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.

Two new studies add to the growing body of peer effects research that confirms what seems self-evident: learning alongside motivated, smart students enhances student outcomes. The first examines the peer effect on pre-K students diagnosed with a disability. Researchers measured student achievement among 670 students, roughly half with an IEP, in eighty-three classrooms in one Midwestern state, using teacher ratings of students’ language ability gains between the fall and spring of a single school year. IEP students appear apt to languish, language-wise, if enrolled in a low-skilled classroom; they do better when mainstreamed into heterogeneous settings. The second study uses Philadelphia public-schools data on nearly 35,000 elementary-school students who took the Stanford 9 exams during the mid- to late 1990s. The analyst employs a few different empirical strategies to untangle the true peer effect from other confounding factors. The main finding: elementary-school students in this urban district gained significantly when learning in a classroom with high-achieving peers, compared to similar students in an average classroom. The converse also applies. Students lost ground when placed in classrooms of lower average achievement. Interestingly, achievement also significantly increased in classrooms with more girls, even if the girls weren’t higher achieving. Predictably, achievement sank in classrooms containing more children with behavioral problems. As the proverb goes, iron sharpens iron—the research indicates that children stand to benefit when learning with suitable peers. Yet, as Daniel Willingham points out, it’s unclear whether enough well-mannered, high-aptitude students exist for all their peers who might benefit from...

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This much-discussed study, published in the current edition of Education Next, finds that “oversubscribed charter schools” in Boston produce strong test-score gains but “do not improve students’ fluid cognitive skills.” Put another way, the study shows high-performing charters are getting great results improving “crystallized knowledge”—but fluid skills, not so much. Crystallized knowledge is prior knowledge—vocabulary, math facts, and bits of mental furniture. Fluid intelligence, in contrast, is your ability to think, reason, and solve problems. The two combine into overall cognitive ability. West and his colleagues report that “effective schools help their students achieve at higher levels than expected based on their fluid cognitive skills.” Bravo, charters. But wait. What does it mean if these putatively high-performing schools aren’t moving the needle on fluid skills? Jay P. Greene describes the finding as “potentially unsettling” and notes that, “if fluid skills really matter, ed reform is in a serious pickle” because reform efforts “appear to be increasingly emphasizing (and measuring) crystallized knowledge to the exclusion of fluid skills.” Enter University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, who says the results are “fascinating, but they are also easy to misinterpret.” Researchers have long had a hard time finding evidence that fluid intelligence is malleable. It may simply be hard to improve, he notes. “So it’s inaccurate to interpret these results as showing that charters are making kids good at scoring well on math tests, but they haven’t really taught them math because they haven’t improved their cognitive skill,” Willingham writes....

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THE SITUATION IS FLUID
Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham takes a second look at a much-discussed study that seems to indicate charter schools raise test scores, but not “fluid intelligence.” The results are “fascinating, but they are also easy to misinterpret,” he writes.

BOSTON COMMONS
Boston is getting a “chief of education,” who will cultivate relationships with allschools in Boston—public, charter, parochial, and private—plus Boston’s colleges and universities—“although he will not have direct power over those institutions,” notes the Boston Globe.

LACKING LEADERS, THE SEQUEL
Writing at Slate, Dana Goldstein says the school principal “just might be the most important figure in school reform.” But you already knew that.

OPT OUT OF...VACCINATIONS?!
California parents are deciding against vaccinating their kindergarten-age children at twice the rate they did seven years ago, the Los Angeles Times reports. Health experts say that’s contributing to the reemergence of measles.  

UNCHARTERED WATERS
Seattle’s First Place Scholars today becomes the first charter school to open in the state of Washington.

ARE YOU READY FOR SOME STEM?
TIME Magazine reports the San Francisco 49ers have a plan to bring in sixty kids a day from Bay Area schools for daylong STEM education programs, focusing on the engineering of stadium construction and the physics of football.

SCREECHING TO THE TEST
As Lee County, Florida opts out of opting out, Fordham’s Petrilli notes that school boards might take similar “symbolic actions,” but “at the end of the...

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SEPTEMBER SURPRISE
Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and Cato’s Neal McCluskey—from opposite sides of the Common Core debate—coauthor an op-ed calling on both sides to “stop fighting over basic facts, and tackle crucial questions,” like will Common Core improve outcomes?”

BEWARE THE "PHARAOH EFFECT"
The Wall Street Journal warns religious schools eager to take up NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's offer to subsidize preschool students that if they accept “favors from the government often they may come to regret the attached strings.”

NEW HISTORY WARS
The head of the American Historical Association defends the College Board’s AP History framework in a New York Times op-ed, noting a “once comforting story has become, in the hands of scholars, more complex, unsettling, provocative and compelling.”

IT WAS FUN WHILE IT LASTED
A new nonprofit called Education Post launched today in hopes of creating “an honest and civil conversation” about education...and was immediately attacked on Twitter....

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Last week, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal sued the U.S. Department of Education over the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), with a particular focus on the role that Race to the Top (RTTT) played in encouraging their adoption. And three days later, rumors arose that Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin might haul that same agency into court for revoking its No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver. Together these two suits bring some of the most criticized recent federal education policies under legal scrutiny. But President Obama’s conditional waivers are much more vulnerable to legal challenge than is his Race to the Top initiative. Here’s why:

Jindal’s lawsuit claims that the federal government has used legislation to incentivize state adoption of the CCSS. The complaint asks the court to (1) declare that these actions violate the United States Constitution and a number of federal statutes and (2) enjoin the federal government from continuing. There are a number of lenses through which the court could view these actions.

