The DOA edition

Obama’s budget, a bad book about testing, differentiation difficulties, and the high cost of empty buildings.Institute for Law & Liberty (January 2015). 

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Rick Esenberg, CJ Szafir, and Martin F. Lueken, Ph.D., "Kids in Crisis, Cobwebs in Classrooms," Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (January 2015). 


Aylssa:             Hello, this is your host Alyssa Schwenk of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, here at the Education Gadfly Show and Online at Now, please join me in welcoming my co-host, the right shark of educational reform, Robert Pondiscio.

Robert:            How nice.

Aylssa:             Thank you.

Robert:            Can I be the Marshawn Lynch of education reform?

Aylssa:             I think as long as you're not the Pete Carroll of education reform, you're in good standing.

Robert:            I just want to say that I'm only here so I don't get fined.

Aylssa:             Not to dance at all?

Robert:            Not to dance, and not to call a bad play in the line of scrimmage. Let's hope.

Aylssa:             I actually cannot follow this part of the conversation because I was one of those people watching the Super Bowl exclusively for the half-time show-

Robert:            Right.

Aylssa:             And the commercials, but I do know that that was a bad call.

Robert:            Okay. The football game, that's the part that wasn't the commercials or the half-time show. With the guys in the helmets, that was-

Aylssa:             You mean when I went to go get food?

Robert:            Exactly.

Aylssa:             Okay.

Robert:            Right.

Aylssa:             All right. Moving on to education reform let's hop right into Pardon the Gadfly. Ellen, what's our first question today?

Ellen:               President Obama's budget was released this week and has been heavily panned by Republicans. Is it worth analyzing or is it just a bargaining chip?

Aylssa:             All right. President Obama on Monday released the first on-time budget of his administration, always an accomplishment. It had about $71 billion, slightly less than that, dedicated to education funding. It was a pie in the sky list of every initiative that he and Arne Duncan really want to get across in the next year or in the last two years of their administration. It included $750 million for pre-K funding, increases in charter school funding, increases in formula funding, but a lot of people are saying that it's just a political maneuver. Robert, what are your thoughts?

Robert:            A budget is by definition a political maneuver, is it not? It's a wish list.

Aylssa:             That is true. You measure what you treasure.

Robert:            Very nicely put.

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            Is that original?

Aylssa:             I think it is actually ... No.

Robert:            I like it.

Aylssa:             Thank you.

Robert:            I would refer people to Andy Smarick's post on this-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            That he put up on our blog earlier this week. Andy is a veteran political observer-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            And he makes exactly that point. It's a political document. He points out that the chickens have come home to roost, that some of these incentive-based grant programs-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            That used to be very popular are suddenly unpopular. He also points out that the things you would expect to be popular with Congress will remain so-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            It's Title 1-

Aylssa:             Title 1.

Robert:            Funding and what not.

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            Mike Petrilli, our other Fordham colleague, says basically what you said, "Dead on arrival. Why are we even talking about this."

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I do think I agree that it is dead on arrival. I think it is a fairly ambitious list and we've also seen a more muscular ready-to-fight president than we've seen in the last couple of years. The State of the Union was almost cocky and very, very aggressive in some ways.

Robert:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Aylssa:             Some might say confident, some might say aggressive. I do think that this budget is in a way kind of is a harbinger. Harbinger?

Robert:            A harbinger? A harbinger.

Aylssa:             A harbinger of what might be a more aggressive fight than people are expecting.

Robert:            It's easy to say that when you have both houses of Congress on your side which, of course, the President, remind me-

Aylssa:             That is.

Robert:            Does-

Aylssa:             Does ... Not.

Robert:            Does ... Not. Right? Okay.

Aylssa:             No, he doesn't.

Robert:            Again, why are we talking about this?

Aylssa:             Fair point. Question 2?

Ellen:               Robert, this week you penned a negative review of a new book on testing by Anya Kamenetz. Will you elaborate?

