A Weekly Bulletin of News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 9, Number 14. April 23, 2009.

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This week on the Education Gadfly Show Podcast: People of gender?


Guest Editorial

From Checker's Desk

Recommended Readings

Flypaper's Finest

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Short Reviews


About Us

Guest Editorial

Imagining IES's future
Unless something unexpected happens during the Senate confirmation process, John Easton, who was just nominated by the White House, should be taking over as Director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in a matter of weeks.

He follows Russ Whitehurst, who as founding director created a respected social-science agency that pushed forward rigorous research, emphasizing randomized control trials (RCTs). In reality, IES has supported a wide range of research approaches, but the focus on RCTs is a defining characteristic of Whitehurst's legacy.

Easton represents a very different research tradition, which has caused much tooth-gnashing over whether his appointment represents a retreat from rigor. It is too early, of course, to tell where Easton will actually lead IES, but here are some milestones to watch for.

Assuming he is swiftly and uneventfully confirmed, it's important to pay close attention to Easton's introductory speech at the IES Research Conference scheduled for the first week of June. He will no doubt seize that opportunity to lay out his vision for the agency.

But we already have a pretty good roadmap. In February 2009, Easton and his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research--which he has led since 2002, obviously getting well acquainted with Arne Duncan during that time--issued a report entitled A New Model for the Role of Research in Supporting Urban School Reform. It spells out Easton's approach to education research, at least as developed and implemented in the Windy City.

The report contains several elements worth noting. First, the Consortium's work is almost entirely based on longitudinal data, which represents a different research approach than RCTs. IES is now charged with spending over $250 million to help states develop longitudinal data systems, which hold great promise but also face immense challenges. Easton's deep working knowledge of these types of systems and their potential to spur reform is a major asset in charting the IES research agenda, too. We can expect longitudinal analysis to occupy a larger place in IES's portfolio moving forward.

Another defining characteristic of Easton's experience is the deep relationship among the CCSR, Arne Duncan, and other major players in Chicago education. One tenet of CCSR was "no surprises" when reports were released. Indeed, the Chicago school district is represented on CCSR advisory boards and weighs in on the choice of research topics as well as the development of findings and reports.

The law that created IES establishes its independence and Whitehurst fought many battles to keep the process of writing, reviewing, and releasing IES reports free from the influence of political and policy types in the department and White House. This independence is central to the status and credibility of IES. While many of the CCSR's reports were critical of the Chicago schools and Easton did maintain the integrity of the Consortium, one important thing to watch is the degree to which Easton will succeed in protecting the independence of IES.

Another key indicator will be Easton's choice of leadership at the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE). Who he taps to head that Center when the term of the current commissioner ends in the fall will signal where RCTs will fit in the future of IES.

Another, perhaps subtler, marker is also embedded in that choice, because the NCEE Commissioner supervises the Regional Education Labs (RELs). The Labs have a long, often misunderstood, and sometimes misdirected history, and their scope of work, especially in relation to the development and dissemination of knowledge, changes from administration to administration. Under their current contracts, the RELs have been instructed to conduct RCTs and much of their autonomy and regional responsiveness has been curtailed. That has led some lab staff and constituents to complain that their ability to address the needs of state and local education agencies has been weakened that they have been forced to sacrifice relevance on the altar of rigor.

The CCSR offers an alternate model for the RELs. It emphasizes research that is easily interpretable by the Chicago education and policy communities since, as noted above, its research agenda is developed in conjunction with them. In short, the Chicago model maximizes the impact and utility of research by involving practitioners and policymakers in the process and rooting research in the local policy/political milieu. The REL contracts will be re-competed in about a year. The role RCTs will play (if any) in the next round of REL contracts will be telling, as will the degree to which REL decisions are centrally controlled.

Also, watch the R&D centers. The IES currently funds 13 of them, mostly housed in universities. Like the RELs, they must balance the creation of knowledge with its dissemination. In the past, there was a clear emphasis on producing academic knowledge; getting results into forms that practitioners could use was not always a priority. Easton's background suggests that there may be changes here. Will he establish processes that align the work of the R&D centers with that of the RELs and build a coordinated system whereby research-based tools and resources get to practitioners in usable forms? Stay tuned.

