Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Would a Republican Congress be good for school reform?
By Michael Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr.
One of the most interesting developments of recent years has been the rise of reform-minded Democrats. It’s not just President Obama and Secretary Duncan; all over the country we see state legislators and municipal leaders beginning to challenge the unions and embrace charter schools, rigorous teacher evaluations, even public-sector pension reform. One case in point is Colorado, where the successful push for ground-breaking tenure reform legislation was led by Senator Mike Johnston and Representative Christine Scanlan, Democrats both.
Left unsaid—and taken as a given—is that Republicans are already in the reform column. And that’s often true at the state and local level. Indeed, in the Centennial State, the entire Republican caucus voted for the tenure-reform bill, leaving Johnston and Scanlan needing to scrounge up just six Democratic votes in the majority-Democratic House. Some joke that the country doesn’t need “Republicans for Education Reform” because that’s simply synonymous with “Republicans.”
Alas, that’s not so in Washington. There, it’s fairly obvious that the GOP doesn’t know what it stands for on education anymore—partly because much of its reform agenda has been co-opted by Messrs. Duncan and Obama, partly because it has long tended (at least in Congress) to ignore this topic, and partly because it has much else on its none-too-robust policy platter. The House GOP’s brand-new Pledge to America doesn’t even mention the word “education.”
Where you can detect at least a pulse on education, you can spot Republican instincts on reform colliding with deeply held principles of federalism. And with “tea party” sentiments riding high (and some candidates again calling to abolish the Department of Education while purging thoughtful folks like Mike Castle), it looks like “local control” and “states’ rights” arguments may rule the day should the GOP take over one or both houses of Congress.
Consider the recent comments, in an Education Week interview, of Representative John Kline of Minnesota, an intelligent, patriotic, and hard-working lawmaker who would likely chair the education committee in a Republican House. He told the newspaper that he wants to put “some meaning back into local control” when reauthorizing ESEA. He’s watching the Common Core State Standards “very closely,” warning that if the feds get involved in “putting in a de facto national curriculum,” his “caucus will rebel.” And he wouldn’t support an extension of Race to the Top, which he sees as too prescriptive. “This is the U.S. Department of Education putting [out its] view of what needs to be done…It’s not the states deciding. It’s not local control.”
We know and like Mr. Kline, and share many of these concerns and sentiments. There’s little doubt that the Common Core will be better off (substantively and politically) without federal involvement. We, too, found Race to the Top to be overly prescriptive. And we certainly agree that Washington typically does more harm than good when it tries to micromanage schools from the Potomac.
But that doesn’t mean the GOP should reflexively revert to weary old themes that emphasize states’ rights, local control, and parental choice—and tell Uncle Sam to basically butt out. That won’t get them, or the country, very far.
States’ rights in education today mean weak standards, shaky accountability, ed school monopolies in preparing teachers and principals, limited (and resource-starved) school choices, meaningless certification and regulation requirements, and scant freedom for those running schools to ensure that they’ll be effective.
Sure, some states are honorable (partial) exceptions to this glum litany but—honestly—not many. Without cajoling, bribing, nudging, and scolding from Washington, we suspect there would be fewer, not more. The fact is that state legislatures are where the traditional public-school establishment wields the most power and is best able—often working behind the scenes—to keep anything much from changing. (In Colorado, most of the Democratic members of the state House education committee are former teachers—and current union members.)
Local control of education is an honorable mantra but its track record, too, is pretty bleak. If school boards, superintendents, and local teacher unions put top priority on raising standards, narrowing gaps, emphasizing quality in the classroom, and running world class schools, America wouldn’t be where it is. In urban America and many suburbs, local control means union dominance. (Check out Waiting for ‘Superman.’) In other suburbs, it means smug complacency.
Parental choice, another GOP favorite, is a fine thing but (a) there isn’t nearly enough of it (the establishment at work again via statehouse and union contract), (b) too many of the available choices are abysmal, and (c) a lot of parents—painful as this is to say—make mediocre education choices and then stubbornly persist with them. This doesn’t do much for either kid or country, at least not by way of academic achievement.
In sum, the old GOP education agenda isn’t what twenty-first century America needs, and recycling it, while surely easier and perhaps safer than thinking anew, isn’t going to do the job. We made our own attempt at thinking anew two winters ago, when we unveiled our proposal for “reform realism.” The goal is to make the federal government a force for change, but with much greater humility about what it can actually accomplish from afar. Our reasoning, then and now, is to move toward a “tight-loose” approach to education governance: “tight” as to the results we want our schools to achieve but “loose” as to how schools, districts, and states get there.
The Obama Administration’s blueprint for ESEA reauthorization isn’t a bad summation of “reform realism” in action, and Republicans should seize much of it. Trashing “adequate yearly progress,” devolving authority back to the states when it comes to “accountability,” and killing the “highly qualified teacher” provision are all in line with Kline and company’s instincts around state and local control—and well worth doing.
