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.

Senator Lamar Alexander, Representative John Kline, and their respective staffs have successfully freaked out sizable portions of the education-reform crowd—especially those who spend our days inside the Beltway bubble—by threatening to eliminate No Child Left Behind’s annual testing requirement. I’m hoping that this is just a bluff or feint—a way to strengthen their negotiating position—because the idea is so insane.  Do Republicans really want to scrap the transparency that comes from measuring student (and school and district) progress from year to year and go back to the Stone Age of judging schools based on a snapshot in time? Or worse, based on inputs, promises, and claims? Are they seriously proposing to eliminate the data that are powering great studies and new findings every day on topics from vouchers to charters to teacher effectiveness and more?

I suspect they’ll come to their senses. But I do appreciate the impulse—both the reaction to a dozen years of Washington micromanagement (taken to new heights by Arne Duncan’s conditional waivers) and the very real concern about over-testing in the classroom. If the GOP wants actually to fix that problem, however, rather than just rail about it, here’s an idea: Kill the federal mandate around teacher evaluations and much of the over-testing will go away.

That’s because much of the huge growth in testing in recent years hasn’t come from No Child Left...

Dear Santa,

On behalf of a host of certified experts, policy wonks, busybodies and know-it-alls: All I would like for Christmas this year is your help in getting people to do what we know is best for them rather than what they want to do.

I know, I know, there are all those old clichés about a free society and the “pursuit of happiness.” But why do those stubborn kids and parents refuse to understand that we know better than they do what will bring them happiness? OK, maybe not perfect happiness, but we certainly know what’s good for them.

Consider Michelle Obama. She went to Princeton, for Pete’s sake, and Harvard Law School. I think she even passed the bar exam. She’s a real expert on so many things. She definitely knows what’s good for kids. After all, she has two of her own. And she has some sort of garden at the White House where they grow stuff that she says is healthy to eat. Surely she knows better than kids and parents and cafeteria ladies and Aramark what students ought to eat for lunch. After all, she persuaded the president of the United States and the Congress—experts all—to change the rules regarding the food that schools serve to their pupils.

But those stubborn kids don’t want to eat what she says they should eat—and they’re bankrupting their school districts by refusing to buy it! They’re not just stubborn. They’re downright destructive! If only...

SHAME OF THE WORLD
First Lady Michelle Obama said Friday that we need to accelerate efforts to extend education to girls in all communities. Worldwide, 62 million girls do not attend school, and in some countries, less than 10 percent move on to secondary school for reasons such as high tuition or material costs, early and forced marriage, and lack of safety measures while commuting to and from school.

LOOK AWAY
The Hechinger Report sat down with Mississippi principal Shannon Eubanks to discuss state leaders’ recent rebuke of the Common Core State Standards. Eubanks, along with teachers and district leaders, worry that repealing Common Core midway through the school year will cause chaos for teachers, who have spent two years implementing the new standards. Common Core is designed to close the gaps between high- and low-achieving students, but abandoning the standards this late in the game would leave many kids behind.

TUESDAYS ARE NOW DUCK L'ORANGE DAYS
The push to increase the nutritional value of cafeteria fare has had a major negative side effect: Students aren’t eating the healthier food. In an attempt to make healthier food more palatable, some districts are hiring professional chefs out of prestigious culinary institutes. Santa Clarita Valley schools recently hired a chef out of Le Cordon Bleu, the chain of world renowned culinary institutes that has produced famous chefs like Julia Child and Mario Batali. 

CHART(S) OF THE WEEK
Vox has a quick, revelatory set...

Jack Schneider

Editor's note: This post is the fourth entry of a multi-part series of interviews featuring Fordham's own Andy Smarick and Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Week's K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric blog. Earlier entries can be found herehere, and here.

Schneider: We ended our last post with a question about school funding. You seem to be more concerned with the issue of accountability than I am. And I appear to be more concerned with equal funding.

So it seems like maybe we have a chicken and egg issue here.

