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.

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of personal reflections on the current state of education reform and contemporary conservatism by Andy Smarick, a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  The previous posts in this series can be seen herehereherehere, here, and here.

It takes enormous conviction to take on longstanding arrangements. We remember great reformers—Dr. King, Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony—as much for the certainty behind their zeal as for their deeds.

As David Brooks wrote about revolutionaries like Mandela and Lincoln, they believe in “objective and eternally true standards of justice,” follow them faithfully, and are indignant when they’re violated.

Zealots of all types, whether virtuous or not, attract like-minded, like-constituted followers. But the reform leader has a particular need for devoted comrades. He’s picking a fight with the establishment, and he needs folks who’ve got his back.

Consonance in views and disposition has benefits. It displays a united front, allows for consistent messaging, and engenders an esprit de corps.

But when a group is of one opinion and convinced of the righteousness of its cause, virtues can distort into vices. Unified becomes...

Editor's note: This testimony was presented at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions onFixing No Child Left Behind: Testing and Accountability on January, 21, 2015. It additionally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Next.

Chairman Alexander, Senator Murray, Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. I would like to begin by congratulating the committee on putting the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at the top of its legislative agenda for the 114th Congress. Nothing is more important to our nation’s future than ensuring that we provide all children with the opportunity to reach their full academic potential. Congress cannot do that on its own, but it can help by addressing the very real shortcomings of the most recent reauthorization, No Child Left Behind, and restoring the predictability with respect to federal policy that state and local officials need to carry out their work.

As you move forward with this important work, however, I would urge you not to lose sight of the positive aspects of No Child Left Behind. Above all, the law’s requirement that students be tested annually in...

UNSTATED
President Obama’s State of the Union address last night was a brassy, wide-ranging expression of liberalism (it also answered the prayers of listeners nationwide by lasting less than an hour). But nowhere in the speech did the president broach the topic of testing and No Child Left Behind. A political move? Mike and Mike discuss.

SAME SPEECH, DIFFERENT CAPITOL
If last night’s excitement somehow didn’t sate your appetite for policy laundry lists translated into turgid, focus-grouped rhetoric, be sure to check out New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address in Albany tonight. The word is that Cuomo will use the occasion to lay out a pro-reform agenda that might include lifting the cap on New York City charter schools.

DEPARTMENT OF WOODEN SHOES
The Hechinger Report has a thoughtful look at education in the Netherlands, where an intriguing bargain has been struck between schools and the government: Children there spend a greater amount of time in class (some two-hundred days a year, or nearly a month more than the average school year in the United States), and in exchange, teachers and principals are granted far...

  • In the president’s State of the Union address last night, he doubled down on his misguided call for universal community college, even though it has zero chance of passage in the Republican Congress. That wasn’t so surprising. But it was still disappointing that he missed an opportunity to talk about ESEA—one area of education policy where there could be bipartisan consensus. A good example of governing, rather than playing politics, came this morning from Senate HELP committee chairman Lamar Alexander, who held a thoughtful, respectful, and productive hearing about the testing provisions in No Child Left Behind. Alexander expressed his commitment to a bipartisan process and his intention to earn the president’s signature on an ESEA bill. Now that’s more like it. 
  • A recent New Yorker article profiled former Florida governor and possible presidential nominee Jeb Bush, with particular focus on his education reforms in the Sunshine State. The piece quotes bipartisan sources who question Bush’s support of for-profit managers of charter schools, along with conservative voices who lament his backing of the Common Core. What it doesn’t mention clearly enough, however, is the fact that Florida saw huge gains in achievement during
  • ...

This new study from the Center for American Progress challenges the ubiquitous and frequently repeated statistic that the new-teacher attrition rate is 50 percent. Pulling from three NCES-sponsored surveys—the 2007–2008 and 2011–2012 Schools and Staffing Surveys and the Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study—the authors instead found that 87 percent of new teachers remained in the profession for at least three years and almost 70 percent stayed for five years or more. Even teachers in high-poverty schools, a subgroup that has traditionally seen higher rates of turnover, were found to have retention rates comparable to their counterparts in low-poverty schools. The uptick in staying power for the teaching profession “may have started before the Great Recession began at the end of 2007 and continued because of it, or it may have started in response to it,” the authors note. Cause for further investigation is large local district-to-district variation, such as in North Carolina, where attrition rates can differ by as much as ten percent. Regardless of the lack of specific identifiers, this trend rectifies the reporting discrepancy between the outdated 50 percent figure and points to a positive trend for retaining highly trained, enthusiastic teachers. Moreover, as TNTP highlights,...

