Charters & Choice

Arbitrary caps on the number of charter schools or charter school students are still bad ideas. At Fordham, we've consistently said so and kept a watchful eye on the fights to remove them. The idea hardly even belongs in conversations about education policy and, instead, represents a kind of education politics that comes about as part of the sometimes-ugly deal making necessary to enact or preserve reform. 

Charter school caps and an unhealthy emphasis on market share go hand in hand. A study out this week from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that a majority of students in both New Orleans (79 percent) and Detroit (51 percent) are in charter schools. Additionally, the District of Columbia continues to inch closer, with 43 percent of its students in charters during the last school year. While this may be seen as good news, especially given that all three cities have charter sectors that outperform their district counterparts, even those cities have individual charter schools that shouldn't be operating. Part of the reason the debate over ideas like school choice can be so contentious is that when one side says charter schools in a given city are great and the other side says they are terrible, both are right—because...

 
 

I can’t tell you how much I like the annual charter school “market-share” report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. It’s my favorite annual publication. They document how chartering has grown over the last year in major cities and show fascinating facts like which cities have the largest charter market shares, which cities’ market shares are growing fastest, and more. So much here to explore, but the biggest eye-popper is that we now have two cities in which charters are the majority school sector—NOLA and Detroit. Andy Eduwonk hosted a conference on charters in Charlottesville, VA, in 2003, and several pre-read papers contemplated a day far into the future when a city might have 10 percent of their kids attending charters. Today, there are 135 such cities. And in 32 cities, 20 percent of public school kids are in charters. The Urban School System of the Future is coming.

Bain & Company has an interesting paper out on districts’ pitiful performance in preparing principals. Big headline: A majority of schools fail to systematically develop their high-quality teachers into high-potential leaders (some districts and a number of CMOs are much better,...

 
 

Long before the Common Core State Standards were on anyone’s radar, the “reading wars” raged furiously. They began as a fight about the best way to teach children how to read in the early grades, and the camps were divided between advocates of “whole language” and “phonics.” Today, the battles continue, though the issues have grown increasingly complicated and their implications extend well beyond the early grades and the phonics/whole-language divide.

Recent debates over reading instruction in the Common Core era have included skirmishes among three helpful—and ultimately complementary—approaches: “close reading,” “knowledge first,” and “skills and strategies.” All three of these are miles better than a fourth (but increasingly popular) approach: “just right texts.”

Let’s examine them.

Close Reading

One flashpoint in the reading debate emerged in 2011, after a lead author of the Common Core ELA standards, David Coleman, challenged teachers with a new vision for reading instruction. It entailed ratcheting up the complexity of texts that students read—something the Common Core explicitly demands—and encouraging students to plunge directly into the text itself, rather than spending time pre-teaching background content and vocabulary (an approach about which the standards themselves are silent). This version of close reading focuses on three things: (1) selecting appropriately complex texts that are worthy of close reading and analysis, (2) sequencing texts thoughtfully, with an eye toward building student content knowledge and vocabulary, and (3) guiding students through the text carefully with thoughtfully developed, text-dependent questions that encourage readers to return to the author’s words (rather than their own experiences and opinions) for analysis and answers. And it largely eschews pre-reading activities—such as those that give students information about the author, about when the piece was written, and about relevant historical facts that might help the reader better understand the story or essay they’re about to read.

Coleman’s approach set off a firestorm among educators. Some teachers were angered, not by his pedagogical vision per se but by the fact that the author of the standards seemed to be telling them how to teach, even when the standards themselves are agnostic about pedagogy. Others rejected the view that pre-reading is a waste of time, contending instead that pre-reading activities are essential to helping disadvantaged students access the kinds of complex texts that the Common Core demands.

When this debate first emerged, now nearly two years ago, the discussion was heated, but purposeful and productive. Teachers and ELA experts weighed in, cited research, acknowledged where Coleman was right, and pushed back where they thought he’d gone too far. Tim Shanahan—a widely respected researcher and ELA expert—had a particularly interesting series of posts dealing directly with the issue of pre-reading and offering a vision for pre-reading that even Coleman acknowledged made sense.

That debate was revived last month when Student Achievement Partners, an organization cofounded by Coleman, re-released an exemplar unit on teaching the Gettysburg Address (a big deal, considering that we’re observing its 150th anniversary). These lessons again put front and center the approach to close reading that starts the text cold rather than warmed by prior knowledge. Specifically, the introduction explains,

The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset…This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.

Of course, the rest of the lesson makes clear that this vision of close reading is anything but content-free. On the contrary, this approach encourages students to dive first into the text, but then to incorporate knowledge and vocabulary systematically into the analysis as the unit unfolds.

More than that, Coleman himself has sought to bridge the divide, acknowledging that pre-reading could be useful, if targeted and brief. But, still, the focus should be on the close, careful reading of text.

Knowledge First

Perhaps the most significant pushback against the Gettysburg Address lesson—both when it first emerged in 2011 and again last month—is the impossibility (and, in many eyes, the undesirability) of separating background knowledge from reading. As Tim Shanahan wrote in a post on this blog a few days ago, “you can’t stop readers from using what they know, nor would you want to.”

Even more critically, the vision for close reading outlined by Coleman in 2011 and restated by SAP in November seems to be at odds with the approach to reading instruction propounded by E. D. Hirsch Jr. and his colleagues at the Core Knowledge Foundation. Their arguments are nuanced and well worth reading, but they can be summarized as, “Teaching content is teaching reading.”

