A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 10, Number 20. May 27, 2010.

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New From Fordham: Needles in a Haystack: Lessons from Ohio's high-performing, high-need urban schools. This report from Fordham's Ohio team examines eight terrific schools, distilling lessons that can inform district and state policies and practices to foster more of them. Read it here.

This week on The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: "Lost" on the ed reform island?



From Checker's Desk

From Kathleen's Desk

Recommended Readings

Flypaper's Finest The Education Gadfly Show Podcast Short Reviews Announcements

About Us

From Checker's Desk

Rushing to judgment?
You could be forgiven for thinking that the education messiah will arrive on June 2, considering all the hype, angst, dither and pother that already surround next week's promised unveiling of the final "common core" state standards (CCSS). I'm eager to see them, too, and to examine what's changed during the comment-and-revision process that followed publication of the March drafts. But like so much else in contemporary American life, an orgy of carefully-orchestrated public relations ought not substitute for the careful scrutiny that these standards deserve.

The earlier drafts were unexpectedly and encouragingly good, particularly when placed alongside the crummy standards that too many states have come up with on their own. Fordham has been reviewing state academic standards since 1997, and we've been appalled by their general mediocrity even as we've been impressed and encouraged by a few. The final CCSSI standards would have to be a lot worse than the drafts for them not to represent significantly higher and more thoughtful academic expectations (in the two core subjects that they encompass) than those that presently drive K-12 education in much of the land.

It's that widespread mediocrity, more than anything else, that has led me and my colleagues to favor some form of national standards—on the assumption, that is, that they'll be more rigorous than what we're using today. Plenty of other arguments can be made for national standards, including the fact that most big, modern, mobile countries on our shrinking and competitive planet have some form of national standards and tests—indeed, some form of national curriculum—for their schools, their teachers, and their children. But none of these arguments holds water unless the standards themselves are solid.

America has, however, been mugged by disappointing reality more than once and it would be imprudent and risky to turn CCSSI into an overhyped endeavor that states are browbeaten or bribed into joining without careful consideration of multiple variables. Indeed, we'd probably be better off in the long run if the federal Race to the Top program were not crowding states to make this decision within sixty days. Worse, they're expected to commit to such a decision (to qualify for RTT funding) by June 1, even though the standards themselves don't appear until June 2! This has the makings of theater-of-the-absurd. It also raises anxiety levels about this worthy state-initiated, state-led venture turning into yet another federal mandate that will get caught in the wringer of Washington politics.

Installing new standards in one's schools, even solid, ambitious, rigorous, content-rich standards, such as we all hope the "common core" will turn out to be, is a momentous decision. At least if it's to be more than lip-service—a façade of "adoption" that conceals the same old teachers teaching the same old stuff and assessing it via the same old tests. As most people now realize, standards per se are simply statements of aspiration—the skills and knowledge we yearn for our children to acquire as they pass through primary and secondary schooling. To have real traction and make a material difference in what's actually learned, standards must be properly implemented.

That includes major changes in curriculum, textbooks, and other instructional materials; in teacher preparation, certification, evaluation and in-service training; in student assessments; in student and school-level accountability systems (both state and federal); in end-of-high-school expectations; and eventually in much more, including college admissions and placement. Because it is such a big deal, states considering adoption of the CCSSI standards should make themselves answer these four questions:

  1. How do the common core standards in math and English/language arts compare with those they're already using? (We intend to help with this one. Watch for a comparative analysis from Fordham in about six weeks. And we'll call it as we see it, including noting any cases where state standards turn out to be superior.)
  2. Does the state (and its districts) have the political, organizational, and financial capacity to infuse new and different standards throughout its K-12 system—and all the other systems that connect to it? Some places have recently made sizable investments in implementing their present academic standards. On the other hand, some "economies of scale" will likely result from adopting common standards and tests.
  3. If the new standards are indeed more demanding than the old, and assuming that these loftier expectations are mirrored by new assessments and definitions of "proficiency," do state (and local) leaders have the intestinal fortitude to deal with the likeliest short-term consequence, namely a lot more kids not being promoted or graduated?
  4. Does the state have the resolve—and the means—to do all this in English language arts and math without short-changing the rest of what educated people must learn in school: science and history, obviously, but also the arts, civics, health, languages and more?

