Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Want to see ESEA updated in 2011? Try this approach
By Michael Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr.
With the votes finally counted almost everywhere, the fancies of education policy wonks turn to ESEA/NCLB, long overdue for reauthorization—and the subject of many aches, pains, and kvetches. Will the new Congress finally tackle this problem in 2011? Can it work with the Administration? For that matter, can it work with itself? The President murmurs about bipartisanship in education. A few Congressional leaders have been meeting. But what might a bipartisan compromise entail? And would it make for good policy? Would it be good for kids? Let us take a look.
Whether ESEA moves forward in the 112th Congress is primarily up to one man: future House speaker John Boehner, himself no slouch as an education-policy shaper. He and his team will need to make a strategic/political decision about cooperating with the White House—on anything. There are plenty of reasons they may opt not to: Why give Obama any “wins” to run on in 2012, goes the thinking. But we’re not so sure. A “do-nothing” Congress is no formula for winning votes, either, and does anyone really believe that a national election will hinge on whether an education bill gets passed? We’re cautiously hopeful that Speaker Boehner will view ESEA reauthorization as a low-risk yet important undertaking, conceivably even a win-win. While it could be portrayed as an Obama victory, it might give his members something to show their constituents, too—at least if done right.
If the elephants and donkeys do choose to sit down at the same table, we believe they must keep two goals firmly in mind. If either gets badly violated, this project cannot have a good ending:
- Reauthorization should tangibly send power back to states and local school districts. Both the President and members of Congress need to be able to make the case that they have fulfilled campaign promises to correct No Child Left Behind’s regulatory excesses.
- At the same time, it should maintain Uncle Sam’s pressure for serious school reform and not signal to recalcitrant districts or failing schools (or education interest groups) that we’re returning to business as usual or turning blind eyes back to mediocre performance and yawning achievement gaps.
In other words, the next ESEA should be reform-minded yet realistic about Washington’s capacity to change schools (and honest about the tendency of over-ambitious federal statutes to create a host of unintended consequences). Two years ago, we deemed this approach “Reform Realism,” and we still think it offers the best hope for threading the needle between federal overreach and federal inaction. (We also think it’s the most politically viable option on the table.)
In our dreams, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) go into a room with Secretary Arne Duncan and Representatives John Kline (R-MN) and George Miller (D-CA) and don’t come out until they’ve crafted a package based on these key elements:
- Embrace the Administration blueprint’s call to abandon federal oversight of accountability for the vast majority of American schools. Kill AYP. Abolish the “cascade of sanctions.” Hand the ball back to states to design accountability systems for their schools.
- At the same time, insist on greater transparency of school results, pegged to high standards and rigorous assessments. Legislators should tread cautiously here, careful not to rock the Common Core boat. An organic process is underway that, if done right and unimpeded, will end with better tests tied to more rigorous standards. Congress should not derail this process. But it shouldn’t be bashful about asking states to publish student achievement data online, in an accessible manner, and spotlighting the schools that lag behind. (It would be reasonable to insist that every state seeking Title I dollars deploy standards, tests, and proficiency definitions that can be benchmarked to and compared with NAEP and thus with each other—and with many other countries.)
- Choose incentives over mandates. Rather than requiring states to develop prescriptive teacher evaluation systems, for example, create a competitive grant program (similar to the Teacher Incentive Fund) that rewards those that are keen to push this envelope. Instead of mandating a uniform approach to school turnarounds, convert the School Improvement Grants program into a competition and support states that take this effort seriously. And for Pete’s sake scrap the “highly qualified teachers” abomination.
- Consolidate federal dollars into flexible funding streams. Re-allocate money from categorical programs into the Title I formula. (At minimum, loosen NCLB’s “transferability” provision so states and districts can move all their ESEA funds into the Title I pot, without restrictions.) This is the best way to get dollars to the classroom with the fewest strings attached, and might cut down on administrative costs, too. This is the best thing Washington can do to help cash-strapped states and districts, particularly at a time when we don’t expect any more federal bailouts.
- Experiment with state performance contracts. Borrow a page from Senator Alexander’s 2007 proposal, or Senator Jim DeMint’s A-Plus bill, and allow states to negotiate broad waivers with the Secretary of Education to do things very differently. The money should still flow via the Title I formula (so dollars reach needy students) but states should be encouraged to identify federal rules and regulations that get in their way.
Those five points hardly encompass a comprehensive overhaul of ESEA. But that’s no bad thing. As Lamar Alexander has argued, a step-by-step approach might be the smartest—and most doable. A bill built around these core elements would move a long way toward our key goals. It would be both modest about the federal role and reform-minded in its orientation. This would, indeed, represent a departure from NCLB’s “Washington knows best” approach.