In short, Hirsch & Co. believe—and cite ample cognitive-psychology research to demonstrate—that it’s impossible to separate knowledge from comprehension, and therefore, once past the “decoding” stage of reading instruction, the best way to improve comprehension is by teaching a coherent, content-rich curriculum. (Hirsch is so committed to this idea that he developed precisely that kind of curriculum, the Core Knowledge sequence, which now guides teaching and learning in hundreds of elementary schools across the country.)

Hirsch has long lamented the disconnect between elementary-school reading programs and the content that students need to become proficient readers.

He’s not wrong: the most popular elementary reading programs are largely content-free. Basals, for instance, which are used as reading textbooks in many elementary classrooms, generally include short, decontextualized fiction and nonfiction texts for students to read. There is no coherent sequence of content; no emphasis on building knowledge to drive comprehension. (It’s no doubt because of the resulting knowledge deficit that many teachers rely on pre-reading to “backfill” students’ knowledge before they dive into a text.)

Is there, then, a great divide between advocates of “close reading” and those who insist on “knowledge first”? I think not. Indeed, the Common Core standards themselves—endorsed in full, of course, by both Coleman and SAP—are unambiguous in their demand that content be taught as part of literacy. On page 6, the standards explicitly call for educators to pair them with a “content-rich curriculum.” And on page 33, the standards devote an entire page to guidance describing “how to build knowledge systematically in English Language Arts in K–5.” Specifically, educators are told,

At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.

It is reasonable to assume, then, that the vision for “close reading” in grades 6–12 does not assume that students have no knowledge; rather, it assumes that the knowledge they bring comes not from pre-reading, per se, but from mastery of the K–5 content-rich curriculum that the standards themselves call for.

Skills and Strategies

But, of course, not everyone agrees with Hirsch and Coleman about the preeminence of knowledge. Some educators view that as a rejection of important reading skills and strategies. Indeed, in a blog post published in October, the respected author and educator Grant Wiggins took blunt issue with Hirsch’s “knowledge-first” rhetoric. “Over the years,” Wiggins explained, “I have grown increasingly tired of Hirsch’s one-note samba about reading.”

It’s evident that Wiggins is referring to Hirsch’s frequent rejection of “soul-deadening exercises like ‘finding the main idea’ and ‘questioning the author.’” Yet Wiggins rightly underscores research that points to the efficacy of brief, focused, and suitably timed instruction in a handful of important reading skills, including both identifying the main idea and teasing out authors’ purposes. He cites, for instance, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, who has written,

The evidence suggests that teaching a combination of reading comprehension techniques is the most effective. When students use them appropriately, they assist in recall, question answering, question generation, and summarization of texts. When used in combination, these techniques can improve results in standardized comprehension tests.

Wiggins goes further, noting that “students are consistently terrible at identifying main idea and author purpose.” His own analysis of the data revealed that

on average, students only get such questions correct 50% of the time, in my review of released standardized tests. The results reveal over and over again that students cannot identify the key assumptions and conclusions – the main ideas that shape the text. They have great difficulty distinguishing key facts in the text from the (inferred) idea; they are too literal in their reading. 

Note, though, that Wiggins also acknowledges the importance of knowledge to reading comprehension. But unlike Hirsch, Wiggins doesn’t believe that the problem is a failure to teach content. Instead, he believes that teachers don’t effectively teach the strategies and skills that students need to transfer their knowledge—that is, to use stored knowledge and apply it to later learning, to analysis, and so on.

In short, Wiggins acknowledges that students need content, but he believes that content alone isn’t going to get the job done, that teachers need to deftly weave instruction in content and skills in order to push their comprehension and learning. “It’s well past time to focus on learning, not teaching,” Wiggins explains, “because regardless of one’s ideology the one undeniable fact that Hirsch and I can probably agree on is that students leave school with far less than they were taught, whether it is knowledge of the Algonquins (a piece of content in Hirsch’s core curriculum) or main idea.”

Does that mean that, despite all the heat of this apparent firestorm, there’s ultimately nothing incompatible between the “skills-and-strategies” approach described by Wiggins and either the “knowledge-first” or “close-reading” approaches emphasized above? I think so. In my view, all three could be thoughtfully and purposefully woven together to maximize students’ knowledge, build their vocabulary, and deepen their ability to read, understand, and analyze sufficiently complex texts—in other words, to become sophisticated, effective readers of things worth reading.

Just Right Books

Unfortunately, when we watch leaders like Coleman, Hirsch, and Wiggins quarrel over what are essentially (and, I would say, optimally) complementary approaches to reading instruction, we risk losing sight of a truly dismal vision of reading instruction that prioritizes neither content nor complexity. That is the “just-right-books” approach.

That approach is embodied by a suite of programs and resources published and sold by Heinnemann, Inc. They include the Fountas and Pinnell (F&P) Leveled Literacy Intervention program, Lucy Calkins’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop, and the related books and professional development series produced and distributed by Heinnemann.

Not only is this approach widely used by U.S. educators (for ages it was required by the New York City Department of Education and is still widely used today in Gotham schools), but it is perhaps the most egregious example of a content-free, text-neutral, skills-focused version of reading instruction. Students in such classrooms don’t even have the benefit of reading shared or thoughtfully sequenced texts, let alone a thoughtful, coherent knowledge base.