Robert:            Do I have to? I don't know Ms. Kamenetz. I listen to her reports on National Public Radio. She seems like a good and diligent and dutiful education reporter. Here's the thing, okay. I wanted so much to love this book. I have slightly unorthodox views about testing for somebody who is in the ed reform community. As a former teacher, I would say my relationship with testing is complicated. The problem is Anya Kamenetz's take on testing is kind of uncomplicated. She just really doesn't like it and she makes that clear right from the very, very-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            Start. I was disposed to find things to agree with because, again, I have this relationship that testing, like she would say, "The testing has become the tail that wags the dog," but she's just in spots so stridently anti-testing that I'm finding myself hard-pressed to agree with very much in the book at all. One piece in particular that really raised my hackles is she raises the idea that testing almost by birth from its historical roots a century ago, there was something intrinsically racist, my words not hers, about standardized testing, but it completely overlooks the fact that testing has really done a lot for the cause-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            Of equity in our-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            Country. In fact, a week or so ago, there was a letter penned by some 19 or 20 different civil rights groups who are basically among the most stalwart proponents of testing-

Aylssa:             Yeah.

Robert:            But Ms. Kamenetz does not seem to be down with that argument.

Aylssa:             Yeah. It's kind of an unpopular view as a former teacher to take, but I liked testing or rather I liked assessment. I think the purposes and the value in it are frequently overlooked. It's something to keep your students on track. It's something that, as the civil rights leaders pointed out in their letters, to ensure that equity is being met, that students are making progress. It completely-

Robert:            Sure.

Aylssa:             Reshapes the landscape of schools since the 1960s forward. Has it created some perverse incentives? Yes. Has it at some schools, the one that I taught at was a very high-stress environment, particularly-

Robert:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Aylssa:             Around testing time. Yes, absolutely. Those things need to be rectified. I do feel that there is value in testing, that this book, I haven't read it-

Robert:            Sure. Yeah.

Aylssa:             But it does apparently overlook.

Robert:            How could there not be.

Aylssa:             Right.

Robert:            None of us want to go to the battle days before-

Aylssa:             Right.

Robert:            We knew who was struggling and why. Another frustration with this book, at the end, she's all but advising parents to opt out of testing-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            I just wish somebody would go about this the following way. Rather than just say, "No more testing, we're not gonna do it," because look-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            Parents are absolutely right to be concerned that there is too much testing. I would love to see some savvy group of parents go to a school and say, "Okay, Mr. Principal, Ms. Principal, here's the deal. We're inclined to opt out but we're going to give you a chance first.

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            Keep the test prep away, the books away. No more practice tests. The second you turn schooling into test prep, our kids are going to opt out, so you teach, our kids will come for the test."

Aylssa:             You think that'll be effective?

Robert:            I do think it would be more effective because it would give parents what they want, a rich educational-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            Experience. Would let teachers do what they want, to teach the-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            Curriculum, not to the test. The irony, of course, would be if that happens and then the test scores come back looking poorly. Then, it'll be interesting to see if opt-out parents are as aggressive about wanting to opt out as they are now.

Aylssa:             That would be a fair point. I do think that looking ahead I know her daughter is quite young-

Robert:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Aylssa:             And that was the genesis of writing this book. I often wonder will these parents opt out of the SAT when suddenly it has very steep consequences for their child.

Robert:            Testing been very, very good to those-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            Of us who went to fine colleges, right?

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative). Amen. All right. Question 3.

Ellen:               Fordham colleague, David Griffith, recently wrote about his disastrous experience with differentiated instruction. You two were teachers, what do you think of this method?

Robert:            What do you think of it?

Aylssa:             My question back at you is what is differentiation?

Robert:            Great question.

Aylssa:             David, I think in his piece, which is out in today's Gadfly, addresses that paradox of, how do we define differentiation? It's like the elephant that six blind men are feeling, and sometimes it's a tree trunk, and sometimes it's a rope, but what is it actually?

Robert:            Yes.

Aylssa:             I have my own definition as a former teacher, and you're still teaching, Robert. What's your definition?

Robert:            First of all, I think differentiation is one of those things that more honored in the breach than the observance. Everybody talks about it, but very few people actually do it. You're exactly right.

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            In order to say do you like it, do you like it. The first question is what do you mean by differentiation.

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative). You know when you see it.

Robert:            Yeah, you know when you see it ... Or when you do it. In other words, for me, what does differentiation look like in my classroom. It means when I read two different student's papers, I'm looking for different things based on-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            How I think I can add value to them in terms of the feedback. If that's what you mean by differentiation, fine. If it means, I'm going to ask a different question of different kids in classroom discussion based on what I perceive to be their level of readiness-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            That's okay. If it means 24 kids doing 24 different things? No. That's a recipe for just frustration.