A final signal to monitor will be the call for research applications (RFAs) that are issued by the National Center for Education Research (NCER). The topics chosen for research competitions, the structure of the goals in the research, and who sits on review panels will all affect how the IES shapes education research. It will likely take about a year for any changes on that front to become evident.

The June speech will like lay out Easton's vision--but the actions noted above will be among the milestones marking his progress in achieving it.

By Mark Schneider

Mark Schneider is Vice President at the American Institutes for Research. He is also a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. From 2005-2008, he served as the Commissioner of Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.

From Checker's Desk

Budget cutting and stimulus spending: cui bono?
It's amazing how thoroughly the subject of money has taken over America's education conversation in recent months. By comparison, you don't hear that much about NCLB problems and reauthorization challenges anymore, or about curriculum, test scores, even teaching and teachers, except for how many may lose their jobs.

On one side is much dire talk about recession, revenue shortfalls, budget cuts and program eliminations. On the other side is happy jabber about federal stimulus funding and how it will magically salve budgetary bruises while simultaneously leaping over all known barriers to education reform. Indeed, behind the scenes, a tussle is audible between die-hard school reformers appalled by the prospect that these new (and possibly fleeting) federal dollars may wind up paying for more-of-the-same, and politicians (and school executives) grateful that Washington is sparing them from tough targeted cuts or painful across-the-board reductions.

I'm with the reformers, of course, though they don't have much leverage, considering the deep trenches through which Congress mandated that most of this money flow to districts, and the wide discretion accorded to those districts once it arrives. This probably means that wealthy and/or well-led school systems will do some good things with the federal largesse but those that most need to change won't. (A galaxy of private reform groups and deep-pocketed foundations is striving outside the government to avert my glum prediction and turn job-saving stimulus dollars into finally-we-can-do-it reform dollars. I surely wish them well.)

What's most striking, though, is the extent to which all this has placed the emphasis back on inputs and budgets and what money is spent on, rather than standards, results, and accountability. Today, I submit, American K-12 education is more focused on spending than on learning. (Some will remark that that's no different from yesterday but wise heads recognize that we've known since Coleman that student achievement is not tightly linked to resource levels.)

Everyone is obsessed with the economy, of course, and nobody likes to cut his budget--neither homeowner nor private firm nor public bureaucracy. But sometimes tighter belts are healthy. Every day brings more evidence that public education in a great many places could benefit from a diet if not a stomach-stapling. A recent McKinsey study found more than $100 million a year of unnecessary overhead-type spending in the Milwaukee schools' budget. The Arizona Daily Star queries why the Tucson system must fill four assistant-superintendent positions, each costing about $100,000 per annum. The Plain Dealer asks why Cleveland's new superintendent needs 18 central-office administrators with pay topping $130K apiece while the larger Columbus system has just four such administrators--and better results, too. (The paper also questions why this superintendent needs four deputies when his predecessor managed with just one.)
Laying off teachers gives almost everyone palpitations, yet one incisive school-finance analyst has noted that this painful form of cost-reduction, done right, could improve student achievement. Doing it right, of course, means riffing the least effective teachers rather than the most junior.

It works roughly this way: We know from innumerable studies that teacher effectiveness (unlike spending levels) powerfully affects how much and how well kids learn. Though we're not good at appraising their classroom prowess ahead of time, value-added analysis (combined with NCLB-era test data) makes it possible to do so in retrospect. Suppose that, for budgetary reasons, the Middle Earth School System needs to save $1 million in teacher pay. (Perhaps they've already cut central-office staff to the bone.) They could--and if they act like most districts will--fire 25 junior teachers who cost the district $40,000 each (including benefits). These people will typically be young, energetic, and all across the board when it comes to effectiveness.

Or Middle Earth could achieve the same fiscal result by laying off its 17 worst teachers whose cost--assume their pay is the district average--is about $60,000 each, fully loaded. (If it's $70K, booting fewer than 15 would suffice.) Doing this would have less negative effect on class sizes (because it subtracts fewer total teachers from the system) and a salutary effect on pupil achievement, because distributing their students among more-effective teachers (even if that enlarges classes by a couple of kids) is better for learning than sticking all of them with teachers from the tail end of the pedagogical-effectiveness spectrum.

