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.

Rural school districts are the oft-ignored middle child of our nation’s public schools, consistently snubbed in favor of their urban and suburban siblings. Through a survey of rural superintendents, this report by the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho One sheds much-needed light on the most pressing issues rural educators face—primarily rooted in educators’ struggle to deliver effective, cost-efficient education to students who live in isolated communities. Small rural districts are underfunded. Science, English, and foreign language instructors are in short supply because rural districts lack the incentives to attract them, causing faculty to teach classes that exceed their qualifications. The report’s most interesting recommendation is to increase rural technological connectivity through the implementation of blended learning, a hybrid teaching method that combines digital learning with traditional classroom instruction. This reduces the need for a large, specialized instructional staff by providing live video lectures from teachers elsewhere. Such an initiative would improve the quality of rural education and save districts money. Yet as promising as this all sounds, funding is also an issue here—a concern that the report could have addressed in further detail. Implementing successful blended curricula will require massive up-front injections of capital for things like new tech...

Citing insurmountable data challenges, the authors of Great Schools’ most recent evaluation of the School Improvement Grant Program argue that policymakers are left “without a clear and unambiguous picture of whether this major investment in turning around the nation’s lowest-performing schools worked as intended.” The view may be opaque, but what we can see isn’t pretty.

According to the report, between the 2009–2010 and 2012–2013 school years, SIG grantees at the elementary and middle school levels saw a cumulative increase in proficiency of only a few percentage points in most grades and subjects relative to comparison groups—a disappointing result, considering some schools saw funding increases of as much as 58 percent per student under the program. And while SIG’s restart and closure models were used so infrequently that little can be said about their effectiveness, the report indicates that there were no statistically significant differences between the rates of improvement at transformation and turnaround schools, a finding that suggests that it doesn’t much matter which one-size-fits-all improvement models the federal government prescribes—implementation is what counts.

Unfortunately, SIG’s implementation was deeply troubled, as the authors of the report document through approximately fifty interviews with superintendents, program directors, principals, and teachers....

For those who march to the drumbeat of “college for all,” an updated report from the William T. Grant Foundation ought to give pause. Back in 1988, the “forgotten half” were American youth who didn’t attend college and “were struggling in ‘the passage to adulthood.’” Released in near-tandem with the president’s free-community-college plan, this report depicts an honest view of community college, from “notoriously low completion rates” (a mere 20 percent of those who attend community college attain a bachelor’s degree within eight years of graduating high school, and almost half earn no credential at all) to calling remedial education “a vague euphemism that doesn’t help students understand their situation, make informed choices, or learn about alternative programs.” The forgotten half of today are “youth who do not complete college and find themselves shut out of good jobs in the era of college for all.” While past generations with “some college” enjoyed increased earnings, a changing economy means that’s no longer true. “The most alarming finding is that many youth who took society’s advice to attend college, sacrificing time and often incurring debts, have nothing to show for their efforts in terms of credentials, employment, or earnings,” note the authors....

Editor's note: These remarks were delivered as an introduction to Doug Lemov's February 10 panel discussion at the Fordham Institute.

It is a genuine honor and pleasure to be here with you today and to have the opportunity to introduce Doug Lemov. Doug is a man whose humility knows no bounds—indeed, he attributes his own success with Teach Like a Champion to his own limitations as a teacher. I’ve heard him more than once explain—earnestly and sincerely—that the reason he started filming and analyzing videos of great teachers in action was because he was such an “average” teacher, and he wanted to learn the magic of the champion teachers around him.

And that humility courses through all of his work, including his writing.

Yet his achievements are remarkable. He and his colleagues at Uncommon Schools consistently achieve at the highest levels on state tests. And Doug’s work identifying what “champion” teachers do that drives their results has been nothing short of transformational.

You might even say the work Doug and his team does is magic.

And so I thought it was fitting, before we launched into the weeds of how to improve teacher practice—a subject that is near and dear to my heart—to talk about...

BOOK 'EM
Politico’s extensive investigation of publishing giant Pearson has unearthed the company’s questionable money-making practices at the expense of American students and taxpayers. For years, lax accountability measures have allowed Pearson to rake in the profits even when its programs and products failed. Schools and state legislatures are realizing the need to more closely scrutinize textbook companies before handing over their multi-million dollar reform dreams.

ALPHABET SOUP
Elsewhere in Pearson news, the Wall Street Journal chronicles the slow decline of the GED. Working in partnership with the nonprofit that administers the test, Pearson has dropped a huge sum developing a new, more complex assessment geared to today’s students and standards. But, as Fordham’s Chester Finn has argued, high school graduation exams shouldn't be set at the college-ready level. And neither should the GED. Not everyone who graduates from high school will—or should—go on to college.

GOOD CITIZENS
Indifferent social-studies pupils, beware! Utah may soon join its neighboring state of Arizona in requiring students to pass a citizenship test before graduating high school. Students would need to correctly pass seventy out of one hundred questions, a more difficult task than the six...

