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.

Last month, USA Today reported that officials in the Brevard County Schools had broken Florida state law—on purpose. Their offense? Placing more kids in classrooms than Florida’s Class Size Reduction statute allows. Officials had done the math and decided that complying with state policy would cost more than the penalty they’d pay for adding a handful of students to each classroom. The estimated fines totaled roughly $170,000, which paled in comparison to the cost of the teachers that the district would have to hire to comply with the size-limiting mandate.

Yet it’s unclear how Brevard chose to allocate these additional students. Did administrators give every teacher more students in equal shares? Did they apportion shares to seasoned veterans or, more likely, to seniority-deprived new teachers? Maybe they drew straws?

But what if Brevard officials had chosen another option? What if they had assigned the “extra” students to their most effective teachers, leaving fewer pupils in classrooms presided over by weaker instructors? What would be the impact of such a practice on student achievement?

That’s the scenario that this empirical paper models. The idea is straightforward: Give the better teachers more kids and the weaker teachers fewer—then see what happens. It’s a common-sense option with many supporters. We know, for instance, that parents say they would opt for larger classes taught by excellent teachers, rather than smaller classes with instructors of unknown ability. In a study last year for the Fordham Institute, the FDR Group found that a whopping...

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Sarah Almy

For decades, lowering class size has been touted as a strategy for improving student learning, despite loads of research asserting that it is not an effective solution. The Fordham Institute’s new study, Right-sizing the Classroom: Making the Most of Great Teachers, turns this idea on its head with a simulation of what happens if good teachers are actually assigned more students. The result: increased student learning.

This study uses teacher and student data from North Carolina and simulates what would happen if teachers with high value-added—those who are advancing student learning at greater rates than predicted—were assigned between six and twelve additional students (and if less effective teachers’ classrooms were proportionally reduced by this many students). The findings are promising: Adding six students to effective eighth-grade teachers’ classrooms could produce gains equivalent to an extra two weeks of school. And because more students are exposed to effective teaching and fewer are subjected to less effective instruction, schools experience improved student learning overall.

Findings like these should ideally put an end to the notion that blanket reductions in class size are a solution to anything. And it should launch a conversation about how to promote staffing and compensation models that vary how students are assigned to teachers based on their effectiveness.

However, the promising findings from the study could overshadow another important result: increasing class size for effective teachers does nothing in this simulation to help low-income students gain more access to effective teachers. This is likely because too...

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What if I told you there were millions of American boys and girls living in communities where half of students are low-income, just one in five adults has earned a bachelor’s degree, and only 27 percent of high school graduates go on to college?

What if I told you these students are more likely than their peers in any other geographic area to live in poverty?

Most of you would probably gather that I’m talking about our inner cities.

No.

These statistics describe rural America.

Rural public schools enroll eleven million children, fully a quarter of students nationwide. Yet, sadly, the challenges faced by rural educators and their students have received scant attention from national education leaders.

My organization, Bellwether Education Partners, is trying to help solve this problem.

With generous financial support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation (based in Boise, Idaho) we are helping to launch a new two-year initiative, Rural Opportunities Consortium Idaho (ROCI), to study the challenges facing and the opportunities available to rural communities and their schools.

Bellwether will produce a series of papers and policy briefs on subjects like rural charter schooling and technology. We’ll also provide ongoing advice and support to the foundation, its partners, and others engaged in this issue. Though we’ll dedicate much of our energy to the particular circumstances and needs of Idaho, the project aspires to inform...

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Recently, 2013 NAEP results were made public, and, as is typical for such bi-annual releases, there was lots of excitement, somberness, and everything in between. Enter the always smart, always temperamentally sound Tom Loveless, who sought to simmer down the hyping of some states’ scores. Talk of statistical significance and p-values is Greek to some, but Loveless’ accessible explanation and color-coded charts will have you saying both, “A-ha!” and “Well, that’s not what I’d been told.” Here’s the upshot: Yes, some states did quite well, but both the number of such states and the extent of their gains have been oversold. (And, no, Tom, we don’t think you’re a skunk at a picnic.)

