The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 14. April 14, 2011.
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Opinion and Analysis

The anti-“tight” right vs. the anti-“loose” left
Ideological positioning on ESEA reauthorization
Opinion | Michael J. Petrilli

A charter-school frenemy in the Bronx
Best practices, no matter where they come from

Instructional delivery, turned on its head 
Fresh thinking from the Khan Academy
News Analysis

What the Sunshine State can learn from Georgia
Teacher-evaluation legislation done right
News Analysis | Chris Tessone

Short Reviews

America's High School Graduates: Results from the 2009 NAEP High School Transcript Study 
Curriculum rigor is on the up-and-up
Review | Daniela Fairchild

District of Columbia Public Schools: Defining Instructional Expectations and Aligning Accountability and Support
Lessons from the front lines
Review | Bianca Speranza

Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School 
Sure they’re inspiring, but school turnarounds are hard work!
Review | Gerilyn Slicker

State Test Score Trends Through 2008-09, Part 3: Student Achievement at 8th Grade
Is middle school really not the black sheep?
Review | Chris Irvine

From The Web

Consensus has its day in the sun
A left-right federal-policy accord, and more from Race to the Top
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Janie Scull

Evaluation of teachers must improve
Ohio is well-positioned to build a modern, fair system
Flypaper's Finest | April 11, 2011 | Terry Ryan

Obtaining a "real education"
Ideas on entrepreneurship from Dilbert
Flypaper's Finest | April 13, 2011 | Liam Julian

Event: Looking inside diverse charter schools
What they promise, how they deliver, and why they succeed
Gadfly Studios | April 14, 2011


Going on a "spring sphere" hunt
And further refutation of the KIPP attrition myth
Briefly Noted

Rethinking school boards in the twenty-first century
Discuss with Fordham on April 26

Yes we ConnCAN
ConnCAN seeks an executive director

A glimpse at Los Angeles's edu-future
LAUSD supe John Deasy offers insights at AEI on May 5

Mayhem in the Middle: How Middle Schools Have Failed America, and How to Make Them Work
Success in high school starts with a strong middle school education
Fordham Featured Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: The anti-"tight" right vs. the anti-"loose" left
By Michael J. Petrilli

Articles by Jay Greene and Kevin Carey this week serve as effective bookends on the current ESEA debate. Both analysts dislike the “tight-loose” formulation to federal policymaking that is championed by Arne Duncan, among others—though of course for opposite reasons.

Speaking for the anti-“tight” right, Greene argues that “dictating the ends with a national set of standards, curriculum, and assessments will necessarily dictate much of the means.” (And, to be fair, he did so in a witty and amusing blog post, in which he proposed a “drinking game” for readers of Fordham’s forthcoming ESEA proposal, due out next week.)

But it’s unclear why he finds the concept of “tight-loose” so preposterous. Consider this: Here are the most likely potential mandates that Congress might attach to federal Title I funding in the next ESEA:

  1. States must adopt rigorous academic standards (and cut scores) in English and math that imply readiness for college and career.
  2. States must test students annually in English and math.
  3. States must build assessments and data systems to allow for individual student growth to be tracked over time.
  4. States must develop standards and assessments in science and history, too.
  5. States must rate schools according to a prescriptive formula (i.e., AYP).
  6. States must intervene in schools that fail to make AYP for several years in a row, or in schools that are among the lowest-performing in the state.
  7. States must develop rigorous teacher evaluation systems and ensure a more equitable distribution of effective teachers.
  8. States must ensure that Title I schools receive comparable resources—including good teachers and real per-pupil dollars—as those received by non-Title I schools.

The way Greene argues it, Congress has to either choose “none of the above” or “all of the above.” But of course it doesn’t. We at Fordham would select items one through four off this a la carte menu, and leave the rest for states to decide. That, to us, would be “tight-loose” in action.

Does Jay believe none of these should be required? And if so, isn’t he arguing for federal taxpayers to just leave the money on the stump? Why not make the principled conservative case and say that Title I and other federal funding streams should simply be eliminated?

And then there’s Kevin Carey’s much more earnest—yet equally problematic—essay in the New Republic. He takes the opposite, anti-“loose” view, and seems to argue that if Republicans don’t opt for “all of the above” they are showing themselves to be “radicalized” and in fear of the awesome powers of the Tea Party. According to Carey, Republicans like Senator (and former Education Secretary) Lamar Alexander are “abandoning” their dedication to education reform “in the face of the new anti-federal mood.” Never mind that Alexander has long pushed for a smaller federal footprint in education. Now he’s “abandoning” his lifetime of work because he wants to let states take the lead on the next phase of reform? All that’s happening is that the GOP is returning to its federalist roots after a wayward journey with No Child Left Behind.

