The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 9. March 3, 2011.

In This Edition

New from Fordham: Yearning to Break Free: Ohio Superintendents Speak Out

Yearning to Break Free cover


This important new survey shows a growing disconnect between those who teach in public schools and those who lead them. While many teachers and other school employees resist changes to collective-bargaining laws and education-reform measures, superintendents recognize the need for such fixes. In fact, they hunger for them. Ohio supes yearn for the authority and flexibility to steer their schools successfully through this time of austerity. Read more here.

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Opinion and Analysis

Yearning to break free
What superintendents say when the doors are closed
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr., Terry Ryan, Emmy Partin, and Jamie Davies O’Leary

Disingenuous Dems
The disjoint between Democrats and ed-reform
News Analysis | Michael J. Petrilli

Blue-ribbon orator
Chris Christie wins the war of words
News Analysis

Short Reviews

The Nation's Report Card: Science 2009: Trial Urban District Assessment
The results in one word: dismal
Review | Gerilyn Slicker

Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform
Rebuilding the education system from scratch
Review | Marena Perkins

Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector's Best
A playbook for charter expansion
Review | Janie Scull

From The Web

Rick rocks, Stevie Wonder-style
While using rhetoric to choose between GOP govs and teach the newest integration tactics
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

CAP, Ed Trust, and federal-policy foolishness
The “Army of the Potomac” at its worst
Flypaper's Finest | February 28, 2011 | Mike Petrilli

Bloomberg loses the thread on unions
Keep strong unions but nix the practices they fight for? Good luck!
Flypaper's Finest | February 28, 2011 | Chris Tessone

SB5 and collective bargaining in Ohio
Terry Ryan discusses the Midwest unrest, Buckeye-style
Gadfly Studios | February 28, 2011


Double the salary, double the fun
Taking the magnifying glass to WI teachers’ fringe benefits
Briefly Noted

Memories of David Kearns, 1930-2011
Former colleagues share their remembrances of the former deputy secretary of education
Letters to the Editor

Walton's world
The Walton Family Foundation’s education team is on the lookout for two program officers

New positions open at NACPS
Committed to advancing the charter-school movement? Apply to work with NACPS

AEI on the right track
Head to AEI March 17 for a lively discussion on the pros and cons of student tracking

Sing with the caged bird
The Maya Angelou Academy needs a new director

Stretching the School Dollar: A Brief for State Policymakers
Policies to save money without hurting students
Fordham featured publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: Yearning to break free
By Chester E. Finn, Jr., Terry Ryan, Emmy Partin, and Jamie Davies O’Leary

Education in Ohio, as in most of the country, is coming to terms with a challenging “new normal,” as Arne Duncan calls it—the prolonged period ahead when schools must produce better results with diminished resources. The Buckeye State faces a daunting budget shortfall over the next two years, the resolution of which will powerfully affect K-12 education, which now consumes about 40 percent of the state’s money. And Ohio’s situation is far from unique.

Yet schools—in Ohio and beyond—can produce better-educated students on leaner rations so long as their leaders are empowered to deploy the available resources in the most effective and efficient ways, unburdened by mandates, regulatory constraints, and dysfunctional contract clauses. That’s the message that comes through loudest from a new survey of the state’s school superintendents. And again there’s no reason to believe that Ohio’s situation is unique.

While governors and lawmakers are responsible for balancing state budgets, it is district and school leaders who must make their schools work on tighter resources while still boosting achievement and effectiveness. Over the past year, as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has organized various discussions, conferences, and symposia across Ohio on the big challenge of “doing more with less” in K-12 education, we’ve been privy to innumerable comments—usually off the record—by superintendents and school leaders along the lines of, “We could survive these cuts if we had real control over our budgets.” They called in particular for greater authority to manage their spending on and deployment of personnel. Many even said that enhancing that authority was more important than receiving more funding.

These school leaders don't view lack of funding as the central problem with K-12's 'how and where the money is spent.'


