The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 33. August 25, 2011.

In This Edition

New from Fordham: 2010-11 Ohio Report Card Analysis

2010-11 Ohio Report Card cover

Each year, Fordham’s Ohio team conducts an analysis of urban school performance in the Buckeye State—targeting the “Big Eight” districts: Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown. This year, there is some good news to report. For example, the percentage of students in these cities attending a school that has met or exceeded “expected growth” (according to Ohio’s value-added metric) has risen significantly, from 67 percent in 2009-10 to 78 percent in 2010-11. For a full analysis and district-specific profiles, click here.

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Opinion and Analysis

One size fits most
How to marry two contradictory world views on reform
Opinion | Michael J. Petrilli

Duncan vs. Perry
Bipartisanship has sailed
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr.

The school-to-prison pipeline
Disciplinary action gone wild
News Analysis

Short Reviews

Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?
We're starting to see a trend here
Review | Daniela Fairchild

Grade Inflation for Education Majors and Low Standards for Teachers: When Everyone Makes the Grade
The proficiency illusion hits higher ed
Review | Michael Ishimoto

From The Web

Husky, sexy voices
What was Duncan smoking?
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

The name game
A little civility goes a long way
Flypaper's Finest | August 23, 2011 | Mike Petrilli

Taunting Michelle Rhee
Winerip has one thing right: When it comes to the cheating scandal, silence is not golden
Flypaper's Finest | August 22, 2011 | Peter Meyer

When reform touches teachers
A cordial convo between Rick and Randi
Gadfly Studios | August 23, 2011


Shake, rattle, and roll
All Brill, all day
Briefly Noted

A position for all seasons and regions
SCORE and MBAE seek directors of policy and research

American Achievement in International Perspective
In terms of raw numbers, we’re still number one
Featured Fordham Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: One size fits most
By Michael J. Petrilli

If you step back from day to day vitriol that characterizes the current education-policy “debate,” and glimpse the larger picture, two worldviews on education reform emerge. One, articulated by the likes of Linda Darling-Hammond, Marc Tucker, David Cohen, and others, obsesses about curricular “coherence,” and the lack thereof in our nation’s schools. The other, envisioned by Rick Hess, Tom Vander Ark, Paul Hill, and many more, seeks to unleash America’s trademark dynamism inside our K-12 education system. Though these ideas appear to pull in opposite directions, they might best work in concert.

Let’s start with the Coherence Camp. Its argument, most recently made in David Cohen’s Teaching and Its Predicaments, is that America’s teachers are being set up to fail by a system that is fragmented, divided, and confused about its mission. Teachers are given little clear guidance about what’s expected of them: Even when goals are clear, these teachers lack the tools to succeed: Pre-service training is completely disconnected from classroom expectations, and never ending “reform” pulls up the roots of promising efforts before they are given time to flower. 

Asking people with diverse views to coalesce around one educational model is a little bit like asking all citizens to choose a single religion.


The Coherence Camp looks longingly at Europe and Asia, where many (national) systems offer teachers the opportunity to work as professionals in environments of trust, clarity, and common purpose. (Japan envy yesterday, Finland envy today?) The members of this camp praise national standards, a national (or at least statewide) curriculum that gathers the best thinking about how to reach these standards and shares this thinking with the teaching corps, authentic assessments that provide diagnostic information, and professional development (pre-service and in-service) that is seamlessly woven into all of the rest.

These countries can (and do) pour over their latest PISA results, identify areas for improvement, and get their educators to row in unison toward stronger performance. And their scores go up and up and up.

As bright as that vision may be, however, it carries with it many dark clouds. First is the temptation to lead by decree, in a very top-down, highly-bureaucratized manner that squelches the initiative of frontline educators. The best systems in the world, according to McKinsey, find a way to combine common standards with lots of local autonomy, but striking that balance is no easy feat.

A more fundamental concern is that it assumes getting all of a nation’s teachers—and parents—to buy into one notion of what it means to be well-educated. Asking people with diverse views to coalesce around one educational model is a little bit like asking all citizens to choose a single religion. One’s views on schools are closely related to larger values—what it means to live the “good life,” the degree to which children should be raised to pursue their own individual aspirations versus contribute to a larger community, whether learning “right from wrong” takes precedence over learning to “value diversity,” and on and on.

To restate the cliché, “one size fits all” is a recipe for frustration, if not social and political warfare, at least in a heterogeneous country like ours.

