The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 12. March 24, 2011.
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Opinion and Analysis

Getting back on track
Learning to love student tracking
Opinion | Michael J. Petrilli

The down-low on innovation "uptake"
Why innovations rarely go to scale
Opinion | Robin Lake

A proud day for the Buckeyes
Ohio rolls out the welcome banner for TFA
News Analysis | Jamie Davies O'Leary

NEA at war!
Going behind enemy lines
News Analysis

Short Reviews

Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools
Terry Moe’s magnum opus
Review | Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Monitoring Progress: Response to Intervention's Promise and Pitfalls
RTI may be good, but how good is still in question
Review | Janie Scull

Projections of Education Statistics to 2019 (Thirty-Eighth Edition)
Peering into the education-statistics looking glass
Review | Gerilyn Slicker

From The Web

CBAs, ESEA, and a little LOL
“So does collective bargaining even matter?,” and other big questions
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

Field notes: Budgeting while the ship is sinking
And what it means for governance writ large
Flypaper's Finest | March 22, 2011 | Peter Meyer

Why the charter-school idea has stood the test of time
The trifecta of choice, accountability, and autonomy
Flypaper's Finest | March 23, 2011 | Mike Petrilli

What's Up With That?: The case of the $637 swear word
When detention and demerits don’t do the trick
Gadfly Studios | March 18, 2011


Go big, or go home
And how urban Catholic schools can become comeback kids
Briefly Noted

NCTQ wants YOU
NCTQ is in the market for a coordinator of strategic communications

Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools
Proof positive of tracking’s benefits for our brightest students
Fordham featured publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: Getting back on track
By Michael J. Petrilli

One of the dirtiest words in American education today is “tracking.” Reformers and ed-school types alike deride the approach as racist, classist, and worthy of eradication. And if they are talking about the practice of confining some kids—typically poor or minority or both—into dead-end tracks with soulless, ditto-driven instruction, they are absolutely right.

But they are dead wrong when they call for elimination of tracking en toto—of removing all “honors” courses, of putting all agemates in the same class regardless of their level of preparedness. That’s a recipe for failure for kids of all achievement levels—and more proof that today’s policy discussion is often devoid of common sense.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or even a cognitive scientist—to know that kids (and adults) learn best when presented with material that is challenging—neither too easy so as to be boring nor too hard as to be overwhelming. Like Goldilocks, we want it just right. Grouping kids so that instruction can be more closely targeted to their current ability levels helps make teaching and learning more efficient.

Click to play video from AEI debate on tracking

Click to play video of AEI debate on
student tracking featuring Mike Petrilli

Thankfully, we’re getting close to going beyond tracking—not by grouping all kids together, but by moving in the opposite direction, by customizing instruction to individual students. With the advent of online-learning technologies and more targeted assessments, schools are discovering ways to pinpoint exactly what students know and serve up instruction that meets them there.

Models like School of One are starting to deliver on that vision. At School of One, a middle school math program in New York City, students are placed in specific learning modules based on their performance the previous day, and on a sophisticated algorithm. Some kids are sent to small-group instruction with similarly-abled peers; others head to one-on-one online tutoring; others work independently on a computer; others get more traditional classroom instruction. It’s all customized to match the students’ needs and abilities. (Read more about School of One and other models of individualized instruction in this excellent Education Next article.)

Proponents of detracking want to erase all of this progress. Kevin Wellner, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and Carol Burris, principal of a detracked Long Island high school, have gone so far as to present a policy brief pushing for states to ban student tracking. They argue that heterogeneous classrooms will lift all boats, ensuring that all students are afforded one “high caliber” level of instruction. That sounds great, but what if some kids are six grade levels ahead of their peers—adeptly solving proofs while their classmates struggle with long division?

