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.

Robert Hanna

Andy Smarick and Juliet Square recently published a report arguing that state education agencies, or SEAs, lack the expertise needed to implement today’s education reforms. Federal policymakers expected SEAs to be “compliance examiners,” focused on monitoring districts’ use of federal education funds, they wrote. The authors argue that many of SEAs’ successes are limited to compliance and that SEAs are not capable of meeting the additional demands of educational innovation and reform. In a related blog post by Smarick, he refers to compliance and monitoring as being in the SEA’s “DNA structure.”

If compliance is really in SEAs’ DNA, did the federal government get the gene sequencing wrong?

Today, the Center for American Progress released three reports about the ways in which SEAs work within the current education governance system. The reports identify innovative approaches to changing the genetic code of SEAs given current demands for far-reaching education reforms. We argue that despite barriers, real or perceived, there are more effective ways for states to meet these demands—and that both federal policymakers and state leaders have roles to play.

As education policy researcher Patrick Murphy describes in his report, federal education regulations often have adverse impacts on states. Each federal fund comes with different strings attached. As a consequence, SEA leaders often silo their agencies by federal fund in order to make sure they meet compliance requirements. For example, staff working on projects funded by Title I are contained within...

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Asking whether teacher tenure should be abolished in public schools is like asking whether the Tampa Bay Rays (18 games below .500) should sack their shortstop. Sure, that might be a good start, but that’s not going to be enough to turn things around.

First, the argument for eliminating tenure: As Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled on Tuesday, any benefit that tenure provides to teachers is far outweighed by its costs to children and society by keeping grossly ineffective instructors in the classroom. Defenders often say that tenure is all that limits principals and school boards from terminating teachers for innumerable bogus motives. Yet in the decades since legislatures put tenure laws on the books, legal protections for all employees have grown dramatically, particularly in the public sector. Dismissal under tenure requires a far more onerous due process procedure. But even without it, anyone who believes that he or she has been discriminated against or fired for “arbitrary and capricious” reasons can sue, and will often win. That goes for teachers, too.

Tenure reform is no education game-changer. Tenure is just one part of a dysfunctional approach to human resource management in U.S. schools that needs a complete overhaul. Our public education system is among the only institutions in the land still pretending that professionals will spend their whole careers in a single job. The teacher compensation structure heavily favors lifers, what with its mix of low pay with generous, back-loaded retirement benefits. This is an...

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For this year’s “Diplomas Count,” an annual Education Week special issue, researchers surveyed teachers and administrators for their opinions on student engagement in their schools. The results were unsurprising and straightforward: the educators overwhelmingly agreed on how to identify engaged students (they’re the ones with good attendance, who participate frequently in class, and who get good grades).  Yet just 40 percent believed that the majority of the students in their school were engaged. Perhaps that’s because the educators themselves don’t know how to engage their students; fewer than half reported receiving any pre-service training on the topic, and only 58 percent reported learning about student engagement via in-service training While none of this is particularly shocking, the accompanying commentary by Ed Week’s journalists, informed by the survey results, is thoughtful enough to deserve your engagement.

SOURCE: Education Week, Diplomas Count 2014: Motivation Matters: Engaging Students, Creating Learners (Bethesda, MD: Editorial Projects in Education, June 2014).

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On Tuesday, a California superior court judge tentatively overturned five state laws related to the employment of teachers. The plaintiffs’ attorney called the decision “a victory for students, parents, and teachers across California.” The head of the Los Angeles teachers union said, “This decision today is an attack on teachers.” The court ordered a stay on the decision, pending appeal. Here are ten things worth knowing as the case moves on.

  1. The plaintiffs, a group of students and school districts, argued that several state statutes stood in the way of all students receiving the education guaranteed to them under the California constitution. “Plaintiffs claim that the Challenged Statutes result in grossly ineffective teachers obtaining and retaining permanent employment, and that these teachers are disproportionately situated in schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students. Plaintiffs’ equal protection claims assert that the Challenged Statutes violate their fundamental rights to equality of education by adversely affecting the quality of the education they are afforded by the state.”
  2. The judge agreed. He found “that the Challenged Statutes impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education and that they impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.”
  3. This was essentially a civil-rights case, and the court underscored that point, starting its opinion by referencing Brown vs. Board of Education and then quoting the famous passage that education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
  4. State courts have, in recent years, frequently
  5. ...
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Back in college, one of my political science professors wanted to make a point to a lecture hall full of know-it-all freshman.

He asked all of us to think back to when we were first getting interested in politics and developing positions on major issues. For most of us at this inside-the-beltway university, that was early.

He asked us to write down what our positions were back then on a list of three hot-button issues he provided. We did so eagerly.

He then said to the 400 of us, “Now, consider your current positions on these issues. Please raise your hand if your opinion on issue one has changed.”

Not a single hand went up.

“Please raise your hand if your opinion on issue two has changed.”

Two hands went up.

“Please raise your hand if your opinion on issue three has changed.”

Not a single hand went up.

He had us. “I’m sure you all realize how young and uninformed your previous selves were. You probably also know how much new information has come out over the last decade and how these debates have evolved. And yet, of 1,200 possible switches, we only have two.”

Then the coup-de-grâce.

“Is it that you were unfailingly brilliant at 12 years old, or are you allowing that 12-year-old to continue dictating your political views?”

He then introduced us to the academic research. One body of literature showed that once an individual made a decision (this is particularly true in the case of...

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Like many states, Ohio has lately undertaken a slew of ambitious but much-needed K–12 education reforms. In the Buckeye State, these include ratcheting up academic-content standards (e.g., Ohio’s New Learning Standards, which includes the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts), bringing new assessments online, putting in place new accountability measures, and expanding and ensuring quality school choices for parents and students. Taken together, these changes are significantly changing the ecosystem of Ohio’s public schools.

