A Weekly Bulletin of News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 9, Number 22. June 18, 2009.

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From Checker's Desk

Global grades for U.S. states
How much more "international benchmarking" does American education actually need? Gary W. Phillips's inspired new study of how U.S. states and (some) districts are doing vis-à-vis the rest of the world suggests that we already have a heckuva lot of performance information available right under our noses. We just needed Phillips, a veteran top official at the National Center for Education Statistics, now at American Institutes of Research (AIR), to show us how to analyze it.

What he's produced (under AIR's aegis) is a set of metrics that enables readers to see how the math performance of students in countries that participated in TIMSS in 2007 compared to the performance of U.S. students on NAEP (in grades 4 and 8) that same year. What makes this possible is that the underlying TIMSS and NAEP "frameworks," assessments, scoring schemes, and sampling arrangements are sufficiently similar in this subject; math is also a subject that every state must test via NAEP and that a handful of big-city districts test via NAEP's "trial urban district assessment" (TUDA).

Phillips superimposed an American-style grading system on TIMSS countries' academic performance--and then used statistical manipulations to devise an equivalent grading system for U.S. states and cities.

In 4th grade math, for example, country grades ranged from B+ (Hong Kong, Singapore) down to D (Iran) and "below D" (Columbia, Kuwait, etc.). The international average was a C; the OECD (wealthy, mostly-western countries) average was C+; the U.S. grade was also C+.

Eighth grade results were similar but a bit lower: fewer B's and C's, many more D's, and averages at C rather than C+.

Then Phillips devised similar marks for U.S. states based on their NAEP results. These range (in 4th grade) from B (MA, MN, NJ, NH, KS) through lots of C's to D+ for the District of Columbia. We can see that every state (except D.C.) surpassed the international average in 4th grade math but only half of them did better than the OECD average.

The eighth grade results are roughly similar, except that there Massachusetts was the only state with students scoring in the "B" range (B-, actually).

Suppose you are most interested in Ohio. Its estimated TIMSS score (for 8th grade) was 516 (C+). You can "map" that onto the actual TIMSS results and see that Ohio lands between England and Hungary. It does better than a bunch of countries but worse than the Asian "tigers" with grades in the B range. (The whole study would be more striking if there weren't so much grade compression in B-C territory.)

Now suppose you are most interested in California. Its estimated TIMMS score (also for 8th grade math) was 485--a flat C. That places its students between those of Italy and Serbia--again better than a lot of countries but worse than a dozen, including Russia, Australia, Sweden, and Scotland (as well as the Asian tigers).

Phillips went on to apply this analysis to the eleven big-city districts that took part in the TUDA-NAEP math assessment in 2007. Their best grades are C+ (in 4th grade) and C (in 8th) but they also have a lot of D+ marks, particularly in 8th grade. Los Angeles, for example, came in at 457 in 8th grade (versus the California score of 485 noted above), which places it around the international average (adjacent to Bosnia-Herzegovina), but far below the OECD average.

There are obviously limits to such analyses. Math is the only subject in which every U.S. state participates in NAEP and that is tested by TIMSS. (TIMSS covers science, too, but states aren't obligated to participate in NAEP science assessments and those don't occur as frequently.) I don't know whether the "PIRLS" international literacy assessment is similar enough to NAEP's reading assessments to yield such comparisons. Maybe Phillips can figure that out.

Demographics are limiting factors, too, and can't be sorted out with these samples at the macro level. We might want to know, for example, how low-income American students compared with low-income Australians or Scots, and it could be more illuminating to compare Los Angeles with, say, Sydney or Birmingham, than with entire states and nations.

The biggest limitation, of course, is that, while this sort of analysis is intensely revealing at the state-federal policy level, it tells us nothing about our own child or his/her school. Except for TUDA districts, it doesn't even tell us anything about our own school district. For that kind of information--actionable information at the community and family level--we must currently depend on state testing regimens, and we have a huge pile of sad evidence that those are discrepant, uneven, and even misleading.

