The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 6. February 10, 2011.
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Opinion and Analysis

The anachronism of school boards
Well-meaning caretakers are not what our education system needs
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Winkler

The leadership illusion
You can’t spell turnaround without “effective school leader”
News Analysis

An a-OK form of edu-governance
Oklahoma to axe the state board of education
News Analysis

Pushing away from CBAs
States hit the heart of the issue: collective-bargaining rights
News Analysis

Short Reviews

The 2010 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?
America has never topped the international charts
Review | Marena Perkins

A Measured Approach to Improving Teacher Preparation
A new cookie jar for hand of Uncle Sam
Review | Gerilyn Slicker

Value-Added Measures in Education: What Every Educator Needs to Know
A balanced VAM primer—and some recs to boot
Review | Chris Irvine

The State of Charter School Authorizing: A Report on NACSA’s Authorizer Survey
When it comes to authorizers, bigger is better
Review | Kathryn Mullen Upton

From The Web

Mike slashes bad ideas
Why we need better school leaders, but not state school boards or collective bargaining
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

Superintendents to the woodshed!
Andrew Cuomo blasts supes' salaries
Flypaper's Finest | February 7, 2011 | Peter Meyer

Unsung examples from international education
When it comes to digital education, we could learn a thing or two
Flypaper's Finest | February 7, 2011 | Daniela Fairchild

Event Video: Are Bad Schools Immortal?
Those who missed our Groundhog Day event are in luck
Gadfly Studios | February 9, 2011

What's up with that?: Robo-call back later
You don’t mess with a parent’s sleep cycle
Gadfly Studios | February 3, 2011


Evolution and urban Catholic schools
One about science curriculum, the other about donor accountability
Briefly Noted

Webcast event: Taking a fresh look at education leadership in Atlanta and beyond
Join Checker and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation for a discussion about the superintendency, via webcast

Building great schools “on purpose”
Join Fordham, CER & Casey Carter for an evening at the University Club

AEI event: Degrees of difficulty
Join AEI February 15 for a discussion on raising degree-completion rates

Loads of neat edu-jobs available
TN SCORE, Mass Insight, and the LA DOE office of parental options want YOU!

The State of State Standards—and the Common Core—in 2010
How states’ standards match up to those of the Common Core in ELA and math
Fordham featured publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: The anacronism of school boards
By Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Winkler

“The local school board, especially the elected kind, is an anachronism and an outrage. We can no longer pretend it’s working well or hide behind the mantra of ‘local control of education.’ We need to steel ourselves to put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery and move on to something that will work for children.”

With that statement on the record, we’re doubly admiring of Anne Bryant and her colleagues at the National School Boards Association (NSBA) for welcoming us into their recent project—“School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era”—a survey of roughly 900 school board members. We went into it willing to have our previous impressions of local school boards overturned. For the most part, that hasn’t happened.

Because we’re serious about America’s need for bold school reform, we came away from the survey data dismayed that so many board members appear hostile to some of the most urgently needed reforms—and accepting of timeworn (and for the most part unsuccessful) tweaks to the current system. Substantial numbers view charter schools, intra-district choice among schools, and year-round calendars as “not at all important” to improving student learning. They’re cool toward teachers entering classrooms from “nontraditional” directions. Yet they’re warm-to-hot when asked about the value of such primordial yet unreliable “reforms” as smaller classes and more professional development. And they’re more agitated about school inputs—funding above all—than about academic achievement.

Putting it bluntly, would public education come closer to serving the country's needs in 2011 if it were run by visionary, reform-driven leaders rather than by cautious, community-based fiduciaries?


One must wonder whether this is because they’ve grown acculturated to traditional educationist views of education—half of all board members have served in their current districts for more than five years—or because more than a quarter of them are current or former educators themselves. Could it be because so many of them in large districts (more than one in three) indicate that unions contribute to their campaigns and presumably expect something in return? Or is it that they regard their role like members of corporate boards of directors, chiefly concerned with the well-being of the organization itself (particularly its revenue streams), rather than like education policymakers, much less reformers?

There’s evidence in the NSBA data for all these possibilities—and a good many more.

