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.

Do the characteristics of a school and its neighborhood affect whether prospective teachers apply to teach there? To answer this question, analysts attended three large job fairs for Chicago Public Schools in Summer 2006 and compiled extensive data on the preferences and demographics of the 4,000 attending applicants, as well as where they lived in relation to the schools in which they expressed interest. Here are four key findings: First, schools with a larger proportion of white or Asian students had more job fair applicants—a 10 percentage point increase in white or Asian students is associated, on average, with four more applicants per school. Similarly, an increase in free-lunch-eligible students of 10 percentage points is associated with four fewer applicants per school per job fair. Second, African American candidates are more likely to apply to schools serving African American populations, and Hispanic candidates are more drawn toward schools serving larger populations of students with limited English proficiency than they are toward schools with a majority of students of other races. Third, applicants with a degree in math or science appear to value student achievement more: they were more likely to apply to schools with larger proportions of kids meeting basic levels of proficiency than other teachers. Fourth, teachers tend to apply to schools close to home. Candidates are 40 percent less likely to apply to a school that is just three miles further from their homes. The analysts close with several recommendations intended to help lure more qualified...

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The K–12 education world brims with debates and dichotomies that get us into all manner of needless quarrels and cul-de-sacs, thus messing up every reform initiative and retarding progress. In every case, both sides are certain that they speak the whole truth; convinced that opposing views are misguided, perhaps even evil; and insistent that changes the system needs will go awry unless their side prevails.

These philosophical tug-of-wars lead to paralysis akin to what we witness today in Congress and many legislatures. Of them we ask, “Why can’t you compromise, split the difference, make a deal, take the best of both positions, and get something done?”

The ten education dichotomies outlined below should be seen in similar light: neither side owns the truth—and what would do kids the greatest good is an intelligent middle ground that melds the best of both views.

Skills vs. Knowledge

Back in 1987, in What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, Diane Ravitch and I tackled a pair of overlapping “false dichotomies”: skills vs. content and concepts vs. facts. They were prevalent in the education profession then and remain front and center today—indeed, are highlighted by the challenges of implementing (and assessing) the Common Core State Standards, which at first look skills-centric but which also make clear that success hinges on the deployment of a rich, sequential, content-focused curriculum. Already influenced by the analysis of E.D. Hirsch Jr. and the cognitive science that he had exhaustively mined, Diane and I wrote, “It is neither possible nor desirable...

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The Obama administration has just released its 2015 budget proposal. Here are its most notable K-12 edu-features.

  • It leads with the “Preschool for All” initiative, a significant investment in pre-K. It’s worth noting that this is at the front of the request. Pre-K is popular, and the administration is seizing on it. The budget also discusses an “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative,” which would cut across several departments; some of these resources would be applicable to this pre-K initiative.
  • The budget reflects the growing use of the term “equity” in the K–12 debate with the new Race to the Top “Equity and Opportunity” program, which is designed to help close the achievement gap. It’s relatively small ($300m) compared to previous RTT programs, and it’s not totally clear how it would work. It appears that the administration wants to “leverage” existing programs, and it too will be supplemented by the “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative.” This does, however, continue the RTT brand and is an indication that the administration wanted to show that it listened to the Equity and Excellence Commission.
  • The administration promotes its “most mature” programs: RTT, i3, SIG, TIF, and Promise Neighborhoods. They don’t mention, however, that TIF was created by the Bush administration or that SIG is failing badly. Regardless, four of these five are competitive grant programs (not formula programs), something the administration evidently wants to be remembered for advancing—and for which it deserves credit.
  • The administration still doesn’t understand that it
  • ...
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“Shoot for the Moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”: this clichéd adage, often found on motivational posters, actually has something worthwhile to say. Sometimes where we set goals determines where we end up, even if the goal is seldom met. A forthcoming American Educational Research Journal study applies this proverbial wisdom to content coverage in Kindergarten. Focusing on math and reading, researchers examine whether replacing “basic” content (content mastered by 50 percent or more of incoming Kindergarten students) with “advanced” content (mastered by less than 50 percent) leads to greater academic gains, as measured by assessments administered in the fall and spring of Kindergarten. The answer? Yes. And this holds regardless of the child’s childcare experiences prior to Kindergarten (i.e., center-based care, Head Start, or “other”). The researchers conclude that lackluster content coverage in Kindergarten helps explain the fading benefits of pre-school. Basically, Kindergarten teachers spend too much time on “basic content” that, by definition, most of the students already know, especially those that attended center-based pre-K programs. Kindergarten is simply too easy. When teachers instead focus more on teaching students advanced content, every student benefits, even students who didn’t attend pre-K. These teachers are shooting for the moon, while the others are only aiming for the clouds. Sounds like it’s time to order more motivational posters for the nation’s Kindergarten classrooms.

