Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: The Euro and its cousin, the Common Core
E. Finn, Jr.
If you hope the Euro crashes, that this week’s Brussels
summit fails, and that European commerce returns to francs, marks, lira,
drachma, and pesetas, you may be one of those rare Americans who also seeks the
demise of the Common Core State Standards Initiative in U.S. education. Crazy
analogy? Please read on.
To be sure, the Euro already exists in the real world—you
can hold one in your hands and buy things with it—and its demise would likely
trigger a worldwide economic crisis, whereas the Common Core so far exists only
on paper and all of its implementation challenges lie ahead. If it fails to
gain traction, the sky won’t fall; we’ll simply stick with the status quo.
If you find the status quo in American K-12 education
acceptable, bully for you. I find it akin to the condition of Europe and its
economy after World War II: weak, battered, and fragmented, in need of a major
tune-up and tone-up. It needs more focus, too—and greater capacity to help states
pull in the same direction instead of pulling apart.
Recognizing those woes, and sensing that their war-torn
nations would be better served by joining forces, the post-war years saw a
half-dozen visionary European leaders striving to construct something more
coherent and viable. In 1957, six core countries signed the Treaty of Rome,
creating the “common market,” or the European Union as it’s been known since
1967, which has slowly grown to include twenty-seven countries allied in a
federation of shared economic and political interests. (Several more are
“candidates” for admission.) Almost all of western and central Europe now
participates, save Norway and Switzerland. Within the EU, a subset of seventeen
countries (not including Britain, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, etc.) share the
common currency known (since 1999) as the Euro.
Like Europe in 1950, the nation remains at grave risk, educationally and economically.
Today finds the Euro (and, by association, the European
Union) in jeopardy, because participating countries have handled their
economies in radically different ways. Worsened by the 2008 recession, the real-estate
collapse, and the banking crisis, some of them (Ireland, Portugal, Greece, and
maybe more) have needed major outside help to keep going, while the better
managed, less-indebted, and more prosperous nations (above all Germany and
France) have been reluctant to “bail out” their embattled counterparts. That
may change in the coming weeks—if the “Merkozy” plan
to rewrite the treaties and reshape Europe’s political and economic
structures finds favor across the continent.
Our states are not educationally inter-dependent in the same
way, of course, and some may implement the Common Core well while others don’t.
Unless Congress or the Education Department makes a dumb move and entangles the
Common Core with ESEA reauthorization and federal funding, participation in it
will remain voluntary and its implementation will likely be uneven.
That unevenness will be harder to sustain, however, when
common assessments come on line, particularly if the multi-state consortia
developing those assessments can actually (as their RTTT grant says they must)
agree on common “cut scores” to denote student proficiency—and “college-career
readiness”—in every participating state.
What was that Franklin said about "hanging together"?
Photo by SkydiveAndes
Those cut scores will be more like the Euro, a sort of
common currency that moves across state borders much as EU passport holders are
able to move across national borders. It will certainly make for easier
comparisons of student and school performance than we’ve ever had before and is
apt to forge various new uniformities in curriculum, teacher preparation,
textbooks, and more. (It will also be a huge benefit to providers of virtual education
for whom district and state borders have been an irksome and archaic obstacle.)
Texas, Virginia, Alaska, and Nebraska have not wanted to
participate at all. Like Norway and Switzerland, they prefer to go it alone. So
be it. The Common Core enterprise, like the EU, is voluntary and its main
selling point is that participants will be better off in various ways than will
The small but noisy band of Common Core critics and
kvetchers, however, clearly wants the whole enterprise to go away. They
mistrust claims of voluntarism and find the potential loss of state sovereignty
a bigger threat to America’s educational wellbeing than today’s uneven
standards and slipshod academic performance. They use scary language akin to
York Times correspondent describing
the major changes in treaties and governance that Merkel and Sarkozy hope the
entire EU will agree to: “The changes…would effectively subordinate economic
sovereignty to collective discipline enforced by European technocrats in
That’s what Common Core critics fear will happen here. They
worry especially that the U.S. equivalent of “Brussels technocrats” (i.e. Uncle
Sam) will end up taking over—and they’re mindful that no durable governance
mechanism yet exists for maintaining the Common Core, managing the new
assessments over time, keeping it all voluntary while keeping the states in
charge. Nor has anyone made a serious move to create such a mechanism. (When we
at Fordham suggested
that something of the sort is needed, we were admonished
by NGA and CCSSO to butt out.)
