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.

Today, the Senate HELP Committee is considering the bipartisan ESEA reauthorization bill crafted by Senators Alexander and Murray.

This legislation represents a very smart compromise on the key issue of accountability. What happens in committee, on the floor, and beyond is anyone’s guess. But the current language is, in my view, the best proposal we’ve seen for solving the problem that’s held up ESEA reauthorization for ages.

In February, I created a graphic showing how the various proposals on the table handled the various elements of accountability. The major plans followed one of three approaches. The middle path (between a beefed-up federal role and an emaciated one) was staked out by state-oriented groups including CCSSO, NGA, and NCSL. I called this “Accountability for Results.”

The Alexander-Murray bill is in this mold, though with a couple of notable adjustments.

Like many other plans, it keeps NCLB’s suite of tests. But it makes a very important, very interesting, and very compelling amendment to NCLB’s aspirational target of all students reaching proficiency in each grade by a certain date. Instead, it requires states to create accountability plans so that all kids are on track to reach college and career readiness by high school graduation.

This approach ensures that we continue focusing on the needs of all kids. It also maintains a high bar for...

Everyone is right to laud the impressive work of Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray in producing a strong bipartisan bill to update the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). But it has a significant flaw that needs mending before it becomes law, and it might be up to House Republicans to do the fixing.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that it puts enormous pressure on the states to set utopian goals. That, in turn, will result in most schools being declared failures (and/or create pressure for states to water down their standards), which is exactly what happened under NCLB.

At issue is a true dilemma for policymakers: There seems to be an irresistible urge in education to set aspirational goals. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se—stirring, “shoot for the moon” rhetoric can be motivational and galvanize action. But as Rick Hess and Checker Finn have explained, when it’s time to create accountability systems, policymakers must sober up. If they set unrealistic, unreachable goals, the people working in the system will grow cynical and disillusioned—the opposite of motivated.

Senator Alexander’s discussion draft bill got this balance right. (So does the House Republicans’ Student Success Act.) It started with the moonshot: State accountability systems will “ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for remediation.” That’s a fantastic aspiration. But it’s not going to happen, not in the 5–10 years...

I’m back from a week’s vacation and pleased to find that ESEA reauthorization is still (if just barely) alive. The release of a compromise bill from Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray gives me an excuse to bring back my beloved color-coded ESEA table.

The last time we checked, when Chairman Alexander published his discussion draft, it looked like this:

After negotiating with Senator Murray, it now looks like this (items that moved are in bold):

(* These were in the Alexander discussion draft too; I had them in the wrong column last time. My apologies.
** The School Improvement Grants program is officially gone, though the bill [like Alexander’s discussion draft] does include a large state set-aside for school “interventions and supports.”
)

So what’s the big news? First, federally mandated teacher evaluations are dead as a doorknob, as are requirements that states adopt a particular type of standard (read: Common Core). That’s good news on both fronts, as Uncle Sam has become a monkey on the backs of these reforms. Second, as most of us predicted, annual tests are here to stay. (The House Republicans’ bill keeps them, too.) Third, Senator Murray rescued the “maintenance of effort” requirement, though Republicans succeeded in adding some flexibility for states and districts. She also kept a handful of...

The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, unveiled a few days back by Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray and scheduled for HELP Committee mark-up on April 14, is a remarkable piece of work. The mere fact that it’s bipartisan is remarkable enough, given the polarized state of Capitol Hill nowadays. But it’s also a reasonable, forward-looking compromise among strongly divergent views of the federal role in K–12 education—and between the overreach (and attendant backlash) of NCLB and some people’s conviction that NCLB didn’t reach far enough.

The draft has received much applause—some of it muted, some tentative—from many quarters (including the Obama administration). Indeed, some Washington wags have remarked that if so many different factions are saying nice things about it, either they haven’t actually read it or there must be something wrong with it! I like most of it myself, though I (as with perhaps everyone else who has said anything positive) hope that the refinements to be offered in committee and on the floor will yield something that I like even better.

I’m mindful, though, that the amending process in the Senate alone is where bipartisanship could get unstuck. This is to say nothing of what might happen if and when it gets to conference with the House Republicans’ version of an ESEA reauthorization, currently awaiting floor action.

Sound education policy for American children is more important than bipartisanship, but in today’s divided government, we’re...

In a 2011 Education Next article called “The Middle School Mess,” Peter Meyer equated middle school with bungee jumping: a place of academic and social freefall that loses kids the way the Bermuda triangle loses ships. Experts have long cited concerns about drops in students’ achievement, interest in school, and self-confidence when they arrive in middle school. Teachers have discussed why teaching middle school is different—and arguably harder—than teaching other grades. There’s even a book called Middle School Stinks

In an attempt to solve the middle school problem, many cities are transitioning to schools with wider grade spans. Instead of buildings for grades K–5, 6–8, and 9–12 (or any other combination that has a separate middle school), districts are housing students at levels ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade on one campus. To determine if a switch to K–8 grade span buildings is in the best interest of Ohio districts, I took a look at the research, benefits, and drawbacks surrounding the model.

Research

A 2009 study examined data from New York City to determine if student performance is affected by two measures: the grade spans of previously attended schools, and transitions between elementary and middle school buildings. New York City provided the perfect laboratory for such a study, since it houses a large number of elementary and middle schools with a wide variety of grade spans that are managed under the same educational policies. The study found that students attending K–8 schools earned significantly...

