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 sudden departure of Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, caught many by surprise—including Starr. That’s a depressing sign of a dysfunctional school board, one whose members failed to signal serious concerns with their superintendent, even as recently as last fall’s school board elections.

If the board has any hope of recruiting a talented new leader for MCPS, among the largest districts in the country with more than 153,000 students, it needs to be crystal-clear about the direction it wants the system to take. As an MCPS parent and incorrigible education reformer, let me offer a few suggestions.

First, MCPS needs to recommit to its core mission: dramatically raising student achievement. As Starr’s struggles with the board burst into public view, he made a last-ditch effort to convince its members, and MCPS’s many ardent constituents, of his commitment to narrowing the achievement gaps between poor and minority students and white and Asian students. I don’t doubt his sincerity. But the achievement gap is measured primarily by test scores, and Starr made his name by speaking out against tests. At the least, he sent a mixed message about his commitment to academic achievement.

It’s not entirely fair to blame him for that. Starr was hired in part because he represented a change in style...

Peter Sipe

I’ve always liked Fridays as much as the next guy, but this year I especially like them: Every Friday, my students and I read an obituary together. If that sounds morbid, let me tell you what I tell the kids: An obituary is the story of a life; death is just the detail that gets it printed.

How do I select the weekly life story we read? I don’t. I have other people do it for me. I’ve been asking folks around town—elected officials, businesspeople, civic leaders, colleagues, and friends—this question: If you could pick one person from the past whom you wish kids would learn about in school, who would it be?

With their introductions, we’ve made the acquaintance of Phyllis Jen, a beloved family doctor, Ruth Batson, a civil rights activist who helped desegregate our schools, and Tom White, a businessman who gave away his riches to the poor. In upcoming weeks, we’ll be reading about a firefighter, a judge, and a rowing coach. And I’ve got lots more in my pile, all marvelously interesting—and inspiring. It’s embarrassing to admit that I’d never heard of most of these people before, but I’m glad to have finally met them. And I’m very pleased to introduce them to my students.

For a teacher, obituaries are useful classroom texts. They offer short history lessons, excellent vocabulary (for example, “ephemeral” and “posterity”), and align well with the new Common Core standards. But the greatest value of the obituaries we read is this:...

Regular followers of Fordham know that, over the past few years, I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about “education for upward mobility,” starting with a series of posts on Deborah Meier’s Bridging Differences blog and culminating in last December’s conference on the subject. Now I’ve got a new essay in Education Next, “How Can Schools Address America’s Marriage Crisis?,” which touches on many of the issues that I’m afraid education reformers have tended (or opted) to overlook.

A consistent theme throughout this work is that we’re too myopically focused on college (and generally on the traditional four-year college degree) as the only route to upward mobility for America’s poor children. I’m ready to concede that it is a pretty darn good pathway, at least for students who actually complete a postsecondary credential. And many of you have helped me to understand that colleges don’t simply “bestow a credential on those most likely to succeed,” as I argued a week ago. There’s some pretty compelling evidence that the college experience itself adds real value, which partly explains the stronger life outcomes for graduates.

What I’m not ready to concede is the larger point: Our focus on college is still too narrow because it overlooks other critically important steps on the ladder to the middle class.

As I explain in Education Next, a more holistic approach would also take seriously what Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution call the...

Joshua Dunn

In “Collective Panic,” Martha Derthick and I argued that teachers’ unions dodged a major blow in Harris v. Quinn (2014) but that they should hold off on popping the champagne.

The court’s decision in Quinn indicated that a prized precedent, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), might soon be overturned. Under Abood, public sector unions could collect “agency fees” from nonmembers, but those funds could not be used for ideological or political purposes. The logic of Abood was that unless public sector unions could collect those funds by compulsion, nonmembers would “free ride” on the collective bargaining efforts of the unions.

