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.

In a National Review piece last month, Mike Petrilli raised the important issue of how schools can build on the existing social capital in low-income neighborhoods. Yet he was unduly skeptical about the social-capital-building potential of a “typical Head Start center.” In fact, building social capital is the exact purpose that Head Start programs are designed to fill, and many of them do an outstanding job of it. In this regard, they are models for the public school system.

Head Start programs are expected to partner with communities and feature dedicated capacity and strategies for engagement that build on existing assets and networks. Their functions often take these shapes:

  • A social services hub. Many of the children in struggling neighborhoods will enter with a wide range of needs. Head Start programs address them by partnering with existing, trusted service providers that both serve students directly and educate teachers and school leaders about common warning signs. If schools did the same—instead of just trying to provide those services on their own—they could better attend to their students’ comprehensive needs. 
  • A family support hub. Parents in low-income communities often lack social capital, and research shows that building it up through social assistance
  • ...

The Ohio Education Research Center (OERC) recently reported the teacher evaluation results from 2013–14, the first year of widespread implementation of the state’s new evaluation policy. The report should serve as an early warning sign while also raising a host of thorny questions about how those evaluations are being conducted in the field.

The study’s main finding is that the overwhelming majority of Ohio teachers received high ratings. In fact, a remarkable 90 percent of teachers were rated “skilled” or “accomplished”—the two highest ratings. By contrast, a mere 1 percent of Buckeye teachers were rated “ineffective”—the lowest of the four possible ratings. These results are implausible; teaching is like other occupations, and worker productivity should vary widely. Yet Ohio’s teacher evaluation system shows little variation between teachers. It’s also evident that the evaluation is quite lenient on teacher performance. But there’s more. Let’s take a look at a few other data points reported by OERC that merit discussion.

1.   Most teachers are not part of the value-added system

Given the controversy around value added in teacher evaluation, it may surprise you that most Buckeye teachers don’t receive an evaluation based on value-added results. (Value added refers...

Over the last twenty years, Ohio has transformed its vocational schools of yesteryear—saddled with limited programs, narrowly focused tracks, and low expectations—into a constellation of nearly three hundred career and technical education (CTE) locations that embed rigorous academics within a curriculum defined by real-world experience. (For more on Ohio’s CTE programs, see here.) According to a new report from Achieve, these transformations have put the Buckeye State on the cutting edge in CTE.

What sets Ohio apart from other states offering CTE is its commitment to high expectations. This principle was perfectly encapsulated in 2006, when the legislature was debating whether career-technical planning districts (which handle the administrative duties of CTE programs) should be held to the same standards as traditional schools. Many CTE leaders were determined that their students should be held to the same rigorous expectations as other students. Fast forward to the 2014 mid-biennial review legislation, and their determination finally became reality: Ohio now has three pathways to graduation, one of which is designed for CTE students. This pathway requires that any CTE graduate must earn “a state-approved, industry-recognized credential or a state license for practice in a vocation and achieve a score that...

Jim Webb recently declared his candidacy for president. The former U.S. senator from Virginia is just the fifth Democrat to do so, a number that contrasts sharply with the fourteen Republicans gunning for their party’s primary. He’s also the subject of the nineteenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Webb has served his country much of his adult life, only becoming a politician in 2007. Before that, he was an officer in the Marine Corps, a counsel for the House Veterans Affairs Committee, the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, the secretary of the navy, an author of ten books (both fiction and nonfiction), and an Emmy-winning filmmaker. American education hasn’t been a major focus of his career, so he’s said less on the subject than most candidates. Nevertheless, here’s a sampling:

1. Pre-K: “The first [challenge we face in American education] is the benefit we can get through pre-K programs that would allow less privileged children to begin socialization and education at an earlier age.” July 2015.

2. Cost of college: “The second [challenge we face in American education] is the huge student loan debt that is hanging...

  • The long-awaited reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has taken another cautious step forward this week, advancing to the Senate floor for consideration after passing unanimously through committee in April. The legislative process certainly holds the potential for fruitful debate—how best to right-size the federal role in education without endangering accountability, how to address parents’ reasonable concerns about testing, etc.—but it’s critical that the mission of passing a workable law isn’t sidetracked by the usual congressional shenanigans. When President Bush first signed No Child Left Behind, Nickelback had the number-one song in the country. Nickelback, people. Let’s not kill our best shot at helping a new generation of students.
  • Speaking of overdue policy action: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, besieged by the city’s extraordinary teacher pension costs, has publicly called for a sweeping overhaul. The system’s evaporating solvency has led to some absolutely staggering figures: In order to offset the hit from a looming $634 million pension payment, Chicago Public Schools announced some $200 million in budget cuts, generated in part by 1,400 layoffs. Those firings will reportedly be focused on administrative and support positions rather than the classroom, but it’s a grim reality
  • ...

