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.

For a decade, the nonprofit Institute for Innovation in Public Choice (IIPSC) has helped the cities of New York, Boston, Denver, and New Orleans bring order to the Wild West of school choice, using the one-two punch of economic theory and custom software. To match students with seats in public schools—either district or charter—the IIPSC builds algorithms that employ three kinds of data: the schools that families want their kids to attend, the number of available seats in every grade at each school, and each schools’ admissions rules. Newly flush with a $1.2 million grant from the Dell Foundation, the IIPSC plans to expand into Philadelphia, Washington, and possibly Detroit. Hat tip!

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education released proposed priorities for a new competitive grant program for charter school support organizations, to come from the annual “national activities fund.” These priorities highlight what the Department deems to be the “key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale,” and they include gaining efficiency through economies of scale, improving accountability, providing quality education to students with disabilities an English language learners, and supporting personalized technology-enabled learning. While these are important policies at the surface level, it is unclear what the long-term implications and unintended consequences may be of focusing grant making solely on the bigger charter entities and whether smaller, unaffiliated charter schools will realize any benefits.

On Wednesday, President Obama delivered a big speech on inequality, in which he brought up...

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Occam’s Razor is the well-known principle that “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Keep that in mind as various pundits hypothesize about why the U.S. scored below the international average in the 2012 PISA assessment in math, and at the average in reading and science, and why we don’t seem to be making any gains over time on these much-watched gauges. Dennis Van Roekel offers the poverty hypothesis as an explanation. I’m not unsympathetic to the argument (though America’s child-poverty rate is not as unusual as many people think), but let’s consider all of the assumptions that one must make to support it.

First, one must assume that math is somehow more related to students’ family backgrounds than are reading and science, since we do worse in the former. That’s quite a stretch, especially because of much other evidence showing that reading is more strongly linked to socioeconomic class. It’s well known that affluent toddlers hear millions more words from their parents than do their low-income peers. Initial reading gaps in Kindergarten are enormous. And in the absence of a coherent, content-rich curriculum, schools have struggled to boost reading scores for kids coming from low-income families. Yet many U.S. schools have succeeded in boosting the math achievement of their low-income students. In fact, the U.S. has shown tremendous progress on NAEP in raising the math scores of poor fourth and eighth graders. (Van Roekel, a former math teacher, should appreciate that.)

So the second assumption must...

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I’m halfway through an ambitious research project, in which I examine how other countries educate their high-ability kids in the hope that we might pick up tips that would prove useful in improving the woeful state of “gifted education” in the U.S. (In case you’ve forgotten what’s woeful about it, look here, here, and here.)

So far, I’ve checked out eight lands worth taking seriously, all of which have done pretty well over the years on PISA, TIMSS, and similar measures and all of which are fairly termed “competitors” in the planetary economy. (I’m talking about Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Western Australia, England, Finland, and Hungary.) I will soon have more observations from Canada and countries in Europe. Here are a dozen early impressions:

  • Nobody has blown me away with a perfect approach. Singapore probably comes closest. As one might expect, they take human-capital development seriously at every level—but at present, their full-on gifted-ed program is limited to 1 percent of the population, which seems skimpy. (It’s under review and may be expanded.)
  • There’s scant coordination between what passes for gifted education in the early and middle grades and what happens at the high-school level. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Finland, and Hungary, for example, all have some ultra-selective high schools that end up giving some smart kids an impressive education, but these are preceded by thin supplemental programs (a couple of hours a week) in the earlier grades or, in Japan’s case, essentially nothing. Japanese
  • ...
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Poland’s gains in mathematics and science on the 2012 PISA assessments made big news in the United States. The impressive achievements by fifteen-year-old Polish youngsters contrast starkly with the scores of American youngsters. U.S. results have remained essentially flat since the tests were first given in 2000 to 180,000 students in 32 countries. As a result of these diverging trajectories, Polish students now outperform their American peers in both math and science by a significant margin.

