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.

When it comes to state education agencies (SEAs), ed-reformers have fallen into a sorry rut.

As states have emerged as primary drivers of much-needed changes in K–12 practice and policy, the SEA has become the default agent-of-change for a vast number of initiatives concocted by policymakers in state capitals and Washington alike.

Want a new teacher-evaluation system and more rigorous certification standards? Want to crack down on school violence and bullying? Want better assessments of school performance and improved interventions for low-performers? Want to widen broadband access and encourage blended learning?

Hand it to the SEA.

Given that this agency is the state’s primary (or only) K–12 administrative unit, one can easily see why decision makers have had this impulse.

Yet the SEA was originally designed—and then acculturated over decades—to distribute dollars to local districts and monitor their compliance with a lengthening list of federal and state regulations and categorical funding streams. It was never intended to lead complex, contentious, large-scale reforms that require original thinking, nimble action and constant adaptability. In other words, it wasn’t intended to carry out a huge fraction of the responsibilities that have recently been thrust upon it.

In our new report, The New SEA: At the Helm, Not the Oar, we propose that this plain fact be recognized and alternative arrangements made.

This does not mean we think the SEA has no role in education reform, much less that we...


After a controversial change to a state law, what happens on the ground? This piece, from last month’s meeting of the Association for Education Finance and Policy, delves into one such case. In 2012, Ohio lawmakers approved the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES), which requires evaluations be based on student-academic-growth measures, formal observations, and classroom walkthroughs. This study examines whether local teacher-collective-bargaining agreements negotiated after OTES was adopted allow the evaluation results to be used in personnel decisions (the authors called this “bridging”)—or if they protect experienced or tenured teachers’ jobs regardless of their evaluation scores (“buffering”). The authors found that all of the fifteen contracts they studied are essentially bridging when it came to evaluation policies, meaning that the contracts match well with state law and allow principals to use growth measures, observations, and walkthroughs when evaluating teachers. However, results were quite different when it came to actually using OTES to make decisions: the researchers discovered that four of five contracts are buffering when they examined a variety of specific provisions. For example, most contracts contain buffering provisions that keep seniority as a consideration when making reductions in force. Some even keep seniority as the primary or sole means of deciding who is laid off first, in spite of state law to the contrary. Regarding transfers, only three districts have bridging contracts that give administrators discretion to fill vacancies; most keep seniority as a consideration, and none explicitly require the use of OTES scores in transfer decisions. For tenure...


In recent years, policymakers and reform advocates have viewed State Education Agencies (SEAs) as the lead organizations for implementing sweeping reforms and initiatives in K–12 education—everything from Race to the Top grants and federal waivers to teacher-evaluation systems and online schools. But SEAs were not built—nor are they really competent—to drive such reforms, argue Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire in The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar [link]. And despite the best efforts of talented, energetic leaders, SEAs will never be able to deliver the reform results that their states need. This latest paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests a new governance approach, organized around what Smarick and Squire call the “4 Cs”:

Control: Return SEAs to their core functions of channeling federal and state dollars to districts; adopting statewide standards and assessments; creating and maintaining data systems; and monitoring compliance with applicable laws.

Contract: Contract with other organizations that are better equipped to accomplish education work, while ensuring that performance agreements with those organizations delineate outcomes and consequences for poor performance.

Cleave: Leave tasks that are well outside SEAs’ core competencies—such as charter-school authorizing and generating educational innovation—to other government entities or nongovernmental organizations.

Create: Encourage state leaders, both inside and outside government, to create new entities to take on much-needed reform work.

For more on the role of the SEA, tune into “State Education Agencies: The Smaller the Better?”...

Michele Cahill, Leah Hamilton

The Carnegie Corporation’s Michele Cahill and Leah Hamilton, veterans of Joel Klein’s Department of Education in New York City, responded to a challenge posed by Petrilli with a thoughtful alternative view.

