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.

Over the course of 2014, a series of reports from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) spotlighted some serious issues with education schools in Ohio. The Buckeye State boasts performance reports that analyze teacher preparation programs, but these reports merely show how little is expected of candidates prior to their acceptance into a teacher preparation program. Furthermore, Ohio doesn’t have minimum standards or clear consequences for poor programs. NCTQ is right that our teacher preparation programs need to get better in two key ways: improving candidate selection and strengthening teacher training. Here’s how.

Candidate selection

Right now, Ohio sets a low bar for admission into ed schools. Countries with the highest scores on PISA[1]—like Singapore and Finland—restrict admissions into teacher preparation programs to only their best students. In fact, in Finland, becoming a teacher is such a competitive process that only about one in every ten applicants will be accepted to study to become a primary school teacher. This is similar to what Teach For America does: In 2014, more than 50,000 people applied to join TFA, and only 5,300 were admitted—an 11 percent acceptance rate.

The intense screening process is designed to select only the candidates who are most likely to succeed. In Finland, for example, teacher candidates are chosen based on exam results, their high school diploma, and their out-of-school activities. They then complete a written exam on assigned pedagogy books, participate in an observed clinical activity...

In the past year, Ohio policymakers have turned their attention to strengthening vocational education. Rightly so; too many non-college-bound students exit high school without the skills to enter the workforce. Blue-collar businesses in Ohio, for example, continue to express concerns about the “skills gap”—the mismatch between the technical abilities they need and the actual skills of their workers. But retrofitting vocational education to meet the demands of today’s employers remains a work in progress. As Ohio schools retool vocational education, they should seek examples of those who have accomplished this very task, and a new paper from the Pioneer Institute provides five case studies of technical high schools in Massachusetts that are well worth reading. A common thread emerges: All of the schools are thriving with the support of their local businesses. These companies have advised the schools on program design (e.g., what skills and jobs merit emphasis), and they have driven fundraising efforts. A couple examples are worth highlighting. One technical school worked closely with advanced manufacturing companies in the area to raise half a million dollars to outfit the school with cutting-edge metal working machines. (Previously, the school had provided technical computer skills, but not actual hands-on machinery experience, leaving manufacturers frustrated.) Another school partnered with the community bank to open an actual retail branch within the school building. High-school students had the opportunity to work alongside full-time employees to learn banking, retail, and marketing skills. Vocational programs that both match local business needs and receive...

James R. Delisle took aim at differentiated instruction (DI) in his commentary in the latest issue of Education Week, noting the challenge of making this nice-sounding idea work with the reality of many of today’s classrooms.

As our own Mike Petrilli wrote in 2011: “[T]he enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom” is the greatest challenge facing America’s schools. The implication is that those teachers seeing success with differentiated instruction—however few they may be—simply have less variation in learning levels among their students and, therefore, have less differentiation to do. (Oh, and that they have the right training, full understanding, endless diligence, and loads of time.)

So what’s the answer? Delisle wants to bring back ability grouping to fully replace DI. It is hard to deny  that America’s classrooms have changed greatly over the last few decades, so perhaps it’s time to toss out “one or the other” thinking and go for something new—a hybrid of sorts.

How about curriculum-based mastery instead? A content sequence with multiple check points along the way (yes, that’s testing). Master it, move on. Don’t master it, remediate until you do. In such a case, you can get the advantages of both DI and ability grouping. Students at both the high and low ability levels start at the same point in a new content area. Groups of students with similar achievement move forward together; those needing similar remediation work do so together. All with the...

Overachieving Andy already beat me to the punch with ten thoughts about the secretary’s speech today. Rather than try to compete, I’m going to keep it simple and stick to three. Anyway, who has time for ten of anything?

  1. Secretary Duncan deserves kudos for the respectful tone he struck today. Unlike, say, Jonah Edelman, who just last week likened critics of today’s heavy-handed federal role in education to the states-rights segregationists of the 1950s, Duncan found a way to disagree with Republicans without being disagreeable. (I should add that Jonah is a friend whom I like and respect very much; his comments were uncharacteristically harsh.)
     
  2. Amen for focusing on the progress that public schools are making. My favorite line of the speech was this one: “It is striking that black and Latino nine-year-olds are doing math today at about the level that their thirteen-year-old counterparts did in the 1970s.” That’s incredible—and true. He went on to celebrate other markers of progress: “A young Hispanic person is now half as likely to drop out of high school, and twice as likely to be enrolled in college. The number of black and Hispanic students taking AP exams increased nearly fivefold. For the first time, four out of five students are completing high school on time.” I wouldn’t give Uncle Sam the credit for all of this (and neither did Duncan), but I’m glad he reminded the country that education reform is working. We
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As I wrote last week, with the ESEA reauthorization process heating up, lots of advocates are now trying to influence the congressional deliberations. Secretary Duncan weighed in this morning. Here are ten things you should know about his speech.

  1. It was fifty years ago today. The initial frame of the speech harkens back to the original ESEA (1965) and its raison d’être. Duncan even cited Robert F. Kennedy. This is a civil-rights issue for the secretary; indeed, he repeatedly used words like “equity,” “fairness,” and “justice” in his speech. But to many, LBJ’s Great Society is also synonymous with the excesses of federal activity; it is the voracious, technocratic, disconnected, wasteful, ineffective, inside-the-Beltway bureaucracy. Conjuring up this era will motivate many…but not in the same way.
  2. Civil rights legislation? Given this framing and the news of Duncan’s having been deeply affected by the Garner and Brown cases, I was prepared for the secretary to be explicit that ESEA is civil rights—not just education—legislation aimed at righting longstanding racial wrongs. I also wondered if he would suggest that a vote against strong K–12 federal accountability would be in the same vein as opposing rights-expanding legislation of the 1960s. But he was mostly delicate in this area. He did, however, use President George W. Bush’s famous NCLB line against opponents of federal accountability. Duncan juxtaposed his own position (encapsulated, in his view, by a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. line) with the “
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In AEI’s latest Vision Talks video, Arthur Brooks, its president and the happiest man in the think-tank world, argues that public-policy advocates need to make a better case: one that is moral, about people, and to the point. This talk could not be better suited for conservatives, especially as presidential hopefuls are (sigh) already campaigning. Many acknowledge that conservatives must talk about issues in a better way if they plan on expanding their base to young voters and minorities. But Arthur Brooks would have made a better case for conservatives if he hadn’t used education reform as his example.