Emily Richmond from The Educated Reporter writes up an excellent summary of TBFI’s new report on teacher effective vs. class size. In short, getting kids in front of more effective teachers is valuable even if it means making those classrooms more crowded. Sad finding: Schools are not currently putting more kids in the best teachers’ classrooms; instead, they just evenly distribute the number of students among teachers. This report is classic Fordham: Ask an interesting question, the answer to which could quickly influence policy, get sharp people to study it, then package the findings in an accessible report.

It’s a day of the week, so Rick Hess has a new book out! This time, it’s with my boy Mike McShane, and it’s about Common Core...

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Emily Ayscue Hassel

Fordham released a paper by Michael Hansen projecting the impact on student learning if excellent eighth-grade teachers—those in the top 25 percent—were responsible for six or twelve more students per class.  He found that moving six students per class to the most effective eighth-grade science and math teachers would have an impact equivalent to removing the bottom 5 percent of teachers.

We imagine many teachers and parents reading that finding will still fret over the idea of increasing class sizes that much, even with great teachers.  So here’s some good news: Schools can give a lot more than six more students access to excellent teachers without actually raising class sizes.  And they can pay great teachers—or even all teachers—more by doing so.

The key is shifting to new school models that extend the reach of excellent teachers wisely.  At Public Impact, we’ve published many such models on the website www.OpportunityCulture.org, and we’ve honed them via our work with teams of teachers and administrators now implementing them in schools.

Sure, one way to extend the reach of excellent teachers is to simply increase their class sizes.  But none of the pilot schools’ design teams—which include teachers—have chosen this route alone. None have increased class sizes above national averages. Instead, all the school design teams so far have chosen team-based models that leave effective class sizes on par or smaller. (By “effective class size,” we mean the number of students actually with a teacher at one...

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Class size is an incessant policy issue—something like a leaky faucet. The din of the class-size debate drips in the background while the thunderclaps roar (Common Core! Charters!). Many parents and teachers drone on about class-size reductions; fiscal hawks want class-size increases. Meanwhile, wonks have observed America’s shrinking teacher to pupil ratio, with trivial achievement gains to boot.

Education reformers—including Fordham (see our excellent, brand-new Right-sizing the Classroom study)—have urged commonsense policies that put a school’s best teachers in front of more students. Doing this may boost student achievement—perhaps, as we found in our study, more so in upper-grade levels than elementary. But oftentimes this means the scrapping maximum class size mandates etched into teacher contracts or state law, a difficult task. Bryan Hassel, co-director of Public Impact, articulates this position well, saying, “Ideally, schools would focus on increasing the number of students their best teachers have responsibility for.”

But it is MOOCs (“Massive Open Online Courses”) that have the potential to stretch the class-size debate the furthest. MOOCs could put the nation’s best teachers—not just a school’s best teachers—in front of more students. Presently, these online courses run the gamut, from an advanced high-school/freshman college course to advanced college-level courses. Professors from the nation’s top rated colleges and universities teach the courses. One can select from a smorgasbord of topics: Coursera and edX—the major players in the MOOC market—publicize, for instance, courses in Data Analysis (Johns Hopkins), Jazz Appreciation (University of Texas), and...

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The Obama administration, certain that it knows the “right thing to do,” boldly overturns decades of policy and institutes its own vision of a brave new world. Gradually, it becomes clear that toying around with longstanding policies and practices produces all kinds of unintended consequences, creating policy potholes, causing implementation snags, and stirring up lots of political hornets nests. The administration is then forced to bob and weave with explanations for what’s gone wrong, while attempting an oscillating variety of micro policy fixes to patch up a growing number of cracks.

Obamacare or the Common Core–ESEA waivers gambit?

If you’ve been following the news, you know that Obamacare may go down, even according to the New York Times, as this administration’s "Katrina response"—a government debacle of epic proportions.

But we have an increasing number of examples that the Department of Education’s hubris on standards, testing, and accountability—really the core of the last 20 years of state and federal education policy—has also caused quite a mess that might get worse before it gets better.

Not surprisingly, it’s starting to appear that the Department is making things up as it goes along (Politics K-12 calls it “flying by the seat of its pants”), making decisions, realizing their folly, and then changing course.

