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.

2014 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?Since 2000, the Brown Center has released an annual report taking on three important issues in education policy. In this thirteenth installment, author Tom Loveless presents analysis on the PISA-Shanghai controversy (in brief: by failing to take Shanghai’s Hukou laws into account, the test significantly overstates the city’s performance), Common Core implementation to date (Loveless finds that early-adopter states are showing bigger gains on NAEP, though we believe that it is far too early to draw conclusions), and homework in American schools (an update of a 2003 report on the same topic). The homework issue is particularly thorny, as anti-homework crusades—while in and out of the media spotlight—have maintained for the last decade that kids are being buried in piles of burdensome and ineffective homework. To discover if this is true, Loveless employs three methods. First, he looks at NAEP data from 1984–2012—specifically, at a survey question that asks nine-, thirteen-, and seventeen-year-olds how much time they spent on homework the day before. He found that the homework load has remained stable since 1984 (except among nine-year-olds, more of whom are doing some homework than were before) and that only a small percentage of students report more than two hours of homework per night (5–6 percent for age 9, 6–10 percent for...

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It’s an article of faith in the school-reform community that we should be striving to prepare all students for success in college—if not a four-year degree, then some other recognized and reputable post-secondary credential. The rationale is clear and generally compelling; as a recent Pew study reiterated, people who graduate from college earn significantly more than those who do not. Other research indicates that low-income students in particular benefit from college completion, becoming nearly three times more likely to make it into the middle class than their peers who earn some (or no) college credits. And it’s not just about money: College graduates are also healthier, more involved in their communities, and happier in their jobs.

Thus, in the reformers’ bible, the greatest sin is to look a student in the eye and say, “Kid, I’m sorry, but you’re just not college material.”

But what if such a cautionary sermon is exactly what some teenagers need? What if encouraging students to take a shot at the college track—despite very long odds of crossing its finish line—does them more harm than good? What if our own hyper-credentialed life experiences and ideologies are blinding us to alternative pathways to the middle class—including some that might be a lot more viable for a great many young people? What if we should be following the lead of countries like Germany and Singapore, where “tracking” isn’t a dirty word but a common-sense way to prepare teenagers...

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Today, the U.S Department of Education released Year-Three reports on the 12 states that won funding via Race to the Top’s first two competitions. Here are the five things that jumped out at me.

1.   Common Core implementation, front and center

While politicians and talking heads have been warring over the new standards, these states have been neck-deep in implementation. States are approaching implementation differently—some focusing on training, while others are producing model units and lesson plans—but all of them seem to have kept their eye on this ball.

2.   Will the training work?

A number of states placed huge bets on professional development, spending enormous sums to train their teachers and school leaders. In a few cases, states have served tens of thousands of educators; Florida’s report claims 134,000 educators attended their training sessions. Given the not-so-encouraging research on the efficacy of professional development, we have to wonder if this money was well spent. But as one state leader told me, “We had to take a chance on PD…how else were we going to get our teachers ready for new standards and assessments?”

3.   Teacher-evaluation troubles

Many of the reports highlight the challenges these states face in faithfully implementing the teacher-evaluation promises they made in their applications. This includes not producing growth scores on time, having trouble differentiating teachers as expected, and more. Georgia is probably in the worst shape on this front—it may lose funding because it hasn’t developed the compensation system it promised, and it...

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Late last year, the U.S. Department of Education’s independent research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), released a preliminary but highly informative report on the School Improvement Grant program (SIG).  Its findings help explain why the program is failing so badly and foreshadow IES’s much-anticipated comprehensive analysis of this multi-billion dollar program.

This report focuses on inputs, three “levers” for school improvement: school-level operational authority; state and district support; and state monitoring. Its findings are based on a survey and interviews of school, district, and state administrators.

The most notable finding is that there is very little difference between the goings-on of SIG schools and similarly low-performing schools that didn’t receive SIG funding. SIG schools were marginally more likely than non-SIG schools to have authority over professional development and the length of the school day, but there were no statistically significant differences in other areas. Moreover, in most areas studied (such as student discipline and curriculum), the majority of SIG and non-SIG schools both reported that they lacked primary authority.

Similarly, SIG and non-SIG schools reported receiving generally the same types of district and state supports.

The report is careful to point out that the sample studied was not randomly selected, meaning these results don’t necessarily reflect SIG as a whole.

But when you consider these findings alongside the state-level implementation findings and the dismal student-achievement results released so far, the picture comes into focus: SIG was a terribly...

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Ohio’s urban policymakers are searching for ways to (a) improve their students’ achievement and college-going rates, (b) boost enrollment in their schools, and (c) increase city population—or at least keep people from fleeing. Making progress toward this trifecta of goals is tough-sledding. We at Fordham have documented the struggles of Ohio’s urban schools in our annual report-card analysis, and have observed the massive declines in school enrollment in the state’s “Big 8” urban areas.

A recent Education Next article looks at one college-scholarship program in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a city the size of Canton and with very similar demographics. Established in 2005, these privately funded scholarships allow Kalamazoo’s high-school graduates to attend a Michigan public college or university. The scholarship is worth between 65 to 100 percent of tuition, and scholarship-bearing students are required to maintain a 2.0 grade point average (GPA) while in college.

This aid not only supports college enrollment, but it also is designed to reverse Kalamazoo’s flagging K-12 enrollment and to give the city’s current grade-school students another reason to succeed in their studies. After all, why bother with “college readiness” if it’s unaffordable?

A research study of the program found promising results after its third year (2008). The city’s district enrollment increased, overall and also across both White and African American student groups. Moreover, they found a significant increase in African American students’ GPA and a significant decrease in the number of days suspended for African American and for all students.

The early...

