The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 15. April 21, 2011.

In This Edition

New from Fordham: ESEA Briefing Book

Political leaders hope to act this year to renew and repair the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind). In this important new paper, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn and Mike Petrilli identify ten big issues that must be resolved in order to get a bill across the finish line, and explore the major options under consideration for each one. Should states be required to adopt academic standards tied to college and career readiness? Should the new law provide greater flexibility to states and districts? These are just a few of the areas discussed. Finn and Petrilli also present their own bold yet “reform realist” solutions for ESEA. Click here to learn more.

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Opinion and Analysis

On pushing the ESEA boulder up the hill
The path is clear, but who will lead the charge?
Opinion | Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Warm and fuzzy in the Windy City? 
Can you kick butt and still get consensus?
News Analysis

Takeaways from teachers in turnarounds 
Sending in the A-Team
News Analysis

Short Reviews

School Choice and School Improvement
A snapshot of the research from Harvard Education Press
Review | Marena Perkins

Workplaces That Support High-Performing Teaching and Learning: Insights from Generation Y Teachers 
In which the AFT makes young teachers seem more reformy than they really are
Review | Janie Scull

The Effect of Evaluation on Performance: Evidence from Longitudinal Student Achievement Data of Mid-career Teachers 
A hefty price tag—but maybe worth the cost
Review | Jamie Davies O'Leary

The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System 
Smart lessons on teacher training and other thoughts on “trust”
Review | Daniela Fairchild

From The Web

We heart jargon—and Jean-Claude 
Tight-loose, public-private, and J.C.’s big adventure
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

Is it time for “controlled choice” in Washington, D.C.?
Gentrification: A once-in-a-generation opportunity for integrating our schools
Flypaper's Finest | April 18, 2011 | Mike Petrilli

This Bud’s for Jay; or, just fly me there
Currency exchange is the metaphor you seek
Flypaper's Finest | April 19, 2011 | Peter Meyer

Fordham’s ESEA Briefing Book: “Reform Realism” explained
Checker and Mike tell you what you need to know
Gadfly Studios | April 21, 2011


Gay history in the Golden State
And a shout-out to Chiefs for Change
Briefly Noted

School boards: What are they good for? 
Find out at Fordham on April 26

1CAN, 2CAN, 3CAN, 4 
50CAN needs executive directors

Reinvent research
CRPE hiring a research coordinator

Bienvenido a Miami 
Attend or present at the first annual International School Choice and Reform Academic Conference January 14 to 17, 2012

An Open Letter to President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and the 111th Congress 
The birth of Reform Realism
Fordham featured publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: On pushing the ESEA boulder up the hill
By Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Along with paralysis over the budget (and so much else), there’s enduring paralysis on Capitol Hill over federal education policy. While 2011 has brought a flurry of promising reform activity at the state level, we detect barely a heartbeat in Washington when it comes to updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently NCLB), even though an overhaul is at least four years overdue and just about everyone agrees that it's not working very well.

A year ago, the Obama Administration offered a decent “blueprint” for reauthorization; but in Congress there are major fissures within each party—and little evidence of desire to cooperate across the aisle. Most commentators agree—and staffers privately admit—that chances are slim for an update before the 2012 elections. Sadly, they are probably right. It’s a major abdication of responsibility by our nation’s lawmakers.

Click to read our ESEA briefing bookAnd what makes it especially painful is that there's a pretty obvious path forward, not too different from the Administration’s proposal. We sketch it out in a new ESEA reform proposal released this week. It capitalizes on some key realities:

First, NCLB has done a pretty good job of sensitizing the country to the value of detailed student-achievement data—by district, school, state, and subgroup. To really have traction, however, those data must be linked to rigorous standards, decent tests (and other measures), and interstate comparability. On those points, NCLB faltered—it mandated that states aim for universal “proficiency” by 2014 but allowed them to define proficiency however they liked. Thankfully the Common Core State Standards Initiative is potentially coming to the rescue with its rigorous standards, real-world relevance, upcoming assessments, and coast-to-coast adoption.

Second, NCLB has also shown the federal government to be utterly incapable of enforcing a nationwide “accountability and intervention” strategy, of assuring teacher quality, and of doing myriad other things that comprise the actual operation—and reform—of the education system. We see little reason for optimism about more successfully driving reform tomorrow via another layer of top-down federal mandates attached to formula-based funding programs.

Reform Realism entails a radical rethinking of the federal role in education, one that would be much more focused, and, we think, tailored to Washington’s capacity and expertise.