If you like your new federal education policies, you can keep them. . .until you can’t.

Take, for example, the letter the...

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Michael Hansen

In the overwhelming majority of American classrooms, pupils are divided roughly equally among teachers of the same grade in the same school. Parceling them out uniformly is viewed as fair to teachers—and doing otherwise might be seen as unfair. Parents might wonder, too. But what if more students were assigned to the most effective teachers, leaving fewer in classrooms presided over by weaker instructors? What would be the impact of such a practice on student achievement?
 
That’s the intriguing question that Right-sizing the Classroom: Making the Most of Great Teacherstackles. The idea is straightforward: Give the better teachers more kids and weaker teachers fewer—then see what happens. It’s a common-sense option with many supporters (including Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, sundry wonks, most parents, and even teachers themselves).
 
Using data from North Carolina, economist Michael Hansen, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, looks at what right-sizing the classroom can mean for academic achievement. In brief, he found that as the best teachers teach larger classes and the weakest teach progressively smaller ones, the net result is improved student learning—for all students, not just those who moved.
 
At the eighth-grade level,

  • Assigning up to twelve more students than average to effective teachers can produce gains equivalent to adding two-and-a-half extra weeks of school;
  • Three-quarters of the potential gain (from moving twelve students) can be realized by moving just six; and
  • The potential gains from moving a handful of students to the most effective teachers is comparable to the
  • ...
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The Philanthropy Roundtable's generally praiseworthy magazine hits a number of topical education-policy issues in its Fall 2013 issue. The first profiles Eli and Edythe Broad's Superintendents Academy—which, since 2002, has produced “150 alumni...[including] Los Angeles superintendent John Deasy and state superintendents of Louisiana (John White), Maryland (Lillian Lowery), New Jersey (Christopher Cerf), and Rhode Island (Deborah Gist).” (Then there’s Broad’s Residency in Urban Education program, which seeks to transform private-sector leaders into future heads of schools or school systems.) The second notable article highlights the Relay Graduate School of Education, an alternative teacher-prep program in New York started by Norman Atkins of Uncommon Schools, Dave Levin of KIPP, and Dacia Toll of Achievement First. With backing from the Robin Hood Foundation and others, the school focuses on pragmatism over theory and insists that, before receiving a master's degree, teachers show that their students are achieving at least a year's worth of academic growth each school year. A third education item comes from Fordham blogger Andy Smarick's new bookClosing America's High-achievement Gap: A Wise Giver's Guide to Helping Our Most Talented Students Reach Their Full Potential. Smarick argues, as we often do at Fordham, that we must also help high-ability youngsters to succeed and not focus exclusively on those with low-achievement issues. In his words, “while America's most at-risk kids deserve all the help they can get, we ought to also give increased attention to our potential top achievers—both for our own sake and the nation's.” Whether you’re a veteran philanthropist or a philanthropist-in-training, give this issue...

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No matter what side of the ed-policy debate you fall into, getting effective teachers in front of disadvantaged students is a priority for almost everyone. Yet this new study from  Mathematica and AIR highlights just how far we are from ensuring that lower-income kids have access to the same quality of teachers as their affluent peers. The study looked at twenty-nine large school districts (with a median enrollment of 60,000) and calculated for each an “effective-teaching gap”: a measurement that compares the average effectiveness of teaching (using value-added models) experienced by disadvantaged students (those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) with the average effectiveness of teaching experienced by their better-off peers. As one might expect, there was a difference. Teachers of affluent students had, on average, a higher value-add than teachers of poor kids, equivalent to 2 percentile points in the student-achievement gap. Interestingly, though, the gap varied across districts and subjects, implying that equity can be achieved. In math, ten of the districts had no statistically significant differences in teacher effectiveness between  poorer and richer students; in English language arts, only two districts could make that claim (perhaps because of deficiencies in low income students’ content knowledge). True, some will resist the use of value-added scores as a proxy for teacher quality, and many studies show just how difficult it is to get effective teachers to switch to tougher schools. But the study does well at defining the scope and implications of the problem we face...

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