The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 10, Number 47. December 22, 2010.
In This Edition
Gadfly will be popping some bubbly and setting his resolutions next week. He’ll see everyone again come Twelfth Night. Happy holidays!
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Opinion and Analysis

Seven for '11
Seven education predictions for the year to come
Opinion | Michael Petrilli

The fierce urgency of eventually
Time to get tough: We're talking curriculum
Opinion | Robert Pondiscio

2010 through the Buck-eye
What the year of the tiger meant for education reform in Ohio
Opinion | The Fordham-Ohio Team

Hurry up and wait
The world is flat--well, the federal funding world
News Analysis

Learning to teach nothing in particular
Only in America
News Analysis

Short Reviews

Creating Cover and Constructing Capacity: Assessing the Origins, Evolution, and Impact of Race to the Top
Stepping back to take in the view
Review | Janie Scull

Charter Schools: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education
A renaissance of charter policy
Review | Daniela Fairchild

The Promise of Cafeteria-Style Benefits for Districts and Teachers
I'll take a burger with a side of health insurance
Review | Remmert Dekker

From The Web

Amber plays Texas Hold ‘Em
While Mike and Rick peer into their crystal ball
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

Ignoring our own advice 
We've got a hunch the statistics are wrong
Flypaper's Finest | December 22, 2010 | Terry Ryan

 Tax caps and tidal waves: Now or never?
In this season of giving, educators may have little choice in the matter
Flypaper's Finest | December 21, 2010 | Peter Meyer


Cerfing through the Garden State
And a Christmas gift for TFA
Briefly Noted

Let’s try again to “get” the MET
The devil is in the details

Forget 2.0, we want 4.0
4.0 Schools pushing far-reaching reform in the Southeast

Oh, the humane-ity!
The Institute for Humane Studies with two senior-level openings

School leadership still matters
Voila! Our November video is up—and is begging to be viewed

America’s Private Public Schools
Public in name only
Fordham featured publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Seven for '11
By Michael Petrilli

Want to know what 2011 will bring to the field of education reform? I’m no fortune teller, but I’m happy to offer these educated guesses.

1.      Cathie Black will be gone by Easter. A betting man might say that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will stubbornly hold fast to his choice, but I foresee a breaking point a few months hence. It’ll go down like this: Her gaffes continue, she loses support even among middle-class Gotham parents, she botches the release of teacher effectiveness data, and she stumbles with the politics of budget-cutting. Worried about a mass exodus of the Department of Education’s senior staff, and sensing vulnerability on a marquee issue in his presidential run, Bloomberg finds an excuse to show her the door.

2.      A new ESEA will be law by Thanksgiving. Emboldened by their success in extending the Bush-era tax cuts, Republicans will decide that working with President Obama can pay dividends. Education is widely seen as low-hanging fruit, and the parties put pen to paper in the early spring and have a deal worked out by summer. Mostly this new ESEA is a rollback of No Child Left Behind, with a few reform-minded elements (on teacher evaluations, charter schools) thrown in for good measure. The education establishment and the reform movement grump components of the bill, but it’s all just posturing. Behind closed doors they give their tacit approval for the process to move forward.

3.      Education-establishment groups will file a slew of new funding-equity lawsuits—and charter school groups will join them. Aggressive budget-cutting by states will hit high-poverty districts, and charter schools, the hardest. After all, these systems rely mostly (or entirely) on state funding. (At least affluent suburban districts can tap local sources too.) This will lead to legal action, as urban districts and charter schools find room for common cause. Several of these suits will succeed, throwing state budgets into further chaos.

4.      Michelle Rhee will embrace “paycheck protection” as a part of her agenda. By typical standards, Rhee will raise a lot of money in 2011—in the hundreds of millions of dollars—but won’t come close to her $1 billion goal. Along this golden road she’ll learn a valuable lesson: The teachers unions can easily best her donated capital just by raising their dues. Which they will do. And this will make her a strong advocate for “paycheck protection”—policies that allow teachers to opt-out of political contributions to the union.

5.      At least one large district will go bankrupt. As Rick Hess has argued, several states will create incentives for districts to declare insolvency in order to renegotiate union contracts and other obligations, in the same manner as the GM restructuring. Once successful, this idea will spread like wildfire throughout the country.

6.      “Local control” will come under further attack. The budget crisis will ramp up efforts at district consolidation. States will try to find ways to keep district spending in check. And at least one state—I suspect Delaware—will have serious conversations about eliminating local districts outright and moving to a statewide system of public education. 

