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.

The possibility that the 113th Congress might yet reauthorize the Institute for Education Sciences (IES)—the House has passed H.R. 4366 and the Senate HELP Committee is cogitating—means it’s time once again to consider the status of the jewel in the IES crown, namely the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Before this topic elicits a yawn, kindly note that everything you may be trying to accomplish, change, or protect in American education hinges more than you might realize on the integrity of our education-data system, and that this is more vulnerable than you might think. Please do not assume that all is well and will inevitably remain that way.

NCES is today’s version of the first federal education agency, created by Congress in 1867 “for the purpose of collecting such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the several States and Territories….” (For more on the history, see Vance Grant’s excellent four-page summary near the beginning of this useful document.) It was also the second federal statistical agency, eleven more of which followed. Today, NCES is the third largest of them, eclipsed only by Census and Labor Statistics.

The centrality of its role in American education can scarcely be exaggerated. It’s where everybody at every level of policy, analysis, and research goes for data. It’s the home of crucial longitudinal studies. It’s the home of NAEP. It’s the home of almost every education trend line that matters.

It’s not perfect (school-finance data,...

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According to this brief from Third Way, our current teacher pension system is a “rip-off”; furthermore, “no private plan would be allowed to behave this way.” Under federal guidelines set by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, private-sector employees are partially vested in their pensions in three years and fully vested in six years. By contrast, states have the authority to determine their own teacher vesting periods—which can last up to twenty years. Nineteen states “require their teachers to spend at least 10 years in the classroom before they can even vest at the minimum level of their retirement.” With 40 to 50 percent of teachers leaving the profession within five years, most teachers never reap their employers’ contributions, leaving states to eagerly inhale what’s left behind. Another big problem: teachers in twelve states (over 40 percent of the teaching force) work outside of the Social Security system, and no feasible guidelines exist for transferring one pension to another or a pension to Social Security coverage. To reboot the public pension system, the authors propose a mobile “cash-balance” system that would “allow cash flow to be uninterrupted for current and future retirees.”

SOURCE: Tamara Hiler and Lanae Herickson Hatalsky, “Taking Immediate Steps to Provide Teachers with a Secure Retirement,” Social Policy & Politics Program (Washington, DC: Third Way, July 2014).

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A new report by TNTP outlines the main pitfalls of the current teacher-pay system and offers some insightful solutions. The authors explain that teachers’ starting salaries are 25 percent less than in other comparable fields and are stagnant during the first decade of a teacher’s career. What’s more, teachers only receive pay raises in two ways: by climbing another “step” on the salary scale or by earning a more advanced degree. High-performing teachers earn their raises the same way as everyone else: by letting time pass. Since the system encourages mediocrity and there is no incentive to perform well, schools end up retaining vast numbers of average teachers and losing their high performers. The report’s suggested remedy: higher entry-level salaries, raises for performance, and incentives to teach in high-need schools—all while maintaining salaries at 65 percent of per-pupil revenue—and ending automatic raises for advanced degrees and enhanced credentials that have not been shown to improve student outcomes. (Yes, that sounds a lot like D.C.’s IMPACT system, a model that TNTP lauds.) Schools spent an estimated $8.5 billion on raises for teachers due to their obtaining master’s degrees and $250 million on automatic pay increases for ineffective teachers, the report notes. If these funds were redistributed along the lines suggested here, the teacher profession could become more competitive and a more attractive option for high-performing teachers.

SOURCE: TNTP, Shortchanged: The Hidden Costs of Lockstep Teacher Pay (Brooklyn, NY: TNTP, July 2014)....