Note, in particular, Carey’s worries that “states might no longer be required to test students annually or intervene when schools persistently fail to help students learn.” These concerns are misguided and misplaced. First, nobody is seriously talking about moving away from an annual testing requirement. Second, what evidence can Carey point to that federally mandated interventions in persistently failing schools have amounted to anything? Can anyone argue that the School Improvement Grants program is going well?

Let’s quit with all the over-the-top rhetoric. Give the list of eight mandates above a good look. Congress is likely to move ahead with the first few and will definitely reject the last few; the real debate is about the ones in the middle. In other words, we’ll be arguing over the precise definition of “tight-loose,” regardless of what the anti-“tight” right or the anti-“loose” left have to say about it.

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the "tight-loose" debate from the Education Gadfly Show podcast


News Analysis: A charter-school frenemy in the Bronx 

Jonathan Mahler recounts a powerful, yet tortured, tale of MS 223 in the South Bronx in the most recent New York Times Magazine. Focusing on the school’s dynamic leader, Ramón González, Mahler articulates well the tribulations of Gotham’s tenth-best middle school. Throughout the piece González—and Mahler it seems—struggles with the disjoint between charter and district policy, between the status quo and education reform. Despite the principal’s outspoken disdain for charters, their fingerprints are all over his school: González unofficially requires students to wear uniforms, and peppers his hallways with college pennants (tactics used by KIPP to create a college-bound culture). And while González purports to cringe at some of the Klein edu-reforms in NYC (the school leader “worries that the reform movement’s infatuation with competition will undermine the broader goal of improving public education”), he has taken full advantage of Klein initiatives to better MS 223. Thanks to Klein, González has has been able to create his own curricula, micromanage his students’ days, and spend his school’s annual budget as he wishes. The story of MS 223 offers smart lessons for principals and district administrators nationwide: Principals, like González, should grab the best practices wherever they find them—from charters or traditional public schools alike. And district leaders should create policies that afford principals that opportunity. The children will thank you.

The Fragile Success of School Reform in the Bronx,” by Jonathan Mahler, New York Times Magazine, April 6, 2011.


News Analysis: Instruction delivery, turned on its head

Headstand by aturkus, on Flickr

   Photo by A. Turkus

Since the time of Horace Mann, in secondary schools of all stripes, the education delivery model has looked something like this: The teacher lectures to the students, educating them on the War of 1812, the circumference of a circle, or dangling modifiers. Further practice is done as homework—far away from a teacher’s watchful eye and helpful instruction. A provocative new idea from Salman Khan (the face and brains behind the Khan Academy videos) flips this delivery model on its head. In classrooms with which Khan partners, students are given the lectures for homework (to be watched online); the problems are done in class. This allows teachers to provide direct guidance to, immediate feedback for, and more personalized instruction time with their students. A bright idea from a bright individual—Khan’s proposal could be a huge win for champions of individualized instruction and teacher professionalization alike. Let's hope it catches on.

Turning the Classroom Upside Down,” by Salman Khan, Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2011.


News Analysis: What the Sunshine State can learn from Georgia
By Chris Tessone

It’s an exciting time in the Peach State, as Georgia is on the road to eliminating seniority-based layoffs—and is doing so in a smart, constructive manner to boot. See, Georgia’s law would create a flexible plan for performance evaluation, mandating that local school and district managers revamp teacher-evaluation systems, but allowing them the flexibility to determine what those systems will look like. SB 184 sets three basic policies: Local school boards can no longer use length of tenure as the “primary or sole determining factor” in layoff decisions; performance should be the primary determining factor in making these layoffs (and “one measure of [teachers’ skills] may be student academic performance”); effective professional development must be identified by 2015 to help all teachers improve their craft. This approach provides a strong model for Georgia’s neighbor to the Southeast. Instead of pushing forward a broad framework for reductions in force while empowering districts to work out the details locally, Florida’s recently enacted SB 736 mandates state-level salary structures, establishes a learning growth model to measure teacher effectiveness, and limits district freedoms when it comes to letting teachers go. Kudos to Georgia for their smart thinking. Let’s hope the Gators take heed.

Performance trumps seniority for teachers in House vote,” by April Hunt and Nancy Badertscher, Atlanta Journal Constitution, April 11, 2011.

