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.

Way back in 2000, the United Nations went through an elaborate process of setting “millennium development goals” for the world. To be attained by 2015, these were, of course, entirely laudable—e.g., “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” and “achieve universal primary education”—and they have definitely influenced the priorities of various UN agencies, other governmental and multilateral aid providers, and private philanthropies.

There’s been progress on several fronts—notably a big reduction in the number of people living in extreme poverty and hunger—but none of these goals will have been achieved in full by next year, any more than the “goals 2000” project for American K–12 education met its targets (e.g., “first in the world in math and science”) by the stated end point.

How useful this kind of goal setting is may be debated, but the UN has never looked back. Rather, it’s busily updating its millennium goals for the period after 2015, and its “open working group on sustainable development goals” just held its thirteenth meeting, where it finalized a new list of goals and dispatched these for consideration by the Secretary General and General Assembly. You can find a description of this process here: http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/index.php?menu=1549. You will also see that the United States shared—with Canada and Israel—one of thirty seats on this working group. (Never mind that the U.S. supplies 22 percent of the UN’s budget!)

The proposed new goals number seventeen, more than twice as many as in the last go-round, and 169 “targets” for the...

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When it comes to what constitutes a superb education in America, the general public and teachers have vastly different views, say Peterson, Henderson, and West in this book, a compilation of research reported originally in Education Next. Surveys fielded by over 5,000 teachers and members of the general public (2007–13) conclude that, overall, teachers and the public disagree most on issues pertaining to tenure, pensions, union efficacy, charter schools, school vouchers, and standardized testing. The authors also found that when a member of the general public was informed that their local school district’s national ranking was low, the teacher-public divide deepened. While teacher opinion doesn’t change when given new information, the public grew eager to support universal school vouchers, charter schools, and parent-trigger laws. The book meticulously underscores the striking way in which education is viewed through the scattered, often fluctuating lenses of the general public and solid stance of teachers. In the end, the authors conclude that in education, the public and teachers are more divided than Democrats and Republicans, young and old, rich and poor, and white and disadvantaged minorities. As a teacher—and one who does not consider herself to be “versus the public”—I agree that bridging the divide is key.

SOURCE: Paul E. Peterson, Michael Henderson, and Martin R. West, Teachers versus the Public: What Americans Think about Schools and How to Fix Them (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, April 2014)....

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Yesterday’s big news (regarding ObamaCare’s subsidies in states with federal exchanges) is that the judiciary actually expects the executive branch to pay attention to the clear language of laws passed by the legislature. (Update: At least, the D.C. Circuit does.) That this lesson in Civics 101 is news at all tells you something about the disrespect the Obama administration has shown to our Constitutional system. Congress may be semi-paralyzed, but the White House and the federal agencies still aren’t allowed to write the laws themselves.

Yet that’s exactly what Arne Duncan and his Department of Education continue to do when it comes to their interpretation of the waiver authority in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). He has the right to offer greater flexibility to the states when it comes to the law’s “adequate yearly progress” measures and other parts of its accountability system. What he has no constitutional right to do is dream up new mandates out of thin air and make flexibility contingent upon their embrace by supplicant states.

Let’s follow the example of the D.C. Circuit and examine the clear language of the applicable law. Section 9401 of ESEA plainly states that “the Secretary may waive any statutory or regulatory requirement of this Act” (with some noted exceptions). It says that states should describe, in their waiver requests, “How the waiving of…requirements will increase the quality of instruction for students and improve the academic achievement of students.” But it grants no authority for the Secretary to...

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“In those days…everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Words penned millennia ago couldn’t be more relevant today. In the education-policy world, I sense it in the growing antagonism toward external forms of accountability for schools’ (and their students’) performance. I get it: accountability regimes, particularly of the state-driven sort, can be perceived as harsh, punishing, and damaging to professionalism, local control, and school specialization. Others perceive standards and accountability as impinging upon individual liberties around parental control.

