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.

With all the attention that’s focused on teachers, principals must feel like the neglected stepchild of education reform. Evaluations, tenure, and the lackluster performance of teacher prep programs are all hot reform topics, and there’s no shortage of books and articles that obsess over all things teacher-relate. But what about principals? School leaders are responsible for nearly everything that happens in a school—from creating a positive culture and tracking data to evaluating instruction and hiring (or sometimes firing) the teachers who most affect student outcomes.

Research points to the challenges of recruiting and selecting effective principals. Most principals are chosen from employees who already work for the district. This isn’t a problem per se, except that districts often do a poor job of building skills in and smoothing the transition for those they select. Add to that the other hallmarks of the job, such as high pressure and low compensation, and it’s easy to understand why it’s so hard to find great talent.

This bleak picture begs the question: Is anyone doing it right?

A recent piece in Education Week looks at KIPP's principal training, which boasts “real-world practice” for its participants. One of KIPP’s six programs, the Fisher Fellowship, is a yearlong residency that includes an intensive summer workshop, one-on-one coaching with experienced leaders, and the opportunity to spend a year visiting high-performing schools across the country. Fellows receive salaries and benefits, allowing them to focus their time and energy solely on...

Greg Harris

Greg Harris is Ohio state director for StudentsFirst.

Despite fierce efforts to derail the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System midway through its first year of implementation (the 2013–2014 academic year), it survived. Now the results are in, and preliminary analysis suggests that 90 percent of Ohio teachers fared well. More importantly, a cultural shift is underway that is pushing more principals to observe and interact with teachers—and placing far greater emphasis the impact of teachers on kids.

In December 2013, the Ohio Senate unanimously passed SB 229, which sought to exempt teachers rated in the top two categories (“Accomplished” or “Skilled”) from annual evaluations under the new Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES). Proponents argued that by exempting the best teachers, schools could focus their energies on developing less effective teachers.

While the bill was reasonable on its face, a deeper look showed cause for concern. Historically, the vast majority of Ohio teachers had been rated in those top two tiers and would be exempted from evaluation if trends held. This promised a sharp reduction in annual OTES participation.

Such a reduction in participation would prove especially unfortunate in light of the fact that OTES represented the first time in Ohio history that teacher evaluation has been linked to student outcomes. Thus, a genuine effort to improve teacher quality in Ohio required the full participation of its...

NCTQ has been tracking the health of the nation’s teacher pension systems annually since 2008. It was a bad year to start—the Great Recession was heading for its nadir—but surely in 2014 things are starting to look up, right? Not so much, say the authors of the latest edition of Doing the Math on Teacher Pensions. In 2014, the overall debt load of teacher pension funds in the fifty states and the District of Columbia reached $499 billion (an increase of more than $100 billion in just the last two years). An average of seventy cents of every dollar contributed to the systems goes toward paying off the accumulated debt rather than paying into upcoming benefit needs. The folks at NCTQ, while not above some “sky-is-falling” rhetoric, report on the status of seven reforms that they believe would help to avert the pension disaster that has been looming for years, including full portability of plans, reasonable contribution rates for employers and teachers, and fair eligibility rules. The overall average state grade for teacher pension policy in 2014 is a lowly C-. Mountains of debt, overly long vesting periods, backloaded benefits, and lack of portability were the main sticking points this year. One state received an F (Mississippi); one an A (Alaska). The latter squarely hits five of the seven reforms, making a sustained effort to pay down its accrued pension debt after shutting down its previously mired defined benefit plan. The news in Ohio is mostly good. The...

