For those of us who support academic standards, testing and accountability as strategies to improve public education, the Atlanta cheating indictments are sobering. Here was a system where dozens of employees, over the course of almost a decade, racketeered to rig results (or so it is alleged).

And while one can hope that Atlanta was an outlier in terms of the scope and longevity of its cheating conspiracy, it’s hardly an isolated case, as examples from El Paso, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and other locales demonstrate.

As expected, test critics are having a field day, using Atlanta as evidence of why all this must go. They yearn to throw the accountability baby out with the testing bathwater. But they’re wrong. The better approach is to “mend it, not end it.”

Try this thought experiment: What would happen if U.S. schools ceased all standardized testing—and related consequences? No more annual assessments, no more grading schools based on the results, no more interventions in low-performing schools, no more teacher evaluations tied to test scores, no more “merit pay” for high performing teachers or job jeopardy for low performers.

The result: In our most affluent communities, little would change. Schools would continue to drive toward the real-world standard of college acceptance at elite universities, via Advanced Placement exams and high SAT scores.

At schools serving both rich and poor kids, we would probably see a return to the 1990s, when achievement gaps were overlooked, wealthy students were guided toward rigorous coursework and “college readiness,”...

  • Just got back from a great trip to Kansas City (part of my National Agitation Tour). The Kauffman Foundation is doing very important work (check out these videos), and their team members were terrific hosts. You can scroll through the audience’s take on my book talk here. Per my pushing for the replacement of the failed urban district, Marc Porter Magee, temporarily at the helm of the SS Hess-blog, turns in a good piece about the need for cage-busting leaders to change the system, not just break its rules.
  • Common Core (and assessments!) guru KPM teamed up with Sol Stern on National Review Online to explain to conservatives why the new common standards aren’t to be feared or pilloried. Tom Friedman’s column explains why the U.S. needs tougher standards and expectations, even (especially?) in our more comfortable (complacent?) middle-class communities.
  • If you care about urban schooling, charters, and/or governance reform, you ought to give the latest report from Fordham and Public Impact a read. It looks into charter performance in five cities and offers lots of reason for encouragement and sound advice for improving policy and practice. Its prescription (smart authorizing, closures, replications, strong support environment, etc.) mirrors that of my book. When you combine these lessons with recent findings from CREDO’s many city- and state-focused charter reports, you can’t help but
  • ...

GadflyThe dramatic test-cheating scandal in Atlanta—which has seen the indictment of thirty-five educators, including the former superintendent, for messing with the scores—has fingers pointed every which way. AFT president Randi Weingarten placed the blame squarely on our “excessive focus on quantitative performance measures,” arguing that the incentives make cheating inevitable. We disagree; we respect teachers enough to believe that most will resist wrongdoing, and submit that you don’t fix cheating by refusing to keep score.

Saturday’s New York Times sounded the alarm: The early results from states that have recently overhauled their teacher-evaluation systems have seen very little change, with 97 percent of Florida’s teachers still deemed effective or highly effective, 98 percent of Tennessee’s judged to be “at expectations,” and 98 percent of Michigan’s rated “effective or better.” This is certainly newsworthy (though Ed Week’s Stephen Sawchuk beat the Times to the punch). For our take, listen to this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast.

Policymakers in the Texas House of Representatives have passed legislation that would reduce the number of required high school courses, as well as the number of statewide end-of-course exams, thereby rolling back the Lone Star State’s present ambitious graduation expectations, damaging the value of students’ high school diplomas, and taking a big step back from college readiness. And we’re not the only ones who think so: Texas’s business leaders do, too....


Evaluating teachers to gauge their impact on student achievement is a necessary reform. For too long school districts have been unable to identify their high performers from their underachievers, and reward and support them accordingly. Few disagree that it is a good thing to know if teachers are having a positive impact on their students’ abilities to read, write, do mathematics, comprehend history, and acquire the other academic knowledge and skills young people need to be successful in life.

