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.

A few weeks ago, Slate published an article by Mike that argued that reformers’ obsession with college was blinding us to other valid routes to the middle class. The reaction was swift and sweeping: 31,000 shares on Facebook, 1,200 tweets, and nearly 1,000 comments. It also sparked several responses in the edu-blogosphere and in a private email chain that Mike moderated. Here’s a selection of some of the feedback—and pushback—organized by major themes.

Reaction #1: Students need to be ready for college and career, not one or the other

This was by far the most common response from the education-reform community: on college-ready versus career-ready, we need “both/and,” not “either/or.” Here are some comments along that vein:

Kate Blosveren, National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium:

Ultimately, I believe that this piece fails to put forward the right message parents need and want to hear. If over 90 percent of parents want their children to go to “college,” it doesn't really do CTE any good to frame itself as being the option other than college, but rather a pathway to a broader set of college options (since upwards of 75 percent of CTE concentrators go on to some postsecondary education within two years). By perpetuating the dichotomy of CTE vs. college, it still keeps CTE as “lesser than” rather than an equally viable (and more reliable) option.
It all comes down to redefining what college is—and getting parents, policymakers and others to see the high value...

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The proposal of a few members of the state legislature to increase the transparency around charter schools is a fine idea. But their allegation that charters “waste” public funds—apparently without acknowledging the infirmity of Ohio’s urban districts—is shameful discourse that conceals the woeful facts about public schools in urban areas, where most charters reside.

Consider the Columbus Dispatch’s report of what two lawmakers had to say about charters.

The lawmakers say increased scrutiny of spending is needed because 87 percent of charters received a D or F on recent state report cards.

“These changes are urgently needed to ensure that our school children receive the education they deserve and that tax dollars are not wasted,” Schiavoni said.

Carney noted that after excluding dropout recovery and special-needs charter schools – which many agree should not be held to the same standard – nearly $500 million went to failing charters last year.

Granted, $500 million per year is a large amount of public funds and again, let me be clear, charter schools must show a return on that public investment. But why don’t we put this figure into perspective, in light of what we know about Ohio’s large urban districts?

The table below displays the performance index rating (student achievement), the value-added rating (a school or district’s contribution to learning), and the amount of state revenue provided for Ohio’s “Urban Eight” school districts. As you’ll note, state spending on Cleveland and Columbus school districts alone exceeds $500...

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Dallas Independent School District (DISD) superintendent Mike Miles has been on the job in Texas less than two years and he hasn't always had easy sledding there.

But he hasn't hunkered down or blown with the gale-level political winds of a city that's had eleven superintendents in the past quarter century.

In particular, he has incubated and refined the pioneering teacher-evaluation-and-compensation plan that brought Dr. Miles to national attention in his previous post in Harrison, CO.

In my experience, what Miles developed in the shadow of the Rockies and now seeks to adapt and apply in the Lone Star State embodies the most sophisticated approach that the U.S. has seen (sorry, MET project!) to combining the multiple elements of a teacher's performance that deserve consideration with a thoughtful yet affordable structure for compensating that teacher in a way that's fair but also performance-linked. (Actually, the fundamental structure of this plan is compatible with the MET findings about the best ways to gauge teacher effectiveness.)

Dallas is a much larger school district than Harrison—and much pricklier for all sorts of reasons. But Miles has persevered, and in the next few weeks, the DISD school board is expected to adopt his “Teacher Excellence Initiative.”

I can't count votes on the DISD board, but I do know this: the plan makes sense, the kids will benefit (and Lord knows Dallas kids have nowhere to go but up), and...

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When it comes to SIG, my mind is obviously made up. So I’d forgive you for skipping anything I write about it; you have every reason to think I’m going to be bearish. That goes double for a post about a new federal study finding different but still discouraging SIG results.

Another opportunity for Smarick to beat up on this federal program? Pass.”

