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.

Unless Grover (Russ) Whitehurst was truly weary of leading the Brookings Institution’s widely respected Brown Center on Education Policy, only demented think-tank hierarchs would have let him exit that role. But the want ads make clear that they’ve done so.

What a shame. Though the Center dates back to 1992 and has always produced one or two valuable studies per year (including the fine series of annual reports authored and orchestrated primarily by Tom Loveless), it didn’t really take off until Russ left government and took its helm in 2009.

Since then, he and Tom and their small team of brainy people have emerged not just as varsity players in the education-policy think-tank league, but also as major contributors to serious scholarship about nearly every consequential issue that roils the K–12 waters. No doubt about it, they have policy preferences and viewpoints, but they’ve also been straight shooters about what is actually known, relentlessly crunching numbers and then translating the research into trenchant, comprehensible, digestible information for policymakers, practitioners, and fellow scholars. They host terrific events, produce an outstanding weekly “chalkboard” report, and have published a shelf of valuable studies. (Sixty-one items turn up on the Center’s “research and commentary” listing for just the past year.)

As everybody in the education world knows, Russ preceded his tenure at the Brown Center by serving—for seven long years—as founding director of the Education Department’s Institute for Education Sciences (IES), a much-improved version of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) that I...

Was Phil Jackson really a great coach? Despite his reputation as the Zen master of hoops, I’ve never been convinced. After all, Kobe, Shaq, and His Airness would have made any coach look like a genius, and there’s never been a natural experiment quantifying Jackson’s impact.

Inside the classroom, a similar question lingers. In a recent study of district evaluation systems, Grover Whitehurst, Matthew Chingos, and Katharine Lindquist found that teachers with high-performing students were far more likely to be rated highly by observers than those with low-performing students. Moreover, this pattern was not the result of better teachers being matched with better students. Rather, observers were biased towards teachers with higher-performing students—the Phil Jacksons of the teaching world.

As the authors of the study make clear, eliminating this bias by adjusting for student background characteristics is relatively straightforward. So why aren’t we doing this already? A few weeks ago, Luke Kohlmoos of the Tennessee Department of Education argued against such adjustments, suggesting they were a “disservice to students and teachers” that would take us back to the bad old days of lower expectations for black and brown students. According to Kohlmoos, if we “systematize” lower expectations through classroom observations, teachers and students will stoop to meet them.

Obviously, we don’t want “lower expectations” for teachers or students, but when it comes to adjusting observation scores, it’s worth asking how those expectations are communicated and whether they are really “lower” in any meaningful sense.

Start with teachers: Why...

Editor's note: This post has been updated with the full text of "Don't know much about history."

Pop quiz! Try to answer the following questions without Googling: What is one right or freedom named in the First Amendment? We elect a U.S. senator for how many years? Who is the governor of your state? Easy, right? Here’s a tougher one: How much confidence do you have in your fellow citizens who cannot answer these questions as voters and participants in our democracy?

These are among the hundred questions about history, civics, and government on the U.S. citizenship test, which immigrants must pass as part of the naturalization process. It’s not a particularly challenging exam. Would-be citizens are asked up to ten of the questions; a mere six correct is a passing score.

In January, Arizona and North Dakota became the first two states to make passing this test a high school graduation requirement; South Dakota and Utah have followed suit this month. Similar bills have been introduced in more than a dozen other states.  

“I would submit that a minimal understanding of American civics is of real value and therefore worthy of measurement,” said Arizona State Senator Steve Yarbrough. I agree. Even in our test-mad era, requiring a rock bottom, minimal knowledge of basic civics shouldn’t be too heavy a lift.

Even though a mediocre elementary education should enable you to pass the test with relative ease, making the test a graduation requirement is not the no-brainer common sense might...

