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.

How do we get new and better private schools of choice? That’s the question AEI’s Michael McShane and a cadre of researchers and practitioners dive into in this new edited volume. The book and a corresponding conference acknowledge that “better is not good enough.” Indeed, for far too long, supporters of school choice have been content with merely providing alternatives to district school options on the assumption that choice was a sufficient guarantor of quality. Instead, this book calls for a “nimble, agile, and market-driven” system of schools. Among the high points is Andy Smarick’s look at what has worked in chartering: incubation (leadership pipelines, start-up capital, strategic support, and political advocacy) and network building. He also reprises his call for “authorizers” to oversee publicly funded private schools. McShane agrees that this model could “provide oversight without stifling the set of options available for school choice.” Perhaps. But private schools, from Catholic schools to those providing alternative curriculum, often see themselves as working toward ends that are more than academic. Could they maintain their distinctive flavor in a marketplace that could devalue their mission? New and Better Schools is a smart look forward in private school choice programs and a thoughtful critique of how and where these programs have not thrived.

SOURCE: Michael Q. McShane, New and Better Schools: The Supply Side of School Choice (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)....

I’m no testing hawk. I’ve written plenty at Fordham and elsewhere that’s critical of test-driven ed-reform orthodoxy. Accountability is a sacred principal to me, but testing? It’s complicated—as a science, a policy, and a reform lever. Anya Kamenetz’s new book The Test is not complicated. She strikes a strident anti-testing tone right from the start. “Tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness,” writes Kamenetz, an education reporter for National Public Radio. If you’re looking for the good, the bad, and the ugly on testing, well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Part cri de couer, part parenting manual (she may hate testing, but Kamenetz still wants her daughter—and your kids—to do well) The Test is particularly tendentious on the history of standardized tests. “Why so many racists in psychometrics?” she asks (her prose is often glib and always self-assured). “I’m not saying anyone involved in testing today is, de facto, racist. But it’s hard to ignore the shadow of history.”

What is easy for Kamenetz to ignore almost entirely is that some of the strongest support for testing comes from civil rights activists who have used test scores to dramatically alter the education landscape and highlight achievement gaps, all in the name of equality. But this runs counter to her argument that testing “penalizes diversity.” Kati Haycock may have once led affirmative-action programs for the University of California system,...

Education governance puts most people to sleep. The topic is arcane, sort of boring and, above all, seemingly immutable. If you can’t do anything about a problem, why agonize over it, or even spend time on it?

Of course, some people don’t even see it as a problem. They just take it for granted, like the air surrounding them, the sun rising in the morning, and the Mississippi flowing south. It just is what it is.

That’s wrong-headed. The governance mess is a large part of the reason that so many education problems are impossible to solve. As Mike Petrilli and I wrote three years ago about “our flawed, archaic, and inefficient system for organizing and operating public schools”:

[America’s] approach to school management is a confused and tangled web, involving the federal government, the states, and local school districts—each with ill-defined responsibilities and often conflicting interests. As a result, over the past fifty years, obsolescence, clumsiness, and misalignment have come to define the governance of public education. This development is not anyone’s fault, per se: It is simply what happens when opportunities and needs change, but structures don’t. The system of schooling we have today is the legacy of the nineteenth century—and hopelessly outmoded in the twenty-first.

Perhaps the foremost failing of that system is its fragmented and multi-polar decision making; too many cooks in the education kitchen and nobody really in charge. We bow to the mantra of “local control” yet in fact nearly every...

Imagine you are a first-year social studies teacher in a low-performing urban high school. You are hired on Thursday and expected to teach three different courses starting Monday. For the first two weeks, you barely eat or sleep, and you lose fifteen pounds you didn’t know were yours to lose. For the first two months, your every waking minute is consumed by lesson prep and the intense anxiety associated with trying to manage students whose conception of “school” is foreign to you. But you survive the first semester (as many have done) because you have to and because these kids depend on you. You think you are through the worst of it. You begin to believe that you can do this. Then, the second semester begins…

Your sixth-period class is a nightmare, full of students with behavior problems that would challenge any teacher. But as hard as sixth period is, your third-period class is the most frustrating and depressing, because (for reasons only they are privy to) the Powers That Be have seen fit to place every type of student imaginable into the same classroom: seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, kids with behavior issues, kids with attention issues, kids with senioritis, kids who have taken the class before and passed it but are taking it again because the registrar’s office is incompetent. And, of course, a few kind, sweet, innocent kids. Who. Cannot. Read.

This is impossible.

Or so you tell the Powers That Be. Your seniors can do...

2009 it ain’t.

Back in those heady days, the new president, fresh off a comfortable electoral victory and with congressional majorities as far as the eye could see, had the power to drive the agenda. Though Capitol Hill’s budget process was broken, with the electorate behind him and congressional allies to spare, President Obama’s budget submission had to be taken seriously.

Today, the president possesses platinum-level lame-duck status. He’s in the homestretch of his tenure, his approval rating hasn’t hit 50 percent in nearly two years, and Republicans have significant congressional majorities.

It is through this lens that we should view the Obama administration’s FY2016 budget request, released yesterday. Given today’s political conditions, the education request is actually quite savvy. It retreats where necessary, digs in where possible, and has an eye on history. There are plenty of good summaries of the education request as a whole and descriptions of specific line items. But here’s how I’m seeing the ask:

Concessions

For six years, the Obama administration, breaking with generations of practice, gave every indication that it saw few limits to the role of the federal government in primary and secondary schooling. The chickens have come home to roost.

There’s now widespread resistance to many of its initiatives, especially to ESEA waivers. Per the zeitgeist, Congress is eager to take aim at one of the administration’s favorite budget categories: competitive grant programs. Once broadly seen as a valuable tool...

