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.

In early December, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released its 2015 State Teacher Policy Yearbook, which examines the laws and regulations governing state teacher policy. NCTQ evaluated states in five policy areas, each of which contained sub-goals such as delivering well-prepared teachers, expanding the teaching pool, and identifying effective teachers. States were evaluated on each dimension and given a grade for each policy area. The five policy area grades were then rolled into one state grade.

In terms of overall grades, Ohio did fairly well, earning a B-minus. (The top-performing state was Florida with a B+, while the lowest performer was Montana with an F.) Ohio received the same grade in 2013, but earlier overall grades (a C-plus in 2011 and a D-plus in 2009) were far less impressive, and the results point to general improvement. The Buckeye State earned its highest area grade, a solid B, in expanding the teacher pool through efforts to increase teaching opportunities with flexible and rigorous pathways. But the state earned its lowest grade (a C-minus) for delivering well-prepared teachers—mostly due to its failure to require prospective elementary, secondary science, secondary social studies, and special education teachers to pass rigorous content...

I re-read about fifty major articles, blog posts, and other missives about ESSA over the break, since this written record will serve as the foundation for years of commentary and analysis. Below are the five major themes that jumped out (along with gobs of the supporting links).

1. The diminished role of Uncle Sam in schools

The biggest ESSA takeaway is the dramatically reduced role for the federal government. The New York Times called it a “sweeping bill” that ends Washington’s “aggressive polic(ing) of public school performance.” Politics K-12 explained that it represents an about-face after a quarter century of increasing federal authority. Politico wrote of NCLB’s being “killed.”

Hess and English wrote that “conservatives scored a smashing educational triumph.” David Kirp wrote that in the “first time since the Reagan years, the balance of power (shifts) away from Washington and back to the states.” Longtime congressional aide Jack Jennings noted, "The federal government overstepped its bounds, and it got a smackdown from Congress."

(For more details, see Mike Petrilli’s chart and Politics K–12’s cheat sheet.)

2. A major loss for Arne Duncan?

There’s broad agreement—with two exceptions noted below—that ESSA dealt a blow to Arne Duncan’s legacy. Observers quickly saw that...

As everyone knows, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—the long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—was approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate and signed into law by the president in December. The law grants much greater authority to the states over the design of their school accountability systems, especially in contrast to No Child Left Behind.

States now enjoy the opportunity—and face the challenge—of creating school rating systems that can vastly improve upon the model required by NCLB. To help spur creative thinking about how they might do so—and also to inform the Department of Education as it develops its ESSA regulations—the Fordham Institute hereby declares an “accountability design competition.” (We are focused on school ratings, not the interventions that may result from them.) Participants will be tasked with suggesting specific indicators for states to use in grading schools, along with working through the various decisions that states will struggle with as they determine how to calculate ratings. Judges will evaluate the recommendations, and all of us will get to watch and weigh in online.

By January 26, participants will submit their proposals with the following elements included. To keep things from getting too complex,...

As 2015 was coming to a close, I compiled a list of my fifty favorite reads of the year. You can find them all here.

Though most are article- or report-length, the subjects are all over the map. In total, they offer a glimpse of the big happenings of 2015 and—though this wasn’t my initial intention—show where my mind was during this eventful year. Here’s a smattering.

The end of the year was dominated by ESSA. The New York Times captured the historical importance of the new law. Rick Hess explained why it was a major conservative victory, and Politics K–12 detailed how it undermined Arne Duncan’s legacyChad Aldeman and Conor Williams wrote separately about why the Left should be unhappy. (I’ll have a follow-up piece shortly focused exclusively on ESSA reporting and analysis.)

But 2015 also had lots of great non-ESSA edu-writing. Marty West penned a smart piece on Uncle Sam’s role in innovation, and Joanne Weiss looked back on Race to the Top. Sara Mead explained early-childhood education in New Orleans, Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote about the Catholic-school reawakening, and The Economist reported on the heartening story of private-schools outside of the US serving low-income kids.

There were...

Spending time with nieces and nephews this holiday season—teenagers who are making decisions about where to go to college, what to study, and which vocations to pursue—has reminded me of just how lucky I am to have one of the best jobs in the world. On top of working with an amazingly talented, committed, and kind group of colleagues at the Fordham Institute, and in the larger world of education reform, I get paid to do what I love: write about big ideas. I am truly blessed.

As I look back on 2015, these are the blog posts, essays, and editorials that I think (hope?) will stand the test of time. Some of them are topical (the ones about ESEA reauthorization especially), but my favorites go after the tough, overarching issues: How can we stimulate upward mobility? How do we raise the college completion rate? Why are America’s test scores so mediocre?

For sure, I’ve made my share of mistakes this year. Here’s hoping I also got a few things right.

Happy New Year!

  1. The case against federal accountability mandates in education (January 26)
  2. Backfilling charter seats: A backhanded way to kill school autonomy (February 3)
  3. How Can Schools Address
  4. ...

