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.

Jack Schneider

Editor's note: This post is the third entry of a multi-part series of interviews featuring Fordham's own Andy Smarick and Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Week's K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric blog. Earlier entries can be found here and here.

Smarick: It looks like Congress may try to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this year. Whether either chamber can develop a consensus bill, whether a single bill can be embraced by both chambers, and whether the president would sign such legislation are all open questions.

Lots of very tricky issues will need to be worked out if this needle's to be threaded. Maybe the biggest challenge is defining the proper relationship between the federal government and the states when it comes to K–12. Some on the right believe Uncle Sam should have very little say; they'd like the federal government to just stay out.

Two big things stand in the way of this. First, the feds send billions in Title I funds to states every year. Many policymakers have a hard to time accepting that states should get such vast sums of money and have no responsibility for showing that these dollars are being well spent or that kids are learning. Second, when states made virtually all K–12 decisions absent federal accountability rules—call this the "pre-NCLB" era—our nation didn't get the results we wanted. Overall performance was largely stagnant, and too many disadvantaged kids were left behind.

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THE KING STAY THE KING
The reform-minded John King is leaving his current post as New York’s Education Commissioner in order to accept a position in the Department of Education. While his tenure in the state has received plaudits from some in the pro-charter movement, King’s departure is sure to please union officials who called for his resignation last spring. He’s also the latest in a series of reformers to leave top spots in their states, as Fordham’s own Andy Smarick observed today.

SNOW JOB
In a unanimous vote, state Board of Education officials in West Virginia approved a trial plan to introduce more flexible instructional time in a select number of schools. Selected schools will still be required to have 180 school days, but the schools will be able to choose how long each school day is and employ out-of-classroom teaching, such as online learning, on a snow day. At the time of this writing, there was no news yet on whether the state’s children had threatened to hold their breath until they turned blue in protest.

BUT WHEN WILL KETCHUP REJOIN ITS VEGETABLE BROTHERS?
Outraging first ladies and delighting children across the land, Congress has included compromise elements in the much-debated Omnibus Appropriations Bill that will allow schools to back away from including whole grains in their meals, as well as slow-walk the adoption of stricter sodium restrictions until 2017. That means that the world remains safe for cafeteria french fries...

Reformers understandably fixate on our disputes du jour. They generally have compelling characters and some perceived peril: college kids rattling plastic sabers at TFA, a pair of Pelican State politicians double crossing Common Core, etc.

But of far greater moment is our never-ending uphill struggle against homeostasis, nature’s inclination to slide back to the comfortable equilibrium of the way things have been. Its reverse pull—like gravity, invisible and relentless—is the real danger. Slowly, silently shifting tectonic plates, not fast-moving, thunderous storms, bring down mountains

This is why we should pay close attention to three subtle storylines about to converge.

The first is the exodus of reform-oriented state chiefs. The Race-to-the-Top era made state leaders of prominent reform figures: Deborah Gist in 2009; Chris Cerf, John King, Kevin Huffman, Stefan Pryor, and Hanna Skandera in 2011; John White and Mark Murphy in 2012; Tony Bennett in 2013. They led efforts to create next-generation accountability systems, overhaul tenure and educator evaluation, expand choice, toughen content standards, improve assessments, and more.

But that tide is receding. As Andrew Ujifusa reported, twenty-nine states have changed chiefs in the last two years. This includes Barresi (Oklahoma), Bennett (Florida), Cerf (New Jersey), Flanagan (Michigan), Huffman (Tennessee), Nicastro (Missouri), Pryor (Connecticut), and, per yesterday’s major announcement, John King (New York). Huge questions are left about reform in these states and others: What becomes of the ...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in slightly different form on the Commentary website.

Given the volatility and sensitivity of “racial profiling” these days, heightened by recent developments in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland and by brand new law-enforcement “guidelines” from the Justice Department, one could be tempted to thank the National Education Association for its recent effort, in league with a bunch of other organizations, to develop curricular materials by which schools and teachers can instruct their students on this issue.

