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.

A new study by Bellwether Education Partners examines the changes to teacher pension systems over the last thirty years. The report uses an historical data set from the Wisconsin Retirement Research Committee (RRC) and the state legislature that includes data from public employee pension plans in eighty-seven retirement systems across all fifty states. The data span from 1982 to 2012 and are based on annual reports, employee handbooks, statutes, and actuarial reports. Analysts examine defined benefit plans only—and, to facilitate comparisons, only the plans offered to hypothetical newly hired, twenty-five-year-old teachers who remain in those plans in each state. Analysts note several trends that have developed over the last thirty years, including:

  1. The median state offers a much lower vesting period compared to several decades ago, dropping from ten years to five years.
  2. States began lowering the normal retirement age in the 1990s and continued into the 2000s. But in recent years, states have increased the retirement age, which decreases retirement benefits and results in fewer years collecting a pension. In 2012 alone, nineteen plans increased their normal retirement age for new teachers, pushing the average retirement from age fifty-five to fifty-eight.
  3. Average employee contribution rates remained relatively constant throughout
  4. ...
  • You know how the old ditty goes: Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Chris Christie gotta churlishly analogize all political conflict to a bar fight. In an interview this week, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked the New Jersey governor which political adversary he’d most like to “punch in the face”; without reframing the question, he launched into one of his trademark diatribes against teachers’ unions. Everyone knows that Christie’s a combative politician who has struggled mightily to get his state’s public employee pension system under control. And Fordham yields to no one in our antipathy for union excess and overreach. But viable leaders can’t allow themselves to be baited into silly threats against political constituencies that aren’t going away. Teachers’ unions are to be curbed, cajoled, prodded, persuaded, and challenged. Not cold-cocked.
  • We’re not sure if it has anything to do with those infamous cooling towers, but something strange must be behind a wave of uncomfortable honesty overtaking New York City. First, a recent graduate of Queens’s William Cullen Bryant High School wrote a letter to the New York Post claiming that she hadn’t actually earned the credits counting toward her diploma. The eighteen-year-old skipped class,
  • ...

Some arguments in education are endlessly recycled. Battles over homework, the best ways to teach math, school discipline, and other hot-button issues wax and wane, but they never go away or get resolved. One of these hardy perennials is in full flower again: the myth of the overstressed child.

The New York Times's normally sober columnist Frank Bruni last week pronounced himself filled with sadness over the plight of "today's exhausted superkids" and their childhoods, which he described as "bereft of spontaneity, stripped of real play and haunted by the 'pressure of perfection.'" He lauded the arrival of a shelf of new and recent books—an "urgently needed body of literature," in Bruni's words—collectively arguing that "enough is enough."

There's already a fairly rich body of literature on the subject, and it paints a very different picture. In 2006, a trio of researchers—Joseph L. Mahoney, Angel L. Harris, and Jacquelynne S. Eccles—published an extensive study based on a nationally representative longitudinal database of five thousand families and their children. The researchers concluded there was "very limited empirical support for the over-scheduling hypothesis." In fact, the opposite seemed to be true: Participation in organized...

What’s taught to American children is often controversial nowadays, and our schools will forever be buffeted by the cultural waves that roil our universities. But in that storm, the College Board deserves a cheer for trying to stabilize the vessel known as Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH).

This particular tempest blew up when a new “framework” for high school instructors who teach the subject turned out to be biased in its treatment of the nation’s past.

History has been part of the AP program since the mid-1950s. Among the thirty-eight subjects now spanned by that program, it’s the second-most-popular with high school pupils seeking the possibility of college credit.

The end-of-course APUSH exam was always plenty rigorous, lasting three hours and scored during the summer by veteran instructors assembled by the College Board. The problem was that those actually teaching the course to tens of thousands of kids had no useful guidance to prepare students for it. They could consult a vague “topic outline” and look at old exams, but teachers complained that racing through so vast a subject in a single year, combined with the dearth of primary and secondary sources that surfaced on the tests themselves, led to...

Author's note: following the publication of this piece, the Ohio High School Athletic Association voted to reverse their original decision and removed all charter and STEM school students from enrollment counts in district high schools.

Late in July, the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) announced that it had parceled out newly sports-eligible students evenly and randomly to district high schools in the cities where they live. This action was taken as a result of a 2014 change in law that now allows non-district students in charter or STEM schools to participate in district-affiliated athletics (and certain other extracurricular activities). Instantly, all but one of the high schools in Columbus City Schools were “upsized” into a new athletics division—in some cases two or three steps upward—because of the technical increase in the schools’ enrollment. In other words, schools previously fielding sports teams in lower divisions (where the competition is less fierce) will now face tougher competition in the big leagues.

While stoicism reigned over the situation as it similarly unfolded in Toledo, the reaction in Columbus was swift and furious. One Columbus Dispatch sports writer called this action a “burden on districts that are already...

