The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 28. July 21, 2011.
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Opinion and Analysis

NAEP Geography: Our schools’ secret success
Poor and minority students are learning more. Is it worth it?
Opinion | Michael J. Petrilli

NAEP Geography: But what about the whole country?
On that front, the glass is two-thirds empty
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr.

The myth of the "good" school
Charters have a place, even in high-performing districts
News Analysis | Michael J. Petrilli

Far-reaching IMPACT
D.C.'s done it!
News Analysis

Short Reviews

Student Teaching: The Make or Break of Teacher Prep 
Ed schools drop the ball again
Review | Janie Scull

Why America Needs School Choice
The whole argument in brief
Review | Josh Pierson

Roadmap for Next Generation State Accountability Systems
Standards and assessments, meet the third leg in your stool: accountability
Review | Keith McNamara

From The Web

B is for bona fides
Fire teachers, open charters, and get ready to vote
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Bill Tucker

Reading is NOT fundamental: Knowledge is
Content > pedagogy
Flypaper's Finest | July 16, 2011 | Peter Meyer

Money is not the problem, Nick
The escalator is inefficient, not underfunded
Flypaper's Finest | July 18, 2011 | Chris Tessone


Science framework: Trick or treatise?
And giving weight to data collection
Briefly Noted

The most important event you’ll watch all year
Join us August 11 for an Idol-ic education-reform contest

Be the change
Grant opportunity for STEM programs available

Shine in the Diamond State
Delaware is looking for ed-reform buffs

Stop! It's data time!
Harvard’s Strategic Data Project needs a fellows manager

Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?
Why so few know history, geography, and civics
Featured Fordham Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: NAEP Geography: Our schools' secret success
By Michael J. Petrilli

Here’s a new problem facing American education policy: Something we’re doing seems to be working.

You wouldn’t know it from the “we’re all going to hell in a hand basket” rhetoric surrounding today’s education debates, but the last fifteen years have seen tremendous progress for poor, minority, and low-achieving students—the very children who have been the focus of two decades of reform. Curiously, both sides of the education battle want to sweep this news under the carpet.

students learning photo

Poor and minority students are learning
(Photo by Star for Life 19)

First the facts: In both the “basic skills” of reading and math, and in the social-studies subjects of history, civics, and now geography, African American, Latino, and low-income fourth and eighth graders have posted huge gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) since the early 1990s. For instance, between 1990 and 2009, black fourth graders made 35 points of progress on the mathematics NAEP exam; black eighth graders gained 24 points. The corresponding numbers for Latino children were 28 and 21 points, respectively. In reading, black fourth graders gained 13 points between 1992 and 2009; black eighth graders gained 9 points. In the just-released geography exam, black fourth-grade students gained 27 points between 1994 and 2010; Latino fourth graders gained 21 points. Similar progress was seen in history and civics.

To put this in perspective, 10 points is roughly equivalent to a grade level on the NAEP. So today’s poor and minority students are achieving one, two, and sometimes three grade levels higher than their counterparts were in the early 1990s.

To be fair, these gains have not been carried through to the twelfth grade. (Nobody knows why that is, but it’s likely that today’s seventeen-year-olds aren’t making much effort on the NAEP, a no-stakes test.)

Furthermore, achievement gaps aren’t necessarily closing, or closing very fast. But that’s because white and middle-class students are making gains too—which is good news, not bad.

So why are our poor and minority students doing so much better? NAEP doesn’t tackle these questions, so we’re forced to speculate. Maybe the progress is mostly due to societal trends, such as the end of the crack-cocaine epidemic or benefits of a strong 1990s economy—both of which would have made the home environments of our neediest children much more hospitable. Perhaps the big increase in education spending over this time period deserves credit, or the major reduction in class sizes.

We ought to be talking about how to accelerate our progress, not wringing our hands.


The most likely explanation, though, is the one that everyone loves to hate: Standardized testing and the “consequential accountability” (in Sandy Kress’s words) that is now linked to it. As research by Eric Hanushek, Tom Dee, Brian Jacob, and others has shown, the “early adopter” accountability states made big gains in reading and math in the 1990s after embracing these policies, and the stragglers made big progress once No Child Left Behind forced them to follow suit. A focus on scientifically based reading instruction—including the now defunct Reading First program—probably played an important role too.