I don't think you can begin to talk accountability seriously until you have a relatively equal playing field. You seem hesitant to channel funds to organizations that can't meet accountability targets. Can you talk through your position for me?

Smarick: My position on funding in a nutshell is: I want every school in America to have the money necessary so every child can succeed, but we need to appreciate that more funding won't necessarily generate better results. 

So let's first put some basic facts on the table.

The U.S. now spends close to $700 billion annually on K–12 education. If our primary and secondary schools were a country, they would have the twentieth-largest GDP in the world, larger than the economies of Sweden and Poland.

We now spend in the neighborhood of $13,000 per student annually (this includes capital outlays and debt). Even after controlling for inflation,...

REFORM MARCHES ON
Though the heavily publicized Rolling Stone story of rape and scandal at the University of Virginia has seemingly fallen apart amid accusations of shoddy reporting and fabrication, the school continues to search for ways to curb the universal college culture of binge drinking. While it takes more than social adjustment to stop determined sexual predators, experts agree that irresponsible substance abuse greatly contributes to the number of sexual assaults on campuses.

I DO NOT THINK IT MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS
With officials from city halls all the way to the White House banging the drum for universal pre-K, Chalkbeat examines the varied definitions of that term. In some jurisdictions, the “universal” part is actually restricted to low-income families; in others, the costs of the program aren’t fully covered. “If [politicians] started out trying to create a universal program and came up short,” one observer notes, “they don’t want to stop calling it universal.”

THIS WI-FI BROUGHT TO YOU BY THE LETTER E
The FCC expanded the E-Rate program that provides high-speed Internet for schools and libraries, disbursing an additional $1.5 billion in funding. The initiative constitutes about a third of the expenditures of the Universal Service Fund, which has seen its budget grow by 20 percent during the Obama presidency. Members of the five-person commission split 3-2 along party lines on the increase, with one dissenting Republican claiming that the proposal “simply pours money into...

Jack Schneider

Editor's note: This post is the third entry of a multi-part series of interviews featuring Fordham's own Andy Smarick and Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Week's K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric blog. Earlier entries can be found here and here.

Smarick: It looks like Congress may try to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this year. Whether either chamber can develop a consensus bill, whether a single bill can be embraced by both chambers, and whether the president would sign such legislation are all open questions.

Lots of very tricky issues will need to be worked out if this needle's to be threaded. Maybe the biggest challenge is defining the proper relationship between the federal government and the states when it comes to K–12. Some on the right believe Uncle Sam should have very little say; they'd like the federal government to just stay out.

Two big things stand in the way of this. First, the feds send billions in Title I funds to states every year. Many policymakers have a hard to time accepting that states should get such vast sums of money and have no responsibility for showing that these dollars are being well spent or that kids are learning. Second, when states made virtually all K–12 decisions absent federal accountability rules—call this the "pre-NCLB" era—our nation didn't get the results we wanted. Overall performance was largely stagnant, and too many disadvantaged kids were left behind.

...

THE KING STAY THE KING
The reform-minded John King is leaving his current post as New York’s Education Commissioner in order to accept a position in the Department of Education. While his tenure in the state has received plaudits from some in the pro-charter movement, King’s departure is sure to please union officials who called for his resignation last spring. He’s also the latest in a series of reformers to leave top spots in their states, as Fordham’s own Andy Smarick observed today.

SNOW JOB
In a unanimous vote, state Board of Education officials in West Virginia approved a trial plan to introduce more flexible instructional time in a select number of schools. Selected schools will still be required to have 180 school days, but the schools will be able to choose how long each school day is and employ out-of-classroom teaching, such as online learning, on a snow day. At the time of this writing, there was no news yet on whether the state’s children had threatened to hold their breath until they turned blue in protest.

BUT WHEN WILL KETCHUP REJOIN ITS VEGETABLE BROTHERS?
Outraging first ladies and delighting children across the land, Congress has included compromise elements in the much-debated Omnibus Appropriations Bill that will allow schools to back away from including whole grains in their meals, as well as slow-walk the adoption of stricter sodium restrictions until 2017. That means that the world remains safe for cafeteria french fries...