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The goal is innovation and excellence in education, the preferred avenues are digital-learning approaches in any of various forms, and the work is geared toward removing barriers to these approaches: that is the background of Digital Learning Now’s 2013 report card, released last week. The report card measures and grades K–12 education policies in each of the nation’s fifty states against the ten elements that they determined were important to ensure high-quality digital learning (among them embracing new education models, utilizing technology to expand personalized learning, and eliminating barriers to blended learning). The top states this year were Utah and Florida, the only two to get as high as an A–. Ten states were in the B range, and the rest were C+ and below. So, how’d Ohio do? Overall, we scrounged up a D, as did Hawaii and Alaska. We were higher than Pennsylvania and Kentucky but far below Indiana and Michigan. Ohio’s bright spot was in the area of “quality instruction,” for which we received a B+, but that still left us in the middle of the pack, our overall grade pulled down by lack of appropriate funding and less-than-open access to bring that quality instruction equitably across the state. However, Ohio was singled out for a “high note” to end the year: the first round of Straight-A Fund awards in December.

Source: Digital Learning Now, 2013 Digital Learning Report Card (Excellence in Education, March, 2014)...

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“Grit” is a hot new buzzword—and what some believe to be the key to whether a student succeeds. But this study takes a slightly different tack, demonstrating a link between a teacher’s grit and her effectiveness and longevity in the classroom. The authors determined the “grittiness” of a selection of first- and second-year teachers via a blind rating system of their résumés, awarding points to individuals who remained in activities (sports, clubs, and so on) for more than two years and extra points for high achievement in those areas. Then, the researchers assessed the teachers’ performance via their students’ proficiency on a standardized assessment. The teachers who were most effective possessed demonstrably higher grit ratings than their counterparts. Grittier teachers were also more likely to complete the school year. Other measures—such as demographic characteristics, school assignment, SAT scores, college GPA, and leadership abilities—did not yield the same statistically significant correlation. The researchers concluded that strong teachers can be identified during the hiring process through a careful examination of the right personality traits, which manifest in teachers’ high-school and college activities. Principals, take heed!

SOURCE: Claire Robertson-Kraft and Angela Lee Duckworth, “True Grit: Trait-Level Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals Predicts Effectiveness and Retention among Novice Teachers,” Teachers College Record 116(3).

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By now, education observers are aware of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s incursion on the Big Apple’s charter sector.

No one should be surprised; this was no ambuscade, no lying in wait. He publicly campaigned against charters. He actually called his predecessor’s policy of allowing charter public schools to share public-school space with district public schools “abhorrent.”

This has been a shame for low-income kids, of course, given NYC’s charters’ superb performance. But it has made for 24-karat media fodder.

Hizzoner has picked a fight with Eva Moskowitz, not only the operator of a network of tremendously successful charters but also one of the toughest pugilists in the city’s notoriously combative political squared-circle. The Democratic mayor is now involved in internecine warfare over charters with the state’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, who publicly declared, “We will save charter schools.

But de Blasio’s camp hasn’t turned tail; they’ve trickily tergiversated. Despite their words and deeds, the mayor’s camp is claiming he’s not really against chartershis narrative got hijacked. He likes charters just fine!

Former governor Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, brilliantly said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”

Given the mayor’s attempt at playing both sides, his team might be credited with implying a third part of the equation: “You spin in prevarication.”

Though all of this makes for Broadway-ready pyrotechnics, there is an important and as-of-yet unexplored element of this script....

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Do the characteristics of a school and its neighborhood affect whether prospective teachers apply to teach there? To answer this question, analysts attended three large job fairs for Chicago Public Schools in Summer 2006 and compiled extensive data on the preferences and demographics of the 4,000 attending applicants, as well as where they lived in relation to the schools in which they expressed interest. Here are four key findings: First, schools with a larger proportion of white or Asian students had more job fair applicants—a 10 percentage point increase in white or Asian students is associated, on average, with four more applicants per school. Similarly, an increase in free-lunch-eligible students of 10 percentage points is associated with four fewer applicants per school per job fair. Second, African American candidates are more likely to apply to schools serving African American populations, and Hispanic candidates are more drawn toward schools serving larger populations of students with limited English proficiency than they are toward schools with a majority of students of other races. Third, applicants with a degree in math or science appear to value student achievement more: they were more likely to apply to schools with larger proportions of kids meeting basic levels of proficiency than other teachers. Fourth, teachers tend to apply to schools close to home. Candidates are 40 percent less likely to apply to a school that is just three miles further from their homes. The analysts close with several recommendations intended to help lure more qualified...

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The K–12 education world brims with debates and dichotomies that get us into all manner of needless quarrels and cul-de-sacs, thus messing up every reform initiative and retarding progress. In every case, both sides are certain that they speak the whole truth; convinced that opposing views are misguided, perhaps even evil; and insistent that changes the system needs will go awry unless their side prevails.

These philosophical tug-of-wars lead to paralysis akin to what we witness today in Congress and many legislatures. Of them we ask, “Why can’t you compromise, split the difference, make a deal, take the best of both positions, and get something done?”

The ten education dichotomies outlined below should be seen in similar light: neither side owns the truth—and what would do kids the greatest good is an intelligent middle ground that melds the best of both views.

Skills vs. Knowledge

Back in 1987, in What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, Diane Ravitch and I tackled a pair of overlapping “false dichotomies”: skills vs. content and concepts vs. facts. They were prevalent in the education profession then and remain front and center today—indeed, are highlighted by the challenges of implementing (and assessing) the Common Core State Standards, which at first look skills-centric but which also make clear that success hinges on the deployment of a rich, sequential, content-focused curriculum. Already influenced by the analysis of E.D. Hirsch Jr. and the cognitive science that he had exhaustively mined, Diane and I wrote, “It is neither possible nor desirable...

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