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.

A fascinating new study in Education Finance and Policy examines discretionary layoff policies in Charlotte Mecklenburg. In general, there are two non-discretionary, mechanical approaches to reducing the number of school employees. One is seniority-based layoffs: last in, first out (LIFO). There is also an approach known as “inverse student performance”: those with the worst value-added scores are the first to be fired. Neither of these is particularly desirable. In LIFO’s case, the reasons are obvious and legion. And using only value added might result in teachers focusing solely on test scores or in the loss of instructors who fill organizational needs (e.g., teaching specific grade levels or subjects) or otherwise contribute to a school’s educational priorities.

In contrast, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools use a discretionary policy. Candidates for layoffs are identified using a variety of factors, including the lack of formal job qualifications, length of service, and performance as determined by principal evaluations, plus the particular needs and goals of the school. Student test scores are not part of the process. Between 2008 and 2010, the district laid off over a thousand teachers because of the recession. The study’s author, Brown University’s Matthew Kraft, asked two questions: Which teachers actually...

It’s said that failure is an orphan, but success has a thousand fathers. If that’s true, what conspiracy of malefactors do we have to thank for the oafish presidential candidacy of Donald Trump? Even as he continuously fails the tests of maturity, credibility, and good taste, the second-generation merchant landlord has proceeded from strength to strength in Republican primary polls (as he’ll be the first to tell you).

Some will attribute his rise to the anger of disaffected working-class whites or his near-monopoly of election press coverage, but these strike me as only offering proximate explanations. My own theory is a little more ethereal: Trump’s gravity-defying candidacy represents the predictable outburst of an electorate whose civic awareness has been all but hollowed out. Just think of the 2016 primary follies as the bill come due for our decades of failure in teaching American students the foundational concepts of their history and political system.

This failure has been abundantly publicized in recent months. April saw the release of the “Nation’s Report Card” for civics and American history (among other subjects). The results, as any number of panic-stricken reports made clear at the time, were abysmal: A pathetic 23 percent of eighth graders scored at or...

If my Dad were alive today—and fifty years younger—I suspect he'd be a Trump voter.

My father got a high school education, enlisted in the Army, and fought in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war, he was hired by American Airlines, the only company whose paychecks he would ever cash. In forty-plus years on the job, he went from working as a mechanic to flying transcontinental routes as a flight engineer (a job made obsolete long ago by microprocessors). 

He earned enough to move his family from Yonkers to Long Island, with its affordable houses and good schools. His own father had been an immigrant pick-and-shovel man. My Dad did him one better by following the playbook common to men of his moment and mindset: learn a trade, work hard, play by the rules, and things will work out. On the day he dropped me off at college (I was the first in my family to attend), he was still badgering me to learn TV repair, plumbing, or heating and air conditioning. College was fine, but its benefits seemed nebulous to Depression-era guys like Dad. It wouldn't hurt, he insisted, to have "a skill to fall...

In early December, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released its 2015 State Teacher Policy Yearbook, which examines the laws and regulations governing state teacher policy. NCTQ evaluated states in five policy areas, each of which contained sub-goals such as delivering well-prepared teachers, expanding the teaching pool, and identifying effective teachers. States were evaluated on each dimension and given a grade for each policy area. The five policy area grades were then rolled into one state grade.

In terms of overall grades, Ohio did fairly well, earning a B-minus. (The top-performing state was Florida with a B+, while the lowest performer was Montana with an F.) Ohio received the same grade in 2013, but earlier overall grades (a C-plus in 2011 and a D-plus in 2009) were far less impressive, and the results point to general improvement. The Buckeye State earned its highest area grade, a solid B, in expanding the teacher pool through efforts to increase teaching opportunities with flexible and rigorous pathways. But the state earned its lowest grade (a C-minus) for delivering well-prepared teachers—mostly due to its failure to require prospective elementary, secondary science, secondary social studies, and special education teachers to pass rigorous content...

I re-read about fifty major articles, blog posts, and other missives about ESSA over the break, since this written record will serve as the foundation for years of commentary and analysis. Below are the five major themes that jumped out (along with gobs of the supporting links).

1. The diminished role of Uncle Sam in schools

The biggest ESSA takeaway is the dramatically reduced role for the federal government. The New York Times called it a “sweeping bill” that ends Washington’s “aggressive polic(ing) of public school performance.” Politics K-12 explained that it represents an about-face after a quarter century of increasing federal authority. Politico wrote of NCLB’s being “killed.”

Hess and English wrote that “conservatives scored a smashing educational triumph.” David Kirp wrote that in the “first time since the Reagan years, the balance of power (shifts) away from Washington and back to the states.” Longtime congressional aide Jack Jennings noted, "The federal government overstepped its bounds, and it got a smackdown from Congress."

(For more details, see Mike Petrilli’s chart and Politics K–12’s cheat sheet.)

