Publications

The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar

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In recent years, policymakers and reform advocates have viewed State Education Agencies (SEAs) as the lead organizations for implementing sweeping reforms and initiatives in K–12 education—everything from Race to the Top grants and federal waivers to teacher-evaluation systems and online schools. But SEAs were not built—nor are they really competent—to drive such reforms, argue Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire in The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar. And despite the best efforts of talented, energetic leaders, SEAs will never be able to deliver the reform results that their states need. This paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests a new governance approach, organized around the “4 Cs”:

Control: Return SEAs to their core functions of channeling federal and state dollars to districts; adopting statewide standards and assessments; creating and maintaining data systems; and monitoring compliance with applicable laws.

Contract: Contract with other organizations that are better equipped to accomplish education work, while ensuring that performance agreements with those organizations delineate outcomes and consequences for poor performance.

Cleave: Leave tasks that are well outside SEAs’ core competencies—such as charter-school authorizing and generating educational innovation—to other government entities or nongovernmental organizations.

Create: Encourage state leaders, both inside and outside government, to create new entities to take on much-needed reform work. 

Watch a presentation and discussion of the report event live on April 24 at 10:00 a.m. EDT:

State Education Agencies: The Smaller the Better?

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If you have questions about the book, please email Andy Smarick.

Does School Board Leadership Matter?

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Are the nation’s 90,000-plus school board members critical players in enhancing student learning? Are they part of the problem? Are they harmless bystanders? Among the takeaways are the following:

  • Board members, by and large, possess accurate information about their districts when it comes to finance, teacher pay, collective bargaining, and class size. Whether they were knowledgeable from the outset or surround themselves with savvy staff and administrators, many are making decisions from an informed point of view.
  • But such knowledge is not uniformly distributed. Surprisingly, members who were never educators themselves are more accurately informed than their peers who once were (or still are) educators. Likewise, political moderates appear to have more accurate knowledge than their liberal or conservative counterparts.
  • A district’s success in “beating the odds” academically is related to board members’ focus on the improvement of academics. Unfortunately, not all board members have this focus; some prefer a broader approach, such as developing the “whole child.”
  • Board members elected during on-cycle, at-large elections are more likely to serve in districts that “beat the odds” than those chosen by voters off-cycle or by ward. In some localities, how board members are elected may deter the best and brightest from taking on these key roles.

What does this mean for education governance? School board members and their attitudes do matter—so it’s important to take seriously who gets elected and how. Even as we strive to bring about structural reforms and governance innovations in the education system, we should also be working to get better results from the structures in place in most communities today.

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If you have questions about the book, please email Dara Zeehandelaar.

Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers

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by Katie Cristol and Brinton S. Ramsey

Foreword by Amber M. Northern and Michael J. Petrilli

The Common Core State Standards are in place in forty-five states—and in many of those jurisdictions, educators are hard at work trying to bring them to life in their schools and classrooms.

But how is implementation going so far? That’s what this new study explores in four “early-implementer” school systems. Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers provides an in-depth examination of real educators as they earnestly attempt to put higher standards into practice. This up-close look at district-level, school-level, and classroom-level implementation yields several key findings:

  1. Teachers and principals are the primary faces and voices of the Common Core standards in their communities
  2. Implementation works best when district and school leaders lock onto the Common Core standards as the linchpin of instruction, professional learning, and accountability in their buildings
  3. In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality Common Core materials, districts are striving—with mixed success—to devise their own
  4. The scramble to deliver quality CCSS-aligned professional development to all who need it is as crucial and (so far) as patchy as the quest for suitable curriculum materials
  5. The lack of aligned assessments will make effective implementation of the Common Core challenging for another year

In short, districts are in the near-impossible situation of operationalizing new standards before high-quality curriculum and tests aligned to them are finished. Yet the clock is ticking, and the new tests and truly aligned textbooks are forthcoming. Today’s implementation is a bit like spring training, a time when focusing on the fundamentals, teamwork, and steady improvement is more important than the score.

Download Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers to learn how implementation of these ambitious new academic standards is working in a high-performing suburb, a trailblazer, an urban bellwether, and a creative implementer—and to glean lessons for districts and schools across the nation.

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If you have questions about the book, please email Amber Northern.

 

 

In the Media

Pluck and Tenacity: How five private schools in Ohio have adapted to vouchers

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Roughly 30,000 kids in Ohio take advantage of a publicly funded voucher (or “scholarship”). But as students flee public schools for private ones, how does life change for the private schools that take voucher kids? Can private schools coexist with a publicly-funded voucher program? Can they adapt as they educate more students from disadvantaged backgrounds?

