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.

Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D.

Over the last few years, there has been a growing awareness of the need to incorporate character development into school curricula, and various efforts to do so have received wide attention. Perhaps the best-known effort is the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which has been implemented in close to 150 charter schools across the country.

KIPP is aimed at children and teenagers from low-income families. Its explicit goal is increasing college enrollment by combining an emphasis on factors proven to bolster academic success (high expectations, parental involvement, time spent on instruction) with a novel focus on developing seven character strengths—zest, grit, self-control, optimism, curiosity, gratitude, and social intelligence. These strengths are tracked on a “character growth card” and encouraged through classroom discussions and assignments that incorporate lessons about character into more conventional academic activities. Teachers also go out of their way to both model and praise displays of good character.

KIPP has a long record of impressive accomplishments that have garnered much media attention, including Paul Tough’s bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Students attending KIPP schools have higher rates of high-school graduation, college enrollment, and college completion than students from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds who attend other types of schools. Numerous evaluations of KIPP schools have found that students show larger-than-expected gains on various measures of achievement.

However, because KIPP schools are charter schools, the students who attend them have...

In many school districts, classroom observations make up as much as 75 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores, according to a new study published in Education Next. And these scores predict a teacher’s ability to raise student test scores the following year, as measured by value-added models. With that in mind, analysts did a deep dive into the observation practices of four school districts. They found that score stability and the quality of the information gathered improved as the number of individual observations increased, and that evaluations by trained, independent, outside evaluators (instead of principals) were more predictive of the following year’s value-added gains. The report recommends that districts observe teachers at least two or three times annually, using an outsider at least once. Moreover, the study draws attention to the latent bias against teachers with lower-achieving students or who teach in struggling schools. Although value-added models are careful to control for students’ backgrounds and achievement levels, there’s often no such adjustment for classroom observations. (Simply put, it can be much harder to teach a great lesson when the kids are below grade level or unruly.) Unchecked, this can push teachers to avoid these roles, widening the achievement gap. The authors suggest that states conduct statistical analyses to control for these variables. If districts hope to retain and improve their teaching force, making the most of their teacher observations is a good place to start.

SOURCE: Grover J. Whitehurst, Matthew M. Chingos, and Katharine M. Lindquist, “Getting Classroom Observations Right,”...

In The Teacher Wars, reporter Dana Goldstein offers a stirring account of the 175-year history of the public school teaching profession. The book, which ought to be required reading for education reformers and status-quo defenders alike, notes some obvious but oft-overlooked realities. Namely, we need a lot of teachers, and men and women of ordinary abilities will have to fill these jobs. Goldstein points out that even if every graduate of Ivy League institutions went into teaching, there would still be a significant staffing shortfall. Most striking are the familiar themes that recur throughout the history of teaching. (Indeed the conversations in 2014 aren’t that different from the ones in 1924.) First, the demands and goals placed on teachers and education have always been nearly impossible to meet—such as the mandates to integrate races or to end poverty. Second, teacher prep has always been mediocre. Third, political and social tensions in the rest of the country, not surprisingly, infiltrate the teaching profession. Goldstein calls teaching “the most controversial profession in America.” And she endorses both misguided and useful reforms: Dramatically reduce the stakes attached to standardized tests (misguided) and end outdated union protections (useful). In all, Goldstein, with a self-described left-leaning bias, concludes that a bottom-up approach is right for education reform.

SOURCE: Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession. New York: Doubleday, 2014.

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....