The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 38. September 22, 2011.

In This Edition

New From Fordham: Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students

Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? cover
Fordham’s latest study, “Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students,” is the first to examine the performance of America’s highest-achieving children over time at the individual-student level. Produced in partnership with the Northwest Evaluation Association, it finds that many high-achieving youngsters struggle to maintain their elite performance over the years and often fail to improve their reading ability at the same rate as their average and below-average classmates. The study raises troubling questions: Is our obsession with closing achievement gaps and “leaving no child behind” coming at the expense of our “talented tenth”—and America’s future international competitiveness? Read on to learn more.

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Opinion and Analysis

No high achiever left behind, please
It’s not chic to fuss about them, but our international competitiveness may depend on them
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr., Amber M. Winkler, and Janie Scull

Ed reform goes global
The Economist thinks we're smart
News Analysis

A promise of what, exactly?
Contain yourself, Uncle Sam
News Analysis

Short Reviews

Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators
A "new normal" for ed accountability emerges
Review | Daniela Fairchild

Recruitment, Retention and the Minority Teacher Shortage 
It’s about where they teach not who they are
Review | Michael Ishimoto

State Capacity for School Improvement: A First Look at Agency Resources
Can't hand over the reins if states can't ride the horse
Review | Laura Johnson

Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education
Messy recommendations—like our political process
Review | Tyson Eberhardt

From The Web

Go Bloo!
High flyers, basic R&D, and the power of Pearson
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

SBAC math specifications don’t add up
Sacrificing content on the altar of “math practices”
Flypaper's Finest | September 19, 2011 | W. Stephen Wilson

Gentrification Generation staying home?
A powerful new player in the ed-reform game: Gentrified urban parents
Flypaper's Finest | September 15, 2011 | Tyson Eberhardt

Reform School: Mike Miles
Explaining the tricks up Colorado Springs’s sleeve
Gadfly Studios | September 21, 2011


On strike, shut it down
Tacoma is a union town
Briefly Noted

Map it out
Common Core's ELA curriculum maps available

Will you engage me?
EDI is hiring for an engagement manager

Feel the power of philanthropy
Join the team at the D.C. Public Education Fund

High-Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind
Explained by NAEP data and a national teacher survey
Featured Fordham Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: No high achiever left behind, please
By Chester E. Finn, Jr., Amber M. Winkler, and Janie Scull

In the latest edition of National Affairs, education scholar Rick Hess writes:

The No Child Left Behind Act’s signal contribution has been [a] sustained fixation on achievement gaps—a fixation that has been almost universally hailed as an unmitigated good.…Such sentiments are admirable, and helping the lowest-achieving students do better is of course a worthy and important aim. But the effort to close gaps has hardly been an unmitigated blessing.

While Hess is the latest observer of this achievement-gap obsession, he is by no means the only soldier in this camp. Many analysts worry that various government policies and programs, including NCLB, tend to “level” pupil achievement by focusing on the lowest-performing students and ignoring—or, worse, driving resources away from—our strongest students.

Click to read Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude?Fordham has previously provided some ammo for these worriers. In 2008, Brookings scholar Tom Loveless tracked NAEP results of high achievers—and found they made little progress as a group over the last decade. Until now, however, no one had examined the achievement of top-performing students over time at the individual level. This week, Fordham released a groundbreaking study that does exactly that: Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students. The study asks a simple question: Do youngsters who outscore their peers on standardized achievement tests remain at the top of the pack year after year? Put differently, how many “high flyers” maintain their “altitude” over time? How many fall back toward Earth, Icarus-like, as they proceed through school, losing the academic edge they once enjoyed?

To answer these questions, Fordham enlisted analysts from the Northwest Evaluation Association™ (NWEA) to examine achievement trends for students who scored extremely well on NWEA’s own highly-regarded assessment, the Measures of Academic Progress™ (MAP).

In this study, we defined high achievers as students who score at the 90th percentile or above according to external norms, but we also allowed for as many students within the subset being tracked to enter those ranks as qualified to do so.

