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.

What if I told you there were millions of American boys and girls living in communities where half of students are low-income, just one in five adults has earned a bachelor’s degree, and only 27 percent of high school graduates go on to college?

What if I told you these students are more likely than their peers in any other geographic area to live in poverty?

Most of you would probably gather that I’m talking about our inner cities.


These statistics describe rural America.

Rural public schools enroll eleven million children, fully a quarter of students nationwide. Yet, sadly, the challenges faced by rural educators and their students have received scant attention from national education leaders.

My organization, Bellwether Education Partners, is trying to help solve this problem.

With generous financial support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation (based in Boise, Idaho) we are helping to launch a new two-year initiative, Rural Opportunities Consortium Idaho (ROCI), to study the challenges facing and the opportunities available to rural communities and their schools.

Bellwether will produce a series of papers and policy briefs on subjects like rural charter schooling and technology. We’ll also provide ongoing advice and support to the foundation, its partners, and others engaged in this issue. Though we’ll dedicate much of our energy to the particular circumstances and needs of Idaho, the project aspires to inform...


Recently, 2013 NAEP results were made public, and, as is typical for such bi-annual releases, there was lots of excitement, somberness, and everything in between. Enter the always smart, always temperamentally sound Tom Loveless, who sought to simmer down the hyping of some states’ scores. Talk of statistical significance and p-values is Greek to some, but Loveless’ accessible explanation and color-coded charts will have you saying both, “A-ha!” and “Well, that’s not what I’d been told.” Here’s the upshot: Yes, some states did quite well, but both the number of such states and the extent of their gains have been oversold. (And, no, Tom, we don’t think you’re a skunk at a picnic.)

Emily Richmond from The Educated Reporter writes up an excellent summary of TBFI’s new report on teacher effective vs. class size. In short, getting kids in front of more effective teachers is valuable even if it means making those classrooms more crowded. Sad finding: Schools are not currently putting more kids in the best teachers’ classrooms; instead, they just evenly distribute the number of students among teachers. This report is classic Fordham: Ask an interesting question, the answer to which could quickly influence policy, get sharp people to study it, then package the findings in an accessible report.

It’s a day of the week, so Rick Hess has a new book out! This time, it’s with my boy Mike McShane, and it’s about Common Core...

Emily Ayscue Hassel

Fordham released a paper by Michael Hansen projecting the impact on student learning if excellent eighth-grade teachers—those in the top 25 percent—were responsible for six or twelve more students per class.  He found that moving six students per class to the most effective eighth-grade science and math teachers would have an impact equivalent to removing the bottom 5 percent of teachers.

We imagine many teachers and parents reading that finding will still fret over the idea of increasing class sizes that much, even with great teachers.  So here’s some good news: Schools can give a lot more than six more students access to excellent teachers without actually raising class sizes.  And they can pay great teachers—or even all teachers—more by doing so.

The key is shifting to new school models that extend the reach of excellent teachers wisely.  At Public Impact, we’ve published many such models on the website www.OpportunityCulture.org, and we’ve honed them via our work with teams of teachers and administrators now implementing them in schools.

Sure, one way to extend the reach of excellent teachers is to simply increase their class sizes.  But none of the pilot schools’ design teams—which include teachers—have chosen this route alone. None have increased class sizes above national averages. Instead, all the school design teams so far have chosen team-based models that leave effective class sizes on par or smaller. (By “effective class size,” we mean the number of students actually with a teacher at one...


Class size is an incessant policy issue—something like a leaky faucet. The din of the class-size debate drips in the background while the thunderclaps roar (Common Core! Charters!). Many parents and teachers drone on about class-size reductions; fiscal hawks want class-size increases. Meanwhile, wonks have observed America’s shrinking teacher to pupil ratio, with trivial achievement gains to boot.

