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.

Morgan Polikoff

Election Day is less than a week away. Given the heat around major education policies—especially Common Core and teacher evaluations—there is increased attention to public attitudes about education. A number of polls from major news organizations, education groups, and universities have been commissioned over the past several months, and education pundits and advocates on all sides of current reform debates have endlessly parsed the results.

Unfortunately these pundits are mostly misguided, and public opinion polls on education don’t mean what people think they mean. What follows are three conclusions, all based on data from these various polls, and a discussion of what they ought to mean for education policy and advocacy going forward.

Conclusion 1: Americans’ views on education are incoherent.

The most straightforward conclusion from existing polling data is that Americans’ views are all over the map and, depending on the issue, either nuanced or contradictory. The clearest example of this is on standardized testing. The 2013 Phi Delta Kappa (PDK)/Gallup poll found that just 22 percent of the public thought that standardized tests have helped local public schools. But when asked about specific test-related policies—some of which are even more ambitious in scope than our current testing regimes—Americans express strong support. An Education Next poll, for example, shows 71 percent of Americans support mandatory high school exit exams. And despite 54 percent of respondents telling PDK/Gallup in 2014 that standardized tests aren’t helpful, between...

Last month, editors of The Youngstown Vindicator, one of Ohio’s most respected newspapers, made an unusual appeal on their op-ed page. They asked the state superintendent of public instruction, Richard Ross, to take over their local school system.

The Youngstown Board of Education had, in their opinion, “failed to provide the needed leadership to prevent the academic meltdown” occurring in their district. They added that Mr. Ross was “overly optimistic” in believing that the community could come together to develop a plan to save the district. Therefore, they pleaded, “[W]e urge state Superintendent Ross to assign the task of restructuring the Youngstown school system to his staff and not wait for community consensus.”

It’s not every day that local citizens ask the state to take charge of educating the children in their community. Such a move illustrates the despair that many Americans feel about their own schools—and their inability to do much to improve them.

That’s why, over three years ago, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, along with our friends at the Center for American Progress, began a multi-year initiative designed to draw attention to the elephant in the ed-reform living room: governance. Given its ability to trample any promising education improvement—or clear the way for its implementation—it was high time to put governance at center stage of the policy conversation.

Our “anchor book” for that initiative, Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century: Overcoming the Structural Barriers to...

  • With Election Day on Tuesday (go vote!), Education Week is covering interesting state battlegrounds with its delicious “Caravan of Delights” series. Each day, State EdWatch mainstay Andrew Ujifusa walks readers through an important state race, including polling numbers, candidates’ education-related positions, and local factors influencing the debates. Individual sections are devoted to each Republican and Democratic candidate, and a catchall section lists other things to know, such as relevant information about select superintendents and lieutenant governors. It’s worth a read for anyone who wants to make an educated vote—which we could use more of.
  • Bloomberg Philanthropies is teaming up with Khan Academy, the College Board, and a handful of other prominent ed groups to boost the college-going rates of poorer students. Spending more than $10 million over the next two years, the program targets top high schoolers who come from lower-income families and aims to educate them about on the college application process. Too many of these kids are missing out on opportunities. The plan is to reach about 70,000 students, persuading at least 10,000 of them to attend any one of 250 colleges where lower-income kids tend to graduate at a high rate with manageable debt. No matter how you look at it, this is a great initiative. Still, one wonders whether it’s enough. Should interventions start younger? 

