A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 10, Number 6. February 11, 2010

Find an easier-to-read version here.

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast has a sore back after too much shoveling. We'll return next week.


From Andy's Desk

Recommended Readings

Flypaper's Finest

Short Reviews


About Us

From Andy's Desk

"Turnaround" by any other name would be just as…sour
Here's what we know about previous attempts to fix America's most persistently failing schools. Turnarounds in other fields seldom work. Turnarounds in education have even lower success rates. Despite decades of effort, we still don't have a reliable playbook for turning a very low-performing school into a good school, much less a great school. Even if we did have a playbook, no one believes we have sufficient human capital currently available to drastically improve a large number of schools.

Given this, it's hard to conceive of an area less suited for an unprecedented amount of funding that must be spent quickly with grand expectations for swift results.

Nevertheless, we have the federal government's behemoth School Improvement Fund.

Early in his tenure, Secretary Duncan's rhetoric got ahead of the evidence, and he charged the nation with turning around 5,000 failing schools within five years. Falling into the same trap that had ensnarled countless previous reformers, the administration contended that generations of failed turnaround efforts were the consequence of insufficient funding and the wrong strategies.

They moved to solve the first problem by allocating an astonishing amount of federal money to the cause. Combined, the stimulus and the 2009 budget appropriated more than $3.5 billion to turnarounds through the SIF, which had once been a relatively modest Title I carve-out. That figure deserves lingering attention; it's in the same atmospheric level as the ubiquitous and more closely scrutinized Race to the Top (RTTT).

The second problem can be cured, the administration believes, by finally applying the right interventions. Countless studies and reports, including one by the Department's own Institute for Education Sciences (IES), have concluded that we still haven't figured out what works. But just as states once thought "takeovers" were the answer, districts thought "reconstitutions" were the answer, and NCLB thought "restructuring" was the answer, today's Department believes its four "turnaround" options will do the trick.

Under the program, states get money by formula (not on a competitive basis) and then distribute it to their districts with the most troubled schools. Districts then must apply one of four models to the identified schools: "Turnaround," "Transformation," "Restart," or "Closure" (find more details here).

But while the verbiage is new, many of the details are remarkably similar to tactics tried in the past—replacing staff, improving professional development, providing more site-based control, changing curriculum, etc. In many ways the total package is eerily reminiscent of the interventions under NCLB's corrective action and restructuring.

For example, under the "Restart" option, districts can either convert the school to charter status or farm its operation out to another entity. But those were options (i) and (iii) under NCLB's restructuring. Under "Turnaround," changes in staff are key. But that's virtually identical to restructuring's option (ii), which reads "Replacing all or most of the school staff (which may include the principal) who are relevant to the failure to make adequate yearly progress."

Moreover, there's no guarantee that a school's new staff in a turnaround school would be able to extricate itself from the most inhibiting district rules or constraining union contracts. The "Restart" model relies on CMOs and EMOs to take over failing schools, and the best of these would only consider doing so if provided a wide array of freedoms and powers by the district, which this federal program can't guarantee.

The administration's "Closure" option is certainly the most promising. But districts had this opportunity under NCLB's "other" option (v) and almost never took advantage of it. We would be unwise to assume it would be widely embraced now.

NCLB provides a final critically important lesson. Districts, finding the four other options too troublesome or challenging, did take advantage of the "other" option—to implement meek interventions, like professional development or turnaround specialists. With the "Transformation" option, this administration has provided an equivalent short cut. Apart from requiring the principal's removal, this alternative will allow lukewarm reforms to pass for meaningful change.

It's worth noting that in draft documents of the turnaround strategies, this option was a last resort. It could only be used when other stiffer interventions failed. But in the final regulations, it can be the first choice. The only limitation is a minor one: In districts with nine or more failing schools, it can only be applied to half of them.

So, if experience is any guide, how will this all play out? Expect districts to max out their use of the "Transformation" model. Most remaining schools will opt for a weak version of the "Turnaround" option. The closure and restart options will scarcely be used. And results will parallel those from previous decades: The vast majority of low-performing schools will remain low performing.

We should all pause to consider that, if the administration gets its way with the 2011 budget—meaning another $900 million for turnarounds—the federal government, in just a few years, will have invested approximately $5 billion in an area with consistently poor results via previously ineffectual strategies. If we include the significant portion of RTTT funding that will be used for the same purposes (such efforts make up one of four program priorities) the figure swells to over $6 billion.

Congress may not have yet passed the 2011 budget, but the turnaround train has already left the station. And it may have a new name, more cargo aboard, and a fresh coat of paint, but the tracks are leading to the same, sad destination.

