The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 4. January 27, 2011.
In This Edition
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Opinion and Analysis

A new "Washington Consensus" is born
A blueprint for centrist school reform
Opinion | Michael Petrilli

The rope with which we hang ourselves
America's educators should be seeing red
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Board to death
Systemic failure calls for systemic change
News Analysis

“Bankrupt states”: Not just a metaphor?
What it would take for states to call it like it is
News Analysis

Maryland says: To heck with government
The course, not the institution
News Analysis

Short Reviews

The Nation’s Report Card Science 2009: National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 4, 8, and 12
If there’s good news to report, we can’t find it
Review | Janie Scull

Return on Educational Investment: A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity
In this case, it would have been good to point fingers
Review | Amber M. Winkler

School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy
Between dinosaur and democratic system
Review | Daniela Fairchild

More than Measurement: The TAP System’s Lessons Learned for Designing Better Teacher Evaluation Systems
Lessons to be TAP-ped
Review | Marena Perkins

From The Web

In defense of Adrian Fenty’s afternoon bike rides
SOTU, NAEP, IMPACT, and other acronyms
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Dave DeSchryver

The Henry Ford model of school choice
Montgomery County puts choice in air quotes
Flypaper's Finest | January 26, 2011 | Chris Tessone

Randi’s wave, part two
Devil in the teacher-evaluation details
Flypaper's Finest | January 25, 2011 | Peter Meyer

What up with that?: Stopping out sounds like dropping out
A hard look at Thiel’s twenty under twenty fellowship
Gadfly Studios | January 26, 2011


And the Oscar goes to…
…Not Waiting for ‘Superman’
Briefly Noted

Your honest to goodness last reminder
Our Groundhog Day event is once in a lifetime

What does the Wizard think of Oz?
Learn about the inner workings of school boards at a February 3 event, co-hosted by Fordham

Play it bay-ou
Louisiana’s education reform fellowship is accepting applications

Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools
Straight talk and serious research on student tracking
Fordham featured publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: A new "Washington Consensus" is born
By Michael Petrilli

A decade ago, when federal lawmakers on the left and right came together to design and then enact No Child Left Behind, it solidified what was already a “Washington Consensus” in education policy. Its focus was on narrowing racial achievement gaps, its key strategy was federally enforced accountability, and its mantra was “no excuses.”

Today, that consensus is in tatters, what with the testing backlash, the rediscovery of poverty as a major obstacle to achievement, and the Tea Party’s desire to limit Uncle Sam’s authority over the nation’s schools. For these reasons and more, most pundits have assumed that, for the foreseeable future, ESEA reauthorization is impossible. No path to renewal has been made clear.

Perhaps until now. This week has witnessed the emergence of a new Washington Consensus, apparent in President Obama’s education-obsessed State of the Union address, a bipartisan conference call with key Senate leaders, and a supportive column by the country’s most widely read conservative.

This reform realism embraces a "tight-loose" approach to federal policymaking. 


The seeds of this consensus could be spotted in the Administration’s ESEA blueprint, release last spring, and in the outline of “reform realism” that we at the Fordham Institute released more than two years ago. This reform realism embraces a “tight-loose” approach to federal policymaking: Let’s be clearer about what we expect students to know and be able to do (via the Common Core State Standards Initiative) while showing more flexibility in how states and districts get there (especially via scaled-back federal oversight of accountability measures). It trades a “tough love” approach to the nation’s worst schools for a “trust but verify” attitude toward all the others.

There are downsides to this formulation. It opens the door to states “leaving children behind,” as they might look the other way when, say, suburban schools fail to effectively educate their minority kids. (That’s why Kati Haycock at Education Trust is pressing against it.) And it doesn’t go far enough to appease some conservatives, who demand nothing short of a block grant to the states. (That’s the line the Heritage Foundation continues to sell.)

Yet between those two extremes is an emerging center that is both broad and very real, at least along Pennsylvania Avenue, if not totally within the think tanks and advocacy groups. For the “new members” of Congress (not to mention the old), here’s some advice from George Will (the aforementioned influential columnist): You might “decide that the changes Duncan proposes—on balance, greater state flexibility in meeting national goals—make him the Obama administration's redeeming feature.”


Opinion: The rope with which we hang ourselves
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.


