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.

Bill de Blasio’s public-education agenda consists of seven boasts (things he says he’s already done, part of his record as public advocate) and nineteen plans for future changes (“policies, agendas, and programs” that he promises to “work tirelessly to implement”). Minus the overlap, they add up to two dozen ideas. Here’s how I score them:

Potentially worthwhile, but over-the-top or unaffordable: These five notions include his preschool promise. The problem? Preschool could do considerable good for some very needy kids, but the universal version he’s espousing is a costly, unnecessary windfall for hundreds of thousands of middle-class parents and apt to result in a program that’s too skimpy to really benefit the children who need it most. (Note, too, that the city’s current pre-K programs are under-enrolled.)

Much the same can be said for universal after-school programs for middle schoolers, considering that plenty of parents already have this worked out. A serious education reformer would instead expand learning time by lengthening the school day and year. But the unions won’t like that.

As for universal school breakfasts and arts education, believe it or not, a lot of kids really do get fed before leaving for school, and art, worthy as it is, mustn’t crowd out the three R’s before children have mastered them.

Overdue reforms (if he puts teeth in them): I count two here.

Getting every child to read by...

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One of the most important and interesting questions I get about my book, The Urban School System of the Future, is whether I think its analysis and recommendations apply to non-urban districts. Though my thinking on this is still developing, my current response is as follows: When it comes to suburban districts, yes, much, but not all, is applicable; rural districts, however, are a different story (more on this in the weeks to come).

If you’re interested in the subject of reform in different contexts, you might want to read AEI’s recent report about Douglas County, an affluent district outside of Denver. It tells the story of a school board and district leadership, in an attempt to move their district from good to great, embracing a right-leaning agenda and some of the initiatives traditionally associated with reforming struggling urban districts, including improved teacher-evaluation systems, new educator-salary programs, and expanded parental choice. The choice aspect of the paper is especially interesting—the district has been resourceful in its use of the state charter law.

But the other reason to read the report is that the politics of the Douglas reform effort are intense. Though this Politico article on the topic is tendentious (a few paragraphs in, it’s clear the reforms aren’t going to get a sympathetic treatment), you’ll find a number of very interesting facts, themes, and questions, including the propriety of disclosing who funds such reports (for example, my organization, Bellwether Education Partners, always discloses relevant relationships—you can...

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On November 5th, Colorado voters head to the polls to decide whether they want to substantially raise their taxes to better fund schools (and, separately, to regulate their newly legal pot—but more on that some other time). The plan, known as Amendment 66, is spearheaded by State Senator Mike Johnston (D) and funded by a coalition of teacher unions and others. It would raise income taxes by $950 million by ditching the state's flat tax of 4.63 percent. In its place would be a system with two rates: 5 percent for incomes at or below $75,000 per year and 5.9 percent for incomes above $75,000.

Passage of the amendment would green-light a previously passed and wide-ranging bill, also led by Johnston, designed to revamp the existing school-funding formula and divvy up the new money, if taxpayers decide to provide it. The bill has some ideas that, by themselves, should be fairly popular. For example, it lifts caps on preschool and Kindergarten enrollment, moves away from an easy-to-manipulate, single enrollment-count day, and refreshes the funding formula to weight for poverty and ELL status, among other factors. But, to many others, the cost to taxpayers seems outrageously high.

Supporters and opponents are sharply at odds when it comes to what this proposal might mean and, of course, whether it should pass. But those on both sides feel certain of one thing: The final result is sure to be a nail biter. Here’s a breakdown of five factors that could make the...

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Dear Deborah,

Thanks for the opportunity to debate the critical issues in education and social policy with you. You are an icon and a hero, and it's been a true honor.

Someday I'd like to write a book on anti-poverty efforts, and I hope it might have the title above. Understanding that my knowledge about this vast topic is still limited, here's a first cut at the basic outline. I think you'll agree that there are quite a few items on the list about which we can agree.

Introduction: A smart anti-poverty strategy starts with three principles:

1. Think intergenerationally.

We'd all like to see greater social mobility in America, but we need to be realistic about what's achievable. It's never been the case that many of the poorest Americans have gone from rags to riches over the course of their own lives. More common has been an intergenerational story: The penniless, uneducated immigrant arrives through Ellis Island and lands in an urban slum. But then, via hard work and sacrifice (and, in some cases, help from the government or from trade unions), he gets a foothold in the economy, makes sure his own children learn English and do well in school, and ensures they make it into the great American middle class. And the third generation climbs even higher.

Poverty, by this telling, isn't such a problem if it's temporary....

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Taiwan (a.k.a. the Republic of China or Chinese Taipei) has much going for it in the education realm, particularly its sky-high results on international assessments, but it also has plenty of problems in this sphere. Some came as no great surprise when I visited. The country has too many universities, for example, especially as the population shrinks, plus a fixation on everybody attending them even if their life plans don’t require it. That government schools charge tuition, however modest, for compulsory education, strikes an American visitor as peculiar and slightly unfair. I surely don’t love the practice of letting teachers select their schools with the principal having almost no say in the process. Even worse: It’s all but impossible to redeploy, reassign, or dismiss teachers, however inefficient or ineffectual (or just plain unnecessary) their present roles. It also struck me as questionable to lump gifted students into special education—but then give nearly all the dedicated resources to the disabled kids who share that overarching designation. Gifted education ends up getting short shrift.

All worrying, yes, and definitely worth reforming, but not mind-bendingly unexpected. Here’s what was: Besides its influential teacher union, Taiwan has a powerful parent union that now appears to cause at least as much harm as it does good. (In private, the educators I met all agreed with this judgment.)

Walk through the front door of a Taiwanese public school—the door I first walked through belongs to one of the most respected high schools in the land—and one...

