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.

Over the last five years, prodded by the feds, states have adopted teacher evaluation systems. According to a recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, forty-one states, including Ohio, now require evaluations that include objective measures of student achievement. These aren’t the meat-axe assessments of yesteryear, though. These next-generation teacher evaluations combine classroom observations using new prescriptive protocols with quantitative evidence of learning gains on state tests (or another form of assessment) to determine each teacher’s effectiveness.

The national focus on teacher evaluations raises a couple of questions. First, why have states chosen to focus on teacher evaluations (i.e. what’s the problem that policymakers are trying to solve)? Second, are the new evaluations proving effective in solving the problem?

Let’s start with the why. Recall all the evidence that the single most important in-school factor for student achievement is teacher quality. If we know that good teachers make a difference, it's not surprising that we've focused on evaluating them. Such evaluations hold the potential to identify great teachers whom we can reward, retain, and/or hold up as models, struggling or developing teachers whom we can help to improve, and ineffective teachers who should be removed from the classroom. In other words, evaluations are intended to boost the effectiveness of teachers whom our children learn from.

That’s really only part of the answer, though. Even before there was a law mandating it, principals have long conducted teacher evaluations. Yet those traditional evaluations, typically based solely upon classroom...

In January, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education (ED) issued a joint “Dear Colleague” letter to K–12 schools. The letter calls into question whether minority children are punished more harshly than white children for the same infractions. The letter notes that schools could be guilty of discrimination in one of two ways: If a student is treated differently because of his or her race, or if a neutral policy has a “disparate impact.”

While the first method of determining discrimination is clear and fair, the second method is far more open to interpretation.  The letter explains that “examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation upon any student who commits a specified offense.” What the departments are suggesting here is that zero-tolerance policies, which impose a specific penalty for a specific offense, could have a disparate impact on minority students and may be discriminatory.

The disparate impact analysis forces the DOJ and ED into the murky water of differentiating between strict enforcement of zero-tolerance policies that are necessary to meeting educational goals and selective enforcement of policies that aren’t. Take, for example, what’s happening in Akron Public Schools (APS). The Akron Beacon Journal recently discovered that students in APS who commit egregious acts (like assaulting a teacher or bringing a weapon to school) have historically been immediately transferred to a different school—a...

The information yielded by standardized tests—and the analyses based on test results, like value-added—should form the basis for tough decisions regarding which schools (charter and district) or entire school systems require intervention. Parents need information about school quality, and taxpayers ought to know whether their resources are being put to good use. But at the same time, parents and policymakers alike have valid concerns about “overtesting” students, and how high-stakes tests change how schools behave.

Over the past decade, Ohio has tested social studies and science unevenly, and will continue to do so under the new assessment program set to begin in spring 2015. Under the old system, the state administered science tests in just grades 5 and 8, while math and English language arts (ELA) were assessed in all grades 3–8. Social studies was tested for just three years (2006–07 to 2008–09) in grades 5 and 8, but it was “suspended” effective fall 2009. The new state testing program continues science assessments in grades 5 and 8 and resurrects social studies testing in grades 4 and 6.

Should Ohio test in science and social studies, in addition to ELA and math assessments? And if so, how often? With that in mind, let’s look at the case to test and not to test in social studies and science—and then consider some policy options. 

The case against testing in social studies and science

The case against social studies and science rests on this premise: The incremental...

The facility arrangements of one Ohio charter school recently came under fire in a Columbus Dispatch exposé. An investigation discovered that roughly half of the school’s budget was dedicated to rental payments, potentially shortchanging teaching and learning. But this episode isn’t an isolated case; many Buckeye charters have struggled to secure adequate facilities. How can Ohio policymakers and school leaders better ensure that charters have the facilities they need at a reasonable cost? First, they should consult this new report from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), which contains a wealth of information on charter-school facilities funding from both private and public sources. The report includes descriptions of the key nonprofits in charter-facilities financing, including the Charter School Growth Fund, Capital Impact Partners, Low Income Investment Fund, and LISC. These nonprofits—twenty in all—have provided an impressive $2 billion in direct financing for charter facilities (e.g., loans and grants). When it comes to state support for charter facilities, Ohio has been woefully stingy. The state provided, for the first time in 2013, per-pupil funding to support the facility costs of brick-and-mortar charters (up to $100 per-pupil). But other jurisdictions are far less tightfisted. For example, Washington, D.C., Arizona, and Minnesota provide more than $1,000 per-pupil for facilities; four other states provide between $250 and $1,000 per pupil. To make matters worse, Ohio has not appropriated any funds to support its charter school loan program and provides no charter-facilities grants. Again, other jurisdictions do much...

POWER IN A UNION
The American Federation of Teachers will spend a record-breaking $20 million on this year's elections. Across the states, teachers are going door to door to speak out against Republican governors. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is the AFT’s biggest target this cycle, alongside Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Florida Governor Rick Scott, and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, the last of whom is probably already planning his own teaching career following a near-certain election defeat.

TEST QUESTIONS
The College Board, owners of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), plan to make public the number of international students who take the SAT each year. It is generally thought that the majority of international test-takers come from China and South Korea and go on to apply to undergraduate programs at U.S. colleges. 

SPLIT THE DIFFERENCE
The Democrats have historically been the party of the teachers’ unions. However, as this election cycle has shown, that may no longer be the case. In California, two Democrats with very different views on education are vying for the position of state superintendent of public education. While incumbent Tom Torlakson embodies the old-school, pro-union attitude of the party, challenger Marshall Tuck backs charter schools and has voiced his support of the Vergara decision.

BAD NEWS FOR DIPLOMA MILLS
Last week, the Department of Education announced stringent new regulations on the nation’s 3,400 for-profit...

