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.

John Kraman

In a recent EdNext column, Checker Finn proposed what he expected to be a controversial solution to the problem of low levels of college readiness among our high school graduates: namely, “different ways of completing—and being credentialed for completing—one’s primary and secondary education.”

In case Checker is holding his breath, I would like to raise a (quiet) howl of protest—just not for the reason Checker expected. The reality is that differentiated credentials are already here; they are common, diverse and wide-spread. New York State did retire the “Local Diploma” option a few years back for non-special-education students, requiring all students to earn at least a Regents diploma. I say “at least” because there are many different kinds of Regent diplomas (see here for detailed look at the array of designations and endorsements in NYS).

New York is not alone. A decade ago, Achieve reported that twenty states had multi-tiered diplomas, with designations such as “honors,” “advanced academic” and “advanced technical.” To earn a higher diploma, states may require students to earn additional course credits or complete more advanced courses, especially in mathematics, science, foreign languages and/or technical programs. Others may require students to pass more state assessments, pass state assessments at a higher performance level, or pass AP or IB exams. According to the experts at Achieve who continue to track graduation requirements, the level of complexity has only grown since 2004.

Beyond these K–12 policies, the University of California System established “A–G” requirements for high school graduates applying to their...

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[Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of personal reflections on the current state of education reform and contemporary conservatism by Andy Smarick, a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  The previous posts in this series can be seen herehere, here, and here.]

Andy’s odyssey: Part five

I’m worried that when the history of today’s era of education reform is written, the most damning critique will be that its progressive leaders had little understanding of social capital.

Social capital describes the “benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks.” When people are connected, they (and even those outside the network) gain, thanks to sharing, interdependence, joint learning, collective action, solidarity, and more.

Key to the development of social capital is longevity. Trust and relationships take time to develop. They mature, evolve, and strengthen over time.

As I wrote in the last installment, progressives’ bent for change is invaluable when longstanding institutions are destructive. But it can also do immeasurable harm when it undermines old valuable institutions, which can serve as wellsprings and keepers of social capital.

It is striking how seldom the reform community discusses preservation. Ed-reform leaders rarely comment on the need to protect our social fabric by insulating some longstanding institution, practice, or relationships from change (though Fordham’s own Robert Pondiscio has shared some worthy thoughts on the subject).

The clearest example of our field’s disregard...

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SWING AND A MISS
Bob Herbert's op-ed in Politico Magazine lambasts the pro-charter efforts of Bill Gates and other wealthy donors. Herbert seems to think that the movement is a failure because charter schools have not already succeeded in eliminating the achievement gap and reducing racial inequities. He might be expecting more from charters than even Gates and his compatriots. 

CONTRACT REVOKED
Pennsylvania's School Reform Commission just canceled the contracts of 15,000 Philadelphia teachers, forcing teachers to pay their own health premiums and face other cuts to their benefits. District leaders say there was "nothing else to cut" following years of layoffs and school closures, but teachers are calling it an ambush.

BETTER TOGETHER
D.C. public schools are seeing positive results from including technology in the classroom in blended learning models. The online learning software allows students to work at their own pace and frees up instructional time for teachers. Self-promotion alert: Fordham's own Michael Brickman and John Elkins recently reviewed a study from the indispensible CEE-Trust examining efforts to establish blended learning networks in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

APPETITE FOR DEBATE
The battle over school lunches extends as far back as the 1940s and has been increasingly politicized in recent years, especially with the adoption of Michelle Obama's school nutrition program. This week, the New York Times Magazine's Nick Confessore dives so deep into the issue, your ears will start to hurt....

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Last week, the Ohio Education Research Center (OERC) hosted a terrific conference at Ohio State University which brought together the state’s education research and practitioner communities. The focus of the one-day conference was teacher quality—why it matters, and how Ohio’s teacher-quality initiatives are playing out in the field.

In his keynote address, Eric Hanushek of Stanford University set the table, zeroing in on the economic value of a high-quality teacher. He showed that students who are fortunate enough to have high-quality teachers are more likely to have higher lifetime earnings than those less fortunate. The implication was easily understood: It cannot be left to chance as to whether students get a high-quality educator.

But here’s the rub: Less clear is what policies help to ensure that every Buckeye student is taught by a great teacher from Kindergarten through high-school graduation. Hanushek pointed out that several variables commonly used to measure teacher quality—including Master’s degrees, experience after a few years of teaching, and participation in professional-development programs—only weakly correlate to actual effectiveness.

A panel discussion wrestled with the ambiguity and complexity involved in raising teacher quality. (The slide decks are available here.) The panel, moderated by Rebecca Watts of the Ohio Board of Regents, included Christopher Burrows, superintendent of Georgetown Exempted Village (a district an hour east of Cincinnati), Lawrence Johnson of the University of Cincinnati, and Belinda Gimbert of Ohio State University. The panelists raised some of the prickly issues that face practitioners when it comes to...

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A 2014 report  from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) shows that the number of first-year teachers in the United States rose from 84,000 in 1987–88 to 147,000 in 2011–12. While this change is largely demographic (fueled by baby boomer retirements), it also means that over 1.7 million teachers—roughly half the workforce—has ten or fewer years of experience. While the new infusion of talent, energy, and ideas a new teacher can bring is positive, many aren’t sticking around for very long. In fact, the CPRE report notes that more than 41 percent of beginning teachers left the profession within five years. While not all teacher turnover is bad—no one wants to force weak teachers to stay merely to improve retention rates—there are also talented teachers who are leaving—and students are the ones paying the heaviest price.

Much ado has been made over why beginning teachers leave . You’ll hear different accounts of how to fix it on different “sides” of the education reform debate. One such argument provided by Richard Ingersoll, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania’s education school (and a former high school teacher), faults the isolating “sink or swim” experience that most beginning teachers face. Ingersoll notes that beginning teachers are “frequently left to succeed or fail on their own within the confines of their classrooms” and goes on to explain that some commentators even refer to teaching as a profession that “cannibalizes its young.” Perhaps Ellen Moir said...

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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...

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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.
  • ...
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“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....

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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...

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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. ...

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