Meanwhile, Race to the Top, while imperfect, has shown that competitive grant programs can stimulate some worthwhile education changes at the state and district levels.

Finally, there are the new political realities, especially the GOP (and the Tea Party to its right) wanting Washington to get out of the way of states and districts, and Democrats—some of them, anyway—wanting reforms for poor kids even if that means getting in the face of the teacher unions.

Put it together and you have the makings of a grand bargain, in line with what we’ve termed “Reform Realism”—a pro-school-reform orientation that is also realistic about what the federal government can (and cannot) do well in K-12 education. This philosophy entails three main principles:

“Tight-loose” – Greater national clarity about our goals and expectations for students (i.e., standards linked to real-world demands of college and career), but much greater flexibility around how states, communities, and schools actually get their students there.

Transparency instead of Accountability – Results-based accountability in education is vital, but it can’t successfully be imposed from Washington. Instead, Uncle Sam should ensure that our education system’s results—and its finances—are transparent to the public, to parents, to local and state officials (and voters), and, of course, to educators.

Incentives over Mandates –When Uncle Sam seeks to promote specific reforms in education, he should do so through carrots rather than sticks—and through competitive grant programs rather than formulas.

Reform Realism entails a radical rethinking of the federal role in education, one that would be much more focused, and, we think, tailored to Washington’s capacity and expertise. These are our ten specific recommendations. (You can find the details here.)

  1. Expect states, as a condition of Title I funding, to adopt rigorous (i.e., “college- and career-ready”) academic standards in reading and math (either the Common Core standards or equally rigorous ones).
  2. Likewise, expect states to adopt rigorous “cut scores” on tests aligned with those standards—making sure these cut scores signify true readiness for college and career.
  3. Require states to develop the capacity to measure student growth over time.
  4. Demand regular testing in science and history, not just reading and math, in order to reverse curricular narrowing and foster a more complete education in key subjects.
  5. Eliminate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and instead require states, as a condition of Title I funding, to adopt school-rating systems that provide transparent information to educators, parents, taxpayers, and voters. Such state reporting systems would have to be pegged to college and career readiness and, for high schools, to graduation rates. They would have to rate all schools annually on their effectiveness and include disaggregated data about subgroup performance.
  6. Eliminate all federally mandated interventions in low-performing schools. Allow states to decide when and how to address failing schools—and other schools.
  7. Eliminate the Highly Qualified Teachers mandate.
  8. Rather than demand “comparability” of services across Title I and non-Title I schools, require districts to report detailed school-level spending information (so as to make spending inequities across and within districts more transparent).
  9. Offer states the opportunity to sign flexibility agreements that would give them greater leeway over the use of their federal funds and would enable them to target resources more tightly on the neediest schools.
  10. Turn reform-oriented formula grant programs into competitive ones. Specifically, transform Title II into a series of competitive grant programs, including Race to the Top, i3, charter-school expansion and improvement, a competitive version of School Improvement Grants, and an expanded Teacher Incentive Fund.

In essence, we propose greater federal prescriptiveness (“tight”) around standards, tests, cut scores, and data systems, and much less federal regulation (“loose”) of sanctions, interventions, teacher quality, and almost everything else.

No one will be thrilled with this plan. The education establishment will complain that our proposal maintains No Child Left Behind’s focus on “teaching to the test.” Some reformers will worry that, by backing away from federally mandated “accountability,” we will turn the clock back on improvements for poor and minority students. And some conservatives will argue that we don’t go far enough to minimize the federal role.

The other way to look at this plan, however, is as a clear path to reauthorization—a path that, after suitable compromises on all sides, will take us to a much better place, federal policy-wise, then where we are now. Who is ready to lead us there?

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Fordham's briefing book from the Education Gadfly Show podcast


News Analysis: Warm and fuzzy in the Windy City?

