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.

This fascinating new study published by NBER examines whether early-retirement incentives impact student achievement. Researchers analyzed an early-retirement policy in Illinois that allowed teachers to retire early in 1992–93 and 1993–94. It was nicknamed 5+5, meaning that teachers who were at least fifty years old could purchase an extra five years of age and experience to be counted as creditable service toward their retirement benefit, so long as they retired immediately. Over the policy’s two-year life span, a full 10 percent of Illinois’s teachers—the bulk of whom were experienced—took advantage of this offer, leaving the profession. Analysts studied the test scores of the students of roughly 55,000 third-, sixth-, and eighth-grade teachers, ultimately finding that the incentive led to increased student achievement in most cases. (Why this occurred is beyond the scope of this study. It is conceivable that the lowest-quality and/or most burned-out teachers are most apt to take advantage of an incentive like this.) They also found evidence suggesting larger positive effects in disadvantaged schools. Then the analysts turned to cost. Summed across the approximately 8,000 teachers who participated in the program, the incentive resulted in total savings to Illinois districts of $550.5 million (because it’s cheaper to replace veteran teachers with rookies). However, the teachers who retired early receive pension benefits for more years than if they had retired normally. And in Illinois, it is the state, rather than the districts, that must make up the increased costs to the pension system, which totaled roughly $643 million....

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Does slow and steady win the race? That’s what education analysts are hoping after digging through the newly released math- and reading-achievement scores on the bi-yearly National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The test, administered to around 400,000 fourth-grade and 350,000 eighth-grade public school students, showed the nation’s school kids making slight gains since 2011, continuing a constant climb over the last decade. In math, the average fourth grader scored 242 and the average eighth grader scored 285, both groups up by one point since 2011. In reading, fourth graders did not make any statistically significant gains, but eighth graders improved three points in the intervening two years, going from an average score of 265 to 268. However, the average scorer in both grades did not score at or above the “proficient” level in either math or reading: Fourth graders came closest, with 42 percent reaching or exceeding the mark in mathematics. Meanwhile, the achievement gap between white and black students persisted, and the gap between white and Hispanic students did the same (though the eighth-grade Hispanic cohort is steadily closing the gap in reading scores). But if the average state played the turtle in this fable, there were a few states that played the hare: Tennessee, the District of Columbia, and Defense Department schools were the only entities to produce statistically significant gains across both subjects and grades (Tony Bennett’s Indiana also did well, posting significant gains in fourth-grade math and reading). As to whether or not the gains...

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With the polls closed and votes counted, the most interesting school district in America will remain interesting: Douglas County, Colorado—which had four of seven seats up for election on Tuesday—maintained its pro-reform edge, with two incumbents reelected and two reform-y newcomers taking seats at the table. Well done—and we can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.

By a margin of 4 percentage points, State Representative Martin Walsh has become Boston’s first new mayor-elect in twenty years, beating out City Councilor John Connolly for the mayorship of Boston. Walsh—whose campaign, according to Politico, received a fair amount of funding from the unions—has underscored his support for universal pre-Kindergarten. Connolly—a former teacher backed by Democrats for Education Reform—had supported reducing the district bureaucracy and improving career and technical education. However, both candidates supported lifting the state cap on charter schools and lengthening the school day.

Meanwhile, Gotham voters eagerly elected Bill de Blasio as their mayor on Tuesday; he famously pledged to tax the rich in order to pay for his universal preschool program. Colorado voters, on the other hand, rejected a $1 billion tax increase for education by a two-to-one margin (while adopting a new tax on marijuana). Voters in Columbus, Ohio (Fordham’s home state), also rejected a local levy by a lopsided margin. The lesson: Education taxes on the one percent (and on weed) are popular. Taxes on the middle class? Not so much....

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Joshua Dunn

Yesterday, Colorado’s voters resoundingly rejected Amendment 66, which had promised to vastly increase funding for Colorado schools and create a world-class system of education. Voters, with some justification, think Colorado already has good schools and were not in the mood to approve the largest tax hike in state history.

