Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Unsolved problems—and signs of hope—as 2012 dawns
E. Finn, Jr.
The central problem besetting K-12 education in the United
States today is still—as for almost thirty years now—that far too few of our
kids are learning nearly enough for their own or the nation’s good. And the
gains we’ve made, though well worth making, have been meager (and largely
confined to math), are trumped by gains in other countries, and evaporate by
the end of high school.
This much everybody knows. But unless we want to live out
the classic definition of insanity (“doing the same thing over again with the
expectation that it will produce a different result”), we need to focus
laser-like on the barriers that keep us from making major-league gains. If we
don’t break through (or circumnavigate) these barriers, academic achievement
will remain stagnant.
The barriers I’m talking about are not cultural issues,
parenting issues, demographic issues, or other macro-influences on educational
achievement. Those are all plenty real, but largely beyond the reach of public
policy. No, here I refer to obstacles that competent leaders and bold policymakers
could reduce or eradicate if they were serious.
How much difference would that really make? It’s possible,
of course, that we’re pursuing the wrong core strategies. Maybe standards-based
reform has exhausted its potential (as Mark Schneider suggests in The
Accountability Plateau). Perhaps choice and competition really cannot
lift all boats. Possibly technology is overrated, alternate certification can never
amount to much, teacher quality is doomed to mediocrity, principals don’t truly
want authority, etc.
From where I sit, the basic strategies aren’t ill-conceived. Rather, they’ve been stumped, stymied, and constrained by formidable barriers that are more or less built into the K-12 system as we know it.
Could be. But from where I sit, the basic strategies aren’t
ill-conceived. Rather, they’ve been stumped, stymied, and constrained by
formidable barriers that are more or less built into the K-12 system as we know
Those barriers aren’t accidents. They’ve been erected by
adult interests, bureaucratic routine, structural rigidity, and political
stalemate. And they function to keep anything in education from changing very
much. Eight such barriers are especially troublesome. Uninterrupted, they are
likely to keep us from making major gains. One ought not, however, despair. On
several fronts, promising interruptions and interrupters are emerging. Whether
they can muster what it will take to tear down these walls remains unknown.
First and foremost is the archaic governance of K-12 education. I’ve written
this problem, but it’s so
fundamental and ubiquitous that we tend not even to notice it, much less to
think that anything could be done about it. Instead, we take for granted (like
it or not) that we’re stuck forever with local control in the form of school
districts, separate from the rest of government and run by school boards that
are particularly vulnerable to capture by adult interests, as well as with a
marble cake of federal, state, and local decisions, regulations, and funding
There are beginning to be exceptions, however, that
illustrate what could be possible. Mayoral control of the schools in D.C., New
York, Chicago, and several other major cities is one example. State-operated
“recovery” school districts in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan are
another. The “parent trigger” idea is a third.
Second, our dysfunctional
system of school finance puts the brakes on just about every reform while
perpetuating inequity. We don’t fund learning, we fund programs. We don’t fund
kids, we fund adult job slots. We don’t fund schools, we fund district-wide
categoricals. We don’t blend the money from multiple sources into a single,
flexible stream; rather, we leave it in discrete programs and silos, each with
its own rules, uses of funding, and accounting obligations.
Here, too, small cracks can be seen in the glacier. Several
states (notably Michigan, Indiana, and Vermont) have shifted their funding
systems to mostly state dollars. Voucher programs, though still limited (but
growing!), enable at least some of the money to accompany individual kids to
the schools of their choice. A few cities have devolved as much budgetary
authority as they can—district-wide teacher contracts are a huge constraint
here—to the building level. Waivers can be sought (though seldom are) from
states and Washington that allow enterprising superintendents to combine and
redirect some of the categorical funds. And a few brave school-finance experts
are probing deep into district budgets to see how much things really cost and
where the dollars really flow.
Third, our academic
standards are too low almost everywhere. It’s not just that too little is
being achieved; it’s that too little is expected.
Even where a state’s standards look great on paper—a few do—its “cut scores”
for passing the tests aligned with those standards are
rarely ambitious, and NCLB hasn’t helped one bit on that front. Fordham
others have been
documenting these problems forever.
