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.

Good morning. It’s wonderful to see so many friends and colleagues here today. My name is Michael Petrilli, and in August I took over as the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, one of the nation’s leading education-policy think tanks, as well as an education-reform advocacy organization in the great state of Ohio and a charter school authorizer in the great city of Dayton. Welcome to our “Education for Upward Mobility” conference.

Today is a rare chance for those of us engaged in the raucous and sometimes vitriolic education-reform debate to step back and consider the path we find ourselves upon. The goal is to seek an answer to a fundamental question, perhaps one of the most important questions in America today: How can we help children born into poverty to transcend their disadvantages and enter the middle class as adults? And in particular, what role can our schools play?

This isn’t a new question.  When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act fifty years ago, he remarked that, “As a son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty.”

Or, as Jeb Bush put it two weeks ago, here in Washington: “Education is the great equalizer.”

What is new is the nagging concern (shared across the ideological spectrum) that social mobility in the U.S. has stalled. As conservative scholar Peter Wehner wrote recently, “Two-thirds of Americans believe that it will be harder for them to achieve the...

  • Conventional wisdom suggests would-be GOP presidential candidates are supposed to disavow the Common Core (cf. Bobby Jindal), but Jeb Bush and Governor John Kasich didn’t get the memo. During a speech last Thursday in Washington, the former Florida governor emphasized the importance of raising academic standards in America’s schools, which starts with the Common Core. And if states opt to forgo adoption, any replacement ought to be even more rigorous, Bush said. Likewise, Governor Kasich, speaking last week at the Republican Governors Association, continued his strong and unwavering support of the CCSS, reiterating that governors wrote the standards and not the federal government. In other words, the Common Core is not a litmus test for Republicans.
  • Due to tougher teacher exams, New York State saw a 20 percent drop in the number of new certifications for the 2013–14 school year, reports the New York Times. The Empire State introduced the new assessments last year in an attempt to boost the caliber of new teachers. Those who don’t pass can’t teach in public schools. Better still, ed schools with high failure rates risk losing accreditation. Raising standards for teachers was a critical part of the "Massachusetts miracle," and we're glad to see others following suit.
  • The Atlantic published a big article written by Sarah Carr this month about a No Excuses high school in New Orleans that might be overdoing it on the discipline front. In a city with a plethora of school choices, many
  • ...

Myriad obstacles stand between low-income students and a college education—even for those who beat the odds, graduate from high school, and gain acceptance into a post-secondary institution. Indeed, 20 percent of these young people will not make it past their first semester—which raises a couple of questions: Why is this happening? And how do we fix it? According to authors Benjamin Castleman and Lindsay Page, much of the problem is what happens (or doesn’t) between the last day of high school and the first days of college. They call it the “summer melt.” Things like stacks of enrollment paperwork, complicated financial forms, and daunting tuition bills prove to be substantial hindrances for these kids, many of whom are the first in their families to make it this far. And once they get to campus, they often lack the support to persevere through those difficult first months. In other words, preparing these youngsters for freshman year involves more than academics. To this end, the authors propose three solutions. First, high schools need to expand the role of college counselors, paying them to work in the summer months and encouraging them to spend more time with individual students in need. The Boston-based college access organization, uAspire, did this and saw positive results. Next, higher education institutions should utilize technology to keep students informed and on target throughout the college enrollment process. One example is the SCOPE project, which launched a texting strategy that kept students up to date with their enrollment tasks...

The Cristo Rey Network comprises twenty-eight private schools serving 9,000 students nationwide. Ninety-six percent of network students are minority (largely Hispanic), and 100 percent are economically disadvantaged (defined as households earning less than 75 percent of the national median income). The schools utilize an innovative education model that honors its Catholic roots while simultaneously embracing new ways of preparing economically disadvantaged high school students for future success. This report from the Lexington Institute profiles the Cristo Rey model and looks at how—despite great success—the laudable network is still searching for ways to improve. A defining feature of the schools is a work-study program that requires students to work at least one day a week in the community while keeping up with rigorous high school coursework. In lieu of wages, companies donate money to the schools that’s used to cover most of the operating costs. More than 2,000 employers invested upwards of $44 million in 2013–14, lowering the average tuition costs for parents to $1,000 annually. Other features include extended school days and school years and a summer preparatory program that focuses on both academic and work skills. The results are impressive: All 1,400 of Cristo Rey's 2014 graduates were accepted to college, and 90 percent enrolled. Nevertheless, refusing to rest on its laurels, the network’s newest school—Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit—is the first to utilize a blended-learning approach that integrates technology into math, English, Spanish, science, social studies, and even religion. Still in its infancy, the experiment has already...

This study, conducted by economists at the University of Toronto, examines the impact of a comprehensive Canadian academic and social support program for at-risk youth called Pathways to Education. The voluntary program starts with a contract, signed by the youngsters and their and parents, that requires each student to participate in twice-monthly meetings with a “support worker” who helps the children deal with any academic or social issues that arise during their high school careers. Participants must also attend free weekly tutoring and group activities such as sporting events, cooking classes, and community recycling projects. They receive career counseling, college transition assistance, free transportation, and college scholarships up to $4,000. Its beneficiaries, who live in the largest public housing project in Toronto, are asked to participate prior to their ninth-grade year; between 80 and 96 percent of eligible students register. Authors compared outcomes before and after the introduction of the program to outcomes for students who resided in other Toronto public housing projects and also attended Toronto high schools between 2000 and 2007, which comprised roughly 6,900 students. In the end, it works: Pathways to Education puts poor kids on a better life trajectory. Five-year high school graduation rates increased from about 38 to 58 percent, and postsecondary enrollment rates increased by more than 50 percent. The program was expanded to two other sites in 2007, and those sites saw an immediate 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates and a similar increase in post-secondary enrollment. (College graduation data...

Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute teamed up with the London-based Education Foundation to host a conference, “School Leadership: Lessons from England”; to publish a new paper by University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Supovitz and the Center for Policy Research in Education, Building a Lattice for School Leadership: The Top-to-Bottom Rethinking of Leadership Development in England and What It Might Mean for American Education; and to release a short documentary, Leadership Evolving: New Models of Preparing School Heads.

The catalyst for all three was the aggressive reform effort of the English government over the past decade to revamp that country’s approach to school leadership. At the center of the reform is the eminently sensible idea that school leadership needs to be a team endeavor.

No, it’s not a new idea. There’s been plenty of discussion about “distributed leadership” on both sides of the pond for years. But while we’ve mostly jawboned the idea, the Brits got busy doing it.

What they did in particular was clarify and formalize three levels of school leadership, each with distinct roles and responsibilities: headteachers who lead schools (equivalent to the principal’s role in the U.S.), senior leaders or deputy heads who assist the headteacher (similar to the vice principal role in American education, but with additional school-wide responsibilities), and middle leaders responsible for the quality...

President Obama’s contempt for the Constitution, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s unfortunate disregard of that document, have been loudly and justly decried by critics of executive overreach. Less heralded, but equally troubling, is the mission creep of the Office for Civil Rights as it works to reshape the education world and to right whatever alleged wrongs it thinks it sees.

All of these officials and agencies are seeking to accomplish policy goals that they believe are good for America, and I’m not impugning their motives. But they are playing fast and loose with their job descriptions and responsibilities under law.

Much has been written and said about Obama and Duncan. Let’s focus here on OCR. Mike Petrilli has already exposed the folly of the agency’s witch hunt for disparate impact in school discipline and explained the challenges it will pose for educators trying to run schools that are conducive to learning. In the matter of sexual harassment, I and others have written about the ill-conceived substitution of university conduct codes, unreasonable evidentiary standards, and star-chamber procedures for longstanding law-enforcement practices. (This carries more than a whiff of hypocrisy, as those whom the government is “protecting” are the selfsame students who would bridle at any effort to constrain their freedom to have sex, get drunk, and skip class.)

The most recent exercise of mission creep and nanny-statism by OCR, and not yet adequately exposed, involves what the enforcers call “equal access to educational resources.” These include gifted-and-talented programs within schools as well as...

WE DON'T NEED NO STINKIN' DATA
“There shouldn’t be a whole movement out of charters the month before the test,” said NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña last week, implying that some charters are manipulating test scores by pushing struggling students out of their schools prior to testing. Her statements have charter operators and advocates incensed, and many are calling for the chancellor to produce data to substantiate her remarks. “Unless she can back up this statement with facts,” said Jeremiah Kittredge of Families for Excellent Schools, “she should withdraw it.”

WONK ALERT
Teachers are trying out a new way to prepare students for tests through a strategy known as interleaving, or mixing problems and concepts. In studies, students who completed homework in mixed sets performed better on final assessments than those who received traditional “blocked” problems. Psychologists also say students better retain information when they teach to peers. 

DRILLING FOR DEGREES
Amidst multi-year budget cuts to higher education across the country, two states have managed to buck the trend: those profligate spenders Alaska and North Dakota. Flush with newfound petrodollars, both states have sunk millions into their state schools in the hopes of improving job prospects for their citizens. Though Alaska’s spending surge has been more modest, North Dakota has increased per-pupil spending by nearly 40 percent in the last six years.

PROFILE IN COWARDICE
The Hechinger Report has a terrific look at Common Core implementation at Andrew Johnson Elementary School...

LICENSE TO FAIL
The pass rate for teacher-licensing exams is usually about 90 percent. However, only 68 percent of candidates passed New York’s new licensing test, which emphasizes understanding of the new Common Core ELA standards and ability to instruct English language learners and special needs students. This data comes at a time when many argue that teaching licenses are awarded too easily, resulting in too many unprepared teachers in America’s classrooms.

NEW LOOK FOR AFFIRMATIVE ACTION FOES
NPR has a fascinating story on the novel approach taken by an organization militating against prevailing affirmative action policies. The Project for Fair Representation, run by activist Edward Blum, charges that Asian American applicants are disproportionately kept out of elite institutions like Harvard and the University of North Carolina by racial balancing formulae that arbitrarily cap the number of spaces allotted to students of their ethnicity. If true, the allegation would confirm some of the arguments in Ron Unz’s mammoth study of the corruption of Ivy League admissions

TRUTH TO POWER
During a panel with fellow Republican...

John Chubb

[Editor's note: This is the fifth post in our latest blog series by John Chubb, "Building a Better Leader: Lessons from New Principal Leadership Development Programs." See herehere, here, and here for prior posts.]

It's one thing to practice skills in the controlled environment of a residency; it is quite another to practice when you are formally in charge of a school. Each of the alternative leadership programs examined in this blog series recognizes this truth and provides its graduates various kinds of support, sometimes as long as five years. Much as research has demonstrated about teaching—that teachers tend to become more effective over the first four or five years in the classroom—the same is likely true of school leaders: Their first few years in the position may be when the job is mastered (or not). These exemplar programs try to make those early years an additional learning experience.

This is hardly a new idea. Many school systems provide some sort of coaching or...

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