You know why districts don't do things that way: They're required by contract or statute to lay off teachers according strictly to seniority. It's known as "last hired, first fired." It's a rule made not because it's good for kids but because that's how the unions--invariably dominated by senior teachers--want it to work.

Unfortunately, those sorts of priorities nearly always seem to come first when there's money on the table--whether the dollars are being added or subtracted. When budgets aren't the focus, student interests occasionally make it to the top along with issues of quality and performance: Are they learning what they should? Do they have decent choices among schools? Do their teachers know the subjects at hand? Are their schools making adequate progress? Are their textbooks any good? And so on.

Let budget issues come to the fore, however, and suddenly it's all about adult jobs and wages. The kids return to the back of the class. And quality takes a holiday.         

Welcome to American education circa 2009.

By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Recommended Readings

Another step toward national standards
It's been said before and is being said again: America needs national standards. So proclaimed representatives from 41 states last week, who met in Chicago to affirm their commitment to common expectations in math and English. "I've been in education more than 35 years, and we've had major meetings that have called for progress before, but I see [this] meeting as the first step to really taking aggressive action," explained Eric Smith, Florida's education commissioner. Secretary Arne Duncan has said he wants to use part of his economic stimulus kitty to push for national standards, and the collusion of states under the National Governors' Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers' leadership is certainly a big step forward. But the problems that derailed previous attempts at national standards still linger. Most importantly, it remains to be seen who will create, implement, and enforce these standards from the statehouse to the classroom--in other words, where the rubber will hit the road. Not to mention the assessments without which standards tend to lack traction. We'll bounce around some ideas gleaned from other countries at our upcoming May 5th conference.

"NGA, CCSSO Launch Common Standards Drive," by Michele McNeil, Education Week, April 17, 2009 (subscription required)

An unhappy union
Gadfly suffered some serious wing pains when news broke that teachers at New York's KIPP AMP planned to unionize; it would have been the third KIPP school in New York to have union ties (the other two, KIPP Academy and KIPP Infinity, have had union membership from the get-go because of a quirk in state law). Turns out AMP's teachers are having second thoughts--and teachers at Academy and Infinity are seeking to break their union ties, too. Even AMP teacher Kashi Nelson, who led the union charge, withdrew her support. At Academy and Infinity, the UFT had been butting in on teacher-leadership business without being asked to do so. "We were totally caught off guard, and our feeling was that we are happy at our schools and we don't need someone to step in on our behalf," explained Academy teacher Matt Hureau. "You feel like you have two parties who are freely communicating, so why would you want a third person to come in for that?" A valid question, indeed. Both matters are in front of the Public Employee Relations Board; we can only hope they side with the employees.

"Charter Schools Weigh Freedom Against the Protection of a Union," by Jennifer Medina, New York Times, April 20, 2009

"KIPP vs. the Teachers' Union," by Marcus Winters, City Journal, April 16, 2009

"Panel to Rule on Charter-Union Tug-of-War," by Yoav Gonen, New York Post, April 22, 2009

Good questions from on high
This was "education week" at the Supreme Court, with the justices hearing cases about student privacy and state obligations to fund programs for English language learners. While the former received most of the attention (it involved the strip search of a thirteen-year-old girl, after all), the latter could have greater implications for education policy. At issue was whether Arizona has done enough under a 1974 federal law to provide opportunities to students learning English. But the deeper issue is whether courts should be in the business of telling legislatures how to spend taxpayer dollars. Chief Justice John Roberts wondered aloud whether a district court could say, "You've got to spend this much money on this program, and I don't care what it means for jails, roads, anything else"? That's a great question; we hope other judges start asking it, too.

