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.

Eva Myrick Chiang

Imagine reading this job advertisement:

WANTED: Credentialed professional with at least a master’s degree to run a school. Will work on average fourteen hours per day or more, six days per week, and be on call twenty-four hours a day most days of the year. Must handle pressure and stress well—oh, and the pay isn’t that great, either.

In many places across the United States, this is the type of workload we demand of our school leaders. Each and every one of our schools desperately needs a talented, competent leader, but what intelligent person would sign up for that job?

It’s time for us to have an extreme makeover in what we expect from our school principals. Traditionally, principals were seen as building managers and disciplinarians. They made sure that the lights were on and that everyone was following the rules. But the role has changed, and the needs of our students demand that we now have visionary instructional leaders running our schools.

This change of roles can be problematic for districts because, well, the lights still need to be turned on, payroll still has to be processed, and buildings still have maintenance issues. That is why we now have to shift our thinking about who is doing what in districts. We have to make the principal’s job more doable, more protected, and more supported so that the job appeals to our most talented professionals. We have to create the district conditions that support effective school leaders so that...

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For decades, much ado has been made over parental involvement in schools. Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), as part of the 2012 Cleveland Plan For Transforming Schools, requires by law that all parents meet with their child’s teacher by December of every school year. About 75 percent of elementary school and 60 percent of high school students had a parent meet with their child’s teacher this past school year, the first covered by the new law. District administrators call these numbers “pretty impressive” (at least at the elementary level), but the outcomes resulting from mandating parental involvement are unclear. For starters, it’s impossible to compare the totals to previous year’s totals or even to other districts’ totals, including those of suburban counterparts, since the state doesn’t require them to keep track of parent-teacher conference attendance. Despite the good intentions of the Cleveland mandate, a question remains: is there an academic benefit to this kind of parental involvement?

The answer is complicated. Some types of involvement, such as reading to elementary students at home, discussing school activities or college plans, and requesting a particular teacher, do yield positive results. But other common practices, like helping with homework, usually don’t alter a child’s academic experience or trajectory. That’s not to say that parents should be shut out of schools. Parents deserve to know what’s happening in their kids’ schools, and if they want to be involved, there should be opportunities to be productively engaged. But instead of blanket mandates for involvement,...

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Many students in Ohio and across the nation continue to perform poorly in mathematics. In response to this chronic underachievement, schools have tried numerous interventions, including “double dosing” students who lag behind academically. “Double dosing”—most commonly utilized in middle and high schools—can be an extension of time in an existing math class or assigning struggling students to two independent math courses (one remedial, one comprised of grade-level content). In either case, the goal is to improve student outcomes through additional “time on task.” In this new study, the author analyzes student data from 2003–04 through 2012–13 provided by the Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS) to observe whether students’ participation in two distinct math classes improves outcomes. The study examines the outcomes of middle school students scoring just below and just above the predetermined cut-off score on the previous spring’s state assessment.[1] Findings indicate that students taking a double dose of math made significantly higher gains on math assessments compared to those students who were just above the cut-off score but did not receive a double dose. Yet over time, these gains diminish. Only one year after returning to a single math class schedule, gains fell to one-half to two-thirds the original amount. Two years post double-dose, gains shrunk further to only one-fifth to one-third of the original. These results indicate that double dosing provides students a big-time short-term boost; however, there is no guarantee that short-run gains will persist in the longer term....

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Shaun Dougherty and Michael Gottfried

The discourse around college and career readiness has focused primarily on implementation of the Common Core. Notably absent is much consideration of how those programs might serve the needs of students with less direction or discernment about what career paths may be most productive or in demand. But with the Perkins block grants (with its focus on career and technical education or “CTE”) being among the few programs with hope of being reauthorized by the feds, it’s time to starting paying attention to CTE and the students it could serve. In fact, reauthorization could prove to be critical, as approximately 20 percent of both students with disabilities and students receiving free and reduced-price lunches enroll in three or more CTE courses in high school.

The bill put forth by Senators Portman of Ohio and Kaine and Warner from Virginia seeks to increase the flexibility states have in using funds allocated through block grants to improve CTE programs. This increased autonomy can certainly be a good thing: it allows states to use funds to establish career academies and allows them to expand traditional CTE models to fit specific needs, rather than having to rely on a federally mandated set of guidelines.

While state flexibility is important, so is implementation based on evidence of what works. States will benefit from being able to expand their pool of potential CTE-related investments, but fidelity of implementation remains a key factor. A randomized experiment, for example, has shown that implementation of career academies...

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The possibility that the 113th Congress might yet reauthorize the Institute for Education Sciences (IES)—the House has passed H.R. 4366 and the Senate HELP Committee is cogitating—means it’s time once again to consider the status of the jewel in the IES crown, namely the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Before this topic elicits a yawn, kindly note that everything you may be trying to accomplish, change, or protect in American education hinges more than you might realize on the integrity of our education-data system, and that this is more vulnerable than you might think. Please do not assume that all is well and will inevitably remain that way.

NCES is today’s version of the first federal education agency, created by Congress in 1867 “for the purpose of collecting such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the several States and Territories….” (For more on the history, see Vance Grant’s excellent four-page summary near the beginning of this useful document.) It was also the second federal statistical agency, eleven more of which followed. Today, NCES is the third largest of them, eclipsed only by Census and Labor Statistics.

The centrality of its role in American education can scarcely be exaggerated. It’s where everybody at every level of policy, analysis, and research goes for data. It’s the home of crucial longitudinal studies. It’s the home of NAEP. It’s the home of almost every education trend line that matters.

It’s not perfect (school-finance data,...