Dynamism Devotees, on the other hand, look at America’s private sector (and especially Silicon Valley) with envy. They envision an education marketplace full of can-do problem-solvers, myriad options for parents, and lots of customization for kids. They don’t even want a “system,” per se, but a raucous “sector” that welcomes new entrepreneurs and washes away legacy operators if they don’t keep up with the times. To them, the American higher-education sector looks like a much stronger alternative to our K-12 system, what with its rise of new competitors (many of them online), flexible, student-centered funding, and responsiveness to consumer demand.

So you hear Dynamism Devotees chanting the “every school a charter school” mantra, and preaching the exciting potential of customized digital learning, the rise of upstart providers of teacher training, and the imperative of “backpack” funding for schools.

With taxpayers footing the bill, don’t they have a right to ask kids to learn certain essential somethings?


But for all of the excitement, this vision has major holes, too. For one, with our system already fragmented into 14,000 districts, won’t the “every school a charter school” idea just lead to even less coordination and fewer benefits of scale? Yes, charter “networks” might rise up to connect schools with one another and provide essential services, but will they spread to every nook and cranny of our country? If NCLB’s free tutoring initiative was any lesson, we can expect the vast majority of communities to remain unserved. Would we get a “dynamic marketplace” in the exurbs, small towns, and rural locales, or just even less support for those schools than they get now?

Furthermore, why should we have any confidence that the result of all of this “creative destruction” will be a citizenry with essential democratic skills, knowledge, and habits? The marketplace model in higher education has, along with its benefits, also led lots of people to get narrow, skill-focused degrees rather than seek a broad liberal education. Can we afford a K-12 system that does the same? With taxpayers footing the bill, don’t they have a right to ask kids to learn certain essential somethings?

So what to do? The Coherence Camp can plausibly argue that its path is the surer route to higher student achievement and more consistent classroom practice—but it risks alienating thousands of teachers who feel hamstrung by a curriculum they don’t like and millions of parents who want something different for their kids. It also feeds a stultifying monopoly and tends to empower those interest groups that know how to bend the monopoly to their will. Dynamism Devotees are better suited to meet parental demands and to empower autonomy-seeking educators—but they can’t promise that their “unbundling” of the system won’t lead to lots of poorly served schools (and kids).

Thankfully, the two visions can be combined; the resulting approach might be labeled One Size Fits Most. For the majority of American schools, we follow the Coherence Camp’s cues. We build national standards (à la Common Core), we develop a handful of national curricula, we connect pre-service and in-service training to the standards, and we tie accountability for schools, teachers, and students to them, too. We continue to minimize the role of the 14,000 school boards (if not eliminate them outright) by empowering states to take an ever-larger role in all aspects of educational improvement. And through these mechanisms, we make the “default” option in American public education—the “typical” public school—much better than it is today.

At the same time, we make it easy for educators and parents to opt out of this One Best System. We grow the charter and digital sectors aggressively and remove the barriers that are keeping them from achieving their full, dynamic potential. And we even consider going back to the original charter concept—allowing schools to negotiate their own unique performance expectations with their authorizers, rather than being held accountable to the One Best System’s standards. More specifically, we allow charters and digital providers (or at least some subset) to opt out of the Common Core framework entirely, and to proffer their own evidence of educational achievement.

This is a classic call for 'both, and' rather than 'either, or.'


This is a classic call for “both, and” rather than “either, or.” Done right, it could accelerate the benefits of both the Coherence and Dynamism approaches—while mitigating their weaknesses. And it could allow an escape valve for some of the overheated debates in which we’re stuck. Don’t like the Common Core? Opt out. Don’t think our schools should be driven by market forces? Opt in. How about we give this option a try?


Opinion: Duncan vs. Perry
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

sailing ship photo

Bipartisanship has sailed
(Photo by Rennett Stowe)

The gloves are off. What vestiges remained of bipartisanship on education in Washington has been buried. And education may yet turn into a major issue in the 2012 presidential race.

All this in the wake of Rick Perry’s recent entry into that race. Though the Governor has not (yet) put education on his campaign agenda—it is not, for example, one of the four issues highlighted on his new Perry for President website—he has, on multiple occasions, depicted Texas as an independent-minded model of educational progress. Everyone knows that he wanted no part of Race to the Top or of the Common Core standards. Nor is it any secret that he thinks the federal government should butt out of just about everything. Or that he has many bones to pick with higher education in the Lone Star State and beyond.

Last week Arne Duncan, usually a nonpolitical sort of guy, went after Perry, six-guns blazing, regarding the Texas education record. And the retaliation against Duncan’s attack has been swift and aggressive.

Perry’s folks have already responded to Duncan, as have many others (from within Texas and without). More such jousting will continue and probably intensify. But this issue isn’t just a Perry-Duncan (or even a Perry-Obama) thing. Shrinking the role of government—every government—in education is one of Michele Bachmann’s favorite themes. (Though she doesn’t yet have it on her website, either.) And it will end up being part of the policy arsenal of every GOP candidate.

