue. It opposed any measure that would “reward” a school board or district still mired in state and federal investigations of data rigging, and it opposed distributing local property tax dollars to charter schools of any type.

Were levy opponents correct? Did Columbus voters follow their lead and base their decisions on the ongoing investigations and inclusion of charter schools?

There is some evidence, but not much data, to suggest that this happened. First, the pro-levy campaign brought together a broad array of supporters who were able to raise and spend in excess of $2.3 million. Opponents were armed with their aforementioned mantra and a “staggering” $4,000. For the results to be that lopsided, the levy opponents’ message apparently resonated with Columbus voters...

With the polls closed and votes counted, the most interesting school district in America will remain interesting: Douglas County, Colorado—which had four of seven seats up for election on Tuesday—maintained its pro-reform edge, with two incumbents reelected and two reform-y newcomers taking seats at the table. Well done—and we can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.

By a margin of 4 percentage points, State Representative Martin Walsh has become Boston’s first new mayor-elect in twenty years, beating out City Councilor John Connolly for the mayorship of Boston. Walsh—whose campaign, according to Politico, received a fair amount of funding from the unions—has underscored his support for universal pre-Kindergarten. Connolly—a former teacher backed by Democrats for Education Reform—had supported reducing the district bureaucracy and improving career and technical education. However, both candidates supported lifting the state cap on charter schools and lengthening the school day.

Meanwhile, Gotham voters eagerly elected Bill de Blasio as their mayor on Tuesday; he famously pledged to tax the rich in order to pay for his universal preschool program. Colorado voters, on the other hand, rejected a $1 billion tax increase for education by a...

Joshua Dunn

Yesterday, Colorado’s voters resoundingly rejected Amendment 66, which had promised to vastly increase funding for Colorado schools and create a world-class system of education. Voters, with some justification, think Colorado already has good schools and were not in the mood to approve the largest tax hike in state history.

Much can be taken away from the results. First, despite being well funded and organized, a greater margin of voters said “no thanks” to Amendment 66 than a smaller proposed education tax increase in 2011, Proposition 103: That measure failed with 63 percent of Colorado voters rejecting it, while Amendment 66 (if the current, almost-complete results hold up) failed by 66 percent. The supporters of Amendment 66 raised over $10 million, including $1 million donations apiece from Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, which allowed supporters to vastly outspend opponents of the measure. The lucky citizens of Colorado were subjected to seemingly endless ads about how, for a very small price per family, we could do things like add art classes and gym. Of course, the fool’s gold but always-enticing “reducing class sizes” was thrown in for good measure.

Second, the results are a huge repudiation of the Democratic leadership...

On November 5th, Colorado voters head to the polls to decide whether they want to substantially raise their taxes to better fund schools (and, separately, to regulate their newly legal pot—but more on that some other time). The plan, known as Amendment 66, is spearheaded by State Senator Mike Johnston (D) and funded by a coalition of teacher unions and others. It would raise income taxes by $950 million by ditching the state's flat tax of 4.63 percent. In its place would be a system with two rates: 5 percent for incomes at or below $75,000 per year and 5.9 percent for incomes above $75,000.

Passage of the amendment would green-light a previously passed and wide-ranging bill, also led by Johnston, designed to revamp the existing school-funding formula and divvy up the new money, if taxpayers decide to provide it. The bill has some ideas that, by themselves, should be fairly popular. For example, it lifts caps on preschool and Kindergarten enrollment, moves away from an easy-to-manipulate, single enrollment-count day, and refreshes the funding formula to weight for poverty and ELL status, among other factors. But, to many others, the cost to taxpayers seems outrageously high.

Supporters and opponents...

The introduction of the Common Core standards is shaking up the $7 billion textbook industry, according to this great piece by Sarah Garland. Traditionally monopolized by a few very large publishing Goliaths, such as Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the standards shift now favors small start-ups, which are nimbler and more eager to embrace change. Gadfly cheers the possibility that the Common Core could break up the behemoths’ oligopoly and pave the way for the little-but-fierce Davids, like Core Knowledge.

For the last few months, Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett has steadfastly refused to release $45 million of federal funds earmarked for the Philly schools until the teacher union agreed to major concessions, including a pay cut. But on Wednesday afternoon—with the union unwavering and civil-rights groups beginning to circle (and after the tragic death of young girl from asthma at a school that, due to budget cuts, did not have a nurse)—Corbett relented, arguing that he was satisfied with the other reforms made by the district. Which was probably the right call.

We know this much: Moody’s investment analysts don’t much care for parental...

Dear Deborah,

We've been writing about the democratic control of education (or the lack thereof), but let me shift the conversation back to the education of democratic citizens. I strongly agree with those who argue that our current fascination with “college and career readiness” overlooks a third, probably more important, c-word: citizenship. That's public education's raison d'etre, right? To prepare our young people to take their rightful place as voters, jurors, taxpayers, and leaders—to become “the people” that gives our government its legitimacy?

Many people are doing good work on this challenge; let me recommend that you check out the new group Citizenship First, for starters. (Here's a neat idea it is promoting: By 2026, every high school graduate should be able to pass the U.S. Naturalization Exam.)

