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.

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...

  • In the president’s State of the Union address last night, he doubled down on his misguided call for universal community college, even though it has zero chance of passage in the Republican Congress. That wasn’t so surprising. But it was still disappointing that he missed an opportunity to talk about ESEA—one area of education policy where there could be bipartisan consensus. A good example of governing, rather than playing politics, came this morning from Senate HELP committee chairman Lamar Alexander, who held a thoughtful, respectful, and productive hearing about the testing provisions in No Child Left Behind. Alexander expressed his commitment to a bipartisan process and his intention to earn the president’s signature on an ESEA bill. Now that’s more like it. 
  • A recent New Yorker article profiled former Florida governor and possible presidential nominee Jeb Bush, with particular focus on his education reforms in the Sunshine State. The piece quotes bipartisan sources who question Bush’s support of for-profit managers of charter schools, along with conservative voices who lament his backing of the Common Core. What it doesn’t mention clearly enough, however, is the fact that Florida saw huge gains in achievement during Jeb's time (particularly among poor and minority kids), and that tons of studies have shown that his policies have worked. To be sure, the lackluster performance and shady self-dealing of some Florida charter schools are worth examining--the Gadfly has some ideas from Ohio for fixing those problems
  • ...

This new study from the Center for American Progress challenges the ubiquitous and frequently repeated statistic that the new-teacher attrition rate is 50 percent. Pulling from three NCES-sponsored surveys—the 2007–2008 and 2011–2012 Schools and Staffing Surveys and the Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study—the authors instead found that 87 percent of new teachers remained in the profession for at least three years and almost 70 percent stayed for five years or more. Even teachers in high-poverty schools, a subgroup that has traditionally seen higher rates of turnover, were found to have retention rates comparable to their counterparts in low-poverty schools. The uptick in staying power for the teaching profession “may have started before the Great Recession began at the end of 2007 and continued because of it, or it may have started in response to it,” the authors note. Cause for further investigation is large local district-to-district variation, such as in North Carolina, where attrition rates can differ by as much as ten percent. Regardless of the lack of specific identifiers, this trend rectifies the reporting discrepancy between the outdated 50 percent figure and points to a positive trend for retaining highly trained, enthusiastic teachers. Moreover, as TNTP highlights, teachers who spend at least five years in the classroom tend to improve their instructional strategies and are more effective. The authors acknowledge the “narrow focus” of the study; and while we walk away with more questions worthy of investigation, we can, for the time being, revel in the promise...

The massive 2014 protests in Albany led by the nonprofit Families for Excellent schools seemed, at the time, to strike like a bolt from the blue. Thousands of parents and students abruptly converged on the state capital in objection to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to curtail charter expansion, drawing sympathetic press coverage and even gaining the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo. But according to the American Enterprise Institute’s prolific Andrew P. Kelly, the rally bore less resemblance to lightning than electricity. His new paper, examining parental engagement in education reform and touching on public demonstrations in New York, Louisiana, and California, reveals some of the ways in which unfocused energy can be harnessed and channeled into effective, disciplined movements. It’s a critical area of study because public schools, their school boards, and their districts are democratic entities responsive to a gamut of competing constituencies. Social agitators from the time of the abolitionists have all had to learn to convert their missionary zeal into a force capable of mobilizing public support, and the relatively young undertaking of education reform will be no different. Vital groups like Stand for Children and Parents United for Public Schools, often led by educated whites for the primary benefit of disadvantaged minorities, are especially vulnerable to being cast as Astroturf outsiders rather than grassroots activists. To combat this easy delegitimization, successful education reform advocacy organizations (ERAOs) enlist natural leaders among communities of parents and emphasize depth of commitment over a shallow...

A standard argument of those who downplay strong results among children in urban charters is that families who are motivated enough to exercise school choice are simply different, and their kids’ success is nearly preordained. This recent paper out of the National Bureau of Economic Research tests this assumption and studies the causal effect of takeover schools on student achievement in New Orleans’s Recovery School District (RSD). Specifically, it looks not at the impact of charter school admissions lotteries on the performance of kids who apply, but rather at the impact on the kids who don’t make a choice to apply—passive participants who are simply grandfathered into the newly constituted school. The sample includes eleven middle schools in the RSD that were slated for closure (called “legacy schools”) and subject to a full charter takeover, meaning they had all grades converted to a new school in a single academic year, typically in the same building. The comparison group is a group of same-grade students enrolled in schools that are not yet closed who, in the prior grade, went to a school that was similar to the one the legacy school students attended. Schools are “similar” if their performance scores are comparable to the legacy schools’. And students are matched based on race, sex, age, poverty, and other demographics. The “pre-takeover trajectories” of both groups of students are quite similar. They find that attending an RSD takeover charter substantially increases math and ELA scores (roughly .21 and .14 standard deviation, respectively,...

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