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.

An abundance of choice in Milwaukee has led to families leaving the district for charter and private schools. A new study by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) examines the facility challenge the city now faces as a result. The analysis estimates the “utilization rates” of every public school in the city for the 2013–14 year. This is determined by dividing a school’s enrollment by its maximum capacity, defined as twenty-seven students in each regular classroom.

A few key findings:

  • Out of 123 buildings, twenty-seven are operating at below 60 percent capacity; thirteen of those are below 50 percent capacity. Many of these schools are the lowest-performing, most at-risk schools in the city, with declining enrollments and questionable safety. (For instance, they have twice as many 9-1-1 phone calls per student than other public schools.)
  • At least seventeen Milwaukee Public School buildings are vacant, costing taxpayers over $1.6 million since 2012 in utilities alone. They have been empty, on average, for seven years.
  • Eighty percent of the underutilized schools—twenty-two buildings in total—received either an F or a D on their most recent state report card. Moreover, a severe shortage of quality public schools exists in the vicinity of the underutilized schools. Out of the fifty-two closest schools, only seven scored a C or better on the state report card.

The authors—not surprisingly—recommend that private schools in the choice program, public charter schools, and traditional public schools be allowed to expand into the unused and underutilized MPS buildings. They’d...

A couple weeks ago, I created a graphic to help explain the contours of the debate about federal accountability in the ESEA reauthorization process. My immediate purpose was to show that the blanket term “accountability” actually includes four dimensions, each of which includes a range of possible policies. I organized each of the four along a continuum, with “minimum” and “maximum” federal accountability representing the two ends.

The ultimate purpose of the graphic was to serve as a tool for assessing various proposals and, hopefully, revealing where a final compromise might be found.

Since then, I’ve read all the major proposals, speeches, press releases, and news accounts I could find. In this post, I focus only on what I’ve learned about testing.

I’ve plotted on the continuum the highest-profile proposals. Bear in mind that this is not an exact science. Apart from the congressional bills, the proposals are somewhat vague, and trying to turn words into images involves some artistic license. These caveats notwithstanding, three major lessons were revealed.

1. Emerging Consensus

In the middle-right, you’ll see a group of proposals with a blue bracket. All of these either explicitly embrace the NCLB suite of tests or strongly imply that this is their preference. The left/right orientation of the bracketed proposals doesn’t convey additional meaning; all of these proposals are virtually the same on this dimension. I’ve listed them above the bracket...

For advocates of evidence-based urban education policy, a recent New York Times profile of New York City Schools’ Chancellor Carmen Fariña should offer serious cause for concern. That Fariña has worked to dismantle several of the promising Bloomberg-era education reforms is not the main offending issue. (The former is unfortunate, but hardly unexpected from the current administration.) As Robert Pondiscio has previously pointed out in this space, far more worrisome is Fariña’s apparent view of the proper role of research in education policy—one seemingly rooted in the bad old days when high-quality empirical research was dismissed or ignored.

Chancellor Fariña plainly nurtures none of the previous administration’s fondness for data, preferring a more “holistic” approach. Nor, for that matter, does she even require test scores to know which schools are performing well. The chancellor, perhaps with Spidey-sense, knows a good school when she sees it.

To be fair, I’m open to the claim that perhaps some of the Bloomberg reforms were too technocratic. And no one could have reasonably expected Chancellor Fariña to be an empirical data junkie. But her recent statements reveal a remarkable disdain for science’s role in formulating education policy. The following New York Times passage is particularly startling:

Asked recently, for example, about a multiyear study showing that students who attended the small high schools started by the Bloomberg administration were more likely to graduate and attend college than their peers at larger schools, [Chancellor Fariña] dismissed its conclusions. “It’s one view of things,” she...

