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.

THANKS OBAMA
Many observers found Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent admonishment of testing to be a puzzling change of direction. However, it now appears that his motivation may have been executive in nature. Alyson Klein writes that President Obama’s new position on testing likely influenced Secretary Duncan. What has made the President rethink the issue is not as clear.

MO' MONEY, REFRESHINGLY FEWER PROBLEMS
A new study from Mathematica Policy Research lends credence to a somewhat intuitive notion: If you pay teachers more, educational outcomes will improve. The case in question is that of Manhattan’s Equity Project, a mostly Hispanic charter school in Washington Heights that pays its teachers roughly $125,000 annually. Eighth graders at the school have experienced gains in math performance comparable to an extra year and a half of instruction at a district school.

HERO AMIDST TRAGEDY
Details continue to emerge surrounding Friday morning’s deadly school shooting at Washington’s Marysville-Pilchuck High School. While the fourteen-year-old shooter’s motives and state of mind remain a mystery, the New York Times reports that a heroic member of the school’s faculty may have saved countless lives by intervening during the crisis.

RUSH FOR PRESCHOOL GRANT MONEY
Thirty-six states have applied to compete for some $250 million in preschool program grants made available by the Department of Education, Politics K–12 reports. The list includes five states...

MORE ON INSTITUTIONAL FAILURE AT UNC
Continuing their terrific coverage of the unfolding academic scandal at the University of North Carolina, the Washington Post weighs in with an important finding: Of the over 3,000 students who enrolled in academically deficient classes in the school’s African and Afro-American studies department, a narrow majority were not athletes. Some weren’t aware that the coursework—including Swahili classes that evidently required no knowledge of the language—was bogus, but most seemed to have knowingly used the shadow curriculum for an easy A. 

AND THE WINNER IS...
The superintendent of the Houston Independent School District received the Urban Educator of the Year award at the CGCS conference yesterday. While the rising graduation rate and narrowing achievement gap were cited as reasons for the decision, winner Terry Grier admitted that Houston is still a work in progress, saying “We’re that close to being a breakout urban district, and we’re not going to stop until we make that happen.” 

DEPARTMENT OF GOOD NEWS
A bit of good news in Mississippi, home to a public school system that has long been considered one of the nation’s worst: According to an index compiled by Opportunity Nation, more students in the state are graduating high school and headed to college, narrowing the so-called “opportunity gap.” The four-year high school graduation rate has crept up 4 percent over the last few years....

SIZE MATTERS
Tom Vander Ark at Real Clear Education weighs in on new research showing that smaller high schools may yield serious educational rewards. Among other positive effects, the new MDRC study concludes that New York’s small high schools have helped boost graduation rates among low-income students over the past decade. For the last word on the costs and benefits of small schools of choice, read Fordham’s own Amber Northern, who reviewed the study for this week’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE
First he ran an ad touting his efforts to slow down the progress of Common Core in New York. Now Governor Andrew Cuomo—a center-left Democrat in a comfortably blue state, with a healthy lead over his election opponent—has completed his long-rumored transformation into a besuited chicken, protesting that he had “nothing to do with Common Core” in last night’s gubernatorial debate.

IF ONLY SAM COOKE WERE ALIVE TODAY
In the first installment of a new series celebrating the classroom totems of yesteryear, NPR has put together a quick read that finally explains what a slide rule is for.

TARHEELED AND FEATHERED
An extensive investigation into academic practices at the University of North Carolina has uncovered nearly two decades of academic fraud, the Washington Post reports. From 1994 to 2011, over 3,000 students, including a significant portion of student-athletes, took part in a so-called “shadow curriculum” that inflated grades and lowered standards for...

KidsOhio.org, a highly respected education-policy group based in Columbus, released a fact sheet today on the schools that are eligible for a “parent trigger” intervention. Twenty schools in Columbus City School District have been identified, on the basis of falling within the bottom 5 percent in the state in student achievement for three consecutive years. In layman’s terms, these schools have enormous and persistent struggles with low student achievement.