But I want to put a related issue on the table that rarely gets discussed. It's the most basic requirement of citizenship, a responsibility that we "experts" often overlook in our quest for more ambitious goals: self-sufficiency.

Let me state it clearly: If we haven't prepared our young people to be financially self-sufficient once they finish their educations, we have failed in our most fundamental duty. And the "we" is meant to be inclusive: our education system, our social service agencies, our families, our churches, you, me, and all of us.

Yes, the poor we will always have among us. And there will be times—like these past five years—when the economic situation throws people out of work. We absolutely need a safety net for such contingencies (including food stamps).

But it ought to make us blush that at times of relatively "full" employment—such as we experienced for much of the 1990s and 2000s—we still had nearly one in five children growing up in poverty.

As you know from our discussions last spring, I've become increasingly interested in the issue of poverty. As a newcomer to the field, I come in with fresh eyes. I've been reading up on all of the classic books and studies, investigating all of the potential solutions that have been floated during the fifty-year War on Poverty. A few things are clear.

First, it's really, really bad to be born poor. Most children who are born poor will spend significant periods of their childhood poor, and only half will escape poverty by the time they are twenty-five. On the other hand, children who aren't born poor are very unlikely to experience long-term poverty as children or as adults.

Second, the reason the overwhelming majority of children are born poor is that they are born to young single mothers without much education or many job prospects. These mothers will struggle mightily to provide the kind of home environment that is necessary to help children get off to a good start in life and in school. To put it bluntly, they tend to be bad parents. (Not "bad" in a moral sense but “bad” as in “ineffective,” with their brains and energies literally maxed out with basic survival, it's easy to understand why.)

Nothing I've said so far is particularly newsworthy or controversial. Since our discussions last spring, the public discourse has been full of news articles and research studies pointing to the link between poverty, parental education levels, and family structure. How to spur social mobility has also been a major topic of debate.

And there seems to be something of a new consensus forming. As Derek Thompson of the Atlantic wrote last month, "There are two basic ways to improve the lot of children. The first tries to make bad parents less relevant. The second tries to make bad parents less bad." He places preschool and education reform in the first category. He puts home visits and parent trainings in the second. The latter, of course, are controversial: "Asking the government to support policies that send workers into private homes to teach parenting skills smacks of Big Brother—or, perhaps, Big Mother. But do we still have the luxury of rejecting solutions simply because they feel too direct?"

The bigger problem is that even these programs don't do enough. They help at the margins but they aren't breaking the cycle of poverty. So what might?

Let me float a third option: A renewed effort to encourage young, uneducated, unemployed women to delay childbearing until they are ready—emotionally, financially—to start a family. Let's promote a simple rule: Don't have babies until you can afford them. If everybody in America followed this rule, most long-term child poverty would disappear, and parenting would improve dramatically.

Again, this isn't a new idea. Social scientists have long known about the "success sequence": Finish your education, get a job, get married, start a family. Stick to that sequence and you avoid poverty, and so do your kids.

And allow me to be crystal clear: I'm not saying that some people shouldn't have children. I understand the evil history of eugenics and wholeheartedly reject that path. I am saying that people should wait until they are no longer poor before they start families—which will happen for just about anyone who follows the success sequence.


Over the summer, I read two fantastic books by Kathryn Edin (thanks to Dana Goldstein's recommendation): Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage and Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City.

Edin and her co-authors (Maria Kefalas for the first book and Timothy Nelson for the second) spent years living in low- and working-class Philadelphia and Camden neighborhoods, where they met and interviewed the young parents (white and black) who were their subjects. As works of social science, these studies are impressive; as works of storytelling, they are masterful. Like a favorite aunt, Edin strikes a loving, respectful tone toward these young moms and dads—but isn't afraid to call them on their BS, either.

What she and her colleagues find is that these kids (most of them in their teens and twenties) didn't try very hard not to get pregnant. It's not exactly that they had decided to start families at fifteen or eighteen or twenty-two. But they weren't opposed to the idea, either. So after they had "associated" with someone for a while, they stopped using birth control. And when (surprise!) pregnancy followed, most treated the news with excitement, rather than regret.

In many ways, it is impressive, even touching, that their respect for life is so strong. Families and community members enforced a clear moral standard: The "right" thing to do was to "take responsibility" for the child and raise it. To have an abortion or "give it away" would be taking the easy way out—and wrong.

So have the baby, and raise the baby, they did. But didn't they know they were signing their children—and themselves—up for a life of hardship? Didn't they understand that if they were going to "climb the mountain to college"—or even to a decent paying job—doing so as an uneducated teen with a baby in a stroller or snuggly was going to make the ascent that much tougher?

What Edin and her coauthors show is that both the young women and men see parenthood as a chance to "start over" and to do something good with their lives, as well as to connect deeply with another human being. "In these decaying, inner-city neighborhoods, motherhood is the primary vocation for young women, and those who strive to do it well are often transformed by the process," they write in Promises. Furthermore, "Children provide the one relationship poor women believe they can count on to last. Men may disappoint them. Friends may betray them. Even kin may withdraw from them. But they staunchly believe that little can destroy the bond between a mother and child."

