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.

Ah, January is upon us: The wind is howling, the thermometer is plummeting, and we are greeted by the nineteenth consecutive edition of Quality Counts, Education Week’s compilation of mostly useful data, analysis, rankings and commentaries.

The single best thing about QC is its focus on states, not just because it enables state leaders to view external gauges of their own performance and compare it with other states, but also—especially valuable today—because it reminds everyone that states remain the central players in matters of K–12 education quality. (So many have obsessed for so long about federal stuff and Common Core—itself a state initiative—that it’s easy, especially inside the Beltway, to lose focus.)

The analysts and authors of QC keep fussing with the variables, metrics and weightings by which they grade state performance. This year, once again, those variables are sorted into three buckets, two of which have to do with processes, practices, and inputs. Some of the latter (e.g., parents’ education) is completely beyond state control, and some is based on questionable assumptions about how much is enough (and whether more is better) when it comes to education spending. Only the achievement bucket focuses on outcomes. Along the way, some issues of key interest to education reformers—most conspicuously school accountability, teacher quality, and choice—have vanished from the QC calculus.

One helpful bit: If you don’t like their weightings within the variables, you can fiddle with them yourself and...

SAT WORDS: NOW WITH MORE COOING
Researchers from the Thirty Million Words project are setting out to educate (brand) new mothers on the importance of parent interactions from day one. Pulling from the famous 1995 Hart and Risley study, which found that children from working-class families hear an average of thirty million more words by the age of four than those of “welfare” families, the team is hoping that early interventions will encourage new parents to read and talk to their newborns at every opportunity. Hear, hear, says Robert Pondiscio, who has argued that it pays to increase one’s word power.

MORE ON READING
A new report by Scholastic found that less than one-third of children interviewed between the ages of six and seventeen read for fun on a daily basis. Being read aloud to, restricted digital time, and free time to read at school were all top factors among those who reported regularly reading for pleasure. Literacy experts say parents should continue to read aloud to their children throughout elementary school to build higher-level vocabulary and develop interdisciplinary background knowledge. But Michael Petrilli would argue that as long as kids are gaining knowledge, a little screen time doesn’t hurt.

BABES IN TECHLAND
Digital learning has carved out a permanent place for itself in the classroom. A new piece in Education Week explores how the tools of online education are being...

Debate begins today on H.R. 30, a bill to tweak Obamacare so that large employers need not provide insurance for their staff unless they work forty hours per week, versus thirty hours under current law. The rationale is clear: The thirty-hour rule appears to be encouraging employers to cut workers’ hours, which is driving down income at a time when many part-timers are already struggling to make ends meet.

It got me thinking: How many school districts would be required to provide health insurance to their teachers under the proposed standard? Of course, virtually everywhere, such benefits are already baked into state law and/or local contracts for teachers, so this is just a thought exercise. And yes, most teachers work longer than is contractually required—both on site and at home. But so do professionals in other fields. The current debate made me curious about the mandatory workweek of the nation’s teachers.

To find out, I tapped the National Council on Teacher Quality’s fantastic Teacher Contract Database, which pulls information from collective-bargaining agreements (or their equivalents in non-union states) from more than one hundred districts nationwide. (Most of the data are current as of the 2013–14 school year.)

What did I learn? Most of the districts in the database don’t require a forty-hour workweek, and several don’t even come close. Let’s be honest, some of these workweeks are shockingly short. Sacramento’s barely hits the current Obamacare threshold!

Take a look for yourself at the range from the shortest to longest...

ESEA reauthorization explained in a single table

Once upon a time (OK, it was 2007), we D.C. policy wonks were gearing up for a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act (a.k.a. No Child Left Behind), and all the buzz was about the new federal requirements that would be added. Checker and I dubbed it “No Idea Left Behind.”

What a difference eight years makes. As Politico reported last week, with Republicans fully in charge of Capitol Hill, the only question this time around is how much Congress will subtract. Call it No Red Pen Left Behind.

