Standards, Testing & Accountability

Mayor Bloomberg is justifiably proud of the big gains New York City made in boosting the high-school graduation rate on his watch, with about two-thirds of students now graduating in four years, up from half a decade ago. This appears to be the result of a whirlwind of creative efforts, including expanding educational options for teenagers via the creation of hundreds of brand-new high schools.

Yet Mayor Mike’s good work for big kids is matched by lackluster results for the city’s younger students. Eighth-grade reading scores, for instance, barely budged from 2003 to 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2013 scores are due out next week).

Perhaps this is one reason that de Blasio wants to expand the city’s pre-K offerings. In theory, giving low-income students a head start at age four will help them become better readers and better learners.

But de Blasio needs to come to grips with a simple truth: Any gains provided by a massive new investment in preschool will quickly fade away if he doesn’t also tackle New York City’s mediocre elementary schools.

What makes them mediocre? It’s the curriculum, stupid — or the lack thereof. When Bloomberg and Joel Klein exploded on the scene in the early 2000s, they were famously agnostic about what kids actually learn in the classroom day to day. To Klein’s credit, he eventually came to see the errors of his ways, and in his last years as chancellor he embraced the Core Knowledge program—a coherent, content-rich curriculum that is a model for...

Checker Finn, chagrined at the lack of attention to gifted education in the U.S., has decided to study what other nations do. His initial assessment is that we’re not the only one giving high-ability kids minimal thought. Such a strange, unfortunate phenomenon.

With the failure of SIG, we need a Plan B ASAP for kids in failing schools. I’ve long argued for a massive new schools strategy. (More on this to come in an upcoming blog post.) If you’re likeminded or intrigued by the idea of the starting-fresh approach, check out the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ ESEA-reauthorization recommendations. This is a blueprint for Plan B.

I think single-purpose chartering bodies are the future. In fact, I think all public schools (and all private schools participating in voucher or tax-credit programs) should have performance contracts with them (more on this in an upcoming AEI paper). NACSA has a terrific short policy brief on such independent chartering boards. Check it out.

If you follow the increasing use of Value-Added Measures (VAMs) and Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs) in state-, district-, school-, and teacher-accountability systems, read this very good new Mathematica working paper. There’s high correlation between the two, but there are important differences in how teacher ratings shake out based on differences in student populations. Important and fascinating implications.

Ten years ago, TNTP released its first report, Missed Opportunities, which I vividly remember reading in disbelief—urban districts were...

America’s approach to the education of children with disabilities is antiquated, costly, and ineffective. “Special education” as we know it is broken—and repainting the surface won’t repair it. It cries out for a radical overhaul. Far too many children emerge from our special-ed system without the skills, knowledge, and competencies that they need for a successful life that fully capitalizes on their abilities. This ineffectual system is also very, very expensive. Yet for a host of reasons—inertia, timidity, political gridlock, fear of litigation, fear of interest groups, ignorance, lack of imagination, and so on—neither our education leaders nor our policy...

I’m halfway through an ambitious research project, in which I examine how other countries educate their high-ability kids in the hope that we might pick up tips that would prove useful in improving the woeful state of “gifted education” in the U.S. (In case you’ve forgotten what’s woeful about it, look here, here, and here.)

So far, I’ve checked out eight lands worth taking seriously, all of which have done pretty well over the years on PISA, TIMSS, and similar measures and all of which are fairly termed “competitors” in the planetary economy. (I’m...

Occam’s Razor is the well-known principle that “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Keep that in mind as various pundits hypothesize about why the U.S. scored below the international average in the 2012 PISA assessment in math, and at the average in reading and science, and why we don’t seem to be making any gains over time on these much-watched gauges. Dennis Van Roekel offers the poverty hypothesis as an explanation. I’m not unsympathetic to the argument (though America’s child-poverty rate is not as unusual as many people think), but let’s consider...

For a decade, the nonprofit Institute for Innovation in Public Choice (IIPSC) has helped the cities of New York, Boston, Denver, and New Orleans bring order to the Wild West of school choice, using the one-two punch of economic theory and custom software. To match students with seats in public schools—either district or charter—the IIPSC builds algorithms that employ three kinds of data: the schools that families want their kids to attend, the number of available seats in every grade at each school, and each schools’ admissions rules. Newly flush with a $1.2 million grant from the Dell...

“Fewer, clearer, higher”: These were the words that guided the crafting of the Common Core State Standards. In concise and clear-eyed prose, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Robert Rothman lays out exactly how the new standards could change current instructional practices—and aims to speak directly to educators, whose efforts will determine whether or not these changes will occur. After providing a brief history of the Common Core (which he covered at length in his previous book), Rothman describes nine facets of the standards that mark a significant change from current practice, four of which pertain to math instruction...

