The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 47. December 8, 2011.
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Opinion and Analysis

The Euro and its cousin, the Common Core 
More alike than you think
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Incubate to promulgate
How “charter incubation” can scale quality
Opinion | Terry Ryan and Ethan Gray

Reset regulation
Personal responsibility, back in the driver’s seat
News Analysis

Achievement-gap economics
What happens when we hit majority minority status?
News Analysis

Short Reviews

Trial Urban District Assessment 2011
Still need to crack that reading-achievement egg
Review | Janie Scull

Are Charter School Unions Worth the Bargain?
It's too early to tell
Review | Michael Ishimoto

Comparability of State and Local Expenditures Among Schools Within Districts: A Report From the Study of School-Level Expenditures
Weighted student funding, anyone?
Review | Laura Johnson

From The Web

Fordham is the 99 percent
Much ado about the EU
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Terry Ryan

The Obama Administration’s war on Stuyvesant and Thomas Jefferson
Don’t hogtie selective high schools
Flypaper's Finest | December 9, 2011 | Mike Petrilli

Why shame is never enough
We need to make them change their ways
Flypaper's Finest | December 6, 2011 | Chris Tessone

Chris Cerf talks governance reform
Prepare to get excited
Gadfly Studios | December 7, 2011


Know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em
It's "math," not "maths"
Briefly Noted

Do what you love and get paid for it
An exciting new opportunity with Fordham

End of the road for accountability?
Find out January 5 at Fordham

Have a Koch and smile
Are you Fordham’s next Koch fellow?

New Jersey’s a garden state. Dig it.
Cerf’s team needs a director for its charter-school office

Be New York's common cents
SUNY’s Charter School Institute is hunting for a director of finance

Now What? Imperatives and Options for Common Core Implementation and Governance
One word: Coordination
Featured Fordham Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: The Euro and its cousin, the Common Core
By Chester 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.

tandem skydive photo

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 outliers.

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 the New 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 Brussels.”

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 centralization.

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 play

Click to listen to commentary on the EU and Common Core from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.


Opinion: Incubate to promulgate
By Terry Ryan

Better Choices coverSince 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 incubation. 

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 succeed.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 they incubated.
  5. 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 school failure.

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 play

Click to listen to commentary on Better Choices from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.


News Analysis: Reset regulation

baby bundled up photo

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.

Starting Over with Regulation,” by Philip K. Howard, The Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2011.


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 it.

Closing the Achievement Gap,” by Reihan Salam and Tino Sanandaji, National Review, November 14, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: Trial Urban District Assessment 2011
By Janie Scull

NAEP TUDA 2011: Reading coverNAEP TUDA 2011: Math coverLike 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 trajectory?

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the NAEP TUDA from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.

National Center for Education Statistics, Trial Urban District Assessment 2011 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 2011).


Review: Are Charter School Unions Worth the Bargain?
By Michael Ishimoto

Are Charter School Unions Worth the Bargain? cover 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.

Mitch Price, Are Charter School Unions Worth the Bargain? (Center for Reinventing Public Education, Seattle, WA, November 2011).


Review: Comparability of State and Local Expenditures Among Schools Within Districts: A Report From the Study of School-Level Expenditures
By Laura Johnson

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 schools?—here’s 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: Uncle Sam can’t set this right. States, it’s time to step up.

Ruth Heuer and Stephanie Stullich, Comparability of State and Local Expenditures Among Schools Within Districts: A Report From the Study of School-Level Expenditures (U.S. Department of Education, 2011).


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.

The Education Gadfly
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.


Flypaper's Finest: The Obama Administration’s war on Stuyvesant and Thomas Jefferson
By Mike Petrilli

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…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Why shame is never enough
By Chris Tessone

Charged 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, 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?…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.



Gadfly Studios: Chris Cerf talks governance

Click here to watch Chris Cerf's keynote address

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 it here.



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.
  • It’s 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 position here.



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 finance. Look here for more information, including how to apply.


Fordham's featured publication: Now What? Imperatives and Options for Common Core Implementation and Governance

Now What? cover

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.


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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