"Justices Weigh Arizona ELL Case," by Mark Walsh, The School Law Blog,, April 20, 2009

Did you hear that?
As if principals don't have enough land mines to avoid already, now they have to be delicate about decibels. San Antonio Police issued Olympia Elementary principal Terri LeBleu a ticket last week after a neighbor complained about the racket coming from her school during Family Fitness Day. This wasn't the school's first offense; complainant Butch Armstrong had raised Cain about the school's noise levels before. Never mind that the school had already installed a soundproofing 7-foot fence out back, put special backing on the basketball hoops (apparently, Butch was disturbed by the sound of ball-to-backboard), and banned loudspeakers. According to the responding police officer, Mr. Armstrong told him that, "police, fire, ambulances and the USAF training jets are not unreasonable, but the noise coming from the elementary school was." (The officer wasn't convinced, based on his "experience as a police officer and being of normal and ordinary sensibilities," whatever that may imply about Armstrong's own.) Unfortunately for LeBleu, other neighbors agreed. Bob Brown explained that the ground was vibrating as if he was in a "mosh pit at a rock concert and Ozzy Osbourne was up there." Chin up, Terri, at least that's all you have in common with Ozzy. You didn't inadvertently bite off the head of a live bat, right?

"Cops ticket principal for school noise," by Lindsay Kastner, San Antonio Express-News, April 13, 2009

Flypaper's Finest
A weekly selection of the best offerings from Flypaper, Fordham's blog.

Feeling hot, hot, hot!, Mike Petrilli
Our fickle Reform-o-Meter has been trending chilly lately, so this should come as a sign of spring: crank up the heat to hot, hot, Red Hot. That's because it's time to give the Obama Administration credit for hiring two fearless education reformers for key positions at the Department of Education: Jim Shelton (pictured at left), who will lead the Office of Innovation and Improvement, and Peter Groff (pictured at right), who will head the Office of Community and Faith-based Initiatives…Read it here.

All the world's a stage..., Andy Smarick
Back in April 1995, the New York City Partnership, an organization of NYC-based business leaders, released a report on overhauling Gotham's public education system. Titled "A System of Schools," the report has held up remarkably well over time, bordering on prescient in places…Read it here.

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

People of gender?
This week, we welcome guest co-host Howie Schaffer to the show. He and Mike debate the lessons of Columbine, implications of the long-drawn-out-but-perhaps-heading-towards-resolution Flores v. Horne Supreme Court case, and NGA and CCSSO's joint statement in support of national standards. Then Amber explains a new Manhattan Institute study on NYC's performance pay scheme and Rate that Reform is thick with research. (Research guiding reform?! Shocking!) Click here to listen through our website and peruse past editions. To download the show as an mp3 to your computer, click here (no iPod required--this link will play through any music software on your computer, including Windows Media Player or RealPlayer).

Short Reviews

The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools
McKinsey & Company
April 2009

Consulting giant McKinsey's new report on the achievement gap might not turn many heads in ed policy circles. But the company's reputation, combined with the report's economic findings, might just help thrust education more fully into the national consciousness. (In fact, the report received play from The New York Times' Tom Friedman prior to its release yesterday.) The study consists of three sections. The first details four worrisome achievement gaps: the international gap between the U.S. and other advanced nations; the racial gap between white students and students of color; the income gap between students from high- and low-income families; and the systems-based gap between neighboring classrooms, schools, districts, and states. The second portion examines the consequences of these gaps. The implications for individuals--lower career earnings, a higher probability of incarceration, a less healthy lifestyle, and lower civic engagement--are already widely known, but the impact on our nation's economy has been less explored. Using models that assume varying levels of progress between 1983's A Nation At Risk and 1998 (presumably, this 10 year gap between 1998 and 2008 was to let graduates filter into the working world, and thus effect GDP), McKinsey estimates that the racial, class, and systems gaps have each cost the U.S. somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 billion to $700 billion (2 to 5 percent of our GDP). But the international achievement gap delivers the real economic whammy: if the U.S. raised student achievement levels to those of high-performing nations like Finland and Korea, the "U.S. GDP in 2008 would have been between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher, representing 9 to 16 percent of the GDP." In comparison, the U.S. lost 6.3 percent of its GDP in the fourth quarter of 2008. The good news, according to the report's final section, is that schools matter "profoundly." If we can correct things like inequities in teacher quality and school funding and commit to investing in and utilizing better data, conclude the authors, we can make progress in closing gaps whose effect has been a "permanent national recession." You can find the report here.

