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.

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 ...

Chances are, you’ve heard something in the past year about test mania. Everyone from superintendents to parents to retired educators has an opinion; even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested tests and test prep are dominating schools. Given all this attention, one might assume that students spend hundreds of hours each year taking tests—perhaps even more time than they spend actually learning. A recent report from Ohio Schools’ Superintendent Richard Ross paints a very different picture.

The report, required by state law, reveals that Ohio students spend, on average, almost twenty hours taking standardized tests during the school year. (This doesn’t include teacher-designed tests, but does include state tests.) Twenty hours is a good chunk of time, but when one considers that the school year in Ohio is about 1,080 hours total (it varies by district and grade level), that means testing only takes up about 2 percent of the year. (Report results show that students spend approximately fifteen additional hours practicing for tests, but this additional time only raises the total percentage to 3 percent).

Regardless of this small percentage, critics of standardized testing make some valid points. No one wants quality, in-depth learning to be pushed aside for superficial test prep, and a strong accountability system doesn’t have to mean a test-saturated system. That’s why Superintendent Ross’s report is so beneficial: While it reinforces testing’s role in monitoring and improving student achievement, it also makes recommendations for limiting the time spent taking and...

John Chubb

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

This week I summarize what policymakers can learn from alternative leadership development models—and how these programs, and others like them, can be improved upon.

1. States should measure the added value of school principals and of leadership development programs. For all of the commonalities among the exemplar programs examined here, the evidence is a long way from definitive. It is merely the best that can be gleaned from the data now available. Leadership programs could—and should—do a much better job of tracking their graduates to improve their own offerings. But a proper analysis of principal effectiveness requires achievement data and background information on individual students and teachers in the schools that new principals lead. The states make the rules for what data school districts report and what indicators are derived from those data. Leadership programs cannot estimate the effectiveness of their graduates without state cooperation.

Policymakers should therefore require state departments of education to begin estimating the added value that principals bring to their schools. Policymakers should also require public school principals to report where they received their certification and training. This would allow states to estimate not only the effectiveness of each principal, but the effectiveness of the institution or program that trained them. States are already making these calculations for teachers and...

In spring 2013, Ohio policymakers approved a two-year, $250 million investment aimed at spurring innovation in public schools. Known as the Straight A Fund, this competitive grant program has since catalyzed sixty new projects throughout the state, many of which are joint ventures between schools, vocational centers, ESCs, colleges, and businesses.

As a member of the grant advisory committee, I gained a firsthand view of the exciting projects happening around the state, everything from “fab labs” (a computer center outfitted with computer-aided drawing software and 3-D printers), outdoor greenhouses, and robotics workshops. Those who are interested in these projects should plan to attend this conference in Columbus on February 5.

In the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers should continue to invest in innovation by reauthorizing the Straight A Fund. At the same time, the legislature should also consider a few alterations that could give an even stronger boost to the most innovative project ideas. The suggestions are as follows:

Remove the cost-reduction mandate.

A small provision in the Straight A legislation required grantees to show “verifiable, credible, and permanent” cost reductions that would result from the grant. As a result, applications were evaluated significantly on the cost-reduction criteria. (You can read applications online here.) Although well-intended, this provision created two problems:

First, applicants clearly struggled to quantify the cost reductions attributable to their project proposals. In some of the applications, the proposals made half-baked or underwhelming cost-reduction claims. For example, some described how a...

If you could redesign a city’s education system from scratch, what would it look like? In New Orleans, a terrible tragedy created the need to do just that. Today, education in the city bears very little resemblance to what existed ten years ago. School types, locations, information systems, and application processes are now almost entirely market-driven to give parents the information they need and the schools they want. The unprecedented landscape change in New Orleans has also given rise to a unique opportunity to study school choice in “revealed preferences”: what schools parents actually choose, and not just what they claim to want in a survey, when they must make a choice. The new report from Education Research Alliance for New Orleans compares choice data from immediately pre-Katrina with data collected two different years post-Katrina, as additional information and options settled into place over time. First the good news: After Katrina, the lowest-income families had greater access to schools with high test scores, average test scores increased across all students in the city, and even school bus transportation systems expanded (there’s no choice if you can’t get there). However, very-low-income families were less likely to choose schools with high test scores—even when those schools are easier to access than in a typical district system. But this is not entirely bad news; it is important, useful, and potentially game-changing for choice advocates.  The New Orleans study shows that a number of non-academic considerations (bus transportation, afterschool care, etc.) were not...

