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.

Last Friday, I laid out policy scenarios that might result from the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn. To recap, the case involved plaintiff Pam Harris and other Illinois home-healthcare workers whom public-employee unions had successfully organized (with the help of their allies in the Democratic political establishment). The problem was that Harris and others didn’t want to subsidize the union, didn’t think they were even public employees, and simply wanted to go back to providing healthcare services to their patients, who were often sick family members.

I theorized that the Court would either (a) side with the unions and tell healthcare providers to take it up with the state legislature, (b) side with the healthcare providers but limit the decision to them alone, or (c) extend the decision broadly to say that all public employees needn’t pay union dues or “fair share” payments if they did not want to subsidize the union’s activities. Option “c” is a doomsday scenario for public unions (the unions’ “gravest threat” in the eyes of one commentator) and would effectively prohibit “fair share” payments for workers nationwide.

Why this would cripple the unions isn’t hard to figure out. Last year, the Wisconsin Education Association Council reported a nearly 30 percent drop in membership in the two years since the Act 10 collective-bargaining law took effect. (Act 10 eliminated “fair share” payments, though it also limited collective bargaining, which the doomsday scenario would not do.)

On Monday, the Court ruled decidedly...

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While education reforms are nearly always won via legislation, rare exceptions do occur—and sometimes they’re significant. The year 2014 has already proven to be a landmark one for education reform thanks to judicial decision. Perhaps the most notable example thus far is Vergara v. California, which struck down tenure and kindred state laws that make it difficult for schools to ensure that their students (especially those living in poverty) have an effective teacher. This week brought word that some New York families are kick starting a similar challenge to equally oppressive laws in the Empire state. Other states could follow.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision in Harris v. Quinn, which could be even more momentous for education reform (and public-sector unionism broadly.) Indeed, some liberals are calling it the “gravest threat today to public-employee unions.”

This case deals with the representation of Illinois’s home health care workers (often family members taking care of loved ones). The issue arose when plaintiff Pam Harris (the mother of a disabled son whom she takes care of) worried that union dues (or “fair share” payments in lieu of dues) would divert money she needs for her son into political speech undertaken by unions with which she does not agree.

Traditionally, such in-home caregivers were not considered public employees, much less members of collective-bargaining units, but actions by former governor Rod Blagojevich and current governor Pat Quinn, designed to benefit large unions (and political megadonors) like...

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“Nobody expects new surgeons to be any good. It wasn’t until my fortieth or fiftieth bypass surgery that I started feel like I knew what I was doing.”

 “I wish I could go back and retry those cases from my first year. If I knew then what I know now, they’d never have been convicted.”

“Look, every rookie shoots an innocent bystander by mistake or arrests the wrong guy. That doesn’t make you a bad cop. Your first year on the job is all about learning from your mistakes.”

Odds are pretty good that you’ve never heard anything like the three statements above. Hopefully you never will. But ask a teacher about his or her first year in the classroom and you’ll hear, either with a smile or a shudder, how “nothing prepared me for my first year as a teacher.”

Funny thing, if you think about it. Other fields rarely send unprepared recruits off to their first jobs. In education, we not only expect it, but we seem proud of it. You haven’t earned your stripes as a teacher until you’ve earned your scars. I’ve said it myself to grad students and new teachers, thinking I was giving sage advice and comfort: “Your first year in the classroom is about moving from unconscious incompetence—not knowing what you don’t know—to conscious incompetence—knowing what you don’t know and need to improve.”

I wonder how many unconsciously incompetent...