By Andy Smarick

Recommended Readings

Say good-"Bayou" to the status quo
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal wants to cut the red tape keeping local schools and districts from achieving greater student success with his new four-year waiver proposal—but he's attaching one big string. Under his plan, basically any state law or regulation that does not concern federal requirements, student safety, accountability, or graduation rules is on the table. The twist? Failing schools or districts that a) choose not to apply for a waiver or b) do get a waiver, but fail to make significant gains in student achievement, will be taken over by the state. This means they will be added to the state-run Recovery School District, which currently controls most of New Orleans' schools and a handful of others across the state, including thirty such strugglers that have already been given to RSD; another twenty-four have agreements with RSD pending achievement improvement. Sounds like the rumors that the RSD was here to stay were true. Can't say we're disappointed. In fact, with RSD's track record, it sounds like a win-win situation for schools looking to try something new.

"Jindal Proposes Waivers From Education Laws," The Associated Press, February 5, 2010

"Governor Jindal Announces Red Tape Reduction Act to Empower Educational Leaders to Improve Performance in Schools," Press Release, Office of the Governor of Louisiana, February 4, 2010

What goes up must come down
Here's a piece of unsurprising news: More students are failing Advanced Placement exams. We could have told you this last spring, when we surveyed AP teachers about the push to offer the program's rigorous content to more students. Many of the students being encouraged to take AP classes are not ready to do so, they told us. According to this USA Today analysis, 41.5 percent of students failed their AP exams (i.e., getting a score of 1 or 2 on a 5-point scale) in 2009. That's 5 percentage points higher than in 1999. Failure rates for students in the South have risen 7 percent to 48.4 percent. Much of this is predictable; after all, now that access to the AP program has been democratized, weaker students are enrolling, and you would expect them to perform worse on the tests. (In a similar manner, SAT scores declined once a broader group of students started sitting for the exam.) The big unanswered question is whether the expansion of AP to the masses is hurting the nation's most talented students, who now sit in class with under-prepared peers. And because the College Board is refusing to let researchers take a peek at its data, that's a question that will remain unanswered for now.

"Failure rate of AP tests climbing," by Greg Toppo and Jack Gillum, USA Today, February 6, 2010

Unsaintly behavior
When 17-year-old Brandon Frost wore his Indianapolis Colts jersey last Friday to support his hometown football team, his school's principal was less than receptive. See, Frost had moved three years ago from Indiana to rural Louisiana, where Maurepas High School principal Steve Vampran had relaxed the student dress code for Black-and-Gold Day in honor of the New Orleans Saints. Except Frost supported the opposing team in Sunday's Superbowl match-up. After being send to the principal's office during his first period class, Frost was told he could either remove the offending jersey or go home. "If you like Indiana so much, why don't you go back?" Vampran is reported to have queried. (Clearly the "self-esteem" movement hasn't made it yet to this corner of Louisiana.) Frost's frustrated father called the ACLU, which promptly wrote a strongly worded letter to Principal-cum-Saints-fan Vampran. Sunday declared the Saints victorious; let's let this young Colts fan lick his wounds in peace.

"Colts Jersey Causes Clash at La. School," by Janet McConnaughey, Associated Press, February 5, 2010 

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

Our limits on school choice are better than your limits on school choice, Mike Petrilli
In the brouhaha over last week's UCLA Civil Rights Project report on charter school "segregation," one talking point seems unimpeachable: that it's paternalistic or worse for Gary Orfield and his team at UCLA to want to keep minority parents from choosing their preferred schools because they serve "too many" black or brown children…That makes sense on the surface, but there's a problem: we in the charter school movement aren't so different. After all, we can't "tolerate" it when parents choose schools that are extremely low-performing, even if they find them "better and safer" than their other alternatives….Read it here.

The myth of the meritocracy, Kathleen Porter-Magee
New York Magazine has a cover story entitled "The Junior Meritocracy." The crux of the article is that administering standardized admissions and IQ tests to 4-year-olds—a common practice for entry into top public and private NYC kindergartens—is pointless. Among the elementary schools cited in the article is Hunter College Elementary, a publicly funded elementary school for “gifted and talented” students that uses such a test to help make kindergarten admissions decisions. While I think using a rigid cut score from an IQ test to make these admissions decisions about 4-year-olds is a questionable move for any school, I'm particularly distressed by the thought of a publicly-funded school engaging in such nonsense for two reasons….Read it here.