The silver lining in this cloud is widespread adoption of
the Common Core State Standards for math and reading, and work now underway to
produce a kindred set of multi-state standards for science. The Common Core
itself turned out well, superior to the academic standards of most states and more
or less on
par with the best of them. The big questions now are whether it will be
properly implemented, which means accompanying it with suitable curricula,
assessments, and more—and whether public officials will have the fortitude to
stick with it after scads of their current students turn out to be no match for
it. Several state education leaders—Ohio’s Stan Heffner and Massachusetts’s
Mitch Chester come to mind—are already walking the Common Core walk. In other
jurisdictions, it may still be mostly talk.
Which brings us to weak-kneed
accountability, the fourth great barrier to real achievement gains. About
half the states have high school graduation tests that one must pass to qualify
for a diploma but nearly all of these are easy—eighth- or tenth-grade content
with low passing scores and multiple make-up opportunities. A few states have
“promotional gates”—achievement benchmarks that determine whether you get to
move on to the next grade. Many states give ratings or labels to schools
according to their academic results and NCLB has added the (“made” or “failed”)
AYP designation for schools and districts. Still and all, there are precious
few tangible consequences for the adults in the system; it isn’t that demanding
for the kids; and schools that find themselves subject to “interventions” or
“reconstitutions” usually end up with the minimum-hassle version.
Whether the state consortia now developing Common
Core-aligned assessments will be able to agree on demanding “cut scores” is an
open question, to be followed by whether individual states using those tests
will let those cut scores make any real difference in promotion, graduation,
teacher retention (or reward), school reconstitution, and all the rest. Yes,
there’s movement toward tying teacher evaluations and pay more tightly to
student learning, but we’re still in the earliest stages of that ambitious project
and there is much resistance to it.
Fifth, though choice programs of every sort are
proliferating—virtual, charter, hybrid, voucher, and more—and though it can be
demonstrated that more than half of all U.S. pupils now attend schools that
they or their parents chose via one means or another, the facts remain that too many of those choices are mediocre
(or worse), that the kids in greatest need of better options are least apt to
be able to access them, and that our “schools of choice” for the most part
labor under too
much input-and-process regulation coupled with insufficient resources.
The best of the CMOs and a handful of one-off schools show
that quality is possible, but even they face great difficulty replicating
success and expanding their networks. The best state charter laws show that the
regulatory and resource challenges can be tackled. But we’ve got a long way to
We can forge a path to a brave new education world.
Photo by Daniel Ramirez
Sixth, although instructional
technology holds enormous promise to transform education—in both its fully
virtual and blended forms—it is stoutly
opposed by the usual interest groups, is pushed (perhaps too hard) by
politically connected profit seekers who care little about academic achievement,
is ill-suited to existing governance and financing arrangements, and is
shackled by absurd regulatory provisions that make scant sense even in a
brick-and-mortar environment. The Digital Learning Council and others
(including the Foundation for Excellence in Education and Fordham
itself) are showing where and how paths through these thickets could be cut
but politicians and policymakers will have to do the heavy cutting.
Seventh, our human
resource practices and policies are sorely antiquated and anti-quality,
particularly as regards teachers, whether one is looking at seniority
provisions, uniform pay schedules, overly rich pension-and-benefit plans,
licensure-and-certification rules, or a hundred other parts of public
education’s HR system. There have been bold moves in several states to limit
the scope of collective bargaining (a pillar of archaic HR practices), to
modernize benefit structures, to make employment hinge more on effectiveness
than on credentials and seniority, and to evaluate teachers (and sometimes
principals) more on the basis of student achievement. But, once again, we
have a very long way to go.
Eighth and finally, our
preoccupation with “at risk” populations and with achievement gaps defined
as the distance between demographic groups has
led to the benign neglect of millions of kids, including
but not limited to gifted
students and high-achieving learners. America will never solve its
international-competitiveness problem just by raising the bottom of the
achievement distribution. Though a number of states and districts are trying to
enlarge their Advanced Placement programs and to reward top students with
college financial aid and other initiatives aimed at high achievers, it’s also
the case that tight budgets have shrunk gifted-and-talented programs in many
places. (And Congress has zero-funded the only federal initiative that
tries to encourage such activities.) Note, too, that widening
access to AP and such isn’t necessarily a good thing for the “talented
tenth” who were already taking those courses and passing those exams.