But the GOP should also embrace some of its reform aspects, too, like turning more formula grants into competitive ones and promoting tenure reform. And in fact, in that Education Week interview, Kline indicated that he might want to do that. He and Secretary Duncan see eye to eye, he said, about needing to “break the tenure stranglehold that the teachers’ unions have had all across the country… We both agree that we need some way to remove the bad teachers and reward the good teachers.”
We hope that a Republican takeover might lead to a productive policy environment, with the GOP even teaming up with the Administration to promote the “tight-loose” framework. But that’s no sure thing. Just as likely is that the Party of Lincoln will become the party of “local control”—and give up on education reform altogether. That, in our view, would be an enormous lost opportunity.
Opinion: Movie Review: Waiting for 'Superman'
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Feeling just a bit sheepish about being one of the few people in the throng who hadn’t already seen this film, I went last week (with Fordham research director Amber Winkler) to the big Paramount/Viacom-sponsored Washington premiere of Waiting for ‘Superman’—the much-discussed new education movie. It was, as they say, a glittering crowd, at least as much as this town can muster, a sort of Hollywood-meets-Washington-meets-education-reform soirée. It was mobbed and sorta swanky, too.
Aside from all that glitz and glamour, Waiting for ‘Superman’ is quite a movie to boot. See it if you haven’t. It’s emotionally wringing, as a few of these needy-earnest-capable kids with anxious, hopeful parents make it through the lottery into high-performance charter schools while others—far too many others—do not. Maybe 80 percent of today’s most compelling ed-reform issues are aired, and nearly always from the reformers’ perspective. The cinematography is terrific as are most of the graphics and animations.
The film isn’t perfect. The “superman” angle is a little hokey. The ending is a little forced. Davis Guggenheim cannot curb his Gore-o-phile predilections when selecting unflattering film clips of GOP presidents. But it surely gets an A- as a high-status, Hollywood-generated boost to the kinds of changes that a lot of us have been pushing for a very long time. (A veteran D.C. pundit leaned over during the event and suggested that my life has not been lived in vain!) The education “blob”—mainly the teacher unions but also school boards, bureaucracies, etc.—gets the drubbing that it richly deserves but rarely receives from such mainstream and corporate (and left-wing) sources. For a while, it even felt like the reformers were triumphing.
Then I saw how few kids were triumphing. And I looked at the audience and saw Michelle Rhee, whose steely, kid-centered commitment to reform—she plays a starring role in this film, along with Geoffrey Canada—was repudiated just twenty-four hours earlier by D.C.’s Democratic voters. In truth, the timing of this premiere in Washington was simply awful and made the evening doubly poignant. I couldn’t bear to stick around for the Michelle-Randi face-off in the panel discussion to follow. Besides, the hour was late, I’m getting old, and Amber had a long subway ride ahead of her.
This piece originally appeared on Fordham’s blog, Flypaper. You can subscribe to Flypaper’s RSS feed here.
This piece also appeared on National Review Online.
Opinion: "Cracking the code," or ed reformers on crack?
By Michael Petrilli
Hubris alert! My friends in the education reform community are feeling triumphant, now that Waiting for ‘Superman’ is about to hit the theaters with its “To the Barricades!” message. Count me as worried; just consider what happened to Adrian Fenty when he got over-confident and morally righteous. Here’s an example of what concerns me, from Dom Giordano in the Philadelphia Daily News:
Guggenheim told me that we now know what to do to educate and advance every kid. He said, “In recent years, we’ve cracked the code. The high-performing charter schools, like KIPP and others, have figured out the system that works for kids in even the toughest neighborhoods.”
I echo this. And my mantra is—it’s a mystery? We know what to do. The only question is do we have the will to do it?
We’ve “cracked the code”? We “know what to do”? Look, what KIPP, and Achievement First, and the other high-flying charter management organizations are achieving is extraordinary, worth celebrating, and worth replicating. But let me offer three sobering points that we fans of school reform ought to ponder seriously nonetheless:
1. Maybe we’ve “cracked the code” on making high-poverty schools more effective, but we’re far from “cracking the code” on how to scale them up to serve lots more kids. We have a few hundred excellent urban schools when we need tens of thousands.
2. There’s little doubt that one of the reasons these schools succeed is that they bring motivated kids from motivated families together. We know from decades of “peer effects” studies that kids learn more when surrounded by high-achieving, striving youngsters. This part of “the code” can’t be replicated everywhere.
