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 brought the eagerly awaited release of the 2013 NAEP results for 12th grade math and reading, which include scores for the nation as a whole as well as eleven pilot states. (NAEP has not traditionally reported state-level data for 12th grade.) There’s no report visible at this time, but the data can be found on a workable online database. Frankly, the results are depressing. In both math and reading, scores remained unchanged from their dismal 2009 levels. That means a mere 26 percent of students are proficient in math, and a slightly-better-but-still-bleak 38 percent are proficient in reading—two percentage points lower than in 1992. Moreover, those scoring below basic levels in math and reading are 35 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Worse yet, achievement gaps between ethnic groups didn’t narrow. To cheer you up just a bit, however, four of the eleven pilot states saw gains in math scores, and two saw reading gains. Of course, that means the others didn’t. Bottom line: whatever good recent reforms may be doing in the earlier grades, they’re not yet paying off at the end of high school—especially for African American and Latino students. And that, obviously, is just for the kids who even make it to the end.

National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation's Report Card Grade 12: Reading and Mathematics 2012 (Washington, D.C.: National Assessment of Educational Progress, May 2014)....

Among the many problems facing American K–12 education, we don’t have enough highly effective, minority, or male teachers.

Two recent reports from the Center for American Progress (CAP) underscore the first and second of these three shortfalls. As for gender, you can take a look at the NCES data—or just take my word that there are more than three female teachers in U.S. public schools for every male teacher.

If you had to choose, would you rather have your child taught by a highly effective teacher or one who shares his or her race and/or gender?

Of course you’d prefer all of the above, but you may have to face the reality that not many families can have it. I’m reminded of the timeworn conundrum presented to impatient, parsimonious, quality-minded customers by any number of prospective vendors and contractors: “Yes, we can do it better, faster, or cheaper—but we cannot do all three at once. Pick no more than two.”

In a perfect world, you might want your child to be taught by someone who “looks like” him or her and is also highly effective in the classroom. But effective teachers of any race are hard to come by. There just aren’t enough of them, especially in schools serving poor kids. And the pay isn’t good enough to lure huge numbers of others away from more lucrative opportunities. For decades now, American public education has invested its ever-growing budgets in more teachers...

My colleague Julie Squire and I recently published a report on reforming state departments of education. We argue most state-level reforms ought to be driven by entities other than the SEA, which should focus on a narrower, but still important set of responsibilities.

Our report was intended to challenge the dominant view (i.e., state reform requires a more muscular SEA) and explain how a new approach might be implemented.

We recognized that our take was sufficiently different so as to require not just a strong theoretical base and plenty of evidence but also measured recommendations and explicit cautions. We aimed to produce a sober assessment of current conditions and guarded optimism about a new tack. This is why we dedicate an entire section to the problem and another to the risks of our argument.

We’re fortunate our paper has been taken seriously by a number of serious people, including those who largely agree, those open to a discussion, and those with reservations.

In the last category fall two sharp observers who’ve produced responses warranting attention. Not coincidentally, both are affiliated with CRPE, which has studied systemic reform for ages and dedicated significant recent bandwidth to SEA reform. To cut to the chase, I enthusiastically agree with most of what both have written.

The first is a smart piece by Paul Hill, CRPE’s founder and a researcher who’s thought deeply about the theory underpinning our piece and that theory’s application to...

On the surface, the story of the US Department of Education’s recent letter to Indiana about its ESEA-waiver noncompliance writes itself. According to the feds, the Hoosier state promised a bunch of stuff, isn’t delivering, and deserves to be called into the principal’s office.

But I encourage you to read the letter—my gut tells me this is the K–12-policy version of a Rorschach test.

In short, the Department has placed conditions on IN’s flexibility request and is requiring the state to submit a plan for how it will implement high-quality standards and assessments in the next school year.

On the first score, ED determined the state hadn’t implemented sufficient interventions for troubled schools and wasn’t adequately monitoring implementation of content standards and educator evaluations.