The parent-trigger law, only applicable to Columbus district schools, permits four different interventions—from charter-school conversion to contracting with non-district entities to operate the school. The trigger is contingent on 50 percent of the school’s parents or guardians petitioning the school board for the change. As my colleague has pointed out, several issues muddy our judgment on whether parents and policymakers should actually use a trigger-based intervention.

But regardless of whether or not the parent-trigger is used, this group of schools—especially those with lower value-added scores—need to improve significantly. So one of the interesting things on the fact sheet was the hyperlinks to each school’s “improvement plan.”

But these “plans” can only be described as anywhere from meager to pathetic. Here is one example, from Mifflin Middle School’s improvement plan, rated D in performance index and F in value-added—a truly struggling school. (Note, I’ve looked at all twenty of the “improvement plans”; they all are generally of this quality—some slightly better, some worse.)

These are Mifflin’s “school goals”:

  • Focus on trust and communication, with an overarching commitment
  • ...

Trying to understand how education spending is influencing our education priorities is like looking through murky water, notes this report from the Data Quality Campaign: “[I]t is evident something is there, but it is not exactly clear what.” For example, education leaders need to know whether investments in interventions have an impact, whether schools with high numbers of special-needs students are receiving the resources to which they are entitled, and whether dollars spent on teacher development have led to improvements. Without a clear picture of education spending, there is little to inform decision-makers. The report proposes several solutions. First, states should find new ways to make financial data more accurate and transparent for stakeholders. This starts with changes in data collection, including a shift to a common system of financial information record-keeping across states. Second, raw financial data should be translated for use in public reports, including information that connects education dollars to outcomes. The report also encourages states to create a forum for district leaders to share best practices and learn from one another. To illustrate DQC’s proposed reforms, consider this process with funding for special-needs students: Districts could use financial data to tie how much extra funding is given to special-needs students and what services and equipment they receive. If we had this information for each district, we could begin to identify best practices and apply them across the state and beyond. These reforms require a fundamentally different system than the one currently in place, but this change...

2014 marks the first year that minority students are projected to surpass their white counterparts in public school enrollment. And nearly one in four students in American schools speak a language other than English at home. Currently, these students, categorized as “dual language learners” (DLLs), are shuffled through a four-part “reclassification” process: a screening assessment, English proficiency support services (such as vocabulary interventions), reassessment, and follow-up monitoring. Such models are mandated by the ESEA, so all states comply in one way or another—but the lack of interstate consensus on exactly how to comply has led to a “chaotic” system, says analyst Conor Williams. There are three issues: (1) local control over which of the four currently available English language proficiency assessments they administer; (2) a lack of consensus regarding when a DLL is proficient and ready for mainstream English instruction; and (3) uncertainty about how to prepare educators and create appropriate DLL instruction. By failing to coordinate reclassification policies, DLLs, who are more likely than other student subgroups to move from state to state, fall further behind their peers academically or lose their precious bilingualism—an asset schools should be nurturing, not silencing. Williams’ proposed solution? A unified set of standards, much like the Common Core State Standards, that align with current research on language acquisition timelines and encourage instruction in both native languages and English. Some states, like Minnesota, are already in the process of revamping their English Language Learner policies. And while successful implementation will...

Frank McCourt, the memoirist and legendary English teacher at New York’s Stuyvesant High School, was once challenged by a student who asked what possible use a particular work of literature would have in his life. “You will read it for the same reason your parents waste their money on your piano lessons,” McCourt replied tartly, “so you won’t be a boring little shite the rest of your life.” Perhaps schools should collect Boring Little Shite (BLS) data and report it alongside AYP and FRPM. Jay Greene seems to be working on it. A data hawk and acerbic defender of school choice and vouchers, Greene might have been voted least likely to give a damn about the arts before his surprising 2013 study linking field trips to art museums to a range of desirable outcomes, including critical thinking and empathy. He’s at it again in the current issue of Education Next with an interesting study on the effects of taking students to see live theatre, including improved grasp of the play, vocabulary, empathy, and tolerance. Greene and his co-authors make much of these enhancements over a control group who only read the plays or saw film versions. But the good effects aren’t entirely surprising. Attention is the first, most important key to learning. It stands to reason that the novel experience of attending a live performance will capture students’ attention of a play in a way that more familiar modes (watching a movie, reading) do not. Likewise, repeated exposure to vocabulary,...

