The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 10, Number 46. December 16, 2010.

In This Edition

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New from Fordham: Are Bad Schools Immortal? The Scarcity of Turnarounds and Shutdowns in Both Charter and District Sectors

Are Bad Schools Immortal cover

This study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds that ineffective public schools—both charter and traditional district schools—are stubbornly resistant to improvement. Tracking more than 2,000 low-performing charter and district schools across ten states, analyst David Stuit found that 72 percent of the original low-performing charters remained in operation—and remained low-performing—five years later. So did 80 percent of district schools. Read on to learn more.
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Opinion and Analysis

Are bad schools immortal?
No, but close to it
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Winkler

Do's and don'ts from Chinese education
A Shanghai tutorial
Opinion | Amber M. Winkler

Inside the Black box
Getting to know Cathie Black
News Analysis

Trigger happy
It's not just pulling the parent trigger; it's knowing how to aim
News Analysis

Short Reviews

Learning about Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project
A $45 million DVD that might just be worth it
Review | Janie Scull

Value Added of Teachers in High-Poverty Schools and Lower-Poverty Schools
A big “teacher quality gap”? Not so much
Review | Amanda Olberg

From The Web

Rick! Pull up your pants!
Bad news for school turnarounds. And Cathie Black.
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

Stuff is going down down South
Florida's education-reform circus
Flypaper's Finest | December 14, 2010 | Liam Julian

Class warfare, Republican-style
Where do your alliances lay?
Flypaper's Finest | December 15, 2010 | Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Reform school, with Tony Bennett
The ins and outs of ed in Indy
Gadfly Studios | December 16, 2010


From sea to shining sea
Competing for school choice
Briefly Noted

The price of a Chinese education
Resenting your knowledge-base
Letter to the Gadfly | Yuan Tian

NCTQ wants you!
The National Council on Teacher Quality is hiring a project manager

A Byte at the Apple
What data in the post-NCLB era could be
Fordham featured publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Are bad schools immortal?
By Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Winkler

Are bad schools immortal? Based on the results of our new report of the same title, the glum answer appears to be “yes, most of the time, dammit.” Over a five year time span, of more than 2,000 low-performing public schools, about three-quarters stayed open—and stayed bad, at least as gauged by the meager (bottom quartile) proficiency levels that their pupils attain.

Even more troubling, this sorry track record is nearly as weak in the charter-school sector as in the district sector, despite the well-rehearsed charter-movement doctrine that “our bad schools don’t last—either they improve or they close.”

Would that it were so. Seventy-two percent of the original low-performing charter schools examined in this study were still operating, and still low-performing, five years later, compared with 80 percent of district schools. Bona fide performance turnarounds were exceptionally rare: Just 1.4 percent of district schools and less than 1 percent of charters earned that accolade.

Study author David Stuit, a partner at Basis Policy Research, tracked 2,025 low-achieving schools (1,768 district-operated, 257 charters) from 2004 through 2009.1 The schools were located in ten states that collectively account for 70 percent of all U.S. charters. The overall outcome, as noted, is not what either charter zealots or school-turnaround enthusiasts would hope to find. It’s sobering. But it’s also intriguing in many ways, beginning with differences among the states. For example:

1) Minnesota’s charter and district sectors displayed both the paltriest signs of improved performance and the lowest rates of closure, even though the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes supposedly has the country’s best charter law (quoth the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools).

2) In Arizona, a much larger proportion of weak charter schools closed than did district schools. Six of the nineteen low-performing AZ charters in 2004 had shut by 2009, representing 32 percent of the sample. Just five of ninety-five low-performing district schools closed during that period. Perhaps Arizona no longer deserves to be labeled the “Wild West” of charter schooling.

3) In Florida, 23 percent of low-performing charters closed versus 7 percent in the district sector. The corresponding percentages in California were eighteen and seven.

4) Ohio has been significantly more successful in closing low-performing schools (both district and charter) than the other nine states in the study. Thirty-five percent of Ohio's low-performing charters and 34 percent of its low-performing district schools were closed (compared with 19 and 11 percent for the full 10-state sample).

