The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 17. May 5, 2011.
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Opinion and Analysis

Ohio’s charter program risks becoming a laughing stock
Those who forget the past are bound to repeat it
Opinion | Terry Ryan

Vouchers for everybody?
“Year of the voucher” and “year of the funding cliff”—can we have both?
News Analysis

Rick Snyder: Ed reform’s sleeper pick
Governor Rick’s policy proposals rock
News Analysis

Short Reviews

The Nation’s Report Card: Civics 2010
Dismal performance in a subject left behind
Review | Daniela Fairchild

Passing Muster: Evaluating Teacher Evaluation Systems
Brookings weighs in
Review | Janie Scull

A Portrait of School Improvement Grantees
See who’s spending our SIG dollars
Review | Marena Perkins

From The Web

Teacher Appreciation Week
Lesson plans and awkward metaphors
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

Squaring the teacher-salary circle: It can be done
Leave the “low pay” shibboleth alone
Flypaper's Finest | May 3, 2011 | Peter Meyer

Anne Bryant: It’s “wrong” for unions to “buy” school board seats
The NSBA wakes up to the fatal flaw of elected boards
Flypaper's Finest | May 3, 2011 | Mike Petrilli


An apple a day to keep Arne away
Be the “sage on the stage”
Briefly Noted

The power of trust
Lessons from The Finland Phenomenon
Letter to the Gadfly

Jump on the strategic-data train 
CEPR and the Strategic Data Project are hiring

September 11: What Our Children Need to Know 
History, civics, heroism, and terrorism—as true today as ever
Fordham featured publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: Ohio's charter program risks becoming a laughing stock
By Terry Ryan

The Ohio House, now again run by Republicans, presented budget revisions last week that risk making the Buckeye State the nation’s laughing stock when it comes to charter-school programs—a status that Ohio has previously owned, and one we should struggle not to resurrect.

A decade ago, Ohio rivaled Arizona as the Wild West of charter-school programs. It hewed to a laissez-faire approach to school openings, growth, and quality, encouraging hundreds of charters to spring up like dandelions. As a result some of the people and organizations that launched these new schools were ill-prepared. Some had eccentric views of what a school should be. Some operators turned out to be more interested in personal enrichment than in delivering high-quality instruction to poor kids. And most authorizers—including the Ohio Department of Education (ODE)—offered little to no oversight for their schools.

Ohio needs to take the lessons of the past seriously, not return to the days of charter schools run amok.


As a result, headlines such as “Charters Fail to Deliver,” “State Audit Says Charter School Company Owes Thousands,” and “Wild Experiment” were ubiquitous. Things got so bad that, in 2002, State Auditor Jim Petro (a Republican, and now John Kasich’s higher-education chancellor) issued a report blasting ODE for being such a weak and undemanding charter-school authorizer. Less than a year later, the (Republican-controlled) General Assembly passed HB364, which forced ODE entirely out of the business of sponsoring charter schools.

This was the first effort at cleaning up Ohio’s troubled charter program and it was followed in subsequent years by further reforms to the program by Republican lawmakers, including implementation of one of the nation’s toughest automatic charter-school closure laws. (To qualify for that grim fate, a school must earn an F grade on the state report card for three of the last four years; the cut-off is a bit stricter for school serving grades four through nine.) As a result of such efforts to build a better balance between choice and accountability, Ohio’s charter-school program has seen far fewer school meltdowns in recent years and the overall quality of the program has improved, with really atrocious schools being booted entirely from the market.

Governor John Kasich’s education-reform plans, contained in his proposed biennial budget for the state, would continue in that vein and deserve to be perfected and enacted. But then the General Assembly’s House of Representatives weighed in. Its proposed budget-bill amendments would push Ohio back into Wild West status—and enable the profiteers to get even richer. Instead of striking a sound balance between freedom and accountability—the essence of the charter-school “bargain”—its plan focuses exclusively on how more schools can open, especially those run by for-profit firms with mediocre-to-dismal track records of educational success in the state. Some of the bill’s more troubling provisions would:

  • Allow school operators to apply directly to the Ohio Department of Education for authorization to establish a school and, upon approval, operate the school with essentially no oversight by anyone. (This is the same Department of Education that was banned from the job in 2005.)
  • Allow operators to force out board members if a dispute arises between the board and the operator, while also allowing the operator to handpick the replacements and requiring operator consent for renewal of any existing contract between a governing board and a sponsor. (This gives operators veto power over their regulator.)
  • Allow an authorizer—no matter how bad its current portfolio of schools—to sponsor many more new schools.