At day's end, it's still states that are responsible for public education in the U.S.—and states that must determine whether and how to change it. To be sure, the "common core" carries with it significant implications for the federal government, too, most obviously in the revision of NCLB/ESEA, as well as any later iterations of Race to the Top (and, of course, the grant competition now underway for new assessments).

States will do their kids no favor if they mess up this decision or just go through the motions of embracing new standards, maybe only long enough to qualify for RTT funding. In short order, everyone in those jurisdictions will recognize that this was a false messiah—and educators and voters alike will grow even more cynical about standards-based education reform.

But neither will states benefit their children or enhance their own futures by stubbornly clinging to mediocrity in the face of a rare opportunity to steer the entire K-12 enterprise onto a sounder course than it has been following. That's why these decisions should be carefully and soberly made, not rushed to judgment.

By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

From Kathleen's Desk

Moving beyond adoption
The final drafts of the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and math are slated to be released next week. While there has been some controversy in a handful of states over their adoption, the majority of states seem poised to adopt these standards quickly and with little fanfare.

One consequence of moving quickly towards adoption has been surprisingly little public discussion of what state-level implementation of these standards should entail. Yet this topic should concern everyone who wants to see the new standards actually drive student achievement.

Just as it would be irresponsible for wannabe parents to adopt a baby without intelligently weighing the many challenges that accompany raising that infant to adulthood, so it would be foolish for states to adopt new standards without seriously pondering—and committing themselves to—their successful, long-term implementation.

In reality, however, it's impossible to divorce successful implementation of rigorous standards from the systemic education reforms that will create the conditions necessary for these standards to affect achievement in the classroom.

To date, most of the meager discussion around implementation of CCSS has consisted of such platitudes as "we will, of course, need to adequately support teachers by providing rigorous new curricula and targeted professional development and training." That's simplistic and glib, for it masks innumerable specifics that will make the difference between these standards being a primary driver of student achievement or just a form of wishful thinking.

After all, as we've learned from those states that already have rigorous standards accompanied by persistently poor student achievement, adopting great standards is no quick fix for student achievement woes.

On the other hand, we have models of excellence from which to learn. And we've learned that translating rigorous standards into stronger pupil achievement normally demands that at least four key elements be in place from the get-go:

  1. Data-driven instruction. Standards drive student achievement only if they are used every day to drive planning and instruction. In practice, that means teachers must use the standards as the foundation on which to build their short- and long-term instructional plans. They must frequently pause to assess student progress towards mastery of each standard and use the data from those assessments to drive whole-class and small-group instruction, and to identify individual students who need targeted intervention in particular areas.
  2. Ownership of results. Instructors who successfully drive student achievement in their classrooms are those who "own" their students' outcomes. They actually believe not only that it is their responsibility to ensure students master essential content, but also that it is within their power to guide students towards life-altering achievement gains. What's more, they recognize that they—and not other external or family forces—are the main drivers of those results.
  3. Accountability. Belief and ownership aren't the whole story. Teachers and schools who successfully use rigorous standards to drive achievement are also held to account for what their students learn. If you look, for example, to successful charter school networks, student achievement (measured in multiple ways) is always a factor—generally the most important factor—in judging a school's effectiveness. Such accountability is essential. It helps keep the conversation focused in these schools and classrooms where it should be: on student learning.
  4. Flexibility. The most powerful way to ensure that ownership of student achievement results is held at the school level—rather than the district or state level—is to pair accountability with flexibility. On the school level, this means giving school leaders authority over their school budgets and staffing decisions. We all know that great leaders can be creative in allocating scarce resources—dollars, time, personnel, etc. They should be given the chance to do this. On the classroom level, this means holding teachers accountable to student outcomes, not to fidelity to a particular curriculum or pedagogy.

Over the course of the next few months, much will be said about standards adoption. In the long run, however, states will be better served by facing now the tough implementation decisions that lie just over the horizon.

