The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 39. October 6, 2011.
In This Edition

New from Fordham: Review of the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education

NRC Framework Review cover

Representatives from twenty states are hard at work developing Next Generation Science Standards—and using as their starting point the National Research Council’s recently released Framework for K-12 Science Education. This new review of that framework, by Paul R. Gross, applauds its content but also warns that it could wind up sending standards-writers off track. This appraisal finds much to praise in the Framework while raising important concerns about a document that may significantly shape K-12 science education in the U.S. for years to come.

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Opinion and Analysis

The charter-school quality agenda
What comes next?
Opinion | Michael J. Petrilli and Tyson Eberhardt

Statue in a block of marble
Reviewing the NRC Science Framework
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Kathleen Porter-Magee

A Rocky Mountain low
Don't hate the player, hate the game
News Analysis

No need to reinvent the wheel
Someday we’ll hold ed schools accountable
News Analysis

Short Reviews

The Hamilton Project: Promoting K-12 Education to Advance Student Achievement
Edunomics 101
Review | Tyson Eberhardt

Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice
Part report, part psychological analysis
Review | Daniela Fairchild

Transforming Public Education: Pathway to a Pre-K-12 Future
The last lurch of the preschool juggernaut?
Review | Michael Ishimoto

From The Web

Amber changes her name to Waterfall
Touchdown: Quality control!
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Janie Scull and Daniela Fairchild

Teacher quality—know it when you see it?
Flypaper's Finest | October 5, 2011 | Jamie Davies O'Leary

AMO non-enforcement: Easy Flex vs. ESEA flex?
ED gets it half right
Flypaper's Finest | October 3, 2011 | Christy Wolfe


Broader. Not necessarily bolder
Road trip!
Briefly Noted

The other achievement gap
Are we leaving the high achievers behind? Join Fordham on October 17 to find out

Are Bad Schools Immortal? The Scarcity of Turnarounds and Shutdowns in Both Charter and District Sectors
In a word, yes
Featured Fordham Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: The charter-school quality agenda
By Michael J. Petrilli and Tyson Eberhardt

We’ve seen big wins on the charter-school front over the last two years. Advocates in many states successfully eliminated or raised caps on new charters (New York, Massachusetts), created new statewide authorizers (Indiana), and unlocked resources for school facilities (D.C.). Each of these initiatives should lead to significant growth in the charter sector in the years ahead.

road map photo

A roadmap to charter quality
(Photo by Jessica Garro)

But expanding the reach of charters is only half of the equation. Ensuring their quality is even more important. On this front, state lawmakers should target efforts on three main policies, and follow the lead of those blazing each trail.

Better Authorizing

By far the most important thing states can do to promote school quality is to make sure that charter authorizers—those that charter, oversee, and, if necessary, shutter charter schools—have the incentives, skills, and tools to do their jobs well. States with strong authorizers—such as Massachusetts and New York—tend to boast high-quality charter schools. Those with lackluster authorizing practices have struggled.

Since the charter movement began, we have learned a great deal about what is required of effective authorizers (thanks, in part, to the great work done at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools). These authorizers are responsible, professional organizations that believe in charters but equally in student achievement. They have expert staffs. They have sufficient resources (via school fees or a state appropriation) to play their role competently. And they themselves are held to account for their performance and that of their schools. For example, the Ohio legislature recently passed a law that will bar authorizers from opening new schools if their current schools are particularly low-performing. That’s well worth trying elsewhere.

Which state statutes are particularly strong on charter school authorizing?

Minnesota, the state with the top-ranked charter law for two years straight, according to the NAPCS, provides a good primer. Authorizers are able to collect sufficient fees to oversee their charters effectively. Before sponsoring a charter, the state requires them to undergo a thorough vetting by the commissioner of education, and then submit to a state review of their school-evaluation practices every five years. At every step, from initial authorization to renewal or closure, clear and comprehensive procedures exist for relationships among state, authorizer, and charter. States that already boast high-quality authorizers may not need that level of prescription, but for jurisdictions with legitimate quality concerns, the Land of 10,000 Lakes offers a strong example.

Expanding the reach of charters is only half of the equation. Ensuring their quality is even more important.