Even as we applaud school board members for their service, much of it time-consuming and selfless, we cannot but wonder about some of their core values and priorities for K-12 education.

Three examples:

• School board members tend to cite inadequate inputs as the main barrier to improved school outcomes. Three quarters of them view insufficient funding as a strong or total barrier to raising achievement. That’s about twice as many as point to collective-bargaining agreements—and more than three times as many as identify “community apathy” as a major barrier. Yes, economic times are perilous, but stressed finances call for exploring uncharted waters, not waiting for manna from the taxpayers.

• Board members also favor intangible outcomes. Asked to rank education goals, three-fourths of the surveyed group say that “help[ing] students fulfill their potential” or “prepar[ing] students for a satisfying and productive life” is number one. Just 16 percent chose preparing students for the workforce or for college. One wonders, in our globally competitive world, how their sense of what’s important got so skewed. Do they really not put much stock in the most tangible outcomes of schooling? Are they possibly hiding from results-based accountability by selecting goals that cannot readily be measured?

• School board members have only a vague awareness that learning levels must rise. Though two-thirds concur that “the current state of student achievement is unacceptable,” barely one-quarter “strongly agree” with that statement. A whopping 87 percent agree or strongly agree that “defining success only in terms of student achievement is narrow and short-sighted; we need to emphasize the development of the whole child.” And a full one-third are nervous about placing “unreasonable expectations for student achievement in our schools.”

These data also show that board members are conscientious citizens who take the job seriously and work hard at it. They want to serve their communities, and they want kids to have good lives. Demographically, they comprise a fair cross section of middle-aged, upper-middle-class America. They’re better educated than most of the population, and their household income is greater than most. They’re moderate to conservative in their politics, they’re professionals or businessmen/women in their careers, and they serve on the board—they say—for altruistic, public-spirited motives, which is borne out by the fact that just 36 percent have children in school in the district whose board they’re on. (Of course, 70 percent are fifty or older.)

These well-meaning, solid citizens, however, do not manifest great urgency about changing the education system for which they’re responsible, certainly not in disruptive ways. Yes, they want it to do better. But they also cite myriad obstacles to changing it, obstacles they find outside themselves and their communities and thus obstacles that they, almost by definition, are powerless to overcome. Moreover, they’re principally concerned—the “board of directors” syndrome again—with the viability of the school system as an institution, fiduciaries, one might say, of a public trust rather than change agents on behalf of a compelling societal agenda.

This is not too surprising, considering that the “theory” behind elected local school boards as a public-school governance system was to induce selfless civic leaders to preside over and safeguard a valuable community institution, keeping it out of politics and out of trouble while solving whatever problems it encountered. The theory did not expect individuals elected to these roles to function as innovators, much less as revolutionaries.

The question that needs to be asked again, however, is whether American education in the twenty-first century would be better served by a different arrangement, one more apt to tally the considerable challenges facing communities, states, regions, and the nation as a whole and then reshape key institutions to meet those challenges. Putting it bluntly, would public education come closer to serving the country’s needs in 2011 if it were run by visionary, reform-driven leaders rather than by cautious, community-based fiduciaries? We’re inclined to think it would.


News Analysis: The leadership illusion

Gadfly has long harbored doubts about school turnarounds. The inertia of low-performing schools is great, and the middling reform efforts meant to alter their trajectories never go far enough. But at least, he surmised, even the softest districts almost always replace the leaders of their failing schools, right? Nope. According to a recent New York Times analysis (based on data from eight states), 44 percent of schools receiving federal turnaround money retained their principals. In Michigan, that figure spikes to 68 percent. The Times concludes that there simply aren’t enough high-quality principals available to lead these efforts. (If there were, we probably wouldn’t have quite so many failing schools.) But that doesn’t have to be the case; surely the outdated, onerous licensure requirements for principals are keeping many talented leaders (including corporate-style turnaround artists) out of the labor pool. So before we conclude that we’re facing a real “human capital” shortage, let’s tear down the wall keeping lots of good people out of our schools.

U.S. Plan to Replace Principals Hits Snag: Who Will Step In?,” by Sam Dillon, New York Times, February 7, 2011.