Faced with enormous budgetary shortfalls, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) voted in May 2013 to close forty-seven schools, one of the largest waves of school closings in U.S. history. Shortly thereafter, CPS adopted a policy aimed at relocating more than ten thousand displaced students into higher-performing CPS schools for the 2013—14 school year. The district called the schools that absorbed displaced students “welcoming schools.” This policy was supported by research showing that students affected by closure benefit academically if they land in a better school. The welcoming schools were all higher-performing on CPS’s internal measures of performance; they also received additional resources to ease the influx of new students (e.g., student safety and instructional supports). But how did the policy play out? Did displaced students actually enroll in their assigned welcoming school? According to University of Chicago researchers, 66 percent of displaced students enrolled in their welcoming school in fall 2013. Meanwhile, 25 percent of displaced students attended other neighborhood-based CPS schools, while 4 percent attended a charter and 4 percent attended a magnet school. An analysis of student records indicates that distance from home, building safety concerns, and residential mobility were all significant reasons why students did not attend their welcoming school. (Parent interviews also highlighted some of the issues in choosing a post-closure school.) The study does not report the academic results for CPS students post-closure. (Stay tuned for a new Fordham report in March on how Ohio students fare after closure.) Overall, CPS crafted a reasonable though...

The pundit class is raising questions about whether Scott Walker’s lack of a college degree disqualifies him from being America’s forty-fifth president. This is what educators call a “teachable moment” because the issue goes much deeper than Governor Walker’s biography. Of course a college credential shouldn’t be a prerequisite for the presidency, but that’s also true for many jobs that today require a degree even when it’s not really necessary. That’s a big problem.

Many American leaders are obsessed with college as the path to economic opportunity. President Obama, for instance, wants America to lead the world in college graduates by 2020. But he’s hardly alone. Philanthropists, scholars, business leaders, and other members of the meritocratic elite have been banging the “college for all”—or at least “college for almost all”—drum for the better part of a decade.

Yet despite their own blue-ribbon educations, these leaders are making a classic rookie blunder: They mistake correlation for causation. They point to study after study showing that Americans with college degrees do significantly better on a wide range of indicators: income, marriage, health, happiness, you name it. But they assume that it’s something about college itself that makes all the difference, some alchemy at their alma mater that turns gangly eighteen-year-olds into twentysomething masters of the universe.

Sure, college can be a great experience, and many individuals gain important knowledge, skills, insights, and contacts there. It’s also a prerequisite for most graduate and professional schools. All of that can help to build...

For the first time since No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) stands a real chance to be reauthorized by Congress. It’s been at least seven years since it was supposed to be re-upped, and it’s overdue for some changes.

Most encouragingly, the Republican bills introduced to date seem to be designed to strike a balance between promoting parental, local, and state empowerment while also being pragmatic enough to stand a chance of becoming law. They’re still far from the finish line and could be made even stronger in the process. That said, they are a worthy effort and have the potential to improve the federal role in education policy dramatically.

Two chambers, two proposals

House education committee Chairman John Kline’s job is easier because his Student Success Act (SSA) passed out of the full House once before (in July 2013, on a party-line vote), and he can’t be blocked by a Democratic filibuster. He’s already marked up the SSA and plans to send it to the floor and pass it out of the House again in short order.

Senator Alexander, on the other hand, must cobble together a sixty-vote majority if he wants to send a bill to conference committee. He started the journey when he released his Every Student Ready for College or Career Act of 2015, an update of his reauthorization proposal from 2013, in early January. Since then, his HELP committee has held three hearings, and his staff...

Luke Kohlmoos

Recent research has shown that it may be more difficult for teachers of students with certain background characteristics (i.e., low achieving, poor, minority) to score highly on teacher observations. However, Whitehurst, Chingos, and Lindquist’s conclusion in Education Next that we adjust teachers’ observation scores is a disservice to students and teachers alike.

Introducing a score adjustment explicitly lowers the expectations for low-income, minority children. The adjustment Whitehurst describes is based on demographic information which correlates with achievement but does not determine achievement. This is the opposite of what we aspire to as an education system, which is to achieve a system in which the questions of who your parents are, which zip code you were born in, and the color of your skin do not determine how well you perform and how you are treated. What is being communicated is that black and brown children can't have classrooms like white children. If we not only believe that but actually systematize that belief into how we observe classrooms, there is no reason to believe teachers and students will do anything other than meet those lower expectations.