And what about history, civics, and geography? Neither NCLB nor most state accountability systems hold schools accountable for teaching those critical subjects. Yet we’re seeing big gains nonetheless. Again, the likeliest explanation is the simplest: Poor and minority kids are stronger readers now, so they can better understand what the social-studies exams are asking—and answer more questions correctly. And, more importantly, they can access history, civics, and geography texts more confidently than before.

No, I can’t prove any of this, but these hypotheses strike me as the most plausible. And if we accept as true that testing and accountability are “working”—at least in improving student learning for the neediest kids—the education-reform conversation ought to shift. We ought to be talking about how to accelerate our progress, not wringing our hands. And we ought to be talking about whether the benefits of testing and accountability are worth the downsides. We ought to be talking about trade-offs.

Poor and minority kids are learning more, but there are also allegations of rampant cheating in some school districts. Poor and minority kids are learning more, but many of their schools are minimizing free expression, art and music, and a sense of wonder. Poor and minority kids are learning more, but their teachers are being asked to stick to scripted lessons and lockstep curricular guides. Poor and minority kids are learning more, but our highest achievers are making fewer gains.

Is it worth it?

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.


Opinion: NAEP Geography: But what about the whole country?
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Mike isn’t wrong when he notes with satisfaction that, on some indicators and at some grade levels, poor and minority students in the U.S. are doing better today than they were a decade or so back. Only a churl would say that’s not an accomplishment worthy of notice—and some pride.

glass half empty photo

This glass is barely one-third full
(Photo by Lihn Tihn)

But the big, glum headline over American K-12 education today is essentially the same as when we were declared a “nation at risk” twenty-eight long years ago: Our kids on average are woefully lacking in essential skills and knowledge across every subject in the curriculum.

Almost all the major trend lines are flat—at least until you decompose them by ethnicity. Sure, it’s great that minority students have made gains, but what does that do for our international competitiveness if the average score is unchanged or declining? Especially in a time when many competitor nations are moving up on some of those same metrics? And what’s the long-term payoff from early-grade gains if scores and outcomes in high school are flat or declining? Some say the early gains are like the pig in the python’s throat and it’ll just take time for them to reach the tail. But we’ve had enough experience by now with early-grade gains and high school sags to throw major doubt on that hypothesis. We simply haven’t found—at least on a large scale—ways to sustain and build on academic gains as youngsters move from fourth grade to twelfth. (Mike wiggles out of this by blaming twelfth graders for not taking NAEP seriously; that may be partly true, but isn’t any truer today than in earlier years.)

This week’s NAEP geography results (based on 2010 testing) underscore the problem. Indeed, the National Assessment Governing Board’s own headline says it all: “Proficiency overall remains low; lowest performers show greatest improvement; grade 8 remains flat; grade 4 increases, while grade 12 declines since 1994.”

Geography, as we know, isn’t much taught in U.S. schools, a crime in its own right. But that’s not the only reason our kids don’t know much about it, because the geography results parallel recent NAEP results in civics and U.S. history, both of which are taught, at least in our high schools. Yet here’s how many of our twelfth graders are at (or above) NAEP’s “proficient” level in those three subjects:

  • Geography: 20 percent (down from 24 percent in 2001)
  • U.S. History: 12 percent (level since 2006)
  • Civics: 24 percent (down from 27 percent in 2006)

It takes chutzpah to say this glass is even one-third full, much less that it’s filling. And only a naïf would say that we’re looking toward a bright future as a self-governing polity comprised of knowledgeable voters and discerning citizens if we’re producing high school graduates who know this little about their world and their country.

Critics retort that Americans—including adults—have never known much of this sort of stuff but we’ve gotten by OK over the years as the land of the free and the home of the brave, so not to worry. Well, I worry—and so should you. I look at the lousy choices we’re making at the voting booth and in statehouses, school boards, and the U.S. Capitol itself, and I see plenty to worry about in this realm. I see colleges adding little or nothing to what young people know in these subjects. Then I see what’s on TV (including what passes for “news” and “analysis” these days and on the internet and in the theaters) and I do not conclude that our national prospects are improving.

