A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 10, Number 17. May 6, 2010.

Find an easier-to-read version here.

New to Fordham: Candice Santomauro. Fordham is thrilled to welcome Candice Santomauro to our team as Director of Partnerships. She comes to us from the Cornerstone School, a D.C. private school that provides an academically rigorous education to 200 low-income, at-risk students, where she served as Director of Development. Welcome Candice! Read more about her here.

This week on The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Education professors take on…immigration?


From Checker's Desk

Recommended Readings

Flypaper's Finest

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Short Reviews


About Us

From Checker's Desk

Still troubling bed partners
Not long ago, I laid hold of this space to voice my concern that private foundations are getting entirely too palsy-walsy with Uncle Sam—and that he's doing his ardent utmost to draw them into an intimate embrace.

Turns out I failed to appreciate the depth of this mutual attraction—though it's hard to be sure how much of it is true love and how much a matter of mutual "leverage." Either way, recent days have brought both fresh evidence of foundations banding together in part to do the government's bidding in K-12 education reform and a troubling report from the recent Council on Foundation conclave in Denver.

The hard news is that a dozen major foundations have committed some $506 million this year to a joint venture intended to foster educational innovation, of which about one-fourth will be spent to "match" federal funding from the i3 "innovation" program. That venture, the government part of which is paid from economic-stimulus money, is meant to gin up fresh ideas to improve K-12 education and bankroll the replication of successful "innovations" already underway. Grantees must come up with a 20 percent match from private sources and America's education-reform-minded foundations have been besieged by would-be claimants on the Education Department's unusual largesse—hardly surprising, considering that applications are due next week!

To simplify such match-making, the multi-foundation initiative includes a novel—one might fairly say innovative—"online registry," a sort of shared website where (in the words of Education Week reporter Michele McNeil) "applicants can upload their own grant proposal information and foundations can go shopping for reform ideas and partners that they want to fund."

There is obvious appeal in one-stop shopping from the standpoint of would-be innovators, particularly small and inexperienced grant-seekers. But there is also a risk that group-think will substitute for the judgment of individual foundations (as in "well, three other foundations have already rejected this project so we need not waste time evaluating it ourselves"). Priorities may gradually merge and "innovations" could turn out to be bland, innocuous, and free from sharp edges. Which eventually weakens one of the great strengths of private philanthropy, namely that Gates isn't Walton isn't Casey isn't Hewlett isn't Ford isn't Carnegie, etc., and their differing interests and values are pillars of true diversity and innovativeness in education (and other fields).

Of equal concern is whether a dozen of America's most important education-minded foundations should tie up 130 million of their dollars in projects and programs chosen by government selectors, in effect subsidizing a government program with money that might otherwise support ventures that government cannot or would not touch. If the government wants more dollars than Congress appropriated, maybe it should go back for a supplemental—or change its spending priorities or raise taxes or borrow some more.

Though a great many details remain hazy to outside observers, it does seem that most of the other $376 million is intended by the foundations to underwrite education innovations that Arne Duncan does not fund. Yet if they are spotted via the new registry, they are almost sure to be the sort of project that conforms to i3 priorities, such as school turnarounds. Not necessarily a bad thing, but very possibly a corral outside which there are more daring innovations that could never qualify for government funding.

Yet the foundations may not care, for many of them seem more and more willing to let the Obama administration set their priorities, not least because they yearn—philosophically, culturally, perhaps politically, too—to help this administration succeed. The administration reciprocates, of course, as it is exceptionally keen to enlist these selfsame foundations in advancing its policies, programs, and reputation. There's an affinity here that transcends anything I've observed in earlier years—and of course it is heightened by the number of people with foundation (and, generally, nonprofit) backgrounds who occupy key policy roles in the Education Department and other agencies.

Consider this report from the recent Council on Foundations soiree by the Manhattan Institute's Anthony Paletta:

This year's…conference…offered a revealing glimpse into the nexus of an administration eager to obtain the support of the non-profit world, and a community of increasingly politicized foundations who see bountiful opportunities for legislative achievements emanating from the current White House.

A tone of mutual congratulation pervaded the conference, first exemplified by remarks from Valerie Jarrett…manager of the White House Office of Public Engagement, which oversees public-private liaison efforts…

If you thought that philanthropy's mission was simply to donate to areas in need, then you haven't been paying attention….Concurrent with exhortations to spend philanthropic wealth in the most politically minded ways possible, the conference featured numerous speakers deeply concerned about the malignant influence of other people's money on politics…

[E]xecutives from the Ford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies, both single-donor billion-dollar funds that direct vast amounts of resources to political causes, argued for greater levels of political engagement in philanthropy.

