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.

One often hears anecdotes of teachers feeling undervalued and, at times, isolated in their profession. The most recent OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey—a study that homes in on the working conditions of teachers and learning environments of schools, focusing on lower secondary education—confirms the narrative. The survey, which queried approximately 100,000 lower secondary school teachers and 6,500 lead teachers in thirty-four OECD countries, found that less than one-third of all teachers felt that teaching is a valued profession in their society. (However, there was significant variation: In France and Sweden, for example, just 5 percent of teachers felt that society valued their work. Meanwhile, 83.8 percent of Malaysian teachers felt valued, with South Korea, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi also scoring well.) Additionally, four in ten teachers reported that they never taught jointly or observed other teachers’ classes to provide feedback, even though a plethora of studies have argued that well-structured cooperative practices help educators improve their classroom practice. Overall, though, teacher job satisfaction was high: roughly 90 percent of those surveyed felt positively about their work, and 80 percent said that if given the option to restart their career, they would choose teaching again.

SOURCE: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, TALIS 2013 Results: An International Perspective on Teaching and Learning (OECD Publishing, 2014).

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Egged on by viral posts and comedians mocking confusing homework assignments, parents are becoming increasingly leery of the Common Core–aligned approach to mathematics instruction. As goes the frequent refrain, “I tried to help my kids with their first-grade homework—and I couldn’t!” In many cases, their concerns about individual materials are valid; sometimes materials that purport to be teaching to the Core are, in fact, not at all aligned and/or unnecessarily confusing. Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote in May that supporters of the standards “should be more exacting critics than the opponents, taking pains not to explain away implementation challenges, mistakes, and missteps.” And schools ought to look for textbooks and other materials, such as those from Singapore Math, that teach Common Core concepts in a straightforward, elegant way.

The early-childhood folks didn’t much like it when I faulted NCES for relying on the Rutgers-based National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) as the source for federal data on “the state of preschool”—and for subsidizing the advocacy work of that organization, which just so happens to be aligned with President Obama’s preschool initiative.

NIEER’s Steve Barnett insisted that the sole-source federal contract pays only for data gathering, not advocacy. And the Department of Education noted that when it had announced its intention of awarding such a contract to NIEER, nobody objected at the time. So why, it implied, was I grumping after the fact?

Talk about splitting hairs. At the receiving end—I speak as the long-time head of a fundraising-dependent nonprofit organization not so very different from NIEER—all money is green, even federal contract dollars that must be accounted for. At minimum, they offset costs that would otherwise be borne elsewhere in one’s budget, thereby freeing up funds for other activities, in this case including advocacy, which is what NIEER is best known for. (OK, data-based advocacy, but limited to the data they want you to see because those are the data that buttress their views and advance their goals.) I don’t know what NIEER’s total budget is—we couldn’t find it in any public source—but the $1.5 million it will receive via this contract (over five years) isn’t chickenfeed. And they can charge to this contract the costs of gathering data they would otherwise have had...

Bravo to Fordham’s original gadfly!

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools yesterday inducted Fordham president Chester E. Finn, Jr. into its Charter School Hall of Fame—established to honor pioneers in the development, growth, and innovation of charter schools.

At its annual conference in Las Vegas, Checker was lauded for his long track record of support and hailed as one of the “intellectual godfathers” of the charter school movement. He was inducted along with Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund.

“Hall of Fame members include school teachers and leaders, thinkers, policy experts, and funders that have paved the way for the success and growth of public charter schools. They have strengthened public charter schools nationwide and inspired us to do more for our nation’s students,” said Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance.

Checker is among twenty-six individuals and organizations named to the Hall of Fame since 2007. He joins U.S. senator Lamar Alexander, the KIPP Charter Schools, Joel Klein, and Chicago mayor Richard Daley, among others.

Check out this short video on Checker’s contribution to the charter school movement.

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Last Friday, I laid out policy scenarios that might result from the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn. To recap, the case involved plaintiff Pam Harris and other Illinois home-healthcare workers whom public-employee unions had successfully organized (with the help of their allies in the Democratic political establishment). The problem was that Harris and others didn’t want to subsidize the union, didn’t think they were even public employees, and simply wanted to go back to providing healthcare services to their patients, who were often sick family members.

I theorized that the Court would either (a) side with the unions and tell healthcare providers to take it up with the state legislature, (b) side with the healthcare providers but limit the decision to them alone, or (c) extend the decision broadly to say that all public employees needn’t pay union dues or “fair share” payments if they did not want to subsidize the union’s activities. Option “c” is a doomsday scenario for public unions (the unions’ “gravest threat” in the eyes of one commentator) and would effectively prohibit “fair share” payments for workers nationwide.

Why this would cripple the unions isn’t hard to figure out. Last year, the Wisconsin Education Association Council reported a nearly 30 percent drop in membership in the two years since the Act 10 collective-bargaining law took effect. (Act 10 eliminated “fair share” payments, though it also limited collective bargaining, which the doomsday scenario would not do.)

On Monday, the Court ruled decidedly...

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While education reforms are nearly always won via legislation, rare exceptions do occur—and sometimes they’re significant. The year 2014 has already proven to be a landmark one for education reform thanks to judicial decision. Perhaps the most notable example thus far is Vergara v. California, which struck down tenure and kindred state laws that make it difficult for schools to ensure that their students (especially those living in poverty) have an effective teacher. This week brought word that some New York families are kick starting a similar challenge to equally oppressive laws in the Empire state. Other states could follow.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision in Harris v. Quinn, which could be even more momentous for education reform (and public-sector unionism broadly.) Indeed, some liberals are calling it the “gravest threat today to public-employee unions.”

