A Reform-Driven System

Via this ambitious strand of work, we seek to deepen and strengthen the K–12 system’s capacity to deliver quality education to every child, based on rigorous standards and ample choices, by ensuring that it possesses the requisite talent, technology, policies, practices, structures, and nimble governance arrangements to promote efficiency as well as effectiveness.

I have a complicated relationship with testing. I refuse to pretend that it’s caused no mischief in our schools—narrowing curriculum, encouraging large amounts of ill-conceived test prep, and making school a joyless grind for too many teachers and students alike—but neither can any fair-minded analyst deny that there have been real if modest gains in our present era of test-driven accountability, especially for low-income black and Hispanic children, particularly in the early grades.

What to make, then, of Secretary Duncan’s widely heralded concession that testing is “sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools” and his offer to states of a year-long delay in making test scores part of their evaluation systems?

“There’s wide recognition that annual assessments—those required by federal law—have done much to shine a light on the places and groups of students most in need of help. Yet in too many places, it’s clear that the yardstick has become the focus,” Duncan wrote in a lengthy blog post Thursday.

We at Fordham have been among those pleading for some reasonable flexibility in this area, particularly as new standards and assessments kick in, so the secretary’s message is welcome. Some states don’t want to shift gears, but others crave a breather while curriculum and pedagogy catch up with newly rigorous expectations. (We’ll save for another day an examination of the constitutional aspects of all this, as Duncan’s department evidently will be offering states waivers from conditional waivers, the statutory...

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New York State just released the results of its 2014 statewide math and reading exams—the second year the state purportedly aligned the tests to the Common Core. Compared to 2013, math proficiency rates rose 5 percentage points, but reading was flat. Both friends and foes of the Common Core sought to spin the results to say whether the reform is working, but it’s way too early for such judgments. On the other hand, it’s not too early to investigate out how Eva Moskowitz and her team are getting such incredible results at her Success Academies, which doubled New York City proficiency rates in reading and tripled them in math.

Much is afoot in the Louisiana court battle over the Common Core and aligned exams. Hearings over the last two weeks have brought mixed results for Bobby Jindal. Plaintiffs’ lawyers won’t be able to depose the governor. But the judge rejected the state’s request to throw out parts of the suit, deciding to hear the full merits of the case, and thwarted Jindal’s attempt to use his executive powers to repeal the standards and suspend the PARCC test. Needless to say, the Pelican State’s purely political mess continues. And the man at the helm has no Plan B (except to run for president).

In response to the swelling pushback against the newly revised AP U.S. History Framework, the College Board has released a practice exam, written a letter, and vowed to “clarify” the...

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We know that disadvantaged children tend to enter Kindergarten behind their more advantaged peers in math and reading—and that they rarely catch up. But which socioeconomic factors correlate most with these gaps? And have these factors improved over time? Analysts looked at data compiled by NCES’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010-2011 (ECLS-K:2011), which is currently following a representative sample of 15,000 students through fifth grade. The cohort’s Kindergarten readiness (or, actually, lack thereof) was strongly linked to four risk factors: having a single parent, having a mother who didn’t graduate high school, living below the federal poverty line, and living in a household where English was not spoken as the first language. (Kindergarten readiness was measured with direct assessments and teacher reports.) Fifty-six percent of children had zero risk factors, 25 percent had one, 13 percent had two, and 6 percent had three or four. The more risk factors a child had, the lower his or her assessment score. What’s more, these rates haven’t improved over time. An earlier iteration of the ECLS followed the Kindergarten class of 1998–99. Back then, 58 percent of kids had zero risk factors—almost exactly the same as the class of 2011. What’s not clear from the study is how to address the lack of progress in Kindergarten readiness, though likely candidates include improving pre-school, promoting the “success sequence,” and alleviating poverty—all of which are easier said than done.

SOURCE: Sara Bernstein, et al., “Kindergartners' Skills at...

