The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 8. February 24, 2011.
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Opinion and Analysis

Midwest unrest: The view from Washington
What’s a reform-minded Dem to do?
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Midwest unrest: The view from the front line
The collective-bargaining struggles of Ohio
Opinion | Terry Ryan

The long arm of the Common Core
CCSS assessments and charter autonomy: an adversarial relationship?
News Analysis

If I'm going down, I'm taking everyone with me
Adult interests win out again in Motown
News Analysis

Short Reviews

The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District
A great story with an uncertain ending
Review | Daniela Fairchild

Student Achievement in Massachusetts’ Charter Schools
For charter schools, at least, urban is better
Review | Amber M. Winkler

Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It
Ron Wolk wants power to the people
Review | Marena Perkins

From The Web

Qaddafi, Rhee, and other zealots
Liam and Mike slap one another upside the head as they talk Madison, Motown, and Michelle
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Liam Julian

In Wisconsin, a battle over “local control”
Defanging the foxes guarding the hen house
Flypaper's Finest | February 22, 2011 | Mike Petrilli

The next frontier (abyss?): Testing and its kissin’ cousin, cheating
What happens when the inmates score themselves
Flypaper's Finest | February 19, 2011 | Peter Meyer

The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011: A closer look
What we did and why we did it
Gadfly Studios | February 24, 2011


Holding the budget hostage
And why we’re not going to Hell in a hand basket
Briefly Noted

Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Frontline
An honest look at our experience as a charter-school authorizer
Fordham featured publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: Midwest unrest: The view from Washington
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the unrest in the Midwest from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

As union protests in Madison, Columbus, and elsewhere loop continuously on cable TV, it cannot be easy to be an education-reform-minded Democrat. They’re honorable folks; their commitment to bold education reform seems genuine; and they’ve generally been willing to push for a host of promising changes in policy and practice that rub teacher unions the wrong way. (Well, not vouchers!) They’ve been reasonably candid in fingering those same unions as obstacles to programs and initiatives that put kids’ interests first.

At the same time, most of them have labored—especially the elected officials and wannabes—not to burn all their union bridges. Some of the most prominent of them (starting with Messrs. Obama and Duncan) have even created opportunities to “reach out” to union leaders with encouraging words if not actual hugs. And the many billions shoveled from Washington into public-education coffers these last two years—billions devoted almost entirely to preserving teacher jobs—have gone a long way to salve whatever wounds were caused by support for charter schools, achievement-linked teacher evaluations, etc. The basic stance of reform-minded Democrats vis-à-vis the unions seems to be “tough love”—and it’s no stretch to observe that the signs of love have exceeded (certainly in cash value) the tough bits.

Now it’s getting harder for them. The 2010 elections combined with staggering federal and state deficits to spell a “new normal” for reform-minded Democrats. The “tough love” strategy is vastly harder to pull off—especially the love part—and they’ve now got to choose the side of the proverbial line on which they will stand. On one side are the unions, pretty much demanding business-as-usual, complete with tenure, seniority, scheduled raises, Cadillac pensions, ample fringe benefits, and the right to bring just about everything to the bargaining table. Of course, there are huge dollar costs there and essentially no reforming.

Like it or not, reformers of every political persuasion will have to pick sides.


On the other side can be found governors like Christie, Kasich, Daniels, and Walker, not to mention the GOP freshmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. Not only are they pushing hard for deep cuts in government budgets at every level; they are also attacking the dearest possessions of public employees, including job security, predictable salary increases, generous (and immutable) benefits, even the right to bargain collectively itself.

Note that this GOP agenda is not mainly about education reform per se—though the proposed changes would indeed make it easier to weed out incompetent teachers, reward superior classroom performance, and empower school leaders in the personnel realm. The agenda is mostly about saving taxpayers’ money, curbing the privileged status of public employees in general, and reining in the practice of collective bargaining in the one large domain of the American economy where it still flourishes, namely the public sector. Teacher unions, some of the staunchest and most numerous supporters of Democratic office-seekers, would be among the groups hit hardest.

Faced with such a choice, what’s a reform-minded Democrat to do? Most are trying to split the difference, insisting on the long-sought education reforms, acknowledging that the unions are obstacles, and agreeing that “some changes need to be made” in the bargaining process (as well as give-backs squeezed from current contracts) without giving up on unionism and collective bargaining themselves. The argument is generally: Unionism is not to blame, the unions themselves are.