Chicago Bean by DrBacchus, on Flickr

Photo by Rich Bowen

Whereas other noisy Midwestern states have been audibly discordant of late, the education buzz emanating from Illinois has been positive—from both sides of the education-reform divide. That’s because the Land of Lincoln is currently advancing a negotiated education-reform bill, painstakingly constructed to reflect the desires of both traditional education groups and reformers. In fact, both Stand for Children and the Illinois Education Association (IEA) endorse the measure—and all fifty-nine out of fifty-nine state senators signed it. At first glance, this new legislation seems to be a wholesale win for Illinois’s reform community: It rewards teachers for good performance, eases the process for dismissing poor performers, ties tenure to performance evaluations, and removes seniority as the sole basis for determining layoffs. Maybe Illinois reformers—who unleashed an avalanche of political donations last fall—backed the IEA into a corner, sending the message: Either join us or get steamrolled. But dive a little deeper and other features emerge that ought give reformers pause. For example, when budget cuts force teacher layoffs, though seniority can no longer be the sole determinant, proxies for it such as certification and relevant experience can take its place. Regarding teachers’ performance evaluations, they’re to be locally approved, with neither a state-based student-achievement requirement nor a deadline for implementation. We’re all for consensus, but sooner or later Kumbaya has to yield to some butt-kicking if real change is to take place. And we’ve got a feeling that, with a firecracker like J.C. Brizard stepping into the role of Chicago schools chief under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Windy City at least won’t be tranquil for long.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Jean-Claude Brizard and Illinois from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

Powerful unions key to education reform package,” by John O’Connor, Bloomberg Businessweek, April 15, 2011.

Illinois Senate passes education reform bill,” by Cheryl Burton, ABC Seven Illinois, April 14, 2011.

Chicago Mayor-elect Emanuel names schools chief,” by Staff, The Associated Press, April 20, 2011.

Teaching: Reform—Or “Reform Lite”—in Illinois?,” by Alexander Russo, This Week in Education, April 19, 2011.


News Analysis: Takeaways from teachers in turnarounds

Successful school turnarounds have long been elusiveif not downright impossible to find. Yet a newly piloted model out of Boston shows some promise. The Teacher Turnaround Teams (T3) program, a Teach Plus and Boston Public Schools (BPS) joint venture, recruits and places groups of effective, experienced teachers in select BPS buildings, infusing these struggling schools with both a “critical mass” of accomplished teachers and a teacher-leader cadre ready to up the abilities of their peers. At the two pilot schools participating in the program, T3 teachers—who have been chosen through an intense application process—make up about 25 percent of the teacher force. And it seems to be working. Eight months into the program’s inaugural year, T3 schools are seeing marked student improvement. But that’s not all. Along with catalyzing achievement gains, T3 offers standout teachers the chance to lead, while remaining in the classroom—a “career ladder” if you will. T3ers run weekly team meetings with teachers in their grades and subject matters, debriefing, mentoring other teachers, and vetting team concerns. “It’s where the profession needs to move,” explains elementary school teacher Callie Liebmann. Kinks remain to be ironed out, but the concept is compelling: Recruit a cohort of high-caliber folks, place them in leadership roles within the teaching profession, and offer them the school-based autonomy needed to make smart shifts. Now if someone could work through just how to scale this all up.

Teacher-Leader Corps Help Turnaround Schools,” by Stephen Sawchuck, Education Week, April 18, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: School Choice and School Improvement
By Marena Perkins

School Choice and School Improvement coverIn this ambitious compendium, authors pull together school-choice research as it pertains to student outcomes; parent choice; and competition and segregation effects. Through its chapters, the volume does a mighty fine job answering some tough questions relating to school choice: Do charters cream? Do vouchers in D.C. work? What criteria do parents use when choosing a school? Do students availing themselves of choice programs experience greater achievement in their new schools? Researchers of various stripes, including Paul Peterson and John Witte, pull data from Indianapolis to the Netherlands. The bottom line: We’re headed in the right direction—but there’s a lot we could do better. To that end, School Choice and School Improvement calls out some of the hang-ups in the school-choice movement (the underwhelming effects of intradistrict transfer being one and high school application processes that derail some would-be school-choice students being another). It also gives some practical advice (e.g.: how to disseminate school information to parents). This volume offers a balanced, above-the-fray look at look the current realities and future possibilities of choice in our schools.

Mark Berends, Marisa Cannata, and Ellen B. Goldring, eds., School Choice and School Improvement, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, March 2011).


