The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 29. July 28, 2011.

In This Edition

New from Fordham: Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches

Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning cover

In this first of six papers on digital learning commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Frederick M. Hess addresses the challenges of quality control in the brave new world of digital education. Read on to learn more.

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Opinion and Analysis

Is the charter-school movement stuck in a rut?
Innovation for me, not for thee
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Quality control in K-12 digital learning
Three (imperfect) approaches
Opinion | Frederick M. Hess

The little ed school that could
Passing the torch to Relay
News Analysis

Much ado about nothing
Fear not the virtual charters
News Analysis

Short Reviews

The State of Proficiency: How student proficiency rates vary across states, subjects, and grades between 2002 and 2010
The proficiency illusion remains
Review | Daniela Fairchild

A Big Apple for Educators: New York City’s Experiment with Schoolwide Performance Bonuses: Final Evaluation Report
Useful report, useless program
Review | Josh Pierson

Trajectories of the Home Learning Environment Across the First 5 Years: Associations With children’s Vocabulary and Literacy Skills at Prekindergarten
Parenting matters
Review | Alicia Goldberg

Inside IMPACT: D.C.’s Model Teacher Evaluation System
Ed Sector grades the graders
Review | Jamie Davies O'Leary

From The Web

The bro-mance continues
Charter: A verb, not an adjective
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

Seeing the Common Core for what it is
Teach skills as a means, not an end
Flypaper's Finest | July 25, 2011 | Kathleen Porter-Magee

Enough about Finland
What we should be considering when looking abroad
Flypaper's Finest | July 23, 2011 | Daniela Fairchild


S.O.S.: Same ol’ stuff?
And making waves in the Windy City
Briefly Noted

American Idol goes wonk
You’ll want to be at Fordham on August 11

Ride over to Rodel
The Rodel Foundation is looking for a program officer

Join the Mackinac Center for Public Policy as an education analyst

A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era
Strap on your data backpacks
Featured Fordham Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: Is the charter-school movement stuck in a rut?
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

car in mud pit photo

Quite the rut 
(Photo by Brian Tomlinson 19)

As the U.S. charter fleet sails past the 5,000-school and two-decade markers, there is reason to worry that it’s getting complacent, unimaginative, and self-interested.

This criticism is separate from the quality-and-achievement challenges that beset many current schools and the “caps,” fiscal constraints, and political/bureaucratic barriers that continue to confront far too many of them in far too many places. Here I refer to accumulating signs of resistance among the movement’s own captains and admirals to schools that would fly the charter flag but don’t behave exactly like the typical charter schools of the past twenty years.

It would be a pity if the charter enterprise were now to grow rigid and intolerant, considering how well it has accommodated some extraordinarily interesting and unconventional schools, institutional forms, and uses of chartering unimagined back in 1991. Think of teacher-led schools sans principal, schools for disabled kids, and schools for dropouts. “Virtual” and “hybrid” schools, some of them operating statewide, some as part of national franchises. For-profit operators and multi-campus management organizations—even single charters harboring multiple schools with distinct operators. We have single-sex schools. Early-college schools. Schools with curricular foci that range from “back to basics” to “experiential.” Schools that restore “local control” to small towns aggrieved by excessive district consolidation. Schools that experiment with unconventional union contracts, even a couple of schools run by unions.

This wouldn’t be the first 'reform movement' in the history of education to turn into an ideologically rigid, pull-up-the-gangplank-now-that-we're-aboard sort of vested interest. But it would still be a great pity.


To its great credit, the charter movement has flexed and stretched and managed to take in if not always to embrace this sort of school diversity. Which is, of course, a major rationale for its existence in the first place.

But that may now be changing—and not for the better. Recent examples include:

  • National charter spokesmen recently deploring the existence of selective-admission charter schools in New Orleans, even though these are conversion schools that were selective before they were charters;
  • Also in New Orleans, respected national groups urging the school board not to renew charters for more than five years, even though several of the schools (which had requested ten-year renewals), by virtue of being conversion charters, have actually operated for many decades and are among the highest-scoring schools in Louisiana;
  • Major funders and reform outfits shunning “middle class” charter schools as if those kids don’t also need better education options;
  • Palpitations all over at the prospect of charter schools with a religious connection. Never mind that perhaps the most promising way to salvage urban Catholic schools—with their excellent track record of educating disadvantaged kids—is to reconstitute them as charters; and
  • Outrage at the announcement last week by Douglas County, Colorado that it is going to operate its new private-school voucher program via a district-sponsored charter.