Below is my take on the major ESEA provisions that are dead for sure, those that will survive, and the handful of policies that will animate the coming debate. [1]

[1] To be clear, some of the provisions listed here aren't in ESEA proper. Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation fund were created as part of the 2009 stimulus bill; the administration dreamed up the requirements that states adopt teacher-evaluation systems and "college- and career-ready standards" as part of its conditional ESEA waivers. The administration would, no doubt, like to fold all of these into a new ESEA. I doubt that's going to happen....

Jack Schneider

Editor's note: This post is the sixth entry of a multi-part series of interviews featuring Fordham's own Andy Smarick and Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Week's K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric blog. Earlier entries can be found hereherehere, hereand here.

Schneider: In our previous post, you implied—through one of your fictional stories—that research could be used in the courts to establish particular policy positions, and I'd like to follow up on that.

I'm perpetually frustrated by the fact that, for every complex issue, there is competing research to cite. It's a real dilemma for which I don't really see a solution. Maybe we can talk through this a bit.

Smarick: I actually see the vast majority of research as complementary, not competing. 

Studies on the same subject often ask different questions, use different data sets, and have different methodologies. So if you only read the titles, you might think two reports are in conflict; but once you get into the details, you see that they paint a fuller picture of some issue when taken together. Let me give you just one very simple example. 

Some research shows that early-childhood programming can help disadvantaged kids show up for kindergarten much better prepared to learn. Other research shows that some of these programs aren't effective and that, in lots of cases, the benefits of pre-K can wear off somewhere down the line (say, when...

RANK CONFUSION
The Education Department unveiled its new college ranking system designed to keep higher education institutions accountable for performance on “key indicators.” The administration will look at factors such as expansion of college access to disadvantaged groups, net price and available scholarships, and graduation rates. University presidents and chancellors, however, say the rating system does a poor job of measuring metrics that truly matter, such as relationships with professors and campus culture.

EASY GRADERS
Governor Cuomo continues to anger New York teachers unions with his reform agenda. Cuomo expressed his desire to expand charters and alter teacher dismissal procedures in a letter to John King, New York’s outgoing education commissioner. The governor specifically took issue with the fact that recent teacher assessments classified only 1 percent of the state’s teachers as ineffective.

TIP #1: DON’T DISCLOSE THE DETAILS OF ANY UNSOLVED CRIMES
Just in time for all those last-minute revisions at the December 31 deadline, the Answer Sheet blog has a useful guide to aceing your college application essay. Among their expert pointers: Stick to a clear message, don’t get too cheeky, and abide by word limits. Notably, they offer no guidance on whether to compose your heartfelt work in Comic Sans.

WEEKEND LONG READ
While savoring your Sunday cantaloupe, take some time to enjoy the latest entry of “A Promise to Renew,” the Hechinger Report’s epic, award-winning series on Newark’s Quitman Street Renew School. In turnaround since 2012,...

Just in time for Christmas, my Fordham colleague Mike Petrilli has left a present under the tree for inquisitive children and busy parents who don’t think the sky will fall if the kids get a little screen time now and again (it won’t).

Over the course of a year’s blog posts, and with the help of several able Fordham interns, Mike curated some of the best streaming web videos on Netflix, Amazon, and elsewhere. He then aligned them with the Core Knowledge Sequence, a robust list of subjects from pre-K to eighth grade that undergirds the curriculum at some of the nation’s most successful schools. These have now been repackaged into a neat little website he’s calling “Netflix Academy.” Homeschoolers for whom Core Knowledge is a subject of near-religious devotion will also be grateful for this resource. 

You’ll find videos on science, literature, and U.S. and world history. Click on “Science,” for example, and you’ll see a drop-down menu organized by knowledge domains (aquatic life, mammals, insects, outer space, etc.). Within each domain are direct links to streaming videos from Netflix, National Geographic, PBS, YouTube, and others sources. You’ll also find movie versions of classic children’s book and lots more. It’s entertainment with high caloric content.