But if you’re still with me, please stay for a few more minutes. Yes, the new federal IES report A Focused Look at Rural Schools Receiving School Improvement Grants offers additional reasons to rue our decision to spend billions on “turnarounds.” But that’s not the big takeaway—at least not for me.

Over the last year or so, as my colleagues at Bellwether and I have worked on a large project related to rural K–12, I’ve become more attuned to the particular needs of rural communities and schools and how these needs differ from those of urban America. (In full disclosure: I have a personal interest in this subject, as one side of my family comes from a small working farm in a rural area.)

This study takes an in-depth look at the experience of nine rural schools that received School Improvement Grants; its goal is to understand how the schools’ rural location influenced efforts to improve student performance. The brief has limitations: it does not look at student achievement, and the nine schools are neither a representative...

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School boards matter. Indeed, in Fordham’s new report Do School Boards Matter?  researchers found that knowledgeable, hard-working boards that prioritize student achievement govern higher-performing districts. Perhaps this is no surprise, particularly given the wide-ranging authority of boards. In Ohio, school boards’ statutory powers include prescribing curriculum, appointing a treasurer and superintendent, creating a school schedule, and entering into labor contracts with teachers. Meanwhile, we in Columbus have painfully observed what happens when a school board fails to exercise diligent oversight.

School boards, then, can be potent entities (or dismally impotent ones). But does anyone care about them?

To dig into this question, I look at the November 2013 school-board elections for Franklin County. The county has a nice mix of districts, including one big-city district (Columbus) and a number of both high- and low-wealth suburban districts. I look at three data points: The number of contested seats, voter turnout rates, and “undervotes” among those who actually went to the polls. This slice of data portrays a general air of apathy among the electorate toward school boards.

First, when it comes to competition for seats, many of the seats went uncontested. Remarkably, there were just seventy-two candidates vying for fifty board seats across Franklin County—less than two candidates per open seat. In fact, five of the seventeen school districts had entirely uncontested races (the number of candidates equaled the number of open seats). If you ran for office in those districts, you automatically...

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Findings from a fascinating new report on school boards are unintuitive for two big reasons. First, the study finds that, among other things, boards can have a meaningful influence on student performance, even enabling district kids’ ability to “beat the odds.” Second, the report is from Fordham(!)—a group that, like me, is generally skeptical of today’s current governance arrangements. The most interesting part is that board-member characteristics (political ideology, prior employment as an educator, level of professional development, when and how elected) can help predict the board’s effectiveness. Score one for interesting research and one for effective school boards.

Speaking of school boards, this proposed legislation in Louisiana would essentially do what Paul Hill recommended 20 years ago: stop school boards from operating schools and give schools lots of autonomy. Here, the district superintendent would function much like an authorizer. This is a step on the way to The Urban School System of the Future. But, in my humble opinion, its basic flaw is it tries to get what we want by changing what we have, instead of starting anew. I don’t trust that school boards, superintendents, and district central offices can fundamentally alter what they’ve done for 100 years. And are most of today’s principals ready to suddenly take control of just about everything the district used to do? I’ll admit to being too critical; if this legislation is adopted, have no doubt, it’ll advance systemic reform of urban school systems...

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Is a consolation prize better than no prize at all? That’s the question American educators might ponder with this week’s release of the PISA 2012 problem-solving-assessment results. In its very first iteration, the computer-based test was administered to a subsample of the students assessed in PISA’s core subjects: just over 6,000 U.S. students took the core PISA tests, and 1,273 of those also took this problem-solving test (see the U.S. snapshot). In all, about 85,000 fifteen-year-olds in forty-four countries participated. It tested students’ creative problem-solving skills with real-life problems, such as “an unfamiliar vending machine or a malfunctioning electronic device.” (This is no April Fool’s day joke.) This is quite different from problem-solving questions found on the core assessments, which are more academic in nature. The results were closely correlated with math, science, and reading scores: Singapore, South Korea, and Japan topped the list; the U.S. was just above the OECD average; and Finland, Canada, and Australia were in between. The one potential bright spot for the U.S.—and the source of its consolation prize—is our “relative performance,” defined as the difference between the observed problem-solving score and the expected score, based on PISA core-subject scores. The U.S. had the fourth-highest relative performance and was one of only nine countries that had statistically significant higher-than-expected problem solving scores. The trophy, however, is made of cheap plastic. According to PISA, in countries with low overall performance—like the U.S.—these higher scores might indicate that schools are leaving students with...

