Standards, Testing & Accountability

  • “Irony is often amusing,” writes Calhoun School Headmaster Steve Nelson in his new philippic against rigor in early childhood education, proving once again that he lacks even a basic understanding of what that word means. It’s not totally clear what gets taught at Nelson’s $45,000-per-year academy, but the Gadfly’s definition of irony is this: when the half-million-dollar mouthpiece of one of the ritziest schools on the Upper West Side descends from Olympus to admonish teachers of impoverished students against actually trying to teach them anything. “Play-based,” content-free learning might be fine for the children of hedge fund managers, who will have lots of opportunities to screw up before easing into careers as progressive school principals. But it’s not cutting it for kids from low-income families, who often arrive at school with huge skills deficits and consequently have to, you know, learn something. Now it’s time for Nelson to learn a lesson of his own: Stick to finger painting in the Imagination Station, and quit lecturing those who are actually trying to help the poor.
  • In other Big Apple news: Bill de Blasio is beginning to get a reputation—and not just for chronic dawdling and eating
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As ESEA reauthorization heads to conference committee, debate is certain to center on whether federal law should require states to intervene if certain subgroups are falling behind in otherwise satisfactory schools. Civil rights groups tend to favor mandatory intervention. Conservatives (and the teachers’ unions) want states to decide how to craft their school ratings systems, and when and how to take action if schools don’t measure up. The Obama administration is siding with the civil rights groups; a recent White House release, clearly timed to influence the ESEA debate, notes that we “know that disadvantaged students often fall behind in higher-performing schools.”

But in how many cases do otherwise adequate schools leave their neediest students behind? Are there enough schools of this variety to justify a federal mandate? Fortunately, we have data—and the data show this type of school to be virtually nonexistent.

In a recent post, I looked at school-level results from Fordham’s home state of Ohio. That analysis uncovered very few high-performing schools in which low-achieving students made weak gains. (“Low-achieving” is defined as the lowest-performing fifth of students statewide.) Just seven schools (in a universe of more than 2,300) clearly performed well as a whole while allowing their...

On June 30, Governor John Kasich vetoed forty-four items in the budget  and signed the rest into law. Among the provisions that survived is an extension of “safe harbor” as Ohio continues its transition to new standards and assessments. Last year, lawmakers created this “safe harbor” policy for students, schools, and teachers; it pertains to certain test-based accountability provisions for 2014–15. With the 2015 budget bill, they’ve extended it by two more years (2015–16 and 2016–17).

The safe harbor provisions for students and teachers are pretty straightforward. For students, test scores from the 2014–15, 2015–16, or 2016–17 school years cannot be used “as a factor in any decision to promote or to deny the student promotion to a higher grade level or in any decision to grant course credit.” While not explicitly mentioned, this means that failed End of Course exams won’t equate to lost course credit or failure to graduate.  

For teachers, safe harbor means that the “value-added progress dimension rating” determined by state tests administered in 2014–15 and 2015–16 cannot be used for “assessing student academic growth” for teacher evaluations, or “when making decisions regarding the dismissal, retention, tenure, or compensation” of teachers. There is,...

Every sentence in Sir Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools begins with a capital letter. There is also a punctuation mark at the end of each, without exception. I have made a careful study of his nearly three-hundred-page manuscript, and can now report conclusively that its author employs—precisely and exclusively—the twenty-six letters of the standard English alphabet. 

Normally, this would not be worth remarking upon. Most of us have come to expect standard English in books written for general readers. But most of us are not Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D. He is “one of the elite thinkers on creativity and education,” whose TED talk on how schools kill creativity in children is “the most watched in TED history.”  Sir Ken intensely dislikes standardization in all its forms. So it is at least somewhat disappointing that he has chosen to eschew interpretive dance, semaphore flags, or other means to argue against standards and for creativity in education.

It is not uncommon for education gurus to lack the courage of their convictions.  So allow me to be creative on Sir Ken’s behalf: Don’t think of Creative Schools as a book; think of it as a jukebox cranking out all of the anti-reform hits. Nod...

John Kasich announced today that he’s running for president. The current governor of Ohio is the sixteenth Republican to join the crowded GOP primary, dwarfing the five-person field on the other side of the aisle. He’s also the twenty-first subject of our Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Kasich entered politics in the late 1970s, when he was elected to the Ohio Senate. He moved on to the House of Representatives in 1983, representing the state’s Twelfth Congressional District until 2001. After taking a break from public life, he returned to take Ohio’s helm in 2011. During his time as the state’s sixty-ninth governor, Kasich has made education a priority, and his efforts have produced some positive results. Here’s a sampling of his views:

1. Common Core: “[The idea behind the standards was for] students in every state to be given the opportunity to compete with every other student….I want kids to jump higher….I’m going to make sure, at least in my state, that standards are high and local control is maintained….Now, some may call that Common Core. I don’t really know, but I’m telling you the way it is in my...