This new report from the Fordham Institute digs into these questions. Our study finds that, yes, voucher programs are changing private schools. But at the same time, these private schools are bravely—even heroically—adapting to such changes.

Written by Ellen Belcher, former editor at the Dayton Daily News and an award-winning journalist, Pluck and Tenacity delivers a candid view of life in private schools that take voucher kids. For this report, Ellen traveled across Ohio, visiting five schools: Three are Catholic—Immaculate Conception in Dayton, Saint Martin de Porres in Cleveland, and St. Patrick of Heatherdowns in Toledo—and two are evangelical—Eden Grove in Cincinnati and Youngstown Christian School.

The case studies yield seven key takeaways about private “voucher schools”:

  1. They are relentlessly mission oriented, and vouchers help support their missions
  2. These private schools have kept their distinctive values (e.g., behavioral standards, religious practices)
  3. The schools have become more diverse
  4. As they welcome more students who are far behind academically, these schools set high standards
  5. The schools worry—even agonize—about their academic quality
  6. Financial realities factor into the schools’ decisions to take voucher students
  7. None of the schools objected to state testing requirements.

For policymakers, this report should prompt clear thinking about how to strengthen voucher programs. As our research shows, some private schools are teetering financially, which is one (but not the only) reason lawmakers should consider boosting the per-pupil voucher amount. At the same time, if states make substantial public investments in private-school options, taxpayers have every reason to expect strong student outcomes. The good news is that private schools seem to understand the need for academic accountability and transparency when participating in voucher programs.

On January 30, 2014, we convened a group of school leaders in Columbus to discuss the report's findings. Click on the image below to watch the video of that event:

Private Schools, Public Vouchers - School Leaders Panel

We also convened a group of education policy leaders to discuss the report's implications. Click on the image below to watch the video of that event:

Private Schools, Public Vouchers - Policy Leaders Panel

Correction (3/10/14): The report's title pages have been updated to attribute authorship of the Executive Summary.

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If you have questions about the book, please email Aaron Churchill.

 

Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core

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Children cannot be truly literate without knowing about history, science, art, music, literature, civics, geography, and more. Indeed, they cannot satisfactorily comprehend what they read unless they possess the background knowledge that makes such comprehension possible. Yet most American primary schools have been marching in the opposite direction: treating reading only as a “skill” and pushing off history, science, art, and music “until later.”

This problem grows more serious with the advent of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, which take for granted that children expected to meet those standards are being supplied with a content-rich curriculum. In far too many U.S. schools, however, that is simply not happening.

So what should we do?

Commit to implanting a sequential, content-rich curriculum in the country’s elementary and middle schools.

The essays in Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core restate the case for such a curriculum and chart a course for the future. They also pay tribute to the decades of scholarship, service, and reform commitment of E. D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy (and three other prescient books on education reform) and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

DOWNLOAD Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core as an eBook.

Kindle Download (.mobi) - Instructions on how to add the e-book to your Kindle

Nook Download (.epub)

WATCH selected panels and speeches from "A tribute to the work of E. D. Hirsch, Jr." that took place on December 4, 2013 at the Carnegie Library in Washington D. C.

Opening remarks by Sol Stern

The state of Core Knowledge: past and present

Accelerating the adoption of content-rich curricula

Keynote address by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

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If you have questions about the book, please email Amber Northern.

Public accountability & private-school choice

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The Fordham Institute supports school choice, done right. That means designing voucher and tax-credit policies that provide an array of high-quality education options for kids that are also accountable to parents and taxpayers. In that vein, Fordham has created the Public accountability & private-school choice toolkit to help with the design of strong outcomes-based accountability in private-school-choice programs.

We recommend that states

  • Require that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) participate in state assessments. (While we prefer state assessments as policy, we think any widely respected test that allows for ready comparison against other schools or districts is a reasonable compromise);
  • Mandate public disclosure of those assessment results, school by school, save for schools that enroll fewer than ten voucher (or scholarship) students in grades that are tested; and
  • Use a sliding scale when it comes to acting on the test results—i.e., private schools that derive little of their revenue from programs of this kind should be largely left alone, while those that receive more of their dollars from state initiatives should be held more accountable.

This toolkit was updated in June 2014 to reflect that mandating nationally norm-referenced tests is a reasonable compromise for accountability measures in these programs.

Public accountability & private-school choice: Infographic

View a larger version

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If you have questions about the book, please email Amber Northern.

In the Media

January 17, 2014
Dropout Nation

Remodeled Report Cards, Remaining Challenges

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We are pleased to release our 2012-13 sponsorship annual report Remodeled Report Cards, Remaining Challenges. Annual reports for sponsors (i.e., charter school authorizers) are mandatory under Ohio law. In ours, we strive to strike the balance between reporting on various compliance requirements and capturing some of the more interesting aspects of our sponsorship work during the previous year. Toward that end, Remodeled Report Cards, Remaining Challenges provides an overview of Ohio’s new accountability system for schools and summarizes the performance of the Fordham-sponsored schools.