That's why I remain a fan of national testing. To get there, however, we must first develop some sort of national standards. The folks busily doing that today--the NGA-CCSSO "common standards" project--haven't even embarked on the lower grades as yet, much less on the assessment part. In the end, though, assessments are needed if the standards are to have traction in the real world. (Now that Secretary Duncan has pledged hundreds of federal millions to underwrite test development, though, one assumes it will eventually happen.) If we want those new assessments to lend themselves to international comparisons, à la Phillips--not needed at the "policy level," we can now see, but important if we seek to compare individual districts, schools or kids to the world beyond our borders--then the underlying frameworks, ie., the standards themselves, the work being done today in sealed rooms somewhere in Washington, must be similar to TIMSS and/or other international tests. (We don't have space here to examine the pros and cons of TIMSS vs. PISA, etc.; suffice to say, TIMSS makes more sense for a bunch of reasons.) This also means that, if the standards-developers go off on tangents that cannot be measured--the biggest risk here is an overdose of "21st Century skills"--we will not, in the end, be able to determine how our students and schools compare with anybody at all.

Because students rarely acquire skills and knowledge that aren't actually taught, however, a properly aligned education system must also address curriculum and instruction. We can see that Massachusetts and other relatively high-performing states have focused on such alignment. So must the users of whatever emerges from national standard-setting. Lessons from abroad may prove helpful here, too.

But what Gary Phillips has shown us we don't need is for U.S. states and cities to sign up for TIMSS (or PISA) themselves. Those sorts of comparisons can already be done--and Phillips deserves kudos for showing the way.
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

From Terry's Desk

Don't count Ohio out just yet
The "Great Recession" has been painful for all Americans, but especially cruel for Ohio cities like Youngstown, Toledo, Canton, and Fordham's hometown of Dayton. According to a recent analysis by Moody's, "Nine of the 15 metros with the largest decline in economic output were in Florida, Michigan and Ohio." In looking ahead, it is clear to analysts, politicians and business leaders that those cities that do the best job of keeping and attracting well-educated young people will pull out of the recession faster and be in the best position to grow and thrive when the economy revives.

For this reason, it was disheartening to many political, civic, and community leaders in Dayton to hear Bill Nuti, the New York City-based CEO of National Cash Register, explain why he was moving Dayton's last Fortune 500 Company to Atlanta after 125 years in Ohio. Among the Atlanta area's attractions, Nuti cited "the high availability of a skilled work force" and the presence of "a lot of young, educated people." Even more stinging were the words of an anonymous source in the Georgia governor's office who told the Atlanta Business Chronicle that, "They can't recruit talent to move to Dayton, Ohio."

Is all hope lost for aging Midwestern cities like Dayton?

Not necessarily. This was one of the important findings from Fordham's new study "Losing Ohio's Future: Why college graduates flee the Buckeye State and what might be done about it." Start with the fact that Ohio is blessed with 75 four-year colleges and universities serving more than 620,000 students. Three of them rank in the top 100 nationally according to U.S. News and collectively they conferred 110,000 degrees in 2008. Ohio is attracting and developing plenty of talent with the potential to drive its future economic development.

The challenge is keeping these folks in the state. To figure out ways to do this, we asked the nonpartisan FDR Group to survey sophomores, juniors, and seniors at seven of Ohio's top colleges and universities. What they found is that a solid majority of those surveyed (58 percent) plan to leave Ohio after finishing college. These are surely disturbing numbers that doubtless reflect the economic worries of young people. Ohio's unemployment rate is over 10 percent, and new graduates face the worst job market in decades.

Indeed, their primary concern is jobs. Almost nine in ten Ohio college students say good jobs and career opportunities will be important criteria when they decide where to live during the first few years after graduating. Yet only eleven percent of them give Ohio an excellent rating on this front.

Still, opportunity lurks in this finding. College students see the value of internships and mentoring programs that would expose them to potential careers. They also seem to understand that such programs beget connections that can ultimately lead to jobs. More than half are very interested in internships in local businesses and organizations (59 percent), co-op programs (53 percent), and opportunities to meet with local companies (52 percent).

The state is already encouraging such programs and practices. According to the Columbus Dispatch, "At present, 46,443 Ohio students take part in internships or co-ops, where they work for a term while earning college credit." Higher education chancellor Eric Fingerhut wants to more than double that figure by 2017, and says the state can do this despite its looming budget deficit. Further, explains Fingerhut, "We feel very strongly that this program… could make Ohio one of the most top-rated states in terms of the linkage of jobs for our graduates through internships."

Another sign of hope amid the gloom is an unexpectedly high level of interest in the education field among Ohio's top college students. Whereas about 10 percent of Ohioans with college degrees presently work as public school teachers, 37 percent of college students--and 29 percent of STEM majors--would definitely consider being a public-school teacher for at least a few years. There is more talent available to education, even in subjects like math and science, than the state is presently tapping--a valuable resource for improving Ohio's K-12 education system.

