The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 7. February 17, 2011.
In This Edition

New from Fordham: The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011

Presidents’ Day 2011 is right around the corner, but George Washington would be dismayed by the findings of this new study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Reviewers evaluated state standards for U.S. history in grades K-12. What they found is discouraging: Twenty-eight states—a majority—deserve D or F grades for their academic standards in this key subject. The average grade across all states is a dismal D. Among the few bright spots, South Carolina earns a straight A for its standards and six other jurisdictions—Alabama, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia—garner A-minuses. (The National Assessment's "framework" for U.S. history also fares well.) Read more here.

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Opinion and Analysis

George Washington would not be happy
The state of state U.S. history standards 2011
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Kathleen Porter-Magee

The President’s cynical budget proposal
Is it about the 2012 election or the kids?
Opinion | Michael Petrilli

Evaluating the stimulus legacy
Can’t buy the extraction of entrenched ideologies
News Analysis

The IMPACT of data beyond teacher assessments
The many uses of homegrown data
News Analysis

What's in a racial group?
Yesterday you were black; today you’re Hispanic
News Analysis

Short Reviews

Hope for America’s Children: School Choice Yearbook 2010-2011
School-choice advocates, pat yourselves on the backs
Review | Gerilyn Slicker

Location, Location, Location: How Would A High-Performing Charter School Network Fare in Different States?
A thought experiment with serious implications
Review | Chris Tessone

A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All
Clear big picture, but fuzzy on the details
Review | Jamie Davies O'Leary

Inside Charter Schools: Unlocking Doors to Student Success
The five W’s of the charter-school instructional model
Review | Daniela Fairchild

From The Web

Felting, knitting, and basket-weaving
Reviewing the future of edu-budgets, racial groups, Michelle Rhee, and your local school board
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Janie Scull

In the thick of Ohio’s collective-bargaining debate
The little victories do matter
Flypaper's Finest | February 16, 2011 | Bianca Speranza

The race card—where is it?
Pointing the achievement-gap light where it belongs
Flypaper's Finest | February 14, 2011 | Peter Meyer

What's up with that?: Inglorious charters
Poor spelling plus epithets equals one helluva combination
Gadfly Studios | February 17, 2011


The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming!
Teachers’ colleges don’t want to be graded, pre-schoolers do
Briefly Noted

The future of educational leadership in Atlanta and beyond
Join Checker and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation for a discussion on the superintendency, via webcast

Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?
A KO punch to the social studies “establishment”
Fordham Featured Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: George Washington would not be happy
By Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Kathleen Porter-Magee

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the report

“How unpardonable it would be for us,” the eminent historian David McCullough declared at Hillsdale College in 2005, “with all that we have been given, all the advantages we have, all the continuing opportunities we have to enhance and increase our love of learning—to turn out blockheads or to raise blockheads.”

Unpardonable or not, we have mounting evidence that American education is doing just that—creating a generation of students who don’t understand or value our own nation’s history.

On the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), for example, not even half of twelfth graders made it to NAEP’s basic level in U.S. history—and barely 13 percent were proficient. What does that really mean? Here’s an example: When asked to “identify a significant factor that led to United States involvement in the Korean War” and “explain why this factor was significant,” only one high school senior in seven was able to supply a satisfactory answer, such as America’s efforts to curb the spread of communism after World War II.

Though scores in 2006 were up a bit from earlier rounds, the overall results were still appalling. (NAEP tested U.S. history again in 2010; these scores will be made public in a few months.)

What causes this alarming vacuum of basic historical knowledge? There are multiple explanations, of course, but the most significant is that few states and school systems take U.S. history seriously. So why should their teachers and students?

What is to be done? In this field, nobody is coming to rescue individual states from folly, slackness, or neglect.   

Fordham has a long history of reviewing state-level academic standards in core subjects. Eight years ago, we examined those standards for U.S. history and found that the average grade—this is for the states’ expectations, mind you, not the kids’ achievement—was a D. This year, helped by a pair of top-notch historians, we did it again, in an analysis released yesterday.

