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.

Nearly half of all new teachers will quit within five years, and countless studies demonstrate the detrimental financial and academic effects of such turnover. To retain high-quality teachers, schools need to build opportunities for educators to speak up and collaborate with peers. In Pathways to Teacher Leadership, former superintendent Marya Levenson proposes three avenues that make this possible. Road one is Instructional. Groups of teachers meet regularly to collaborate on curriculum and lesson plans, confidentially discuss frustrations and dilemmas, and ask questions both as individual teachers and as part of the school’s instructional community. The second is Institutional, in which teachers adopt administrative responsibilities, bridging the gap between principals and classrooms by facilitating school-wide reforms and discussion groups. Last is Policy. Teachers assume leadership roles and tackle ed-policy issues by joining networks or nonprofits, such as Teach Plus, that encourage educators to share their views. Teachers may choose one route over another based on time commitments, comfort with administrative duties, or desired outcomes. The important part is pushing past the “collective plateau,” a place where educators feel professionally stagnant. And this model, says Levenson, applies to early- and second-stage teachers alike. It’s a vision of teacher leadership that has the potential to mitigate the turnover crisis and shape passionate, constructively engaged, and effective educators.

SOURCE: Marya R. Levenson, Pathways to Teacher Leadership: Emerging Models, Changing Roles. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2014....

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Education-policy wonks should take a long look at The Long Shadow, a book based on a twenty-five-year study by Johns Hopkins University researchers. Following 790 Baltimore first-graders in 1982 until their late twenties, this book offers a rich research account of what policy analysts across fields have long tried to figure out: How can low-income children rise out of poverty and into the middle class? The sobering answer is they don’t. Kids born into poor families grew up to be poor themselves. Nearly half of the children in the study had the same income status as their parents; and only thirty-three children of families in the lowest-income bracket moved to a high-income bracket by their twenties. The education picture isn’t any sunnier. A mere 4 percent of those from low-income families had a college degree at twenty-eight (compared to 45 percent of their higher-income peers). The long shadow of poverty stretches further for African Americans: 40 percent of blacks who dropped out of high school were now working, compared to 89 percent of white high school dropouts. Women fared worse than men. Black and white women both earned less than their male counterparts, but white women tended to be better off financially with the benefit of marriage or a live-in partner. Black women earned less than white women and were less likely to be in stable relationships. The reading is sobering because the data is stark. Education reformers should take heed that family socio-economic status—at least today—matters more than educational...

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Being an education reformer is often frustrating. No matter how zealously we push an idea or how smart we think it is, sometimes nothing changes. Or—the Common Core is a recent example—we make fast, bold gains at the outset, only to see our efforts watered down, neutered, or repudiated outright. Sure, we take solace in education’s slow, steady improvement. But this, too, frustrates us because kids grow up fast and shouldn’t have to wait for the upgrades they needed yesterday.

The respected education innovator (and inaugural Charter School Hall of Famer) Ted Kolderie sums it up well in his provocative new book:

Trying endlessly to push change into an inert system makes no basic sense. A concept of education policy built on this theory of action does not work; is not practical…Nor does the effort to transform the system radically through political action succeed. It, too, is not practical. A political majority for radical change is almost a contradiction in terms.

Kolderie knows the reform struggles of the last thirty years as well as anybody, and The Split Screen Strategy: Improvement + Innovation does a fantastic job of showing the limitations of these faulty assumptions and naïve dreams.

Take charter schools, which have underperformed and proven unnecessarily contentious. Part of the problem is that their advocates early on lost sight of chartering’s original purpose:...

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Many of our recent ed-reforms—e.g. Teach for America, alternative certification, the Hamilton Project, and various “new teacher” projects—implicitly subscribe to the idea that great teachers are born, not made. Ed schools, too, largely consider “training” teachers to be beneath their dignity. Hence the path to instructional excellence is to welcome all sorts of smart people into the classroom via all sorts of entry paths, then weed out those who don’t cut it.

In her new book, Building a Better Teacher, veteran education journalist Elizabeth Green sets out to dismantle this notion.

If she’s right and the reformers are wrong it would be good news, for then we could devise purposeful strategies for improving classroom instruction at scale—and not subject kids to a trial-and-error process of teacher selection. This possibility makes Building a Better Teacher an important book. Alas, Green offers scant evidence to support the made-not-born thesis. Indeed, her biggest proof point—a lengthy examination of the teaching techniques pioneered by a small cadre of math teachers in Michigan—comes perilously close to undermining the case she sets out to build.

This narrative focuses on the work of Deborah Ball, currently dean of education at the University of Michigan. Back in the day, she was a gifted fifth-grade math teacher at Spartan Village Academy in East Lansing. While still a student at Michigan State (MSU), Ball and a colleague, an equally...

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The New York chapter of the United Federation of Teachers participated in an anti-police brutality rally this past Saturday, prompting the question of what exactly does the union stand for: teachers or a political agenda? Fordham’s vice president of research and coauthor of Fordham’s union-strength study, Amber Northern, explained to Fox viewers why the UFT’s decision to support this rally undermines their chief cause.

As Northern puts it, “the zebra is showing its stripes.” 

I have a complicated relationship with testing. I refuse to pretend that it’s caused no mischief in our schools—narrowing curriculum, encouraging large amounts of ill-conceived test prep, and making school a joyless grind for too many teachers and students alike—but neither can any fair-minded analyst deny that there have been real if modest gains in our present era of test-driven accountability, especially for low-income black and Hispanic children, particularly in the early grades.