7.       Diane Ravitch and the teachers unions will criticize budget cuts but offer no alternatives. As states and districts make difficult decisions in the months ahead, Ravitch and the education establishment will attack every specific suggestion. Raise class sizes? Ask teachers to pay more of their healthcare costs? Freeze salaries? Cap stipends for master’s degrees, or years of experience? They will find fault with all of these, but will offer no serious suggestions of their own. As a result, they will implicitly encourage districts to take the path of least resistance: fire their youngest teachers; get rid of art and music classes; and pass along costs to parents in the form of new fees.

Will these come to pass? Who knows? But it is fun to ponder. Check back in a year and we’ll determine just how good of a seer I am.


Opinion: The fierce urgency of eventually
By Robert Pondiscio

 Last Wednesday, Michelle Rhee was awarded the Manhattan Institute’s 2010 Urban Innovator Award. In her acceptance speech, the former Washington D.C. Chancellor discussed her new high-profile initiative, Students First, and its goal of raising $1 billion to advocate for “real change,” which she defined as putting students’ needs “before those of special interests or wasteful bureaucracies.”

Reflecting on her attempt to turn around Washington’s schools, Rhee said she ultimately learned that she was playing the wrong game. “I would spend my time, as many education reformers across the country do, talking to politicians and trying to appeal to their sense of what is good and right for children and meanwhile you’ve got the interest groups like the teachers unions funding their campaigns. So at the end of the day, who are you going to go with? The nice little lady over here who says you can do good for kids? Or the people who are going to get you re-elected?” Rhee asked rhetorically.

After the Manhattan Institute event, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Rhee about my reform game—curriculum, teaching, and learning. I wondered out loud whether it made sense to reach conclusions about the effectiveness of individual teachers who are poorly trained and have no say over their curriculum or, more often than not, no curriculum at all. I urged her to keep curriculum in mind.

“The last thing we’re going to do,” she replied with a chuckle, “is get wrapped up in curriculum battles.”

A stunning reply if you think about it. This poster child for bare-knuckle reform, who moments earlier was urging her listeners to “embrace conflict,” has no stomach for a debate about what kids should learn in school. Is it so difficult or controversial to say that all kindergarteners must learn shapes, colors, and how to count to twenty? Confronting the teachers unions on pay and tenure is worth a fight, yet it is too heavy a lift to say what 3rd graders should know about American history, geography, or science—or whether they need to know anything at all.

Michelle Rhee isn’t the only one too sheepish to talk curriculum. She is simply the most vocal and visible representative of a theory of change that sees structures, and increasingly political power, as the coin of the realm. I have no illusions: “Teacher effectiveness” and charter schools and merit pay may be sexy, but curriculum is not. It doesn’t get you on Oprah or the cover of Newsweek. We are unlikely, now or ever, to see a bold initiative to raise $1 billion to advocate for a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum for every child in the early grades, even though—for high-mobility, low-income children in particular—it would surely be among the most impactful reforms we could offer.

What I cannot accept, however, is that to focus on instruction—on curriculum and teaching—is to play the “wrong game.” To accept this argument is to believe that the educational outcome of Jose or Malik in the South Bronx or Detroit is more deeply affected by who wins a primary for a House race somewhere in California than what they learn in school all day. It is to believe that electing the “right people” matters more than what teachers teach and what children learn.

“For three decades, education has been driven by special interests,” Rhee concluded in her Manhattan Institute speech. That’s one diagnosis. Another one belongs to E.D. Hirsch, who points out in The Making of Americans that our schools have gone six decades without a curriculum. Earlier this year, at an Aspen Institute panel discussion, AFT head Randi Weingarten hit the nail on the head when asked why ed reformers aren’t concerned about curriculum. “This stuff is really important,” she replied. “And it’s really boring.”

Playing kingmaker, by contrast, is the best, most glamorous game there is. But it’s an expensive, time-consuming, long-term play. It does nothing to effect change today, and risks writing off yet another generation of children to mediocrity and underperformance. It represents the fierce urgency of eventually.

Michelle Rhee and others have the perfect right to commit their careers and their dollars to ed reform advocacy groups with whatever mission, playing whichever games. But people must understand that this is not the last word in “What’s Best for Kids.” The rhetoric is a bit of a sham, frankly, since a big part of what we know works best for children is a coherent curriculum. So call curriculum reform what you like, but don’t call it the wrong game. 