The TC Reading Workshop is built on the idea that reading comprehension will improve if we use targeted assessments, like F&P, to figure out each pupil’s “instructional” reading level, then outfit them with texts that are “just right”—i.e. pitched at their present reading levels. (This approach devotes much time to gauging those levels in search of the “zone of proximal development”—the level that challenges the student just enough without frustrating her.) Instruction then focuses not on the text per se but rather on teaching comprehension skills and strategies that will help students understand the book they’ve chosen and (presumably) help propel them into increasingly complex texts.

Despite the popularity of this approach, the evidence against its potential and efficacy is large. Tim Shanahan has, for instance, written extensively on how difficult it is to “level” a text with the precision that the TCWRW demands. Others, including cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, Robert Pondiscio, and Hirsch himself, have provided extensive evidence as to the impossibility of narrowly defining a student’s reading level, since reading comprehension depends not only on word choice and sentence complexity but also on the knowledge and vocabulary that the student already possesses and now brings to his reading. A student who loves sports but knows less about science might be a “level q” if reading about baseball, for example, but just a “level b” when reading about the rain forest. And research from a pilot study has shown that schools that follow the Core Knowledge program dramatically outperformed those that deployed the Reading and Writing workshop.

Therefore, when Hirsch complains about an excessive—perhaps, in some places, myopic—focus on reading skills and strategies, it’s reasonable to assume that he hopes to draw a bright line between a content-rich curriculum, like his own Core Knowledge sequence, and programs like the Reading Workshop, which value skills and strategies above all else.

The Path Forward

In the end, the decision over which instructional strategies best drive reading comprehension—in particular, which close the vexing word gaps in the early years and then lay the foundation for the kinds of reading and analysis that students will need to do in later years of schooling—is complicated. True, content is not the only thing that matters. Wiggins and Willingham are right that instruction in reading skills and strategies has its place as well. And if we do a more effective job of balancing coherent content with targeted skills instruction, then the vision for close reading in secondary schools defined by Coleman and Student Achievement Partners would no doubt be well within our grasp, too.

A version of this post appeared on the Common Core Watch blog on December 10, 2013.

 
 

Mayor Bloomberg is justifiably proud of the big gains New York City made in boosting the high-school graduation rate on his watch, with about two-thirds of students now graduating in four years, up from half a decade ago. This appears to be the result of a whirlwind of creative efforts, including expanding educational options for teenagers via the creation of hundreds of brand-new high schools.

Yet Mayor Mike’s good work for big kids is matched by lackluster results for the city’s younger students. Eighth-grade reading scores, for instance, barely budged from 2003 to 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2013 scores are due out next week).

Perhaps this is one reason that de Blasio wants to expand the city’s pre-K offerings. In theory, giving low-income students a head start at age four will help them become better readers and better learners.

But de Blasio needs to come to grips with a simple truth: Any gains provided by a massive new investment in preschool will quickly fade away if he doesn’t also tackle New York City’s mediocre elementary schools.

What makes them mediocre? It’s the curriculum, stupid — or the lack thereof. When Bloomberg and Joel Klein exploded on the scene in the early 2000s, they were famously agnostic about what kids actually learn in the classroom day to day. To Klein’s credit, he eventually came to see the errors of his ways, and in his last years as chancellor he embraced the Core Knowledge program—a coherent, content-rich curriculum that is a model for what kids in New York, and nationwide, need if they are going to become strong readers.

What’s so special about content knowledge? As scholar and Core Knowledge creator E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has argued for thirty years—and as more recent cognitive science has confirmed—knowledge is the building block of literacy. Once students learn to “decode” the English language, their ability to comprehend what they read is all about what they know.

Weak readers who know a lot about baseball, for instance, demonstrate a high reading ability when reading about baseball. But those very same students can look like terrible readers if they are working through a passage on, say, the Civil War that they know nothing about.

The job of elementary schools, then, should be to systematically build students’ content knowledge in important areas like history, geography, civics, science, art, music, and literature. Yet most elementary schools (nationwide—not just in New York) are content-free wastelands.

Thankfully, Gotham is better positioned for an elementary school overhaul than most cities. In part, that’s because the state of New York, under Commissioner John King, has developed a wonderful, content-rich curriculum, aligned with the new Common Core standards, for grades K–12. (The Core Knowledge Foundation developed the K–2 piece of the English language arts curriculum.)

Furthermore, Bloomberg’s Department of Education has listed Core Knowledge as one of the model curricula for New York City teachers to consider as they transition to the new standards.

De Blasio should go even further. If he wants to be bold, he might urge all city elementary schools to adopt Core Knowledge.

He should also use its preschool sequence for his new pre-K initiative. He should purchase millions of new, content-rich books for the city’s grade schools.

And he should invest in thoughtful, aggressive training for all of the city’s pre-K and elementary school teachers.

Mayor Mike’s approach led to big gains for New York’s high-school system. De Blasio should be wise enough to leave those parts of the reform agenda in place while he works to construct a sturdy educational foundation for the city’s youngest children.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

 
 

“In the absence of this long-awaited home, there was only school….For children like Dasani, school is not just a place to cultivate a hungry mind. It is a refuge.” These words, which appear in Andrea Elliott’s five-part New York Times report, will strike a chord with anyone who spends their days trying to help poor children climb the ladder to opportunity. While the series is essentially about poverty and homelessness in the modern world, it is also the story of the power that the right schools, teachers, and principals have to help break the cycle—at least for one preteen girl.