If the schools these students attend are adequately challenging them to continue learning at high levels—and providing them the instruction they need to do so—one would logically expect most of them to maintain their lofty standing over time. On the other hand, if these youngsters are left to fend for themselves while attention and resources are showered on their lower-achieving peers, one might expect them to drop closer to average.

To be sure, only a naïf would expect every high-achiever to stay that way forever: Some will surely lose altitude. But if many falter, this should set off alarm bells. It would be especially concerning if many high flyers within particular groups—say, girls, or minority children, or those attending high-poverty schools—descended over time.

So, what did we learn?

  • Nearly three in five high flyers maintained their status over time, but 30 to 50 percent “lost altitude.”
  • Most who fell didn’t fall far: In fact, the majority of these students remained at the 70th percentile or higher.
  • In math, high flyers grew academically at similar rates to low and middle achievers. In reading, however, they grew at slightly slower rates.

What to make of all this? We see four takeaways.

Nearly three in five high flyers maintained their status over time, but 30 to 50 percent 'lost altitude.'


First, many students maintained their high-flying status but many lost it: You can choose to view the results as a glass half-empty or half-full. Some may say there’s no good reason that a child who initially performed at the head of the class shouldn’t continue doing so—and something valuable is lost when that doesn’t happen. They’d be right, too. There are real consequences for graduates who descend from the 90th to the 70th percentile in terms of merit-based aid and choice of college, maybe even of high school or program within the high school. It is up to the parents, schools, teachers, and so on, they’d say, to ensure that a child with that much demonstrated potential maintains buoyancy.

On the other hand, we ended up with more high achievers overall than we started with. “Late bloomers,” as we called them, entered the ranks. Surely that’s good news, and consistent with the American belief in second chances and upward mobility.

Second, and more distressing, the progress of the high achievers didn’t keep up with that of their lower-achieving peers, at least in reading. In fact, high achievers grew about half as fast from third grade to eighth grade as low-achieving elementary/middle school students, reducing the gap between the two groups by over a third. One could celebrate such gap-closing, but one could also be dismayed by the “leveling” at work. We can hypothesize that many factors contributed to these results—perhaps NCLB’s focus on low-performing schools or Reading First’s focus on struggling readers. We simply don’t know—but we are concerned.

Third, poverty amongst one’s schoolmates may not be the thief of high performance that we once thought. Exploratory findings in the study cast doubt on the notion that wealthy suburban schools produce greater academic gains for students than their poorer counterparts. These findings echo the original 1966 Coleman report. Perhaps growth over time for the highest-achievers has little to do with the schools they attend and much to do with what’s happening for them personally and at home. Perhaps.

Finally, while the progress (and the declines) that many students make over several years are notable (and in the former case praiseworthy), they’re not staggering. We applaud those who moved from middle- to high-achieving status but let’s note that most of these kids were already above average at the outset. What we’re not seeing is students clawing their way into the high-achieving ranks from the 20th, 30th, even 40th or 50th percentiles. Instead, students come in and out of the top decile but basically stay within the top third. No, these aren’t the kids that education reformers fuss about. They aren’t catalysts for campaigns to expand school choice, or initiate weighted student funding, or end last-in-first-out policies. They don’t tug at the heartstrings like the needy children in our most wretched school systems. (Some high achievers do attend those schools, mind you.) But they deserve attention, too: Eight, ten, twelve, seventeen years old, with little more than luck determining whether they finish their school careers simply “above average” or among the country’s top achievers and brightest hopes for the future. What will we do to bolster their odds?

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Fordham's "High Flyers" report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.


