A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 10, Number 11. March 18, 2010

Find an easier-to-read version here.

This week on The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Andy, back in time for the Master's


From Mike's Desk

From Checker's Desk

Recommended Readings

Flypaper's Finest

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Short Reviews


About Us

From Mike's Desk

Fickle on federalism

"[This plan] will fundamentally change the federal role in education. We will move from being a compliance monitor to being an engine for innovation."
—Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, March 17, 2010, before the House Education and Labor Committee

"In coming weeks and months…we will be announcing a number of compliance reviews to ensure that all students have equal access to educational opportunities."
—Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, March 8, 2010, at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama


Arne Duncan's schizophrenia on federalism, in full display in recent weeks, is hardly an isolated case; you might say this condition is endemic to Washington right now. Education reformers on both sides of the aisle are torn between pressing their preferred policies from the shores of the Potomac and acknowledging that Uncle Sam is too far removed from the realities of schools, communities, and classrooms to do much good without doing lots of harm. But rather than a sickness, this represents a healthy trend, for it means that the policy elite are actually considering whether to shrink the federal role.

This would be quite a reversal. Since Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the feds have been piling mandate upon mandate, creating new rights for students, responsibilities for schools, and expectations for school systems and states that they cannot possibly meet. Perhaps No Child Left Behind will be seen as the apex of this federal activism, pushed, in a Nixon-goes-to-China way, by a conservative Republican president. With its prescriptions for measuring school quality, its Soviet-style timelines, and its one-size-fits-all "cascade of sanctions," it reflected the hubristic notion that a small federal agency could move the mountain that is American public education. It didn't work, and it fed a predictable backlash.

Thus Arne Duncan's call, just this week, to stop "micromanaging" schools from Washington. When it comes to his blueprint for the reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), he mostly seems to mean it. Most significantly, his proposal would return authority over state accountability systems back to…the states. (Just as amazingly, liberal lion George Miller indicated at the hearing yesterday that he supports this move.)

All but the very worst schools would be freed from federal sanctions. There would be no more "Adequate Yearly Progress" tracking (unless states opt to do something like that), no more schools "in need of improvement," no more "corrective action" or "restructuring" or "public school choice" or "supplemental services." For 95 percent of America's public schools, the federal role would switch from "accountability" to "transparency": All would still be required to take annual state tests and publicize the results, but no top-down consequences will flow from them. (The best of these schools would, however, be eligible for federal rewards.)

As you might expect, not everyone is thrilled with this idea. Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust told the Wall Street Journal that "you can't say we're going to get all kids college ready and ignore 85 percent of the schools…If you're a school that is in the bottom 25 percent, you could just be in the bottom 25 percent and just sit there." In a similar vein, University of California law professor (and former White House aide) Christopher Edley complained to the Times, "I'm alarmed by the frequent references to ‘incentives,' and the apparent intention to reduce the federal role in forcing compliance." And the Washington Post editorial page is concerned that the focus on the best and worst schools "could allow problems to go uncorrected in the vast middle."

If these analysts are worried that the Administration's proposal won't fix all that ails America's 100,000 schools, they are right. It won't. How refreshing that we might begin to acknowledge that nothing from Washington can, could, or will.

But the Administration's enthusiasm for federal restraint only goes so far. In the very same ESEA "blueprint," Secretary Duncan would mandate state-level definitions of "highly-effective teachers"; state-level efforts to equalize the distribution of effective teachers; and district-level teacher evaluation systems. Most significantly, he would require districts to equalize funding between their high-poverty and more affluent schools. So even as he eases up on school accountability, he would double down on teacher accountability.

All of these teacher-related ideas have at least some merit and reformers are rightfully pushing for their adoption at the state and local levels. But is Duncan opposed to "micromanagement" from the banks of the Potomac or not? (And that's before even considering last week's triple-down civil rights announcement, which, with its paeans to "enforcement" and "compliance" and "disparate impact," felt like the 1970s all over again.)

The Republicans aren't immune to this form of schizophrenia. While their natural instincts are to support federalism and local control—instincts lately heightened by the rise of the Tea Party—they also like to promote school choice from on high. Hence their major conundrum: whether to push back against the Administration's plans to scrap NCLB's public-school choice and free tutoring provisions, or let these die in the name of "local control."

