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.

At Inside Schools, a website for parents covering New York City schools, reporter Lydie Raschka visits a dozen elementary schools and comes away concerned. “[I] saw firsthand how hard teachers are working to meet the new Common Core standards for reading,” she writes. “I also saw precious time wasted, as teachers seemed to confuse harder standards with puzzling language.” A striking example:

At the teacher's prompting, a kindergartner at PS 251 in Queens tries to define "text evidence" for the rest of the class. "Test ed-i-dence," says the 5-year-old, tripping over the unfamiliar words, "is something when you say the word and show the picture.

“Text evidence?” What's with this incomprehensible jargon in kindergarten?

What indeed.

Raschka is absolutely correct to criticize the use of such arcane language and the practice of asking five-year-olds to toss around phrases like “text evidence” in kindergarten. Where I think she's mistaken is in attributing it to Common Core.

Elementary school English language arts classrooms have long been in the thrall of nonsensical jargon. Children "activate prior knowledge" and make "text-to-text" or "text-to-self" connections in book discussions in the argot of "accountable talk" (itself an inscrutable bit of edu-speak). I’ve relentlessly banged the drum for years on the importance of building background knowledge as a critical component of reading comprehension. But I see no point in making second-graders sing about “building schema” like the kids in this video:...

HOLD THE PHONE
The numbers are in: According to a new Quinnipiac Poll released today, 54 percent of New Yorkers support Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to lift the cell phone ban in the city’s schools. It’s a good reprieve for de Blasio in the court of public opinion; his approval rating, while positive overall, still lags under 50 percent (the territory usually deemed safe for incumbent politicians). Chancellor Carmen Farina’s popularity is lower still, at 39 percent. Maybe it has something to do with her apparent imperviousness to evidentiary analysis

IN THE LOOP
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has contributed a dose of common sense on testing that some of our national politicians would be well-advised to heed. Just a week after members of the State Board of Education voted (likely with no legal standing) to allow school districts to opt out of Common Core-aligned PARCC tests, the governor took time in his State of the State address to dissuade lawmakers from cutting annual assessments. “We need to confront the truth about whether Colorado’s kids are getting the education they need to compete and succeed in the job market,” he said. “But how do we know if we are getting the job done unless we accurately measure individual student growth?”

SPEAK OF THE DEVIL
Now that we’ve broached the topic of our beloved congressional leaders, here’s your semi-regular ESEA update: Education Week has conscientiously assembled a layman’s crib...

Though hardly the only issue to be debated during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act, annual testing has taken center stage in discussions so far. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate HELP committee, put forth a bill that leaves open the possibility of removing the federal requirement that states test students annually in reading and math from grades three through eight—a possibility that has thoroughly freaked out much of the education-reform community.

But as Alexander has explained, he is merely trying to respond to what he and every other member of Congress are hearing from their constituents: There’s too much damn testing in the schools.

But is that true? And if so, is it because of the federal requirements?

A new report from the Ohio Department of Education provides some timely answers, at least for one state. (A bellwether state, mind you.) State Superintendent Dick Ross charged his department with collecting information about the number of hours Buckeye State students spend preparing for and taking tests (not including tests developed by their own teachers). The findings are illuminating (most of this language is verbatim):

  • The average student spends approximately 19.8 hours taking tests each year. This is only 1-3 percent of the school year, depending on grade level. Kindergarten students spend the least amount of time on testing (11.3 hours on average), while grade-10 students spend the most (28.4 hours on average).
     
  • Students spend approximately 15 additional hours
  • ...
Cynthia G. Brown

Editor's note: This post appears in response to Michael J. Petrilli and Frederick M. Hess's earlier article.

I was appalled to read the attack of Jonah Edelman by my colleagues Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess for supposedly playing the “race card” on the ESEA reauthorization in his recent Daily Beast column. Hey guys, why the cheap shot? Jonah was citing historical facts that even today’s schoolchildren study. He talks mostly about groups of disadvantaged students, particularly those living in poverty, and uses the term “racism” once. And if you knew Jonah and each of his parents as I do, you would know that Jonah’s views have evolved way past his parents’ views from different times.