According to data released this week by the Ohio Department of Education, the Buckeye State this year saw the largest increase in school-voucher-usage in the state’s history: Ohio families tapped more than 31,000 vouchers for their children to attend a private K–12 school, at least 4,600 more vouchers than were used the previous year. A little perspective: If the kids using vouchers made up a school district, it would be the state’s fourth largest.

Behavioral psychology tells us that to gain traction on our problems, we should separate and categorize their individual parts. We tend to do this in education reform, too, identifying and tackling discrete challenges, one at a time (think: teacher evaluations, funding formulas, governance). But according to a new book by business and education professors Ian Mitroff, Lindan Hill, and Can Alpaslan, that way of thinking might actually exacerbate the problem. The authors examine the ways that educators, union leaders, and reformers have approached the interconnected problems that make up “The Education Mess,” as they dub it (income inequality, poverty, hunger, poor health, the achievement gap, etc.). They apply the Jungian systems framework, viewing education as a system of interconnected problems rather than a machine with independent parts. Their critique of Indiana’s education reform overhaul in 2012 demonstrates this perfectly: Mitroff et al. worry that the largely structural changes made by the state will not be systemic enough to support sustainable growth. Their favorite example of systems thinking done right, however, is the Harlem Children’s Zone, which they cite frequently throughout the book. And while we at Fordham are a little skeptical about the scalability of efforts like HCZ, this book offered a unique lens by which to view The Education Mess. And if it takes a village to raise a child, it surely takes a village to improve education.

SOURCE: Ian Mitroff, Lindan B. Hill, and Can M. Alpaslan, Rethinking the Education Mess: A Systems Approach to Education Reform (New York, NY: Palgrave Pivot, October 2013).

The National Council on Teacher Quality has a message for teacher-preparation programs: Your graduates need to know how to manage their classrooms effectively. Every classroom teacher knows that, in the words of the authors, “the most brilliantly crafted lesson can fall on deaf ears” if a productive classroom environment has not been established. And our current system's expectation that teachers just “sink or swim” in classroom management is unacceptable. After reviewing 150 previous studies, NCTQ found five common themes regarding what every aspiring teacher should master before taking responsibility for his own classroom: how to set clear rules, how to develop routines and establish structure so students know what to expect, how to reward students who are doing the right thing, how to punish those who are not, and how to make sure students are too engaged in learning to act out. The authors then assessed 122 teacher-preparation programs in thirty-three states to determine whether such research is informing what the programs are actually doing. They found that, even though teacher-prep programs overemphasized theory to the detriment of practical skills, all but a handful did cover classroom management in some form. The problem lies in just how much classroom management is still being deemphasized. On average, programs studied required about ten to fifteen courses prior to student teaching, but time spent on classroom management added up to only about eight class periods. As one might imagine, that is not near enough time to cover all of the material that is important, so roughly half of the topics were simply ignored. This latest research from NCTQ aligns well with prior Fordham work and underscores the degree to which many teachers are being ill prepared to survive in the choppy waters they will face in many of our nation’s schools.

SOURCE: Julie Greenberg, Hannah Putman, and Kate Walsh, Training our future teachers: Classroom management (Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality, December 2013).

According to the newest assessment from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools regarding the charter sector’s share of the public school market, the number of school districts where at least 20 percent of students attend charters has increased about 350 percent since 2005. In thirty-two districts, at least one in five public school students is enrolled in a charter. In New Orleans and Detroit (and very soon, Washington, D.C.), the majority of public school pupils are charter students. The good news is that the top-ten cities in terms of charter market share include some of the nation’s highest-performing charter sectors (New Orleans, D.C., and Indianapolis). The bad news is that some of the worst performers turn up on that list, too (namely, Philadelphia and three districts in Ohio, a state whose laggard charter performance has been well documented by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes and my colleagues at the Fordham Institute). When announcing this growth, NAPCS chief executive Nina Rees protested that nearly one million students are on charter waiting lists. Her lament is justified. But quantity and quality still aren’t matching up the way they should in this growing movement.

SOURCE: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, A Growing Movement: America’s Largest Charter School Communities, Eighth Annual Edition (Washington, D.C.: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, December 2013).

Mike offers up stellar parenting advice after he and Brickman take on homelessness, making pre-K worth the bucks, and the idea of the student-data backpack. Amber shares the knowledge on charter market share.

Does three times four equal eleven? Will "fuzzy math" leave our students two years behind other countries? Will literature vanish from the English class? Is gifted-and-talented education dying? A barrel of rumors and myths about curriculum has made its way into discussions of the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts. Experts will tackle these fears and claims at Fordham on October 23, 2013. Hear from Jason Zimba on math myths, Tim Shanahan on the texts that teachers may assign, and a panel of practicing K--12 educators for an early look at Common Core implementation in their states and districts.
 
Common Core math myths: A conversation with Jason Zimba
 
Are teachers assigning Common Core aligned texts? A conversation with Tim Shanahan
 
An early look at Common Core implementation: A panel discussion
 
Moderated by Michael Petrilli

Less time with your kids, more time watching your kids from afar

Mike offers up stellar parenting advice after he and Brickman take on homelessness, making pre-K worth the bucks, and the idea of the student-data backpack. Amber shares the knowledge on charter market share.