News Analysis: An a-OK form of edu-governance

When it comes to rethinking education governance, Oklahoma is stepping it up. Big time. The recently elected, majority Republican, state senate is set to pass a bill that would eliminate the state board of education. (To our knowledge, OK would be just the third state to go sans-state board, joining MN and WI.) Instead, legislators would shift responsibility of the Oklahoma Department of Education over to the Sooner State’s elected superintendent. The move came after new state supe Janet Barresi, also a Republican, found it hard to get her policy initiatives approved by the Democratic-leaning state board (whose members were mostly appointed by the previous governor). Defenders of state boards of education (and frankly, we’re not sure who they are) might claim that these bodies are essential guardians of the public trust. But, as with local boards, they strike us more as anachronistic features of a system perfectly designed to maintain the status quo.

Oklahoma Legislators Push to Take Away State Education Board’s Power,” by The Associated Press, Huffington Post, February 6, 2011.

Oklahoma Senate Will Begin State Department of Education Reform Monday,” by Staff, The State Column, February 8, 2011.


News Analysis: Pushing away from CBAs

Reform-minded legislators in a number of states have begun to challenge teacher evaluation and tenure practices, and some aren’t stopping there. Lawmakers in Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, and Tennessee have all recently introduced bills that would either limit the scope of collective bargaining to wages and benefits or ban the practice altogether. Proponents argue that eliminating the ability to bargain—particularly over policies such as class size and schedules and hours—will allow school leaders more freedom to set policies best fitted for their schools. In doing so, schools will be able to spend money in a more efficient and targeted manner. Teacher unions, not surprisingly, are none too keen on the idea of losing their right to be at the table. But any lawmakers who think they can ease the grip of teacher unions simply by eliminating collective bargaining should think again. As veteran analysts of the education politics of Right to Work states can attest, teachers groups simply get protections written into state law. While collective-bargaining agreements no doubt add to the restrictions under which most schools and school systems operate, they’re just one piece of a larger puzzle.

States Aim to Curb Collective Bargaining,” by Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week, February 9, 2011.

Indiana panel OKs bill limiting teacher bargaining,” by Deanna Martin, Boston Globe, January 27, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: The 2010 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?
By Marena Perkins

2010 Brown Center report coverDespite a slightly tardy release, the 2010 report from Brookings’s Brown Center does a lot in a little space; PISA, NAEP, Race to the Top, and the Common Core all get top billing. One key thesis emerges through the report’s tripartite analysis: Test scores aren’t always what they seem. Part I tackles international assessments, with author Tom Loveless convincingly debunking two “myths”: first, that U.S. performance on international assessments has declined over time, and, second, that Finland is alpha on international rankings, with China and India quickly rising. To disprove the former, Loveless tracks U.S. results and progress on international math assessments dating back to 1964. During the First International Math Study (FIMS), the U.S. ranked eleventh out of twelve participating countries. Compared to those same eleven FIMS countries, the U.S. now scores close to average, marking an upward trend in student achievement. The second myth he counters by decoupling Finnish scores on PISA from those of TIMSS and other more content-oriented tests. While Finland’s students excel when tested on their PISA-like “literacy” learning, they fall to the middle of the pack on more traditional tests of math and science prowess such as TIMSS. As for China and India, Loveless reminds us that neither country has ever participated in an international assessment. (Shanghai, he asserts, doesn’t count.) The other two parts of the report, one cross-tabulating NAEP gains to Race to the Top winner status (part II) and one comparing NAEP assessments to the Common Core frameworks (part III), are also worthy of perusal. (Our take on part III here). Check them out—and before we’re any further into 2011.

Tom Loveless, “The 2010 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?” (Washington, D.C.: The Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, February 2011).


