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.

The Brookings Institution has come to its senses and found a splendid way to retain Russ Whitehurst on its senior research team. Having cut my own policy-research teeth at Brookings (back in the late Middle Ages), I was doubly dismayed—and said so—when I read a few weeks back that they were seeking a replacement to head the Brown Center, which Russ has led with huge distinction and productivity these past six years. What a terrible move it would have been to let him leave. Well, after much clanking of gears, he's not leaving after all. He's switching from one Brookings "department" to another, and will henceforth be a force to be reckoned with in their highly regarded Center on Children and Families, located within the Institution’s "economic studies" section. The education research and policy world benefits hugely from Whitehurst's continuation at Brookings. Hurrah for this happy outcome for all concerned (except the diminished Brown Center).

If you’re an aficionado of the Education Gadfly, there’s a fair chance you’ve read or heard me discussing my new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher.  It’s written wholly for educators and fueled by interviews and discussions with hundreds of teacher-leaders. In it, I observe that even terrific teachers routinely say they feel stymied, offer insights on how teachers can create the schools and systems where they can do their best work, and explain where practitioners tend to stumble on this count.

But what about policymakers and reformers? What does The Cage-Busting Teacher mean for them? How can they create the conditions whereby cage-busting teachers can thrive? Let me offer four suggestions.

First, policymakers and reformers need to keep in mind that they’re not the ones who educate kids. Heck, they’re only occasionally in classrooms—and they’re not the ones held accountable for how students are faring. From the teacher’s perspective, they—we—are backseat drivers. Everybody gets frustrated by backseat drivers, even when they have good advice to offer. Passengers can carefully study the GPS or old-fashioned roadmap while the driver focuses on the road. They can see signs that the driver missed, maybe even the truck out front making an unexpectedly fast stop.  But backseat drivers...

  • A few weeks ago, the Gadfly highlighted the work of the New York Times, which ran a long and deeply reported (some would say tendentious) examination of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter network. The piece vividly detailed the disputes circulating around the schools and led Moskowitz to issue an impassioned response to her employees. More recently, the paper has published testimonials from parents of Success Academy pupils, including both those distraught by the organization’s strict behavioral controls and those elated with their children’s improved grades and newfound zest for learning. The experiences they depict should already be familiar to those who have followed the story—Peerless school culture! Crushing academic expectations! Scary-good test scores! Just-plain-scary disciplinary practices!—but it’s worth celebrating the fact that these parents can choose to either stick with the program or look for a better fit for their kids. The first two lines of one account, from a Manhattan father, are particularly cheering: “I grew up poor, and my parents never had a choice in where to send me to school. So my wife, Mariann, and I knew we wanted to find the very best option for our son Luke.”
  • Those words should be
  • ...

Everyone knows that impenetrable jargon is to the education community what sputtering indignation is to Twitter: both irritating and contagious. When teachers and administrators hold forth on the importance of psychometrics and normed modality processing, it emboldens the rest of us to test our comfort with stackable credentials and mastery-based learning. And in the midst of this morass of deliberate obscurantism, a term like “career-ready” should seem like a godsend. But as this new brief from ACT, Inc. reminds us, there are important nuances to even the most outwardly simple concepts.

Nearly ten years ago, the organization released Ready for College and Ready for Work: Same or Different?, a similar publication that made the case for equivalently rigorous education for all high school graduates, regardless of whether they matriculate into colleges or head directly for the workplace. As the authors of Unpacking “Career Readiness” note, the earlier brief “described college and career readiness in terms of benchmarks focusing solely on academic assessments and the level of education…required for success in postsecondary education or targeted workforce training.” They concede, though, that subsequent research “has clearly established the value of additional areas of competency that are important for both college...

After the expectations-busting success of Cage-Busting Leadership two years ago, it’s no surprise that Rick Hess, head of the American Enterprise Institute’s education policy shop, is back with a sequel. The Cage-Busting Teacher has an arguably tougher goal than its predecessor, as there are millions more teachers than district leaders, and thousands more bars in teachers’ cages. Hess’s advice provides a road map for ambitious teachers. But his acknowledgement of critical, systemic issues highlights the fact that teachers can’t—and shouldn’t—have to go at it alone.

The book uses real-life anecdotes, peppered with references to everything from Say Anything to Aaron Sorkin, to illustrate cage busting and urge educators to take an active role in reforming the system to work for them. It’s an eminently readable work with deeply practical advice. Chapters focus on “managing up” with overworked administrators; identifying problems and selling solutions; becoming a savvy networker with district, union, and political leadership; and explaining common trip wires, like budgets and the policy cycle, in plainspoken English. High-placed leaders from TFA to the AFT weigh in on how teachers can develop greater agency and autonomy within the profession. As a former teacher who struggled with finding both during my two...