In Mike’s post on Monday, he asks if our schools have “an answer” for students who are unprepared for high school—a group that makes up, as he says, as much as 80–90 percent of students. He also points out, correctly, that all that many districts offer these students is a chance to muddle through four years (or more) in a large, comprehensive high school, in hopes of earning a diploma that by no means signals readiness for college or a career. It is an indictment of our educational system that many do not achieve even that.

Fortunately, there are models out there that show that it is indeed possible to structure high schools to do much more for underprepared students. A recent book by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane, Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge of American Educationfor example, describes what the authors call “high schools that improve life chances,” pointing in particular to small, nonselective high schools created in New York City by the Department of Education and New Visions for Public Schools. Explicitly designed according to a set of design principles that stress academic rigor and personalization, attention to youth development, strong community partnerships, and accountability for results, these schools have produced powerful results for students—many of whom fall squarely within the cohort of the...


Some music scholars believe that 50 years ago, the blues—the primordial indigenous American musical form—was on the brink of extinction. Its progenitors were fading away, mainstream America was uninterested, and the unsympathetic forces of musical evolution were marching on.

But across the pond, in the 1950s and early 1960s, a gang of teenaged Brits, hailing from a nation still reeling from World War II’s devastation, happened upon imported records by U.S. blues legends like of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. These lads, connecting with the music’s enigmatic blend of sadness and hubris, studied with awe.

Years later, they would make it to our shores, with names like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, reintroducing the United States to something of its own creation and using it to plot an extraordinary path forward.

In 1993, Massachusetts passed the “Education Reform Act,” legislation that touched every important area of K–12 policy: increasing funding, toughening standards, upping accountability, introducing chartering, reforming teacher preparation, and more. It was arguably the most important state-level action of the standards-and-accountability movement.

Beyond it’s comprehensiveness, two aspects of the law stand out. First, over the next two decades, regardless of political party, the state’s leadership (governors, education commissioners, and state board members) remained faithful to its vision. Second, it helped Massachusetts emerge as one of the nation’s highest-performing states: as of 2013, according to the Nation’s Report Card and international assessments...


We know from international data—PISA, TIMSS, and so on—that other countries produce more “high achievers” than we do (at least in relation to the size of their pupil populations). And it’s no secret that in the U.S., academic achievement tends to correlate with socioeconomic status, hence producing far too few high achievers within the low-income population. But is this a uniquely American problem? How do we compare to other countries?

To begin to answer these questions, Chester Finn and I looked more closely at the PISA 2012 results (in conjunction with a study we’re conducting on how other advanced countries educate their high-ability students). The OECD has a socioeconomic indicator it uses in connection with PISA results called the Index of Economic, Social, and Cultural Status (ESCS). Like most SES gauges that depend heavily on student self-reporting, it’s far from perfect, but to the best of our knowledge it’s no worse than most. In any case, it’s one of the few socioeconomic indicators that allow for cross-national education comparisons. It is derived from parents’ occupational status, educational level, and home possessions,[1] and it can be split into quartiles for a given country, wherein the bottom quarter has the lowest SES and the top quarter has the highest.

PISA results are reported, inter alia, according to seven proficiency levels, ranging from zero to six. Levels 5 and 6 are the highest. To get a feel for this demarcation, approximately...


Of all the responses to my “you’re-not-college-material” essay, there’s one I find most compelling—and worrying. Namely, kids who aren’t “college material” aren’t “career- and technical-education material” either. Springpoint’s JoEllen Lynch says it well:

It’s a myth that CTE meets the needs of low performing kids from low performing schools. So, it depends on what problem we are trying to solve. Are we just looking for more models for students who enter high school fully prepared, or are we trying to create models that will address the needs of kids who are not? I think many people feel that CTE is an answer for the unprepared; this notion is not based on data or an understanding of the demands of good CTE schools.

I stand corrected. Since I wrote my Slate piece, I’ve learned much more about high quality CTE programs, including one I visited in Fordham’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio (the Ponitz Career Technology Center). This high school (with close ties to Dayton’s excellent community college) is even selective, only accepting incoming freshmen who score proficient on Ohio’s math or reading tests and who stayed out of trouble in middle school.