Florida’s Senate Bill 736: With ‘Wins’ Like These…,” by Rick Hess, Straight Up Blog, April 4, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: America's High School Graduates: Results from the 2009 NAEP High School Transcript Study
By Daniela Fairchild

NAEP HSTS 2009 cover imageHigh school students are taking more courses now than they were two decades ago, and more are opting for rigorous curricula, according to the 2009 NAEP High School Transcript Study (HSTS). According to the nationally representative study, 2009 graduates earned three more course credits than their 1990 peers, translating into 420 more hours of instruction. Even better, students are earning more credits in the core courses (English, math, science, and history). Unfortunately, the HSTS can’t explain how these shifts occurred, while noting that neither the school day nor the school year has been altered. (The authors do offer potential explanations, including an increase in voluntary summer school, supplemental online courses, etc. But the data doesn’t allow for concrete explanations.) There’s more good news: Students in 2009 are, on average, taking a more rigorous course of study than their 1990 counterparts. The shift has been particularly prominent for African Americans. In 1990, 60 percent of all black graduates took a “below basic” curriculum, and only 26 percent took a “midlevel” or “rigorous” one. In 2009, only 21 percent took a below basic curriculum, and 57 percent engaged in a midlevel or rigorous one. This shift seems promising for NAEP scores: The HSTS reports that students who take rigorous curricula score proficient in NAEP math and science. Whether the strong NAEP performance is due to the rigorous curricula or not requires further analysis. Even though the HSTS leaves many questions unanswered, the report brings to the fore some heady policy issues and offers, for those willing to sift through the silt, a few golden policy nuggets.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the NAEP HSTS from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

Christine Nord, Shep Roey, Robert Perkins, Marsha Lyons, Nita Lemanski, Yael Tamir, Janis Brown, Jason Schuknecht, and Kathleen Herrold, “America's High School Graduates: Results from the 2009 NAEP High School Transcript Study,” (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, April 2011).


Review: District of Columbia Public Schools: Defining Instructional Expectations and Aligning Accountability and Support
By Bianca Speranza

This Aspen Institute paper provides impressive detail on Michelle Rhee’s hard-fought IMPACT teacher-accountability system, explaining its mission, underlying principles, and implementation. The paper is more than just a primer on IMPACT—though it does offer a comprehensive look at the program’s rationale, philosophy, and structure. Aspen also provides principal and teacher perspectives and analyzes the program’s first year of data, offering lessons learned thus far. From the data, Aspen reports a “moderately strong correlation” (r=.57) between principal and master-educator evaluations, implying consistency in judging teacher performance. Yet, it only finds a modest correlation (r=.034) between scores generated from IMPACT’s instructional rubric and teacher value-added data, implying that the IMPACT evaluation system still needs some fine-tuning. Among the lessons offered for districts trying similar teacher-evaluation reforms: Create common expectations about what effective teaching means and looks like; understand that the hardest part of creating a teacher-performance system is helping educators improve their skills; and be aware that continued development of organizational capacity is crucial to success.

Rachel Curtis, “District of Columbia Public Schools: Defining Instructional Expectations and Aligning Accountability and Support” (Washington, D.C.: The Aspen Institute, March 2011).


Review: Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School
By Gerilyn Slicker

Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors coverIn 2008, Steve Barr’s Green Dot charter-school network took over the illustrious, dangerous, and historically under-achieving Alain Leroy Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles. In this in-depth qualitative look at the takeover, Alexander Russo discounts rhetoric both from those who exaggerate and those who belittle Locke’s recent success. As Russo points out, Locke’s transformation has been a long slog, not an unmitigated success, and has been possible only through the grit and perseverance of dedicated teachers and administrators. Russo reports teachers with blood-shot eyes, exasperated with their efforts, puking before starting class in the mornings, or crying quietly in the bathroom after a long day with the students. He chronicles powerful stories—both positive and negative—that have helped to shape Locke over the past three years. Among them: The tale of Keron, a football player who was pepper-sprayed by a rogue security officer after being caught gambling at school and one of Miss K., who battled to keep David, a defiant upperclassman filled with potential, in the school through graduation. This honest on-the-ground portrayal reminds us: School turnarounds are a hard business, indeed.

Click to play

Click to listen to an interview with Russo from the Education Next Book Club podcast

Alexander Russo, Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011).


Review: State Test Score Trends Through 2008-09, Part 3: Student Achievement at 8th Grade
By Chris Irvine

State Test Score Trends cover imageIn the third in its series of state test-score trend analyses, the Center on Education Policy examines the achievement of eighth-grade students on states’ reading and math exams from 2002-03 to 2008-09. Surprisingly—and counter to previous research—the study found that eighth graders are performing just as well as those in fourth grade and high school, and that, of the three, eighth-grade scores are the fastest-improving. Furthermore, at the advanced-achievement level, gaps have widened in a majority of states between white students and their African American, Latino, and Native American counterparts. And Asian Americans have surpassed all other students by a notable margin. It’s hard to know what to make of these findings. It’s certainly possible that we’re finally seeing real improvements in the nation’s long-challenged middle schools. But it’s also likely that the trends simply reflect changes in state tests and cut scores. A more reliable indicator, as always, is the NAEP, where these gains all but disappear.