Edin and Nelson pick up this theme in Doing the Best I Can: "Fatherhood offers the opportunity to connect with a child—an unsullied version of oneself—in an intensely meaningful way. But fatherhood is also a tool, almost a magic wand that youth...can use to neutralize the 'negativity' that surrounds them as they come of age in chaotic and violence-charged neighborhoods like East Camden."

Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, these hopeful attitudes eventually give way to the grinding reality of daily life. Because most of the romantic relationships between the parents were shallow to begin with, almost all had fallen apart within a few years. The dads desperately wanted to spend time with their kids—but not their kids' mothers—a situation that would eventually prove untenable. And so another generation of children was born into poverty, with single mothers doing most of the childcare and trying to make ends meet and fathers having additional babies with other women in a fruitless quest to "start fresh" and "do the right thing."


What to make of this? I can imagine that liberals read books like these and recommit themselves to building a stronger safety net. (This is the preference of Edin et al.) Let's pump some serious resources into home visits, child care, preschool, food stamps, K–12 education, tax credits, and all the rest, in the hope that the next generation of kids will be better prepared for "college and career"—and thus will see a reason to put off children until they are ready. After all, that's what motivates upper-middle-class teenagers to put off childbearing—the promise of the college years, the exciting career, the fun of the "roaring 20s" sans babies.

But it's hard for me to blame others who respond to this cycle of poverty story with outrage. "You're telling me that because these teenagers want to have a baby so as to 'feel loved' and 'start fresh,' I'm supposed to fork over my hard-earned tax dollars to feed their children, send them to daycare, pay for their preschool, and pay for their education? While I'm struggling to make ends meet myself? That I shouldn't be 'judgmental' about people who are happy to have the government raise their kids? This is CRAZY!"


So here's my question for you, Deborah, as the educator among us: Is there anything schools can to do to encourage their students to follow the "success sequence"? Did you talk about these issues with your Central Park East kids? Did you tell them about the importance of finishing their education and getting a job before starting a family? Do you think any of the "teenage-pregnancy prevention programs" are worth pursuing? (Some of them have impressive evidence of effectiveness.) Should we consider paying low-income individuals to put off child-rearing? Mayor Bloomberg is already experimenting with cash incentives to encourage all manner of positive behaviors. Maybe offer "25 by 25": All young men and women who graduate from high school, get a post-secondary credential, get a job, and avoid a pregnancy and a prison record get $25,000 in cash at the age of twenty-five. Is that worth trying?

Or is the best way for schools to tackle this issue simply to provide a top-grade education to their charges? To instill in them the "hope in the unseen" that they, too, can aspire to college, to a good career, to an early adulthood full of intellectual and social and emotional challenges and experiences, not to include parenthood (yet)?

I look forward to your advice.


This article originally appeared on the Bridging Differences blog, where Mike Petrilli is debating Deborah Meier.

As a Relinquisher, I’m weary of broad government mandates. I believe educators should run schools, parents should choose amongst these schools, and government should hold schools accountable for performance and equity.

So what to make of the Common Core—which will be the broadest combination of federal- or state-initiated regulatory overhaul that we’ve seen in decades?

Admittedly, it took me a while to sort through my competing impulses. But here’s the path I followed:

Skepticism: The research on standards

1.    There’s very little evidence that higher standards lead to higher achievement. As Tom Loveless notes, states with better standards do not show more growth on NAEP.

2.    There’s also a financial, political, and labor-opportunity cost to working on standards over other things more directly related to Relinquishment (charter expansion, human-capital pipelines, etc).

Pragmatic hope: The research, logic of assessments

1.    All states have standards, and experts seem to agree that the Common Core standards are better than most existing state standards—so if we’re going to have standards, we might as well make them higher quality.

2.    Why? Because I think this standards shift will include something that has not consistently happened under the NCLB standards shift: assessments will become more rigorous.

3.    Great standards can sit on shelves. Great assessments must be dealt with—and there is some evidence that increasing rigor of assessments in fourth-grade math and reading (by raising cut scores) is correlated to achievement gains. While causation is difficult to prove, this finding matches my experiences in working with schools. Effective educators know that assessment items define rigor, and they backward-map their lessons from these items.

4.    Time will tell if states stick to the more rigorous assessments—this will remain a political enterprise—but my bet is that the percentage of states with rigorous assessments will increase due to the Common Core.

Question: What about the market?

1.    Part of me remains interested in (a) getting rid of government standards and assessments, (b) giving everyone vouchers, and (c) letting the market work. The left can escape from the clutches of testing. The right can escape from the clutches of government intrusion. And the libertarians can escape from the clutches of government monopolies. A move towards common standards is not a step toward this vision.

2.    But if the above is tried, it will be tried at the state level. Most likely, it will be a red state that first adopts this model—and this state will likely have opted out of Common Core long before this experiment is underway. So I doubt Common Core is going to be the policy that prevents this experiment from occurring.