   Photo by Bruce Berrien

V. I. Lenin may or may not have actually declared that “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them,” but something of the sort is occurring nowadays between American educators and the Communist regime in Beijing. Consider what happened last week in Chicago.

No doubt it was a fine thing for Sino-American relations when the Windy City rolled out its big red carpet for Chinese President Hu Jintao on Thursday, much as official Washington had done earlier in the week. But the Obama administration deserves a bit of credit for engaging in some pointed warnings and tough talk about problems that the U.S. has with China, ranging from human rights to the undervalued renminbi to the support that China gives rogue states like North Korea and Myanmar. For all the glitterati (and rib-eye steaks) at the White House state dinner in Hu’s honor, his visit to the nation’s capital was no simple love-in.

But then he and his entourage flew to Chicago, which appears to have staged a love-in pure and simple, reminiscent of the city-wide swoon and Grant Park soiree that followed Obama’s own election two years back. Beginning with outgoing mayor Richard Daley, community leaders fell all over the Chinese as part of their multifaceted effort to transform Chicago from a city of meat packers and rail yards into the hub of Sino-American commercial activity of every sort. Chicago, it seems, yearns to be the place that manufactures and sells today’s version of the rope to which Lenin (maybe) referred. Included among the goodies assembled by the city was a million dollar Pritzker Foundation grant to bring Chinese designers to study at the Art Institute of Chicago.

But it isn’t just commerce and art at stake here, much less China’s immense stash of U.S. bonds and growing leverage over our national economy. Chicago also seems willing to turn its school kids over to Beijing—and Beijing is only too happy to help cover these costs. It’s not the only place in America where this is happening, to be sure.

Last Friday, he and his entourage visited Walter Payton College Prep, a decade-old, high-achieving, selective-admission public high school that focuses on science, math, and languages and which has hosted a “Confucius Institute” since 2006. This is one of almost 300 centers like this now operating worldwide. All are affiliated with and financially supported by Hanban, the executive arm of the Chinese Language Council International, which in turn consists of representatives of a dozen government ministries, including foreign affairs, commerce and the “State Council Information Office” which is responsible for, among other things, internet censorship.

Hu announced that his government would bring twenty Payton students and teachers to China this summer, and of course the kids cheered. Who wouldn’t relish such a trip?

But it’s insane to think this is only about cultural understanding and international comity. That’s not how China works—though any number of American educators seem oblivious or uncaring about this topic. The Chinese regime is advancing its own interests in the West—including Walter Payton College Prep—by, in effect, bribing school systems, educators, and students to see the world through Chinese eyes and, of course, to turn blind eyes and deaf ears toward anyone who might raise concerns about the innumerable threats that Beijing poses to America’s future.

I’m not sure whether senior Chinese government officials have much of a sense of humor, but I’ll wager that they are at least smiling at the gullibility, pliability, and naïveté of Western educators—and how cheaply China can buy them off. They are, one might say, giving us the rope with which they will shackle and bend us to their will.

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. Sign up to receive a daily compilation of Flypaper posts here.


News Analysis: Board to death

The last time Gadfly checked in with Atlanta Public Schools, the board of education was under question for nepotism, infighting, a lack of adequate fiduciary responsibility, and speculation that teachers were cheating on state tests. Some months have passed, and it seems that each situation has come to a head. This week, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting body for APS, placed it on probation. The ultimatum to the board reads along the lines of: Shape up, or lose accreditation (a move that may push Atlanta’s public schools to mayoral control). In order to keep accredited status (essential for students interested in receiving the state’s HOPE scholarship, or planning to attend college in general), the board must comply with a list of six mandates ranging from resolving their internal squabbles through an external mediator to creating a transparent process for selecting a new superintendent. (Their long-term supe, Beverly Hall, will resign in June.) Purportedly, they’ll also have to deal with the teacher-cheating scandal that continues to raise hackles in the Big Peach—and the practice of vilifying, ostracizing, and sometimes even firing whistle-blowing teachers. We tend to think of school board governance as intrinsically dysfunctional, but Atlanta takes the cake.

Whistle-blowing teachers targeted,” by Alan Judd and Heather Vogell, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 23, 2011.