This wouldn’t be the first “reform movement” in the history of education to turn into an ideologically rigid, pull-up-the-gangplank-now-that-we’re-aboard sort of vested interest. But it would still be a great pity. The basic justification for chartering rests on two legs: providing quality alternatives for youngsters stuck in bad or ill-fitting schools, and functioning as a kind of R & D center or beta site for K-12 education where things can be tried that for a hundred reasons are hard to do in regular district schools.

In my view, any school that satisfies at least one of those two criteria should qualify as a charter school, so long as it’s clear—and transparent—about its mission and publicly accountable in some suitable way for its results.

It doesn’t have to be accountable in the “usual” way if its mission is better aligned with some other measure or mechanism. Long before NCLB, several states—Texas comes to mind—allowed for “alternate accountability” for schools dealing with dropouts, at-risk youth, etc. The school and its authorizer obviously need to agree on its accountability metrics—and be public about both targets and actual attainments. The school also needs to be public about its governance and finances.

But it doesn’t have to look like other charter schools—or any other school we’ve come up with so far. It can be academically selective if it wants—so long as everyone knows what the criteria are. (That’s not the same as the squalid New York charter operation that was recently busted for secretly shutting out kids who have “issues.”) Lotteries make sense in some circumstances but not in all.

It can even have religious ties. Before- and after-school “wraparound” religious-instruction programs, and released-time programs, ought to be no-brainers when someone else pays for them. But it’s reasonable for charters themselves to try religious education so long as they thread the Zelman needle. (Keep in mind that in most of the civilized world, government schools are routinely operated by organized religions and teach those religions on the government nickel.)

A charter school can also be affiliated in various ways with voucher-style programs that educate kids in what we’re accustomed to calling “private schools.” How is that different, really, from out-sourcing the operation of existing charter (or district) schools to private firms, many of them profit-making? The same thing can be done one student at a time, with the public money continuing to follow the kid to this school or that.

More disruptive innovations will arise over time, and charter-movement leaders should be grateful and welcoming, not resistant. Besides, if they don’t cooperate, they’ll eventually get end-run, much as they did to district schools once upon a time.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the pushback against Douglas County's voucher program from the Education Gadfly Show podcast


Opinion: Quality control in K-12 education
By Frederick M. Hess

Virtual schooling’s greatest power is that it creates the opportunity to reconsider what is feasible in K-12 education. Digital learning makes it possible to deliver expertise over great distances, permits instructors to specialize, allows schools to use staff in more targeted and cost-effective ways, and customizes the scope, sequence, and pacing of curriculum and instruction for individual children. These add up to facilitating the delivery of high-quality, high-impact instruction. But because it destandardizes and decentralizes educational delivery, digital education is far harder to bring under the yoke of the quality-control systems and metrics that have been put in place for traditional school structures.

To realize the potential gains in cost efficiency, customization, instructional quality, pupil engagement, and—ultimately—student learning that the digital age makes possible will require policymakers and practitioners to find new ways to monitor and police the quality of what’s being delivered—and learned. Yet absent the familiar panoply of credentials, staffing ratios, instructional hours, Carnegie units, and school days that now provide tangible assurance that a given school is “real” and legitimate, digital learning will struggle with finding acceptance—and could be bent to the advantage of those who don’t place educational achievement at the top of their priorities.

Unfortunately, it is difficult today even to visualize, much less to craft, brand-new quality-control systems that adapt perfectly to the seismic shift that digital learning represents. The best that policymakers can do at present is to select among—or combine—three basic approaches, each with its own significant limitations:

  • Input and process regulation;
  • Outcome-based accountability; and
  • Market-based quality control.

