The Baby New Year edition

The biggest education stories of 2015 (and 2016), how curriculum reform fared over the last twelve months, and the year’s best research studies.


Mike:                       Hello, this is your host, Mike Petrilli at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at the Education Gadfly show and online at Now please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Scrooge of Education Policy, Robert Pondiscio!

Robert:                   Now, that is just unfair.

Mike:                       I was going to go to the Grinch. Tiny Tim. I don't know. I'm trying to come up with a Christmas metaphor, Bob Cratchett.

Robert:                   That's better. There we go. I'm just teasing you, Robert.

Mike:                       I know.

Robert:                   That's unfair. Maybe the Grinch, because at the end of his story his heart grows three sizes.

Mike:                       Three sizes.

Robert:                   I'll accept that.

Mike:                       By the end of this podcast, your heart will grow three sizes. How about that? Welcome everybody. Many people have already given up on education policy for the year. Not here at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. We are going strong right into the new year but this is a special edition of our podcast of 2015 and looking ahead to 2016, special podcast.

Robert:                   A crystal ball edition.

Mike:                       Yes. Exactly. Let's do it. Clara, let's play "Pardon the Gadfly."

Speaker 4:            Mike and Robert, what do you think was the biggest education story of 2015, the ESEA re-authorization, the first round of common core testing, the continuing battle over charter schools or something else?

Robert:                   What a great question.

Mike:                       You go first, Robert. What do you pick?

Robert:                   I'm an old news hand. There's a tendency to think that the most recent thing is the biggest thing. We've all talking about ESEA, which we're going to have to learn to say instead of E-S-E-A. There's a tendency to think that's the biggest story. I'm not so sure about that. I guess I think common core testing might be a reasonable, good bid there because this was the cold shower year where we finally got a real clear picture on how our kids are actually doing. No surprise, it was sobering but not unexpected.

                                    ESEA might be the biggest story of 2016. We can talk about that later but I'm thinking common core testing and maybe a side bar for the Washington charter school issue which did two things. I think one, it showed that the battle is not necessarily over. Charter schools remain controversial but if you really take a step back, they're here to stay. Maybe that's the big story of the year. This is the year that charter schools are beyond dispute a permanent part of the educational landscape.

Mike:                       There you go. I'm glad you said that because I have to admit I was disappointed you mentioned the common core testing because I was going to say that. I think you're right though. I think we have been waiting for this since 2010 to have these new tests roll out and to have these new cut scores. Here's the big news. We finally appear to have closed the honesty gap or put the proficiency illusion ...

Robert:                   In the rear view mirror.

Mike:                       ... in the rear view mirror. This is a huge deal. Obviously, for Fordham we have been banging on this drum since at least 2007 about the concern that states' proficiency cut scores were way too low. That was misleading parents and kids ...

Robert:                   Absolutely.

Mike:                       ... into thinking they were doing fine. It's been quite remarkable. Every single state has dramatically raised their cut scores. There was one state, our home states of Ohio, ...

Robert:                   Go figure.

Mike:                       ... that did not go as high as they should have but otherwise, it has been remarkable. We finally have achieved something many of us really fought for for many years, which is to put those proficiency cut scores in the neighborhood of true college readiness in the neighborhood. It's a big deal.

Robert:                   2015, the year we finally told the truth.

Mike:                       There it is. Now we'll see if it turns out to be 2015 the only year we told the truth or if these things are going to stay.

Robert:                   I'm the Grinch.

Mike:                       Yes, exactly. Topic Number Two.

Speaker 4:            At the start of the year, you declared 2015 the year of curriculum reform. Did it live up to your expectations?

Robert:                   Did I say 2015, Mike? I meant 2016 is the year of curriculum reform.

Mike:                       Come on, Robert. There's some good news.

Robert:                   No, there really is. Look. This is not a secret to anybody who listens to us regularly. I'm always the relentless guy who bangs on the curriculum drum saying, "Charters, choice, teacher quality, data, all that's great. Can we talk about what teachers teach and what kids learn?" My active optimism, yours is with cut scores. Mine is that common core would finally usher in an era not necessarily of a curriculum reform or a curriculum renaissance but we would finally get to the point where we would take curriculum seriously as a reform lever.