While it is likely true that those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them, those who are not tested on the subject in school may be doomed not to have learned much history in the first place.

“Advanced Civics for U.S. History Teachers,” a smart new white paper from Massachusetts’s Pioneer Institute, counsels civics and history advocates to show “persistence and unity” in order to restore history to “its rightful place as a treasured academic discipline and a fundamental educational priority.” The paper was issued in the weeks before ESEA was reauthorized and signed, but its primary recommendation—that states mandate a statewide assessment in U.S. history—is astute and timely now that states largely control their own testing and accountability destinies.

Pioneer also recommends “strong funding streams for professional development” and highlights several outstanding programs with national reputations that “buck the trends and afford teachers and students the possibilities of teaching and learning history in a rich, engaging and rigorous manner”: The Center for the Study of the Constitution; the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution; the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University; and the outstanding “We the People” program. (One recommendation the report...

The best compliment I can pay a fellow education blogger is to confess professional jealousy. So I’d like to close out 2015 by saluting the education blogs and columns that made me green with envy.

I’m a fan of Tim Shanahan and devour every word he writes. My favorite Shanahan post in 2015 was his evisceration of a silly piece in the Atlantic on the “joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland” that—cliché alert—depicted the typical American kindergarten as a worksheet-happy hothouse. “The silly dichotomy between play and academic instruction was made up by U.S. psychologists in the 1890s,” he wrote. “It hangs on today among those who have never taught a child to read in their lives.” He singled out Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early childhood professor, who is happy to tell anyone with a microphone that there’s no solid evidence in favor of teaching reading in kindergarten. “You can make that claim,” Shanahan concluded, “as long as you don’t know the research.”

I get jealous when somebody makes a smart observation about something hidden in plain sight, like Andy Rotherham did with his March column in U.S. News & World Report (where I’m also a contributor) pointing out that education reform is “dominated by people who...

The effort to improve educational outcomes for African American students can fairly be described as the animating impulse behind the education reform movement broadly. Hence, it’s downright depressing to repeat some of the figures in this report: “On the 2015 NAEP, only 18 percent of African American fourth graders were found to be proficient in reading, and only 19 percent scored proficient in math,” the authors note. “The eighth-grade numbers were even worse, with only 16 percent of African American students rated proficient in reading and only 13 percent rated proficient in math.” College and career readiness? Not so much. Quick: In how many states did more than 5 percent of African American students graduate having passed at least one AP exam in a STEM subject? (Three: Colorado, Massachusetts, and Hawaii.) How many states with five hundred or more African American ACT test-takers had 17 percent or more score as college-ready on all four tested subjects? Not one.

Depressed yet?

Still there are some examples of significant progress: Twenty-five years ago, only 1 percent of Washington, D.C.’s eighth-grade African American students were proficient in math; today it’s 13 percent. High school graduation rates for black students are on the rise—as...

Perhaps it’s because, as a nation, we’ve come around on teacher quality. Or perhaps it’s because so many of the policy prescriptions that contribute to improving the teacher corps are so dry, technical, and largely beneath the hurly-burly of public debate. Either way, NCTQ’s 2015 Policy Yearbook is notable for the substantial amount of positive change it documents, with states “continuing down a reform path focused on teacher effectiveness” and “fewer states out of step with the prevailing trend each passing year.” What the report fails to note is that NCTQ itself can claim substantial credit for creating this tipping point, amassing a substantial record of effectiveness in a very short amount of time.

Getting religion on teacher quality is one thing. Ending our sinful ways is a very different matter. The average state teacher policy grade for 2015 is a C-minus, a mark that is “still far too low to ensure teacher effectiveness nationwide,” NCTQ notes. Yet just six years ago, in the 2009 yearbook, the average was a D. The pews are beginning to fill up.

Better evidence of improvement can be seen state-by-state. In 2015, thirteen states earned grades between B-minus and B-plus (six years ago, no...

  • There’s a reason we don’t bounce our grandkids on our knees and delight them with stories of how Congress muscled through the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984. As the saying goes, there’s nothing pretty about the way the sausage gets made. But for those who were begging for a new federal education law, Politico’s postmortem on the passage of the Every Student Succeed Act provides an inside look at a splendid, savory knackwurst of statutory goodness. In the year following the 2014 Republican midterm landslides, draft legislation had to overcome anti-testing fervor from teachers’ unions, the remnants of the anti-Common Core crusade, and the sudden resignation of House Speaker John Boehner. Between clearing these obstacles and stitching together the perennial philosophical differences of Left and Right, the ESSA used up seven or eight of its nine lives. Thankfully, it’s now a matter of settled law.
  • Speaking of the backlash against high academic standards: Reporting out of Colorado suggests that we might need to think differently about the opt-out movement and its adherents. Though the bulk of the students who absented themselves from the state’s PARCC test were indeed residents of wealthier, high-performing districts—you know, where the
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