Complicating this subject is the fact that philanthropists say (and surely believe) that what they're doing is "leveraging" their own money with government dollars, policy clout, and regulatory oomph. They see this as an enormous bargain, a way to produce more action than their own budgets could pay for. They are thrilled by what they view as "policy alignment" between their goals and the administration's. What they may not appreciate is that in this process—and in the name of "public-private partnerships," a term I have come to mistrust—they are, in effect, subsidizing government and lengthening its reach beyond even the President's and Secretary Duncan's considerable intentions.

By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Recommended Readings

5, 6, 7, 8, reformers learn to advocate
It wasn't so long ago that reformers were regularly out-hustled by the education establishment.  While we were mostly putting out white papers and writing op-eds, they were making campaign donations and marching on statehouses. Unfortunately, our compelling ideas were no match for their raw political power. But compelling ideas plus political power—now that's a combination that can move mountains. And it's also the lesson from Connecticut and Colorado this week. The former is on the verge of adopting a far-reaching "Race to the Top" reform bill that makes student achievement a key component of teacher evaluations and lifts the cap on the number of students in high-performing charter schools. The latter is getting close to passing a bold teacher tenure-and-evaluation bill of its own. In both cases, the reform movement's new political savvy was on display. The Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) spearheaded the push for reform in the Nutmeg State, tapping grass-roots communications, television adds, and old-fashioned lobbying to win its case. And the Mountain State's effort is led by State Senator Mike Johnston, a founder of New Leaders for New Schools, one of the reform movement's first members to win elective office. It just proves the old adage: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

"Controversial bill to change teacher tenure has four days to pass House," by Jeremy P. Meyer, Denver Post, May 4, 2010

"Opinion: Colorado is Ground Zero," by Alan Gottlieb, Huffington Post, May 4, 2010

"Sweeping School Reform Bill Goes to Rell For Signature," by Grace E. Merritt and Steven Goode, Hartford Current, May 6, 2010

Don't get your culottes in a twist
The New York Times is making a habit of putting charter schools on the front page. But unlike previous (planted) attempts at negative propaganda, last weekend's "Despite Push, Success at Charter Schools is Mixed" shouldn't be a call to the barricades. In fact, the piece was quite fair. It's true that there are some great charters—backed by strong philanthropic support—lots of mediocre ones, and too many low-performers. The data back this up. Furthermore, replication is difficult. None of this is news or rocket science. Let's put down our bayonets and go back to work.

"Despite Push, Success at Charter Schools is Mixed," by Trip Gabriel, New York Times, May 1, 2010

When choosing is enough
After all the hype and brouhaha, Charles Murray wants to explain something to you. He starts in an odd place: Lackluster results from an evaluation of the Milwaukee voucher program should be cause for celebration. Then he cites Coleman, a perhaps dangerous move in light of how often what goes on in the home is used as an excuse for dreary efforts and results in the classroom. But it's hard to argue with where he winds up: "There are millions of parents out there who don't have enough money for private school but who have thought just as sensibly and care just as much about their children's education as affluent people do. Let's use the money we are already spending on education in a way that gives those parents the same kind of choice that wealthy people, liberal and conservative alike, exercise right now. That should be the beginning and the end of the argument for school choice."

"Opinion: Why Charter Schools Fail The Test," by Charles Murray, New York Times, May 4, 2010

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

Duncan to parents: Look in the mirror, Mike Petrilli
The issue of parental involvement is vexing for education reformers. Everybody knows that it matters, but nobody really knows how to encourage it. In a free society, how do schools, or governments, make sure that parents provide the love, attention, discipline, nurturing, and care that their kids need to succeed? The short answer is: they can't. So it's with that context in mind that Secretary Duncan waded into the issue of parental involvement this week with a very thoughtful speech to the "Mom Congress."…Read it here.

Eduwonk and charters, Andy Smarick
Eduwonk has…a charter post up that I need to take issue with—if not with this exact position, then with the issue to which it speaks. His basic case is that district superintendents are district superintendents not superintendents of their cities' charter sectors. Though this is certainly true technically, this is the type of turf thinking that has hurt urban kids for eons….Read it here.

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Education professors take on…immigration?
Fresh off the plane from AERA, Rick takes on Mike over The New York Time's front page charter story, the new philanthropic overtures to the Department of Education, and the Arizona immigration law's implications for schools. Then Amber tells us about math teachers around the world and Rate that Reform hates on T.I. 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

Literary Study in Grade 9, 10, and 11 in Arkansas
Sandra Stotsky, Christian Goering, David Jolliffe
University of Arkansas
Spring 2010

