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.

Jeb Bush announced today that he's running for presidentsurprising few and becoming an instant frontrunner. He's the eleventh republican to enter the race, and he’s also the subject of the ninth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Out of all the people who are running or may run for president, Bush is probably the most reform-minded. He was elected governor of Florida in 1999, and during his eight years in office, he focused heavily on public education—instituting, among other things, tougher standards, a voucher program, and corporate tax scholarships for low-income students. In 2008, a year after he left office, he founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an influential education reform nonprofit that works on standards and accountability, school choice, college and career readiness, and a number of other issues. The son and brother of former U.S. presidents has said...

Michael Goldstein

This is the first entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs:

“As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?”

Part One: 

Let’s agree on the following: Typical charter schools aren’t lighting the world on fire.

Some outliers exist. There's a low tail, of course, and a battle over whether regulators can shut 'em down fast enough.

There's a high tail, too—KIPP, Uncommon, AF, YES, Success, High Tech High, Collegiate, etc. Reformy non-profits and ed-tech ventures sometimes supply these exemplars with services, and are sometimes spun out of them.

A lot of the leaders from these top-performing schools show up the day before each New Schools Venture Fund Annual Summit for a smaller get-together. Education reform opponents might liken these meetings to a scene from The Godfather in which crime families gather to discuss how to more effectively...

In 2014, we hosted our first-ever Wonkathon, which was dedicated to the subject of charter school policy. (See the original post here and the results here. Joe Siedlecki of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation was voted the wisest, wonkiest wonk of all.)

Now we’re back with the sequel. In light of exciting new developments in Nevada, the focus this year will be on education savings accounts. We’ve asked a select group of education policy wonks to respond to the following prompt:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

Look for responses over the next ten days from the likes of Neerav Kingsland, Michael Goldstein, Lindsey Burke, Jonathan Butcher, Robin Lake, and Matthew Ladner. If you’d like to participate, send your submission as soon as possible to mpetrilli (at) edexcellence (dot) net. At the end of the series, we’ll ask our readers to tell us who provided the most compelling answer. May...

In Redefining the School District in America, Nelson Smith reexamines existing recovery school districts (RSDs)—entities in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan charged with running and turning around their states’ worst schools—and assembles the most comprehensive catalog of similar initiatives underway and under consideration elsewhere.

Among more than twenty recommendations gleaned from both failed and successful attempts to create and implement RSDs, Smith recommends that those who go down the turnaround path should:

  • Call your lawyer. A close reading of the state constitution is essential. Some states are so wedded to traditional forms of “local control” that setting up a state district will require fancy legal footwork, if not a constitutional amendment.
  • Decide the endgame—for both schools and the turnaround district. Apart from setting goals for school performance, other decisions must be addressed—and the earlier, the better.
  • Expect course corrections. Running a statewide district is a huge, complex undertaking full of political, financial, and logistical challenges—not to mention the myriad crises and complications that always arise in institutions serving real children. Sometimes even turnaround efforts need to turn around.
  • Give the locals a chance. After taking over failing schools, reformers sent by the state may want to clean house and start fresh with
  • ...

For decades, Ohio policymakers have piled regulations onto public schools. Up to a point, this top-down, input-driven approach made sense, back in an era when too many students weren’t receiving even a rudimentary education, and when we weren’t nearly as fussy about academic results.

But times have changed. We now realize that students need strong minds—not just strong backs—to compete for jobs in a competitive and knowledge-based economy. Rigorous academic expectations are the “coin of the realm” in contemporary education policy—but there is also now near-universal consensus that youngsters deserve schooling experiences tailored to their individual needs, gifts, and interests.

These powerful forces demand a radically different approach to public education—and especially to the old regulatory regime that ruled it. The state must demand that schools raise their academic performance to ready all Ohio students for success in college or career. (Currently, 40 percent of Ohio’s college-going freshmen require some form of remediation.) In return, educators should have the autonomy to design instruction aimed at achieving these ambitious goals and to customize their approaches to accord with their pupils’ needs, capabilities, and circumstances. This means that the compliance-based approach to public education must give way to more flexible arrangements.


In this research brief, Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania and David Scott Yeager of the University of Texas compare three measures of students’ non-cognitive skills: student surveys (in which students self-report on their non-cognitive skills), teacher surveys (in which the teacher provides his or her assessment of a student’s skills), and so-called “performance tasks” (such as the famous "marshmallow test"). After comparing these measures, the authors discuss their suitability for various purposes, including individual diagnosis, improved practice, program evaluation, and accountability.

