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.

America’s educational shortcomings are not limited to disadvantaged kids. Far from it, as Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann explain in this recently released Education Next/PEPG study. Looking at the NAEP scores in every U.S. state and the PISA results of all thirty-four OECD countries, Hanushek et al. compared the math proficiency rates of students by parental education level: low (neither parent has a high school diploma), moderate (at least one parent has a high school diploma, but neither has a college degree), and high (at least one parent has a college degree). The results, from an American perspective, were pretty grim at every level. Overall, 35 percent of U.S. students are proficient in math, placing us twenty-seventh. For the most disadvantaged students, things are actually a bit rosier: we rank twentieth. The whopper, however, is the comparative proficiency of our most advantaged students: they fall in at a dismal twenty-eighth place—worse than the country’s overall rank. In other words, advantaged U.S. students appear to be doing comparatively worse internationally than students with less-educated parents. This is the opposite of what many low-score apologists—and suburban parents—would like you to believe. (Try explaining that with poverty.) Fortunately, there’s a little bit of state-level good news. Advantaged students from Massachusetts, for example, rank just outside the top five internationally, with a 62 percent proficiency rate. And disadvantaged students in Texas have a 28 percent proficiency rate, placing them seventh internationally. For the country, however, the picture is decidedly distressing....

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Last week, I participated in two events that challenged my ideas on one of urban education’s trickiest and most combustible issues.

Those who know only a caricatured version of my views might be surprised by both the subject and those who’ve caused my ruminations. But I wrestled with this issue in my book, and while I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my interlocutors of last week, they have valuable insights into this issue.

I’m writing about it here both because it’s important and because, frankly, I need help figuring out the right answer.

The question is, “How do we protect the ‘public’ in public education?”

On Wednesday, I participated in this discussion at the AFT’s Shanker Institute. At a conference the following day, I moderated a conversation between urban school leaders, and similar issues kept bubbling up.

There are many ways to define a school’s “public-ness” (Rick Hess expertly unbundles the issues here). But the aspect I’m most concerned about relates to governance, whether the public—the adults in the geographic area served by the system of schools—is able to shape the contours of the system.

The very specific issue I’m interested in is how this can happen absent locally elected school boards.

Per state constitutions, ensuring a system of public education is the responsibility of state governments. They, however, have created local school districts and boards, thereby delegating K–12 authority...

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There’s been much talk lately about whether college is for everyone. And there’s always much talk about teacher preparation and pay. Let’s combine these issues and look at them through a specific lens: money.

Consider Bob, who just graduated high school and is torn between two career paths. His father is a proud mechanic who wants Bob to learn the skill and join him on the job. His mother is a schoolteacher, and part of him has always wanted to go to college and follow in her footsteps. What should Bob do?

Ignoring all other considerations, let’s see how the financials shake out.

First, let’s clarify our assumptions.[1About half of the country’s 3.8 million teachers hold only a bachelor’s degree, and the policy of providing automatic pay raises for obtaining master’s degrees may be on the way out. Let’s look at the lifetime earnings of public-school teachers with bachelor’s degrees, and let’s compare this figure with that of high school graduates who have never stepped foot inside a college classroom, whom I’ll call “non-college-goers.”

Measures usually define “lifetime earnings” as one’s aggregate earnings between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-four, including pensions. So step one is determining how much people in either situation earn between the start of their working careers and the age of twenty-five. Estimating a median annual salary of...

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In creating a new Course and Exam Description for the revamped Advanced Placement US History test (coming in the 2014–15 academic year), the College Board’s writers faced a notable challenge. On the one hand, any such guide must seek to specify essential knowledge and concepts that will be covered on the AP exam. On the other, it needs to be compatible with any and all state standards (from the ludicrously vague to the solidly specific), any local guidelines, and teachers’ own individual plans. The College Board explicitly denies any intention of imposing detailed course standards or curricula. Yet the AP exam is uniform across the nation and must judge all students against a single assessment standard; the Board must, therefore, lay out the core material for which all tested students are responsible. Such a document straddles a difficult line: specifying core content without dictating curricula.

How do you help teachers prepare students for the AP exam, while recognizing that you can’t specify curriculum in the process and that the very best teachers, the ones you most want teaching AP classes, do not want to be told exactly what to teach? The key mission of the document is to make clear to such teachers what areas may appear on the test, coordinating a single national exam with variable state standards and myriad individual classes. But how do you lay out the areas for which students will be responsible without laying out the key specifics that such questions may depend upon?...

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Something unsavory is underway at the Department of Education and in the world of preschool zealotry. They seem to be merging—and in so doing, they risk the integrity of our education-data system.

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, my longtime mentor, was renowned for declaring (among other things), “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

Well, in the matter of preschool statistics, it appears you’re not going to be able to tell the difference.

Worse, you’re going to begin to wonder whether you can trust the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to obtain its data from impartial sources of facts rather than hotbeds of passionate advocacy.

This was an issue a dozen years back when economist Michael Podgursky (and others) pointed out that NCES was getting its teacher-salary data from the unions—and publishing those numbers as reliable facts, which they may or may not have been. (Podgursky noted, for example, that they certainly didn’t take account of many noncash benefits that teachers also derive from their employment, such as shorter work years.)

NCES has since gathered its own data on teacher compensation (or relied on trustworthy government agencies, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics), as it should.

But in the preschool realm, NCES has done something worse than it did with the salary data. It has not only outsourced the number gathering to a prominent interest group in the field but also allowed that interest group to add its own...