2. A major loss for Arne Duncan?

There’s broad agreement—with two exceptions noted below—that ESSA dealt a blow to Arne Duncan’s legacy. Observers quickly saw that...

As everyone knows, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—the long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—was approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate and signed into law by the president in December. The law grants much greater authority to the states over the design of their school accountability systems, especially in contrast to No Child Left Behind.

States now enjoy the opportunity—and face the challenge—of creating school rating systems that can vastly improve upon the model required by NCLB. To help spur creative thinking about how they might do so—and also to inform the Department of Education as it develops its ESSA regulations—the Fordham Institute hereby declares an “accountability design competition.” (We are focused on school ratings, not the interventions that may result from them.) Participants will be tasked with suggesting specific indicators for states to use in grading schools, along with working through the various decisions that states will struggle with as they determine how to calculate ratings. Judges will evaluate the recommendations, and all of us will get to watch and weigh in online.

By January 26, participants will submit their proposals with the following elements included. To keep things from getting too complex,...

As 2015 was coming to a close, I compiled a list of my fifty favorite reads of the year. You can find them all here.

Though most are article- or report-length, the subjects are all over the map. In total, they offer a glimpse of the big happenings of 2015 and—though this wasn’t my initial intention—show where my mind was during this eventful year. Here’s a smattering.

The end of the year was dominated by ESSA. The New York Times captured the historical importance of the new law. Rick Hess explained why it was a major conservative victory, and Politics K–12 detailed how it undermined Arne Duncan’s legacyChad Aldeman and Conor Williams wrote separately about why the Left should be unhappy. (I’ll have a follow-up piece shortly focused exclusively on ESSA reporting and analysis.)

But 2015 also had lots of great non-ESSA edu-writing. Marty West penned a smart piece on Uncle Sam’s role in innovation, and Joanne Weiss looked back on Race to the Top. Sara Mead explained early-childhood education in New Orleans, Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote about the Catholic-school reawakening, and The Economist reported on the heartening story of private-schools outside of the US serving low-income kids.

There were...

Spending time with nieces and nephews this holiday season—teenagers who are making decisions about where to go to college, what to study, and which vocations to pursue—has reminded me of just how lucky I am to have one of the best jobs in the world. On top of working with an amazingly talented, committed, and kind group of colleagues at the Fordham Institute, and in the larger world of education reform, I get paid to do what I love: write about big ideas. I am truly blessed.

As I look back on 2015, these are the blog posts, essays, and editorials that I think (hope?) will stand the test of time. Some of them are topical (the ones about ESEA reauthorization especially), but my favorites go after the tough, overarching issues: How can we stimulate upward mobility? How do we raise the college completion rate? Why are America’s test scores so mediocre?

For sure, I’ve made my share of mistakes this year. Here’s hoping I also got a few things right.

Happy New Year!

  1. The case against federal accountability mandates in education (January 26)
  2. Backfilling charter seats: A backhanded way to kill school autonomy (February 3)
  3. How Can Schools Address
  4. ...

While it is likely true that those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them, those who are not tested on the subject in school may be doomed not to have learned much history in the first place.

“Advanced Civics for U.S. History Teachers,” a smart new white paper from Massachusetts’s Pioneer Institute, counsels civics and history advocates to show “persistence and unity” in order to restore history to “its rightful place as a treasured academic discipline and a fundamental educational priority.” The paper was issued in the weeks before ESEA was reauthorized and signed, but its primary recommendation—that states mandate a statewide assessment in U.S. history—is astute and timely now that states largely control their own testing and accountability destinies.

Pioneer also recommends “strong funding streams for professional development” and highlights several outstanding programs with national reputations that “buck the trends and afford teachers and students the possibilities of teaching and learning history in a rich, engaging and rigorous manner”: The Center for the Study of the Constitution; the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution; the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University; and the outstanding “We the People” program. (One recommendation the report...

The best compliment I can pay a fellow education blogger is to confess professional jealousy. So I’d like to close out 2015 by saluting the education blogs and columns that made me green with envy.

I’m a fan of Tim Shanahan and devour every word he writes. My favorite Shanahan post in 2015 was his evisceration of a silly piece in the Atlantic on the “joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland” that—cliché alert—depicted the typical American kindergarten as a worksheet-happy hothouse. “The silly dichotomy between play and academic instruction was made up by U.S. psychologists in the 1890s,” he wrote. “It hangs on today among those who have never taught a child to read in their lives.” He singled out Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early childhood professor, who is happy to tell anyone with a microphone that there’s no solid evidence in favor of teaching reading in kindergarten. “You can make that claim,” Shanahan concluded, “as long as you don’t know the research.”

I get jealous when somebody makes a smart observation about something hidden in plain sight, like Andy Rotherham did with his March column in U.S. News & World Report (where I’m also a contributor) pointing out that education reform is “dominated by people who...

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