The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 36. September 15, 2011.
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Opinion and Analysis

Republicans for Education Reform
Several GOP Senators offer a rarity—a sensible ESEA proposal
Opinion | Michael J. Petrilli

Computer-adapting to cheating
Erasure scandals meet their match
News Analysis

Rahm goes long
And school-to-school
News Analysis

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News Analysis

Short Reviews

Evaluation of Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program: Participation, Compliance and Test Scores in 2009-10
Another empirical study, more fodder for tax-credit proponents
Review | Tyson Eberhardt

Incomplete: How Middle Class Schools Aren’t Making the Grade
False claims from Third Way
Review | Michael Ishimoto

Common Core State Standards: Progress and Challenges in School Districts’ Implementation
Step 1: Adopt standards. Step 2:...
Review | Daniela Fairchild

From The Web

Amber meets the shoe bomber
“Pass this bill” and other dubious slogans
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

Zen and the art of school-board maintenance
The symptoms of school-board irrelevance
Flypaper's Finest | September 13, 2011 | Peter Meyer

For best and worst schools in Ohio, AYP status seems accurate
So does it merit all the derision?
Flypaper's Finest | September 14, 2011 | Jamie Davies O'Leary

Rick and Randi on Wisconsin
A shrill tone from the Badger State
Gadfly Studios | August 23, 2011


Step away from the edge
Forget Sallie Mae, I've got Groupon
Briefly Noted

School reform in the City of Angels
A fireside chat with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at AEI on September 19

Explore all Avenues
The World School in NYC is hiring

Analyze this
Education Sector needs you

ESEA Briefing Book
The GOP's new playbook?
Featured Fordham Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: Republicans for Education Reform
By Michael J. Petrilli

For months—no, years—the ESEA discussion has been nothing short of maddening. While many pundits decry the lack of a “clear route to reauthorization,” an obvious bipartisan solution has been sitting there, ready for the picking. It goes something like this: Step away from federal heavy-handedness around states’ accountability and teacher-credentialing systems; keep plenty of transparency of results in place, especially test scores disaggregated by racial and other subgroups; offer incentives for embracing promising reforms instead of mandates; and give school districts a lot more flexibility to move their federal dollars around as they see fit.

We at Fordham call this “Reform Realism”—a pro-school-reform orientation leavened with realism about what the federal government can and cannot do well in K-12 education. But it also describes the spirit of the Obama Administration’s ESEA blueprint, released last year.

These bills could pass both chambers of Congress tomorrow.


And now, thanks to a handful of moderately conservative GOP Senators, including former secretary of education Lamar Alexander, we have actual legislative language bringing this commonsense approach to life. In a package of five separate bills—a “step-by-step” approach rather than one mega-measure—the senators offer a proposal that would fix all of the onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind without abandoning its focus on reform.

Yes, the legislation can be fairly described as a rollback of NCLB—which is precisely what vast swaths of Americans have been demanding as the shortcomings of that mega-measure become more evident, its excesses become more painful, and its remedies prove themselves ineffectual. The reform package offered by Alexander et al. would eliminate “adequate yearly progress,” hand “accountability” back to the states, and undo the law’s “highly qualified teachers” mandate. But it doesn’t abdicate Uncle Sam’s interest in reform, or in the country’s neediest students. States would still be required to take dramatic action to turn around their very worst schools. Title I funding would continue to flow to the highest-need schools and districts. Students would continue to be tested in grades three through eight and once in high school, and the results would continue to be reported widely and by subgroup. The approach is tight-loose, incentives over mandates, transparency over accountability. It’s “reform realism” through and through.

What’s particularly impressive about this legislative package is its rare combination of thoughtfulness and humility. Take the issue of teacher evaluation. Senator Alexander, for one, believes fervently in the power of rigorous evaluations to drive educational improvement. His home state of Tennessee—one of the original Race to the Top victors—is putting one of the country’s most aggressive teacher-evaluation systems in place. Yet Alexander stopped short of demanding that Uncle Sam mandate such a system for every state. He understands that he’s no longer a governor but a senator—and that to mandate a promising reform like teacher evaluation is to kill it—or render it toothless, just like “HQT” turned out. This kind of restraint is remarkable—and comes from the hard-earned experience of watching Washington smother promising reforms through its embrace.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on this set of bills from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.

The bills also find a clear route through the Common Core thicket. They strike the right balance—requiring states to adopt college-and-career standards but maintaining a position of neutrality on whether those states should develop standards together or alone. This is the best possible place for Common Core and those states that earnestly want to employ it—with no federal government entanglement at all.