Review: Workplaces that Support High-Performing Teaching and Learning: Insights from Generation Y Teachers
By Janie Scull

A joint production of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Institutes for Research (AIR), this report compiles data from eleven previous surveys, seven focus groups, and three case studies to gauge how Generation Y teachers—those born between 1977 and 1989—view their profession. Overall, it paints Gen Y teachers as optimistic and progressive, concluding that they crave more feedback on their effectiveness, more peer sharing and learning, recognition and rewards for strong performance, meaningful evaluation systems, and technology in the classrooms. Interestingly for an AFT publication, it paints these young teachers as more reform-minded than they probably are. For example, the study cites the Retaining Teacher Talent survey and reports that near 61 percent of Gen Y teachers think stellar colleagues should be rewarded. But it fails to showcase another finding from the same survey: Sixty-seven percent of Gen Yers would themselves prefer a school with a guaranteed annual raise of 3 percent and no opportunity for merit pay, as opposed to a school with opportunities for merit pay but no set tenure and salary structure. At the end of the day, Gen Y teachers may well be slightly more reformy than their older colleagues, but it would be folly to think that reformers looking to tear down tenure and implement performance-based pay will find droves of allies in the younger generation of classroom practitioners.

Jane D. Coggshall, Ellen Behrstock-Sherratt, and Karen Drill, “Workplaces That Support High-Performing Teaching and Learning: Insights from Generation Y Teachers” (Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Teachers; Naperville, IL: American Institutes for Research, April 2011).


Review: The Effect of Evaluation on Performance: Evidence from Longitudinal Student Achievement Data of Mid-career Teachers
By Jamie Davies O’Leary

As states and districts seek to overhaul teacher-evaluation systems, this NBER paper answers a salient question: Do evaluations actually improve a teacher’s performance? That’s one hope of reformers and unions alike—that clear and regular feedback will help instructors improve their craft. Based on eight years of data from Cincinnati’s Teacher Evaluation System (TES), the answer is yes—in math, anyway. TES is an evaluation system that uses periodic, unannounced classroom observations coupled with student-work portfolios. For this report, researchers examined data from 2003-04 to 2009-10 to ascertain the impact of TES on mid-career teachers (those in the system for five to nineteen years). Building on performance-evaluation research, these analyses looked not just at any immediate improvements incurred during a teacher’s evaluation period, but at the long-term impacts resulting from participation in TES itself. They do this by comparing achievement of students taught before teacher participation in TES with student achievement during or after TES participation, while also controlling for students’ prior achievement, teacher experience, and relevant demographic variables. Though there were no significant differences found in reading, teacher performance in math improved both during the evaluation period and afterwards. For example, a teacher whose pupils had typically scored in the 50th percentile on math tests before being evaluated begins to see results in the 55th percentile range in the years after evaluation. Teachers who scored in the lowest quartile on their evaluations showed the greatest improvements. As we rethink teacher evaluation, these are promising findings indeed. But be forewarned: A system like TES comes with a lofty price tag—roughly $7,500 for each teacher evaluated (over the course of the six studied years). If districts or states plan on taking it to scale, some financial juggling will be in order.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the NBER paper from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

Eric S. Taylor and John H. Tyler, “The Effect of Evaluation on Performance: Evidence from Longitudinal Student Achievement Data of Mid-career Teachers,” (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2011).


Review: The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World's Most Surprising School System
By Daniela Fairchild

Finland Phenomenon coverSince the 2000 PISA and TIMSS test results catapulted Finland’s education system to international acclaim, scholars around the globe have been debating the sources of that success. This film, produced by Robert Compton (of Two Million Minutes fame) and starring Tony Wagner (author of The Global Achievement Gap), weighs in on this saturated debate. Through classroom visits, interviews with students and teachers, and statistics that roll across the screen, it showcases Finland’s myriad educational idiosyncrasies. It explains that the country has no high-stakes testing (save at the end of secondary school) or teacher-evaluation system, and students do little homework. This system creates a “culture of trust,” which Wagner heralds as the magic bean of Finland’s success. What is most interesting about the film, though, is its depiction of Finland’s rigorous, intense, and competitive teacher-training programs—a more probable explanation for the nation’s academic strength. These programs accept a mere 10 percent of applicants (akin to Ivy League acceptance rates in the U.S.)—and kick out teacher trainees who aren’t up to snuff. Candidates observe veteran teachers, co-design and execute lesson plans, and receive feedback from peers, mentors, and even students. The film provides a first-hand view of Finland’s classrooms, and is worth viewing in that regard. Pay particular attention to the segments on teacher training, and please don’t be hypnotized by Wagner’s fluffy thoughts on the “culture of trust.”

Robert Compton, The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System, (Washington, D.C.: Broken Pencil Productions, Inc., March 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: We heart jargon--and J.C.