                                    Let's look at what actually is going on in schools and see if we can improve that. In terms of my prognostication ability, I'll give myself a C+. I think I heard a lot more discussion about curriculum this year, serious people taking it more seriously as a lever. We saw a couple of good studies that came out about it this year but no, just to be serious about it, I just don't think any 12-month time period is enough to create the kind of momentum you need but I do think we're heading in the right direction. I think we'll see more of it next year.

Mike:                       Here's the question. We do hear more about it. There's some big charter networks that have embraced this. We hear about KIP working to develop a common core line curriculum.

Robert:                   Achievement First.

Mike:                       Achievement First has really gotten religion on content-rich curriculum. Maybe it's happening out there in some school districts, including some big school districts and we just don't hear about it. I don't know. Look. I worry that the typical American elementary school still teaches almost zero history, science, geography, art and music until the kids are maybe in third, fourth, fifth grade. They're certainly not doing it in my kid's school, even though they think that they are doing common core line work.

                                    Now maybe they will look at the Park results, the Smarter Balance results or these other test results and finally notice the 57 words you like so much in common core. It says something like, "Hey, dummies. You want to teach kids how to read?"

Robert:                   It's the content, stupid.

Mike:                       You can't just do decoding or stupid drills about find the main idea. You actually have to teach them something. Guess what? What elementary school teacher doesn't want to be the guide to the universe ...

Robert:                   Absolutely.

Mike:                       ... and David Coleman's work, right?

Robert:                   Yep. Nice phrase.

Mike:                       Yet, I feel like, "Look. We're talking to ourselves about this."

Robert:                   No, I don't think we are. I don't want to make some news but listen to this space in 2016. We'll be making some announcements about an initiative that we're going to launch here at Fordham to try to encourage schools to do more of this kind of thing. This will sound cynical. I don't mean it to. If nothing else, I think we're getting to the point where a lot of thoughtful people in our world are ready to embrace this simply because everything else has been disappointing. Was it Churchill who said about democracy? It's the best possibility once all the others have been exhausted.

Mike:                       I think that was about America, that America would do the right thing once the other options were exhausted.

Robert:                   There you go. Yes. I think all roads lead to-

Mike:                       This is World War III. Is that what you're saying?

Robert:                   Oh no, I didn't say that.

Mike:                       Topic Number 3.

Speaker 4:            What do you think the big news in 2016 will be?

Robert:                   You want to go first?

Mike:                       This is always tough, the Black Swan. What is out there that we don't know about? Look. There's no doubt that the press will be interested in implementation of ESSA, though it's going to be a lot of hurrying up and waiting.

                                    There's going to be a long period here, probably eight or nine months, for us just to wait to see something come out of the Department of Education with their interpretation of how this is supposed to go, what the guardrails are for states and to see if the Hill thinks that the Department goes too far in trying to regulate. The Department of Education is supposed to have its hands tied when it comes to implementation. We'll see how that all goes but what else?

Robert:                   To play on that theme, I think that will be the big story of 2016 but it will be 50 stories. It will not just be one. I think it's a very, very exciting time to be you and me, as it were, to be observers, and hopefully help ... Since states think of it, their implementation efforts.

Mike:                       However, Robert, the point was that they really can't do anything yet. They can't, for example, ...

Robert:                   No.

Mike:                       ... put pen to paper in redesigning their state accountability systems or interventions. They've got to wait, short of the Department. Now the one thing they can do pretty much immediately, as far as I can tell, is start dismantling their teacher evaluation systems because those are not in the bill. I guess the waivers expire in August. They can get ready that on August 1, they can either have no teacher evaluations which is more a very different one than the one the Feds required.

Robert:                   Right but my point is that this is a really good time to be a state level policymaker, to have the opportunity to think some of these things through. It really moves the center of gravity and the center of innovation to the state level. This may become a good time to be in that world, to really think creatively and to add on the box about how to move the needle for kids.