The critics’ angst is not baseless. The absence of a Common
Core management mechanism for the long term—for the standards and especially
for the assessments—is a problem and creates a vacuum that the “Brussels
technocrats” may well be tempted to fill. It’s also true that uneven
implementation by states, like uneven implementation of sound economic policy
by the countries of Europe, could lead to a Merkozy-like call for greater
But is that grounds to abort the whole project—for states to
pull back from it and presidential aspirants to denounce it? Depends, I think,
on your view of the status quo and the risks you are willing to take to see it
altered. Like Europe in 1950, the nation remains at grave risk, educationally
and economically, and almost nobody looking at our long term prospects thinks
we can climb out of this ditch without a major boost in educational
effectiveness and productivity.
No, the Common Core does not assure that boost. Plenty of
other things need to change, too—and every one of them has critics, kvetchers,
and hostile interest groups. (So did the European Union: DeGaulle, for example,
really didn’t want Britain allowed in.) It may be that Massachusetts and a few
other states can do as well or better on their own. Perhaps the “Chiefs for
Change” will eventually have fifty members. Or perhaps it’s acceptable for
Arkansas and California and others to continue wallowing in mediocrity. Maybe
we’re not a “nation” at risk, just fifty states with varying degrees of risk.
I for one hope this week’s summit in Brussels leads
them to rewrite the treaties. And that the Common Core prevails over its
critics. The people of Europe—and the world—are better off with the Euro than
without it. And the people of the United States would be better off if all our
kids were held to the same high educational expectations.
|Click to listen to commentary on the EU and Common Core from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
Opinion: Incubate to promulgate
By Terry Ryan
Since 2005, Fordham has been working in Ohio to recruit high-quality charter schools to neighborhoods badly in need of better schools. During
our six-plus years of effort we have managed to recruit just two
high-performing models to Columbus (KIPP and a Building Excellent Schools
venture). Tougher still, we have been unable to recruit any to our home town of
Dayton. We know first-hand just how hard it is to help recruit and launch great
schools, especially to a Rust Belt state like Ohio. It is for this reason that
we are excited about the work of organizations across the country to accelerate
the growth of great new schools through a strategic process called charter
Charter incubators are entities that intentionally build the
supply of high-quality schools and charter-management organizations (CMOs) in
cities or regions by recruiting, selecting, and training promising leaders, and
supporting those leaders as they launch new schools. Groups leading this
innovative effort include New
Schools for New Orleans, the
Tennessee Charter School Incubator, Get
Smart Schools in Colorado, Charter
School Partners in Minnesota, The Mind Trust’s Charter School
Incubator in Indianapolis, and 4.0
Schools in several southeastern states.
These organizations are united in their belief
that the development of great charter schools can be accelerated through these
initiatives to bring in and support great leaders as they open and operate
charter schools. Incubators provide an up-front quality screen for new leaders,
and with intensive support on the ground, they boost the odds that new schools will
Public Impact’s crackerjack researchers Joe Ableidinger and
Julie Kowal explain in their new policy brief—Better
Choices: Charter Incubation as a Strategy for Improving the Charter School
Sector—that incubators are an important tool to help meet the demands
of parents and students for more quality schools of choice. An estimated
420,000 students linger on charter waiting lists. Hundreds of thousands more are
stuck in failing schools without quality options available.
Yet, despite this demand, high-quality charters are growing
too slowly. Ableidinger and Kowal cite statistics from 2011-12 that show the
country’s top five CMOs—Uncommon Schools, KIPP, Aspire Public Schools, Green
Dot, and Achievement First—together serve just 61,000 pupils.
How to grow better schools faster? The authors distill five
main characteristics of successful charter incubators:
- Selective screening for
high-potential school leaders. Incubators focus on the recruitment and
selection of top talent, restricting their services to a small group vetted for
its leadership promise.
- Strategic focus on
leadership development. Incubators develop promising leaders or
leadership teams through months-long rigorous fellowships and training that help
them open and operate successful schools.
- Expertise in new starts. While some charter-support
organizations provide ongoing services to charter schools, incubators' primary
focus is on recruiting and supporting new charter start-ups or new school
leaders, including the provision of financial resources to talented leaders to
develop and build new schools.
