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.

SIZE MATTERS
Tom Vander Ark at Real Clear Education weighs in on new research showing that smaller high schools may yield serious educational rewards. Among other positive effects, the new MDRC study concludes that New York’s small high schools have helped boost graduation rates among low-income students over the past decade. For the last word on the costs and benefits of small schools of choice, read Fordham’s own Amber Northern, who reviewed the study for this week’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE
First he ran an ad touting his efforts to slow down the progress of Common Core in New York. Now Governor Andrew Cuomo—a center-left Democrat in a comfortably blue state, with a healthy lead over his election opponent—has completed his long-rumored transformation into a besuited chicken, protesting that he had “nothing to do with Common Core” in last night’s gubernatorial debate.

IF ONLY SAM COOKE WERE ALIVE TODAY
In the first installment of a new series celebrating the classroom totems of yesteryear, NPR has put together a quick read that finally explains what a slide rule is for.

TARHEELED AND FEATHERED
An extensive investigation into academic practices at the University of North Carolina has uncovered nearly two decades of academic fraud, the Washington Post reports. From 1994 to 2011, over 3,000 students, including a significant portion of student-athletes, took part in a so-called “shadow curriculum” that inflated grades and lowered standards for...

KidsOhio.org, a highly respected education-policy group based in Columbus, released a fact sheet today on the schools that are eligible for a “parent trigger” intervention. Twenty schools in Columbus City School District have been identified, on the basis of falling within the bottom 5 percent in the state in student achievement for three consecutive years. In layman’s terms, these schools have enormous and persistent struggles with low student achievement.

The parent-trigger law, only applicable to Columbus district schools, permits four different interventions—from charter-school conversion to contracting with non-district entities to operate the school. The trigger is contingent on 50 percent of the school’s parents or guardians petitioning the school board for the change. As my colleague has pointed out, several issues muddy our judgment on whether parents and policymakers should actually use a trigger-based intervention.

But regardless of whether or not the parent-trigger is used, this group of schools—especially those with lower value-added scores—need to improve significantly. So one of the interesting things on the fact sheet was the hyperlinks to each school’s “improvement plan.”

But these “plans” can only be described as anywhere from meager to pathetic. Here is one example, from Mifflin Middle School’s improvement plan, rated D in performance index and F in value-added—a truly struggling school. (Note, I’ve looked at all twenty of the “improvement plans”; they all are generally of this quality—some slightly better, some worse.)

These are Mifflin’s “school goals”:

  • Focus on trust and communication, with an overarching commitment
  • ...

Trying to understand how education spending is influencing our education priorities is like looking through murky water, notes this report from the Data Quality Campaign: “[I]t is evident something is there, but it is not exactly clear what.” For example, education leaders need to know whether investments in interventions have an impact, whether schools with high numbers of special-needs students are receiving the resources to which they are entitled, and whether dollars spent on teacher development have led to improvements. Without a clear picture of education spending, there is little to inform decision-makers. The report proposes several solutions. First, states should find new ways to make financial data more accurate and transparent for stakeholders. This starts with changes in data collection, including a shift to a common system of financial information record-keeping across states. Second, raw financial data should be translated for use in public reports, including information that connects education dollars to outcomes. The report also encourages states to create a forum for district leaders to share best practices and learn from one another. To illustrate DQC’s proposed reforms, consider this process with funding for special-needs students: Districts could use financial data to tie how much extra funding is given to special-needs students and what services and equipment they receive. If we had this information for each district, we could begin to identify best practices and apply them across the state and beyond. These reforms require a fundamentally different system than the one currently in place, but this change...

2014 marks the first year that minority students are projected to surpass their white counterparts in public school enrollment. And nearly one in four students in American schools speak a language other than English at home. Currently, these students, categorized as “dual language learners” (DLLs), are shuffled through a four-part “reclassification” process: a screening assessment, English proficiency support services (such as vocabulary interventions), reassessment, and follow-up monitoring. Such models are mandated by the ESEA, so all states comply in one way or another—but the lack of interstate consensus on exactly how to comply has led to a “chaotic” system, says analyst Conor Williams. There are three issues: (1) local control over which of the four currently available English language proficiency assessments they administer; (2) a lack of consensus regarding when a DLL is proficient and ready for mainstream English instruction; and (3) uncertainty about how to prepare educators and create appropriate DLL instruction. By failing to coordinate reclassification policies, DLLs, who are more likely than other student subgroups to move from state to state, fall further behind their peers academically or lose their precious bilingualism—an asset schools should be nurturing, not silencing. Williams’ proposed solution? A unified set of standards, much like the Common Core State Standards, that align with current research on language acquisition timelines and encourage instruction in both native languages and English. Some states, like Minnesota, are already in the process of revamping their English Language Learner policies. And while successful implementation will...

Frank McCourt, the memoirist and legendary English teacher at New York’s Stuyvesant High School, was once challenged by a student who asked what possible use a particular work of literature would have in his life. “You will read it for the same reason your parents waste their money on your piano lessons,” McCourt replied tartly, “so you won’t be a boring little shite the rest of your life.” Perhaps schools should collect Boring Little Shite (BLS) data and report it alongside AYP and FRPM. Jay Greene seems to be working on it. A data hawk and acerbic defender of school choice and vouchers, Greene might have been voted least likely to give a damn about the arts before his surprising 2013 study linking field trips to art museums to a range of desirable outcomes, including critical thinking and empathy. He’s at it again in the current issue of Education Next with an interesting study on the effects of taking students to see live theatre, including improved grasp of the play, vocabulary, empathy, and tolerance. Greene and his co-authors make much of these enhancements over a control group who only read the plays or saw film versions. But the good effects aren’t entirely surprising. Attention is the first, most important key to learning. It stands to reason that the novel experience of attending a live performance will capture students’ attention of a play in a way that more familiar modes (watching a movie, reading) do not. Likewise, repeated exposure to vocabulary,...