Some have always questioned this logic. It’s not free riding if you never wanted the ride. It’s more like being clubbed in the head, tied up, and thrown in the trunk. Regardless, without the ability to punish these potential free riders, union membership would collapse. As Daniel DiSalvo has noted, “In nearly every state that permits agency fees, more than 90 percent of teachers belong to unions. In states that don’t allow agency fees, only 68 percent of teachers are unionized.” Since agency fees cost nearly as much as a full union membership, individuals see little reason not to join the union. Losing Abood would be a “crippling blow” for public sector unions.

In Quinn, Justice Alito argued that Abood created an “anomaly” that at best rested uneasily with First Amendment principles. Because public sector unions are public, all of their bargaining is political. Negotiating with the government means negotiating with taxpayers’ representatives. Thus, it is specious to draw a...

A few weeks ago, I used a graphic to show the four dimensions of federal accountability, each of which has a range of options. I then used this graphic to show the consensus for preserving NCLB testing.

Here I used it to show how eleven major ESEA reauthorization proposals address the other dimensions (remember, minimum federal accountability is on the left; maximum on the right). The total picture is as confusing as subway map.

But when broken down, the graphic reveals three distinct approaches, one of which offers the best chance at reauthorization.

Federal Prescription

Several proposals that appeared in the testing-alone graphic do not appear here because they didn’t take clear positions on the dimensions beyond testing. Of those remaining, four embrace what I call Federal Prescription. Their underlying logic is: If we want states, districts, and schools to get better results, the feds must tell them what to do.

NCLB is current law and represents the most expansive federal role on the table. It mandates and specifies performance targets (100 percent proficiency, Adequate Yearly Progress, etc.); creates mandatory, specified performance categories (“in need of improvement,” “restructuring,” etc.); and spells out the activities required for struggling schools.

The plan offered by House Democrats was similar. It would’ve required states to set performance targets for all students. States would’ve been required to identify “schools in need of support”...

  • In case there was any doubt that you can fool some of the people all of the time: A new Fairleigh Dickinson poll reveals that a great many Americans have no earthly idea what’s actually in the Common Core State Standards—but they hate ‘em anyway. Over half the respondents believed global warming, evolution, and sexual education are included in the standards (they’re not). Almost comically, those who say they are most informed about Common Core are precisely those most likely to be wrong about what the standards actually contain. Thankfully, about four in ten have the honesty to tell pollsters they know nothing about Common Core.
  • Of course, standards are just part of the solution to a big national problem: Way too many high school seniors are graduating without being fully prepared for college or career. Tennessee State Senator Todd Gardenhire has proposed a novel response: legislation that would require the state’s school districts to reimburse recent high school graduates who need remedial classes at the college level. Innovative, but terrible. It’s unrealistic to expect every graduating senior to be ready for college. Students would be better served by college entrance requirements—even for community colleges.
  • What do small rural universities, big Catholic orphanages, and sylvan nature sanctuaries have in common? According to a new ProPublica report, they all somehow authorize charter schools—and not all of them do so competently. The disparate institutions charged with regulating charters are bound by varying
  • ...

According to this Education Resource Strategies report, State Education Agencies (SEAs) possess “a gold mine of untapped material”—vast amounts of school and district data collected annually. This information is currently used for accountability purposes or to inform research and policy, but the report calls for what may be an even more important data deployment to inform local decisions that could potentially help schools make the most of limited resources. For example, Maryville Middle School in Tennessee used value-added performance data on teacher effectiveness to match educator strengths with student needs. The result? Maryville has repeatedly outperformed all other schools in the state on student growth measures

A good example, yet it’s also a fact that raw data alone are not too useful. Helpfully, the report offers several ways in which SEAs can make this information more actionable for local education agencies. They can, for example, create their own analyses providing feedback on allocations of people, time, and money. Such analyses should examine the connection between resources and student achievement so schools and districts can deploy the most effective or relevant resources to the students who need them most.