Yet looming behind this unrest is the specter of mediocrity and a lack of urgency among Ohio’s K–12 schools—an environment ultimately ill-suited for student success. The zeitgeist has worked its way into state law, as policymakers have begun to yield to the cries of those who would prefer to be judged by standards of their own preference or design—or none at all. As evidence, consider the proliferation of alternative accountability (and assessment) systems that are cropping up in state policy. Three examples come to mind.

Third-grade reading

Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee—a needed initiative to lift early literacy—has a loophole the size of Texas. Seemingly everyone in the state is aware that third graders are now required to pass the reading portion of the Ohio Achievement Assessment (OAA) or else face grade retention. This is tough stuff on the surface—but wait. In a lesser-known provision, the state has also allowed schools to administer any one of three alternative reading assessments. If a student who has failed...

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The Hispanic population in the United States continues to grow, with Hispanics making up nearly 17 percent of the total population. This population is young (33 percent is of school age) and is changing the demographics of schools in many states, Ohio among them. From 2000–10, the Hispanic population in Ohio grew to approximately 350,000 individuals, representing 3 percent of the state’s total population. That’s obviously smaller than in, say, Texas, but the number is rising.

Unfortunately, Hispanic students in Ohio schools are struggling. On the Ohio Achievement Assessment (OAA), administered in May 2013, Hispanic children scored lower than the state average in both reading and mathematics at every grade level tested. Similarly, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2013, Hispanic students in Ohio scored, on average, seventeen points lower than their white peers in fourth-grade reading and fifteen points lower in fourth-grade math. Further, only 66 percent of Hispanic students in Ohio graduate from high school, compared to 80 percent for all students. These results indicate that the achievement gap remains wide in Ohio, and with the population of minority students growing , the education challenge is only going to intensify. Demographics ought not dictate destiny.

Which brings us to early literacy. Myriad reports have been conducted on the subject, including a recent study by...

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An increasingly bright and pitiless spotlight is being shined on America’s schools of education. With the encouragement of the federal government, states are developing systems to tie student performance data to teacher preparation programs; competition and comparisons with alternative certification programs are bringing additional pressure to bear. The upshot for those who train our teachers is increased scrutiny and ever-louder calls to prove that the teachers they turn loose on the nation’s classrooms can actually do the jobs they were trained, certified, and licensed to do. Against this backdrop, a task-force report from the American Psychological Association aims to offer a practical resource for accreditors, state education departments, and policymakers seeking to improve teacher-preparation programs. The report focuses on three data sources that are “well-established scientific methods that have evolved from the science of psychology” and that the authors argue should form the basis of all credible evaluation systems: value-added assessments; standardized observation protocols; and surveys of graduates, employers, and students. To their credit, the report authors are clear-eyed, taking pains to note the “utility and limitations” of value-added and the other proffered evaluation systems—but maintaining that we should judge the merits of teacher-prep programs “with the best evidence that can be obtained now, rather than the evidence we might like to have had, or that might be available in the future.” The report offers thirteen recommendations for evaluating teacher-prep programs, the most important of which is to insist that such programs have “strong affirmative, empirical evidence of...

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Peter Sipe

Twelve years ago, my wife and I went back to school. Not the same one, though: she went to medical school and I went to education school. I don’t think I’ll shock even the gentlest reader by asserting that the former was harder than the latter, but I would like to offer a glimpse of how differently rigorous they were.

Here’s a reconstruction of a typical conversation from our school days:

Me: “How was school, dear?”

Wife: “I have to master the circulatory system by Monday or repeat the entire year. How was school, dear?”

Me: “I have to write a one-page reflection on what education should be.”

Wife: [Mutters oaths, none of them Hippocratic.]

I can’t imagine a professional school more rigorous than medical school. And I’ll leave aside for now how crazy hard it is just to get in, or the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-illegal madness of what happens after a doctor graduates. (Free romance tip: marry a doctor after she’s finished residency, not before.) But say what you want about it—and my wife and her classmates did, believe me—those med students learned how to be doctors.