- Public accountability. As a result of their
intense, direct relationships with school leaders, incubators, their funders,
and the public tend to judge their success by the performance of the schools
- Regional focus. Local ties help
incubators provide powerful support to school leaders as they open and operate
new schools. Such targeted assistance can include access to funding,
introductions to other local leaders, technical expertise (e.g. financial,
academic, or organizational), or direct support to encourage things like a
planning year, intensive fellowship programs, and training activities.
Ableidinger and Kowal also highlight strategies that
federal, state, and local policymakers can implement to launch, strengthen, and
expand the work of charter incubators. The authors note, “Targeted funding and
changes to key policies can help incubators thrive in their target cities or
regions, boosting the supply of promising leaders who start high-performing
charter schools and ensuring that these leaders are adequately supported as
they open and operate their schools.”
The emerging work of charter incubators across the
country is an important reform strategy that states and communities should learn
more about. As Better Choices points
out, the cost of incubation is far lower than the costs of other reform options
and slighter still compared to the social and economic costs of continued
Better Choices: Charter Incubation as a Strategy
for Improving the Charter Sector was
co-commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust.
|Click to listen to commentary on Better Choices from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
News Analysis: Reset regulation
Drop some of those onerous layers, government!
Photo by Joe Shlabotnik
For years, government has plastered new
regulations upon old, thickening the bureaucracy and making it ever harder to
move within its confines. In Colorado, for example, new rules for day-care
centers specify exactly how to execute nearly everything—including the number
of block sets (two) and the number of blocks (minimum of ten) needed in each
playroom. An anecdote, yes; but hyperbole or exception, no. Modern regulation,
as Common Good’s Philip Howard writes in the Wall Street Journal this week, “doesn’t just control undesirable practices—it
indiscriminately controls all the work of regulated entities,” arresting all
human discretion, good and bad. While the gut-wrench reaction is simply to blow
up the house, thick plaster and all, there’s a smarter way. Some old-fashioned
inputs are important (Colorado does
want to ensure that their day-care centers aren’t operating in window-less
basements filled with asbestos and chipping lead paint). But, Howard argues,
the majority of regulation should be outcomes-based. (Seattle is experimenting
with this on the energy front now.) He’s right, as far as he goes, but may
have forgotten another key quality-control metric, articulated in our
recent paper on QC in digital ed: market forces. If we’re going to get
quality control right, we’re going to need all three.
News Analysis: Achievement-gap economics
A couple months back, a friendly
event at Fordham catalyzed a heated debate over the merits of narrowly focusing
on the achievement gap. (Isn’t it possible that all the hullabaloo over the
achievement gap detracts from the teaching
of high flyers, we asked?) Still, we are not blind to the issue, nor are
other conservatives. This piece from the National
Review argues that, if we don’t bring up the bottom, we stand to lose
trillions of dollars in economic growth by 2050. Demographic shifts (especially
the surging Latino population) are mushrooming the ranks of traditionally
under-performing populations. And our labor markets aren’t ready to absorb them
all. As the authors observe, “The achievement gap is not new, but its impact on
U.S. economic performance is growing.” We’d better start doing something about
Review: Trial Urban District Assessment 2011
By Janie Scull
Like the November results of NAEP’s national math and reading report
cards, the latest results of the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) are
unlikely to inspire many pats on the back. The TUDA, which measures student
achievement in twenty-one large urban districts (that volunteer to take the
exam), presents a complicated picture of urban student achievement. The nation
as a whole made
modest gains in fourth- and eighth-grade math and in eighth-grade reading
over the last two years; but among the eighteen TUDA districts with test
results in 2009 and 2011, only six showed statistically significant improvement
in fourth-grade math. Eight posted significant gains in that subject at the
eighth-grade level. Worse still, no districts made significant gains in
fourth-grade reading, and only one—Charlotte-Mecklenburg,
NC—improved in eighth-grade
reading. Still, these stats are more encouraging if we look at score gains
since TUDA’s inception: Since then, many of the participating districts have
made large gains in math and reading achievement. In math, nine of the ten original
districts saw their fourth graders improve between 2003 and 2011, while
thirteen of fourteen posted gains for eighth graders. (Cleveland failed to post any significant
improvements in either category.) In reading, all six original districts saw
gains among their fourth-grade readers from 2002 to 2011, and four of them have
also seen their eighth-grade readers improve. What’s more, beyond the
twenty-one TUDA districts, large cities as a whole have made greater strides
than the nation across the last decade, though large gaps in performance
remain. The TUDA data can be cut many ways (and should be—the online data tool
allows users to disaggregate data across multiple subgroups), but the gist of
the story remains: Large urban districts have made great strides over the last
decade, but still have far to go. What will we do to maintain their upward
|Click to listen to commentary on the NAEP TUDA from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
Review: Are Charter School Unions Worth the Bargain?
