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

Find an easier-to-read version here.

This week on The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Don't point!


From Checker's Desk

Guest Editorial

Recommended Readings

Flypaper's Finest

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Short Reviews


About Us

From Checker's Desk

Draft "Common Core" education standards: Impressive, balanced, serious
I haven't closely examined the new draft "Common Core" math standards (and am in any case shy about judging them, having myself forgotten the difference between cosines and tangents), but the draft "reading/language arts/literacy" standards are pretty darned impressive. Some of what makes them impressive, however, is buried deep in their infrastructure and won't necessarily be obvious on first inspection. At least it wasn't to me. Not until one of the drafters walked me through them did I grasp what they've built here.

Besides doing justice to the "skill side" of English language arts (from early reading on up through sophisticated writing), they've taken language "conventions" and content seriously—and cumulatively—in a dozen ways. They've devised deft ways of incorporating literature (including means by which monitors of state/district curricula can gauge the quality and rigor of what students are actually asked to read). They've delicately balanced between "traditional" and "modern" approaches, between "basic" and "21st Century" skills, etc. They've imaginatively incorporated the reading sides of science and history as well as English per se. They've supplied plenty of compelling examples of what kids at various levels should be reading. And they haven't overpromised. Indeed, they state plainly at the very start that proper implementation of these standards hinges on also having a topnotch curriculum in place.

During the three-week comment period that started yesterday, many people will pore over these (and the math standards). Grumps will inevitably be sounded from many directions. Revisions will eventually be made. Nobody can say for sure what lies ahead. But my own initial reading is that millions of American kids would be far better off in schools adhering to these standards than they are today—and if their schools are serious, their curriculum strong, their teachers competent, and the still-to-come assessment systems are well-designed and properly aligned—those young people will emerge from 12th grade in possession of a plausible version of college readiness, at least in the fields addressed here, and the United States will be farther along the road to international competitiveness than it is today.

Keep in mind, though, that math and ELA are the only subjects addressed (save for smidgens of history and science) and that the amount of construction needing to be placed atop the standards foundation is immense. States and districts will need to be ready, for example, to transform their curricula (and very likely willing to institute statewide curricula); to renovate their approaches to instruction (and very likely strengthen their instructional personnel); and to buy into new assessment systems that haven't even been designed yet (though four interesting models were aired at a Washington conference this week). Taking these standards seriously will lead in time to fundamental changes in just about everything in K-12 education. That's a very tall order indeed and not something to be done until people are satisfied that these standards deserve it. 

Some states may well determine that their current standards are superior and that they have no need of Common Core (though we should be wary of those who say that when what they really mean is they don't have the energy or will or resources to make the requisite changes). The last time Fordham reviewed state standards—a process we're now commencing once more—we found just six jurisdictions with math standards that deserved "honors" grades and only twenty that earned As or Bs in English. All the rest got Cs or below. It's hard for me not to think that their schools and students would be better off with the "Common Core"—and all that follows from it. A tougher call will be states—California cannot be avoided here—that already have solid standards but have done a dismal job of implementing them. A change of standards will only benefit their kids if the implementation changes, too.

As states and others (including Fordham's own experts) commence close-up reviews of the Common Core drafts, I suggest that you temporarily ignore the complexities introduced by Secretary Duncan's plan to pay for the first round of assessment development and by President Obama's premature and heavy-handed hint that future federal (Title I) funding will hinge on states participating in this arrangement. Ignore, too, the plain fact that we still have no idea how this arrangement will be organized, governed, or financed over the long haul. For the moment, just look at the draft "college- and career-ready" standards themselves and ask whether these set forth (for two subjects, anyway) a first rate depiction of the skills that you'd be proud to see young Americans acquire in school.

I think they do—and deserve to be taken very, very seriously. But let me caution you again: When you review the Common Core drafts, don't just eyeball them. That didn't get me deep enough into them. Like a building, appearances can be deceiving—and in any case you want to know that there's more here than a façade. Dig deep and, if the architecture and infrastructure aren't clear to you, demand a tutorial. You, too, may be favorably impressed. 