Aylssa:             I'm curious. I taught kindergarten and second grade, and my experiences is with differentiation and how it was perceived were very different with those two grade levels. When I was teaching kindergarten teaching small group or instructing in small groups, was considered geno-appropriate. People would come in and be, why are these kids working on this lesson and these kids working on this. I would be, it's developmentally appropriate. There's no such thing as silent or passive disengagement-

Robert:            Right.

Aylssa:             From a 5-year-old if they're not liking the lesson.

Robert:            They let you know.

Aylssa:             They're doing somersaults-

Robert:            Yeah.

Aylssa:             Quite literally doing somersaults, but I recognize that it's much different with older students.

Robert:            Sure.

Aylssa:             Are you when you're teaching high schoolers breaking out into small groups? Is that differentiation to you?

Robert:            Very, very rarely-

Aylssa:             Okay.

Robert:            I think it just doesn't work at the high school level. One other thing about differentiation that I think is worth noting. People have very strong opinions about this.

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            People will say, "Well, there's no evidence that it works, but, you know, there's no evidence that it doesn't." The thing that always occurs to me is that, look, we've got 3.7 million teachers-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            In this country with a range of effectiveness and proficiency. If the literature is mixed and we're not sure that these are effective-

Aylssa:             Right.

Robert:            Strategies, why are we needlessly complicating the job?

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            I bang on this drum mercilessly, but we've got to make teaching a job that mere mortals of average sentience can do, to a fairly high degree of proficiency.

Aylssa:             That's a ringing endorsement.

Robert:            I don't mean to be arch or ironic-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            At all when I say that. The job is hard enough. Why would you go and jump through hoops to make it immensely difficult if you're not absolutely sure there's benefits.

Aylssa:             That's true. I do think at the end of the day, teachers need to do what works best for them and their classroom and their kids, in conjunction with the administration, in conjunction with parents when appropriate. If it works for them, great, at what they're doing. They need to be doing something, I feel like they should be allowed to do that too.

Robert:            Amen.

Aylssa:             All right. I think that's all of the time that we have today for Pardon the Gadfly. Thanks so much, Ellen. Next up, Amber's Research Minute. Welcome to the show, Amber. How are you?

Amber:            Thank you, Aylssa, doing great.

Aylssa:             All right.

Amber:            Doing well.

Aylssa:             Earlier today, Robert was running touchdown dances around me with his football knowledge. I was watching the Super Bowl on Sunday night for Katy Perry and Left Shark and Right Shark-

Amber:            Oh. Right.

Aylssa:             And the commercials. Robert was, I don't know why you were watching it. You were trying to explain it to me, but it involves-

Robert:            Something about a football game.

Aylssa:             Touchdowns.

Robert:            Yes.

Aylssa:             Okay.

Robert:            It involved touchdowns.

Amber:            Great game.

Robert:            It really was, right?

Amber:            It was a great game.

Aylssa:             You we're watching?

Robert:            Yeah.

Amber:            Of course. That was just a terrible play. I was rooting for the Sea Hawks, just very, very depressed at that last play. Come on, what's he thinking that coach?

Aylssa:             Why he throw it?

Amber:            Why he throw it?

Aylssa:             All right.

Amber:            I'm preaching to the choir. Everybody knows this.

Aylssa:             Well, I was rooting for the Sea Hawks. I'm not sure you're-

Robert:            I was rooting for the Patriots. I have to say I-

Aylssa:             I was going to say you're from [inaudible 00:11:34] Northeast Corridor.

Robert:            I'm a Buffalo Bills fan, so the Patriots are in our division.

Aylssa:             I guess that's a good enough reason. I'm clearly not remotely qualified to judge. Amber, what do you have for us today?

Amber:            Let's switch gears and talk about a new study by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. We don't cover a lot of their stuff, but this was a neat little study. They examined the facility challenge in Milwaukie. Basically the story in Milwaukie is you've got abundance of choice, both in charters and private school choice. Families are leaving these district for the charter and private schools, and they basically looked at the utilization rates, so how utilized are each of the public school buildings in Milwaukie. All right. Five quick findings. Number 1, there are 27 buildings that are operating at below 60% capacity.

Robert:            Hmm.

Amber:            Of these, 13 are operating below 50% capacity. Many of these schools are the most at risk schools in the city. They have declining enrollments, they're the lowest performing, yaddie-yadda. They have twice as many 911 phone calls per student, which I thought was interesting little factoid.

Aylssa:             That's a heartening finding.

