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.

Imagine you are a first-year social studies teacher in a low-performing urban high school. You are hired on Thursday and expected to teach three different courses starting Monday. For the first two weeks, you barely eat or sleep, and you lose fifteen pounds you didn’t know were yours to lose. For the first two months, your every waking minute is consumed by lesson prep and the intense anxiety associated with trying to manage students whose conception of “school” is foreign to you. But you survive the first semester (as many have done) because you have to and because these kids depend on you. You think you are through the worst of it. You begin to believe that you can do this. Then, the second semester begins…

Your sixth-period class is a nightmare, full of students with behavior problems that would challenge any teacher. But as hard as sixth period is, your third-period class is the most frustrating and depressing, because (for reasons only they are privy to) the Powers That Be have seen fit to place every type of student imaginable into the same classroom: seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, kids with behavior issues, kids with attention issues, kids with senioritis, kids who have taken the class before and passed it but are taking it again because the registrar’s office is incompetent. And, of course, a few kind, sweet, innocent kids. Who. Cannot. Read.

This is impossible.

Or so you tell the Powers That Be. Your seniors can do...

2009 it ain’t.

Back in those heady days, the new president, fresh off a comfortable electoral victory and with congressional majorities as far as the eye could see, had the power to drive the agenda. Though Capitol Hill’s budget process was broken, with the electorate behind him and congressional allies to spare, President Obama’s budget submission had to be taken seriously.

Today, the president possesses platinum-level lame-duck status. He’s in the homestretch of his tenure, his approval rating hasn’t hit 50 percent in nearly two years, and Republicans have significant congressional majorities.

It is through this lens that we should view the Obama administration’s FY2016 budget request, released yesterday. Given today’s political conditions, the education request is actually quite savvy. It retreats where necessary, digs in where possible, and has an eye on history. There are plenty of good summaries of the education request as a whole and descriptions of specific line items. But here’s how I’m seeing the ask:

Concessions

For six years, the Obama administration, breaking with generations of practice, gave every indication that it saw few limits to the role of the federal government in primary and secondary schooling. The chickens have come home to roost.

There’s now widespread resistance to many of its initiatives, especially to ESEA waivers. Per the zeitgeist, Congress is eager to take aim at one of the administration’s favorite budget categories: competitive grant programs. Once broadly seen as a valuable tool...

SEVENTH TIME'S THE CHARM?
The New York Post has absolutely maddening coverage of an apparently bulletproof first-grade instructor. At a recent termination hearing, the New York Department of Education declined to fire the Teflon teacher in spite of her six consecutive unsatisfactory ratings. She was reassigned to a pool of substitutes and allowed to keep her generous salary even though she was absent or late sixty-four times in the last school year.

THAT'S A REALLY BIG BUCKET
Much of the recent debate surrounding testing and reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act stems from the belief that states spend too much money issuing standard assessments. However, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, Matthew Chingos, clarifies that the $1.7 billion price tag on the assessments is a “drop in the bucket” amidst a $600 billion annual education allotment. 

WHILE YOU WERE OUT
You may have missed the news dump out of Louisiana if you left early for Super Bowl weekend: On Friday afternoon, Governor Bobby Jindal issued an executive order authorizing parents to opt their children out of Common Core-aligned PARCC assessments. The move is yet another manifestation of Jindal’s noisy and petulant campaign against the standards, now more than a year in the making. Chas Roemer, chairman of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), claimed that "the executive order has no constitutional binding for BESE. While he can...

GIRLS RULE, BOYS DROOL
In terms of educational performance, girls appear to be on the way to running the world. Seventy percent of the countries surveyed by the Organization for Economic Development Cooperation and Development showed that girls are outpacing boys in math, science, and reading. It remains unclear why boys are falling behind, but potential causes range from harsher disciplinary action against male students to a lack of male teacher role models in schools.