There’s little doubt that legislators and educators alike would cheer if AYP, “highly qualified teachers,” pre-determined “turnaround” strategies, and public school choice were consigned to history’s dustbin. None has worked as intended. At the same time, real transparency around school results—and common gauges by which to compare them—would maintain healthy pressure on schools, districts and states, and the competitive-grant programs would sustain the momentum for change.
School reform has come a long way in the ten years since presidential candidate George W. Bush began to talk of leaving no child behind. Change-oriented ideas and policies are entrenched at the state level in a way that would have been unimaginable in 2000. We believe that the benefits of a lighter federal footprint outweigh the risks—that it will allow states to be more nimble and quick, rather than encourage them to run backwards again. How about giving it a try?
Opinion: Seven education imperatives for Ohio
By Chester E. Finn, Jr., Terry Ryan, and the Fordham-Ohio team
John Kasich won the governor’s race last Tuesday. He will take office in under two months with much goodwill and support in the General Assembly, where significant GOP majorities will rule both chambers. But he will also face a vast budget shortfall—estimated at $6 to $8 billion—for the next biennium. The resolution of this deficit is sure to affect everything the state supports and does, including K-12 education, which now consumes 40 percent of state dollars.
Yet education is no simple “government service” or “consumable.” It’s a critical investment in our children’s future and that of the entire state. It is central to creating great jobs, transforming the economy from physical labor to brain work, boosting competitiveness, strengthening the polity, and sustaining the culture—all of which Ohio mightily needs. That’s why education reform has been front-and-center in the Buckeye State for two decades.
Despite all the worthy effort by past governors and legislatures, however, Ohio’s young people are not nearly as well educated as they need to be and the academic payoff from its whopping investment in public education has been disappointing, to put it mildly. Costs are sky-high. Results-based accountability is weak. Bureaucratic regulation is rampant. Quality choices are few. Adult interests have over-ridden those of children, families, and taxpayers. Some foolish policies have been enacted along with sound ones. And now, of course, the state’s fiscal health is perilous, as is that of many schools and school systems.
Yet as new leaders take the reins in the Buckeye State, opportunity is at hand—the opportunity to build upon yesterday’s better policy decisions, rectify poor ones, and make lemonade out of sour circumstance. Ohio’s education system could be transformed into an effective, efficient engine of individual opportunity, academic achievement, and economic growth, even as the money flowing into it diminishes.
This can only happen, however, if the state’s new policy team is prepared to defy special interests, to alter entrenched but dysfunctional practices, to end low-payoff activities and invest in those that matter, to make sweeping changes in both education funding and HR, and to stick to its guns in the face of what will surely be intense opposition.
The bad news is that pulling this off will be incredibly hard. The good news is that persevering with it might secure Ohio’s future.
To move the Buckeye State forward in education, while spending less, Fordham recommends seven policy priorities:
- Strengthen results-based accountability for schools and those who work in them.
- Replace the so-called “Evidence-Based Model” of school funding with a rational allocation of available resources in ways that empower families, schools, and districts to get the most bang for these bucks.
- Invest in high-yield programs and activities while pursuing smart savings.
- Improve teacher quality, reform teacher compensation, and reduce barriers to entering the profession.
- Expand access to quality schools of choice of every kind.
- Turn around or close persistently low-performing schools.
- Develop modern, versatile instructional-delivery systems that both improve and go beyond traditional schools.
See our full recommendations to the state’s incoming leaders here.
This piece originally appeared (in slightly different form) on Fordham’s blog, Flypaper, and in full in this week’s Ohio Education Gadfly.
News Analysis: Thanks much, Joel!
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Though New York City’s academic achievement gains over the past eight years remain subject to some dispute, on Joel Klein’s watch the nation’s largest city also ended up among its most impressive when gauged by the kinds of structural and policy changes that comprise intelligent, promising modern-day school reforms. (New Orleans and the District of Columbia are the only real rivals for that title. For more on that, check out Fordham’s recent study on reform-friendly cities.)
Klein won his spurs not only as perhaps the most creative/persistent/productive reformer among America’s big city superintendents—his only rivals would be Paul Vallas and Michelle Rhee, probably followed by Arne Duncan while in Chicago—but also as a force to be reckoned with at the national level. Smart, tireless, shrewd, and well-connected, he seemed to be involved with everything nearly everywhere. He imported programs, ideas, and people to New York. He exported “proof points,” ideas, writings, and more. He teamed up with strong figures across the spectrum from Jeb Bush to (aaargh) Al Sharpton.
