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.

Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, declared his candidacy for president last week. He’s also the subject of the fourth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Sanders talks more about higher education than K–12 schooling. Aside from voting against an anti-Common Core amendment back in March, he hasn’t said anything about the controversial standards. And I couldn’t find any reference to school choice. Nevertheless, he hasn’t been silent:

1. Early childhood education: “We must do away with the archaic notion that education begins at four or five years old. For far too long, our society has undervalued the need for high-quality and widely accessible early childhood education.” February 2014.

2. Standardized testing: “Promote creative learning by doing away with 'fill-in-the-bubble' standardized tests, and instead evaluate students based their understanding of the curriculum and their ability to use it creatively.” May 2015.

3....

The education components of Governor Kasich’s proposed budget—and the House's subsequent revisions—made a big splash in Ohio's news outlets. Much of the attention has been devoted to the House’s (unwise) moves to eliminate PARCC funding and their rewrite of Kasich’s funding formula changes. Amidst all this noise, however, are a few other education issues in the House’s revisions that have slipped by largely unnoticed. Let’s examine a few.

Nationally normed vs. criterion-referenced tests

As part of its attempt to get rid of PARCC, the House added text dictating that state assessments “shall be nationally normed, standardized assessments.” This is worrisome, as there is a big difference between norm-referenced and criterion-referenced tests.

A norm-referenced test determines scores by comparing a student’s performance to the entire pool of test takers. Each student’s test score is compared to other students in order to determine their percentile ranking in the distribution of test takers. Examples of norm-referenced tests are the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Stanford 10 exams. A criterion-referenced test, on the other hand, is scored on an absolute scale. Instead of being compared to other students, students are compared against a standard of achievement (i.e.,...

In a previous review, my colleagues examined a National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) report that analyzed states’ charter policies regarding access to district-owned facilities. In a new report, NCSRC narrows its focus to charter school facilities in California. Golden State charters were asked to complete a survey about their facilities and to allow an on-site measurement; these results were then supplemented by data on school enrollment, student demographics, and funding. The results offer a sobering picture of charter facilities in the state. Charter school facilities are generally smaller than the size recommended by the California Department of Education; classrooms for elementary, middle, and high schools are, on average, between 82 and 89 percent of the state standard size (it is worth nothing that state size standards might not be appropriate for all schools in all situations). Charter facilities as a whole are 60 percent smaller than state site size recommendations, even after adjustments are made for enrollment differences. California charters also spend varying amounts of their per-pupil funding on facilities; charters that own their buildings pay an average of $895 per pupil; charters located in a school district facility pay an average of $285 per pupil; and...

  • There are no fearsome beasts or rings of fire, but Marc Tucker’s newest jeremiad for Education Week is an apocalyptic prophecy worthy of a revival tent. Speculating on the origins of our collapsed standards, Tucker settles on four horsemen of academic mediocrity: grade inflation, the eroding prestige of the teaching profession, a standards movement hijacked by the accountability movement, and the consumer transformation of colleges and universities. Taken together, he claims, these factors have produced four decades of educational stagnation and a climate in which colleges teach high school math—and high schools teach grade grubbing. As Fordham’s own Chester Finn reminds us, we’ve been dumbing down our expectations for decades, and the results justify some doom saying.
  • Like the rose that grew from concrete, the inimitable Dan Willingham has taken his talents over to the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog for a five-part series on reading. His terrific posts, of which three have been published so far, advance arguments from his new book. They will also raise points familiar to fans of Fordham’s own literacy guru, Robert Pondiscio. In the first, Willingham mounts a defense of the Common Core standards as a powerful catalyst for early literacy.
  • ...

Nine years ago, Sir Ken Robinson gave a much-viewed TED-talk about how modern schools are the product of industrialism and, as such, squander children’s natural creativity by manufacturing compliant, disengaged students. His newest book continues this feel-good crusade, insisting that education should instead nurture individual interests, divergent thinking, and natural abilities.

To get from the current model to his own, Robinson proposes multiple systemic changes. First, he would do away with national standards—which allegedly limit the subjects students are exposed to and minimize all forms of play and creativity—and replace them with other “high standards” (though he doesn’t specify who would create them or what their characteristics would be). He also advocates scrapping standardized tests, claiming that they fail to accurately measure students’ strengths and potential and provide teachers with vague data. In Sir Ken’s schools, assessments would be uncompetitive and comprise peer reviews, portfolios, and open-ended essays. Finally, he takes issue with the grade-based separation of students, who should be grouped by ability, he argues, and move through the system at their own pace.

Unfortunately, Robinson doesn’t pair his grand, radical vision with practical advice. He relies instead on anecdotal evidence and leaves countless questions unanswered. How, for...