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According to this brief from Third Way, our current teacher pension system is a “rip-off”; furthermore, “no private plan would be allowed to behave this way.” Under federal guidelines set by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, private-sector employees are partially vested in their pensions in three years and fully vested in six years. By contrast, states have the authority to determine their own teacher vesting periods—which can last up to twenty years. Nineteen states “require their teachers to spend at least 10 years in the classroom before they can even vest at the minimum level of their retirement.” With 40 to 50 percent of teachers leaving the profession within five years, most teachers never reap their employers’ contributions, leaving states to eagerly inhale what’s left behind. Another big problem: teachers in twelve states (over 40 percent of the teaching force) work outside of the Social Security system, and no feasible guidelines exist for transferring one pension to another or a pension to Social Security coverage. To reboot the public pension system, the authors propose a mobile “cash-balance” system that would “allow cash flow to be uninterrupted for current and future retirees.”

SOURCE: Tamara Hiler and Lanae Herickson Hatalsky, “Taking Immediate Steps to Provide Teachers with a Secure Retirement,” Social Policy & Politics Program (Washington, DC: Third Way, July 2014).

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A new report by TNTP outlines the main pitfalls of the current teacher-pay system and offers some insightful solutions. The authors explain that teachers’ starting salaries are 25 percent less than in other comparable fields and are stagnant during the first decade of a teacher’s career. What’s more, teachers only receive pay raises in two ways: by climbing another “step” on the salary scale or by earning a more advanced degree. High-performing teachers earn their raises the same way as everyone else: by letting time pass. Since the system encourages mediocrity and there is no incentive to perform well, schools end up retaining vast numbers of average teachers and losing their high performers. The report’s suggested remedy: higher entry-level salaries, raises for performance, and incentives to teach in high-need schools—all while maintaining salaries at 65 percent of per-pupil revenue—and ending automatic raises for advanced degrees and enhanced credentials that have not been shown to improve student outcomes. (Yes, that sounds a lot like D.C.’s IMPACT system, a model that TNTP lauds.) Schools spent an estimated $8.5 billion on raises for teachers due to their obtaining master’s degrees and $250 million on automatic pay increases for ineffective teachers, the report notes. If these funds were redistributed along the lines suggested here, the teacher profession could become more competitive and a more attractive option for high-performing teachers.

SOURCE: TNTP, Shortchanged: The Hidden Costs of Lockstep Teacher Pay (Brooklyn, NY: TNTP, July 2014)....

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The estimable Sara Mead is, as we’ve come to expect, perceptive about what ails today’s preschool options and advocacy campaigns, even as she strives to support (and repair) programs and policies that she knows are flawed. So it is with Head Start, by far the largest early-childhood program in the land, the only really big one that the federal government runs, and one that been in the news lately in part because it’s among the categorical programs that reform-minded Republicans like Congressman Paul Ryan would like to turn over to the states via block-grant funding. Mead wants to change Head Start in major ways but not take it away from Uncle Sam. She remains confident that he’s capable of fixing it and doesn’t have great confidence in the states, though she acknowledges that some state- (and district-) operated preschool programs have stronger results than Head Start and says she would welcome a “pilot program” whereby a few states (after meeting multiple federal requirements!) would gain greater say over their programs.

Setting aside the federalism question and recognizing Mead’s earnest desire to fix Head Start rather than damn its failings, this report still amounts to a devastating critique of those failings in 2014 and of Uncle Sam’s inability so far to set them right.

Mead correctly recalls that Head Start began under LBJ as part of the “war on poverty,” not as a pre-K education program per se. She accurately reports that it was intended to “deliver...

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On August 1, Chester E. “Checker” Finn, Jr., will step down from his role as founding president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, passing the baton to Michael J. Petrilli, Fordham’s longtime executive vice president. Finn will remain on staff as a distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus. Here is his “farewell address” as president.

This short essay cannot begin to say all that deserves to be said about the state of ed-reform in America in 2014, but it gives me an opportunity to do some stocktaking, recount a bit of history, and flag some challenges for the future.

Organizationally, the modern Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Foundation that birthed it have been around for seventeen years, but the reformist zeal and philosophy that it inherited from the Educational Excellence Network carry us back to 1981. Two years before A Nation at Risk, Diane Ravitch and I—and a handful of fellow travelers—had concluded that American K–12 education needed a kick in the pants, a kick toward greater quality, primarily in the form of stronger student learning. (More of that tale can be found on our website here and here.)

That’s thirty-three years ago, before many of today’s ed reformers were even born, and, while Diane has obviously deviated from that path in recent years, I like to think I’ve continued to trudge down it, along with an ever-growing cadre of fellow reformers and—since 1997—with Fordham’s organizational...

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Andy's odyssey: Part one

This is the first of a collection of posts about a recent self-assigned course of study—essentially a bunch of reading and furrowed-brow thinking about a subject that’s been gnawing at me.

This series will be an adventure. Though I’ve got a solid thesis, the rest is a jumble of idea fragments. I haven’t ironed out all of my arguments, I sure don’t know what they all amount to, and I’m still a country mile from recommendations.

But over the years I’ve learned I need to write about stuff before I really understand it and then write some more before I can assemble the pieces. Rather than scribbling and editing in private and then, hopefully, producing some tidy digest when the pondering is through, I’m going to file dispatches from the field.

Here’s the gist. Over the last year, I’ve found myself growing restive about ed-reform developments. Sometimes the feeling was hard to explain—a general unease during conferences or while listening to presentations. Other times, I could pinpoint it. For example, when leaders would profess anger at current conditions and a sense of urgency about change but then defer to longstanding arrangements and urge collaboration with them, or when organizations would boast of their commitment to diversity but show no interest in building politically diverse teams.

For a while, I chalked up my grumpiness to age or the zeitgeist. I’m getting older and more set in my ways. As our field evolves, perhaps it’s inevitable that I...

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