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.

Poland’s gains in mathematics and science on the 2012 PISA assessments made big news in the United States. The impressive achievements by fifteen-year-old Polish youngsters contrast starkly with the scores of American youngsters. U.S. results have remained essentially flat since the tests were first given in 2000 to 180,000 students in 32 countries. As a result of these diverging trajectories, Polish students now outperform their American peers in both math and science by a significant margin.

I was a high-school teacher in Poland in 1990–91 and again in 1994–95. During my first stint, I taught in a town of about 15,000; the second time, I worked in one of Warsaw’s elite high schools. The children of the students I taught are now the Polish generation that is outpacing much of the world in academic achievement.

After reading the new PISA report—especially when read in tandem with Amanda Ripley’s excellent recent book—I am not really surprised by Poland’s success. The students I taught had many of the attributes for success that now benefit their own children. These included families that care deeply about education and that view education to be the path to upward mobility. By doing well in school, children could do more with their lives. This was a belief I saw in the parents both of small-town students and of elite metropolitan kids.

Poles also take great pride in knowledge: acquiring it and showing it off. I was always amazed, and more than...


America’s approach to the education of children with disabilities is antiquated, costly, and ineffective. “Special education” as we know it is broken—and repainting the surface won’t repair it. It cries out for a radical overhaul. Far too many children emerge from our special-ed system without the skills, knowledge, and competencies that they need for a successful life that fully capitalizes on their abilities. This ineffectual system is also very, very expensive. Yet for a host of reasons—inertia, timidity, political gridlock, fear of litigation, fear of interest groups, ignorance, lack of imagination, and so on—neither our education leaders nor our policy leaders have shown any inclination to modernize it. Instead, they settle for “paint jobs”—waivers and the like.

Federal policy is responsible for much of this failure. Even though the education world has changed around it—as have technology, mobility, fiscal conditions, demographics, and so much more—it remains essentially stuck where it was in 1975 when the first major national law in this realm (now known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) was passed.

It was much needed at the time. Many children with disabilities (in those days they were called “handicapped”) had been denied education or given versions of it wholly unsuited to their needs and unlikely to do them much good. Some adults believed that such kids could not learn. Schools in many cases did not know how to educate them well. And few states or districts had focused on the problem.

So Congress did—and President Ford...


“The United States’ standings haven’t improved dramatically because we as a nation haven’t addressed the main cause of our mediocre PISA performance — the effects of poverty on students,” Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said in a statement. – “American 15-Year-Olds Lag, Mainly in Math, on International Standardized Tests,” by Motoko Rich, New York Times, December 3, 2013

Occam’s Razor is the well-known principle that “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Keep that in mind today, PISA Day, as various pundits hypothesize about why the U.S. scored below the international average in math, and at the average in reading and science, and why we don’t seem to be making any gains over time on these much-watched gauges.

Dennis Van Roekel offers the poverty hypothesis as an explanation. I’m not unsympathetic to the argument (though America’s child-poverty rate is not as unusual as many people think), but let’s consider all of the assumptions that one must make to support it.

First, one must assume that math is somehow more related to students’ family backgrounds than are reading and science, since we do worse in the former. That’s quite a stretch, especially because of much other evidence showing that reading is more strongly linked to socioeconomic class. It’s well known that affluent toddlers hear millions...


The Tennessee Charter School Center (TCSC) is out with a terrific new report on Nashville’s schools landscape. This new organization subscribes to the notion that the district need not be the primary unit of analysis; instead, TCSC focuses on the number of high-quality seats in the city. The findings are grave—there are so very few great schools serving kids in the city—and the recommendations are strong. Like lots of places, Nashville is evidently scared of charter-school growth, even though charters make up a disproportionately high percentage of great schools, and have therefore put policies into place that will hem in charter growth. TCSC suggests doing otherwise. This is a very good, reader-friendly analysis with strong ideas.

I think we’re on the way to fundamentally changing K–12 delivery in America’s big cities; these shifts aren’t inevitable, but we’re headed in the right direction, and the pace is accelerating. SEA reform, which is almost as important, is unfortunately many years behind. Too few groups are working in this space. But just as CRPE helped launch the thinking of systemic reform in cities, they are trying their hand at state-level stuff. Good for them! Their latest report is on SEA productivity. If you care about SEA reform, give it a read. I particularly like Roza’s and DQC’s pieces. The pension stuff is fascinating too, especially if that’s your gig. In full disclosure, I have a different take on what...


During your pre-Turkey trot out of town, you might have missed the big news about the federal School Improvement Grants program. Education Week’s Politics K–12 blog, which generously called the results a “mixed picture,” put it this way:

While more than two-thirds of schools in the first cohort (which started in 2010-11) saw gains in reading and math after two years in the program, another third of the schools actually declined, despite the major federal investment, which included grants of up to $500,000 a year, the department said Thursday.

Even Arne Duncan himself could muster only faint praise for the schools, acknowledging their “incremental progress.”

Andy Smarick, a long-time SIG skeptic, showed a great deal of holiday cheer in not shouting, “I told you so.” But neither was he shy in stating the obvious, labeling the results “disappointing but completely predictable.” He went a bit further in a Washington Post quote, arguing that “you can’t help but look at the results and be discouraged . . . . We didn’t spend $5 billion of taxpayer money for incremental change.”

And lest you say, “Hey, it’s only money,” pause a moment on that. Five billion dollars. Enough to control Malaria. Enough to implement Core Knowledge in every single elementary school in the country. Enough to keep 2,000 Catholic schools alive. 

And instead, we poured the money into...


For those of you following the interesting and ever-changing world of educator evaluations, a few recent happenings may be worth a look.

