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.

Kim Davis, the Rowan (Kentucky) County clerk, is in the spotlight this week for ignoring a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples seeking to wed. She claims that doing so would violate her Christian faith and her religious liberties. On Tuesday, she added that she was acting “under God’s authority.”

You don’t have to be a Constitutional scholar to know that her legal argument has no merit. As a public official, she took an oath to follow the rule of law. If she believes that doing so would conflict with her religious beliefs, then she should do the honorable thing and resign.

This episode goes far beyond the gay marriage debate, though. It brings to mind another class of public employees: educators. Must they always follow the rule of law—even when it conflicts with their personal beliefs, religious or otherwise? In a system that is overly rule-bound, bureaucratic, and politicized, where is the line between “cage busting” and law breaking? And does it matter that they are government employees instead of elected officials?

Sometimes the answers are clear and straightforward. For instance: Public school science teachers should teach what’s in...

A new analysis from Matthew A. Kraft at Brown University links the characteristics of laid-off teachers to changes in student achievement. The analysis was conducted in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), which laid off just over a thousand teachers as a result of the Great Recession in 2009 and 2010. Since North Carolina is one of five states where collective bargaining is illegal, a discretionary layoff policy was used rather than the more common “last-hired, first-fired” (sometimes referred to as LIFO—last in, first out) method. CMS identified candidates for layoffs based on five general criteria: duplicative positions, enrollment trends, job performance, job qualifications, and length of service.

Kraft estimates the effects of these layoffs on student achievement by using both principal observation scores (which directly informed layoffs) and value-added scores (which were not used to make layoff decisions). This enabled him to compare the impact of a teacher layoff based on subjective and objective measures of effectiveness. The good news for CMS students is that, overall, laid-off teachers received lower observation scores from principals and had lower value-added scores in math and reading compared to their counterparts who weren’t laid off. Kraft found that math achievement in grades that lost an...

  • As traditionalist gift givers are no doubt aware, the tenth anniversary metal is tin. Last week, with a slew of ten-year retrospectives and events commemorating the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, a longtime reform critic traded in her responsible commentator’s hat for one of those nifty ones made from tin foil. Business journalist Andrea Gabor, who has spent years grinding an axe against school choice and high standards, attempted to bury it in the back of the New York Times with a breathless op-ed decrying the “myth” of the post-hurricane New Orleans schools revival. The Seventy Four quickly published a rebuttal of the simple factual inaccuracies in Gabor’s piece, and reform-friendly superintendent John White wrote a paean to the city’s charter district and the educators who work there. But the best response has come from liberal pundit Jonathan Chait, who defended high-achieving charters as “one of the most impressive triumphs of American social policy.” New Orleans still hasn’t completely turned around a school system that was irrevocably broken even before the storm. But after a decade of progress, it’s attracted allies from across the spectrum, and that’s something to celebrate.
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In most states, only math and reading teachers in grades 4–8 receive evaluations based on value-added test results. For all other teachers, it’s on to Plan B. To evaluate these teachers, many districts are using alternative measures of student growth, which include vendor assessments (commercial, non-state exams) and student learning objectives (SLOs, or teacher-designed goals for learning). But how are these alternative measures being administered? What are their pros and cons? The research on this issue is terribly thin, but a new study from the Institute of Education Sciences casts an intriguing ray of light. Through in-depth interviews, the researchers elicited information on how eight mid-Atlantic districts (unnamed) are implementing alternative measures.

Here are the study’s four key takeaways: First, educators considered vendor assessments (with results analyzed through a form of value-added modelling) to be a fairer and more rigorous evaluation method than SLOs. Second, both alternative measures yielded greater variation in teacher performance than observational methods alone. Third, implementing SLOs in a consistent and rigorous manner was extremely difficult. In fact, the authors write, “All types of stakeholders expressed concern about the potential for some teachers to ‘game the system’ by setting easily attainable goals.” Fourth,...

A new study by economists at the Center for Household Financial Stability disseminates research on family savings and debt and finds that the attainment of a college education does not appear to “protect” the wealth of all American families equally.

This is a descriptive study that examines the income and wealth of different families and the stability (or lack thereof) of each. Analysts use survey data from the 2013 edition of the Survey of Consumer Finances.

First, the researchers found that college-educated families—meaning those in which the head of the household has a four-year college degree—earn significantly higher incomes than those headed by someone without a college degree (no surprise there). The median income among all families headed by a college graduate is 2.4 times greater than the median income among families headed by a non-college-graduate.

Second, the median wealth (the value of real estate and other assets) of all families headed by college graduates declined by 24 percent between 2007 and 2013 as a result of the prolonged recession; the decline among families without college degrees was much higher at 48 percent.

