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.

Staffing Design: The Missing Key to Teacher Quality 2.0, and the exemplar programs its authors highlight are worth a look. As part of the AEI Teacher Quality 2.0 series, authors Bryan Hassel, Emily Ayscue Hassel, and Sharon Kebschull Barrett examine many of the HR policies offered by both the status-quo and reform camps and find both lacking. Each side makes important points, argue the authors, but their oft-proposed solutions aren’t going to make much of a dent if we maintain our current education-delivery model.

In the first two pages, the authors rip apart arguments others have spent years carefully constructing: Teacher pay may be too low but, they counter, across-the-board raises are impossibly expensive for even profligate spenders ($3.2 billion per year for just a $1,000 per teacher raise according to their calculations). Professional development is important, but won’t do much good when teachers have so little adult interaction and feedback. Of course we want able, motivated individuals to enter the profession, but they leave quickly when they find no ability to advance professionally as they could and would in other lines of work.

Reformers understandably yearn to replace ineffective teachers with instructional superstars, but “if the nation succeeded in attracting 50,000 more new teachers each year who ended up as effective as today’s top 25 percent; tripled the dismissal rate of ineffective teachers; and doubled the retention rate of excellent teachers, even after five years, the number of classrooms with excellent teachers in charge would rise from 25 percent to just...


Dear Deborah,

We've been writing about the democratic control of education (or the lack thereof), but let me shift the conversation back to the education of democratic citizens. I strongly agree with those who argue that our current fascination with “college and career readiness” overlooks a third, probably more important, c-word: citizenship. That's public education's raison d'etre, right? To prepare our young people to take their rightful place as voters, jurors, taxpayers, and leaders—to become “the people” that gives our government its legitimacy?

Many people are doing good work on this challenge; let me recommend that you check out the new group Citizenship First, for starters. (Here's a neat idea it is promoting: By 2026, every high school graduate should be able to pass the U.S. Naturalization Exam.)

But I want to put a related issue on the table that rarely gets discussed. It's the most basic requirement of citizenship, a responsibility that we "experts" often overlook in our quest for more ambitious goals: self-sufficiency.

Let me state it clearly: If we haven't prepared our young people to be financially self-sufficient once they finish their educations, we have failed in our most fundamental duty. And the "we" is meant to be inclusive: our education system, our social service agencies, our families, our churches, you, me, and all of us.

Yes, the poor we will always have among us. And there will be times—like these past five years—when the economic situation throws people out of work. We absolutely need a safety...


When he’s about to comment pointedly on some debate, the avuncularly pugnacious former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett occasionally prefaces his verbal fisticuffs by telling the old saw about the Irishman who sees two men fighting and interrupts to ask, “Is this a private fight or can anyone join?”

It is in this fine tradition that my friend and colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee took a scriven swipe at me yesterday.

You see, I’m in a lopsided fight with the failed urban district and its reactionary defenders. I say “lopsided” because, well, like Rocky in the 15th round, it can’t muster a defense. It’s ill served kids consistently for half a century. Even those who don’t like my left-right combination—bring it to an end and replace it with a true system of schools—never counterpunch with, “The urban district is doing great!” They know better.

I put my belt on the line this week against another glass-jaw opponent, The Broad Prize. This “award” has been feting failed districts for more than a decade now, and it shamefully crowned as this year’s winner Houston, where about one in ten African American eighth graders can read proficiently.

Like Tyson-Spinks, my match was over in about 90 seconds. But before The Broad Prize could fall through the ropes and I could have my victory interview with Ferdie Pacheco, Porter-Magee unexpectedly jumped in and puts up her dukes!

Her basic point is straightforward and irrefutable: What happens in...


Our country’s urban school systems are broken, and they can’t be fixed: That’s where Andy Smarick begins his book The Urban School System of the Future, and it's the basis for his recent post urging that the Broad Foundation stop giving prizes to urban districts.

The award winners, Andy argues, are better examples of the dismal state of education in urban centers than they are shining examples of what’s possible. And given the eleven years Broad has spent searching for success stories, now is the time to acknowledge the futility of the exercise. “No more blind faith in an institution with a 50-year track record of failure,” Andy writes. “End. The Broad Prize. Now.”

While Andy’s crusade to end the urban school district as we know it could be seen as a challenge to the defenders of the status quo, it’s really more a challenge to fellow reformers working within the existing education system: Stop wasting your time trying to fix the unfixable and focus your efforts instead on something that has some hope of success.

Strands of this argument have been carried forward by others, but Andy pushes them to a stark conclusion: The very structure of the current district system—its focus on continuity, stability, and uniformity—works against the high performance and continuous improvement that are required to meet the needs of our most disadvantaged children.

But the reality, as is often the case, is far less straightforward and involves a messy and often contradictory...


We all know the story: the team that's always way back in the standings employs a brilliant new strategy to try to close the gap between itself and the wealthy powerhouses. The strategy works, but only briefly, as the well-off teams quickly steal the winning strategies to maintain their advantage. No, this isn’t the plot of Moneyball; rather, it’s the plot of Rick Hess and Max Eden’s case study of Douglas County, Colorado. This sprawling, affluent suburb south of Denver has employed reforms typically found in low-income and urban settings. Specifically, the all-reformer, all-conservative school board created a voucher program, adopted a new curriculum, and developed new assessments and teacher-quality initiatives like merit pay. The voucher program, which would have served nearly 500 students if not for a court injunction stemming from an ACLU lawsuit, is especially interesting. Unlike most statewide programs of this sort, Douglas County’s would have used the state charter law to authorize participating private schools as quasi “charter schools.” The “charters,” in turn, receive three-quarters of the students’ state funding towards tuition, while the rest goes to the district. The study draws attention to the false assumption that the average wealthy, suburban school district is fat, happy and complacent, and brings into focus what could happen when districts employ reforms to go from good to great, instead of from poor to passable. Bold reform in even a conservative area like Douglas County is never easy, however, and a separate analysis by Bill Bennett underscores the importance that these reformers...


