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.

Without a doubt, and in the main, testing has done more good than harm in America’s schools. My Fordham colleague Andy Smarick is absolutely correct to argue that annual testing “makes clear that every student matters.” The sunshine created by testing every child, every year has been a splendid disinfectant. There can be no reasonable doubt that testing has created momentum for positive change—particularly in schools that serve our neediest and most neglected children.

But it’s long past time to acknowledge that reading tests—especially tests with stakes for individual teachers attached to them—do more harm than good. A good test or accountability scheme encourages good instructional practice. Reading tests do the opposite. They encourage poor practice, waste instructional time, and materially damage reading achievement, especially for our most vulnerable children. Here’s why:

A test can tell you whether a student has learned to add unlike fractions, can determine the hypotenuse of a triangle, or understands the causes of the Civil War—and, by reasonable extension, whether I did a good or poor job as a teacher imparting those skills and content. But reading comprehension is not a skill or a body of content that can be taught. The annual reading tests we administer to children through eighth grade are de facto tests of background knowledge and vocabulary. Moreover, they are not “instructionally sensitive.” Success or failure can have little to do with what is taught.

A substantial body of research has consistently shown that reading comprehension relies...

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute set out to answer a basic (yet complicated) question: how much does each school in the D.C. metro area spend for each student it enrolls? In the Metro D.C. School Spending Explorer, we found that there are differences in spending within the same district. For example, in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), Tyler Elementary spends $19,721 per pupil (above the district total of $15,743), while Janney Elementary spends $11,652 per pupil.

Explore the Metro D.C. School Spending Explorer to learn more about why these differences may occur and to filter the data by district, school type, low- or high-spending, and more.

Also check out Mike Petrilli’s and Matt Richmond’s take on which Washington-area system does best at funding its neediest schools. The answer may surprise you.

In the era of No Child Left Behind—and at a time of growing concern about income inequality—virtually every school system in the country claims to be working to narrow its student achievement gaps. But are they putting their money where their mouth is?

The data in our brand new D.C. Metro Area School Spending Explorer website allow us to answer this question for school districts inside the Beltway. Specifically, we can determine whether and to what degree they are spending additional dollars on their neediest schools.

To be sure, ever since the Coleman Report, it’s been hard to find a direct relationship between school spending and educational outcomes. Still, basic fairness requires that systems spend at least as much on educating poor students as affluent ones, and investments that might make a difference in narrowing achievement gaps (such as hiring more effective, experienced teachers and providing intensive tutoring to struggling students) do require big bucks.

There are lots of wonky ways to compute the fairness of education spending, but we’re going to use a measure that makes sense to us. Namely: How much extra does a district spend on each low-income student a school serves? Compared to what districts spend on behalf of non-poor students? Ten percent? Twenty percent? Fifty percent?

Read the methodology section below for details on how we got to these numbers (they are estimates, and apply only to elementary schools), but here are our conclusions.

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School System

BIGGER IS BETTER
new study highlights the importance of even earlier early education, finding that having a higher birth weight leads to higher cognitive development. “Weight, of course, may partly be an indicator of broader fetal health, but it seems to be a meaningful one: The chunkier the baby, the better it does on average, all the way up to almost 10 pounds.” But birth weight is not the be-all and end-all: Researcher David Figlio was 5 pounds, 15 ounces at birth.

DUELING BANJOS ON THE HELP COMMITTEE
Which senator played the washboard with a spoon in a banjo band? It's a question the Politics K–12 duo asks in a quiz of (useful) facts about the likely heads of the next Senate HELP Committee. The primer matters to wonks because, “[n]o matter which party comes out ahead on Election Day, the Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will have a new leader.”

COMMON CORE AND GRADUATION REQUIREMENTS
Three states are plowing ahead on tying graduation requirements and Common Core-aligned assessments, “a natural part of the transition from the adoption phase of Common Core to actually implementing the standards in a meaningful way.”

THE COMPLACENCY GAP
Sick of hearing about the achievement gap? Fordham's own Chester E. Finn, Jr. wants you to consider the complacency gap. When it comes to education...

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
The New York Times's Motoko Rich reports that some public charter school systems are implementing a new model of teacher preparation: residencies, similar to those in the medical field. The programs focus on practice over theory and match veteran educators with aspiring teachers in a structured mentorship. The piece offers a great look into the anxieties of new teachers and the critical importance of feedback from veteran mentors.

TENNESSEE MULLING COMMON CORE
In a recent interview with Chalkbeat, the Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, Beth Harwell, suggested that the state might be on its way to dropping Common Core. However, her spokesperson’s claim that “Tennessee—and not the federal government—knows what is best for Tennesseans” would seem to suggest that the Speaker isn’t aware of what the standards actually do. 

THE DANGERS OF BIAS
At Education Week, Darius D. Prier asks how educators can address stereotypes and ensure safety and equality for students inside and outside of schools. Prier recommends that schools incorporate current-day race issues into the curriculum, along with other ideas for preventing hip-hop culture from being conflated with criminality.

DROPPING OUT IS HARD TO DO
This weekend, the Wall Street Journal examined the American undergraduate dropout rate and uncovered a startling truth: According to data compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, almost one-third of the students who matriculated in a U.S. college in 2012 did not return the following year. Lots of steps...

At his confirmation hearing in 2009, Senator Lamar Alexander famously told Arne Duncan that “President-elect Obama has made several distinguished cabinet appointments, but in my view of it all, I think you are the best.” Duncan had already made statements indicating a willingness to embrace charter schools and break with the unions over teacher evaluations—sentiments not typically expressed by Democratic secretaries of education. And on many issues, Secretary Duncan has not disappointed, regularly pushing a pro-education-reform line, especially via his bully pulpit.

