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.

For families seeking more than what their child’s assigned school offers, “school choice” has long been a cherished solution. And it’s made strong headway on the U.S. education-policy front. Millions of girls and boys now enjoy access to a range of educational options thanks to innovative school-choice policies.

Sometimes, however, changing schools isn’t the optimal solution—perhaps because no better options are available within a reasonable commute, because the state doesn’t have a viable choice policy, or because the student’s present school is satisfactory in all but a couple of areas. Enter “course choice,” a strategy for widening the education options available to youngsters. As a new white paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argues, it has the potential to dramatically expand access to high-quality courses for many more children from many more backgrounds and locales than we have thus far managed.

Rather than asking kids in need of a better shake to change homes, forsake their friends, or take long bus rides, course choice enables them to learn from the best teachers in the state or nation while staying in their neighborhood schools. It grants them access to an array of course offerings that no one school can realistically gather under its roof, while offering a new revenue opportunity for schools and additional income for public-school teachers. How many Sal Khans are in our schools today just waiting for an opportunity to expand their...

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After twenty years of expanding school-choice options, state leaders, educators, and families have a new tool: course choice, a strategy for students to learn from unconventional providers that might range from top-tier universities or innovative community colleges to local employers, labs, or hospitals.

In Expanding the Education Universe: A Fifty-State Strategy for Course Choice, Fordham’s Michael Brickman outlines policy questions and options to weigh when designing course-choice programs, including issues of student eligibility, course providers, funding, quality control, and accountability.

Spotlight: Course Choice in Louisiana

Louisiana is not the only state with a course-choice program (others include Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin), but it is the farthest along in making such options widely accessible—and the way it has handled any challenges posed by these programs make it an ideal exemplar. Read about barriers that State Superintendent John White and other leaders have had to overcome in designing and implementing course choice.

Download the report: Expanding the Education Universe: A Fifty-State Strategy for Course Choice

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Building upon kindred analyses in FY 2003 and 2007, this magnum opus from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas examines charter funding across the land in fiscal 2011 and finds that per-pupil charter revenues fall drastically short of what their surrounding districts take in. We learn that U.S. charter schools, on average, received 28 percent less than comparable districts. Unfortunately for Ohio’s 100,000-plus charter students, the Buckeye State’s charter-funding disparity is almost as bad as the national average: 22 percent less than districts. Worse yet, that shortfall is considerably larger in Cleveland and Dayton (the two cities in Ohio where the researchers did a deep dive analysis) than the statewide average. Cleveland’s charter schools received 46 percent less than district schools, Dayton’s charters 40 percent. (The per-pupil revenue for Cleveland’s charters was $8,523 versus $15,784 for the district, and the per-pupil revenue for Dayton’s charters was $8,892 versus $14,732 for the district.) Given the long history of dreadful achievement by those two urban school systems, it’s shameful that the principal alternatives available to needy youngsters in those cities are so egregiously underfunded.

What’s the explanation? As in many states, Ohio charter schools do not have access to local revenue streams or facilities funding. (That dual problem continues, save for a few schools in Cleveland.) Although Ohio has changed its school-funding system since these data were gathered, the new formula produces similar revenue amounts for charter schools and would likely reveal similar...

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The digital revolution is sweeping across Ohio. This year, twenty-six e-schools, twelve of which serve students throughout the state, will educate 40,000 or so youngsters. Countless more students will learn in a “blended” classroom or take an online course at their brick-and-mortar school.

One emerging use of technology is to help secondary students recover credit.  At first glance, the flexibility of online learning seems to be tailor-made for students who, for whatever reason, are in dire need of credit recovery. But in her recent Education Next article, journalist Sarah Carr documents a few of the flies in the ointment when it comes to this nascent, computer-based approach to credit recovery.

First, the data and research about online credit-recovery are simply far “too incomplete.” According to an AIR analyst with whom Carr spoke, “Even basic questions are unanswered, like the size of the business [i.e., online learning providers] and the size of the need.” Second, she finds that there is practically no way to determine the quality of an online course provider. In fact, Carr described a New Orleans school where the principal ditched one provider because its courses failed to engage her students and the quizzes were mostly recycled until the student passed them. Lacking an external quality-control authority, the vetting of online courses remains the duty of local educators. Third, Carr provides a few examples of how credit-recovery can be misused and abused. She cites a New York City incident in which administrators pushed failing...

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The digital revolution is sweeping across Ohio. This year, twenty-six e-schools, twelve of which serve students throughout the state, will educate 40,000 or so youngsters. Countless more students will learn in a “blended” classroom or take an online course at their brick-and-mortar school.

One emerging use of technology is to help secondary students recover credit.  At first glance, the flexibility of online learning seems to be tailor-made for students who, for whatever reason, are in dire need of credit recovery. But in her recent Education Next article, journalist Sarah Carr documents a few of the flies in the ointment when it comes to this nascent, computer-based approach to credit recovery.

First, the data and research about online credit-recovery are simply far “too incomplete.” According to an AIR analyst with whom Carr spoke, “Even basic questions are unanswered, like the size of the business [i.e., online learning providers] and the size of the need.” Second, she finds that there is practically no way to determine the quality of an online course provider. In fact, Carr described a New Orleans school where the principal ditched one provider because its courses failed to engage her students and the quizzes were mostly recycled until the student passed them. Lacking an external quality-control authority, the vetting of online courses remains the duty of local educators. Third, Carr provides a few examples of how credit-recovery can be misused and abused. She cites a New York City incident in which administrators pushed failing...

