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.

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at National Review Online.

For decades, conservatives have generally followed two principles when it comes to federal K–12 education policy: Respect state and local control of schools, and demand improved academic achievement in exchange for federal funds. Because of the Obama administration’s seven-year education overreach, the Right has correctly emphasized the first of those principles during the current debate over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation’s main K–12 law. (It’s also known as “No Child Left Behind,” the title of its last reauthorization.)

But we’ve paid too little attention to accountability. This lapse could jeopardize the hard-won progress made by previous leaders, including many conservatives, and turn the fifty-year old law back into a directionless stream of federal funds with dubious influence on student learning.

Count me among the conservatives who are riled up that the Obama administration has dramatically expanded the federal role in schools. The long-held belief that local and state officials should lead on K–12 education has been replaced by Secretary Arne Duncan’s faith in a bold federal agenda backed by a federal “sense of urgency.” As a result, we’ve had a bossy...

It’s finally here: Our best chance to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since its passage shortly after 9/11.  A whole generation of students has come and gone, yet our nation’s key education law remains the same. There’s absolutely no good reason to delay reauthorization any longer. To the contrary; it’s sorely overdue. And despite the heated rhetoric—from the civil rights groups on the Left to Heritage Action on the Right—the remaining areas of disagreement are small and mostly symbolic. It’s time for all of us to act like grownups and help get a recognizable version of the Alexander-Murray bill across the finish line. (At least into conference with the House!)

Why should conservatives support a bipartisan compromise bill like this? That’s easy: It’s sharply to the right of current law (ESEA circa 2001) and current policy (Arne Duncan’s “waivers”). It hands significant authority back to the states on all the issues that matter: the content of academic standards and related assessments, the design of school accountability systems, and interventions in low-performing schools. It scraps ESEA’s misguided “highly qualified teachers” provision and Duncan’s teacher evaluation mandate. And it holds the line on spending.

How about the Left? Civil rights...

Bobby Jindal recently announced that he’s running for president. The two-term governor of Louisiana is one of fourteen hopefuls in the increasingly crowded race for the GOP primary. He’s also the subject of the eighteenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

A lifelong Louisianian, Jindal has been involved in politics since the mid-nineties, when he worked for Governor Murphy Foster. He went on to represent the Bayou State’s First Congressional District for two terms in the House of Representatives, after which he returned to state politics to take Louisiana’s helm. In his long career, he’s had a lot to say about education. Here’s a sampling:

1. Common Core: “We want out of Common Core....We won't let the federal government take over Louisiana's education standards. We're very alarmed about choice and local control of curriculum being taken away from our parents and educators....Common Core's become a one-size-fits-all model that simply doesn't make sense for our state.” June 2014.

2. High Standards: “High standards for our students? Count me in. My dad was not happy with straight As. If my brother or I got a 95 percent, he wanted to know what happened on...

John Dickinson, probably our nation’s most underappreciated founder, argued at the Constitutional Convention, “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”

This can be particularly helpful when thinking about education policy. It gets us away from reasoning primarily through abstractions. Theories can sparkle on the page, but—like exquisite battle plans that perish at first enemy contact—the real world lacks the good manners to blithely approve celebrated ideas.

Education is also prone to fads cooked up by the best and brightest of the moment. The current generation always seems to fancy itself the wisest, the most courageous, the long-awaited possessor of The Answer. But schools have been around forever. There are mountains of accumulated wisdom to study if we’re willing to look up from our Twitter feeds.

A terrific new article by two of our field’s éminences grises shows what experience has to offer above and beyond ideas, ideology, and innovation. In “A Progress Report on Charter Schools,” Checker Finn and Bruno Manno reflect on lessons learned since the publication of their 2000 book Charter Schools in Action.

Finn and...

June marked the end of my first year as superintendent of Partnership Schools, a nonprofit school management organization that (thanks to an historic agreement with the Archdiocese of New York) was granted broad authority to manage and operate six K–8 urban Catholic schools. Our work is one part of a nationwide effort to help save urban Catholic education. It’s a mission that has brought together an amazing group of Catholic educators and philanthropists with a common commitment: to not let this essential element of American education disappear from the communities our schools serve.

The urgency of this work is grounded in the seriousness of the problems our schools face. The Partnership Schools—three in the South Bronx and three in Harlem—have been struggling. Like so many urban Catholic schools subsisting on tuition payments or private philanthropy, our teachers and leaders have been forced to operate on austerity budgets. Salaries have been low. Textbooks have been sorely outdated. Professional development has been thin, and our principals have faced the almost impossible job of juggling tasks ranging from operations to fundraising to parent outreach to managing union grievances—all virtually on their own. They had scant time to serve teachers as instructional leaders and...