But, in Ohio – and probably in other states – the desire to evaluate teachers has likely gone too far when we try to hold Physical Ed teachers accountable for teaching students to meet state defined targets like:

*Consistently demonstrating correct skipping technique with a smooth and effortless rhythm;
*Demonstrates correct technique, the ball flies upward at approximately a 45-degree angle and over a distance of 30 feet or great;
*Consistently demonstrates good rhythm by following a sequence of dance steps in time and with music;
*Able to throw consistently a ball underhand with good accuracy and technique to a target (or person) with varying distances; or
*Able to strike consistently a ball with a paddle to a target area with accuracy and good technique.

The Ohio Department of Education has, as mandated by state law, put together a 165 page “Physical Education Evaluation System” that is now being used across the state to measure the effectiveness of PE teachers. The document not...


GadflyIn the latest dust-up over the Common Core, the inclusion of some (arguably) violent, war-themed picture books in New York City’s third-grade English curriculum has some whining that the recommended texts were not vetted properly—and, predictably, claiming that implementation is moving too fast. For straight talk, check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast.

A national database called inBloom that warehouses millions of students’ personal information for school districts has a slightly unfortunate side business: selling realistic-but-fake student data to application developers. According to inBloom, the two sides of its operation are strictly separate—but that hasn’t stopped parent listservs from exploding with the rage of a thousand mothers.

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal found that more than 10 percent of New York City’s principals did not issue a single teacher an “unsatisfactory” grade (the city uses a pass/fail system for reviewing job performance). While this may seem like bad news, flip that number around and notice that nearly 90 percent did. For comparison, consider that, according to Education Week, 98 percent of Michigan’s teachers and 97 percent of Florida’s were rated effective or better—and those are states that recently revamped their evaluation systems. New York City is a cage-busting leader in ferreting out bad teachers. Note, too, that if and when personnel decisions are truly devolved to school principals,...


With findings reminiscent of those from the Gates Foundation’s recent MET study or Chetty’s teacher-effectiveness research, this CALDER paper widens an already well-worn trail. Using a comprehensive, five-year dataset of student-test scores for beginning teachers in New York City, the authors find that early value-added results (though imperfect) are strong predictors of educators’ long-term effectiveness and that relative teacher performance (based on student test scores) remains fairly constant. Among math teachers whose performance was in the lowest quintile after their first two years on the job, 62 percent still performed in the bottom two quintiles in their third through fifth year and only 19 percent ended up in the top two quintiles. Similarly, if a school adopted a policy of firing the bottom 10 percent of new teachers (averaged over years one and two), it would rid itself of almost one third of the future lowest-performing teachers and absolutely none of the future top performers (according to years three, four, and five averages). They also find that value-added in years one and two explained 27.8 percent of the variance in average future performance (compared with only 2.8 percent explained by a number of combined “input” metrics including teacher demographics, credentialing scores, and competitiveness of undergraduate institution). The implications are clear: Cage-busting leaders should simply not keep the low performers around long enough to let them gain tenure.

SOURCE: Allison Atteberry, Susanna Loeb, and James Wyckoff, “Do First Impressions Matter? Improvement in Early Career Teacher Effectiveness” (Washington,...


Hope Against HopeThe Friedman-ism that “every crisis is an opportunity” has, in the eyes of many, found dramatic and fitting vindication in the city of New Orleans. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the teachers union was washed away, while the city’s traditional public schools were almost entirely supplanted by a host of new charters, many of them answerable to a new state-level governing body. The value of these changes has been frequently quantified by test scores, college-attendance rates, and similar informative (yet reductive) data. Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope offers a rare view from the ground—one that humanizes education reform in the Bayou City. She profiles a trio of figures (a novice teacher, a veteran principal, and a high school student) as well as a handful of charter schools. The conflicts at the core of Carr’s book—between different measurements of and causes for student success (or failure) and between guarding community culture and finding pathways to the middle class—transcend the Big Easy. But do not look for conflict resolution here. Carr’s intent, instead, is to articulate vividly what’s at stake. Her vignettes, particularly her story of a popular and promising teen’s fateful night out (and subsequent incarceration), show how out-of-school factors can easily destroy students’ futures—simultaneously reminding readers that school quality is not the whole story and that intensive efforts to transform student culture (think the “no excuses” charter...


