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.

It looks to me as if one of the most acclaimed reforms of today’s education profession—not just in the U.S. but also all over the planet—is one of the least examined in terms of actual implementation and effectiveness. How often and how well do instructors, whose administrators and gurus revere the concept of differentiated instruction, actually carry it out? How well does it work and for which kids under what circumstances? So far as I can tell, nobody really knows.

I’ve been roaming the globe in search of effective strategies for educating high-ability youngsters, particularly kids from disadvantaged circumstances who rarely have parents with the knowledge and means to steer them through the education maze and obtain the kind of schooling (and/or supplementation or acceleration) that will make the most of their above-average capacity to learn.

As expected, I’ve found a wide array of programs and policies intended for “gifted education,” “talent development,” and so forth, each with pluses and minuses.

But almost everywhere, I’ve also encountered some version of this assertion: “We don’t really need to provide special programs, classrooms, or schools for gifted children because we expect every school and teacher to differentiate their instruction so as to meet the unique educational needs of all children within an inclusive, heterogeneous classroom.”

A thoroughly laudable goal, say I, but how realistic is it? How well is it being done? And does it really meet...

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Almost a year has passed since the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) published Teacher Quality Roadmap: Improving Policies and Practices in the Dayton Public Schools. The report, funded jointly by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Learn to Earn Dayton, analyzed teacher policies and related practices within the district, with the goal of to identifying short- and long-term improvements to policy and practice that could in turn increase the quality of the teaching force.

As Learn to Earn Executive Director Tom Lasley noted in June of 2013, when the report was released, teachers’ impact matters immensely, especially in a region and district that has seen significant population declines and has confronted (and continues to confront) economic challenges.

NCTQ framed its analysis and findings around five key areas: staffing, evaluations, tenure, compensation, and work schedules. Analysts met with teachers, principals, community leaders, and other stakeholders, and they reviewed district policies and state law. A slate of recommendations—some easier to tackle (e.g., maintain the current schedule of teacher observations under the new evaluation framework) and some harder (e.g., giving principals the authority to decide who works in their buildings)—resulted.

District superintendent Lori Ward and her colleagues got to work and, by December of 2013, accomplished several significant improvements. Among them, principals are no longer forced to accept transferred teachers to fill vacancies; rather, principals have the ability to select the most qualified candidate (including new hires).

Additionally, reductions in force, which in the past were based on seniority...

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Former Ohio governor Jim Rhodes wrote in 1969, “Many of today’s social and economic ills result from a lack of employment among the able-bodied. The lack of employment stems directly from inadequate education and training.” Governor Rhodes continued, asserting that vocational-training programs for young women and men could help to meet the demands of a changing modern-day economy.

Fast-forward forty-five years: Ohio has changed substantially, but as did Governor Rhodes, the state’s policymakers are again hitching their wagons to vocational education. Retro is in, and that’s a good thing: vocational education—a.k.a. “career and technical education”—has the potential to open new pathways of success for many teenagers.

Little, however, is widely known about how Ohio organizes its vocational-education programs or how students in them fare. Cue the state’s new report cards, which include helpful information about the state’s vocational programs. The following looks at the report cards, yielding five takeaways regarding Ohio’s vocational options.

Point 1: CTPDs and JVSDs are not the same

Ohio has two key entities in the realm of vocational education: (1) Career and Technical Planning Districts (CTPDs) and (2) Joint Vocational School Districts (JVSDs, also called “career-tech centers”). CTPDs are an administrative entity, while JVSDs are direct vocational-education providers. Both CTPDs and JVSDs are comprised of member school districts; however, while all districts are part of a CTPD, not all districts are part of a JVSD.

Throughout Ohio, ninety-one CTPDs oversee vocational programs. CTPDs have at least one member school...

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When it comes to state education agencies (SEAs), ed-reformers have fallen into a sorry rut.

As states have emerged as primary drivers of much-needed changes in K–12 practice and policy, the SEA has become the default agent-of-change for a vast number of initiatives concocted by policymakers in state capitals and Washington alike.