Thank you Chairman Cupp, Ranking Member Phillips and members of the House Finance Subcommittee on Primary and Secondary Education for giving me the opportunity to present testimony on House Bill 64. My name is Chad Aldis, and I am the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

In general, we are supportive of most of Governor Kasich’s proposed education changes. Some of the provisions that we believe are critically important include:

  • Taking tangible steps to reduce the amount of standardized/state testing without weakening our state accountability system
  • Providing regulatory relief to schools
  • Moving toward reducing the impact of caps and guarantees in the state funding formula, as they distort the needs of districts and build funding inefficiencies into the system
  • Opening the door (and providing funding) for schools to experiment with competency-based/mastery learning
  • Strengthening the EdChoice voucher program
  • Improving Ohio’s charter school sector

To expound a little bit on the charter reforms: Fordham has spent a significant amount of time over the past year looking at Ohio’s charter school sector and has sponsored national experts to study the state’s charter schools. With that research in mind, we believe that some of the provisions proposed by Governor Kasich are critically important, and we encourage the House to include the following:

  • Requiring all charter sponsors to be approved by the Ohio Department of Education
  • Improving the ability of ODE to take action against low-performing sponsors
  • Allowing ODE to factor school quality into the equation when deciding
  • ...

This new study by the Center for American Progress (CAP) examines the ESEA comparability requirement, which mandates that school districts provide “comparable” educational services in both high- and low-poverty schools as a condition of receiving Title I dollars. CAP’s concern is that, although this requirement is intended to level the playing field for schools, it actually allows districts to use teacher-to-student ratios or average teacher salaries as a proxy for comparable services, instead of using actual teacher salary expenditures. And because poor schools typically have newer teachers who tend to struggle their first few years and cost less to employ, these schools are getting both less qualified teachers and less money than more advantaged ones.

The analysts examine Office of Civil Rights district spending data for the 2011–12 school year from roughly ninety-five thousand public schools. Adjusting for cost-of-living differences across districts, they compare how districts fund schools that are eligible to receive federal Title I dollars with other schools in their grade span and find “vast disparities” in the allocation of state and local dollars.

Here are the three key findings: one, due to the “loophole” in federal law, more than 4.5 million low-income students attend inequitably funded Title I schools; two, those schools receive around $1,200 less per student than comparison schools in their districts; and three, if the federal loophole were closed, high-poverty schools would receive around $8.5 billion in additional funds each year.

There is, however, a large and insurmountable problem: The...

  • Critics of charter schools, often in the face of thorough and convincing evidence of the benefits of school choice, too often fall back on an unsourced allegation. If charters teach rings around their district counterparts, they claim, it’s only because they scheme to weed out needy and underperforming students. It’s become such a common trope that New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña blithely passed it along just last fall. But a new Manhattan Institute study has found that low-performing New York City students, who generally facing a higher risk of leaving their school than other kids, are no more likely to depart from a charter than a traditional public school. What’s more, special needs students and English-language learners are actually more likely to stay enrolled at a charter. Unfortunately, this new data is unlikely to make an impression on Fariña because…well, it’s data.
  • We at Fordham find ourselves defending Common Core because we believe that it’s good for kids all around the country to be held to high standards. But it’s one thing for education reformers to line up in support of a policy; it’s quite another for career professionals to give it the same endorsement. A newly released report from Teach Plus strongly suggests that many teachers feel as favorably about Common Core-aligned assessments as we do. Nearly 80 percent of participants said they considered the PARCC tests to be of higher quality than the state tests that preceded them. They also
  • ...

This clever volume offers a collection of essays about how to improve teacher education. Each of the authors write about the findings of the Choosing to Teach longitudinal study, which involved thirty randomly chosen teachers, ten each from three non-traditional teacher-prep programs: the Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) at the University of Chicago, the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at the University of Notre Dame, and the (Jewish) Day School Leadership through Teaching (DeLeT) program at Brandeis University. Following enrollees from the time they entered their respective programs through four years in the classroom, it focuses on how teacher prep programs tailored to participants’ backgrounds and aspirations can improve classroom practices and keep teachers in the classroom longer. For example, teaching in an inner-city Catholic school has a different set of challenges than teaching at an affluent suburban school, and a given teacher’s interests and effectiveness will differ in each.