On the second, ED is seriously holding IN’s feet to the fire regarding its recent legislative action related to Common Core and PARCC. Both were part of the state’s waiver request, and now both have been put aside via state law. Given this, Uncle Sam is demanding a new plan for how the state intends to meet the standards-and-assessments conditions of ESEA flexibility.

I bet lots of folks will read ED’s letter, and think, “Hooray! The Department is serious about its new accountability rules!” Indeed, the ESEA waiver application had clear requirements, and the state made promises, got the flexibility, isn’t meeting its obligations, and is now being held accountable. (Fans of Common Core and PARCC specifically, and tough standards...

This AEI policy brief investigates whether involved fathers impact their kids’ chances of success in college—and finds that they surely do. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a 1994–95 study of a nationally representative sample of children in grades 7–12, the author found that children whose fathers are involved in their lives (measured by adolescent-reported data on such activities as receiving homework help, playing a sport, or discussing personal issues) while they attend high school are far more likely to graduate from college—98 percent more likely, in fact. Perhaps the most important (if not surprising) takeaway is that young adults in college-educated homes are more likely to be raised in an intact family with an involved father and are therefore more advantaged than their counterparts in non-college-educated homes. Since this means that most young adults from poor or working-class families are far less likely to receive a college education, a question arises: how can we tackle the fatherhood divide between children from educated and less-educated families? This ultimately highlights a very important problem without an easy solution—and serves as a reminder that it’s never too early to celebrate Father’s Day.

W. Bradford Wilcox, “Dad and the diploma: The difference fathers make for college graduation,” The Home Economics Project (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, April 22, 2014).

There’s much interest in how schools can develop students’ non-cognitive skills, such as persistence and interpersonal skills, not just their academic prowess. In this study, Marty West and six other researchers examine the potential of schools to impact the development of four types of non-cognitive qualities: conscientiousness, self-control, grit (persisting through to a long-term goal), and growth mindset (the extent to which a child believes his academic ability can improve with effort, rather than being fixed). Analysts link self-reported survey data from nearly 1,400 eighth-grade students who attended Boston public schools in the spring of 2010–11 to student-level demographic and test-score data. Three key findings emerge: First, they find that all four measures of non-cognitive skills are positively correlated at the student level with achievement gains on standardized tests and with attendance and behavior. For the most part, however, those positive correlations disappear at the school level (the “paradox”). Second, students in overprescribed charter schools who typically post large test-score gains report lower-than-average levels on measures of conscientiousness, self-control, and grit. Analysts hypothesize that this is because many of these charter schools are academically and behaviorally demanding—and thus, these students are apt to rate themselves more critically given the context in which they are educated. Third, the authors find that students’ views on whether their academic ability is malleable or fixed is less likely to be influenced by their surroundings—perhaps because such notions are based on internal beliefs. Analysts close with a smart caution in the end:  “In the rush...

It looks to me as if one of the most acclaimed reforms of today’s education profession—not just in the U.S. but also all over the planet—is one of the least examined in terms of actual implementation and effectiveness. How often and how well do instructors, whose administrators and gurus revere the concept of differentiated instruction, actually carry it out? How well does it work and for which kids under what circumstances? So far as I can tell, nobody really knows.

I’ve been roaming the globe in search of effective strategies for educating high-ability youngsters, particularly kids from disadvantaged circumstances who rarely have parents with the knowledge and means to steer them through the education maze and obtain the kind of schooling (and/or supplementation or acceleration) that will make the most of their above-average capacity to learn.

As expected, I’ve found a wide array of programs and policies intended for “gifted education,” “talent development,” and so forth, each with pluses and minuses.

But almost everywhere, I’ve also encountered some version of this assertion: “We don’t really need to provide special programs, classrooms, or schools for gifted children because we expect every school and teacher to differentiate their instruction so as to meet the unique educational needs of all children within an inclusive, heterogeneous classroom.”

