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 an Education Week commentary essay about school boards in 2009, I wrote, “[M]y sense of things, after two stints on my local school board…is that school boards have been overtaken by the ‘educatocracy,’ by powerful trade unions, certified specialists, certification agencies, state and federal rule-makers and legislators, grants with strings, billion-dollar-contractor lobbyists, textbook mega-companies, professional associations, and lawyers—the list could go on.”

I am quite gleeful, therefore, that the new report from Fordham entitled Does School Board Leadership Matter? asks most of the right questions about school boards—and provides some very interesting and helpful answers for progress moving forward.

Complaints about school boards are legion—and well known—and they carry on. A few titles in the new report’s endnotes spell it out: “School Boards: A Troubled American Institution” (by Jacqueline Danzberger), School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy (by Gene Maeroff), and Beseiged: School Boards and the Future of American Politics (William Howell). The dates of these publications range from 1992 to 2010. And, of course, Checker Finn beat them all, suggesting in a 1991 Education Week commentary that we should probably “declare local boards and superintendents to be archaic in the 1990s, living fossils of an earlier age…. Local school boards are not just superfluous. They are also dysfunctional.”

“Under these circumstances,” I wrote in my 2009 Ed Week commentary, “it doesn’t surprise me that many people think school boards are irrelevant. They are. Boards do a lot of moving the chairs around on...

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Peter Cunningham

In a provocative piece in Slate recently, Fordham’s executive vice president Mike Petrilli asked why Euro-style tracking isn’t a better strategy for high-school students who are significantly below grade level. Here’s one response.

I do some work with a nonprofit organization in Chicago called Manufacturing Renaissance, which trains high-school students and ex-offenders for manufacturing jobs in the area. Austin Polytech Academy (APA) was founded in 2007 as a small high school to replace a larger underperforming school. Of the student body, 95 percent are low income, 13 percent are homeless, and 30 percent have diagnosed learning needs. The school’s graduation rate is 60 percent, and the average ACT score is just 14.5 on a scale of 36, well below the level deemed “college ready.” The students are precisely the ones who would be tracked toward career programs in a European-style education system.

APA is also surrounded by hundreds of small and medium-sized manufacturing companies desperately in need of trained workers to replace an aging workforce. By some estimates, there are 20,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the Chicago region alone and 600,000 nationwide.

To meet this need, APA began offering a career-education program that offers students work-ready credentials from the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS). To date, more than 150 APA graduates have earned more than 250 work-ready NIMS credentials. More than half of the students get paid work experience while in high school, and about two-dozen APA graduates have gotten jobs upon graduation. Starting wages are between...

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My doubts and disgruntlements with elected local school boards span three decades.

I don’t dislike boards or board members. However, this whole governance structure—the local “district,” the elected board, the board-appointed superintendent, and so on—strikes me as archaic, an arrangement that made more sense in 1914 than in 2014, when most of the money comes from states and more and more of the decisions are (or should be) made at the state level, the building level, and the family level.

My discontent also stems from the fact that too many communities—especially those facing the greatest education challenges—now have boards consisting not of the ablest and most civic-minded people in town but, rather, of aspiring politicians, single-interest cause pushers, and disgruntled former employees of the system itself.
In my view, we're overdue for a comprehensive governance overhaul of American public education.

Nevertheless, I also recognize that the vast majority of U.S. kids today attend schools that remain under the purview of elected local school boards and their members. Call it reality.

That being the case, it does matter who ends up on these boards, where they come from, how they're chosen, how much they know, and what their priorities are. Indeed, it can matter a great deal—as our new Fordham analysis shows. This means that so long as school boards are in charge, we should take their members seriously, recognizing that children...

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Sean Lynch

Upon reading Michael J. Petrilli’s recent article, “Kid, I’m Sorry, but You’re Just Not College Material,” I was encouraged to see a major publication shining light on some of the many benefits that career and technical education (CTE) has to offer. Petrilli’s facts are absolutely correct: CTE programs open doors to new career-exploration opportunities, lower high-school dropout rates, and can engage at-risk students with interesting curriculum.

However, there is a key point that my colleagues at the Association for Career and Technical Education and I feel is important to emphasize in this discussion: CTE is a component of academically challenging, rigorous education for all students, be they high fliers or at risk. It’s important to balance our attention between acknowledging CTE’s benefits in engaging struggling students with their coursework and ensuring that every student has the knowledge and skills needed for success in both college and careers.

Students should work with their mentors at home and in school to identify their ideal career path and obtain the education they will need to succeed, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. School counselors play a crucial role here by building bridges between students and an education that prepares them for the career they want—and oftentimes, those are in-demand careers in CTE related fields that provide respected, high-wage positions. And it’s certainly not a choice between attending a four-year college or participating in CTE, because the majority of students who explore CTE programs...

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Every state in America would benefit from something like this—an honest appraisal of the present condition of its K–12 education combined with a bold, even arresting vision of how it should change over the next two decades.

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education was born in response to A Nation at Risk and, with a foreword-looking 1991 report, pointed the way toward the Bay State's much-praised education-reform act two years later.

What happened thereafter is widely known: with an entire suite of reforms in place (centered, I believe, on strong academic standards, a steadfast high-stakes assessment system, more rigorous requirements for teachers, and one of the country's better—though small—charter-school programs), the “Massachusetts Miracle” propelled that state to a level of educational performance that rivaled leading nations elsewhere on the globe.

The past few years, however, have seen some stagnation and backsliding on the ed-reform front in the Bay State, and the MBAE recognized that the time has come for a new kick in the pants. So they engaged Sir Michael Barber and his Brightlines colleague Simon Day to prepare a status report and road map to the future.