Despite its reputation, the charter field isn’t
a wholly anti-union stronghold. In fact, 12 percent of charter schools now
have bargaining agreements. (Conversion charters are much more likely to be
unionized [44 percent] than startups [9 percent].) In this new CRPE report,
Mitch Price analyzes the union contracts of nine of the nation’s 604 unionized
charters and compares them to their local district contracts. He finds that, on
average, charters’ union contracts are more flexible when it comes to length of
day and year, grievance processes, and layoff criteria—but still far too rigid.
(Using our own Leadership
Limbo criteria, Price gives charter contracts a C-plus score, compared
to the C-minus score given to district schools.) While union contracts in the
charter sector are relatively flexible—more tailored to individual school needs
(and thus less likely to stifle the missions of these schools)—Price argues
that we are only seeing their beta versions. It remains to be seen whether
these contracts, when renegotiated, will serve as examples of reasonable labor
relations practices or will instead grow more restrictive.
Review: Comparability of State and Local Expenditures Among Schools Within Districts: A Report From the Study of School-Level Expenditures
This latest from the Department of Education—the
first national analysis of school-level funding—confirms what countless smaller
studies have implied: Schools with higher proportions of poor students often
receive less funding than lower-poverty schools in the same district. In fact,
more than 40 percent of Title I schools had lower per-pupil personnel expenditures
than non-Title I schools in their districts. This finding holds across multiple
measures of expenditures, from teacher salaries to non-personnel resources—and
despite the feds’ efforts at ensuring “comparability.” For those scratching
their heads as to how this could possibly be so—doesn’t Title I’s
“comparability provision” mandate that districts spend about the same for all
the skinny: Schools can prove comparability without figuring in teacher salaries. Per Title I rules, the number of staff must be comparable, not
how much they’re paid. Thing is, low socio-economic status schools often have
newer, cheaper teachers. This is an onion of an issue—with onerous layers of
salary structure, staff placement, and control of funds—and there’s no easy
solution. (Even the policy
brief that ED released with this report agrees.) But one thing’s for certain:
Sam can’t set this right. States, it’s time to step up.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Fordham is the 99 percent
Special guest appearance! Terry Ryan flies in
from the Buckeye State to talk with Mike about charter incubators (using our
new report as backdrop), the striking similarity between the EU and the Common
Core, and D.C.’s school-choice initiatives. Amber dances the TUDA and Chris
believes in Santa Claus.
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 Obama administration’s war on Stuyvesant and Thomas Jefferson
Last week, the Departments of Education and Justice released new guidance for school districts and institutions of higher education on constitutionally sound ways to encourage racial diversity and avoid racial isolation. As I've written before, I'm a fan of well-conceived efforts (like “controlled choice” à la Kahlenberg) to promote school integration, and I think Washington, D.C. is sorely in need of such an approach. (That's what D.C. parents should be fighting for—not an end to school choice.)
That said, the guidance for elementary and secondary education includes some odious and potentially damaging suggestions for America’s 150-odd academically selective public high schools—including powerhouses like New York’s Stuyvesant and Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: Why shame is never enough
up by our governance conference last week, Dave DeSchryver says we should open
the black box of school finances and shine some much needed light on how
school dollars are really spent. This kind of accountability, with some
easy-to-use tools along the lines of Mint.com, is sorely needed as education
budgets have ballooned out of control.
But hoping that district leaders will be shamed into
spending more frugally is not enough. How do I know?…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Gadfly Studios: Chris Cerf talks governance
Acting commissioner for the New Jersey
Department of Education gave the keynote address for our Rethinking Education
Governance in the Twenty-First Century conference last week. And it was a doozy. Watch
Briefly Noted: Know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em
- Plugging district budget holes is a tricky task,
but it doesn’t have to mean scrapping basketball or shortening the year. Thanks
to the folks at Education Resource Strategies, you can learn this first hand.