P.S.: People whose math prowess far surpasses my own are generally pretty positive about the draft math standards, too. 

P.P.S.: Watch for expert reviews of the draft standards next week.
An abbreviated version of this piece first appeared yesterday on Fordham's blog Flypaper. Subscribe to our RSS feed here.

By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Guest Editorial

Arne Duncan's troubling civil rights crusade
On Monday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that his department will expand its efforts in civil rights enforcement. Its civil rights division will monitor racial disparities in enrollment in college prep classes, school discipline, and teacher assignment. Like everything this sounds fantastic in the abstract. After all, who publicly declares that they oppose protecting civil rights?

The details, though, paint a more troublesome picture. First, the shamelessness is astonishing. This is the same Department of Education that can't support a voucher program in Washington D.C. to help minority children escape the grinding incompetence of the D.C. school system. Now it wants to spend its resources determining whether schools in Fairfax County or Westchester have a disproportionate number of white kids in college prep classes. Someone's priorities seem misplaced. Even Nixon would blush.

Second, it's hard to see how Duncan can do much of this without running headlong into the Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Parents Involved v. Seattle School District No. 1. In that case, the Court decreed that using race as a "tiebreaking" factor in school admissions policies is unconstitutional. Duncan plans on relying on "disparate impact" analysis to show, for instance, that school districts with a disproportionate number of white students in Advanced Placement classes are guilty of discrimination even if there is no evidence of intent to discriminate. The cure for that disparate impact will be "robust remedies" like early intervention programs and oversight of feeder patterns. The upshot is that school districts will be "incentivized" to make school and class assignment decisions based on race in order to achieve a proper balance in college prep classes. But if (white) parents discover that their children have been denied access to an AP class to ensure racial balancing, they will likely bring suit just like the parents from Seattle in Parents Involved. And chances are they will win. After all, Justice Kennedy, in his controlling opinion, singled out identifying students based solely on race as unconstitutional.

Third, anyone familiar with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare's (HEW) enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in the 1970s knows that we've been down this road before and it's no smooth ride. In the notorious Adams v. Richardson litigation, HEW became compelled to pursue, in much the same fashion as Duncan has outlined, enrollment disparities in school districts across the country. As political scientist Stephen Halpern documents in On the Limits of the Law, there are "perverse and insidiously negative" consequences to pursuing these goals through the courts. And as another scholar, Jeremy Rabkin, noted in Judicial Compulsions, the interests of the students quickly got lost in a "fog of legalisms," replaced instead by the interests of advocacy groups allegedly acting on their behalf. In the case of Duncan's announcement, the goal displacement rituals, where educational concerns are trumped by the need to satisfy the DOE, are practically limitless. At the very least, one can easily envision school districts putting unprepared students in AP classes simply to satisfy the Department of Education.

Fourth, when experts and elites from afar try to determine what minority parents and children want and need, they often have no idea what they are talking about. As we learned in Missouri v. Jenkins (which I discuss at length in Complex Justice), when the court and its self-appointed experts tried to improve the quality of education for African-American children in Kansas City by structuring reforms around what they thought middle-class white children would want, educational outcomes declined and African-American parents became outraged and actually led the effort to end the court's attempt to help them. And that's after the court made Missouri spend more than $2 billion to do it. Focusing on college prep classes when many minority children are trapped in dysfunctional and failing urban school systems will likely be met with a giant "huh?" from many parents.

Legal history and common sense have spoken: Beyond the protection of individuals from obvious and invidious discrimination, trying to closely monitor and enforce civil rights from 400 Maryland Avenue brings a host of unintended consequences, not to mention that the move might be downright unconstitutional. And though the effort's intentions are unimpeachable, the hubristic Washington-based top-down approach will likely do more harm than good.