Ohio is down but not out, and if it rises from the current economic morass it will be because it has found ways to keep talented people in the state, and has opened its classroom doors to a sizable percentage of the top-notch folks who stay. These objectives are achievable. But it won't be easy.

Terry Ryan

Recommended Readings

Say Shalom to another quasi-religious charter school
Can you really take religion out of a religious school? That was the question on many minds when seven D.C. Catholic schools went charter last fall (and when NYC Catholic schools pondered a similar strategy this spring). Now a similar question is being asked about a proposed Hebrew-language charter school in New York City: Can you really have a public school based around a religion-steeped culture--minus the religion? Unlike the Catholic conversions, the Hebrew Language Academy (HLA) will not have to remove icons from its walls or subtract religious classes from its schedule. But it must wrestle with how to teach character and culture without an over-reliance on God, the Torah, or the Talmud. School founder Sara Berman explains that the school simply aims to offer students "a great curriculum and a great way to learn Hebrew." But others expect HLA to spell trouble for (expensive) private Jewish day schools, now that Jewish parents will have a (free) alternative that they can supplement with (low-cost) religious instruction after hours. Such competition isn't unhealthy; furthermore, Gadfly isn't much bothered if the lines between religious instruction and public schools get blurred a bit more. The Supreme Court has already ruled that the Constitution permits publicly-funded vouchers to support religious schools. It's but another half step to allow parents to choose publicly-funded religious charter schools, too.

"Hebrew Brouhaha," by Thomas W. Carroll, The New York Post, May 29, 2009

"Why Pay For Religious Schools When Charters Are Free?," by Erica Schacter Schwartz, Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2009

Forty-five thousand students. Four lessons. Two Years. One Woman.
"Michelle, why would you agree to be photographed with a broom on the cover of Time magazine?" That was D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray's top query when he sat down with the no-nonsense schools chancellor a few months ago. That visual image, for many, illustrates Rhee's tenure in the nation's capital--gutsy but alienating--and Bill Turque of the Washington Post investigates why in a long review of her two years at the school system's helm. Turque uses all the phrases--"quest to upend and transform," "passion, urgency and a conviction," "national following as standard-bearer"--that one must use to describe Rhee and her first 24 months. But he also explores some of her shortcomings and the lessons she should learn from them: That her national celebrity status alienated teachers and parents in the District; that her burgeoning money coffers couldn't sway the union on pay, performance, and tenure; that she needed to play, at least, some politics; and that her "well-intentioned reforms" might lead to "new problems." These are generally fair and Rhee has moved to address many of them. But as the author notes, she "has lost none of her zeal," and in a district as troubled as D.C.'s, Gadfly knows we need zeal like hers in spades.

"Two Years of Hard Lessons For D.C. Schools' Agent of Change," by Bill Turque, The Washington Post, June 14, 2009

Charlotte's lemons get squeezed
The Charlotte-Mecklenberg school district blazes another trail: making teacher lay-off decisions based on performance evaluations, not seniority. If that raised your eyebrows, prepare to have them meet your hairline. For coupled with these cutbacks, the district is also looking to hire 100 more Teach For America alums to fill its classrooms, and favoring TFA hires with satisfactory evaluations over more senior teachers. "The idea was that we have a relationship with these folks [TFA teachers] who are in the toughest schools and situations," explained school board member James L. Ross II. "We could build that long-term if these people can stick around." Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, offers a sage comment on the situation: "The unions need to be asking themselves why is it superintendents would even consider a strategy which looks so patently unfair to veteran teachers. They've got to come to grips with the fact that TFA is clearly bringing something to the table that other teachers do not appear to be bringing." Kudos to Charlotte for saying, "Bring it on."

"N.C. District Lets Go of Veteran Teachers, But Keeps TFA Hires," by Stephen Sawchuck, Education Week, June 12, 2009 (subscription required)

The end of free public schools?
Tough economic times mean looking for creative ways to stay in the black. For schools short on options, this often means simply asking parents to pitch in a few coins, a practice widely seen on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, some British parents say these "voluntary" contributions are not voluntary at all--and they're feeling bullied by the schools' heavy-handed tactics. "Our accounts indicate you have not made a contribution," reads one letter from school to parents. "Our records indicate you have not contacted us," reads another. And if there's no room in one's family budget for educational generosity? You'll have to explain yourself to school leaders: "We always invite parents to write us to explain their circumstances and propose an alternative." But why are parents giving in? Because not paying means running the risk that their child will be excluded from school activities--or that a younger sibling won't get into the same secondary school as an older brother or sister. The schools are even demanding money from the pupils themselves. "If you try to evade paying," threatened one letter to a teenage boy, "then your sixth-form privileges will be removed." And they were (he was banned from the school common area), until the hassled lad used his Christmas money to satisfy his "voluntary" obligation. Since no system monitors how money is requested, there's no way to know how much schools are demanding--or receiving or spending. We know budgets are tight, but let's not redefine "optional" to mean "compulsory." Let's hope this trend doesn't cross the pond.

