The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 27. July 14, 2011.
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Opinion and Analysis

Let's talk education reform
Checker and Mike: GOP speech writers?
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli

Don't panic
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Dream. Believe. Achieve?
Chris Whittle is back in the saddle
News Analysis

Getting tough
“No excuses” should mean precisely that
News Analysis

Making data pro-public
Transparency is key; nothing more
Data Analysis

Short Reviews

Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy
How textbook publishers can walk the CCSS-alignment walk
Review | Kathleen Porter-Magee

Learning Time in America: Trends to Reform the American School Calendar: A Snapshot of Federal, State, and Local Action
Cut education costs, not education
Review | Chris Irvine

Making Teacher Incentives Work: Lessons from North Carolina's Teacher Bonus Program
School-level rewards find unlikely supporters
Review | Alicia Goldberg

Class Size: What Research Says and What it Means for State Policy
Findings that won’t please the advocates
Review | Josh Pierson

From The Web

A debate of which Monty Python would be proud 
When it comes to accountability and handwriting, there will be no excuses
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Janie Scull and Daniela Fairchild

CCSS implementation: Pretty good Gatsby is not good enough
Refocus lit. classes on actually reading lit.
Flypaper's Finest | July 13, 2011 | Kathleen Porter-Magee

Winerip vs. Moskowitz: Success wins 
Despite his best efforts, Winerip shows why we do need choice
Flypaper's Finest | July 11, 2011 | Peter Meyer


What does $130,000 buy you?
Well, cultural diversity, of course
Briefly Noted

Mirror, mirror on the wall: Who is the reformiest of them all?
Join Fordham on August 11 to see which state wins

Have we got the space for you!
Free event space available at Fordham

The Proficiency Illusion
Cut-score roulette
Featured Fordham Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: Let's talk education reform
By Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli

The Republican 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 ask.)


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.

Meanwhile, failed 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. 

Turning this 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 circumstances. 

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 their loyalties.

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 with.

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.

Consider this: 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.

Instead of 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 education bureaucracy.

But transparency 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.

Once good 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 Washington. 

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.


Opinion: Cheating
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

multiple-choice test photo

Photo by Alberto G.

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.…

Distressingly,, 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 opinion page.

Click to play

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.

The Best School $75 Million Can Buy,” by Jenny Anderson, New York Times, July 8, 2011.


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 play

Click to listen to commentary on the "no excuses" culture from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

No, Seriously: No Excuses,” by Paul Tough, New York Times Magazine, July 7, 2011.

KIPP, UNCF and CFED Launch Partnership for College Completion,” by Staff, United Negro College Fund, June 22, 2011.


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.

Some States Still Leave Low-Income Students Behind; Others Make Surprising Gains,” by Sharona Coutts and Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica, June 30, 2011.

Federal Data Shed Light on Education Disparities,” by Nirvi Shah, Education Week, July 1, 2011.

Civil Rights Data Collection, U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, 2009-10.

The Opportunity Gap: Is Your State Providing Equal Access to Education, ProPublica, June 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy
By Kathleen Porter-Magee

Within 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.

David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, “Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades K-2,” (Available online, June 2011).

David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, “Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3-12,” (Available online, June 2011).


Review: Learning Time in America: Trends to Reform the American School Calendar: A Snapshot of Federal, State, and Local Action
By Chris Irvine

Learning Time in America coverWith 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 play

Click to listen to commentary on the loss of school time in CA from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

National Center on Time and Learning and Education Commission of the States, “Learning Time in America: Trends to Reform the American School Calendar: A Snapshot of Federal, State, and Local Action,” (Boston, MA: National Center on Time and Learning; Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States, Summer 2011).


Review: Making Teacher Incentives Work: Lessons from North Carolina's Teacher Bonus Program
By Alicia Goldberg

Making Teacher Incentives Work coverThis 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.

Thomas Ahn and Jacob L. Vigdor, “Making Teacher Incentives Work: Lessons from North Carolina’s Teacher Bonus Program,” (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, June 2011).


Review: Class Size: What Research Says and What it Means for State Policy
By Josh Pierson

Class Size coverSince 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 paper 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.

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst and Matthew M. Chingos, “Class Size: What Research Says and What it Means for State Policy,” (Washington, D.C.: Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute, May 2011).


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.”

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: CCSS implementation: Pretty good Gatsby is not good enough
By Kathleen Porter-Magee

…There 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.”

I 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.…

The Education Gadfly
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.…

The Education Gadfly
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.
  • Gov. 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.
  • How should we improve summer school? By nixing summer vacation, explains Kathleen Porter-Magee in this week’s Room for Debate.
  • International 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.
  • Through 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 the initiative.
  • Scott 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

Proficiency Illusion cover

“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.


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., Alicia Goldberg, Chris Irvine, Jamie Davies O’Leary, Emmy Partin, Michael J. Petrilli, Josh Pierson, Terry Ryan, Janie Scull, Chris Tessone, and Amber Winkler. Have something to say? Email us at Find archived issues or other reviews of reports and books here.

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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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