What to make, then, of Secretary Duncan’s widely heralded concession that testing is “sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools” and his offer to states of a year-long delay in making test scores part of their evaluation systems?

“There’s wide recognition that annual assessments—those required by federal law—have done much to shine a light on the places and groups of students most in need of help. Yet in too many places, it’s clear that the yardstick has become the focus,” Duncan wrote in a lengthy blog post Thursday.

We at Fordham have been among those pleading for some reasonable flexibility in this area, particularly as new standards and assessments kick in, so the secretary’s message is welcome. Some states don’t want to shift gears, but others crave a breather while curriculum and pedagogy catch up with newly rigorous expectations. (We’ll save for another day an examination of the constitutional aspects of all this, as Duncan’s department evidently will be offering states waivers from conditional waivers, the statutory...

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New York State just released the results of its 2014 statewide math and reading exams—the second year the state purportedly aligned the tests to the Common Core. Compared to 2013, math proficiency rates rose 5 percentage points, but reading was flat. Both friends and foes of the Common Core sought to spin the results to say whether the reform is working, but it’s way too early for such judgments. On the other hand, it’s not too early to investigate out how Eva Moskowitz and her team are getting such incredible results at her Success Academies, which doubled New York City proficiency rates in reading and tripled them in math.

Much is afoot in the Louisiana court battle over the Common Core and aligned exams. Hearings over the last two weeks have brought mixed results for Bobby Jindal. Plaintiffs’ lawyers won’t be able to depose the governor. But the judge rejected the state’s request to throw out parts of the suit, deciding to hear the full merits of the case, and thwarted Jindal’s attempt to use his executive powers to repeal the standards and suspend the PARCC test. Needless to say, the Pelican State’s purely political mess continues. And the man at the helm has no Plan B (except to run for president).

In response to the swelling pushback against the newly revised AP U.S. History Framework, the College Board has released a practice exam, written a letter, and vowed to “clarify” the...

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We know that disadvantaged children tend to enter Kindergarten behind their more advantaged peers in math and reading—and that they rarely catch up. But which socioeconomic factors correlate most with these gaps? And have these factors improved over time? Analysts looked at data compiled by NCES’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010-2011 (ECLS-K:2011), which is currently following a representative sample of 15,000 students through fifth grade. The cohort’s Kindergarten readiness (or, actually, lack thereof) was strongly linked to four risk factors: having a single parent, having a mother who didn’t graduate high school, living below the federal poverty line, and living in a household where English was not spoken as the first language. (Kindergarten readiness was measured with direct assessments and teacher reports.) Fifty-six percent of children had zero risk factors, 25 percent had one, 13 percent had two, and 6 percent had three or four. The more risk factors a child had, the lower his or her assessment score. What’s more, these rates haven’t improved over time. An earlier iteration of the ECLS followed the Kindergarten class of 1998–99. Back then, 58 percent of kids had zero risk factors—almost exactly the same as the class of 2011. What’s not clear from the study is how to address the lack of progress in Kindergarten readiness, though likely candidates include improving pre-school, promoting the “success sequence,” and alleviating poverty—all of which are easier said than done.

SOURCE: Sara Bernstein, et al., “Kindergartners' Skills at...

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Most reformers know there’s no cure-all for American education. Nevertheless, in The Science and Success of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction, the authors argue that a panacea not only exists but has been around for half a century. The book is a collection of essays about different aspects of “Direct Instruction” (DI), a teaching method developed in the 1960s by Siegfried Engelmann, which holds that clear instruction and eliminating misconceptions can drastically improve and accelerate learning. Part I, “The Scientific Basis of Direct Instruction,” comprises four essays, including one by Engelmann himself about DI’s theory and development. The other three include a summation of studies examining its effectiveness, an explanation of why the results of supportive research have been ignored (it must be noted that a What Works Clearinghouse review found insufficient evidence to determine whether Direct Instruction was an effective method for teaching beginning reading), and a third-party perspective of Engelmann’s long career. The second part, “Translating the Science to Schools,” tackles the practicalities of application. There are essays about efficient DI implementation, how DI fosters good behavior, and possible futures of education with and without the teaching method. Although authors make a good case for Engelmann’s theory by showcasing the plethora of largely ignored, pro-DI research, their insistence that his system is some sort magic elixir hurts their credibility. For example, editor Jean Stockard proclaims, “Engelmann has clearly found the answer to low achievement and to the problems of our schools.” And Shepard Barbash argues that reworking DI programs to...

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Morgan Polikoff

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Nearly all American K–12 students are exposed to it every day. It decides, in large part, what students will learn in school and how they will learn it. It is never evaluated for quality in any serious way, but when it is rigorously evaluated, its impact on student achievement is significant.

No, this isn’t another blog about teachers. I’m talking textbooks. We need good textbooks in front of kids just as badly as we need good teachers. However, from a research and policy perspective, improving textbook quality is a lot easier.

A little-noticed report last week in Education Week described a new initiative intended to be the Consumer Reports of textbooks. A new nonprofit called EdReports plans to post “free online reviews of major textbooks and curricula that purport to be aligned to the Common Core State Standards.” If they’re careful, credible, and diligent, this initiative could turn the lights up on a largely ignored factor in student outcomes that is ripe for analysis and improvement. And it could even blunt some of the more pointed criticisms of the Common Core. Here’s why I think EdReports, textbooks, and other curricular materials, in general, matter:

First, textbooks aren’t people. There is no union seeking to protect the interests of textbooks. They don’t need due

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