Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Let's talk education reform
E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli
presidential field is beginning to take shape, and candidates and
maybe-candidates are figuring out where they stand and what to say. Sooner or
later, they will need to say something about education. May we suggest a few
talking points? Even a potential speech for a GOP candidate? (It’s free for the
use of Democrats and Vegetarians, Libertarians, too. You don’t even have to
Folks, you know
that our education system is tattered. Parts of it are fine, but too much is
mediocre or worse. Once the envy of the world, American schools are losing
ground to those in Europe and Asia. Today, many countries are out-teaching,
out-learning, and out-hustling our schools—and doing it for a fraction of the cost.
education systems in our cities worsen the odds that the next generation will
climb out of poverty into decent jobs and a shot at the American dream. And as
much as many of us prefer not to notice, way too many of our suburban schools
are just getting by. They may not be dropout factories, but they’re not
preparing anywhere near enough of their pupils to revive our economy,
strengthen our culture, and lead our future.
situation around has been the work of education reform for the past two
decades. We’ve spent a lot of money on it. We’ve had any number of schemes and
plans and laws and pilot programs. And we’ve seen some modest success.
Graduation rates are starting to inch up again. The lowest-performing students
have made gains. Many more families are taking advantage of many more forms of
school choice. And our best public charter schools are demonstrating that
tremendous success is possible even in the most challenging of
Leaders from both
parties deserve credit for these gains, including President Bush and, yes,
President Obama. We need to appreciate his support for quality charter schools,
rigorous teacher evaluations, and merit pay.
But we’ve got a
long way to go on this front, and the past couple of years have reminded us
that breakthrough change won’t come from Washington. It will come from our
states, our communities, and our parents. We’ve also learned that, at the end
of the day, Barack Obama and other leading Democrats will go only so far in
crossing their pals and donors in the teacher unions. While they may talk the
talk, how they walk—and especially how they spend taxpayers’
hard earned dollars—reveal far more about their priorities and
Consider this: The
president’s so-called stimulus bill included over $100 billion to bail out our
mediocre education system. About $4 billion of this went to promote school
reform. In other words, Obama spent twenty-five times as much to prop up the
status quo as he did to push for meaningful change—$96
billion just to keep our education bureaucracy immune from the painful
effects of the recession that almost everyone else in America has had to cope
What did we get
for that $96 billion? Nothing. No improved student achievement. No breakthrough
innovations. No new insights into how to close the achievement gap. No
concessions from the unions on their gold-plated health-care benefits or
retirement pensions or lifetime job protections. The money just evaporated.
With that money, we could have sent ten million needy kids to private schools
for two years. We could have created a thousand new charter schools. We could
have given the best 25 percent of America’s teachers a one-time bonus north of
$100,000—or $10,000 a year for ten years. But what did we buy instead? Nothing.
We just delayed the inevitable budget cuts for a year or two.
The past couple of years have reminded us that breakthrough change won’t come from Washington. It will come from our states, our communities, and our parents.
Not that this is
unusual for an education system that has perfected the magic trick of making
money disappear. We spend almost $600 billion a year on our schools—more
than we spend on Medicare and more than we’ve spent over a decade in
Afghanistan. Yet we know practically nothing about where all this money goes or
what it buys.
Do you know, for
instance, how much your local public school spends each year? Five thousand
dollars per student? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? It’s a trick question
because nobody knows, not even the principal—that’s
how opaque our system is.
Now, I believe
firmly that the federal government has been trying to do too much in education—
telling schools whom they should hire while tying teachers in knots, telling
states how to fix their troubled schools, and much more. Yet all that these
things have done is produce red tape and frustration. Under my administration,
we will turn education authority back to the states, where it belongs. And
where Republican governors like Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, John Kasich, and
Scott Walker are demonstrating real reform.
overreach from Washington, you’ll see transparency. This will be the cornerstone
of my administration—in education as in other areas. We will say
to states and communities: If you want education dollars from Uncle Sam, you
need to open up your books so everybody can see where the money is going.