A version of this piece first appeared on our blog Flypaper. Subscribe to our RSS feed here.

By Joshua Dunn

Dunn is co-editor of Fordham's From Schoolhouse to Courthouse volume, co-author of Education Next's "legal beat" column, and associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.

Recommended Readings

Four is the new five
What's the easiest way to cut school spending? To cut schooling, of course—and districts across the land are turning to this boneheaded solution as they contemplate their dismal financial situations. This idea of replacing a regular five day week with four longer days is certainly not new—some rural districts have used it to slash commute times and transportation costs for many years—but its alleged cost-saving bona fides are enticing many more places to try it out. "The savings so far have been phenomenal," boasts a spokeswoman for Peach County, Georgia. Yes, but longer days max out kids' attention spans, parents are burdened with an extra day of child care duties, and three-day weekends mean Thursday's lesson is a distant memory by Monday. This isn't smart saving; it's just the path of least resistance. We're all for moving away from "seat time" as the measure of education, but this isn't the way to do it.

"Schools' New Math: The Four-Day Week," by Chris Herring, Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2010

A charter grows in Harlem
Aren't elected officials supposed to represent the interests of their constituents? Not according to Harlem's State Senator Bill Perkins, who insists that charters are just "hype." Really? Today Harlem contains twenty-four charters, one of the highest concentrations for an area its size, educating 7,500 of the neighborhood's 50,000 public school children; another 5,700 opt for local private or parochial options. That's "more school choice per square foot than any other place in the country," boasts Harlem-located Success Charter Network founder (and former NYC councilwoman) Eva Moskowitz. And parents want more, more, more. This year, there were 11,000 applications for 2,000 spots; 7,000 students remain on school waiting lists. Yet Perkins and State Assemblyman Keith Wright are trying to cut charter per-pupil funding and restrict a single operator to educating no more than 5 percent of a district's students (though how this will play out in NYC's 32 "local districts" is not clear). Perkins also led the charge against raising the state's charter cap. He compares the mass migration from traditional schools to charters to a burning building. "[City leaders] should tell you there is a fire, and those who are responsible should find out what is causing that fire, not just create a new place for those who flee and leave the rest inside to burn there." A better metaphor is to say that these charter schools might finally be "lighting a fire" underneath bad public schools, encouraging them to get their acts together.

"Charter Schools Flourish In Harlem," by Jason L. Riley, Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2010 (subscription required)

"In Harlem, Epicenter for Charter Schools, a Senator Wars Against Them," by Jennifer Medina, New York Times, March 6, 2010

Learning the art of teaching
Good news: Teaching and learning are back in vogue. This brilliant article by GothamSchools' Elizabeth Green is the latest in a series of prominent pieces that begin to pry open the "black box" of the classroom, a topic that has been largely ignored in the policy sphere in favor of structural reforms. Green asks: Can we teach good teaching? Doug Lemov, a founder of the highly-regarded Uncommon Schools chain of charters, was plagued by the problem of "good people failing." So he hit the data, looking for teachers whose students were excelling, and then interviewed, observed, and studied these successful instructors to find specific behaviors that might be taught to other teachers. (This is very similar to Teach For America's effort that we reported on last week.) The result is Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College, which will be published in April. There's No. 22: The Cold Call, which might also be known as the Socratic Method, or No. 43: Positive Framing, which encourages commands using "do" rather than "don't." Lemov is seeing promising results so far. Perhaps more importantly, he's pushing against the reform movement's conventional wisdom that great teachers are born, not made. With three million classrooms to fill, and not enough "superstar teachers" to go around, that's good news indeed.