Mike:                       All right. That's all true. You know what the real big story of 2016's going to be?

Robert:                   "Star Wars."

Mike:                       Besides that. That's 2015, Robert. You wouldn't know that if you were in tune with Bob Colter. Friedrichs, the Friedrichs Supreme Court case, in June probably, will get a decision. Most likely, the Supreme Court will turn every state in the country into a right-to-work state, ...

Robert:                   You think so?

Mike:                       ... at least when it comes to public employees. Oh yeah.

Robert:                   All right. You heard it here first. Write this down.

Mike:                       No, actually you didn't hear it here first. Other people have been saying this too much more than I am but this is a big deal. What it's going to say, most likely, is that teacher unions cannot charge these agency fees to nonmembers. What that means for teachers is that in the past, choosing to be a member of the union or not, it was a matter of maybe $100. You can pay $1,000 to be a part of the union or you could pay $100 to not be a part of the union. Now it's going to be $1,000 to be a part of the union or zero.

Robert:                   I want to go back to my teaching days as a full-time teacher in New York City. I want all of those fees back from my union, which I never joined. All they ever did for me was try to get me fired.

Mike:                       The unions, look, they're on a roll right now. They were very happy with how ESEA came out. They also, in the budget deal that just passed, were able to get the Cadillac tax delayed, which is a huge deal for teachers because many of them have these pretty luxurious healthcare plans that are costly. That tax is delayed. They are on a roll. We'll see how much wind this takes out of their sails when suddenly they lose a bunch of members and money. I'm sorry. Was I giggling there? Was that ...

Robert:                   You were smirking for those of you are not following this on camera.

Mike:                       Yes. That's my bet. For you, you're saying ESEA.

Robert:                   I think a lot of the thought and energy will go into that but I think in terms of actual hard news, yeah, I think you're right.

Mike:                       You heard it here, not necessarily first, but you did hear it here. All right. That is all the time we have for "Pardon the Gadfly." Now it is time for everyone's favorite, a special edition of Amber's Research Minute. Amber, welcome back to the show.

Amber:                   Thank you, Mike.

Mike:                       Which do you think is worse? Earlier, I called Robert, what the Scrooge, but then I said maybe the Grinch is better but what do you think is worse?

Amber:                   Doesn't the Grinch get nice at the end

Mike:                       Exactly.

Amber:                   He grows a big heart.

Mike:                       That's exactly what we said.

Robert:                   Are you implying that I need to grow a big heart, Amber?

Amber:                   No. Was I even in the room when this was discussed?

Mike:                       No, I think you're right. I think Grinch is better. The Scrooge never gets better. Is that right?

Amber:                   He does. He does but you don't get to see his heart grow and pop out of his chest. I just always loved that about the Grinch.

Robert:                   I want to be Jacob Marley. I wear the chains I forged in life.

Mike:                       All right. Amber, this is a special edition. I understand you came with a special research minute.

Amber:                   I am so excited because I got to go through all the research minutes of last year. Mike said, "Oh, just pick your favorite." I'm like, "Yeah, right. I'm not picking one." I promise I'll go fast because ...

Mike:                       This is your favorite research minute of 2015.

Amber:                   My favorite research minutes, the top five. I'm going to be fast.

Mike:                       Are you going to count them down?

Amber:                   If you get bored, say, "Amber, keep moving along." Honorable Mention Number Five. This was in June. We were supposed to study, focus on, kids born in the 50's and 60's. They found that white and black five-year-olds with access, and do you guys remember this one, ...

Mike:                       Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amber:                   ... to "Sesame Street" ... How cool was that? Because their TV had access to the signal, they carried "Sesame Street," that they weren't behind, that they were on the grade level for their grade level compared to kids who didn't have access. They handled it at the very successful nuke with "Sesame Street." That is cool. That's an Honorable Mention.

Robert:                   There's four better than that?

Mike:                       It's creative.