By Ben Hoffman

The NYC Teacher Pay-for-Performance Program: Early Evidence from a Randomized Trial
Matthew Springer and Marcus Winters
Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute
April 2009

This random assignment study of New York City's School-Wide Performance Bonus Program isn't going to calm the controversy over performance-based pay--at least not yet. It looks at the math scores of 100,000 students in 200 Gotham schools and finds that the bonus program had no effect on achievement or on students', teachers', or parents' perceptions of the school learning environment. (Oddly enough, they found limited evidence that math performance decreased in larger participating schools but those findings are likely "spurious"--i.e., researcher talk for "lacks validity.") But don't despair yet. Although MI's report is an impact study, there were less than three months between the start of the performance-pay program and the administration of the state test. Virtually any educational intervention is doomed to have negligible effects if given 90 days or less to take effect. Seeking to downplay the impact angle of the study, analysts rightly term it a "baseline" endeavor and essentially say to hang tight until the program matures a bit. (Perhaps that's why MI made little effort to promote its findings.) Unfortunately, the program itself is weak. It uses the school rather than the individual as the unit of accountability, making for a feeble incentive (it was UFT-negotiated, after all), and the payout is small potatoes (three-fourths of the schools awarded a maximum individual bonus of $3,000 or less). But at least the name of New York's plan is honest: This is indeed a school wide bonus plan--and a far cry from individual merit pay.

By Amber Winkler

The Tax and Transfer Fiscal Impacts of Dropping Out of High School in Philadelphia
Neeta P. Fogg, Paul E. Harrington, and Ishwar Khatiwada
Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University for Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board
January 2009

This report's lengthy title sums up its main point: that dropping out of high school isn't just a loss for the individual; it also imposes a fiscal burden on city, state, and federal governments. The authors compare the mean annual net contributions to public coffers (city, state, federal) of Philly dropouts, high school graduates, those with some college, and those with bachelors or advanced degrees, using indicators of employment and earnings, home ownership, property taxes, annual tax payments, receipt of monetary and other social services, and incidences and costs of incarceration. Here's the bottom line: each student who drops out of high school in the City of Brotherly Love costs the city, state, and federal government $580,000 over their lifetime. Even more worrisome, only 32 percent of the city's dropouts are currently employed--compared to 58 percent of high school graduates, 70 percent of those with some college, and 82 percent of those with a four year degree. Although the study was well executed, the findings are nothing new. Brookings published a similar (national) study in 2007, which found that if a year's worth of 18-year-old dropouts graduated from high school, federal and state governments would score an additional $156 billion over their working lives from income taxes paid on higher earnings. Unfortunately, the authors of this report offer no suggestions on how to solve the dropout problem. We can only hope that Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman have some tricks up their sleeves for their anti-dropout campaign, Project U-Turn. You can find the study here.

By Katie Wilczak


Congress + K Street = Kongress?
It's not too late to RSVP for our much anticipated April 27 Great Debate: "Resolved: What should Republicans seek in education (with a focus on the federal role)?" Our panelists include three Congressmen who can shed some light on this important (but perhaps neglected) issue: Representative Mike Castle (R-DE) and Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Jim DeMint (R-SC). After all, politics are fickle and the GOP will have their day in the sun again. Email Christina Hentges at [email protected].

International instruction for national standards
You won't want to miss our May 5 conference, "International Lessons about National Standards." Michigan State's William Schmidt will offer major new findings while Education Secretary Arne Duncan will keynote. You can sign up for this all-day event at the Capitol Hilton in downtown D.C. by emailing Christina Hentges at [email protected].

About Us
The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Amy Fagan, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Christina Hentges, Ben Hoffman, Eric Osberg, Stafford Palmieri, Michael J. Petrilli, Laura Elizabeth Pohl, Katie Wilczak, Amber Winkler, and Yusi Zheng. Have something to say? Email us at [email protected]. Would you like to be spared from the Gadfly? Email [email protected] with "unsubscribe gadfly" in the text of your message. You are welcome to forward Gadfly to others, and from our website you can also email individual articles. If you have been forwarded a copy of Gadfly and would like to subscribe, you may either email [email protected] with "subscribe gadfly" in the text of the message or sign up online here. To read archived issues or obtain other reviews of reports and books, go to and click on the Education Gadfly link.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a nonprofit organization that conducts research, issues publications, and directs action projects in elementary/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.