Of course, we don’t organize much of high school life this way. We have “tracking” in extracurriculars. The most talented basketball players hit the court together on varsity. The lesser skilled adolescents don JV jerseys. The same goes for foreign-language instruction. Those on the way to learning Spanish enroll in, say, Español IV, not Spanish I. But, with forced detracking, those talented in math are corralled into classrooms with lower-achievers to sit through 180 days of potentially under-stimulating instruction.

Why do we discriminate against academically talented kids this way? Because “social justice” demands it, detracking proponents argue. Tracking, they say, perpetuates our society’s pernicious divides. And, by default, detracking will close them.

This is a difficult issue. It’s true that schools serving both affluent and poor students will tend to face huge achievement gaps. Narrowing these gaps—by bringing up the achievement of the kids who are behind, not by suppressing the achievement of the top students—is absolutely a worthy goal. But “social justice” shouldn’t require us to adopt a policy that could do material harm to a broad swath of American children. And, based on a survey we administered to teachers a few years back, they agree. (See Figure E.)

Figure E: Teachers' Definition of "Justice and EqualityBut in the detracking debate, that’s what we’re talking about: asking students who are gifted in math or literature or science to expend precious learning time helping other kids develop basic skills. In doing so, we’re ignoring the needs of our strongest students—and we aren’t doing our struggling students any favors.

Surely no child should be put in a classroom where she isn’t challenged. The detracking contingent has that right. But it shouldn’t be only our low-achievers who garner attention—and who demand “social justice.” That push for a challenging education goes for high-achieving kids, too.

A modified version of this argument was given by the author at an American Enterprise Institute debate entitled “Should Schools Detrack?” The event wrap-up can be found here.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on student tracking from the Education Gadfly Show podcast


Opinion: The down-low on innovation "uptake"
Robin Lake

Taking promising reforms and innovations “to scale” is a challenge that has bedeviled public schools for decades. One prominent example was the multi-million dollar New American Schools program, which, supported through federal and private dollars, solicited proposals from around the country for novel or proven whole-school design programs—such as Success for All—and engaged school districts to adopt school-based professional-development programs designed to help schools replicate the programs. Like so many other efforts to replicate best practices, New American Schools failed due to uneven implementation. The New American Schools experience, like decades of similarly ineffective efforts to replicate successful education programs, should teach us that the “uptake problem” in public education warrants serious attention in order to foster innovation and improve productivity in U.S. education.

New instructional innovations using technology hold great promise for dramatically improving educational delivery systems and resource productivity. Schools, like Rocketship Education and School of One, that blend distance learning and computer-driven curriculum with on-site, teacher-based instruction demonstrate that smart uses of technology can allow public schools to use teacher time more productively, more effectively engage students, and save labor costs so that money can be invested in teacher salaries, social supports for students, or smaller class sizes. However, getting these and other innovations to take hold more broadly across the United States is far from a sure thing.

The same issues have come up when we look at how few districts have tried to replicate what works in high-performing charter schools. One Center for Reinventing Public Education study of charter-management organizations (CMO) has shown that only a few districts are working seriously to import apparently successful literacy programs, “no excuses” cultures, or even the support structures that make Achievement First, KIPP, and Aspire Public Schools well-known.

Erin Dillon and Bill Tucker at Education Sector were smart to point out that the rush to support technology-based school expansion must avoid exaggeration of the benefits and embrace rigorous outcome evaluation—a necessity for the charter sector as well. But history tells us that there’s a bigger problem: There is little evidence that our public-school system will open or transform schools to high-tech and high-performing models, even if those programs demonstrate success under the most rigorous conditions. And, even where programs are adopted, it still won’t be easy.

The political barriers alone are daunting. Status quo defenders advance policies that would limit or block innovations, such as online learning, by requiring students to participate in a certain number of hours of classroom-based instruction each day. State and federal restrictions on how money is spent can make it difficult, if not impossible, for schools to experiment with innovative approaches to spending.

There is little evidence that our public-school system will open or transform schools to high-tech and high-performing models...