Just take a look at the press release put out yesterday by the House education committee's ranking GOP member, John Kline. In one breath he intoned that Congress needs to "do more than simply cast aside the NCLB name and expand its requirements. I believe we need to have a meaningful conversation about the appropriate federal role in our schools." But a few paragraphs later he condemned the Administration's blueprint for "backing away from these critical parental options," which, he said, "is a tremendous disappointment, and one that could leave more than half a million students without the educational lifelines they depend on."

So let's ask Representative Kline and his fellow Republicans the same question: Are you for federal micromanagement, or not?

Nobody knows yet where fickle policymakers will land on federalism. But today's politics might push the federal role in a more limited direction. A recent survey found that 56 percent of Americans believe that the federal government "has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens." The conservative Politics Daily columnist Pete Wehner recently considered the implications of this finding. "We are witnessing (for liberals) a bitter irony in the making: Barack Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are undermining the modern liberal project, which is predicated on an almost limitless faith in the federal government. They are creating the conditions for an epic counter-reaction."
If this counter-reaction washes away the worst of NCLB's excesses, so much the better.

By Michael J. Petrilli

From Checker's Desk

Are "common standards" good for American education?
For five good reasons, conservatives should take seriously the potential of the newly released (in draft form) "common" education standards to strengthen U.S. education.

First, they're good, solid—indeed very ambitious—academic standards for primary and secondary schooling, at least in the two essential subjects of English and math. Students who attained them would be better off—readier for college, readier to get good jobs, readier to compete in the global economy—than most are today. (An overwhelming majority of states, according to analyses by Fordham and other organizations, currently rely on standards that range from mediocre to abysmal.)

Second, they respect basic skills, mathematical computation, the conventions of the English language, good literature, and America's founding documents. That's why they've been endorsed by the likes of E. D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Foundation, and Lynne Munson of Common Core.

Third, they emerged not from the federal government but from a voluntary coming together of (most) states, and the states' decision whether or not to adopt them will remain voluntary. Each state will determine whether the new standards represent an improvement over what it's now using.

Fourth, they do not represent a national curriculum—though to gain traction they'll need to be joined by solid curricula, effective instruction, and quality testing.

Fifth, one little-noted benefit of properly implemented common standards is a better-functioning education marketplace, in which parents will be able to make choices about schools on the basis of more accurate information about how school A's performance compares with that of school B—not just within communities and states but also when considering a move from state to state. Entrepreneurial school operators (such as KIPP and Edison) will also be better able to gauge and manage school performance in locations across the land.

Of course there are risks, too, four of which bear mentioning:

First, the standards are currently in draft form and subject to comment and revision. One hopes they'll get even better (and in several key ways they would bear improving), but they could get worse.

Second, federal officials could mess things up by attaching too many inappropriate "strings" to states' use of these standards. Education Secretary Duncan and President Obama have already dropped worrisome hints. (But of course they can mess things up without these standards, too!)

Third, the long-term governance of these standards—and of the assessments to follow—is unknown. Something more durable will need to be found or created than the consortium of states that produced the present draft. (Fordham is developing ideas and options for this, and others will surely weigh in as well.)

Fourth, standards alone don't make for better education. (California, for example, has had impressive academic standards for years, and yet its student performance remains weak.) Standards just describe a desirable destination. Getting there demands good schools, too, with competent teachers, hard-working students, attentive parents, and a solid curriculum.

Still and all, these draft "common core" standards are light years better than we had any right to expect. They appear to be better than the standards most states now rely on. And they represent a vision of well-educated girls and boys that conservatives should applaud. Remember, it's liberals who believe that people should be held to different standards.

This piece first appeared on National Review Online.