This case deals with the representation of Illinois’s home health care workers (often family members taking care of loved ones). The issue arose when plaintiff Pam Harris (the mother of a disabled son whom she takes care of) worried that union dues (or “fair share” payments in lieu of dues) would divert money she needs for her son into political speech undertaken by unions with which she does not agree.

Traditionally, such in-home caregivers were not considered public employees, much less members of collective-bargaining units, but actions by former governor Rod Blagojevich and current governor Pat Quinn, designed to benefit large unions (and political megadonors) like...

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“Nobody expects new surgeons to be any good. It wasn’t until my fortieth or fiftieth bypass surgery that I started feel like I knew what I was doing.”

 “I wish I could go back and retry those cases from my first year. If I knew then what I know now, they’d never have been convicted.”

“Look, every rookie shoots an innocent bystander by mistake or arrests the wrong guy. That doesn’t make you a bad cop. Your first year on the job is all about learning from your mistakes.”

Odds are pretty good that you’ve never heard anything like the three statements above. Hopefully you never will. But ask a teacher about his or her first year in the classroom and you’ll hear, either with a smile or a shudder, how “nothing prepared me for my first year as a teacher.”

Funny thing, if you think about it. Other fields rarely send unprepared recruits off to their first jobs. In education, we not only expect it, but we seem proud of it. You haven’t earned your stripes as a teacher until you’ve earned your scars. I’ve said it myself to grad students and new teachers, thinking I was giving sage advice and comfort: “Your first year in the classroom is about moving from unconscious incompetence—not knowing what you don’t know—to conscious incompetence—knowing what you don’t know and need to improve.”

I wonder how many unconsciously incompetent...

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One of the received truths of education reform is that a creative, talented school principal can do a lot, whether by embracing technology, changing the way a school is organized, or allocating resources differently. The counter is that true principal autonomy doesn’t exist because of strict limitations by district, state, and federal mandates, union contracts, and such. This new study from the Center on Reinventing Public Education asks two questions: First, what do principals report as barriers to their autonomy? And second, are the barriers are real or imagined? (Fordham tackled similar questions in 2008 in The Leadership Limbo, primarily in reference to union contracts. To find the answers, the researchers interviewed eight principals in three states from a variety of policy and district environments—a small sample, yes, but the analysts spent considerable with them and probed deep. The researchers organized principals’ responses into a total of 128 barriers to change: 22 percent impeded efforts to improve teacher quality, 38 percent restricted resource allocation, and 40 percent prevented instructional innovation. The researchers then compared the principals’ responses with state and federal laws and local collective bargaining agreements. They found that 31 percent of the reported barriers were real, including forced placement of teachers, bargained teacher salaries, and state-mandated class sizes. Many of these real barriers were financial, including restrictions on financial autonomy because of categorical funding. The remaining 69 percent, however, were either imaginary or surmountable. For example, most principals wanted to move to a competency-based system but felt...

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The Education Department has been slowly gathering itself together over the past decade to review states’ mandatory annual IDEA “performance plans” on the basis of student outcomes, in addition to bureaucratic compliance with sundry procedural and data-reporting requirements.

In giving feedback to the states a year ago, for example, Melody Musgrove (who directs the Office of Special Education Programs at ED) forewarned chiefs that ED was redesigning their monitoring system into “a more balanced approach that considers results as well as compliance.”’

Yesterday, they made considerable news by basing their latest round of feedback on criteria that include how a state’s disabled students fare on NAEP and the size of achievement gaps that separate those pupils from “all children on regular statewide assessments.” Further changes are promised for subsequent years, including student-growth data based on statewide assessments. Also promised is a reduction in compliance-style reporting and data burdens.

Based on this analysis, the feds then sort states into three buckets labeled “meets requirements,” “needs assistance,” and “needs intervention.” And the inclusion of outcomes data really does turn out to make a difference. Whereas in previous years almost every state and territory (forty-one last year, to be specific) fell into the first bucket, this year just eighteen do. (There’s a fourth bucket entitled “needs substantial intervention,” but at present, no state has been placed there.)

Among the many “sinkers”: Ohio, which went from bucket 1 to bucket 2, and Delaware, which declined from 2 to 3....

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Yes, everybody understands that “school leaders matter,” a truism now morphing into a cliché that trips easily from the tongue but typically fails to cause movement anywhere in the worlds of education policy and practice.

As a result, far too many U.S. schools lack the leaders that they need. Far too many principals lack the wherewithal—authority, resources, capacity, etc.—to lead effectively. And far too many school systems, especially urban districts with the most urgent need for dynamic competence in this crucial role, haven’t yet figured out the best way to find the strongest candidates in the land and induce them to move into the principal’s office.

This is scarcely a new problem. Indeed, it’s been so much discussed and fussed about that people may be wearying of it—or possibly have come to believe that surely it’s been solved by now.

Yet urgent leadership-related changes haven’t yet been made in American public education, or have been gingerly tried in just a handful of places. Most states still expect principals to possess a traditional administrative certificate, at least for those running district schools, and most of those certificates are still awarded primarily through completion of traditional “ed leadership” programs via graduate degrees in conventional education schools. Nor has the compensation of school principals much improved; indeed, the annual average salary difference in 2011–12 between what veteran high-school teachers (eleven to twenty years) and their principals get paid was roughly $40,000. In the District of Columbia, top teachers earn as...

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