Amber:                   It's creative. As a creative site was on, I just thought it was cool. Number Four. This was from July. This was a science study for this one. This one was where they studied how the brain responds when presented with two different methods of reading instruction. The participants were taught two different ways to associate a set of words read aloud to a corresponding set of visual characters

                                    Then one approach was more phonics based. One was more whole-word memorization. They hooked them up tot he EKG machine, remember? They monitored their brain waves. They found that the phonics approach activated the left side of the brain where the language regions lie. It's been shown to support word recognition.

Robert:                   There you go.

Amber:                   Basically, it's like phonics literally stimulates the brain. That's a cool study, right?

Robert:                   It sure is.

Amber:                   Cool. Number Three. See, this is moving right along.

Mike:                       I like it. By the way, we've got to do this for math. I'd be really curious. Do some of those common core math problems that is driving all these parents crazy.

Amber:                   See what their brain does.

Mike:                       Let's just see. Yeah, it's great.

Robert:                   I think the parents just make them shut down.

Amber:                   Yes, so it just doesn't-

Mike:                       We wouldn't have to ask kids to explain their answer. We would just look at their brain waves and know how they're doing it.

Amber:                   What a cool idea that would be.

Robert:                   Brain-based standards.

Amber:                   Number Three. This was an NBER study from January, going all the way back to January. It examined the of take-over on student achievement in student achievement in Nola's RSD and in Boston. See if you remember this one. This one looked not at the impact of charter schools and missions lotteries on the performance of kids who applied but rather on the impact for kids who don't make a choice.

                                    These are the kids who are passive. They're passive participants. They're just simply grandfathered into the newly-constituted school. The bottom line is, lo and behold, the gains for the grandfathered students were at least as large for the gains for those who got in via lottery.

Robert:                   Kids with slacker parents do just as well.

Amber:                   They're just there. They're grandfathered in.

Robert:                   I'm going to get in trouble for saying that.

Amber:                   That's cool but the big deal, because we say, "All these kids that are getting the lottery or something a little different from these other kids and so on and so forth." Number Two, this was another NBER study. This looked at the usual process for identifying gifted students, which is how we do it through parent and teacher referrals. This is normally how we identify gifted kids. This potentially qualified the disadvantaged students.

                                    It looked at a large urban school district. It followed the introduction of a universal screening program for second-grade students. With no change in the standards for gifted eligibility, the new screening program led to large increases in the number of disadvantaged students and minorities placed in gifted programs

Robert:                   There's nothing wrong with that.

Amber:                   That's right.

Robert:                   That's why we are big fans of universal screening. This is going to be a big deal I think in 2016. There's a lot of energy right now. We are excited about high achievers. We're thinking about what states might do in their accountability systems to make this sort of thing more common.

Amber:                   Right. Is anybody taking it serious? I know this one study was on this one large district. I just don't know whether any other big district is going to take this on. It seems like, "Here's an idea. Here's a rigorous study that showed it had a lot of potential now. Who's going to do it?"

Robert:                   I think really we've got to connect this with the interest in STEM and getting pipelines into stem, of minority and low-income kids and help people understand that has got to start in elementary school, if we're going to make it work.

Amber:                   That's right. Can I get a drum roll? This is Number One.

Robert:                   Woohoo. I'm excited.

Amber:                   Thank you very much. This is not an NBR study. It's a Penn State study. It was in July. It's just a simple study. I love when studies actually, and this is bad to say but, they reiterate what we already know in our gut. This was one of those studies. It was about the effectiveness of instructional practices for first-grade math students, if you remember this one. It analyzed data for over 13,000 kindergarten children and found that teachers who taught low performers tend to use instructional strategies not associated with greater math achievement by these types of students.

Robert:                   Goodness.

Amber:                   These non-effective practices included manipulatives, movement, whatever that is, music to learn your math ...

Robert:                   Oh boy.

Amber:                   ... and calculators.

Robert:                   Please stop.

Amber:                   Calculators for kindergartners. Teacher-directed instructional strategies were consistently linked with gains in math achievement for low math performers, things like ... Nobody likes this, drill and kill, ...

Robert:                   Oh, heavens.

Amber:                   ... practice drills, lots of chalkboard instruction and, yes, the teacher up there just working problems, traditional textbook practice problems and worksheets that go over math skills.

