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.

School boards matter. Indeed, in Fordham’s new report Do School Boards Matter?  researchers found that knowledgeable, hard-working boards that prioritize student achievement govern higher-performing districts. Perhaps this is no surprise, particularly given the wide-ranging authority of boards. In Ohio, school boards’ statutory powers include prescribing curriculum, appointing a treasurer and superintendent, creating a school schedule, and entering into labor contracts with teachers. Meanwhile, we in Columbus have painfully observed what happens when a school board fails to exercise diligent oversight.

School boards, then, can be potent entities (or dismally impotent ones). But does anyone care about them?

To dig into this question, I look at the November 2013 school-board elections for Franklin County. The county has a nice mix of districts, including one big-city district (Columbus) and a number of both high- and low-wealth suburban districts. I look at three data points: The number of contested seats, voter turnout rates, and “undervotes” among those who actually went to the polls. This slice of data portrays a general air of apathy among the electorate toward school boards.

First, when it comes to competition for seats, many of the seats went uncontested. Remarkably, there were just seventy-two candidates vying for fifty board seats across Franklin County—less than two candidates per open seat. In fact, five of the seventeen school districts had entirely uncontested races (the number of candidates equaled the number of open seats). If you ran for office in those districts, you automatically...

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Findings from a fascinating new report on school boards are unintuitive for two big reasons. First, the study finds that, among other things, boards can have a meaningful influence on student performance, even enabling district kids’ ability to “beat the odds.” Second, the report is from Fordham(!)—a group that, like me, is generally skeptical of today’s current governance arrangements. The most interesting part is that board-member characteristics (political ideology, prior employment as an educator, level of professional development, when and how elected) can help predict the board’s effectiveness. Score one for interesting research and one for effective school boards.

Speaking of school boards, this proposed legislation in Louisiana would essentially do what Paul Hill recommended 20 years ago: stop school boards from operating schools and give schools lots of autonomy. Here, the district superintendent would function much like an authorizer. This is a step on the way to The Urban School System of the Future. But, in my humble opinion, its basic flaw is it tries to get what we want by changing what we have, instead of starting anew. I don’t trust that school boards, superintendents, and district central offices can fundamentally alter what they’ve done for 100 years. And are most of today’s principals ready to suddenly take control of just about everything the district used to do? I’ll admit to being too critical; if this legislation is adopted, have no doubt, it’ll advance systemic reform of urban school systems...

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Is a consolation prize better than no prize at all? That’s the question American educators might ponder with this week’s release of the PISA 2012 problem-solving-assessment results. In its very first iteration, the computer-based test was administered to a subsample of the students assessed in PISA’s core subjects: just over 6,000 U.S. students took the core PISA tests, and 1,273 of those also took this problem-solving test (see the U.S. snapshot). In all, about 85,000 fifteen-year-olds in forty-four countries participated. It tested students’ creative problem-solving skills with real-life problems, such as “an unfamiliar vending machine or a malfunctioning electronic device.” (This is no April Fool’s day joke.) This is quite different from problem-solving questions found on the core assessments, which are more academic in nature. The results were closely correlated with math, science, and reading scores: Singapore, South Korea, and Japan topped the list; the U.S. was just above the OECD average; and Finland, Canada, and Australia were in between. The one potential bright spot for the U.S.—and the source of its consolation prize—is our “relative performance,” defined as the difference between the observed problem-solving score and the expected score, based on PISA core-subject scores. The U.S. had the fourth-highest relative performance and was one of only nine countries that had statistically significant higher-than-expected problem solving scores. The trophy, however, is made of cheap plastic. According to PISA, in countries with low overall performance—like the U.S.—these higher scores might indicate that schools are leaving students with...