The schools, of course, are not entirely, not even primarily, to blame for this situation. Recent immigration patterns, for example, have flooded classrooms with foreign-born kids who arrive with scant knowledge of America and must first struggle with the language of the curriculum. But we’ve had immigrants before, lots of them even. So that ought not be an excuse for long. And we do need to understand that some of our education priorities aren’t helping at all. Why teach history or geography, for example, if all that your school is held accountable for are reading and math scores? Why do your homework for subjects that don’t really count? Why fuss about whether state requirements for licensing “social studies” teachers are light on history and oblivious to geography?

Mike can crack open the champagne if he is so inclined. But don’t pour me more than a thimble full.

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.



News Analysis: The myth of the "good" school
By Michael J. Petrilli

Matthew Stewart, a stay-at-home dad in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, is leading a battle against the “boutique” charter schools now being planned for his community. “I’m in favor of a quality education for everyone,” Stewart told Winnie Hu of the New York Times. But “in suburban areas like Millburn, there’s no evidence whatsoever that the local school district is not doing its job. So what’s the rationale for a charter school?” Easy: Different parents define “quality education” differently. One person’s “good school” is another person’s “bad fit.” Stewart may love his child’s public school, which might do a dandy job providing a straight-down-the-middle education to its (mostly affluent) charges. But the parents developing a nearby charter school want something more—specifically, a Mandarin-immersion experience for their kids. For this, Mr. Stewart labels them “selfish.” Why? Because “public education is basically a social contract—we all pool our money.” “With these charter schools,” he explains, “people are trying to say, ‘I want a custom-tailored education for my children, and I want you, as my neighbor, to pay for it.’” This, of course, implies that the “selfless” thing to do is to send one’s children to a school that’s a bad fit, or to write a check for private education. But when choice isn’t an option, energized public school parents turn to advocacy to mold their one-size-fits-all neighborhood school to their liking. Environmentally minded parents push for eco-friendly cafeterias and outdoor education. Numeracy hawks rally around Singapore math. Warm and fuzzy types press for drama classes and self-expression. And on and on it goes. Beleaguered school boards and administrators do their best to find some sort of golden mean but often wind up with a lowest common denominator. Meaning that everybody settles for much less than their ideal. That’s a “social contract” in frustration. Supporters of public education ought not make “hey parents, suck it up” their rallying cry.

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on charter schools in affluent neighborhoods from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

Charter School Battle Shifts to Affluent Suburbs,” by Winnie Hu, New York Times, July 16, 2011.


News Analysis: Far-reaching IMPACT

D.C.’s much-discussed teacher-evaluation system, IMPACT, is making itself felt. On Friday, 206 District teachers (about 5 percent of the instructional staff) were fired due to poor performance. Among them, sixty-five were deemed “ineffective” (cause for immediate dismissal) and another 141 were rated “minimally effective” for the second year in a row. While firing any well-meaning, hard-working person can sound heartless, Gadfly sees several reasons to celebrate. D.C.’s terminations over the past two years mark a major milestone: the first time that teachers have been systematically, objectively assessed—and then held to account for their performance. Not even Montgomery County or Cincinnati (both of which are praised for their teacher-eval systems) can boast the rigors or consequences of IMPACT. What’s more, IMPACT has survived the Fenty-Gray mayoral shift (and the exit of its architect, Michelle Rhee). It looks like the evaluation system is here to stay. And the icing on this double-decker cake: While the Washington Teachers Union is still none-too-pleased with the evaluation system, D.C. teachers we’ve spoken with believe that IMPACT has actually improved their teaching. (The $25,000 bonus for which top teachers are eligible—there were 663—might have helped generate positive feelings, too.) IMPACT’s not perfect but this work-in-progress is years ahead of yesterday’s status quo.

Click to play video of IMPACT (1) Click to play video of IMPACT (2)

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the D.C. IMPACT-based firings from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

D.C. Mayor’s Office Live: Vincent Gray on teacher firings, council changes,” Washington Post, July 19, 2011.

More than 200 D.C. teachers fired,” by Bill Turque, Washington Post, July 15, 2011.

