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.

  • Politico has a look at Chicago’s fast-approaching mayoral election, in which incumbent Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces off against four challengers. Even though he leads his closest opponent, Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia, by nearly twenty-five points, Rahm still can’t seem to consolidate the necessary support needed to avoid a runoff. At issue is his sweeping education reform agenda, which has been credited with the closure of a raft of failing schools, the expansion of pre-K to more low-income kids, and a record spike in the high school graduation rate. Teachers’ unions and their backers are having none of it, throwing their support behind Garcia after having gone on an infamous weeklong strike at the beginning of the mayor’s term. Let’s hope Rahm sticks to his guns and broadens the growing network of Democratic figures agitating for reform.
  • The Windy City isn’t the only place handing out more caps and gowns. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. high school graduation rate reached a record 81 percent in 2013. It’s a terrific development, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan lost no time in trumpeting it as “a vital step toward readiness.” If you want to understand the causes of the increase, look no further than a certain oft-badmouthed piece of legislation that’s currently up for renewal: No Child Left Behind and its associated reforms arguably did more than anything else to propel students toward the commencement podium. As Johns Hopkins Professor Robert Balfanz
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In just twenty-five short years—it’s scarcely older than most of its current recruits—Teach For America has gone from a grassroots edu-insurgency to the largest teacher pipeline in the country and a dominant voice in reform debates. How’d they do it? In this new white paper, Bellwether analysts Sara Mead, Carolyn Chuong, and Caroline Goodson use internal TFA documents and interviews with key past and present staff members to tease out how the organization was able to maintain high quality while scaling up for the last fifteen years. Turns out it’s not rocket science, just hard work. TFA relied on regular measurement of applicants, corps members, and students. They’ve been equally diligent in expansion planning, taking care to evaluate each new region’s need for teachers, potential funding base, and local politics—as well as TFA’s ability to attract talent to live and teach in a given area. Rigorous quality-control mechanisms during new-site development and deepening ties in the places they already serve have fueled an expansion from 1260 corps members in fifteen regions in 2000 to 10,500 in fifty regions in 2013. And much of this has been successful due to TFA’s operational agnosticism (there’s not a lot of, “We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way” in TFA) and commitment to continuous improvement. Particularly in a sector where so many actors elevate intentions over impact, the organization’s aversion to preciousness is both refreshing and instructive. There’s plenty for other nonprofits and ed organizations to learn from here....

High schools hoping to increase student success in college have often turned to an innovative solution: allow students to take college-level coursework before they graduate. The hope is that by exposing teenagers to college courses earlier, they will be more likely to think they are “college material,” earn a bit of college credit for free (or nearly free), and get acclimated to college-level rigor. (Most of these courses are taught on high school campuses by high school teachers.) A new report from the Education Commission of the States (ECS), however, questions just how strong some of these courses are and examines state strategies to ensure rigor.

The ECS analysts found that states generally follow one of four approaches to ensure quality in “dual enrollment” courses: 1) Some states, including Colorado, leave decisions about whether courses are worthy of credit up to post-secondary institutions; 2) others, such as Delaware, require post-secondary institutions and high schools to reach agreements, but do not prescribe the nature of those agreements; 3) eight states have adopted the guidelines of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP), which are designed to ensure quality and cover topics including curricula, faculty, students, assessments, and evaluations; and 4) six others require or encourage actual NACEP accreditation.

States and districts working to encourage the completion of truly college-level coursework in high school should, as ECS recommends, ensure that educators are prepared to teach such rigorous work. They should also ensure high schools are being honest with students so they...

An abundance of choice in Milwaukee has led to families leaving the district for charter and private schools. A new study by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) examines the facility challenge the city now faces as a result. The analysis estimates the “utilization rates” of every public school in the city for the 2013–14 year. This is determined by dividing a school’s enrollment by its maximum capacity, defined as twenty-seven students in each regular classroom.