Scott Walker announced today that he’s running for president. The governor of Wisconsin is the fifteenth Republican candidate and the twentieth overall. He’s also the latest subject of our Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Walker has been involved in state politics for over twenty-two years. He was a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1993 to 2002, when he was elected executive of Milwaukee County. After serving in that office for eight years, he took the helm as governor in 2011. During his tenure, Walker has focused heavily on education reform—and hasn’t shied away from controversial decisions. Here’s a sampling of his stances:

1. Teacher tenure and pay: “In 2011, we changed that broken system in Wisconsin. Today, the requirements for seniority and tenure are gone. Schools can hire based on merit and pay based on performance. That means they can keep the best and the brightest in the classroom.” June 2015.

2. School choice: “[W]e increased the number of quality education choices all over Wisconsin. Over the past four years, we expanded the number of charter schools, lifted the limits on virtual schools, and provided more help for families choosing to...

Vladimir Kogan

The dire findings on the performance of Ohio’s charter schools published by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) have provided the badly needed political impetus to reform the state’s charter school laws. Now, however, it appears that not only are these reforms at risk, but lawmakers are actually considering steps to weaken one of the few aspects of the existing accountability system that works.

If existing measures show that charter schools are underperforming, it seems that some charter operators have decided that it would be easier to change the yardstick used to assess them than to improve student achievement.

As the Columbus Dispatch reported recently, at least one charter school operator is pushing Ohio lawmakers to replace the state’s current “value-added” accountability framework with a “Similar Students Measure” (SSM), similar to metrics used in California. Doing so would be a gigantic step back in accountability and would make charter school student achievement look better than it really is.

Here is some background: The state of California ...

  • Defined benefit pension packages: Love ‘em if they’re sending you a check each month, hate ‘em if you have to think too hard about their consequences. That’s probably the reason we just don’t give them much consideration (well, part of the reason; they’re also slightly less gripping than you may have been led to believe). Good thing the National Council on Teacher Quality put together an informative, concise fact sheet on the realities of our teacher retirement processes. The short version isn’t pretty—backloaded plans with lengthy vesting periods typically penalize teachers who leave the profession early, enter it late, or move to a different state mid-profession. Their escalating costs are also threatening to overwhelm cash-strapped districts. Painful though it may be, we may have to start dedicating more thought to the subject.
  • The Foundation for Excellence in Education has released a fantastic tool that accomplishes two purposes: explaining what we actually mean when we talk about student “proficiency” and clarifying which jurisdictions actually measure anything close to it. Users can see how students are performing in their states, and whether those states’ reporting practices give a picture that resembles reality—or just an illusion.
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In the last four years, thirty states have transformed their teacher evaluation systems to improve student outcomes—and fourteen more are expected to follow suit by 2017. Too often, however, states focus more on the design of the systems than on how schools will and should implement them. This report from Education First argues that this is a mistake. We ought to also provide teachers the feedback and support they need to succeed. The report identifies five districts (Aldine, Texas; Greene County, Tennessee; Salem-Keizer, Oregon; Fulton County, Georgia; and St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana) that seem to be doing this right—a collection that’s diverse enough in location, racial makeup, and student body size to be applicable to myriad locales across the country.

The authors pinpoint a handful of essential teacher evaluation practices that hold the promise to improve student outcomes. First, schools need to make feedback and support a top priority and treat it as an ongoing process, including regular conversations centered on teachers’ professional development goals. Educators must be an integral part of the process, which creates an environment in which feedback is an expected and positive aspect of the job rather than a punitive one. For example, teachers and evaluators...

Lisa Hansel

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at the Core Knowledge Blog.

Education Week noted recently that there is an increasing demand for bites of curriculum, as opposed to comprehensive programs: Instead of selecting one comprehensive program, “districts are asking to...mix and match with selections from other content providers, material that teachers and students have created, and open educational resources.” That’s awesome—and a disaster.

It’s awesome for schools that have a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, topic-specific curricula. Teachers will have the curriculum as a scaffold, and they can search for materials that best meet their students’ needs on each topic. Assuming that scaffold is well developed, the topics will build on each other, giving all students an equal opportunity to acquire broad knowledge and skills.

It’s a disaster for schools that don’t have such curricula. In schools that aim to instill skills without realizing that a broad body of knowledge is necessary to cultivate them, a tapas-style curriculum will only lead to malnutrition. No matter who is choosing the small plates, we’ll end up with some students getting bacon-wrapped sausage and others getting mostly sautéed spinach and grilled chicken.

A well-rounded education is much like a well-balanced diet....

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