The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 30. August 4, 2011.
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Opinion and Analysis

The schools—and the deficits—we deserve
Lower taxes + Increased school spending = Balanced budget?
Opinion | Michael J. Petrilli

Steven Brill: Brilliant or bonkers?
His new book suggests a few ideas crazy enough to work
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr.

The “new normal”: No longer new, still normal
Schools: Your rich Uncle (Sam) is broke
News Analysis

A great time to close bad ed schools
Art Levine gets it half right
News Analysis

Short Reviews

Public School Choice in the District of Columbia: A Descriptive Analysis
The skinny? Yes, charters are cream-skimming
Review | Josh Pierson

The State of Learning Disabilities: Facts, Trends and Indicators
The low-down on LD
Review | Janie Scull

Profiles of Teachers in the U.S. 2011
Reformers have some new best friends: alt-cert educators
Review | Alicia Goldberg

Critical Contributions: Philanthropic Investment in Teachers and Teaching
Guess who pulled in the largest purse? Hint: Their initials are TFA
Review | Daniela Fairchild

From The Web

When the cat's away...
Save Our Schools—but not the ed schools
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

There’s good news, and then there’s really good news
Whatever Florida’s doing, it’s working
Flypaper's Finest | August 3, 2011 | Mike Petrilli

Rick Hess defines the challenge those of us in the field have been stumbling around for years
Running a blended-learning school is hard work
Flypaper's Finest | July 29, 2011 | Terry Ryan


Why is that dollar bill attached to that string?
Why? Because I said so
Briefly Noted

Ed Reform Idol: The search for a superstar
States strut their ed-reform stuff at Fordham on August 11

It’s always SUNY in New York
The Charter Schools Institute at SUNY is on the hunt for a performance and systems analyst

Yes, we ConnCAN
ConnCAN needs a research and policy fellow

Stretching the School Dollar
Less federal money? Here’s what to do
Featured Fordham Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: The schools—and the deficits—we deserve
By Michael J. Petrilli

cake photo

Have your cake and eat it too 
(Photo by Matt Gibson 19)

The latest Education Next poll results are packed-full of interesting findings on topics ranging from choice to merit pay, from NCLB to tenure reform. But particularly timely, in this era of fiscal austerity, are new insights about the public’s views on school budgets. And guess what: On education, like everything else, Americans don’t want to make tough choices. They want to keep taxes low while boosting school spending. Sound familiar?

Let’s start with taxes. Question 25a asked: “Do you think that local taxes to fund public schools around the nation should increase, decrease, or stay about the same?” Sixty-five percent of the public wanted taxes to remain steady or drop. The numbers were a little lower for African Americans, Hispanics, and parents, but not by much. (Half of teachers even expressed this view.) Interestingly, even more people (73 percent of the public) opposed raising local taxes, even if they were to be targeted to local (instead of national) schools.

Many people complain that our schools aren’t responsive to public demands, but the opposite seems true.


OK, Americans don’t want higher taxes. So they must want school spending to remain flat, right? Wrong. Question 3b queried: “Do you think that government funding for public schools in your district should increase, decrease, or stay about the same?” Here, 60 percent of the public wanted increased spending on their schools. (Not surprisingly, the numbers were even higher for teachers, parents, and minorities.) Granted, that sentiment softened significantly when respondents were told how much their local districts actually spend—it kicked down to 46 percent for the public as a whole.

Still, as we see with similar surveys on taxes and spending writ large, the public wants expensive services and low taxes. (Oh, and they abhor deficits.) The math doesn’t add up.

And on what does the public want these phantom extra dollars to be spent? Not higher teacher salaries; once told that the average teacher makes close to $55,000, only 43 percent of the public supports boosting pay.

No, Americans want exactly what they’ve been getting for fifty years: smaller class sizes. In the only “forced choice” question on the survey, respondents were asked (in question 12): “Reducing average class sizes by 3 students would cost roughly the same amount as increasing teacher salaries by $10,000. Which do you think is the best use of funds for schools across the country, increasing teacher salaries by $10,000 or reducing class size by 3 students?”

Respondents clearly struggled with this one, with 29 percent expressing no opinion either way. But by a ratio of 44 percent to 28 percent, those with a view picked class-size reduction over higher pay.

Many people complain that our schools aren’t responsive to public demands, but the opposite seems true. The public wants small classes and is less concerned about paying teachers well; that’s exactly the system we’ve got. And, I suppose, the system we deserve.