Mike and Rick conjure up some crazy weather this week during Pardon the Gadfly: a hailstorm of ideas from Fordham’s new ESEA briefing book, the landfall of Hurricane Winerip, and the epic J.C. Brizard-snowpocalypse. Amber heats things up with an NBER paper on teacher evals, and Chris, well, he just thinks Canada is crazy.

The Education Gadfly
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.


Click to play video from BASIS DC eventFlypaper's Finest: Is it time for "controlled choice" in Washington, D.C.?
By Mike Petrilli

The District of Columbia’s rapid gentrification provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create racially and socio-economically integrated public schools. But misguided public policies might be allowing this moment to slip through our hands.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: This Bud's for Jay; or, just fly me there
By Peter Meyer

The other day, Jay Greene unveiled his Tight-Loose Travel Agency, as a followup to his Fordham Report Drinking Game.   What the two have in common is anyone’s guess, which is a tipoff to Jay’s tipsy logic in trying to expose what he thinks will be Fordham’s vain attempt “to explain their support for a nationalized set of standards, curriculum, and assessments while also embracing local control and federalism.”…

The correct analogy here is not travel agency (or drinking game), but currency exchange. Today we treat American public-school students like they live in different countries, each teacher handing out different coins (based on what? the kids’ poverty and racial status?)—coins not accepted by the next teacher, or the next school, or the neighboring state’s test writers—right on up to Dropoutville, where you don’t need no coins.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.



Gadfly Studios: Fordham's ESEA Briefing Book: "Reform Realism" explained

click to play video

Mike and Checker explain how NCLB got it backwards, and what Reform Realism would look like in practice.



Briefly Noted: Gay history in the Golden State

  • Congratulations to the expanded, energized Chiefs for Change, with new members Janet Barresi (OK), Stephen Bowen (ME), Chris Cerf (NJ), Kevin Huffman (TN), and Hanna Skandera (NM). Never have you been more needed. 
  • Michael Winerip raised heads, eyebrows, and even fists with his Sunday Times piece on the high school alma maters of various ed reformers. Why? Because many of them attended private schools. Shelving the important debate on whether or not this matters (look to Liam Julian for that), Gadfly conducted a little survey on Flypaper. His findings? About 80 percent of reformers (who read our blog, at least) are public-school alums.
  • If legislation already approved by the California Senate makes its way through the House and Governor Moonbeam’s desk, the Golden State would be the first to mandate gay history in K-12 social-studies classes. The bill would also add disabilities studies to the curriculum.
  • Detroit’s newest shot in the arm is pink. The district is sending all 5,466 DPS teachers layoff notices, and is planning to use new legal powers to modify the onerous Motown teacher contract.
  • New York districts are looking for a skeleton key to free themselves from the handcuffs of tight budgets. Their current targets are a host of costly state mandates imposed in response to myriad social concerns (e.g. calculating students’ body-mass index). Smart thinking, if the single-issue constituencies get out of the way.


Announcement: School boards, what are they good for?

Gadfly is curious too. Join him, and a powerhouse lineup of panelists, next Tuesday, April 26 from 4:00PM to 5:30PM to discuss the relevance of the local school board in the twenty-first century. More information and registration are here.


Announcement: 1CAN, 2CAN, 3CAN, 4

50CAN is expanding, with offices opening in Maryland and New York, and they’re looking for in-state executive directors. If you’re passionate about education-reform advocacy, and have strong communication, mobilization, and policymaking skills, 50CAN is for you. For more information on the MarylandCAN position, click here; for NewYorkCAN, here.


Announcement: Reinventing research

If you’re a stickler for data, with a keen eye for detail, if you can work well independently as well as in a group and juggle multiple research projects, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has a position for you. CRPE is hiring for a research coordinator to manage the organization’s myriad projects on finance and productivity, charters and choice, and teacher quality. Learn more here.


Announcement: Bienvenido a Miami

Simultaneously catch some rays and expand your mind: The Journal of School Choice is now accepting paper and presentation concepts for their first annual International School Choice and Reform Academic Conference, to be held in Miami, FL in January. The official call for papers can be found here. If you’d simply like to attend the conference, you may register here.



Fordham's featured publication: An Open Letter to President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and the 111th Congress

Click to read the open letter

In this 2008 letter, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute appraises the federal-policy landscape and its main players, and outlines the ideal federal role in K-12 education. In summary, the various education associations, interest groups, experts, and think tanks cluster into three major factions: the System Defenders, the Army of the Potomac, and the Local Controllers. Fordham favors a fourth approach, called Reform Realism. To learn more about Reform Realism, click here.



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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