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Most reformers know there’s no cure-all for American education. Nevertheless, in The Science and Success of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction, the authors argue that a panacea not only exists but has been around for half a century. The book is a collection of essays about different aspects of “Direct Instruction” (DI), a teaching method developed in the 1960s by Siegfried Engelmann, which holds that clear instruction and eliminating misconceptions can drastically improve and accelerate learning. Part I, “The Scientific Basis of Direct Instruction,” comprises four essays, including one by Engelmann himself about DI’s theory and development. The other three include a summation of studies examining its effectiveness, an explanation of why the results of supportive research have been ignored (it must be noted that a What Works Clearinghouse review found insufficient evidence to determine whether Direct Instruction was an effective method for teaching beginning reading), and a third-party perspective of Engelmann’s long career. The second part, “Translating the Science to Schools,” tackles the practicalities of application. There are essays about efficient DI implementation, how DI fosters good behavior, and possible futures of education with and without the teaching method. Although authors make a good case for Engelmann’s theory by showcasing the plethora of largely ignored, pro-DI research, their insistence that his system is some sort magic elixir hurts their credibility. For example, editor Jean Stockard proclaims, “Engelmann has clearly found the answer to low achievement and to the problems of our schools.” And Shepard Barbash argues that reworking DI programs to...

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Morgan Polikoff

photo credit: albertogp123 via photopin cc


Nearly all American K–12 students are exposed to it every day. It decides, in large part, what students will learn in school and how they will learn it. It is never evaluated for quality in any serious way, but when it is rigorously evaluated, its impact on student achievement is significant.

No, this isn’t another blog about teachers. I’m talking textbooks. We need good textbooks in front of kids just as badly as we need good teachers. However, from a research and policy perspective, improving textbook quality is a lot easier.

A little-noticed report last week in Education Week described a new initiative intended to be the Consumer Reports of textbooks. A new nonprofit called EdReports plans to post “free online reviews of major textbooks and curricula that purport to be aligned to the Common Core State Standards.” If they’re careful, credible, and diligent, this initiative could turn the lights up on a largely ignored factor in student outcomes that is ripe for analysis and improvement. And it could even blunt some of the more pointed criticisms of the Common Core. Here’s why I think EdReports, textbooks, and other curricular materials, in general, matter:

First, textbooks aren’t people. There is no union seeking to protect the interests of textbooks. They don’t need due

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WHAT WOULD HUEY P. LONG DO?
Jindal’s about-face on Common Core has created chaos in Louisiana, the New York Times reports, and turned some allies against him. Says one, “No permanent friends. No permanent enemies. Only permanent interests.” Somewhere, the Kingfish smiles.

PICK ME! PICK ME!
Which U.S. city is the choice and charter capital? New Orleans? New York? Try Miami. This year, half of Miami-Dade students, 56,000 total, are in schools their families picked themselves, says the Miami Herald.

I’LL BET KRUGMAN HAS TENURE
“There’s no sense in putting something as crucial as children’s education in the hands of a professional class with less accountability than others and with job protections that most Americans can only fantasize about,” opines the Times' Frank Bruni.  

I’LL HAVE WHAT SHE’S HAVING
Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio in the New York Daily News on the eye-popping test results posted by Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy.  If she’s got the secret sauce to student achievement, it’s time for it to be bottled and sold.

FORDHAM IN THE NEWS
CSN News trumpets our new report The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don't Teach.  And Gannett Newspapers reminds readers of our review of Common Core, which gave the standards a B+ in English and an A- in math.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS AREN’T
This pro-unschooling article in Outside magazine (naturally) says classroom education “enjoys scant historical precedent.” Bust those kids out of school! Turn ‘em loose in nature!  Know what else has scant historical precedent? Movable type. Penicillin. The internal...

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In back-to-back days last week, I had the chance to spend time with different groups of leaders interested in improving state-level reform work.

These conversations were very different than the philosophical fights about the advisability of big reforms like educator effectiveness and Common Core. They were also different than discussions of school- and district-level activities, like Success Academy’s test scores or district staffing patterns.

Both sets of conversations are very important, and I regularly take part in both. But I think too little attention is given to a third set of activities, the state-level work sitting between the two.

State governments are the entities ultimately responsible, under state constitutions, for ensuring kids have access to great schools. This means state governments need to handle funding formulas, longitudinal data system, the adoption of standards and assessments, the monitoring of big federal programs, and more.