GOING PRIVATE
History and journalism teacher David Cutler writes a compelling piece in The Atlantic about the divide between public and private school educators. Questioning the animosity that often surrounds teachers of private school students, he calls for educators from all types of schools—charter, public, private, home—to come together and share best practices. 

OLD ENOUGH TO TEETHE, OLD ENOUGH TO READ
Early literacy efforts are critical for the developing child, and a new initiative based in California and Alabama has enlisted doctors to help parents speak and read to their kids. Researchers at the University of California will examine results of the program to determine its success. This comes in light of a recent (Fordham-reviewed!) study that found a similar program using text messages to remind parents to engage in more early literacy activities to be successful.

SHELDON SILVER COULD NOT BE REACHED FOR COMMENT
As expected, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a new plan to reform New York’s educational system in his State of the State address yesterday. Specifically, he wants to increase the number of charter schools in New York City and require schools to service a set portion of poor and disadvantaged kids. And in a big move for any Democratic governor, Cuomo is supporting a scholarship-tax-credit program, already supported in the state by many Republican senators.

TEACHER, GRADE THYSELF
In Wisconsin, a new approach to teacher assessments could set a helpful example for other states. In...

Editor’s note: This is the seventh 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 herehereherehere, here, and here.

It takes enormous conviction to take on longstanding arrangements. We remember great reformers—Dr. King, Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony—as much for the certainty behind their zeal as for their deeds.

As David Brooks wrote about revolutionaries like Mandela and Lincoln, they believe in “objective and eternally true standards of justice,” follow them faithfully, and are indignant when they’re violated.

Zealots of all types, whether virtuous or not, attract like-minded, like-constituted followers. But the reform leader has a particular need for devoted comrades. He’s picking a fight with the establishment, and he needs folks who’ve got his back.

Consonance in views and disposition has benefits. It displays a united front, allows for consistent messaging, and engenders an esprit de corps.

But when a group is of one opinion and convinced of the righteousness of its cause, virtues can distort into vices. Unified becomes monolithic; principled becomes doctrinaire; daring becomes rash; confident becomes unrepentant; progressive becomes unrestrained.

Accordingly, opponents can actually aid reformers. They can serve as a ballast helping to ground the reformer, serving as a moderating influence on his proclivity for excess. A reasonable opponent helps reveal the location...

Editor's note: This testimony was presented at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions onFixing No Child Left Behind: Testing and Accountability on January, 21, 2015. It additionally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Next.

Chairman Alexander, Senator Murray, Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. I would like to begin by congratulating the committee on putting the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at the top of its legislative agenda for the 114th Congress. Nothing is more important to our nation’s future than ensuring that we provide all children with the opportunity to reach their full academic potential. Congress cannot do that on its own, but it can help by addressing the very real shortcomings of the most recent reauthorization, No Child Left Behind, and restoring the predictability with respect to federal policy that state and local officials need to carry out their work.

As you move forward with this important work, however, I would urge you not to lose sight of the positive aspects of No Child Left Behind. Above all, the law’s requirement that students be tested annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school has provided parents, teachers, and other citizens with detailed information about students’ performance in these foundational subjects – and therefore the extent to which they have mastered skills that are prerequisites for other educational goals. This information has called...

UNSTATED
President Obama’s State of the Union address last night was a brassy, wide-ranging expression of liberalism (it also answered the prayers of listeners nationwide by lasting less than an hour). But nowhere in the speech did the president broach the topic of testing and No Child Left Behind. A political move? Mike and Mike discuss.

SAME SPEECH, DIFFERENT CAPITOL
If last night’s excitement somehow didn’t sate your appetite for policy laundry lists translated into turgid, focus-grouped rhetoric, be sure to check out New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address in Albany tonight. The word is that Cuomo will use the occasion to lay out a pro-reform agenda that might include lifting the cap on New York City charter schools.

DEPARTMENT OF WOODEN SHOES
The Hechinger Report has a thoughtful look at education in the Netherlands, where an intriguing bargain has been struck between schools and the government: Children there spend a greater amount of time in class (some two-hundred days a year, or nearly a month more than the average school year in the United States), and in exchange, teachers and principals are granted far more authority over class size, curriculum, and every other conceivable detail of student life.

STUDENT-PRINCIPALING
Education Week’s Arianna Prothero offers a look at the much-feted KIPP principal-training program. The charter network’s Fisher Fellows are instructed in how to found and lead schools, with a special emphasis on the...

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