More mundane, but possibly more of a pervasive threat, are attitudes toward adopting new innovations. Using technology for instruction challenges some of the most fundamental beliefs about education and the role of teachers, prompting significant reaction from teachers and parents alike. Without strong state accountability systems, school districts and schools have limited incentive to experiment in order to identify better instructional approaches. And even when all of the policy stars align, school districts and state departments of education tend to be risk averse, valuing compliance with known rules over entrepreneurialism.

Still, some school districts are actively working to embrace technology and other innovations to support their learning goals. New York City’s iZone is perhaps the most ambitious example. The city hopes to transform or create 100 or more schools, including new charter schools, over the next three years by building on fundamentally new assumptions, such as scheduling staffing and class time around student learning needs rather than a one-size-fits-all model. In the iZone, technology is used to catalyze these innovative school attributes for breakthrough learning outcomes.

It remains to be seen, though, whether even innovation-friendly school districts like New York can effectively partner with entrepreneurs, become wise consumers and evaluators of new innovations, train and gain the support of their teachers, and effectively engage parents and students. State education agencies face their own capacity issues.

New flexibilities from federal and state laws are needed to ensure that state and district leaders who want to innovate can do so. State policymakers who wish to champion innovation will need to pursue strategies and policies such as:

• Gathering information about promising approaches, evidence of effectiveness, cost, and implementation requirements;

• Re-doing state budgets to allow for startups, demonstrations, and partnerships with private providers;

• Creating budgetary flexibility so that capital-labor tradeoffs can be made at the school level;

• Designing incentive programs that encourage innovation and build new capacities;

• Creating situations under which schools must either adopt innovations or be replaced by other providers; and

• Considering policies to relax rules in exchange for specific performance outcomes and strong accountability measures, similar to the “operational freedom in return for results” that should govern charter schools.

State leaders will also need to identify and eliminate policy barriers to the quick spread of productivity-enhancing approaches. For starters, states can remove laws and regulations that are based on inputs. Prime candidates for elimination are student “seat time” requirements, pay scales that reward seniority and teacher education levels rather than performance, and funding formulae that prevent districts from combining funds in innovative ways. States would also do well to do “innovation audits” to assess which rules most prohibit innovation.

School districts and state agencies face serious cultural and political barriers in overcoming a dismal track record on innovation. Until this changes, we can expect that public education will continue to adopt only marginal innovations that will result in negligible productivity gains for students. Greater policy and funder attention is urgently needed if American public schools are to hit desired outcomes for productivity, innovations, and renewal.

Robin Lake is the associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). A version of this essay originally appeared in the Policy Innovation in Education’s policy paper “Schools in High Gear: Reforms That Work When They Work Together,” released this week in conjunction with the PIE-Network annual meeting.


News Analysis: A proud day for the Buckeyes
By Jamie Davies O’Leary

Two days ago, the Ohio legislature affirmed their commitment to low-income children, to turning around failing schools, and to education reform writ large: Both the state House and Senate passed legislation that paved the way for a Teach For America site in the Buckeye State while also making it easier for TFA alums to gain teacher certification. Even in a Republican-controlled state like Ohio, opening the state to TFA wasn’t a sure thing, and the House and Senate proceedings leading up to the vote were a stark reminder of an underlying hostility toward change. Pre-vote, heated claims about TFAers being little more than dramatically underprepared “white missionaries” echoed through the House gallery. They were followed by asserted fears that TFA teachers would steal jobs from more “qualified” education-school graduates. It was a long time coming, and there’s still a long ways to go, but after this week, the Buckeye State is one step closer to ensuring that that every child receives the excellent education he or she deserves.

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper’s RSS feed, click here.

House backs Teach for America plan,” by Jessica Alaimo, Zanesville TimesRecorder, March 24, 2011.

School-choice options advocated at rally,” by Catherine Candisky, Columbus Dispatch, March 23, 2011.


News Analysis: NEA at war!

