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.

An important, first-of-its kind Brookings Institution study asks whether school superintendents improve outcomes for students. The answer, according to authors, is no. They find that student achievement in particular districts doesn’t improve as superintendents stay longer, nor is there a bump when districts hire new ones. Supes account for a paltry 0.3 percent of the differences in student achievement among fourth and fifth graders in North Carolina (as compared to student demographics, which account for 38.8 percent, and teachers and schools, which account for 4 and 3 percent, respectively). On first read, these findings seem bleak. But the authors make two assumptions in their analyses, one out of necessity and one out of convention. First, because they rely on state administrative data and its limited variables, years-of-service in a single district is their primary observable superintendent characteristic. The assumption is that the longer one stays, the greater impact he or she should have. Yet, despite research in other fields suggesting that manager longevity is a predictor of organizational success, it is far from the only one. Effective district leadership requires knowledge of education policy and practice, communication and relationship-building skills, leadership capability, strategic thinking, conflict mediation, and innumerable other important-yet-unmeasurable characteristics. Second, adhering to conventional wisdom, the authors assume that a superintendent’s primary role is to improve student achievement as measured by standardized test scores—and that they’re capable of doing so directly within the district’s current structure. This isn’t necessarily true. Superintendents’ impacts are often secondary. For example, they hire...

Here’s a rare bit of good news from K–12 education: Every state—all fifty of ‘em plus the District of Columbia—have improved academically since the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation (USCCF) released its initial “Leaders & Laggards” report in 2007. But let’s not get giddy. For too many states, improvement is tantamount to winning the “most improved player” award in summer camp. It's great that Hawaii and D.C. have figured out which end of the bat to hold and where to stand in the outfield. But put them in right field and hope no one hits to them. Massachusetts is still batting cleanup. Minnesota and New Hampshire make a nice double-play combination, but let's not kid ourselves: This team is nowhere near ready for international competition. “Leaders & Laggards” is all about competition. The report takes an unapologetically business-oriented view of the nation’s K–12 performance, evaluating each state on eleven criteria, including international competitiveness, workforce readiness, technology, and return on investment. (Utah and Colorado get the most bang for their education buck; D.C., Louisiana, and West Virginia the least.) Some of the data is original and clever, such as which states have the most STEM-ready workforce. One in six Massachusetts students passed a science or math AP exam; only one in eighty Mississippi students managed to do so. You might not be surprised to see states like Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota post top marks for academic achievement among low-income and minority students; what’s more impressive is that polyglot Massachusetts,...

Many people tune out when education discussions turn to data and statistics. For whatever reason, some folks just don’t like numbers. So a discussion about the development of education data is likely to attract an audience rivaling that of a paint-drying contest.

But if you care about K-12, you should definitely care about the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This is the government body responsible for collecting and reporting a wealth of data on our schools—data that’s voluminous, comparable across years, and typically above reproach in terms of reliability.

I say “typically” because there is some reason for worry. Late in 2013, I scolded the federal government for massaging NAEP TUDA data, which reports on the performance of large urban districts. In short, we should’ve been deeply alarmed by the results, but the packaging gave the opposite impression.

This would’ve been troubling enough. What bothered me even more was that an advocacy organization that represents and serves large urban districts was an integral part of the release process.

But what happened next truly opened my eyes to the extent of the potential problem. The then-head of NCES quickly responded to my piece. He noted that his organization was only responsible for producing the data, which they do “free of ‘spin’ or partisan/political influence.” The National Assessments Government Board (which is in charge of NAEP), he wrote, is in charge of the public release pursuant to federal law.

He continued: “NAGB has...

photo credit: roberthuffstutter via photopin cc

Much of the criticism recently leveled at the College Board’s new framework for its Advanced Placement United States history course and exam is hysterical and undeserved. There’s also reason to suspect that some of the harshest critics may be motivated at least in part by the riches they have reaped by prepping high school kids for the old version of the test.

That’s not to say the new framework has no flaws. Both Rick Hess and Jeremy Stern have responsibly pointed them out. But the College Board has agreed to undertake revisions. And the sample exam they recently released is pretty good. Among its short questions, I spotted a few that were poorly worded and one that I judged unfair to Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, but the overwhelming majority looked fine and the medium- and long-answer questions are plenty challenging, well-conceived, and unlikely to be answered successfully without a fair command of the essentials of American history.

But AP framework builders are caught between a rock and a hard place. The fundamental concept of Advanced Placement, after all, is to provide able-enough high school students with college-level coursework that, if successfully mastered, can actually yield them credit as they enter the ivy walls.

It works, too, though not nearly as easily as it once did. Back in the late middle ages, I was able to skip...

In an era of increased teacher-effectiveness data, school leaders have unprecedented potential to be more strategic about their decision-making. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for principals to access, analyze, and apply this information. A recent study released by Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College examines common hurdles to effective data use and suggests ways in which districts can better support principals to guide critical staffing decisions (e.g., hiring, placement, professional development, and retention, which together they dub “talent management decisions”). Based on hundreds of site visits, surveys, and interviews with principals in six urban school districts and two charter management organizations (CMOs) that have invested substantially in these improvements, analysts offer many practical recommendations. Among them: hold principals accountable for effective data use, differentiate principal training and support by specific data need, consolidate district statistics into a single dashboard (organized by talent-management decision type), and provide principals with ongoing access to multiyear information. Although a handful of the report’s final recommendations feel more aspirational than easy-to-implement, overall, Vanderbilt’s report provides districts and CMOs with helpful and concrete recommendations on how to help principals use effectiveness data to identify and retain the best teachers in our classrooms. Teacher quality is the most important school-based factor influencing student learning. Regardless of whether teacher-effectiveness data is drawn from classroom observations, value-added estimates, or student, parent, or peer surveys, it’s essential to provide principals with access to comprehensive effectiveness data and sufficient training, and support for how to use it well.