But the news is no better. While forty-five states have revised their history standards since 2003, few have improved them. In fact, a majority of states’ standards are still mediocre-to-awful, and the average grade across all states remains a D. Today, a majority of states—twenty-eight in all—earn Ds or Fs. Eighteen flunk.

Only South Carolina has standards in this subject that deserve a straight A. Our analysts—Drs. Sheldon Stern and Jeremy Stern—commended the Palmetto State for having brought focus, rigor, and ample solid content to this essential element of a comprehensive education.

Six other states—Alabama, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia—earn A-minuses, and three more receive grades in the B range. Bravo for them. But this also means that just ten jurisdictions out of fifty-one get honors marks for grounding their standards in real history and avoiding the temptations, pitfalls, and neglect that prevail across most of the land.

The NAEP framework—which we also evaluated, as states, districts, teacher prep programs, and textbook writers look to it for guidance—earns an A-minus, indicating that the content that informs and undergirds its U.S. history assessment is superior to what most states are using. But of course that helps explain why student performance on the U.S. history NAEP is so weak.

What is to be done? In this field, nobody is coming to rescue individual states from folly, slackness, or neglect. This is different from reading and math, where states now have the option—which all but a handful have declared they will use—of substituting the Common Core for their own standards. It’s also different from science, where “common” standards are beginning to be constructed and will likely be available for states’ consideration by year’s end. The reality is that U.S. history standards are entirely up to each state to set for itself.

But that doesn’t mean those with weak standards must start from scratch. Instead, they could look to the states with A-range grades—or to the NAEP framework—and revise their own standards using those as a model. That’s what the District of Columbia did. In 2003, its U.S. history standards were abysmal. A few years ago, however, D.C. officials looked to the best state standards as models, adapted them, and then adopted them. Now the District’s teachers are guided by some of the strongest U.S. history standards to be found anywhere. The twenty-eight states whose standards earned Ds or Fs would do well to do something similar.

Let us emphasize that great standards alone don’t produce superior results. Several states with exemplary history standards still aren’t serious about course requirements, assessments, and accountability. They may have slipshod curricula (if any), mediocre textbooks, and ill-prepared teachers. Top-notch expectations don’t get the education job done. But they’re a mighty important place to start.


Opinion: The President's cynical budget proposal
By Michael Petrilli

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the budget

Obama speaking

   Photo by Daniel Borman

Well, we must hand it to them: The folks behind Ed in ’08 were successful after all. It just appears that they are achieving their goal—making education a central plank in the presidential election—four years behind schedule. As reported by Politico this week, the President used “the issue of education to help frame the budget debate.” Expect to hear a lot about his support for America’s public schools (versus Republican indifference) between now and November 2012.

But his rhetoric—that education is a critical investment that deserves protecting—isn’t backed up by his own policy. Sure, Mr. Obama called for a few small-scale programs that Republicans will oppose, like extending Race to the Top (for districts this time, not states) and recruiting 100,000 new math and science teachers. But this is “school uniforms” sort of stuff. Regardless of what happens to the federal education budget (which will sway a few billion in this direction or a few billion in that—on an Education Department budget nearing $80 billion), even under the “draconian” Republican plan for 2011), education spending in the real world is going to take a huge hit. That’s because of the “New Normal”—as Arne Duncan described it—that is playing out in states and local districts, with enormous budget cuts pending.

If Obama is sincere about “protecting education,” he would call for another massive bailout, on the order of $100 billion or so, to hold the nation’s schools harmless from the steep drop in state and local revenue. (To be clear, I’m not advocating for that, for a variety of reasons.) That’s what it would take to keep schools level-funded. But he doesn’t have the political capital to suggest such a thing, so he’s chosen to play presidential politics instead. (“Democrats in Washington are “for” education. Republicans are “against.”)

To his credit, Obama’s budget proposal would provide incentives (via the new Race to the Top program mostly) for districts to find ways to do more with less. So he’s not tone-deaf to the funding cliff over which localities are currently tumbling. But by pretending that his policies would address the problem, he’s participating in the worst kind of cynical politics. It’s a long way from “the change we can believe in.”