Education reformers—including Fordham (see our excellent, brand-new Right-sizing the Classroom study)—have urged commonsense policies that put a school’s best teachers in front of more students. Doing this may boost student achievement—perhaps, as we found in our study, more so in upper-grade levels than elementary. But oftentimes this means the scrapping maximum class size mandates etched into teacher contracts or state law, a difficult task. Bryan Hassel, co-director of Public Impact, articulates this position well, saying, “Ideally, schools would focus on increasing the number of students their best teachers have responsibility for.”

But it is MOOCs (“Massive Open Online Courses”) that have the potential to stretch the class-size debate the furthest. MOOCs could put the nation’s best teachers—not just a school’s best teachers—in front of more students. Presently, these online courses run the gamut, from an advanced high-school/freshman college course to advanced college-level courses. Professors from the nation’s top rated colleges and universities teach the courses. One can select from a smorgasbord of topics: Coursera and edX—the major players in the MOOC market—publicize, for instance, courses in Data Analysis (Johns Hopkins), Jazz Appreciation (University of Texas), and...


The Obama administration, certain that it knows the “right thing to do,” boldly overturns decades of policy and institutes its own vision of a brave new world. Gradually, it becomes clear that toying around with longstanding policies and practices produces all kinds of unintended consequences, creating policy potholes, causing implementation snags, and stirring up lots of political hornets nests. The administration is then forced to bob and weave with explanations for what’s gone wrong, while attempting an oscillating variety of micro policy fixes to patch up a growing number of cracks.

Obamacare or the Common Core–ESEA waivers gambit?

If you’ve been following the news, you know that Obamacare may go down, even according to the New York Times, as this administration’s "Katrina response"—a government debacle of epic proportions.

But we have an increasing number of examples that the Department of Education’s hubris on standards, testing, and accountability—really the core of the last 20 years of state and federal education policy—has also caused quite a mess that might get worse before it gets better.

Not surprisingly, it’s starting to appear that the Department is making things up as it goes along (Politics K-12 calls it “flying by the seat of its pants”), making decisions, realizing their folly, and then changing course.

If you like your new federal education policies, you can keep them. . .until you can’t.

Take, for example, the letter the...

Michael Hansen

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 Teacherstackles. 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, and even teachers themselves).
Using data from North Carolina, economist Michael Hansen, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, looks at what right-sizing the classroom can mean for academic achievement. In brief, he found that as the best teachers teach larger classes and the weakest teach progressively smaller ones, the net result is improved student learning—for all students, not just those who moved.
At the eighth-grade level,

  • Assigning up to twelve more students than average to effective teachers can produce gains equivalent to adding two-and-a-half extra weeks of school;
  • Three-quarters of the potential gain (from moving twelve students) can be realized by moving just six; and
  • The potential gains from moving a handful of students to the most effective teachers is comparable to the
  • ...

The Philanthropy Roundtable's generally praiseworthy magazine hits a number of topical education-policy issues in its Fall 2013 issue. The first profiles Eli and Edythe Broad's Superintendents Academy—which, since 2002, has produced “150 alumni...[including] Los Angeles superintendent John Deasy and state superintendents of Louisiana (John White), Maryland (Lillian Lowery), New Jersey (Christopher Cerf), and Rhode Island (Deborah Gist).” (Then there’s Broad’s Residency in Urban Education program, which seeks to transform private-sector leaders into future heads of schools or school systems.) The second notable article highlights the Relay Graduate School of Education, an alternative teacher-prep program in New York started by Norman Atkins of Uncommon Schools, Dave Levin of KIPP, and Dacia Toll of Achievement First. With backing from the Robin Hood Foundation and others, the school focuses on pragmatism over theory and insists that, before receiving a master's degree, teachers show that their students are achieving at least a year's worth of academic growth each school year. A third education item comes from Fordham blogger Andy Smarick's new bookClosing America's High-achievement Gap: A Wise Giver's Guide to Helping Our Most Talented Students Reach Their Full Potential. Smarick argues, as we often do at Fordham, that we must also help high-ability youngsters to succeed and not focus exclusively on those with low-achievement issues. In his words, “while America's most at-risk kids deserve all the help they can get, we ought to also give increased attention to our potential top achievers—both for our own sake and the nation's.” Whether you’re a veteran philanthropist or a philanthropist-in-training, give this issue...