A former 5th grade teacher, Robert Pondiscio writes about education at the Core Knowledge Blog.

2010 through the Buck-eye
By The Fordham-Ohio Team 

2010 was a blockbuster in Ohio—and the political, economic, and educational developments that occurred will create profound shifts in K-12 education. Here are four takeaways from the past year (in no particular order) that will surely drive the education reform agenda in 2011 and beyond.

1.      The status quo is no longer fiscally sustainable. States are in trouble. With federal stimulus dollars evaporating by 2012, property values still falling, and competing programs (especially Medicaid) sucking away public dollars, the vise around K-12 squeezes tighter. Add to this Ohio Governor-Elect John Kasich’s promise not to increase taxes, and that leaves Ohio with an $8 billion hole out of which to dig. With little room to trim, and K-12 spending taking up 40 percent of the budget, something’s gotta give.

2.      State government in Ohio is dominated by Republicans. The November elections shone favorably on Ohio Republicans. Republican John Kasich beat incumbent Ted Strickland and the GOP took over the House, extended its margin in the Senate, and gained control of every other major statewide office from auditor to secretary of state). The implications of this monopoly are huge. Among the things Kasich and GOP lawmakers have already promised: They’ll take over failing Cleveland schools, end seniority-based layoffs, take on public employee unions, and create a statewide $20 million tax-credit scholarship program to open access to private education.

3.      Ohio won Race to the Top funding. The Buckeye State received $400 million to launch more rigorous school turnaround efforts, P-16 data systems, and new programs for improving teacher and school-leader quality, and to adopt the Common Core in math and English language arts. Thus far, Ohio has put none of its significant application promises into law. In the end, this iffy implementation, coupled with the slew of districts and charters that have already dropped out of the program, raise questions about the staying power of RTTT.

4.      Multiple players began realizing the need for charter quality. Perhaps in part because of some very public scandals among charter operators and authorizers, Ohioans began to realize how much these operators and authorizers affect school quality. Fordham (with a lot of experience in the charter world) has been vocal about requiring a better track record to open new schools, and testified before the State Board of Education as well as the Ohio House Finance Subcommittee on Primary and Secondary Education, calling for heightened accountability as well as announcing plans to help create a statewide authorizing entity.

Seeds of reform were sown in Ohio this past year. If the state can make smart cuts and keep its eye on school accountability and student achievement, Ohio just might emerge as a serious education reformer in 2011. On many fronts, policy makers and educators alike are looking for alternatives, educators are moving towards embracing hybrid-learning models, and there is real momentum among lawmakers and reformers in doing away with policies like last hired, first fired (a law that has been on the books in Ohio since 1941).

For more about Ohio in 2010, see the Ohio Education Gadfly’s full year in review.


News Analysis: Hurry up and wait

After months of inactivity, the Washington edu-world was abuzz last week about the omnibus appropriations bill makings its way through Congress. Because of it, various policy battles broke out, each of them with their own reform implications. A second round of Race to the Top, for instance, got funding, though at a much diminished rate; the teachers unions managed to attach a rider to the Teacher Incentive Fund making its performance-pay programs subject to collective bargaining; and charter-school organizations squared off against one another over a provision to hold charter authorizers accountable. All that is moot now—or at least postponed—as the bill collapsed, forcing Congress to enact a short-term “continuing resolution” instead. The debate will commence again in January—and with a much more conservative, and much more stingy, Congress, expect the whining to reach fever pitch.

Congress Approves Bill Flat-Funding K-12 Education until March 4,” by Alyson Klein, Politics K-12 Blog, Education Week, December 21, 2010.


News Analysis: Learning to teach nothing in particular

It’s no secret that we strongly support national standards for America’s schools—primarily because we see this approach as the most likely route to higher standards. (And the Common Core didn’t disappoint on that score.) But there are many ancillary benefits, too. Among them: the potential that education schools might actually be able to train their candidates to teach a particular body of knowledge. As David Cohen explains in a new essay in the American Educator, teacher preparation in the pre-Common Core era focused on processes above content, offering generic references to “competence” and little more than vapid guidance in teaching reading, writing, and mathematics. After all, many ed schools sent teachers to multiple states, each with their own standards—a irrelevant problem for other countries with national curricula. It made little sense for them to dive instruction down below the 30,000 foot level. But now, leading programs can do just that—they can teach aspiring high school English teachers, for instance, how to help students master the Common Core English standards. How about that? We might have finally found a uniquely American solution to a uniquely American problem.