Greg Toppo

Note: On Tuesday, April 28, from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. ET, the Fordham Institute will host a discussion with Greg Toppo on his new book, The Game Believes in You, from which this essay is adapted. See our event page for more information and to register. All are invited to stay for a small reception following the event.

After decades of ambivalence, suspicion, and sometimes outright hostility, educators are beginning to discover the charms of digital games and simulations, in the process rewriting centuries-old rules of learning, motivation, and success.

Teachers have long used cards, dice, pencil-and-paper games, and board games to teach and reinforce key concepts. But digital technology, and games in particular, go even further. Because games look so little like school, they force us to reconsider our most basic assumptions about how children learn: What is school for and what should students do there? Where should kids get their content and how? How important is it that they like what they’re doing? What is our tolerance for failure and what is our standard for success? Who is in control here?

Even the electronic versions of games have a history dating back two generations. The...

Marianne Lombardo

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this commentary was published on EdReform Now’s blog on April 8. The post contrasted innocent misunderstandings (using Allstate’s elderly-woman-misunderstands-social-media esurance ad) to the more serious act of purposely leading people to misunderstandings. The post simply and succinctly clears the air about how school funding – especially for charter schools – actually works in Ohio.

When “policy experts” purposely mislead the public into misunderstandings about education and school funding, it isn’t a humorous misunderstanding. It’s appalling.

For example, charter school detractors promote the idea that charter schools exist to privatize education and make profits for greedy investors:

“[Mayor Emanuel] took money from these schools . . . and gave it to elite private schools founded by his big campaign contributors. I would stop privatizing our public schools.“

- Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Chicago Mayor election video

Actually, public charter schools are part of the public education system. They are approved and monitored by public entities. Nationally, nearly 90 percent are run by a non-profit organization (23% in Ohio). These non-profits are very much like other publicly-funded programs that serve children, such as Head Start centers.

Most egregious, however, is...

A February study from the Center for Education Data and Research aims to determine if National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) are more effective than their non-certified counterparts. Established in 1987, National Board Certification is a voluntary professional credential designed for experienced teachers in twenty-five content areas. Certification is awarded through a rigorous portfolio assessment process consisting of four components: content knowledge; differentiation in instruction; teaching practice and classroom environment; and effective and reflective practices. These components are analyzed via teacher “artifacts,” including videos of classroom lessons, student work, and reflective essays. Across the U.S., more than 100,000 teachers (or roughly 3 percent of the teacher workforce) is National Board Certified.

This study examines data out of Washington State, which boasts the fourth-highest number of NBCTs in the country. Washington provides financial incentives for teachers earning board certification, including bonuses of up to a $5,000 for teachers working in high-need schools. The study finds that NBCTs produce additional student learning gains on state exams that correspond to about 1–2 additional weeks at the elementary level and in middle school reading. In middle school math, the results indicate a whopping five weeks of additional learning, compared to non-NBCTs with similar...

Tell me if you disagree, my fellow wonks and pundits, but I don’t think anyone predicted a 22-0 vote from the Senate HELP committee on ESEA reauthorization. What an amazing tribute to the bipartisan leadership of Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray.

So what happens now? The next stop is the Senate floor, where members of the committee and others will introduce many an amendment—some of which will be plenty controversial, but few of which will muster sixty votes. At that point, we’ll learn whether there are sixty votes to pass the bill as a whole. The unanimous committee vote certainly bodes well, though it’s no guarantee. (I can’t imagine Senator Rand Paul voting for a bill on the Senate floor that doesn’t including Title I portability, for example, but there aren’t the numbers for that. So he’ll vote nay.)

And if the Senate does pass a bill? Then there’s that pesky House of Representatives. That’s where things get interesting. House Republican leaders will face three choices:

First, they can take the Senate bill straight to the House floor and seek to pass it with bipartisan support. They will almost surely lose many liberals and conservatives, but...

In education reform, we like to say that demography isn’t destiny—that, with the right supports, poor children can achieve at high levels despite the many challenges they face. But today, I’d like to discuss demography more literally—namely, the nation’s birth rate. Because it is destined to lead to significant teacher layoffs in the near future.

Much like the Great Depression did, the onset of the Great Recession led to a sharp decline in the U.S. birth rate. This graph illustrates the trend clearly:

More babies were born in the United States in 2007 than any other year in history—even more than at the peak of the Baby Boom. But the numbers started to plummet in 2008; as of 2013 (the most recent data), we’ve seen six straight years of decline. We are now 9 percent below 2007’s high.

So what does this mean for schools? For starters, remember that there’s a five year lag between birth and kindergarten entry. Do the math and you’ll learn that, at least nationally, there are a whole lot of first and second graders (born in 2007). But the kindergarten class is...

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