SOURCE: Amy Claessens, Mimi Engel, and F. Chris Curran, “Academic Content, Student Learning, and the Persistence of Preschool Effects,” American Educational Research...

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Japanese classroom by Angie Harms

Rationalizing America’s lackluster academic performance is something of a cottage industry. One of the most popular ways people explain away our low test scores is to claim that they don’t matter much anyway. “Let others have the higher test scores. I prefer to bet on the creative, can-do spirit of the American people,” says Diane Ravitch. Or there’s Alfie Kohn’s take: self-disciplined students are “likely conflicted, unhappy, and perhaps less likely to succeed (at least by meaningful criteria) at whatever they’re doing.”

But what if these rationalizations are questionable? Or worse, what if they’re simply bunk? What if super hardworking students in, say, South Korea and Japan are scoring worlds better than us on international tests and are more innovative and happy?

In a sobering twist, that might be the case.

Bloomberg News recently published its 2014 list of the most innovative countries in the world. Seven weighted factors go into the metric.* Here are the top five nations, along with their scores:

  1. South Korea (score: 92.10)
  2. Sweden (score: 90.80)
  3. United States (score: 90.69)
  4. Japan (score: 90.41)
  5. Germany (score: 88.23)

The chart-topper is a real doozy. South Korea—often ridiculed for working its students too hard and robbing them of creative, independent thought—might be the most innovative country in the world. Japan, subject to...

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Ohio is deeply mired in a dropout crisis, with more than 20,000 of its high-school students leaving school each year. A recent analysis found that 112,610 dropouts occurred between 2006 and 2010 in Ohio’s public-school system.

It is absolutely crucial that the Buckeye State address dropouts, with fury. Why? The dropout crisis is a massive waste of human potential and it will eventually strain the state’s public welfare systems. Several economists have examined the consequences of dropping out. Here’s what they’ve found:

  • Lost earnings for dropouts: Cecilia Rouse of Princeton University estimates that over a lifetime high school dropouts earn $260,000 less than those who graduate high school (but complete no further schooling);
  • Lost revenue for governments: Rouse also estimates a $60,000 per dropout loss in state and federal income taxes over a lifetime, compared to someone completing just a high-school diploma and;
  • Increased public expenditures: Jane Waldfogel and her colleagues at Columbia University estimate that America could save as much as $2 billion dollars per year if welfare recipients had graduated high school. Meanwhile, dropouts also have a higher likelihood of incarceration, needing public aid for healthcare, and engaging in criminal activity. These consequences of dropping out increase public expenditures—and increase taxes.  

There is no debate: The costs, both to a dropout and to society writ large, are enormous. What can Ohio policymakers do in response? To deal with the issue over the long-haul, Ohio should aggressively implement the...

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The tough letter that senior House Republicans sent last week to Arne Duncan and Eric Holder should have been even tougher. For the “guidance” that their agencies issued to U.S. schools in the guise of improving school discipline can only make it harder for educators to create safe, serious, and effective learning environments.

Education Committee chairman John Kline and several colleagues politely wrote that this guidance could “have a chilling effect on teachers and school leaders working to address discipline issues with students; potentially leading to unruly and unsafe classrooms that could adversely affect student learning.”

That’s putting it mildly. University of Colorado political scientist Josh Dunn was blunter “The consequences for schools and particularly for minority students,” he wrote, “will be nothing short of disastrous if actually implemented.”