News Analysis: Ed reform goes global

globe photo

Fordham's ideas of ed reform
spread far and wide
(Photo by Simon Koleznik)

After the 2009 PISA results went live and catalyzed our latest “Sputnik moment” (and after the release of any international assessments results, for that matter), America found itself humbled—and even a bit sheepish. Within the month, reports emerged—and continue to roll in—that further document our middling performance and set forth lessons to learn from abroad. Finland, South Korea, and Singapore were idolized. This week, we at Fordham are picking ourselves up and dusting off our knees. Heck, we’re even cracking a faint smile. A recent piece in the Economist points to increased school choice, strong standards and accountability systems, and decentralization as pillars of systemic success. Going further, the article showcases Poland’s fourth-largest city, which has significantly moved the needle on student achievement by adopting a “no excuses” culture and accountability model. Empowering school leaders helped spur change in Ontario’s schools. Unscientific, sure—but, for now, we’ll take it. Expect more from us in coming months on how other nations are implementing these reforms (and, what, if anything, we can learn from them).

The great schools revolution,” by Staff, Economist, September 17, 2011.


News Analysis: A promise of what, exactly?

fingers crossed photo

Fingers crossed that Duncan
keeps his R&D promise
(Photo by Carmello Fernando)

By 2015, South Korea will be entirely textbook-free, with students accessing content through tablet computers. Uruguay offers a PC to every pupil. Can you feel the fear of being left on the wrong side of education’s digital divide creeping in? So could Arne Duncan (and unlikely bedfellow Reed Hastings). Last Friday, the Secretary announced the official launch of the dormant Digital Promise nonprofit, a government-funded but privately run entity intended to “advance breakthrough technologies” in education, “while creating a business environment that rewards innovation and entrepreneurship.” (Though this Digital Promise initiative was first written into federal code through the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, it has gone unfunded, and largely forgotten, until Duncan’s recent revival.) The free-market backlash was swift, with Jay Greene warning that, at best, the feds would stifle innovators with a bureaucratic government agency, and, at worst, facilitate another Solyndra-esque debacle. Yet warnings of an education-industrial complex may be premature: Digital Promise has potential to spur needed technological breakthroughs—if it sticks to basic research and development. (While the feds have proven themselves wholly inept at guiding the market and choosing winning innovators, they are well-placed to invest in early-stage research, a vital component to tech advancements, but one that is rarely lucrative for private investors.) And although the actual Digital Promise website is discouragingly vague, there are some signs that it may do just that. If so, kudos to the DOE. If it goes further than that, Jay can say, “I told you so.”

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Digital Promise from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.

A Digital Promise to Our Nation’s Children,” by Arne Duncan and Reed Hastings, Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2011.

The Solyndra of Digital Learning,” by Jay P. Greene, Jay P. Greene Blog, September 19, 2011.

Duncan Unveils Digital Promise Center,” by Ian Quillen, Education Week, September 15, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators
By Daniela Fairchild

Education at a Glance coverThis inaptly named annual report from the OECD (the volume runs to some 500 pages) offers a plethora of data points for member nations looking to size themselves up against their peers. It will tell you how many students graduate from high school and from college—and the relative earnings of each group (a college degree pays off most handily in Brazil and the Eastern European countries). It will tell you how much is spent per pupil—and what the public and private investment in education is (only Chile, South Korea, and the United Kingdom see more than 20 percent of their education funding coming from the private sector). Along with all these crunched numbers, the OECD provides an interesting analysis of how schools are held to account in its member states. Generally, a combination of three mechanisms—regulatory, performance, and market accountability—is used, though the balance within this combo is shifting. Regulatory accountability has historically been the main story in most member states, but performance accountability—in the form of low-stakes national assessments (now given in thirty of the thirty-five member states at the primary level) and high-stakes national examinations (given in twenty-three of thirty-five nations at the upper secondary level)—is gaining ground. (As for market accountability, we’re told that it’s “emphasized” by countries as important but is rarely seen in practice, as the necessary conditions for its success—widespread school choice, student-based funding, and information access among them—simply don’t exist.) If you’re interested in another pile of informative data—or want more than just the skinny on accountability abroad, dive in.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, “Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators,” (OECD Publishing, 2011).