We emerge from this study with two large takeaways for policy makers and educators:

First, though the charter sector does a bit better than the district sector at closing bad schools, it still has a long, long way to go before it can truly be said to live up to the core assertion that its governance and accountability arrangements lead to the demise of low performers. Keeping bad charters from opening—and intervening in those that deliver bad results—should be the mantra for authorizers.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. We at Fordham know from experience how difficult it is for authorizers, even conscientious ones, to shut down bad schools. Ohio’s charter “death penalty” is instructive here. A few years back, frustrated by sponsors not doing their job, Buckeye legislators mandated automatic closure of any charter school that fails to meet specific performance criteria over several years. This is a mixed blessing. It strips authorizers of some autonomy—diligent authorizers are better able to tailor specific interventions or other remedies for low-performing schools than are one-size-fits-all statutes. And the statute may let authorizers off the hook (by playing bad cop when they don’t shut terrible schools themselves). But it also ensures that at either the authorizer or the state does in fact hold schools to account for persistently miserable academic outcomes. And so long as authorizers face perverse incentives—such as the management fees they earn from bad schools as well as good—this might be the best we can do.

Second, real transformation is truly rare in both sectors—just twenty-six schools in our sample made it into the top half of their states’ proficiency rankings within five years. (That’s a high bar, no doubt, but it’s comparable to what federal School Improvement efforts are seeking.) Bona fide transformations generally entail soup-to-nuts makeovers that replace the adults who work in a school—including tenured teachers—and start afresh with a new team, new curriculum, etc. This leads us to wonder whether Secretary Duncan’s emphasis on this reform strategy is warranted, whether the billions of federal dollars being channeled into weak schools may be largely wasted, and whether the many would-be turnaround experts and consulting firms springing up around the land to help states and districts spend those dollars are little more than dream merchants.

Would not all that energy and money be better spent to strengthen the accountability (and sponsorship) systems that lead to shutting down and replacing bad schools? We think so. After all, accountability for individual district and charter schools cannot happen in isolation—it needs to be part of a system-wide approach. States, for instance, can help school leaders enforce accountability mechanisms by constructing user-friendly systems that identify low performers, insisting that student achievement play a part in teacher evaluations, and defining what it means to be college and career ready. The states should then align high school exit and college entrance requirements to this user-friendly system.

One parting thought. Many reformers have argued (including ourselves, at times) that turnarounds seldom work because the schools remain burdened by the same old dysfunctions that made them bad in the first place: union contracts, central office bureaucracies, hiring regulations that send the best teachers elsewhere, etc. Yet charter schools, for the most part, don’t face those stumbling blocks. So if bad charters can’t turn themselves around, why do we suppose that bad public schools—still tied down by these constraints—will be able to do any better?

1. Dr. Stuit was unable to undertake a “value added” analysis, so the analysis relies on absolute proficiency scores on state tests. Note, too, that, we’re tough graders. To be deemed a “turnaround,” a school in its state’s lowest decile (i.e., proficiency at or below the 10th percentile) at the beginning of the period had to surpass the 50th percentile within five years. That means a school might have made substantial progress (e.g., 2nd to 49th percentile) yet not qualify as turned-around.


Opinion: Do's and don'ts from Chinese education
By Amber M. Winkler

From all of last week’s pontificating (see here, here, here) around about the latest PISA results, one unmistakable message emerged: Shanghai is leaving the U.S.—and pretty much all of the planet—in the dust. Out of sixty participating countries and five other jurisdictions, its 15-year-old students had the highest average scores on international math, reading, and science tests last year. In math, they scored nearly a full standard deviation above the OECD average. We waste time questioning the validity of the Shanghai results—PISA’s sampling and data analysis is supervised by some of the most respected methodologists in the business (moreover, TIMSS and PISA are highly correlated in terms of rankings). Instead, let’s turn to three other observations prompted by this new “Sputnik moment.” First, authoritarian regimes can force educational change in ways that are unthinkable in democracies but that may actually boost academic performance. Second, the educational envy between China and the U.S. is mutual—we’re just slower to make changes. And third, despite our vastly different governments and cultures, there may yet be a few lessons that America can learn from China.

1. Authoritarian Nations Do what Democracies Don’t. According to Lessons from PISA for the United States, Shanghai’s municipal government has put in place a host of policies and practices designed to orchestrate educational gains. Under the “school renovation” initiative, it unabashedly closed or merged its lowest-performing schools with its highest-performing ones (of which there are apparently enough). It also transferred—involuntarily, mind you—a number of outstanding urban school teachers and principals to low-performing rural schools and a number of rural staff to high-performing urban sites in order to learn the ropes. Under “commissioned administration,” they can assign a good public school to take over a bad one. It’s easy to see how such steps might benefit kids, at least those in formerly bad schools—and how we may even be under-estimating China’s ability to get things done. If only they’d been enacted without the strong arm of the state!

