Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Getting back on track
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
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 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
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
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.)
But 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 listen to commentary on student tracking from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Opinion: The down-low on innovation "uptake"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
News Analysis: NEA at war!
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
Review: Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools
E. Finn, Jr.
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.
Review: Monitoring Progress: Response to Intervention's Promise and Pitfalls
By Janie Scull
Response 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.
Review: Projections of Education Statistics to 2019 (Thirty-Eighth Edition)
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.
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!
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.…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: Why the charter-school idea has stood the test of time
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.…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Gadfly Studios: What's Up With That?: The case of the $637 swear word
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
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.
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,
- 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
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.