Learning to Teach Nothing in Particular: A Uniquely American Educational Dilemma,” by David K. Cohen, American Educator, Winter 2010-2011.


Short Reviews

Review: Creating Cover and Constructing Capacity: Assessing the Origins, Evolution, and Impact of Race to the Top 
By Janie Scull

In this sixth and final edition of AEI’s Education Stimulus Watch series, Drew University political science professor Patrick McGuinn traces the life story of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RTTT), addressing the theory behind the program, its legacy, and what lessons can be drawn to enhance its impact. The carrot to NCLB’s stick, RTTT aimed to change the education-reform landscape in two ways, according to McGuinn: by helping states build the administrative capacity to implement innovations and by giving political cover to education reformers. While it fell short on the former (state bureaucracies are as strapped as ever), it was more successful in the latter (think: teacher tenure reform in Colorado, charter school expansion elsewhere, etc.). Moving forward, McGuinn recommends that the Department of Education disseminate best-practice information nationwide while ramping up its compliance monitoring and leveling penalties against states that don’t fulfill their promises. These recommendations may help keep Uncle Sam’s program going as states begin to drag their feet (though he doesn’t seem too optimistic). Whether states fulfill their promises or not, McGuinn notes that RTTT has permanently changed the education-reform game in two ways: by introducing competitive federal grants, and by creating an atmosphere in which key stakeholders—including the president—can challenge entrenched interests and put reform on the table. Was this worth $4.35 billion?  We'll have to wait and see.

Patrick McGuinn, “Creating Cover and Constructing Capacity: Assessing the Origins, Evolution, and Impact of Race to the Top,” Education Stimulus Watch Special Report #6 (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 2010).


Review: Charter Schools: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education
By Daniela Fairchild

What starts off as a primer on charter schools quickly turns into a policy brief—somehow simultaneously specific and yet unwieldy. The first few pages of this Brown Center Task Force report provide a synopsis of some of the main themes of the charter world. It explains charter schools' overall effectiveness, their use of a lottery system for admissions, the role of authorizers, and funding provisions. Then, capitalizing on what the task force sees as an increased federal role in the charter sector (exemplified through the i3 and Race to the Top grant programs), the authors offer a laundry list of recommendations—a veritable renaissance of federal charter policy, which could, they say, be tied to ESEA reauthorization. These recommendations for federal action begin with specific foci: Collect and use more and better data on the performance of charter schools, especially around school lotteries and especially for authorizing purposes; require states to provide equitable funding for charter schools relative to traditional schools—including by way of facilities; and support higher standards for authorizing through a separate competitive grant program for charter sponsors. They even address policies to promote collaboration surrounding virtual charters and point to the need for quality control along with charter growth. Most of their recommendations are well thought out and provide enough detail to be implementable. One word of caution to the Brown Center Task Force, though: Careful not to run too far ahead too quickly. The current Administration may be on board with charter reform, but placing blind faith in the Department to implement each of these changes well is folly indeed.

Susan Dynarski, Caroline Hoxby, Tom Loveless, Mark Schneider, Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, John Witte, and Michelle Croft, “Charter Schools: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education,” (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Brown Center Task Group on Charter Schools, December 2010).


Review: The Promise of Cafeteria-Style Benefits for Districts and Teachers
By Remmert Dekker

Education leaders teetering on the funding cliff should take heed of this short “rapid response” report—one in a series from the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Collectively, these reports help leaders capitalize on their budgetary red ink by highlighting ways to strengthen systems going forward. This brief tackles runaway health care costs and fringe benefits—which have more than doubled in constant dollars as a percentage of salaries since the 1970s and whose escalating costs and unpredictability make them a threat to future fiscal stability. Its solution is simple—“cafeteria-style” benefits packages. This revamped benefits model would fix district costs for benefits (at say, $13,740 per annum, which is the figure given for the mock district the report assesses) and would offer teachers a benefits-package menu from which they can pull, based on preference and need. Teachers whose benefits-package costs are less than the district allotment at the end of the year receive a cash bonus (purportedly this will help better engage newer teachers). The report offers examples of how this might play out. If young and single Ms. Garcia wishes to opt out of life insurance (say to the tune of $100), chooses the lower-cost health insurance (saving $4,000), and takes fewer sick days than allotted (each cost the district $120), she would be eligible for a $4,700 cash bonus at the end of the year. Whereas, if Mrs. Kauffman chooses the high-end health insurance as well as dental and life, and takes her personal and some sick days, she will see a salary reduction of about $1,000. To round it all out, the report offers advice on structure and implementation of these cafeteria plans by laying out foreseen costs and effects to district spending and budget stability. These few pages pack quite the punch.

