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.

Though it might be hard to believe, the first primary of the 2016 election season is still six months away. But the “ideas primary” is in full swing. Here’s what we hope to hear from candidates on both sides of the aisle. (Note to campaigns: These ideas and the related infographics are all open-source. Please steal them!)

Thank you for the opportunity to speak about the number-one domestic issue facing our country today: How to improve our schools so that every child has an opportunity to use their God-given talents to the max, contribute to society, and live the American Dream.

In a few minutes, I’m going to talk about what’s wrong with our education system. That’s appropriate, because bad schools continue to steal opportunities away from too many of our young people.

But before we get to that, how about some good news for a change? American schools, on the whole, are getting better. A lot better. Test scores are up—especially in math, and especially for our lowest-performing, low-income, and minority children. Graduation rates are at all-time highs. The college completion rate is inching upward. Things are heading in the right direction.

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On Wednesday, Campbell Brown and the American Federation for Children will host an education policy summit in New Hampshire with six of the seventeen GOP presidential contenders. (A similar forum among Democratic candidates is scheduled for October in Iowa.) Here we present six education policy themes—and associated infographics—that we hope the candidates embrace. We've also written a speech that we encourage contenders to emulate. All of these are open-source. Please steal them!

1. Education reform is working. Don’t stop now.

 

2. College is not the only ticket to upward mobility in America.

 

3. School choice is growing—and changing lives.

 

4. America’s best and brightest need attention too.

 

5. School discipline is under attack—that’s shortsighted and foolish.

 

6. Preparing children for citizenship is an important goal of schools. Let’s restore civic education. 

 ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Thinkstock

Last week, Bellwether Education Partners analyst (and Obama administration alumnus) Chad Aldeman pointed out that I’ve changed my views on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since 2011. He’s absolutely right. What’s perplexing is why he would find this surprising. I assume that many foreign policy analysts reexamined their positions after 9/11, and that housing policy experts did the same after the Great Recession. Does Chad not understand that the unprecedented, autocratic, and quite possibly illegal actions of the president’s Department of Education have changed things a bit?

Yes, four long years ago, Checker Finn and I were still wedded to the “tight-loose” formula of federalism in education: Uncle Sam should be tighter on the outcomes expected from our schools but much looser on how states and districts achieve those ends. What we meant by “tight” was that Washington should require states to adopt “college- and career-ready standards,” either developed with other states (i.e., the Common Core) or unique to themselves. This was in part a response to the perverse incentives of No Child Left Behind—namely the mandate for states to attain near-universal proficiency...

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One of the most hotly debated issues in American education today revolves around low-performing schools and districts: how to define “low-performing,” what to do about them, and who gets to decide. That’s at the heart of the deliberations—and arguments—over the No Child Left Behind reauthorization now moving through Congress.

But there’s another species of “failing” schools and districts that doesn’t attract the same controversy, even though it should: institutions that are financially insolvent, or headed toward that status. For example, as of the 2014–15 school year, the School District of Philadelphia had massive deficits—to the tune of $320 million. In Michigan, nearly 7 percent of all traditional school districts and charter school districts (57 of 843) were operating at a deficit at the end of the 2013–14 fiscal year. Over 25 percent of New Mexico districts (23 of 89) required emergency state aid in 2013–14. And there are similar problems in Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, and elsewhere.

Districts go insolvent primarily because there are insufficient counter-pressures on their leaders to stay fiscally solvent. Existing leaders are often rewarded—through elections, appointments, or re-appointments—when they make promises that...

The GOP had its first 2016 presidential debate last night, featuring the top ten hopefuls by recent poll numbers. Moderators Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly, and Bret Baier asked tough questions, managed time well, and gave every candidate an opportunity to shine. Florida Senator Rubio seemed to be the consensus winner, and Ohio Governor John Kasich was arguably the runner up. Donald Trump was also there. Education, on the other hand, made a disappointingly brief appearance.

In our education policy primer for the event, Kevin Mahnken and I predicted that moderators would ask about higher education, Common Core, and nothing else. We batted two-for-three.

Fifty minutes into the debate, Twitter alit with eduwonk enthusiasm when Bret Baier, amidst boos from the audience, finally asked former Florida Governor Jeb Bush about the Republican lightning rod known as Common Core. “Governor Bush, you are one of the few people on this stage who advocates for Common Core education standards, reading and math. A lot of people on this stage vigorously oppose federal involvement in education. They think it should all be handled locally. President Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has said that most of the criticism...