Review: A Measured Approach to Teacher Preparation
By Gerilyn Slicker

A Measured Approach to Teacher PreparationTeacher preparation programs are pumping out 300,000 teachers a year, many of whom enter classrooms ill-prepared and ineffective. This Education Sector policy brief outlines the major criticisms of the current teacher-prep system: It doesn’t heed the labor needs of states and districts, nor does it offer sufficient focus on practical skills or rigor in selecting candidates and conferring degrees. The brief then outlines a three-part strategy to improve teacher preparation—with each of the recommendations pointed directly to the federal government. While the authors readily admit that the “legal and political capacity of the U.S. Department of Education to force all 50 states to simultaneously build strong accountability systems…has been limited,” they believe their outlined “new paradigm” will extricate federal policy from its current muddle. First, create a new federal framework for evaluating and enhancing teacher preparation programs. Second, establish a revised set of competitive grants to encourage states to assess and revamp their programs by building off the Teacher Quality Partnership Grants and School Improvement Grants programs. And third, streamline financial aid programs to improve quality of the teacher workforce. While the authors’ push for outcomes-based accountability requirements and their recommendations for collecting and using data are admirable, their naive faith in Uncle Sam’s ability to cause these policy changes to occur is disheartening, to say the least.

Chad Aldeman, Kevin Carey, Erin Dillon, Ben Miller, and Elena Silva, “A Measured Approach to Improving Teacher Preparation,” (Washington, D.C.: Education Sector, 2011).


Review: Value-Added Measures in Education: What Every Educator Needs to Know
By Chris Irvine

Value-Added Measures in Education cover image“Hold people accountable for what they can control”—a simple, yet foundational premise in Douglas N. Harris’s comprehensive new book on value-added measurement (VAM). With the AFT’s Randi Weingarten authoring the foreword, Harris remains impressively neutral in explaining the benefits and drawbacks of this controversial new teacher evaluation tool. The book attempts to “clear away the fog” surrounding VAM, which is no simple task. In three sections, it offers a detailed explanation and contextualization of VAM (including an overview of its potential value when done right), a description of the challenges that arise in applying VAM in the real world, and potential solutions to these problems. Empirical analyses that support Harris’s points are intertwined throughout; the book’s stated goal—to translate this multi-faceted and contentious system into comprehensible language—is handled admirably. Harris concludes with recommendations for using VAM appropriately and effectively, as well as ways to create and report these evaluation metrics. This book serves as a worthy users’ manual for value-added and is a welcome addition to the teacher-measurement debate.

Douglas N. Harris, Value-Added Measures in Education: What Every Educator Needs to Know, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2011).


Review: The State of Charter Authorizing: A Report on NACSA's Authorizer Survey
By Kathryn Mullen Upton

NACSA State of Charter School Authorizing cover imageThis third annual survey of charter authorizers from the National Association for Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) is its largest to date—and replete with interesting findings. For instance, the survey found that charter agreements with lengthier terms—ten years, say, versus five—led to more weak schools remaining open, since authorizers tend not to close schools mid-charter. We also learn that large authorizers (in charge of ten or more schools) are likelier to implement best practices than their smaller counterparts. And with roughly 700 authorizers overseeing only one or two schools each, questions of authorizer efficacy and resource adequacy abound. Perhaps the most consequential finding—and one that deserves additional study—is that authorizer oversight of charters run by management companies (both nonprofit and for-profit) remains weak. This is a key issue, especially in situations where incapacity at the school-governance level renders the management company more powerful than the body accountable for a school’s success.

National Association of Charter School Authorizers, “The State of Charter School Authorizing: A Report on NACSA’s Authorizer Survey,” (Chicago, IL: National Association of Charter School Authorizers, January 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Mike slashes bad ideas

With vocal deftness, Mike and Rick—Amber, too—discuss leadership in school turnaround efforts, collective-bargaining rights, and the need (or lack thereof) for state boards of education. Daniela channels Tom Loveless, noting that the U.S. has never been on top in international tests, and Chris reminds us that schools shouldn’t be like Santa Claus.

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: Superintendents to the woodshed!
By Peter Meyer

New York hates to be behind its Hudson River rival—New Jersey—but new Empire State Governor Andrew Cuomo is doing a nice job keeping up with his Garden State comrade-in-chief Chris Christie with education blasts. This morning, Cuomo makes an appearance on the front page of the New York Timesuttering unsympathetic comments about the salaries of some of  New York’s school superintendents…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Unsung examples from international education
By Daniela Fairchild

…The recent PISA results shocked America into a heightened sense of global educational awareness. For the first time in a long time—since Sputnik some have argued—policymakers and pundits are now, en masse, peering into the bowels of education systems abroad. They’re dissecting the teaching profession in Finland (it’s true that the Finns only accept the top 10 percent of college graduates into teacher preparation programs) and ogling over the curriculum in Singapore.