2. Reciprocal Envy. China has historically emphasized exams, dating back to its Civil Examination system (which selected state officials based on their test scores) in roughly 600 AD. This respect for exams endures today. Although the rap on China is that its test-score obsession leads the country to churn out super test-takers who deftly regurgitate facts and perform computations but aren’t necessarily learners, the PISA results suggest otherwise, at least in Shanghai. For better or worse, PISA does not measure content knowledge and factual recall; it measures “application of knowledge…to problems within a real-life context.” PISA-meister Andreas Schleicher connected the dots when he remarked “…for me the real significance of these results is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning.”

So, have the Chinese (at least the Shanghainese) mastered rote learning and creative thinking? That’s how OECD interprets developments there—though others argue otherwise. Authors of the PISA report declare that China has come to value student-centered learning and now offers children more and more flexible course offerings. It’s been a slow process, given the country’s tradition of direct instruction, but the use of “slogans” (dare I say propaganda?) helps here, too. The latest slogan? “Return class time to students.”

As we marvel (and, for some, wring hands) at Shanghai’s awesome scores, the Chinese envy our comprehensive approach to education, emphasis on student-as-learner, and variegated course offerings. But they’re quicker than we are to incorporate borrowed ideas and practices.

3. Shanghai Tutorial. Suspend for a moment legitimate outrage at China’s tendency to oppress its citizens and you may spot a few lessons that Americans might benefit from learning. First is a reverence for education—Shanghai’s slogan is “First-rate city, first-rate education”—that dates back to Confucius, who reportedly said, “Learn as though you would never be able to master it; Hold it as though you would be in fear of losing it.”

Second, the Chinese have deployed some smart interventions. Consortia of strong and weak, old and new, and public and private schools are established with one exceptionally strong school at the core, which is charged with sharing best practices. Virtually all teachers are subject-matter experts, not generalists; effective classroom practitioners gain a higher “professional status;” and China has common curriculum standards. It also has a rigorous framework for teaching that includes small groups of instructors engaged in lesson preparation and teaching demonstrations. And in a policy alien to Americans, municipalities in China funnel more money and better teachers to “key schools” which serve high-performing students. In America, we’re more apt to channel extra bucks to schools serving low-performing pupils—and leave our high achievers to make their way on their own. With China focusing resources on its best and brightest, we ignore our own high-achievers at our peril.

The Chinese are also exceptionally transparent when it comes to school-level accountability. They routinely rank schools and publish school ratings and other educational measures. Surely greater transparency around school, teacher, and student performance would do U.S. education some good.

The final lesson is a bit of a paradox. Chinese students are more likely than their U.S. counterparts to attribute academic success and failure to their own effort or lack thereof. This, of course, is the attitude we’d like to see in more American youngsters. But it also illustrates an irony in China’s education system: Its students are more likely to take responsibility for their own education even as they inhabit a country that does not value individual rights.



News Analysis: Inside the Black box

To date, Gadfly has remained uncharacteristically mum about the selection of magazine executive Cathie Black as Gotham’s new schools chancellor. Yes, he’s had his little buggy palpitations. But, everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt. At Fordham, we agree with Mayor Bloomberg that school district CEOs need strong management skills, which Black apparently has in spades. But they also must exhibit sound policy judgment and stellar communication skills. A recent interview with the New York Daily News gives us a glimpse at Black’s prowess on those score. The topic was the moral and political quagmire surrounding the potential release of NYC teachers’ effectiveness ratings (determined through value-added data). Black’s comments indicated a thoughtful novice—but also one contemplating the question for the first time. "I look at it two ways,” she said. “As a parent, I believe you would want to know if your child is being taught by someone who's at the bottom of the barrel. On the other side, you know, you're also dealing with someone's reputation, their professional opportunities ... So I think it's something that we want to weigh very carefully." “Good point,” says Gadfly. “But, you are the one in charge, making the decisions. What will you do?” Black waffled through the rest of the interview. She went on to say that she may be court-mandated to release the data. But wouldn’t if she didn’t have to. Or maybe would. But then again, maybe not… We’ll have to stay tuned to find out how this Debate of One turns out. In the meantime, Gadfly beseeches other “education mayors”: Won’t you please find someone who is both a strong manager and has thought about education, at least a little bit, to lead your schools?

New Chancellor Cathie Black's take on value-added teacher data: It's not black and white,” by Joshua Greenman, New York Daily News, December 13, 2010.