A few key findings:

  • Out of 123 buildings, twenty-seven are operating at below 60 percent capacity; thirteen of those are below 50 percent capacity. Many of these schools are the lowest-performing, most at-risk schools in the city, with declining enrollments and questionable safety. (For instance, they have twice as many 9-1-1 phone calls per student than other public schools.)
  • At least seventeen Milwaukee Public School buildings are vacant, costing taxpayers over $1.6 million since 2012 in utilities alone. They have been empty, on average, for seven years.
  • Eighty percent of the underutilized schools—twenty-two buildings in total—received either an F or a D on their most recent state report card. Moreover, a severe shortage of quality public schools exists in the vicinity of the underutilized schools. Out of the fifty-two closest schools, only seven scored a C or better on the state report card.

The authors—not surprisingly—recommend that private schools in the choice program, public charter schools, and traditional public schools be allowed to expand into the unused and underutilized MPS buildings. They’d...

A couple weeks ago, I created a graphic to help explain the contours of the debate about federal accountability in the ESEA reauthorization process. My immediate purpose was to show that the blanket term “accountability” actually includes four dimensions, each of which includes a range of possible policies. I organized each of the four along a continuum, with “minimum” and “maximum” federal accountability representing the two ends.

The ultimate purpose of the graphic was to serve as a tool for assessing various proposals and, hopefully, revealing where a final compromise might be found.

Since then, I’ve read all the major proposals, speeches, press releases, and news accounts I could find. In this post, I focus only on what I’ve learned about testing.

I’ve plotted on the continuum the highest-profile proposals. Bear in mind that this is not an exact science. Apart from the congressional bills, the proposals are somewhat vague, and trying to turn words into images involves some artistic license. These caveats notwithstanding, three major lessons were revealed.

1. Emerging Consensus

In the middle-right, you’ll see a group of proposals with a blue bracket. All of these either explicitly embrace the NCLB suite of tests or strongly imply that this is their preference. The left/right orientation of the bracketed proposals doesn’t convey additional meaning; all of these proposals are virtually the same on this dimension. I’ve listed them above the bracket...

For advocates of evidence-based urban education policy, a recent New York Times profile of New York City Schools’ Chancellor Carmen Fariña should offer serious cause for concern. That Fariña has worked to dismantle several of the promising Bloomberg-era education reforms is not the main offending issue. (The former is unfortunate, but hardly unexpected from the current administration.) As Robert Pondiscio has previously pointed out in this space, far more worrisome is Fariña’s apparent view of the proper role of research in education policy—one seemingly rooted in the bad old days when high-quality empirical research was dismissed or ignored.

Chancellor Fariña plainly nurtures none of the previous administration’s fondness for data, preferring a more “holistic” approach. Nor, for that matter, does she even require test scores to know which schools are performing well. The chancellor, perhaps with Spidey-sense, knows a good school when she sees it.

To be fair, I’m open to the claim that perhaps some of the Bloomberg reforms were too technocratic. And no one could have reasonably expected Chancellor Fariña to be an empirical data junkie. But her recent statements reveal a remarkable disdain for science’s role in formulating education policy. The following New York Times passage is particularly startling:

Asked recently, for example, about a multiyear study showing that students who attended the small high schools started by the Bloomberg administration were more likely to graduate and attend college than their peers at larger schools, [Chancellor Fariña] dismissed its conclusions. “It’s one view of things,” she...

