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.

We know from international data—PISA, TIMSS, and so on—that other countries produce more “high achievers” than we do (at least in relation to the size of their pupil populations). And it’s no secret that in the U.S., academic achievement tends to correlate with socioeconomic status, hence producing far too few high achievers within the low-income population. But is this a uniquely American problem? How do we compare to other countries?

To begin to answer these questions, Chester Finn and I looked more closely at the PISA 2012 results (in conjunction with a study we’re conducting on how other advanced countries educate their high-ability students). The OECD has a socioeconomic indicator it uses in connection with PISA results called the Index of Economic, Social, and Cultural Status (ESCS). Like most SES gauges that depend heavily on student self-reporting, it’s far from perfect, but to the best of our knowledge it’s no worse than most. In any case, it’s one of the few socioeconomic indicators that allow for cross-national education comparisons. It is derived from parents’ occupational status, educational level, and home possessions,[1] and it can be split into quartiles for a given country, wherein the bottom quarter has the lowest SES and the top quarter has the highest.

PISA results are reported, inter alia, according to seven proficiency levels, ranging from zero to six. Levels 5 and 6 are the highest. To get a feel for this demarcation, approximately...

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Of all the responses to my “you’re-not-college-material” essay, there’s one I find most compelling—and worrying. Namely, kids who aren’t “college material” aren’t “career- and technical-education material” either. Springpoint’s JoEllen Lynch says it well:

It’s a myth that CTE meets the needs of low performing kids from low performing schools. So, it depends on what problem we are trying to solve. Are we just looking for more models for students who enter high school fully prepared, or are we trying to create models that will address the needs of kids who are not? I think many people feel that CTE is an answer for the unprepared; this notion is not based on data or an understanding of the demands of good CTE schools.

I stand corrected. Since I wrote my Slate piece, I’ve learned much more about high quality CTE programs, including one I visited in Fordham’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio (the Ponitz Career Technology Center). This high school (with close ties to Dayton’s excellent community college) is even selective, only accepting incoming freshmen who score proficient on Ohio’s math or reading tests and who stayed out of trouble in middle school.

Assuming that Dayton is not an outlier and that Lynch is correct, this raises an obvious question: if CTE is not “an answer for the unprepared,” what is?

Cue RiShawn Biddle of Dropout Nation. He was not happy with my “college-material” essay, arguing that it earned me a...

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High-quality teachers are distributed across schools in patterns that resemble life in the desert, fleeing harsh terrain for soothing oases, fleeing poorer schools for more affluent. This report from the Center for American Progress analyzes the policies that regulate the equitable distribution of teachers and recommends policy changes that could lead some teachers to choose the more challenging environments for themselves. First, the researchers reaffirmed that despite the many equity-promoting provisions of NCLB, disparities in teacher quality persist: experienced, effective teachers, who hold at least some the keys to closing student achievement gaps, are disproportionately absent from low-income and minority schools. CAP recommends that states and districts develop systems that link teacher-effectiveness data to pupil achievement in order to identify high-quality instructors and track teacher movement. With that information, states and districts can tackle the distribution challenge by altering school-finance disparities and making sure that effective teachers receive proper compensation at all schools. The federal government should monitor that data and hold states accountable for their teacher distribution policies. Though the author of this report emphasizes the need for bold changes, she objects to heavy-handed approaches like forced teacher relocation. Instead, states and districts should work on incentives and transparency, developing rewards and job supports that will foster a positive work environment and encourage growth among all teachers.

SOURCE: Glenda L. Partee, Attaining Equitable Distribution of Effective Teachers in Public Schools (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress, April 2014)....