  • The New York Times pulled off a coup with its recent profile of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter network. Students at the astonishingly high-performing schools have routinely achieved fantastic scores on state tests—a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that most come from low-income black and Latino families. So what’s their secret? Emphasizing a stringent focus on test preparation, the piece gives plenty of ammunition both to the schools’ boosters and their critics. On the one hand, most readers will wince at accounts of students wetting themselves during practice tests rather than sacrificing time to go the lavatory. On the other, vast demand for admission—this year, more than 22,000 applications were filed for fewer than 3,000 seats—speaks for itself.
  • Of course, Moskowitz is never one to shy away from controversy—or a fight. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, she goes after a new behavioral code for New York City schools instituted by her current nemesis, Mayor Bill de Blasio. Skewering the novel use of so-called “restorative circles,” she touts those huge Success Academy application numbers (undiminished by the network’s reputation for stringent discipline). Moskowitz is right that persistently disruptive behavior is antithetical to learning, and the examples she cites of student misbehavior are abhorrent. But she may be discounting too quickly the ill effects of too-frequent suspensions and expulsions, which can also derail the aims of education.
  • The foresight game can be treacherous. Sometimes your predictions can seem more like
  • ...

Brown Center reports on the state of American education are characteristically lucid and informative as well as scrupulously research-based—and they sometimes venture into unfamiliar but rewarding territory. That's certainly the case with the third section of the latest report, which addresses "the intensity with which students apply themselves to learning in school."

Drawing on PISA data (i.e., fifteen year olds), this is an exceptionally timely probe into one of the key temperamental, attitudinal, behavioral, or characterological traits (take your pick of which category it fits best) that may influence both short-term school performance and long-term success. Many people—perhaps taken with the recent attention that's been lavished on student attributes like "grit"—would say, “Of course there's a powerful influence. Why is the matter even worth restating?” But Loveless shows us why, beginning by noting the highly uncertain link between engagement and achievement, at least as both are gauged by PISA, and demonstrating that some countries that best the United States in achievement lag behind us in engagement.

He explains the importance of the "unit of analysis" in all such studies, then goes on to pull PISA's four-part measure of "intrinsic motivation" into its constituent parts and closely examine each of these. And as we accompany him deeper into the issue, it becomes ever clearer that one ought not assume that a higher rating on "intrinsic motivation," at least when applied at the national level, correlates with a country's academic showing.

"Taken together," Loveless writes, “the analyses lead to the conclusion that...

Here’s a fascinating data point: Did you know that the entire weight of Finnish superiority on international reading tests rests on the shoulders of that country’s girls? The reading scores of Finnish boys on PISA tests is not statistically different than those of American boys, or even the average U.S. student of either sex—that’s how wide the gender gap is in Finland. “Finnish superiority in reading only exists in females,” writes Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Tom Loveless in what is surely the most eyebrow-raising finding in the 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education. “If Finland were only a nation of young men,” he observes, “its PISA ranking would be mediocre.”

That girls outscore boys on reading tests is not news. What is surprising is just how profound and persistent are the gaps. Boys lag girls in every country in the world and at every age, and they have for quite some time. But the gender gap on the 2012 PISA in Finland, the global education superstar, is the widest in the world and twice that of the United States. The sober and precise Loveless can barely restrain himself. “Think of all the commentators who cite Finland to promote particular policies, whether the policies address teacher recruitment, amount of homework, curriculum standards, the role of play in children’s learning, school accountability, or high stakes assessments,” he writes. “Have you ever read a warning that even if those policies contribute to Finland’s high PISA scores…the policies also may be having a...

For almost a decade, the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, studied whether and how NAEP could “plausibly estimate” the percentage of U.S. students who “possess the knowledge, skills, and abilities in reading and mathematics that would make them academically prepared for college.”

After much analysis and deliberation, the board settled on cut scores on NAEP’s twelfth-grade assessments that indicated that students were truly prepared—163 for math (on a three-hundred-point scale) and 302 for reading (on a five-hundred-point point scale). The math cut scores fell between NAEP’s basic (141) and proficient (176) achievement levels; for reading, NAGB set the preparedness bar right at proficient (302).

When the 2013 test results came out last year, NAGB reported the results against these benchmarks for the first time, finding that 39 percent of students in the twelfth-grade assessment sample met the preparedness standard for math and 38 percent did so for reading.

These preparedness levels remain controversial. (Among other concerns is the fact that the NAEP is a zero-stakes test for students, so there’s reason to wonder how many high school seniors do their best on it.) But NAEP might in fact be our best measure of college preparedness because, unlike the ACT, SAT ACCUPLACER, or Compass, it is given to a representative sample of high school students (at least those who make it to the twelfth grade). That doesn’t make it perfect, but it’s more revealing than the alternatives with regard to the...

In a previous post, I explained competency-based or “mastery” grading: a restructuring of the common grade system that compresses everything from course tests, homework, and class participation into a system that assesses students based entirely on whether or not they’ve mastered specific skills and concepts. (For a look at how mastery grading works in practice, check out how schools like Columbus’s Metro Early College School and Cleveland’s MC²STEM high school, and even suburban districts like Pickerington, make it work). In this piece, I’ll discuss some additional benefits and drawbacks of mastery grading.

Mastery grading is innovative in that students only move on to more complex concepts and skills once they mastered simpler ones. As a result, the failure to master on the first attempt isn’t “failure.” It’s a chance for students to receive additional instruction and support targeted at specific weak spots, work hard, master key concepts, and move on with a firm foundation in place.

For teachers, the possibility of meaningful achievement data that is disaggregated by child and skill and directly drives instruction should be drool-worthy. Imagine knowing at the beginning of the year—before ever giving a diagnostic assessment—what your new students have fully, partially, and not-yet mastered.

To be clear, implementing mastery grading effectively will take a shift in mindsets, habits, and practice, and it will increase the administrative burden at first. Teachers will have to be true masters of their content. They will also be called upon to plan even further in...

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