One of education reform’s best attributes is its sense of urgency about doing better for kids. This field is not one for the complacent.
But our earnestness can come across as antagonistic. To say “we must do better” implies something unflattering about the ways things are. Since there are lots of people responsible for the way things are, this can sometimes translate into bruised egos and nasty recriminations.
I take responsibility for being among our field’s worst offenders on this score. I am pointed to a fault.
I hope folks—even when they’re frustrated with me—know I write what I do because I detest that disadvantaged kids don’t get a fair shake. I can be an insufferable cuss, but I aspire to do it without bias—hence my heartfelt appreciation for TNTP’s referring to me as an “anti-tribalist.” I try to call them as I see them, regardless of party, ideology, organizational affiliation, or anything else.
But my directness is also attributable to my subscribing to Frederick Douglass’s view that power concedes nothing without a demand. We will never bring about the changes we need if we practice nothing but gauzy, velvet-gloved diplomacy and accommodation. To paraphrase Douglass, that has never worked and never will.
I try to leaven my scolding by also drawing attention to great people doing great stuff; this was the purpose of the “By the Company It Keeps” series.
But looking back on 2013, I probably employed the wagging finger more vigorously than the pat on the back. My polemic on the Broad Prize, my needling of the feds for SIG’s results and their handling of it, and my tsk-tsking for the NAEP TUDA’s packaging come to mind.
So I’ve resolved to put a few more marks in the feel-good column in 2014. First, I’ll resurrect “By the Company It Keeps.”
Second, I’m hoping to launch two bridge-building initiatives (more on this to come).
Lastly, I want to recognize some of the most exciting and encouraging events, organizations, and people of the last year. So, in no particular order and with apologies for anyone or anything missed, here’s my appreciation for some of the good stuff from 2013.*
- My awesome colleagues at Bellwether Education Partners have created the best place to work in ed reform. I also need to thank the great team at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for being good friends and providing multiple vehicles for my ideas.
- There were some bright spots in NAEP data, particularly the recent progress of Tennessee and Washington, D.C. Results from “PISA for Schools” showed that our high-performing, high-poverty charters can compete with the world’s leading countries (kudos, Northstar!) and the BASIS charter network is an international leader. Big thanks to America Achieves for its leadership in bringing this international test to individual U.S. schools.
- State budgets started to rebound, and while our education spending could certainly be more efficient, we saw fewer painful cuts and layoffs.
- All of the teachers and administrators succeeding in the toughest conditions, whether they’re in district schools, charter schools, or private schools, deserve boundless praise.
- Though it grew nasty at times and was characterized by too much misinformation, the growing debate about Common Core was good for the world of education. Anytime you fundamentally change what America’s kids are taught and how they are tested, there should be a robust public vetting. No one wrote on the subject more prolifically or with more smarts than Kathleen Porter-Magee via Common Core Watch.
- Arne Duncan and his team at the U.S. Department of Education, though I’ve been known to poke at them from time to time, continued to do good work on behalf of America’s kids. In 2013, they gave much-needed attention to rural schools, demonstrated uncommon transparency related to the testing consortia, and earned praise for assiduously monitoring Race to the Top implementation.
- I’m still inspired by the nation’s high-performing, high-poverty charter networks that continued to grow in 2013. Tens of thousands of our neediest kids have brighter futures thanks to organizations like Achievement First (now 25 schools), Aspire (37), Great Hearts (16), IDEA (30), KIPP (141!), Mastery (10), Noble (15), Success (22), Uncommon (38), and YES Prep (13).
- Massive improvements in educator evaluation systems, in part thanks to Race to the Top, have changed for the better our conversations about teacher and leader effectiveness and are having positive ripple effects on preparation programs, professional development, and more. Among those deserving praise include TNTP, those behind DCPS’s IMPACT system, the researchers involved in the MET Project, and the Chetty-Friedman-Rockoff team for their remarkable 2013 study on value-added measures. But most importantly, we need to salute the nation’s most effective educators, regardless of the sector of schools in which they teach or the geographies they serve. The very best teachers accomplish astounding things.
- Hoxby and Avery revealed that while high-performing, low-income kids are disproportionately less likely to apply to selective colleges, there are far more of these students than many expected. Moreover, small, inexpensive interventions can dramatically increase the likelihood that they will be matched with more selective schools.
- 2013 was an amazing year for New Schools for New Orleans, which is helping to lead the most exciting system of schools in America, the first all-charter district. My admiration for Neerav Kingsland, NSNO’s leader, continues to grow as he calmly and convincingly explains why urban districts can go away. I’m now confident that they will; never before have I believed so strongly in Victor Hugo’s wonderful line that there’s nothing stronger than an idea whose time has come.
