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.

I’ve spent the week doing the task that every father hopes to do one day: take his daughter on a 1,200 mile road trip to look at colleges. In tandem with walking impressive college campuses, I’ve had the chance to read Kevin Carey’s new book, The End of College. In my latest column for U.S. News, I look at the “University of Everywhere” experience that Carey pushes and I myself experienced. But while I understand the impulse behind the “end of college,” I also see college as an end in itself.

From the piece:

For some, especially the intellectually nimble and motivated, the University of Everywhere will be a low-cost academic godsend and something approaching a true meritocracy. But I’m less confident than Carey that any other than truly marginal colleges will be replaced by Udacity, massive open online courses, and “open badges” that employers can inspect to determine the value of your coursework in molecular biology.

The bottom line: When my daughter is ready for college in just a few years, I want her at a traditional school. And I bet when Carey’s four-year-old is ready for college, he’ll want that too.

  • The Columbia Journalism Review ran a good takedown by Alexander Russo of some unconscionably lazy reporting from the national media on the political controversy surrounding the rollout of Common Core-aligned tests. Esteemed outlets like the Washington Post, PBS NewsHour, and the New York Times have made a rampaging giant of the anti-standards pygmy, forecasting a nationwide revolt against PARCC exams that just hasn’t materialized. Hey, we get it: Conflict moves more newspapers (or, uh, pixels) than consensus. And those parents and teachers irresponsibly keeping kids from participating in the assessments absolutely deserve to be called out. But let’s try have a sense of proportion.
  • Amazingly, though, the opt-out movement isn’t the most overblown education nonstory in recent memory. That dishonor belongs to the absurd Pearson kerfuffle. Some parents had a cow this week over the news that the testing company monitors social media for potential security breaches (if a student shares exam materials over the web, it could compromise assessments across the country and, by extension, the vital school-level information we glean from them). But this is an industry-wide best practice—companies are trawling through publicly available data for instances of very real cheating, not installing listening devices in our cheese. The whole episode makes you wonder: If these anxious parents are so concerned about their kids’ privacy, why do they let them have Twitter accounts? And do they not understand the concept of “social” media?
  • In an apparent instance of an April Fool’s gag
  • ...

The National Conference of State Legislatures has put together a nice primer on accountability for private school choice programs. Twenty-three states, one Colorado district, and the District of Columbia presently have such programs, including “traditional” tuition vouchers, education savings accounts, scholarship tax credits, and personal tax credits or deductions. Accountability requirements for schools participating in such programs vary widely. Most states require: 1) a measure of school quality (whether via student assessment data or outside accreditation), 2) determination of financial strength and sustainability, and 3) meeting minimum seat-time requirements. Once private schools are permitted to accept voucher students and public dollars begin to flow, the range of accountability measures—and the consequences of failing to meet them—broadens. Programs differ by the tests they require participating students to take (the same state assessments as their public school peers or tests of the schools’ own choosing), how and to whom test results are reported, whether outside accreditation can substitute for testing, and the level and timing of sanctions related to low performance. NCSL’s report provides an overview of the varying ways that these accountability measures function in Louisiana, Indiana, and Wisconsin. As we concluded in Fordham’s private school choice policy toolkit last year, “private schools must maintain their autonomy and the qualities that make them worth choosing,” but a “sound balance” is needed between that autonomy and the need for taxpayers to know that their education dollars are being spent on “bona fide educational achievement.” NCSL’s report provides helpful context for state...

A new study published in the American Education Research Journal asks, “What Works in Gifted Education?” Five gifted education and curriculum researchers assess the impact of differentiated English language arts units on gifted third graders. The units—one on poetry and one on research—“reflect more advanced, complex, and abstract concepts,” as well as concepts normally introduced in the fourth and fifth grades. Analysts explain that “even advanced learners vary in their readiness levels, interests and preferred learning profile and learn best when these differences are accommodated.” (Differentiated instruction can be broadly conceived as modifying at least one of three key elements of curriculum: content, process, and product. The evaluated units primarily focus on the former.)