We must ensure that the standards we hold for all students and teachers remain consistently high. This means using the same rubrics, being scored on the same scale, with the same level of transparency.

We know students of all backgrounds are capable of growing quickly, but it is not always easy for observers to recognize that growth comes in different packages. Making sure that observers...

  • Politico has a look at Chicago’s fast-approaching mayoral election, in which incumbent Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces off against four challengers. Even though he leads his closest opponent, Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia, by nearly twenty-five points, Rahm still can’t seem to consolidate the necessary support needed to avoid a runoff. At issue is his sweeping education reform agenda, which has been credited with the closure of a raft of failing schools, the expansion of pre-K to more low-income kids, and a record spike in the high school graduation rate. Teachers’ unions and their backers are having none of it, throwing their support behind Garcia after having gone on an infamous weeklong strike at the beginning of the mayor’s term. Let’s hope Rahm sticks to his guns and broadens the growing network of Democratic figures agitating for reform.
  • The Windy City isn’t the only place handing out more caps and gowns. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. high school graduation rate reached a record 81 percent in 2013. It’s a terrific development, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan lost no time in trumpeting it as “a vital step toward readiness.” If you want to understand the causes of the increase, look no further than a certain oft-badmouthed piece of legislation that’s currently up for renewal: No Child Left Behind and its associated reforms arguably did more than anything else to propel students toward the commencement podium. As Johns Hopkins Professor Robert Balfanz
  • ...

In just twenty-five short years—it’s scarcely older than most of its current recruits—Teach For America has gone from a grassroots edu-insurgency to the largest teacher pipeline in the country and a dominant voice in reform debates. How’d they do it? In this new white paper, Bellwether analysts Sara Mead, Carolyn Chuong, and Caroline Goodson use internal TFA documents and interviews with key past and present staff members to tease out how the organization was able to maintain high quality while scaling up for the last fifteen years. Turns out it’s not rocket science, just hard work. TFA relied on regular measurement of applicants, corps members, and students. They’ve been equally diligent in expansion planning, taking care to evaluate each new region’s need for teachers, potential funding base, and local politics—as well as TFA’s ability to attract talent to live and teach in a given area. Rigorous quality-control mechanisms during new-site development and deepening ties in the places they already serve have fueled an expansion from 1260 corps members in fifteen regions in 2000 to 10,500 in fifty regions in 2013. And much of this has been successful due to TFA’s operational agnosticism (there’s not a lot of, “We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way” in TFA) and commitment to continuous improvement. Particularly in a sector where so many actors elevate intentions over impact, the organization’s aversion to preciousness is both refreshing and instructive. There’s plenty for other nonprofits and ed organizations to learn from here....

High schools hoping to increase student success in college have often turned to an innovative solution: allow students to take college-level coursework before they graduate. The hope is that by exposing teenagers to college courses earlier, they will be more likely to think they are “college material,” earn a bit of college credit for free (or nearly free), and get acclimated to college-level rigor. (Most of these courses are taught on high school campuses by high school teachers.) A new report from the Education Commission of the States (ECS), however, questions just how strong some of these courses are and examines state strategies to ensure rigor.

The ECS analysts found that states generally follow one of four approaches to ensure quality in “dual enrollment” courses: 1) Some states, including Colorado, leave decisions about whether courses are worthy of credit up to post-secondary institutions; 2) others, such as Delaware, require post-secondary institutions and high schools to reach agreements, but do not prescribe the nature of those agreements; 3) eight states have adopted the guidelines of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP), which are designed to ensure quality and cover topics including curricula, faculty, students, assessments, and evaluations; and 4) six others require or encourage actual NACEP accreditation.

States and districts working to encourage the completion of truly college-level coursework in high school should, as ECS recommends, ensure that educators are prepared to teach such rigorous work. They should also ensure high schools are being honest with students so they...

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