No matter what side of the ed-policy debate you fall into, getting effective teachers in front of disadvantaged students is a priority for almost everyone. Yet this new study from  Mathematica and AIR highlights just how far we are from ensuring that lower-income kids have access to the same quality of teachers as their affluent peers. The study looked at twenty-nine large school districts (with a median enrollment of 60,000) and calculated for each an “effective-teaching gap”: a measurement that compares the average effectiveness of teaching (using value-added models) experienced by disadvantaged students (those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) with the average effectiveness of teaching experienced by their better-off peers. As one might expect, there was a difference. Teachers of affluent students had, on average, a higher value-add than teachers of poor kids, equivalent to 2 percentile points in the student-achievement gap. Interestingly, though, the gap varied across districts and subjects, implying that equity can be achieved. In math, ten of the districts had no statistically significant differences in teacher effectiveness between  poorer and richer students; in English language arts, only two districts could make that claim (perhaps because of deficiencies in low income students’ content knowledge). True, some will resist the use of value-added scores as a proxy for teacher quality, and many studies show just how difficult it is to get effective teachers to switch to tougher schools. But the study does well at defining the scope and implications of the problem we face...


Two articles from the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Patrick O’Donnell last week focused on the classroom-level implementation of the Common Core, Ohio’s new learning standards. O’Donnell’s reports stand in the vein of other reports from across the nation about Common Core—for example, click on the following link for the Hechinger Report’s excellent series. The school visits were conducted at the Berea, Orange, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, and Bedford school districts, all located in the Cleveland area. It is evident from these reports that the Common Core standards are dramatically changing how instruction and learning happen in Ohio’s classrooms.

In the English classroom, teachers are now requiring students to cite evidence from the text, in order to support their conclusions. One educator remarked, “It’s not enough to just say what you think the theme [of a text] is. You need specific evidence.” Another educator compared this mode of instruction with past instructional practices: “Kids used to talk more about how they felt about the theme. . . .It was more about their feelings than the evidence.” Meanwhile, in the math classroom, teachers are creating lessons that have “real-world” twists to them, aimed at better ingraining mathematical concepts. According to one high school math teacher, under Ohio’s old standards, “You wouldn’t relate things to why you would ever need them. . . .Now the focus is much more with practical standards: Here is what actually translates to real life.”

The Common Core continues to draw fire. But these Common Core critics ought...

Do disadvantaged kids have equal access to great teaching? No. Given this, can a district policy that induces great teachers to transfer into distressed schools improve achievement? Yes. These are the findings of two new reports from Mathematica, released last week.

The first research study, “Access to Effective Teaching for Disadvantaged Students,” examined fourth through eighth grade test scores over three year spans across twenty-nine large school districts. Generally, the researchers found that low-income students experienced less effective teaching than their higher-income peers. The main culprit: the unequal distribution of effective teachers across school buildings within a district. In contrast, the analysts detected more equal access to effective teaching within a school building. Hence, there is little evidence to suggest that school-level principals systemically assign the least effective teachers to the most disadvantaged students.

The companion study, “Transfer Incentives for High-Performing Teachers,” examined whether inducing great educators, via monetary incentive, to teach in disadvantaged schools can lift achievement. To obtain evidence, the researchers created an experiment—the Talent Transfer Initiative (TTI)—which they conducted in ten school districts across seven states. The study first identified the districts’ highest-performing teachers (top 20 percent in value-added) who were not in schools with low-achieving and disadvantaged students. Then, these teachers were offered a $10,000 per-year bonus for two years to transfer into a distressed school within their district. The study found that the transfer incentive had a positive, significant impact on elementary students’ math and reading test scores. The estimated impact moved the typical pupil...