There will surely be some places where that sort of “middle course” ends up being steered, where reins are applied but gently enough that the horse doesn’t wind up with no teeth left. And that’s not necessarily a bad outcome.

But it’s not a great one, either, not from the standpoint of school kids, taxpayers, and American competitiveness. At least so long as the current structures and governance arrangements of American public education endure, the average local teacher union is apt to prevail over the average local school board. The union has many more assets, including a large (often captive) membership, a discretionary (and rather secret) treasury, the ability to bring in heavyweights from the state and national offices, the threat of striking, all those statutory job protections, and leaders who don’t have other day jobs (as most school board members do) and can thus work on their agendas 24/7. What’s more, in many places, the union also exercises great influence over who gets elected to the school board. (The dynamic is very different for cops and firefighters—who negotiate with mayors and county executives rather than boards that they largely control.)

Given this fundamental power imbalance, Republicans are not wrong to go after collective bargaining itself—and to use both the budget crisis and their current political ascendancy to limit it to a few key issues, if not abolish it altogether. And reform-minded Democrats may be kidding themselves to believe that they can preserve collective bargaining while still pushing forward the reforms they know to be necessary.

As one veteran follower of teacher unions remarked this week, the battle lines are clear. Like it or not, reformers of every political persuasion will have to pick sides. May they choose wisely.


Opinion: Midwest unrest: The view from the front line
Terry Ryan

The Midwest is in turmoil over proposed changes to state laws that deal with collective-bargaining rights and pensions for public-sector employees, including teachers and other school personnel (as well as police officers, state employees, and more). Madison looks like Cairo, Indianapolis like Tunis, and Columbus like Bahrain, with thousands demonstrating, chanting slogans, and pressing their issues. (Fortunately, nobody has opened fire or dropped “small bombs” as in Tripoli.) Economics are driving this angst: How should these states deal with their wretched fiscal conditions and how should the pain be distributed?

To address these problems, Republican lawmakers and governors have proposed major changes to collective-bargaining laws and pension systems. In Ohio, Senate Bill 5 would continue to afford teachers the right to bargain collectively over wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. But the bill would also make profound alterations to the status quo, including: requiring all public-school employees to contribute at least 20 percent of the premiums for their health-insurance plan; removing from collective bargaining—and entrusting to management—such issues as class size and personnel placement; prohibiting continuing contracts and effectively abolishing tenure; removing seniority as the sole determinant for layoffs and requiring that teacher performance be the primary factor; and abolishing automatic step increases in salary.

Not surprisingly, these changes are being fiercely resisted by the Buckeye State’s teachers, their unions, and their political allies. Battle lines are forming, and we at Fordham—as veteran advocates for “smart cuts” and “stretching the school dollar”—have been drawn into the fray. In the past week, I testified at a legislative hearing on key education components of SB5, and joined a conversation in Dayton with Senator Peggy Lehner and a group of teachers and union leaders. On both occasions, large crowds of disgruntled protestors stood outside the meeting rooms, though most were respectful.

Ohio protest

   Photo by Eric Albrecht, Columbus Dispatch

In those sessions and beyond, my colleagues and I have argued that changing state law to offer school districts more flexibility over personnel during times of funding cuts is critical for helping them maintain their academic performance. Further, this flexibility to make smart cuts is critical if our schools and students are to emerge out of this financial crisis stronger than ever.

And a crisis it is. The federal “bail-out” dollars that have cushioned Ohio and its school districts for the past two years will dry up by late 2011 and the state is required to balance its budget. Adding to the challenge, dollars for schools must compete with other valuable public programs. Though Ohio’s K-12 enrollment has been all but flat for a decade, during that same period the number of Ohioans enrolled in Medicaid has leaped from 1.3 million to 2.1 million.

Something has to give. The state can either raise taxes or cut programs (or both), but Governor Kasich and the legislative majorities in both chambers were elected in November on the promise not to raise taxes. So cuts will be made and, as K-12 education eats up about 40 percent of the state’s revenue, schools and school employees will bear a share of the pain.