SOURCE: Patrick Schuermann, et al.,...

Hoping to gather lessons from recent teacher-evaluation reforms, a new report by Bellwether Education Partners analyzes four years of teacher-evaluation data from seventeen states and D.C. It is more a policy analysis than an empirical study. Keeping that in mind, these are the four key findings: First, states have largely moved away from binary ratings of teachers to four- and five-tier ratings. Second, states are using more extensive protocols for teacher observations, like the Charlotte Danielson framework that provides more detailed, formative feedback. Third, overall, districts are not factoring student growth into evaluation ratings. Many states vaguely mandated the inclusion of value-added models, but didn’t specify how or when districts should use growth in teacher evaluations. Further, some states allow district administrators to change certain teachers’ growth ratings from the state, causing very uneven implementation. In Delaware, for example, 12 percent of teachers statewide in 2012–13 were deemed “unsatisfactory” but eligible for an upgrade to a higher “satisfactory” label; the percentage of teachers subsequently receiving such an upgrade ranged widely from 32 to 90 percent across districts. Fourth, districts in the seventeen states studied generally don’t use evaluation results to inform staffing decisions. Only a tiny percentage of teachers are let go because of results—and most aren’t rewarded, financially or otherwise, for excellent ratings. In short, the analysts find that states have made some changes to the evaluation instruments themselves, but have done next to nothing with the results. Going forward, Bellwether recommends that states give evaluation systems a chance...

The California Teachers Association has its sights set on charter school organization,Education Week reports. Nationally, the NEA and AFT have been working to bring unions to charter schools, but the sector remains mostly union-free—a good thing in Fordham's view.

The New York Times Magazine profiled Bill Gates and his big idea to rework how history is taught in school, but most of the online fodder is around how photographer Dan Winters got the education philanthropist to smile.

Draft guidance from the Department of Education could mean more financial flexibility for SIG recipients, reports Education Week. But can SIG even be fixed

Jay Mathews at the Washington Post takes a crack at the NCLB-aged conundrum: sure, test scores are flawed metrics, but what else can we use? Classroom grades, not test scores. Though insert "Common Core" and this turns into a strong argument for the standards and its assessments....

Michael Usdan

There is little that I might add to Checker and Mike's wonderfully fitting tribute to Graham Down. They captured the very essence of a remarkable, multi-faceted, true Renaissance man.

Graham and I were personal and professional friends for better than three decades and crossed paths often in foundation offices as we both constantly sought revenue for our respective organizations: Graham for the Council for Basic Education and me for the Institute for Educational Leadership, which I led for twenty years. Indeed, our tenures as leaders of our respective organizations overlapped for almost two decades.

Despite this ostensible competition and eternal scrambling for scarce funds for our non-profits, we developed a unique and wonderful friendship with good natured, irrepressible humor. I unfailingly would tease Graham about his "Bronx accent" and the decline of his beloved British Empire. He in turn would respond to my taunts (in an infinitely more refined and articulate way) with acerbic comments about the immaturity of the American colonies.

Graham had superb people skills. His leadership of CBE was notable for many reasons. Most importantly, his special ability to bridge and connect diverse individuals and ideologies stands out in stark contrast in the contemporary, polarized education-policy context. Graham's energetic, impeccable persona and commitment to the highest academic standards and liberal arts gave him great credibility in the ranks of reformers and critics of the quality of American education. At the same time, Graham related wonderfully to mainstream educators and their "establishment" organizations.

In other words, he...


Judging by the rhetoric of some legislators and wonks, it may come as a shock that public policy is not the stuff of magic whereby just the right regulatory language will, like one of Harry Potter’s spells, instantly reduce a monster of a problem to dust. Instead, policy is about the careful consideration of a series of tradeoffs. Education reformers in particular have been accused of leaping from one panacea to the next, rather than carefully considering practical alternatives. That doesn’t mean, however, there aren’t still a number of critical ingredients that must be a part of any witch’s brew to cure what ails our education system. One of them is the reform of, if not removal of, tenure. 

Everyone has his or her own list of prerequisites to a great education system. For some, it might be small class sizes and wraparound services that reach the “whole child.” In my view, it includes parent-empowering school choice, a reduction of the compliance culture to promote innovation, and strong standards and accountability. The other essential items on the list? Staffing policies that allow us to recruit, retain, and reward the best and brightest would-be educators and leaders.

We have countless teachers who would meet anyone’s definition of “outstanding,” but we are missing a great deal more due to illogical policies that exist in nearly every state, for example, those that protect bad teachers and get rid...

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[Editor’s note: This is the fourth 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 herehere, and here.]

Andy’s odyssey: Part four

The most convincing argument against conservatism is that by defending longstanding institutions it ends up protecting longstanding injustices.

Yes, there is a prima facie case for preservation: It’s sensible to safeguard things that have stood the test of time—libraries, respect for elders, voluntary community associations, the Western canon, charity. But enormous harm is done by protecting old, immoral institutions, like serfdom, honor killings, and the denial of women’s suffrage.

A corollary of the preserve-first approach, that change should occur gradually, promises wise, prudent adjustments. But it too can injure grievously. Ending the military targeting of civilians—once a common wartime practice—needed to happen immediately, not slowly. This understanding is reflected in Gladstone’s adage, “Justice delayed is justice denied;” Goldwater’s admonition, “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue;” and Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail rebuke of those advocating patience.

The dark sides of preservation and gradual change have been illuminated by the events of Ferguson and a recent Atlantic article on reparations. They illustrate with agonizing clarity why dramatic change is sometimes required; provide insight into the tragic...