Three months back, I warned in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that:

For too long, charter school education has been a political battlefield on which powerful political interests have waged war. As such, charter quality has suffered and children who badly needed better educational options have all too often bounced from troubled school to troubled school. Gov. Kasich and Republican lawmakers should break the cycle of political acrimony around school choice. This means resisting the temptation – and the encouragement they will surely receive from some in the charter sector – to push for more charter schools while also scaling back on school accountability. This would be a grave mistake.

So much for the power of the pen—my pen, anyway—but the message still rings true. Ohio needs to take the lessons of the past seriously, not return to the days of charter schools run amok. Fortunately for the state’s children, at least a few others seem to agree

The Ohio House votes today (Thursday) on the budget bill; may its members do the right thing.

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s blog, Flypaper. To get timely updates from Fordham, subscribe to Flypaper.


News Analysis: Vouchers for everybody?

School-choice proponents should be swinging from the rafters, as voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs are finding their way into more and more states’ statutes—several of which offer aid to middle-class families, not just impoverished ones. But fissions are emerging among the ranks. Some, including Howard Fuller (a diehard voucher supporter and key architect of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program), see this as a distinct shift away from the social-justice mission of vouchers. No longer will vouchers “help equalize the academic options for children from low-income and working-class families,” warns Fuller. Yet others, like John Norquist, see this expansion as a way to keep middle-class parents in socio-economically integrated neighborhoods even as their children grow to school age. Instead of fleeing to rich suburban districts (often with “private” public schools), these parents would remain in their integrated neighborhoods—stymieing the “system that rewards concentration of the rich in exclusive suburbs segregated from the poor” (Norquist’s words). A sticky debate indeed. While Gadfly supports the expansion of school choice to families in higher income brackets, he can’t help but wonder if the Year of the Funding Cliff is the right time for this idea to come of age.

School Choice and Urban Diversity,” by John Norquist, Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2011.

Keep intact the mission of choice program,” by Howard Fuller, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, April 23, 2011.


News Analysis: Rick Snyder: Ed reform's sleeper pick

On whom would you bestow the title “America’s boldest education-reform governor”? Mitch Daniels? Chris Christie? Scott Walker? What about Rick Snyder of the Great Lakes State? A moderate Republican who won office thanks in large part to the support of frustrated Democrats who crossed over in the primaries, Snyder did not talk much about education during his campaign. But his newly rolled-out reform proposal is a doozy—and in all the right ways. Among his best initiatives: Make Michigan’s funding performance-based, with school-wide bonuses for student growth; mandate that districts accept students from across their borders as long as they have classroom space; remove charter caps in districts with at least one failing school; create a rigorous teacher-evaluation system; and tie teacher preparation to the Common Core standards. Of course, all of these ideas must run the legislative gauntlet before taking hold. Still, for now, let us say: Go Blue!

A Special Message from Governor Rick Snyder: Education Reform,” by Rick Snyder, April 27, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: The Nation's Report Card: Civics 2010
By Daniela Fairchild

Nation's Report Card: CIvics 2010 coverThe woeful proficiency rates of American students on the most recent NAEP Civics assessment (released yesterday) are even more jarring in the context of this week’s events. The nation’s report card assessed some 26,000 fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students; across all grades, about one quarter of pupils scored proficient, and 2 percent advanced. Alarming—though not terribly different from NAEP results in other subjects. So what do these numbers signify? At the fourth-grade level, it means that barely one quarter of students could identify a function of the military and only 2 percent could offer up two rights of American citizens. The 76 percent of twelfth-grade students who failed to score proficient could not, for example, define the term “melting pot” or explain whether or not it applied to the U.S. And only one percent of eighth graders could recognize a role performed by the Supreme Court. Still, there is some positive news to report. Notably, since 1998, the white-Hispanic and black-white achievement gaps have narrowed, while all sub-group scores have risen. But on the whole, the picture is bleak, especially for our twelfth grade students—the very people who will be eligible to vote in next year’s elections.

