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 its release of SIG data, the U.S. Department of Education only provided comparisons between SIG schools and statewide averages. As I mentioned in Friday’s post, that’s not exactly a revealing comparison since SIG schools are, by definition, extremely low-performing and have much more room for improvement than the average school in the state.

Since Secretary Duncan visited New Jersey for the data release, we decided to do a quick New Jersey analysis of our own—something we thought might be edifying. We compared the performance of SIG schools to the performance of schools that applied for SIG (and were eligible) but didn’t receive awards. In other words, we compared schools that were similarly low performing at the start, while one set received the intervention and the other did not. We looked at math scores and focused on schools with an eighth grade (high schools take a much different test in New Jersey).

As you can see, at least based on a quick analysis of one state’s data, it’s hard to make the case that this massive program had a transformative influence on the state’s most troubled schools. There’s just not all that much difference in the changes between schools that were SIG-eligible but lost and schools that were SIG-eligible and won. And we certainly don’t see any major turnarounds.

The Department’s research arm is going to do a more sophisticated analysis along...

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There is no doubt in my mind that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cares deeply about disadvantaged kids. He deserves our admiration and respect for bringing a renewed sense of urgency to addressing America’s persistently failing schools.

His devotion to the hope of school turnarounds is rooted in very real and very painful experiences. When he closed a number of underperforming schools during his tenure as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, many displaced students were moved into similarly low-performing schools, and worse, inadvertently exposed to gang violence.

I’m certain this heartrending episode influenced him profoundly. I’m sure he committed himself to finding a better way to help boys and girls assigned to schools that weren’t working. I sincerely commend him for that sentiment and the passion behind it.

But this sentiment and passion also blinded him and his team.

Hence the tragedy of SIG.

Mountains of studies had clearly demonstrated over many years that the success rate of school-turnaround efforts was miniscule. The research showed that regardless of the intervention used or the amount of money spent, persistently low-performing schools stubbornly remained that way.

I will never know if the Department of Education simply hadn’t done its homework or if it had but believed that it could defy the lessons of the past. I suspect the latter was the primary culprit.

Slogans like “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” followed by a history-changing election, didn’t exactly infuse early Obama administration officials with...

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It often seems that when wonks, researchers, and legislators get together to talk education reform, they exclude one group of stakeholders—a group for whom these reforms mean the most and upon whom their success depends: teachers. In this new book, TeachPlus founders Celine Coggins, Heather Peske, and Kate McGovern offer a corrective: a series of short essays written by their Teaching Policy Fellows cohort that illustrate the work being done on the ground to advance reform. The book is divided into seven sections, each covering a different policy issue: using data in schools, ensuring fair access to quality teachers, measuring teacher effectiveness, creating a performance-driven profession, engaging early-career teachers in union politics, building school leadership that enables great instruction, and improving the status of the profession. What is most striking about these stories is their genuine call-to-action narrative: Having been identified as highly effective teachers, these men and women know exactly how much of a difference putting the right teacher in the right classroom can make. All education stakeholders would be wise to learn from these experts.

SOURCE: Celine Coggins, Heather G. Peske, and Kate McGovern (eds.), Learning from the Experts: Teacher Leaders on Solving America’s Education Challenges (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013).

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This study by Dan Goldhaber and colleagues examines whether the restrictiveness of a district’s bargaining contract is influenced by “spillover” from contracts in a nearby community. In other words, do district contracts resemble one another simply because districts are close to one another? The theory is that district agreements might come to mimic each other, since nearby districts compete for teachers and there may be an impulse to codify working conditions. Analysts examined CBAs in 270 public school districts in Washington State and coded 633 provisions. First, they found that districts within fifty miles of one another have similar levels of restrictiveness. More importantly, they also found that bargaining structures influence consistency of bargaining provisions. Specifically, both management and labor have structures in place that provide, among other services, bargaining support for multiple districts and multiple local affiliates. Districts have what are called Educational Service Districts (or ESD’s), and the union has Uniservs. Analysts found that districts within the same ESD or same Uniserv have similar levels of restrictiveness—as do districts that share both an ESD and Uniserv. Further, they are the primary influencer in determining bargaining outcomes—i.e., they are the driver for what we previously thought was the impact of geographic distance. Why is this important? Knowing the channels by which CBA’s influence one another is one way in which bargaining reforms—or setbacks—can be spread more quickly. Since these district and union structures appear to serve as conduits for replication of provisions, perhaps they should also be the objects of reformers’...

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Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Unhappily, a new study found 83 percent of recent college graduates could not identify the statement, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” as coming from the famous speech. This is appalling. But according to a recent Common Core Watch blog post by College Board vice president (and Fordham Institute trustee) Stefanie Sanford, the Common Core literacy standards can help improve civic education.

A flurry of news releases on Tuesday morning weighed in on whether or not the Department of Justice had dropped their ill-conceived desegregation suit against Louisiana’s school-voucher program. The current word on the street is that the DOJ is no longer attempting to block the Bayou State’s voucher program and, instead, would limit its intervention to a yearly demand for information on children using vouchers. The case will go before a federal district judge on Friday. For our take, listen to this week’s Education Gadfly Show.

Also on Tuesday, President Obama launched Youth CareerConnect, a competitive grant program designed to better prepare high school students for high-tech careers. The program, funded through the Department of Labor, would provide grants to schools that partner with private-sector organizations to provide job training for employment in a few high-growth industries. The first round of awards would be made in early 2014. The reception was frosty, with some arguing that the administration’s continued...