This piece originally appeared on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

Opinion: Steven Brill: Brilliant or bonkers?
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Jay Mathews isn’t the only smart person to rave about Steve Brill’s new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Tiger-mom Amy Chua, Governor Chris Christie, Mayor Cory Booker, and Tom Brokaw are all pumped about it, too, or so they say on the dust jacket.

Brill is relatively new to the ed-reform wars—which may have been one of his prime assets while penning this volume; he doesn’t appear to have any particular ax to grind or ideology to advance. Though a neophyte in this realm, he’s a veteran journalist, and a fine one at that, who first passed through the ed-reform looking glass when reporting on New York’s notorious (thanks to Brill) “rubber rooms” for The New Yorker. He’s Gotham-based, himself, and many of the battle scenes in this long but compelling tome are situated there. (Joel Klein and Randi Weingarten get the most mentions in a fifteen-page index.)

His approach resembles Bob Woodward’s recent volumes on the real wars of the Bush and Obama eras: plenty of inside scoops, vivid quotes, extensive reportage, evocative vignettes and telling examples, lots of short chapters, a fast-paced narrative, and an ample supply of couldn’t-invent-‘em characters.

Not many ed-reform books are like this (Joe Williams came close) and Brill’s repays attention, not just because it’s a rollicking romp but because it works through many issues, conflicts, interests, episodes, and people and comes to a measured set of conclusions that won’t please anyone in particular but deserve serious reflection. If you want just the conclusions, you could limit yourself to Brill’s final chapter (“A marathon, not a sprint”), but then you’d miss all the evidence that leads up to it.

Still, a few wee excerpts from that chapter will give you both the flavor, some of the wisdom, and at least a couple of ideas that seem totally harebrained at the start but, in the context of his overall examination, may not be so crazy after all.

* “Dave Levin…was giving me a tour one afternoon of KIPP Infinity in upper Manhattan…. ‘So you must feel pretty good,’ I said. ‘Well, that’s it, I don’t,’ he replied. ‘I’m still failing 60 percent of the time.’”

* “Levin acknowledged that he was at least free to try because he was not straitjacketed by a union contract.…Then he stopped, looked up, and delivered a dose of reality: ‘If you tore up every union contract in the country…then you would have to train and motivate not 70,000 or 80,000 teachers…but 3 million teachers.”

* “In the summer of 2010, when I heard Arne Duncan remark that ‘you can’t fire your way to the top,’ I thought it a clever turn of phrase intended to mollify the unions. Duncan was actually making an important point. For, as Levin explained, the bigger hurdle is that ‘you can’t expect 3 million people, or even a half million, to be as talented as our [KIPP] teachers are, or as willing to work these kinds of hours and do this as intensely as they do. You have to devise support systems…to make moderately talented people better. You can’t do this by depending only on the kinds of exceptional people we have around here.’”

* “‘I feel overwhelmed, underappreciated, and underpaid,’ one Harlem Success teacher told me. ‘I work from 7:30 to 5:30 in the building and then go home and work some more….I think we are doing a great job so I keep at it. But there is no way I can do this beyond another year or two….This model just cannot scale.’”

* “[Geoffrey] Canada is an extraordinary person. So is Dave Levin. And Wendy Kopp. And Jessica Reid. So are thousands of spectacular, equally driven teachers in traditional public schools across the country. We can be led and inspired by extraordinary men and women….But they will lead us to the right place only if we can figure out a realistic way to motivate and enable the less than extraordinary in the rank and file….”

* “In fact, if Michael Bloomberg really wanted to go for a touchdown in education reform…he could try the ultimate Nixon-to-China play: He would…make Randi Weingarten the schools chancellor….As chancellor, Weingarten would have to shed her habit of making offhand overstatements than can easily be disproved…but…I can see her now standing with Bloomberg…declaring that the times have changed….Only now her constituency would be the children.”

* “This Weingarten-as-chancellor fantasy aside, the fact is that unions and their leaders can and should be enlisted to help stand up those in the rank and file who are well-motivated and able but are not extraordinary. That doesn’t mean yielding to the unions’ narrow interests; it means continuing to enhance the political climate and, with it, the backbone of the political leaders who negotiate with the unions, so that the unions will yield to the interests of the children their members are supposed to serve.”