Much can be taken away from the results. First, despite being well funded and organized, a greater margin of voters said “no thanks” to Amendment 66 than a smaller proposed education tax increase in 2011, Proposition 103: That measure failed with 63 percent of Colorado voters rejecting it, while Amendment 66 (if the current, almost-complete results hold up) failed by 66 percent. The supporters of Amendment 66 raised over $10 million, including $1 million donations apiece from Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, which allowed supporters to vastly outspend opponents of the measure. The lucky citizens of Colorado were subjected to seemingly endless ads about how, for a very small price per family, we could do things like add art classes and gym. Of course, the fool’s gold but always-enticing “reducing class sizes” was thrown in for good measure.

Second, the results are a huge repudiation of the Democratic leadership in Denver. Just a few months ago, two Democratic state senators, including the Senate president, were the first recalled public officials in Colorado history. One gets the sense that some of the vote on Amendment 66 was a carryover from the general public anger over how many measures, such as...

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I’m a big fan of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). They do great work to help charter authorizers significantly improve their practices. I speak from firsthand experience—they partnered with the charter office at the New Jersey Department of Education while I was there and substantially improved our work.

But NACSA is more than a provider of technical assistance. In important ways, they help advance reform thinking. The latest example is their excellent recent report on accountability for “alternative” charter schools (or “alternative education campuses”—AECs). Such schools serve very high-risk student populations, including those in the juvenile justice system, with substance abuse problems, who are persistently truant, and more. Accordingly, these schools often fail to perform well on standard measures of student achievement, making it difficult for authorizers to fairly and accurately assess their performance. AECs disproportionately fail to make AYP and are disproportionately represented in states’ bottom 5 percent of schools.

But it might be the case that, despite low test scores, lots of AECs are doing great work. For these schools, because they’ve been identified for attention via state accountability systems, they’re unnecessarily subjected to intrusive state interventions. Currently, only seven states have sought to remedy this situation, creating separate accountability systems for alternative schools. But the ball is most certainly in the court of state governments.

Since states are creating their own new accountability systems via ESEA waivers, they must tackle this issue if AECs are to...

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Bill de Blasio’s public-education agenda consists of seven boasts (things he says he’s already done, part of his record as public advocate) and nineteen plans for future changes (“policies, agendas, and programs” that he promises to “work tirelessly to implement”). Minus the overlap, they add up to two dozen ideas. Here’s how I score them:

Potentially worthwhile, but over-the-top or unaffordable: These five notions include his preschool promise. The problem? Preschool could do considerable good for some very needy kids, but the universal version he’s espousing is a costly, unnecessary windfall for hundreds of thousands of middle-class parents and apt to result in a program that’s too skimpy to really benefit the children who need it most. (Note, too, that the city’s current pre-K programs are under-enrolled.)

Much the same can be said for universal after-school programs for middle schoolers, considering that plenty of parents already have this worked out. A serious education reformer would instead expand learning time by lengthening the school day and year. But the unions won’t like that.

As for universal school breakfasts and arts education, believe it or not, a lot of kids really do get fed before leaving for school, and art, worthy as it is, mustn’t crowd out the three R’s before children have mastered them.

Overdue reforms (if he puts teeth in them): I count two here.

Getting every child to read by...

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One of the most important and interesting questions I get about my book, The Urban School System of the Future, is whether I think its analysis and recommendations apply to non-urban districts. Though my thinking on this is still developing, my current response is as follows: When it comes to suburban districts, yes, much, but not all, is applicable; rural districts, however, are a different story (more on this in the weeks to come).

If you’re interested in the subject of reform in different contexts, you might want to read AEI’s recent report about Douglas County, an affluent district outside of Denver. It tells the story of a school board and district leadership, in an attempt to move their district from good to great, embracing a right-leaning agenda and some of the initiatives traditionally associated with reforming struggling urban districts, including improved teacher-evaluation systems, new educator-salary programs, and expanded parental choice. The choice aspect of the paper is especially interesting—the district has been resourceful in its use of the state charter law.