Can this be done while protecting children and their learning? We know, for example, that relying on seniority-based layoffs to close fiscal gaps hurts pupil achievement. Last hired, first fired also hurts high-poverty schools, which typically have more junior teachers. Seniority-based reductions in force (RIF) will also trash some of the state’s most innovative schools—like STEM schools—because they’re new and staffed largely by younger teachers.

I made this case to the group of teachers in Dayton the other morning and they unanimously rejected it. They defended seniority on two fronts. First, they insist that district officials will axe their most expensive teachers first simply to save money. Second, they said, Ohio doesn’t have a decent system for measuring teacher performance, and test scores—they insisted—don’t prove much, and certainly not the caliber of a teacher’s effectiveness.

Further, they kept asking, why the rush? Why all of the sudden is the state needing to make these changes? The teachers felt that GOP lawmakers are attacking them in retaliation for their unions’ lack of support for Kasich in the last election. They seemed completely unaware of how thoroughly they (and other Buckeyes) had been left in the dark these past few years about Ohio’s impending budget cliff—thanks to the federal stimulus dollars, some tricky accounting at the state level, and former Governor Strickland’s celebration of his hocus-pocus school-funding scheme, which promised billions of non-existent new dollars for schools over the next decade.

Earlier this week, the self-same former governor emailed his supporters that “thousands and thousands of Ohioans just like you have crowded the Statehouse because the livelihoods of Ohio’s families are on the line. I was so inspired by these crowds that I decided to join them this past Thursday. There’s just too much at stake to let Governor Kasich and the legislature roll back the clock on progress for Ohio’s middle class.” It’s important to recall that not once during the three gubernatorial debates last autumn did Ted Strickland state that to balance Ohio’s budget he would call for increased taxes. If that wasn’t his intent, however, how did he expect to balance the budget other than by cutting—which is precisely what Republicans are proposing?

Teachers may be forgiven for feeling like all of this change has come out of nowhere because Ohio had zero leadership around the looming fiscal crisis before last month. The real debate in Ohio is just starting and there is no doubt that the current bills under consideration will be significantly amended or even put aside for alternatives. An air of suspense blankets the state until Kasich himself presents his budget by March 15.

Hinting at what’s coming, the other evening he said, “We are searching for a balance. Give our managers, our cities, our schools, and even our state the tools to control their costs.” He added, “Workers have been overpromised. This is not about attacking anybody. It is about fixing the state and making us competitive again.”

He’s right. And it isn’t just Ohio that he’s right about.


News Analysis: The long arm of the Common Core

Click to play

Click to listen to Mike interview Rick Hess on this topic

Adoption of the Common Core standards comes with a slew of benefits for states—including the high-quality standards themselves, as well as the economies of scale that might come from collaborating with other states on tests, curricula, and more. But as the two federally funded assessment consortia go about their work and flesh out their plans to develop tests aligned to the Common Core, danger lurks. One big challenge arises from their enthusiasm for “through-course assessments”—interim tests that students would take three or four times a year in lieu of a single end-of-year summative assessment. Frequent testing for “formative” purposes is not a new idea and, when limited to diagnostic uses, can be a welcome tool in a teachers’ toolbox. But the intent of the PARCC consortium is for these quarterly tests to count; the results would roll into a summative judgment of whether students—and their schools—are on track. That makes some sense from a psychometric perspective—the assessments can be more closely aligned to what students are actually learning in the classroom, and won’t be subject to the all-or-nothing measurement errors that can stem from once-a-year testing. But there’s a huge downside, as Rick Hess pointed out on his blog last week: It creates powerful incentives for schools to align their own curricula and “scope and sequence” to the quarterly tests, severely undermining school-level autonomy. Building the tests this way is a far more potent “homogenizer” than, say, the kind of “common” curricular materials that the AFT and many other educators are calling for. Such materials would remain voluntary for districts and schools. But once a state adopts a new testing regimen that compels instructional uniformity, only private schools will be able to avoid it. This is particularly problematic for public schools—like charters—that were designed to be different. We still favor the Common Core effort and the trade-off of results-based accountability in return for operational freedom. (We also favor the development of high-quality curricular materials that help teachers handle the Common Core.) But it’s time to ask whether the move to high-stakes interim assessments will make that trade-off untenable.