News Analysis: Trigger happy

Last week, parents at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, Los Angeles set potentially unprecedented change in motion. They presented the school, and its district, with a petition signed by 61 percent of McKinley’s parents demanding that the district cede managerial control over the school to Celerity Education Group—a CMO. According to a California state law passed earlier this year, the district must abide by the parents’ wishes. For parents of McKinley students, fewer than 25 percent of whom perform at grade level in math and reading in 5th grade, this initiative is a way to overcome the forces of unionized bureaucracy. But now that the flare gun has been fired, what next? Plans on how to recruit and keep highly effective teachers and bump up curricular content, all while ensuring strong accountability mechanisms (more than just a petition), have been left unvetted. Never mind the mounting evidence of failed school turnarounds. Fair warning to McKinley parents (and to others excited about spreading the California initiative elsewhere): Pulling the “parent trigger” is barely the beginning of turning around your child’s school.

California’s Parent Trigger,” by Patrick Range McDonald, Los Angeles Weekly, December 9, 2010.


Short Reviews

Review: Learning about Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project 
By Janie Scull

In the fall of 2009, the Gates Foundation commenced an epic task: the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project. Through thousands of hours of videotaped and live classroom observations, student and teacher surveys, and information on student achievement gains, foundation analysts labored to uncover the best indicators of teacher effectiveness, the goal being to craft systemic and reliable evaluation processes and feedback mechanisms for the future. The preliminary findings of this massive initiative are now available. And if they’re a sign what’s to come, teacher evaluations will be in for a major makeover. This preliminary report analyzes two of the project’s five measures of teacher effectiveness—student scores (on both state and external tests) and student survey responses. There were four take-aways: First, a teacher’s past success in producing student gains is highly predictive of that teacher’s ability to do so again. Second, teachers who, according to their students, “teach to the test” do not produce the highest value-added scores for said students; rather, instructors who help their students understand math concepts and reading comprehension yield the highest scores. Third, student perceptions of their teachers are remarkably telling and remain stable across groups of students and across classes taught by the same teacher. Most reflective of teacher effectiveness is students’ perceptions of whether their teacher controls the classroom and challenges them with rigorous work. The analysts end by noting that a combination of these methods provides teachers a more accurate, detailed, and targeted evaluation. These findings are just the beginning of MET. Check back in late spring  for the final report—including analyses of classroom observations.

MET Project, “Learning about Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project,” (Seattle, WA: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, December 2010).


Review: Value Added of Teachers in High-Poverty Schools and Lower-Poverty Schools
By Amanda Olberg

This working paper from the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) hits the reader with some dogma-shattering conclusions. It compares the effectiveness of teachers in high-poverty elementary schools to that of teachers in lower-poverty schools in Florida and North Carolina over four years, from 2000-2001 to 2004-2005. The authors find that teachers in high-poverty schools are only somewhat less effective on average than their peers at lower-poverty schools. Yet the devil is in the details: Though the averages aren’t much different, the variance is great. At high-poverty schools, teachers performing in the lowest decile perform much worse than their counterparts in low-poverty schools. (In other words, struggling teachers in poor schools are much worse than struggling teachers in wealthy ones.) Here’s another intriguing finding: differences in teacher effectiveness arise not from years of experience or educational attainment, but from differences in the marginal return or payoff from increases in experience—meaning that teachers in lower-poverty schools improve more for each year of experience than those in high-poverty schools. To some extent, this suggests, teachers in high-poverty schools are worse because they have been teaching in a high-poverty school. Whoa!

Tim Sass, Jane Hannaway, Zeyu Xu, David Figlio, and Li Feng, “Value-Added of Teachers in High-Poverty Schools and Lower-Poverty Schools,” (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, November 2010).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Rick! Pull up your pants!

Mike and Rick are feeling the holiday spirit as they explain Fordham’s new report, lament school turnaround efforts, and discuss Cathie Black: The Education Novice. Amber asks for students’ perspectives and Chris gets “Urkeled.”

The Education Gadfly
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.


Flypaper's Finest: Stuff is going down down South 
By Liam Julian

During the Florida gubernatorial campaign, most voters were paying attention to then-candidate Rick Scott’s past—as head of a hospital chain that paid $1.7 billion in fines in the largest Medicare fraud case in history. Now that Scott is the governor-elect, those voters (and the press) are turning their focus to the policy plans he released several months ago….