I won’t argue the strengths and weaknesses of NCLB. They both exist and are being vigorously debated. But to assert that states will do the right thing flies in the face of many current practices nationwide, not just history. How can Rick and Mike deny that most states have been insensitive to inequity in schooling and elsewhere? There is ample documentation that states choose to fund high-poverty schools at lesser rates than low-poverty schools, unlike most every other advanced country. Or that high-poverty schools have weaker teachers. And so on. And then there are other current state actions that reinforce disadvantages for undereducated and low-income people like the voter suppression actions being pursued in many states.

Maybe the federal government cannot do much in our grossly decentralized education governance system, but the...

DISTANCE MATTERS
What really matters most to parents when choosing a school for their child? A new study from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans has found that factors such as distance, extended hours, and extracurricular offerings tend to outweigh a school’s academic record for many parents, particularly those lower on the income spectrum. What parents want out of schools is a topic worthy of further study.

MORE OIL, MORE PROBLEMS
While millions of Americans are currently enjoying the lowest oil prices they have seen in years, state-level petroeconomies like Alaska are experiencing huge revenue shortages. In these states, funding for K–12 and higher education will soon be feeling the crunch. With the added uncertainty regarding the duration of the oil price drop, state lawmakers will likely continue to budget frugally for the foreseeable future.

DOUBLETALK
New York City schools will open forty dual-language programs in September as part of new Chancellor Carmen Farina’s plan to immerse students in bilingualism and biculturalism. The classes will contain half English-language learners and half English-proficient students, who will receive instruction in both English and a targeted language such as Spanish or French.

GRADE-SPAN TESTING IS A BAD IDEA
The Center for American Progress and the AFT say that annual testing should be maintained to help better assess student outcomes, but should not be used for school-level accountability. For that purpose they recommend tests taken once per grade span. Many reformers, including...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Daily News and City Journal.

Last week, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña demanded that dozens of New York City’s lowest-performing schools adopt and implement a widely criticized literacy curriculum with which she has long been associated. It was the most recent of a growing list of decisions she has made while running the nation’s largest school system that seem to be based not on empirical evidence, but on the chancellor’s personal preference.

In November, the city unveiled its School Renewal Program, a $150 million plan to turn ninety-four chronically low-performing schools into “community schools.” A concept paper inviting community-based organizations to partner with the New York City Department of Education (DOE) noted the approach “is based on a growing body of evidence” showing that “an integrated focus” on academics, health and social services, and other community supports are “critical to improving student success.”

What growing body of evidence? The paper didn’t say—not even in a footnote. Perhaps because the evidence is scant to nonexistent. New York’s initiative is modeled on a similar program in Cincinnati, but as a 2013 analysis by the New York Times noted, “what has gone largely unsaid is that many of Cincinnati’s community schools are still in dire academic straits despite millions of dollars in investment and years of reform efforts."

It gets worse. Last week, Chalkbeat’s Patrick...

TARHEEL BLUES
North Carolina is the latest state to investigate a new set of standards to replace the Common Core, a move that Michael Petrilli warns won’t be so easy. The state has organized a commission to review and potentially replace the Common Core. As this NPR article explains, the debate is split. The commission is set to reach its decision in December 2015.

STICKER SHOCK
The White House has released the price tag for President Obama’s proposal to make two years of community college free to qualifying students. The initiative is projected to cost the federal government $60 billion over the course of a decade. It will certainly be interesting to see how the administration plans to foot this bill in the president’s budget proposal, which is scheduled for release in early February.