Atlanta’s schools and a disturbing outbreak of common sense,” by Jim Galloway, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 22, 2011.

Atlanta schools accept SACS probation report,” by Dorie Turner, Associated Press, January 24, 2011.


News Analysis: "Bankrupt states": Not just a metaphor?

With some forty-four states and the District of Columbia projecting budget shortfalls for fiscal year 2012 (which begins in July of this year), some cash-stricken states are quietly looking into the possibility of declaring bankruptcy, GM-style. Although sovereign states are barred from seeking protection in federal bankruptcy court, policymakers are investigating workarounds that would allow states to get out from under crushing obligations—especially the Cadillac pensions and healthcare plans promised to retired public workers (including educators). By no means is bankruptcy the easy way out for struggling states. Even the conversation of such has reverberating, and sometimes destabilizing, consequences. (It could rattle the public sector bond market, for instance.) However, discussions about something as grave as bankruptcy (and the potential of public-union employees losing at least part of their pensions) may give state lawmakers an unprecedented amount of leverage at the bargaining table. Education reformers may no longer be able to buy off defenders of the status quo with sweet-deal carrots, but they may now have more power to make needed changes by waving this harsh but necessary stick.

A Path Is Sought for States to Escape Their Debt Burdens,” by Mary Williams Walsh, New York Time, January 20, 2011.


News Analysis: Maryland says: To heck with government

Maryland, America’s wealthiest state, took a long, hard look at its overstretched budget. It dissected every line of public-education spending—which accounted for 47 percent of the state’s total outlay in 2009—and searched for places where it could make the hard cuts needed to save its school system. And what did it finger? Perhaps its generous teacher pensions and healthcare benefits? Its onerous rules and regulations? Nope. Instead, on the chopping block is the state’s recently created American government examination (passage of which was soon to be a requirement of high school graduation). In reference to the decision to axe the U.S. government exam, a spokesperson for the governor called it “one of those difficult cuts [that] became necessary to address the deficit.” Really, Old Line State? Of all the potential budget tweaks and trims, the one necessary to address the deficit was a cut that would undermine U.S. government and history education while saving a measly $1.9 million? Nice priorities.

Government high school test may be eliminated,” by Jason Felch and Jason Song, Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: The Nation's Report Card Science 2009: National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grade 4, 8, and 12
By Janie Scull

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2009 science results are in, and the snapshot of science education in the United States is … unremittingly bleak. Across all states, 34 percent of fourth graders, 30 percent of eighth graders, and just 21 percent of twelfth graders are considered “proficient” in science. At the “advanced” level, that number dive-bombs to about one in one hundred. Scores varied dramatically across states: New Hampshire, home to the highest-performing fourth graders, boasts an average NAEP science score thirty points (or about two grades) higher than the Mississippi average score (out of 300 total points). In eighth grade, Montana and North Dakota beat out the lowest performer, again Mississippi—and again by thirty points. (State-specific results were not provided for twelfth graders). Data disaggregated by student groups varied as well, breaking across familiar lines—whites outperformed all other races, with Asians close behind (Asians, in fact, surpass whites on the twelfth grade assessment); males slightly edged out females; higher-income students performed better than their lower-income compatriots; and urban students trailed those in suburbs, towns, and rural locales. Most interestingly, though, are the twelfth-grade scores disaggregated by “coursetaking category.” Here, we see that twelfth graders with three years of high school science scored thirty-three points higher than those with only one year of secondary science instruction (the same discrepancy between the highest- and lowest-performing states). Typically, NAEP results are used to plot student-achievement trend lines across the years—from 1996–2005 the assessment kept the same framework, allowing for comparability. This assessment for the 2009 NAEP, however, is based on a new framework, making longitudinal comparison impossible. Regardless of where we were five years ago, though, it is clear where we are now: Our nation’s students can’t tell their fibulae from their tibiae—and in order to remedy that, they’re going to need to take more science courses.

National Center for Education Statistics, “The Nation’s Report Card Science 2009: National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 4, 8, and 12” (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences, January 2011).


