A Weekly Bulletin of News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 9, Number 31. September 3, 2009.

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From Checker's Desk

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From Checker's Desk

One of you, please get out of the bed
In the world of education policy and education reform, recent months have seen the relationship between government and private philanthropy grow entirely too intimate. Many of our major foundations, including some for which I generally have high regard (and occasional gratitude for their help with Fordham's work), have, with the best of intentions, acted as if their foremost mission were to instruct federal and state officials on what to do, tug the strings of public policy in directions that they favor, and spend their own money in ways that compliment (or foreshadow) outlays of government funds. What's more, the flow of active human traffic between foundation and government offices--in both directions--suggests not only that there's much overlap between private and public agendas but also that some of the same folks are working both sides of that street in alternate months.

Much of this has centered on Secretary Duncan's billions of "race to the top" dollars and his earnest effort to deploy those moneys to stimulate worthwhile reforms, not just to backfill recession-drilled holes in state and local education budgets.

Because the changes Duncan favors--national standards, better data, performance-linked evaluations of teachers, alternative certification, charter schools, etc.--more or less align with the priorities of many nongovernment analysts and donors (myself included, I readily admit), it's no surprise that those outside government have been tempted to lend a hand to make it all happen. Duncan & Co. have understandably encouraged and welcomed such help. There have, as a result, been innumerable powwows, projects, technical assistance grants, and jawboning, underwritten and abetted by such major reform-minded donors as…well, I was going to name names, but you almost certainly know who they are.

And why ever not? After all, Uncle Sam has so much more money than even these deep-pocketed philanthropies. The careful targeting of those public funds could do so much good, catalyzing or accelerating greater and perhaps more durable activity at state/local levels than the private sector alone could hope to effect. Indeed it's tempting, nigh irresistible.

Perhaps in retrospect we'll conclude that the intimacy even did some good and produced some healthy progeny. But there's a problem here, too: the possibility of a Faustian bargain that, in the throes of short-term passion, fails to note the long-term risk.

From where I sit, the great advantage of and principal rationale for a healthy philanthropic sector in a country like the U.S. is its independence from government, its unique capacity to do what government can't or won't. That's a far different thing from serving as guide-dog, tugboat, or aide-de-camp to government itself. And that's the distinction we risk losing as foundations rush to help do government's work.

What private dollars can do uniquely and best is stand apart from government: Fund activities that are politically or constitutionally beyond government's reach; underwrite critics, evaluators, and analysts of public policies and programs; pay for inquiry, research, and advocacy that would be inappropriate for the public sector to undertake; and generally distinguish its work from that of government in a truly "independent sector." In a Wall Street Journal interview the other day, Eli Broad made clear that his foundation, for one, believes in "venture philanthropy" to jump-start worthy change, not in waiting for the government to sign on.

He's right, and recent history contains abundant examples of that distinctive private-sector role and the good that it can do in the education sphere.

Would Teach For America have gotten traction if it had relied from the beginning on public dollars? Would KIPP? Core Knowledge? Would the National Council on Teacher Quality have been able to put teacher contracts online? Would the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools exist? What about Education Next? The New Teacher Project? New Leaders for New Schools? Would we at Fordham, with our colleagues at Northwest Evaluation Association, have been able to examine and reveal the unevenness of school "proficiency" ratings under NCLB--or the effects of NCLB on high-achieving youngsters? Would Rick Hess have been able to probe the potential and limits of "entrepreneurship" in K-12 education? Would Joel Klein have been able to launch a fleet of charter schools in Gotham? Would Michelle Rhee be able to bargain seriously with the Washington Teachers Union over the evaluation, retention, and compensation of educators in the nation's capital?

Such lists could go on and on. It's not that the private funding that made these things possible was antithetical to sound public policy. It's that the private dollars enabled things to be done around, outside, and often in tension with government and politics; things that, over the long haul, tend to make for better education and sounder public policy. Due to politics, procurement rules, equity considerations, uniformity concerns, and plain old red tape and inertia, government could not pay for these things itself. And the private sector could pay for them only because it didn't much care what government thought. It had truly independent ideas of what would be good for education--and, as these examples suggest, more than a few of those ideas turned out to be sound. Some, indeed, led in time to government doing things it might not otherwise have done. Or stopped it from doing things it would have done.

This healthy tension only works, however, when the private sector remains truly autonomous, even aloof. When it can thumb its nose at government, politicians, and public officials and say "we're doing this, like it or not, because we believe it's good for American education and we don't have to pay attention to the many constraints that you in government must labor under."

