A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 10, Number 4. January 28, 2010

Find an easier-to-read version here.

This week on The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Fordham's hostile takeover


Guest Editorial

News and Analysis

Recommended Readings

Flypaper's Finest

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Short Reviews


About Us

Guest Editorial

Obama's super-double-secret edu-judges
Late last week, word leaked that the Obama administration has secretly selected the peer reviewers for its $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTT) fund but has no intention of publicly revealing the identities of these fifty-eight august personages. It now appears that the "disinterested superstars" that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised last September will remain hidden until the RTT first-round winners are announced in April. This despite the President's commitment to "unprecedented transparency" and RTT chief Joanne Weiss's pledge that the program would feature an "unprecedented level of transparency."

Showing off the chops he might have learned in the Clinton White House, Democratic education heavyweight Andy Rotherham has tried to square this circle with the novel argument that, "'Transparent' is not synonymous with contemporaneous. In other words, a process can be transparent while it is going on or it can be transparent after the fact." This is the old "it depends what the meaning of 'is' is" defense.

Race to the Top has delivered some benefits, no bones about it. It has spurred several states to raise caps on charter schooling, revisit teacher pay, and strike ludicrous rules that prohibited states and districts from using student learning to evaluate or compensate teachers. Whether these measures play out as hoped and whether they're worth the money are open questions, but Duncan's pet program has shown some promise.

So why the secrecy? Why turn the crown jewel of the administration's $110 billion in education stimulus spending (and foundation of its efforts to reshape American schooling) into a backroom operation?

The old saying "people are policy" is truer than ever here. The reviewers are judging brand-new criteria recently cooked up by the Department of Education, employing a novel, convoluted 500-point rating system to judge nineteen (!) competing "priorities." They're also being asked to resolve seemingly-contradictory dictates, such as RTT's twin mandates that winners demonstrate buy-in from teacher unions and that they present bold plans that are unlikely to win such support.

Innumerable pitfalls lie ahead. The Wall Street Journal has encouraged the administration to ensure that no more than two or three states win funds in April. Even some key administration allies think that no more than four or five states should win. However, forty states and the District of Columbia ended up submitting first-round RTT applications; and rumors have been circulating that the fix is in for this state or that. What's more, many states are asking for enormous sums. (Tennessee and Ohio, for instance, each seek ten percent of the entire kitty for themselves.) All of this ensures much disappointment and carping, whatever the outcome. To reassure a public that thinks at least half of the stimulus spending has been wasted and that has recoiled at insider deals like health care's "Cornhusker kickback," you'd think Duncan would take pains to make the RTT decision-making process as credible as possible.

Especially because there are real concerns about whom the judges might be. Various restrictions, especially regarding conflicts of interest and the extensive time commitment, may have made it difficult to attract the best and the brightest. And what about various forms of "diversity"?  Indeed, there are faint echoes here of the fracas that derailed the Bush administration's centerpiece Reading First program. In that instance, the Education Department's Inspector General wound up blasting the administration for failing to adequately screen reviewers for conflict of interest. Yet finding elite reviewers with genuine and relevant expertise who had no disqualifying relationships was nearly impossible. In fact, for all the criticism that the Bush Department of Education received for its insularity, the names and affiliations of peer reviewers for such key Spellings initiatives as the growth model pilot and the differentiated accountability pilot were disclosed prior to the reviews taking place.

As one former Bushie has observed, "There are at least a dozen ways the Administration can bend the [RTT] competition to achieve the outcome it wants. And at the end of the day, Secretary Duncan doesn't even have to accept the recommendations of the review panels; they are, legally speaking, just advisory committees." He suggests, "If the Administration wants to beat back charges of cronyism--from the eventual losers of the competition, watchdog groups, and the public--it will be transparent every step of the way."

What matters is not only who is judging, but also the instructions they're receiving. Yet the first training session for reviewers was recently held at an undisclosed location and no news of their training has been forthcoming. This is especially troublesome because the state grant applications are sprawling, phone-book thick lists of promises. Which components to weight, which promises to believe, and how to parse all that edu-jargon will not be a simple or scientific task. When called on this, Duncan allowed only that some reviewers may "spot a potential conflict that had not been considered" prior to the RTT process, but explains, "If such conflicts occur, applications will be reassigned among reviewers."

An administration that has stumbled over concerns about backroom deals and complaints that it has used stimulus funds for political ends might be well-advised to mount more than a "trust us" defense. Maybe it's time for the President to roll those famed C-SPAN cameras over to the Department of Education.