One should, however, resist that temptation. It turns out that, once again, the NEA and its fellow travelers are presenting a one-sided, propagandistic view of an exceptionally complicated issue that elicits strong, conflicting views among adults; that carries competing values and subtleties beyond the ken of most school kids; and that probably doesn’t belong in the K–12 curriculum at all.

My mind immediately rolled back almost three decades, to the days when the Cold War was very much with us, when nuclear weapons were a passionate concern, when unilateral disarmament was earnestly propounded by some mostly well-meaning but deeply misguided Americans—and when the NEA plunged into the fray with appalling curricular guidance for U.S. schools.

Here’s part of what the late Joseph Adelson and I wrote in COMMENTARY magazine in April 1985:

[T]he much-publicized contribution of the National Education Association (NEA), to give but one example, looks blandly past any differences between the superpowers. Its one-page “fact sheet” on the USSR simply summarizes population, land area, and

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SANCTUARY CITY
Following the president’’s executive order providing temporary relief for unauthorized immigrant families, the Los Angeles Unified School District has received roughly 16,000 transcript requests. (The information is necessary to apply for the expanded DACA program.) Yesterday, district officials and union leaders agreed that they would help eligible students to access records to complete their applications.

MAYBE THERE'S ROOM IN WESTCHESTER
During an American Enterprise Institute event on Tuesday, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz unveiled her plan to have one hundred charter schools in the Success network within the next ten years. Moskowitz has been dealing with pushback from NYC mayor Bill de Blasio, whose administration has thwarted efforts to obtain space for expansion. She claimed that the schools are besieged by “people who are trying to kill us.

A PEN AND A PHONE AND A BILLION DOLLARS
President Obama announced a billion-dollar public/private early childhood education initiative. $250 million from the Department of Education will be divided between eighteen states to expand preschool programs, the Department of Health and Human Services has allocated an additional $500 million for daycare in forty states, and private groups have raised another $330 million through the “Invest in US” campaign. The initiative could go a long way to realizing the goal of enrolling every American child in preschool, which was announced in the president’s 2013 State of the Union Address. 

BREAKING: CAMPUS ACTIVISTS UPSET ABOUT SOMETHING
Ed-reform rock star and unofficial Friend of Fordham...

  • Across New York State, 32 percent of would-be teachers were denied certification because they failed to pass a basic Academic Literacy Skills exam, the New York Post reports. Let that rattle around in your head for a moment. The test measures reading comprehension and writing skills and is part of a new battery of tests that the Empire State now requires for people who want to teach within its borders. Shockingly, in many of the state’s teacher-prep schools, a majority of candidates failed the tests. At least one school had no students pass. Schools with low pass rates have to come up with corrective plans, such as improving instruction or denying admission to more applicants. Three cheers for smart policy.
  • Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant is hoping to throw out the Common Core, and educators across the state think it’s a bad idea that threatens to reverse the state’s progress. Indeed. Mississippi has arguably the worst schools in the country—and has for some time. And the CCSS represent a vast improvement over what was previously in place. Worse, during the state’s mostly political discussions about the standards, educators have apparently been largely absent, which is a shame because many of them are optimistic about the Common Core.

Most of us have known students who struggle with non-cognitive skills. Teachers have labored heroically to keep a reserved pupil engaged in group projects; parents have cajoled a discouraged child to keep working through a multi-step equation; even a few education writers, in our misguided youths, put off a term paper or two until the night before the end of the semester (I’m sure it got lost in your inbox, Professor Kaiser). Melissa Tooley and Laura Bornfreund’s new study for the New America Foundation looks at how high-quality early-education programs impart critical, non-content-oriented traits like work ethic, curiosity, teamwork, and empathy—abilities they label “skills for success” and thereafter, somewhat gratingly, refer to as “SFS”—and how those approaches can be replicated and expanded at the K–12 level. Their findings represent a worthwhile and informative new entry into a debate that’s suddenly grown hot. For their part, the authors are quickly forced to address one obvious pitfall: the difficulty of quantitatively determining a student’s progress in attaining better emotional and behavioral habits, other than perhaps locking a four-year-old in a room with a marshmallow and telling him to exercise grit. “It may not currently be possible to assess certain skills well at all,” they concede. What can be assessed, however, are classroom and school environments, which research suggests have an outsized effect on students’ development of skills for success. Using surveys like the Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (CSCI) and Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), it is possible to measure and...

