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.

Welcome to the new-and-improved Late Bell, Fordham's uncanny afternoon newsletter! We're starting off our bold new era with a special Fordham-in-the-news edition.

WHEN YOU’RE AN EDUCATION-POLICY WONK AND A PUBLIC SCHOOL DAD
“Education leaders are often put off by parents who know a lot about schools and won’t shut up. Petrilli is definitely in that category,” notes Jay Mathews of the Washington Post on a recent column in which this education-policy dad asks where’s the beef on curriculum.

THE EDUCATION-REFORM PLAYOFFS
At the National Review Online, Fordham’s Chester E. Finn, Jr. asks whether pushing only a test-based accountability system is the best strategy. But that doesn’t mean he’s giving up on reform: “Major-league education change is still needed, maybe now more than ever, and it’s no time for either complacency or despair.”

YOU SAY SKILLS, WE SAY KNOWLEDGE
Emily Richmond chronicles why Common Core might be more difficult to implement in the higher grades since the standards are based on the idea that kids need knowledge. Case in point? Richmond highlights Robert Pondiscio’s take on close reading.

TO WAIVER OR NOT TO WAIVER?
‘“We’re punishing schools and educators, and arguably kids, because state policy makers don’t want to do what” the Education Department demands. “Talk about friendly fire," said...

Americans are ambivalent about testing, standards, and accountability in their children’s schools. This is clear from survey results that swing wildly depending on how, exactly, the question is phrased—and on whether the practice in question might inconvenience one’s own kid, as apart from fixing those awful schools across town.

The public shows far greater tolerance for tests whose scores may yield things we crave—admission to the college of one’s choice, for example (SAT, ACT), even advance credit for college work (AP)—than for the kind whose foremost purpose is to rank schools or teachers and give distant officials data by which to fine-tune their policies. Indeed, when it comes to statewide standardized testing of the sort that’s become universal in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era, a great many parents—and a huge fraction of teachers—appear to have had enough. They grump, with some justice, that

  • Too much school time is given over to test prep—and the pressure to lift scores leads to cheating and other unsavory practices.
  • Subjects and accomplishments that aren’t tested—art, creativity, leadership, independent thinking, etc.—are getting squeezed if not discarded.
  • Teachers are losing their freedom to practice their craft, to make classes interesting and stimulating, to act like professionals.
  • The curricular homogenizing that generally follows from standardized tests and state (or national) standards represents an undesirable usurpation of school autonomy, teacher freedom, and local control by distant authorities.
  • ...

“STOP STEALING KIDS’ FUTURES”
In New York City, pro-charter school parents and kids will march at the Families for Excellent Schools rally. “We need to stop stealing the possible,” says Eva Moskowitz in a New York Post op-ed.

WHEN YOU TRIP AND FALL...
“I'm almost certain it didn't mean to, but OCR may have stumbled into the most significant federal charter policy action since the birth of the charter movement two decades ago,” says Michael Petrilli to Politico Pro’s Morning Education.

WHAT WOULD SMARICK SAY?
The Department of Education announced $20 million “for finding, training, and keeping  good turnaround principals”—a worthy venture to beat the lacking-leaders conundrum. But is SIG even worth saving?

DISCIPLINING ON DISCIPLINE
Oregon's Department of Education is levying a fine against Portland Public Schools for suspending a disproportionate number of African American special-education students. A tricky subject, but on school discipline, Mike Petrilli doesn’t want school to repeat old mistakes

COMMON CORE AND PRIVATE SCHOOLS
“For many schools, [Common Core is] not going to drive any monumental shift in what they’re doing. There are lots of private schools that have rigorous college prep curricula to which Common Core is compatible,” says Kathleen Porter-Magee....

This study does exactly what its title promises. Specifically, analysts study two instructional practices in mathematics: (1) engaging students in discourse with the teacher and their peers to make sense of problems and explain answers and (2) using appropriate mathematical vocabulary. Importantly, these practices also reflect the Mathematical Practices of the Common Core math standards, specifically those that require students to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others and those that require students to attend to precision, including the use of appropriate mathematical vocabulary. The study occurs as part of a larger evaluation of Project M2, an advanced math curriculum (i.e., it includes content that typically appears at higher grade levels or content studied in depth with challenging task and problems) covering geometry and measurement in grades K–2. The final sample includes thirty-four K–2 teachers and their 560 students who participated in a field test from 2008–11. Teachers were randomly assigned to the intervention and control groups. The former attended roughly ten days of professional development, after which they were observed weekly and rated on fidelity of implementation to the content and the two instructional strategies of interest. Students were administered the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) as a pretest and control measure. Bottom line: Teachers’ implementation scores for verbal communication and encouraging use of math language—the two strategies—significantly predicted math achievement as gauged by the students’ percentage gain scores on an outcome measure known as the Open Response assessment. For example, if a kindergarten student with...

DIFFERENT MINDS THINK ALIKE
At a Colorado gubernatorial debate last night, Governor John Hickenlooper and Congressman Bob Beauprez discussed their views on education. The consensus: To improve the state's standing in national rankings, more federal funding is necessary. Good luck with that, fellas.

GOOD NEWS FOR LOW-INCOME UNDERGRADS
The University of Chicago will announce today a number of initiatives aimed at increasing the enrollment of low-income students. “This is all part of a strategy to create a common and equal platform for all students,” said the school’s dean.

TOOTHLESS STANDARDS
Mathew Chingos writes that although California has passed laws to remove ineffective teachers and end tenure abuse, this legislation will have a minimal impact, dismissing poor teachers at an annual rate of only 0.0008 percent. 

THINK DIFFERENT
While technology in the classroom opens the door for versatile lessons, some worry that automated programs rob children of the ability to solve complex problems on their own. ...