That's really tough for philanthropists to do while also sharing a bed with government. It's not totally impossible but it's mighty hard, if only because elected and appointed officials at whatever level are apt to say "we can't work with the XYZ foundation because it's got a history of criticizing us, paying for studies that embarrass us, and funding people to give us grief." Stalwart philanthropists ought not be intimidated. But many are. Because it's always nicer to be thanked and taken seriously, and because it is so tempting to think that one's relatively meager private dollars are being multiplied by the government's zillions--and never more than today when private resources are down and public spending seems boundless--there's a strong temptation to bite one's own tongue and hug government tighter.

Perhaps no harm will come from this romance. Conceivably some good will follow. But the precedent is worrisome. On balance, I'm pretty sure, American education would be better served if the two sectors waved cheerily at one another but then slept in their own beds.
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

News and Analysis

Standardizing education advertising
As the school year starts, many an urban district has been disappointed by slack first-day enrollments. In Washington DC, for example, enrollment in DCPS has dropped from 49,422 in 2007-08 to 45,190 in 2008-09 and to just 37,000 on the first day of the class for 2009-10; that's twelve thousand students lost in only two years. Detroit, too, has seen a mass exodus from its public schools. State-appointed financial manager Robert Bobb budgeted for 83,777 students for 2009-10, 11,000 fewer than in 2008-09 (94,054) and a whopping 25,000 fewer than 2007-08 (108,145).

These urban centers suffer from two primary maladies. First, shifting economic conditions, particularly the loss of jobs in the inner city, have parents moving out to more affordable suburbs, where their buck goes further, life is simpler (and safer), and the schools are typically better. Second, a widening variety of non-district options are available to students, which means that an increasing number of students no longer "belong" to the school system.

Three responses are popular:

1. Kill the competition. Typical tactics include lobbying for state charter caps, directing negative PR campaigns, and starting charter-alternatives, like Boston's "pilot schools." Districts also try to discourage virtual schooling and homeschooling, fight voucher programs, and oppose inter-district choice. Though this is a popular option, at most it slows the pace of school choice; it doesn't reverse it or produce better alternatives for kids.

2. Improve the product. It's exactly what it sounds, and yet woefully uncommon. Broad in scope, it includes everything from organizational and policy changes to ones that directly affect teaching and learning. The heavy lifting here, however, makes it a tough sell. Few districts have made many strides in this area, preferring incremental changes that have limited impact; the ones that have taken it seriously deserve kudos for their efforts.

3. Advertise like crazy. Hire marketers. Use TV, radio, newspapers, Twitter, Facebook, and billboards to promote schools' strengths and downplay their weaknesses. Place "come hither" messages on the sides of city buses. Send district officials and school administrators to community fairs, to poster neighborhoods, or go door-to-door to talk to parents. This is a relatively new phenomenon for the traditional districts, though charter and private schools use it regularly. It doesn't much disrupt the system and it's relatively easy and inexpensive to do (at least compared to options 1 and 2).

Marketing became particularly popular as the back-to-school season started this year. School officials in Denver have been pounding pavement to give the recruitment process a personal touch. DC Public Schools opted for radio spots and bus ads. Detroit has started a $500,000 "I'm In" campaign, backed by the likes of Bill Cosby and Derrick Coleman.

It's slightly surprising that it's taken this long for many school districts to market themselves. Their competition has been advertising for years, recognizing that a functioning market requires functional marketing. It's also the Mama Bear option of the three--neither steaming (kill the competition) nor frozen (actually change your product). That's not to mention that it allows districts--and cities--to tackle two problems at once: luring back students and jobs.

It's good that district schools now understand that they're not a monopoly. Students do have other places to go; in fact, over 50 percent of students are employing some kind of school choice.

But school advertising can take both good and bad forms. On the one hand, schools can use this opportunity to describe the product they're trying to sell, warts and all. They can run truthful ads that accurately represent the condition of education. On the other hand, they can play on consumer hopes and fears, touting the nice-looking but unimportant bits--like spiffy facilities--and downplaying less welcome realities, like dismal test scores.

Madison Avenue has had plenty of practice with the latter approach. Using supermodels and celebrities, for example, to sell a product is one way to make a mundane, or even subpar, product more sexy. It's not that Entenmann's is exactly lying in its doughnut and pastry ads, but they downplay the negatives of a product (the fat and sugar content, for example) by diverting the consumer's attention to something else--like who's eating it and how yummy it is.