The result is now out, all 120 pages of it, and even a jaded report reader might fairly term it thrilling. It acknowledges the stagnation problem and depicts six gaps as the main challenges facing Massachusetts. To wit, the employability gap (a.k.a. the dearth of needed...

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There’s a lot of talk about accountability in education today; schools are held accountable, teachers are increasingly held accountable. But what about education PR firms?

Consider the “case of the bad apples.” Last week, the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative, a twenty-six-person group based at Indiana University, released a research briefing that summarized sixteen studies presented at a recent conference. The quality of the briefing was basically fine, but the press release that went with it jumped the shark. (See it here.) News outlets such as Politico Pro and the Huffington Post then picked up its content.

The press release boldly states, “There is no evidence to support the premise that ‘bad kids’ should be removed from the classroom in order to ensure that ‘good kids’ can learn.”

This caught our attention at Fordham, for not only does this claim fly in the face of common sense (and every teachers’ experience, ever), it simply isn’t true. As Education Next pointed out, a quick look surfaces these two studies demonstrating the opposite. And they are surely the tip of the iceberg.

The mystery is why the press release made this claim in the first place (beyond the obvious answer: to throw some click-bait to reporters). The report is about racial disparities in school discipline, not about the impact of suspensions on the peers of disruptive students. So what happened? The sixteen-page research briefing does briefly mention the issue:

Schools that reduce...

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2014 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?Since 2000, the Brown Center has released an annual report taking on three important issues in education policy. In this thirteenth installment, author Tom Loveless presents analysis on the PISA-Shanghai controversy (in brief: by failing to take Shanghai’s Hukou laws into account, the test significantly overstates the city’s performance), Common Core implementation to date (Loveless finds that early-adopter states are showing bigger gains on NAEP, though we believe that it is far too early to draw conclusions), and homework in American schools (an update of a 2003 report on the same topic). The homework issue is particularly thorny, as anti-homework crusades—while in and out of the media spotlight—have maintained for the last decade that kids are being buried in piles of burdensome and ineffective homework. To discover if this is true, Loveless employs three methods. First, he looks at NAEP data from 1984–2012—specifically, at a survey question that asks nine-, thirteen-, and seventeen-year-olds how much time they spent on homework the day before. He found that the homework load has remained stable since 1984 (except among nine-year-olds, more of whom are doing some homework than were before) and that only a small percentage of students report more than two hours of homework per night (5–6 percent for age 9, 6–10 percent for...

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It’s an article of faith in the school-reform community that we should be striving to prepare all students for success in college—if not a four-year degree, then some other recognized and reputable post-secondary credential. The rationale is clear and generally compelling; as a recent Pew study reiterated, people who graduate from college earn significantly more than those who do not. Other research indicates that low-income students in particular benefit from college completion, becoming nearly three times more likely to make it into the middle class than their peers who earn some (or no) college credits. And it’s not just about money: College graduates are also healthier, more involved in their communities, and happier in their jobs.

Thus, in the reformers’ bible, the greatest sin is to look a student in the eye and say, “Kid, I’m sorry, but you’re just not college material.”

But what if such a cautionary sermon is exactly what some teenagers need? What if encouraging students to take a shot at the college track—despite very long odds of crossing its finish line—does them more harm than good? What if our own hyper-credentialed life experiences and ideologies are blinding us to alternative pathways to the middle class—including some that might be a lot more viable for a great many young people? What if we should be following the lead of countries like Germany and Singapore, where “tracking” isn’t a dirty word but a common-sense way to prepare teenagers...

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Today, the U.S Department of Education released Year-Three reports on the 12 states that won funding via Race to the Top’s first two competitions. Here are the five things that jumped out at me.

1.   Common Core implementation, front and center

While politicians and talking heads have been warring over the new standards, these states have been neck-deep in implementation. States are approaching implementation differently—some focusing on training, while others are producing model units and lesson plans—but all of them seem to have kept their eye on this ball.

2.   Will the training work?

A number of states placed huge bets on professional development, spending enormous sums to train their teachers and school leaders. In a few cases, states have served tens of thousands of educators; Florida’s report claims 134,000 educators attended their training sessions. Given the not-so-encouraging research on the efficacy of professional development, we have to wonder if this money was well spent. But as one state leader told me, “We had to take a chance on PD…how else were we going to get our teachers ready for new standards and assessments?”

3.   Teacher-evaluation troubles

Many of the reports highlight the challenges these states face in faithfully implementing the teacher-evaluation promises they made in their applications. This includes not producing growth scores on time, having trouble differentiating teachers as expected, and more. Georgia is probably in the worst shape on this front—it may lose funding because it hasn’t developed the compensation system it promised, and it...

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Late last year, the U.S. Department of Education’s independent research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), released a preliminary but highly informative report on the School Improvement Grant program (SIG).  Its findings help explain why the program is failing so badly and foreshadow IES’s much-anticipated comprehensive analysis of this multi-billion dollar program.

This report focuses on inputs, three “levers” for school improvement: school-level operational authority; state and district support; and state monitoring. Its findings are based on a survey and interviews of school, district, and state administrators.

The most notable finding is that there is very little difference between the goings-on of SIG schools and similarly low-performing schools that didn’t receive SIG funding. SIG schools were marginally more likely than non-SIG schools to have authority over professional development and the length of the school day, but there were no statistically significant differences in other areas. Moreover, in most areas studied (such as student discipline and curriculum), the majority of SIG and non-SIG schools both reported that they lacked primary authority.

Similarly, SIG and non-SIG schools reported receiving generally the same types of district and state supports.

The report is careful to point out that the sample studied was not randomly selected, meaning these results don’t necessarily reflect SIG as a whole.

But when you consider these findings alongside the state-level implementation findings and the dismal student-achievement results released so far, the picture comes into focus: SIG was a terribly...

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