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The 2008 federal economic stimulus act invested $5 billion to support early-childhood programs, including $500 million for the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which pushes states and localities to participate in the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). One of the quality measures endorsed by QRIS is the widely popular Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale–Revised (ECERS-R). Much research has shown a positive relationship between higher scores on ECERS and children’s development, including academic and social outcomes—but the measure has neither been tested in a nationally representative sample nor subjected to a robust set of controls to lessen the impact of selection bias (e.g., motivated parents might choose higher-quality child care). In this study, Terri Sabol of Northwestern University and Robert Pianta of the University of Virginia use data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Birth Cohort (ECLS-B); they include children born in 2001, ultimately yielding a sample of roughly 10,000 kids, whom they track through age 5, and they also conduct classroom observations in 1,400 center-based providers. They measure a number of outcomes at age 5, including math and literacy, expressive language, and social skills among others—and control for numerous child, family, and center characteristics as well as demographics. The bottom line: the analysts found scant evidence that the ECERS is related to children’s academic or social development. In all, they ran over fifty different analytic models and found few significant effects between this particular measure of quality and outcomes at age 5. Further, programs that scored higher on...

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As opposition to the Common Core State Standards has gained momentum in parts of the land, it’s important to ask what happens if a state changes its mind and renounces those standards—which, as we’ve long said, states have every right to do. But then what? Does the state revive its old academic standards, be they good, bad, or average? Does it rewrap the Common Core and affix its own label thereon? (That’s happened already in several places, including some states where the Common Core wasn’t particularly controversial but state pride and sense of ownership are intense.) Does it keep the substance of the Core but add some content of its own—as Common Core authors always expected? (This has occurred, inter alia, in MassachusettsFlorida, and California.) Does it come up with something altogether new and better? Or does it come up with something new and worse?

Last month, when Governor Mike Pence signed a bill officially repealing his state’s 2010 adoption of the CCSS, Indiana became the first Common Core state to formally repudiate the standards. Unfortunately, it appears that, in its haste to reject and replace the CCSS, Indiana seems poised to adopt a set of Potemkin Standards—expectations built with a façade that impresses but with very little enduring substance.

Repealing the Common Core left the state’s teachers and school districts with no curricular or instructional guidance, and it left the state Department of Education little time to finalize a new set of K–12 English and math standards or to develop a workable implementation...

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The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2002 was the apotheosis of the standards-assessments-accountability movement, which had been building for about two decades.

Some loved it, believing this latest reauthorization of the LBJ-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) finally put the spotlight on high-need kids and our nation’s ongoing inability to provide them with a great education. Advocates point to the steady closing of the achievement gap during the law’s period of influence as evidence that it was producing the results desired.

But many others viewed NCLB as the ultimate distortion of K–12 accountability. It emanated from Washington, unrealistically aspired to 100 percent proficiency, labeled too many schools “in need of improvement,” and—sin of all sins—was obsessed with assessments.

If NCLB represented the farthest point of the testing pendulum’s swing to the right, many forces beyond gravity alone are now pulling it leftward.

Congress’s inability to reauthorize the law (now about seven years late) is a clear indication that many members are uncomfortable with the law’s contours.

The “opt-out” movement, whereby parents decide to free their students from the administration of ESEA-related tests, shows that, at least to some degree, families have misgivings about assessments.

And in a growing number of states—most recently in Tennessee—legislators are moving to end their relationships with the two Common Core–aligned assessment consortia.

If the success of tactics and short-term wins are the measuring stick, the anti-testing crowd has reason to celebrate. They appear to be ascendant....

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No one said it would be easy. Two years ago, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, along with the city’s business, philanthropic, and education leaders, came to Columbus and asked Governor Kasich and the General Assembly to help them with legislation to reform the city’s long-struggling school system. The result, the “Cleveland Plan,” has drawn attention from around the state and across the nation.

The effort held promise that it would allow Cleveland to emerge from the bottom of the national heap in student achievement. The summer legislative victory in Columbus was followed by a successful levy campaign in Fall 2012, and the school district was off to the races busily trying to implement the components of the plan.

Reform plans, if they’re actually going to work, change the way a school district does business—and as anyone who follows education reform knows, that’s hard to do. It should come as no surprise, then, that Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon’s implementation of the plan has come under fire. Let’s take a look at some of the most recent challenges.