As some modicum of normalcy returns to Wisconsin, Ohio, and other Midwestern states that have been embroiled in collective-bargaining furor, it’s worth keeping watch on the NEA. As Mike Antonucci writes in his latest EIA communiqué: “There should be no mistake about it—NEA sees [this push-back] as a threat to its very existence.” And the union may be right. The 2010 elections—and the sea of red they ushered in at the state level—emboldened Republicans for the first time to attack, systematically, the NEA’s sacred cows. But don’t expect the nation’s largest teacher union to quietly fade away. The group has already begun launching a two-pronged response: Kill potential anti-union legislation and, when that isn’t possible, attack that selfsame legislation in courts (a la Wisconsin at present). A white flag, from either side, is far away yet, but the war, for better or for worse, has definitely begun.

‘We Are at War’—NEA’s Plan of Attack,” by Mike Antonucci, Education Intelligence Agency, March 21, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Special Interest cover
Hot off the Brookings Institution press is Terry Moe's magnum opus on teacher unions. Magnum, indeed (at 500-plus pages), it's deeply informative, profoundly insightful, fundamentally depressing, and yet ultimately somewhat hopeful about an educational future that unions won't be able to block—though they'll try hard—due to the combined forces of technology and changing politics. Insights along the way—and there are many—include the gaps between teachers and their union leaders, the false promise of “reform unionism,” the strength of union influence even where there's no collective bargaining, the many faces of Randi Weingarten, and the mixed bag that is Race to the Top. This is a book you'll want for your shelf and, one hopes, a book you’ll actually read and savor and learn from.

Terry M. Moe, “Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools,” (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute Press, March 2011).


Review: Monitoring Progress: Response to Intervention's Promise and Pitfalls
By Janie Scull

Monitoring Progress coverResponse to Intervention (RTI) has become a buzzword in both general education and special education circles—yet understanding of the approach remains superficial. Enter this EdWeek special report, which serves as a solid primer on what RTI is, why it’s used, and what some of its common pitfalls are. As articulated in the series of articles, RTI is an instructional technique that educators use to assist students with academic or behavioral problems; it entails providing these students with tiered and increasingly intensive instruction to address problems in their infancy. RTI first appeared on the scene as a special education diagnostic tool, and is now utilized in the gen ed setting as a preventive measure for a host of potential student hang-ups, both academic and behavioral. Yet despite the popularity of RTI, obstacles remain: Few education schools adequately prepare teachers to effectively use RTI, and some parents have reported that RTI led to unnecessary delay in special education identification. Further, RTI’s fluidity can cause districts ire, as appropriately doling out funding for the effort (often between Title I and special education coffers) gets awkward. In the end, though, the greatest obstacle facing RTI is the dearth of research conducted on the topic. The report notes that, while RTI has gained many advocates, no rigorous study of the entire RTI model has ever been conducted. And though special education numbers have decreased as RTI has expanded its reach, a definitive link between the two has yet to be proven. Though many agree that an RTI-like approach is simply good teaching, we won’t know how good for some time yet.

Education Week, “Monitoring Progress: Response to Intervention’s Promise and Pitfalls” (Bethesda, MD: Education Week, March 2011).


Review: Projections of Education Statistics to 2019 (Thirty-Eighth Edition)
By Gerilyn Slicker

Put away your crystal balls—the National Center for Education Statistics has released their projections of education statistics for the next eight years. And they’re worth taking seriously; analyses of previous predictions showed them to be remarkably accurate. So let’s peer into the future: Between 2007 and 2019, K-12 enrollment will see a 6 percent increase overall—mostly coming from a boom in America’s school-aged Hispanic population. While white and black student enrollment will actually decrease, Hispanic student enrollment is projected to increase 60 percent over these thirteen years. In terms of graduation rates: Twenty-one states (including most of the Northeast) will see a decrease in their graduation rates by at least 5 percent, while seventeen states will see an increase by at least the same percentage. NCES further reports predictions on student-teacher ratios, education expenditures, college enrollments, and teacher qualifications. While the projections rely on a host of assumptions external to the education system (like fertility rates and migration), and don’t take political and fiscal climates into account, they’re still fun to explore.

