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.

In a bizarre press release from the AFT, Lorretta Johnson argues that Fordham’s recent research on the growing number of school employees who don’t teach is all about “the bottom line of a school district budget.”

Michael Petrilli, Fordham’s president notes,

Frankly, the AFT has missed the point here. The question isn't whether our schools should employ paraprofessionals—it's why some schools are able to get by with so many fewer aides than others and why other countries seem to get by with hardly any at all. Life is full of trade-offs, and if we want to invest in higher teacher salaries or more time for collaboration, taking a hard look at the number of nonteaching staff might be a good place to start.

After all, The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach is just one of two studies that looks at these staggering and growing numbers.

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My Fordham colleague Andy Smarick is engaged in a one-man intellectual odyssey this summer aimed at quelling his intellectual discomfort on a fascinating question: is education reform inherently anti-conservative?

“At its heart, conservatism is about humility. It holds that there is great value in the traditional. Old things have stood the test of time,” Andy writes. So how can you call yourself a conservative, as Andy does, if you are “disposed to preserve venerable institutions and yet favor dramatic K–12 change?”

Andy’s posts are a work in progress, but allow me to enter the fray in medias res because I find the frame and his intellectual exercise absorbing. I’ll confess that disrupting the “institution” of public education has never given me much pause. I’m not sentimental about “public schools” and haven’t been since I started teaching in one. “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty,” Madison said. He had nothing to say about the issues ed reformers (and those who resist reform) tend to focus on: under whose control, beneath which roof, on whose dime, and with what forms of accountability?

The public’s interest lies in a well-educated citizenry. The wish to share with our children the best of what has been discovered, thought, written, and accomplished is at heart a deeply conservative impulse. The means by which this is accomplished is a secondary concern. Advancement and diffusion should be enough. There is no need to protect and defend a system of public schools...

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Why do American public schools spend more of their operating budgets on non-teachers than almost every other country in the world, including nations that are as prosperous and humane as ours? We can’t be certain. But we do know this:

  • The number of non-teachers on U.S. school payrolls has soared over the past fifty years, far more rapidly than the rise in teachers. And the amount of money in district budgets consumed by their salaries and benefits has grown apace for at least the last twenty years.
  • Underneath the averages and totals, states and districts vary enormously in how many non-teachers they employ. Why do Illinois taxpayers pay for forty staff per thousand pupils while Connecticut pays for eighty-nine? Why does Orange County (Orlando), Florida, employ eleven teacher aides per thousand students when Miami-Dade gets by with seven?

What accounts for such growth and such differences? We don’t know nearly as much as we’d like on this topic, but it’s not a total mystery. The advent and expansion of special education, for example, led to substantial demand for classroom aides and specialists to address the needs of youngsters with disabilities. Broadening school duties to include more food service, health care, and sundry other responsibilities accounts for still more.

But such additions to the obligations of schools are not peculiar to the United States, and they certainly cannot explain big staffing differences from place to place within our country.

The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach, a new...

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With fewer than one hundred days left until the 2014 election and with control of the U.S. Senate a virtual coin toss, few are focusing on the potential impact a Republican takeover might have. Should Republicans get the keys to the Senate and gain control of both houses, they will still have find common ground with President Obama (and one another) if they are to get anything accomplished.

Regardless of whether congressional Republicans agreed with the President when he said late last year that inequality and economic mobility were the “defining challenge[s] of our time,” he clearly struck a nerve. In the last few months, several groups on the Right have offered proposals designed to put a conservative spin on helping the poor. The latest, a discussion draft from Congressman Paul Ryan titled “Expanding Opportunity in America,” has drawn praise from both ends of the political spectrum and could serve as a blueprint for negotiations over reform next year.  Here are some highlights.

“Opportunity grant”

Fights over debt and deficits aren’t over, but the ideas in Ryan’s “discussion draft” are budget neutral and mostly leave third-rail topics like programs for seniors and the disabled completely alone. Instead, Ryan is proposing combining a huge part of the social safety net—including funds for food stamps, cash assistance, housing assistance, and much more—into a large line item called the “Opportunity Grant.” States that wanted to participate would submit a plan describing how they would these funds, with the results closely tracked.

Taxation

While Ryan certainly...

Andy's odyssey: Part three

This series’ first two posts mostly noodled around with concepts, probably leaving dirty-fingernail types sighing, “What does any of this have to do with our actual work?”

In subsequent posts, I’ll narrow in on applications, but it probably makes sense to spend a little time on this now. Here, I’ll try to explain why a conversation about the intersection of conservatism and ed reform is timely and, hopefully, whet your appetite for further discussions.

It’s probable that Republicans will shortly wield more power. The 2014 midterms are nearing, and President Obama’s approval rating is but 42 percent.

Even if that number were higher, Democratic prospects would still be gloomy. The second midterm for the sitting president’s party almost always produces big losses (see FDR, Ike, GWB, etc.). The GOP already controls the House of Representatives, and it is expected to take the Senate and maintain control of a strong majority of governorships. While it’s too early to forecast the 2016 presidential election, history teaches that seldom does a party hold the Oval Office for three consecutive terms.

So how would an ascendant Right, cognizant of the governing responsibilities of a majority party, approach education reform? I predict a paradoxical blend of modesty and vigor. Channeling Shakespeare and his famous oxymorons, I’ll call it “energized retrenchment.”

Why retrenchment? The sophistry of today’s political “experts”—whose trenchant analysis of the Right consists of sneering, “Tea Party”—has cloaked a...