When thinking about innovation in America, our thoughts typically turn to tech-driven creative capitals like New York City and San Francisco. Yet this report from the Rural Opportunities Consortium, which argues that rural education is primed for innovation, demonstrates that change can also be bred outside of cities.

Author Terry Ryan, president of the Idaho Charter School Network and a former member of the Thomas B. Fordham team, focuses on three main advancements that rural schools have adopted: expanding school choice through charter schools, introducing new online technologies, and increasing collaboration between charter schools and local districts. All three give rural schools and districts greater autonomy and freedom to experiment with new programs and concepts.

To prove that rural areas can successfully implement these changes, Ryan profiles districts that have instituted them. For example, the Dublin City School District in southeast Georgia has followed in the footsteps of big cities like New Orleans and Washington, D.C. by embracing charter-driven school choice. Dublin’s increased administrative flexibility has allowed them to pilot new ideas, develop more direct lines of accountability, and ultimately raise high school graduation rates. Another example, the Vail School District in Arizona, created Beyond Textbooks, an online tool that...

Career and technical education (CTE) is the reform de jour. And the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), created following the Second World War to improve social and economic life for sixteen southern states, has taken notice. In an April report, the commission outlines the career and technical pathways that can help job seekers find employment and improve struggling economies.

Advanced credentials and CTE programs could be a game-changer in the South. Among the sixteen SREB states, at least a quarter of adults fail to complete any form of education after high school. In West Virginia and Arkansas, those numbers are as high as 40 percent and 34 percent respectively. An additional 20 percent of adults in each of the states complete some postsecondary work but receive no credential. And this lack of credentialing doesn’t just hurt working class adults. The report notes that “even youth born to middle-income families are as likely to move down the economic ladder as they are to move up.”

To reverse this dismal trend, the report calls for increasing the percentage of students who leave high school academically prepared for college and career to 80 percent (authors repeatedly call for higher and more rigorous standards,...

The title of this slim, engaging book of essays tees up a question about which there is very little disagreement. Of course character matters. “Character skills matter at least as much as cognitive skills,” writes Nobel laureate James Heckman in the lead essay, summarizing the literature. “If anything, character matters more.” Since cognitive and non-cognitive skills can be shaped and changed, particularly in early childhood, he writes, “this suggests new and productive avenues for public policy.” It may indeed. But the journey from good idea to good policy is a minefield for both parties, as Third Way policy analyst Lanae Erickson Hatalsky notes in her essay. If Democrats talk about character, “it runs the risk of sounding like apostasy, blaming poor children for their own situation in life and chiding them to simply have more grit and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” (Likewise, the Left dares not invoke the miasma of family structure.) Character talk may feel more at home in Republican talking points, but it carries the risk of foot-in-mouth disease, “setting the stage for politicians to inadvertently say something that sounds patronizing to the poor, demeaning to single women, or offensive to African Americans (or all three).”...

As I’ve previously written too many times to recall, for all its iconic status, the Head Start program has grave shortcomings. Although generously financed and decently targeted at needy, low-income preschoolers, it’s failed dismally at early childhood education. Additionally, because it’s run directly from Washington, it’s all but impossible for states to integrate into their own preschool and K–12 programs.

I could go on at length (and often do.) But you should also check out these earlier critiques, both by me and by the likes of Brookings’s Russ Whitehurst and AEI’s Katherine Stevens.

The reason this topic is again timely is because the Department of Health and Human Services recently released a massive set of proposed regulations designed to overhaul Head Start. These are summarized by Sara Mead, with her own distinctive spin.

What to make of them? Yin and yang.

On the upside: A mere seven years after Congress mandated this kind of rethinking, HHS is finally taking seriously the need to put educational content into the country’s largest early childhood program. These regulations would clap actual academic standards and curricular obligations onto the hundreds of Head Start...

As you’ve probably heard by now, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Friedrichs vs. California case next year, giving it a chance to strike down union “agency fees” as unconstitutional abridgements of teachers’ First Amendment rights. (Read up on the case with some great posts from Joshua DunnMike AntonucciStephen Sawchuk, and Andy Rotherham.)

In a nutshell, teachers already have the right not to join their local unions, even in non-“right-to-work” states like California and New York. But in such states, even if teachers are not union members (and therefore do not pay union dues), the local union can automatically deduct “agency fees” from their paychecks. The fees, which are often substantial, are supposed to support non-political activities, including the costs of collective bargaining. The unions levy these fees to avoid the free-rider problem; without them, teachers could get all sorts of benefits from the unions without paying for them.
 
Legally, agency fees from public employee unions cannot be used to financially support “matters of public concern” (a.k.a. political activities) because non-members can’t be coerced to support political speech with which they disagree. The fees can only be used for “representational activities” such as collective bargaining, arbitration of...

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