Taxpayers deserve to know how much their kids’ schools spend per child and they
should be able to compare that with the neighboring school or a school across
the city, state, or nation. Making this information available, I believe, will
have a catalytic effect, empowering school boards, taxpayer groups, and other
activists to push for greater productivity from our sheltered and bloated
about money is not enough. We also need to make student achievement more
visible. Considering all the testing our kids endure and all the data we
collect, parents and citizens and taxpayers actually know astonishingly little
about what’s working and what’s not. The proper federal role in this realm
is to prod states to make their school results transparent. That starts with
rigorous academic standards and tests we can trust—not
watered down exams that almost everybody passes. To their credit, the states
are already working to meet this challenge with a set of rigorous standards for
reading and math that were developed by governors and state superintendents,
not by the federal government. I support those standards so long as they remain
in the hands of the states and so long as they remain voluntary. What I cannot
support—and what none of us will tolerate—is a top-down, federal effort to mandate
particular standards or create a national curriculum.
standards and decent tests are in place, states should make test scores (and
other revealing information like graduation rates) available to all, and they
should rate their schools on an easy-to-understand scale, say, from A to F, as
Florida has been doing since Jeb Bush was governor. The details of how to do
this should be left to the states, however, not micromanaged from
Finally, one of
the best ways to get more bang for the education buck is to strap it to the
backs of individual kids and let parents decide which schools deliver the best
value for money—and give them as wide a range of choice as
possible. In my view, the available choices should include private, charter,
and virtual schools, and just about anything else with the potential to deliver
a quality education to kids. If a state will do the right thing and trust
parents to decide what school should receive its money, the federal government
should do the same with its (relatively small) part of the money. Add it to the
backpack and let it travel with the kid.
Let me be clear:
My plan won’t fix all that ails America’s schools. Nobody can do that from
Washington. What it can do is empower parents, states, and educators
with better information and more choices. And that will be a huge step forward.
This piece originally appeared (in a slightly
different format) in the July 18, 2011 edition of the Weekly Standard magazine,
available online here, and on Fordham’s Flypaper
blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.
E. Finn, Jr.
The latest shock to hit American schools and
education reformers is the revelation that teachers and administrators have
been fiddling with test scores in Atlanta and, evidently, in D.C., Baltimore,
and half a dozen other locales.
In Georgia, where a state investigation
implicated 178 individuals in the Atlanta public schools for cheating on or
allowing cheating on the 2009 round of state assessments, Governor Nathan Deal declared that “when test results are falsified and students who
have not mastered the necessary material are promoted, our students are harmed,
parents lose sight of their child's true progress, and taxpayers are cheated.”
He’s right, of course. But, as destructive as the actual cheating is the cry from many directions that the remedy for it is to do away
with testing or radically reduce our reliance on its results as markers of
student and school performance.…
CNN.com, which originally published this piece, wouldn’t let us run more than
150 words of it here. To read the full essay, find
it here on the CNN.com opinion page.
|Click to listen to commentary on the Atlanta cheating scandal from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
News Analysis: Dream. Believe. Achieve?
Educational entrepreneur Chris Whittle, former
head of Edison Schools, has targeted a new consumer base. While Edison Schools
sought to run outsourced district and charter schools, this new Whittle
venture—Avenues: The World School—aspires to build a network of twenty elite
private schools with similar curricula in places like London and Shanghai.
Whittle has reportedly raised $75 million from two private equity firms; recruited
over 1,200 applicants for Avenues’s first campus in lower Manhattan; and
brought on board some big names in elite education (the school’s co-leaders ran
Exeter and Hotchkiss). And this all before the school can boast a completed
building or curriculum. (It’s slated to open for the 2012-13 year with full-freight
tuition in the $40,000 range.) Whittle hasn’t always succeeded in the past with
exceptionally ambitious plans, but if this model prospers and delivers results,
it could revolutionize the way itinerant upscale families—or those interested
in a cosmopolitan education—interact with schooling.