This year we also tried to capture the schools’ perspective regarding persistent challenges - and how the schools address those challenges – by weaving together comments from school leader interviews conducted by veteran journalist Ellen Belcher. Our goal was to more directly connect readers with the outlook in the schools themselves.

We hope that the transparent reporting on school performance and input from school leaders in the field provides an interesting read. 

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If you have questions about the book, please email Aaron Churchill.

Financing the Education of High-Need Students

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School districts face an enormous financial burden when it comes to educating our highest-need students. Financing the Education of High-Need Students focuses on three specific challenges that are often encountered when districts—especially small ones—grapple with the costs of serving their highest-need special-education students.

Districts and states could put these recommendations into practice today, without waiting for reforms or help from Washington:

  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 education 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.

Right-sizing the Classroom: Making the Most of Great Teachers

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In the overwhelming majority of American classrooms, pupils are divided roughly equally among teachers of the same grade in the same school. Parceling them out uniformly is viewed as fair to teachers—and doing otherwise might be seen as unfair. Parents might wonder, too. But what if more students were assigned to the most effective teachers, leaving fewer in classrooms presided over by weaker instructors? What would be the impact of such a practice on student achievement?

That’s the intriguing question that Right-sizing the Classroom: Making the Most of Great Teachers tackles. The idea is straightforward: Give the better teachers more kids and weaker teachers fewer—then see what happens. It’s a common-sense option with many supporters (including Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, sundry wonks, most parents, even teachers themselves).

Using data from North Carolina, economist Michael Hansen, senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, looks at what right-sizing the classroom can mean for academic achievement. His results, in brief: As the best teachers teach larger classes and the weakest teachers progressively smaller ones, the net result is improved student learning—for all students, not just those who moved.

At the eighth-grade level

  • Assigning up to twelve more students than average to effective teachers can produce gains equivalent to adding two-and-a-half extra weeks of school;
  • Three-quarters of the potential gain (from moving twelve students) can be realized by moving just six;
  • Moving a handful of students to the most effective teachers is comparable to the gains we’d see by removing the lowest 5 percent of teachers.

There are gains at the fifth-grade level, too, though not so large.

In the Media

November 25, 2013
Accuracy in Academia

Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments

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Foreword and Summary by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Kathleen Porter-Magee

Press Release

As forty-six states and the District of Columbia implement the Common Core State Standards, questions abound regarding implementation, including the implications for curriculum and pedagogy. In Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments, researchers analyze what texts English teachers assign their students and the instructional techniques they used in the classroom. This study is meant to serve as a “baseline” that shows what the very early stages of CCSS implementation look like. This “baseline” study—with a follow-up slated for 2015—shows what the very early stages of CCSS implementation look like:

Most teachers believe that the new standards promise better learning for their students, and an overwhelming majority of teachers say that their schools have already made significant progress toward implementing the standards, including relevant curriculum changes and professional development.

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Watch our Fordham LIVE event, Common Core & Curriculum Controversies

But findings from this survey also show that, for the most part, the heavy lifting of aligning curriculum and instruction to the rigor of the CCSS still lies ahead:

  • The CCSS emphasize the centrality of texts in the English language arts curriculum. Yet the majority of teachers still report that their lessons are dominated by skills and are more likely to try to fit texts to skills than to ground their skills instruction in what is appropriate to the texts they are teaching. Indeed, an astonishing 73 percent of elementary school teachers and 56 percent of middle school teachers place greater emphasis on reading skills than the text; high school teachers are more divided, with roughly equal portions prioritizing either skills or texts.
  • The Common Core asks teachers to assign texts that provide language complexity appropriate to the grade level, but significant proportions of teachers—particularly in the elementary grades—are still assigning texts based on students’ present reading prowess. Specifically, the majority of elementary teachers (64 percent) make substantial efforts to match students with books that presumably align with their instructional reading levels. This happens less often in middle and high school, with approximately two in five middle school teachers selecting texts this way. This means that many youngsters are not yet working with appropriately complex language in their schoolbooks.
  • The CCSS call for students to have substantial experience reading informational texts (including literary nonfiction such as speeches and essays). Despite some public controversy over this, most of the teachers indicated that they are already devoting significant proportions of time to teaching such texts in their classrooms. Nevertheless, many English language arts teachers (including 56 percent at the middle school level) assign none of the literary or informational texts listed in the survey, which represent both CCSS exemplars and other high-quality texts. 

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