Flypaper

This is the fifth in a series of essays marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of America’s first charter school law. These commentaries are informed and inspired by our forthcoming book (co-authored with Bruno V. Manno), Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities, to be published this fall by Harvard Education Press. Read the others hereherehere, and here.

Last time around, we argued that America’s charter marketplace has done a mediocre job of matching supply with demand and ensuring solid school quality. We fingered three (of many) sources of these partial market failures: too few (and, in some locales, too many) charter schools; weak consumer information; and distracted suppliers.

Due to these shortcomings, we concluded that today’s marketplace isn’t up to the challenge of ensuring strong academic achievement and other important education outcomes. The policies that constrain charter markets are part of the problem—but not the whole story.

Even after twenty-five years, charters in most places remain an alien implant in the body of American public education, and all sorts of immune reactions persist. Still, we can treat some of these symptoms while also repairing glitches in the original policy design.

Our book suggests a number of fixes...

It isn't perfect, but Jeanne Allen's new education reform "manifesto" makes a number of valuable points and powerful suggestions for the future. Notably, she argues for a fresh emphasis on innovation, an earnest embrace of upward mobility, and a heartfelt commitment to universal opportunity, flexibility, and transparency. She is right that we ought not confuse means with ends, allow charter schools for poor kids (valuable as they are) to be the only thing reformers obsess over, or spend so much energy bickering amongst ourselves. It’s sage and timely counsel from a veteran reform warrior.

But I'm not as glum as Jeanne about the accomplishments of recent years. Low-hanging fruit always gets picked first, and implementation is just plain harder than policy change. It inevitably brings mid-course corrections, delays, and some backsliding. (So do election returns.) Meanwhile, charters and choice continue to burgeon—a good thing—but it's clear today that ensuring high-quality school options is harder than simply providing options. Standards are more rigorous. Achievement among poor and minority kids has risen a bit. Teacher evaluations are more serious. Tests are better.

Yes, we have miles to go—many, many miles—and bravo for Jeanne’s pushing us forward. Sometimes, though, we also have to clean up behind ourselves. For...

A new study by WestEd researchers looks at the validity of ratings from the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching, a very popular classroom observation instrument often used in teacher evaluation systems.

The study is small in scope, examining the framework’s use in just one district (Nevada’s Washoe County, which we profiled a few years ago for its work in implementing the Common Core.) Its purpose was to determine whether the ratings differentiate among teachers, measure distinct areas of teaching practice, and link to teacher effectiveness.

The data cover 713 Washoe elementary, middle, and high school teachers (both tenured and non-tenured) who were observed on all twenty-two components of the Danielson instrument in the 2012–13 school year. The instrument covers four domains: planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities. Each domain has five or six components that roll up into a single four-point rating for the domain (from ineffective to highly effective).

Key findings: Ratings showed at least 90 percent of teachers were rated effective or highly effective on nearly every one of the twenty-two components, with “effective” the most common rating. So principals tend to use the ratings to discriminate between effective and highly effective teachers but...

In this survey, ACT asked thousands of K–12 teachers, college instructors, and workforce supervisors and employees about their views on current educational practices and “college and career readiness expectations.” According to ACT, these expectations rightly include not only “core academic skills” in English, reading, mathematics, and science, but also “cross-cutting capabilities” like technological literacy and collaborative problem solving, “behavioral skills” related to self-regulation, and “education and career navigation skills.” (No one could accuse the organization of having a narrow perspective.)

Overall, survey respondents identified “acting honestly” and “sustaining effort” as the most important “non-academic characteristics” for young people to develop. And in a separate set of questions, “content knowledge” and “conscientiousness” were ranked highly by every group, from elementary school teachers to workplace supervisors. However, two skill areas were ranked highly only by workforce respondents: technology (by employees) and collaboration with peers (by supervisors).

Based on these results, the authors recommend that state and local education agencies track the development of students’ non-academic skills and incorporate them into instruction. They also suggest that states and districts invest in technology training for teachers. Both suggestions might be sensible in a world of perfect information and implementation, but as matters stand, they...

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to incorporate at least one non-academic indicator—which might include (but isn’t limited to) factors like school climate or safety—into their accountability frameworks. That makes this study, published in Educational Researcher, well-timed. The authors set out to test the theory that reductions in school violence and/or improvements to school climate would lead to improved academic outcomes. Instead, the evidence they discovered suggests that the relationship flows in the opposite direction: A school’s improvement in academic performance led to reductions in violence and improved climate—not the other way around.

The authors found serious gaps in prior studies of school climate and safety, many of which illustrated only correlation (not causation) among the variables examined. This motivated them to test the assumption that improved school climate must come first in the chicken-egg scenario. Using six years of student survey results (2007–13) from a representative sample of 3,100 California middle and high schools, analysts employed a research design known for its ability to test causality when large-scale experimental designs aren’t possible. (For the curious, this is described as a “cross-lagged panel autoregressive modeling design,” which determines whether variables at different points in time are correlated...