These are not mutually exclusive options, but together they comprise the basic menu of choices for policing digital learning (or any other public function). The difficulty is that these approaches were devised for assessing conventional institutions, not the more fluid networks of providers and learners created by digital instruction. In the digital world—where new tools and technologies offer dramatic opportunities to rethink teaching and learning by disassembling a school, classroom, or course into its component parts, then delivering instruction in more customized ways—these quality-control approaches will no longer be a comfortable fit for providers. Any given approach to regulating inputs, basing accountability on outcomes, or trusting markets brings risks, imperfections, and unintended consequences. Though these negatives cannot be erased, the alternative—no quality control at all—is far worse. So we’re well advised to acknowledge the problems with available tools and mechanisms and then do our best to monitor, minimize, and combat them.

The first step is to create a relatively uncomplicated vendor-approval process that ensures that minimal fiduciary and academic standards are being met. Providers should have to document to a designated public entity that their books are clean and to report basic metrics for services provided. For those providers that offer certain categories of services—especially the kind that directly impact student achievement—it’s reasonable to have a state review process that features some kind of authorization and renewal.

Second, as providers deliver their wares—and families choose among and students engage with them—it is essential that some entity collect various kinds of data on performance. That’s apt to be a state responsibility but could easily be delegated to any number of third-party monitors. But whether a state agency acts directly or relies on others, a wide array of data needs to be collected, gains measured and analyzed, and findings made public in transparent fashion. Just as important is to gather and disseminate information on consumer satisfaction and expert reviews of programs and providers.

Third, families need to acquire a vested interest in the cost-effectiveness of their new opportunities by being given control over some discrete portion of spending. This step is essential if parents are to approach schooling as more than a unitary service and to start thinking about the quality of particular services, and if education officials are to enjoy the encouragement and support they need to revisit and change deep-seated routines.

All three are needed, in various combinations. But don’t expect perfection. Each possible combination eases some concerns while posing new ones. Hence, given our scant experience with digital provision, it seems prudent to avoid sweeping national policies or requirements, at least for now.

The challenges involved in effecting these shifts are both familiar and new. In a sense, they are essentially the same challenges—to be addressed by the same tools—that educators and policymakers have wrestled with for decades. But in their current incarnation, they can be met only with a degree of granularity, agility, and precision that is new to the world of K–12 schooling.

A formidable task? Surely; because it is one that will ultimately determine whether the advent of digital learning revolutionizes American education or becomes just another layer of slate strapped to the roof of the nineteenth-century schoolhouse.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Rick's new paper from the Education Gadfly Show podcast


News Analysis: The little ed school that could

car in mud pit photo

Enthralling lecture 
(Photo by Robert S. Donovan 19)

While traditional ed schools continue to defy efforts at reform and transparency, other innovative teacher-training programs are moving forward. Enter New York-based Relay School of Education as a prime specimen. There are no university campuses or lecture halls for Relay’s students, who spend most of their training in their own classrooms under the guidance of mentors. Degrees aren’t conferred based on GPA or class time. To complete Relay’s two-year program—which encompasses 60 “modules” connected to real-world issues, like pacing and discipline—just demonstrate that your students have made at least one year of academic progress in your chosen subject. A fantastic evolution—but not one that is universally welcomed. Status quo defenders have already lamented Relay’s alleged de-professionalization of teaching. It’s hard to believe, though, that novice teachers will receive less professional preparation as active participants in real K-12 classrooms than they would get in a distant university setting, half-listening to yet another lecture on Paulo Freire.

Ed Schools’ Pedagogical Puzzle,” New York Times, July 21, 2011.


News Analysis: Much ado about nothing

Enacted just two months ago, Tennessee’s new virtual-education measure is receiving much flack from Democrats and Republicans alike. At issue is the $5,387 in per-pupil funding marked for the virtual charters opened under the bill’s auspices. Critics assert that these charters siphon cash from district schools, leaving them bereft of resources. But a word of caution to these critics: Average per-pupil funding in Tennessee is about $7,900, according to the Census Bureau, so sending students to a virtual charter actually saves about 2,500 education dollars each. Virtual charters are a smart new way to leverage twenty-first century technology (and save on building and busing costs to boot). This type of innovation may even be more important in economic downturns than it is in booms.