Reformers understandably fixate on our disputes du jour. They generally have compelling characters and some perceived peril: college kids rattling plastic sabers at TFA, a pair of Pelican State politicians double crossing Common Core, etc.

But of far greater moment is our never-ending uphill struggle against homeostasis, nature’s inclination to slide back to the comfortable equilibrium of the way things have been. Its reverse pull—like gravity, invisible and relentless—is the real danger. Slowly, silently shifting tectonic plates, not fast-moving, thunderous storms, bring down mountains

This is why we should pay close attention to three subtle storylines about to converge.

The first is the exodus of reform-oriented state chiefs. The Race-to-the-Top era made state leaders of prominent reform figures: Deborah Gist in 2009; Chris Cerf, John King, Kevin Huffman, Stefan Pryor, and Hanna Skandera in 2011; John White and Mark Murphy in 2012; Tony Bennett in 2013. They led efforts to create next-generation accountability systems, overhaul tenure and educator evaluation, expand choice, toughen content standards, improve assessments, and more.

But that tide is receding. As Andrew Ujifusa reported, twenty-nine states have changed chiefs in the last two years. This includes Barresi (Oklahoma), Bennett (Florida), Cerf (New Jersey), Flanagan (Michigan), Huffman (Tennessee), Nicastro (Missouri), Pryor (Connecticut), and, per yesterday’s major announcement, John King (New York). Huge questions are left about reform in these states and others: What becomes of the ...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in slightly different form on the Commentary website.

Given the volatility and sensitivity of “racial profiling” these days, heightened by recent developments in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland and by brand new law-enforcement “guidelines” from the Justice Department, one could be tempted to thank the National Education Association for its recent effort, in league with a bunch of other organizations, to develop curricular materials by which schools and teachers can instruct their students on this issue.

One should, however, resist that temptation. It turns out that, once again, the NEA and its fellow travelers are presenting a one-sided, propagandistic view of an exceptionally complicated issue that elicits strong, conflicting views among adults; that carries competing values and subtleties beyond the ken of most school kids; and that probably doesn’t belong in the K–12 curriculum at all.

My mind immediately rolled back almost three decades, to the days when the Cold War was very much with us, when nuclear weapons were a passionate concern, when unilateral disarmament was earnestly propounded by some mostly well-meaning but deeply misguided Americans—and when the NEA plunged into the fray with appalling curricular guidance for U.S. schools.

Here’s part of what the late Joseph Adelson and I wrote in COMMENTARY magazine in April 1985:

[T]he much-publicized contribution of the National Education Association (NEA), to give but one example, looks blandly past any differences between the superpowers. Its one-page “fact sheet” on the USSR simply summarizes population, land area, and

...

SANCTUARY CITY
Following the president’’s executive order providing temporary relief for unauthorized immigrant families, the Los Angeles Unified School District has received roughly 16,000 transcript requests. (The information is necessary to apply for the expanded DACA program.) Yesterday, district officials and union leaders agreed that they would help eligible students to access records to complete their applications.

MAYBE THERE'S ROOM IN WESTCHESTER
During an American Enterprise Institute event on Tuesday, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz unveiled her plan to have one hundred charter schools in the Success network within the next ten years. Moskowitz has been dealing with pushback from NYC mayor Bill de Blasio, whose administration has thwarted efforts to obtain space for expansion. She claimed that the schools are besieged by “people who are trying to kill us.

A PEN AND A PHONE AND A BILLION DOLLARS
President Obama announced a billion-dollar public/private early childhood education initiative. $250 million from the Department of Education will be divided between eighteen states to expand preschool programs, the Department of Health and Human Services has allocated an additional $500 million for daycare in forty states, and private groups have raised another $330 million through the “Invest in US” campaign. The initiative could go a long way to realizing the goal of enrolling every American child in preschool, which was announced in the president’s 2013 State of the Union Address. 

BREAKING: CAMPUS ACTIVISTS UPSET ABOUT SOMETHING
Ed-reform rock star and unofficial Friend of Fordham...

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