Review: Recruitment, Retention and the Minority Teacher Shortage
By Michael Ishimoto

This report by UPenn professors Richard Ingersoll and Henry May answers a touchy question in education reform: What causes the minority-teacher shortage? To this end, the authors compile data from all six cycles of the NCES Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) and its supplemental Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS) (running from 1987-88 to 2007-08)—though they focus on the 2003-04 SASS and 2004-05 TFA. They find that the minority-teacher shortage does not arise from poor recruitment: Over the past two decades, the white teaching force has increased by 41 percent while the minority teaching force increased by 96 percent. (Interestingly, both the male and female minority teaching forces mushroomed in this manner.) Rather, our dearth of minority teachers comes from low rates of retention: For four of the six SASS cycles, minority-teacher turnover rates were significantly higher than those for white teachers. And this gap has widened in recent years. And don’t blame poverty rates for the turnovers. While minority teachers are more likely to work in low-income urban schools, neither factor (poverty rate or urban status) affected their mobility. Instead, Ingersoll and May find that minority educators in schools with the worst organizational conditions (lack of classroom autonomy, ineffectual administrations, and undisciplined students) were almost twice as likely to exit the profession as those in schools with the best organizational conditions. (Though white-teacher turnover was also influenced by these conditions, the affect was much less severe.) Can’t blame them.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on this UPenn paper from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.

Recruitment, Retention and the Minority Teacher Shortage,” by Richard Ingersoll and Henry May, Consortium for Policy Research in Education, September 2011.


Review: State Capacity for School Improvement: A First Look at Agency Resources
By Laura Johnson

State Capacity for School Improvement coverWith the Obama/Duncan NCLB-waiver announcement imminent and support for state-run accountability systems swelling, this Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) report is especially timely. Using “budget forensics” for eight states—including California, New York, and Texas—analysts evaluated how these jurisdictions allocate funding, and inferred each state’s capacity to spearhead school-improvement initiatives. The upshot: State education agencies (SEAs) aren’t yet ready to take up the mantle of school improvement in toto—on this front, they lack both experience and funding. (Louisiana was the one outlier, as the state oversees NOLA’s Recovery School District.) While CRPE’s report reaches few actionable conclusions, it does raise a warning flag for policymakers re-crafting state accountability systems: Before states can get very far with school improvement, a solid foundation must be laid.

Patrick Murphy and Monica Ouijdani, “State Capacity for School Improvement: A First Look at Agency Resources,” (Center on Reinventing Public Education, August 2011).


Review: Teaching America: The Case for Civics Education
By Tyson Eberhardt

Teaching America coverAmerica’s laser focus on reading, math, and (recently) science blinds us to our current crisis of civic illiteracy. STEM-proponent Norm Augustine makes this point in the Wall Street Journal this week. And an impressive roster of luminaries—including former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former education secretary Rod Paige, and CMO founders Seth Andrew and Mike Feinberg—does the same in this volume. Edited by WSJ assistant editor and wunderkind David Feith, the book features twenty-two brief and wide-ranging essays articulating the problems with civics education, explaining what works in the K-12 classroom—even how to fight civics neglect in the ivory towers of universities. Unfortunately, the number and diversity of authors yields a bit of a cacophony of policy objectives: Don’t look here for consensus or clear conclusions. Instead, you’ll find in this volume a worthy array of thoughtful observations and recommendations. Which is a pretty good civics lesson in and of itself.

David Feith, ed. Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education, (Rowman and Littlefield: New York, NY, 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Go Bloo!

Mike and Rick raise the bar this week, discussing high achievers, Duncan’s digital promise, and the textbook-company oligarchy. (Oh, and Rick confesses he has a reform-crush on L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa). Amber tackles minority-teacher retention and Chris dives head first into an NCAA lawsuit.

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: SBAC math specifications don’t add up
By W. Stephen Wilson

As part of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative, two state consortia have formed to create common assessments linked to the CCSS. Below is feedback on the draft math assessment plans of one—the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).

…The conceptualization of mathematical understanding on which SBAC will base its assessments is deeply flawed. The consortium focuses on the Mathematical Practices of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) at the expense of content, and they outline plans to assess communication skills that have nothing to do with mathematical understanding....