School districts sometimes do this, too. DC's summer bus ads, for example, showed groups of cheery children accompanied by quotes about how happy they were that they had stayed in the public school system. DCPS spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway explained to the Wall Street Journal, "We wanted to show the city that there are smiling, happy kids in D.C. public schools." There are no ads, of course, depicting school violence, abysmal test scores, or depressing graduation rates. Why mention the 600 calories in that delectable doughnut?

Denver has taken a different tack. When tempers flared over a Denver charter school flier that compared its higher graduation rates to those of surrounding district schools, the superintendent called in education consultant Amy Slothower to compose a code of conduct for ethical marketing. When it comes to the facts, Slothower explains, "So long as it's truthful, they can use it."

This makes sense for charters and districts alike, but it may not be enough. Advertising something as important as education requires a level of honesty, accuracy, and probity that surpasses that of doughnuts. A "truth-in-marketing" code for schools should focus on telling the truth and also minimizing deceptive spin and encouraging schools to spotlight numbers that matter--things like student achievement and graduation rates, not new football uniforms and building renovations. After all, this isn't just about your pants being a bit tighter after one too many pastries; this is about the education of a generation of children.

By Stafford Palmieri

Recommended Readings

Cleaning house
"Should a thousand bad teachers stay put so that one innocent teacher is protected?" That's what Steven Brill would like to know in his excellent New Yorker piece. The issue is due process: How much is too much and how little too little for the incompetent, miscreant, and excessed educators who remain on the payroll but not in a classroom? Of the 1,700 New York City teachers who live in this state of limbo, and will cost the city over $100 million in salary and benefits this year alone, how many deserve a second chance? The system, as written into the union contract, says all; common sense lists a number far fewer. Deputy chancellor Chris Cerf explains, "Our standard is tighter than 'beyond a reasonable doubt.'" So much tighter, in fact, that the two to five year arbitration cases for teachers accused of incompetence or misconduct typically take twice as long as most cases of the criminal persuasion. As elementary school principal Anthony Lombardi explains, "Randi Weingarten would protect a dead body in the classroom." But this should not be our biggest worry. Only a tiny fraction of the total number of incompetent teachers winds up in the famed rubber room or excessed teacher reserve pool. "If you just focus on the people in the Rubber Rooms, you miss the real point, which is that, by making it so hard to get even the obvious freaks and crazies that are there off the payroll, you insure that the teachers who are simply incompetent or mediocre are never incented to improve and are never removable," explains Lombardi. That's depressing enough to make any sensible reformer want to bounce his or her head against the wall.

"The Rubber Room: The battle of New York City's worst teachers," by Steven Brill, The New Yorker, August 31, 2009

"Amid Hiring Freeze, Principals Leave Jobs Empty," by Jennifer Medina, The New York Times, August 29, 2009

Stating the facts
While many school districts have experienced temporary state takeover--Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland come to mind--New Orleans may be the first to permanently remain under state control. In light of a new poll of Big Easy residents showing strong support for state-controlled charter schools, as well as pervasive distrust of the New Orleans Parish School Board, State Superintendent Paul Pastorek has laid out several plans for the future of state-led Recovery School District, including permanent state-hood. (There are other less-surprising options on the table too, such as a phased return of schools back to the city, probably to a new entity that would replace the Parish School Board.) It's difficult to argue with the progress in NOLA schools since RSD has been calling the shots--the percentage of failing schools is significantly down, while test scores continue to rise in every subject across every grade, charter and non-charter alike. RSD Superintendent Paul G. Vallas hails the state takeover as the most important of four key strategies to New Orleans reform, above charter schools, parental choice, and teacher quality. This is surprising because, historically, state takeovers have been much more successful at cleaning up financial corruption and waste than improving student learning. Then again, the New Orleans story is different than any other chapter in our nation's history.

"Pastorek: State-run schools to persist," by Brian Thevenot, New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 28, 2009

"'Race to the Top' Lessons From New Orleans," by Paul G. Vallas and Leslie R. Jacobs, Education Week, August 28, 2009 (subscription required)

King of the jungle
Much has been said and written in memoriam about the Lion of the Senate. Since education policy was one of Senator Ted Kennedy's primary interests, we will add our voices to that chorus. Of all the particular facets of his legacy, the one we'll miss most is his singular focus on getting things done, enabled by his willingness to compromise and reach a conciliatory hand across the aisle. Is there anyone in either chamber that could step into that void? This isn't just a matter of which Democrat will succeed Kennedy as Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, though that individual will need a steely mettle, but an issue of Kennedy's unique form of leadership. Kennedy was a "dedicated liberal," explains Jack Jennings, President of the Center on Education Policy. But he "would have compromised this way or that way in order to get legislation through….I'm not sure there is somebody who could take over who would have that ability at this time." We're not sure either. One thing is for certain, though; the Lion's roar will be missed on many issues, not the least of which is education.