Let’s first look at the constitutional claim, which has virtually no chance of success. Louisiana alleges that the feds’ standards push violates state sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment, which reads: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

The federal Race to the Top program,...

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Nearly half of all new teachers will quit within five years, and countless studies demonstrate the detrimental financial and academic effects of such turnover. To retain high-quality teachers, schools need to build opportunities for educators to speak up and collaborate with peers. In Pathways to Teacher Leadership, former superintendent Marya Levenson proposes three avenues that make this possible. Road one is Instructional. Groups of teachers meet regularly to collaborate on curriculum and lesson plans, confidentially discuss frustrations and dilemmas, and ask questions both as individual teachers and as part of the school’s instructional community. The second is Institutional, in which teachers adopt administrative responsibilities, bridging the gap between principals and classrooms by facilitating school-wide reforms and discussion groups. Last is Policy. Teachers assume leadership roles and tackle ed-policy issues by joining networks or nonprofits, such as Teach Plus, that encourage educators to share their views. Teachers may choose one route over another based on time commitments, comfort with administrative duties, or desired outcomes. The important part is pushing past the “collective plateau,” a place where educators feel professionally stagnant. And this model, says Levenson, applies to early- and second-stage teachers alike. It’s a vision of teacher leadership that has the potential to mitigate the turnover crisis and shape passionate, constructively engaged, and effective educators.

SOURCE: Marya R. Levenson, Pathways to Teacher Leadership: Emerging Models, Changing Roles. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2014....

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Education-policy wonks should take a long look at The Long Shadow, a book based on a twenty-five-year study by Johns Hopkins University researchers. Following 790 Baltimore first-graders in 1982 until their late twenties, this book offers a rich research account of what policy analysts across fields have long tried to figure out: How can low-income children rise out of poverty and into the middle class? The sobering answer is they don’t. Kids born into poor families grew up to be poor themselves. Nearly half of the children in the study had the same income status as their parents; and only thirty-three children of families in the lowest-income bracket moved to a high-income bracket by their twenties. The education picture isn’t any sunnier. A mere 4 percent of those from low-income families had a college degree at twenty-eight (compared to 45 percent of their higher-income peers). The long shadow of poverty stretches further for African Americans: 40 percent of blacks who dropped out of high school were now working, compared to 89 percent of white high school dropouts. Women fared worse than men. Black and white women both earned less than their male counterparts, but white women tended to be better off financially with the benefit of marriage or a live-in partner. Black women earned less than white women and were less likely to be in stable relationships. The reading is sobering because the data is stark. Education reformers should take heed that family socio-economic status—at least today—matters more than educational...

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Being an education reformer is often frustrating. No matter how zealously we push an idea or how smart we think it is, sometimes nothing changes. Or—the Common Core is a recent example—we make fast, bold gains at the outset, only to see our efforts watered down, neutered, or repudiated outright. Sure, we take solace in education’s slow, steady improvement. But this, too, frustrates us because kids grow up fast and shouldn’t have to wait for the upgrades they needed yesterday.

The respected education innovator (and inaugural Charter School Hall of Famer) Ted Kolderie sums it up well in his provocative new book:

Trying endlessly to push change into an inert system makes no basic sense. A concept of education policy built on this theory of action does not work; is not practical…Nor does the effort to transform the system radically through political action succeed. It, too, is not practical. A political majority for radical change is almost a contradiction in terms.

Kolderie knows the reform struggles of the last thirty years as well as anybody, and The Split Screen Strategy: Improvement + Innovation does a fantastic job of showing the limitations of these faulty assumptions and naïve dreams.

Take charter schools, which have underperformed and proven unnecessarily contentious. Part of the problem is that their advocates early on lost sight of chartering’s original purpose:...

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Many of our recent ed-reforms—e.g. Teach for America, alternative certification, the Hamilton Project, and various “new teacher” projects—implicitly subscribe to the idea that great teachers are born, not made. Ed schools, too, largely consider “training” teachers to be beneath their dignity. Hence the path to instructional excellence is to welcome all sorts of smart people into the classroom via all sorts of entry paths, then weed out those who don’t cut it.

In her new book, Building a Better Teacher, veteran education journalist Elizabeth Green sets out to dismantle this notion.

If she’s right and the reformers are wrong it would be good news, for then we could devise purposeful strategies for improving classroom instruction at scale—and not subject kids to a trial-and-error process of teacher selection. This possibility makes Building a Better Teacher an important book. Alas, Green offers scant evidence to support the made-not-born thesis. Indeed, her biggest proof point—a lengthy examination of the teaching techniques pioneered by a small cadre of math teachers in Michigan—comes perilously close to undermining the case she sets out to build.

This narrative focuses on the work of Deborah Ball, currently dean of education at the University of Michigan. Back in the day, she was a gifted fifth-grade math teacher at Spartan Village Academy in East Lansing. While still a student at Michigan State (MSU), Ball and a colleague, an equally...

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The New York chapter of the United Federation of Teachers participated in an anti-police brutality rally this past Saturday, prompting the question of what exactly does the union stand for: teachers or a political agenda? Fordham’s vice president of research and coauthor of Fordham’s union-strength study, Amber Northern, explained to Fox viewers why the UFT’s decision to support this rally undermines their chief cause.

As Northern puts it, “the zebra is showing its stripes.” 

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