And on he goes. Is the whole thing a naïve, wishful-thinking fantasy? Or is Brill precisely correct to suggest that the only way to bring reform to scale is to figure out how to enlist—and enable—the mass of educators who teach the mass of U.S. kids? “Waiting for the scalable solution, as the hedge funders would call it,” he observes, “is no better than waiting for Superman.”

Yes, he wants it both ways: “Tough legislation to trump the unions, such as that pushed by Johnston in Colorado, is necessary. But taking the next step and eliminating the unions is not likely to improve schools….If the country has to sign up the platoons that Dave Levin says are needed, then giving teachers some say, through their representatives, about their professional lives…is a long-term positive, not a negative.”

Still, we’ve come a considerable distance, he concludes: “Looked at from the perspective of how far they’ve come from Wendy Kopp’s college thesis, from Jon Schnur’s fruitless drafting of speeches for Al Gore and John Kerry, from Congressman George Miller’s losing a 434-1 vote on teacher certification and performance pay, from Bill and Melinda Gates’s or Eli Broad’s early missteps in education philanthropy, from Joel Klein’s inability to order his own human resources department to produce data on teacher effectiveness…they should all be taking bows.”

“But this is only the first mile of the marathon.”

How much endurance do you have?


News Analysis: The "new normal": No longer new, still normal

baby surprised photo

Don't look so surprised 
(Photo by Victor Bezrukov 19)

Though the specifics are still unclear, the debt-ceiling compromise will—at base—spell big cuts to federal spending. And that will, in turn, mean less money for the states—education or otherwise. Bleak? Perhaps. But district leaders (and parents and the public): Pick your chins up off the floor. We’ve been sitting under the shadow of this “new normal” in education spending for some time now—and shouldn’t expect simply to wait out the eclipse. Instead, smart adjustments can yield the savings needed. Don’t slash teacher jobs; think about lifting class-size ratios or rethinking Cadillac benefits packages. Don’t eliminate art and music; think about more efficient ways of delivering them instead. As someone named Rahm said not so long ago, you never want to waste a serious crisis.

Education takes a beating nationwide,” by Stephen Ceasar and Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, July 31, 2011.

Debt Ceiling Deal: Big Questions for K-12,” by Michele McNeil, Education Week, August 1, 2011.


News Analysis: A great time to close bad ed schools

One oft overlooked consequence of the current financial situation is that many newly minted teachers, straight out of the nation’s 1,200-odd ed schools, are finding it hard to get work. In comes former-Teachers College president (and ed-school critic) Art Levine with an interesting notion: If we need fewer teachers at present, we presumably need fewer programs through which to train them. Which is an opportunity, he explains, for states to shutter some of their lower-quality programs (more on this from NCTQ next year)—and allow those still in operation to be much more selective. But then he stumbles. Going further, he writes “It is also expensive to operate multiple systems for educating teachers, especially if the reason is that one system is not working well,” essentially calling for a clamp down on promising new models of teacher certification, like Teach For America—that themselves have very high standards and selectiveness. So read Levine’s article—but take his advice selectively.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Levine's piece from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

How to improve teacher education now (and why Teach For America isn’t the answer),” by Arthur Levine, Washington Post, August 3, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: Public School Choice in the District of Columbia: A Descriptive Analysis
By Josh Pierson

Forget federal politics for a minute. There is one area where Washington deserves kudos for its leadership: school choice. As this Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) brief explains, D.C. has one of the most extensive choice programs in the nation. During the 2008-2009 year, only 35 percent of District students attended their traditional neighborhood school. The others could be found attending “out-of-boundary” publics (31 percent) or charter schools (34 percent). Furthermore, choice programs seem to be reaching those who need them most—poor and minority youngsters are significantly more likely to exercise choice than their affluent and white peers. Data also show a willingness to add several miles to the daily commute in order to attend the school of their choice. Of course, D.C.’s choice initiative isn’t flawless. This study finds evidence of “cream-skimming”—whereby relatively high-scoring students (still poor and minority, mind you) are likelier to take advantage of choice. In D.C., students who opted into out-of-boundary public schools entered their new school one-sixth of a standard deviation ahead of their “staying” peers in reading and one-fifth of a standard deviation ahead in math. (Students opting into charters significantly outperformed their “staying” peers, as well.) A difficult issue indeed, but surely not a decisive argument against school-choice programs, since the alternative—keeping everybody padlocked to failing schools—is hardly preferable.

Umut Özek, “Public School Choice in the District of Columbia: A Descriptive Analysis,” (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, April 2011).