"Kennedy Gone; Power Shuffles Likely on K-12," by Alyson Klein, Education Week, August 28, 2009

Flying past the competition
Bart Sutherin is a total helicopter parent. Really. He flew his son, ninth grader Joseph Sutherin, to his first day of school this year in a rented bird. Unfortunately, neither Joseph nor his father thought to alert school district officials or the local sheriff's office to their plan. And the unexpected chopper was reported to the FAA, which is now investigating the incident. The idea was to "make a positive impression on the other students," says the father. Joseph agrees, "It wasn't something everyone did every day. It would be extraordinary, and I could say, 'Yeah, I flew into the school in a helicopter.'" But Principal David E. Cunningham would like to keep helicopter parents strictly metaphorical: This is "not something that needs to happen every day--or ever."

"Boy gets special ride to school--in a helicopter; FAA alerted," by Denise-Marie Balona, Orlando Sentinel, August 26, 2009

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

A new kind of victim-blaming, Jamie Davies O'Leary
One frequently hears arguments that redirect blame from failing schools (and their teachers and principals) to ubiquitous social monsters that are bigger and hairier (poverty, broken families, crime) but also impossible to hold accountable. I get this. There are undeniable correlations between student achievement and socioeconomic status…This comment by Metro Association of Classroom Educators chairman John Trotter (affiliated with Atlanta Public Schools), however, is a new way to redirect blame, and one that I can't make peace with…Read it here.

Big dogs and little dogs alike give their 2 cents on RTTT criteria, Amber Winkler
Education Week posted a blog recently with a link to the slew of comments offered up by folks in response the U.S. Department of Education's criteria for awarding the Race to the Top (RTTT) funds (i.e., $4 billion dollars in competitive grants). There are over 1,500 comments from educational organizations, think tanks, policymakers, advocacy groups, teachers, you name it...One could spend days and days combing through the PDF files, but here are a handful that I opened to read…Read it here.

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Hey Andy, where's Babe the blue ox?
This week Mike, and not-really-a-guest-but-semi-regular-co-host Andy Smarick, discuss the English teacher practice of letting students pick their own reading material, the new Boston Parent University, and performance pay for Los Angeles top school officials. Then Amber tells us about a new Ed Next study on the Obama Effect and Rate the Reform gets swine flu. 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

Americans Speak Out: Are Educators and Policy Makers Listening?--The 41st Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools
William J. Bushaw and John A. McNee
Phi Delta Kappan
September 2009

This hefty annual offering, which features some repeat questions and others dusted-off less frequently, is worth a yearly revisit. There's so much data in this big guy that we'd be hard pressed to even scratch the surface but we'll give it our best shot. So what do we think about public education in 2009? First, public schools aren't great and are getting worse.While most of us (51 percent) rate our local schools highly, far fewer (19 percent) are pleased with public schools nationally. Fifty percent say children today get a worse education than they received themselves. Second, we don't like the brand called No Child Left Behind but we support its major mandates.Just 28 percent look favorably on NCLBand only 24 percent believe the law is helping our local schools. Yet, two-thirds of us support requiring annual tests in grades three through eight, and this support has remained steady since 2002. And just one-third support letting each state use its own tests; instead, we continue to favor using a single standardized test nationwide, just as we did in 2002. (This should be welcome news to the Common Core State Standards initiative.) Third, we're not convinced early childhood education is worth the investment.Fifty-nine percent of us (including 53 percent of public school parents) believe that starting formal education one year earlier than usual would have a negative or no effect on children's future academic achievement (this is down just two points from 1997). Further, fewer of us are willing to pay more in taxes to fund preschool for disadvantaged children (42 percent said no in 2009, up from 36 percent in 1993). Fourth, we're pro-merit-pay and want to use student achievement to inform it.Seventy-two percent of us support merit pay for teachers, and 73 percent believe it should be fed by student performance measured by standardized tests. Fifth, charter support is growing. Two-thirds now support the idea of charter schools, up 15 percent from five years ago. And sixth, we're not as informed as we think we are.Nearly three-quarters of us claim to be "well-informed" or "fairly well-informed" about public schools. At the same time, more than half of us do not think charter schools are public schools, 46 percent believe they can teach religion, 57 percent say they can charge tuition, and a whopping 71 percent believe charters can select students based on ability--up from 58 percent just three years ago. Read the report here.

