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.

Behavioral psychology tells us that to gain traction on our problems, we should separate and categorize their individual parts. We tend to do this in education reform, too, identifying and tackling discrete challenges, one at a time (think: teacher evaluations, funding formulas, governance). But according to a new book by business and education professors Ian Mitroff, Lindan Hill, and Can Alpaslan, that way of thinking might actually exacerbate the problem. The authors examine the ways that educators, union leaders, and reformers have approached the interconnected problems that make up “The Education Mess,” as they dub it (income inequality, poverty, hunger, poor health, the achievement gap, etc.). They apply the Jungian systems framework, viewing education as a system of interconnected problems rather than a machine with independent parts. Their critique of Indiana’s education reform overhaul in 2012 demonstrates this perfectly: Mitroff et al. worry that the largely structural changes made by the state will not be systemic enough to support sustainable growth. Their favorite example of systems thinking done right, however, is the Harlem Children’s Zone, which they cite frequently throughout the book. And while we at Fordham are a little skeptical about the scalability of efforts like HCZ, this book offered a unique lens by which to view The Education Mess. And if it takes a village to raise a child, it surely takes a village to improve education.

SOURCE: Ian Mitroff, Lindan B. Hill, and Can M. Alpaslan, Rethinking the Education Mess: A Systems Approach...

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The nation’s two largest teacher labor unions (AFT and NEA), the largest public-sector employee labor union (SEIU), and other national organizations are rallying today on their “National Day of Action.” Unfortunately, this conglomerate of labor and liberal interest groups has put forward a slate of tired and worn-out “adequacy” principles and solutions that are better suited for another time and place. The principles represent an input-driven, compliance-based public education model that has yielded decades of academic mediocrity and nary a whiff of excellence.

Meanwhile, this coalition portrays any effort from education “outsiders” to reform America’s public school system as “corporate”—not because there is any evidence of a corporate conspiracy but because it polls well in our increasingly polarized society. This is an unambiguous attempt by teacher unions to preserve their monopoly over the public-school system. The message to those outside the union sphere of influence is clear: Butt out.

We won’t be so kind as to accede. For, as we argue below, the seven principles that this coalition has laid out are deeply flawed. If our ultimate objective is for our public schools and students to achieve higher academic performance, Ohio needs a bolder set of guiding principles. To its credit, the Buckeye State (sometimes with and sometimes without labor support) is indeed undertaking bold, promising educational reforms in our K–12 schools.

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Labor’s principle #1: Public schools are public institutions.

Public schools are of course public institutions; as such, taxpayers—individuals and businesses alike—have a...

Checker Finn, chagrined at the lack of attention to gifted education in the U.S., has decided to study what other nations do. His initial assessment is that we’re not the only one giving high-ability kids minimal thought. Such a strange, unfortunate phenomenon.

With the failure of SIG, we need a Plan B ASAP for kids in failing schools. I’ve long argued for a massive new schools strategy. (More on this to come in an upcoming blog post.) If you’re likeminded or intrigued by the idea of the starting-fresh approach, check out the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ ESEA-reauthorization recommendations. This is a blueprint for Plan B.

I think single-purpose chartering bodies are the future. In fact, I think all public schools (and all private schools participating in voucher or tax-credit programs) should have performance contracts with them (more on this in an upcoming AEI paper). NACSA has a terrific short policy brief on such independent chartering boards. Check it out.

If you follow the increasing use of Value-Added Measures (VAMs) and Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs) in state-, district-, school-, and teacher-accountability systems, read this very good new Mathematica working paper. There’s high correlation between the two, but there are important differences in how teacher ratings shake out based on differences in student populations. Important and fascinating implications.

Ten years ago, TNTP released its first report, Missed Opportunities, which I vividly remember reading in disbelief—urban districts were...