By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Recommended Readings

Detroit, the city with a plan
Detroit on the up-and-up? Its leaders have a plan to pick their schools up by their bootstraps—two plans in fact. First, there's Excellent Schools Detroit, a collaborative venture spearheaded by the Skillman Foundation, which wants to bring New Orleans-style reform to the Motor City, to be jump-started with $200 million in private investment. (Think: mayoral control, a "recovery" school district, Teach For America, etc.) Robert Bobb, the Detroit Public Schools' financial manager (and de facto superintendent), has a plan, too. It focuses mostly on "right-sizing" the district. He wants to close forty-four schools and one administrative building in June and thirteen more schools in 2012. By eliminating 50,000 excess seats, Bobb calculates that the closures will save the district $31 million this year alone. He hopes to funnel that cash into the renovation of twenty-two schools that remain open and to implement a new plan in every building to deal with mounting school violence. We applaud Detroit's new "can-do" attitude; let's just hope there's the political will to make it happen.

"State, District Leaders Press School Transformations," by Dakarai I. Aarons, Education Week, March 16, 2010 (subscription required)

"Detroit schools plan: Total transformation," by Chastity Pratt Dawsey and Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki, Detroit Free Press, March 10, 2010

"More than 40 schools in Detroit, Michigan, set to close under plan," CNN, March 17, 2010

Hail to the Kansas City chief
More right-sizing in the Midwest. Last week, at the urging of its superintendent, John Covington, the Kansas City (Missouri) school board made the gutsy decision to close nearly half its schools. Since a 1985 court mandate to address the segregation and chronic failure of the district's schools, Kansas City has attempted to draw students back from surrounding suburban schools by offering attractive amenities such as an Olympic size swimming pool, an indoor track, and a mock trial court. Guess what: It didn't work, and district enrollment has continued to fall—from 35,000 students to 18,000 over the last decade alone—while already-low achievement has stagnated. With near to empty classrooms and a surfeit of costly facilities, the district is nearly bankrupt. The board's plan to shutter nearly half of its schools is unprecedented—and a more thoughtful way to save pennies than most other ideas attracting attention these days. We hope that Kansas City implements this project with a shrewder and more sophisticated approach than it did the last. 

"Mass School Closures Approved in Kansas City, Mo.," Associated Press, March 11, 2010 

"Kansas City to close 26 schools. Unprecedented move in U.S.?" by Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 2010

"Money and good intentions won't fix our schools," by Joshua Dunn, Education Next Blog, March 16, 2010

Ships passing in the Atlantic
It's time for another split with jolly ol' Blighty. Despite sharing many ills, such as uneven academic performance across different demographics, private schools besting public ones, and inner-city schools stuck at the bottom of the achievement heap, the Brits are trying to escape some of the very remedies the American system is currently pursuing—more than a few of which we modeled on theirs! National standards, national tests, national curriculum—the UK has them all. But the Conservative Party, favored to win in the upcoming May elections, now claims that these educational bedrocks are "stifling" British schools and children. It's true that more school choice in England would be a good thing, but to scrap their national standards, tests, and curricula would be a gargantuan mistake.

"Between the U.S. and Britain, an ideological parting," by Anne Applebaum, The Washington Post, March 16, 2010

Poor in spirit
Americans are richer than ever, yet no happier than in the early 1970s. So Richard Bok asserts in The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being. In this longish New Yorker piece, Elizabeth Kolbert reviews the latest research on being happy—and the news is anything but. Turns out money can't buy happiness; getting a raise won't make you feel any better, nor will moving somewhere warm or having kids of your own. One possible explanation is the "hedonic treadmill": We quickly adjust to increases in quality of life—to our smart phones, vacation homes, and luxury cars. Or it might be that we're relativists. As soon as all our friends buy iPads too, our new toy loses its luster. So what might this mean for education? Here's one thought: If we're trying to get all kids "college- and career-ready" so that they might be rich when they grow up, we should be careful not to presume that they will be happy, too.

"Everybody have fun," by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, March 22, 2010

Big bang theory
There's a new show in town, and it's called "Arne Get Your…27 Shotguns." That's reportedly what the Education Department is purchasing to replace old firearms used by its Inspector General. Well, well, well. This gives a whole new meaning to "bullet points." Silver bullets, anyone? And Race to the Top finalists had better bring their armor. In all seriousness, the office put out a statement explaining that the OIG "is the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Education and is responsible for the detection of waste, fraud, abuse, and other criminal activity involving Federal education funds, programs, and operations. […] The acquisition of these firearms is necessary to replace older and mechanically malfunctioning firearms, and in compliance with Federal procurement requirements." Yikes! Will AK-47's be next at 400 Maryland Avenue SW?