3.    Lastly, proponents of this vision need to be a little more humble; to my knowledge, a system like this has never delivered both performance and equity. While I’m not saying that it couldn’t, there is a lot of distance between here and there.

Another question: What about individualized learning?

1.    There’s a tension between individualized learning and annual Common Core assessments. If we really believe that students learn at different paces, should we be testing all children annually on the same material?

2.    I’m very open to moving toward a system that tests students every two to three years rather than annually. This can still provide for school-level accountability and would allow students more space for individualized learning paces between assessment cycles.

3.    I view Common Core as a slight but real hit against this model—as the new assessments may work to solidify a culture of annual testing.

More pragmatism: Lessons from New Orleans

1.    Conservatives who are against the Common Core would be wise to take note that the urban system (New Orleans) that most resembles a free-market system only exists because of accountability and standards.

2.    The New Orleans system came to being because Louisiana, sequentially, implemented a statewide accountability system, created a state-takeover mechanism to act on schools that fared poorly on this system, and utilized charter schools to replace these failing schools.

3.    In most other states, vouchers have followed the same path: Only students in failing schools are eligible for vouchers.

4.    In short, the legal, political, and moral justification for moving toward Relinquishment is a direct result of standards and accountability.

5.    This is worth remembering. For many (reasonable) people, the legitimacy of choice options such as charters and vouchers comes from the performance of these options on standardized tests—and not due to any philosophical views the role of government.

To sum up

Common Core is complicated. And it has some real downsides, such as the tension with individualized learning.

But, in the end, I support it for two reasons: (1) There is some evidence (and logic) that increasing the rigor of assessments will lead to increases in student achievement and (2) rigorous standards and accountability systems have been the bedrock of effective charter sectors.

Is Relinquishment compatible with broad government mandates? In this case, I think so.

Neerav Kingsland is CEO of New Schools for New Orleans.

The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), which gives public dollars to low-income students to escape low-performing schools for private schools of their choosing, has come under fire from the Department of Justice for “imped[ing] the desegregation processes” of two dozen school districts. Not so, says this new study in Education Next. In fact, the University of Arkansas authors find that the transfers resulting from the voucher program “overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools students leave (the sending schools), bringing the racial composition of the schools closer to that of the broader communities in which they are located.” The government will eventually reopen, but here’s hoping that the DOJ lawsuit goes away permanently.

Reviewing the latest misguided barnburner by former Fordham trustee (and current rabble-rouser) Diane Ravitch, the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern has penned a scathing but fair rebuke. He points out that her newfound “educational romanticism”—characterized by her suggestion that all children read poetry and be freed from the demands of knowledge-rich curricula—does not just contradict her life’s work but is also terribly short-sighted, especially for low-income children: “If they’re not taught lots of content knowledge in the early grades,” Stern writes, “they’re doomed to fall further behind. They will never be able to read Walden or understand poetry.” He labels her bottomless blog a “propaganda hub for the national anti-corporate-reform coalition” with “all the subtlety of an Occupy Wall Street poster”; he faults her book for its “pie-in-the-sky” solutions; and he labels her career turn a tragedy. Sadly, we concur.

The debate continues over Amanda Ripley’s contention that America’s love of high school sports is partially to blame for the nation’s low academic achievement. On, academics Daniel Bowen and Collin Hitt delivered a strong rebuke, arguing that high-quality school-sponsored sports actually increase academic success—and they offer evidence to back their contention. For his part, Jay Greene dubbed Ripley’s idea “flim-flam”: If the fact that Finland and South Korea both have higher test scores and pay less attention to sports than we do serves as evidence that sports are to blame, one could just as easily make the case that those countries’ higher rates of fish consumption is the variable to target. While we value the central point of her book—that other countries may indeed focus more on learning than ours—it seems the sports example may be a red herring. So bring on the fish—and the football.

Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City, has made his distaste for charter schools abundantly clear. As outlined in this Wall Street Journal piece, he has stated on numerous occasions his intent to toss out Mayor Bloomberg’s policy of giving charters free space in city buildings. Marc Sternberg, a deputy chancellor of the city’s Department of Education, and soon-to-be director of the Walton Family Foundation’s K–12 Systemic Education Reform focus area, called de Blasio’s tack “beyond regressive”: “This is the best of public education, and we welcome them into buildings that are as much theirs as they are ours.” Exactly.

This week’s contender for Most Cringe-Worthy News: In Michigan, Wednesday was “count day”—the day when a district’s school-attendance rolls will determine 90 percent of its state funding (the other 10 percent is determined by a second, less important count day in February). The infamously cash-strapped Detroit public school system resorted to bribing students to come to school, offering special barbeque lunches, popcorn, pony rides, raffles, and more. While we are sure the kids had fun, this is certainly not an acceptable school-finance system.