SEVENTH TIME'S THE CHARM?
The New York Post has absolutely maddening coverage of an apparently bulletproof first-grade instructor. At a recent termination hearing, the New York Department of Education declined to fire the Teflon teacher in spite of her six consecutive unsatisfactory ratings. She was reassigned to a pool of substitutes and allowed to keep her generous salary even though she was absent or late sixty-four times in the last school year.

THAT'S A REALLY BIG BUCKET
Much of the recent debate surrounding testing and reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act stems from the belief that states spend too much money issuing standard assessments. However, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, Matthew Chingos, clarifies that the $1.7 billion price tag on the assessments is a “drop in the bucket” amidst a $600 billion annual education allotment. 

WHILE YOU WERE OUT
You may have missed the news dump out of Louisiana if you left early for Super Bowl weekend: On Friday afternoon, Governor Bobby Jindal issued an executive order authorizing parents to opt their children out of Common Core-aligned PARCC assessments. The move is yet another manifestation of Jindal’s noisy and petulant campaign against the standards, now more than a year in the making. Chas Roemer, chairman of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), claimed that "the executive order has no constitutional binding for BESE. While he can...

GIRLS RULE, BOYS DROOL
In terms of educational performance, girls appear to be on the way to running the world. Seventy percent of the countries surveyed by the Organization for Economic Development Cooperation and Development showed that girls are outpacing boys in math, science, and reading. It remains unclear why boys are falling behind, but potential causes range from harsher disciplinary action against male students to a lack of male teacher role models in schools.

HOW "COMMON" IS COMMON CORE?
The Brookings Institute’s Tom Loveless provides a great look at a thorny question facing parents and students as school districts begin adapting to the Common Core State Standards: Will universal standards force schools to ditch accelerated curricula for high-achievers? As he asks, “Will CCSS serve as a curricular floor, ensuring all students are exposed to a common body of knowledge and skills?  Or will it serve as a ceiling, limiting the progress of bright students so that their achievement looks more like that of their peers?” For more on the topic, see Loveless’s paper for Fordham’s Education for Upward Mobility conference. And stay tuned for more on the topic in an upcoming policy brief from Fordham.

MEMPHIS: A REFORM STORY
Memphis is the site...

AGAINST THE GRAIN
Chalkbeat New York covers New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s controversial plan to evaluate and promote teachers, one that focuses on increasing assessment-based ratings to count for 50 percent of an evaluation and lowers the weight of principal observation and feedback. Fordham’s sensational tag team of Mike Petrilli and Andy Smarick weigh in on the plan, saying that Cuomo is moving in the opposite direction of other state leaders.

WE'VE GOT TO BOOK THIS GUY FOR AN EVENT
It looks like everyone over at Success Academy Harlem East has been eating their Wheaties. On his morning visit to the New York City charter school, Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, noted remarkable behavior by both teachers and students. The dedicated instructors and quality curriculum in place at the school challenged students and gave them the opportunity to critically engage with class material and learn from their own mistakes. Perhaps this is the secret behind the charter network’s unparalleled recent test scores.

EDUCATION SPOTLIGHT: OHIO
A new bill in Ohio has many charter school backers optimistic that they will see meaningful reform, specifically in the domains of accountability and transparency. The proposed legislation calls for a number...

NCL-BETTER
In light of yesterday’s post by Michael Petrilli on federal accountability measures, Neerav Kingsland offers suggestions for a few more improvements to NCLB: First, the feds should require states to clearly identify their bottom 5 percent of schools and create a plan to better serve the students attending them. Second, charter school programs should be quadrupled. Finally, let the federal funding help finance more innovative education programs in the states.

THE CHICAGO WAY
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s no-nonsense education agenda has earned him a lot of points with charter advocates, but lost him some with his constituents. In 2013, the city closed fifty low-performing schools, a move that rankled a large chunk of his Democratic base. Yet a new study shows that a majority of students affected by the closures were ultimately enrolled in higher-performing schools, making it a win for local accountability.

QUICK: WHAT ARE THE THREE BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT?
Arizona recently approved a bill that will require high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship exam. Some say students should emerge from the education system equipped with the kind of knowledge that shapes active civic duty, and Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio says the same. As many as twelve other states are pursuing similar legislative action.

TIDE STEMMED
The past decade has brought virtually no growth in the proportion of college graduates who leave school with degrees in STEM fields, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Excluding some of the...

  • National school choice week is upon us—a time to push for high-quality choices, march across the country, and wear yellow scarves. It’s also a week when stories about choice, charters, and the like get much deserved attention. Such is the case in New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo recently bucked teachers’ unions and announced a grand education-reform agenda. Proposed changes include more charter schools, tougher teacher evaluations, and, most impressively, a tax-credit scholarship program designed to allow low- and middle-income New Yorkers to attend private schools. As our very own Checker Finn observed, Cuomo may very well be the first Democratic governor to propose a private school choice program. A bruising political battle is sure to come, but for now, choice advocates have ample cause to celebrate.
  • The U.S. Department of Education is out to prove yet again how tone-deaf it is. Maine is the most recent state in danger of suffering from the department’s unlawful practice of revoking NCLB waivers over teacher evaluations—an issue not mentioned once in ESEA. Arne Duncan wants student tests scores to be a more significant factor in the state’s teacher evaluations. Is that so? The Nation’s Superintendent might want to watch the video from Tuesday’s Senate hearing on ESEA reauthorization, where lawmakers across the political spectrum expressed their distaste for mandating such evaluations from Washington. Duncan should take the hint and get out of the teacher-evaluation oversight business. Now.

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