Review: The State of Learning Disabilities: Facts, Trends and Indicators
By Janie Scull

This comprehensive look at learning disabilities (LD), neurologically based disorders that include diagnoses like dyslexia, exposes two truths. First, confusion about and misidentification of LD—a problem we described over a decade ago—persists, though improved instruction and intervention have helped curb the number of identifications over the last ten years (also illustrated in a more recent Fordham study). Second, there’s still a dearth of up-to-date research on how to support students with bona fide LD and improve their educational outcomes. The paper reports some familiar facts—boys are more likely to be identified as having LD, as are minority students, and those in poverty or unemployed (the study also collected data on the adult LD population). Further, students with LD are, on average, 3.4 years behind their grade level in reading and 3.2 years behind in math. The biennial report also furnishes many less-familiar stats. Notably, while the percentage of students with LD receiving a high school diploma increased from 52 to 64 percent from 2000 to 2009 (and dropouts fell from 40 to 22 percent), only 10 percent of all students with LD enroll in a four-year college. In addition, students with LD rarely use technologies to help moderate their disabilities: Just 6 percent learn with computers more frequently than their classmates and a mere 1 percent use software designed for students like themselves. Better and more targeted hardware and software may hold one key to further improving graduation and college-going rates—and doing so in a cost-effective manner.

Candace Cortiella, The State of Learning Disabilities: Facts, Trends and Indicators (New York, NY: National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2011).


Review: Profile of Teachers in the U.S. 2011
By Alicia Goldberg

This survey report from Emily Feistritzer’s National Center for Education Information (NCEI) shows the changing face of America’s teacher workforce—and offers glimmers of hope to reformers looking for allies in the teacher ranks. (Are you watching, Steve Brill?) Of the large group of teachers who have been on the job five years or less, a third received their training through alternative programs. Such educators, in addition to being more racially diverse and STEM-oriented than their colleagues, are decidedly more supportive of ed-reform initiatives. Seventy percent of alt-cert teachers favor performance-based pay (compared to 58 percent of those traditionally trained), 52 percent say “yea” to axing teacher tenure (versus 31 percent), and 27 percent note that the unions need to go (compared to 19 percent). Reformers ought to enlist these non-traditional teachers—and thinkers—in the larger policy battles ASAP.

C. Emily Feistritzer, “Profile of Teachers in the U.S. 2011,” (Washington, D.C.: NCEI, 2011).


Review: Critical Contributions: Philanthropic Investment in Teachers and Teaching
By Daniela Fairchild

Critical Contributions coverThis report from the University of Georgia and Kronley and Associates analyzes the evolution of philanthropic giving to teachers and teaching over the past 150 years (with a focus on the 2000s). While the dollar amounts doled out to these types of programs pale in comparison to overall K-12 spending, there is much about their directional flow that is worth noting. From 2000 to 2008, national and regional philanthropies donated over $680 million to improve K-12 teachers and teaching—with close to a third of that money going to Teach For America. And it’s not just because of TFA’s strong track record or stellar fundraising team (though these reasons play a part)—funders have prioritized teacher-recruitment efforts over the last decade and have targeted investment in organizations they feel have strong leadership. Moreover, funders are becoming much more hands-on about the money they hand out. They’re learning lessons from ineffective philanthropic giving and targeting their resources to policies they feel bring about change, like alternative-certification pathways and performance-based evaluations and pay. It’s hard to say whether all of this money has added up to improved teacher effectiveness, but Gadfly certainly likes the direction in which it is going.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Critical Contributions from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

Kathleen deMarrais, Arthur M. Horne, Karen E. Watkins, Claire Suggs, Robert A. Kronley, and Kate Shropshire Swett, “Critical Contributions: Philanthropic Investment in Teaching and Teachers,” (Atlanta, GA: Kronley and Associates, Athens, GA: University of Georgia, July 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: When the cat's away...

Mike and Rick are in the zone this week analyzing the Save Our Schools March, how states can improve ed schools, and the merits of Missouri’s anti-Facebook-friending legislation. Amber gives Teach For America a high-five and Chri$ gives NC charter schools the flat-out deny.

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: There's good news, and then there's really good news
By Mike Petrilli

A few weeks ago, I wrote about our schools’ “secret success.” Simply stated, poor and minority students are achieving at dramatically higher levels today than they were two decades ago—in some cases two or three grade levels higher. And while we can’t be sure what led to this academic acceleration, test-based accountability was probably the most important factor. Or so I argued.