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When the Department of Education began offering No Child Left Behind waivers in 2011, states beat down the doors of 400 Maryland Avenue to obtain one. But did allowing states flexibility steer them towards better accountability systems? To answer this question, researchers Morgan Polikoff, Andrew McEachin, Stephani Wrabel, and Matthew Duque painstakingly reviewed and coded each waiver, looking, for instance, at whether they moved accountability systems toward “growth models” and away from “status models.”  Their findings? Let’s let Matthew di Carlo of the Shanker Institute give the sobering news. Out of forty-two states with accepted waiver applications,

17 exclusively use some version of proficiency or other cutpoint-based rates to identify priority schools. Another 23 employ a composite index consisting of different measures, but in most of these indexes, proficiency still plays the dominant role….So, put simply, the vast majority of states that have had their waiver applications accepted are still relying predominantly or completely on absolute performance, most commonly proficiency rates, to identify low-performing schools.

As Mike explained earlier this week, that’s a problem. And a missed opportunity.

SOURCE: Morgan S. Polikoff et al., “The Waive of the Future? School Accountability in the Waiver Era,” in press at Educational Researcher, 2013.

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For a decade, the nonprofit Institute for Innovation in Public Choice (IIPSC) has helped the cities of New York, Boston, Denver, and New Orleans bring order to the Wild West of school choice, using the one-two punch of economic theory and custom software. To match students with seats in public schools—either district or charter—the IIPSC builds algorithms that employ three kinds of data: the schools that families want their kids to attend, the number of available seats in every grade at each school, and each schools’ admissions rules. Newly flush with a $1.2 million grant from the Dell Foundation, the IIPSC plans to expand into Philadelphia, Washington, and possibly Detroit. Hat tip!

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education released proposed priorities for a new competitive grant program for charter school support organizations, to come from the annual “national activities fund.” These priorities highlight what the Department deems to be the “key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale,” and they include gaining efficiency through economies of scale, improving accountability, providing quality education to students with disabilities an English language learners, and supporting personalized technology-enabled learning. While these are important policies at the surface level, it is unclear what the long-term implications and unintended consequences may be of focusing grant making solely on the bigger charter entities and whether smaller, unaffiliated charter schools will realize any benefits.

On Wednesday, President Obama delivered a big speech on inequality, in which he brought up...

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Occam’s Razor is the well-known principle that “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Keep that in mind as various pundits hypothesize about why the U.S. scored below the international average in the 2012 PISA assessment in math, and at the average in reading and science, and why we don’t seem to be making any gains over time on these much-watched gauges. Dennis Van Roekel offers the poverty hypothesis as an explanation. I’m not unsympathetic to the argument (though America’s child-poverty rate is not as unusual as many people think), but let’s consider all of the assumptions that one must make to support it.

First, one must assume that math is somehow more related to students’ family backgrounds than are reading and science, since we do worse in the former. That’s quite a stretch, especially because of much other evidence showing that reading is more strongly linked to socioeconomic class. It’s well known that affluent toddlers hear millions more words from their parents than do their low-income peers. Initial reading gaps in Kindergarten are enormous. And in the absence of a coherent, content-rich curriculum, schools have struggled to boost reading scores for kids coming from low-income families. Yet many U.S. schools have succeeded in boosting the math achievement of their low-income students. In fact, the U.S. has shown tremendous progress on NAEP in raising the math scores of poor fourth and eighth graders. (Van Roekel, a former math teacher, should appreciate that.)

So the second assumption must...

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I’m halfway through an ambitious research project, in which I examine how other countries educate their high-ability kids in the hope that we might pick up tips that would prove useful in improving the woeful state of “gifted education” in the U.S. (In case you’ve forgotten what’s woeful about it, look here, here, and here.)