‘Virtual school’ in Tennessee may drain taxpayer funds,” The Commercial Appeal, July 25, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: The State of Proficiency: How student proficiency rates vary across states, subjects, and grades between 2002 and 2010
By Daniela Fairchild

Four years ago, Fordham and the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) teamed up to produce “The Proficiency Illusion,” a seminal analysis detailing the gaping discrepancies in proficiency-rate cut scores across states, grades, and subjects. Last month, NWEA released a follow-up, adding nine states to its original analysis in math and eleven states in reading (bringing those totals to thirty-five and thirty-seven, respectively) and extending the analysis through 2010. The new results are just as striking as the old. In grade-eight math, for example, NWEA found a 52-percentile difference between the highest and lowest state cut scores. And individual states continue to make their tests much harder at some grade levels than at others—creating significant problems for AYP determinations, value-added teacher evaluations, and much else. Feel like digging in? Check out the interactive data gallery. Prepare to feel a little ill.

Sarah Durant and Michael Dahlin, “The State of Proficiency: How student proficiency rates vary across states, subjects, and grades between 2002 and 2010,” (Portland, OR: Northwest Evaluation Association, June 2011).


Review: A Big Apple for Educators: New York City’s Experiment with Schoolwide Performance Bonuses: Final Evaluation Report
By Josh Pierson

A Big Apple for Educators coverThis report—a joint effort by RAND, Vanderbilt, and the National Center on Performance Incentives—drove the final nail into the coffin of New York City’s shaky and pricey School-Wide Performance Bonus Program. We learn from this analysis that Gotham’s foray into school-wide bonuses “did not improve student achievement at any grade level.” In fact, average math and ELA scores for participating elementary and middle schools were lower than those of the control group. (There were no effects on scores at the high school level.) To understand why, analysts queried participating teachers—ninety-two percent of whom said the program didn’t affect the way they did their jobs. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, since the bonuses amounted to only $1,500 after taxes, and were tied to higher test scores school-wide—something over which individual teachers have little control. Further, a third of teachers said they didn’t even understand the criteria for obtaining the bonus. Thorough and informative, this report should act as a warning bell for anyone looking to replicate Gotham’s poorly designed (and now defunct) program.

Julie A. Marsh, Matthew G. Springer, Daniel F. McCaffrey, Kun Yuan, Scott Epstein, Julia Koppich, Nidhi Kalra, Catherine DiMartino, and Art (Xiao) Peng, “A Big Apple for Educators: New York City’s Experiment with Schoolwide Performance Bonuses: Final Evaluation Report,” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011).


Review: Trajectories of the Home Learning Environment Across the First 5 Years: Associations with Children’s Vocabulary and Literacy Skills at Prekindergarten
By Alicia Goldberg

This longitudinal study out of NYU examines the connection between “home-learning environments” and school readiness by tracking a representative sample of 1,852 low-income children at ages one, two, three, and five. (The evaluation is based on things like the number of books read to the child and maternal responsiveness to the child’s requests.) There’s much to plumb here, but one takeaway emerges: Almost 70 percent of the low-income children with consistently strong home environments (ten percent of the total group) performed at or above the national averages for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds—demonstrating the home’s gap-closing potential. Unfortunately, none of the learning environments originally diagnosed as low in quality became literacy-rich by the time the children started pre-Kindergarten, implying that some children are already falling behind (and staying behind) after their first year of life. Now if we could only figure out how to help more parents more effectively play the role of their child’s first teacher.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on NYU's study from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

Eileen T. Rodriguez and Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, “Trajectories of the Home Learning Environment Across the First 5 Years: Associations With Children’s Vocabulary and Literacy Skills at Prekindergarten,” (New York, N.Y.: New York University, July/August 2011).


Review: Inside IMPACT: D.C.’s Model Teacher Evaluation System
By Jamie Davies O’Leary

Outsiders have envied, emulated, and damned D.C.’s famous teacher-evaluation system, IMPACT. But what is the insiders’ perspective? This report from Ed Sector delivers the answer. Author Susan Headden, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, presents a thorough and balanced perspective on this revolutionary (but still emergent) system. She explains the core elements of IMPACT (the classroom observations, instructional buckets against which teachers are measured, etc.), and weaves a narrative that effectively captures the experience of (a sample of) observed teachers, “master educators” (the ones conducting the observations), as well as principals, union leaders, and District staff responsible for developing the system. She notes a few red flags (the distribution of IMPACT’s large performance bonuses are concentrated in already high-performing schools, for example) and details a few places where IMPACT could be improved, notably by doing more to help develop educators rather than simply reward or punish them. But progress is being made on that front. Based on our own interviews (below), we found that, overwhelmingly, teachers saw monumental improvements in professional development, and that the new system gave them specific, tangible ways to enhance instruction.