In the increasingly Orwellian language of our federal government, the “supportive school discipline initiative,” a joint undertaking of the Education and Justice Departments, began in mid-2011. Its declared purpose was “to support the use of school discipline practices that foster safe, supportive, and productive learning environments while keeping students in school.”

Sounds great, yes? And there’s no denying that some of the advice the feds proffered for “improving school climate” and establishing effective discipline codes is worth following. The “Guiding Principles” document that emerged from the Education Department alone contains some useful if often self-evident suggestions, such as “train all school staff to apply school discipline policies and practices in a fair and equitable manner.”

And if...

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In the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, Bill Murray relived February 2nd day after day. The Ohio charter-school sector is experiencing its own Groundhog Day moment with every struggle seemingly like the one before—with no end in sight.

Last week, the Toledo Blade brought us news of another charter-school closing. Secor Gardens Academy, which first opened last fall, closed abruptly over the weekend of February 8, sending parents scrambling to find a place to send their children. Maddeningly, the North Central Ohio Education Service Center (NCOESC was characterized in the Blade as defending its own performance as the school’s sponsor.

Yes, this NCOESC is the same one that sponsored two schools infamously closed in October 2013 by State Superintendent Richard Ross for being “an educational travesty.” A couple schools it sponsored, including one with which another sponsor had cut ties due to low performance, closed in December. Meanwhile, the NCOESC has drawn attention for its practice of selling services to schools it sponsors. I’m not sure that this sponsor gets it—but luckily, others are starting to do so.

Fresh off of his comprehensive investigation of the data scandal in Columbus City Schools, Auditor of State Dave Yost announced last week that he plans to take a closer look at charter sponsors, including NCOESC. Yost’s plans currently call for auditing three sponsors (NCOESC, St. Aloysius Orphanage, and Warren County Educational...

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The headline in yesterday’s Columbus Dispatch, “Union leader to be Coleman’s education czar,” certainly got my attention. I suspect I’m not alone.

Given Mayor’s Coleman’s relentless (and praiseworthy) push for education reform over the past 18 months, the appointment of a long-time teacher union official was almost shocking. Teacher unions, after all, have been the primary power brokers in the development of the education system that we are now struggling to reform.

So what’s the mayor thinking?

First, he’s obviously got to respond to the stunning levy defeat in November and the school system’s breathtaking cheating scandal. Choosing a respected educator is a smart way to build bridges and public support. 

Second, even in her official role as union president, Ms. Johnson has proven herself to be open to change. She appears to have played a significant role on the mayor’s education reform commission. For that, she deserves much credit. It would have been easy in those discussions for her to stymie any reform proposal that might negatively impact some of her members, but she didn’t. Instead, she helped the broad coalition of community stakeholders to reach a consensus. The result was a bold report that every commission member signed. It called for bold changes such as empowering school principals with the ability to choose the teachers assigned to their schools and evaluating teachers and principals based upon student success.

As the mayor’s agent in pushing...

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“If the state shackles them [school leaders] with rules and envelops them in mandates even as it cuts their budgets, achievement will inevitably head down, not up.” We penned this sentence three years ago in a report entitled Yearning to Break Free. Though Ohio’s economy—and school funding—is much improved compared to 2011, state lawmakers still haven’t loosened the ties that bind school leaders.

That is why the recent comments by Governor John Kasich grabbed my attention. At the Ohio Newspaper Association convention, Kasich told the audience, “We really need a flexible education system“ and “we need to bring about some deregulation.” Agreed, wholeheartedly— but what does a “flexible” public-school system look like? It hinges on the reform of three policies: licensure, the salary schedule, and collective bargaining. The points that follow outline these policies and where the state should go.

Give schools latitude in hiring

Ohio has raft of regulations related to teacher credentials. They can be found in state law (ORC 3319) and in administrative code (OAC 3301-23 and 3301-24). Generally speaking, the completion of a teacher-prep program and the passage of a standardized exam guarantee licensure. These have proven to be woefully mediocre requirements. Teacher-prep programs will admit practically anyone, regardless of academic accomplishment, and the quality of these programs is spotty at best. Meanwhile, the assessment requirement is worse—something of a joke—as virtually everyone passes it.[1]

Licensure does set a minimal threshold for entering teaching. It surely keeps...

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