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One of the received truths of education reform is that a creative, talented school principal can do a lot, whether by embracing technology, changing the way a school is organized, or allocating resources differently. The counter is that true principal autonomy doesn’t exist because of strict limitations by district, state, and federal mandates, union contracts, and such. This new study from the Center on Reinventing Public Education asks two questions: First, what do principals report as barriers to their autonomy? And second, are the barriers are real or imagined? (Fordham tackled similar questions in 2008 in The Leadership Limbo, primarily in reference to union contracts. To find the answers, the researchers interviewed eight principals in three states from a variety of policy and district environments—a small sample, yes, but the analysts spent considerable with them and probed deep. The researchers organized principals’ responses into a total of 128 barriers to change: 22 percent impeded efforts to improve teacher quality, 38 percent restricted resource allocation, and 40 percent prevented instructional innovation. The researchers then compared the principals’ responses with state and federal laws and local collective bargaining agreements. They found that 31 percent of the reported barriers were real, including forced placement of teachers, bargained teacher salaries, and state-mandated class sizes. Many of these real barriers were financial, including restrictions on financial autonomy because of categorical funding. The remaining 69 percent, however, were either imaginary or surmountable. For example, most principals wanted to move to a competency-based system but felt...

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The Education Department has been slowly gathering itself together over the past decade to review states’ mandatory annual IDEA “performance plans” on the basis of student outcomes, in addition to bureaucratic compliance with sundry procedural and data-reporting requirements.

In giving feedback to the states a year ago, for example, Melody Musgrove (who directs the Office of Special Education Programs at ED) forewarned chiefs that ED was redesigning their monitoring system into “a more balanced approach that considers results as well as compliance.”’

Yesterday, they made considerable news by basing their latest round of feedback on criteria that include how a state’s disabled students fare on NAEP and the size of achievement gaps that separate those pupils from “all children on regular statewide assessments.” Further changes are promised for subsequent years, including student-growth data based on statewide assessments. Also promised is a reduction in compliance-style reporting and data burdens.

Based on this analysis, the feds then sort states into three buckets labeled “meets requirements,” “needs assistance,” and “needs intervention.” And the inclusion of outcomes data really does turn out to make a difference. Whereas in previous years almost every state and territory (forty-one last year, to be specific) fell into the first bucket, this year just eighteen do. (There’s a fourth bucket entitled “needs substantial intervention,” but at present, no state has been placed there.)

Among the many “sinkers”: Ohio, which went from bucket 1 to bucket 2, and Delaware, which declined from 2 to 3....

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Yes, everybody understands that “school leaders matter,” a truism now morphing into a cliché that trips easily from the tongue but typically fails to cause movement anywhere in the worlds of education policy and practice.

As a result, far too many U.S. schools lack the leaders that they need. Far too many principals lack the wherewithal—authority, resources, capacity, etc.—to lead effectively. And far too many school systems, especially urban districts with the most urgent need for dynamic competence in this crucial role, haven’t yet figured out the best way to find the strongest candidates in the land and induce them to move into the principal’s office.

This is scarcely a new problem. Indeed, it’s been so much discussed and fussed about that people may be wearying of it—or possibly have come to believe that surely it’s been solved by now.

Yet urgent leadership-related changes haven’t yet been made in American public education, or have been gingerly tried in just a handful of places. Most states still expect principals to possess a traditional administrative certificate, at least for those running district schools, and most of those certificates are still awarded primarily through completion of traditional “ed leadership” programs via graduate degrees in conventional education schools. Nor has the compensation of school principals much improved; indeed, the annual average salary difference in 2011–12 between what veteran high-school teachers (eleven to twenty years) and their principals get paid was roughly $40,000. In the District of Columbia, top teachers earn as...

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Note: This post is part of our series, "Netflix Academy: The best educational videos available for streaming." Be sure to check out our previous Netflix Academy posts on dinosaursaquatic lifeinsectsfrogs and other amphibiansreptilesbirdsmammalshuman evolutionearthquakes and volcanoes; outer spaceAncient Asian Culturesearly American civilizationsAncient GreeceAncient RomeNative American culturesChristopher Columbus and the Age of DiscoveryColonial America and the Revolutionary War; the American founders; the Lewis and Clark expeditionmovie adaptations of classic children’s books, and American folk heroes.

Throughout this series, I’ve complained about the relative paucity of streaming videos on human history; now it’s clear that there aren’t nearly enough videos on human biology, either. But we found a few, and they are fantastic, particularly the episodes from The Magic School Bus (which is making a comeback!). Enjoy—and, as always, let us know if you find some others, too.