Creating Incentives for the Replication of High-Quality Charter Schools

One of the most promising developments of recent years has been the rise of networks of high-performing charter schools. Policymakers would be smart to find ways to recruit these networks to their states—and to encourage the widespread replication of effective models. Here are some things states might do:

  • Encourage districts to share facilities with high-performing charters. Ohio allows school districts to include high-performing charter schools’ test scores in their performance ratings—if they provide facilities to them. A win-win, this move eases the facilities challenges which often cause high-quality schools to pass up expansion or replication and offers districts a boost on their performance rating. Columbus Public Schools, for example, opened up space to a new KIPP school in part because of this incentive. New York City was able to lure several top-notch networks to Gotham by providing high-quality space. Especially when charters are under-funded, access to facilities can be a real incentive for high-achieving schools to come to town.
  • Create a pipeline of talented teachers and leaders. As successful schools expand, they need access to a pool of great teachers and leaders in order to continue excelling. Streamlining licensure policies and recruiting non-traditional teachers from programs like Teach For America or The New Teacher Project benefit charter and district schools alike.
  • Create “smart” caps. If policymakers are determined to limit the number of charter schools allowed in the state (we’d prefer no charter caps, but if they must), it’s important to make exceptions—“smart caps”—for excellent charter schools (from inside or outside the state) to expand and replicate. In Michigan, this means that high-performing charters can convert to “schools of excellence” after meeting rigorous criteria, freeing up slots for authorizers to sponsor new schools and replicate their success. In Connecticut, charter enrollment is restricted, but the state board can waive the caps for schools with a track record of success.

An Academic “Death Penalty” for Chronically Low-Performing Charter Schools

Finally, lawmakers need to get serious about instances of chronic failure in the charter sector. The fundamental theory of charter schools is that bad schools get fixed or get closed. Yet we’ve learned from experience that shuttering a bad charter school is just as politically challenging as closing a bad district school. If authorizers don’t have the fortitude or will to address school failure, state law must step do it for them.

Ohio (yes, Ohio again) provides a decent model for putting this strict accountability into practice. Since 2006, Buckeye charter schools in a persistent state of “academic emergency” (generally for three years) have been legally subject to automatic closure. This provision has already led to the shuttering of seventeen charters, with three more scheduled to close in June of 2012. Strict enforcement has coincided with better performance: The Ohio Department of Education reports that the percentage of charters on the state’s “Academic Watch” and “Academic Emergency” lists dropped from 64 percent in 2007-08 to 43 percent in 2010-11. That’s still too big a number, of course, but not as big as before.

The charter sector will never be 100 percent full of great schools. Nor should it be; the genius of chartering is the chance for innovators to try new approaches and sometimes fail. What’s critical is to put in place policies that expeditiously move the failed efforts off the stage and create room for stronger ideas to take their place. States: Get cracking!

We originally released this piece (in a slightly different form) at the PIE-Network annual summit. To read other policy briefs from the summit, click here.


Opinion: Statue in a block of marble
By Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Kathleen Porter-Magee

Science will soon join the short list of K-12 subjects for which American states, districts, and schools will have the option of using new, common (aka, “national”) academic standards. Is this a good thing for American students and teachers—and for the nation’s future? It depends, of course, on whether the new standards (and ensuing assessments, etc.) are better than those that states have been devising and deploying on their own.

When those “common” standards are ready, we will review and evaluate them. In the meantime, we are completing our review of existing state science standards and planning to publish those evaluations later this year—just as we did in July 2010 for the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) in English language arts and math.

click to read the NRC Framework ReviewBut unlike the Common Core standards, whose authors scoured the nation and the world for evidence and advice regarding essential content and rigor in those subjects for the K-12 grades, the drafters of these “next generation” science standards are beginning with an anchor document—the Framework for K-12 Science Education that was released by the National Research Council (NRC) in July 2011.

At this time, we’ve no idea how the common science standards themselves will turn out. But we can gauge the quality of the framework that will undergird it. How reliable a guide is that document to the essential content of K-12 science? And even if it is solid on content, how good a job does it do of presenting that content in clear, usable form?

We set out to answer those questions by turning, once again, to one of America’s most eminent scientists, Paul R. Gross, who has been a lead reviewer of state and national (and international) science standards and frameworks for Fordham since 2005.

