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.

Here’s a simple thought experiment:

Sam and Ben are eight-year-old identical twins. Like most identical twins, they are the same in almost every way. They do, however, differ in two important respects: Sam is smarter than Ben, but Ben is naturally a harder worker. So here’s my question: All other things being equal (in this case, quite literally), which twin is likely to be a more successful adult?

The answer is Ben, the harder worker. Ben has a far greater chance of achieving success than does Sam. And this is an unacceptable consequence of our country’s inadequate education system, particularly its ineffective education of higher-ability students.

Hard work is a more learned characteristic than is intelligence. Circumstances can easily lead someone to work harder; intelligence is a more fixed attribute (if not fixed entirely). But BOTH of these attributes—hard work and ability—are vital for success.

Let’s look at two possible outcomes for the stars of our story. In this instance, Sam and Ben are in the same math class learning long division. They have four days to learn it before they’re tested. Sam can learn long division in two days; Ben can grasp the same concept in four.

Outcome 1: Sam only wanted to work for one day; Ben toiled for all four. Regardless of ability, Sam is now behind Ben.

Outcome 2: Both twins put in the required time to learn long division. And both do well on the test. BUT Sam’s time was wasted for two days

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Dear Deborah,

Over the course of our dialogue, we've written a lot about children living in poverty and about inequality. But you've been practically daring me to engage on the question of the other end of the spectrum: the children of the rich. OK, fine, I see that resistance is futile!

In your most recent post, for instance, you argued,

Children are born into whatever they are born into.  That some start the six-mile foot "race" at a mile behind the starting line and others a few miles ahead is not fair, not a level playing field. A few in the bottom quintile (3 percent?) overcome the odds.  But it would be a lot easier for the message of hope to reach the other 97 percent if they were closer to the starting line, and the rich weren't so incredibly far ahead, looking back at them with disdain.  If my childless, working-age grandchildren aren't too proud to take a "hand-out" from their parents, why should the adult children of families who have experienced a lifetime of poverty and racism feel otherwise about taking a helping hand from a society they didn't ask to be born into poor?  Alas, many do feel shame.

This reminds me of the old joke about people who were born on third base and thought they'd hit a triple.

If you recall, we started our discussion last spring with a debate about Sean Reardon's finding that, in recent decades, affluent children...

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With Common Core implementation in full swing, states are, for the most part, reaching for the same academic achievement goals. Yet according to this new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), the accountability structures being developed in state and local jurisdictions continue to be disparate in scope and quality. Must this be the case? Policymakers, private funders, charter authorizers, or others might create a national system that “could offer the primary advantage of providing a consistent and comprehensive measure of charter school quality to inform parent choice and authorizer decisions,” argue the authors. Looking for inspiration, the analysts study state and local accountability systems as well as private ones, such as the high school rankings provided by U.S. News and World Report. They found that each used different reporting formats and a variety of means to measure student achievement, growth, college and career readiness, and subgroup performance. Logistics, costs, and our fears of federal intervention in education will likely ensure that a multi-state evaluation system does not move much beyond the kind offered by U.S. News. Nevertheless, the report calls for better data and offers a number of steps that states could take to make their results more comparable, such as including student-growth measures or using simplified reporting formats.

SOURCE: Lyria Boast and Tim Field, Quality School Ratings: Trends in Evaluating School Academic Quality (Washington, D.C.: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, October 2013)....

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IMPACT—the District of Columbia’s controversial teacher-evaluation system, ushered in by former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee—offers robust incentives and sanctions for teachers and links them to multiple measures of performance, such as test scores, classroom observations, and collaboration with colleagues. And according to this new study, it is working. Analysts studied teacher-level administrative and demographic data for DCPS’s general-education teachers in grades K–12, and their students, over the first three years of IMPACT (2009–10 through 2011–12), including their scores on IMPACT, which placed them into four categories of effectiveness ranging from highly effective to ineffective. Teachers in the latter category were immediately dismissed, while those in the next lowest category (called minimally effective) were subject to a dismissal threat—meaning they could be fired the following year if their rating did not improve. On the other hand, those who were rated as highly effective were eligible for a one-time bonus of up to $25,000, as well as increases in their base pay if they scored at the highest rating for at least two consecutive years. When comparing these two “threshold” groups, the low-performers (whose ratings placed them near the threshold of a dismissal threat) and the high performers (whose rating placed them near the threshold for the big pay bump), the analysts found that the threat of dismissal increased the voluntary attrition of low-performing teachers by 11 percentage points (or more than 50 percent) and improved the performance of teachers who remained by 0.27 of a standard deviation. They also...

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The results of New York’s hard-fought, revamped, and supposedly tougher teacher-evaluation system are in: 91.5 percent of teachers were rated either highly effective or effective, 4.4 percent were rated “developing,” and just 1 percent were rated “ineffective.” This appears to be a continuation of a trend: After a huge push for rigorous teacher evaluations tied to achievement, the results are mostly the same. These outcomes are especially interesting when juxtaposed with those from the recently lauded D.C. IMPACT system [link to SR]. Mike Petrilli, unsurprised, notes that the natural local response to top-down mandates is to resist.

A thoughtful article in National Review Online profiled the battle against “progressive education” over the last half century and, in particular, the contributions of E.D. Hirsch Jr. to the cause. It is a must-read for anyone those who wish to understand more clearly the philosophical underpinnings of the education-reform movement.

New York Times op-ed columnist Bill Keller highlighted the move to reform teacher preparation, noting in particular the calls for greater selectivity in admissions (a key point in Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World), better training in content knowledge (as quoted in the article, researcher William Schmidt reckoned that about 60 percent of America’s future middle school math teachers were being trained at “Botswana-level teacher programs”), and the introduction of “sustained, intense classroom experience” into prep programs.