The University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has emerged as the leading voice of reason on the vexing overlap between charter school policy and special education policy. In this new report, CRPE turned to Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters to examine data from New York’s charter and traditional public schools to help explain why it is that charters enroll fewer special-education (SpEd) students. Just as CRPE previously argued, diagnosing and addressing this gap (around 4 percent, according to earlier estimates) requires nuance—and New York State lawmakers made a serious mistake by rushing enrollment quotas into law three years ago. Winters examined students in Kindergarten through third grade from the 2008–09 to 2011–12 academic years, targeting twenty-five charter elementary schools that participated in enrollment lotteries in order to compare lottery winners and losers. He emerged with four key findings. First, the primary driver of the SpEd gap is the type of student who applies to attend a charter in Kindergarten: Those with autism and speech impairments were less likely to apply to charter schools in the first place. And though this study cannot tell us why, it tells us that parents of SpEd students switch schools a lot until they find the right fit for their child. Second, charters are less likely to indicate that students need SpEd services, and they’re more likely to declassify students who are “special needs”; specifically, students in charters are more likely to have their Individualized Education Program (IEP) classification removed by Year 4 than those in traditional schools. (Since these are schools of choice, one must assume that parents agree with shedding these labels.) Third, more students in general education are leaving districts for charter schools, which has the effect of skewing the SpEd percentages in each sector—in short, more SpEd students are staying in school districts, and more general-education students are enrolling in charters. And fourth, the growth in the SpEd gap over time occurs almost exclusively in the category of “specific learning disability”—which is arguably the most subjective category. As a whole, these data indicate that charters are not rejecting or pushing out SpEd students; indeed, they lead us to wonder if enrollment quotas will, in the end, force charters to label kids unnecessarily. New York ought to reconsider its ill-informed law—and other states considering a similar policy should take heed.

Marcus Winters, Why the Gap? Special Education and New York City Charter Schools (Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education, September 2013).

As part of the AEI Teacher Quality 2.0 series, the authors of this paper take on the delicate issue of school-staffing design. In the first two pages, they rip apart arguments others have spent years carefully constructing: Teacher pay may be too low, but, they counter, across-the-board raises are impossibly expensive for even profligate spenders ($16 billion per year, or roughly the entire Title I budget for just a $5,000 per teacher raise, according to their calculations). Professional development is also important, but won’t do much good when teachers have so little adult interaction and feedback. And of course we want able, motivated individuals to enter the profession, but they leave quickly when they find no pathway to advance professionally as they could and would in other lines of work. So what’s the alternative? The authors offer up several staffing models that have in common a reduction in the number of teachers—who, in today’s standard model, are chiefly responsible for two-dozen or so students at a time. Since the 1970s, they remind us, the number of staff in our schools has increased by 84 percent, while the number of students has only increased at least a tenth of that rate. Instead, the paper calls for giving top teachers more students or oversight over multiple classrooms, allowing those in the primary grades to specialize by subject, employ blended learning, or even teach remotely. Touchstone Charter Schools in New Jersey, for example, created a teacher career ladder by allowing “master teachers” to oversee and support other teachers, as well as students who are learning at their own pace. Such proposals would create opportunities for many more pupils to be taught by higher-quality, better-paid teachers using the same dollars we already spend. Moreover, it would elevate the work of experienced educators and attract highly motivated talent with the promise of higher pay, more rewarding work, and the ability to be promoted into different and more fulfilling roles without having to leave the classroom. There would certainly be resistance, for each of these models questions fundamental assumptions about the way our schools have “always” been; for these ideas to work, reformers need to shift the public conversation away from the union-backed idea that class size is all that matters. But the potential upside of these new ideas—more students taught by outstanding instructors—is worth the fight.

Bryan C. Hassel, Emily Ayscue Hassel, and Sharon Kebschull Barrett, “Staffing Design: The Missing Key to Teacher Quality 2.0,” prepared for the American Enterprise Institute conference, “Teacher Quality 2.0: Will today’s reform hold back tomorrow’s schools?” (September 12, 2013).

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.

The Common Core State Standards will soon be driving instruction in forty-five states and the District of Columbia.

While the standards are high quality, getting their implementation right is a real challenge—and it won't be free, a serious concern given the tight budgets of many districts and states.
But while critics have warned of a hefty price tag, the reality is more complicated.

Yes, some states may end up spending a lot of money. But there are also opportunities for significant savings if states, districts and schools use this occasion to rethink their approach to test administration, instructional materials and training for teachers. The key is that states have options, and implementation doesn't need to look (or cost) the same everywhere.

States could approach implementation in myriad ways. Here are three:

• One, stick to "Business as usual" and use traditional tools like textbooks, paper tests, and in-person training. These tools are very familiar in today's education system, but they can come with reasonably high price tags.
• Two, go with only the "bare bones" of what's necessary: Experiment with open-source materials, computerized assessments, and online professional development in ways that provide the bare bones of more traditional, in-person approaches. This could save major coin, but could require more technology investment and capacity for some states.
• Or, three, find a middle ground through "balanced implementation" of both strategies, which offers some of the benefits—and downsides—of each model.

But how much money are we talking? Take Florida: 

If Florida sticks to business as usual, it could spend $780 million implementing the Common Core. Under the bare bones approach, the tab could be only $183 million. A blend of the two? $318 million.

