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.

On the surface, the story of the US Department of Education’s recent letter to Indiana about its ESEA-waiver noncompliance writes itself. According to the feds, the Hoosier state promised a bunch of stuff, isn’t delivering, and deserves to be called into the principal’s office.

But I encourage you to read the letter—my gut tells me this is the K–12-policy version of a Rorschach test.

In short, the Department has placed conditions on IN’s flexibility request and is requiring the state to submit a plan for how it will implement high-quality standards and assessments in the next school year.

On the first score, ED determined the state hadn’t implemented sufficient interventions for troubled schools and wasn’t adequately monitoring implementation of content standards and educator evaluations.

On the second, ED is seriously holding IN’s feet to the fire regarding its recent legislative action related to Common Core and PARCC. Both were part of the state’s waiver request, and now both have been put aside via state law. Given this, Uncle Sam is demanding a new plan for how the state intends to meet the standards-and-assessments conditions of ESEA flexibility.

I bet lots of folks will read ED’s letter, and think, “Hooray! The Department is serious about its new accountability rules!” Indeed, the ESEA waiver application had clear requirements, and the state made promises, got the flexibility, isn’t meeting its obligations, and is now being held accountable. (Fans of Common Core and PARCC specifically, and tough standards...

This AEI policy brief investigates whether involved fathers impact their kids’ chances of success in college—and finds that they surely do. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a 1994–95 study of a nationally representative sample of children in grades 7–12, the author found that children whose fathers are involved in their lives (measured by adolescent-reported data on such activities as receiving homework help, playing a sport, or discussing personal issues) while they attend high school are far more likely to graduate from college—98 percent more likely, in fact. Perhaps the most important (if not surprising) takeaway is that young adults in college-educated homes are more likely to be raised in an intact family with an involved father and are therefore more advantaged than their counterparts in non-college-educated homes. Since this means that most young adults from poor or working-class families are far less likely to receive a college education, a question arises: how can we tackle the fatherhood divide between children from educated and less-educated families? This ultimately highlights a very important problem without an easy solution—and serves as a reminder that it’s never too early to celebrate Father’s Day.

W. Bradford Wilcox, “Dad and the diploma: The difference fathers make for college graduation,” The Home Economics Project (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, April 22, 2014).

There’s much interest in how schools can develop students’ non-cognitive skills, such as persistence and interpersonal skills, not just their academic prowess. In this study, Marty West and six other researchers examine the potential of schools to impact the development of four types of non-cognitive qualities: conscientiousness, self-control, grit (persisting through to a long-term goal), and growth mindset (the extent to which a child believes his academic ability can improve with effort, rather than being fixed). Analysts link self-reported survey data from nearly 1,400 eighth-grade students who attended Boston public schools in the spring of 2010–11 to student-level demographic and test-score data. Three key findings emerge: First, they find that all four measures of non-cognitive skills are positively correlated at the student level with achievement gains on standardized tests and with attendance and behavior. For the most part, however, those positive correlations disappear at the school level (the “paradox”). Second, students in overprescribed charter schools who typically post large test-score gains report lower-than-average levels on measures of conscientiousness, self-control, and grit. Analysts hypothesize that this is because many of these charter schools are academically and behaviorally demanding—and thus, these students are apt to rate themselves more critically given the context in which they are educated. Third, the authors find that students’ views on whether their academic ability is malleable or fixed is less likely to be influenced by their surroundings—perhaps because such notions are based on internal beliefs. Analysts close with a smart caution in the end:  “In the rush...

It looks to me as if one of the most acclaimed reforms of today’s education profession—not just in the U.S. but also all over the planet—is one of the least examined in terms of actual implementation and effectiveness. How often and how well do instructors, whose administrators and gurus revere the concept of differentiated instruction, actually carry it out? How well does it work and for which kids under what circumstances? So far as I can tell, nobody really knows.

I’ve been roaming the globe in search of effective strategies for educating high-ability youngsters, particularly kids from disadvantaged circumstances who rarely have parents with the knowledge and means to steer them through the education maze and obtain the kind of schooling (and/or supplementation or acceleration) that will make the most of their above-average capacity to learn.