D.C. teacher performance evaluations are working,” by Editorial Board, Washington Post, July 15, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: Student Teaching: The Make or Break of Teacher Prep
By Janie Scull

NCTQ Student Teaching cover imageThe latest in a series of reports on U.S. teacher-prep programs, this study from the National Council on Teacher Quality dives into the murky waters of the “student-teaching” experience. This is widely held to be the single most formative aspect of a preparation program, and often a teacher candidate’s first real foray into the classroom. NCTQ examined the protocols of 134 undergraduate institutions to determine which adhere to student-teaching best practices—and which barely adhere to any practices at all. NCTQ analyzed the length of the student-teaching experience (it should last at least ten weeks, they say); the selection of the cooperating teacher (they should be chosen by the prep program, not the school or district); and the qualifications of cooperating teachers (they should have at least three years of experience, as well as demonstrated classroom effectiveness and mentoring ability). The findings? While all programs articulate basic student-teaching protocols, most fail to ensure the quality of the experience. For example, only 38 percent require that the cooperating teacher possess the qualities of a good mentor, while just 28 percent require that they be effective instructors as designated by schools’ principals. Institutions also neglect to provide guidance and feedback to student-teachers throughout their assignment, reducing the experience to merely a rite of passage—an expensive one at that. And the places that do maintain these requirements on paper rarely enforce them in practice. Ultimately, only 7 percent of institutions boast model programs. The analysis is worth a detailed read—both for its overall findings and for its ratings of individual programs.

Julie Greenberg, Laura Pomerance, and Kate Walsh, “Student Teaching: The Make or Break of Teacher Prep,” (Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality, July 2011).


Review: Why America Needs School Choice
By Josh Pierson

Why America Needs School Choice coverPrivate-school choice may not be the panacea that John Chubb and Terry Moe once claimed but that’s no reason to write it off as a means of improving America’s flailing K-12 system, explains Jay Greene in this new broadside. As Greene asserts, “miracles shouldn’t be the standard by which educational programs are judged.” This “panacea canard” is the first of eight common arguments against school choice that he refutes in this fifty-one page mini-book. He covers some arguments widely voiced in anti-choice circles (the research doesn’t show positive effects, choice leads to segregation, etc.) and other, less prominent rhetoric (choice distracts from other reform initiatives like quality standards; choice undermines civic values). Those who follow Greene’s blog won’t find tons here that’s new, but it does provide an all-in-one treatise for the private-choice proponent. Be aware, though, that Greene ignores a few pertinent arguments. For example, in a time of fiscal belt-tightening, what’s the rationale for voucher (and similar) programs that offer public dollars to parents already enrolling their children in private schools?

Jay P. Greene, Why America Needs School Choice, (New York, NY: Encounter Books, July 19, 2011).


Review: Roadmap for Next Generation Accountability Systems
By Keith McNamara

With most states signed onto the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative, a major challenge ahead is aligning their accountability systems with these new standards (and assessments). Toward that end, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) has developed this roadmap for “next-generation” accountability systems. (This is version one.) It details eight elements, none of which will likely startle you. For example, we’ll need clear performance objectives aligned to the standards, meaningful differentiation of performance between districts and schools, and timely and transparent reporting of actionable student data. Also flagged here are helpful resources (from groups like Achieve and the U.S. Department of Labor) and state exemplars (FL, KY, IN, and TN) for those looking to revamp their accountability systems. Not a bad start. Thanks, chiefs.

Council of Chief State School Officers Task Force on Next Generation Accountability Systems, “Roadmap for Next-Generation State Accountability Systems,” (Washington, D.C.: Council of Chief State School Officers, June 17, 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: B is for bona fides

Education Sector’s Bill Tucker joins Mike in discussions on D.C.’s IMPACT system, charter schools in affluent communities, and a little something we like to call “Education Reform Idol.” Daniela goes Dutch and Chris reminds us that, when it comes to grades, colleges make it rain As.