"Serious brass," by Jessica Shepherd, The Guardian, June 16, 2009

Summer bummer
If there's a riot in the Chino, California schools next month, blame it on…an accounting error? The state requires that pupils spend at least 54,000 minutes in instructional time each year and no fewer than 180 minutes on any one day. An end-of-year audit discovered that, on 34 days, instructional time at Dickson and Rolling Ridge Elementary Schools lasted only 175 and 170 minutes, respectively, even though both schools had exceeded the total minute requirement. Though the combined minutes lost could be made up with just a few extra days, state law says that any day under 180 minutes doesn't count at all--meaning unless both schools stay open for an additional 34 days, i.e., until July 31, the district could lose $7 million in state funds. What do the kids have to say about this debacle? Sean Cornish, age 10, sums up the general malaise thusly: "They think it's dumb, that they have to go to school for these extra days because some lady messed up." But if we think about this glass as half-full, these students might escape the typical "summer learning loss" of their peers with longer summers, though this seems a lousy way to introduce year-round schooling. Maybe someone should take advantage of this naturally-occurring experiment and find out.

"Chino district's error delays summer break by 34 school days for some students," by Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2009

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

On scaling-up and turning-around, Mike Petrilli
There's a lot of buzz in the policy community right now around scaling up high-performing charter schools and turning around low-performing public schools. That's mostly because Arne Duncan has been talking up these issues and indicating that he wants to put big bucks behind both efforts. I'm more enthusiastic about the former than the latter, but there's reason to be skeptical about both. That's because I don't hear a lot of straight talk (except on Flypaper, of course). Let me try to offer some…Read it here.

Elegy on a lost cause, Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Ever since The Education Gadfly critically reviewed NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein: What Parents, Teachers, and Policymakers Need to Know, we've been bombarded with messages from aggrieved contributors and editors of that 172-page volume (which you can find here) charging that we were unfair. (One of the editors will have a "letter to the editor" to that effect in this week's Gadfly.)…Read it here.

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Rick's green thumbs
This week, Mike and Rick discuss whether benchmarking state test scores against international assessments removes the need for a national test, the merits--or lack thereof--of tracking, and non-religious religious charter schools. Amber is off this week but Rate that Reform comes roaring in with a discussion of race-based rallies to pump students up pre-test day. 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 Nation's Report Card: Arts 2008
Institute of Education Sciences
June 2009

Has NCLB sacrificed art, history, and science on the altar of math and reading? Some say yes, others no, but actual data have been elusive. At least in the case of the music and visual arts, this NAEP report suggests some concrete (but complex) answers. NAEP has not gathered data in this area since 1997 (perhaps an indication of how NCLB has deflected our focus from these subjects) so, though not a causal study of NCLB's impact, this report does shed light on how the study of the arts has changed over the past eleven years. The assessment was administered to a national sample of nearly 8,000 eighth graders in both public and private schools; half were assessed in music, half in the visual arts. Student performance can at best be described as middling. Measured on a scale of 0-300, music scores range from 105 for the lowest-performing students to 194 for the high-flyers. Visual arts scores were very similar. (Unlike other NAEP tests, this one included a variety of assessment items, even asking students to create an original work of art. Thus results are not reported in terms of the familiar NAEP achievement levels.) And while comparisons can only be made between 1997 and 2008 on certain items, we see a significant decrease in music performance since 1997 while performance in the visual arts remained steady. Achievement gaps also persist: White and Asian scores were 22 to 32 points higher on both tests than those of black and Hispanic students. But while some scores dropped, availability of music and art classes seems not to have diminished. Fifty-seven percent of eighth graders attend schools where, according to their principals, music instruction is offered at least three times a week and 47 percent attend schools where visual arts is offered at least as often; these figures haven't changed appreciably since 1997. Some might cite this as evidence that the arts haven't been crowded out by NCLB, but note that the data cover eighth grade only; lower grades may have been more vulnerable to a reading-math squeeze. Note, too, that NAEP data don't tell us how many students in schools actually participate in the arts, or whether these offerings are any good for the youngsters who choose to take them. Hence, we don't yet really have as many answers as we might wish. You can find it here.