Last week, Chris Christie announced his candidacy for president. The current governor of New Jersey in one of fourteen Republicans running for the White House—a group that vastly outnumbers the five Democrats in the race. He’s also the subject of the seventeenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Christie has been at New Jersey’s helm since 2010. A lawyer by trade, he’s been a lobbyist, practiced law in private firms, and served as the U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey from 2002 to 2008. In his five years leading the Garden State, he’s made a number of changes to the state’s education system, including expanding charter schools and reforming teacher tenure and evaluation. Here are some of his recent stances on education:

1. Common Core: “It's now been five years since Common Core was adopted, and the truth is that it's simply not working....It has brought only confusion and frustration to our parents and has brought distance between our teachers and the communities where they work....Instead of solving problems in our classrooms, it is creating new ones.” May 2015.

2. School choice: “Students in struggling districts should have...

Passed by the Ohio House and Senate, House Bill 70 sharpens the powers and duties of “academic distress commissions” (ADCs) in Ohio and now awaits the signature of Governor Kasich.

Academic distress commissions were added to state law in 2007 as a way for the state to intervene in districts that consistently fail to meet standards. Two districts (Youngstown and Lorain) currently operate under the auspices of an ADC, but the new bill only applies to the former (as the latter’s commission is too new) and to any future districts which fall into academic distress after the bill’s effective date. Despite being nicknamed the “Youngstown Plan,” HB 70 doesn’t specifically mention Youngstown; on the contrary, it applies statewide and significantly alters the way any ADC—whether already existing or established in the future—is run. Moving forward, a new ADC will be established if a district receives an overall F grade on its state report card for three consecutive years. As for districts already under an ADC (Youngstown and Lorain), the structure of their ADCs will change on the bill’s effective date of compliance.

Let’s examine four of HB 70’s biggest changes...

The intriguing new book This Idea Must Die argues that we’re beset by beliefs that have outlived their usefulness. Some of them pollute our everyday lives (think old wives’ tales). But academic disciplines like physics and medicine are susceptible as well (like the false left/right brain dichotomy).

The book (podcast via Freakonomics) says that a major culprit is the lack of routines for cleaning out our attics. Fields develop by accumulating knowledge. We acquire an accretion of ideas from our predecessors but seldom go back to pressure-test them. The result can be faulty conventional wisdom. In fact, a classic on the history of science (and one of my favorite books), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, explains how orthodoxies sustain via this “development by accumulation.”

Both books demonstrate convincingly how the normal course of learning can perpetuate flawed ideas. But I think both are too charitable in explaining the forces at play and too optimistic about our ability to fix things. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, for example, argues that a revolutionary idea causes the necessary “paradigm shift” (e.g., Copernicus overturning Ptolemy).

In my experience, there’s often a darker reason behind the preservation of bad ideas: fear. Current experts are afraid to fall out of favor...

  • Defined benefit pension packages: Love ‘em if they’re sending you a check each month, hate ‘em if you have to think too hard about their consequences. That’s probably the reason we just don’t give them much consideration (well, part of the reason; they’re also slightly less gripping than you may have been led to believe). Good thing the National Council on Teacher Quality put together an informative, concise fact sheet on the realities of our teacher retirement processes. The short version isn’t pretty—backloaded plans with lengthy vesting periods typically penalize teachers who leave the profession early, enter it late, or move to a different state mid-profession. Their escalating costs are also threatening to overwhelm cash-strapped districts. Painful though it may be, we may have to start dedicating more thought to the subject.
  • The Foundation for Excellence in Education has released a fantastic tool that accomplishes two purposes: explaining what we actually mean when we talk about student “proficiency” and clarifying which jurisdictions actually measure anything close to it. Users can see how students are performing in their states, and whether those states’ reporting practices give a picture that resembles reality—or just an illusion.
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Over the past two weeks, we received fourteen responses to Fordham’s second annual Wonkathon prompt:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

This year’s posts offered a wide-range of oversight models from some of the wonkiest wonks in education reform. But there can only be one Wisest Wonk.

Without further ado, the winner of Fordham’s 2015 Wonkathon is Seth Rau, whose “Nevada should regulate ESAs like brothels” came in with 39 percent of the vote.

Tracey Weinstein’s “Does Nevada’s new ESA law hold promise for kids?” came in second with 17 percent.

And Rabbi A.D. Motzen’s “Why almost universal is not good enough” came in third with 15 percent.

Thanks to all the participants for another great Wonkathon, and congratulations to this year’s Wisest Wonk, Seth Rau! You can re-read the individual responses below or get the short and sweet version from Jason Bedrick’s recap.

 “Nevada needs...

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