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: Evaluating the stimulus legacy

Two years and one hundred billion dollars later, what impact did the big federal stimulus package have on education reform? According to a recent Hechinger-led analysis: not much. Yes, the stimulus funds slowed teacher firings and kept short-term school budgets level, but we’re already seeing (thanks to the “funding cliff”) that they merely delayed the inevitable. Furthermore, skeptics are increasingly calling Race to the Top’s long-term efficacy into question. Nineteen districts, for instance, have already dropped out of the program in Massachusetts and the lure of the Bay State’s $250 million in Race to the Top winnings isn’t keeping the state’s teacher unions from pushing back against the use of student test scores in evaluating their members. In Maryland, political and policy hang-ups have stalled implementation of the state’s promised legislation tying 50 percent of teacher evaluations to student performance. In other words, even in winning states, the big policy victories that reformers scored last winter and spring are seeping away.

Impact of education stimulus far from certain,” by Michele McNeil, Hechinger Report, February 12, 2011.

How many jobs did the education stimulus save?,” by Michele McNeil, Hechinger Report, February 12, 2011.


News Analysis: The IMPACT of data beyond teacher assessments

D.C.’s classy new teacher-evaluation system, IMPACT, is just gaining traction (even as the new Mayor is hinting that he wants it redone). But the data generated through its process are already finding other uses. The evaluation tool, which grades teachers based on classroom observations and value-added measurements, has thus far been used to fire instructors ranked ineffective (seventy got the boot under Michelle Rhee’s reign) as well as to reward those in the upper echelons (Rhee also doled out performance-based bonuses to 600 teachers). But District education officials are beginning to think bigger. Most encouragingly, they’re noodling ways to use IMPACT data to assess teacher-preparation programs, tracking both stellar and shoddy teachers back to the source. Never mind about the NCTQ/U.S. News and World Report assessment of education schools; D.C. is generating a homegrown ranking system all of its own.

D.C. schools to use data from teacher evaluation system in new ways,” by Stephanie McCrummen, Washington Post, February 14, 2011.


News Analysis: What's in a racial group?

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Click to listen to commentary on the issue

Meet Michelle López-Mullins, a student of Peruvian, Chinese, Irish, Shawnee, and Cherokee descent. Under new Department of Education requirements that take effect this year, Ms. López-Mullins—who acknowledges partial Hispanic ethnicity—will, regardless of her rainbow-hued heritage, be reported to federal officials only as Hispanic. Multiracial students with no Latino blood will be labeled with the vague catchall “two or more races.” As the Times notes, these new designations for K-12 students will probably “increase the nationwide student population of Hispanics, and could erase some ‘black’ students who will now be counted as Hispanic or as multiracial.” This sort of racial classification, we are told, is necessary: It’s the only way the nation can judge how a certain race is doing academically, and whether or not its members are being “left behind.” But in a society where one in seven couplings are now interracial or interethnic, where these types of categorizations can whimsically change from year to year, maybe it is time to move away from outdated classifications and toward a post-racial society.

Counting by Race Can Throw Off Some Numbers,” by Susan Saulny, New York Times, February 9, 2011.

Take the Politics out of Race,” by Shelby Steele, New York Times Room for Debate, February 14, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: Hope for America's Children: School Choice Yearbook 2010-2011
By Gerilyn Slicker

School Choice Yearbook coverGet out your pom-poms. The Alliance for School Choice has released its 2010-11 yearbook—offering a visually stimulating look at the nation’s twenty private-school choice programs, as well as some background on the school-choice movement in general. The report declares that 2010 “showcased the resilience of the school choice movement” after a challenging 2009. A few highlights: Student enrollment in private-school choice programs—defined by the Alliance as vouchers and tax credit scholarships—grew by four percent (bringing total participation in these programs to 190,000); two new choice programs were enacted with bipartisan support in Louisiana and Oklahoma; and existing programs saw growth (those in Ohio and Louisiana even exceeded their enrollment caps)—all amidst a troubling economic environment. The yearbook rounds out with a recap of choice-friendly research from 2010 and state-specific profiles of the various private-school-choice programs in thirteen states. Like any yearbook from advocacy groups, this one is slightly self-aggrandizing. But the fact remains: Private-school-choice programs have come a long way since their inception twenty years ago.