Rebecca Sibilia

I’ve always appreciated Andy Smarick’s efforts to create a new vision for urban school districts, but his recent piece about the importance of data in education strikes an especially resonant chord. Understanding the context where we preach our policy “scripture” is pivotal if our ultimate goal is to improve children’s opportunities. EdBuild is very much rooted in the notion that student lives play out in this context, not in theory. 

That said, statistics can be dangerous. All of Andy’s examples are relevant, on-target, and interesting. The percentage of school spending on salaries and benefits, the gap between men and women receiving college degrees, and the demographic changes sweeping across our nation’s schools are all critical information for policymakers and advocates alike. But stopping at an average can often lead to overgeneralization. For instance, using numbers from the Department of Education, he states, “State and local governments provide the same amount of funding for schools—gone are the days when local districts were on their own financially. Today, property taxes produce a majority of funding in only a few states…”

While this is true at the aggregate level, it’s misleading. Without further context, the statement distorts a very stark picture of what’s...

A recent study from the Education Trust called Funding Gaps 2015 illuminates the per-student funding disparities between affluent and poor districts. Findings show that, on average, more state and local tax dollars find their way to wealthier districts. For many, this overall trend is hardly surprising, but perhaps more interesting is where the trend is actually being reversed.

Authors Natasha Ushomirsky and David Williams examined the Census Bureau’s finance data, specifically focusing on each state’s state and local funding (excluding federal dollars). Nationally, the report concluded that districts with the highest poverty receive about 10 percent less in state and local funding (or about $1,200 less per student) than the wealthiest districts. Seventeen states, however, defied the national trend: Their highest-poverty districts receive at least 5 percent more than the lowest-poverty districts. According to the Education Trust’s analysis, Ohio was the national leader, boasting 22 percent more funding for its highest-poverty districts.

But when the authors accounted for the estimated 40 percent more funding needed to educate students in the highest-poverty districts—an estimate pulled from the Title I formula—the gap widens. When this is accounted for, the highest-poverty districts receive about $2,200 (or 18 percent) less per student than...

This book out of Harvard’s Public Educational Leadership Project (PELP) takes on one of the biggest challenges in managing school districts: the relationship between the central office and schools. In meeting needs that vary from building to building, do certain governance structures work better than others? For example, is it better to centralize and make all the decisions “downtown” or decentralize and give autonomy to schools?

Researchers analyzed five large urban districts in four states with varying approaches to their central office/schools relationships, all of which were selected based on improvements in student achievement. The districts shared other similarities, such as serving a wide range of schools and communities, and each enrolled more than sixty-thousand students (mostly of color). PELP’s methodology is best described as a case study approach that included combing through news sources and research reports and interviewing sixty-three district and school leaders.

Researchers reached a perplexing conclusion: Both styles can be successful if the central office and school coordinate their systems, strategies, and visions. Whether centralized, decentralized, or a blend of both, structure has no bearing on student performance. Instead, all that matters is that both parties openly communicate and readjust in order to figure out what...

Education reformers talk a lot about providing disadvantaged kids access to great schools, and for good reason. Countless institutional barriers exist to thwart students from choosing the best nearby schools, and solutions like open enrollment and private school scholarships are justly lauded as escape routes for families caged by circumstances of class.

But there are also much more literal obstructions to educational choice, and they aren’t arrayed solely against low-income learners trapped in huge, failing urban districts. To choose just one example, children enrolled in rural and remote schools—separated by hundreds of miles from the auxiliary services available in many cities, and usually passed over by the most sought-after teaching talent—are simply subjected to geographic dislocation instead of (or often in addition to) economic deprivation.

This new report by the Foundation for Excellence in Education (which has already released one worthy analysis of the issue) looks at the successful implementation of state-level course access policies by ten districts and charter management organizations across the country. The programs bring outstanding options to students who would otherwise have trouble finding them—typically through online tools that offer academic relief to district budgets, but also by incorporating embedded resources like...

As ESEA reauthorization heads to conference committee, debate is certain to center on whether federal law should require states to intervene if certain subgroups are falling behind in otherwise satisfactory schools. Civil rights groups tend to favor mandatory intervention. Conservatives (and the teachers’ unions) want states to decide how to craft their school ratings systems, and when and how to take action if schools don’t measure up. The Obama administration is siding with the civil rights groups; a recent White House release, clearly timed to influence the ESEA debate, notes that we “know that disadvantaged students often fall behind in higher-performing schools.”

But in how many cases do otherwise adequate schools leave their neediest students behind? Are there enough schools of this variety to justify a federal mandate? Fortunately, we have data—and the data show this type of school to be virtually nonexistent.

In a recent post, I looked at school-level results from Fordham’s home state of Ohio. That analysis uncovered very few high-performing schools in which low-achieving students made weak gains. (“Low-achieving” is defined as the lowest-performing fifth of students statewide.) Just seven schools (in a universe of more than 2,300) clearly performed well as a whole while allowing their...