Assuming that Dayton is not an outlier and that Lynch is correct, this raises an obvious question: if CTE is not “an answer for the unprepared,” what is?

Cue RiShawn Biddle of Dropout Nation. He was not happy with my “college-material” essay, arguing that it earned me a...


High-quality teachers are distributed across schools in patterns that resemble life in the desert, fleeing harsh terrain for soothing oases, fleeing poorer schools for more affluent. This report from the Center for American Progress analyzes the policies that regulate the equitable distribution of teachers and recommends policy changes that could lead some teachers to choose the more challenging environments for themselves. First, the researchers reaffirmed that despite the many equity-promoting provisions of NCLB, disparities in teacher quality persist: experienced, effective teachers, who hold at least some the keys to closing student achievement gaps, are disproportionately absent from low-income and minority schools. CAP recommends that states and districts develop systems that link teacher-effectiveness data to pupil achievement in order to identify high-quality instructors and track teacher movement. With that information, states and districts can tackle the distribution challenge by altering school-finance disparities and making sure that effective teachers receive proper compensation at all schools. The federal government should monitor that data and hold states accountable for their teacher distribution policies. Though the author of this report emphasizes the need for bold changes, she objects to heavy-handed approaches like forced teacher relocation. Instead, states and districts should work on incentives and transparency, developing rewards and job supports that will foster a positive work environment and encourage growth among all teachers.

SOURCE: Glenda L. Partee, Attaining Equitable Distribution of Effective Teachers in Public Schools (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress, April 2014)....


The 2008 federal economic stimulus act invested $5 billion to support early-childhood programs, including $500 million for the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which pushes states and localities to participate in the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). One of the quality measures endorsed by QRIS is the widely popular Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale–Revised (ECERS-R). Much research has shown a positive relationship between higher scores on ECERS and children’s development, including academic and social outcomes—but the measure has neither been tested in a nationally representative sample nor subjected to a robust set of controls to lessen the impact of selection bias (e.g., motivated parents might choose higher-quality child care). In this study, Terri Sabol of Northwestern University and Robert Pianta of the University of Virginia use data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Birth Cohort (ECLS-B); they include children born in 2001, ultimately yielding a sample of roughly 10,000 kids, whom they track through age 5, and they also conduct classroom observations in 1,400 center-based providers. They measure a number of outcomes at age 5, including math and literacy, expressive language, and social skills among others—and control for numerous child, family, and center characteristics as well as demographics. The bottom line: the analysts found scant evidence that the ECERS is related to children’s academic or social development. In all, they ran over fifty different analytic models and found few significant effects between this particular measure of quality and outcomes at age 5. Further, programs that scored higher on...


As opposition to the Common Core State Standards has gained momentum in parts of the land, it’s important to ask what happens if a state changes its mind and renounces those standards—which, as we’ve long said, states have every right to do. But then what? Does the state revive its old academic standards, be they good, bad, or average? Does it rewrap the Common Core and affix its own label thereon? (That’s happened already in several places, including some states where the Common Core wasn’t particularly controversial but state pride and sense of ownership are intense.) Does it keep the substance of the Core but add some content of its own—as Common Core authors always expected? (This has occurred, inter alia, in MassachusettsFlorida, and California.) Does it come up with something altogether new and better? Or does it come up with something new and worse?

Last month, when Governor Mike Pence signed a bill officially repealing his state’s 2010 adoption of the CCSS, Indiana became the first Common Core state to formally repudiate the standards. Unfortunately, it appears that, in its haste to reject and replace the CCSS, Indiana seems poised to adopt a set of Potemkin Standards—expectations built with a façade that impresses but with very little enduring substance.

Repealing the Common Core left the state’s teachers and school districts with no curricular or instructional guidance, and it left the state Department of Education little time to finalize a new set of K–12 English and math standards or to develop a workable implementation...