Review: Return on Educational Investment: A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity
By Amber M. Winkler

Perilous economic times—and the inevitable budget cuts that accompany them—beg for solid research on education productivity. This remarkably comprehensive report from the Center for American Progress gives states and districts strong quantitative ammunition in the education efficiency debate. In it, CAP evaluates the productivity of more than 9,000 districts in forty-five states according to three different return-on-investment (ROI) measures. To determine these, analysts used two measures: an achievement index (based on average proficiency scores on state assessments) and spending data (from the 2008 school year reported by NCES). Via the ROI models, CAP identified districts within states with low, medium, and high productivity levels (e.g., high achieving districts with low costs are “high ROI”). Each measure of ROI (basic, adjusted, and predicted efficiency) has its advantages and disadvantages; but all are methodologically sound. That said, there are important limitations to the study, including unreported—and potentially arbitrary—productivity-level cut scores and a host of potential confounding variables which currently cannot be systematically collected. As for the top-line findings: Analysts found, not surprisingly, that no clear relationship between spending and achievement existed in more than half of the studied states, even after adjusting for student and demographic variables. Further, the least efficient districts were more likely to spend more, especially on administration. Finally, the study’s author estimates that low productivity is costing the nation’s school systems up to $175 billion per year. This would be a fantastic call-to-arms, but this ambitious study stops short when it comes to fully disclosing results: It identifies by name neither the most nor the least efficient districts (of the latter, we’re told there are 400). It conducts a supplementary examination of urban districts that participate in NAEP but then tells us precious little about it. And it includes a nifty accompanying website but not a summary of the three ROI measures or a ranking of the districts in it. If we’re going for transparency around district spending—and looking for ways to improve said spending—shouldn’t we, at a minimum, call out the exemplars? Texas recently did; others should too.

Ulrich Boser, “Return on Educational Investment: A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity,” (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress, January 2011).


Review: School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy
By Daniela Fairchild

Barring a scandal, school boards fly under the education-media radar. Yet these bodies spend nearly $600 billion in public funding and employ millions of Americans. This book offers a detailed and nuanced look at the history, practicality, and future of these darlings of local control—and asserts that they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. While they may be outdated—like the mom-and-pop corner store or the local bank that holds your home’s mortgage—there is still a place for school boards in American education culture: They represent democracy in our nation’s public schools, and there’s scant evidence that we’d do a better job governing schools without them. In reaching this conclusion, author Gene Maeroff spins the reader through a whirlwind of education-reform debates, from accountability to teacher quality to funding—all through the eyes of the local school board. He provides case-study examples of successful school boards (like that of Denver Public Schools) and those that have been far less so (like that of Clayton County, GA) as well as scores of interesting data points. (Did you know that LAUSD’s school-board members who are not otherwise employed make $45,600 per annum? Or that the average school-board member spends twenty-five hours a month on board business?) In the end, though Maeroff acknowledges inherent and systemic flaws in school boards, he offers up reasonably mundane suggestions for righting them—including having appointed and not elected boards, and increasing professional development—leaving us still searching for the most viable governance arrangement for our schools.

Gene Maeroff, School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy, (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, December 2010).


Review: More than Measurement: The TAP System's Lessons Learned for Designing Better Teacher Evaluation Systems
By Marena Perkins

Over the past decade, Lowell Milken’s Teacher Advancement Program (TAP)—designed to boost teacher effectiveness through accountability, performance pay, and professional development—has ballooned in popularity: It currently serves 10,000 teachers affecting 100,000 students, and rising. With this report, the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, or NIET (the program’s administrator), offers ten lessons for policymakers and practitioners seeking to revamp their teacher evaluation system. Interestingly, while use of a value-added metric (VAM) is central in the TAP evaluation, it receives lower billing in this report. The majority of the lessons focus on professional development and staff buy-in: “Provide teachers with targeted follow up” and “Attend to the ‘human side’ of evaluation” being two examples. Perhaps the most important lesson pulled from the somewhat self-aggrandizing evaluation, though, is the need for an “evidence-based evaluation rubric balancing breadth and depth.” On this score, NIET highlights TAP’s nineteen-point rubric, and promotes its five-point scale of evaluation (which avoids floor and ceiling effects, while providing near all teachers with a trajectory for improvement). All in all, if you want to get beyond the rhetorical battles around teacher evaluation and into the weeds, this is a great place to start.