Amber:            Yes. Higher absentee rate than other public schools. Number 2, there are currently, and this blows my mind. There are currently 17 Milwaukie public school buildings that are completely vacant, and they have been for an average of guess how many years.

Robert:            5 years.

Aylssa:             2.

Amber:            7. 7 years.

Robert:            Out of-

Aylssa:             [inaudible 00:12:59].

Robert:            Good. Out of many buildings?

Amber:            7 years. Let me see if I had wrote that done. It cost the taxpayers about 1.6 million in utilities-

Robert:            Wait a minute-

Amber:            Just in utilities.

Robert:            1.6 million to keep-

Amber:            Since 2012.

Robert:            7 buildings.

Amber:            17.

Robert:            17. Sorry.

Amber:            17.

Robert:            Open.

Amber:            Right.

Robert:            Empty.

Aylssa:             For 7 years.

Robert:            Wow.

Amber:            For 7 years, just utilities. Who knows what other costs we're talking about. Number 3, 80% of the under-utilized schools, 22 in total, received either an F or D on their most recent state report cards. Again, just reiterating these are low performing schools that are under-utilized.

Robert:            How did the empty ones do?

Amber:            Under-utilized schools are more likely to experience enrollment decline. That's circular logic but that's true.

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amber:            The concern is that they're eventually going to be vacant. These kids are just going to keep leaving. Number 5, last one, is severe shortage of quality public schools exist in the vicinity of the under-utilized schools, so that makes sense, right? Out of 52 closest schools of those schools that are under-utilized, only 7 scored a C or better. They're surrounded by-

Robert:            Mediocrity.

Amber:            Yes.

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            At best.

Amber:            So the authors, obviously, no surprise, they recommend that private schools, the choice program, the charter schools and-

Robert:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amber:            Be allowed to expand into these unused and under-utilized buildings. They said they could either take over the buildings-

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amber:            If they're high performing charter. They can lease out the space. They can consolidate the MPS schools and lease the leftover part of the building.

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:            Umm.

Amber:            There's all different kinds of options here, is the point.

Aylssa:             Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right.

Robert:            Yeah.

Amber:            All of which-

Robert:            They can't do that now, I assume-

Aylssa:             Yeah. What's stopping them?

Amber:            The district is not real keen on-

Robert:            They're not playing ball.

Aylssa:             [crosstalk 00:14:35] do any of this stuff.

Robert:            Yeah.

Amber:            Mm-hmm (affirmative). For reasons that we probably know.

Robert:            Sure.

Amber:            So the taxpayers are getting sucked to them.

Robert:            Yeah.

Amber:            Yeah. Milwaukie public officials are doing nothing. The author's saying can the state actually do something about this problem?

Robert:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Aylssa:             That's fascinating. I know I taught in D.C. and obviously the co, what do they call it?

Robert:            Co-locations. It's a big problem in New York.

Aylssa:             Co-locations, in New York is a big problem as well.

Robert:            Yeah.

Aylssa:             In D.C., it's very expensive just because of legislation for charter schools to take over public school buildings.

Robert:            Right. So this-

Aylssa:             I think it's gotten easier but that's not even what's happening here.

Robert:            This isn't even co-location.

Amber:            Right.

Robert:            This is empty real estate that somebody could putting to good use.

Amber:            Empty real estate. Yeah, and they're just putting up a road block.

Robert:            Wow.

Amber:            They're not playing nicely.

Robert:            No bueno.

Amber:            In D.C., they have Building Hope.

Aylssa:             Right.

Amber:            Which is an organization that helps to fund some of these charter facilities, help them finance them. There's no organization like that in Milwaukie, which they desperately need.

Aylssa:             Yeah.

Robert:            Right. So this report is basically try to stir up some outrage to say-

Amber:            Kicking up some dust-

Aylssa:             That's a terrible problem and I hope it's able to stir up some necessary outrage to get the ball rolling there.

Amber:            Yes. We like to create outrage around here.

Robert:            I don't know what you're talking about.

Aylssa:             They don't call us the Education Gadfly for nothing.

Amber:            That's right.

Aylssa:             All right. That's all of the time that we have for this week's Gadfly Show until next week.

Robert:            I'm Robert Pondiscio.

Aylssa:             And I'm Aylssa Schwenk for The Thomas B. Fordham Institute signing off.

Speaker 1:       The Education Gadfly Show is a production of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute located in Washington D.C. For more information, visit us online at