"Building a Better Teacher," by Elizabeth Green, New York Times Magazine, March 7, 2010

Rhee redux
Gadfly got bored with the deluge of Michelle Rhee coverage last year. But she's back, this time (or should we say, again) squaring off against AFT prez Randi Weingarten, in an article that offers some insight into the personalities of two power women. According to Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert, these two ladies are nothing less than "the two principal actors on the most important stage in the ongoing drama of school reform in America." We probably wouldn't go that far, but their going-on-three-year battle does capture something else: How the two of them sometimes alienate the very people they seek to convince. Both women enjoy the support of large communities—a national teachers union and a growing education-reform community—but Weingarten is known for being imposing, evasive, having a temper, and prone to high-flying (and often misleading) rhetoric, while Rhee is blunt, outspoken, and cold, to the point, some say, of rudeness. (Though Kevin Johnson has managed to win her heart.) They call it a "schoolyard brawl," and we're inclined to agree. Who'll win this death match remains to be seen.

"Schoolyard Brawl," by Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert, Newsweek, March 7, 2010

The saga of scarcity
Petula Dvorak, a staff writer at the Washington Post, desperately wanted to enroll her sons in a public school outside her up-and-coming D.C. neighborhood. So, like thousands of other parents, she entered the District's "out-of-boundary" lottery. "It's an opportunity to pretend that you live in Georgetown or Chevy Chase or Palisades," she explains, "while staying in your crummy little house with high property taxes and no parking. Hooray!" But she didn't hit the jackpot; she's sitting at 182, 117, and 29 on waiting lists at various elementary schools around the city. On one parent forum, she reports, someone wondered whether to "work the waiting list, Manhattan style." (Sounds ominous.) The desperation is palpable; with too few good public schools to go around, and private schools out of reach for many during a recession, Dvorak and her peers know that they're "taking a leap of faith at the non-so-great schools and entrusting them with our kids." The lesson for policymakers? Demand for school choice may be strong—and not just in Harlem—but frustration ensues when the supply side is not up to the task at hand.

"School lottery makes a game out of education in D.C.," by Petula Dvorak, Washington Post, March 5, 2010

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

Putting Central Falls in context, Andy Smarick
We all know about the plans to fire and replace teachers at the struggling Central Falls in Rhode Island. But it turns out this event is part of a bigger and more interesting story. First, the district is increasingly going charter….Second, Rhode Island Mayoral Academies is a nontrivial player in this all. RIMA works with the state's mayors to set up high-performing charters by recruiting human capital and providing a range of services….Read it here.

i3 analysis, Andy Smarick
I've finally made it through the 377-page final application for the "Investing in Innovation" fund (i3) and several long supporting documents. The biggest news is that not all that much changed since the draft documents were released last year (if you need to catch up a bit, you can find previous write-ups here and here). Of course, the program's major specs are the same…[But] [f]or those interested in getting into the weeds, there were a couple other minor changes…Read it here.

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Don't point!
This week, Mike and Rick discuss the RTTT finalists (we're a bit late, but this is a weekly show!), ED's new push for "civil rights," and whether school board presidents should be able to write a coherent sentence. Then Amber tells us about a new Education Trust study that overplays its hand and Stafford says, Don't point! 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

Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards
Neal McCluskey
February 2010 

When it comes to national standards, Neal McCluskey is no fan, and this paper explains why. He starts by complaining that there's no proof that national standards will boost achievement. "The first question that needs to be answered before fundamentally altering the status quo is whether a given reform will work." Fair point. But did we know for sure that charter schools or private school choice programs would "work" before we launched them in the early 90s? McCluskey also asserts that the national standards movement is addressing the wrong problem, and is thus the wrong solution. It's not that employers and colleges can't differentiate between high and low quality applicants, or the high or low standards to which they were educated, but that districts don't have an incentive to change their practices. To accomplish that, we need to empower parents and schools with greater choice. In fact, continues McCluskey, school choice "would lead to standards that would be meaningful, but also sufficiently flexible so that unproven ideas could compete, and inevitable human failures wouldn't be inflicted on everyone." We absolutely agree that parents should have lots of choices, inside and outside of our education system. But standards (linked to assessments and transparent data) will give them information with which to make good choices. This much we're sure of: Standards are abysmally low in many places, and while national standards are no cure-all for pupil achievement, they will raise the bar for millions of youngsters in the majority of states. Check it out here.