News Analysis: Getting tough
Can a school-culture culture really be called
“no excuses” if it accepts low student achievement—even if that low student
achievement masks laudable incremental gains? Paul Tough says no. Yet this is
precisely the rhetoric espoused by some in the reform community. Instead of exulting
in its successes, the reform movement is increasingly defensive and given to
excuses. Defending the Bruce Randolph School (which doubled its writing
proficiency rates since 2007—but only to 15 percent), Jonathan Alter explained
that Randolph “should not be compared to other Colorado schools in affluent
neighborhoods.” Tough is right: While improvement should be acknowledged, 15
percent writing proficiency still stinks. Instead of getting defensive, reformers
should find some humility—and a willingness to change their plans and methods.
KIPP sets an estimable example here; when that organization learned that only 33
percent of its alums graduate from college—not bad, for kids from tough circumstances,
but a far cry from KIPP’s goal of 75 percent—it didn’t hide behind poverty or
whatever. It instead vowed to double-down
efforts to reach its stated goal. We need more of that mentality.
|Click to listen to commentary on the "no excuses" culture from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Seriously: No Excuses,” by Paul Tough, New York Times Magazine, July
“KIPP, UNCF and
CFED Launch Partnership for College Completion,” by Staff, United Negro College Fund, June 22,
Data Analysis: Making data pro-public
New federal data, collected by ED’s Office of Civil
Rights (OCR) and then analyzed by ProPublica, find that low-income and minority
students in America’s schools have unequal access to experienced teachers,
early education, school counselors, and rigorous courses. OCR surveyed 72,000
schools in 7,000 decent-sized districts, grabbing information on AP, science,
and math course offerings and enrollments; ability grouping and tracking;
teacher experience and quality; student demographics; etc. There’s much
important—if sobering—content within this dataset (and the corresponding ProPublica
dataset, which links the OCR data to income). Focusing specifically on access
to rigorous courses, jurisdictions like Maryland, Kansas, and Oklahoma offer
particularly unequal access for wealthy and low-income students. Florida, on
the other hand, enrolls roughly the same percentages of students in AP courses
in its high- and low-income districts. Ohio lands in the middle of the pack.
While its wealthy districts boast AP enrollment around 40 percent, Akron,
Dayton, and Columbus only enroll 7 percent of their students in APs. Questions
of how these data can and will be used by both OCR and others still loom. If
they move from transparency to jawboning and then to enforcement, a backlash
will inevitably follow. But right-thinking people will find these data eye-opening
and, we hope, worth trying to alter.
States Still Leave Low-Income Students Behind; Others Make Surprising Gains,”
by Sharona Coutts and Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica, June 30, 2011.
Data Shed Light on Education Disparities,” by Nirvi Shah, Education Week, July 1, 2011.
Rights Data Collection, U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil
The Opportunity Gap: Is Your State
Providing Equal Access to Education,
ProPublica, June 2011.
Review: Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy
weeks of the release of the Common Core standards, publishers had already begun
to market their “CCSS-aligned” textbooks and other curricular materials. What
that label meant, however, was open to much debate. David Coleman and Sue
Pimentel, who played central roles in developing the Common Core standards for
English language arts, are now tackling the challenge of providing criteria by
which to gauge curricular alignment with those standards. Their newly released
criteria are intended to guide curriculum writers genuinely intent on aligning
their materials to the CCSS and to act as a resource for teachers, schools, and
districts as they navigate the already crowded market of supposedly aligned materials.
While the guidelines do include criteria for everything ranging from writing
and grammar to research, the bulk of the guidance is focused on reading. With
these publishers’ criteria, Coleman and Pimentel are providing some necessary
order to the Wild West of CCSS materials. But their good work has one big
limitation: Their criteria don’t offer
the kinds of specific examples that could help not only set the bar for
curriculum developers, but also provide teachers and curriculum directors a
touch point to better understand what such material should actually look like. Even
so, these new criteria may serve to limit the number of publishers who can
claim the CCSS-aligned label—and that is an important first step.