The case for character education hardly needs to be made. Have a glance at the motivational posters lining school hallways everywhere. “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration,” Thomas Edison counsels our kids. “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” adds NBA star Kevin Durant. Perhaps Brookings will issue a classroom poster with Richard Reeves’s face and his conclusion from this paper: “Smarts matter, but so does character.” We get it. Among the least surprising findings in social science research is that people who have certain character strengths (this paper focuses on “drive” and “prudence”) do better in life. Whether our children have great or modest gifts, we hope they will work hard, delay gratification, and persist when things don’t come easy. Still it’s easy to get nervous when Reeves suggests “too little attention is paid by policymakers to the cultivation and distribution of these character skills.” What exactly would such attention look like? Demanding that schools making AYP in grit and prudence? Character value-added measures? Likewise, eyebrows may rightfully be raised when Reeves suggests that “character skills may count for a lot – as much, perhaps, as cognitive skills – in terms of important life outcomes.” That so? A figure in the report is headlined “Drive and Prudence Matter as Much as Book Smarts for HS Graduation” (“Book Smarts?” Seriously, Brookings?), but the bar graph clearly shows “high reading skills” matter a lot more. Therein lies the mischief. It’s a lot easier to discern and...

This new study asks a question that is receiving increasing attention: How does teacher preparation affect student achievement? To answer it, the authors gathered data from about 22,078 North Carolina educators, including how teachers were prepared and characteristics of the schools where they teach. This was combined with five years of test score data from 1.18 million students. The study is more robust than similar research, owing to its comprehensive data set and the way that it grouped teachers: Instead of lumping teachers into two broad groups—traditional or alternative certification—it creates much more nuanced groups of teachers by the way they were prepared, as well as by grade and subject taught. The first comparison is between teachers who were traditionally prepared to those who received alternative certification (meaning they didn’t have a full credential when they began teaching), excluding teachers prepared by Teach For America. Alternative entry teachers are significantly less effective (as determined by value-added measures) than traditionally prepared teachers in middle school math and high school math and science. There was no difference in the other grade levels and subjects. Second, compared to traditionally-prepared teachers, TFA teachers are more effective in six of the eight categories: elementary math and reading, middle school math, and high school math, science, and English. Third, teachers prepared out of state are less effective than those prepared in state in elementary math and reading and high school math. Fourth, teachers who began teaching with a graduate degree are less effective in middle school math and reading, but...

For the first time this year, the College Board released the annual test results of its three programs—AP, SAT, and PSAT/NMSQT—in one report. The news is mixed. On the upside, an unprecedented number of students, including a large increase in minority and low-income students, participated and succeeded. Of the 1.67 million students who took the SAT, nearly half were minorities and nearly a fourth were low-income students. And the number of high school students who succeeded on at least one AP exam (earning at least a 3 out of 5) doubled in the past year. On the other hand, the results reveal at least three problem areas. First, too many students are missing out on opportunities. Thirty-nine percent of the 684,577 students who showed AP potential (indicated by high PSAT/NMSQT scores) didn’t enroll for a single AP class. Likewise, for SAT takers, 9 percent were close to achieving the college and career readiness benchmark and might have succeeded with less than a year of additional instruction. The SAT Benchmark is a combined score of 1550 and indicates a 65 percent likelihood of achieving a B- average or higher during the first year of a four-year college. Second, using this same SAT figure, the majority of high schoolers still aren’t prepared for college or career; and the proportion who are, 42.6 percent, hasn’t increased in the last year. Third, achievement gaps abound. Only 15.8 percent of African American, 23.4 percent of Hispanic, and 33.5 percent of Native American SAT takers will...

Jonathan Schleifer

Countries with high school exit exams appear to have higher levels of student achievement, as indicated by PISA and some positive evidence from other countries that have used graduation exams. But have they worked in the United States? A recent Education Next forum failed to ask this essential question.

When fourteen public school teachers came together as part of Educators 4 Excellence-New York Teacher Policy Team on how to improve the use of testing in schools, they were taken aback by the depth of research showing the harmful effects of exit exams, which twenty-six states have adopted in one form or another.

There are two relevant research questions: Do exit exams have beneficial effects on students in terms of achievement or labor-market outcomes? And do exit exams have negative consequences, particularly on historically disadvantaged populations of students? The answers are no and yes, respectively. Here’s a representative, though not comprehensive, review:

Studies that find no benefit

  • In 2008, researchers examined a nationally representative sample of students and found no impact on achievement of high school graduation exams for any subpopulation of students, including low achievers.
  • A 2010 study of California’s exit exams used a regression discontinuity analysis to examine students who had just narrowly failed a tenth-grade exam. The results were disappointing: “The analyses show no evidence of any significant or sizeable effect of failing the exam on high school course-taking, achievement, persistence, or graduation for students with test scores near the exit exam
  • ...