In a sane world, leaders from both parties would welcome the Alexander approach and bring these bills to the floor of the House and Senate as soon as possible, and the Obama Administration would laud the package for its fidelity to its “blueprint.” (John Kline should certainly appreciate its respect for the Tenth Amendment.) To be sure, the legislative language could be massaged this way or that. Debates should be held around the particulars. But the broad contours are right.

And, perhaps best of all, these bills could pass both chambers of Congress tomorrow. Rank and file members of both parties want to undo NCLB’s prescriptiveness around accountability—but don’t want to “cut and run” either. This points the way.

Perhaps that’s why Democrats for Education Reform reacted to the package with such swift viciousness yesterday. This generally admirable group—so effective at giving Democrats at the state level the political cover to break with the teachers unions—has an unfortunate tendency on federal policy to believe that Washington knows best. (Its policy director was a longtime staffer for Representative George Miller, one of the key architects of NCLB.) In a widely circulated press statement, the group described the plan as “a stunning retreat on two decades of reform” and wondered whose “bidding” the senators were doing.

If DFER staffers are implying that the Republican Party—the party of Scott Walker, John Kasich, Mitch Daniels, and Chris Christie—has decided to jump in bed with the teacher unions, then they’ve really lost their marbles. Sure, GOP principles on federalism and the unions’ disdain for accountability lead to a similar place on specific features of ESEA. But for reformers to believe that states will automatically back away from tough love for schools if given the chance is to admit weakness at the state policy level. Republican governors and legislators, the “Chiefs for Change,” and a growing number of DFER-type Democrats have proven themselves more than capable to carry the mantle of reform without help from Uncle Sam.

There’s a new slogan going around Washington this week: “Pass this bill.” When it comes to the GOP ESEA proposal, I say, “Yes we can.”

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


News Analysis: Computer-adapting to cheating

computer photo

Look Mom, no more erasure scandals!
(Photo by David Oliva)

These days, teacher-evaluation systems that incorporate students’ test scores are spreading like wildfire. And there’s little sign that these initiatives will be contained to the twenty-six states that currently have them. Yet checks for potential cheating on these selfsame assessments haven’t been as vigorously promulgated, a point nattily made this week by Alexander Russo. According to a USA Today analysis, only half the states either conducted erasure analyses (to check for cheating) or used computer-based assessments in 2010-2011. (Perhaps there’s lots of overlap between these two groups of states—but Gadfly wouldn’t bet on it.) Thing is, with strapped budgets and looming NCLB proficiency requirements, many states see few incentives to spend beaucoup bucks on erasure analyses. Fortunately, this tempest may soon end. Both PARCC and SBAC, the two groups working on creating Common Core assessments, will employ computer-based tests beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. This use of technology will make test erasures a moot point for the forty-four states plus D.C. that have signed on to one of the consortia and adopted the CCSS—though it will surely usher in the need for other safeguards against exam hacking and other malfeasances. But these jurisdictions also benefit from economy of scale, which can help curb cheating, without breaking the bank. CCSS adopters: 1; test cheating: 0.

Few states examine test erasures,” by Marisol Bello and Greg Toppo, USA Today, September 13, 2011.

Teachers are put to the test,” by Stephanie Banchero and David Kesmodel, Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2011.

Big States Don’t Check for Cheating, Despite Scandals,” by Louis Beckett, ProPublica and Education Week, September 14, 2011.


News Analysis: Rahm goes long

stopwatch photo

You've got ninety more minutes of instructional time.
Ready? Go!
(Photo by Search Engine People Blog)

In the Chicago Public Schools, the average school day is just five hours and eight minutes, the briefest in Illinois and one of the shortest in the nation. (A big deal, when you lay this fact next to all the research on the benefits of added instructional time.) Yet efforts to extend the day have long been derailed by the obdurate Chicago Teachers Union. Not even Arne Duncan could alter that reality. Now enters Illinois’s newly enacted SB7 and Chicago’s newly elected spitfire mayor, Rahm Emanuel. SB7 allows him to unilaterally lengthen the school day, starting in 2012. Emanuel, unimpressed with that timeline (or daunted by the CTU’s intransigence), has embarked on a building-by-building campaign to lengthen the school day in the Windy City. So far, teachers at six (and counting) CPS elementary schools have voted to accept Emanuel’s offer of a two-percent raise and $150,000 in additional school funding in return for waiving this item in their contract and adding ninety minutes to the school day. In response to these “rogue” teachers, the CTU has filed suit against Emanuel and his school board, accusing them of unfair labor practices. CTU officials should carefully note against whom they fight. It was not Emanuel who signed the death certificate of Chicago’s abridged school day but the teachers. Taking up arms against their own ranks? No good can come of that.

CPS’s school day not that much shorter than those in some suburban districts,” by Joel Hood and Diane Rado, Chicago Tribune, September 13, 2011.