The unabridged version of this piece originally appeared on Fordham's Flypaper blog. To
subscribe to Flypaper, click here.
Review: Learning Time in America: Trends to Reform the American School Calendar: A Snapshot of Federal, State, and Local Action
By Chris Irvine
With its profiles of numerous districts and
states successfully engaged in longer school days and/or years, this report from the National Center on Time and
Learning and the Education Commission of the States is a boost for those pushing
to keep intact—and even expand—learning time in this austere climate. It
illustrates this with a few real programs (Massachusetts’ Expanded Learning Time
Initiative) and initiatives (Oklahoma City’s move to a continuous school year)
that have successfully upped hours of student learning. There’s a lot here. But
the most useful section offers cost-effective strategies to retain and expand
learning time and shows where these strategies are already working. Among them:
Stagger staff schedules, use technology as a teaching tool, free schools from
restrictive CBAs, and increase class sizes. (For more on each of these, I recommend our Stretching
the School Dollar volume.) The report has an obvious agenda
and distinct message. But, given the short-sighted
and irresponsible cuts
to learning time that are all-too-common in states and districts at
present, it’s one that is worth heeding.
|Click to listen to commentary on the loss of school time in CA from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Review: Making Teacher Incentives Work: Lessons from North Carolina's Teacher Bonus Program
This brief from the American Enterprise
Institute offers a unique spin on today’s debate over performance-based bonuses
for teachers. The authors, both economists, use research pulled from North
Carolina’s ABC accountability program to advocate for school-level, as opposed
to individual, bonuses. (North Carolina’s program, which began in
1996-97, offers tiered bonuses to all faculty in schools that hit yearly growth
targets.) The authors argue that school-level programs ease the problems
associated with individual teacher incentives: competition for the best
students, the difficulties in rating teachers of non-tested subjects and grades,
and statistical noise inevitable with small student sample sizes. Going
further, they explain that the right benchmarks for bonus eligibility can
mitigate against any free-rider effects by motivating the best (who
individually don’t need to work harder for the bonus) and worst teachers (who
aren’t motivated by the promise of a reward that is too far out of reach). All
worth pondering, but the brief alone doesn’t make a convincing case that the
Tarheel program is working. For that, we’ll need to await the full paper, which is still under review. In the meantime,
technical background to the study is available here.
Review: Class Size: What Research Says and What it Means for State Policy
Since the appearance of his May
2010 working paper, Matthew Chingos has quickly established himself as a
go-to name for information on class-size research. And this Brookings paper,
co-authored with Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, confirms that status. Building off a
authored by Chingos for the Center for American Progress back in April,
this piece offers a thorough literature review on class-size reduction (CSR),
bringing us one step closer to a definitive analysis of the mixed-bag research
of CSR. (Some research found positive
effects in the early grades, other research found none, and still other
research found that gains made by reducing class sizes were offset by the need
to pull in lower-quality teachers to staff the newly created classes.) Further,
Whitehurst and Chingos warn that CSR mandates and incentives (currently
practiced in twenty-four states) are extremely costly: Decreasing the
pupil/teacher ratio by just one student would cost $12 billion. Understanding that CSR
is cherished by many, the authors recommend two approaches to the policy:
First, lift CSR mandates. If that doesn’t work, target them to young, minority
children who would most benefit. It may not be a sexy paper, but thorough it is.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: A debate of which Monty Python would be proud
Janie and Daniela hold down the podcast fort in
style, discussing “no excuses” school cultures, teaching to the test, and the
ancient art of handwriting. Amber goes ga-ga for an NYU study about the
“opportunity gap,” and Fordham’s other Chris (Tessone) shakes his head at
California’s latest budget in a new segment, “Dollars and Sense.”