As expected, I’ve found a wide array of programs and policies intended for “gifted education,” “talent development,” and so forth, each with pluses and minuses.

But almost everywhere, I’ve also encountered some version of this assertion: “We don’t really need to provide special programs, classrooms, or schools for gifted children because we expect every school and teacher to differentiate their instruction so as to meet the unique educational needs of all children within an inclusive, heterogeneous classroom.”

A thoroughly laudable goal, say I, but how realistic is it? How well is it being done? And does it really meet...

Almost a year has passed since the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) published Teacher Quality Roadmap: Improving Policies and Practices in the Dayton Public Schools. The report, funded jointly by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Learn to Earn Dayton, analyzed teacher policies and related practices within the district, with the goal of to identifying short- and long-term improvements to policy and practice that could in turn increase the quality of the teaching force.

As Learn to Earn Executive Director Tom Lasley noted in June of 2013, when the report was released, teachers’ impact matters immensely, especially in a region and district that has seen significant population declines and has confronted (and continues to confront) economic challenges.

NCTQ framed its analysis and findings around five key areas: staffing, evaluations, tenure, compensation, and work schedules. Analysts met with teachers, principals, community leaders, and other stakeholders, and they reviewed district policies and state law. A slate of recommendations—some easier to tackle (e.g., maintain the current schedule of teacher observations under the new evaluation framework) and some harder (e.g., giving principals the authority to decide who works in their buildings)—resulted.

District superintendent Lori Ward and her colleagues got to work and, by December of 2013, accomplished several significant improvements. Among them, principals are no longer forced to accept transferred teachers to fill vacancies; rather, principals have the ability to select the most qualified candidate (including new hires).

Additionally, reductions in force, which in the past were based on seniority...

Former Ohio governor Jim Rhodes wrote in 1969, “Many of today’s social and economic ills result from a lack of employment among the able-bodied. The lack of employment stems directly from inadequate education and training.” Governor Rhodes continued, asserting that vocational-training programs for young women and men could help to meet the demands of a changing modern-day economy.

Fast-forward forty-five years: Ohio has changed substantially, but as did Governor Rhodes, the state’s policymakers are again hitching their wagons to vocational education. Retro is in, and that’s a good thing: vocational education—a.k.a. “career and technical education”—has the potential to open new pathways of success for many teenagers.

Little, however, is widely known about how Ohio organizes its vocational-education programs or how students in them fare. Cue the state’s new report cards, which include helpful information about the state’s vocational programs. The following looks at the report cards, yielding five takeaways regarding Ohio’s vocational options.

Point 1: CTPDs and JVSDs are not the same

Ohio has two key entities in the realm of vocational education: (1) Career and Technical Planning Districts (CTPDs) and (2) Joint Vocational School Districts (JVSDs, also called “career-tech centers”). CTPDs are an administrative entity, while JVSDs are direct vocational-education providers. Both CTPDs and JVSDs are comprised of member school districts; however, while all districts are part of a CTPD, not all districts are part of a JVSD.

Throughout Ohio, ninety-one CTPDs oversee vocational programs. CTPDs have at least one member school...

When it comes to state education agencies (SEAs), ed-reformers have fallen into a sorry rut.

As states have emerged as primary drivers of much-needed changes in K–12 practice and policy, the SEA has become the default agent-of-change for a vast number of initiatives concocted by policymakers in state capitals and Washington alike.

Want a new teacher-evaluation system and more rigorous certification standards? Want to crack down on school violence and bullying? Want better assessments of school performance and improved interventions for low-performers? Want to widen broadband access and encourage blended learning?

Hand it to the SEA.

Given that this agency is the state’s primary (or only) K–12 administrative unit, one can easily see why decision makers have had this impulse.

