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.

June marked the end of my first year as superintendent of Partnership Schools, a nonprofit school management organization that (thanks to an historic agreement with the Archdiocese of New York) was granted broad authority to manage and operate six K–8 urban Catholic schools. Our work is one part of a nationwide effort to help save urban Catholic education. It’s a mission that has brought together an amazing group of Catholic educators and philanthropists with a common commitment: to let not let this essential element of American education disappear from the communities our schools serve.

The urgency of this work is grounded in the seriousness of the problems our schools face. The Partnership Schools—three in the South Bronx and three in Harlem—have been struggling. Like so many urban Catholic schools subsisting on tuition payments or private philanthropy, our teachers and leaders have been forced to operate on austerity budgets. Salaries have been low. Textbooks have been sorely outdated. Professional development has been thin, and our principals have faced the almost impossible job of juggling tasks ranging from operations to fundraising to parent outreach to managing union grievances—all virtually on their own. They had scant time to serve teachers as instructional leaders...

Last week, Chris Christie announced his candidacy for president. The current governor of New Jersey in one of fourteen Republicans running for the White House—a group that vastly outnumbers the five Democrats in the race. He’s also the subject of the seventeenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Christie has been at New Jersey’s helm since 2010. A lawyer by trade, he’s been a lobbyist, practiced law in private firms, and served as the U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey from 2002 to 2008. In his five years leading the Garden State, he’s made a number of changes to the state’s education system, including expanding charter schools and reforming teacher tenure and evaluation. Here are some of his recent stances on education:

1. Common Core: “It's now been five years since Common Core was adopted, and the truth is that it's simply not working....It has brought only confusion and frustration to our parents and has brought distance between our teachers and the communities where they work....Instead of solving problems in our classrooms, it is creating new ones.” May 2015.

2. School choice: “Students in struggling districts should have...

Passed by the Ohio House and Senate, House Bill 70 sharpens the powers and duties of “academic distress commissions” (ADCs) in Ohio and now awaits the signature of Governor Kasich.

Academic distress commissions were added to state law in 2007 as a way for the state to intervene in districts that consistently fail to meet standards. Two districts (Youngstown and Lorain) currently operate under the auspices of an ADC, but the new bill only applies to the former (as the latter’s commission is too new) and to any future districts which fall into academic distress after the bill’s effective date. Despite being nicknamed the “Youngstown Plan,” HB 70 doesn’t specifically mention Youngstown; on the contrary, it applies statewide and significantly alters the way any ADC—whether already existing or established in the future—is run. Moving forward, a new ADC will be established if a district receives an overall F grade on its state report card for three consecutive years. As for districts already under an ADC (Youngstown and Lorain), the structure of their ADCs will change on the bill’s effective date of compliance.

Let’s examine four of HB 70’s biggest changes...

The intriguing new book This Idea Must Die argues that we’re beset by beliefs that have outlived their usefulness. Some of them pollute our everyday lives (think old wives’ tales). But academic disciplines like physics and medicine are susceptible as well (like the false left/right brain dichotomy).

The book (podcast via Freakonomics) says that a major culprit is the lack of routines for cleaning out our attics. Fields develop by accumulating knowledge. We acquire an accretion of ideas from our predecessors but seldom go back to pressure-test them. The result can be faulty conventional wisdom. In fact, a classic on the history of science (and one of my favorite books), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, explains how orthodoxies sustain via this “development by accumulation.”

Both books demonstrate convincingly how the normal course of learning can perpetuate flawed ideas. But I think both are too charitable in explaining the forces at play and too optimistic about our ability to fix things. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, for example, argues that a revolutionary idea causes the necessary “paradigm shift” (e.g., Copernicus overturning Ptolemy).

In my experience, there’s often a darker reason behind the preservation of bad ideas: fear. Current experts are afraid to fall out of favor...

  • Defined benefit pension packages: Love ‘em if they’re sending you a check each month, hate ‘em if you have to think too hard about their consequences. That’s probably the reason we just don’t give them much consideration (well, part of the reason; they’re also slightly less gripping than you may have been led to believe). Good thing the National Council on Teacher Quality put together an informative, concise fact sheet on the realities of our teacher retirement processes. The short version isn’t pretty—backloaded plans with lengthy vesting periods typically penalize teachers who leave the profession early, enter it late, or move to a different state mid-profession. Their escalating costs are also threatening to overwhelm cash-strapped districts. Painful though it may be, we may have to start dedicating more thought to the subject.
  • The Foundation for Excellence in Education has released a fantastic tool that accomplishes two purposes: explaining what we actually mean when we talk about student “proficiency” and clarifying which jurisdictions actually measure anything close to it. Users can see how students are performing in their states, and whether those states’ reporting practices give a picture that resembles reality—or just an illusion.
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Over the past two weeks, we received fourteen responses to Fordham’s second annual Wonkathon prompt:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

This year’s posts offered a wide-range of oversight models from some of the wonkiest wonks in education reform. But there can only be one Wisest Wonk.