I’m excited about a recent shift in the reform conversation. After years of focusing on Common Core, common assessments, and teacher evaluation, many of those interested in large-scale K–12 improvements are turning their attention back to state accountability systems.

The Obama administration’s ESEA waiver policy had the potential to spur imaginative state-level thinking. But thanks to a combination of NCLB’s legal strictures, the administration’s fixation on particular policy conditions, and state leaders who just wanted to get out from under AYP ASAP, the new state systems look a whole lot like the old ones. (In fairness, some states have smartly experimented with A–F systems and “super subgroups.”)

Despite this arrested development, I think two important events provide the outlines for a new approach to state-level accountability.

First, under the auspices of CRPE and TBFI, a group of experienced policymakers and thought leaders have penned an “Open Letter on Accountability To State Superintendents and Governors.” It explains and defends K–12 accountability, concedes problems with current systems, and offers eight smart principles for next-generation systems. The group doesn’t get into specifics; instead, it hopes to get people thinking about what’s possible (though within certain guidelines).

This is important because of the second event: Increasingly, people are arguing that a unitary statewide accountability system stymies innovation and fails to capture important elements of schooling that some communities prioritize.

Mike Petrilli has argued that about 10 percent of a state’s public schools should be allowed to “opt...

ATLANTA’S SHAME
Yesterday saw opening statements in the criminal trial of a dozen Atlanta teachers and administrators who allegedly engaged in a “widespread, cleverly disguised” conspiracy to cheat on standardized test scores “to protect their jobs and win favor and bonuses from administrators,” the New York Times reports.

FORDHAM (AND CRPE) IN THE NEWS
Tom Vander Ark weighs in on the accountability reboot from Fordham-CRPE noting, “I love the idea of a 'good school promise' (best captured by #3) and think it should form the backbone of every states ed code. This list is a good start but doesn't adequately capture the opportunity of next generation learning.”

REFORM: A NEW CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT?
At The Hill, Basil A. Smikle Jr. examines the growing split between ed reformers and unions, with parents caught in the middle: “They also have agency, but there is a growing sense that their support is being appropriated for purposes that go beyond the classroom and their children.”

PATRIOTISM OR CENSORSHIP?
The protests in Jefferson County, Colorado against proposed changes to the history curriculum have engendered some great debates over the place of patriotism in the classroom. A longtime Colorado teacher shares his thoughts in The Denver Post.

    ...

DEMOCRACY REQUIRES PATRIOTISM
“In the long and deadly battle against those who hate Western ideals, and hate America in particular, we must be powerfully armed, morally as well as materially,” writes historian Donald Kagan in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKIN’ ABOUT
Former President Bill Clinton made waves with “stunning remarks” arguing charters that don’t outperform public schools should be closed. If “stunning” means saying the same thing charter advocates have been saying for twenty years, responds NACSA head Greg Richmond, “then yes, his remarks were stunning.”

“NOBODY WANTS TO BE ATLANTA”
The Wall Street Journal reports on “a burgeoning industry in detecting cheating on standardized exams.” School districts from Delaware to Idaho are hiring anti-cheating consultants, buying software to spot wrongdoers, and requiring testing companies to offer anti-cheating plans when seeking contracts. 

ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH
Literacy expert Tim Shanahan enters the fray on teaching with complex text, not just “leveled” text. “Teachers should pay attention to evidence—not opinion,” he writes. Read Fordham’s take by Mahnken and Pondiscio here.    

HISTORY LESSONS
In Philly, students are required to take a one-year course in African American history, but many find the course frustrating, says the New Republic. And teachers “sometimes fear that introducing current events and encouraging interpretation and debate will lead to...

DEPARTMENT OF GOOD NEWS:
Hispanic children, the fastest growing group of young people in the U.S., are seeing improvements on many academic measures, including increased math proficiency and lower dropout rates.

DEPARTMENT OF BAD NEWS:
The number of charter schools has nearly doubled over the past decade, but federal and state assistance for funding school facilities and renovations, a major obstacle for many charter schools, has declined.

COMMON CORE UNFOLDS IN LOUISIANA:
In spite of the legal furor surrounding the implementation of Common Core in the Pelican State, the standards have seen a mostly encouraging reception in the classroom, Will Sentell reports in the New Orleans Advocate.

YALE BEATS HARVARD, 20.2-15.4:
Yesterday we pointed you to a Wall Street Journal story highlighting Harvard’s somewhat lackluster 15.4 percent investment gains in fiscal 2014; today brings the news that archnemesis Yale posted a 20.2 percent return over the same period. Meanwhile, the Crimson's investment arm has brought on a new chief executive....

Kevin Mahnken

Among opponents of the Common Core, one of the more popular targets of vitriol is the standards’ focus on improving literacy by introducing higher levels of textual complexity into the instructional mix. The move to challenge students with more knotty, grade-level reading material represents a shift away from decades of general adherence to so-called “instructional level theory,” which encourages children to read texts pitched at or slightly above the student’s individual reading level. New York public school principal Carol Burris, an outspoken standards critic and defender of leveled reading, recently published an anti-Common Core missive on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog that was fairly typical of the form. Where, she wondered, “is the research to support: close reading, increased Lexile levels, the use of informational texts, and other questionable practices in the primary grades?”

The blog post, which has already been intelligently critiqued by Ann Whalen at Education Post, expanded on remarks delivered by Burris earlier this month at an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate with Fordham president Michael Petrilli and former assistant secretary of education Carmel Martin. There, too, she demanded evidence of literacy improvements arising from the use of complex texts.

A fair request and one that warrants a thorough response. But first, for the benefit of readers who are neither teachers nor literacy specialists, a quick explainer on how these two theories of reading work: In leveled reading, a teacher listens as her...

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