I was a high-school teacher in Poland in 1990–91 and again in 1994–95. During my first stint, I taught in a town of about 15,000; the second time, I worked in one of Warsaw’s elite high schools. The children of the students I taught are now the Polish generation that is outpacing much of the world in academic achievement.

After reading the new PISA report—especially when read in tandem with Amanda Ripley’s excellent recent book—I am not really surprised by Poland’s success. The students I taught had many of the attributes for success that now benefit their own children. These included families that care deeply about education and that view education to be the path to upward mobility. By doing well in school, children could do more with their lives. This was a belief I saw in the parents both of small-town students and of elite metropolitan kids.

Poles also take great pride in knowledge: acquiring it and showing it off. I was always amazed, and more than...

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America’s approach to the education of children with disabilities is antiquated, costly, and ineffective. “Special education” as we know it is broken—and repainting the surface won’t repair it. It cries out for a radical overhaul. Far too many children emerge from our special-ed system without the skills, knowledge, and competencies that they need for a successful life that fully capitalizes on their abilities. This ineffectual system is also very, very expensive. Yet for a host of reasons—inertia, timidity, political gridlock, fear of litigation, fear of interest groups, ignorance, lack of imagination, and so on—neither our education leaders nor our policy leaders have shown any inclination to modernize it. Instead, they settle for “paint jobs”—waivers and the like.

Federal policy is responsible for much of this failure. Even though the education world has changed around it—as have technology, mobility, fiscal conditions, demographics, and so much more—it remains essentially stuck where it was in 1975 when the first major national law in this realm (now known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) was passed.

It was much needed at the time. Many children with disabilities (in those days they were called “handicapped”) had been denied education or given versions of it wholly unsuited to their needs and unlikely to do them much good. Some adults believed that such kids could not learn. Schools in many cases did not know how to educate them well. And few states or districts had focused on the problem.

So Congress did—and President Ford...

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“The United States’ standings haven’t improved dramatically because we as a nation haven’t addressed the main cause of our mediocre PISA performance — the effects of poverty on students,” Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said in a statement. – “American 15-Year-Olds Lag, Mainly in Math, on International Standardized Tests,” by Motoko Rich, New York Times, December 3, 2013

Occam’s Razor is the well-known principle that “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Keep that in mind today, PISA Day, as various pundits hypothesize about why the U.S. scored below the international average in math, and at the average in reading and science, and why we don’t seem to be making any gains over time on these much-watched gauges.

Dennis Van Roekel offers the poverty hypothesis as an explanation. I’m not unsympathetic to the argument (though America’s child-poverty rate is not as unusual as many people think), but let’s consider all of the assumptions that one must make to support it.

First, one must assume that math is somehow more related to students’ family backgrounds than are reading and science, since we do worse in the former. That’s quite a stretch, especially because of much other evidence showing that reading is more strongly linked to socioeconomic class. It’s well known that affluent toddlers hear millions...

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The Tennessee Charter School Center (TCSC) is out with a terrific new report on Nashville’s schools landscape. This new organization subscribes to the notion that the district need not be the primary unit of analysis; instead, TCSC focuses on the number of high-quality seats in the city. The findings are grave—there are so very few great schools serving kids in the city—and the recommendations are strong. Like lots of places, Nashville is evidently scared of charter-school growth, even though charters make up a disproportionately high percentage of great schools, and have therefore put policies into place that will hem in charter growth. TCSC suggests doing otherwise. This is a very good, reader-friendly analysis with strong ideas.

I think we’re on the way to fundamentally changing K–12 delivery in America’s big cities; these shifts aren’t inevitable, but we’re headed in the right direction, and the pace is accelerating. SEA reform, which is almost as important, is unfortunately many years behind. Too few groups are working in this space. But just as CRPE helped launch the thinking of systemic reform in cities, they are trying their hand at state-level stuff. Good for them! Their latest report is on SEA productivity. If you care about SEA reform, give it a read. I particularly like Roza’s and DQC’s pieces. The pension stuff is fascinating too, especially if that’s your gig. In full disclosure, I have a different take on what...