Me? This ed student’s classes generally went like this: a professor would speak for a bit on some theoretical matter, then we’d break into small groups to discuss it for an extravagantly long time, then we’d get back into a big group and share our opinions some more. I remember a class one evening in which you could not speak unless you had been...

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Just as the education-reform movement is starting to figure out how to use test-score data in a more sophisticated way, the Obama administration and its allies in the civil-rights community want to take us back to the Stone Age on the use of school discipline data. This is an enormous mistake that repeats almost exactly the nuance-averse way we looked at test-score data in the early days of NCLB.

We all know that there are real problems with the ways that discipline is meted out in some American schools today. You can find campuses where huge numbers of students are suspended or expelled, particularly African American and Latino teenagers, mostly boys. A few years later, those young people are likely to end up in America’s bloated prison system, causing all manner of societal suffering along the way, not to mention blighting their own lives. “Zero tolerance” policies—removing administrator discretion and treating all offenses as equally injurious—have arguably made things worse.

I whole-heartedly support efforts to improve the ways that schools handle these issues; tips and training on creating a positive school culture and reducing suspensions and expulsions are welcome. Nor do I doubt that some of America’s 100,000-plus schools discriminate against minority children. I’ve heard Russlynn Ali, former assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, talk about the district where a black Kindergartener gets suspended for pulling a fire alarm while...

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Since the inception of standardized tests in our schools, many debates have raged regarding their value. Critics often contend that schools are “testing students to death”, while supporters argue that testing allows for accountability at the student, teacher, and school level. The dispute may continue, but for now, let’s examine whether standardized test results provide any indication of the future educational attainment of the students who take them. It turns out that in districts across Ohio, proficiency on standardized tests (in both reading and mathematics) correlates moderately well with high school graduation and college remediation rates.

First, let’s examine the relationship between proficiency and high school graduation. Figure 1 represents the eighth-grade proficiency and graduation rate for each Ohio district as a point on the graph. Proficiency data from 2007-08 are paired with 2011-12 graduation rates, since eighth-grade students in spring 2008 were scheduled to graduate in spring 2012 under the conventional pathway to graduation.[1] For the most part, we observe a positive correlation between the two variables—the line that best fits the points trends upward.  Our R-squared values[2] (the measure of the “goodness” of the trend lines’ fit through the points), and the correlation coefficients[3] indicate that this link is moderate in strength.

Districts with higher proficiency rates tend to have higher graduation rates and vice-versa. Generally speaking, this suggests that test results are linked to high-school graduation. Yet a district’s proficiency rate isn’t the only factor...

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Articles of the week from the Education Gadfly

Whither the NEA?
Chester E. Finn, Jr. | July 9, 2014 | Flypaper

On school discipline, let’s not repeat all our old mistakes
Michael Petrilli, @MichaelPetrilli | July 8, 2014 | Flypaper

Teachers, the Common Core, and the freedom to teach
Jessica Poiner, @jpoiner17 | July 7, 2014 | Ohio Gadfly Daily

Vergara, Harris, and the fate of the teacher unions
Andy Smarick, @smarick | July 7, 2014 | Flypaper

Fordham in the news

Public schools like KIPP are most powerful as a “direct retort to people who say we must first end poverty before we can do anything to improve education.”
Chester E. Finn, Jr. | New York Post | July 9, 2014

"Our research suggests, however, that better hiring practices alone are only part of the solution. Districts must also re-imagine the principal’s role."
Lacking Leaders report | StateImpact Ohio | July 7, 2014

Sweet Tweets

I’ve never been to the annual conference of the National Education Association and I’ve never regretted it http://gadf.ly/U5r6GW
@educationgadfly | July 10, 2014

I love this piece so much I'm posting it twice. "The Fallacy of ‘Balanced Literacy’" http://nyti.ms/1ku4SFi #reading ...

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