Researchers randomly assigned gifted classrooms to treatment and comparison conditions such that roughly 1,200 students from eighty-five gifted classrooms across eleven states participated in year one of the study, one thousand in year two, and seven hundred in year three (though the number of classrooms and states changed each year). The three years (2009–2012) comprised the three cohorts. All classes were pre-assessed using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills so that they could control for prior achievement, which is important because schools use different methods to identify gifted children. Authors also measured fidelity of implementation and found it to be moderate to high (teachers had access to webinars to explain how to teach the unit).

The results showed significant increases favoring the treatment group for every cohort/year combination. And whether students were in a pull-out or self-contained gifted...

Here’s the top-line takeaway from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes’s (CREDO) comprehensive Urban Charter Schools Report, which is meant to measure the effectiveness of these schools of choice: For low-income urban families, charter schools are making a significant difference. Period.

CREDO looked at charter schools in forty-one urban areas between school years 2006–07 and 2011–12. Compared to traditional public schools in the same areas, charters collectively provide “significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading”—the equivalent of forty days of additional learning per year in math and twenty-eight additional days in reading. As a group, urban charters have been particularly good for black, Hispanic, and English language learner (ELL) subpopulations. Indeed, putting the word “urban” before the phrase “charter school” is becoming somewhat redundant. As Sara Mead recently pointed out, urban students comprise only a quarter of students nationally, but more than half (56 percent) of those enrolled in charters. Thus, perhaps the most encouraging finding in the study is that the learning gains associated with urban charter schools seem to be accelerating. In the 2008–09 school year, CREDO found charter attendance producing an average of twenty-nine additional days of learning for students in math and twenty-four additional days of learning in reading. By 2011–12, it was fifty-eight additional days of math and forty-one of reading.

Not all that glitters is gold, of course. There’s no inherent magic to the word “charter” on the front door of a school. The relative success of urban...

There used to be a wry and mildly provocative blog called “Stuff White People Like.” Briefly popular in its heyday, it was described by the New Republic as a “piquant satire of white liberal cultural mores and hypocrisies.” The site’s creator stopped updating it a few years back after landing a book deal. But if it were still active, “opting out of tests” might have been right up there with craft beer, farmers’ markets, NPR, and Wes Anderson movies on that list of mores. Maybe hypocrisies, too.

A list compiled by the teachers’ union in New Jersey, where PARCC testing began earlier this month, claims that there have been more than thirty-five thousand test refusals statewide. On the order of one million young New Jerseyans are supposed to take the test, yet the state data documenting how many of them opted out won’t be available for at least a month. An informal analysis of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)’s list, however, shows that the highest numbers of test refusals are concentrated in communities that are affluent, left-leaning, and heavily white. 

A blue state with a Republican governor, New Jersey features a mix of affluent suburbs and pockets of deep and persistent urban poverty, including closely watched education reform hubs like Newark and Camden. Thus, the Garden State offers an interesting lens through which to view both the prerogatives and the politics of opting out and education reform. Assuming that the list compiled by the union...

Unless Grover (Russ) Whitehurst was truly weary of leading the Brookings Institution’s widely respected Brown Center on Education Policy, only demented think-tank hierarchs would have let him exit that role. But the want ads make clear that they’ve done so.

What a shame. Though the Center dates back to 1992 and has always produced one or two valuable studies per year (including the fine series of annual reports authored and orchestrated primarily by Tom Loveless), it didn’t really take off until Russ left government and took its helm in 2009.

Since then, he and Tom and their small team of brainy people have emerged not just as varsity players in the education-policy think-tank league, but also as major contributors to serious scholarship about nearly every consequential issue that roils the K–12 waters. No doubt about it, they have policy preferences and viewpoints, but they’ve also been straight shooters about what is actually known, relentlessly crunching numbers and then translating the research into trenchant, comprehensible, digestible information for policymakers, practitioners, and fellow scholars. They host terrific events, produce an outstanding weekly “chalkboard” report, and have published a shelf of valuable studies. (Sixty-one items turn up on the Center’s “research and commentary” listing for just the past year.)