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During your pre-Turkey trot out of town, you might have missed the big news about the federal School Improvement Grants program. Education Week’s Politics K–12 blog, which generously called the results a “mixed picture,” put it this way:

While more than two-thirds of schools in the first cohort (which started in 2010-11) saw gains in reading and math after two years in the program, another third of the schools actually declined, despite the major federal investment, which included grants of up to $500,000 a year, the department said Thursday.

Even Arne Duncan himself could muster only faint praise for the schools, acknowledging their “incremental progress.”

Andy Smarick, a long-time SIG skeptic, showed a great deal of holiday cheer in not shouting, “I told you so.” But neither was he shy in stating the obvious, labeling the results “disappointing but completely predictable.” He went a bit further in a Washington Post quote, arguing that “you can’t help but look at the results and be discouraged . . . . We didn’t spend $5 billion of taxpayer money for incremental change.”

And lest you say, “Hey, it’s only money,” pause a moment on that. Five billion dollars. Enough to control Malaria. Enough to implement Core Knowledge in every single elementary school in the country. Enough to keep 2,000 Catholic schools alive. 

And instead, we poured the money into...

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For those of you following the interesting and ever-changing world of educator evaluations, a few recent happenings may be worth a look.

The Delaware Department of Education recently published a report written by its internal Teacher and Leader Effective Unit on the implementation of its revised educator-evaluation system, DPAS-II. As part of the state’s Race to the Top grant, the DDE incorporated “robust measures of student achievement” into its existing system. That model had been structured around four components of effective teaching measured through classroom observations. It had produced almost no variation among the state’s educators (in the new system, those observations still make up 80 percent of the final rating).

Most components of DPAS-II get a binary rating, but a new component, based on multiple measures of student growth, is scored “Exceeds,” “Satisfactory,” or “Unsatisfactory.” The summative evaluation combines the components, netting ratings “Highly Effective,” “Effective,” “Needs Improvement,” and “Ineffective.”

The state’s educators were divided into three groups based on the availability of student-performance measures; these include state tests, external and internal assessments in subjects outside of math/reading, and “growth goals” based on professional standards and position responsibilities.

Importantly, those teachers whose scores were determined (at least in part) on the basis of empirical measures of student growth had more score variation (54 percent receiving “Exceeds”) than those assessed via growth goals based on professional standards (69 percent receiving “Exceeds”). Moreover, the distribution of scores associated with student-performance measures varied widely among districts, making inter-district comparisons difficult....

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The Thomas B. Fordham Institute today released Financing the Education of High-Need Students, a policy brief that focuses on three specific challenges that are often encountered when districts—especially small ones—grapple with the costs of serving their highest-need special-education students.

Districts and states could put these recommendations into practice today, without waiting for reforms or help from Washington:

  1. District Cooperatives: Many districts—including charter schools, which often comprise their own mini-districts—do not have the requisite size and capacity to serve high-need students effectively and affordably. Multi-district co-ops allow for both economies-of-scale and better service-delivery for these children.
  2. Student Funding Based on Multiple Weights: Special-education funding systems based on average student needs may be easily administered, but they can also lead to inefficient and ineffective resource allocations. Weighted student funding is a tiered system of resource allocation that allows for a more rational and efficacious distribution of funds, enabling districts with more high-need pupils (or pupils who require more dollars to pay for their IEP-mandated services) to receive more money, while jurisdictions that need less receive less. Basing those weights on services needed by children rather than disability diagnoses significantly improves the accuracy of this system.
  3. Exceptional-Need Funds: Districts (especially small ones) sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the high cost of educating one or two particularly needy children. This type of fund, managed and predominantly financed by the state, acts as an insurance mechanism for districts that can’t cover the full cost of educating high-need pupils along with all others under their purview.

Learn more...

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