Without further ado, the winner of Fordham’s 2015 Wonkathon is Seth Rau, whose “Nevada should regulate ESAs like brothels” came in with 39 percent of the vote.

Tracey Weinstein’s “Does Nevada’s new ESA law hold promise for kids?” came in second with 17 percent.

And Rabbi A.D. Motzen’s “Why almost universal is not good enough” came in third with 15 percent.

Thanks to all the participants for another great Wonkathon, and congratulations to this year’s Wisest Wonk, Seth Rau! You can re-read the individual responses below or get the short and sweet version from Jason Bedrick’s recap.

 “Nevada needs...

Jason Bedrick

As the Fordham Institute’s education savings account (ESA) Wonkathon comes to a close, I thought it would be useful to summarize the views of the participants to identify areas of consensus and contention. As readers may recall, Fordham’s central question was:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

Inevitably, such summaries will lack the depth and nuance of the complete essays, but I will endeavor to faithfully record what I take to be the main recommendations from each wonk. The following summaries appear in the order that Fordham posted the originals:

Michael Goldstein (Match Education): Nevada needs an “individual, organization, or coalition of champions who take it upon themselves to ensure that their [state] provides excellent school options to all children and families.” This “harbormaster” would recruit high-quality providers to the state and provide parents with good information.

Seth Rau (Nevada Succeeds): Nevada should ensure that all ESA students take NNR tests and track...

It wasn't cool to be a "no-excuses," tough-love teacher for poor minority kids in the 1970s. That was the era of access centered "equity" for one and all, and most educators fretted more about kids struggling in school than about boosting their achievement. So academic standards (to the extent that there were any) were dumbed down, and lots of folks just took for granted the idea that environment was destiny. Kids from tough backgrounds, some thought, couldn't be expected to do all that well in school. 
 
Marva Collins thought otherwise. She believed—and said—that "kids don’t fail. Teachers fail, school systems fail. The people who teach children that they are failures—they are the problem.”
 
Then she put her own money and reputation on the line to prove that it didn't have to be that way. Along with a handful of other education renegades of the era (Jaime Escalante comes immediately to mind), she demonstrated that poor minority kids from inner-city environments could succeed just fine if given the right kinds of expectations, encouragement, and instruction. Today, we have plenty of these "proof points" in programs like KIPP, Achievement First, Success Academy, and many more. Most educators now understand that...

Elsewhere in this issue, you read about the "Youngstown Plan," sharpening the teeth of Ohio’s Academic Distress Commission (ADC) protocols for persistently troubled school districts. While newspaper editors and citizen groups in Youngstown have been calling for something stronger than the existing ADC for a while now, it is a singular moment of opportunity that has facilitated the new plan’s rapid adoption. The re-retirement of former Youngstown Superintendent Connie Hathorn and the instatement of a six-month interim supe is a perfect setup for this transition. Youngstown has been in academic and financial trouble for decades, and the district has been formally under the ADC’s thumb for the past five years, yet the needle of success has barely budged.

Meanwhile, in Ohio’s other current ADC district, Lorain City Schools, a new superintendent was named the same day the Youngstown Plan passed. As the vote concluded, the chair of Lorain’s ADC sounded a warning that the new legislation could also become the “Lorain Plan,” which would include the selection of a new CEO and the creation of a new commission light on local appointees. He’s right: Lorain’s ADC, like Youngstown’s, has struggled mightily to...

I taught fifth grade for many years at P.S. 277, in New York City’s South Bronx. But the school's full name was the Dr. Evelina Lopez-Antonetty Children's Literacy Center. I'd wager heavily there's not a student in that elementary school, or more than two or three adults, who could tell you a single fact about Lopez-Antonetty, whose name is on the door they walk through every morning and whose portrait (last time I looked) hangs in the school auditorium. I always found this odd and irksome. If it's important enough to put someone's name on a public building, it should be important enough to know why.

In the wake of the horrific, racially motivated shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, there have been demands to remove the Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds in Charleston and wherever else it appears. Activists are demanding the removal of statues of Confederate Civil War figures and the rechristening of roads, bridges, and military bases bearing their names. There are nearly two hundred K–12 schools in America named after Confederate leaders, and now the calls have begun to strip the names from those buildings as...

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