  • A recent cover story in the Economist called the highly educated “America’s new aristocracy.” Basically, education (and the greater earnings with which it is correlated) has become increasingly heritable. Educated, clever people tend to marry other such people and raise their kids to emulate that model. This is all well and good for those people, but it’s widening the income gap and leaving behind children born into educationally (and financially) impoverished homes. So what’s to be done? The article has some suggestions, such as early intervention. We have a bunch of ideas of our own. To be sure, it’s a very complicated problem with myriad causes. Nevertheless, it’s a nut we need to crack.
  • In a time of broad national attacks on testing, the George W. Bush Institute has published an important essay that shows how much achievement has increased in the age of NCLB testing. Beginning around the turn on the century, the federal government began tying annual tests to school accountability, complete with sanctions for inadequate performance. Since that time, significant achievement gains have been made in math and reading, especially among minority children at age nine; scores for white students in 2008 were the highest ever in both reading and math for nine- and thirteen-year olds. “What was good for poor and minority students was good for all students,” they note. Meanwhile the achievement gap between white kids and their black and Hispanic peers has shrunk. Testing is surely overdone in
  • ...

Rural school districts are the oft-ignored middle child of our nation’s public schools, consistently snubbed in favor of their urban and suburban siblings. Through a survey of rural superintendents, this report by the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho One sheds much-needed light on the most pressing issues rural educators face—primarily rooted in educators’ struggle to deliver effective, cost-efficient education to students who live in isolated communities. Small rural districts are underfunded. Science, English, and foreign language instructors are in short supply because rural districts lack the incentives to attract them, causing faculty to teach classes that exceed their qualifications. The report’s most interesting recommendation is to increase rural technological connectivity through the implementation of blended learning, a hybrid teaching method that combines digital learning with traditional classroom instruction. This reduces the need for a large, specialized instructional staff by providing live video lectures from teachers elsewhere. Such an initiative would improve the quality of rural education and save districts money. Yet as promising as this all sounds, funding is also an issue here—a concern that the report could have addressed in further detail. Implementing successful blended curricula will require massive up-front injections of capital for things like new tech gadgets, full-time IT personnel, and teacher training. Districts already pinching pennies cannot get their hands on necessary start-up funds without significant reforms to federal, state, and local funding policies. The report briefly addresses this with both an unrealistic recommendation to alter the Title I funding and a more meritorious...

Citing insurmountable data challenges, the authors of Great Schools’ most recent evaluation of the School Improvement Grant Program argue that policymakers are left “without a clear and unambiguous picture of whether this major investment in turning around the nation’s lowest-performing schools worked as intended.” The view may be opaque, but what we can see isn’t pretty.

According to the report, between the 2009–2010 and 2012–2013 school years, SIG grantees at the elementary and middle school levels saw a cumulative increase in proficiency of only a few percentage points in most grades and subjects relative to comparison groups—a disappointing result, considering some schools saw funding increases of as much as 58 percent per student under the program. And while SIG’s restart and closure models were used so infrequently that little can be said about their effectiveness, the report indicates that there were no statistically significant differences between the rates of improvement at transformation and turnaround schools, a finding that suggests that it doesn’t much matter which one-size-fits-all improvement models the federal government prescribes—implementation is what counts.

Unfortunately, SIG’s implementation was deeply troubled, as the authors of the report document through approximately fifty interviews with superintendents, program directors, principals, and teachers. Unsurprisingly, SIG grantees experienced difficulties with “the removal and recruitment of staff, community and union resistance to school changes or closures, the ability to secure and retain sufficient resources to launch and sustain the turnaround efforts, and conflicting demands from various stakeholders.” Additionally, governance was (as always!) a barrier to...