Seven states—Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington—will participate in a...

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Throughout much of 2013, a colleague and I worked on a project related to America’s highest-potential boys and girls, students colloquially known as “gifted.” Though I learned a great deal, it was mostly a discouraging enterprise.

In short, this country gives the impression that it doesn’t much care about such kids. We have an astonishingly under-resourced, deprioritized, and inchoate system of school supports for kids on the right side of the academic distribution.

Though the project was designed to identify what’s happening in this field, I spent much of my time studying the dog that seldom barks—trying to figure out why there is so little activity in this field. I’m now of the mind that American-ness might be at the heart of the problem.

There is something quintessentially American about beating the odds, bootstrapping your way to success. Think of the waves of penniless immigrants who came to our shores and made their marks, the hardy souls who crossed the plains and mountains to realize their destinies. This is the stuff of The American Dream.

But something important seems to go hand-in-hand with our rooting for the underdog—what might be described as the chip on our collective shoulder, a bit of disdain for those seen as undeservingly advantaged. Our Founders cast off the crown, the nobility, and the haughty pretentions that go along with class privilege. We rebel against not only...

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As a born optimist, I don’t generally enjoy being “against” reforms. This sometimes makes playing the role of gadfly challenging. If only I had the curmudgeonly qualities of Checker Finn, my mentor and boss, it would be so much easier. (Even Rick Hess, for all of his straight talk and fun-loving, bare-kneed exploits, is much more the natural cynic.)

So it brings me no pleasure to predict, as I have on multiple occasions, that the project to create rigorous teacher evaluations by fiat is likely to fail. But read this passage within a recent post by Megan McArdle (on Republican states actively working to torpedo ObamaCare implementation), and see if it rings alarm bells for you, too:

Obamacare is in jeopardy, and Democrats are casting around for a way to blame this on Republicans. The answer they have settled on: It's their fault because Republican governors did not set up exchanges.

Think about what they are actually saying: “We passed a law that was so incredibly fragile that it was destined to fail unless all the state governments controlled by the party that opposed this law worked hard to make the system a success.”

And

As anyone who has ever implemented a new program (corporate or government) can tell you, one of the biggest hurdles is getting people who don’t care about your program, or who actively oppose it, to make their piece work. Even if they’re trying in good faith,

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College isn’t likely to be in the cards for students from poor, rural communities. Furthermore, for rural kids who go to college, they are the least likely to persist, in comparison to their peers from more affluent and/or urban areas.

In a new report, the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) slices the college-going and college-persistence rates of high school graduates (class of 2010) by the geography, income, and racial composition of their alma mater.[1] Based on these characteristics, NSC generated 6 categories of students: low income, high minority, urban; low income, low minority, urban; low income, rural; higher income, high minority urban; higher income, low minority urban; higher income, rural.  

Students from poor, rural schools have the lowest college-going and persistence rates among these 6 categories of students. Here are the alarming statistics:

  • College Going Rate: Just 50 percent of students from poor, rural schools enrolled in any type of college (2- or 4-year) immediately after high school. Their college-going rate is slightly lower than even that of graduates from poor, high-minority urban schools (53 percent).
  • 4-Year College Going Rate: Just 28 percent of them enrolled in a 4-year college immediately after high school. Their 4-year college going rate is again a slightly lower rate than for graduates of poor, high-minority urban schools (30 percent).
  • 1-Year College Persistence Rate: 79 percent of college-enrolled students from poor, rural high schools persisted into a second year of college. The 1-year college persistence rate for students from poor,
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Throughout his tenure as Secretary, Arne Duncan has often told audiences, “Hold us accountable.” It’s an honorable sentiment from a public servant.

But it’s also a model of good behavior for those of us currently in the chattering class—commentators, pundits, critics, etc., who hold forth instead of fighting in the arena.

For some time now, I’ve been giving the Department a hard time about not releasing enough data on the performance of the SIG program—I’m trying to hold them accountable for the Secretary’s talk of turning around 5,000 persistently failing schools over the course of five years.

I suppose they will eventually give us some results, and I’m certain that I’ll have something to say about them.

But in the spirit of the Secretary’s refrain, I should be held accountable, too.

I publicly predicted—on numerous occasions—that SIG was not going to produce anything remotely close to the results the Department and others were promising. I was alarmed at how much we were spending on SIG and the awful track record of previous turnaround efforts, and I was sure that districts would pick weak interventions and that kids were going to continue languishing in these schools while we went about this misguided adventure.

Ultimately, the results will speak for themselves. But until then, here is a sampling of what I wrote more than four years ago. I caused a fuss about this program. If I got it...

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Claim: Rolling back education reform will improve outcomes for students, especially poor students.

Reality: There is no evidence for this claim.

The most frustrating thing about Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, isn’t the way she twists the evidence on school choice and testing, her condescending tone toward leaders trying to improve educational outcomes, or her clever but disingenuous rhetorical arguments. No, what’s most frustrating is that we education reformers have left ourselves exposed and vulnerable to her attacks by overselling, and underthinking, our own ideas.

Truth be told, there are parts of the school-reform agenda today that are easy pickings for our opponents. Chief among these is the move to create prescriptive, top-down, statewide teacher-evaluation systems based largely on classroom-level test-score gains. Akin to Obamacare, it’s an idea that seems appealing at first blush (let’s recognize our best teachers and fire our worst!) but quickly devolves into a Rube Goldberg nightmare, with state officials trying (for example) to figure out how to link gym teachers’ performance to reading scores.

Fixing schools, especially from afar, is difficult, treacherous work, yet those of us in the reform community have tried to turn it into a morality play between good and evil. “We know what works, we just need the political will to do it,” goes the common refrain. Balderdash. We know that some things work better than others, and...

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