  • A recent cover story in the Economist called the highly educated “America’s new aristocracy.” Basically, education (and the greater earnings with which it is correlated) has become increasingly heritable. Educated, clever people tend to marry other such people and raise their kids to emulate that model. This is all well and good for those people, but it’s widening the income gap and leaving behind children born into educationally (and financially) impoverished homes. So what’s to be done? The article has some suggestions, such as early intervention. We have a bunch of ideas of our own. To be sure, it’s a very complicated problem with myriad causes. Nevertheless, it’s a nut we need to crack.
  • In a time of broad national attacks on testing, the George W. Bush Institute has published an important essay that shows how much achievement has increased in the age of NCLB testing. Beginning around the turn on the century, the federal government began tying annual tests to school accountability, complete with sanctions for inadequate performance. Since that time, significant achievement gains have been made in math and reading, especially among minority children at age nine; scores for white students in 2008 were the highest ever in both reading and math for nine- and thirteen-year olds. “What was good for poor and minority students was good for all students,” they note. Meanwhile the achievement gap between white kids and their black and Hispanic peers has shrunk. Testing is surely overdone in
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Rural school districts are the oft-ignored middle child of our nation’s public schools, consistently snubbed in favor of their urban and suburban siblings. Through a survey of rural superintendents, this report by the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho One sheds much-needed light on the most pressing issues rural educators face—primarily rooted in educators’ struggle to deliver effective, cost-efficient education to students who live in isolated communities. Small rural districts are underfunded. Science, English, and foreign language instructors are in short supply because rural districts lack the incentives to attract them, causing faculty to teach classes that exceed their qualifications. The report’s most interesting recommendation is to increase rural technological connectivity through the implementation of blended learning, a hybrid teaching method that combines digital learning with traditional classroom instruction. This reduces the need for a large, specialized instructional staff by providing live video lectures from teachers elsewhere. Such an initiative would improve the quality of rural education and save districts money. Yet as promising as this all sounds, funding is also an issue here—a concern that the report could have addressed in further detail. Implementing successful blended curricula will require massive up-front injections of capital for things like new tech gadgets, full-time IT personnel, and teacher training. Districts already pinching pennies cannot get their hands on necessary start-up funds without significant reforms to federal, state, and local funding policies. The report briefly addresses this with both an unrealistic recommendation to alter the Title I funding and a more meritorious...

Citing insurmountable data challenges, the authors of Great Schools’ most recent evaluation of the School Improvement Grant Program argue that policymakers are left “without a clear and unambiguous picture of whether this major investment in turning around the nation’s lowest-performing schools worked as intended.” The view may be opaque, but what we can see isn’t pretty.

According to the report, between the 2009–2010 and 2012–2013 school years, SIG grantees at the elementary and middle school levels saw a cumulative increase in proficiency of only a few percentage points in most grades and subjects relative to comparison groups—a disappointing result, considering some schools saw funding increases of as much as 58 percent per student under the program. And while SIG’s restart and closure models were used so infrequently that little can be said about their effectiveness, the report indicates that there were no statistically significant differences between the rates of improvement at transformation and turnaround schools, a finding that suggests that it doesn’t much matter which one-size-fits-all improvement models the federal government prescribes—implementation is what counts.

Unfortunately, SIG’s implementation was deeply troubled, as the authors of the report document through approximately fifty interviews with superintendents, program directors, principals, and teachers. Unsurprisingly, SIG grantees experienced difficulties with “the removal and recruitment of staff, community and union resistance to school changes or closures, the ability to secure and retain sufficient resources to launch and sustain the turnaround efforts, and conflicting demands from various stakeholders.” Additionally, governance was (as always!) a barrier to...

For those who march to the drumbeat of “college for all,” an updated report from the William T. Grant Foundation ought to give pause. Back in 1988, the “forgotten half” were American youth who didn’t attend college and “were struggling in ‘the passage to adulthood.’” Released in near-tandem with the president’s free-community-college plan, this report depicts an honest view of community college, from “notoriously low completion rates” (a mere 20 percent of those who attend community college attain a bachelor’s degree within eight years of graduating high school, and almost half earn no credential at all) to calling remedial education “a vague euphemism that doesn’t help students understand their situation, make informed choices, or learn about alternative programs.” The forgotten half of today are “youth who do not complete college and find themselves shut out of good jobs in the era of college for all.” While past generations with “some college” enjoyed increased earnings, a changing economy means that’s no longer true. “The most alarming finding is that many youth who took society’s advice to attend college, sacrificing time and often incurring debts, have nothing to show for their efforts in terms of credentials, employment, or earnings,” note the authors. They provide a commonsense policy solution: Colleges and high schools need to be frank with students on the costs, debts, time, and potential earnings of different education and career paths. The report also calls for better alignment between high school and college standards by pointing to the example of...