This new MRDC study examines the relative costs of approximately 200 small New York City public high schools that were created between 2002 and 2008. These schools serve mostly disadvantaged kids and are located in buildings where larger high schools with low levels of achievement had been closed. Earlier and recent randomized evaluations have found that attending a small school increased graduation rates by roughly 9 percentage points compared to other NYC public high schools. This new study asks how it cost to achieve that improvement. Analysts use five years of school-expenditure data for roughly 8,500 students who were first-time ninth graders in 2005 and 2006; they represent 84 of the 123 original set of small schools—the same sample used to estimate effects on five-year graduation rates. First, analysts examine per-pupil operating costs for the small schools compared to all other district high schools (including actual individual teacher salaries) and find that they are higher, likely because small schools can’t take advantage of economies of scale. Yet when they look into the relative cost of the intervention itself, based on its earlier demonstrated impact on graduation rates, they find two things: (1) expenditures during each of the first four years of high school are not statistically different for students in small schools versus those in other city high schools; (2) yet expenditures dropped for the small-schools cohorts because fewer of them needed a fifth year of high school (they were more likely to graduate in four years)....

SHORT-TIME PRINCIPALS
Yesterday’s Late Bell highlighted NPR’s review of the brief tenure of many urban superintendents. But high turnover rates plague principals as well, as Chalkbeat Colorado reports. Of Denver’s 185 schools, thirty-four have seen at least two changes in principals over the last six years. The lack of continuity disrupts learning and hampers the implementation of new policies and standards. 

DUNCAN MAKES THE CASE FOR PRESCHOOL
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is making a big push for universal preschool, saying the time to debate the issue is over and the time to implement early education is here. At a recent speech in Los Angeles, Duncan urged lawmakers to increase budgeting for early childhood programs by as much as $350 million.

ELECTION SPOTLIGHT: ILLINOIS
The educational philosophies of the gubernatorial candidates in Illinois, who take the stage for their final debate next Monday, could not be more at odds. Democratic Governor Pat Quinn wants a three-year moratorium on charter schools, while his Republican challenger, businessman Bruce Rauner, has donated generously in support of the movement.

CHARTERS: NOT JUST FOR CITIES ANYMORE
The upcoming midterm elections may prove instrumental for the eight states (Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia), that have historically prohibited charter schools. Most of the states have large rural populations, a...

[Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of personal reflections on the current state of education reform and contemporary conservatism by Andy Smarick, a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  The previous posts in this series can be seen hereherehere, here, and here.]

Andy’s odyssey: Part six

The greatest friction between contemporary education reform and conservatism is the former’s obsession with “new” and the latter’s deep skepticism of it.

This conflict has its roots in the very different worldviews of progressives and conservatives. Those on the political right generally seek to preserve, believing that longstanding practices, policies, and institutions possess the wisdom of ages. They have evolved and grown robust. In Yuval Levin’s words, they “developed through years of trial and error and adapted to their circumstances.” They possess stores of social capital that facilitate the healthy functioning of society.

Progressives generally seek to dramatically change, aspiring to uproot society’s injustices and inefficiencies, possessing great faith in our ability to create something new and better from scratch. This frame of mind among America’s political left is clear and consistent.

Thomas Paine famously wrote in Common Sense of “our power to begin the world over again.” The FDR museum celebrates how the former president “fundamentally changed the role of the federal government in the...

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