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The latest study by IES attempts to document how American eighth graders compare to their peers around the globe. Using NAEP scores to predict performance on TIMSS, an international test that examines what students know about math and science, analysts included thirty-eight countries and nine other educational systems in their inquiry. And the results? Not terrible. Eighth-grade students in thirty-six states outperformed the international TIMSS average in math, and those in forty-seven states did so in science. In the interest of naming names, the states that performed below that average in math included Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia, Alabama, and the District of Columbia, while four systems—South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan—bested every U.S. state in math. Massachusetts did well in math compared to other systems, but when matched against the top performers, its scores weren’t anything to write home about: For instance, 19 percent of its eighth graders scored at the “advanced” level—compared to roughly 50 percent in Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore. As for science, forty-seven states scored higher than the TIMSS average, while three states’ scores—Mississippi, Alabama, and D.C.—scored lower. Six out of ten of the top scorers in science were in the U.S., including a decent chunk of the northeast states: Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. In general, the U.S. fared better in science than it did in math. That said, we ought to keep in mind a few caveats: (1) NAEP and TIMSS measure different things [link to podcast segment], even if the scores on...

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The “fifty-state review” of educational policies has proliferated into a literary genre of its own. Extant are fifty-state reviews of academic standards, charter school laws, a whole plethora of ed-reform policies, teacher-union strength, and even bullying laws. Add to this growing body of literature the National Council on Teacher Quality’s (NCTQ) recent fifty-state review of teacher evaluation policies. For NCTQ analysts, it’s not merely the teacher-evaluation tool per se that is important—it is also about how schools use evaluations in staffing decisions. The following are the three key takeaways from this study: First, teacher-evaluation policies have moved speedily—propelled, in part, by federal policy—through state legislatures. For example, in 2009 just fifteen of the fifty-one states (including D.C.) mandated that teacher evaluations be based on objective measures of student achievement. Now, forty-one states require such measures. Second, the degree to which teacher-evaluation systems are rigid or flexible varies across states. More than half of states (twenty-nine) give local districts considerable latitude in designing and implementing a homegrown evaluation system. The rest of the states take a heavier-handed approach, either mandating a single statewide system for all districts or a statewide system where districts can seek an “opt-out” waiver from the state if they implement a comparable evaluation system. Third, among the states with a teacher-evaluation policy based on achievement measures, state policies vary widely in how evaluations are linked to staffing decisions. Just six states tie evaluations to teacher salaries, while twenty-three states tie unsatisfactory evaluations...

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After a week of insider chatter predicting that L.A. schools chief John Deasy would resign in February, the L.A. Unified Board of Education issued him a satisfactory evaluation—and his contract has been extended through 2016. It’s no secret that L.A.’s teacher union has no love of Deasy, due in part to his support for the parent trigger, his push for student-performance-based teacher evaluations, and his Breakfast in the Classroom program. Most recently, he has been criticized for his handling of the district’s $1 billion iPad rollout. For Dara’s analysis of what’s next for Deasy and LAUSD, check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast. [Link to podcast]

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice filed a motion asking a Louisiana district court for more time to produce documents requested by the state’s attorneys—including the federal desegregation orders upon which the DOJ based its lawsuit against the Bayou State’s school-voucher program in the first place. Governor Jindal promptly responded, pointing to this as yet another example of the Obama administration’s incompetence. “Were these documents lost in the Obamacare website? Or did the Department of Justice just ignore the documents and file a lawsuit against the state without having all of the information available?” Whatever the case, Holder’s certainly made a hash of it. Here’s hoping he cancels the lawsuit entirely....

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Louisiana recently released A-to-F school grades for the 2012–13 school year. These are the first results from the state’s new accountability system.

I take away three big things from the release. First, states are getting increasingly sophisticated about accountability systems. Second, the changes made by Louisiana’s leaders show that there’s no such thing as a perfect system—to have an accountability system is to make subjective, and therefore debatable, decisions. Third, the early indications are that, as was the case in Massachusetts and Florida over the last decade plus, Louisiana’s strong accountability system is contributing to improved student results.

Here are the facts. Schools are now scored on a 150-point scale (down from the previous 200-point scale), and several changes were made to the measures comprising the rankings. Attendance no longer counts toward scores at elementary schools, and high school scores take into account student performance on the ACT—Louisiana recently became the 10th state to have all high school students take the ACT. The education department no longer gives schools points for students who score below grade level, and schools can qualify for bonus points for improving the performance among their lowest-performing students.

For comparison purposes, the state released letter grades based on the old system in addition to the new ratings. The former criteria would have resulted in both more A-ranked schools and more F-ranked schools. The ...

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Here’s a simple thought experiment:

Sam and Ben are eight-year-old identical twins. Like most identical twins, they are the same in almost every way. They do, however, differ in two important respects: Sam is smarter than Ben, but Ben is naturally a harder worker. So here’s my question: All other things being equal (in this case, quite literally), which twin is likely to be a more successful adult?

The answer is Ben, the harder worker. Ben has a far greater chance of achieving success than does Sam. And this is an unacceptable consequence of our country’s inadequate education system, particularly its ineffective education of higher-ability students.

Hard work is a more learned characteristic than is intelligence. Circumstances can easily lead someone to work harder; intelligence is a more fixed attribute (if not fixed entirely). But BOTH of these attributes—hard work and ability—are vital for success.

Let’s look at two possible outcomes for the stars of our story. In this instance, Sam and Ben are in the same math class learning long division. They have four days to learn it before they’re tested. Sam can learn long division in two days; Ben can grasp the same concept in four.

Outcome 1: Sam only wanted to work for one day; Ben toiled for all four. Regardless of ability, Sam is now behind Ben.

Outcome 2: Both twins put in the required time to learn long division. And both do well on the test. BUT Sam’s time was wasted for two days

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