When the Department of Education began offering No Child Left Behind waivers in 2011, states beat down the doors of 400 Maryland Avenue to obtain one. But did allowing states flexibility steer them towards better accountability systems? To answer this question, researchers Morgan Polikoff, Andrew McEachin, Stephani Wrabel, and Matthew Duque painstakingly reviewed and coded each waiver, looking, for instance, at whether they moved accountability systems toward “growth models” and away from “status models.”  Their findings? Let’s let Matthew di Carlo of the Shanker Institute give the sobering news. Out of forty-two states with accepted waiver applications,

17 exclusively

...

Michelle, freshly returned from a trip to Madrid and Prague (with an extra piece of jewelry on her hand), chats with Mike about special education, career and technical education, and pension reform. Amber reviews an obscure cross-sectional Dutch analysis on the multicollinearity inherent in the study of the learning habits of three- to five-year-old children of blacksmiths—just kidding! It’s PISA week, baby.

READ "How School Districts Can Stretch the School Dollar"

Despite some signs of economic recovery, school districts nationwide continue to struggle mightily. Nobody expects economic growth—or education spending—to rebound to 2008 levels over the next five years, and the long-term outlook isn't much brighter.

In short, the "new normal" of tougher budget times is here to stay for American K-12 education. So how can local officials cope?

In my new policy brief, I argue that the current crunch may actually present an opportunity to increase the efficiency and productivity of our education system if decision makers keep a few things in mind:

First and foremost, solving our budget crisis shouldn't come at the expense of children. Nor can if come from teachers' sacrifice alone. Depressing teachers' salaries forever isn't a recipe for recruiting bright young people into education—or retaining the excellent teachers we have. Finally, quick fixes aren't a good answer; we need fundamental changes that enhance productivity.

So how can school districts dramatically increase productivity and stretch the school dollar?

One, we should aim for a leaner, more productive, better paid workforce. Let's ask classroom teachers to take on additional responsibility in return for greater pay, eliminate some ancillary positions, and redesign our approach to special education.

Two, we should pay for productivity. A redesigned compensation system would include a more aggressive salary schedule, more pay for more work and better results, and prioritization of salaries over benefits.

Three, we must integrate technology thoughtfully. Online and "blended" school models are coming to K-12 education. They can be catalysts for greater pupil engagement, individualization, and achievement and, if organized right, they can also be opportunities for cost-cutting.

Many districts continue to face budget challenges of historic proportions. Rather than slashing budgets in ways that erode schooling, let's rethink who we hire, what they do, how we pay them, and how to incorporate technology—that's where the big payoff is.

“Fewer, clearer, higher”: These were the words that guided the crafting of the Common Core State Standards. In concise and clear-eyed prose, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Robert Rothman lays out exactly how the new standards could change current instructional practices—and aims to speak directly to educators, whose efforts will determine whether or not these changes will occur. After providing a brief history of the Common Core (which he covered at length in his previous book), Rothman describes nine facets of the standards that mark a significant change from current practice, four of which pertain to math instruction and five to English language arts. In one math-related example, Rothman discusses the “math wars,” a long-standing battle over whether math instruction should emphasize procedural fluency, conceptual understanding, or problem-solving abilities, and how the Common Core—by emphasizing all three—seeks to find peace. Rothman concludes with a look at the road ahead and impending challenges—like funding, politics, and implementation in the years to come. Still, Rothman remains hopeful—as do we.

SOURCE: Robert Rothman, Fewer, Clearer, Higher: How the Common Core State Standards Can Change Classroom Practice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013)....

Poland’s gains in mathematics and science on the 2012 PISA assessments made big news in the United States. The impressive achievements by fifteen-year-old Polish youngsters contrast starkly with the scores of American youngsters. U.S. results have remained essentially flat since the tests were first given in 2000 to 180,000 students in 32 countries. As a result of these diverging trajectories, Polish students now outperform their American peers in both math and science by a significant margin.

I was a high-school teacher in Poland in 1990–91 and again in 1994–95. During my first stint, I taught in a town of about 15,000; the second time, I worked in one of Warsaw’s elite high schools. The children of the students I taught are now the Polish generation that is outpacing much of the world in academic achievement.

After reading the new PISA report—especially when read in tandem with Amanda Ripley’s excellent recent book—I am not really surprised by Poland’s success. The students I taught had many of the attributes for success that now benefit their own children. These included families that care deeply about education and that view education to be the path to upward mobility. By doing well in school, children could do more with their lives. This was a belief I saw in the parents both of small-town students and of elite metropolitan kids.