By Frederick M. Hess

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

News and Analysis

Education and campaign finance reform's "reform"      
There's been much talk about the Supreme Court's decision last week in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which overturned a lot of campaign-finance "reform." Last night, for example, President Obama appeared to look straight at the justices as he rebuked the Court for this holding. Most of the commentary to date has dealt with its implications for Wall Street, big oil companies, the auto industry, and the major unions. Turns out, however, that there may be big implications for education, too, because, when it comes to political spending, the two teacher unions (including their state and local affiliates) have, in recent years, outspent all the major corporate interests combined.

To refresh your memory, the Court majority sided with Citizens United, a non-profit that produced "Hillary: The Movie," an anti-Clinton exposé released during the 2008 primary season. Two issues were addressed: how the movie was funded and the timing of its release. To handle the former, the Court overturned a 20-year-old decision restricting corporate and labor outlays (Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce,1990) that distinguished between "corporate" and "human" speakers as legitimate sources of political speech. Corporations represent interests bigger than just the sum of its shareholders or senior executives, thus making their "speech" unduly influential. It specifically dealt with state-level campaigns. For the latter, it struck down part of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (a.k.a. "McCain-Feingold"), which banned corporate and union-funded "electioneering communication," including "soft" money donations, during the last 30 days of federal election campaigns (including primaries), and which the Court had been upheld in 2003 in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission.

No more. As Justice Kennedy explains for the Citizens majority, "There is no basis for the proposition that, in the political speech context, the government may impose restrictions on certain disfavored speakers….The government may regulate corporate speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether."

Until last week, when the AFT supported a particular candidate, it had to solicit support behind "member-only" firewalls or in direct-member communications. (This particular strategy was also part of Citizens, where the appellant argued that it could advertise on TV for its video because it was available only on pay-per-view.) It also meant that the NEA and AFT had to use a political action committee to donate to federal campaigns, rather than giving to them directly, and could not do so in the prime 30-day election lead-up period.

Having to work indirectly didn't deter the teacher unions from collecting and contributing enormous sums. To wit, the NEA was the biggest political spender in the U.S. in 2007-08--a whopping $56 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It outspent the next biggest contributor (the Pechanga Band of Mission Indians) by more than $12 million, and that calculation doesn't include the contributions made in concert with the AFT, which were catalogued under a separate NEA-AFT designation. The AFT clocked in at number 25 with a 2007-08 outlay of nearly $13.8 million. These figures include PAC, individual, and "soft" donations from parent and affiliate unions and their members to state and federal candidates, as reported to the Federal Election Commission.

But now that PACs are no longer needed, it's not immediately clear if more union dollars will pad federal campaign pockets. It's true that out of that 2007-08 $56 million, $53 million went to state campaigns or ballot initiatives, while only $3 million went federal. But this could be because there simply aren't many Congressmen batting for education and that education is still mostly a state-level issue, rather than the McCain-Feingold restrictions. One thing is for sure, though. There's a ton more federal money heading education's way, which may or may not shift the federal-state power balance, and union-funding decisions accordingly.  

It's also interesting to note that unionized teachers as a share of overall public and private sector union membership is on the rise. Not only are there more unionized public sector employees, but more of them work in local government--police, firefighters, and, you guessed it, teachers. In fact, though union membership numbers declined from 2008 to 2009 by roughly 800,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics annual survey, most of that can be accounted for by private sector job losses. Public sector union members actually increased by 64,000 during that same time period and now number more than the private sector, despite the latter accounting for almost five times the number of jobs. This is important because it means that teachers and the teacher unions will have greater influence in how the labor movement as a whole lobbies for union-friendly policies. According to the Education Intelligence Agency, the teacher unions have largely shied away from being indentified with other unionized industries. This makes NEA President Dennis Van Roekel's comments at the AFL-CIO annual conference last September even more telling:  in order to "change this country's attitude toward unions…we need power…the ability to act, to influence, to make a difference. And that kind of power comes from unity." The NEA might have 3 million or so members but the AFL-CIO represents more than 11 million workers. That's a lot of votes.

The silver lining is that teacher unions have fallen out of favor, due in part to strong words from Obama and Duncan on the subject of union resistance to the administration’s favorite education reforms. So we probably won't see any NEA-funded ads that close with "I'm Dennis Van Roekel and I endorse this message." And we probably won't see more money going to federal candidates. But we may see teachers' unions turn up the volume of the state-level funding spigot and we'll probably see them get even more involved in state and local reform battles.    