SECOND ACT
Nevada and Missouri are the most recent states to contract with the SAT and ACT to ensure that every eleventh grader has access to a college entry exam. While we can all agree that increasing access to these tests is a good thing, there are also concerns about adding another test to the pile. Some wonder if the test could serve the dual purposes of college admittance and school assessment.

ELECTION SPOTLIGHT: KANSAS
Funding for schools has landed on the political map in Kansas, where Democrat Paul Davis stands an excellent chance of upsetting Republican incumbent Governor Sam Brownback. Democrats claim that Brownback’s primary fiscal agenda item, a series of tax cuts, has led to a revenue shortfall that endangers public education. The governor’s supporters point to nonpartisan analysis indicating that per-pupil funding has, in fact, increased over the last several years.

POLLING ALERT
New numbers are out on Common Core’s approval among teachers. According to today’s Gallup poll, 41 percent view the standards positively and 44 percent negatively. Beyond the top-line polling, there were interesting implications for the initiative’s continuing popularity: Among teachers employed by schools in which the standards have been fully implemented, over 60 percent took a favorable view.

SECURITY FOR STUDENT-ATHLETES
On the heels of UNC’s mushrooming “shadow curriculum” scandal, which has led to NCAA critics demanding changes to...

What happens when policymakers create statewide school districts to turn around their worst-performing public schools? In Louisiana and Tennessee, Recovery School Districts (RSDs) have made modest-to-strong progress for kids and serve as national models for what the future of education governance might hold.

In the Great Lakes State, the story is more complicated.

In Redefining the School District in Michigan, Nelson Smith, senior advisor to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, examines the progress of the Education Achievement Authority. Unlike the larger RSDs, Michigan’s is a smaller effort with just fifteen schools, all in Detroit, and a big focus on competency-based learning.

As the policy brief attests, the EAA model—direct-run schools with limited reliance on chartering and a high-tech approach—is far from the catastrophe that some critics claim. Yet its detractors aren’t all wrong. There have been many hurdles. The EAA was rolled out on a tight timeline and a shoestring budget, amid urban decline in Detroit. It would have taken a miracle for this to work out well. (Which is something policymakers might have considered before pursuing this path.) Further, its governance arrangement is a Rube Goldberg invention of epic proportions.

The reality of the EAA is not as disastrous as you may have heard. But it’s also not a success like the RSD or ASD—both of which are improving outcomes, albeit slowly, for kids. Which might make its cautionary lessons that much more important for other states thinking of going down this route.

The key takeaway from...

HOSTILE TAKEOVER
Students, teachers, and community members in Memphis protested the takeover of local schools by Tennessee’s state-run Achievement School District, which contracts the administration of failing schools out to charter providers. Students chanted in protest while brandishing signs reading, “We’re not going down without a fight." For the full story on the ASD and other reform measures in Tennessee, drop everything and turn to Nelson Smith’s classic 2013 report for Fordham.

BLOOMBERG PUSHES LOW-INCOME KIDS TO COLLEGE
As has been widely reported, dropping out of college can exact a dreadful toll on job prospects and future income. Today, just one-third of all top-performing high school students from the bottom half of the income scale attend a college with a six-year graduation rate above 70 percent. To address the problem, Bloomberg Philanthrophies has started an initiative to boost that portion to one-half, the New York Times reports.

"STUDENT"-ATHLETES
The Hechinger Report’s Joseph Rauch has an excellent, searing take on the academic scandal haunting the University of North Carolina. Though it’s easy to feign shock over a decades-long fraud, the university’s bogus “shadow curriculum” is actually just one episode in a long history of the exploitation of NCAA student-athletes. “Helping students cheat,” he writes, “is just one of many methods that educational institutions use to maintain this status quo where students allow them to rake in money without...

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