Noah Wepman, Marguerite Roza, and Cristina Sepe, “The Promise of Cafeteria-Style Benefits for Districts and Teachers” (Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education, December 9, 2010).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Amber plays Texas Hold 'Em

Mike and Rick get nostalgic for 2010 then turn their thoughts to 2011. Amber goes all-in on school productivity and Daniela learns to spell “assessment.”

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: Ignoring our own advice 
By Terry Ryan

Fordham’s new report, Are Bad Schools Immortal?, shows the folly of school turnaround efforts—only 1.4 percent of district schools and less than 1 percent of charters that have undergone turnaround efforts have done so successfully. … Despite all this, Fordham-Ohio (which authorizes charter schools in the Buckeye State) is working closely with board members of a Dayton elementary charter school to try to turn that school around.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Tax caps and tidal waves: Now or never?
By Peter Meyer

In their clear-headed if ominous essay, “A Warning for All Who Would Listen,” in Stretching the School Dollar, James Guthrie and Arthur Peng point out that the “hundred-year era of perpetual per-pupil fiscal growth” is over. Indeed, our public schools face a “fiscal tsunami” that will change our public-education system for years to come.

While Stretching the School Dollar should be a must-read for all education policymakers, over at the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, Brian Backstrom is for action. It’s Now or Never, he says.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.



Briefly Noted: Cerfing through the Garden State 

  • Snooki? The Situation? Move over. New Jersey students will soon have a new positive role model. Governor Chris Christie announced that the immensely talented Christopher Cerf will take over as the state’s education commissioner. And Cerf is already making moves.
  • This fall, the Ninth Circuit threw Teach For America’s future into question when it interpreted NCLB’s “highly qualified teachers” provision to mean that TFA teachers—or anyone without a teaching certificate—couldn’t meet the HQT standard, and thus couldn’t legally teach in Title I schools. Luckily, this week Congress fixed the problem by clarifying that alternative-certification candidates do, in fact, meet the law’s requirements.
  • RI-CAN has its backpack packed and its apple for the teacher. It’s ready to board the bus of Rhode Island education reform. The brand-new organization (a spin-off of the Connecticut-based ConnCan) has even done some homework on why this is such a must for the Ocean State.
  • Four incoming Minneapolis school board members collectively sent the current board a letter this week accusing them of “ill will” toward the teachers union. The kicker is that the letter arrived on union stationary. A few words come to mind: divisive, inappropriate, union-owned.


Clarification: Let's try again to "get" the MET

There was some confusion amongst our readership over the use of the phrase “teach to the test” in Janie Scull’s review of the Gates Foundation report, "Learning About Teaching: Initial Findings from Measures of Effective Teaching Project” last week. That was our phrase, and it referred to the study’s finding that one of its student-survey items was more strongly correlated to student achievement gains than another. Those items were: “Getting ready for [the state test] takes a lot of time in our class” [0.103] compared with “My teacher wants us to use our thinking skills, not just memorize things” [0.202]). (See Appendix Table 1 on page 34 of the report for further clarification.)


Announcement: Forget 2.0, we want 4.0

4.0 Schools, a new venture out of the Southeast, is locked and loaded. Its targets? The achievement gap and educational attainment. Its weapon of choice? A network of high-quality school leaders that it trains and supports. If you’re a school leader interested in joining their 4.0 Academy or a funder or activist interested in getting involved, head to or contact the 4.0 Schools CEO Matt Candler.


Announcement: Oh, the humane-ity

The Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, which promotes a freer society through knowledge and talent development, is looking for a Senior Development Officer and a Fundraising Campaign Manager. If you think you have what it takes, or want to explore other job opportunities at IHS, apply here.


Announcement: School leadership matters

In November, Fordham teamed up with the Rainwater Leadership Alliance and the Center for American Progress to launch RLA’s report: A New Approach to Principal Preparation: Innovative Programs Share Their Practices and Lessons Learned. In case you missed the event on this evergreen topic, you can check it out here.


Fordham's featured publication:

America's Private Public Schools

This analysis by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds that more than 1.7 million American children attend what we've dubbed "private public schools"—public schools that serve virtually no poor students. In some metropolitan areas, as many as one in six public-school students—and one in four white youngsters—attends such schools, of which the U.S. has about 2,800.


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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