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Class warfare, Republican-style 
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Politicians clearly revel in class warfare. Democrats always rage at the well-to-do and try to present themselves as champions of the less prosperous. (See current goings-on in Congress regarding federal income and estate taxes.)

In the “old days,” the GOP delighted in going after “welfare queens” and drivers of “welfare Cadillacs” and such, representing themselves as champions of employed, responsible taxpayers.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Gadfly Studios: Reform school, with Tony Bennett

In this short video, Tony Bennett, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction, weighs in on teacher quality, school choice, and accountability—and explains what to expect from the Hoosier State.



Briefly Noted: From sea to shining sea

  • The Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force released its best and worst of 2010 this week. See what topped their lists. (Hint: Race to the Top made both the best and worst categories.)
  • Nearly 52 percent of students attend a school of choice. Want to know what those options are and what political, policy, and procedural barriers impede expansion? Just ask Bruno Manno.
  • Flags are being thrown left and right (or west and east). At issue is special-education funding and accountability, which are seeing pushback from Hawaii to Georgia to New York City.
  • The public has been weighing in on education a lot lately. According to two recent AP polls, Americans overwhelmingly feel that it’s too difficult to fire bad teachers and that student motivation is to blame for the nation’s weak achievement. Oh, they’re also not willing to raise taxes for education spending.
  • Is competition good for public schools? In a word: yes. Cassandra M.D. Hart and David Figlio explain why in the most recent Education Next.


Letter to the Gadfly: The price of a Chinese education
By Yuan Tian

The news about Shanghai-students' scores on the PISA result has left most U.S. educators stunned. But, there should no difficulty in understanding why Chinese students did so well on their exams. It comes down to one word: practice.

As a student in China, I was told since my first day of elementary school to focus on my studies, to achieve high scores on all tests, and to go to a respected university. Similarly, teachers are instructed to cover only the content needed to guarantee their students obtain scores worthy of university admittance. The reason is simple: A solid university education means a good job in the future, according to China's societal judgment.

My participation in the Chinese educational system came with a price—I paid for my acceptance into a good college with twelve years without free choice or the ability to develop personal interests. Each day, from elementary school to senior high school, I only did that which teachers asked of me. There was neither extra time nor energy for me to think about my real interests after a daily regime of four to five hours of homework. Twelve years of hard practice succeeded in one way. I earned a good score on the national standardized exam for university admission. But this effort gave me little else.

Fortunately, my life began to change after I matriculated into college. I am able to take electives. But, the downside has been that I completely distanced myself from the content knowledge I gained in the past, which was tainted by my many years of practice. Accumulating the knowledge necessary to succeed at China’s national standardized exam had become a goal for me. Once I had passed the exam, there was no reason for me to continue developing my knowledge in those subjects further—and regrettably, I didn’t. 

I don't know whether the younger generation is luckier than my generation in having access to tests like the PISA and to education that place higher value on breadth and creativity. However, if China continues to emphasize test results, there is nothing changed from the old educational system. The assessment remains the implicit end goal, rather than a way of measuring the capacity of students to learn and be educated citizens. No test results are worthy of our attention if they become the only focus of schooling, at the expense of producing well-rounded, thoughtful, independent-minded people.

Yuan Tian is a first-year master’s degree student in Philanthropic Studies at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.


Announcement: NCTQ wants you!

The National Council on Teacher Quality is looking for a smart, analytical, persistent, and detail-oriented team leader to manage a national review of education schools—supervising remote analyses, organizing data collection systems, and solving the thorniest of evaluation problems. Interested? Learn more here. To apply, send your resume here by December 20.


Fordham's featured publication:

A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era

America brims with education data and these days it seems like everyone in education claims to be guided by data. In A Byte at the Apple, leaders and scholars map the landscape of data providers and users and explore why what's supplied by the former too often fails to meet the needs of the latter. It documents the barriers to collecting good information and explores potential solutions—even a future system where a "backpack" of achievement information would accompany every student from place to place.


The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Remmert Dekker, Amy Fagan, Daniela Fairchild, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Chris Irvine, Amanda Olberg, Jamie Davies O’Leary, Emmy Partin, Michael J. Petrilli, Terry Ryan, Janie Scull, and Amber Winkler. Have something to say? Email us at Find archived issues or other reviews of reports and books here.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is the nation’s leader in advancing educational excellence for every child through quality research, analysis, and commentary, as well as on-the-ground action and advocacy in Ohio. (For Ohio news, check out our Ohio Education Gadfly, published bi-weekly, ordinarily on Wednesdays.) The Institute is neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.

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