Andrew Campanella, Malcolm Glenn, and Lauren Perry, “Hope for America’s Children: School Choice Yearbook 2010-2011” (Washington, D.C.: Alliance for School Choice, 2011).


Review: Location, Location, Location: How Would A High-Performing Charter School Network Fare in Different States?
By Chris Tessone

Location, Location, Location coverAs it turns out, success in growing charter-school networks is about three things: location, location, and location. This report from Bellwether Education Partners speaks to questions of the scalability and financial stability of charter schools; it examines the hypothetical financial health of a single charter network, Aspire Public Schools, if it took up shop in any one of twenty-three states instead of its current home in California. The analysis indicates that, in eighteen out of twenty-three jurisdictions studied, Aspire would be more financially sustainable, enjoying an average of $1,410 in additional surplus funds per student. In D.C., Aspire would receive $6,383 more per pupil. In only three states (Idaho, Colorado, and Arizona) would Aspire operate under a deficit. (In Ohio and North Carolina, the operating costs would be comparable.) Admittedly, the paper is a thought experiment rather than a full-blown financial analysis—it relies heavily on the recent Ball State study of inequitable charter-school financing and on some assumptions about cost differences between California and other states. Noting the gravity of these assumptions, the results of this analysis are still powerful. There is no denying that certain states are much more charter-friendly than others. As such, expect to see robust expansion of charter-school networks only in states with favorable financing landscapes, with CMOs in states with weaker financing just limping along.

Chris Lozier and Andrew J. Rotherham, “Location, Location, Location: How Would A High-Performing Charter School Network Fare in Different States?,” (Washington, D.C.: Bellweather Education Partners, 2011).


Review: A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn't in Providing an Excellent Education for All
By Jamie Davies O’Leary

A Chance to Make History coverOn the twentieth anniversary of Teach for America, founder Wendy Kopp (with some help from Teaching As Leadership author Steven Farr) reflects on lessons from TFA teachers and alums about what it takes to lift achievement for low-income kids. Despite an over-abundance of TFA lingo and countless anecdotes that—while inspiring—are redundant, formulaic, and idealized, the book makes several compelling arguments. Most notably, TFA teachers and alums have shown that it’s possible to significantly lift performance of low-income students. Kopp goes on to offer candid perspectives on funding, school choice, class-size reduction, technology, and even “heroic teaching”—noting that not one of these education-reform bullets is silver. Unfortunately, she also leaves some important questions unanswered. Though the book articulates the need for more effective teachers, it doesn’t address the supply-side of the talent equation (i.e., how to attract better teachers to the profession other than through alternative certification). Sure, the book hails success stories from high-performing charter management groups (KIPP, YES Prep), whole cities (New Orleans, NYC, D.C.), and other innovative models (School of One, Rocketship Education), but for those not living in dynamic hubs of educational innovation and able to cultivate such talent-dependent reforms, the book’s lack of tangible policy recommendations is discouraging. Kopp calls for ways to increase the pace of change—including fostering political leadership and advocacy infrastructure—but skims over political and policy barriers affecting these initiatives. While there’s much to like about the book’s inspiring, can-do attitude, it doesn’t go far enough in providing the real-world advice that policymakers need.

Wendy Kopp with Steven Farr, A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All, (New York, NY: PublicAffairs Books, 2011).


Review: Inside Charter Schools: Unlocking Doors to Student Success
By Daniela Fairchild

This summative report—compiling much primary- and secondary-source information—is the culmination of a four-year charter-school project from the National Charter School Research Project. In it, Betheny Gross offers an insider’s look at charter-school leaders, teachers, and academic programs via surveys, case study analyses, and evaluation of third-party longitudinal data. The report is full of interesting tidbits about charters (35 percent, for example, operate for an extended school year, though few have adopted novel instructional models), and well-articulates the benefits and obstacles for school leaders and teachers who work in the charter-school sector. The abundance of information presented in this report, while informative, also somewhat overshadows the main thesis—that charter autonomy can only create the opportunity for success, not assure it. Based on all of the information garnered through the four-year Inside Charter Schools project, Gross comes away with policy recommendations aimed at supporting charter-school leaders and teachers. Among them: “Authorizers need to look closely for a clear and achievable mission” and “State laws should allow charter schools to operate outside traditional teacher contracts.” Those interested in unlocking the door to the charter-school classroom need look no further.