Until late last week, however, I thought education would itself play a minor role in the 2012 election, as in 2008, partly because other issues loom larger but also because Duncan and Obama stole so much of the traditional GOP ed-policy thunder as to leave Republican candidates with little to say that’s fresh or differentiating on this topic. But I didn’t reckon with Perry and Bachmann. And I surely never imagined that Duncan himself would cast the first stone.

Perhaps he was glad to get even with Perry’s denunciations of RTTT. Perhaps Duncan got into stone-hurling mode under White House orders, or perhaps his pellets of attack just slipped out (twice). Perhaps the Texas governor has those in the White House worried. Perhaps they should be.

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 Duncan's remarks from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.


News Analysis: The school-to-prison pipeline

childrens' hands cuffed photo

Criminalize the kids
(Photo by Steven DePolo)

Last month, we learned from a landmark Justice Center/Public Policy Research Institute report that 54 percent of Texas students received in-school suspension and 31 percent received out-of-school suspension at least once between their seventh- and twelfth-grade years. (The researchers looked at data from 2000 to 2008). This week, possibly joining the “gang up on Rick Perry before he becomes a serious threat to the world as we know it” movement, the Washington Post explains how this “no excuses” ethos plays out for kids in the Lone Star State. It seems that children as young as five are receiving “tickets” that require court appearances and may result in hefty fines, community-service hours, behavior-modification classes, and criminal records. The tickets (which connote Class C misdemeanors) come when students use offensive language, disrupt class, or tussle with another in the schoolyard. Unpaid fines can lead to an arrest warrant upon a student’s seventeenth birthday. Gadfly is all for effective school discipline, but please, let’s keep it out of the courts. Grown-ups do more than enough litigating and misbehaving and judges are not well-suited to settle playground tussles.

Texas students sent from classroom to courtroom,” by Donna St. George, The Washington Post, August 21, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?
By Daniela Fairchild

Globally Challenged coverLast November, Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) teamed up with Education Next to assess how well American states fare at getting their students to advanced levels in mathematics compared to their international peers. (Hint: not so well.) Continuing this line of work, this new PEPG/Ed Next report analyzes how successful states are at lifting their students to proficient levels—this time for both math and reading. To do so, Paul Peterson, Ludgar Woessman, Eric Hanushek, and Carlos Lastra-Anadon performed a crosswalk between NAEP and PISA results for math and reading for the Class of 2011 (a representative sample of which took both the eighth-grade NAEP in 2007 and the fifteen-year-old PISA in 2009). And the findings aren’t any more promising: In terms of math proficiency, the U.S. average puts us on par with Iceland, Italy, and Spain. Our worst states, Alabama and New Mexico, rank below Turkey and just ahead of Bulgaria and Serbia. Similar results are found with reading. The report goes on to explain that America’s lackluster results aren’t just about our achievement gap; even U.S. white students don’t command international acclaim—they are surpassed (in terms of percent proficient) by students from sixteen countries in math and eight countries in reading. Going further, the research team determined that the U.S. could enjoy staggering bumps in its annual GDP growth per capita by enhancing the math proficiency of its students—we’re talking $75 trillion over twenty years (which is roughly five times our current GDP). The debt-ceiling super-commission might want to take a look.

Paul E. Peterson, Ludgar Woessman, Eric A. Hanushek, and Carlos X. Lastra-Anadon, “Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?,” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Program on Education Policy and Governance and Education Next, August 2011).


Review: Grade Inflation for Education Majors and Low Standards for Teachers: When Everyone Makes the Grade
By Michael Ishimoto

Education schools have long been criticized for accepting students of middling caliber. This new study by University of Missouri professor Cory Koedel demonstrates that low standards do not rise once these students are enrolled. He finds that getting a high GPA as an education major is easier to accomplish than receiving similar marks from any other department on campus. In fact, at Koedel’s own university, students in the education department boast an average 3.7 GPA. On average, education-department GPAs are 0.5 to 0.8 grade points higher than in the other departments. These higher grades cannot be explained by higher-quality students or the smaller class sizes of ed schools. (In general, ed-school students posted lower college-entrance exams than others in their university cohorts, and the analysis adjusted for class-size effects.) From this research, Koedel draws two conclusions: We are training teachers who know less (because they are forced to work less hard for the “easy A”), and education departments are contributing to a culture of low standards for educators. (To this point, Koedel connects lax grading rigor in ed departments to the norm of overwhelmingly positive teacher evaluations in public schools.) Ed schools often complain about getting no respect; making it harder to get an A is one simple thing they could do to help correct that.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Cory Koedel's paper from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.