Their cool new interactive
district budgeting tool lets you pick the budget gap you need to fill and
choose the cuts (and investments) to make it happen.
- You heard
it here first, kids: Instant recall of basic arithmetic functions is key to
learning higher-level math. The Brits agree (about instant recall, not about
how to spell “math”). Their country is banning
calculator use in the early grades.
- Just a reminder if you’ve forgotten where
education dollars are funneled: In 1955, the ratio of students to non-teaching
education personnel was 50:1. In
2010, it was 10:1.
- It’s official. After announcing
its intention to sponsor charter schools last year, the Minneapolis
Federation of Teachers, through its new nonprofit, has
gotten the OK to authorize schools in the City of Lakes. It will be the
first union in the nation to do so. (Note: Minnesota is just one of two states
in which such an arrangement is even legal, Ohio being the other.)
- Sixty-nine percent of California students failed
their phys-ed test, the state announced this week. Gadfly would like to
think they’ve been working their minds, if not their bodies. But that’s
not necessarily the case.
- According to a teacher
survey conducted by Common Core, “curriculum narrowing” is a real concern—especially
at the elementary level. Sixty-six percent of teachers feel that other subjects
are getting crowded out by ELA and math; that jumps to 81 percent at the elementary
the curriculum, stupid, argues Dan Willingham in Monday’s New York Daily News. (Of course, he says
it much nicer than that.)
Announcement: Do what you love and get paid for it
Sliced bread ain’t got nothin’ on this new
opportunity at Fordham: We’re looking for a new research manager. If you have
both qualitative and quantitative research skills and are smart, dedicated, and
just a little punchy, you may just be the right fit. Learn more about the
position, including how to apply, here.
Announcement: End of the road for accountability?
It began in Texas in the early 1990s (and was propelled
forward with the passage of No Child Left Behind in the early 20-aughts). But after
nearly twenty years, has the accountability movement run its course? Join us on
January 5, 2012 from 8:30 to 10:00AM as we ask that very question of Eric
Hanushek, Sandy Kress, and Marc Schneider—who will release a paper on the topic
through Fordham next week. Click
here to register.
Announcement: Have a Koch and smile
Young libertarians with a penchant for education
reform: Listen up! Apply to work with Fordham this summer through the Koch Summer Fellow Program, sponsored by the Institute for
Humane Studies. You’ll gain state policy experience through Koch’s public-policy
seminars; We promise to teach you a thing or two, as well. Find out more here. Applications
are due January 31, 2012.
Announcement: New Jersey’s a garden state. Dig it.
Do you miss Andy Smarick’s smart blogging
on Flypaper? Now’s your chance to
work with him full-time. The New Jersey Department of Education—Andy’s new
employer—is on the hunt for a director of its Office of Charter Schools. You
fit the bill if you have strong managerial and communication skills and can
brainstorm and implement best practices of charter-school authorization. Learn more about the
Announcement: Be New York’s common cents
You have a subscription to the Financial Times, have starred the Wall Street Journal page as a favorite, and
flip to the last pages of the Economist
first. Sound right? If you also have strong financial auditing and accounting
skills, keen writing and analyzing skills, and a passion for education, then
here’s an opportunity: SUNY’s Charter School Institute needs a director of
here for more information, including how to apply.
Featured Fordham Publication: Now What? Imperatives and Options for Common Core Implementation and Governance
This Fordham Institute publication—co-authored by Chester
E. Finn Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli—pushes folks to think about what comes next
in the journey to common education standards and tests. Most states have
adopted the “Common Core” English language arts and math standards, and most
are also working on common assessments. But…now what? The standards won’t
implement themselves, but unless they are adopted in the classroom, nothing much
will change. What implementation tasks are most urgent? What should be done
across state lines? What should be left to individual states, districts,
and private markets? Perhaps most perplexing, who will govern and “own” these
standards and tests ten or twenty years from now?
After collecting feedback on some tough questions
from two-dozen education leaders (e.g. Jeb Bush, David Driscoll, Rod
Paige, Andy Rotherham, Eric Smith), Finn and Petrilli frame three possible
models for governing this implementation process. In the end, as you’ll see,
they recommend a step-by-step approach to coordinate implementation of the
Common Core. Read
on to find out more.