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The estimable Sara Mead is, as we’ve come to expect, perceptive about what ails today’s preschool options and advocacy campaigns, even as she strives to support (and repair) programs and policies that she knows are flawed. So it is with Head Start, by far the largest early-childhood program in the land, the only really big one that the federal government runs, and one that been in the news lately in part because it’s among the categorical programs that reform-minded Republicans like Congressman Paul Ryan would like to turn over to the states via block-grant funding. Mead wants to change Head Start in major ways but not take it away from Uncle Sam. She remains confident that he’s capable of fixing it and doesn’t have great confidence in the states, though she acknowledges that some state- (and district-) operated preschool programs have stronger results than Head Start and says she would welcome a “pilot program” whereby a few states (after meeting multiple federal requirements!) would gain greater say over their programs.

Setting aside the federalism question and recognizing Mead’s earnest desire to fix Head Start rather than damn its failings, this report still amounts to a devastating critique of those failings in 2014 and of Uncle Sam’s inability so far to set them right.

Mead correctly recalls that Head Start began under LBJ as part of the “war on poverty,” not as a pre-K education program per se. She accurately reports that it was intended to “deliver...

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On August 1, Chester E. “Checker” Finn, Jr., will step down from his role as founding president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, passing the baton to Michael J. Petrilli, Fordham’s longtime executive vice president. Finn will remain on staff as a distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus. Here is his “farewell address” as president.

This short essay cannot begin to say all that deserves to be said about the state of ed-reform in America in 2014, but it gives me an opportunity to do some stocktaking, recount a bit of history, and flag some challenges for the future.

Organizationally, the modern Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Foundation that birthed it have been around for seventeen years, but the reformist zeal and philosophy that it inherited from the Educational Excellence Network carry us back to 1981. Two years before A Nation at Risk, Diane Ravitch and I—and a handful of fellow travelers—had concluded that American K–12 education needed a kick in the pants, a kick toward greater quality, primarily in the form of stronger student learning. (More of that tale can be found on our website here and here.)

That’s thirty-three years ago, before many of today’s ed reformers were even born, and, while Diane has obviously deviated from that path in recent years, I like to think I’ve continued to trudge down it, along with an ever-growing cadre of fellow reformers and—since 1997—with Fordham’s organizational...

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Andy's odyssey: Part one

This is the first of a collection of posts about a recent self-assigned course of study—essentially a bunch of reading and furrowed-brow thinking about a subject that’s been gnawing at me.

This series will be an adventure. Though I’ve got a solid thesis, the rest is a jumble of idea fragments. I haven’t ironed out all of my arguments, I sure don’t know what they all amount to, and I’m still a country mile from recommendations.

But over the years I’ve learned I need to write about stuff before I really understand it and then write some more before I can assemble the pieces. Rather than scribbling and editing in private and then, hopefully, producing some tidy digest when the pondering is through, I’m going to file dispatches from the field.

Here’s the gist. Over the last year, I’ve found myself growing restive about ed-reform developments. Sometimes the feeling was hard to explain—a general unease during conferences or while listening to presentations. Other times, I could pinpoint it. For example, when leaders would profess anger at current conditions and a sense of urgency about change but then defer to longstanding arrangements and urge collaboration with them, or when organizations would boast of their commitment to diversity but show no interest in building politically diverse teams.

For a while, I chalked up my grumpiness to age or the zeitgeist. I’m getting older and more set in my ways. As our field evolves, perhaps it’s inevitable that I...

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Way back in 2000, the United Nations went through an elaborate process of setting “millennium development goals” for the world. To be attained by 2015, these were, of course, entirely laudable—e.g., “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” and “achieve universal primary education”—and they have definitely influenced the priorities of various UN agencies, other governmental and multilateral aid providers, and private philanthropies.

There’s been progress on several fronts—notably a big reduction in the number of people living in extreme poverty and hunger—but none of these goals will have been achieved in full by next year, any more than the “goals 2000” project for American K–12 education met its targets (e.g., “first in the world in math and science”) by the stated end point.