Cory Koedel, “Grade Inflation for Education Majors and Low Standards for Teachers: When Everyone Makes the Grade,” (Washington D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, August 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Husky, sexy voices

Mike and Rick get punchy this week, asking Arne Duncan what he was thinking going after Rick Perry, why the cheating scandals are snowballing (and why people thought it would be otherwise), and if four-day weeks are as bad as they seem. Amber goes back to ed school to pad her GPA and Chris reminds a Florida teacher of his first-amendment rights.

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: The name game
By Mike Petrilli

It’s silly season again, and I’m not referring to the Republican primaries. No, I’m thinking about the all-out battle for proponents and opponents of “reform” to stick a nasty label on the other side and claim the mantle of truth and goodness for themselves. This is nothing new, of course (Sean Cavanagh had a smart piece in Ed Week about this in March). But the battle continues apace.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Taunting Michelle Rhee
By Peter Meyer

Having been stiffed by many a good (and bad) source (including a few educators) in my career as a journalist, I was tempted to advise Michael Winerip to lay off Michelle Rhee for his “Eager for Spotlight, But Not If It Is on a Testing Scandalcolumn in Monday’s New York Times. But despite some petulant prose (“she preens for the cameras”) and questionable assessments (has Rhee’s reputation really “rested on her schools’ test scores”?), Winerip is right: Rhee really should discuss the brewing Washington, D.C., public-school-cheating charges that a USA Today reporting team unearthed last May.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Gadfly Studios: When reform touches teachers

Click to play video of Rick and Randi event

AFT president Randi Weingarten and AEI education guru Rick Hess sat down at Fordham this week to hash out their differences on a variety of teacher policies—in a lively conversation that was more light than heat. Watch the video here.



Briefly Noted: Shake, rattle, and roll

  • Last year, Kansas City supe Wm. John Covington made headlines when he shuttered close to half of the district’s schools (a smart right-sizing move for a district whose enrollment dropped by half over the past decade). Now, he’s on page one again—this time to announce that his two years at the helm of Kansas City Schools is ending. Quite a chief to lose.
  • Good to know that, even in times of geological terror, the edu-tweeters out there stay witty and wry.
  • Joel Klein may not be grinding away in the NYC DOE anymore, but, when it comes to smart takes on ed-policy issues, he hasn’t lost his edge. This week, he reviews Steve Brill’s Class Warfare and Terry Moe’s Special Interest—and, in a Reuters piece, argues that the sharpest blade of reform is wielded by parents.
  • Collaboration be damned: District officials in the Windy City announced on Tuesday that they would lengthen the city’s school day by ninety minutes and the school year by two weeks. Guess who’s not happy with the decision? (Hint: their acronym is CTU.)
  • After all the back-and-forth, Diane Ravitch and Steve Brill sat down to discuss where to take education policy. (Think they heard about what Rick and Randi had planned and decided to do the same?) There was even some laughing.
  • 2011: The year of the rabbit, of school choice, and of teacher-tenure reform. So far, eighteen states have changed their tenure or continuing-contract policies.
  • As budget shortfalls continue to weigh heavily on districts, something’s got to give. In NYC, that something is 777 school employees, getting dropped thanks to the dual burden of tighter budgets and inflexible union contracts.
  • Curious as to what some benefits of digital learning might be? Examples from higher education abound.


Announcement: A position for all seasons and regions

What do Tennessee and Massachusetts have in common? Solid education-reform organizations in both states are looking for directors of policy and research. If country music is more your style, find out more about the position in TN with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) here. If you’d prefer to be Beacon Hill-bound, learn more about the opening with the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) here.


Featured Fordham Publication: American Achievement in International Perspective

American Achievement in International Perspective cover

The latest results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) garnered all the usual headlines about America’s lackluster performance and the rise of competitor nations. And to be sure, the findings—that America’s fifteen-year-olds perform in the middle of the pack in both reading and math—are disconcerting for a nation that considers itself an international leader, priding itself on its home-grown innovation, intellect, and opportunity. But that’s not the entire story. Particularly among other industrialized and advanced nations, the U.S. still has the upper hand in one critical measure—size. In this brief analysis, we analyzed the data to compare the PISA performance of the U.S. and thirty-three other nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 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 Tyson Eberhardt, Daniela Fairchild, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Chris Irvine, Michael Ishimoto, Laura Johnson, Jamie Davies O’Leary, Emmy Partin, Michael J. Petrilli, Laurent Rigal, Terry Ryan, Janie Scull, Biance Speranza, 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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