Due to political sensitivities, few of these leaders attached their names in public to such comments. But when the door was closed, they voiced them over and over. Keen on opening that door to the public—without making trouble for individual superintendents—Fordham enlisted the FDR Group to undertake a careful survey of Ohio superintendents and other public-education leaders.

Yearning to Break Free: Ohio Superintendents Speak Out, released today by Fordham, shows that superintendents understand the scale of the fiscal challenges that the state and its districts face, and they crave the authority and flexibility to make the tough calls necessary to see their schools through budget cuts while also helping their students to succeed. Further, the report shows a major disconnect between the people who teach in our public schools and those who lead them. While many teachers and other school employees resist education reforms that might affect them, especially changes to collective bargaining laws, superintendents recognize the need for such fixes. In fact, they’re hungry for them. 

Indeed, it’s the realm of collective bargaining and related “personnel management” issues where district leaders most ardently seek change. Seventy percent favor the abolition of “step and lane” salary increases while a full 80 percent believe state law should be changed to make it “easier to terminate unmotivated or incompetent teachers—even if they are tenured.” As for statutory “last hired, first fired” requirements, two-thirds of supes called for their repeal.

Read the report hereThese school leaders don’t view lack of funding as the central problem with K-12 education. Even in today’s tightening fiscal environment, just 37 percent say the real challenge is “that too little money is spent on the schools.” Instead, 52 percent say it’s “how and where the money is spent.”

To that end, they want greater management authority, particularly in high-need districts; 73 percent of urban and 60 percent of economically disadvantaged districts opt for “significant expansion of management authority over staff” rather than “significant increases in school funding.”

Superintendents say that, if state leaders want academic achievement to rise in a time of austerity, they must give district and school leaders more autonomy. By an overwhelming 72 to 14 percent margin, they say increased authority would result in measurable improvements in achievement, not just efficiency. Moreover, they are so confident that they can deliver better student achievement that nearly eight in ten (78 percent) favor linking their own pay to improved outcomes – in exchange for greater authority over staff. 

Among other survey findings:

  • Superintendents support testing and accountability. Fifty-seven percent believe that evaluating schools and districts based on how well students do on standardized tests and publicizing the results is a good thing.
  • They believe that Ohio’s teacher-licensing system (much like that found in nearly every state) fails to assure good instruction. Almost none say “that going through the licensure process in Ohio guarantees that a teacher is well-prepared to succeed in the classroom.”
  • Superintendents accept some blame for the imbalance between managers and staff, with 55 percent agreeing that there have been labor issues where “the leadership of my district—including myself—should have done more to hold the line.”

To be clear, untying such state mandates is not solely about granting flexibility to administrators or saving money. Empowering education leaders to ensure that the most effective instructors occupy the classrooms that need them most is critical if Ohio and the nation are to succeed in boosting the achievement of their children. And the need to strengthen academic achievement has never been greater, as recent PISA and NAEP assessments showcase.

In this tumultuous period of drying state coffers, America must rethink its attack on the stagnation of student performance and the achievement gap. And district leaders are key to this assault. They are the educators-in-chief for millions of needy kids, the front-line professionals responsible for executing state and federal education policies. They are the decision makers charged with making schools and districts more effective even as resources shrink. Ohio’s superintendents are ready and willing to lead. They want the flexibility to do so. So, we strongly suspect, do their counterparts across the land. Now is the time to give it to them.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Fordham's latest report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast


News Analysis: Disingenuous Dems
By Michael J. Petrilli 

As Alexander Russo has rightly noted, many reformers (especially those of the Democratic persuasion) are struggling to figure out what to say about Wisconsin (and Illinois and Ohio) and the whole collective-bargaining muddle. Last week, Joe Williams, our friend at Democrats for Education Reform, offered a thoughtful, if tortured, take on the issue, ultimately landing at a bizarre place: that “this attempt to stomp unions out of existence threatens to hurt” the education-reform movement (check the same link above for more). Andy Rotherham joined the chorus, harping that “overreaching Republicans like Scott Walker may actually be setting back efforts to make some common-sense changes to teacher contracts.”

