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 SWEET SMELL OF CREEPING DISILLUSIONMENT
The older students get, the more pessimistic (or perhaps realistic) they become regarding their future job prospects, according to this Gallup Student Poll. While 68 percent of fifth graders strongly agreed with the statement, “I know I will find a good job after I graduate,” only 48 percent of twelfth graders expressed the same sentiment. Whether this is a reflection of the rough young adult job market or a simple loss of youthful optimism, schools are increasing focus on their students’ college and career readiness.

STATE YOUR BUSINESS
Senator Lamar Alexander has indicated his leaning towards keeping federal testing requirements in the new ESEA bill, but giving states the freedom to choose how they use it to hold their schools accountable. Michael Petrilli says it well: “States should continue to experiment with various interventions in low-performing schools. But let’s admit that we don’t know precisely what that should look like, and thus we definitely shouldn’t prescribe a particular approach from Washington.”

CAP'S OFF
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker unveiled his proposal for the 2015-17 education budget, with plans to extend voucher participation beyond the thousand-student cap and increase accountability...

  • President Obama released his 2016 budget proposal this week, and the media welcomed it with loads of over-analysis. Yet Congress has no use for it.  One Republican House member went so far as to call it “laughable.” It won’t guide legislation for the next twelve months, regardless of what it says about testing or charter schools or anything else. Moreover, the Republicans’ aversion is based on far more than partisanship. The $4 trillion budget is packed with new taxes, yet still isn’t balanced—a major problem when the government is already borrowing money for the programs we have. The White House called it the “beginning of a negotiation.” Translation: It’s unreasonable, and they know it.
  • On Monday, comments closed on the Department of Education’s proposed regulations designed to improve the quality of teacher-preparation programs. Two noteworthy changes would be the collection and distribution of more meaningful data on program quality and the withholding of TEACH grants if programs aren’t up to par. Both are worthwhile upgrades, considering the grisly state of U.S. teacher training. Not surprisingly, the major teacher and professor advocacy groups opposed the regulations, including the American Federation of Teachers and the
  • ...

How do we get new and better private schools of choice? That’s the question AEI’s Michael McShane and a cadre of researchers and practitioners dive into in this new edited volume. The book and a corresponding conference acknowledge that “better is not good enough.” Indeed, for far too long, supporters of school choice have been content with merely providing alternatives to district school options on the assumption that choice was a sufficient guarantor of quality. Instead, this book calls for a “nimble, agile, and market-driven” system of schools. Among the high points is Andy Smarick’s look at what has worked in chartering: incubation (leadership pipelines, start-up capital, strategic support, and political advocacy) and network building. He also reprises his call for “authorizers” to oversee publicly funded private schools. McShane agrees that this model could “provide oversight without stifling the set of options available for school choice.” Perhaps. But private schools, from Catholic schools to those providing alternative curriculum, often see themselves as working toward ends that are more than academic. Could they maintain their distinctive flavor in a marketplace that could devalue their mission? New and Better Schools is a smart look forward in private school choice programs...

I’m no testing hawk. I’ve written plenty at Fordham and elsewhere that’s critical of test-driven ed-reform orthodoxy. Accountability is a sacred principal to me, but testing? It’s complicated—as a science, a policy, and a reform lever. Anya Kamenetz’s new book The Test is not complicated. She strikes a strident anti-testing tone right from the start. “Tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness,” writes Kamenetz, an education reporter for National Public Radio. If you’re looking for the good, the bad, and the ugly on testing, well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Part cri de couer, part parenting manual (she may hate testing, but Kamenetz still wants her daughter—and your kids—to do well) The Test is particularly tendentious on the history of standardized tests. “Why so many racists in psychometrics?” she asks (her prose is often glib and always self-assured). “I’m not saying anyone involved in testing today is, de facto, racist. But it’s hard to ignore the shadow of history.”

What is easy for Kamenetz to ignore almost entirely is that some of the strongest support for testing comes from...

Education governance puts most people to sleep. The topic is arcane, sort of boring and, above all, seemingly immutable. If you can’t do anything about a problem, why agonize over it, or even spend time on it?

Of course, some people don’t even see it as a problem. They just take it for granted, like the air surrounding them, the sun rising in the morning, and the Mississippi flowing south. It just is what it is.

That’s wrong-headed. The governance mess is a large part of the reason that so many education problems are impossible to solve. As Mike Petrilli and I wrote three years ago about “our flawed, archaic, and inefficient system for organizing and operating public schools”:

[America’s] approach to school management is a confused and tangled web, involving the federal government, the states, and local school districts—each with ill-defined responsibilities and often conflicting interests. As a result, over the past fifty years, obsolescence, clumsiness, and misalignment have come to define the governance of public education. This development is not anyone’s fault, per se: It is simply what happens when opportunities and needs change, but structures don’t. The system of schooling we have today is the...