So what did Dr. Gross find? A lot that’s good and strong, timely and useful. He gives the document as a whole a more-than-respectable grade of B-plus and, when it comes to content and rigor alone, he gives it top marks: seven points out of a possible seven. He terms the Framework “an impressive policy document, a collective, collaborative work of high quality, with much to recommend its vision of good standards for the study of science.” In particular, Dr. Gross finds that the progression of content through the grades is intelligently cumulative and appropriately rigorous—and not bogged down by “science appreciation” or “inquiry-based education.”

That’s the good news. But, unfortunately, that’s not the end of it. Dr. Gross also finds the strong content immersed in much else that could distract, confuse, and disrupt the priorities of framework users. He finds, in the Framework’s protracted discussion of “equity and diversity”—especially in its emphasis on differentiating content and pedagogy—the risk of contradicting the Framework’s own core mandate, which is to frame the same science content for all young Americans.

To ensure that the standards this Framework informs don’t end up suffering from the overreach and sprawl that plague far too many existing state versions, standards-writers must make some critical decisions about priorities that were not made by the authors of the Framework itself.

In Dr. Gross’s concluding words, “If the statue within this sizable block of marble were more deftly hewn, an A grade would be within reach—and may yet be for the standards-writers, so long as their chisels are sharp and their arms strong.”

The NRC Science Framework, then, fits into the familiar category of valuable products that are best used carefully, with due attention to users manuals, reviewers’ comments, and consumer cautions. Think of a model train that works beautifully so long as the tracks are properly laid. Picture a restaurant at which you can eat a terrific meal—nutritious, tasty, balanced, and economical. If careless, however, you may find yourself neglecting the good stuff and consuming more than you should of tempting but disappointing fare.

And so we offer this advice to users of the NRC Framework now and in the future: Select carefully.


News Analysis: A Rocky Mountain low

kids rolling in money photo

Keep the money with the kid; it's just good sense
(Photo by Carissa Rogerse)

A series of scathing articles soiled the pristine robes of digital learning this week, revealing stunningly high turnover, lamentable academic performance, and negligent oversight among Colorado’s largest online schools. The investigation by Education News Colorado and the I-News Network finds, among other things, that more than half of the Centennial State’s online students left their virtual schools in favor of local brick-and-mortars during the 2008-09 school year. Yet, though they left mid-year, the per-pupil funding attached to them stayed with their virtual educators. The Centennial State’s virtual schools did not commit malfeasance: They followed the letter of the law. In Colorado, school funding is based on a single “count” day, meaning that schools receive a set number of funds based on enrollment numbers in October, irrespective of how many students still attend that school in June. It’s no big surprise that virtual schools would have high attrition rates—students and families are trying out a very different model of education, after all—which makes it even more inexcusable for states to maintain funding systems that don’t take twenty-first-century realities into account. As digital-learning proponents, we welcome exposés of this ilk—if only to showcase how antiquated our current system is, and how it needs to change fast if we’re going to allow innovation to thrive and succeed.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on CO's virtual schools from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.

Series: Half of Online Students Leave: Funding Stays,” by Burt Hubbard and Nancy Mitchell, Education News Colorado, October 2, 2011.

State Online Learning Reports Reveal Growth, Concerns,” by Bill Tucker, Education Next, October 3, 2011.


News Analysis: No need to reinvent the wheel

pushing a boulder photo

Geez this boulder is heavy; give me a hand!
(Photo by Kris Bradley)

For a bit over a year, the National Council on Teacher Quality has been engaging in a mammoth undertaking: to dive behind the Oz-like curtain and collect data on the efficacy and rigor of each and every one of America’s teacher-preparation programs—difficult not only because of the size of the dataset but also because of resistance to such data collection. Slews of education schools have refused to participate in the survey (the University of Wisconsin, all of Georgia’s public institutions, and New York’s SUNY system come to mind). But let that be no hindrance to Arne Duncan, who announced last week a new federal plan to improve teacher-preparation programs. The initiative will center upon three axes: The first will support states as they collect data on training-program quality (based on job placement, a survey of program graduates, and the value-add that alum contribute to student achievement). The second will seek to revamp the TEACH grant program, providing scholarships to strong teacher candidates while also monetarily supporting states that develop rigorous teacher-training systems. And the last will kick in funds to support minority-serving institutions. While mending America’s broken teacher-prep system is an admirable goal, Duncan would be better served by streamlining his objectives. A proposal: Ditch the monetary incentives attached to the proposed, yet amorphous “rigorous teacher-training systems.” Instead, condition receipt of these new federal dollars on a state’s participation in NCTQ’s efforts (they’ve already pushed this boulder halfway up the hill, and would likely appreciate some reinforcements)—and the adoption of improved data systems.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Duncan's new proposal from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.