Yet these nonplussed progressives miss two key points. First, the unions’ collective-bargaining privileges prevent the expansion of the selfsame reforms—from merit pay and rigorous teacher evaluations to quality-sensitive layoffs—that these Democratic reformers favor. Yes, teachers “should have a voice,” but they don’t have a God-given right to bargain for free health care, unaffordable pensions, or Kafkaesque evaluation protocols. Second, the unions are only likely to offer concessions—on wages, benefits, teacher evaluations, and more—under heavy pressure. Remember the 1990s? Arguably it was the Republican drive for vouchers that gave rise to—and cover for—the charter-school movement. Something similar is playing out now. Democratic ed reformers should see Governors Walker, Kasich, Daniels, Christie, and Scott as blessings from on high, for their “extreme” positions can make DFER’s many bold ideas taste like plain vanilla.

Perhaps, as Rick Hess noted, Williams, Rotherham, and others are just “triangulating” between the unions on one hand and the Republican governors on the other. Perhaps secretly they are rooting for Governor Walker to hold the line, even if they can’t say so in public. But if they can’t, we will: Putting the unions on the defensive is the best thing that’s happened in education reform in a long, long time.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. Sign up for Flypaper’s RSS feed here.

Click to play

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


News Analysis: Blue-ribbon orator

In the education-policy realm, where the currency of rhetoric earns followers and acclaim, Garden State governor Chris Christie reigns as king—and it’s not a bad place to sit. While Reagan had his “welfare queens,” and Giuliani his “squeegee men,” Christie has his “sprawling and powerful public-sector unions.” To combat this leviathan, Christie has found the perfect public rallying cry, well-articulated in a recent New York Times Magazine piece on the governor by Matt Bai. Through anecdote (and a bit of demagoguery), Christie explains the link between his state’s fiscal crisis and public-union fringe benefits—giving himself plenty of room to act. Of course, Christie isn’t the only education reformer to wage the war of words. Michelle Rhee puts “students first.” Fordham battles the “status quo” and the “education establishment.” But Chris Christie, in his own coarse and charismatic way, could teach us all a few lessons. And, as the war of words melds into the war of ideas, we’d all be wise to take notes.

In War of Words, ‘Reform’ a Potent Weapon,” by Sean Cavanaugh, Education Week, March 1, 2011.

How Chris Christie Did His Homework,” by Matt Bai, The New York Times Magazine, February 24, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: The Nation's Report Card: Science 2009: Trial Urban District Assessment
By Gerilyn Slicker

The newly released NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) 2009 results for science in our major cities offer no condolences: Of the seventeen large urban districts that participated, none fared better than the national mean. Only three attained the national average on the fourth grade test (Austin, Charlotte, and Jefferson County, KY); for the eighth grade test, that number drops to one (Austin). Much more disheartening: Cleveland and Detroit each claim only 4 percent proficiency in science in fourth grade. As this was the first NAEP TUDA administered using the newly designed science frameworks, comparisons to previous assessments aren’t possible. What is possible is to use these dismal results to spur on a conversation about the need to focus on strong curricular provision in this key subject.

Click to play

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

National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation’s Report Card: Science 2009: Trial Urban District Assessment (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences, 2011).


Review: Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform
By Marena Perkins

Customized Schooling coverThe back-cover blurb for this book characterizes it as “ambitious”—and the word couldn’t be more fitting. Within its ten chapters, nineteen of education’s big thinkers (yes, including Checker Finn and former Fordham VP Eric Osberg) challenge our basic conceptions of education—starting with the foundational unit of educational delivery (it’s not the school, but the student). After identifying and explaining this education customization (or “unbundling”), the book presents the challenges faced around service delivery, quality control, and policy implications. The authors major foci are parent choice (at the course-level, not simply the school-level), differentiated instruction (both the content and the form), harnessing technologies, and data collection. Throughout, the authors infuse organizational and district case studies to drive home their points—a necessary addition as the book itself asks the reader to reconceptualize ingrained notions of schooling. Customized Schooling is sure to ruffle feathers—not only does it force readers to think outside the education-provision box, it asks them to tear apart the sides and throw them in a shredder. But the conversation it will incite is long overdue.