This paper wants to know what high school students are reading today and whether it's any good. To find out, the authors interviewed 400 Arkansas public high school teachers of ninth-, tenth-, and eleventh-grade English to find out what they assign; then, they did follow-up focus groups with a subset to hear more about teaching conditions and accountability requirements that might impact reading syllabi. They focused on the "middle third" of students—average students in regular or honors classes, as opposed to students in AP, IB, basic, or remedial ones. What they found is troubling. First, Arkansas high school literature curricula are generally unchallenging. Assigned texts are mostly at the middle school level, and they don't get harder as students get older, either. The few remaining challenging texts that are commonly assigned—such as Julius Caesar or The Scarlet Letter—appear to be leftovers of curricula of an earlier era. Second, when teaching these texts, teachers shun analytic approaches in favor of tackling the text from a cultural, historical, and/or biographical standpoint, even when this approach is incongruent with culture-free skills required by state standards. Only about 30 percent of teachers approach literature instruction from a "close reading" or "new criticism" perspective, and almost solely in pre-AP or AP courses. Their recommendations for solving this dismal state of affairs are numerous, but boil down to two: The literature "classics" are classics for a reason, and students need to be taught at all levels how to read them with an analytic eye. Hear, hear. You can read it here.

By Janie Scull

The Endurance of Centralized Governance Systems in an Age of School District Decentralization
Heather Schwartz, Columbia University
Ford Foundation Project on Choice District Governance
January 2010

This draft paper prepared for the Ford Foundation asks a simple question, "how far does the decentralization of school district administrative functions go?" Much of the rhetoric surrounding decentralization, observes author Heather Schwartz, a recent PhD recipient of Teachers' College, outstrips the actual autonomy enjoyed by schools in these allegedly decentralized districts. She looks at two decentralized districts, one that is made up of all "traditional" but highly-autonomous district schools (Edmonton, Alberta) and one of all charter schools (Lake Wales, Florida). She finds that though the schools in these two districts enjoy more freedoms than schools in many "centralized" districts, they are by no means fully- or even semi-autonomous. This is mainly because of economic realities of scale; it is much cheaper for the district to purchase certain services or make particular decisions in bulk, and thereby spread the costs across schools. But there's also a certain amount of territorial behavior on the part of the central office, too. We found similar constraints for charter schools in our recent report on charter autonomy. Though these two district models are hardly the norm, this paper is an interesting contribution to the decentralization research; read it here.

By Marisa Goldstein

College and Career Ready: Helping All Students Succeed Beyond High School
David T. Conley

This book explores what it would take for high schools to ensure the "college and career readiness" of every student. It seeks to get into the nitty gritty of how we'd remake high schools to actually produce these students, from defining the basic terms to overhauling curriculum. The book has two sections: First, Conley lays out his four-part conceptual model of college readiness and his seven principles of how to organize a school to follow this model. These principles include, for example, creating a career- and college-ready culture and implementing a strong core academic program. He offers case studies of schools that have managed to do this successfully. A much shorter part two addresses what schools and states have done so far to improve graduation standards. Herein Conley acknowledges the unsavory side effects of some of these reforms, such as detracking and pushing more students into AP and IB courses. His chapter on state actions is perhaps the most interesting, since Conley is in fact on the validation committee for the Common Core State Standards Initiative. And surprise, he is sure to point out that states would do well to compare their standards to the Common Core to find out if the state ones are any good. (Incidentally, Fordham will be conducting just such an analysis this summer—stay tuned!) From the perspective of a principal, district leader, or state policy maker trying to figure out how to operationalize the amorphous term "college- and career-ready," this book fills an important void; readers will find more of the "how" of this "how-to" manual on the accompanying website. Buy the book, or peruse the website, here.

By Stafford Palmieri


Charter autonomy redux
An updated version of Charter School Autonomy: A Half-Broken Promise is now available; it reflects a handful of changes made after a few minor sampling errors were found and corrected. The changes, however, did not impact the findings or conclusions. A complete explanation is included at the end of the report; it can also be found here.

James Madison wants you!
The Bill of Rights Institute is seeking an experienced professional to manage and deliver its educational programs. This Director of Education Programs would be responsible for overseeing the creation, planning, delivery, and evaluation of their education offerings for middle- and high-school social studies teachers and students and for developing an outreach strategy to build ongoing relationships with teachers and students. The ideal candidate would have 5+ years experience with curriculum development and delivery, and be dedicated to the core mission of BRI, the teaching of America's founding documents. Find more information and how to apply here.

School is about citizenship, too
The Stanford Center on Adolescence is pleased to invite you to a conference on civic engagement of American youth. The all-day June 5 "American Identity Renewed: An Educational Agenda for the 21st Century" will take place in New York City and focus on the goal of promoting positive civic purpose in adolescents. Speakers include Os Guinness (EastWest Institute), Andrew Delbanco (Columbia University), and William Sullivan (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching), amongst others. Stanford's William Damon will moderate. Find more information and register here.

Leno passes the test
The White House Correspondents' Dinner may have turned into an excuse for pols and celebs to rub elbows, but we couldn't help laughing at Jay Leno's contribution to the evening. Got a failing student? Swap 'em out in the newly announced "Cash for Flunkers" program. (Be prepared to be mildly appalled. We said we laughed; we didn't say Leno was being PC.)

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 and 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.