William J. Hussar and Tabitha M. Bailey, “Projections of Education Statistics to 2019 (Thirty-eighth edition)” (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, March 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: CBAs, ESEA, and a little LOL

Mike and Rick explain the merits of student tracking, debate whether collective bargaining matters, and spar over ESEA reauthorization. Amber heads to the Land of Enchantment for a study on CBAs and student achievement. And Chris deplores drivers: Keep the cell phones in your pockets!

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: Field notes: Budgeting while the ship is sinking
By Peter Meyer

At last night’s school-board budget “workshop” I felt the sinking sensation that passengers on the Titanic must have felt: It’s too late for life boats. The trouble is, I felt that way last year as well. The big difference between the Titanic and my school district is this: Our ship doesn’t really sink and we don’t change directions. What happened between last year’s iceberg strike and this year’s? Nothing. We threw a bunch of people overboard and kept on sailing—and we’ll do the same this year. No offense to Mike and my Stretching the School Dollar colleagues at Fordham, but out here in the trenches, it’s budgeting as usual, which means politics as usual, which means balancing layoffs and tax increases, which means: the education equivalent of fighting over the deck chairs.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Why the charter-school idea has stood the test of time
By Mike Petrilli

Ever since their creation two decades ago, charter schools have been defined by three fundamental—if somewhat contradictory—ideas: accountability for results, school-level autonomy, and meaningful parental choice. That the charter notion has stood the test of time is a testament to the power of these three ideas. Charter schools remain at the center of the school-reform conversation because they are the node that connects these disparate reform instincts with one another.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.



Gadfly Studios: What's Up With That?: The case of the $637 swear word

Click to play Chris's What's Up With That?

Chris praises a new Texas initiative that links cuss words to students’ wallets and wonders: What else could we be fining kids for?



Briefly Noted: Go big, or go home

  • Can Catholic schools in America be saved? How? Andy Smarick offers a thoughtful take on the plight of the nation’s urban Catholic schools—and some suggestions on where to go from here—in the latest National Affairs.  
  • Race to the Top goes to college, as the Department of Education this week announced $20 million in competitive grant funding for states that carry out plans to increase their college-graduation rates.
  • When it rains, it pours in Wake County, NC. The district, still deep in negotiations surrounding its forced-busing policy, now faces loss of accreditation. The reason provided by accreditor AdvancED: Too much instability on the board.
  • Joel Rose is going big. This week the School of One founder announced that he’s taking the hybrid math program (which uses both computer-based and traditional-teacher instruction) national. Exciting stuff, indeed.
  • Got a great idea? Make sure you hook up with Imagine K-12, a new education start-up out of Sillicon Valley.


Announcement: NCTQ wants YOU

The National Council on Teacher Quality is searching for a coordinator of their strategic communications division. Interested parties should be self-starters, passionate about education reform, with strong writing and interpersonal skills. For the full job description, as well as instructions on how to apply, head here.


Fordham's featured publication: Tracking and Detracking: High-Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools

Tracking and Detracking cover image


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



The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Amy Fagan, Daniela Fairchild, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Chris Irvine, Amanda Olberg, Jamie Davies O’Leary, Emmy Partin, Marena Perkins, Michael J. Petrilli, Terry Ryan, Janie Scull, Gerilyn Slicker, Chris Tessone, and Amber Winkler. Have something to say? Email us at Find archived issues or other reviews of reports and books here.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is the nation’s leader in advancing educational excellence for every child through quality research, analysis, and commentary, as well as on-the-ground action and advocacy in Ohio. (For Ohio news, check out our Ohio Education Gadfly, published bi-weekly, ordinarily on Wednesdays.) The Institute is neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.

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