If I could go back in time and begin my stint at an SEA all over again, I’d dedicate more energy to educator-preparation policy for three reasons.

First, obviously, educator effectiveness is hugely important to student learning, and we could accomplish a much by ensuring that those entering the profession are fully prepared for the tough work awaiting them.

The second reason is that SEAs have far greater power over this issue than most people—including lots of incoming state chiefs—understand.

(The third reason comes later…)

Under nearly every state constitution, the state government is given responsibility for public schooling. Lots of this power is then devolved, via statute, to districts.

But most state-level authority is vested in the state department of education. Though legislatures pass lots of laws related to schooling, they generally know where their expertise ends; and regardless of the issue or level of government, when legislators recognize the water’s edge of their understanding, they defer to executive branch (administrative) agencies.

What this translates to is SEAs’ (and/or state boards of educations’) having huge leeway when it comes to teacher preparation and credentialing.

State law may say that each teacher must have “appropriate certification for the position held,” but determining what a person needs to do in order to earn and maintain certification is in the hands of these departments and boards.

For the uninitiated—actually, for the initiated, as well—this field can feel like a tangle of professional associations and acronyms. There’s InTASC , ISLCC, ...


wise wonk once wrote that the biggest challenge facing America’s schools is the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom. The subject of this NBER working paper is one proposed solution to this quandary: sorting students by ability. And though conventional wisdom (and some prior research) suggests that kids in the lower-achieving groups would fare worse with such an approach, the researchers in this study concluded that sorting is beneficial for both high and low achievers—though high achievers did see larger gains than those of their lower-scoring peers (approximately 1.6 times greater). The analysis used student- and classroom- level  data linked to one cohort of Dallas elementary students—amounting to roughly 9,000 children in 135 schools who progress from the third to fourth grade (in 2003–04 and 2004–05). Analysts attempt to account for unobservable ways that schools might sort (say, by student behavior) and ultimately find that three-quarters of the schools organize students along at least one dimension: Nineteen percent by prior math scores, 24 percent by prior reading scores, 28 percent by “gifted” status, 57 percent by LEP (limited English proficiency) status, and 13 percent by special-education status (further, around 40 percent sort by at least two dimensions). If schools began perfectly grouping by ability, they would see a 0.4 SD gain in student learning. While this small-scale study provides evidence that sorting is beneficial for increased test scores, school leaders must bear in mind the importance of other factors, such as the impact of...


The release of this year’s Metlife Survey of the American Teacher, conducted annually since 1984, caused an uproar: “Record low job satisfaction among teachers—down 23 percentage points since 2008!,” a typical headline might have read. While a drop in teacher satisfaction is nothing to sneeze at, upon closer inspection, the degree to which this is the case may be overblown. In an insightful article, Bellwether Education’s Andy Rotherham pointed out that the wording of the question aimed at gauging teacher job satisfaction was altered: In 2008 and 2009, teachers were asked, “How satisfied would you say you are with teaching as a career?” In 2011 and 2012, the survey queried, “How satisfied would you say you are with your job as a teacher in the public schools?” Hence, this five-year “trend” appears to be based on survey methods that can be fairly dubbed “questionable.” The numbers bear this out: In the eight years that teachers were asked the “career” question, an average of 53 percent responded that they were “very satisfied”; in the six years that they were asked the “job” version, the average was 41 percent. Still, the decline in job satisfaction marked between 2011 and 2012—5 percent fewer teachers responded that they were “very satisfied”—is cause for some concern. Whether related to heightened accountability or tightened budget belts, this trend may carry consequences for the reform movement in the years ahead.

SOURCE: Harris Interactive, The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Challenges for...