Imagine you are a first-year social studies teacher in a low-performing urban high school. You are hired on Thursday and expected to teach three different courses starting Monday. For the first two weeks, you barely eat or sleep, and you lose fifteen pounds you didn’t know were yours to lose. For the first two months, your every waking minute is consumed by lesson prep and the intense anxiety associated with trying to manage students whose conception of “school” is foreign to you. But you survive the first semester (as many have done) because you have to and because these kids depend on you. You think you are through the worst of it. You begin to believe that you can do this. Then, the second semester begins…

Your sixth-period class is a nightmare, full of students with behavior problems that would challenge any teacher. But as hard as sixth period is, your third-period class is the most frustrating and depressing, because (for reasons only they are privy to) the Powers That Be have seen fit to place every type of student imaginable into the same classroom: seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, kids with behavior issues, kids with attention issues, kids...

2009 it ain’t.

Back in those heady days, the new president, fresh off a comfortable electoral victory and with congressional majorities as far as the eye could see, had the power to drive the agenda. Though Capitol Hill’s budget process was broken, with the electorate behind him and congressional allies to spare, President Obama’s budget submission had to be taken seriously.

Today, the president possesses platinum-level lame-duck status. He’s in the homestretch of his tenure, his approval rating hasn’t hit 50 percent in nearly two years, and Republicans have significant congressional majorities.

It is through this lens that we should view the Obama administration’s FY2016 budget request, released yesterday. Given today’s political conditions, the education request is actually quite savvy. It retreats where necessary, digs in where possible, and has an eye on history. There are plenty of good summaries of the education request as a whole and descriptions of specific line items. But here’s how I’m seeing the ask:

Concessions

For six years, the Obama administration, breaking with generations of practice, gave every indication that it saw few limits to the role of the federal government in primary...

SEVENTH TIME'S THE CHARM?
The New York Post has absolutely maddening coverage of an apparently bulletproof first-grade instructor. At a recent termination hearing, the New York Department of Education declined to fire the Teflon teacher in spite of her six consecutive unsatisfactory ratings. She was reassigned to a pool of substitutes and allowed to keep her generous salary even though she was absent or late sixty-four times in the last school year.

THAT'S A REALLY BIG BUCKET
Much of the recent debate surrounding testing and reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act stems from the belief that states spend too much money issuing standard assessments. However, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, Matthew Chingos, clarifies that the $1.7 billion price tag on the assessments is a “drop in the bucket” amidst a $600 billion annual education allotment. 

WHILE YOU WERE OUT
You may have missed the news dump out of Louisiana if you left early for Super Bowl weekend: On Friday afternoon, Governor Bobby Jindal issued an executive order authorizing parents to opt their children out of Common Core-aligned PARCC assessments. The move...

GIRLS RULE, BOYS DROOL
In terms of educational performance, girls appear to be on the way to running the world. Seventy percent of the countries surveyed by the Organization for Economic Development Cooperation and Development showed that girls are outpacing boys in math, science, and reading. It remains unclear why boys are falling behind, but potential causes range from harsher disciplinary action against male students to a lack of male teacher role models in schools.

HOW "COMMON" IS COMMON CORE?
The Brookings Institute’s Tom Loveless provides a great look at a thorny question facing parents and students as school districts begin adapting to the Common Core State Standards: Will universal standards force schools to ditch accelerated curricula for high-achievers? As he asks, “Will CCSS serve as a curricular floor, ensuring all students are exposed to a common body of knowledge and skills?  Or will it serve as a ceiling, limiting the progress of bright students so that their achievement looks more like that of their peers?” For more on the topic, see ...

AGAINST THE GRAIN
Chalkbeat New York covers New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s controversial plan to evaluate and promote teachers, one that focuses on increasing assessment-based ratings to count for 50 percent of an evaluation and lowers the weight of principal observation and feedback. Fordham’s sensational tag team of Mike Petrilli and Andy Smarick weigh in on the plan, saying that Cuomo is moving in the opposite direction of other state leaders.

WE'VE GOT TO BOOK THIS GUY FOR AN EVENT
It looks like everyone over at Success Academy Harlem East has been eating their Wheaties. On his morning visit to the New York City charter school, Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, noted remarkable behavior by both teachers and students. The dedicated instructors and quality curriculum in place at the school challenged students and gave them the opportunity to critically engage with class material and learn from their own mistakes. Perhaps this is the secret behind the charter network’s unparalleled recent test scores.
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