But they’re all missing key exemplars—and the point of the whole exercise to begin with.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Gadfly Studios: Event video: Are Bad Schools Immortal?

If you missed our Groundhog Day event, if you just need to see it again (and again, and again…), or if you want to show it off to your friends, the video is now up. You’re welcome.


Gadfly Studios: What's up with that?: Robo-call back later

Chris Irvine explains why snow days are sacred—for both students and parents.



Briefly Noted: Evolution and urban Catholic schools

  • Today marks the first House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on the reauthorization of ESEA. Billed as ESEA Renewal: 101 for novice committee members, it hints at an early commitment to reauthorization.
  • Frighteningly, only 28 percent of the nation’s biology teachers straightforwardly teach evolution. And 13 percent actually advocate creationism.
  • One Colorado Springs school district is putting the kibosh on its central office. By scrapping the majority of central office personnel, including the supe, the district is placing more authority in the hands of its high school principals—and saving over $10 million over the next five years.
  • An external review (partially funded by the NEA) found that the value-added metrics used in the L.A. Times’s celebrated exposés of teacher effectiveness are “demonstrably inadequate.” While the Times stands by its metrics and data, WaPo reporter Nick Anderson raises some legitimate red flags about its validity. The What and How of VAM just got another degree more complicated. On the other hand, what’s the alternative?
  • Along with parents, students, and the higher power, urban Catholic schools are now accountable to a new group: their donors. And they—especially the Wall Street-types who pump $15 million into the New York archdiocese—are an opinionated bunch, accustomed to running things themselves.
  • Splinter teacher-union groups—who oppose traditional union politics in favor of education reforms—have popped up in L.A. and NYC. With them, one has to wonder if the cracks in the union monolith will widen.


Announcement: Webcast event: Taking a fresh look at education leadership

On February 21, from 6:00-7:45PM, Fordham President Chester E. Finn, Jr. will chair the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation Speaker Series panel discussing the superintendency and what school districts need to compete in the twenty-first century. Focused on Atlanta and vicinity, the event will be webcast live here.


Announcement: Building great schools "on purpose"

Investigate the “on purpose” culture of some great schools with author Samuel Casey Carter on February 16 from 5:00-8:00PM. The discussion will be informed by Carter’s new book On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character and will be led by Jeanne Allen, president of the Center on Education Reform, and Chester E. Finn, Jr., Fordham’s president. To learn more about the event and to RSVP, click here.


Announcement: AEI event: Degrees of difficulty

February 15 should be provocative, too, as AEI hosts a discussion of college degree-completion rates, the policies hindering their progress, and state-level reform strategies in place during a day-long conference. To register, click here.


Announcement: Loads of neat edu-jobs available

SCORE one for Tennessee
The Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (TN-SCORE) is searching for a new executive director. If you think you have what it takes—an entrepreneurial mind, high energy, relationship-building skills, and an ability to manage both big-picture and day-to-day operations—then send a resume and cover letter to Sylvia Flowers. You can also learn more about the position here.

The best in sight
Mass Insight Education’s School Turnaround Group is looking for an engagement manager, program manager, and project coordinator. For those with experience driving real change in school districts, or the motivation and know-how to work in a high-energy, face-paced environment, you may want to check out these possibilities. Do so here.

Choosing to work with parents’ choice
The Louisiana Department of Education’s office of parental options is on the hunt for a smart, motivated individual with a charter-school track record who is interested in managing district-charter relations and recruiting national operators to LA. Learn more here.


Fordham's featured publication:

The State of State Standards--and the Common Core--in 2010


In July 2010, Fordham reviewed the English language arts (ELA) and mathematics standards for all fifty states and the District of Columbia—and found that the Common Core standards bested the standards of a majority of states. For ELA, the Common Core standards are clearer and more rigorous than thirty-seven states’ individual standards. For math, the Common Core standards are superior to thirty-nine states’ standards. As the forty-four states who have adopted the Common Core wrestle with issues of alignment and implementation of these ambitious new standards, this Fordham review will be an important resource.




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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