But that's the total cost; don't forget states are already spending billions of dollars each year on textbooks, tests, curricula, and other expenses. Look at it that way and the sticker shock wears off: The estimated net cost of putting the Common Core in place in the Sunshine State, for example, ranges from $530 million to roughly $67 million less than what we estimate that they are spending now. 

Each implementation approach has its merits—and drawbacks—but states and districts do have options for smartly adopting the Common Core without breaking the bank. Further, they could use this opportunity to create efficiencies via cross-state collaborations and other innovations.

To learn more, download "Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost?"

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.

The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), which gives public dollars to low-income students to escape low-performing schools for private schools of their choosing, has come under fire from the Department of Justice for “imped[ing] the desegregation processes” of two dozen school districts. Not so, says this new study in Education Next. In fact, the University of Arkansas authors find that the transfers resulting from the voucher program “overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools students leave (the sending schools), bringing the racial composition of the schools closer to that of the broader communities in which they are located.” The government will eventually reopen, but here’s hoping that the DOJ lawsuit goes away permanently.

Reviewing the latest misguided barnburner by former Fordham trustee (and current rabble-rouser) Diane Ravitch, the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern has penned a scathing but fair rebuke. He points out that her newfound “educational romanticism”—characterized by her suggestion that all children read poetry and be freed from the demands of knowledge-rich curricula—does not just contradict her life’s work but is also terribly short-sighted, especially for low-income children: “If they’re not taught lots of content knowledge in the early grades,”...

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 story before. It doesn’t take, because it blames faulty ideas more than crooks and scoundrels—the tempting targets of most narratives. But the accumulating evidence suggests that false ideas, not evil people, were the main culprits.

Let me admit that I long viewed “union bosses” as “evil people.” How could someone justify defending incompetent, or even abusive, teachers? Why wouldn’t they allow some modicum of meritocracy to seep into the teaching profession? How could they chain children to failing schools to which they would never send their own kids?

I look back on those attitudes and blush. To be sure, I still think it’s wrong to defend bad teachers and the policies that make them so hard to remove from the classroom. I still think it’s a mortal sin to confine kids in bad schools rather than giving them access to sound alternatives. And I still think that strong teachers’ unions make school improvement difficult to achieve. It’s notable that when we at the Fordham Institute studied teacher-union strength a year ago, we found few states with both strong unions and big gains in achievement. Competition is good, and it’s healthy that Democrats in particular now have a variety of education advocacy groups competing for their support, not just the unions.

But I no longer think that union leaders are “evil.” I disagree with their ideas. I know nothing about their character, though I suspect that all of us went into education because we wanted to make the world a better place.

So it is with the “billionaire’s boys club” that reform critics like to lambaste. Some common core opponents have argued that Bill Gates is out to further enrich himself by requiring schools to purchase more computers in order to give the common-core tests. This is a guy worth, what, $40 billion? And people really believe he’s out to make even more? (We at Fordham have been criticized by some on the right for taking Gates money in order to promote the common core. It’s funny that these same folks never complain about our Walton-funded efforts on behalf of school choice.)

So whatever the reason—self-interest, ideology, or just plain ego—now every major election, especially in urban centers, brings a clash of the titans: The unions (and their money) against school reformers (and their money). I don’t see this as undemocratic. If anything, this is more democratic than in the past, when the unions enjoyed near-hegemony over all things education. The unions can still elect the people who sit across the negotiating table with them—but only if the voters allow it.


Deborah, let me move to another issue related to the democratic governance of our schools.

I agree that something is lost when we “remove more and more power from teachers, parents, and communities to direct their schools.” This is why you and I both support charter schools, right? Because we believe in autonomous public schools where parents, teachers, and even students can create something special? Yet many reform critics—Diane Ravitch now chief among them—slap charter schools, apparently all charter schools, with the “privatization” label. (Less than a quarter of them are actually run by for-profit firms.)

Charter schools (and other forms of school choice) are essentially mechanisms to protect and promote the rights of minorities within a majoritarian democracy. Yes, just like in the Federalist papers. If the majority wants vanilla schools, charter laws allow a small minority to have access to chocolate instead. And a Fordham Institute study released last month demonstrates that most parents do, indeed, want vanilla in their education cone. (High-quality vanilla.) There is tremendous, even surprising, consensus about the most important attributes in a school, across all racial, socio-economic, and political groups: A strong core curriculum in reading and math, the development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and a focus on STEM.

Yet vanilla isn’t all they want. Once the basics are satisfied, some parents—we identified six niche groups—want something more. Art and music. A heavy emphasis on citizenship and leadership. Vocational training. Diversity.

Most school districts, for a hundred years, have told these parents who want something special, “Tough luck.” Even today, where I live in Montgomery County, Md., the range of choices available to parents is extremely limited. Yet across the border, in Washington, D.C., there’s a cornucopia of curricular diversity: Montessori schools. Language-immersion schools. A language-immersion school that uses Montessori! And on and on.