Amber's Research Minute

A Growing Movement: America’s Largest Charter School Communities, Eighth Annual Edition by National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, (Washington, D.C.: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, December 2013).

According to the newest assessment from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools regarding the charter sector’s share of the public school market, the number of school districts where at least 20 percent of students attend charters has increased about 350 percent since 2005. In thirty-two districts, at least one in five public school students is enrolled in a charter. In New Orleans and Detroit (and very soon, Washington, D.C.), the majority of public school pupils are charter students. The good news is that the top-ten cities in terms of charter market share include some of the nation’s highest-performing charter sectors (New Orleans, D.C., and Indianapolis). The bad news is that some of the worst performers turn up on that list, too (namely, Philadelphia and three districts in Ohio, a state whose laggard charter performance has been well documented by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes and my colleagues at the Fordham Institute). When announcing this growth, NAPCS chief executive Nina Rees protested that nearly one million students are on charter waiting lists. Her lament is justified. But quantity and quality still aren’t matching up the way they should in this growing movement....

Checker Finn, chagrined at the lack of attention to gifted education in the U.S., has decided to study what other nations do. His initial assessment is that we’re not the only one giving high-ability kids minimal thought. Such a strange, unfortunate phenomenon.

With the failure of SIG, we need a Plan B ASAP for kids in failing schools. I’ve long argued for a massive new schools strategy. (More on this to come in an upcoming blog post.) If you’re likeminded or intrigued by the idea of the starting-fresh approach, check out the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ ESEA-reauthorization recommendations. This is a blueprint for Plan B.

I think single-purpose chartering bodies are the future. In fact, I think all public schools (and all private schools participating in voucher or tax-credit programs) should have performance contracts with them (more on this in an upcoming AEI paper). NACSA has a terrific short policy brief on such independent chartering boards. Check it out.

If you follow the increasing use of Value-Added Measures (VAMs) and Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs) in state-, district-, school-, and teacher-accountability systems, read this very good new ...

 
 

America’s approach to the education of children with disabilities is antiquated, costly, and ineffective. “Special education” as we know it is broken—and repainting the surface won’t repair it. It cries out for a radical overhaul. Far too many children emerge from our special-ed system without the skills, knowledge, and competencies that they need for a successful life that fully capitalizes on their abilities. This ineffectual system is also very, very expensive. Yet for a host of reasons—inertia, timidity, political gridlock, fear of litigation, fear of interest groups, ignorance, lack of imagination, and so on—neither our education leaders nor our policy leaders have shown any inclination to modernize it. Instead, they settle for “paint jobs”—waivers and the like.

Federal policy is responsible for much of this failure. Even though the education world has changed around it—as have technology, mobility, fiscal conditions, demographics, and so much more—it remains essentially stuck where it was in 1975 when the first major national law in this realm (now known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) was passed.

It was much needed at the time. Many children with disabilities (in those days they were called “handicapped”) had been denied education or given versions of it wholly unsuited to their needs and unlikely to do them much good. Some adults believed that such kids could not learn. Schools in many cases did not know how to educate them well. And few states or districts had focused on the problem.

So Congress did—and President Ford signed the bill, albeit with misgivings. (His “signing statement” presciently declared that “[T]his bill promises more than the federal government can deliver, and its good intentions could be thwarted by the many unwise provisions it contains.”)

The federal program is input-driven, rule-bound, compliance-obsessed, and inattentive to learning outcomes. It is sorely out of touch with an era oriented to academic standards and achievement, to giving families quality choices among good schools, to intervening in unsuccessful schools, and to individualizing every student’s education, often with the help of technology. It is also essentially limitless when it comes to the costs to be incurred by states and districts following this law.

Yes, it cries out for a radical overhaul. And yet it does not prevent states from putting into place some practices and strategies that work better than others. Bear in mind that states and districts account for the lion’s share of special-education funding and that this part of their education budgets has ballooned in recent decades, both because the special-ed pupil rolls have swelled and because costs in this realm are exceptionally difficult to keep within bounds (in part because of federal “cost-may-not-be-considered” and “maintenance-of-effort” rules).

Adding to the costs and further complicating the picture is the subset of disabled students who need very extensive services, sometimes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for each such pupil. Without appropriate planning, meeting their needs can over-stretch district budgets, especially in smaller jurisdictions (and free-standing schools such as charters), putting pressure on the education of other children, causing fiscal distress, and giving rise to political discord.

A new paper from Fordham’s Daniela Fairchild and Matt Richmond, Financing the Education of High-Need Students, does not purport to revamp national special-education policy or to solve all of its financial problems. Instead, it focuses on three specific challenges that are often encountered when districts, especially small districts, grapple with the costs of their highest-need special-education students, and it makes three recommendations that districts and states could put into practice today, without waiting for reforms or help from Washington, as they seek ways to mitigate those problems:

  1. District Cooperatives: Many districts—including charter schools, which often comprise their own mini-districts—do not have the requisite size and capacity to serve high-need students effectively and affordably. Multi-district co-ops allow for both economies of scale and better service delivery for these children.
  2. Student Funding Based on Multiple Weights: Special-ed funding systems based on average student needs may be easily administered, but they can also lead to inefficient and ineffective resource allocations. Weighted student funding is a tiered system of resource allocation that allows for a more rational and efficacious distribution of funds, enabling districts with more high-need pupils (or pupils who require more dollars to pay for their IEP-mandated services) to receive more money while jurisdictions that need less receive less. Basing those weights on services needed by children rather than disability diagnoses significantly improves the accuracy of this system.
  3. Exceptional-Need Funds: Districts (especially small ones) sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the high cost of educating one or two particularly needy children. This type of fund, managed and predominantly financed by the state, acts as an insurance mechanism for districts that can’t cover the full cost of educating high-need pupils along with all others under their purview.