By Emmy Partin

The Persuadable Public
William Howell, Martin West, and Paul Peterson
Education Next
Fall 2009

Public opinion remains largely stable over time, as demonstrated by the latest Kappan poll results. This is in large part due to the fickleness of public discourse, explain the authors of this brief, in which constantly shifting support for or against an idea tends to cancel itself out in the aggregate. But are there factors that can shape public discussion? This 10-pager combines a couple of surveys, the most interesting and recent (March 2009) of which looks at the effect of new information--specifically the support of President Obama or research evidence--on public opinion. The authors asked three groups of respondents about three common education policy topics: merit pay, charter schools, and school vouchers. The first group they asked without any qualifying information; the second group was informed if Obama supported (merit pay and charter schools) or opposed the idea (school vouchers); and the third group was presented with research that supported (merit pay and charter schools) or refuted the policy (school vouchers). Then each group of respondents was broken down by political affiliation and race. In all three cases, presidential opinion and research evidence influenced respondents' support or lack thereof. When told that Obama supported merit pay, for example, respondents liked the idea 13 percentage points more than those who were not told of Obama's support; supportive research evidence hiked respondent patronage by six percentage points. African-Americans were even more likely to support merit pay after told Obama supported the concept; their support jumped from 12 to 31 percent. And, in general, across all three topics, Democrats tended to respond more markedly to presidential opinion and to research evidence than Republicans. A second part of the brief concerns an older survey that looked at public knowledge on education; echoing the Kappan results, this survey found that Americans know much less than they think they do. The lesson to be learned, it seems, is that public opinion can be influenced by political actors and research evidence--and this can be helpful if used well, or dangerous if used poorly. Read it here.

By Stafford Palmieri

From Our Readers

Continuing the constitutional conversation
To the editor:

Imagination. Statesmanship. Courage. Adaptation. This is the call of Checker Finn, and it is directed right at the United States Department of Education. In his recent piece "A constitutional moment for American education?" (August 6, 2009), Finn argues that now is the moment in our history when we need something more than reform. The public education system of the country is in some fairly dire straits: Drop-out rates are high, our test scores are mediocre compared to our international peers, and teachers are fleeing the ranks in much greater numbers than we can afford. It is a scary but exciting moment to work in education, though, because we can ask questions like this: "Can we muster the imagination, leadership, and persistence to devise a different and better arrangement?"

Learning Point Associates offers an alternative to "business as usual" in how we think and talk about maximizing the talent that currently inheres in our schools but so rarely is allowed to flourish. In our recently released Thought Paper, "Toward the Structural Transformation of Schools: Innovations in Staffing," we present a new model of differentiated school staffing, one that allows teachers to specialize in the work of teaching in ways that will best serve each individual student so that every student succeeds. Grounded in the idea that transformation in American schooling is occurring whether we embrace it or not, moving toward differentiated staffing is one key to ensure an intelligent redesign.

We understand that taking steps to solve the teacher issue alone is no silver bullet, but we strongly believe that this is an important and necessary first step on the road to a new system that really works for all learners. And we'd like to ask others to step with us.

Jane Coggshall
Molly Lasagna
Learning Point Associates


Education, courts, and a great new book
Remember that top-notch conference that we hosted with AEI last year on the courts and education? Well that material has now been compiled into a stellar new book, From Schoolhouse to Courthouse, to be published jointly by Fordham and Brookings Institution Press on September 8. You can order your copy here.

Charter development position
Want to apply your fundraising and managerial skills to the charter sector? Harlem Village Academies is seeking a Chief Development Officer, who would be in charge of making sure that HVA hits its revenue goals. The ideal candidate would have spent eight to ten years in fundraising or business and be a strong do-whatever-it-takes team player. Cover letters and resumes (in pdf format) should be sent to [email protected] with "HVA--Chief Development Officer" in the subject line. More information about the position can be found here.

About Us
The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Jack Byers, Amy Fagan, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Mickey Muldoon, Jamie Davies O'Leary, Eric Osberg, Stafford Palmieri, Emmy Partin, Michael J. Petrilli, Laura Elizabeth Pohl, Terry Ryan, Janie Scull, 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.