National Center for Education Statistics, “The Nation’s Report Card: Civics 2010,” (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences, May 4, 2011).


Review: Passing Muster: Evaluating Teacher Evaluation Systems
By Janie Scull

Cover image from Passing MusterAs states and districts across the country craft and begin to implement new teacher-evaluation systems, an important question arises: How will we ensure that new systems accurately and reliably assess teacher effectiveness? To find answers, Brookings guru Russ Whitehurst assembled a top-of-the-line task force and asked them to investigate “relative strength of prediction,” value-added methodologies, and reliability. And deep into the weeds of these concepts they dive. In the end, they propose a metric against which evaluation systems can be appraised (and a handy Excel calculator to help districts determine the accuracy of their teacher-evaluation systems). As with other efforts from Brookings, this report is not a walk in the park, but if you like wonky, it’s just for you.

Steven Glazerman, Dan Goldhaber, Susanna Loeb, Stephen Raudenbush, Douglas O. Staiger, and Grover J. Whitehurst, “Passing Muster: Evaluating Teacher Evaluation Systems” (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Brown Center Task Group on Teacher Quality, April 26, 2011).


Review: A Portrait of School Improvement Grantees
By Marena Perkins

Click to access Portrait of School Improvement Grantees databaseThis nifty new policy brief and interactive map from Education Sector offer up a focused look at where the $3.5 billion in federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) money is going and what it’s being spent on. Through new high-tech software, the interface lets users investigate trends and patterns in the 843 SIG schools, including their location and the type of intervention strategy being implemented in them. The SIG program marks the largest pot of federal funds ever targeted to America’s failing schools, with an average of about 4.2 million offered up to each school. (For more information on SIG, look here and here.) From the report, we see that some grantee schools may not be among the neediest in the country, some are managed by companies with poor track records, and some should have been closed long ago. While these school-level factoids are interesting, it’s the big picture that is most fascinating, especially for policymakers charged with determining SIG’s impact and future. For instance, of the four ED-approved turnaround models—transformation, closure, turnaround, and restart—seventy-three percent of SIG grantees chose “transformation.” (This is arguably the easiest of the available options. It demands only that schools replace the leader and implement some small-scale shifts, rather than close, replace the majority of the staff, or convert to a charter school, as the respective other models require.) In fact, SIG grantees in fifteen states used this model exclusively. These numbers are even more telling when broken up by level of urbanization. SIG schools in cities chose transformation 65 percent of the time, whereas rural SIG schools chose that model 97 percent of the time. Why? The report posits: “Urban districts are better able to relocate students in another school. Schools in more remote locations face limited pools for hiring and fewer partnership opportunities and are left with only one real practical option—transformation.” Kudos to Ed Sector for making transparent how states are using these three billion-plus federal-education dollars.

Padmini Jambulapati, “A Portrait of School Improvement Grantees,” (Washington, D.C.: Education Sector, April 26, 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Teacher Appreciation Week

Mike and Rick are all sorts of punchy this week, talking civics lessons, philanthropic giving, and Arne Duncan’s teacher pandering. Amber breaks the piggy bank with a look at teacher-pension plans while Chris gets meta in the Big Apple.

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: Squaring the teacher-salary circle: It can be done
By Peter Meyer

A few days ago Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari, founders, according to their official ID, of the 826 National tutoring centers and producers of the documentary American Teacher, wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries.” (We know that Eggers also happens to be author of the bestseller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.) Unfortunately, the headline doesn’t do justice to their argument, which is that we have to “make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates” by, among other things, better training and recruiting—but the headline also highlights the problem with their analysis: They can’t leave the “low pay” shibboleth alone.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Anne Bryant: It's "wrong" for unions to "buy" school-board seats
By Mike Petrilli

Some reformers mistrust school boards almost as much as they despise teachers unions. It’s not that they have any particular beef with democratic control of public schools. It’s that they’ve come to see the unions on both sides of the bargaining table. That’s because said unions often manage to capture the very boards with which they then negotiate.…