The two meetings I participated in addressed different aspects of state-level activity. One was about the smart, careful implementation of new standards and assessments. The other was about figuring out the best way to execute all of the state’s responsibilities, whether through the traditional SEA or through other approaches (per the argument in our At the Helm, Not the Oar report).

Much could be said about these meetings and the takeaways. But I was reminded, once again, that many federal policymakers often just assume that a new federal program, reporting requirement, or funding stream will automatically and...

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At the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars, Ohio’s school districts employed 132,000 or so individuals who were not classified as teachers or administrators in 2010. Who are these people, what services do they provide, and do their efforts help students achieve? In this new report, my Fordham colleague Matthew Richmond  explores the “hidden half” of school personnel in Ohio and across the nation. The study documents a huge increase in non-teaching personnel over the last several decades—an increase that has received almost no attention, despite its sizeable implications on district budgets.

In 2010, non-teachers comprised half of the U.S. public-school workforce—up from 40 percent in 1970, and 30 percent in 1950. Taken together, their salaries and benefits total one quarter of all current K-12 education expenditure. The story in Ohio mirrors national trends: In 1986, Ohio had just 47 non-teaching staff for every 1,000 students. By 2010, that number rose to 75. When the study disaggregated the category of non-teaching personnel (a sort of catch-all classification of non-teachers, including administrators), the largest growth occurred in the teacher-aide category. From 1970 to 2010, this group swelled from 1.7 percent of the U.S. public-school workforce to 11.8 percent, an increase of more than 590 percent.

The study indicates that neither enrollment numbers nor increased federal regulation is able to explain much of the growth of non-teaching staff (especially post-1980). But has the increase in the number of students with disabilities contributed to the growth? The study’s analysis suggests that increased demand...

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Enacted in 2001 and now enrolling nearly 60,000 needy students, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) is the largest private-school choice program in the nation. Since March 2008, economist David Figlio has reported evaluation results on an annual basis. This report, his seventh and possibly last due to an unfortunate change in Florida law, documents his findings on the 2012-13 school year. The results: As in previous years, scholarship students who transfer from a public to private school tend to be lower-achieving and from poorer-performing schools. In other words, private schools aren’t “cherry-picking” students. Per test performance, Florida’s scholarship students kept pace with the progress of students, of all income levels, nationwide over the course of the year. On average, they made a 0.1 percentile gain in reading but lost -0.7 percentiles in math on nationally-normed assessments. The gain in reading and loss in math were not statistically different from zero, suggesting that scholarship students gained a year’s worth of learning. (A gain of zero is interpreted as a year’s worth of learning.) The average gains, however, camouflage some variability in gains across Florida’s private-schools. For example, in reading, scholarship students in 6 percent of private schools had sluggish average loss of less than -10 percentile points, while those in 4 percent of schools posted impressive gains of 10 points or more. Due to the recent switch in Florida’s public-school assessments, Figlio was unable to compare private-school to public-school gains. As Florida continues to ...

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This is a tricky story, but stay with me.

A 10-year-old charter school in the Cincinnati area ended up in court against the Ohio Department of Education back in July in an effort to find a sponsor (after being dropped) and to reopen as usual for the 2014-15 school year. The tussling ended in a court-ordered limbo, but the legal questions remained an active concern.

A July 29 piece in the Cleveland Plain Dealer summarized the story to that point and quoted Fordham’s Vice President for Sponsorship and Dayton Initiatives Kathryn Mullen Upton laying out the legal issues under consideration: "(1) The accountability system and an authorizer's judgment about the quality of a school are meaningless; (2) if you're a school that is non-renewed by any authorizer, not just ODE, you can simply go to court and up your chances of finding a new sponsor; and (3) despite recent actions to try to improve school and authorizer quality, ODE in reality has scant enforcement ability/authority… In a nutshell, it's a huge step backward for Ohio."

The limbo dragged on with no resolution but on August 12 the school announced it would not reopen due to financial distress. This is probably the end of the VLT saga.

Two lawmakers seem to think the foregoing is a desperate cry for reform of charter school law in Ohio. Honestly, it seems that – absent the court-induced time drag – the process has actually worked just like it should. ...

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