Betheny Gross, “Inside Charter Schools: Unlocking Doors to Student Success,” (Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education, February 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Felting, knitting, and basket-weaving

Mike and Janie hit hard with talk of the proposed budgets, racial classifications, and Michelle Rhee’s legacy. Amber taps the minds of school-board members while Chris yells “No one puts baby in a cage—or a corner!”

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: In the thick of Ohio's collective-bargaining debate
By Bianca Speranza

Yesterday Nick and I attended the Ohio Senate Insurance, Commerce, and Labor Committee hearing on SB 5, which would eliminate collective bargaining for state employees and greatly scale back union rights for local public-sector employees. 

…After waiting for two and a half hours, being physically pushed around and asked if I was a journalist—or a member of the Tea Party (which is staging a demonstration in support of the bill tomorrow), trying to ignore supporters of the bill who were behaving like petulant five-year-olds, and seeing bomb-sniffing dogs and not-so-happy state-highway patrol officers roam about, we made it into the Senate hearing room.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: The race card—where is it?
By Peter Meyer

Though I have never been a big fan of our obsession with race and poverty as useful tools for improving academic achievement—what starts as a sociological construct (thank you, James Coleman) quickly becomes a general principal, which, by the time you get to the classroom trenches, has become a horribly self-fulfilling and deterministic pedagogy—Michael Winerip’s thoughtful profile of Ronald Ferguson in [Monday’s] New York Times offers some hope that we can start focusing on what counts: what you know and when you know it.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Gadfly Studios: What's up with that?: Inglorious charters 

What's up with that?

Chris gets up in arms against tyrants everywhere—and against those who can’t spell “tyrant” to begin with.



Briefly Noted: The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming!

  • Afraid that their mantra “A's all around!” won’t pertain to them, teacher-preparation programs are protesting the NCTQ/U.S News and World Report plan to issue the programs A through F grades for effectiveness. With ed schools remiss to assign anything less than sub-stellar grades, someone needed to fill that void.
  • Yet potential headway has been made in the Empire State. The founders of Teacher U will open a new stand-alone graduate school of education next fall. Dubbed the Relay School of Education, it will offer education degrees (not alt certifications) only to those who work full-time in the classroom.
  • Education reformers in the state trenches beware. Reports of vandalism and harassment against state-level reformers, including our friend Tom Luna, Idaho’s state supe, have been coming off the ticker. (We’re not kidding.)
  • Gone are the days when toddlers learned to play nicely with others or—maybe—the letters of the alphabet. Chicago parents interested in enrolling their children in one of CPS’s better Kindergarten programs have started hiring tutors to teach basic geometry, pattern recognition, and advanced literacy skills.
  • A recent public hearing before the Commission on Civil Rights has landed ED’s Office of Civil Rights back on the front pages as OCR begins to define the slippery notion of “disparate impact”—when a policy unintentionally discriminates against a particular group—and which remedies actually may work. We agree that caution is in order.
  • Interested in how your local district spent its education-stimulus funds? has the information you seek.
  • Last year marked a 30 percent increase since the previous year in the number of Chinese students studying at America’s higher-education institutions. Forget Sputnik, we need a modern-day Paul Revere.
  • The California state board of education has pulled back the parent trigger—via the guise of “smart implementation planning."


Announcement: The future of educational leadership in Atlanta and beyond

What will the twenty-first century mean for educational leadership in the Atlanta area—and for the superintendency writ large? Join Fordham President Chester E. Finn, Jr., a swell panel, and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation for a live webcast on this issue February 21, from 6:00-7:45PM. The event will be webcast live here.



Fordham's featured publication: Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?


This report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, published in August, 2003, includes penetrating critiques by renegade social studies educators who fault the regnant teaching methods and curricular ideas of their field and suggest how it can be reformed. While nearly everyone recognizes that American students don't know much about history and civics, these analysts probe the causes of this ignorance—and place primary responsibility at the feet of the social studies "establishment" to which they belong.




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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