Let’s say it again: Special education is in need of a top-to-bottom makeover that nobody seems willing or able to undertake. But some worthy repairs can be made around the periphery of current policy—and the three set forth in our new paper are well worth undertaking by states and districts across the land. 

 
 

I’m halfway through an ambitious research project, in which I examine how other countries educate their high-ability kids in the hope that we might pick up tips that would prove useful in improving the woeful state of “gifted education” in the U.S. (In case you’ve forgotten what’s woeful about it, look here, here, and here.)

So far, I’ve checked out eight lands worth taking seriously, all of which have done pretty well over the years on PISA, TIMSS, and similar measures and all of which are fairly termed “competitors” in the planetary economy. (I’m talking about Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Western Australia, England, Finland, and Hungary.) I will soon have more observations from Canada and countries in Europe. Here are a dozen early impressions:

  • Nobody has blown me away with a perfect approach. Singapore probably comes closest. As one might expect, they take human-capital development seriously at every level—but at present, their full-on gifted-ed program is limited to 1 percent of the population, which seems skimpy. (It’s under review and may be expanded.)
  • There’s scant coordination between what passes for gifted education in the early and middle grades and what happens at the high-school level. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Finland, and Hungary, for example, all have some ultra-selective high schools that end up giving some smart kids an impressive education, but these are preceded by thin supplemental programs (a couple of hours a week) in the earlier grades or, in Japan’s case, essentially nothing. Japanese culture prefers to act as if nobody is smarter than anybody else. This means parents who have kids they hope are smart, or just kids they want to get into high-status high schools, resort to private after-school programs known as “juku”—which only works, of course, if they have the financial wherewithal to pay the fees. (Finland is culturally similar in this way but has no juku.)
  • This lack of synchrony leads to bizarre situations, such as an arts-keen kid finding a program that’s right for him at one level but only in science, or maybe nothing, at the next level and youngsters welcomed into “gifted” program as late as ninth grade who find no openings in suitable high schools starting in tenth.
  • Total enrollments are declining almost everywhere I went (not in Western Australia, but few people live there!), which you’d think would make access to selective gifted-ed programs easier. But budgets are also tight and—as will sound familiar—smart kids aren’t seen as very “needy.”
  • On the other hand, particularly when it comes to selective high schools, the resourcing can be lavish, albeit not available to many students. I’ve been in (public) schools where the pupil/teacher ratio is just four to one and the equipment and facilities verge on awesome.
  • I’m finding real ambivalence as to whether the rationale for gifted education is “every child deserves the education that works best for him/her” or “the country’s future depends on developing potential inventors, scientists, and leaders.” Educators tend toward the former view, big-picture policymakers toward the latter. (In my eyes, both arguments have merit.)
  • Science and math are in the ascendancy wherever there’s gifted education in Asia, partly because that’s what parents want for their kids and partly because countries are worked up about “STEM” (or STEAM). In Europe, on the other hand, the arts—music especially—are very big deals. This is associated with the predictable gender imbalance, with boys tending to predominate in the science-gifted programs and schools and girls in those oriented toward the arts.
  • Save for some tracking and ability grouping within heterogeneous classrooms, nobody is doing gifted education, at least the publicly financed kind, in the early grades. Fourth grade (i.e., nine- or ten-year-olds) seems to be the starting point for both supplemental and “pull-out” programs.
  • Nobody is compensating well for the absence of pushy, prosperous, influential parents. That is to say, disadvantaged kids, however able they may be, are indeed at a disadvantage in terms of accessing gifted programs, supplemental activities, and selective schools. This is apt to turn out to be toughest nut, and we may find no really good way for public policy to crack it. (I’m still hunting and hoping. Hungary is trying hard.) Moreover, a lot of gifted-ed programs and schools, even in the public sector, carry costs that parents must bear, ranging from ambitious field trips to summer camps to basic transportation.
  • Though many parents seem content to cram knowledge and higher test scores into their kids as rapidly as possible, educators and policymakers in the “gifted” world are paying more attention to nurturing qualities like “creativity” and “independent research” in high-ability youngsters.
  • The gifted-ed world is so far making feeble use of online opportunities to enrich and extend student learning, either in school or out. Thinly populated Western Australia is making some headway here—for kids who live “in the country,” as they say—but mostly it’s via real-time online classes taught by regular teachers sitting in regular schools.
  • How to get into a gifted program or school? This varies enormously, from old-fashioned IQ testing to teacher observation/recommendation to student applications and interviews (and sometimes all of the above and more). This is related to the fact that, as in the U.S., there’s widespread uncertainty as to what exactly constitutes giftedness and how best to identify it. How much, for example, takes the form of innate intellect and how much is the product of “developed skills”? (Francois Gagne’s “model” is taken seriously in many places.)

That’s it, so far, but please stay tuned.