HOW "COMMON" IS COMMON CORE?
The Brookings Institute’s Tom Loveless provides a great look at a thorny question facing parents and students as school districts begin adapting to the Common Core State Standards: Will universal standards force schools to ditch accelerated curricula for high-achievers? As he asks, “Will CCSS serve as a curricular floor, ensuring all students are exposed to a common body of knowledge and skills?  Or will it serve as a ceiling, limiting the progress of bright students so that their achievement looks more like that of their peers?” For more on the topic, see Loveless’s paper for Fordham’s Education for Upward Mobility conference. And stay tuned for more on the topic in an upcoming policy brief from Fordham.

MEMPHIS: A REFORM STORY
Memphis is the site...

AGAINST THE GRAIN
Chalkbeat New York covers New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s controversial plan to evaluate and promote teachers, one that focuses on increasing assessment-based ratings to count for 50 percent of an evaluation and lowers the weight of principal observation and feedback. Fordham’s sensational tag team of Mike Petrilli and Andy Smarick weigh in on the plan, saying that Cuomo is moving in the opposite direction of other state leaders.

WE'VE GOT TO BOOK THIS GUY FOR AN EVENT
It looks like everyone over at Success Academy Harlem East has been eating their Wheaties. On his morning visit to the New York City charter school, Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, noted remarkable behavior by both teachers and students. The dedicated instructors and quality curriculum in place at the school challenged students and gave them the opportunity to critically engage with class material and learn from their own mistakes. Perhaps this is the secret behind the charter network’s unparalleled recent test scores.

EDUCATION SPOTLIGHT: OHIO
A new bill in Ohio has many charter school backers optimistic that they will see meaningful reform, specifically in the domains of accountability and transparency. The proposed legislation calls for a number...

NCL-BETTER
In light of yesterday’s post by Michael Petrilli on federal accountability measures, Neerav Kingsland offers suggestions for a few more improvements to NCLB: First, the feds should require states to clearly identify their bottom 5 percent of schools and create a plan to better serve the students attending them. Second, charter school programs should be quadrupled. Finally, let the federal funding help finance more innovative education programs in the states.

THE CHICAGO WAY
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s no-nonsense education agenda has earned him a lot of points with charter advocates, but lost him some with his constituents. In 2013, the city closed fifty low-performing schools, a move that rankled a large chunk of his Democratic base. Yet a new study shows that a majority of students affected by the closures were ultimately enrolled in higher-performing schools, making it a win for local accountability.

QUICK: WHAT ARE THE THREE BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT?
Arizona recently approved a bill that will require high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship exam. Some say students should emerge from the education system equipped with the kind of knowledge that shapes active civic duty, and Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio says the same. As many as twelve other states are pursuing similar legislative action.

TIDE STEMMED
The past decade has brought virtually no growth in the proportion of college graduates who leave school with degrees in STEM fields, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Excluding some of the...

  • National school choice week is upon us—a time to push for high-quality choices, march across the country, and wear yellow scarves. It’s also a week when stories about choice, charters, and the like get much deserved attention. Such is the case in New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo recently bucked teachers’ unions and announced a grand education-reform agenda. Proposed changes include more charter schools, tougher teacher evaluations, and, most impressively, a tax-credit scholarship program designed to allow low- and middle-income New Yorkers to attend private schools. As our very own Checker Finn observed, Cuomo may very well be the first Democratic governor to propose a private school choice program. A bruising political battle is sure to come, but for now, choice advocates have ample cause to celebrate.
  • The U.S. Department of Education is out to prove yet again how tone-deaf it is. Maine is the most recent state in danger of suffering from the department’s unlawful practice of revoking NCLB waivers over teacher evaluations—an issue not mentioned once in ESEA. Arne Duncan wants student tests scores to be a more significant factor in the state’s teacher evaluations. Is that so? The Nation’s Superintendent might want to watch the video from Tuesday’s Senate hearing on ESEA reauthorization, where lawmakers across the political spectrum expressed their distaste for mandating such evaluations from Washington. Duncan should take the hint and get out of the teacher-evaluation oversight business. Now.