Common Core vs. Charter Schooling?!!,” by Rick Hess, Straight Up! Blog, February 18, 2011.


News Analysis: If I'm going down, I'm taking everyone with me

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Detroit's budget balancing from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

The Detroit Federation of Teachers has once again proven: It would rather sink the DPS ship than head alee into unfriendly waters. Most recently in Motown, the state superintendent approved a plan from emergency financial manager Robert Bobb to close roughly half of the district’s schools and increase high school class sizes to an unwieldy sixty students. Bobb may have originally proposed the plan, which he himself calls ill-advised, as a strong-arm tactic to force the otherwise recalcitrant union into opening the black boxes of teachers’ benefits and pension packages. Yet the union stranglehold on the district remains intact. By refusing to rethink salaries and pensions, DFT may be defending its members, but its shortsightedness is surely pushing the Motor City toward bankruptcy. Sadly, this predicament is unsurprising—Detroit finished dead last in our 2010 report on the best and worst cities for school reform.

Detroit Schools’ Cuts Plan Approved,” by Matthew Dolan, Wall Street Journal, February 22, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation's Worst School District
By Daniela Fairchild

This semi-authorized biography of Michelle Rhee tracks her tenure as an elementary school teacher, her leadership of the nascent New Teacher Project, and her time as chancellor of D.C.’s public schools. For those unfamiliar with her formative years, the book provides a compelling explanation of how she came to be obsessed with teacher quality (and with firing incompetent employees). And for those who didn’t follow the Washington Post coverage of Rhee’s D.C. whirlwind, the book offers an inspired narrative. Unfortunately, while Whitmire’s text is rich in research and peppered with interview quotes, his final assessment of Rhee’s legacy in D.C. is too vanilla. The five criticisms he does send her way (e.g. she sometimes had poor media judgment, she fought battles that did not need to be fought) could have come from any D.C. insider or avid Post reader. Furthermore, he doesn’t push hard enough on the question of whether Rhee’s reforms actually boosted student achievement—or are likely to in years to come. Still and all, education reformers interested in gaining a comprehensive perspective on Michelle Rhee (the person, not the action figure), or on finding some Waiting for ‘Superman’-like inspiration, would be wise to seek out and read The Bee Eater.

Richard Whitmire, The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint, 2011).


Review: Student Achievement in Massachusetts' Charter Schools
By  Amber M. Winkler

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

Weary of studies that lump charter schools together and treat them as a monolithic entity? This one, conducted by top-notch researchers at Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research and MIT takes a step in the right direction by parsing effects for urban and nonurban charter schools in Massachusetts. The report is a follow-up to two earlier evaluations that were limited to schools in Boston and Lynn. Once again, analysts conduct both a lottery analysis (comparing students accepted to oversubscribed charters with those who weren’t) and an expanded observational study (comparing students in middle and high school charters operating in the Bay State between 2002 and 2009, including the undersubscribed schools, to those who attended traditional public schools). Overall, the lottery analysis found that charter middle schools boost average math scores but have little impact on average English language arts (ELA) scores. But when the data were disaggregated by school type, researchers found that urban charter middle schools show significant positive effects on ELA and math scores. Nonurban middle schools have the opposite impact: zero to negative effect on a student’s ELA and math state test scores. In fact, while urban charter schools do especially well with minority and low-income students and moderately well for white students, nonurban middle schools fail to show gains for any demographic subgroup, and even post some negative effects for white students. Delving further, the authors survey school administrators, the results showing that the successful urban charter schools tend to have longer days, spend about twice as much time on language and math instruction as nonurban schools, are more likely to ask parents and students to sign contracts, and identify with the “no excuses” view on education. The differences in achievement between the two types of charters, then, should come as little surprise.

Joshua D. Angrist, Sarah R. Cohodes, Susan M. Dynarski, Jon B. Fullerton, Thomas J. Kane, Parag A. Pathak, and Christopher R. Walters, “Student Achievement in Massachusetts’ Charter Schools,” (Cambridge, MA: Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, January 2011).