A February study from the Center for Education Data and Research aims to determine if National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) are more effective than their non-certified counterparts. Established in 1987, National Board Certification is a voluntary professional credential designed for experienced teachers in twenty-five content areas. Certification is awarded through a rigorous portfolio assessment process consisting of four components: content knowledge; differentiation in instruction; teaching practice and classroom environment; and effective and reflective practices. These components are analyzed via teacher “artifacts,” including videos of classroom lessons, student work, and reflective essays. Across the country, more than 100,000 teachers, or roughly 3 percent of the teacher workforce, are National Board Certified.

This study examines data out of Washington State, which boasts the fourth-highest number of NBCTs in the country. Washington provides financial incentives for teachers to earn board certification, including bonuses of up to $5,000 for teachers working in high-need schools. The study finds that, compared to average teachers with similar experience, NBCTs produce additional student learning gains on state exams that correspond to about 1–2 additional weeks of middle school reading instruction. In middle school math, the results indicate a whopping five weeks of additional learning compared to...

Education technology in general—and digital games specifically—can be easily dismissed as yet another Next Big Thing that’s doomed to disappoint. If your standard prescription for schools and teaching is high standards, rigorous instruction, and rich curriculum, you might be tempted to roll your eyes at Greg Toppo’s new book on the potential of digital games to change K–12 education, The Game Believes in You. Toppo is no pie-eyed fanboy nattering on about digital natives, paradigm shifts, innovation, and disruption. The national education reporter for USA Today and a former classroom teacher, Toppo makes a compelling case for games as not merely engaging, (the default setting for mere enthusiasts and marketers) but cognitively demanding. A well-designed game is fun, but it’s rigorous fun.

Toppo makes a convincing case that savvy teachers have always used games to involve kids in learning. He’s at his best describing games like DragonBox, a “lovely, mysterious, and a bit off-center” diversion that seems unusually good at getting pre-schoolers—yes, pre-schoolers—to think algebraically. Likewise, what is a multi-level game if not an adaptive assessment that kids want to participate in? But the most compelling argument running through the book is the infinite malleability of well-designed games. If differentiated...

Aside from generalized fretting over “curricular narrowing,” educators and education policy types have been so consumed in recent years by the crises of the moment—the fracases over Common Core, the new assessments (and their opt-outers), the worrying achievement reports that may follow in the autumn, and how all that does or doesn’t intersect with NCLB reauthorization—that practically nobody has focused on “social studies” courses like history, geography, and civics. (Yes, there have been pot-shots aplenty at the AP framework for U.S. history, but little or no attention to what’s happening in earlier grades.)

Today’s hot-off-the-presses NAEP results should refocus us, at least briefly, because they’re anything but hot. In truth, they’re chilling.

NAEP tested eighth graders in all three subjects last year, and the reports are just out. The bottom line: “In 2014, eighteen percent of eighth graders performed at or above the Proficient level in U.S. history, 27 percent performed at or above the Proficient level in geography, and 23 percent performed at or above the Proficient level in civics.”

Which is to say that three quarters of the kids are less than proficient, a worse showing than in reading and math (both now around 36 percent...

Bad schools rarely die. This was the conclusion of Fordham’s 2010 report Are Bad Schools Immortal?, which discovered that out of two thousand low-performing schools across ten states, only 10 percent actually closed over a five-year period. On reflection, the finding was not too surprising: Shuttering schools nearly always sets off a torrent of political backlash, as authorities in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other urban districts have learned in recent years. And the reasons are understandable: Schools are integral parts of communities. They’re built into families’ routines and expectations, and closing them inevitably causes pain, disruption, and sadness, even when it’s best for students.

However, we also recognize that closing schools is sometimes necessary. In the charter sector, in particular, closure is an essential part of the model: Schools are supposed to perform or lose their contracts. That’s the bargain. And in the district sector, experience has taught us that some schools have been so dysfunctional, for so long, that efforts to “turn them around” are virtually destined to fail.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to put bad schools out of their misery. Part of the difficulty is political, but it’s also a genuine moral dilemma: Are we sure that...

Intra-district choice has long been a type of school choice supported by many people who don’t really like school choice. Since neither students nor funding leave their boundaries, district officials have fewer problems allowing families to choose their schools. But intra-district choice is also complicated. A lack of quality information about available schools, the absence of a simple system-wide method of applying to those schools, and the added burden of transportation challenges can bring the potential of intra-district choice to a screeching halt. However, there are school districts that have taken these issues head-on and offered valuable, innovative solutions. Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) is a shining example.

During the 2013–14 school year, CPS made the transition to high schools that serve students between the seventh and twelfth grades. CPS offers some compelling academic reasons for the switch, but they also utilized the transition to create high schools of choice. Instead of assigning sixth graders to a high school based on their home addresses, CPS permits students to choose their high school. Each high school offers a variety of programs, classes, extracurriculars, and services that represent unique learning environments and opportunities. All schools offer college preparatory curriculum aligned to Ohio’s...

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