Yet the SEA was originally designed—and then acculturated over decades—to distribute dollars to local districts and monitor their compliance with a lengthening list of federal and state regulations and categorical funding streams. It was never intended to lead complex, contentious, large-scale reforms that require original thinking, nimble action and constant adaptability. In other words, it wasn’t intended to carry out a huge fraction of the responsibilities that have recently been thrust upon it.

In our new report, The New SEA: At the Helm, Not the Oar, we propose that this plain fact be recognized and alternative arrangements made.

This does not mean we think the SEA has no role in education reform, much less that we...

After a controversial change to a state law, what happens on the ground? This piece, from last month’s meeting of the Association for Education Finance and Policy, delves into one such case. In 2012, Ohio lawmakers approved the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES), which requires evaluations be based on student-academic-growth measures, formal observations, and classroom walkthroughs. This study examines whether local teacher-collective-bargaining agreements negotiated after OTES was adopted allow the evaluation results to be used in personnel decisions (the authors called this “bridging”)—or if they protect experienced or tenured teachers’ jobs regardless of their evaluation scores (“buffering”). The authors found that all of the fifteen contracts they studied are essentially bridging when it came to evaluation policies, meaning that the contracts match well with state law and allow principals to use growth measures, observations, and walkthroughs when evaluating teachers. However, results were quite different when it came to actually using OTES to make decisions: the researchers discovered that four of five contracts are buffering when they examined a variety of specific provisions. For example, most contracts contain buffering provisions that keep seniority as a consideration when making reductions in force. Some even keep seniority as the primary or sole means of deciding who is laid off first, in spite of state law to the contrary. Regarding transfers, only three districts have bridging contracts that give administrators discretion to fill vacancies; most keep seniority as a consideration, and none explicitly require the use of OTES scores in transfer decisions. For tenure...

In recent years, policymakers and reform advocates have viewed State Education Agencies (SEAs) as the lead organizations for implementing sweeping reforms and initiatives in K–12 education—everything from Race to the Top grants and federal waivers to teacher-evaluation systems and online schools. But SEAs were not built—nor are they really competent—to drive such reforms, argue Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire in The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar [link]. And despite the best efforts of talented, energetic leaders, SEAs will never be able to deliver the reform results that their states need. This latest paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests a new governance approach, organized around what Smarick and Squire call the “4 Cs”:

Control: Return SEAs to their core functions of channeling federal and state dollars to districts; adopting statewide standards and assessments; creating and maintaining data systems; and monitoring compliance with applicable laws.

Contract: Contract with other organizations that are better equipped to accomplish education work, while ensuring that performance agreements with those organizations delineate outcomes and consequences for poor performance.

Cleave: Leave tasks that are well outside SEAs’ core competencies—such as charter-school authorizing and generating educational innovation—to other government entities or nongovernmental organizations.

Create: Encourage state leaders, both inside and outside government, to create new entities to take on much-needed reform work.

For more on the role of the SEA, tune into “State Education Agencies: The Smaller the Better?”...

Michele Cahill, Leah Hamilton

The Carnegie Corporation’s Michele Cahill and Leah Hamilton, veterans of Joel Klein’s Department of Education in New York City, responded to a challenge posed by Petrilli with a thoughtful alternative view.

In Mike’s post on Monday, he asks if our schools have “an answer” for students who are unprepared for high school—a group that makes up, as he says, as much as 80–90 percent of students. He also points out, correctly, that all that many districts offer these students is a chance to muddle through four years (or more) in a large, comprehensive high school, in hopes of earning a diploma that by no means signals readiness for college or a career. It is an indictment of our educational system that many do not achieve even that.

Fortunately, there are models out there that show that it is indeed possible to structure high schools to do much more for underprepared students. A recent book by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane, Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge of American Educationfor example, describes what the authors call “high schools that improve life chances,” pointing in particular to small, nonselective high schools created in New York City by the Department of Education and New Visions for Public Schools. Explicitly designed according to a set of design principles that stress academic rigor and personalization, attention to youth development, strong community partnerships, and accountability for results, these schools have produced powerful results for students—many of whom fall squarely within the cohort of the...