By Stafford Palmieri

Recommended Readings

Florida puts on its thinking "cap"
Florida has been "reconsidering" its state constitutional class size amendment since2002, a.k.a. the year it was passed by voters. (Yes, really.) Could the 238539045th time be the charm? Just to recap (no pun intended), that amendment limits elementary classrooms to eighteen students, middle school classrooms to twenty-two students, and high school students to twenty-five. But that's not all. The cap is real-time, meaning that if, say, a mid-year transfer pushes the school over the magic number, the school must hire an additional teacher and find classroom space to readjust in February, or whenever. "Say you get the 19th student," explains State Senator Don Gaetz. "It isn't just the 19th student. There's a cascading effect. You have to set up a new classroom, and that requires a teacher and more space." The state has already spent $16 billion to implement all of this, even though the legislature passed a temporary "fix" last fall that postponed the law's full effect, namely caps by classroom, until fall 2010. Florida Governor Charlie Crist (who is running for U.S. Senate) now favors freezing the law as it now operates, i.e. with caps calculated as school-wide averages. That's still a dubious use of money, considering ho scant is the evidence that modest reductions in class size make a difference in school performance or pupil achievement), but Florida faces a far-worse alternative: room-by-room caps, busing students or running schools in double shifts to even out enrollment, and imposing financial penalties on schools that don't comply. Jeez, Florida, seriously?

"Gov. Charlie Crist backs easing class-size rules," by Shannon Colavecchio and Jeffrey S. Solocheck, The Miami Herald, January 26, 2010

Hoop dreams
From the south side of Chicago to Harvard, Australia, and back, Arne Duncan's unconventional path to Secretary of Education has the makings of a screenplay. Or at least a New Yorker article. Windy City native Duncan attended the University of Chicago's prestigious Lab School by day, then turned up at his mother's low-income afterschool program north of Hyde Park. There he saw firsthand the achievement gap between his own classmates and his mother's students, and the opportunity divide between professors' kids and gang victims. After Harvard, he launched a professional b-ball career down under but returned to Chicago's south side in 1991 to direct the Ariel Education Initiative, an education-focused investment off-shoot of Ariel Investments. In 1999, he joined the Chicago Public Schools, became C.E.O. two years later, and instituted an extensive school-turnaround policy; the rest is history. The Obama administration plucked him from this position in 2008, a move many of us saw as a compromise at the time, but which the article's author (an old Lab School pal of Arne's) thinks is inaccurate. He's a bona fide reformer, he argues, which is making educators on the left go nuts. Here's hoping this Hollywood story has a happy ending, with improved schools for America's kids.

"Class Warrior: Arne Duncan's bid to shake up schools," by Carlo Rotella, The New Yorker, February 1, 2009

Everyone's a winner
When it comes to Race to the Top, most states have put on their Sunday best, bought new ties, and submitted their applications. Others refused or showed up in pajamas. Then there are those who didn't even have the chance to participate. The Bureau of Indian Schools, which is administered under the Department of the Interior and which, of course, is not a state or even a "district" in the usual sense, was left out of the stimulus bill, both for ARRA funds and as a candidate for RTTT dollars. That will change if a new bill proposed by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) passes. Pointing out that RTTT is supposed to help the neediest kids (which surely includes many Native Americans), it proposes that 1 to 5 percent of RTTT funding be reserved for BIE schools. Just because. We understand that BIE schools deserve formula aid. We also understand why the BIE can't realistically be part of the Race to the Top competition. (It would amount to one part of the executive branch trying to incentivize reform in another.) But lots of states won't get RTTT funds (or so Arne Duncan has promised); we're not sure why the BIE should be guaranteed such funding. (And what about Guam?)

"Bureau of Indian Education Schools Want In On Race to the Top," by Alyson Klein, Education Week, January 21, 2010

Right to reform
You often hear it (rhetorically) asked: If teachers' unions are such a negative force in education, then why don't the right-to-work states perform better academically? Alabama has the answer: Being right-to-work doesn't mean that teachers and their unions are politically impotent. To wit, the 'Bama Education Association basically eviscerated that state's formerly-aggressive Race to the Top application. Off the table: proposals for quarterly standardized tests to track progress to state standards, new salary schedules for teachers that align with performance, and extra incentives for math, science, and special education teachers. Compare that to Minnesota, which submitted a proposal with elements like these intact, even though it's supposedly a "strong union" state. Which just goes to show that the "right to work" label is about as meaningful as Tiger Woods' apologies for his "transgressions."