“As E.D. Hirsch Jr. has argued for a quarter-century, the early elementary years are the ideal time to introduce children to the wonders of history (natural and otherwise), geography, literature, art, music, and more,” Mike writes.

I heartily agree....

EGGHEADS IN ONE BASKET
For high schoolers with their eyes set on the Ivy League, piling on extracurriculars, volunteer hours, and APs may seem like a necessary evil. These days, the competition to get through the eye of the admissions needle is nearly insurmountable, and many of the brightest, most overscheduled kids are being waitlisted. A recent article has some advice for these young hopefuls: Instead of spending all your time juggling, put your energy into one master project. In other words, now would be a good time to unearth those plans to start a nonprofit sending iPads to Sudan.

NOW IF YOU'LL EXCUSE ME, I NEED TO GO SEE A MAN ABOUT A CAMPAIGN JET
In a statement earlier this week, Scott Walker walked back some of his strong opposition to the Common Core. The Wisconsin governor went from supporting a repeal-and-replace agenda to allowing schools that might wish to use standards to continue doing so. Furthermore, in response to Jeb Bush’s presidential non-announcement, Walker claimed that he would not let the former Florida governor’s decision affect his own and that he would like to “do more with education reform, entitlement reform, and tax reform,” while serving the people of Wisconsin.

ORDER WITHOUT CASUALTIES
NPR has a terrific, granular look at one school’s application of what is being called “restorative justice.” The approach seeks to minimize the use of suspensions and expulsions as a punishment for disruptive behavior—punishments that have been...

Jack Schneider

Editor's note: This post is the fifth entry of a multi-part series of interviews featuring Fordham's own Andy Smarick and Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Week's K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric blog. Earlier entries can be found herehere, here, and here.

Smarick: For several decades some education advocates (including teachers’ unions), after failing to win in legislatures, have successfully used state courts to achieve one of their top priorities: increasing K–12 funding. In a historical twist, some in the reform community, unable to win in legislatures, are now using state courts to overturn tenure rules.

Regardless of your views on any specific policy matter, what do you think of the general strategy of using courts instead of the elected branches to achieve K–12 policy goals? More specifically, what do you think of the Vergara decision, which overturned California's laws on seniority and tenure?

Schneider: It's a good question. Because this is an issue around which there's a lot of philosophical yoga. Liberals and conservatives alike bend themselves into all kinds of positions—advocating judicial restraint and judicial activism—depending on whether they like the outcome of a case.

Frankly, I see no problem with using the courts if the elected branches fail to act. The desegregation cases of the 1950s and 1960s are a great example of this. States and school districts were in violation of the law, and the courts—the Supreme Court as well as lower courts—stepped in to...

  • Will an end to the annual testing mandates be the defining feature of a reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act? Education Week’s Alyson Klein reports a draft bill circulating among Senate GOP aides would leave testing schedules up to the states—no more mandatory reading and math tests in grades 3–8. Someone should remind the GOP that annual testing made clear that every student in every grade matters. Oh, wait. We did that.
  • They won’t have John King to kick around anymore. New York’s education chief is stepping down to become a senior adviser to Arne Duncan. More than “inspirational,” the adjective “embattled” had become a more common frozen epithet attached to King, who presided over the rollout of Common Core and pushed for strong teacher evaluations. In doing so, he ran afoul of the state’s teachers unions and anti-reform activists, who accused him of not listening even while jeering and shouting down the dignified King at series of public forums last year. He will be missed. 
  • ProPublica ran a piece blowing the whistle on “sweeps contracts,” wherein non-profit charter schools funnel nearly all their public dollars into the coffers of for-profit management companies. Potentially alarming, but This Week in Education blogger Alexander Russo rightly noted the ProPublica piece offered no clue on just how widespread the practice is. “A NACSA staffer tells me that there's no national data but that these situations aren't rare,” Russo writes.

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