My friend Tom Loveless is right about most things, and he’s certainly right that scoring “proficient” on NAEP has nothing to do with being “on grade level.” He’s also right that Campbell Brown missed this point.

But Tom, alas, is quite wrong about the value of NAEP’s trio of “achievement levels” (basic, proficient, advanced). And he’s worse than wrong to get into any sort of defense of “grade level,” as if that concept had any valid meaning or true value for education reform.

In his words, Tom’s post sought “to convince readers of two things: One, proficient on NAEP does not mean grade-level performance. It’s significantly above that. Two, using NAEP’s proficient level as a basis for education policy is a bad idea.”

We agree on the first point, not on the second—and not on his implicit argument that there is merit in basing education policy on “grade-level” thinking.

Unless one is talking about academic standards—Common Core or otherwise—or about the cut scores on high-stakes, end-of-year, criterion-referenced exams like PARCC and Smarter Balanced, “grade level” has no meaning at all. It’s a misnomer that we adopted during decades of using norm-referenced tests. These were “normed” such that the average...

Thomas P. Hébert

During my first year at the University of South Carolina, I often purchased a morning cup of coffee in the university’s student union. Early one morning, I spotted a young man dressed in a business suit and bow tie carrying on an animated conversation with a group of undergraduates. I had regularly encountered the young gentleman—with his ubiquitous bow tie—as I traveled across campus. Eventually I learned he was Chase Mizzell, a leader in the university’s student government. As an avid reader of the school’s daily newspaper, I was able to follow this charismatic young man’s political career.

In reading the Daily Gamecock, I discovered that Chase was an Honors College student from Folly Beach, South Carolina, and a sophomore enrolled in the international business program. I learned that during his freshman year, he was having lunch in the restaurant in the Honors Residence Hall and noticed extra food being carried away at the end of the lunch shift. He asked food service employees what became of the leftovers and discovered that they were thrown away. Chase knew immediately that he wanted to change that. Realizing that the city of Columbia faced the challenges of a growing homeless population, Chase began...

Though it sometimes appears that Education Secretary John King didn’t get the memo, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) represents a significant devolution of authority from the federal government to the states. This is a praiseworthy development that, in our view, better fits America’s constitutional principles of federalism and opens up many areas of education policy for innovation and improvement.

That devolution includes the heart of ESSA: school-level accountability. States now enjoy a freer hand to decide how they want to rate (or “grade”) their schools and determine which are worthy of either praise or aggressive intervention. The new law doesn’t give states carte blanche; they can’t move away from student achievement as a major indicator of quality, for example. But they certainly have more leeway than under No Child Left Behind.

So what forms might—and should—this take? How might states approach the particular challenge of redesigning their accountability systems? The contestants in our “accountability design competition” in February surfaced ideas aplenty and made many promising suggestions. With a few months of reflection on them, we see that there are competing camps or worldviews when it comes to ESSA accountability (much as there are regarding school choice). We see...

The ten-dollar founding father without a father,
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder,
By being a lot smarter,
By being a self-starter
John Laurens on Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton

Seven years ago at the White House, Lin-Manuel Miranda described the premise of his still unfinished musical. And an esteemed crowd laughed.

Miranda explained that he’d be performing a song from his project “about the life of someone who embodies hip hop.” Standing on a stage in the storied East Room—where the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed, where Gerald Ford took the presidential oath of office—Miranda had to improvise, “You laugh, but it’s true...” The gathered glitterati thought “Alexander Hamilton” was a punch line.

Miranda is now revered. He’s on the cover of Rolling Stone. He won a MacArthur “genius” grant. His production, Hamilton, won a Grammy and a Pulitzer. Sunday it won 11 of the 16 Tony awards for which it was nominated. But before all of that, there was the White-House laugh.

But so it goes with virtually every big idea worth having. As Einstein said, “If at first the...

Lisa Hansel

If there were just one thing I could say to fans of open educational resources (OER) and personalized learning, it would be this: “Atomized units of knowledge don’t build anything.” That quote comes from an education reformer who used to teach in a high-powered classical school. She and her colleagues delivered the type of rigorous, well-rounded, and carefully sequenced education that has produced thoughtful leaders and scholars for thousands of years; schooling of that sort is often dismissed as too hard for most kids or too twentieth-century for today.

Sadly, in dismissing the classical or liberal arts approach, we’ve also unintentionally thwarted our most sacred goal: that all students become strong readers. As the last several decades of literacy research clearly demonstrate, reading comprehension requires a very broad base of academic knowledge and a massive vocabulary. In short, to be a good reader, you have to know all of the terms and ideas that writers will use without providing definitions or explanations (e.g., Supreme Court, solar system, David and Goliath, etc.). This base of knowledge, which literate adults are assumed to have and children therefore need to accumulate, is enormous. We must be highly efficient in order to give them all...

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