According to the authors, each measure has advantages and disadvantages. For example, although student and teacher surveys are cheap and reliable, they suffer from “reference bias,” which occurs when individuals or groups use different frames of reference in making a judgment. Consequently, schools that are best at promoting non-cognitive skills may score lowest on a survey measuring such skills.

Unlike surveys, performance tasks don’t rely on the subjective judgments of students or teachers. Yet they too have drawbacks. To be a valid measure of a non-cognitive skill, a performance task must be administered under carefully controlled conditions, which may be difficult to achieve at some schools. They are also expensive and time-consuming, with a single task taking...

Those of us who have hoped Common Core would hasten the demise of dry and deleterious skills-driven literacy practices at the elementary level can only be heartened by Education Week’s recent in-depth report on building early literacy skills. The package is deeply practice-based and will cheer those who have championed the cause of content knowledge and vocabulary development as a means of raising proficiency—particularly among low-income kids, for whom early reading success (or lack thereof) establishes a trajectory that is devilishly hard to alter.

Highlights include Catherine Gewertz’s first-rate dispatch on the transformation of early-grade read-alouds: Teachers increasingly ask “text-dependent” questions that can only be answered with “detailed understanding of the material, rather than from students’ own experience.” She focuses on a collaborative effort of more than three hundred teachers called the Read-Aloud Project, which was launched by the Council of Great City Schools and Student Achievement Partners.

One of the most important pieces in the package ever-so-slightly misses its mark. Liana Heiten’s report on vocabulary development correctly notes—heavens be praised—the limits of direct vocabulary instruction. (Do the math: there’s not enough time to grow the fifty-thousand-word vocabulary of a literate adult by memorization or word study...

Contractors removing old chalkboards from an Oklahoma City high school last week uncovered a second set of chalkboard drawings still covered with lessons and student work from a school day in 1917. The Thanksgiving-themed drawings, multiplication problems, musical scales, and lessons on cleanliness offer an eerie, time-capsule glimpse into the past. But the discovery was important for another reason: Researchers finally have tangible evidence of what kids were learning in at least one American school.

I’m not entirely joking. Pop quiz: Can you name the English language arts curriculum in the public schools where you live? How about the math program? If you can name them, are they any good? How do you know? Do you have student performance data on the program or textbook? Or is your opinion just based on philosophy and preference?

I’ve long lamented the general lack of curiosity within education reform about curriculum as a means of improving student outcomes, despite good evidence that curriculum effects are larger than teacher effectiveness, chartering, standards, and other beloved reform levers. Likewise, I’ve expressed the hope that Common Core might spur something of a golden age in curriculum development (hell, I’ll settle for bronze)....

Regular Flypaper readers know that I’ve been skeptical of the “college for all” movement, but I’m 200 percent behind the “college for more” movement. Among other reasons, that’s because completing college brings a strong economic payoff, particularly for young people growing up in poverty. According to Pew’s Pursuing the American Dream, such individuals are almost five times likelier to escape the lowest income quintile as adults if they obtain a bachelor’s degree.

And that’s not just because of the selection effect—the fact that colleges attract relatively able and motivated young people who do well regardless of the path they follow. There’s strong evidence that college adds real value in terms of students’ skills, knowledge, and career preparation, value that translates into higher earnings. Nor is money the only payoff; we’re all familiar with the “scissors charts,” popularized by Robert Putnam, which show the relationship between college attainment, the formation of two-parent families, and other positive life outcomes, including health and even happiness.

So it’s understandable why government and foundation officials have started giving the higher education system the “reform treatment” that was once reserved for our K12 system; if it’s blocking opportunities for young people—especially low-income...

The Ohio Senate recently passed Senate Bill 3 (SB 3), legislation focused on “deregulation,” and sent it on to the House. The bill would allow high-performing districts to be exempt from certain state regulations. Judging from the testimony presented, the most controversial provisions dealt with teacher licensure.

SB 3 gives high-performing school districts two pieces of flexibility around teacher licensure. First, it allows qualifying districts to choose not to require its teachers be licensed in the grade levels they teach (though the bill maintains that a teacher must hold a license in the subject area they teach). Second, it allows these high-performing districts to hire teachers who don't hold an educator license but are instead qualified based on experience. Senate President Faber has argued that these provisions expose students to high-quality teachers they might not encounter otherwise—a retired math professor who wants to teach high school students, for instance. Opponents object to allowing unlicensed teachers into classrooms because important skills like behavior management and writing lesson plans aren’t necessarily intuitive, and their absence could outweigh the benefit of content knowledge and experience. This debate raises some important questions: Does teacher licensure matter? And is there...