With this in mind, all three programs provide immersive and contextualized learning opportunities through what the authors call “nested contexts of teaching.” Training looks beyond the classroom to provide a more comprehensive view of the role future teachers will play. ACE, for example, focuses not just on the classroom, but on the larger school, its community, and the Catholic Church. This multi-layered approach ostensibly provides teachers with tools unique to their local environments. That, in turn, “increased their sense of agency as teachers and reinforced the rightness of their career choice.” By the end of their first year of...

Teach For America, its coffers fattened with $50 million in federal i3 scale-up grant money, embarked upon a major expansion effort in 2010. It aimed to place 13,500 first- and second-year teachers in fifty-two regions across the country by the 2014–2015 school year—an ambitious 80 percent expansion of its teaching corps in just four years. As part of the deal, TFA contracted with Mathematica Policy Research to evaluate the expansion.

A handful of previous studies have found that TFA teachers have been more effective than conventionally trained and hired teachers in math and about the same in reading. The big question was whether putting its growth on steroids would compromise TFA’s recruitment and selection standards or overall effectiveness.

Mathematica found little reason to be concerned about TFA losing a step. The elementary school teachers recruited in the first and second years of the i3 scale-up were “as effective as other teachers in the same high-poverty schools in teaching both reading and math.” Corps members in lower elementary grades “had a positive, statistically significant effect on student reading achievement,” but no measurable impacts for other subgroups of TFA teachers were found. Of interest (mostly to TFA itself), the study found “some evidence that corps members’ satisfaction with the program declined”—perhaps a hint of growing pains.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Teach For America remains the closest thing education reform has to a household brand. Matt DiCarlo of the Shanker Institute summarized reaction...

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of personal reflections on the current state of education reform and contemporary conservatism by Andy Smarick, a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The previous posts in this series can be seen hereherehereherehere, here, and here.

Many reformers work to ensure that every child has access to great schools. Similar universal aspirations have inspired countless others—the recognition of unalienable rights, the elimination of poverty, the fair distribution of resources.

Indeed, the question of how to define and realize “justice” has consumed philosophers for centuries. A key lesson from this Everest of scholarship is that all approaches require tradeoffs.

Unfortunately, our field doesn’t talk much about tradeoffs, and we certainly don’t talk about philosophy. You’ll not find in your conference program, “Plato, Aquinas, and Nietzsche: The Metaphysics of Annual Testing.”

But this is not to say that reform is philosophy-free. Conservatives led this movement twenty-five years ago; their skepticism of government monopolies and public sector unions and commitment to empowering parents and diversifying options owed much to Smith, Mill, and Friedman. 

Today, progressives dominate education reform, and progressivism is stirred by calls for “social justice” and transfixed by economic inequality. Accordingly, the word “equity” is ubiquitous in our world.

TNTP recommended an “equity fund.” TFA launched Leadership for Educational Equity. The administration’s recently released its vision for educator “equity plans.”

The late philosopher John Rawls is this...

This post has been updated with the full text of "Shifting from learning to read to reading to learn."

Spring means high-stakes tests in America’s schools, and this year’s test season is already proving to be a particularly contentious one. The number of parents choosing to “opt out” of tests remains small but appears to be growing. Anti-testing sentiment will likely sharpen as rigorous tests associated with Common Core are rolled out in earnest this year. Parents who have been lulled into complacency by their children’s scores on low-bar state tests may not react well when their children are measured against higher standards.

Testing—who should be tested, how often, and in which subjects – is also one of the most contentious issues in the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the most recent iteration of which is better known as No Child Left Behind). At present, the feds require states to test every student every year in math and reading from grades 3–8. However, if we are serious about improving reading—and education outcomes for children at large—we might be better off if we stopped testing reading in third grade rather than started it.

There are two big problems with existing test-driven accountability schemes in reading. First, the high-stakes reading tests our kids take in elementary and middle school really don’t test what we think they do. Even worse, by the time those tests diagnose reading difficulties in third grade, it’s incredibly hard for schools and teachers to help pull kids out...

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