Frederick M. Hess and Bruno V. Manno, eds., Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2011).


Review: Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector's Best
By Janie Scull

The authors don’t beat around the bush: Bad charters may exist, but so do excellent ones—and the latter should be supported and scaled to serve exponentially more students. If the top 10 percent of charter schools expanded at a rate similar to other growing industries, we learn from this PPI study, they could reach all children in poverty by 2025. To do so, the authors offer recommendations on how to overcome current practical, political, and environmental barriers to growth, borrowing strategies from businesses and organizations like Apple, Habitat for Humanity, and Starbucks. First, they advise that the top charter providers rid themselves of their “pervasive fear of growth”; leaders should commit not just to excellence, but to excellence for increasing numbers of students. Other suggestions include: negotiating performance-based funding in contracts; ramping up efforts to import talent from other industries and cultivate it in the education sector; extending the reach of the best teachers through technology and innovation; providing incentives and rewards for leaders who achieve successful growth; and aligning with other similar organizations to share ideas and resources. While some may balk at the stark comparison between the education sector and other (largely for-profit) industries, this brief may prove to be the shot-in-the-arm that the charter sector needs to cure it of its complacency and timidity. The report serves less as a blueprint for development and more as a call to arms for top charter providers, and as the title implies, the possibilities are exponential.

Emily Ayscue Hassel, Bryan C. Hassel, and Joe Ableidinger, “Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best” (Washington, D.C.: Progressive Policy Institute, 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Rick rocks, Stevie Wonder-style

Mike and Rick compare GOP govs, determining who is the fairest of them all. They then think outside the box on integration before debating findings from our recent survey of Ohio supes. Amber dissects the latest science NAEP TUDA results and Chris ODs on adderall.

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: CAP, Ed Trust, and federal-policy foolishness
By Mike Petrilli

FoolsLet me say from the beginning that I don’t think the Center for American Progress and Education Trust are staffed by fools. On the contrary, their leaders are savvy, courageous, talented people who have taken difficult stands against the education establishment. No, my headline refers to the old adage, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Because if we embrace the latest CAP/Ed Trust proposal on ESEA, we’re the fools.…

(Photo by Westside Shooter)

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Bloomberg loses the thread on unions
By Chris Tessone

I nearly choked on my morning coffee when I read this quote from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York Times op-ed on public-sector unions:

But unions also play a vital role in protecting against abuses in the workplace, and in my experience they are integral to training, deploying and managing a professional work force.

Bloomberg made his billions with Bloomberg LP, his financial data and analysis firm. Are the programmers and financial analysts there unionized? I bet not.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.



Gadfly Studios: SB5 and collective bargaining in Ohio

Click to play

Terry explains in real terms his testimony in favor of Ohio’s proposed collective-bargaining reforms—and the atmosphere at the statehouse during the hearing. Mighty powerful stuff—especially since the Ohio state senate passed SB5 yesterday.



Briefly Noted: Double the salary, double the fun

  • Richard Whitmire explains the ins and outs of his Michelle Rhee biography, The Bee Eater, in the first ever Education Next Book Club Podcast (hosted by our very own Mike Petrilli). Check it out.
  • No wonder the teacher unions in Wisconsin are fighting tooth and nail. In the Badger State, fringe benefits are nearly double the average teacher’s salary, with the public paying 74.2 cents for benefits for every dollar of pay. The corresponding rate in the private sector is 24.3 cents.
  • After overwhelming House, and subsequent Senate, approval, Obama signed a measure that, for two weeks at least, would avoid government shutdown. The stall cuts about $4 billion in spending, funding all but a few programs at FY2010 levels through March 18. Of the $4 billion worth of programs axed: Teach For America, Even Start, and Striving Readers, to name a few.