The Delaware Department of Education recently published a report written by its internal Teacher and Leader Effective Unit on the implementation of its revised educator-evaluation system, DPAS-II. As part of the state’s Race to the Top grant, the DDE incorporated “robust measures of student achievement” into its existing system. That model had been structured around four components of effective teaching measured through classroom observations. It had produced almost no variation among the state’s educators (in the new system, those observations still make up 80 percent of the final rating).

Most components of DPAS-II get a binary rating, but a new component, based on multiple measures of student growth, is scored “Exceeds,” “Satisfactory,” or “Unsatisfactory.” The summative evaluation combines the components, netting ratings “Highly Effective,” “Effective,” “Needs Improvement,” and “Ineffective.”

The state’s educators were divided into three groups based on the availability of student-performance measures; these include state tests, external and internal assessments in subjects outside of math/reading, and “growth goals” based on professional standards and position responsibilities.

Importantly, those teachers whose scores were determined (at least in part) on the basis of empirical measures of student growth had more score variation (54 percent receiving “Exceeds”) than those assessed via growth goals based on professional standards (69 percent receiving “Exceeds”). Moreover, the distribution of scores associated with student-performance measures varied widely among districts, making inter-district comparisons difficult....


The Thomas B. Fordham Institute today released Financing the Education of High-Need Students, a policy brief that focuses on three specific challenges that are often encountered when districts—especially small ones—grapple with the costs of serving their highest-need special-education students.

Districts and states could put these recommendations into practice today, without waiting for reforms or help from Washington:

  1. District Cooperatives: Many districts—including charter schools, which often comprise their own mini-districts—do not have the requisite size and capacity to serve high-need students effectively and affordably. Multi-district co-ops allow for both economies-of-scale and better service-delivery for these children.
  2. Student Funding Based on Multiple Weights: Special-education funding systems based on average student needs may be easily administered, but they can also lead to inefficient and ineffective resource allocations. Weighted student funding is a tiered system of resource allocation that allows for a more rational and efficacious distribution of funds, enabling districts with more high-need pupils (or pupils who require more dollars to pay for their IEP-mandated services) to receive more money, while jurisdictions that need less receive less. Basing those weights on services needed by children rather than disability diagnoses significantly improves the accuracy of this system.
  3. Exceptional-Need Funds: Districts (especially small ones) sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the high cost of educating one or two particularly needy children. This type of fund, managed and predominantly financed by the state, acts as an insurance mechanism for districts that can’t cover the full cost of educating high-need pupils along with all others under their purview.

Learn more...


In its release of SIG data, the U.S. Department of Education only provided comparisons between SIG schools and statewide averages. As I mentioned in Friday’s post, that’s not exactly a revealing comparison since SIG schools are, by definition, extremely low-performing and have much more room for improvement than the average school in the state.

Since Secretary Duncan visited New Jersey for the data release, we decided to do a quick New Jersey analysis of our own—something we thought might be edifying. We compared the performance of SIG schools to the performance of schools that applied for SIG (and were eligible) but didn’t receive awards. In other words, we compared schools that were similarly low performing at the start, while one set received the intervention and the other did not. We looked at math scores and focused on schools with an eighth grade (high schools take a much different test in New Jersey).

As you can see, at least based on a quick analysis of one state’s data, it’s hard to make the case that this massive program had a transformative influence on the state’s most troubled schools. There’s just not all that much difference in the changes between schools that were SIG-eligible but lost and schools that were SIG-eligible and won. And we certainly don’t see any major turnarounds.

The Department’s research arm is going to do a more sophisticated analysis along...


There is no doubt in my mind that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cares deeply about disadvantaged kids. He deserves our admiration and respect for bringing a renewed sense of urgency to addressing America’s persistently failing schools.

His devotion to the hope of school turnarounds is rooted in very real and very painful experiences. When he closed a number of underperforming schools during his tenure as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, many displaced students were moved into similarly low-performing schools, and worse, inadvertently exposed to gang violence.

I’m certain this heartrending episode influenced him profoundly. I’m sure he committed himself to finding a better way to help boys and girls assigned to schools that weren’t working. I sincerely commend him for that sentiment and the passion behind it.

But this sentiment and passion also blinded him and his team.

Hence the tragedy of SIG.

Mountains of studies had clearly demonstrated over many years that the success rate of school-turnaround efforts was miniscule. The research showed that regardless of the intervention used or the amount of money spent, persistently low-performing schools stubbornly remained that way.

I will never know if the Department of Education simply hadn’t done its homework or if it had but believed that it could defy the lessons of the past. I suspect the latter was the primary culprit.

Slogans like “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” followed by a history-changing election, didn’t exactly infuse early Obama administration officials with...


It often seems that when wonks, researchers, and legislators get together to talk education reform, they exclude one group of stakeholders—a group for whom these reforms mean the most and upon whom their success depends: teachers. In this new book, TeachPlus founders Celine Coggins, Heather Peske, and Kate McGovern offer a corrective: a series of short essays written by their Teaching Policy Fellows cohort that illustrate the work being done on the ground to advance reform. The book is divided into seven sections, each covering a different policy issue: using data in schools, ensuring fair access to quality teachers, measuring teacher effectiveness, creating a performance-driven profession, engaging early-career teachers in union politics, building school leadership that enables great instruction, and improving the status of the profession. What is most striking about these stories is their genuine call-to-action narrative: Having been identified as highly effective teachers, these men and women know exactly how much of a difference putting the right teacher in the right classroom can make. All education stakeholders would be wise to learn from these experts.

SOURCE: Celine Coggins, Heather G. Peske, and Kate McGovern (eds.), Learning from the Experts: Teacher Leaders on Solving America’s Education Challenges (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013).