"Education Department buying 27 shotguns," by Valerie Strauss, The Answer Sheet Blog of The Washington Post, March 11, 2010

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

Another indictment of "turnarounds," Andy Smarick
Anyone interested in what to do about America's most persistently failing schools—and especially those caught up in today's turnaround craze—should consider Part II of this report [2009 Brown Center Report on American Education] a must-read. A MUST-read…The question at the heart of [it] is "do schools ever change their performance?" The results are eye-popping…Read it here.

Fantastic RTT teacher section from Florida, Andy Smarick
There are lots of very interesting and very exciting elements in the teacher section of Florida's RTT application. First, this is a startling admission: Districts reported in 2008-09 that 99.97 percent of teachers were rated as satisfactory during the 2008-09 school year, while less than 70 percent of teachers in reading and mathematics have 50 percent or more of their students make learning gains across the state...Read it here.

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Andy, back in time for the Master's
It's all ESEA all the time this week, as Andy and Mike square off in debate over the Obama Administration's reauthorization blueprint. Then Amber tells us about charter-school teacher evaluations and Stafford wants to know is it Conn-ec-ti-cut? 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

Saving America's Urban Catholic Schools
Stephanie Saroki and Christopher Levenick
Philanthropy Roundtable
December 2009

It is no secret that big-city Catholic schools face a crisis of human capital and shifting demographics. In this short, useful book, the Philanthropy Roundtable provides donors (and others) with guidance on how to safeguard the future of Catholic schools in today's adverse climate. Particularly noteworthy are its Ten Great Ideas in Need of Funding, which divide neatly into recommendations to parishioners and reforms for policymakers. The authors' ideas for improving Catholic schools are strikingly similar to the Obama administration's education platform for public schools, including the creation of incentive prizes, performance management tools, and the use of technology to aid productivity. Even though it is structured as a guide for donors, the report contains important recommendations for policymakers, Catholic school administrators, and laity alike. Read it here

By Marisa Goldstein

Teaching Talent: A Visionary Framework for Human Capital in Education
Rachel E. Curtis and Judy Wetzel (eds.)
Harvard Education Press
March 2010

If the last Harvard Education Press volume to propose a fancy new framework for boosting teacher and principal quality hadn't come out just six months ago, this book would be a bigger big deal. To be certain, it sets forth plenty of promising great ideas for retaining, evaluating, and promoting teachers and principals. But that first tome, A Grand Bargain for Education (find our review here), did much the same thing back in August. Not only is the timing close, but so are the big concepts: smart use of value-added data for teacher evaluation and feedback; a new salary scale with tougher tenure requirements; the reduction or elimination of the automatic salary bump for earning a master's degree; and accountability for principals equally based on their schools' quantitative and qualitative data. Both books even include contributions from the same author—former Denver uber-teacher and negotiator, and current Department of Education advisor, Brad Jupp. Still, there's plenty of worthwhile (and some fresh) material here. In a chapter on lessons from the private sector, for example, the authors introduce the idea of "total rewards," which means thinking of benefits in broader-than-usual terms. There's also some smart thinking about managing and incentivizing "second stage" (i.e., tenured) teachers who may be less motivated to try new things. Worth a look, despite being déjà vu. You can find it here.

By Mickey Muldoon


Fordham still wants YOU!
We continue to seek outstanding candidates for our new "development director" job—we've met some swell individuals but are still interviewing. So don't miss your chance—apply today! The perfect candidate will have at least a few years of experience in fundraising, a passion for Fordham's mission, and a hard-working, entrepreneurial, and fun spirit. If that's you, send your resume, cover letter, and references to [email protected]. Find more information here.

Ravitch takes AEI by storm, on video
Watch Diane Ravitch, Bill Galston, Mark Schneider, Dennis Van Roekel, and Rick Hess debate Diane's new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, 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.