Letters to the Editor: Memories of David Kearns, 1930-2011

David T. Kearns was a towering figure in American business—CEO of Xerox during its best days, for one—who cared mightily about education reform (he coauthored a seminal work in this realm with Denis Doyle back in 1988) and was persuaded by George H.W. Bush and Lamar Alexander to join their Education Department team as deputy secretary. Not only did he do a smashing job in that challenging role (before being semi-sidelined by a particularly awful cancer that he battled for almost two decades), but he also served as inspiration to many in and out of government. After learning of his death last week, Gadfly invited some of his many fans to share their recollections of this wonderful man.

Leslye A. Arsht
Former Counselor to the Secretary of Education, when Kearns was Deputy Secretary

It was impossible, when I heard that David Kearns had passed, not to have a sad, then bittersweet moment.

David, who might have coined the “believe in better” attitude, defied death for a very long time…and he lived his life—post-cancer diagnosis—with the grace, dignity, energy, and enthusiasm that he modeled before it.… (Read the rest here.)

John Danielson
Former colleague, U.S. Department of Education, 1991-1993

It was a remarkable time in the history of the United States Department of Education when David Kearns stepped forward to offer his considerable leadership on behalf of America’s children. Halcyon days, indeed, when all were present for the routine 9:00AM staff meetings during his time. … For me, I think now of the marvelous tribute Churchill paid to FDR. He said that “knowing FDR was like experiencing your first taste of exquisite champagne.” The vividness of David Kearns and his singular vintage will live on for a very long time. (Read the rest here.)

Barbara R. Davidson
Former colleague, U.S. Department of Education, 1991-1993

Probably the most indelible image David Kearns made on me was when, in my first week on the job as White House liaison, I was presented with the dilemma of bringing onboard a young staffer who had blown the whistle on unethical behavior at another federal agency and, having lost his job as a result, was looking to join the team at ED. Despite the good impressions he made on many of the senior staff he interviewed with, no one had yet bit the bullet on offering this young man a job—so I went to David and presented the situation: Could we take a leap of faith and bring him on board, hoping he’d make himself useful? David looked at me and said, “I think he did the right thing and deserves a break.”… (Read the rest here.)

Denis P. Doyle
Coauthor (with Kearns) of Winning the Brain Race and co-founder of Schoolnet 

…One of my most enduring memories of David is emblematic of all that he was: the courtesy he extended to everyone he met, from doormen and cab drivers to captains of industry and heads of state. He was a true small “d” democrat, as good a listener as a talker, a problem solver not an ideologue and, it goes without saying, a devoted husband and father as well as a fine friend.

Several years ago, I was asked to introduce him before a large audience gathered to honor his accomplishments and could think of no more apt comment than Hemingway’s famous observation: courage is grace under pressure. So it was with David.

Oh David, we hardly knew ye… (Read the rest here.)


Announcement: Walton's world

The Walton Family Foundation’s Systemic K-12 Education Reform Team is on the hunt for two education program officers. Those with a passion for education reform, who can analyze, think critically, and understand emerging education-reform issues, step right up. The complete job description, as well as application directions, can be found here.


Announcement: New positions open at NAPCS

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is searching for a vice president for external relations and a senior director of communications. Interested parties should be both creative thinkers and skills tacticians, with track records of entrepreneurial leadership. For a full job description of either position, email


Announcement: AEI on the right track

Join four prominent scholars, including Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, at AEI on March 7 from 3:30-5:00PM for a thought-provoking debate on the merits of student tracking. For more information, or to RSVP, click here.



Announcement: Sing with the caged bird

The Maya Angelou Academy, a first-rate charter school focused on juvenile detainees, is searching for a new director. Interested parties must have strong leadership skills, youth development experience, and an interest in fostering a committed school culture. Learn more about the position or apply here.


Fordham's featured publication: Stretching the School Dollar: A Brief for State Policymakers

Stretching brief


This policy brief lists fifteen concrete ways that states can “stretch the school dollar” in these difficult financial times. By addressing state mandates around teacher tenure, “last hired, first fired” policies, minimum class sizes, and more, states can free local leaders’ hands to make smart, courageous cuts and do more with less. In other words, this challenging climate is an opportunity to make some real changes in education. Want to read even more? Check out Fordham’s book by the same name.




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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