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: Reading is NOT fundamental: Knowledge is
By Peter Meyer

It is encouraging news, from Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute, that New York City’s three-year-old pilot project testing the content-rich Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum in ten low-income schools has proved so far, as the Daily News headline has it, “a brilliant experiment in reading.”…

Yet, it is discouraging that our education system seems so blind to good ideas. As Stern writes about the Gotham experiment, “keeping this potential breakthrough alive would cost a mere $300,000 per year—which seems a far smarter investment than the $70 million paid in bonuses to teachers and principals who produced zero reading gains.”…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Money is not the problem, Nick
By Chris Tessone

It’s funny that Nicholas Kristof compares the education system to an escalator in his column in this weekend’s New York Times. We know a great deal about broken escalators here in D.C.—our subway system is full of them—and the reason they’re so often out of order has more to do with bad management and absurd union rules than it does with resources. (Unsuck DC Metro had an illuminating post about this late last year.) As in public transit, so in public education: How we spend our education dollars is an important and widely ignored problem.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.




Briefly Noted: Science framework: Trick or treatise?

  • The long-awaited National Research Council framework for K-12 science education (which Achieve and others will now transmute into potential common science standards) has been released—all 320 pages of it. So far, Gadfly has chewed through about twenty-three. Expect more comment once he’s digested the remaining 297.
  • Big ups to Douglas County, CO (just outside Denver)! Not only does the district win Gadfly’s “king of choice” award, it now earns “king of creativity.” The district is using a charter school to administer its new district-wide voucher program.
  • Education reforms are blooming in the Garden State thanks (in part) to Chris Cerf’s green thumb. Six months after becoming acting education commissioner, Cerf has imaginatively rearranged the state education department’s basic structure. Think we’ve got a convert to governance reform?
  • Sure there are incentives to cheat. But there are also deterrents: Atlanta teachers implicated in the cheating scandal have been asked to quit—or risk getting fired.
  • As programs like Rocketship Education show us, virtual and blended learning hold immense promise for raising student achievement and lessening the achievement gap. But not all cyber schools are making the grade. Tune in next week: We’re releasing a paper on how to ensure quality in the digital learning sphere.
  • Over half of Texas’s youth are expelled or suspended between their seventh- and twelfth-grade years. Shocking, but not anomalous. Florida and California, among others, have even higher rates of expulsion and out-of-school suspension.
  • Data collection is only as useful as it is transparent and accessible. Enter a new free online tool, Ed-Fi, from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, to facilitate secure data exchange among disparate collectors in the K-12 sector. Great work, guys.
  • If Gadfly were the public-education system, he’d probably have Vanilla Ice lyrics looping in his head: “If you’ve got a problem, yo, I’ll solve it…” From mandating the teaching of gay history to compulsory environmentalism in the classroom, our old habit of ascribing to schools all manner of “issues” (over and above the hard task of teaching the basics) is alive and well.


Announcement: The most important event you'll watch all year

Education Reform Idol!!!!!Ryan Seacrest has nothing on Mike Petrilli. See for yourself on August 11, from 8:30 to 10:00AM, as Fordham hosts “Education Reform Idol.” Representatives from Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin will pitch their states as the “reformiest” of the 2011 legislative season—and audience members will vote for the winner. For a full list of contestants and judges, or to register, click here.


Announcement: Be the change

The Carnegie Corporation of New York has teamed up with Opportunity Equation and Ashoka’s Changemakers to host an online competition. If you know of a bold, imaginative program that brings STEM talent into classrooms—or have an idea for one—learn more about the competition (including how to nominate compelling programs) here.


Announcement: Shine in the Diamond State

Big things are happening on the education-reform front in wee Delaware. Want to be a part of the action? The Delaware Department of Education needs a chief performance officer as well as data coaches for its partnership with Wireless Generation, and the innovative schools corporation is searching for a director of human capital initiatives.


Announcement: Stop! It's data time!

Ask not what data can do for you but what you can do with data. The Strategic Data Project, based at Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, is looking for a manager to coordinate the SDP fellows, backstop their projects and lead workshops. View the full job description by going here and entering the requisition ID: 24215BR.



Featured Fordham Publication: Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?

This 2003 Fordham report consists of penetrating critiques by renegade social studies educators who criticize the regnant teaching methods and curricular ideas of their field and suggest how these can be reformed. While nearly everyone recognizes that American students don’t know much about history, civics, and geography, these analysts probe the causes of this ignorance—and place primary responsibility at the feet of the social studies “establishment” itself.


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, Keith McNamara, 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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