With these eight problems unsolved—and more that could be
added to the list—as well as gridlocked policymaking in Washington and open
warfare in many state capitals, is there reason to be optimistic about the
future of K-12 education?
I say yes, albeit cautiously. What gives me the
greatest hope today is the emergence—and steadfastness—of a new cadre of
change-minded people in positions of influence (think Jeb Bush, the “Chiefs for
Change,” Joel Klein, Wendy Kopp, Kevin Huffman, Michelle Rhee, and yes, Arne
Duncan) and the birth of a number of new-and/or-improved advocacy
organizations, mostly operating at the state level (think 50CAN, Advance
Illinois, PIE-Network, Democrats for Education Reform, Students First, Stand
for Children, BAEO, the American Federation for Children, Parent Revolution).
They’re still no match for the protectors of the status quo—i.e. bulwarks of
the barriers enumerated above—but they’re slowly gaining. Let us wish them much
clout in the New Year and beyond.
|Click to listen to commentary on 2011's most epic education reforms from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
News Analysis: Specious on special education
Tension has long been visible between
charter-school proponents and some within the special-education community. The short
version goes like this: Charter schools, which are typically mission-oriented,
small, and underfunded, find it hard to service every sort of
disability within their classrooms appropriately. So they counsel some youngsters to seek other
service providers better attuned to their particular needs. This practice riles
many SPED advocates. It angers districts, too, as they are most often obligated
to educate these high-need—and often high-cost—students. We understand the
complaints, but consider the practicalities: No individual school (regular or
charter) can serve every type of disability. Large districts can
create specialized programs at particular schools (say, for students with severe autism,
or those with Down Syndrome); small districts team up with other LEAs or
“Intermediate Units” to do the same. If a school cannot provide the necessary
resources to ensure a student’s success, then that school might not be the best
place for the child and other options need to be considered. That goes for all
public schools—including charters.
|Click to listen to commentary on charter schools and special education from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
News Analysis: Africans vs. African Americans
Seattle’s recently released student-achievement
results were “very, very alarming,” according to Michael Tolley, one of Seattle
Public Schools’s leaders. He’s right, of course. For example, the city found that black youngsters who do not speak
English in the home (mostly immigrants and refugees) tested higher than those
blacks who do speak English at home
(and are, presumably, U.S.-born)—by as much as 26 percentage points in math
and 18 percentage points in reading. These results invite many questions, but
here’s one tangible takeaway: Our data-reporting subgroups may be cut too crudely.
Since 1990, blacks have ticked thirty-six points higher on NAEP’s fourth-grade
math assessment (compared to whites’ twenty-nine point increase). This slow narrowing
of the achievement gap is present across fourth- and eighth-grade math and
reading. Yet Seattle’s data call into question how these gains are being made.
Are descendants of slaves making the same progress as first-generation African
immigrants? Maybe, maybe not. To better target services to our neediest
children, we’ll need more of these higher resolution data. Kudos to Seattle for
starting the trend. Other districts with large African and Caribbean immigrant
populations, like Montgomery County, Maryland, would be wise to do some similar
unpacking of their numbers and categories.
|Click to listen to commentary on the African-African American achievement gap from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
Review: Creating Opportunity Schools: A Bold Plan to Transform Indianapolis Public Schools
By Terry Ryan and Bianca
Through this report (prepared by Public Impact),
The Mind Trust proposes a dramatic transformation of public education in
Indianapolis, akin to the structural changes that have taken place in New
Orleans and New York City. It observes that great schools across the country
share a set of core conditions that enable them to help all students achieve.
Among these core conditions are the freedom to build and manage their own
teams, refocus resources to meet actual student needs, hold schools accountable
for their results(and close those that don’t perform), and create a system of
school choice that empowers parents to find schools that they want their
children to attend. To create success in the public schools of Indianapolis
(IPS), the Mind Trust proposes these bold moves: shift funding from the central
office to schools; give high-performing schools autonomy over staffing,
budgets, and curriculum; provide parents with more good choices; unite all
public schools under a new banner of quality called Opportunity Schools; and
allow the mayor and the City-County Council to appoint the IPS school board,. We
at Fordham are cheering for the Mind Trust and its reform-minded allies. Not
only will their success or failure resonate in Indiana but also across the
Midwest and probably beyond.