"State cuts teacher merit pay from federal fund application after AEA leader objects," by Rena Havner Philips, Alabama Press-Register, January 24, 2010

Txtng is alrite
LOL, txting is tot. nbd, so says the prelim fndings of a nu stdy from Coventry University. In fact, students who used the most phonologically-based text abbreviations--such as "nite" instead of night--were the best spellers. It all has to do with the child's ability to recognize and manipulate sound patterns in speech. A larger, deeper study will be published next year, but the interim research has already sparked controversy amongst literacy experts. Of note, "textisms," or text message abbreviations, increase as a proportion of text message language as a child gets older; 47 percent of Year 6 students use textisms, reports the study, a 26 percent increase from Year 4. What does this mean? "[M]ore sophisticated literacy skills are needed for textism use." The study also found that proficiency in text abbreviations could predict a student's reading ability, but not vice versa. So what's a 'rent to do ab a txting teen? 4get all abt it. Looks like txting is good 4 u, or at least ur litera-c.

"Phone texting 'helps pupils to spell'" by Sean Coughlan, BBC, January 20, 2010

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

Thumbs-up on Obama's k-12 education themes, Chester E. Finn, Jr.
On primary-secondary education, as on most topics, Mr. Obama stayed at 30,000 feet [in his State of the Union address]. The main themes he sounded, however, are fine: use federal education dollars to reward success, not failure; apply Arne Duncan's "race to the top" reform priorities to the mega-bucks Elementary/Secondary Education Act; and keep a "competitive" element in this rather than simply distributing dollars via formula. All extremely hard to do but all worth doing…Four points here bear noting…Read it here.

Arne Duncan's secret grand jury, Mike Petrilli
Ed Week's Michele McNeil broke the news last week that Arne Duncan has decided not to release the names of the "Race to the Top" reviewers--until after the competition is over and grants have been announced. Rick Hess has been all over this (here and here), which forced a bloggy response from Duncan and made Eduwonk Andy schizophrenic. Here's my advice, Mr. Secretary: release the names, release everything, and right away. Here's why….Read it here.

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Fordham's hostile takeover
Mike and Rick tackle Duncan's secret RTTT panels, the impact of Obama's "spending freeze," and leadership voids in a few left-of-center ed policy shops. Then Amber explains the new OECD findings and Rate that Reform goes red. 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 High Cost of Low Educational Performance: The Long-Run Economic Impact of Improving PISA Outcomes
Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
January 2010

This study builds on previous work by economists Hanushek and Woessmann and shows that improved performance on international math and science tests has a positive impact on a country's future GDP. The effects within the U.S. would be remarkable. The analysts used data from twelve international tests (including PISA) dating back to 1964 to construct an index of cognitive skill levels for a large sample of countries. Since the U.S. had participated in all of these tests and also has a separate longitudinal assessment system (i.e., NAEP), they were able to calibrate scores on each international test against one another. They employed three scenarios to estimate the long-term effects of educational improvement. (1.) To increase average scores on PISA by 25 points (a quarter of a standard deviation) over 20 years would result in an increase in the American GDP of $40 trillion over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010. (2.) To bring each country up to the average level of the highest performing PISA country (Finland, or roughly 50 points) would boost American GDP by $100 trillion over the same time period. And (3) raising the scores of the 19 percent of young Americans children who perform below the PISA minimum competency level to that level would add $72 trillion to our GDP, again over the same timeframe. Those are BIG numbers, even in the Obama era. You can find the study here.

By Amber Winkler

College and Career-Ready: Using Outcome Data to Hold High Schools Accountable for Student Success
Chad Aldeman
Education Sector
January 2010

In this short paper, author Chad Aldeman explains how to create an accountability system for schools that is more accurate than the one enshrined in the No Child Left Behind act. We've highlighted how ineffectively NCLB's "AYP" measures anything save the rigor of each state's standards, but Aldeman explains that the problem goes further by not taking into account post-secondary success. Are students college- and career-ready when they graduate from high school? Determining this is easier than it sounds, he reasons, in large part (and perhaps ironically) because of NCLB. Since 2002, many states have developed data systems that track such things as graduation rates, college enrollment, and the number of grads who become fulltime wage-earners. To drive home his point, Aldeman proposes a points system based on Florida's data infrastructure. On a 1,800 point scale, for example, 600 points would be based on state test scores, 100 points on AP and IB participation rates, 200 points on whether students can pass out of remedial classes in college, 200 points for the fulltime employment rate of graduates, etc. But less clear is how such a system might come to pass. The data systems may be up and running, but the political will is not. Read it here.

By Daniela Fairchild


ALEC and Emma
You don't have to be named Emma to be the American Legislative Exchange Council's new Education Task Force Director. But you should have experience with education policy and have worked with state legislators and state policy issues. ALEC is dedicated to promoting the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, and individual liberty. Interested persons should send a resume and cover letter to Claire Kittle 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, Daniela Fairchild, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Marisa Goldstein, 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.