Recently, ACT disaggregated its 2014 test results and college retention rates in order to get a closer look at the college aspirations and preparation levels of ACT-takers who reported a family income of less than $36,000 (approximately 24 percent of test-takers.) Overall, 96 percent of low-income students who took the ACT reported plans to enroll in college. 33 percent of these students wanted to obtain a graduate or professional degree, 51 percent wanted to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and 13 percent wanted to obtain an associate’s degree. Despite these aspirations, however, only 11 percent of low-income students met all four of ACT’s college readiness benchmarks, which include English, reading, math, and science. Even more troubling, a whopping 50 percent of low-income students failed to meet even one benchmark.

When broken down by subject, low-income students performed best in English (45 percent met the benchmark, compared to 64 percent of all students). In the three remaining subjects, however, low-income students posted far lower numbers. 26 percent met the reading benchmark (compared to 44 percent of all students), 23 percent met the math benchmark (compared to 43 percent of all students), and 18 percent met the science benchmark (compared to...

Recently, the idea of “school-based hubs” has been gaining momentum as a potential solution to the problem of improving upward mobility. These hubs are created when schools partner with doctors’ offices and various other community organizations to offer their clients (students and parents) a wide variety of integrated services. The efficacy of these programs, however, is still in question, as the idea progresses through its infancy; only a small number of them actually exist.

This report offers insight into the successes and challenges of a D.C. school-based hub, the Briya/Mary’s Center. It came together a few years ago, when Briya Public Charter School partnered with Mary’s Center, an “integrative medical center.” Mary’s Center’s mission is to provide families with medical, educational, and social services to improve their overall well-being.

Briya Public Charter School is no stranger to integrated services. In addition to an education, the school provides its students (up to five years old) and their relatives a family literacy program, parenting classes, and two adult credentialing programs. These programs allow Briya parents to become registered medical assistants or early child care professionals, thus setting them up for future success. Briya also encourages parents to be active participants in their...

As a teacher, I measured professional development on a spectrum from “vaguely aligned” (we played math games!) to “I’d rather be teaching phonics right now” (any session that involved someone reading, verbatim, from a packet I had in hand). The midpoint was “at least it’s free grading time,” which was how I, an early childhood teacher, viewed any session on standardized test reading passages. But while I was frequently frustrated, I thought it was a problem specific to me; somewhere out there, I reasoned, there was PD that could help a teacher improve. And anyway, it was only a couple of days a year—not too significant.

Not exactly, says this new report from TNTP, which dug deep into the efficacy and size of three districts’ (and one charter network’s) investments in teacher professional development; it found the efforts outsized and the payoffs lacking. Researchers looked at three districts and provided low, medium, and high estimates of the annual cost of PD, which were based on which line items one included in the final price tag. On the low end—comprising only teacher time and baseline expenditures to host the PD—districts spent at least $50 million each year. On the high end—when...

A new study by Bellwether Education Partners examines the changes to teacher pension systems over the last thirty years. The report uses an historical data set from the Wisconsin Retirement Research Committee (RRC) and the state legislature that includes data from public employee pension plans in eighty-seven retirement systems across all fifty states. The data span from 1982 to 2012 and are based on annual reports, employee handbooks, statutes, and actuarial reports. Analysts examine defined benefit plans only—and, to facilitate comparisons, only the plans offered to hypothetical newly hired, twenty-five-year-old teachers who remain in those plans in each state. Analysts note several trends that have developed over the last thirty years, including:

  1. The median state offers a much lower vesting period compared to several decades ago, dropping from ten years to five years.
  2. States began lowering the normal retirement age in the 1990s and continued into the 2000s. But in recent years, states have increased the retirement age, which decreases retirement benefits and results in fewer years collecting a pension. In 2012 alone, nineteen plans increased their normal retirement age for new teachers, pushing the average retirement from age fifty-five to fifty-eight.
  3. Average employee contribution rates remained relatively constant throughout
  4. ...
  • You know how the old ditty goes: Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Chris Christie gotta churlishly analogize all political conflict to a bar fight. In an interview this week, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked the New Jersey governor which political adversary he’d most like to “punch in the face”; without reframing the question, he launched into one of his trademark diatribes against teachers’ unions. Everyone knows that Christie’s a combative politician who has struggled mightily to get his state’s public employee pension system under control. And Fordham yields to no one in our antipathy for union excess and overreach. But viable leaders can’t allow themselves to be baited into silly threats against political constituencies that aren’t going away. Teachers’ unions are to be curbed, cajoled, prodded, persuaded, and challenged. Not cold-cocked.
  • We’re not sure if it has anything to do with those infamous cooling towers, but something strange must be behind a wave of uncomfortable honesty overtaking New York City. First, a recent graduate of Queens’s William Cullen Bryant High School wrote a letter to the New York Post claiming that she hadn’t actually earned the credits counting toward her diploma. The eighteen-year-old skipped class,
  • ...

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