By Kathleen Porter-Magee

Recommended Readings

'Zona fide
This fall, the Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of Arizona's thirteen-year-old tax credit scholarship program, under which credits (against state taxes) can be taken by  those who donate to special "school tuition organizations" (STOs); these orgs then award scholarships for students to attend private schools of their choice. The problem, allege the plaintiffs, is that most of the STOs award scholarships to religious schools—in some cases, specific religious schools—or to students of a certain religion or gender (e.g., to single sex schools). Nor does the AZ law require that recipients be needy and/or underserved by the public school system (as does the Ohio voucher program that was okayed in another Supreme Court case, Zelman.)The Ninth Circuit Court ruled against the program on the grounds that it "lacks religious neutrality and true private choice in making scholarships available to parents." So SCOTUS again gets to ponder: Is the purpose of vouchers/tax credits simply to give parents more choices or to help woefully underserved students get a better education? Dare we suggest that it might be both?

"U.S. Supreme Court to weigh Arizona's tax credit law," by Pat Kossan and Ronald J. Hansen, The Arizona Republic, May 25, 2010

Profiting from for-profits
Is there a place for for-profit organizations in public education? If i3 and higher ed are any indication, the Administration rejoinder seems to be no. Gadfly wonders, though, are we being distracted by tax status to the detriment of evaluating quality? Yes, for-profits may be tempted to cut corners to fatten the bottom line. But they can also bring unique strengths to the table, such as a relentless pursuit of cost efficiencies, motivation to expand, nimbleness in resource allocation—and up-front private capital. Let's table their tax status for a second and ask ourselves a different query: Are they doing a good job? 

"Opinion: In Education, For-Profit Gets a Bad Rap," by Michael Horn, Huffington Post, May 20, 2010

"The For-Profit Question," by Frederick M. Hess, Rick Hess Straight Up a blog of Education Week, May 24, 2010

Coup d'education
The Queen hath spoken and British "charters" are one step closer to reality. Tuesday's "Queen's Speech," a monarchical tradition that sets the agenda for a new session of Parliament, announced an "Academies Bill" (officially introduced yesterday) that would make it tons easier for state-run schools to become "academies." These are publically-funded privately-run schools, originally created by Tony Blair to fix the lowest-performing schools in the land. This time around, though, all schools are eligible—indeed encouraged. Newly seated Education Secretary Michael Gove hopes academies will become the "norm." High-performing schools' conversion process will be fast tracked so that as early as this September, there could be as many as 3,000 of them (up from fewer than 300 now). A second bill to be introduced this summer would add "free" schools, new schools started by teachers, parents, or community groups, also publically-funded but largely freed from state oversight. (In American parlance, we might say "academies" are conversion charters and "free" schools are start-ups.) Further, the fall bill will overhaul the country's school oversight system, change the ways in which principals are held responsible for achievement levels and gap closing, slim down the national curriculum, and provide extra per-pupil dollars for the poorest students. Is this a revolution for choice and accountability? We'll have to wait and see.

"EVERY school should become an academy: Gove's challenge to England's 20,000 headteachers," The Daily Mail, May 26, 2010

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

RTT math, Andy Smarick
In a previous post, I discussed the probability that Secretary Duncan will have reason to forgo spending down the remaining Race to the Top funding and send money back to the Treasury. Some people think there will be a sufficient number of good applications in round two to make this "nuclear option" unnecessary. So let's take a look at the math. There is about $3.4 billion left in the pot….Read it here.

Losing LeBron isn't Cleveland's biggest problem, Jamie Davies O'Leary
Reading results from NAEP's Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) have been released, and the news for Cleveland fourth and eighth graders isn't much better than when math results came back last December. There are several ways to summarize the results, but unfortunately most are discouraging for Ohio's only TUDA-participating city….Read it here.

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

"Lost" on the ed reform island?
Did you watch the "Lost" series finale? Don't worry, Rick's here to explain, before debating Mike on for-profit organizations, Representative Chu's new "turnaround" plan, and the timeline snafu with RTT apps and the Common Core standards release date. Then Amber unpacks the new charter funding inequality study from Ball State and Janie takes Rate that Reform to Six Flags (by mistake!).