As everybody in the education world knows, Russ preceded his tenure at the Brown Center by serving—for seven long years—as founding director of the Education Department’s Institute for Education Sciences (IES), a much-improved version of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) that I...

Was Phil Jackson really a great coach? Despite his reputation as the Zen master of hoops, I’ve never been convinced. After all, Kobe, Shaq, and His Airness would have made any coach look like a genius, and there’s never been a natural experiment quantifying Jackson’s impact.

Inside the classroom, a similar question lingers. In a recent study of district evaluation systems, Grover Whitehurst, Matthew Chingos, and Katharine Lindquist found that teachers with high-performing students were far more likely to be rated highly by observers than those with low-performing students. Moreover, this pattern was not the result of better teachers being matched with better students. Rather, observers were biased towards teachers with higher-performing students—the Phil Jacksons of the teaching world.

As the authors of the study make clear, eliminating this bias by adjusting for student background characteristics is relatively straightforward. So why aren’t we doing this already? A few weeks ago, Luke Kohlmoos of the Tennessee Department of Education argued against such adjustments, suggesting they were a “disservice to students and teachers” that would take us back to the bad old days of lower expectations for black and brown students. According to Kohlmoos, if we “systematize” lower expectations through classroom observations, teachers and students will stoop to meet them.

Obviously, we don’t want “lower expectations” for teachers or students, but when it comes to adjusting observation scores, it’s worth asking how those expectations are communicated and whether they are really “lower” in any meaningful sense.

Start with teachers: Why...

Editor's note: This post has been updated with the full text of "Don't know much about history."

Pop quiz! Try to answer the following questions without Googling: What is one right or freedom named in the First Amendment? We elect a U.S. senator for how many years? Who is the governor of your state? Easy, right? Here’s a tougher one: How much confidence do you have in your fellow citizens who cannot answer these questions as voters and participants in our democracy?

These are among the hundred questions about history, civics, and government on the U.S. citizenship test, which immigrants must pass as part of the naturalization process. It’s not a particularly challenging exam. Would-be citizens are asked up to ten of the questions; a mere six correct is a passing score.

In January, Arizona and North Dakota became the first two states to make passing this test a high school graduation requirement; South Dakota and Utah have followed suit this month. Similar bills have been introduced in more than a dozen other states.  

“I would submit that a minimal understanding of American civics is of real value and therefore worthy of measurement,” said Arizona State Senator Steve Yarbrough. I agree. Even in our test-mad era, requiring a rock bottom, minimal knowledge of basic civics shouldn’t be too heavy a lift.

Even though a mediocre elementary education should enable you to pass the test with relative ease, making the test a graduation requirement is not the no-brainer common sense might...

Thank you Chairman Cupp, Ranking Member Phillips and members of the House Finance Subcommittee on Primary and Secondary Education for giving me the opportunity to present testimony on House Bill 64. My name is Chad Aldis, and I am the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

In general, we are supportive of most of Governor Kasich’s proposed education changes. Some of the provisions that we believe are critically important include:

  • Taking tangible steps to reduce the amount of standardized/state testing without weakening our state accountability system
  • Providing regulatory relief to schools
  • Moving toward reducing the impact of caps and guarantees in the state funding formula, as they distort the needs of districts and build funding inefficiencies into the system
  • Opening the door (and providing funding) for schools to experiment with competency-based/mastery learning
  • Strengthening the EdChoice voucher program
  • Improving Ohio’s charter school sector

To expound a little bit on the charter reforms: Fordham has spent a significant amount of time over the past year looking at Ohio’s charter school sector and has sponsored national experts to study the state’s charter schools. With that research in mind, we believe that some of the provisions proposed by Governor Kasich are critically important, and we encourage the House to include the following:

  • Requiring all charter sponsors to be approved by the Ohio Department of Education
  • Improving the ability of ODE to take action against low-performing sponsors
  • Allowing ODE to factor school quality into the equation when deciding
  • ...

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