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.

Elsewhere in this issue, you read about the "Youngstown Plan," sharpening the teeth of Ohio’s Academic Distress Commission (ADC) protocols for persistently troubled school districts. While newspaper editors and citizen groups in Youngstown have been calling for something stronger than the existing ADC for a while now, it is a singular moment of opportunity that has facilitated the new plan’s rapid adoption. The re-retirement of former Youngstown Superintendent Connie Hathorn and the instatement of a six-month interim supe is a perfect setup for this transition. Youngstown has been in academic and financial trouble for decades, and the district has been formally under the ADC’s thumb for the past five years, yet the needle of success has barely budged.

Meanwhile, in Ohio’s other current ADC district, Lorain City Schools, a new superintendent was named the same day the Youngstown Plan passed. As the vote concluded, the chair of Lorain’s ADC sounded a warning that the new legislation could also become the “Lorain Plan,” which would include the selection of a new CEO and the creation of a new commission light on local appointees. He’s right: Lorain’s ADC, like Youngstown’s, has struggled mightily to...

I taught fifth grade for many years at P.S. 277, in New York City’s South Bronx. But the school's full name was the Dr. Evelina Lopez-Antonetty Children's Literacy Center. I'd wager heavily there's not a student in that elementary school, or more than two or three adults, who could tell you a single fact about Lopez-Antonetty, whose name is on the door they walk through every morning and whose portrait (last time I looked) hangs in the school auditorium. I always found this odd and irksome. If it's important enough to put someone's name on a public building, it should be important enough to know why.

In the wake of the horrific, racially motivated shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, there have been demands to remove the Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds in Charleston and wherever else it appears. Activists are demanding the removal of statues of Confederate Civil War figures and the rechristening of roads, bridges, and military bases bearing their names. There are nearly two hundred K–12 schools in America named after Confederate leaders, and now the calls have begun to strip the names from those buildings as...

Many people have misconceptions about career and technical education (CTE) that are grounded in an archaic view labeling CTE as “blue-collar stuff” for kids who aren’t on a college path. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, however, points out that “CTE today is far more demanding than vocational tracks a generation ago, which were often seen as dumping grounds for students who couldn’t handle college-preparatory classes.” Richard Kahn, the chief executive of a CTE school in Manhattan, says that his school’s goal is to “get everybody into the middle class economy.” In a guest piece on Flypaper in March, Sean Lynch of the Association for Career and Technical Education noted that CTE programs also “open doors to new career exploration opportunities, lower high school dropout rates, and engage at-risk students with interesting curriculum.”

But what does CTE look like on the ground? For answers to these questions, let’s take a look at Ohio’s career and technical education programs.

Beginnings

In Ohio, the law requires public schools to provide students the opportunity to take CTE courses beginning in seventh grade (though most students wait until high school to enroll). Ohio’s CTE programs are...

  • Teachers have been complaining about it for years: American students are just too hopelessly infatuated with Sophocles, Shakespeare, and George Eliot to buckle down and read nonfiction. Oh wait, no one ever actually complained about that. But schools are nonetheless attempting a shift in reading instruction away from fiction and toward journalism, essays, legislation, and speeches. The move is a signature feature of the Common Core State Standards, which set out to shift the classroom focus to the kinds of informational texts that students will be faced with in college and beyond. Though pairing Romeo and Juliet with articles about teen suicide may seem quixotic, the new method has its proponents. Susan Pimentel, who helped author the standards, claims that “there is enough great literary nonfiction out there that there shouldn’t be a forced fitting” between novels and newspapers. And traditionalists can take heart in the fact that eighth graders will hate reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as much as they used to hate reading Silas Marner.
  • When it comes to all the really sweet gigs, high school ends up being a little like Highlander—there can be only one prom queen, one first-chair piccolo, one class treasurer,
  • ...

Last week, Ohio policymakers took a bold step toward strengthening education in persistently low-performing districts. House Bill 70, which passed both legislative chambers, grants significant new powers and responsibilities to the state’s academic distress commissions. Among the key provisions is a call for an appointed chief executive officer who would lead each district’s reform efforts.

Created by the state in 2007, academic distress commissions are triggered when districts fail to meet basic academic standards. Presently, two districts—Youngstown and Lorain—are overseen by separate commissions. These are the key features of the commission, as specified under present but now soon-to-be retired state law:

  • They are directed to assist the district.
  • They consist of three members appointed by the state superintendent and two appointed by the president of the district board; the state superintendent designates the chair.
  • They must adopt an academic recovery plan for the district, to be updated annually;
  • They are vested with certain managerial rights, such as appointing and reassigning school administrators, terminating contracts, and creating a budget; however, state law does not require a commission to exercise these rights.