Amber Winkler

Understanding and Reporting on Academic Rigor: A Hechinger Institute Primer for Journalists
Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Columbia University
June 2009

For journalists who cover education, keeping up with the newest buzzwords can be a heavy lift. These 30 pages attempt to illuminate the latest adage rolling off the tongues of principals and philanthropists alike: academic rigor. As Joanne Jacobs and Richard Lee Colvin, two of this primer's authors, explain, "everybody seems to be either promising rigor, demanding rigor, or deploring the lack of rigor in American schools…But translating that rhetoric about rigor into classroom reality will not be easy, and it will mean that journalists need to know more about the origins of the new push for rigor." To educate them, we find here a collection of short essays that approaches rigor from every imaginable angle. For example, two cognitive scientists explain the neuroscience behind rigorous learning. Teachers lend their opinions on how journalists can spot rigor in classrooms. There's an essay on career and technical education and the potential for rigor in those learning environments. And there's a piece on AP and IB courses that asks: "Are They Truly Rigorous?" The answer, the author finds, jibes with (and in fact, cites) our own report on AP and IB tests: That they are "mostly gold and mostly worthy of emulation." The compendium even lists eight solid story ideas and dozens of probing questions that journalists might ask when reporting on local claims of academic rigor; these alone make the report valuable to members of the media. Find it here.

By Alex Klein

From Our Readers

Setting the record straight
To the Editor:

The Gadfly review of NYC Schools Under Bloomberg & Klein: What Parents, Teachers and Policymakers Need to Know was perfunctory and unfair. As one of the editors and a contributor to the volume, I would like to set the record straight.

Your reviewer faults the book as one-sided, because the book takes a critical view of the Bloomberg-Klein regime. This is accurate. The book does indeed have a point of view. It is a critique of the Bloomberg/Klein policies and an incisive examination of the negative results in terms of student achievement, equity, school overcrowding, and classroom conditions--in order to correct the generally one-sided and distorted picture that has so far dominated the mainstream media.

If a book must be disqualified as "unfair" because it has a clear point of view, nearly every publication of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute is equally guilty. David Whitman's Sweating the Small Stuff advocates for paternalistic schools and thus by this token is "unfair" to non-paternalistic schools. Louisa Moats argues for phonics, which would make her "unfair to Balanced Literacy." "Fund the Child" advocates weighted-student funding, but ignores the negative, destabilizing consequences of this approach. In the future, perhaps Fordham's publications should be equally balanced between the pro and con views on choice, charters, and accountability and other issues of the day.

What your reviewer failed to mention is that our book contains well-documented evidence that the Bloomberg-Klein administration has overstated its gains in virtually every area, including the achievement gap, national test scores, equity issues, and the progress of small schools. Our authors are an extraordinary group of scholars, advocates and public school parents, including your colleague, the historian Diane Ravitch; Jennifer Jennings, the sociologist previously known as eduwonkette; Deborah Meier of New York University; and Aaron Pallas, a senior sociologist at Teachers College, Columbia University.

I hope your readers will judge for themselves by downloading the book at

Leonie Haimson
Class Size Matters


Google, Goldman, and Fordham
"Breaking news: Google slips from number 1 to number 4 on Fortune's list of best companies to work for. Who's the new subject of every employee's dreams? The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a small Washington D.C.-based think tank that focuses on education policy…" Okay, we made that headline up (though Google really did slip to the fourth spot). But if Fortune one day decides to throw tiny non-profits into the mix, TBFF would surely make the cut. It's really lucky, then, for you, loyal reader, because we're hiring! That's right, you could have the opportunity to join our team, the iPhone 3G S of think tanks, as our new Research Assistant. Can't wait to find out how? Click here for all the deets.

Great Minds…Trust
Are you an education entrepreneur looking for help to incubate your ideas? You might be a perfect candidate for The Mind Trust's Education Entrepreneur Fellowship. It offers the support and financial backing to help launch and maintain break-the-mold education ventures with a fulltime annual salary of $90,000 for two years, benefits, and customized training. But don't wait, because the application deadline is barely a month away: July 31, 2009. Find more information and how to apply here.

About Us
The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Will Compernolle, Amy Fagan, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Christina Hentges, Suzannah Hermann, Alex Klein, Mickey Muldoon, Eric Osberg, Stafford Palmieri, Michael J. Petrilli, Laura Elizabeth Pohl, and Amber Winkler. 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.