But the plot thickens, because these national averages mask state-by-state differences that are quite instructive, too.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Rick Hess defines the challenges those of us in the field have been stumbling around for years
By Terry Ryan

Fordham’s new paper authored by Rick Hess, “Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches” is critically important for those of us on the ground working as school administrators, school leaders, charter-school authorizers, and education-policy makers.…

As a charter authorizer, Fordham’s experience with digital learning has been humbling and frustrating, in part because we have struggled—along with many others—to define success for the digital-learning programs and policies we have supported.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.




Briefly Noted: Why is that dollar bill attached to that string?

  • If it were up to Arne Duncan, teachers would make between $60,000 and $150,000 a year—but there’s a catch. To do that, we have to “shift away from an industrial-era blue-collar model of compensation” to one that rewards “effectiveness and performance.”
  • To some, the hard-line reforms of governors like Scott Walker and Rick Scott are alienating—a porridge too cold. To others, the collaborative changes in states like Illinois lack teeth—a porridge too hot. But some say that rookie GOP governors Susana Martinez (New Mexico) and Brian Sandoval (Nevada) are providing a porridge just right, offering compromise and communication, while still driving through some strong legislative changes. Could one of them be America’s next Ed Reform Idol?
  • Mike Antonucci delivers a smart response to the anti-testing banners waved at last weekend’s Save Our Schools March: Yes, he says, there are schools that test too much. And yes, “Calling a school successful because of high reading and math scores on a standardized test may be a flawed method of evaluation. But is it any more flawed than calling a school successful ‘because we say so’?”
  • Protecting against inappropriate teacher-student interaction is important. But Missouri’s newly passed SB54—which bans teacher-student communication on social-networking sites that allow for private interaction—has seriously stifled the state’s potential for tech-based innovations like virtual schooling or digital dropboxes. Baby, meet bathwater.
  • First, there was Teach For All. Now another group is building off the Teach For America model, this one of the entrepreneurial mindset. This week, Venture For America (VFA) opened its application process. VFA will place fellows at start-ups in Detroit, New Orleans, and Providence for two years, creating job growth and aiding the economies of failing cities.
  • Is it really that teachers are paid too little, or that some teachers are paid too little? Andy Rotherham explains.
  • With all this debt-ceiling talk, you might have missed some of the other news out of the federal government. Idaho got the go-ahead to keep its AYP proficiency targets the same for a third year in a row. (Which is convenient, because state supe Tom Luna has already informed the USDOE that he has no intention to continue to follow NCLB accountability provisions.)
  • Reason #5,489 why ESEA won’t be reauthorized anytime soon: It looks like Duncan way oversold the number of schools that would be labeled failing this year under AYP. While some key large states (including TX and CA) still need to report, the results thus far are far from an 82 percent failure rate.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Missouri's anti-friending law from the Education Gadfly Show podcast


Announcement: Ed Reform Idol: The search for a superstar

The countdown begins. In just seven short days, Fordham’s “Education Reform Idol” blockbuster event will descend on Washington. Join us (August 11, 8:30AM to 10:00AM) as contestants from Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin (blog post coming tomorrow, stay tuned) don their best education-reform dresses as they fight to earn top distinction as America’s “reformiest” state in 2011. For a full list of contenders and judges, or to register, click here.


Announcement: It's always SUNY in New York

Take it from Fordham, charter authorizing is hard work. But can be rewarding. If you’re interested in joining the movement, New York’s Charter Schools Institute (part of SUNY) is looking for a performance and systems analyst to monitor, analyze, and evaluate portfolio-school performance. To learn more, click here.


Announcement: Yes, we ConnCAN

If you’re committed to education reform in the Constitution State, get over to ConnCAN now; they’re hiring for a research and policy fellow. Ideal candidates will have excellent writing, research, and communication skills, as well as a “roll-up-your-sleeves” attitude. To learn more about the position, head here.


Featured Fordham Publication: Stretching the School Dollar

This policy brief lists fifteen concrete ways that states can “stretch the school dollar” in these difficult financial times. Written by Marguerite Roza, senior data and economics advisor at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president at the Fordham Institute, it argues that budget cuts alone, without concurrent reforms, could set our schools back years. But by addressing state mandates around teacher tenure, “last hired, first fired” policies, minimum class sizes, and more, states can free local leaders’ hands to make smart, courageous cuts and do more with less. In other words, this challenging climate is an opportunity to make some real changes in education. Read on to find out 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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