Impatience

Rising expectations are essential for a struggling school district trying to improve its academic performance, but when the improvement plan requires additional local support from the community through a property-tax levy, those expectations extend beyond the schools and to every corner of the community. As reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, test scores in Cleveland’s investment schools (the lowest-performing schools “targeted for extra attention for improvement”)...

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The House Education Committee tucked two provisions into the Mid-Biennium Review bill that would alter the state’s calculation of student progress. They both relate to the value-added model (VAM), the state’s method for computing a school or district’s impact on student-learning progress over time.

Value added is a statistical model that uses student-level data, collected over time, to isolate the contribution of a school on learning. This calculation is a noble and necessary undertaking, given what research has shown, time and again, about the significant influence of out-of-school factors on students’ educational success (e.g., parents, tutoring, private art and music lessons, faith-based education, etc.).

If the objective is to gain a clearer view of the true effectiveness of a school—its educators and their approach to curriculum, behavior, scheduling, and so forth—we want to minimize the influence of the out-of-school factors. Increasing clarity to school performance applies both to high-wealth schools, which can skate by on the backs of upper-middle-class parents, and to low-wealth schools, which can be handicapped in an accountability system based on raw proficiency measures.

I believe—and yes, to a certain extent, based on faith—that the state is moving in the right direction with its approach to value added.[1] But in my view, the House is making two missteps in its proposed changes to VAM. The following describe the provisions and why the state legislature should remove them as the bill heads to the Senate.

Provision 1: Changes value added from...

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A very important education reform announcement occurred last week, but you probably missed it because of the surprising and unfortunate paucity of coverage.

In hindsight, we may come to see this news as a turning point in our nation’s generations-long effort to ensure low-income inner-city kids have access to great schools.

Early Wednesday, finalists were named for the 2014 Broad Prize for Urban Education. For more than a decade, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation have given an annual award to the urban district with the best performance and most impressive academic gains.

Traditionally, the naming of finalists and the selection of a winner are celebratory events. They’ve been used as opportunities to shine a light on districts distinguishing themselves from the otherwise discouraging universe of urban school systems. The award has been widely viewed as a much-needed feel-good moment that, not unimportantly, brings with it major scholarship money for students.

For some time now, however, roiling waters have been visible just below the surface. Yes (and by definition), there will always be a “best” among any class, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is deserving of praise; that is, it might be good in relative terms but not absolute ones.

Said another way, is the best urban district good enough?

This year, to their enormous credit, the foundation and its selection committee openly addressed this issue. Their conclusion is that it’s time to reassess.

The press release, possibly the most introspective I’ve...

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I try to avoid reading Paul Krugman’s columns because they almost always make me angry, and anger is not something I particularly enjoy. Yet I couldn’t help myself this morning, and the experience proved my point. In discussing the decision of many red states to decline Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare, he writes that “it appears to be motivated by pure spite.” He goes on to quote one of the “architects” of the law: “The Medicaid-rejection states ‘are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars of injections into their economy in order to punish poor people. It really is just almost awesome in its evilness.’”

Then read Charles Krauthammer’s column about the summary execution of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich for holding a position on gay marriage, six years ago, that a majority of Californians also held, as did a certain candidate for president (ahem, Barack Obama). “What’s at play,” writes Krauthammer, “is sheer ideological prejudice—and the enforcement of the new totalitarian norm that declares, unilaterally, certain issues to be closed.” And it’s not just about gay marriage; there is similar close-mindedness about global warming and contraception, Krauthammer writes.

What’s fascinating is that, not so long ago, it was conservatives who were famous for their “moral clarity” while liberals prided themselves in their “nuance.” But where’s the nuance in Paul Krugman’s views? Isn’t it possible that the states rejected Medicaid because they knew that a few years from now they’d be on the hook for picking up the coverage...

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