For families seeking more than what their child’s assigned school offers, “school choice” has long been a cherished solution. And it’s made strong headway on the U.S. education-policy front. Millions of girls and boys now enjoy access to a range of educational options thanks to innovative school-choice policies.

Sometimes, however, changing schools isn’t the optimal solution—perhaps because no better options are available within a reasonable commute, because the state doesn’t have a viable choice policy, or because the student’s present school is satisfactory in all but a couple of areas. Enter “course choice,” a strategy for widening the education options available to youngsters. As a new white paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argues, it has the potential to dramatically expand access to high-quality courses for many more children from many more backgrounds and locales than we have thus far managed.

Rather than asking kids in need of a better shake to change homes, forsake their friends, or take long bus rides, course choice enables them to learn from the best teachers in the state or nation while staying in their neighborhood schools. It grants them access to an array of course offerings that no one school can realistically gather under its roof, while offering a new revenue opportunity for schools and additional income for public-school teachers. How many Sal Khans are in our schools today just waiting for an opportunity to expand their...

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After twenty years of expanding school-choice options, state leaders, educators, and families have a new tool: course choice, a strategy for students to learn from unconventional providers that might range from top-tier universities or innovative community colleges to local employers, labs, or hospitals.

In Expanding the Education Universe: A Fifty-State Strategy for Course Choice, Fordham’s Michael Brickman outlines policy questions and options to weigh when designing course-choice programs, including issues of student eligibility, course providers, funding, quality control, and accountability.

Spotlight: Course Choice in Louisiana

Louisiana is not the only state with a course-choice program (others include Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin), but it is the farthest along in making such options widely accessible—and the way it has handled any challenges posed by these programs make it an ideal exemplar. Read about barriers that State Superintendent John White and other leaders have had to overcome in designing and implementing course choice.

Download the report: Expanding the Education Universe: A Fifty-State Strategy for Course Choice

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Building upon kindred analyses in FY 2003 and 2007, this magnum opus from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas examines charter funding across the land in fiscal 2011 and finds that per-pupil charter revenues fall drastically short of what their surrounding districts take in. We learn that U.S. charter schools, on average, received 28 percent less than comparable districts. Unfortunately for Ohio’s 100,000-plus charter students, the Buckeye State’s charter-funding disparity is almost as bad as the national average: 22 percent less than districts. Worse yet, that shortfall is considerably larger in Cleveland and Dayton (the two cities in Ohio where the researchers did a deep dive analysis) than the statewide average. Cleveland’s charter schools received 46 percent less than district schools, Dayton’s charters 40 percent. (The per-pupil revenue for Cleveland’s charters was $8,523 versus $15,784 for the district, and the per-pupil revenue for Dayton’s charters was $8,892 versus $14,732 for the district.) Given the long history of dreadful achievement by those two urban school systems, it’s shameful that the principal alternatives available to needy youngsters in those cities are so egregiously underfunded.

What’s the explanation? As in many states, Ohio charter schools do not have access to local revenue streams or facilities funding. (That dual problem continues, save for a few schools in Cleveland.) Although Ohio has changed its school-funding system since these data were gathered, the new formula produces similar revenue amounts for charter schools and would likely reveal similar...

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The digital revolution is sweeping across Ohio. This year, twenty-six e-schools, twelve of which serve students throughout the state, will educate 40,000 or so youngsters. Countless more students will learn in a “blended” classroom or take an online course at their brick-and-mortar school.

One emerging use of technology is to help secondary students recover credit.  At first glance, the flexibility of online learning seems to be tailor-made for students who, for whatever reason, are in dire need of credit recovery. But in her recent Education Next article, journalist Sarah Carr documents a few of the flies in the ointment when it comes to this nascent, computer-based approach to credit recovery.

First, the data and research about online credit-recovery are simply far “too incomplete.” According to an AIR analyst with whom Carr spoke, “Even basic questions are unanswered, like the size of the business [i.e., online learning providers] and the size of the need.” Second, she finds that there is practically no way to determine the quality of an online course provider. In fact, Carr described a New Orleans school where the principal ditched one provider because its courses failed to engage her students and the quizzes were mostly recycled until the student passed them. Lacking an external quality-control authority, the vetting of online courses remains the duty of local educators. Third, Carr provides a few examples of how credit-recovery can be misused and abused. She cites a New York City incident in which administrators pushed failing...

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The digital revolution is sweeping across Ohio. This year, twenty-six e-schools, twelve of which serve students throughout the state, will educate 40,000 or so youngsters. Countless more students will learn in a “blended” classroom or take an online course at their brick-and-mortar school.

One emerging use of technology is to help secondary students recover credit.  At first glance, the flexibility of online learning seems to be tailor-made for students who, for whatever reason, are in dire need of credit recovery. But in her recent Education Next article, journalist Sarah Carr documents a few of the flies in the ointment when it comes to this nascent, computer-based approach to credit recovery.

First, the data and research about online credit-recovery are simply far “too incomplete.” According to an AIR analyst with whom Carr spoke, “Even basic questions are unanswered, like the size of the business [i.e., online learning providers] and the size of the need.” Second, she finds that there is practically no way to determine the quality of an online course provider. In fact, Carr described a New Orleans school where the principal ditched one provider because its courses failed to engage her students and the quizzes were mostly recycled until the student passed them. Lacking an external quality-control authority, the vetting of online courses remains the duty of local educators. Third, Carr provides a few examples of how credit-recovery can be misused and abused. She cites a New York City incident in which administrators pushed failing...

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