The massive 2014 protests in Albany led by the nonprofit Families for Excellent schools seemed, at the time, to strike like a bolt from the blue. Thousands of parents and students abruptly converged on the state capital in objection to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to curtail charter expansion, drawing sympathetic press coverage and even gaining the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo. But according to the American Enterprise Institute’s prolific Andrew P. Kelly, the rally bore less resemblance to lightning than electricity. His new paper, examining parental engagement in education reform and touching on public demonstrations in New York, Louisiana, and California, reveals some of the ways in which unfocused energy can be harnessed and channeled into effective, disciplined movements. It’s a critical area of study because public schools, their school boards, and their districts are democratic entities responsive to a gamut of competing constituencies. Social agitators from the time of the abolitionists have all had to learn to convert their missionary zeal into a force capable of mobilizing public support, and the relatively young undertaking of education reform will be no different. Vital groups like Stand for Children and Parents United for Public Schools, often...

A standard argument of those who downplay strong results among children in urban charters is that families who are motivated enough to exercise school choice are simply different, and their kids’ success is nearly preordained. This recent paper out of the National Bureau of Economic Research tests this assumption and studies the causal effect of takeover schools on student achievement in New Orleans’s Recovery School District (RSD). Specifically, it looks not at the impact of charter school admissions lotteries on the performance of kids who apply, but rather at the impact on the kids who don’t make a choice to apply—passive participants who are simply grandfathered into the newly constituted school. The sample includes eleven middle schools in the RSD that were slated for closure (called “legacy schools”) and subject to a full charter takeover, meaning they had all grades converted to a new school in a single academic year, typically in the same building. The comparison group is a group of same-grade students enrolled in schools that are not yet closed who, in the prior grade, went to a school that was similar to the one the legacy school students attended. Schools are “similar” if their performance scores are...

Arizona last week became the first state to make passing the U.S. Citizenship Test a high school graduation requirement. Governor Doug Ducey signed into law a bill mandating the test after the measure passed the state’s Republican-controlled House and Senate in a single day. And that’s really about all the deliberation that should be needed for other states to follow Arizona’s lead. It’s a no-brainer in more ways than one.

Here are some of the questions on the test:

  • What are the first ten amendments to the Constitution called?
  • Name two rights in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Why do some states have more representatives than others?
  • Who is the governor of your state now?
  • How old do citizens have to be to vote for President?
  • Who is the President of the United States?

These are among 100 basic questions on American government and history published by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization service. It’s not particularly challenging stuff. Those seeking citizenship are asked up to ten of the questions; six correct is a passing score. Arizona...

Editor's note: This editorial originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Austin American-Statesman.

At noon on Tuesday, January 13, the Texas Legislature convened its eighty-fourth legislative session. Like many previous legislative sessions, many hours of discussions will be devoted to improving Texas education. Like many previous legislative sessions, legislators will no doubt enact new state education policies aimed at improving Texas schools.

Despite massive new education policies from previous legislative sessions, and after decades of effort, tons of money, and volumes of educational punditry and political debate, we are left with relatively little to show for considerable effort. As we go forward with future education policies, it seems wise to pause and ask an important question. Why has so much previous education policy delivered such meager improvement?

Indisputably, that question has multiple answers. But one of the most critical answers is too often overlooked: Previous state education policy has been minimally integrated with education practice. Put another way, there has been, and there still is, a cavernous gap between education policy and education practice. In order for education policy to be an effective catalyst for improved school outcomes,...

The word around town is that support for annual testing among rank-and-file members of Congress—in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle—is dangerously low. They are constantly hearing complaints from their constituents about the overuse and abuse of standardized tests, and many are eager to do something about it. We policy wonks may see the value in such tests (Brookings has been especially effective in making powerful arguments for keeping them), but parents and the public are fed up.

To be of service, here’s a crack at some “talking points” that members of Congress might use when the testing issue comes up at town hall meetings and the like. I strongly suspect that some of you can do much better. Give it a try! How would YOU explain to your fellow citizens the need for annual testing?

I understand that many of you feel strongly that there’s too much testing in our schools. You can’t throw a rock inside a school without hitting a standardized test; every time your son or daughter turns around, they are taking some test designed by some far away bureaucrat or...

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