This new MRDC study examines the relative costs of approximately 200 small New York City public high schools that were created between 2002 and 2008. These schools serve mostly disadvantaged kids and are located in buildings where larger high schools with low levels of achievement had been closed. Earlier and recent randomized evaluations have found that attending a small school increased graduation rates by roughly 9 percentage points compared to other NYC public high schools. This new study asks how it cost to achieve that improvement. Analysts use five years of school-expenditure data for roughly 8,500 students who were first-time ninth graders in 2005 and 2006; they represent 84 of the 123 original set of small schools—the same sample used to estimate effects on five-year graduation rates. First, analysts examine per-pupil operating costs for the small schools compared to all other district high schools (including actual individual teacher salaries) and find that they are higher, likely because small schools can’t take advantage of economies of scale. Yet when they look into the relative cost of the intervention itself, based on its earlier demonstrated impact on graduation rates, they find two things: (1) expenditures during each of the first four years of high school are not statistically different for students in small schools versus those in other city high schools; (2) yet expenditures dropped for the small-schools cohorts because fewer of them needed a fifth year of high school (they were more likely to graduate in four years)....

SHORT-TIME PRINCIPALS
Yesterday’s Late Bell highlighted NPR’s review of the brief tenure of many urban superintendents. But high turnover rates plague principals as well, as Chalkbeat Colorado reports. Of Denver’s 185 schools, thirty-four have seen at least two changes in principals over the last six years. The lack of continuity disrupts learning and hampers the implementation of new policies and standards. 

DUNCAN MAKES THE CASE FOR PRESCHOOL
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is making a big push for universal preschool, saying the time to debate the issue is over and the time to implement early education is here. At a recent speech in Los Angeles, Duncan urged lawmakers to increase budgeting for early childhood programs by as much as $350 million.

ELECTION SPOTLIGHT: ILLINOIS
The educational philosophies of the gubernatorial candidates in Illinois, who take the stage for their final debate next Monday, could not be more at odds. Democratic Governor Pat Quinn wants a three-year moratorium on charter schools, while his Republican challenger, businessman Bruce Rauner, has donated generously in support of the movement.

CHARTERS: NOT JUST FOR CITIES ANYMORE
The upcoming midterm elections may prove instrumental for the eight states (Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia), that have historically prohibited charter schools. Most of the states have large rural populations, a...

[Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of personal reflections on the current state of education reform and contemporary conservatism by Andy Smarick, a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  The previous posts in this series can be seen hereherehere, here, and here.]

Andy’s odyssey: Part six

The greatest friction between contemporary education reform and conservatism is the former’s obsession with “new” and the latter’s deep skepticism of it.

This conflict has its roots in the very different worldviews of progressives and conservatives. Those on the political right generally seek to preserve, believing that longstanding practices, policies, and institutions possess the wisdom of ages. They have evolved and grown robust. In Yuval Levin’s words, they “developed through years of trial and error and adapted to their circumstances.” They possess stores of social capital that facilitate the healthy functioning of society.

Progressives generally seek to dramatically change, aspiring to uproot society’s injustices and inefficiencies, possessing great faith in our ability to create something new and better from scratch. This frame of mind among America’s political left is clear and consistent.

Thomas Paine famously wrote in Common Sense of “our power to begin the world over again.” The FDR museum celebrates how the former president “fundamentally changed the role of the federal government in the...

CUOMO SLOW-WALKING COMMON CORE
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reelection campaign has been tough on his Republican opponent, and now it’s training its sights on Common Core: In a new ad, Cuomo vows to hold off on using Common Core test results for evaluation purposes for at least five years. Of course, by that time, he’ll have already lost a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, so there will be no worries about backlash. 

REVOLVING DOOR FOR URBAN SUPERINTENDENTS
The departure of Los Angeles public schools chief John Deasy sheds light on the high turnover rate of urban school district superintendents. A tenure of three and a half years is about average, though experts argue it takes at least four years for superintendents to begin making a long-lasting impact.

FORDHAM CINEMA CLUB
Real Clear Education showcases First Generation, a new film documenting the lives of first-generation college students. These students often face difficulties during the admission process and have little knowledge of how to navigate student loan applications. Research shows, however, that almost all college graduates see a return on their investments, earning upwards of $1 million more over a lifetime than those with just a high school diploma.

SHOP CLASS AS FINAL CREDIT
In what could be a major step forward for the revival of Career and Technical Education, the New York State Board of Regents...

On September 19, teachers in the Columbus suburb of Reynoldsburg went out on strike for the first time since 1978. They started the school year without a contract in place, and neither two-party negotiations nor third-party mediation led to a breakthrough.

The initial contract offer from the district included a couple of notions that were thought by outside commentators to be problematic, including performance-based pay for teachers and the elimination of health care coverage in favor of a cash payment that teachers could use to buy their own coverage. As divisive as those issues could have been, they were actually pretty well hammered out before the walkout. The sticking point turned out to be a hard cap on class sizes.

With little movement on either side on this issue—and after dueling unfair labor practice charges were filed—the strike began. Day One was rough, but by the end of the first full week the feared “spillover” effects of the strike were not seen at Friday night’s big football game. But those Day One stories moved one district parent to sue to close the schools for the duration of the strike, citing concerns for student safety.

However, the Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge receiving the expedited case had a trick up his sleeve. Rather than ruling immediately, he ordered all parties into mandatory mediation behind closed doors and under a gag order. So what was the trick? While the judge...

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