Craig D. Jerald and Kristan Van Hook, “More than Measurement: The TAP System’s Lessons Learned for Designing Better Teacher Evaluation Systems,” (Santa Monica, CA: National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, January 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: In defense of Adrian Fenty's afternoon bike rides

Mike jousts (verbally, of course) with Dave DeSchryver, a Washington insider and Whiteboard Advisors consultant, on the State of the Union, NAEP science results, and D.C. education politics. Amber wishes CAP had named names, and Chris plays robo-calling cop.

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


Flypaper's Finest: The Henry Ford model of school choice
By Chris Tessone

Referring to the Model T, Henry Ford famously said, “A customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” It turns out that Dr. Jerry Weast, the superintendent in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, feels the same way about school choice—parents can send their kids to any school they want, as long as it’s part of the traditional public school system (or you’re wealthy enough to send your child to a private school).…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Randi's wave, part two
By Peter Meyer

There are some subjects that lend themselves to free association more than others. Tenure, for instance, is not one of those subjects, for me. Collaboration, however, is. And if I let my mind wander too far, I’ll end up singing Kumbaya.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Gadfly Studios: What's up with that?: Stopping out is better than dropping out

Watch Fordham’s newest star-in-the-making Chris Irvine explain to you the perils of scholarships without college enrollment.



Briefly Noted: And the Oscar goes to...

  • The Academy Award nominations have been announced and, though shortlisted, Waiting for ‘Superman’ didn’t make the cut. Assuredly, this news comes to the chagrin of the Gates Foundation, who pumped $2 million into WSF advertising. So, who is happy about the news? Well, Valerie Strauss for one.  
  • If you want to learn, stop studying and start testing. Sounds reasonable enough. 
  • Gifted students present a unique dilemma to general—and special—educators. When these students aren’t simply one or two grades above level, this dilemma takes on greater magnitude. Education Next offers an interesting look at challenging the gifted.
  • Ohio mother Kelly Williams-Bolar recently finished a ten-day jail term for the crime of “sending your children to a better school than your zoned district school.” Yep, it’s true. Williams-Bolar was caught after a district-hired private investigator traced her true home to the wrong side of the tracks.
  • New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez attacked a unique line item when slashing $30 million from her 2011 education budget: School principals.  
  • In a pandering move to the unions, D.C. Mayor Vince Gray recently criticized the District’s teacher evaluation and performance pay plan: IMPACT. Lest Mayor Gray, and the unions, forget, IMPACT is attached to gobs of philanthropic funds—funds needed to keep those plush D.C. teacher salaries alive and well.
  • The problems of America’s education situation are relative. Compared to Britain and The Netherlands, we’re sitting pretty. For now.


Announcement: Your honest to goodness last reminder

If you’ve thus far forgotten to sign up for our event, Are Bad Schools Immortal, on February 2 (Groundhog Day), from 3:30–5:00PM, then rise and shine camper! (And don’t forget your booties ‘cus it’s coooold out there!) You can still RSVP here, read more about the event here, or check out the event’s film trailer here. And, as always, you can watch the event live online, too.


Announcement: What does the Wizard think of Oz?

What does school-board governance mean in the era of accountability? Join the National School Boards Association, Fordham, and the Iowa School Boards Foundation on February 3 from 9:00–10:00AM for the release of a national survey of school-board members and a discussion of this important topic. Learn more about the event here or RSVP here.


Announcement: Play it bay-ou

Lovers of gumbo and education reform will find their soul-position in the Louisiana DOE Education Reform Fellowship. The Fellowship seeks hard-working and organized individuals committed to improving student outcomes and eliminating achievement gaps through reform-oriented projects. Read the full fellowship listing here.


Fordham's featured publication:

Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools

Many schools have moved away from tracking, or grouping students into separate classes based on their achievement. In this report, Brookings scholar Tom Loveless examines tracking and detracking in Massachusetts middle schools, with particular focus on their implications for high-achieving students. Turns out, detracked schools have fewer advanced students in mathematics than tracked schools. Read the full report to find out more.



The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Amy Fagan, Daniela Fairchild, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Chris Irvine, Amanda Olberg, Jamie Davies O’Leary, Emmy Partin, Marena Perkins, Michael J. Petrilli, Terry Ryan, Janie Scull, Gerilyn Slicker, Chris Tessone, 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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