Why the difference? The District has a great charter law. Maryland does not. D.C. allows for parents in the minority to have access to what they want. Maryland does not.

Which is more “democratic”?

This article originally appeared on the Bridging Differences blog, where Mike Petrilli is debating Deborah Meier.

Thanks to the tireless work of school-choice advocates and wise policymakers, millions of U.S. children and their parents now have education options that were not available to them a few short years ago. But the choice picture is sorely incomplete. Consider:

  • Nine states do not allow charter schools.
  • Only ten states and the District of Columbia have school-voucher programs, and five of these confine their vouchers to children with disabilities.
  • Just eleven states offer scholarship tax credits for attendance at private schools.
  • Many states still make it difficult or even impossible to take advantage of public school choice.


Why hasn’t more progress been made in providing options to children? It’s simple: Most school-choice programs are zero-sum propositions, in which one school or district gains the student and the funding while another loses. And politicians—even Republicans—are loath to take resources from traditional public schools, especially those in the suburbs and small towns that they represent.

In recent years, however, new programs have begun to spring up that allow choice at the more granular level of individual courses rather than through all-or-nothing, enrollment-based, school choice. Rick Hess and Bruno Manno explored this idea in detail in their 2011 book Customized Schooling. Now in a handful of states, children enrolled in a traditional public school can take courses from other public schools, virtual schools, private schools, or even post-secondary institutions.

For choice advocates, this is the next logical step. In fact, reformers enacting these policies in some states, especially where eligible course providers are limited or funding is provided on top of general school aid, have faced surprisingly little opposition. In just the past few years, course choice—or a version of it—has been adopted in several states, causing little ruckus. As an added benefit, programs of this sort should be attractive to families in all schools—even those that are high performing or low poverty—and can help broaden the base of support for the concept of school choice.

The reason may be that course choice is different from other school-choice reforms in important ways. It’s less threatening to districts and other established interests than charter schools, vouchers, or full open enrollment, particularly if students are limited in the number of courses they can take. A parent, for example, may be mostly satisfied with her child's school but frustrated enough to move him to another district if his current school is limited in its foreign-language or advanced-placement offerings. Course choice provides these parents with a less drastic option than switching schools—and perhaps homes—entirely.

Moreover, such programs could allow more public schools to make themselves more attractive to more parents. As our recent What Parents Want survey demonstrated, different types of parents want different things from their children’s schools. Taken together, many public schools feel heavy pressure to do it all with limited resources. But any school in a course-choice state could speedily respond to parental demand for Mandarin, physics, or AP Art History. This is especially helpful for public schools with ardent “demanders” but few resources—or not enough students to justify the hiring of a specialty teacher.

While digital learning may be the biggest winner in a course-choice regime, the inclusion of dual enrollment or other brick-and-mortar options could satisfy parents who are not totally sold on or lack access to online courses.

Finally, such a policy can often incorporate or accompany existing state or local programs that are already widespread and popular, such as Advanced Placement courses or dual enrollment in high school and college.

Sure, there will be some pushback from those who fear that policies like this might shift the balance of power—and funding—away from those who possess it.

Still, any policy that can unite school-choice zealots, digital-learning techies, the higher-education elite, college application–obsessed parents, and the vocal “public schools are incomplete without art/music/foreign languages/STEM” crowd demands attention.

Note: I was involved in the development of Wisconsin's Course Options program.

Journalist and author Amanda Ripley has received well-deserved attention for her book The Smartest Kids in the World—but we’re not sold on her case against high school sports, which headlines this month’s Atlantic. Check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show for an informed debate.

On Monday, Florida governor Rick Scott issued an executive order withdrawing the Sunshine State from PARCC. Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker—governors of Louisiana and Wisconsin, respectively—have also expressed “reservations” about the Common Core of late. As Margaret Thatcher would say, “This is no time to go wobbly!” On the brighter side, earlier today, the Michigan House of Representatives voted 85–21 to adopt a resolution authorizing funding for Common Core implementation.

A Wall Street Journal editorial blasted Philadelphia’s teacher union for dragging its feet on Governor Corbett’s proposal to bail out the failing district, which—if accepted—would be conditional on the elimination of teacher seniority rights and basing future pay increases on achievement-based teacher evaluations. (For more on the roots of Philadelphia schools’ sticky financial situation, see Paying the Pension Price in Philadelphia.) In this week’s podcast, Dara urges Philly’s teacher union, and unions everywhere, to take a more active role in pushing teacher quality.