Special thanks to research interns Ashley Council and Liz McInerney for helping to compile these lists.

Best videos on the systems of the human body

 

1. The Magic School Bus Inside Ralphie (Season 1, Episode 3)

Why does Ralphie have a fever? Time for a field trip inside Ralphie's body to find out. But white blood cells start to attack the

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Success Academy, the high-performing charter network run by tough-as-nails Eva Moskowitz, is looking to expand—and has put Mayor Bill de Blasio in a tough spot. He has long opposed the policy of allowing charter schools to share space with traditional public schools, enacted by his predecessor. However, a state law passed in April requires that he do just that—or give the schools money to find their own space. And as the New York Times notes, “The last time he denied space to Success Academy schools, it led to the law that now handcuffs him.”

Governor Bobby Jindal has issued executive orders that, he says, will remove Louisiana from the Common Core and PARCC. “Not so fast,” say State Education Superintendent John White and others who point out that Jindal doesn’t have that power, especially on the standards. “This is all political theater,” said Mike to Politico. “Gov. Jindal will score points with the tea party, but his actions seem likely to be stymied in court.” Or so we hope.

This week, a New York Times piece, featuring both an article and an accompanying short video, highlighted New York’s transition to the Common Core. Kids are struggling to adjust to thinking critically and writing evidence-based rather than personal essays, and teachers are struggling to teach the new standards with new materials—while the low test scores in the first Common Core–aligned tests dinged their confidence. However, as the teacher featured in the Times’s video points...

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Mainstream media and advocacy groups often portray teachers as an embattled, even embittered, ensemble. Tougher policies are sometimes accused of contributing to their stress. But has accountability actually led to deteriorating work conditions and lower morale among teachers? This new study shatters that popular conception. A team of researchers discovered that teachers have been reporting increasingly positive attitudes about their job since the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001. The study examined the responses of nearly 140,000 public school teachers from four rounds of the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS): two waves occurred prior to NCLB, and two occurred after the law took effect (most recently in 2008). Happily, the researchers found that, post-NCLB, teachers are more likely to perceive support from their colleagues, administrators, and parents than prior to the law. The study also found that teachers report a greater sense of “classroom control” (e.g., autonomy over curricula, textbooks, discipline, etc.), greater job satisfaction, and a stronger commitment to the profession. In addition, the researchers attempt to tease out the causal effects of NCLB on teachers’ attitudes. (One cannot necessarily attribute the positive trends to NCLB per se.) To do this, they compared teachers’ responses in states with accountability regimes prior to NCLB to teachers in states that implemented systems as a result of NCLB. The researchers discovered that the onset of accountability positively impacted teachers’ feelings of classroom control and administrator support. The researchers, however, did not discern a similar effect on job satisfaction or...

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The results of the second edition of NCTQ’s evaluation of teacher-preparation programs aren’t that much more optimistic than last year’s much publicized and contentious findings. This years’ study examined the same programs, for the most part, but expanded the scope of the work by analyzing them more comprehensively. In total, over 1600 elementary and secondary programs were evaluated on all “key” standards, which include selectivity and admissions practices; subject-area preparation; student teaching; and classroom management. Out of this universe, only twenty-six elementary and eighty-one secondary programs made the list of top ranked programs, which is roughly 6 percent. Overall, elementary programs are weaker than secondary ones: 67 percent of the former landed in the lowest tier of scores. Further, coursework in just 17 percent of programs prepares elementary and special-education teachers in all five fundamentals of scientifically based reading instruction. The analysis also included an evaluation of alternate route programs, which now account for the education of one in five teachers in America. They don’t appear to be doing much better than traditional programs. Of the eighty-five programs reviewed, just one—Teach For America, Massachusetts—received top marks.

SOURCE: Julie Greenberg, Kate Walsh, and Arthur McKee, 2014 Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Preparation Programs (Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality, June 2014).

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