Most intriguing about Secretary Duncan—from my perspective at least—was his early embrace of the theory of “tight-loose” federalism. As he put it in 2012,“ the federal government should be tight on goals,” but state and local leaders should decide how to attain them. “Local leaders, not us, know their children and communities best—to try to micromanage 100,000 schools from Washington would be the height of arrogance,” he said.

Indeed it would be. But trying to micromanage 100,000 schools from Washington is precisely what Duncan has been doing.

In fact, Duncan’s greatest failure—on par with politicizing the Common Core and trying to kill D.C.’s school voucher program—has been his unwillingness to follow through on the “loose” part of his “tight-loose” promise. It feels like there’s been no problem too big or too small for his Department of Education to tackle. This is particularly the case for his Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which has been a prime example of executive overreach and federal interference run amok for almost six...

EIGHTY PERCENT OF LIFE IS JUST SHOWING UP
Chronic absenteeism is a huge and often overlooked problem in America's schools. A new Education Week op-ed finds that students who miss four or more days in their first month are unlikely to keep up with grade-level achievement standards. In one study, only 17 percent of chronically absent kindergartners and first graders achieved reading proficiency by third grade. 

DECLINING TEACHER PREP IN CALIFORNIA
Teacher preparation programs in California have seen a downturn in enrollment recently, particularly in high-need areas such as math and science. Figures released for the 2012–13 school year highlight a decline of nearly three-quarters from a peak of 77,000 in 200102. On the bright side, a growing number of ethnically diverse applicants are entering the profession. 

EDUCATION SNAPSHOT
Teachers in Waukegan, Illinois, are on strike for the seventh day, with no likely end in sight. The work stoppage has shuttered two dozens schools in the cityhometown of science-fiction great Ray Bradbury—which sits on Lake Michigan roughly forty miles north of Chicago. Federal mediators have been participating in the negotiations.

MUST READ
On the heels of Nick Confessore's epic treatment of the federal school lunch program, Chalkbeat has an incredible photo essay chronicling the food offerings at six Colorado charter schools. As the story explains, charters with larger populations eligible for free- or discounted-meals will often rely on district food sources; others emphasize locally sourced meat...

START SPREADING THE NEWS
Great news for students at underperforming district schools in New York City: On Wednesday, the Empire State approved seventeen new charter schools throughout the city, including fourteen within the Success Academy network. Time will tell if the move leads to a rematch of the de Blasio-Moskowitz title bout from this spring.

CHARTER GROWTH IN D.C.
Elsewhere in the Chartersphere, recently released figures from the D.C. Public Charter School Board indicate a 3 percent increase in the number of children enrolled in Washington, D.C. charters. Overall, 44 percent of D.C. students attend charter schools.

TEACHING TEENS
In an interview at the Mindshift blog, Temple University's brilliant Laurence Steinberg explains the theories behind his new book, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. Steinberg discusses peer pressure, the structure of the academic year, and the plasticity of the human brain as it enters adulthood. For more information (as well as the dulcet voice of Fordham's own Mike Petrilli), listen to Steinberg break it down at the Education Next Book Club.

HISTORY BOYS
Colorado Democrats are seeking to take advantage of the recent curriculum controversy in Jefferson County. The party's state-senate campaign fund is running an ad saddling local Republicans with responsibility for the county school board's efforts to change...

Howard Fuller’s new memoir, No Struggle, No Progress, tells the inspiring story of how a boy in the Jim Crow South became the larger-than-life education leader we know today. There is much to take away from Fuller’s trailblazing career. A former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools and current distinguished education professor at Marquette University, Fuller has done as much as anyone to place the issue of education at the center of the civil rights movement. His own upbringing in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the daily injustice he saw in his own neighborhood reinforced his belief that “education offers the best route out of poverty for individuals.” After graduating from Montana’s Carroll College, Fuller worked as a community organizer in North Carolina. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s he led marches and at one point founded his own Afrocentric college, Malcolm X Liberation University, but a 1971 journey to Africa challenged his vision of pan-African solidarity. Seeing firsthand the continent’s social and economic inequality, as well as with the grim realities of actual warfare, led him to rethink his assumptions about what the American civil rights movement really meant. Dr. Fuller, who became closely associated with school choice and vouchers, now warns us “to be careful not to get committed to any particular strategy or tactic to the point that we ignore the purpose for our actions,” and his commitment to the nation’s neediest students has never wavered. It’s these qualities that make Howard Fuller one of the nation’s most respected and influential...

This report from the Center for American Progress sets out to demonstrate that research about how students learn, as well as “best practices” for teaching, are embedded directly into the Common Core State Standards. An interesting conceit, but the supporting evidence is mixed. The report rightly draws attention to Common Core’s call for a strong knowledge base across subject areas—a singular feature of the English language arts standards, and one that is too often overlooked. In emphasizing the need for a coherent, sequential curriculum, Common Core functionally reasserts E.D. Hirsch’s insight that reading comprehension is less a “skill” than a reflection of the reader’s background knowledge, which also drives critical thinking, problem solving, and a host of cognitive abilities devoutly wished for by teachers. “Prior knowledge is a critical and often determining factor in how well a student learns new concepts,” Marchitello and Wilhelm note. “In fact, some researchers believe that prior knowledge exceeds aptitude in determining learning—that what students know is more important than their raw intelligence.” Just so. The report could have done the field a solid had the authors stopped right there. The point can never be made often or strongly enough that a well-rounded education in history, science, art, and music—not ill-defined fads like “twenty-first century skills”—is the only known route to the big-picture goals of K–12 education. Alas, the authors overreach, conflating standards and pedagogy to stump for project-based learning and collaborative group work. The cognitive research on these teaching techniques is far from settled....

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