By Stafford Palmieri

Stuck Schools: A Framework for Identifying Schools Where Students Need Change—Now!
Natasha Ushomirsky and Daria Hall
The Education Trust
February 2010

This report asks an important question: What happens to low-performing schools over time? Specifically, how many schools stay low-performing, how many make significant gains, and how many fall somewhere in between? Analysts for The Education Trust examine five years of grade 3-8 reading and math data from Indiana and Maryland. (Only the reading findings are discussed in this report.) They conclude that from year one to five, a whopping 64 percent of Maryland's low-performing (defined as in the bottom quartile) elementary and middle schools improved faster than three-fourths of the schools in the state. Indiana's low-performing schools weren't so successful; during a similar five-year period, over a third of them stagnated, over a third ranked as high-improving, and nearly a quarter fell somewhere in between. But should we now conclude that Maryland has mastered some magical turnaround strategy? No, because the way the EdTrust analysts define and measure "improvement" is problematic on three grounds. First, they failed to account for regression to the mean—the statistical phenomenon whereby scores on the extreme end of a distribution will naturally move towards the average over time. So surprise! Low-performing schools averaged more growth. Second, they couldn't look at individual student progress over time (they had only school-level results) so they looked at the percentage of students reaching the "proficient" level instead. But because Maryland's proficiency cut scores are so low, many of its initially "high-performing" schools couldn't "improve" because they were already near 100 percent of their students at or above "proficient." Third, the standard by which schools were deemed to be "high-improving" was modest at best. They only had to have made gains that were higher than the majority of schools in the state (roughly five points per year), not move from the bottom quartile to the top or anything else dramatic. Bottom line: These schools haven't turned around, or even closed the gap with other schools in the state; they've merely made a positive step in the right direction. Surely no bad thing to do, but let's not get carried away. You can read the report here.

By Amber Winkler

It's the Classroom, Stupid: A Plan to Save America's Schoolchildren
Kalman R. Hettleman
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

The author (a former Baltimore school-board member and veteran reformer) views his new book as an attempt "to turn on its head conventional wisdom about how to reform the education of America's poorest students." As his title implies, he wants reformers to focus on what happens in the classroom as much as they obsess about what goes on in legislative chambers. Furthermore, he wants a no-holds-barred bigger role for the federal government, based on the premise that state and local governments have failed in the education realm. Perhaps most controversially, Hettleman declares that we need to prioritize "equity" over "excellence." We don't always agree with Hettleman—and you may not either—but his contrarian thinking is apt to stimulate your own. You can order the book here

By Janie Scull

Fighting for Opportunity: School Choice Yearbook 2009-2010 
Andrew Campanella and Ashley Ehrenreich 
Alliance for School Choice 
According to this report, 2009 was "the school choice movement's most challenging year to date." While perhaps over-dramatic, this pronouncement does highlight the fact that choice gained ground in some areas while it lost in others. The Pennsylvania and D.C. voucher programs suffered. But new programs became law in Indiana and Arizona, four other states (Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, and Utah) added programs, and four more programs (in Georgia, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wisconsin) survived attempts to dismantle them. Student enrollment in the various types of choice increased 5 percent in 2009 to nearly 180,000. (The authors have in mind vouchers, tax credits and such, not charters and myriad other forms of "public-school choice.")  There's also some new research here (and some repeat findings from 2008 and 2007), rounded out with the usual heartwarming stories, state profiles, and pictures of children on the picket line. It might have been a tough year, says the Alliance, but they're ready to declare it a victory. Read round three here.

By Daniela Fairchild


Fordham wants YOU!
We're still seeking stellar candidates for our new "development director" post. This individual needs at least a few years of experience in the field, a lively interest in education policy, and a cheerful, enterprising, and ambitious demeanor. That sound like you? Send your resume, cover letter, and references to [email protected]. Find more information here.

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.