But the other reason to read the report is that the politics of the Douglas reform effort are intense. Though this Politico article on the topic is tendentious (a few paragraphs in, it’s clear the reforms aren’t going to get a sympathetic treatment), you’ll find a number of very interesting facts, themes, and questions, including the propriety of disclosing who funds such reports (for example, my organization, Bellwether Education Partners, always discloses relevant relationships—you can...

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On November 5th, Colorado voters head to the polls to decide whether they want to substantially raise their taxes to better fund schools (and, separately, to regulate their newly legal pot—but more on that some other time). The plan, known as Amendment 66, is spearheaded by State Senator Mike Johnston (D) and funded by a coalition of teacher unions and others. It would raise income taxes by $950 million by ditching the state's flat tax of 4.63 percent. In its place would be a system with two rates: 5 percent for incomes at or below $75,000 per year and 5.9 percent for incomes above $75,000.

Passage of the amendment would green-light a previously passed and wide-ranging bill, also led by Johnston, designed to revamp the existing school-funding formula and divvy up the new money, if taxpayers decide to provide it. The bill has some ideas that, by themselves, should be fairly popular. For example, it lifts caps on preschool and Kindergarten enrollment, moves away from an easy-to-manipulate, single enrollment-count day, and refreshes the funding formula to weight for poverty and ELL status, among other factors. But, to many others, the cost to taxpayers seems outrageously high.

Supporters and opponents are sharply at odds when it comes to what this proposal might mean and, of course, whether it should pass. But those on both sides feel certain of one thing: The final result is sure to be a nail biter. Here’s a breakdown of five factors that could make the...

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Dear Deborah,

Thanks for the opportunity to debate the critical issues in education and social policy with you. You are an icon and a hero, and it's been a true honor.

Someday I'd like to write a book on anti-poverty efforts, and I hope it might have the title above. Understanding that my knowledge about this vast topic is still limited, here's a first cut at the basic outline. I think you'll agree that there are quite a few items on the list about which we can agree.

Introduction: A smart anti-poverty strategy starts with three principles:

1. Think intergenerationally.

We'd all like to see greater social mobility in America, but we need to be realistic about what's achievable. It's never been the case that many of the poorest Americans have gone from rags to riches over the course of their own lives. More common has been an intergenerational story: The penniless, uneducated immigrant arrives through Ellis Island and lands in an urban slum. But then, via hard work and sacrifice (and, in some cases, help from the government or from trade unions), he gets a foothold in the economy, makes sure his own children learn English and do well in school, and ensures they make it into the great American middle class. And the third generation climbs even higher.

Poverty, by this telling, isn't such a problem if it's temporary....

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Taiwan (a.k.a. the Republic of China or Chinese Taipei) has much going for it in the education realm, particularly its sky-high results on international assessments, but it also has plenty of problems in this sphere. Some came as no great surprise when I visited. The country has too many universities, for example, especially as the population shrinks, plus a fixation on everybody attending them even if their life plans don’t require it. That government schools charge tuition, however modest, for compulsory education, strikes an American visitor as peculiar and slightly unfair. I surely don’t love the practice of letting teachers select their schools with the principal having almost no say in the process. Even worse: It’s all but impossible to redeploy, reassign, or dismiss teachers, however inefficient or ineffectual (or just plain unnecessary) their present roles. It also struck me as questionable to lump gifted students into special education—but then give nearly all the dedicated resources to the disabled kids who share that overarching designation. Gifted education ends up getting short shrift.

All worrying, yes, and definitely worth reforming, but not mind-bendingly unexpected. Here’s what was: Besides its influential teacher union, Taiwan has a powerful parent union that now appears to cause at least as much harm as it does good. (In private, the educators I met all agreed with this judgment.)

Walk through the front door of a Taiwanese public school—the door I first walked through belongs to one of the most respected high schools in the land—and one...

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