Unfortunately, these arrangements were largely toothless. The commission existed only to assist the district and to draw recovery plans—not...

This special edition of the Cowen Institute’s annual report marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a horrific event that devastated New Orleans and its people—yet also offered a unique opportunity to rebuild one of the poorest-performing school districts in the country. Authors Vincent Rossmeier and Patrick Sims offer a comprehensive look at the city’s progress thus far, as well as the unusual circumstances that have turned the Big Easy into a petri dish of education innovation.

The New Orleans system is unique for a number of reasons. Ninety-three percent of its public school students attend charters, making it the most decentralized education system in the country. (Detroit comes in second with 55 percent.) It relies heavily on nonprofit services, such as arts education, after-school programming, professional training, family services, and more. And while each charter management organization (CMO) operates autonomously, all schools in the Recovery School District work together to coordinate services that require economies of scale or are needed by every child in the district. These include a centralized enrollment system, city-wide transportation, standards of discipline and expulsion, and shared funding to special needs services and facility maintenance (demonstrating that commonsense policies can find a home in...

In school choice debates, the role that magnet schools can and should play often gets drowned out by arguments over charters, vouchers, ESAs, and the like. That’s a shame. Many of our best public high schools are magnets, and there have been several compelling—albeit anecdotal— analyses showing that rigorous magnet programs can be a boon for low-income kids (including, of course, a book by Chester Finn).

Since the 1970s, however, the definition of magnet schools has broadened to include any kind of specialized curriculum, from arts and languages to experiential learning and STEM. In many cases, the schools are not selective (or particularly selective). Magnet schools have been created by district administrators for purposes beyond academic rigor—most notably to promote desegregation or to offer more choices to families. The American Institute for Research’s recent study takes a look at whether magnet elementary schools are able to achieve their intended aims.

The study follows twenty-one schools that receive funds from the Department of Education’s Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) to convert into magnets. The analysts found a mixed legacy of success: The schools surveyed showed some indications of increased diversity, and “traditional magnets”—those with lower pre-conversion achievement rates—improved in English...

A new National Bureau of Economic Research study examines the impact of women’s participation in the workforce on their children’s college attainment. The researchers use data from the Norway Registry, which includes information on all children born in the country between 1967 and 1993 (roughly 725,000 males and 690,000 females). They match children’s data with their parents' earnings history when the children were between birth and age seventeen (among other information).

Descriptive data show that the employment of mothers with young children has increased from 10 percent in 1967 to 65 percent in 1993, while fathers’ employment has remained fairly constant—around 93 percent.

Controlling for various family and child demographics, the analysts find that a mother’s employment has a positive impact on her daughter’s college attainment relative to the effect on her son’s. Specifically, daughters are more likely than sons to have at least a college degree by the age of twenty-five. Mothers with more female children are also more likely to be in the workplace, after controlling for the total number of children. Interestingly, fathers’ employment also has a negative effect on boys’ college attainment and a positive effect for girls.

Increased time with sons already results in higher...

“Doing more for less” was a mantra for school reformers four or five years ago, when school funding across the country hit its nadir. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute frequently argued in favor of using the economic crisis to do things differently. (See here, here, and here.) Much pain has accompanied the recent tough times. But there are school districts and educators across the county that have managed to turn crisis into opportunity, many of whom I’ve met in my work (with Fordham until 2012, and more recently with Bluum and ROCI in Idaho).

Reynoldsburg, Ohio, offers a good example. The city is about ten miles east of Columbus and serves about seven thousand students. Its school district’s annual budget took a 10 percent hit from 2008 to 2011, while it simultaneously saw a 10 percent increase in economically disadvantaged students (who currently make up about half of all the district’s students). Reynoldsburg also eliminated about 20 percent of its staff between October 2008 and October 2009 (see here for details).

Fast forward to this month: The Wall Street Journal reports that Reynoldsburg is in the midst of an overhaul defined by “a...

Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter school law in 1991, nearly twenty-five years ago. And it’s been fifteen years since we published Charter Schools in Action, which described this educational innovation as a promising path to stronger student achievement and an engine “to recreate the democratic underpinnings of public education and rejoin schools to a vigorous civil society.”

Since 1991, forty-three states and the District of Columbia have allowed for the existence and operation of these independent public schools of choice. Today, some 6,700 of them serve nearly three million students, almost 6 percent of U.S. public school enrollment. They are the fastest-growing school choice option in the country and already educate more than half as many children as attend private schools, which have been around for ages. They are, in fact, as close to a “disruptive innovation” as American K–12 education has ever seen. They have created a new market and an alternative delivery system that affords long-neglected families access to potentially higher-quality schools than they find within the traditional district structure.

Yet for all its promise, impressive growth, and visibility in the public square, the charter movement has ample room to improve. The first quarter-century of chartering has...

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