This piece originally
appeared (in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.
Review: Does Practice-Based Teacher Preparation Increase Student Achievement? Early Evidence from the Boston Teacher Residency
Teacher-residency programs, which couple
graduate-education coursework with K-12 classroom-teaching experience, have a
certain cachet these days. But do they work? While such programs have for many
years demonstrated higher retention rates among their graduates, this paper
digs into the details of the Boston Teacher Residency (BTR) to see whether
quality is there, too. The upshot: yes, but it takes a while. Using fourth- and
eighth-grade state achievement data, the researchers determined that BTR
graduates are significantly less effective in math during their first couple of
years than are other new teachers (both alternatively certified and
traditionally trained). This pattern held for each of BTR’s seven cohorts. On
the ELA front, BTR teachers performed comparably to other new teachers in their
first couple years. By the fourth and fifth years, however, BTR teachers surpassed
other veteran teachers (of similar or greater experience levels) in both
subjects. What’s more, BTR teachers were more likely to stay with the
profession: The five-year retention rate for program alumni was 24 percentage
points higher than the district average for those hired in 2004-05 and 2006-07.
Looking at input measures (increasing the population of minority teachers and filling
hard-to-staff positions), the residency program fares well, too. Still, the
research came with many caveats, beginning with a very small sample size. As a
preliminary investigation, this paper offered many interesting insights and raises
even more questions—specifically around residency programs’ individual components,
system effects, and costs. So, researchers, have at it!
|Click to listen to commentary on the Boston teacher Residency program from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
Review: Striving for Student Success: A Model of Shared Accountability
By Adrienne King
social-service programs are gaining steam—after Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem
Children’s Zone, think Obama’s new Promise
Neighborhoods and the AFT’s proposed
initiative in rural West Virginia. These “cradle-to-career” partnerships link
myriad groups and programs in order to provide wraparound services (from
prenatal care run by a neighborhood clinic to mentoring coordinated through the
local United Way chapter). But questions of accountability loom large. (As the
saying goes, when everyone is accountable, no one is.) This brief from Ed
Sector profiles the Strive Partnership of Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky, a
program that does a pretty good job of managing this shared accountability, and
distills recommendations for others looking to initiate similar wraparound-service
partnerships. To ensure quality, the brief states, programs of this kind must
have metrics and performance targets in place (for each program partner as well
as the whole) and a system for collecting and reporting data. (Other things,
like strong and sustained leadership, are also helpful.) Most importantly, there
must be a ringleader—an “intermediary organization” charged with overseeing the
whole program, tracking the efficacy of each of the program’s components, and
defunding those that don’t work. In the case of the Cincinnati-Northern
Kentucky initiative, the Strive Partnership (itself a professionally staffed
organization) serves that purpose. As more and more cities implement their own
versions of “strive partnerships” and “promise neighborhoods,” these questions
of accountability will mushroom. Ed Sector deserves credit for starting the
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Santa Claus: The second coming of Christ?
This last 2011 installment of the Gadfly Show won’t disappoint, with Mike
joined by Chris Tessone (formerly of Dollars and Sen$e fame). The two reflect
on the past year in education reform before getting serious about charters,
special education, and the achievement-gap truth. Amber splashes cold water on
the teacher-residency model and Chris Irvine sees Santa-red.
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 case for more details in Ohio’s history standards
back to junior high and high school for a moment. What “historical
documents” were you taught in social studies and American history
classes? The U.S. Constitution? Your state’s constitution? What
about the Declaration of Independence or the Federalist Papers?...I was taught
all of these important historical texts, multiple times, from seventh grade
through twelfth. So I was surprised to see a bill
moving through the Ohio legislature that would require schools to teach what I
thought were standard fare for Ohio’s students. In fact, at first blush it
seemed implausible to me that many schools weren’t already doing so.