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Gentrification Generation staying home?
By Tyson Eberhardt

A new generation of affluent, educated, urban Americans is beginning to send its children to school. Their dissatisfaction with the lack of choice and the status quo of failure in urban education will be far more personal than their elders’—and it represents a golden opportunity for choice advocates able to mobilize these parents....

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Gadfly Studios: Reform School: Mike Miles

Click to play Reform School Video with Mike Miles

Mike Miles talks about student achievement and the pay-for-performance system he’s implemented in Colorado Springs’s Harrison School District, where he’s superintendent. Watch the video here.



Briefly Noted: On strike, shut it down

  • Tacoma, WA students: Turn off the TV, sharpen your pencils, and pack up your knapsack. After seven days on strike, a court injunction to return to work, and day-long negotiations brokered by the governor, teachers in the Evergreen State’s third largest city may head back to class tomorrow. Teachers are voting on the agreement today; details about its specifics won’t be made available until those results are tallied.  
  • Virtual, digital, online. Blended, hybrid, supplemental. For those trying to piece together the jargon-filled arena that is digital, this new brief from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers will come in handy.
  • Got some free time next week? NBC’s Education Nation is back. Cross your fingers it doesn’t rain.
  • How about some free time right now (especially as you near the end of this very informative Gadfly)? The latest National Affairs is now available. With pieces in it by our own Checker Finn (on education governance), Rick Hess (on the achievement gap), and Marcus Winters (on special-ed vouchers), one could even dub it the “education edition.”
  • Everyone’s a winner during National Child Passenger Safety Week (for those not up on motor-safety trivia, that’s this week)! Tuesday saw the announcement of the 2011 MacArthur Fellows (including Harvard economist Roland Fryer) and the 2011 Broad Prize (well deserved, Charlotte-Mecklenburg). The 2011 McGraw Prizes were awarded on Wednesday.
  • Detroit Public Schools are leapfrogging the Slim Fast diet and going straight to Biggest Loser: The district is set to axe 40 percent of its teachers in the next four years in an attempt to close the deficit. An admirable notion indeed. But it’s still unclear how DPS will decide which teachers get sent to the chopping block—and that will make all the difference.
  • Senator Lamar Alexander announced yesterday that in January he will step down from his no. 3-spot in the GOP Senate hierarchy. Why? Alexander wants his “independence back,” and wants to be able to push more initiatives through the Senate in a bipartisan fashion. A novel and praiseworthy pursuit—especially in today’s political climate. Let’s hope he starts with his recent set of smart education bills.
  • Keep an eye on L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The union boss come politician is not just a straight-shooter, but smart on school spending too. Even Rick Hess is smitten.


Announcement: Map it out

Common Core, which focuses on bringing rich, content-rich instruction to every American classroom, has released their English language arts K-12 Common Core State Standards curriculum maps—for now, check out the online version. Like what you see? The more robust print edition is available for preorder.


Announcement: Will you engage me?

When it comes to effective education reform, it’s all in the delivery. Luckily, the U.S. Education Delivery Institute, which provides delivery support to state leaders undertaking ambitious reform agendas, is looking for an engagement manager to solve problems and manage relations with senior leaders of participating systems. Sound great? Scroll to the bottom of this page to learn more.


Announcement: Feel the power of philanthropy

The D.C. Public Education Fund—a nonprofit that links the District’s public schools with private funders to spur education reform in the District—is hiring for an executive director. If you’re a person with A-one communication, fundraising, and program-leadership skills, looking to improve student learning in the nation’s capital, here’s your chance.


Featured Fordham Publication: High-Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind

High Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB cover

This 2008 publication reports the results of two different studies investigating the state of high-achieving students in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era. Part I of the report, by Brookings scholar Tom Loveless, examines achievement trends for high-achieving students (defined, like low-achieving students, by their performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP) since the early 1990s and, in more detail, since 2000. Part II, authored by Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett of the FDR Group, reports on teachers’ own views of how schools are serving high-achieving pupils in the NCLB era.


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, 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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