Mike:                       How old-fashioned.

Amber:                   I'm like, "Come on." Again and again, all of these little progressive things that we think are great, not associated, why can't ... I was just so exasperated. Every time I read about this study, kids need to just be taught how to do some math. Then they need to practice how to do the math a lot.

Mike:                       Yes, that's crazy, Amber.

Amber:                   Guess what? They'll get the math.

Mike:                       Guess what? That is what common core calls for in the early grades ...

Amber:                   It does.

Mike:                       ... even though that is not well-known, just like it's not well-known that common core calls for a content-rich curriculum.

Robert:                   Our elementary schools only want to hear what they want to hear. They want to hear about the conceptual math. Let's do lots of drawings and explain our problems. That's fine. That makes sense when the kids get a little bit older. When they're little ...

Mike:                       There was a piece in the "Washington Post" just last week ...

Robert:                   ... they need to just know their math facts.

Mike:                       Did you see this? It was a piece that said, "Is it a good idea at common core calls for children to explain every single problem that they do?" Like, "It doesn't say that." Where did you get that idea?

Robert:                   That's where they're getting it. On a test is different. They should be able to explain any answer but it just does not follow from that that every single answer must be a narrative, just like it doesn't follow that everything you read in class under common core has to be closed reading.

Mike:                       Right. I love that. The question to me is for a study like that, it's very clear advice to schools ...

Amber:                   Yes, very clear advice.

Mike:                       ... saying, "Here's how to teach math to kindergartners." How do we get that information out to the nation's 50,000 teachers?

Amber:                   Number One, guess what? Having been in a school, and it's been a while, but they don't teach that.

Mike:                       Oh my goodness.

Amber:                   No, they're teaching you discovery learning, take the kid out and sorry, Mike, but do a walk, do basket weave and all the stuff your kid's doing in your school right now.

Mike:                       But that's a pre-school.

Amber:                   It's a pre-school.

Mike:                       I'm not making this up. I was literally told that timed math drills are "child abuse."

Amber:                   Oh, wow. Oh my God.

Mike:                       That's what we're hearing.

Amber:                   That's terrible. Terrible. I honestly enjoyed memorizing my math times tables. Did you guys?

Mike:                       Oh yeah.

Amber:                   I thought it was so fun. I used to sit at the kitchen table with my dad. He'd just quiz me on it. I just was so proud when I got them all right.

Mike:                       By the way, I shut my classroom door to abuse my children. We didn't do that. This is, by the way, where some of the apps out there are going to be helpful. Parents will just find the iPad app where the kids see the flash cards.

Robert:                   Who finds those? The affluent parents, ...

Mike:                       Yes.

Robert:                   ... the willied wells, the kids who need it who don't get it.

Mike:                       I hear yeah. See Mr. Grinch, Mr. Scrooge - we have to go out on a positive note here, people. It's the holidays.

Amber:                   That's right.

Mike:                       Amber, any ideas on how to be positive?

Amber:                   Hmm. Wow.

Mike:                       I've got an idea how about this. If you were doing this 10 years ago, we would not have been able to find as many high-quality studies.

Amber:                   Now that is good, very good. I will say I did a lot of NBER studies this past year ...

Mike:                       You did.

Amber:                   ... but I’m going to try to do better. I'm really going to try to branch out. There are some other studies that aren't covered in that particular journal that are high quality. We're going to-

Mike:                       Yeah but the point is this. There are a lot of good education research that's happening that is useful, that is meaningful, that is helpful to practitioners or policymakers ...

Amber:                   That's right.

Mike:                       ... that was not the case not so long ago.

Amber:                   We do a much better job actually trying to help teachers address real problems. I will agree with that. Now we've got to do, what you said, a better job getting it in their hands and their inbox and changing some of their minds about some of these strategies.

Mike:                       Excellent.

Robert:                   Everything is awesome.

Mike:                       That's all the time we've got, gang. Happy holidays. Until next year ...

Robert:                   I'm Robert Pondiscio.

Mike:                       I'm Mike Petrilli at the Thomas B. Fordham institute signing off.