Brandon Wright

Is a consolation prize better than no prize at all? That’s the question American educators might ponder with this week’s release of the PISA 2012 problem-solving-assessment results. In its very first iteration, the computer-based test was administered to a subsample of the students assessed in PISA’s core subjects: just over 6,000 U.S. students took the core PISA tests, and 1,273 of those also took this problem-solving test (see the U.S. snapshot). In all, about 85,000 fifteen-year-olds in forty-four countries participated. It tested students’ creative problem-solving skills with real-life problems, such as “an unfamiliar vending machine or a malfunctioning electronic device.” (This is no April Fool’s day joke.) This is quite different from problem-solving questions found on the core assessments, which are more academic in nature. The results were closely correlated with math, science, and reading scores: Singapore, South Korea, and Japan topped the list; the U.S. was just above the OECD average; and Finland, Canada, and Australia were in between. The one potential bright spot for the U.S.—and the source of its consolation prize—is our “relative performance,” defined as the difference between the observed problem-solving score and the expected score, based on PISA core-subject scores. The U.S. had the fourth-highest relative performance and was one of only nine countries that had statistically significant higher-than-expected problem solving scores. The trophy, however, is made of cheap plastic. According to PISA, in countries with low overall performance—like the U.S.—these higher scores might indicate that schools are leaving students with...

No one disputes that great teachers are essential. But how do we get more of them—do we find them or make them? In this book, an elaboration of her New York Times Magazine cover story, Chalkbeat’s Elizabeth Green roundly refutes the narrative that the teaching ability is like a “gene,” contending instead that teaching skills can be taught. The author retraces the history of pedagogical research—from education psychologist Nate Gage through math pedagogy expert Deborah Ball—to illustrate the institutional resistance to instruction-centered reforms. Though scholars, policy makers, and educators are obsessed with quality teaching, the myth of the teaching gene silences efforts to study and improve teachers’ techniques. New instructors, working in isolation, continually reinvent the wheel, with little success. But perhaps that’s starting to change. Some researchers are beginning to systematically observe and record teachers’ methods, allowing successful approaches to emerge. (For instance: Lemov’s taxonomy and Ball’s “This Kind of Teaching.”) This book bears good news for the American education community: if effective pedagogy can be learned, we needn’t wait for great teachers to come to the profession—we can start improving the ones we have.

SOURCE: Elizabeth Green, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, July 2014)....

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Sarah Rosenberg

When it comes to education reform, school boards are often the redheaded stepchildren. Over the last two decades, mayors have taken over nearly twenty major urban school systems. “School boards are an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole,” said Fordham’s own Checker Finn. “Put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery.” Even school board members themselves admit that they “throw temper-tantrums, use off-color language, throw things, [and] threaten or insult board members, the superintendent, staff, or the public.” The bigger question then is: Do school boards even matter? Should we even have them? Two researchers tried to answer that question.

In Does School Board Leadership Matter?, Arnold F. Shober and Michael T. Hartney matched school-board-member survey data from 2009 with data about each participant’s district. The goal of their analysis was to determine whether school board members’ characteristics and opinions correlated with their districts’ student achievement and whether their districts “beat the odds” and outperformed what their student demographics predicted. What they found was promising: school board members who believe that improving student learning is their most important priority were more likely to serve in districts that beat the odds.

Considering school boards control the vast majority of the nation’s 14,000 school districts, this is good news. But the research does require a few caveats. First, the survey did not interview entire school boards; instead, they interviewed 900 school board members from 417 school districts. School boards can—and often do—have members with...

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This eighth edition of Achieve’s annual report monitoring states’ adoption of core academic expectations arrives at a critical moment—and underscores the mammoth challenges associated with standards implementation. As in years past, the report summarizes states’ policies in four domains: the adoption and successful implementation of college-and-career-ready (CCR) standards (including but not limited to the Common Core), graduation requirements (considered CCR if graduating students are required to complete a course of study aligned with quality standards), assessments (which must align with CCR standards and have credibility with postsecondary institutions), and accountability (a set of indicators that measure college and career readiness). In each area, Achieve outlines a model strategy and highlights states with practices that align with these recommendations. The report begins optimistically: currently, all fifty states and the District of Columbia have adopted CCR standards, and thirty-seven states report that they will have implemented those standards by the present school year. But the report also correctly emphasizes that the existence of standards is not sufficient to achieve their purpose. The combination of standards, graduation requirements, assessments, and accountability is greater than the sum of its parts. Depressingly, not a single state has integrated all of Achieve’s indicators into an accountability system, and only a handful have properly implemented the remaining three categories. Nearly half the states have neither CCR-aligned graduation requirements nor a CCR assessment. This report tempers initial optimism that CCR standards will be effectively implemented in the current or next school year, no matter what the states...