3. Even these amazing schools aren’t “closing the achievement gap,” as some of their supporters claim. Yes, a few of them are getting the same proportion of students to the “proficient” level as their suburban counterparts. But “proficient” is a very low bar. It doesn’t mean that KIPPsters, for instance, are going to produce SAT scores that are as high (on average) as kids from Scarsdale or Bethesda or Marin County. That’s not a knock on KIPP—it would be foolish to expect any school to overcome all of the advantages that affluence brings with it. But it is a knock on overselling what KIPP can accomplish.
It’s great that more Americans are going to learn about promising education reform strategies, and the various ways that the teachers unions and the rest of the education blob tries to strangle them in their crib. But let’s put that we-know-what-works talk back in the bottle, where it belongs. We’re a few steps into a long journey, and the more humility we bring along with us, the better.
This piece originally appeared on Fordham’s blog, Flypaper. You can subscribe to Flypaper’s RSS feed here.
New Analysis: Phineas Gage's field day
There is no link between creative processes and any particular brain structure, says Psychological Bulletin. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry, because Daniel Willingham will translate: left/right brain theory is bunk. As Willingham explains, this theoryavers that one’s logic and quantitative skills originate in the brain’s left hemisphere, while one’s artistic skills and emotions come from the right one. But how does this relate to education? Often, left/right brain theory is squarely to blame for the partially discredited “learning styles” pedagogical theory—which states that students “learning styles” (or whether they are left or right brain dominant) dictate whether they will be any good at math or art. In practice, this means teachers spend a lot of time worrying whether Suzie should learn the material orally, visually, kinesthetically, etc., rather than focusing on the material itself—and blaming non-mastery on the style of teaching instead of the rigor of the content. But, now that the theory behind the theory is also bunk, let’s hope we can retire the concept of “learning styles” permanently.
Review: Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
This thoughtful McKinsey report examines the advantages and feasibility of boosting the quality of the American teacher workforce by attracting more of it from the top third of the college class. Today, the authors estimate, we draw 23 percent of new teachers from this upper-tier—and in high-poverty schools, just 14 percent. After the requisite extolling of the benefits of having smarter and better educated teachers (especially for needy kids) and reminding us that high-achieving countries do far better than the U.S. at making the teaching occupation appealing to high-ability people, the authors break into the meat of their report. Here, they offer a number of strategies for upping the reputation of U.S. teachers. Some are costly (e.g., boosting salaries overall); others are less expensive in dollar terms but challenging in other ways. (For example, they suggest making high-need schools safer and better led, giving performance bonuses to top-achieving instructors, and focusing on “turnaround” and/or STEM schools.) Cautiously, the paper points to possible offsetting savings, such as targeting a larger share of the school dollar on instruction; they estimate that we could redirect $50 billion by simply lowering our high “non-educator expenditures” (e.g., admin, transport, and ancillary services) to the OECD average. They are even so bold as to suggest larger classes and more extensive use of instructional technology, which would of course mean fewer—but better paid and presumably abler—teachers. This is the kind of fresh thinking that American education sorely needs. If we were more willing to engage in it and then act on the basis of it, perhaps we’d spend less time and energy waiting for Superman.
Review:Is it Just a Bad Class? Assessing the Stability of Measured Teacher Performance
By Amber M. Winkler
One legitimate criticism of value-added measures (VAM) of teacher effectiveness is that they’re too unstable from year to year to be considered reliable gauges. Because of measurement errors and “statistical noise,” the effectiveness of individual teachers seems to bounce around a lot from year to year. But is it possible that some of this fluctuation is due to actual changes in effectiveness, rather than measurement-and-analysis problems? In this uber-technical study, labor economists Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hansen deploy a longitudinal dataset from North Carolina to track students and teachers over ten years. Using a less conventional model to estimate value-added (one that detects changes within teachers over time), the analysts find that there is indeed a fair degree of instability. Teachers really do seem to have good and bad years. Further, the researchers argue that high stability is not necessarily good—it could, in fact, reduce the motivational effect of such policies (i.e., if the same teachers get rewarded every year, why should the unrewarded teachers try harder?). This study is an important contribution to our understanding of VAM. Still, stability is not the whole story—plenty of other issues deserve attention as we seek to improve this measure (like data quality, transparency of methods, quality of the test, etc).
Review:Searching for Effective Teachers with Imperfect Information
By Stafford Palmieri
This paper analyzes the teacher quality and evaluation research to date with one question in mind: Based on what we know, how should districts recruit, retain, and fire teachers in an economically rational way? Supposing five research-based findings on teacher effectiveness (relating to variable quality, use of student test scores, years of experience vs. quality, pre-hire evaluation tools and, interestingly, the opportunity cost for a student of having an ineffective teacher), the authors run a few hypothetical personnel models, controlling for different variables like when and how a teacher is granted tenure. Their recommendation: We should lower the bar for new applicants, since pre-hire information is poor, but significantly raise it for tenure, because the long-term cost of one bad teacher swamps the short-term cost of hiring a new one. (A Hamilton Project report from Brookings made a similar recommendation back in 2006.) In the meantime, the authors argue, investing in better pre-hire and on-the-job evaluation tools is worth the cost and bother because even just a little bit more information can fine tune the timing and levels of rigor exercised at each step of hiring, retaining, and firing.