Teachers at Northwest Side elementary approve longer school day,” by Staff, Chicago Sun-Times, September 13, 2011.


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Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Brooks's column from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.

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Short Reviews

Review: Evaluation of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program: Participation, Compliance and Test Scores in 2009-10
By Tyson Eberhardt

Since 2002, the Sunshine State has run a popular tax-credit scholarship program: At present, over 15,000 low-income students in grades three through ten access 1,000-plus private schools through it. But how effective has the program been at promoting their academic success? According to this annual report (the fourth in the series) from project director, Northwestern U. scholar, and former Floridian David Figlio: quite. Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program (FTC) serves a particularly needy subset of the state’s students: FTC participants are significantly lower-income and lower-performing than the average student qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. Yet this year’s FTC participants maintained their performance on norm-referenced tests (like the Stanford Achievement Test or Iowa Test of Basic Skills) relative to students nationally, regardless of income. Going further, Figlio compares students who barely missed the income cut-off mark for participation against those who do make it into the program, finding a small but substantive positive effect from participation in both reading and math. These differences are larger than in previous years, suggesting, says Figlio, “that successive cohorts of participating students may be gaining ground over time.” These findings are encouraging—though Figlio adds some sobering qualifications. Comparing scores across a variety of tests (FTC participants take any of three tests, while public-school students take another) requires some complex statistical yoga, for example. Likewise, conclusions about causation are full of caveats, since applicants are not randomly selected for participation. Still and all, this report offers a solid boost for the tax-credit crowd—especially important in this “year of school choice.”

David N. Figlio, “Evaluation of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program: Participation, Compliance and Test Scores in 2009-10” (Northwestern University and National Bureau of Economic Research, August 2011).


Review: Incomplete: How Middle Class Schools Aren’t Making the Grade
By Michael Ishimoto

This report from Third Way, a self-proclaimed “moderate” policy think tank, has garnered much attention this week, following its Wall Street Journal profile on Monday. But should it have? By linking NAEP data to schools’ percentages of students on free or reduced price lunch (FRPL), the report comes to three conclusions: most American students attend middle-class schools; middle-class schools spend less per student and have a greater student-teacher ratio than wealthy and lower-income schools; and middle-class schools are underperforming. Thing is, the report doesn’t actually look at middle-class schools; but, rather, at those that are economically diverse: The definition used here for “middle class” is a school with between 26 and 75 percent of its students on FRPL. The analysts don’t have a clue how many students actually belong to the “middle class.” (All we can learn from school-level data is the percentage of poor (and non-poor) kids, as defined by FRPL eligibility.) Further, the report’s focus on “low” school spending ($10,350 per pupil) and “high” student-teacher ratio (17.5:1) as ailments of our middle-class schools is also problematic, as it implies a need to bump school spending and drop class sizes in these schools—reforms that have already been tried and found wanting. A rigorous report examining the efficacy of middle-class schools is surely in order (if someone could figure out a way to access family income data for individual students); this piece from Third Way is not it.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Third Way's report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.

Tess Stovall and Deirdre Dolan, “Incomplete: How Middle Class Schools Aren’t Making the Grade,” (Washington, D.C.: The Third Way, September 2011).


Review: Common Core State Standards: Progress and Challenges in School Districts’ Implementation
By Daniela Fairchild

Common Core State Standards District Implementation coverBack during the frosty days of January, the Center for Education Policy issued a bleak account of states’ progress toward implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Reporting on a survey conducted at the end of 2010, CEP found that, on key implementation issues like curriculum development and assessment alignment, states had made little progress. This newest piece from the same shop reports on a spring 2011 district survey of the same ilk—and the responses are much cheerier. From it, we learn that two-thirds of districts have already started developing a plan for implementing the standards in 2011-12. And fully 80 percent had undertaken at least one district-initiated implementation activity (including developing or purchasing new curricular materials or developing new local assessments)—a figure that would surely be higher today. Still, two-thirds of surveyed districts cite unclear state guidance as a major challenge of CCSS implementation. One benefit of the Common Core standards is the potential collaboration between districts—and among states—on very things like curricular materials and assessments. While these individual district-led initiatives should be commended, the states must start owning implementation burdens—and not hoist them on local education agencies alone.

Nancy Kober and Diane Stark Renter. “Common Core State Standards: Progress and Challenges in School Districts’ Implementation,” (Washington, D.C.: Center for Education Policy, September 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Amber meets the shoe bomber

Before embarking on a moral crusade, Mike and Rick laugh in the face of ESEA reauth and downplay the statistical importance of the SAT. Amber makes Third Way’s new report look silly and Chris applies for medical stress leave.