 
 

Occam’s Razor is the well-known principle that “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Keep that in mind as various pundits hypothesize about why the U.S. scored below the international average in the 2012 PISA assessment in math, and at the average in reading and science, and why we don’t seem to be making any gains over time on these much-watched gauges. Dennis Van Roekel offers the poverty hypothesis as an explanation. I’m not unsympathetic to the argument (though America’s child-poverty rate is not as unusual as many people think), but let’s consider all of the assumptions that one must make to support it.

First, one must assume that math is somehow more related to students’ family backgrounds than are reading and science, since we do worse in the former. That’s quite a stretch, especially because of much other evidence showing that reading is more strongly linked to socioeconomic class. It’s well known that affluent toddlers hear millions more words from their parents than do their low-income peers. Initial reading gaps in Kindergarten are enormous. And in the absence of a coherent, content-rich curriculum, schools have struggled to boost reading scores for kids coming from low-income families. Yet many U.S. schools have succeeded in boosting the math achievement of their low-income students. In fact, the U.S. has shown tremendous progress on NAEP in raising the math scores of poor fourth and eighth graders. (Van Roekel, a former math teacher, should appreciate that.)

So the second assumption must be that “poverty” has a bigger impact on math performance for fifteen-year-olds than for younger students. But I can’t imagine why. If anything, it should have less of an impact, because our school system has had more time to erase the initial disadvantages that students bring with them into Kindergarten. (Bruce Baker argues that the “cumulative effects of poverty” might be too much for schools to overcome.) Furthermore, American performance isn’t just weak among our poorest, lowest-performing students. Our affluent students are mediocre, too. And despite our great wealth, our rate of production of high achievers is barely half that of several other countries. How does “poverty” explain that? One must assume that poverty is diminishing the performance of students who aren’t poor. Hmm.

***

So what’s an alternative hypothesis for the lackluster math performance of our fifteen-year-olds? One in line with Occam’s Razor?

Maybe we’re just not very good at teaching math, especially in high school.

 

An earlier version of this piece appeared on the Flypaper blog on December 3, 2013.

For a decade, the nonprofit Institute for Innovation in Public Choice (IIPSC) has helped the cities of New York, Boston, Denver, and New Orleans bring order to the Wild West of school choice, using the one-two punch of economic theory and custom software. To match students with seats in public schools—either district or charter—the IIPSC builds algorithms that employ three kinds of data: the schools that families want their kids to attend, the number of available seats in every grade at each school, and each schools’ admissions rules. Newly flush with a $1.2 million grant from the Dell Foundation, the IIPSC plans to expand into Philadelphia, Washington, and possibly Detroit. Hat tip!

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education released proposed priorities for a new competitive grant program for charter school support organizations, to come from the annual “national activities fund.” These priorities highlight what the Department deems to be the “key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale,” and they include gaining efficiency through economies of scale, improving accountability, providing quality education to students with disabilities an English language learners, and supporting personalized technology-enabled learning. While these are important policies at the surface level, it is unclear what the long-term implications and unintended consequences may be of focusing grant making solely on the bigger charter entities and whether smaller, unaffiliated charter schools will realize any benefits.

On Wednesday, President Obama delivered a big speech on inequality, in which he brought up education as a driver of opportunity. Aside from his usual talking points—expanding early-childhood education, boosting education spending—he specifically mentioned career and technical education through apprenticeships (check out this New York Times piece for an interesting profile of a German company implementing such a program in South Carolina). This is an idea that could realistically gather bipartisan support. But where would one obtain the funds for such a program, you ask? Mike Petrilli has an idea—and it rhymes with Dell. (And starts with a P.)

There was big news on the pensions front this week. A judge ruled that Detroit’s municipal pension plans were fair game in the bankruptcy case. While Detroit teachers’ pensions will not be affected, as they are part of a state-administered system, the Economist predicts that the case will have aftershocks in other municipalities and states grappling with public-pension quandaries. And over in Illinois, lawmakers finally passed a huge bill to shore up the state’s debt-riddled pension system—currently $100 billion in arrears, solidifying the state’s worst-in-the-nation credit rating. Could this be the turning of the tide?

“Fewer, clearer, higher”: These were the words that guided the crafting of the Common Core State Standards. In concise and clear-eyed prose, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Robert Rothman lays out exactly how the new standards could change current instructional practices—and aims to speak directly to educators, whose efforts will determine whether or not these changes will occur. After providing a brief history of the Common Core (which he covered at length in his previous book), Rothman describes nine facets of the standards that mark a significant change from current practice, four of which pertain to math instruction and five to English language arts. In one math-related example, Rothman discusses the “math wars,” a long-standing battle over whether math instruction should emphasize procedural fluency, conceptual understanding, or problem-solving abilities, and how the Common Core—by emphasizing all three—seeks to find peace. Rothman concludes with a look at the road ahead and impending challenges—like funding, politics, and implementation in the years to come. Still, Rothman remains hopeful—as do we.

SOURCE: Robert Rothman, Fewer, Clearer, Higher: How the Common Core State Standards Can Change Classroom Practice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013).