Want a new teacher-evaluation system and more rigorous certification standards? Want to crack down on school violence and bullying? Want better assessments of school performance and improved interventions for low-performers? Want to widen broadband access and encourage blended learning?

Hand it to the SEA.

Given that this agency is the state’s primary (or only) K–12 administrative unit, one can easily see why decision makers have had this impulse.

Yet the SEA was originally designed—and then acculturated over decades—to distribute dollars to local districts and monitor their compliance with a lengthening list of federal and state regulations and categorical funding streams. It was never intended to lead complex, contentious, large-scale reforms that require original thinking, nimble action and constant adaptability. In other words, it wasn’t intended to carry out a huge fraction of the responsibilities that have recently been thrust upon it.

In our new report, The New SEA: At the Helm, Not the Oar, we propose that this plain fact be recognized and alternative arrangements made.

This does not mean we think the SEA has no role in education reform, much less that we...

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After a controversial change to a state law, what happens on the ground? This piece, from last month’s meeting of the Association for Education Finance and Policy, delves into one such case. In 2012, Ohio lawmakers approved the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES), which requires evaluations be based on student-academic-growth measures, formal observations, and classroom walkthroughs. This study examines whether local teacher-collective-bargaining agreements negotiated after OTES was adopted allow the evaluation results to be used in personnel decisions (the authors called this “bridging”)—or if they protect experienced or tenured teachers’ jobs regardless of their evaluation scores (“buffering”). The authors found that all of the fifteen contracts they studied are essentially bridging when it came to evaluation policies, meaning that the contracts match well with state law and allow principals to use growth measures, observations, and walkthroughs when evaluating teachers. However, results were quite different when it came to actually using OTES to make decisions: the researchers discovered that four of five contracts are buffering when they examined a variety of specific provisions. For example, most contracts contain buffering provisions that keep seniority as a consideration when making reductions in force. Some even keep seniority as the primary or sole means of deciding who is laid off first, in spite of state law to the contrary. Regarding transfers, only three districts have bridging contracts that give administrators discretion to fill vacancies; most keep seniority as a consideration, and none explicitly require the use of OTES scores in transfer decisions. For tenure...

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In recent years, policymakers and reform advocates have viewed State Education Agencies (SEAs) as the lead organizations for implementing sweeping reforms and initiatives in K–12 education—everything from Race to the Top grants and federal waivers to teacher-evaluation systems and online schools. But SEAs were not built—nor are they really competent—to drive such reforms, argue Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire in The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar [link]. And despite the best efforts of talented, energetic leaders, SEAs will never be able to deliver the reform results that their states need. This latest paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests a new governance approach, organized around what Smarick and Squire call the “4 Cs”:

Control: Return SEAs to their core functions of channeling federal and state dollars to districts; adopting statewide standards and assessments; creating and maintaining data systems; and monitoring compliance with applicable laws.

Contract: Contract with other organizations that are better equipped to accomplish education work, while ensuring that performance agreements with those organizations delineate outcomes and consequences for poor performance.

Cleave: Leave tasks that are well outside SEAs’ core competencies—such as charter-school authorizing and generating educational innovation—to other government entities or nongovernmental organizations.

Create: Encourage state leaders, both inside and outside government, to create new entities to take on much-needed reform work.

For more on the role of the SEA, tune into “State Education Agencies: The Smaller the Better?”...

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Michele Cahill, Leah Hamilton

The Carnegie Corporation’s Michele Cahill and Leah Hamilton, veterans of Joel Klein’s Department of Education in New York City, responded to a challenge posed by Petrilli with a thoughtful alternative view.

In Mike’s post on Monday, he asks if our schools have “an answer” for students who are unprepared for high school—a group that makes up, as he says, as much as 80–90 percent of students. He also points out, correctly, that all that many districts offer these students is a chance to muddle through four years (or more) in a large, comprehensive high school, in hopes of earning a diploma that by no means signals readiness for college or a career. It is an indictment of our educational system that many do not achieve even that.