So it was fascinating, reassuring, and perhaps significant the other day when Anne Bryant, the long-time executive director of the National School Boards Association and America’s foremost defender of school boards as we know them, said that it is “wrong” for unions to “buy” school-board seats.…

Click to play video of Anny Bryant

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Briefly Noted: An apple a day to keep Arne away


Letter to the Gadfly: The power of trust
By Bob Compton

Daniela Fairchild’s recent Gadfly review of my education documentary, The Finland Phenomenon, misinterprets my film. I appreciate the chance to clarify my views.

By way of background, I have spent twenty-five years as a venture capitalist and high-tech entrepreneur, recognizing talent and building companies around the world. I have also led several teams in turning around poor performing organizations. Those experiences inform the documentary films I have produced over the past five years.

For The Finland Phenomenon, I selected Dr. Tony Wagner, author of the Global Achievement Gap and Harvard researcher, as my collaborator and on-screen narrator. He has thirty years of experience in education as well as sensitivity to the subtleties of complex systems.

In her review, Ms. Fairchild dismisses my depiction of the Finns’ “culture of trust” in education with her derisive comments that Dr. Wagner “heralds [this] as the magic bean of Finland’s success” and by warning her readers not to “be hypnotized by Wagner’s fluffy thoughts on the culture of trust.”

First, Dr. Wagner does not proclaim trust as a “magic bean” nor are his thoughts “fluffy.” In those respects, Ms. Fairchild’s review is an unfair interpretation of how my film depicts Finland’s extraordinary academic success in a post-industrial economy.

Ms. Fairchild wants to parse the school system the Finns have built over three decades, take what she thinks might work in the U.S. and ignore the rest. She believes “a more probable explanation for the nation’s academic strength [is]Finland’s rigorous, intense, and competitive teacher-training programs.”

What Ms. Fairchild dismisses as Finland’s “myriad educational idiosyncrasies” are actually integrated, self-reinforcing strategies carefully created and cultivated over the past three decades. Yes, teacher selection and training represent an important cornerstone of their success. But Americans who want to recruit top talent for our schools should consider carefully how a “culture of trust” supports and reinforces that strategy.

From my own international business dealings, I recognize that what works in one culture often does not directly translate to another country—and vice versa. I do not think Americans can adopt a school system identical to Finland’s. However, I do believe that high standards for teachers must go hand-in-hand with high levels of trust.

U.S. education reformers want to attract a large group of better-educated and more effective teachers. I agree with this goal. Getting there is the tricky part. Many reformers want to harness teachers in a yoke of testing, rigid control, and constant reporting. This is the strategy Frederick Taylor devised in the late nineteenth century as a way to measure and manage production-line workers. It perfectly removes all initiative, creativity, and personal dignity.

From my own management experience, solely focusing on control and reporting will actually have the opposite effect of the intended goal. You simply can't micromanage great performers. Capable people will neither be drawn to nor stay in an organization founded on a culture of distrust. They quit.

In my view, Ms. Fairchild and other critics of the current American education system should pause and reflect on the model they are promoting to “improve” American education. Trust has completely broken down and reasoned debate has devolved into shrill diatribe. In business, this unappealing environment would drive away the best employees and would repel the most talented people. I believe it is unlikely that a strategy built on a “culture of distrust” will be any more successful in public education.


Announcement: Jump on the strategic-data train

Boston-based education reformers—or those who would like to be—should turn their attention to three job postings available at the Strategic Data Project, an arm of Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research. CEPR is hiring for a data fellow, senior manager, and agency partnerships manager. Read the full job descriptions to learn more—including how to apply.


Fordham's featured publication: September 11: What Our Children Need to Know

This report proffers advice on what schools should teach and children should learn about September 11 and about history, civics, heroism, and terrorism. Featuring twenty-three statements by leading educators and experts, plus an extensive bibliography, the volume constitutes a constructive, hard-hitting alternative to the “diversity and feelings” approach that many national education groups took to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In light of this past week’s occurrences, this report is as relevant today as it was when published nine years back.


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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