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Education Next

With a 2010 New York Times Magazine cover story, “Building a Better Teacher,” twenty-something journalist Elizabeth Green leapt to national prominence—as did the heroes of her article, Deborah Ball, the dean of the University of Michigan ed school, and Doug Lemov, a founder of Uncommon Schools, a network of high performing charter schools.

Now, four years later, she’s back with a book-length treatment of the subject with the same name. The book examines what great teaching looks like and how many more people can learn its secrets. Along the way, Green tells fascinating stories of teachers and researchers on a quest to create a true science of education—and pushes back against the notion that great teachers are born, not made.

In this edition of the Education Next Book Club podcast, Mike Petrilli talks with Green about her book, what’s she’s learned about great teaching, and her hope that it can become common practice in America.

Listen to the podcast on the Education Next website.

Additional episodes of the Education Next Book Club can be found here.

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As Gadfly readers know—from his “farewell address,” if not before—the irreplaceable Checker Finn stepped down as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s president last week, handing me the reins and the opportunity of a lifetime. As Checker made clear, he’s not retiring, disappearing, or giving up the fight—just letting go of the day-to-day responsibilities of managing an increasingly complex organization. He will, as he wrote, have more time than ever for troublemaking. American education will be the better for it.

So what does this mean for Fordham? Let me assure friends and foes alike that “evolution” is the apt term. Don’t expect any abrupt changes. Checker has been delegating a lot of decisions to our seasoned, superb senior staff for years; that talented team, along with our top-notch board of trustees, will continue to steer a steady course in the years to come, both with our national work and our efforts in Ohio.

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That’s not to say, however, that “abrupt change” isn’t needed in the education-reform movement. Let’s begin with that great, late philosopher Michael Jackson:

I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

Those of us lucky enough to work every day at improving our schools need to start by looking in the...

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Source: Students Matter. Note: NCTQ recently updated their data to reflect Ohio's new seven-year probationary period.


It’s open season on teacher employment protection laws in U.S. state courts. The watershed moment, of course, was June’s Vergara v. California verdict holding California’s laws unconstitutional. Vergara began back in March of 2012, when nine public school students filed suit against the State of California, arguing that California’s laws violated its constitutional guarantee of an effective education. In the seven weeks since, two high-profile copycat cases have been filed in New York State. Have we reached a point of no return? And if so, is that a good thing—even for those who oppose tenure? Don’t be so sure.

It’s important to keep in mind that teacher tenure is a state-law issue. Every state writes its own legislation, so laws are usually different from state to state. Just because teacher tenure is poorly structured in California doesn’t mean tenure is bad everywhere. In fact, the current landscape provides a perfect opportunity to showcase this important lesson. Let’s start with California.

In Vergara (and its copycats), three types of laws were at issue: (1) tenure, which determines under what circumstances the state will grant a teacher employment protections; (2) dismissal, defining the process through which states fire tenured teachers; and (3) seniority, which mandates what

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Ohio’s new teacher-evaluation system requires evaluators to conduct two, formal thirty-minute classroom observations. Yet these legally prescribed observations seem ripe for compliance and rote box-checking; in fact, they may not be quite the impetus for school-wide improvement that policymakers had hoped for.

If this does end up happening in practice, all is not lost. Rather, as I discuss below, informal channels for teacher feedback might actually be more conducive to helping teachers (and their schools) improve than formal procedures.

Consider Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer’s recent work on New York City’s charter schools. The research duo takes great pains to uncover what school-based factors make a great school tick. In my estimation, one of their key findings is how strongly the frequency of informal teacher feedback correlates to school effectiveness.

Dobbie and Fryer measure school effectiveness in two ways. For the full sample of thirty-nine schools, they use a statistical model (a matched student-pair approach) to estimate a school’s impact on achievement. Second, for twenty-nine of the schools, lottery-admissions data were used to estimate school effectiveness. Lottery-based computations are typically considered preferable, because researchers can approximate a random experiment. The researchers then probe the schools’ “inner-workings” during the 2010-11 school year, to gauge which school-based factors differentiate higher- and lower-performing schools.

The study concludes that a “bundle” of practices and attitudes—generally those associated with a “No Excuses” charter-school model—are linked with more-effective schools. Overall, this might be expected, given the powerful research findings on KIPP charters and...

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Andy's odyssey: Part two

This series is wrestling with a set of related questions. Is education reform inherently anti-conservative? Are reformers behaving as though it is when it should be informed by conservatism? What have we wrought by stiff-arming conservatism? How might things be better if we sought counsel from conservatism?

One of the most important aspects of this inquiry relates to balancing change and preservation. A National Affairs article by Phillip Wallach and Justus Myers, “The Conservative Governing Disposition,” sheds valuable light on this issue and proves a helpful guide to understanding conservatism’s role in education reform.

The article describes the “conservative governing disposition,” an approach to policymaking that wonks and practitioners alike should understand. It also surfaces three issues that will be a recurring theme in this series.

Conservative governing disposition

The authors distinguish the conservative “disposition” from policy proposals—it’s an approach, not an agenda. It can be seen in the work of giants like Burke, Hume, Madison, Hamilton, Hayek, and de Tocqueville. One scholar described it as more of a “temperament (and) less an articulate philosophy.”

Wallach and Myers write, “Conservatism starts with the premise that social practices, habits, and institutions embody the accumulated wisdom of trial-and-error experience.” So much of what exists is evolutionarily sturdy; it is not here by accident. The authors smartly note, “Dispositional conservatism is sympathetic to complexity.” What progressives might consider messy or byzantine, a conservative would see as full and robust, made so...

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