Naomi Chudowsky and Victor Chudowsky, “State Test Score Trends Through 2008-09, Part 3: Student Achievement at 8th Grade,” (Washington, D.C.: Center for Education Policy, April 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Consensus has its day in the sun

Mike and Janie ford the left-right gap in federal education policy, and find consensus on charter facilities and Race to the Top 2.0. Amber gives the 4-1-1 on the 2009 NAEP high-school-transcript report and Chris brown-bags his lunch.

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: Evaluation of teachers must improve
By Terry Ryan

Effective teachers are the most valuable education asset that Ohio (or any state) has. Statistics don’t lie when it comes to their impact on children’s learning. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, who recently testified before a joint hearing of the Ohio House and Senate education committees, reports that “having a high-quality teacher throughout elementary school can substantially offset or even eliminate the disadvantage of low socio-economic background.” Similarly, a weak teacher can blight a child’s prospects....

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Obtaining a “real education”
By Liam Julian

The man who gave us Dilbert, that irascible cubicle-dweller, his tie perpetually upturned, whose daily panel-by-panel ordeals presented a particularly pointed satire of the modern workplace with its indigestible euphemistic business-speak and mawkish sign-the-card rituals, has written a piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he makes a case for teaching college students less about art history (who needs it?) and more about “entrepreneurship.” For the way of the entrepreneur, Scott Adams writes, is the way to success. He calls his own life to the stand to provide evidence for his claim....

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.



Gadfly Studios: Event: Looking Inside Diverse Charter Schools

Click to play video from BASIS DC event

With BASIS Charter Schools seeking to open a campus in D.C., commentators have asked: Can such a rigorous school effectively serve Washington’s diverse student population? A recent panel, moderated by Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, unequivocally answers: “yes!



Briefly Noted: Going on a "spring sphere" hunt

  • Education-spending advocates: Breathe a sigh of relief. The House passed its proposed spending bill this afternoon (which would fund the feds through September). As it heads to the Senate, education is reasonably unscathed. The budget even offers up $700 million for a new round of Race to the Top, and another $150 million for another set of Investing in Innovation (i3) grants.
  • Mathematica builds off its past research and rebuts Gary Miron’s recent report on student attrition at KIPP in a paper presented at last week’s American Educational Research Association annual meeting.
  • Larry Cuban throws buckets of cold water on the online-learning parade. While he veers swiftly into Negative Nelly-ville, some of his concerns—especially around credit-recovery programs—are worth heeding. Even Michael Horn agrees.
  • A wake-up call when it comes to Common Core assessments: It’s going to take some time before either consortium gets them right; don’t expect miracles when they roll out in 2014.
  • A new study funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation is causing quite a stir. As it turns out, third-graders who struggle with reading are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers. Likewise, low-income students are more likely to drop out than those who had never experienced poverty. Two words: predictably depressing.
  • If you’re Friday nights aren’t complete until you get your education-policy fix, Bloomberg radio can now oblige. Bloomberg EDU, hosted by Jane Williams, is a new weekly look at education in America.
  • Students in one Seattle school can no longer get excited for Easter egg hunts. They now must look forward to “spring sphere” finds. At least the school’s administration found an alliterative term.


Announcement: Rethinking school boards in the twenty-first century

In what should prove to be a lively discussion, Checker Finn hashes out the future role of school boards with Anne Bryant of the National School Boards Association, Christopher Barclay of the Montgomery County Board of Education, and Gene Maeroff, author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy on April 26 from 4:00-5:30PM. Event details and RSVP here.


Announcement: Yes we ConnCAN

Do you believe in the ConnCAN priorities: greater choices, greater accountability, greater flexibility? Are you an experienced and inspiring leader with a keen intellect, collaborative work style, and dedication to education reform? ConnCAN is searching for a new executive director. Find out more here.


Announcement: A glimpse at Los Angeles's edu-future

LAUSD supe John Deasy explains his vision—and how he plans to achieve it (even in these austere times)—at AEI on May 5 from 4:00-5:15PM. For more information, or to RSVP, click here.


Fordham's Featured Publication: Mayhem in the Middle: How Middle Schools Have Failed America, and How to Make Them Work

Mayhem in the Middle cover

American middle schools have become the places “where academic achievement goes to die.” So says report author Cheri Yecke. Today’s middle schools have succumbed to a concept of “middle schoolism” in which a strong academic curriculum, intent on teaching the basics, is traded for one that focuses more on emotional and social development. And the achievement data reflects the consequences of this “middle schoolism.” In 1999, U.S. eighth graders scored nine points below average on the TIMSS assessment of math. What's more, these same eighth graders had outperformed the average by twenty-eight points as fourth graders in 1995! This report shows that trying to fix high schools while ignoring middle schools is like bandaging a wound before treating it for infection.


The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Daniela Fairchild, Amy Fagan, 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 a nonprofit organization that conducts research, issues publications, and directs action projects in elementary and secondary education reform at the national level and in Ohio, with a special emphasis on our hometown of Dayton. (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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