The spring session of the Ohio General Assembly generated few significant new reforms. But lawmakers pulled off a mostly commendable nip-and-tuck job on those already adopted. They fine-tuned several big reform initiatives in ways that should help schools put them into practice. They also improved accountability for Ohio’s school-choice programs. The Mid-Biennium Review bills (House Bills 483 and 487) now await the signature of Governor Kasich. Here we discuss the most substantive policy issues (save for teacher evaluations, which are discussed in the following piece).

Pausing Accountability

The General Assembly reasserted Ohio’s commitment to the Common Core and to the PARCC assessments. But it prudently slowed things down a bit. To help schools adjust to these new and more-challenging expectations, the legislature provided a one-year “safe harbor” for districts and schools. For the 2014–15 school year, the first year that PARCC will be fully operational, the legislature exempts schools and districts from accountability sanctions such as automatic charter closure, state receivership (via the Academic Distress Commission), and...

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The Senate and House finally reached a compromise over changes to Ohio’s teacher-evaluation system (OTES), which, in its first year of statewide implementation, has drawn criticism from school leaders arising from what they say is its administrative burden. Some felt that, as a result of its classroom-observation mandates, principals may not have time to properly support any teacher, let alone those who struggle.

This journey began with a Senate bill passed back in December (Senate Bill 229), which continued with the House Education Committee proposing major changes—followed by weeks of debate on the competing versions. (A comparison of the two bills can be found here, and our analysis of the House bill is here.)

The compromise ended up in House Bill 362, which originally dealt with STEM-school matters. It now awaits Governor Kasich’s signature. Major changes include giving districts the option of changing the percentage of an evaluation tied to teacher performance and student growth from 50 percent to 42.5 percent each; providing districts with several different ways to make up the remaining 15 percent, including (but not limited to) student surveys; and allowing districts to be flexible with the observation frequency of top-rated teachers.

Everyone loves a happy ending. But as a former teacher, this bill leaves me with several lingering questions, as does OTES itself.

First, this has been the first year of OTES implementation for most Ohio districts. End-of-year test results won’t even be published until later this summer. So why were...

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Joe Siedlecki

Here follows the tenth entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some cities’ charter sectors outpace their district schools while others fall behind.

In a recent column for USA Today, AEI’s Rick Hess and Michael McShane argued that “creeping bureaucratization and regulation are endangering the entire charter school movement.” I’d argue the opposite: the real danger to the charter movement is lack of effective regulatory enforcement.

In their column, Hess and McShane put the best possible face on charter successes:

Objective analysis has also found charter schools to be successful, particularly with students from low income backgrounds. In 2013, researchers at Stanford University studied charter schools in twenty-seven states and found that, on average, students in charter schools outperform traditional public school students in reading and do about the same in math. Students below the poverty line and African American students were both found to fare better in charter than in public schools when their standardized test scores were disaggregated.

Certainly there have been sector-wide improvements since 2009, when the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO, home of the Stanford researchers cited above) issued a highly influential report, which found “a disturbing—and far-reaching—subset of poorly performing charter schools.” CREDO’s 2013 update notes important improvements and can indeed be summarized at the broadest level (as Hess and McShane have done) as positive.

But children are educated at individual...

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The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released an alarming new report today on teacher absenteeism in America’s urban public schools. While teacher absences were unacceptably high across most of the school districts that NCTQ analyzed, Cleveland and Columbus public schools earned the unhappy distinction of having the most teacher absences of them all. NCTQ’s analysts used district-level data from 2012-13 to calculate the number of teacher absences in forty of the nation’s largest urban school systems. The results were, on the whole, woeful: teachers across these districts were absent, on average, eleven days during the school year. (The length of a school year is roughly 180 days.) NCTQ’s analysis excludes days missed due to major illness or maternity leave, and did include days missed for professional development.

Teacher absenteeism borders on a crisis in Cleveland and Columbus. Cleveland’s teachers missed an average of sixteen days while in Columbus, teachers missed fifteen days—good for the highest and second-highest absentee rates in this study. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati—the only other Ohio district that NCTQ analyzed for this study—teachers missed an average of twelve days of school. (In a separate study, NCTQ found that Dayton’s teachers were absent nearly fifteen days.) However, not all of a district’s teachers are shirking work: Many of these absences can be attributed to “chronically absent” teachers—those absent eighteen or more days. In Cleveland, the percentage of the “chronically absent” teachers was a staggering 34 percent (second-highest in this group of districts); in Columbus, the percentage...

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Cleveland’s teachers union is in a fit over the district’s increased utilization of Teach For America (TFA) to fill teaching positions. Instead of griping, the labor union should think instead of the larger human-resource crisis the district faces. The district has a myriad of human-resource struggles and, as we’ll see, one of them is its aging workforce.

The backstory, in brief, is the following. For Fall 2014, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) has approved the hiring of forty new TFA teachers. This more than doubles the nineteen TFA corps members that the district hired for the 2013-14 school year. TFA is a highly regarded organization that recruits and trains talented young people to teach in high-need schools across the nation.

But, as the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported recently, the teachers union doesn’t seem to be on board—and that’s too bad. In light of its opposition, here’s a fact the union should chew on.

In 2012-13, CMSD had the highest percentage of teachers with more than ten years of experience of all districts in Ohio. Indeed, 89 percent of its teaching force had more than ten years of experience.[1] As a reference point, the statewide average for districts was just 59 percent. Somewhat similar to Cleveland, the other urban-eight districts also had above-average percentages of experienced teachers. Toledo, the next highest urban district, came in at 84 percent; Canton, at 60 percent, came in lowest among the urban eight.

In other words, CMSD...

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