How useful this kind of goal setting is may be debated, but the UN has never looked back. Rather, it’s busily updating its millennium goals for the period after 2015, and its “open working group on sustainable development goals” just held its thirteenth meeting, where it finalized a new list of goals and dispatched these for consideration by the Secretary General and General Assembly. You can find a description of this process here: http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/index.php?menu=1549. You will also see that the United States shared—with Canada and Israel—one of thirty seats on this working group. (Never mind that the U.S. supplies 22 percent of the UN’s budget!)

The proposed new goals number seventeen, more than twice as many as in the last go-round, and 169 “targets” for the...

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When it comes to what constitutes a superb education in America, the general public and teachers have vastly different views, say Peterson, Henderson, and West in this book, a compilation of research reported originally in Education Next. Surveys fielded by over 5,000 teachers and members of the general public (2007–13) conclude that, overall, teachers and the public disagree most on issues pertaining to tenure, pensions, union efficacy, charter schools, school vouchers, and standardized testing. The authors also found that when a member of the general public was informed that their local school district’s national ranking was low, the teacher-public divide deepened. While teacher opinion doesn’t change when given new information, the public grew eager to support universal school vouchers, charter schools, and parent-trigger laws. The book meticulously underscores the striking way in which education is viewed through the scattered, often fluctuating lenses of the general public and solid stance of teachers. In the end, the authors conclude that in education, the public and teachers are more divided than Democrats and Republicans, young and old, rich and poor, and white and disadvantaged minorities. As a teacher—and one who does not consider herself to be “versus the public”—I agree that bridging the divide is key.

SOURCE: Paul E. Peterson, Michael Henderson, and Martin R. West, Teachers versus the Public: What Americans Think about Schools and How to Fix Them (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, April 2014)....

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Yesterday’s big news (regarding ObamaCare’s subsidies in states with federal exchanges) is that the judiciary actually expects the executive branch to pay attention to the clear language of laws passed by the legislature. (Update: At least, the D.C. Circuit does.) That this lesson in Civics 101 is news at all tells you something about the disrespect the Obama administration has shown to our Constitutional system. Congress may be semi-paralyzed, but the White House and the federal agencies still aren’t allowed to write the laws themselves.

Yet that’s exactly what Arne Duncan and his Department of Education continue to do when it comes to their interpretation of the waiver authority in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). He has the right to offer greater flexibility to the states when it comes to the law’s “adequate yearly progress” measures and other parts of its accountability system. What he has no constitutional right to do is dream up new mandates out of thin air and make flexibility contingent upon their embrace by supplicant states.

Let’s follow the example of the D.C. Circuit and examine the clear language of the applicable law. Section 9401 of ESEA plainly states that “the Secretary may waive any statutory or regulatory requirement of this Act” (with some noted exceptions). It says that states should describe, in their waiver requests, “How the waiving of…requirements will increase the quality of instruction for students and improve the academic achievement of students.” But it grants no authority for the Secretary to...

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“In those days…everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Words penned millennia ago couldn’t be more relevant today. In the education-policy world, I sense it in the growing antagonism toward external forms of accountability for schools’ (and their students’) performance. I get it: accountability regimes, particularly of the state-driven sort, can be perceived as harsh, punishing, and damaging to professionalism, local control, and school specialization. Others perceive standards and accountability as impinging upon individual liberties around parental control.

Yet looming behind this unrest is the specter of mediocrity and a lack of urgency among Ohio’s K–12 schools—an environment ultimately ill-suited for student success. The zeitgeist has worked its way into state law, as policymakers have begun to yield to the cries of those who would prefer to be judged by standards of their own preference or design—or none at all. As evidence, consider the proliferation of alternative accountability (and assessment) systems that are cropping up in state policy. Three examples come to mind.

Third-grade reading

Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee—a needed initiative to lift early literacy—has a loophole the size of Texas. Seemingly everyone in the state is aware that third graders are now required to pass the reading portion of the Ohio Achievement Assessment (OAA) or else face grade retention. This is tough stuff on the surface—but wait. In a lesser-known provision, the state has also allowed schools to administer any one of three alternative reading assessments. If a student who has failed...

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