Does school accountability boost students’ long-term prospects? That’s the question this new study by David Deming, Sarah Cohodes, Jennifer Jennings, and Christopher Jencks seeks to answer by examining the impact of accountability pressure in the Texas public high schools in the 1990s. (Jennings, you might recall, once assumed the moniker “Eduwonkette.”) Most agree that the series of tough policies that the Lone Star State instituted during this era, whereby school performance on state tests was made public and tied to various awards and sanctions, was the foundation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The system had several components: 1) Districts received accountability ratings based on their lowest rated schools, which was intended to pressure them to improve those schools; 2) schools were rated based on the percentage of students who received passing scores; 3) the overall rating was based in part on the lowest scoring subgroup, incentivizing school leaders to focus on the worst performing students; and 4) students were required to pass tenth-grade exams in math, reading, and writing in order to graduate. Because math pass rates were nearly always the stumbling block to underperforming schools obtaining a higher rating, how students performed on the tenth-grade math test can be considered a test of the influence of accountability. The analysts tracked five cohorts of first-time ninth-grade students from Spring 1995 to Spring 1999, comparing similar students within the same schools but across cohorts. The upshot: Schools at risk of receiving a low rating responded by increasing the math scores for all students. Students at these schools were later likelier to accumulate more math credits and graduate from high school. On top of that, they were more liable to attend college and earn more at age twenty-five. In particular, students who had previously failed an eighth-grade exam ended up around 14 percent more likely to attend college and 12 percent more likely to get a degree. However, in schools not in danger of a low rating (or those that could feasibly try for a higher rating), the accountability policies had no overall impact—and in some cases, there were even declines in later earnings for low achievers. Finally, schools that were close to being “recognized” (a relatively high rating) responded by classifying more low-scoring students as eligible for special education, perhaps in order to take them out of the accountability pool. The bottom line? Even this crude accountability policy proves that properly applied incentives can translate into long-term betterment of people’s lives.

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

We all know the story: the team that's always way back in the standings employs a brilliant new strategy to try to close the gap between itself and the wealthy powerhouses. The strategy works, but only briefly, as the well-off teams quickly steal the winning strategies to maintain their advantage. No, this isn’t the plot of Moneyball; rather, it’s the plot of Rick Hess and Max Eden’s case study of Douglas County, Colorado. This sprawling, affluent suburb south of Denver has employed reforms typically found in low-income and urban settings. Specifically, the all-reformer, all-conservative school board created a voucher program, adopted a new curriculum, and developed new assessments and teacher-quality initiatives like merit pay. The voucher program, which would have served nearly 500 students if not for a court injunction stemming from an ACLU lawsuit, is especially interesting. Unlike most statewide programs of this sort, Douglas County’s would have used the state charter law to authorize participating private schools as quasi “charter schools.” The “charters,” in turn, receive three-quarters of the students’ state funding towards tuition, while the rest goes to the district. The study draws attention to the false assumption that the average wealthy, suburban school district is fat, happy and complacent, and brings into focus what could happen when districts employ reforms to go from good to great, instead of from poor to passable. Bold reform in even a conservative area like Douglas County is never easy, however, and a separate analysis by Bill Bennett underscores the importance that these reformers have placed on communicating their wide-ranging agenda to interested parties and the general public. Both studies should remind state policymakers of the importance of providing local flexibility—and district policymakers of the importance of availing themselves of such. The coming years will tell whether these changes have had a significant impact on Douglas students—that is, if the reforms even survive that long. (Both political and education junkies will want to stay up late on November 5 to see if four of the seven members of the Douglas school board who are up for reelection survive.) Like Moneyball, this story is worth paying attention to. But unlike baseball strategies, education reforms don’t require equal numbers of winners and losers—which is why the country needs more districts willing to take on bold new reforms that might someday become ideas worth stealing.

SOURCE: Frederick M. Hess and Max Eden, The Most Interesting School District in America? (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, September 2013).

Politics aside, the fate of the Common Core begins and ends with implementation. Particularly during this initial transition, it is critical that educators have sufficient support and guidance to successfully teach these standards. Unfortunately, much existing information focuses on content rather than instructional strategy, leaving educators baffled as to how to navigate the shift to Common Core in their own classrooms. Enter the Achievement Network (ANet), a nonprofit serving low-income schools. (Check out Education Next for great background.) Released as part of a collection of Common Core resources published by the Aspen Institute, this paper was informed by substantial on-the-ground work with 460 partner schools in seven states and the District of Columbia. It’s structured around three rubrics: one for “Leader Actions,” one for “Teacher Actions,” and one for “School Structures.” Each is designed to help on-the-ground educators diagnose their school’s current practices and details how to shift from basic to innovative practices in key areas. The report includes specific strategies ranging from how leaders can help teachers understand and plan from the new standards to how to improve teachers’ analysis and use of student data. For example, school leaders are urged to work closely with teachers to set goals based on individual students’ growth potential and to assist them in selecting one or two priority standards and instructional shifts on which to focus. The guide also includes sample questions upon which leaders can frame school-level discussions and provides case studies as examples of how other schools and districts have put these rubrics into practice. Though many of the concepts in this report—such as building a culture of achievement and evaluating individual student progress—are not necessarily new, this guide offers useful structures and practices that may make the transition to the Common Core less daunting.

SOURCE: The Achievement Network, Focusing on the How: Guidance for School and District Leaders on Supporting Teachers Through the Transition to the Common Core (Boston, MA: The Achievement Network, September 2013).

Dara Zeehandelaar, author of The Big Squeeze: Retirement Costs and School District Budgets, explains teachers pensions and the difference between defined benefits and defined contribution plans that states offer teachers.

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.