Besides such sensible (if obvious) recommendations, this report serves to highlight what well-designed data systems can do. If we want to make the most of the resources within our current K–12 systems, data may be the most powerful tool we have.

SOURCE: Stephen Frank and Joseph Trawick-Smith, “Spinning Straw into Gold: How state education agencies can transform their data to improve...

Faced with enormous budgetary shortfalls, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) opted in May 2013 to close forty-seven schools, one of the largest instances of school closures in U.S. history. CPS then set about relocating more than ten thousand displaced students into higher-performing schools for the 2013–14 year. The district called the schools that absorbed the transplanted pupils “welcoming schools.” The policy was supported by research showing that students affected by closure benefit academically if they land in a better school. The welcoming schools were all higher-performing on CPS’s internal measures of performance; they also received additional resources to ease the influx of new students (e.g., pupil safety and instructional supports). So how did the policy play out? According to University of Chicago analysts, 66 percent of displaced students enrolled in their designated “welcoming school” in fall 2013, while 25 percent attended other neighborhood-based CPS schools, 4 percent enrolled in charters and a similar number in magnets. An analysis of student records indicates that distance from home, building safety concerns, and residential mobility were all significant reasons why one-third of the total went somewhere other than their welcoming school. Interesting, to be sure, but the study does not report anything about the academic results for CPS students in their new schools. (Stay tuned for a new Fordham study of how Ohio students fare after closure.) Overall, CPS crafted a reasonable though not perfectly implemented policy for reassigning students to better schools. While few places are apt to shutter schools on...

A new study published in the latest issue of Gifted Education Quarterly examines the long-term impact on young students of skipping a grade (also known as acceleration) on subsequent academic outcomes. Analysts used the National Education Longitudinal Study database (NELS) to begin tracking a representative cohort of eighth-grade students in 1988, then follow them through high school and again two and eight years post-high school (i.e., through 2000). A variety of outcome data were collected, including PSAT, SAT, and ACT scores, students’ GPAs, and college aspirations—as well as college measures, such as the selectivity of the institution, GPA for each college year, and degree attainment. All students who had ever skipped at least one grade prior to eighth grade comprised the acceleration group. Thus, the sample included kids who ranged from age nine to age thirteen while in eighth grade (the mean age was 12.7). Those students were then matched with a set of older, non-accelerated, same-grade peers from NELS based on gender, race, SES, and eighth-grade achievement. The accelerated and non-accelerated groups were nearly identical on these variables.

The study found that accelerated students scored significantly higher on the math sections of the PSAT, SAT, and most of the ACT and earned higher grades in high school. They also took more advanced courses and more often participated in additional educational opportunities. Once in college, they earned higher grades during their second year and overall. (Among the few similarities was that both groups were admitted to similarly selective colleges, and...

The late Don Meredith, beloved color commentator from the glory days of Monday Night Football, liked to break into song when a game hit garbage time, or a big play put the game out of reach. “Turn out the lights!” he would sing in his folksy Texas twang, channeling Willie Nelson. “The party’s over!” Dandy Don’s voice was ringing in my ears as I read a new report from the Educational Testing Service (ETS), America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future. The publication dares to ask out loud how much longer we can thrive as a nation when a vast segment of our society—Americans between sixteen and thirty-four who will be in the workforce for up to fifty more years—“lack the skills required for higher-level employment and meaningful engagement in our democracy.” Seldom have I read a more depressing report.

“Despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous American generation,” writes ETS’s Center for Global Assessment Director Irwin S. Kirch in the report’s preface, “these young adults on average demonstrate relatively weak skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology rich environments compared to their international peers.”

In literacy, U.S. millennials outscore only their peers in Italy and Spain among the twenty-two countries in the report. In numeracy, they rank last. Our best-educated millennials—those with a master’s or research degree—are outperformed by the same cohort in every nation other than Ireland, Poland, and Spain. And it’s...

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