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
Flypaper's Finest: CCSS implementation: Pretty good Gatsby is not good enough
has been a lot of talk about how the Common Core standards are going to change
“everything.” Some people believe that the CCSS promote constructivism.
Some believe that they will usher in an era where performance assessments all
but replace more traditional forms of assessment. Or that we’ll finally have a
set of standards that will help teach students “how to think.”
disagree. The CCSS aren’t about constructivism. They aren’t about
abandoning traditional measures of assessment wholesale. Nor are they about
abandoning teacher-directed learning.
In the end, the CCSS will only change “everything” if
we allow them to refocus our time and attention on the importance of reading
sufficiently complex texts and using evidence from those texts to guide
discussion, writing, activities, etc.…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: Winerip vs. Moskowitz: Success wins?
By Peter Meyer
I’ll hand it to Michael
Winerip. This week, he took on one of the charter movement’s fiercest
competitors, Eva Moskowitz; rather, he finds a kid who he implies got dumped by
one of Moskowitz’s schools and through him attempts to show charters as
cherry-pickers. But what he ends up doing is showing us why we need more choice
and charters, not less and fewer.…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Briefly Noted: What does $130,000 buy you?
- Did you
know that American government creates advantages that “channel wealth and power
to white people”? You would, if you were a staffer in the Omaha Public Schools.
Thanks to $130,000
in federal stimulus monies, Omaha educators, administrators, and staff all
received copies of a manual on cultural sensitivity with that message. Gadfly
wonders how Russlyn Ali and her Office of Civil Rights feel about the matter.
Chris Christie has big plans for the Garden State. But Senate President Stephen
Sweeney has big plans to derail them. Sweeney strangled two of
Christie’s seven education-reform proposals (on performance pay and LIFO)
in the cradle this week.
should we improve summer school? By nixing
summer vacation, explains Kathleen Porter-Magee in this week’s Room
Baccalaureate chalks up its 4,000th
program, this one in an international school in Wuxi, China. The IB has
doubled over the past five years.
an analysis done by the Detroit News,
we learn that the Motor City’s charters fare
no better than its district schools—troubling, when we consider the
district’s plan to convert
forty high schools into charters. Luckily, Motown has enlisted top-notch
Doug Ross (co-founder of the successful UPrep charter network) to spearhead
Walker can be described many ways but lackadaisical about education-reform is
not one of them. On Friday, the Wisconsin governor announced plans
to produce a new school-accountability rubric to be used for the 2011-12 school
year. Maybe “man in a rush” is a better way to frame this development.
Oregon Governor Daniel
Kitzhaber is also pushing seismic shifts in his state’s education
system—attempting to move student progress from
“seat time” to subject mastery. A great idea; but there’s a twist.
Kitzhaber has also appointed
himself state supe, meaning that he would personally be in charge of the
whole program. Remember what they say about absolute power.
Announcement: Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the reformiest of them all?
On August 11, start
your morning off right. Come to Fordham from 8:30AM to 10:00AM for a lively
“American Idol”-like event to determine which state is the most reform-minded.
Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin will be represented. For a full
list of contestants and judges, or to register, click here.
Announcement: Have we got the space for you!
Fordham’s capacious and comfy event space,
located at 1016 16th St. NW in D.C., is available for use—free of charge for
appropriate, education-reform-minded organizations prepared to clean up after
themselves. For more info and specifications, click here.
Reservations are made on a first-come, first-served basis. Whoever said you
can’t get something for nothing?
Featured Fordham Publication: The Proficiency Illusion
“The Proficiency Illusion” reveals that the
tests that states use to measure academic progress under the No Child Left
Behind Act are creating a false impression of success. Because NCLB both allows
each state to set its own definition of “proficiency” and mandates
“proficiency” by 2014, it tempts states to define proficiency downward. A
collaboration of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation
Association, this report looks at cut scores in twenty-six states and finds,
among other things, that states are aiming particularly low when it comes to
reading and the early grades. Read
on to learn more.