This study examines the impact of peer pressure on academic decisions. Analysts Leonardo Bursztyn and Robert Jensen conducted an experiment in four large, low-performing, low-income Los Angeles high schools whereby eleventh-grade students were offered complimentary access to a popular online SAT prep course. Over 800 students participated. Analysts used two sign-up sheets, which they randomly varied. One told students that their decision to enroll would be public, meaning their classmates would know they signed up; the other told them it would be kept private. The key finding is that, in non-honors courses, sign-up was 11 percentage points lower when students believed others in the class would know whether they agreed to participate, compared to those who were told it would be kept private—suggesting that these adolescents believe there is a social cost to looking smart. In honors classes, there was no difference in sign-up rates under the two conditions. Because students in honors and non-honors classes obviously differ, to help mitigate selection bias, Bursztyn and Jansen then examined results only from students who took two honors classes—some of whom would be sitting in honors classes when they were offered the decision to participate and some of whom would be sitting in non-honors courses. They found that making the decision to enroll "public" rather than private decreases sign up rates by 25 percentage points when the “two-honors-class” students are in one of their non-honors classes. Yet when students are in one of their honors courses, making the decision public increases sign...

It’s been nearly fifty years since the publication of “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” remembered by history simply as “the Moynihan Report” after its author, future United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who in 1965 was an assistant labor secretary. The report detailed the decay of the black two-parent family and the concomitant social and economic problems. In this article in Education Next, the first in an entire issue dedicated to the Moynihan Report, Princeton professor Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks of Harvard’s Kennedy School ask, “Was Moynihan right? What happens to the children of unmarried mothers?” Note the race-neutral formulation. The authors aren’t attempting to avoid an inflammatory question. Rather, they’re addressing a problem now far more widespread than it was when Moynihan wrote. The rate of unmarried births among whites today is considerably higher than the 1965 rate among blacks, which troubled Moynihan enough to issue his bombshell report. Indeed, an estimated half of all children in the United States live with a single mother at some point before they turn eighteen. This portends many different outcomes, none of them good. The authors cite a recent review of forty-five studies using quasi-experimental methods, which find that growing up apart from one’s father reduces a child’s chances of graduating from high school by about 40 percent. Interestingly, the absence of a biological father has not been shown to affect verbal and math test scores. The disconnect seems to be attributable to another ill effect of a...

To grow up as the child of well-educated parents in an affluent American home is to hit the verbal lottery. From their earliest days, these children reap the benefits of parents who speak in complete sentences, engage them in rich dinner table conversation, and read them to sleep at bedtime. Verbal parents chatter incessantly, offering a running commentary on vegetable options in the produce aisle, pointing out letters and words in storefronts and street signs. Parents proceed, as Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times once put it, “in a near constant mode of annotation.”

In sharp contrast, early disadvantages in language among low-income children—both the low volume of words they hear and the way in which they are employed—establish a verbal inertia that is immensely difficult to address or reverse. Schools will spend every moment trying to make up for the verbal gaps kids come to school with on Day One, which usually grow wider year after year.

When it comes to vocabulary, size matters. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. observed that vocabulary “is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities.” It signals competence in reading and writing and correlates with SAT success—which, in turn, predicts the likelihood of college attendance, graduation, and the associated wage premium that has been fetishized by education reformers and driven their agenda for decades.

But vocabulary is important even for kids whose pathway...

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