Third, higher education appears to protect wealth during rocky economic times, but mostly just among white and...

Education policy is rarely a top issue in presidential campaigns. In the main, that's fine; most of the action takes place at the state and local levels. Still, last week's education policy summit hosted in New Hampshire by the education news website the Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children gave six of the seventy GOP presidential contenders the chance to burnish their K–12 credentials. (A second summit featuring Democratic candidates is slated for October in Iowa.)

To help the candidates hone their stump speeches, those of us at the Fordham Institute spent some time recently brainstorming campaign themes we'd like to see candidates from either party embrace. Here's what we came up with:

Education reform is working. It's by no means unanimous or uncontroversial, but Americans are generally supportive of the education reform agenda, broadly defined. An Education Next poll released last week shows solid (if softening) support for reform staples like charter schools, testing and accountability, merit pay for teachers, and tax credits to fund scholarships for low-income children. Voters even like higher standards—as long as you don't use the words "Common Core." And while...

Anyone who has spent serious time within the U.S. public education system would likely agree that there are too many chefs in the school governance kitchen. Not only that, some of them are terrible cooks. Which means that great governance is scarce, consensus is hard to achieve, and significant change is rare. Yet our education governance system, lamented and disparaged as it often is, is one of the least understood aspects of American K–12 schooling.  So while it’s easy to agree that “bad” governance gets in the way of doing what’s best for kids, it’s harder to pinpoint just what exactly is so dysfunctional when it comes to running schools. 

To shine a flashlight into this murk, we must first define the governance “system” that we’re talking about. Who exactly makes which kinds of education decisions? State or local? Who has the power? Is that power dispersed or centralized? To what degree can the wider public—not just insiders—participate in policymaking? These are some of the gnarly questions that characterize governance; but because they’re also humdrum and wonky, not many people bother trying to ask them.

Some of this apathy (or is it despair?) arises from the reality...

Ashley Jochim

The push to raise standards and boost outcomes for students has placed states at the center of efforts to improve public education. But as many have observed, few are well positioned to deliver on these aims.

The challenges of advancing reform from the statehouse have led many education reformers to turn to governance. Education governance both determines which institutions have the authority to make education decisions and also shapes how those decisions are made.

In a new report from the Fordham Institute, Dara Zeehandelaar and David Griffith tackle the thorny challenge of depicting the range of governance arrangements that structure state education policy. The authors create a taxonomy classifying the ways that states differ on three dimensions: concentration of decision-making authority at the state versus the local level; distribution of authority among many institutions versus consolidation of authority in only a few; and the degree to which the public can participate in making particular decisions. They combine these dimensions into eight governance types.

The authors reserve judgment on how governance shapes the ability of states to meet their constitutional obligations to students. But they provide some illustrative examples of how governance structures can limit the actions available to states and localities....

Chad Aldeman and Kirsten Schmitz

In the midst of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s controversial 2011 budget bill, many warned that the state’s public employees, including teachers, would retire in droves. The bill, commonly known as Act 10, limited public workers’ ability to collectively bargain on any topics other than base wages, increased their contributions to public pensions, and raised their insurance premiums.* The pension and health care increases immediately cut the take-home pay of public workers, combining with hostility toward Governor Walker to contribute to a wave of public worker retirements. 

But the story didn’t end in 2011. After an initial 80 percent surge, the number of workers retiring fell back in line with long-term trends. Wages and staffing levels also appear roughly in line with historical trends. The initial retirement figures were large, but when put in context relative to the state’s total public sector workforce, the numbers weren’t as remarkable.

Let’s start with the historical data on retirements. Tracking retirement numbers back twenty years, the number of Wisconsin state employees retiring each year has climbed steadily, in line with growing numbers of state employees across the state. The graph below shows what this looks...

NOTE: This is the Foreword from Fordham’s latest report, released today.

Over the past few years, states across the nation have undertaken big changes in public education—a system reboot, if you will. Policymakers have raised academic standards, toughened up exams, and demanded stronger results from schools. Like other states, Ohio has also put into place a standards and accountability framework with the clear goal of readying every student for college or career when she graduates high school.

It’s no secret that a flood of controversy has accompanied these changes. The Common Core, a set of college-and-career ready standards in math and English language arts, has been the subject of great debate. Yet the Common Core remains in place in Ohio and at least forty other states. States have also adopted next-generation assessments aligned to these standards, though the rollout of the new exams has been rocky. As a result of these transitions, Ohio policymakers have temporarily softened accountability and slowed the implementation of new school report cards.

Given the difficulty of these changes, one may ask why we conducted an overhaul in the first place. Why must states, including Ohio, see through the full and faithful implementation of educational...