New Path for Teacher Ed Reform,” by Allie Grasgreen, Inside Higher Ed, October 3, 2011.

Duncan Introduces Plan to Reform and Improve Teacher Prep,” by Cameron Brenchley, Department of Education Blog, September 30, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: The Hamilton Project: Promoting K-12 Education to Advance Student Achievement
By Tyson Eberhardt

The Hamilton Project, a Brookings initiative, approaches education as one facet of economic reform—and produces work with a refreshing attention to the cost-effectiveness and economic impact of education reforms. See, for example, a series of papers released last month from some of the most accomplished scholars in education. UChicago whiz Derek Neal, for instance, proposes changes to standardized tests—eliminate multiple-choice, vary test formats, never repeat questions from previous years—that can boost student achievement. Jonah Rockoff and Brian Jacob use cost-benefit analyses to argue convincingly for later school start times, more K-8 schools, and increased teacher content specialization, particularly for young teachers. The most ambitious paper, by the Harvard team of Bradley Allen and MacArthur genius Roland Fryer, navigates what works and what doesn’t with incentive programs. The duo concede that incentives for teachers and outcomes have poor track records, but still lobby hard for carefully designed rewards for student behaviors that can affect higher performance: Kids should get paid—and paid well—for reading books, not acing tests. Give these papers a look.

Adam Looney, Michael Greenstone, and Paige Shevlin, “Improving Student Outcomes: Improving America’s Education Potential,” (Washington, D.C.: The Hamilton Project at Brookings, September 2011).

Derek Neal, “New Assessments for Improved Accountability,” (Washington, D.C.: The Hamilton Project at Brookings, September 2011).

Brian A. Jacob and Jonah E. Rockoff, “Organizing Schools to Improve Student Achievement: Start Times, Grade Configurations, and Teacher Assignments,” (Washington, D.C.: The Hamilton Project at Brookings, September 2011).

Bradley M. Allen and Roland Fryer, Jr., “The Powers and Pitfalls of Education Incentives,” (Washington, D.C.: The Hamilton Project at Brookings, September 2011).


Review: Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice
By Daniela Fairchild

Building off his September 2010 report on out-of-school suspensions in middle schools, this policy brief from UCLA Civil Rights Project analyst Daniel Losen asserts that minority students are being over-punished when compared with their white peers. The data that he reports are jarring: According to the federal Office of Civil Rights, the rate of suspensions has been increasing since the 1970s, dramatically so for minority students. During the 1972-73 school year, 3 percent of white students and 6 percent of black students were assigned an out-of-school suspension. In 2006-07, the percentage of suspended white students ticked up two points while that of suspended blacks more than doubled (to 15 percent). What’s impossible to know from these data, however, is whether the punishments are warranted. Is racism at play here, or are minority students more likely to break the rules? (Is it a little bit of both?) One can readily agree with Losen’s implicit conclusion: More data are needed to understand what’s really going on.

Daniel J. Losen, “Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice,” (Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center), October 2011.


Review: Transforming Public Education: Pathway to a Pre-K-12 Future
By Michael Ishimoto

Transforming Public Education coverThis paper marks one of the final breaths of the big Pew initiative to expand universal pre-K. (Pew’s Pre-K Now campaign will cease operations at year’s end after a decade of work and more than $10 million pumped into early-ed advocacy.) But a grand breath it is. After much throat-clearing about the benefits of early childhood education, the authors introduce a hefty list of state and federal policy recommendations to ensure expansion of pre-K programs going forward: Pre-K standards must be added to the Common Core, assessments must be developed for the early grades, and education schools must incorporate child development in all teacher-prep programs. Of course, we’ve long questioned the efficacy and financial feasibility of expanding publicly funded preschool programs to all of America’s tots rather than targeting it to the neediest among them. So, while some may wax nostalgic with this passing of Pre-K Now, we aren’t sad to welcome Pre-K Yesterday.