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education was born in response to A Nation at Risk, and in a 1991 report, it pointed the way toward the Bay State's much-praised 1993 education-reform act. What happened thereafter is widely known: with an entire suite of reforms in place, the “Massachusetts Miracle” propelled that state to a level of educational performance that rivaled leading nations elsewhere on the globe. The past few years, however, have seen some stagnation and backsliding on the ed-reform front in the Bay State, and the MBAE recognized that the time has come for a new kick in the pants. So they engaged Sir Michael Barber and his Brightlines colleague, Simon Day, to prepare the present report, a status update and road map to the future. Even a jaded report reader might fairly term the result thrilling. It acknowledges the stagnation problem and depicts six gaps as the main challenges facing Massachusetts: the employability gap (the dearth of needed skills for success in the modern economy); the knowledge gap (a lack of crucial Hirsch-style content); the achievement gap (similar to NCLB concerns); the opportunity gap (i.e., poor kids don’t get a fair shake); the global gap (the state will lose its international ranking as countries with strong education systems forge ahead); and the top-talent gap (failure to address the education needs of gifted youngsters). For each of these gaps, an audacious but convincing set of remedies is proposed. I've no idea whether the Bay State has the will, the...

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Anyone concerned with improving the achievement, efficiency, operations, or other performance of school districts inevitably asks: Shouldn’t the board be responsible for doing this right? How much do school boards matter, anyway?

In the past, school boards have been characterized both as key partners in improving education and as foes of reforms that would benefit children. More recently, they’ve also been depicted as beside-the-point, structural relics of early-twentieth-century organizational arrangements that have little effect on what actually happens in classrooms or on what kids learn.

So which is it? When it comes to the elected leaders of most of the 14,000 school districts in the U.S., are board members critical actors in enhancing student learning, protectors of the status quo, or simply harmless bystanders? If they are critical, are they well suited to delivering the best results for students? And if they are indeed capable and willing to focus on student learning, do such qualities at the board level bear any relationship to academic results in their districts?

Until now, nobody had much evidence one way or the other. So, building on a large-scale survey (done in collaboration with the NSBA and ISBF), we set out to see whether school board members’ characteristics, knowledge, and priorities could be linked to district performance. To explore these questions, we enlisted Arnold F. Shober, associate professor of government at Lawrence University, and Michael T. Hartney, researcher in political science at the University of Notre Dame. Both have conducted significant previous research into...

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In an Education Week commentary essay about school boards in 2009, I wrote, “[M]y sense of things, after two stints on my local school board…is that school boards have been overtaken by the ‘educatocracy,’ by powerful trade unions, certified specialists, certification agencies, state and federal rule-makers and legislators, grants with strings, billion-dollar-contractor lobbyists, textbook mega-companies, professional associations, and lawyers—the list could go on.”

I am quite gleeful, therefore, that the new report from Fordham entitled Does School Board Leadership Matter? asks most of the right questions about school boards—and provides some very interesting and helpful answers for progress moving forward.

Complaints about school boards are legion—and well known—and they carry on. A few titles in the new report’s endnotes spell it out: “School Boards: A Troubled American Institution” (by Jacqueline Danzberger), School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy (by Gene Maeroff), and Beseiged: School Boards and the Future of American Politics (William Howell). The dates of these publications range from 1992 to 2010. And, of course, Checker Finn beat them all, suggesting in a 1991 Education Week commentary that we should probably “declare local boards and superintendents to be archaic in the 1990s, living fossils of an earlier age…. Local school boards are not just superfluous. They are also dysfunctional.”

“Under these circumstances,” I wrote in my 2009 Ed Week commentary, “it doesn’t surprise me that many people think school boards are irrelevant. They are. Boards do a lot of moving the chairs around on...

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