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: Zen and the art of school-board maintenance
By Peter Meyer

We were about halfway through our four-hour school board “Governance Team Retreat” when I saw an opening…The board “should not second-guess” the administration’s recommendations “except in extreme circumstances,” we were told. It should “trust the professionals”…

“That’s exactly what we’ve been doing for ten years,” I blurted, “trusting the professionals. We were eighty-third out of eighty-six districts in the region ten years ago and we are eighty-third out of eighty-six today—by letting the professionals do their work.”

There was a slight silence, but not a heavy one. In fact, our facilitator rather quickly replied, “That’s the board’s fault.”

It was a revelatory, if head-spinning, moment.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: For best and worst schools in OH, AYP status seems accruate
By Jamie Davies O’Leary

AYP, or “adequate yearly progress,” has become one of the most derided parts of the No Child Left Behind Act and the accountability requirements it set in motion for states. Simply put, a school makes AYP if it is progressing adequately enough toward meeting NCLB’s goal of having 100 percent of children proficient in key tested subjects by 2014, and fails to meet AYP if it’s not…

But how heinously inaccurate is the AYP measure when you really break it down?...

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.



Gadfly Studios: Rick and Randi on Wisconsin

Click to play video of Rick and Randi event

The American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess and the American Federation of Teacher’s President Randi Weingarten discuss the negative tone of education debates in Wisconsin and across the country. Watch the video here.



Briefly Noted: Step away from the edge

  • Nostalgic old grumps will find vindication in David Brooks’s column this week; the rest of us, cause for alarm. In it, Brooks details new research showing that America’s young adults lack an ability to discuss and define morality. What’s not clear is whether these young people are any less articulate on the matter than previous generations.
  • Put down the brown paper bag; breathe normally. The news this week that SAT scores are lowest since 1995 (and critical reading scores are the lowest in history) might not be as bad as you think. More students than ever are sitting for the exam, drawing from a more ethnically, economically, and academically diverse pool of youngsters. Truth is, because the test’s population isn’t nationally representative and changes from year to year, we don’t know what to make of the trends, whether up, down, or sideways.
  • Cash-strapped college students frequent for their textbooks and consider beef Ramen to be a balanced meal. At course-selection time, frugal co-eds at Chicago’s National Louis University have a new way to exercise their miserly tendencies: Sign up for courses through Groupon.
  • No one is against healthy school lunches—but the bill at the end of the meal has districts “stress eating.”
  • Joseph Hawkins of Westat, via Jay Matthews, challenges anyone to name one school where a successful parent revolution took place. Well, can you?
  • With overwhelming bipartisan support, the House passed the Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act, updating the charter-school provisions within the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act. So, does this signal the potential for an imminent reauthorization of ESEA? Doubtful—but the plan being cooked up in the Senate now might.
  • Love Finland and fear China—or just plain sick of PISA and want some other international-comparative data to reference in conversation? The OECD released its annual Education at a Glance report on Tuesday. Expect more from us on this front next week.
  • Parents sick of endless school “open houses,” sick of sipping Hawaiian punch, shaking principals’ hands, and trying desperately to find the right fit for your child, turn to the latest Ed Next podcast for a remedy. In it, Peg Tyre, author of the new book, The Good School explains parents’ concerns and her advice to host Mike Petrilli.


Announcement: School reform in the City of Angels

Tinseltown mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is a hard-charging and outspoken champion of education reform. Now in his second term, Villaraigosa heads to the American Enterprise Institute on September 19 at 1:00PM to explain what he’s learned from his efforts—about mayoral involvement in reform and about urban-school improvement in general. Those interested in attending the event, click here to register. (It will also be streaming live.)


Announcement: Explore all Avenues

Avenues: The World School—a new Pre-K-12 private-education venture that will offer students an international curriculum and access to campuses around the world—is on the hunt for curriculum specialists and heads of grades for its inaugural campus in Gotham. If you’re interested in helping to shape the Manhattan campus and scale the program globally, learn more about the open positions here.


Announcement: Analyze this

Education Sector already has a smart blog with a witty domain name, the Quick and the Ed. But could it also have you? The think tank is hiring a K-12 senior policy analyst. Candidates should be strong writers with a demonstrated ability to think through complex policy issues around K-12 ed reform. For more information, including how to apply, head here.


Featured Fordham Publication: ESEA Briefing Book

ESEA Briefing Book cover

Political leaders (may still) hope to act this year to renew and fix the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind). In this important paper, Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Executive Vice President Michael J. Petrilli identify ten big issues that must be resolved in order to get a bill across the finish line, and explore the major options under consideration for each one. Should states be required to adopt academic standards tied to college and career readiness? Should the new law provide greater flexibility to states and districts? These are just a few of the areas discussed. Finn and Petrilli also present their own bold yet “reform realist” solutions for ESEA. 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, Bianca 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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