Journalist and author Amanda Ripley has received well-deserved attention for her book The Smartest Kids in the World—but we’re not sold on her case against high school sports, which headlines this month’s Atlantic. Check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show for an informed debate.

On Monday, Florida governor Rick Scott issued an executive order withdrawing the Sunshine State from PARCC. Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker—governors of Louisiana and Wisconsin, respectively—have also expressed “reservations” about the Common Core of late. As Margaret Thatcher would say, “This is no time to go wobbly!” On the brighter side, earlier today, the Michigan House of Representatives voted 85–21 to adopt a resolution authorizing funding for Common Core implementation.

A Wall Street Journal editorial blasted Philadelphia’s teacher union for dragging its feet on Governor Corbett’s proposal to bail out the failing district, which—if accepted—would be conditional on the elimination of teacher seniority rights and basing future pay increases on achievement-based teacher evaluations. (For more on the roots of Philadelphia schools’ sticky financial situation, see Paying the Pension Price in Philadelphia.) In this week’s podcast, Dara urges Philly’s teacher union, and unions everywhere, to take a more active role in pushing teacher quality....


One of the few things that nearly all sides of the education policy debate can agree on is that student achievement in urban schools and districts across the nation is distressingly low.

But that is where the agreement ends.

There is a complicated, rolling debate about the problem itself: whether this low level of achievement should be described as a failure of schools or a consequence of poverty, whether things are actually getting better and how, and whether our expectations about what schools can do are too high.

But even when we can reach some consensus on the scope of the problem, there is an even more hotly contested discussion about its solutions. Interestingly, though, conversations about how to improve achievement and reduce gaps seem almost myopically focused on systems and governance—how schools or districts are organized, how to hold them accountable, who should hold them accountable, and on. At the same time, claims about the potential of system-level and governance changes seem to both overestimate the impact system-level changes can have on student achievement at scale and studiously avoid what happens every day in the classroom.

It’s as if we were trying to improve cancer treatment with debates about how insurance companies reimbursed hospitals or whether states should provide financial oversight over billing rates, but without talking about how to improve the detection and treatment of the disease itself.

And the reality is that while we undoubtedly have school-governance challenges that need to be overcome, we also have a...


I stared at the tweet, dumbfounded.

Houston: 2013 Broad Prize finalist?

That can’t be.

I had recently dug through old city-level NAEP results. They were all terribly depressing. 

But Houston’s stopped me cold.

Somehow it had won the 2002 Broad Prize (for supposed urban district excellence) despite dreadfully low performance.  Worse, its scores are virtually unchanged nearly a decade later.

It’s being honored again?

This is what earns an urban district Broad Prize–finalist status?

San Diego is also a finalist and also participates in TUDA. So off I went searching for its data.

Maybe it will be better; Houston was probably just a mistake.

San Diego’s overall scores are slightly better than the appallingly low “large-city” average (8th reading, 27 percent vs. 23 percent). But it has considerably fewer low-income students than other participating cities: 61 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; in Cleveland it’s 100 percent; Dallas, 85 percent; Chicago and Baltimore, 84 percent.

Hmm. Does San Diego still have an advantage if we compare similar cohorts of students?

No. Its performance is as heartbreakingly low.

In Houston and San Diego, about one in ten African American eighth graders can read proficiently. Their low-income students do only the smallest bit better.

This is what earns...


Dear Deborah,

I’m glad you brought up the topic of democracy. In future posts, I plan to explore the habits and attributes we hope to inculcate in our youthful, budding citizens, including a commitment to self-sufficiency. But today let’s continue the conversation about democratic governance of our public schools.

You and I have more in common than we might want to concede, in that we share a somewhat cynical view of politics. Namely, we see most political actors and institutions as acting out of self-interest. You, and many other liberals, are obsessed with “the rich,” worrying that they will buy elections and promote their own narrow interests (while becoming even richer in the process). I, and many other ed-reformers, am obsessed with the teachers’ unions and other “adult interest groups,” worrying that they will buy elections, run their own candidates, and promote their own narrow interests.

Yet look at what just happened in New York City: Neither the candidate of the rich nor the candidate of the unions won the Democratic primary. Bill de Blasio, untethered from both the 1 percent and organized labor, marched to an impressive victory. (Whether he actually becomes mayor depends, of course, on the November election.)

Maybe we both overestimate the clout of our respective boogeymen.

We also might want to consider that what we see as a clash of interests is really just a clash of ideology.

Consider this quote from Robert Samuelson, discussing lessons from the financial collapse of five years ago:

I concede: I’ve told...


I met Scott Morgan on a bus nearly five years ago.

During a short ride from an airport to a hotel, we had the most natural, engaging, fun conversation imaginable. He asked me about my work, my family, and my interests, and as we were walking into the lobby, I felt like we had known each other for years.

Only later did I come to realize that I had been talking to the Scott Morgan, the founder and CEO of Education Pioneers (EP). He had spent our entire conversation showing such genuine interest in me, asking about my life, that I hadn’t had the chance to learn about him. It hadn’t clicked that I was talking to the guy who started one of the most valuable organizations in our space.

These memories came rushing back to me last week, during EP’s 10th-anniversary gala. Speaker after speaker said the kindest things about Scott, sincerely thanking him for his modesty and commitment to the cause. It turns out that lots of people have had the same experience I had—meeting him initially and immediately recognizing his modesty and talents.

But what came through during those talks and in my subsequent research for this interview is that Scott’s initial, get-to-know-you humanity carries through in seemingly all of his interactions. Those...