Fortunately, there are models out there that show that it is indeed possible to structure high schools to do much more for underprepared students. A recent book by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane, Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge of American Educationfor example, describes what the authors call “high schools that improve life chances,” pointing in particular to small, nonselective high schools created in New York City by the Department of Education and New Visions for Public Schools. Explicitly designed according to a set of design principles that stress academic rigor and personalization, attention to youth development, strong community partnerships, and accountability for results, these schools have produced powerful results for students—many of whom fall squarely within the cohort of the...

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Some music scholars believe that 50 years ago, the blues—the primordial indigenous American musical form—was on the brink of extinction. Its progenitors were fading away, mainstream America was uninterested, and the unsympathetic forces of musical evolution were marching on.

But across the pond, in the 1950s and early 1960s, a gang of teenaged Brits, hailing from a nation still reeling from World War II’s devastation, happened upon imported records by U.S. blues legends like of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. These lads, connecting with the music’s enigmatic blend of sadness and hubris, studied with awe.

Years later, they would make it to our shores, with names like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, reintroducing the United States to something of its own creation and using it to plot an extraordinary path forward.

In 1993, Massachusetts passed the “Education Reform Act,” legislation that touched every important area of K–12 policy: increasing funding, toughening standards, upping accountability, introducing chartering, reforming teacher preparation, and more. It was arguably the most important state-level action of the standards-and-accountability movement.

Beyond it’s comprehensiveness, two aspects of the law stand out. First, over the next two decades, regardless of political party, the state’s leadership (governors, education commissioners, and state board members) remained faithful to its vision. Second, it helped Massachusetts emerge as one of the nation’s highest-performing states: as of 2013, according to the Nation’s Report Card and international assessments...

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We know from international data—PISA, TIMSS, and so on—that other countries produce more “high achievers” than we do (at least in relation to the size of their pupil populations). And it’s no secret that in the U.S., academic achievement tends to correlate with socioeconomic status, hence producing far too few high achievers within the low-income population. But is this a uniquely American problem? How do we compare to other countries?

To begin to answer these questions, Chester Finn and I looked more closely at the PISA 2012 results (in conjunction with a study we’re conducting on how other advanced countries educate their high-ability students). The OECD has a socioeconomic indicator it uses in connection with PISA results called the Index of Economic, Social, and Cultural Status (ESCS). Like most SES gauges that depend heavily on student self-reporting, it’s far from perfect, but to the best of our knowledge it’s no worse than most. In any case, it’s one of the few socioeconomic indicators that allow for cross-national education comparisons. It is derived from parents’ occupational status, educational level, and home possessions,[1] and it can be split into quartiles for a given country, wherein the bottom quarter has the lowest SES and the top quarter has the highest.

PISA results are reported, inter alia, according to seven proficiency levels, ranging from zero to six. Levels 5 and 6 are the highest. To get a feel for this demarcation, approximately...

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Of all the responses to my “you’re-not-college-material” essay, there’s one I find most compelling—and worrying. Namely, kids who aren’t “college material” aren’t “career- and technical-education material” either. Springpoint’s JoEllen Lynch says it well:

It’s a myth that CTE meets the needs of low performing kids from low performing schools. So, it depends on what problem we are trying to solve. Are we just looking for more models for students who enter high school fully prepared, or are we trying to create models that will address the needs of kids who are not? I think many people feel that CTE is an answer for the unprepared; this notion is not based on data or an understanding of the demands of good CTE schools.

I stand corrected. Since I wrote my Slate piece, I’ve learned much more about high quality CTE programs, including one I visited in Fordham’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio (the Ponitz Career Technology Center). This high school (with close ties to Dayton’s excellent community college) is even selective, only accepting incoming freshmen who score proficient on Ohio’s math or reading tests and who stayed out of trouble in middle school.

Assuming that Dayton is not an outlier and that Lynch is correct, this raises an obvious question: if CTE is not “an answer for the unprepared,” what is?

Cue RiShawn Biddle of Dropout Nation. He was not happy with my “college-material” essay, arguing that it earned me a...

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