Brandon Wright

Is a consolation prize better than no prize at all? That’s the question American educators might ponder with this week’s release of the PISA 2012 problem-solving-assessment results. In its very first iteration, the computer-based test was administered to a subsample of the students assessed in PISA’s core subjects: just over 6,000 U.S. students took the core PISA tests, and 1,273 of those also took this problem-solving test (see the U.S. snapshot). In all, about 85,000 fifteen-year-olds in forty-four countries participated. It tested students’ creative problem-solving skills with real-life problems, such as “an unfamiliar vending machine or a malfunctioning electronic device.” (This is no April Fool’s day joke.) This is quite different from problem-solving questions found on the core assessments, which are more academic in nature. The results were closely correlated with math, science, and reading scores: Singapore, South Korea, and Japan topped the list; the U.S. was just above the OECD average; and Finland, Canada, and Australia were in between. The one potential bright spot for the U.S.—and the source of its consolation prize—is our “relative performance,” defined as the difference between the observed problem-solving score and the expected score, based on PISA core-subject scores. The U.S. had the fourth-highest relative performance and was one of only nine countries that had statistically significant higher-than-expected problem solving scores. The trophy, however, is made of cheap plastic. According to PISA, in countries with low overall performance—like the U.S.—these higher scores might indicate that schools are leaving students with...

No one disputes that great teachers are essential. But how do we get more of them—do we find them or make them? In this book, an elaboration of her New York Times Magazine cover story, Chalkbeat’s Elizabeth Green roundly refutes the narrative that the teaching ability is like a “gene,” contending instead that teaching skills can be taught. The author retraces the history of pedagogical research—from education psychologist Nate Gage through math pedagogy expert Deborah Ball—to illustrate the institutional resistance to instruction-centered reforms. Though scholars, policy makers, and educators are obsessed with quality teaching, the myth of the teaching gene silences efforts to study and improve teachers’ techniques. New instructors, working in isolation, continually reinvent the wheel, with little success. But perhaps that’s starting to change. Some researchers are beginning to systematically observe and record teachers’ methods, allowing successful approaches to emerge. (For instance: Lemov’s taxonomy and Ball’s “This Kind of Teaching.”) This book bears good news for the American education community: if effective pedagogy can be learned, we needn’t wait for great teachers to come to the profession—we can start improving the ones we have.

SOURCE: Elizabeth Green, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, July 2014)....

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Sarah Rosenberg

When it comes to education reform, school boards are often the redheaded stepchildren. Over the last two decades, mayors have taken over nearly twenty major urban school systems. “School boards are an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole,” said Fordham’s own Checker Finn. “Put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery.” Even school board members themselves admit that they “throw temper-tantrums, use off-color language, throw things, [and] threaten or insult board members, the superintendent, staff, or the public.” The bigger question then is: Do school boards even matter? Should we even have them? Two researchers tried to answer that question.

In Does School Board Leadership Matter?, Arnold F. Shober and Michael T. Hartney matched school-board-member survey data from 2009 with data about each participant’s district. The goal of their analysis was to determine whether school board members’ characteristics and opinions correlated with their districts’ student achievement and whether their districts “beat the odds” and outperformed what their student demographics predicted. What they found was promising: school board members who believe that improving student learning is their most important priority were more likely to serve in districts that beat the odds.

Considering school boards control the vast majority of the nation’s 14,000 school districts, this is good news. But the research does require a few caveats. First, the survey did not interview entire school boards; instead, they interviewed 900 school board members from 417 school districts. School boards can—and often do—have members with...

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