Review: Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System is Failing and What We Can Do About It
By Marena Perkins

Wasting Minds coverRonald Wolk, founder and longtime editor of Education Week, and creator of Quality Counts, presents a sobering message in this new book. As the title suggests, Wolk outlines why twenty years of American education reform have yielded no positive changes, hitting hard against standards-based learning, the fetish with highly-effective teachers, our obsession with testing, and more. Wolk proposes a second, parallel strategy—one he believes will upend the status quo and challenge traditional notions of the role and capacity of the education system. Specifically, he wants more individualized and experiential instruction, school choice, and alternative teacher preparation. “I find it hard to imagine that a new strategy would be any riskier or less effective than the system we have now,” Wolk writes. “Why should new ideas bear the burden of proof when the existing system is allowed to continue essentially unchanged even though it is largely failing?”  Wolk’s turnabout may not be as dramatic as Diane Ravitch’s, but it’s a significant shift all the same: from a top-down standards-based reformer to a libertarian grass-roots choice advocate. Read the book and enjoy the ride.

Ronald A. Wolk, Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It, (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Qaddafi, Rhee, and other zealots

Fordhamite for life Liam Julian goes another round on the podcast, as he and Mike discuss the clashes in the Midwest, the self-sabotage of Detroit, and what’s so irksome about Michelle Rhee. Amber shows that not all charter schools are created equal (the urban ones are better) and Chris gets out the whip against corporal punishment.

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 Wisconsin, a battle over "local control"
By Mike Petrilli 

Education politics just got weirder: liberals are now for “local control,” and Tea Party conservatives are against it. At least that one’s way to read the situation in Madison.
Everyone knows that school reform has long foundered at the local school-district level. Powerful teachers unions, with the help of state and national behemoths, get their friends and allies elected to the boards with whom they negotiate. Those boards—whether out of niceness, naiveté, or negligence—make promises that taxpayers can’t afford. Education spending goes up, and productivity goes down....

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: The next frontier (abyss?): Testing and its kissin' cousin, cheating
By Peter Meyer 

Yesterday, at the end of a bang-up Education Writers Association conference on improving teaching quality, held at the Carnegie Corporation in New York City, I was approached by a newspaper’s education editor who asked whether I thought charter-school test results were real. “Are they cheating?” she asked, more pointedly.
The question followed what had been a bruising roundtable discussion between journalists and educators about the value of testing: Good or bad? High-stakes or benchmarking? Standards-driven or curriculum-driven?...

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Gadfly Studios: The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011: A closer look

Screengrab of State of State U.S. History Standards video

Amber and Kathleen explain the methodology and findings from our latest standards review, The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011—and speak about why solid history standards are so essential.



Briefly Noted: Holding the budget hostage

  • Today marks the release of the 2009 NAEP TUDA science results. Overall, they’re unfortunately and unsurprisingly low. Expect more from us on this report next week.
  • New Jersey Governor Chris Christie issued his state budget on Tuesday, with a caveat. He proposed to pay $500 million into the pension-fund system, but will only do so if legislators approve his pension-benefits fix.
  • Try your hand at cutting $100 billion in discretionary, non-defense spending with this interactive feature from the Center for American Progress.
  • Hats off to Urban Prep Academy in Chicago, which boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate for its senior class—for the second year in a row. Its secret: high expectations and hard work.
  • Now that the dust from the PISA results has settled a bit, it’s worth noting that the U.S. isn’t losing ground on international tests. We’ve never been at the top. And America still attracts the best and the brightest from around the globe.
  • Twenty-first century skills take a hard hit from an educator charged with teaching them on the Common Core blog. Look for more posts by “Emma Bryant” (names have been changed to protect the innocent) describing her days at a New Tech High School.
  • A bit of karma is hitting America’s largest teacher union. The NEA is facing $14 million in shortfalls to its operating budget this year—and serves 54,000 fewer members than last year. But don’t be fooled: It will maintain its political strength by simply raising members’ dues.


Fordham's featured publication: Ohio's Education Reform Challenges: Lessons From the Frontline


Charter schools are one of the hottest policy debates in American education—and one in which Fordham has been a lively participant since day one. This book, which recounts our experience as a charter-school authorizer, describes and analyzes our efforts, successes, and failures, and distills what we think they all mean for others committed to school reform and innovation. We are happy to finally share our story, a memoir of our unique role as dual participant in the charter-school debate since its inception, and authorizer of actual schools serving some of Ohio’s neediest students


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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