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). You can also subscribe through iTunes.

Short Reviews

Charter School Funding: Inequity Persists
Meaghan Batdorff, Larry Maloney, Jay May, Daniela Doyle, Bryan Hassel
Ball State University
May 2010

This long-anticipated report reaffirms a sad reality: Charter schools are woefully underfunded compared to their district counterparts. It updates and expands upon an earlier Fordham report that used 2002-03 data. This one examines 2006-07 funding across twenty-five states, capturing more than 90 percent of the country's charter school population. It also deploys a more finely-tuned methodology. On average, charter schools receive $2,247 fewer than district schools in the same state, a 19.2 percent difference in per-pupil revenue, a slightly narrower gap than four years before. Yet funding disparities widened over the same period in a handful of "deep dive" districts to the tune of $3,727 or 27.8 percent. Disparities ranged from just 5 percent in Indiana to a whopping 41 percent in D.C. For an average 250-student charter in the nation's capital, that's a gap of over $3 million. District disparities ranged from 4.5 percent in Albuquerque to 50.5 percent in Newark. The study also includes detailed state profiles and extensive slicing and dicing by funding sources (local, state, federal etc.), grades served, student demographics and more. It's a very valuable, albeit rather dispiriting, addition to our understanding of the charter cosmos within the U.S. K-12 universe. Read it here.

By Stafford Palmieri

Condition of Education 2010
National Center for Education Statistics
May 2010

This edition of NCES's long-running series is a dense and sobering tome. It looks at forty-nine indicators under five familiar headings; this year's special analysis considers high-poverty schools, a category which serves 17 percent of students. As always, the interesting tidbits are strewn throughout. For example, Roman Catholic schools still make up the greatest percentage of private school enrollment, though unsurprisingly their numbers declined from 45 to 39 percent between 1995-96 and 2007-08. However, because the report defines those Catholic schools as ones run by a parish (not a diocese or independently), the report partially attributes the decline to shifting management structures, rather than fewer students. In another section we discover that there remain significant differences in earnings based on gender and race. For example, in 2008, 25-34 year old males with a B.A. earned $53,000 on average, while women in the same age group with the same degree just $42,000. Meanwhile, Asian young adults with a tertiary degree earned more than their white or black peers with comparable attainment. Back in the realm of secondary education, graduation rates displayed no marked trends: eleven states saw their rates go up between 2000 and 2007, while five states saw their rates go down. In 2006-07, Nevada's rate clocked in lowest, at 52 percent; Vermont came out on top at 88.6 percent. That's but a sampling of the findings in this 400-page document. If you're short on time, find the key stats in the Commissioner's Statement. Otherwise, jump in here.

By Stafford Palmieri

Unique Schools Serving Unique Students: Charter Schools and Children with Special Needs
Robin Lake, ed.
Center on Reinventing Public Education

Nearly 11 percent of charter students require special education services, and this book addresses the challenges—and opportunities—faced by charters in educating them. Though it's a collection of essays, it amounts to a comprehensive overview of the topic, addressing the legal and practical issues both of specialized SPED charters and of disabled youngsters attending general charters. Things like limited access to district service infrastructure and lower funding levels (see above) hit charters serving SPED pupils particularly hard, and of course special education is governed by a complex regulatory web that limits school flexibility. Still, charters' autonomy lets them take the IEP to a new level. The book uses six case studies to distill five characteristics of strong charter programs for students with disabilities: school-wide commitment to meeting individual needs, effective professional development, custom student intervention, focus on effective instruction, and safe and respectful student-to-student interactions. Overall, a fine primer for those interested in where these two sectors meet. Buy it here.

By Daniela Fairchild


Higher edu-innovation
We often discuss the place for innovation in K-12 education. This all-day AEI conference will evaluate the topic in a tertiary context. How will online learning, redefining the role of professors, and rethinking the link between postsecondary programs and the labor market play out? On Thursday, June 3, the authors of eight new pieces of research on these and other topics will present and discuss their work. Find more information and RSVP 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., 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 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.