My husband, also an Ohio public school alum (from a
quote-unquote better district than I attended), had a different reaction when I
told him about the legislation. He guessed at least two-thirds of students
learn virtually nothing about the Federalist Papers in high school. And he said
he wasn’t taught anything about the Ohio Constitution in K-12. Huh, maybe
there ought to be a law…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: Closing the achievement gap, but at gifted students’ expense
Petrilli and Rick Hess
Obama’s remarks on inequality, stoking populist anger at “the rich,” suggest
that the theme for his reelection bid will be not hope and change but focus on
reducing class disparity with government help. But this effort isn’t limited to
economics; it is playing out in our nation’s schools as well.
The issue is whether federal education efforts will
compromise opportunities for our highest-achieving students. One might assume
that a president determined to “win
the future” would make a priority of ensuring that our ablest kids have the
chance to excel.…
Gadfly Studios: Rethinking Education Governance: Chris Cerf, Keynote Address
If you missed our governance conference at the
beginning of December (or if you’re looking for the perfect video to pair with
your holiday gift wrapping), check out this keynote-speech video of New Jersey Education
Commissioner Chris Cerf. He hits hard against our current governance model and
offers some keen insights into what needs changing, and why... Watch
the video here.
Briefly Noted: There might be method to that madness
- Virginia lawmakers are
shaking angry fists at Five Ponds Publishing—a textbook company that
refuses to submit its products for state review before marketing to districts. Who
is right? We at Fordham have
long criticized state textbook adoption practices, yet we also remember,
not so long ago, when a slew
of Virginia textbooks were found to include completely erroneous passages
about black battalions in the Confederate army. Maybe publishers need this kind of scrutiny.
- First came Carnegie Mellon’s open
courseware initiative, through which Joe American could access course
content online from this elite (and expensive) school. Next we had Stanford’s free online
classes. Now MIT is going one step further. The school will begin issuing certificates
for subject mastery of the free online courses that it offers. Big changes
are afoot in higher education—here’s looking to K-12 to follow suit.
- Speculation can now shift to commentary: Los
Angeles teachers have officially
approved their new labor contract, with provisions
that district schools can exercise charter-like autonomy, effectively
working around the contract. Fantastic idea. But it comes with a price tag: a three-year
moratorium on LAUSD’s Public School Choice program, which allowed outside
charters and nonprofits to take over failing LAUSD schools.
- Since 1992, 15 percent of the nation’s charter
schools have closed their doors, according to the
latest from the Center for Education Reform. But of those, only 18 percent
(or 2 percent of all charters) closed due to academic reasons. Starker results
even than our
own findings from low-performing charters. Expect a full review of the CER
analysis in January.
- Big ups to Florida, which announced
this week that it would raise the bar for passing its state assessments.
Ohio, will you follow suit?
- Indiana’s far-reaching voucher program is
under attack in the courts. The first judicial ruling is expected in about
- Over at The
Atlantic, John Bailey asks a telling
question: At a time when we just need more
and better teachers in the classroom,
why spurn any effort to bring them in, including
from the for-profit sector?
- Connecticut is on an
education-reform role. The latest? Its largest city, Bridgeport, snagged
former NOLA supe Paul Vallas as its interim leader.
Enrolling your child in a quality pre-K program (whether
public or private) in New York City is a cutthroat endeavor—and there’s no
guarantee that the hard work will land a decent placement. What’s a
middle-class Manhattanite to do? If they’ve got the will, banding with other
parents to create a pre-K
co-op program seems to be the next best option.
Announcement: Searching for a researcher
You: A dedicated, smart, and friendly person
with stellar writing and editing skills; keen research skills of both the
qualitative and quantitative sort; and a gift for management. Us: A national
leader on all things education reform, seeking a new research manager. Could be
a heavenly match. Learn more, including how to apply, here.
Announcement: Does accountability work forever?
Love it or hate it, the No Child Left Behind era can
boast some substantial bumps in student achievement in math—much like those
seen in Texas after its own accountability push in the 1990s. But is this well
drying up? Come to Fordham Live on January 5, 2012 from 8:30 to 10:00AM to find
out. We’ll hear from an impressive set of panelists: Charles Barone, Eric
Hanushek, Sandy Kress, and Marc Schneider, author of our recent paper, The
Accountability Plateau, which dives into this topic. Click
here to learn more about the event.
Featured Fordham Publication: Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students
This groundbreaking study from Fordham 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 students
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.