For those who march to the drumbeat of “college for all,” an updated report from the William T. Grant Foundation ought to give pause. Back in 1988, the “forgotten half” were American youth who didn’t attend college and “were struggling in ‘the passage to adulthood.’” Released in near-tandem with the president’s free-community-college plan, this report depicts an honest view of community college, from “notoriously low completion rates” (a mere 20 percent of those who attend community college attain a bachelor’s degree within eight years of graduating high school, and almost half earn no credential at all) to calling remedial education “a vague euphemism that doesn’t help students understand their situation, make informed choices, or learn about alternative programs.” The forgotten half of today are “youth who do not complete college and find themselves shut out of good jobs in the era of college for all.” While past generations with “some college” enjoyed increased earnings, a changing economy means that’s no longer true. “The most alarming finding is that many youth who took society’s advice to attend college, sacrificing time and often incurring debts, have nothing to show for their efforts in terms of credentials, employment, or earnings,” note the authors. They provide a commonsense policy solution: Colleges and high schools need to be frank with students on the costs, debts, time, and potential earnings of different education and career paths. The report also calls for better alignment between high school and college standards by pointing to the example of...

Editor's note: These remarks were delivered as an introduction to Doug Lemov's February 10 panel discussion at the Fordham Institute.

It is a genuine honor and pleasure to be here with you today and to have the opportunity to introduce Doug Lemov. Doug is a man whose humility knows no bounds—indeed, he attributes his own success with Teach Like a Champion to his own limitations as a teacher. I’ve heard him more than once explain—earnestly and sincerely—that the reason he started filming and analyzing videos of great teachers in action was because he was such an “average” teacher, and he wanted to learn the magic of the champion teachers around him.

And that humility courses through all of his work, including his writing.

Yet his achievements are remarkable. He and his colleagues at Uncommon Schools consistently achieve at the highest levels on state tests. And Doug’s work identifying what “champion” teachers do that drives their results has been nothing short of transformational.

You might even say the work Doug and his team does is magic.

And so I thought it was fitting, before we launched into the weeds of how to improve teacher practice—a subject that is near and dear to my heart—to talk about the secrets of great magicians.

A few years ago, Teller—the silent partner of the famed Penn and Teller duo—wrote a piece for Smithsonian magazine in which he revealed his secrets. In it, Teller shares three lessons that I think are worth repeating.

The first lesson is that technology, no...

Politico’s extensive investigation of publishing giant Pearson has unearthed the company’s questionable money-making practices at the expense of American students and taxpayers. For years, lax accountability measures have allowed Pearson to rake in the profits even when its programs and products failed. Schools and state legislatures are realizing the need to more closely scrutinize textbook companies before handing over their multi-million dollar reform dreams.

Elsewhere in Pearson news, the Wall Street Journal chronicles the slow decline of the GED. Working in partnership with the nonprofit that administers the test, Pearson has dropped a huge sum developing a new, more complex assessment geared to today’s students and standards. But, as Fordham’s Chester Finn has argued, high school graduation exams shouldn't be set at the college-ready level. And neither should the GED. Not everyone who graduates from high school will—or should—go on to college.

Indifferent social-studies pupils, beware! Utah may soon join its neighboring state of Arizona in requiring students to pass a citizenship test before graduating high school. Students would need to correctly pass seventy out of one hundred questions, a more difficult task than the six out of ten required to gain citizenship. The bill needs a final vote in the state Senate before advancing to the House.

Arkansas is the latest state to initiate a school-district takeover, and some worry that the new ESEA reauthorization will mean...

Ethan Gray

Education reformers live in a world of data, accountability, policy, and percentiles. We are most comfortable debating ideas, writing papers, and talking to each other. But when it comes to telling powerful stories to inspire change, we have a lot to learn from one public school student in New York City.

Thirteen-year-old Vidal Chastanet was stopped and asked by Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton, “Who is the most influential person in your life?” With his answer—Nadia Lopez, principal at Mott Hall Bridges Academy (MHBA)—Vidal reached the hearts of millions of people.

“When we get in trouble, she doesn't suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

Vidal’s answer went viral on Facebook, leading him to The Ellen DeGeneres Show and the White House last week. A fundraising campaign set up to help MHBA send students on a trip to Harvard over the summer raised $1.2 million.

Vidal’s story transcended mediums, inspired thousands, and raised millions because it went directly to people’s hearts. It is universal, human, and real.

At Education Cities, a national network of city-based organizations committed to improving public education, we challenge our network members, and ourselves, to reach for...