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Last month, USA Today reported that officials in the Brevard County Schools had broken Florida state law—on purpose. Their offense? Placing more kids in classrooms than Florida’s Class Size Reduction statute allows. Officials had done the math and decided that complying with state policy would cost more than the penalty they’d pay for adding a handful of students to each classroom. The estimated fines totaled roughly $170,000, which paled in comparison to the cost of the teachers that the district would have to hire to comply with the size-limiting mandate.

Yet it’s unclear how Brevard chose to allocate these additional students. Did administrators give every teacher more students in equal shares? Did they apportion shares to seasoned veterans or, more likely, to seniority-deprived new teachers? Maybe they drew straws?

But what if Brevard officials had chosen another option? What if they had assigned the “extra” students to their most effective teachers, leaving fewer pupils in classrooms presided over by weaker instructors? What would be the impact of such a practice on student achievement?

That’s the scenario that this empirical paper models. The idea is straightforward: Give the better teachers more kids and the weaker teachers fewer—then see what happens. It’s a common-sense option with many supporters. We know, for instance, that parents say they would opt for larger classes taught by excellent teachers, rather than smaller classes with instructors of unknown ability. In a study last year for the Fordham Institute, the FDR Group found that a whopping...

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Sarah Almy

For decades, lowering class size has been touted as a strategy for improving student learning, despite loads of research asserting that it is not an effective solution. The Fordham Institute’s new study, Right-sizing the Classroom: Making the Most of Great Teachers, turns this idea on its head with a simulation of what happens if good teachers are actually assigned more students. The result: increased student learning.

This study uses teacher and student data from North Carolina and simulates what would happen if teachers with high value-added—those who are advancing student learning at greater rates than predicted—were assigned between six and twelve additional students (and if less effective teachers’ classrooms were proportionally reduced by this many students). The findings are promising: Adding six students to effective eighth-grade teachers’ classrooms could produce gains equivalent to an extra two weeks of school. And because more students are exposed to effective teaching and fewer are subjected to less effective instruction, schools experience improved student learning overall.

Findings like these should ideally put an end to the notion that blanket reductions in class size are a solution to anything. And it should launch a conversation about how to promote staffing and compensation models that vary how students are assigned to teachers based on their effectiveness.

However, the promising findings from the study could overshadow another important result: increasing class size for effective teachers does nothing in this simulation to help low-income students gain more access to effective teachers. This is likely because too...

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What if I told you there were millions of American boys and girls living in communities where half of students are low-income, just one in five adults has earned a bachelor’s degree, and only 27 percent of high school graduates go on to college?

What if I told you these students are more likely than their peers in any other geographic area to live in poverty?

Most of you would probably gather that I’m talking about our inner cities.

No.

These statistics describe rural America.

Rural public schools enroll eleven million children, fully a quarter of students nationwide. Yet, sadly, the challenges faced by rural educators and their students have received scant attention from national education leaders.

My organization, Bellwether Education Partners, is trying to help solve this problem.

With generous financial support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation (based in Boise, Idaho) we are helping to launch a new two-year initiative, Rural Opportunities Consortium Idaho (ROCI), to study the challenges facing and the opportunities available to rural communities and their schools.

Bellwether will produce a series of papers and policy briefs on subjects like rural charter schooling and technology. We’ll also provide ongoing advice and support to the foundation, its partners, and others engaged in this issue. Though we’ll dedicate much of our energy to the particular circumstances and needs of Idaho, the project aspires to inform...

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Recently, 2013 NAEP results were made public, and, as is typical for such bi-annual releases, there was lots of excitement, somberness, and everything in between. Enter the always smart, always temperamentally sound Tom Loveless, who sought to simmer down the hyping of some states’ scores. Talk of statistical significance and p-values is Greek to some, but Loveless’ accessible explanation and color-coded charts will have you saying both, “A-ha!” and “Well, that’s not what I’d been told.” Here’s the upshot: Yes, some states did quite well, but both the number of such states and the extent of their gains have been oversold. (And, no, Tom, we don’t think you’re a skunk at a picnic.)

Emily Richmond from The Educated Reporter writes up an excellent summary of TBFI’s new report on teacher effective vs. class size. In short, getting kids in front of more effective teachers is valuable even if it means making those classrooms more crowded. Sad finding: Schools are not currently putting more kids in the best teachers’ classrooms; instead, they just evenly distribute the number of students among teachers. This report is classic Fordham: Ask an interesting question, the answer to which could quickly influence policy, get sharp people to study it, then package the findings in an accessible report.

It’s a day of the week, so Rick Hess has a new book out! This time, it’s with my boy Mike McShane, and it’s about Common Core...

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Emily Ayscue Hassel

Fordham released a paper by Michael Hansen projecting the impact on student learning if excellent eighth-grade teachers—those in the top 25 percent—were responsible for six or twelve more students per class.  He found that moving six students per class to the most effective eighth-grade science and math teachers would have an impact equivalent to removing the bottom 5 percent of teachers.

We imagine many teachers and parents reading that finding will still fret over the idea of increasing class sizes that much, even with great teachers.  So here’s some good news: Schools can give a lot more than six more students access to excellent teachers without actually raising class sizes.  And they can pay great teachers—or even all teachers—more by doing so.

The key is shifting to new school models that extend the reach of excellent teachers wisely.  At Public Impact, we’ve published many such models on the website www.OpportunityCulture.org, and we’ve honed them via our work with teams of teachers and administrators now implementing them in schools.

Sure, one way to extend the reach of excellent teachers is to simply increase their class sizes.  But none of the pilot schools’ design teams—which include teachers—have chosen this route alone. None have increased class sizes above national averages. Instead, all the school design teams so far have chosen team-based models that leave effective class sizes on par or smaller. (By “effective class size,” we mean the number of students actually with a teacher at one...

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