Ethan Gray

Education reformers live in a world of data, accountability, policy, and percentiles. We are most comfortable debating ideas, writing papers, and talking to each other. But when it comes to telling powerful stories to inspire change, we have a lot to learn from one public school student in New York City.

Thirteen-year-old Vidal Chastanet was stopped and asked by Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton, “Who is the most influential person in your life?” With his answer—Nadia Lopez, principal at Mott Hall Bridges Academy (MHBA)—Vidal reached the hearts of millions of people.

“When we get in trouble, she doesn't suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

Vidal’s answer went viral on Facebook, leading him to The Ellen DeGeneres Show and the White House last week. A fundraising campaign set up to help MHBA send students on a trip to Harvard over the summer...

The biography of teacher evaluation’s time in federal policy might be titled Portentous, Polarizing, and Passing. It had gigantic ripple effects in the states—man, did it cause fights—and, with its all-but-certain termination via ESEA reauthorization, it stayed with us ever so briefly.

Some advocates are demoralized, worried that progress will at best stall and at worst be rolled back. Though I’m a little down that we’re unlikely to see many more states reform educator evaluation systems in the years ahead, I think the feds’ exit makes sense.

This has nothing to do with my general antipathy for this administration or my belief that its Department of Education deserves to have its meddling hands rapped. And while I think Tenth Amendment challenges are justified, I have a different primary motivation.

In short, I think the work of teaching is so extraordinarily complex and teachers are so tightly woven into the fabric of school communities that any attempt by faraway federal officials to tinker with evaluation systems is a fool’s errand. I think we may eventually come to view the Race-to-the-Top and ESEA-flexibility requirements related to assessing teachers as the apotheosis of federal K–12 technocracy.

If you’ve never dug into the details of...

THERE HE GOES AGAIN
Louisiana Governor and potential presidential candidate Bobby Jindal released a forty-two-page education-reform proposal urging lawmakers to repeal Common Core on grounds of federal intrusion. Fordham’s Michael Brickman doesn’t think Jindal’s Common Core claims pass the sniff test, but notes that other policies outlined in the proposal, such as ramped-up school choice and charter school efforts, are worth discussing.

WE'LL VOUCH FOR THAT
As the 2016 election crunch approaches, Republicans may be able to put the national spotlight on school vouchers. Though past attempts to expand the voucher program have met with opposition, GOP leaders hope to broaden the school-choice conversation by making it a central issue in the party’s platform. And as our own Chester E. Finn Jr. reports, some high-profile Democrats are finally willing to play ball.

ACROSS THE DIVIDE
NPR offers a poignant look at the vast, if predictable, disparities in college-advising services between Michigan’s tony Cranbrook Schools and an under-funded public school in northeast Detroit. One activist admits resignedly that “your ZIP code can really determine what your future will look like.”

EDUCATION SPOTLIGHT: INDIANA
Political junkies and ed-reform observers are turning their attention to...

Ohio Gadfly readers won’t be surprised to know that we were thrilled to see Governor John Kasich strongly endorse charter school reforms that are similar to those we proposed in December—and have been seeking for years before that. We were particularly encouraged that governor wants to combine significantly stronger charter school oversight with greater funding for high-performing schools. His is exactly the right equation.

That’s because lax quality control and paltry funding are the underlying causes of Ohio’s relatively weak charter sector. Quality has lagged in large part because Ohio charter law too vaguely defines the powers and responsibilities of each actor in the charter-governing system. It also treats charters as second-class public schools. They receive less overall taxpayer funding and garner scant facilities support.

Kasich’s solution is to tie greater consequences and incentives to the state’s new Quality Sponsor Practices Review (QSPR). In particular, he would empower the Ohio Department of Education to shut down sponsors (i.e., authorizers) that receive low ratings on the QSPR; meanwhile, he would make charters overseen by high-ranking sponsors (yes, including Fordham) eligible for $25 million in additional facilities funding.

So what is the QSPR? Developed over several years, it is based on...

TFA TROUBLE
Teach For America’s slipping numbers continue as they experience their second year of diminishing applicant numbers. The group says the appeal of an improving job market is to blame, while some aspiring teachers have deep concern with TFA’s two-year long model. Perhaps played down in the article is a shift to diversify cohorts of teachers, which could also be a factor in diminishing numbers.

LOOKING FOR MIDDLE GROUND
Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray are reportedly putting their heads together to create a bipartisan proposal for ESEA renewal. Yet there is much skepticism as to whether a fully collaborative bill will be produced; last week, Lamar Alexander said that an NCLB update didn’t necessarily have to start with a bipartisan product. When the Senate Education Committee passed a bill in 2013, not one Republican voted for it.

HEASTIE FROM THE BLOCK
Bronx legislator Carl Heastie has been elected to replace the recently resigned Sheldon Silver as speaker of the New York State Assembly, granting him the power to decide which bills are considered and which aspects of the state budget are negotiated. His (relatively quiet) views on education will be important...

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