Retirement plans, much like recurring dreams and fantasy football rosters, are a captivating topic to those directly involved, but pretty much deadening to the rest of us. That’s unfortunate, because the state of our public pensions is a mess that we’re eventually going to have to reckon with. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the total budgetary shortfall facing this country’s public-sector retirement systems exceeded $900 billion in FY2012, and teacher-related costs may be the largest single contributor to that figure. The authors of this stark NCTQ report estimate that teacher pensions now account for a half-trillion dollars in unfunded liabilities. A price tag that colossal can be tough to contextualize, but don’t miss the trees for the forest here—this debt is no mere abstraction to the hundreds of districts feeling its squeeze. Metropolises like Chicago and Philadelphia have undergone cataclysmic waves of layoffs, while some smaller districts have been so awash in red ink that they’ve simply been dismantled, leaving both jobless employees and dislocated students in crisis. With the stakes that high, it’s crucial that state officials begin to take steps toward retrenchment, and NCTQ has been issuing calls for responsibility for years. Doing the Math follows close on the heels of prior research, and its remedies are unchanged from earlier iterations: Switch over from defined benefits packages to 401(k)s, allow employees a greater measure of fairness and flexibility in exchange for diminished security, and face up to a realistic appraisal of investment...

A testing renaissance is looming. So say experts Sir Michael Barber and Peter Hill in this comprehensive and timely essay. The latest in a series on what works in education, this paper argues for the need to dramatically alter the way we approach educational assessment. Barber and Hill begin by addressing the purpose of testing broadly, then lay out a compelling case for change, contending that the current K–12 system is broken and that the availability of new technologies provides a unique opportunity for dramatically changing how we think about assessments. Potential benefits of the impending transition to computerized tests include the ability to better assess students’ higher-order thinking; obtain faster, more accurate student results; assess a wider range of student performance; and more effectively use test data to inform classroom instruction and improve student learning. The essay concludes with a “framework for action” offering suggestions for how policymakers and educators can best prepare for the transition. Recommendations include building teacher capacity for next-generation assessments, allowing for local customization of implementation, and establishing clear and consistent communication throughout the assessment transition. While it comes as no surprise to hear testing-giant Pearson singing assessments’ praises, amidst rampant claims of inefficiency and over-testing, a change in thinking in America is long overdue. This spring, millions of students across the country will take next-generation assessments aligned to more rigorous academic standards for the first time. As the authors emphasize, these new computer-based and adaptive tests are designed to measure knowledge and skills required...

CORE EAGLE
Last year, Alabama all-star Mary Scott Hunter was successfully reelected to the state’s board of education. In the wake of her victory, she’s got some free advice for Republican officeholders  looking to set education policy: Don’t demagogue Common Core. “The platform of “No” is no longer enough. We need leaders who are able to articulate policies of upward mobility, accountability, and prudent governance,” she writes. Let’s hope her good sense rolls like a tide over the rest of the country.

GUESS THE STORK TAKES RETURN PASSENGERS
New analysis from Washington, D.C.  chief financial officer confirms what many have long suspected: Once District-dwellers start having kids, they become more likely to leave town. According to tax records, the parents most likely to take their Baby Bjorns to Bethesda are middle-income earners who could likely afford city rents, but are disinclined to entrust their children’s education to the public school system. Of course, nobody knows the urban parent’s dilemma better than Fordham’s own marvelous Michael Petrilli, who literally wrote the book on the subject.

S'NO PROBLEM
Okay, so the big Northeast Snowpocalypse sequel was pretty badly overhyped (we still get to eat all the stockpiled pudding, yes?). It was still worth it to cancel school today: According to this great map from Vox, it can take as much as two feet of accumulation to give some New England kids a day of igloo-building. Meanwhile, New Yorker high schoolers don’t even get a week’s reprieve ...

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