Poles also take great pride in knowledge: acquiring it and showing it off. I was always amazed, and more than...

The Grand European Engagement

Michelle, freshly returned from a trip to Madrid and Prague (with an extra piece of jewelry on her hand), chats with Mike about special education, career and technical education, and pension reform. Amber reviews an obscure cross-sectional Dutch analysis on the multicollinearity inherent in the study of the learning habits of three- to five-year-old children of blacksmiths—just kidding! It’s PISA week, baby.

Amber's Research Minute

Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Mathematics, Science, and Reading Literacy in an International Context: First Look at PISA 2012 by Dana Kelly et al., (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, December 2013).

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice recently released a study that seeks to better understand the decision-making processes of parents who send their children to private schools. The authors hypothesize that if state and local governments empower parents to choose the schools of their choice, a “spontaneous education order”—a state in which parents seek information about schools and in which schools make available the necessary information without public officials’ intentional intervention—will arise. Accountability, they speculate, will take care of itself.

To test this theory, they use survey data from 754 parents whose children received scholarships through the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program (GOAL). The survey sought to identify the factors involved in parents’ decisions and the types of data that informed those decisions.

GOAL was established in 2008 under Georgia’s Education Expense Credit Program. Under the law, taxpayers may receive a state income tax credit for contributions made to qualified “Student Scholarship Organizations” (SSOs). SSOs use these funds to award private school scholarships to families.

The law places no limits on recipients’ household incomes (i.e., it’s not “means-tested” for low-income families), and in fact the average adjusted gross income of recipient families was $51,923, slightly higher than the state’s 2012 median income. Scholarship recipients are approximately 60 percent white, 25 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 10 percent unknown/other.

Of the 2,685 families who had at least one child receiving a GOAL scholarship in 2013, only 754 provided complete data (a response rate of 28 percent). Survey respondents were...

It seems the largest battle in education policy today centers on the question of whether or not the Obama administration cheerleading for the Common Core State Standards, a state-led initiative, represents an existential threat to federalism. Serious Common Core supporters concede that the federal government (unwisely) dangled incentives for swift state adoption of the standards, while pointing out that the vast majority of instructional decisions will now, as before, remain with local school boards and educators. On the other hand, serious opponents admit as much but worry that locals will have to make significant changes to meet these higher targets and say it is only a matter of time before we see a proposal for a national curriculum. I, for one, think even casual observation of the current debate over standards shows the possibility of a national curriculum to be so remote as to make it not worth discussing, except to say that if it were proposed, many Common Core supporters (myself included) would strongly oppose it.

The “federal overreach” argument used by Common Core opponents is quite perplexing, not only because some claims are so wildly exaggerated, but also because they all but ignore (and thereby excuse) actual and obvious examples of overreach with much larger potential consequences for federalism. If the Common Core debate is truly just a principled stand for states’ rights, why haven’t we heard a word about the specific requirements on school turnaround or teacher quality within the Race to the Top competition? Where was the conservative backlash against the clear disrespect shown to...

It often seems that when wonks, researchers, and legislators get together to talk education reform, they exclude one group of stakeholders—a group for whom these reforms mean the most and upon whom their success depends: teachers. In this new book, TeachPlus founders Celine Coggins, Heather Peske, and Kate McGovern offer a corrective: a series of short essays written by their Teaching Policy Fellows cohort that illustrate the work being done on the ground to advance reform. The book is divided into seven sections, each covering a different policy issue: using data in schools, ensuring fair access to quality teachers, measuring teacher effectiveness, creating a performance-driven profession, engaging early-career teachers in union politics, building school leadership that enables great instruction, and improving the status of the profession. What is most striking about these stories is their genuine call-to-action narrative: Having been identified as highly effective teachers, these men and women know exactly how much of a difference putting the right teacher in the right classroom can make. All education stakeholders would be wise to learn from these experts.

SOURCE: Celine Coggins, Heather G. Peske, and Kate McGovern (eds.), Learning from the Experts: Teacher Leaders on Solving America’s Education Challenges (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013).

The sharp-shooters edition

Michelle and Dara discuss class sizes, the new Youth CareerConnect program, and why the DOJ is backing away from its attack on Louisana’s school-voucher program. Amber gets wonky with cross-district effects on teacher-bargaining contracts.

Amber's Research Minute

My End of the Bargain: Are There Cross-District Effects in Teacher Contract Provisions?, by Dan Goldhaber, Lesley Lavery, and Roddy Theobald, CEDR Working Paper 2012-2.2 (Seattle, WA: Center for Education Data and Research, 2012).

Pages