Allison de la Torre, Jennifer V. Doctors, Masooma Hussain, et al., “Transforming Public Education: Pathway to a Pre-K-12 Future” (Washington, D.C.: The Pew Center on the States, 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Amber changes her name to Waterfall

Janie and Daniela go two-for-two. This week they unpack Duncan’s teacher-prep plan, quality control in digital learning, and the parallels between football and education. Amber boots out ineffective teachers and Chris calls out of turn.

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: Teacher quality—know it when you see it?
By Jamie Davies O’Leary

We can’t improve the quality of our nation’s educators or teacher-training programs without a serious dialogue around what good teaching looks like, especially for the most at-risk students for whom excellent teaching is most vital. Further, policies must be structured in ways that tease out the attributes and skills of excellent educators and identify and develop these in less effective teachers.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: AMO non-enforcement: Easy Flex vs. ESEA flex?
By Christy Wolfe

In June, I wrote about how, instead of a complicated waiver process, the Department of Education should simply consider not enforcing some of the most contentious NCLB policies, such as the requirement to reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014. For example, the Department could “issue a statement that, as a ‘matter of policy’ it will allow states to freeze their AYP annual measurable objectives (AMOs) for one year or so, or perhaps until reauthorization, without creating huge hoops to jump through to get that flexibility.”

On Tuesday, the Department did just that. Well, it ignored that part about not creating a complicated waiver process.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.



Briefly Noted: Broader. Not necessarily bolder.

  • Tennessee’s new “diploma project,” which requires students to earn two additional core credits in high school, isn’t playing out quite as expected. To comply with the mandate, Montgomery County is adding a class period to the school day—by shortening all other classes eleven minutes. There’s a phrase for this: Putting old moonshine in new bottles.
  • Buzz words are tossed around like Frisbees in the eduwonk world. But what do terms like “twenty-first-century skills” and “next generation learning” actually mean? In a recent paper, Parthenon comes to the rescue with answers on how to define the latter—and how to bring this new-style learning to scale.
  • Road trip to Byron, Minnesota anyone? The town’s senior high school recently combined two of Gadfly’s favorite edu-initiatives: When the school realized its textbooks didn’t align with the North Star State’s math standards—but that it didn’t have the funds to purchase new books—its teachers scoured the Internet for free web-based curricula, creating their own virtual textbooks. Productive innovation and school-level autonomy? Count it.
  • Last week in the Atlantic, Kevin Carey proposed a program for college placements. We’ll see your proposal, Kevin, and raise you another: Why not extend that down to secondary education? Parents navigating choice-rich districts or the complicated digital-learning table would be all in.
  • The elephant in the room has finally been named. After a decade of ado over the achievement gap, smart folks are finally weighing in on whether top-performers are getting short shrift. Check out the latest New York Times “Room for Debate” for more. Or come to Fordham on October 17.
  • Last Sunday, George Will laid down a doozey of an op-ed, stomping all over Arne Duncan’s “waiver” plan. “The expansion of federal power [something we’ve been doing since Taft] inevitably expands executive discretion that marginalizes Congress.” Those who forget (or ignore or choose not to heed) the past…


Announcement: The other achievement gap

America’s laser-like focus on decreasing the achievement gap has recently come into question. In this grand pursuit, are we, in fact, leaving our highest-performing students behind? If so, what will this mean for our future international competitiveness? Join Fordham and a panel of experts—including Frederick Hess, Joshua McGee, Ulrich Boser, and John Cronin—as we tackle these questions on October 17 from 4:00 to 5:30PM. Stay tuned for the official event announcement, which will tell you how to register.


Featured Fordham Publication: Are Bad Schools Immortal? The Scarcity of Turnarounds and Shutdowns in Both Charter and District Sectors

Are Bad Schools Immortal? cover

This study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds that low-performing public schools—both charter and traditional district schools—are stubbornly resistant to significant change. After identifying more than 2,000 low-performing charter and district schools across ten states, analyst David Stuit tracked them from 2003-04 through 2008-09 to determine how many turned around, shut down, or remained low-performing. Results were generally dismal. Seventy-two percent of the original low-performing charters remained in operation—and remained low-performing—five years later. So did 80 percent of district schools. Read on to learn more—including results from the ten states.


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, Matthew C. Kyle, 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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