So far, I’ve checked out eight lands worth taking seriously, all of which have done pretty well over the years on PISA, TIMSS, and similar measures and all of which are fairly termed “competitors” in the planetary economy. (I’m talking about Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Western Australia, England, Finland, and Hungary.) I will soon have more observations from Canada and countries in Europe. Here are a dozen early impressions:

  • Nobody has blown me away with a perfect approach. Singapore probably comes closest. As one might expect, they take human-capital development seriously at every level—but at present, their full-on gifted-ed program is limited to 1 percent of the population, which seems skimpy. (It’s under review and may be expanded.)
  • There’s scant coordination between what passes for gifted education in the early and middle grades and what happens at the high-school level. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Finland, and Hungary, for example, all have some ultra-selective high schools that end up giving some smart kids an impressive education, but these are preceded by thin supplemental programs (a couple of hours a week) in the earlier grades or, in Japan’s case, essentially nothing. Japanese
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Poland’s gains in mathematics and science on the 2012 PISA assessments made big news in the United States. The impressive achievements by fifteen-year-old Polish youngsters contrast starkly with the scores of American youngsters. U.S. results have remained essentially flat since the tests were first given in 2000 to 180,000 students in 32 countries. As a result of these diverging trajectories, Polish students now outperform their American peers in both math and science by a significant margin.

I was a high-school teacher in Poland in 1990–91 and again in 1994–95. During my first stint, I taught in a town of about 15,000; the second time, I worked in one of Warsaw’s elite high schools. The children of the students I taught are now the Polish generation that is outpacing much of the world in academic achievement.

After reading the new PISA report—especially when read in tandem with Amanda Ripley’s excellent recent book—I am not really surprised by Poland’s success. The students I taught had many of the attributes for success that now benefit their own children. These included families that care deeply about education and that view education to be the path to upward mobility. By doing well in school, children could do more with their lives. This was a belief I saw in the parents both of small-town students and of elite metropolitan kids.

Poles also take great pride in knowledge: acquiring it and showing it off. I was always amazed, and more than...

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America’s approach to the education of children with disabilities is antiquated, costly, and ineffective. “Special education” as we know it is broken—and repainting the surface won’t repair it. It cries out for a radical overhaul. Far too many children emerge from our special-ed system without the skills, knowledge, and competencies that they need for a successful life that fully capitalizes on their abilities. This ineffectual system is also very, very expensive. Yet for a host of reasons—inertia, timidity, political gridlock, fear of litigation, fear of interest groups, ignorance, lack of imagination, and so on—neither our education leaders nor our policy leaders have shown any inclination to modernize it. Instead, they settle for “paint jobs”—waivers and the like.

Federal policy is responsible for much of this failure. Even though the education world has changed around it—as have technology, mobility, fiscal conditions, demographics, and so much more—it remains essentially stuck where it was in 1975 when the first major national law in this realm (now known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) was passed.

It was much needed at the time. Many children with disabilities (in those days they were called “handicapped”) had been denied education or given versions of it wholly unsuited to their needs and unlikely to do them much good. Some adults believed that such kids could not learn. Schools in many cases did not know how to educate them well. And few states or districts had focused on the problem.

So Congress did—and President Ford...

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“The United States’ standings haven’t improved dramatically because we as a nation haven’t addressed the main cause of our mediocre PISA performance — the effects of poverty on students,” Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said in a statement. – “American 15-Year-Olds Lag, Mainly in Math, on International Standardized Tests,” by Motoko Rich, New York Times, December 3, 2013

Occam’s Razor is the well-known principle that “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Keep that in mind today, PISA Day, as various pundits hypothesize about why the U.S. scored below the international average in math, and at the average in reading and science, and why we don’t seem to be making any gains over time on these much-watched gauges.

Dennis Van Roekel offers the poverty hypothesis as an explanation. I’m not unsympathetic to the argument (though America’s child-poverty rate is not as unusual as many people think), but let’s consider all of the assumptions that one must make to support it.

First, one must assume that math is somehow more related to students’ family backgrounds than are reading and science, since we do worse in the former. That’s quite a stretch, especially because of much other evidence showing that reading is more strongly linked to socioeconomic class. It’s well known that affluent toddlers hear millions...

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