Short Reviews

2009 State Teacher Policy Yearbook
National Council on Teacher Quality

This third edition of the NCTQ Yearbook takes another well-deserved look at the teaching profession, boasting a revamped set of goals and indicators even more rigorous than last year's. The headline? States are floundering in all areas. Whereas the highest grade in 2008 was a B+ (North Carolina), this year's front runner clocks in with only a C (Florida). The comparisons stop there, however, as NCTQ President Kate Walsh explains, because the metrics were significantly overhauled—and to our eyes, for the better. There are now five focus areas (up from three): teacher training, recruitment (in particular, expanding the pool), identifying effective teachers, retaining effective teachers, and dismissing ineffective ones. Overall, the country earned a D. States (plus the District of Columbia) did particularly poorly in the identification of effective teachers, earning an average grade of D-. Further, evaluation and tenure policies don't take into account the one thing that they should: classroom effectiveness. To wit, just four states prioritize student learning in teacher evaluations and only sixteen require any objective measures of student learning at all. Only four take into account teacher effectiveness when rewarding tenure; in the other forty-seven, tenure is basically awarded automatically. But all this doom-and-gloom is mediated in the final pages, as the report offers practical and cost-neutral solutions, based when applicable on best practices already in place. There's much more to comb through. Find the report here and see how your state fared on the report's interactive website here.

By Daniela Fairchild

Use of Education Data at the Local Level
Barbara Means, Christine Padilla, and Larry Gallagher
Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development
U.S. Department of Education
January 2010

The pointy-headed analysts over at SRI International, working under the auspices of the Dept of Ed, have released an interesting survey of data systems in twelve nationally-representative school districts. The message: goaded by NCLB and the broad pro-data consensus among policymakers and district leaders, school districts are undeniably collecting more information about their students and staff than before. But they are not, on the whole, doing really interesting or innovative things with the new data at their fingertips—at least, not yet. (DQC agrees.) The study finds that while 99 percent of districts maintain some form of "student data warehouse" on attendance, test scores, and grades, only 38 percent of them can link student performance to teacher characteristics like experience and degree attainment. Only 42 percent of districts can determine which curricular programs and strategies are most or least effective at boosting performance within a given grade and course. And only seven of the thirty-six case-study schools used student performance to evaluate teachers. This report would see data "dashboards" customized for the user (teacher, administrator, etc.), integrated, and accompanied by better training sessions. And of course, the data need to be more timely so as to remain relevant and useful. Maybe this Dept-sponsored push will make it happen. Read it here.

By Mickey Muldoon

Bitter Pill, Better Formula: To a Single, Fair and Equitable Formula for ESEA Title I, Part A; Spoonful of Sugar: An Equity Fund to Facilitate a Single, Fair and Equitable Formula for ESEA Title I, Part A
Raegen T. Miller and Cynthia G. Brown
Center for American Progress
February 2010

This pair of policy papers tackles the untouchable: the much despised, but politically sacrosanct, Title I formula. As it currently stands, Title I, Part A disburses funds through four funding formulae that are not only terribly complex (see CAP's "plain English" explanation in August 2009's "Secret Recipes Revealed"), but do not accurately reflect the purpose and mission of the Title—to aid districts in the education of low-income students. The main problem is that the four formulae unduly privilege wealthier states and bigger districts. A smaller district with more low-income students might receive fewer Title I-A funds than its larger more affluent neighbor. On an even more local level, a school in one state might see their Title I-A per-pupil allocation increase or decrease precipitously if teleported to another state. CAP's solution is laid out in "Bitter Pill, Better Formula." Miller and Brown compute funding allocation changes from FY 2009 to a hypothetical FY 2010 if their new single formula were employed. It makes improvements over ESEA's current formulation in three important ways: It recognizes within-state variations is cost of living, it more fairly takes into account state's fiscal effort, i.e., how the state leverages its own resources to support schools, and it recalculates concentrations of poor students in a way that does not favor wealthier districts. Mississippi would win biggest; Hawaii lose the most. (See how our home state of Ohio does here.) But how to get Congress to even move on such a political minefield is a whole other issue; the authors are ready with "Spoonful of Sugar," a short memo that explains how an equity fund ($2.16 billion over three years) would hold districts harmless while increasing the dollars going to ones being shortchanged. Both papers are worth your perusal, but, "Bitter Pill" being a report about complex funding formulae, it is hardly light reading. Find them here.

By Daniela Fairchild


(Web)casting the achievement gap in another light
Our book launch event for former Education Secretary Rod Paige's new treatise The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is the Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our Time is at capacity. But you can still get in on the action by watching the live webcast from our website home page. This lively discussion will take place from 12 pm - 1:30 pm on February 24. And if you're still dying to go, you can email Amy Fagan at to be added to the waiting list.

Stand up for Kevin Johnson
Mayor of Sacramento Kevin Johnson is currently seeking an entrepreneurial leader to be the Executive Director of a new non-profit, STAND UP. This organization works directly with the mayor's office on issues related to accountability, school choice, human capital, parental involvement, and resource development in that city's schools. Candidates should be comfortable leading a start-up organization, have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and experience navigating tricky political climes. Those interested in applying should send a resume and cover letter to Andrea Corso at

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 Would you like to be spared from the Gadfly? Email 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 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.