- Along those lines, in 2013 Detroit became the second city to have a majority of its public-school students in charters. This trend of growing charter market shares in our big cities will only accelerate in the years to come. And as Stanford’s CREDO research institute showed time and time again in 2013, this is a great thing for kids—in the cities studied, charter kids are learning several months’ worth of content every year than their peers in district schools. In Boston, charter kids learn a full year more in reading and math every year.
- I’m thrilled that Bellwether established a partnership with Paul Hill and other great scholars to launch the ROCI project to undertake work on rural education reform.
- This was the year of the “harbormaster” organization. City-based reform groups like Indy’s The Mind Trust, the Philadelphia Schools Partnership, DC’s CityBridge, and many more did exceptional work in 2013. Nonprofit groups like these—brought together by the excellent CEE-Trust—are stepping up as the urban district steps back.
- Teach For America (which hit 11,000 corps members and 32,000 alumni in 2013) and TNTP (which has trained 32,000 teachers since 2000) continued to produce A+ leaders. Education Pioneers (which in 2013 committed to recruiting 10,000 leaders over the next decade) and The Broad Center (in 2013, more than 250 of its Residency alumni were working in key education organizations) introduced more talent into our field. The next generation of human-capital organizations, like myEDmatch, Haystack EDU, and EdFuel, are impressive, as well.
- In 2013, exciting things were afoot in Catholic schooling. Groups like the Partnership for Inner-city Education in New York City and the Independence Mission Schools in Philadelphia are translating the CMO model in urban faith-based education (hat tip to Cristo Rey for getting that started). Seton Education Partners’ “Phaedrus Initiative” is seeing if blended learning can make inner-city Catholic schooling financially sustainable and help improve academic results. The University of Notre Dame’s ACE program continues to grow and improve a number of invaluable programs.
- Great state chiefs—like Chris Cerf, Mitchell Chester, Deborah Gist, Kevin Huffman, John King, Terry Holiday, Hanna Skandera, and John White—are implementing reforms that are important (Common Core, ESEA waivers, educator evaluations) and often groundbreaking (“Course Choice,” blended learning). CCSSO, the membership organization for state chiefs, and Chiefs for Change, a self-selected subset of these leaders, are helping to drive state-level reform in important ways.
- A growing cadre of education-reform advocacy groups helped improve policies related to charters, accountability, and educator effectiveness in 2013, among them the 50CAN family, the Alliance for School Choice, BAEO, Democrats for Education Reform, NACSA, NAPCS, Stand for Children, and StudentsFirst.
- A number of D.C.-based scholars continued their impressive contributions, led by Rick Hess, Tom Loveless, and Russ Whitehurst. But a number of more junior inside-the-beltway researchers produced terrific publications, including AEI’s Mike McShane, Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman, Brookings’s Matt Chingos, and New America’s Anne Hyslop. About 3,000 miles away, the team at the Center for Reinventing Public Education turned out gobs of valuable product.
- Education Next continues to be the most interesting, accessible, and valuable ed-reform publication around—in 2013, it had edifying articles on field trips, CMOs and college, teacher preparation, and much more. Philanthropy Magazine’s education contributions (for example, on Common Core and the “problem with boys”) really stood out.
- Though I’m still mildly skeptical of blended and online learning, a number of smart folks I respect did important work in 2013 to inform the field and make the case for personalized learning, among them John Bailey, Michael Horn, Susan Patrick, and Tom Vander Ark.
- A big thank you to Charter School Partners, Donnell-Kay, and the Kauffman Foundation for allowing me to bring my brand of crazy to their towns and talk about The Urban School System of the Future.
- Chris Barbic and his team at Tennessee’s Achievement School District did outstanding work revitalizing education in some of the state’s most under-resourced communities. Kaya Henderson and her DCPS team did great work, building on the foundation laid by Michelle Rhee, and Henderson showed infinite grace when dealing with my nagging.
- Edushyster did herself proud by stepping out from behind the curtain of anonymity (ladies and gentlemen, Jennifer Berkshire!) and became my favorite sparring partner with her smarts and humor.
- Lastly, I was impressed by a number of philanthropies that funded important work related to standards, assessments, curriculum, educator effectiveness, charters, choice, accountability, and innovation, and I’m very grateful that some of them supported Bellwether. I’d name-check them here, but that would probably come across as unctuous and calculating. I’ll keep those thank-yous private.
If you think I missed something, let me know! [email protected]
* My organization has worked with a number of the above organizations and individuals. Rather than pointing out every relationship, you can see the full list of Bellwether partners here: http://bellwethereducation.org/people/who-we-work-with/