Brooks makes some very valid points: Public policy advocates should discuss moral (not a materialistic or economic) goals; public policy is about helping people; and ideas should be communicated quickly. (And he adds in some the nifty fact that communicators have seven seconds to win someone over before the listener’s brain tells him move on.) But this doesn’t work with ed reform because, for the most part, we’re already there. From “A Nation at Risk” to “content, character, and choice” to having the “right to rise,” politicians have made that to-the-point and emotional leap. Blogger Alexander Russo rightly noted that this is “something that pretty much everyone in education advocacy has come to understand at this point.” Some groups, including the PIE Network and Education Cities, have been on that case for years with messaging advice to...

Ah, January is upon us: The wind is howling, the thermometer is plummeting, and we are greeted by the nineteenth consecutive edition of Quality Counts, Education Week’s compilation of mostly useful data, analysis, rankings and commentaries.

The single best thing about QC is its focus on states, not just because it enables state leaders to view external gauges of their own performance and compare it with other states, but also—especially valuable today—because it reminds everyone that states remain the central players in matters of K–12 education quality. (So many have obsessed for so long about federal stuff and Common Core—itself a state initiative—that it’s easy, especially inside the Beltway, to lose focus.)

The analysts and authors of QC keep fussing with the variables, metrics and weightings by which they grade state performance. This year, once again, those variables are sorted into three buckets, two of which have to do with processes, practices, and inputs. Some of the latter (e.g., parents’ education) is completely beyond state control, and some is based on questionable assumptions about how much is enough (and whether more is better) when it comes to education spending. Only the achievement bucket focuses on outcomes. Along the way, some issues of key interest to education reformers—most conspicuously school accountability, teacher quality, and choice—have vanished from the QC calculus.

One helpful bit: If you don’t like their weightings within the variables, you can fiddle with them yourself and...

SAT WORDS: NOW WITH MORE COOING
Researchers from the Thirty Million Words project are setting out to educate (brand) new mothers on the importance of parent interactions from day one. Pulling from the famous 1995 Hart and Risley study, which found that children from working-class families hear an average of thirty million more words by the age of four than those of “welfare” families, the team is hoping that early interventions will encourage new parents to read and talk to their newborns at every opportunity. Hear, hear, says Robert Pondiscio, who has argued that it pays to increase one’s word power.

MORE ON READING
A new report by Scholastic found that less than one-third of children interviewed between the ages of six and seventeen read for fun on a daily basis. Being read aloud to, restricted digital time, and free time to read at school were all top factors among those who reported regularly reading for pleasure. Literacy experts say parents should continue to read aloud to their children throughout elementary school to build higher-level vocabulary and develop interdisciplinary background knowledge. But Michael Petrilli would argue that as long as kids are gaining knowledge, a little screen time doesn’t hurt.

BABES IN TECHLAND
Digital learning has carved out a permanent place for itself in the classroom. A new piece in Education Week explores how the tools of online education are being...

Debate begins today on H.R. 30, a bill to tweak Obamacare so that large employers need not provide insurance for their staff unless they work forty hours per week, versus thirty hours under current law. The rationale is clear: The thirty-hour rule appears to be encouraging employers to cut workers’ hours, which is driving down income at a time when many part-timers are already struggling to make ends meet.

It got me thinking: How many school districts would be required to provide health insurance to their teachers under the proposed standard? Of course, virtually everywhere, such benefits are already baked into state law and/or local contracts for teachers, so this is just a thought exercise. And yes, most teachers work longer than is contractually required—both on site and at home. But so do professionals in other fields. The current debate made me curious about the mandatory workweek of the nation’s teachers.

To find out, I tapped the National Council on Teacher Quality’s fantastic Teacher Contract Database, which pulls information from collective-bargaining agreements (or their equivalents in non-union states) from more than one hundred districts nationwide. (Most of the data are current as of the 2013–14 school year.)

What did I learn? Most of the districts in the database don’t require a forty-hour workweek, and several don’t even come close. Let’s be honest, some of these workweeks are shockingly short. Sacramento’s barely hits the current Obamacare threshold!

Take a look for yourself at the range from the shortest to longest...

ESEA reauthorization explained in a single table

Once upon a time (OK, it was 2007), we D.C. policy wonks were gearing up for a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act (a.k.a. No Child Left Behind), and all the buzz was about the new federal requirements that would be added. Checker and I dubbed it “No Idea Left Behind.”

What a difference eight years makes. As Politico reported last week, with Republicans fully in charge of Capitol Hill, the only question this time around is how much Congress will subtract. Call it No Red Pen Left Behind.

Below is my take on the major ESEA provisions that are dead for sure, those that will survive, and the handful of policies that will animate the coming debate. [1]

[1] To be clear, some of the provisions listed here aren't in ESEA proper. Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation fund were created as part of the 2009 stimulus bill; the administration dreamed up the requirements that states adopt teacher-evaluation systems and "college- and career-ready standards" as part of its conditional ESEA waivers. The administration would, no doubt, like to fold all of these into a new ESEA. I doubt that's going to happen....

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