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The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the OarWhen Fordham released The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar, which argued that smaller is better when it comes to state education agencies, the education community took note. Andy Smarick, a coauthor of the report, is in violent agreement with the folks over at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, and even state chiefs are open to these ideas. Here’s some of the best commentary about the white paper (so far):

Paul Hill, founder of CRPE, writes,

Slogans are useful, but they can mislead. We can’t just “blow up” the old governance system, we also have to build a new one. We need superintendents and board members to “relinquish” old regulatory functions, but we must also design new agencies that delegate, not abdicate, their responsibility to kids, parents, and communities.

Also from CRPE, research analyst Ashley Jochim notes political pitfalls:

Today, chiefs’ ability to weather their time at the helm depends greatly on their political skill, fortitude, and good luck. Transformation of SEAs will require a serious effort to convince governors and legislators that states can play a more constructive role, and that doing so will lead to real benefits for children. Reformers are starting to make that case intellectually but have barely begun addressing it politically, saying why elected officials should support state actions

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New research from the Consortium on Chicago School Research provides a relatively easy to-do list for district leaders who want to see more students progress toward graduation. Melissa Roderick and company use real-time data to identify and monitor pupil performance at one intervention point: the ninth-grade transition. By looking at the on-track rate for ninth graders—a student is “on track” when he has enough credits to move to tenth grade and has no more than one F per semester in a core course—researchers found that between 2007 and 2013, the on-track rate rose 25 percentage points—from 57 to 82 percent. (That’s nearly 7,000 additional students who finish ninth grade and move onto tenth grade.) On-track rates improved for students across race and gender lines, too: African American males benefited the most, with an on-track rate increase from 43 percent to 71 percent. In public schools that showed large on-track increases as early as 2008 or 2009, the graduation rate three years later increased by at least eight percentage points. One school saw its graduation-rate increase by twenty percentage points. Chicago Public Schools school administrators and teachers monitored student performance and identified students at risk of falling behind the on-track rate for ninth graders. School leaders were flexible in how they used the data to intervene with students at risk of falling behind (but researchers don’t specify how school leaders intervened with students). Three cheers for research that shows significant results and provides education leaders with strategies that can help students...

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Today brought the eagerly awaited release of the 2013 NAEP results for 12th grade math and reading, which include scores for the nation as a whole as well as eleven pilot states. (NAEP has not traditionally reported state-level data for 12th grade.) There’s no report visible at this time, but the data can be found on a workable online database. Frankly, the results are depressing. In both math and reading, scores remained unchanged from their dismal 2009 levels. That means a mere 26 percent of students are proficient in math, and a slightly-better-but-still-bleak 38 percent are proficient in reading—two percentage points lower than in 1992. Moreover, those scoring below basic levels in math and reading are 35 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Worse yet, achievement gaps between ethnic groups didn’t narrow. To cheer you up just a bit, however, four of the eleven pilot states saw gains in math scores, and two saw reading gains. Of course, that means the others didn’t. Bottom line: whatever good recent reforms may be doing in the earlier grades, they’re not yet paying off at the end of high school—especially for African American and Latino students. And that, obviously, is just for the kids who even make it to the end.

National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation's Report Card Grade 12: Reading and Mathematics 2012 (Washington, D.C.: National Assessment of Educational Progress, May 2014)....

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Among the many problems facing American K–12 education, we don’t have enough highly effective, minority, or male teachers.

Two recent reports from the Center for American Progress (CAP) underscore the first and second of these three shortfalls. As for gender, you can take a look at the NCES data—or just take my word that there are more than three female teachers in U.S. public schools for every male teacher.

If you had to choose, would you rather have your child taught by a highly effective teacher or one who shares his or her race and/or gender?

Of course you’d prefer all of the above, but you may have to face the reality that not many families can have it. I’m reminded of the timeworn conundrum presented to impatient, parsimonious, quality-minded customers by any number of prospective vendors and contractors: “Yes, we can do it better, faster, or cheaper—but we cannot do all three at once. Pick no more than two.”

In a perfect world, you might want your child to be taught by someone who “looks like” him or her and is also highly effective in the classroom. But effective teachers of any race are hard to come by. There just aren’t enough of them, especially in schools serving poor kids. And the pay isn’t good enough to lure huge numbers of others away from more lucrative opportunities. For decades now, American public education has invested its ever-growing budgets in more teachers...

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My colleague Julie Squire and I recently published a report on reforming state departments of education. We argue most state-level reforms ought to be driven by entities other than the SEA, which should focus on a narrower, but still important set of responsibilities.

Our report was intended to challenge the dominant view (i.e., state reform requires a more muscular SEA) and explain how a new approach might be implemented.

We recognized that our take was sufficiently different so as to require not just a strong theoretical base and plenty of evidence but also measured recommendations and explicit cautions. We aimed to produce a sober assessment of current conditions and guarded optimism about a new tack. This is why we dedicate an entire section to the problem and another to the risks of our argument.

We’re fortunate our paper has been taken seriously by a number of serious people, including those who largely agree, those open to a discussion, and those with reservations.

In the last category fall two sharp observers who’ve produced responses warranting attention. Not coincidentally, both are affiliated with CRPE, which has studied systemic reform for ages and dedicated significant recent bandwidth to SEA reform. To cut to the chase, I enthusiastically agree with most of what both have written.

The first is a smart piece by Paul Hill, CRPE’s founder and a researcher who’s thought deeply about the theory underpinning our piece and that theory’s application to...

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