A thoroughly laudable goal, say I, but how realistic is it? How well is it being done? And does it really meet...

Almost a year has passed since the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) published Teacher Quality Roadmap: Improving Policies and Practices in the Dayton Public Schools. The report, funded jointly by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Learn to Earn Dayton, analyzed teacher policies and related practices within the district, with the goal of to identifying short- and long-term improvements to policy and practice that could in turn increase the quality of the teaching force.

As Learn to Earn Executive Director Tom Lasley noted in June of 2013, when the report was released, teachers’ impact matters immensely, especially in a region and district that has seen significant population declines and has confronted (and continues to confront) economic challenges.

NCTQ framed its analysis and findings around five key areas: staffing, evaluations, tenure, compensation, and work schedules. Analysts met with teachers, principals, community leaders, and other stakeholders, and they reviewed district policies and state law. A slate of recommendations—some easier to tackle (e.g., maintain the current schedule of teacher observations under the new evaluation framework) and some harder (e.g., giving principals the authority to decide who works in their buildings)—resulted.

District superintendent Lori Ward and her colleagues got to work and, by December of 2013, accomplished several significant improvements. Among them, principals are no longer forced to accept transferred teachers to fill vacancies; rather, principals have the ability to select the most qualified candidate (including new hires).

Additionally, reductions in force, which in the past were based on seniority...

Former Ohio governor Jim Rhodes wrote in 1969, “Many of today’s social and economic ills result from a lack of employment among the able-bodied. The lack of employment stems directly from inadequate education and training.” Governor Rhodes continued, asserting that vocational-training programs for young women and men could help to meet the demands of a changing modern-day economy.

Fast-forward forty-five years: Ohio has changed substantially, but as did Governor Rhodes, the state’s policymakers are again hitching their wagons to vocational education. Retro is in, and that’s a good thing: vocational education—a.k.a. “career and technical education”—has the potential to open new pathways of success for many teenagers.

Little, however, is widely known about how Ohio organizes its vocational-education programs or how students in them fare. Cue the state’s new report cards, which include helpful information about the state’s vocational programs. The following looks at the report cards, yielding five takeaways regarding Ohio’s vocational options.

Point 1: CTPDs and JVSDs are not the same

Ohio has two key entities in the realm of vocational education: (1) Career and Technical Planning Districts (CTPDs) and (2) Joint Vocational School Districts (JVSDs, also called “career-tech centers”). CTPDs are an administrative entity, while JVSDs are direct vocational-education providers. Both CTPDs and JVSDs are comprised of member school districts; however, while all districts are part of a CTPD, not all districts are part of a JVSD.

Throughout Ohio, ninety-one CTPDs oversee vocational programs. CTPDs have at least one member school...

When it comes to state education agencies (SEAs), ed-reformers have fallen into a sorry rut.

As states have emerged as primary drivers of much-needed changes in K–12 practice and policy, the SEA has become the default agent-of-change for a vast number of initiatives concocted by policymakers in state capitals and Washington alike.

Want a new teacher-evaluation system and more rigorous certification standards? Want to crack down on school violence and bullying? Want better assessments of school performance and improved interventions for low-performers? Want to widen broadband access and encourage blended learning?

Hand it to the SEA.

Given that this agency is the state’s primary (or only) K–12 administrative unit, one can easily see why decision makers have had this impulse.

Yet the SEA was originally designed—and then acculturated over decades—to distribute dollars to local districts and monitor their compliance with a lengthening list of federal and state regulations and categorical funding streams. It was never intended to lead complex, contentious, large-scale reforms that require original thinking, nimble action and constant adaptability. In other words, it wasn’t intended to carry out a huge fraction of the responsibilities that have recently been thrust upon it.

In our new report, The New SEA: At the Helm, Not the Oar, we propose that this plain fact be recognized and alternative arrangements made.

This does not mean we think the SEA has no role in education reform, much less that we...