When the Department of Education began offering No Child Left Behind waivers in 2011, states beat down the doors of 400 Maryland Avenue to obtain one. But did allowing states flexibility steer them towards better accountability systems? To answer this question, researchers Morgan Polikoff, Andrew McEachin, Stephani Wrabel, and Matthew Duque painstakingly reviewed and coded each waiver, looking, for instance, at whether they moved accountability systems toward “growth models” and away from “status models.”  Their findings? Let’s let Matthew di Carlo of the Shanker Institute give the sobering news. Out of forty-two states with accepted waiver applications,

17 exclusively use some version of proficiency or other cutpoint-based rates to identify priority schools. Another 23 employ a composite index consisting of different measures, but in most of these indexes, proficiency still plays the dominant role….So, put simply, the vast majority of states that have had their waiver applications accepted are still relying predominantly or completely on absolute performance, most commonly proficiency rates, to identify low-performing schools.

As Mike explained earlier this week, that’s a problem. And a missed opportunity.

SOURCE: Morgan S. Polikoff et al., “The Waive of the Future? School Accountability in the Waiver Era,” in press at Educational Researcher, 2013.

Michelle, freshly returned from a trip to Madrid and Prague (with an extra piece of jewelry on her hand), chats with Mike about special education, career and technical education, and pension reform.

READ "How School Districts Can Stretch the School Dollar"

Despite some signs of economic recovery, school districts nationwide continue to struggle mightily. Nobody expects economic growth—or education spending—to rebound to 2008 levels over the next five years, and the long-term outlook isn't much brighter.

In short, the "new normal" of tougher budget times is here to stay for American K-12 education. So how can local officials cope?

In my new policy brief, I argue that the current crunch may actually present an opportunity to increase the efficiency and productivity of our education system if decision makers keep a few things in mind:

First and foremost, solving our budget crisis shouldn't come at the expense of children. Nor can if come from teachers' sacrifice alone. Depressing teachers' salaries forever isn't a recipe for recruiting bright young people into education—or retaining the excellent teachers we have. Finally, quick fixes aren't a good answer; we need fundamental changes that enhance productivity.

So how can school districts dramatically increase productivity and stretch the school dollar?

One, we should aim for a leaner, more productive, better paid workforce. Let's ask classroom teachers to take on additional responsibility in return for greater pay, eliminate some ancillary positions, and redesign our approach to special education.

Two, we should pay for productivity. A redesigned compensation system would include a more aggressive salary schedule, more pay for more work and better results, and prioritization of salaries over benefits.

Three, we must integrate technology thoughtfully. Online and "blended" school models are coming to K-12 education. They can be catalysts for greater pupil engagement, individualization, and achievement and, if organized right, they can also be opportunities for cost-cutting.

Many districts continue to face budget challenges of historic proportions. Rather than slashing budgets in ways that erode schooling, let's rethink who we hire, what they do, how we pay them, and how to incorporate technology—that's where the big payoff is.

For a decade, the nonprofit Institute for Innovation in Public Choice (IIPSC) has helped the cities of New York, Boston, Denver, and New Orleans bring order to the Wild West of school choice, using the one-two punch of economic theory and custom software. To match students with seats in public schools—either district or charter—the IIPSC builds algorithms that employ three kinds of data: the schools that families want their kids to attend, the number of available seats in every grade at each school, and each schools’ admissions rules. Newly flush with a $1.2 million grant from the Dell Foundation, the IIPSC plans to expand into Philadelphia, Washington, and possibly Detroit. Hat tip!

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education released proposed priorities for a new competitive grant program for charter school support organizations, to come from the annual “national activities fund.” These priorities highlight what the Department deems to be the “key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale,” and they include gaining efficiency through economies of scale, improving accountability, providing quality education to students with disabilities an English language learners, and supporting personalized technology-enabled learning. While these are important policies at the surface...

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice recently released a study that seeks to better understand the decision-making processes of parents who send their children to private schools. The authors hypothesize that if state and local governments empower parents to choose the schools of their choice, a “spontaneous education order”—a state in which parents seek information about schools and in which schools make available the necessary information without public officials’ intentional intervention—will arise. Accountability, they speculate, will take care of itself.

To test this theory, they use survey data from 754 parents whose children received scholarships through the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program (GOAL). The survey sought to identify the factors involved in parents’ decisions and the types of data that informed those decisions.

GOAL was established in 2008 under Georgia’s Education Expense Credit Program. Under the law, taxpayers may receive a state income tax credit for contributions made to qualified “Student Scholarship Organizations” (SSOs). SSOs use these funds to award private school scholarships to families.

The law places no limits on recipients’ household incomes (i.e., it’s not “means-tested” for low-income families), and in fact the average adjusted gross income of recipient families was $51,923, slightly higher than the state’s...

 
 

Jay Greene wants school-choice supporters to relax the testing mandates in the newest and largest voucher programs in the nation. Specifically, these programs require participating students to take their state’s public school assessment, which Greene likens to adhering to a “state vision of a good education.”

Let’s hope these supporters reject his appeal. It’s taken quite a push to get where we are now: a level of accountability in relatively few private school choice programs that may be partly responsible for their success and their political support. Hitting the reverse button would only halt the current momentum of the choice movement, while removing one of the few quality-control mechanisms in place for these programs.

To be sure, Professor Greene is not the first to raise concerns about the use of state assessments. His argument is by now familiar: Forcing government test mandates on private schools dilutes what makes these schools private and will force all schools to become cookie-cutter copies. What if families want something other than the state vision of a good education “encapsulated in state standards and testing?” Greene writes.

It’s not an unreasonable concern; Mike Petrilli, for instance, once pondered the conflict between...

 
 

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