ELECTION CRAMMING
With Election Day fast approaching, there’s only so much time to familiarize yourself with the races, candidates, and issues at play. That’s where Education Week’s election guide comes in: A compendium of state and local races, it’s a one-stop shop for all the education-related angles to the midterms, right down to ballot issues and state education races.

WEEKEND READING
The Washington Post’s T. Rees Shapiro has a lovely look at the life of Ruth T. Bedford, a Standard Oil heiress who left a $40 million bequest to her Virginia high school. Bedford, who died in June, led a colorful life that saw her breed thoroughbred racehorses, work with the Red Cross during World War II, and conquer the skies as an early aviatrix. Administrators at her alma mater, the all-girl’s Foxcroft School, were reportedly stunned at the gift.

VOLUNTEERING INFORMATION
Tennessee’s Department of Education has released its annual report card on local schools, and Chalkbeat Tennessee has a good overview. Among their observation, there’s one thing to celebrate: In keeping with the one and only Michael Brickman’s entreaties, the state has embraced a simple, A-F rating system, rather than a confusing morass of terms like “priority” or “celebration eligible.”

MUST READ
The Answer Sheet blog has a phenomenal guest post by Alexis Wiggins, a fifteen-year teaching veteran who shadowed students around their high...

Joe Portnoy, the king of new media, has been with Fordham for the last four years and is now headed to shake things up at the Department of Education. Arne, now that you have nabbed our new-media manager, we suggest that you take some of our policy advice, too. (See here, here, and here.)

Here are some of our favorite new-media products, thanks to Joe:

A Nation at Risk: 30 years later

Thirty years ago, A Nation at Risk was released to a surprised country. Suddenly, Americans woke up to learn that SAT scores were plummeting and children were learning a lot less than before. Due in large part to this report, education reform today is serious about standards, quality, assessment, accountability, and benchmarking—by school, district, state, and nation. Yet we still have many miles to go before we sleep. Our students still need to learn far more, and our schools need to become far more effective.

Is America Education Coming Apart? A Lunchtime Lecture with Charles Murray

For all the talk of gaps in achievement, opportunity, and funding between ethnic and racial groups in American education, a different divide may also be splitting our schools and our future. In his acclaimed and controversial book, Coming Apart: The State...

BIG APPLE RETHINKING PRESCHOOL
New York City's preschool program is undergoing a year-long assessment to determine the quality of classroom environments and teacher-student interactions, as well as gauge how citywide expansion is going. Currently, about 50,000 students are served by the pre-K programs, with plans to reach 70,000 children by next year.

PARCC LIFE
Results from a poll by George Washington University's Center on Education Policy shows that schools feel unprepared logistically for the administration of new PARCC and Smarter Balanced exams in the spring. The new assessments, which are aligned to Common Core, will be delivered online, allowing for faster scoring and more accurate data collection. Fordham’s own Aaron Churchill chipped in with a sensational article on PARCC implementation earlier this month.

MICHIGAN CONSIDERING STEM CERTIFICATION
Michigan lawmakers are considering two bills that would allow high school seniors to pursue a STEM certification upon graduation. While specific curriculum is still being decided, both policymakers and STEM experts agree that students need theory and practical application if they want to translate their knowledge to the workforce. For more on Michigan's education developments, check out Fordham's instant-classic study on the state's efforts to turn around struggling schools.

EDUCATION SNAPSHOT
Late Bell has been following labor unrest over the last month in Waukegan, Illinois's 17,000-student school district. Today brings the good news that, four weeks after walking...

Morgan Polikoff

Election Day is less than a week away. Given the heat around major education policies—especially Common Core and teacher evaluations—there is increased attention to public attitudes about education. A number of polls from major news organizations, education groups, and universities have been commissioned over the past several months, and education pundits and advocates on all sides of current reform debates have endlessly parsed the results.

Unfortunately these pundits are mostly misguided, and public opinion polls on education don’t mean what people think they mean. What follows are three conclusions, all based on data from these various polls, and a discussion of what they ought to mean for education policy and advocacy going forward.

Conclusion 1: Americans’ views on education are incoherent.

The most straightforward conclusion from existing polling data is that Americans’ views are all over the map and, depending on the issue, either nuanced or contradictory. The clearest example of this is on standardized testing. The 2013 Phi Delta Kappa (PDK)/Gallup poll found that just 22 percent of the public thought that standardized tests have helped local public schools. But when asked about specific test-related policies—some of which are even more ambitious in scope than our current testing regimes—Americans express strong support. An Education Next poll, for example, shows 71 percent of Americans support mandatory high school exit exams. And despite 54 percent of respondents telling PDK/Gallup in 2014 that standardized tests aren’t helpful, between...

Last month, editors of The Youngstown Vindicator, one of Ohio’s most respected newspapers, made an unusual appeal on their op-ed page. They asked the state superintendent of public instruction, Richard Ross, to take over their local school system.

The Youngstown Board of Education had, in their opinion, “failed to provide the needed leadership to prevent the academic meltdown” occurring in their district. They added that Mr. Ross was “overly optimistic” in believing that the community could come together to develop a plan to save the district. Therefore, they pleaded, “[W]e urge state Superintendent Ross to assign the task of restructuring the Youngstown school system to his staff and not wait for community consensus.”

It’s not every day that local citizens ask the state to take charge of educating the children in their community. Such a move illustrates the despair that many Americans feel about their own schools—and their inability to do much to improve them.

That’s why, over three years ago, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, along with our friends at the Center for American Progress, began a multi-year initiative designed to draw attention to the elephant in the ed-reform living room: governance. Given its ability to trample any promising education improvement—or clear the way for its implementation—it was high time to put governance at center stage of the policy conversation.

Our “anchor book” for that initiative, Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century: Overcoming the Structural Barriers to...

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