DOUBLE PLUS UNGOOD
The Atlantic’s Alia Wong asks the question we’ve all faced at one time or another: Why is education reporting so boring? The answer, according to Wong, lies in the dense forest of jargon, acronyms, and buzzwords that combine to baffle and anesthetize everyone who comes in contact with education writing. From “holistic mastery” to “the experiential-based learning process,” the piece is an amusing sendup of both educationese and the unfortunate folks who have to become fluent in it.

STEEL STANDING
An unlikely leader in the technological learning revolution is Pittsburgh, according to Education Week. Now decades into its gradual recovery from the industrial...

  • This week, President Obama announced three ways his administration intends to better safeguard student data. The first is new legislation modeled off of a California statute that aims to permit and encourage data-based research while also preventing targeted advertising to students and the selling of student data by third parties. The second is a pledge, signed by seventy-five companies, to educate parents, teachers, and kids about preventing misuse of student information. The third is a sort of toolbox meant to further these ends, including a model terms of service and teacher training. Applauded by the Data Quality Campaign, they’re important steps in an ongoing battle against threats to our privacy. But let us suggest a fourth step, Mr. President: Tell your own agencies to stop collecting intrusive, sensitive information about our children.
  • “ESEA week” has lived up to its promise. We might be on the verge of the law’s first reauthorization since NCLB’s enactment thirteen years ago. On Monday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech in which he criticized NCLB and called for changes, but also urged Congress to keep what he considers to be its important elements, such as annual testing. Yesterday, things heated up even more when Senator Lamar Alexander released a draft bill that proposed lots of cuts. Maligned provisions like Adequate Yearly Progress and Highly Qualified Teachers didn’t survive. Still, it’s hardly a complete evisceration of the law, as it
  • ...

A new research paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research examines how New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) affects participants’ immediate income, longer-term income, and life outcomes, such as college enrollment, incarceration, and mortality. The program matches enrollees between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one with an entry-level seven-week summer job and pays them New York minimum wage for up to twenty-five hours per week. Jobs are mostly in the private and non-profit sectors, many at summer camps and daycare centers, but also in other fields. It also provides seventeen and a half hours of workshops on job readiness and continuing education. It’s the largest of many similar programs in major cities throughout the country, and demand is high, so participants are randomly selected via a lottery. The authors obtained identifying and demographic information on about 295,000 applicants from 2005 through 2008; 165,000 were accepted and 130,000 weren’t. They combined this with wage data from the IRS, mortality information from the New York City Department of Health, and data on incarceration from the state Department of Corrections. Comparing those accepted to those who weren’t led to three key findings. First, participants enjoyed a net benefit of about $876 in the year they partook in the program compared to non-participants. Second, in the three subsequent years, enrollees saw a decrease in yearly earnings of about $100 compared to non-participants, throwing water on the assumption that these programs make people more “employable.” (After three years, there was no yearly...

The big news in this report from the Education Commission of the States is that fourteen states “require teacher candidates to demonstrate knowledge of the science of reading instruction on a stand-alone assessment” before getting a license to teach. But that overlooks an even bigger story: Thirty-six states license elementary school teachers without making them prove they can teach kids to read. In the immortal words of John McEnroe, you cannot be serious. Let’s try a little thought exercise. Imagine you’re in charge of licensing elementary school teachers in your state. What would be the very first requirement you’d put in place as a barrier to licensure?  Mine would be, “No shirt, no shoes, no certification.” (Pants too. And yes, every day). But number two would definitely be that, if you want to teach elementary school, you have to prove you can teach kids how to read. “Rather than relying entirely on interventions for struggling readers, some states have begun to emphasize the need for all elementary school teachers to possess the necessary skills to effectively teach reading,” the report notes (wait, they’ve just begun doing this?). Access to highly qualified teachers “provides students with the equivalent of a constant specialist” (you mean a teacher?) thereby “ensuring that struggling readers are identified and supported as quickly as possible” (but…but…hasn’t that always been, like, the most important part of the job!?). In fairness, many states may include teacher-candidate assessments that include reading mixed in with other subjects. But given the time and energy that has gone into...

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