Review:Parallel Patterns: Teacher Attrition in Charter vs. District Schools
By Amanda Olberg
Do charter schools really have much higher levels of teacher burnout and turnover than traditional schools? Through two different methodologies, CRPE’s latest study tackles this question of teacher attrition. Using ten years of data from Wisconsin, the paper finds that attrition levels in charter and district schools are not all that different: When researchers controlled for teacher characteristics (such as academic degrees and ethnicity) and school characteristics (such as concentration of minority students and percent of students passing assessments), they found that charter teachers are only 6 percent more likely to leave their schools and 14 percent more likely to exit the system versus their counterparts in district schools, neither of which is statistically significant. Analysts also conclude that in urban settings, charters fare better at retaining teachers: Educators working in urban charter schools are 31 percent less likely to switch schools and 24 percent less likely to exit the system than their counterparts in traditional urban public schools. As for why teachers exit either sector, the researchers turned to a series of national surveys administered to departing school teachers, and rounded up the usual suspects: concerns about job security, workplace conditions, and job responsibilities.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Stafford's write-in campaign
Mike and Stafford debate the long-term merits of Waiting for ‘Superman,’ throw down about standards for virtual education, and see eye-to-eye on inclusion. Amber dissects a meaty study on value-added metrics and Rate that Reform goes dumpster diving.
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
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Flypaper's Finest:Just because the sky’s not falling, doesn’t mean your school is good
By Peter Meyer
Far be it from me to take on Nicholas Lemann—former Managing Editor of the Washington Monthly, former staff reporter for the Washington Post, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of The Big Test (about the SATs), and current dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism—but…his current “narrative of crisis” complaint in The New Yorker gets the plot wrong.
Flypaper's Finest: A promising future for charter schools in Dayton
By Emmy Partin
There was a terrific editorial in Saturday’s Dayton Daily News about the storied twelve-year charter school history in Fordham’s hometown and why we can be optimistic about the future of charters there. As DDN notes, until New Orleans began rebuilding its education system with a large choice sector after Hurricane Katrina, Dayton had a greater percentage of its students in charters than any other city in the country…
Briefly Noted: An Angel on charter schools’ shoulders
- Has China turned over a new leaf? Last week president Hu Jintao called on schools to respect students’ individuality and help improve students’ overall competence. That doesn’t sound very “test-crazed”—and sounds like a welcome change.
- Six checks, six charter school programs, six million dollars. In one grand gesture, Oprah’s Angel Network (newly dissolved) used its final fiscal breath to fund bestow high-achieving charters from across the country with $1,000,000 each. Powerful stuff.
- Now that 70 percent of districts have students enrolled in online courses, it seemed only appropriate that the New York Times Magazine take note of this epochal development. This year’s “education issue” features a cluster of articles on everything from textbook conversion to online tutors; set aside at least an hour.
- Philly student finds unique way to get to school each morning. Cowboy up.
Announcement: Don’t wait! Apply today!
Fordham is on the hunt for a Finance Director. If you have strong investing and accounting skills, and welcome the challenge of strategic budgeting for a complex, multi-million dollar nonprofit, we have just the job for you. Check out the Finance Director position here.
Announcement: CAN you do the can-can?
50CAN, which seeks to expand the ConnCAN (Connecticut Campaign for Achievement Now) model of state-based education reform advocacy into all fifty states, has openings for multiple mid-career positions in both DC and NYC. This newly-formed organization offers the chance to get in on the ground floor on the campaign for greater choice, flexibility, and accountability in America’s public schools. Read more about the various opportunities here.
Announcement: New York charters state of mind
The New York City Charter School Center has an opening for a VP for Policy and Advocacy. The ideal candidate has strategic, tactical and managerial capability. (S)he has the capacity to think long term and at a variety of levels as well as the ability to think nuts and bolts around building an advocacy coalition. If you think you fit the bill, read the full job description.
Announcement: Go Broad or go home
The Broad Center is seeking a managing director for the Broad Residency in Urban Education. The ideal candidate has a track record of producing results by building systems and organizational capacity and a passion for developing the next generation of leaders who help transform K-12 public education. Each year, the program recruits a new class from 2,500 candidates while concurrently training two cohorts of forty to fifty Residents. See the role description and the announcement of their newest class for more details.
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The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Remmert Dekker, Amy Fagan, Daniela Fairchild, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Kyle Kennedy, 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]. You are welcome to forward Gadfly to others, and from our website you can also email individual articles. Find archived issues or other reviews of reports and books here.
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.
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