Click to play video of IMPACT (1) Click to play video of IMPACT (2) Click to play video of IMPACT (3)

Click to play

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

Susan Headden, “Inside IMPACT: D.C.’s Model Teacher Evaluation System,” (Washington, D.C.: Education Sector, June 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: The bro-mance continues

After his podcast sabbatical, Rick Hess is back—and he doesn’t disappoint. After explaining his new Fordham paper on digital learning, he and Mike discuss the charter-voucher rivalry and what the debt ceiling means for education. (They share a few special moments, too.) Amber dissects philanthropic giving to teachers and teaching and Chri$ scolds Connecticut for its inequitable pension structure.

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: Seeing the Common Core for what it is
By Kathleen Porter-Magee 

I’ve already wondered aloud (see here) whether states’ quick adoption of the Common Core was more an example of people seeing what they wanted to see than evidence of some broad consensus about what the actual standards meant for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. An article in last week’s Education Week does little to assuage those concerns.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Enough about Finland
By Daniela Fairchild 

Since the PISA-results bomb dropped last December, myriad reports have been released, op-eds written, and dinner conversations had comparing the American education system to high-achieving OECD nations. Some of them have been pretty smart. Others have been reasonably vapid, if well-intentioned. And almost all seem compelled to hail Finland.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Briefly Noted: S.O.S.: Same ol' stuff?

  • For those in the D.C. area this weekend, prepare for more foot traffic than usual on the Mall, as the Save Our Schools march, endorsed by the NEA and AFT, rolls in. It’ll be worse than the typical summer tourists—though maybe more amusing.
  • Five years ago, 99 percent of New York City’s eligible teachers (those on the job for three years) received tenure. Under new (stricter) evaluation guidelines, only 58 percent of Gotham teachers became tenured this year. It makes Gadfly want to sing. “The order is rapidly fadin’…the times they are a-changin’…”
  • $5 billion later, Bill Gates reflects on the efficacy of his philanthropic efforts to date. The message is sobering. Jay Greene is more than sobered.
  • Chicago can smell what D.C. is cooking. The Windy City field-tested a teacher-evaluation framework this year—based on the District’s model.
  • Also in Chicago, J.C. Brizard announced the restructuring of his district’s middle-management. Chris Cerf isn’t the only one thinking governance reform.
  • Round one in the battle royale between charter-school advocates and the NAACP/UFT ended in a decision last week, with charter advocates scoring a victory in court. We’ve a long way to go before round twelve, though.


Announcement: American Idol goes wonk

On August 11, from 8:30AM to 10:00AM, Fordham is bringing you “Education Reform Idol.” Contestants from Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin will woo our judges—and the audience—as they fight to earn top distinction as America’s “reformiest” state in 2011. For a full list of contestants and judges, or to register to attend the event, click here.


Announcement: Ride over to Rodel

Delaware has more than Race to the Top funds and beaches. It’s also got the Rodel Foundation. And maybe you? A fast-paced working philanthropy, Rodel is hiring a program officer. If you’re an education-policy buff with strong writing and strategic thinking skills, check it out. Wilmington ain’t half bad.


Announcement: Mackinac-attack

If you have strong research and writing skills and fancy education reform in Michigan, then you’ll be interested to learn: The Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s Education Policy Initiative is hiring an ed-policy analyst. For more details, head here.


Fordham's featured publication: A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era

A Byte at the Apple cover

These days, America is brimming with education data—and it seems everyone wants (or at least claims to want) to be guided by it. In A Byte at the Apple, leaders and scholars map the landscape of data providers and users and explore why what’s supplied by the former too often fails to meet the needs of the latter. It documents the barriers to collecting good information, including well-meaning privacy laws and the maze of overlapping government units and agencies. Most important, it explores potential solutions—including a future system where a “backpack” of achievement information would accompany every student from place to place. Read on for 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, 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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