Joel made a couple of dubious initial personnel choices and got off to a slow start on the curriculum front, but he learned fast, generally hired well, and never rested on yesterday’s accomplishment when tomorrow’s challenge loomed. Despite ceaseless pushback from the country’s most powerful teacher union, led by the smart/tireless/shrewd Randi Weingarten, he made a series of profound structural changes in the system, along the way harnessing the powers of data, of choice, of decentralization, of technology, and much more. Of course, it helped that (until the last year or so) he had pots of public and private money to spend. It helped that he kept the job for eight years. It helped that he had the steadfast backing of a formidable mayor. But much of what looks promising today in New York City’s public-education system is owing to his own personal qualities.
Cathie Black has big shoes to fill and we wish her well. We wish Joel well, too, as he goes to work with another formidable figure. (Rupert Murdoch is cut from very different cloth than Michael Bloomberg.) And we thank him for demonstrating that even the biggest job in American urban education isn’t too big to tackle and, much of the time, prevail.
This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog.
(Photo by Rubenstein)
“New York Schools Chancellor Ends 8-Year Run,” by Sharon Otterman, New York Times, November 9, 2010.
“Joel Klein’s bumpy learning curve on the path to radical change,” by Phillissa Cramer and Elizabeth Green, Gotham Schools, November 10, 2010.
“Black Isn’t Blank Slate,” by Barbara Martinez, Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2010.
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News Analysis: Who’s got the power?
In a word: Oops. A committee of the Maryland legislature voted Monday to reject a new state board of education regulation requiring half of teacher evaluations to be based on student learning—a regulation that was key to the Old Line State winning a chunk of Race to the Top moolah. Now the state education department and the Obama Administration both find themselves in a bit of a pickle. If Maryland lawmakers do not relent, the state will renege on one of its key promises to Uncle Sam. (And a change doesn’t seem likely, considering that Senator Paul G. Pinsky, chairman of the legislative committee that voted down the regulation, is a teacher-union organizer.) If MD is out of compliance, however, the feds will be forced to consider taking back the money. (New Jersey was next in line in the RTTT competition and Governor Chris Christie is more than ready to put the cash to good use.) For now, ED is mum on how it will handle the issue, stating that “significant” changes to RTTT proposals will be handled on a case-by-case basis. The chances that Duncan will take back Maryland’s grant are about the same as Nancy Pelosi keeping her job as Speaker of the House. But what a message that would send.
Review: U.S. Math Performance in Global Perspective: How Well Does Each State Do at Producing High-Achieving Students?
By Daniela Fairchild
For those who thought AIR’s Gary Phillips presented a bleak picture recently of American international competitiveness, be warned that it gets worse. This PEPG/Education Next study investigates how the U.S. fares in getting its students to advanced levels on the NAEP and PISA math exams. Of the fifty-six countries that participate in PISA, thirty best the U.S. Our highest performing state, Massachusetts, trails fourteen of them. (Fordham’s home state of Ohio boasts the same percentage of advanced math students as Lithuania.) No, these findings can’t be pinned to the fact that our country is large and heterogeneous: White students and those with college-educated parents fared little better. California’s white pupils, for example, matched evenly with the pupils of Poland. But don’t blame NCLB—as many do when fretting about inattention to academically-advanced students. The percent of students scoring at the advanced level on NAEP rose significantly after 2002, when the law took effect. One silver thread can be extracted from this depressing data quilt, though. Thanks to our size, out of these fifty-six countries, the U.S. still produces the largest volume of high-achieving math students.
Review: Putting Data into Practice: Lessons from New York City
By Chris Irvine
In this recent Education Sector report, Bill Tucker discusses the use and effectiveness of data systems, drawing explicit lessons from strategies now employed in New York City. Tucker explains that education data have traditionally flowed upward—from school to district to state to Washington—and been used mainly as a cog in the compliance machine. They rarely influence classroom-level decision-making. Data systems, Tucker says, have become “de facto data morgues.” Enter New York City, which has, since 2008, utilized the Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS) to provide teachers and parents with real-time assessment results, attendance records, and course grades. This program enables educators to identify students’ strengths and learning gaps, craft needed interventions, and customize progress reports. It also allows cross-curricular collaboration. But it hasn’t penetrated very deep as yet. Through anecdotal evidence, Tucker indicates that ARIS data analysis is not effecting fundamental change in teacher practice or decision-making. To that end, he offers a number of useful recommendations for obtaining, analyzing and deploying data, beginning with the central insight that data collected must match the goals for collecting it.
Review: A New Approach to Principal Preparation: Innovative Programs Share Their Practices and Lessons Learned
By Remmert Dekker
This report from the Rainwater Leadership Alliance brings back into focus the challenge of preparing top-notch school leaders. Utilizing case studies from nine highly-effective principal training programs (thankfully, none could also be called “traditional”), the volume adduces a six-stage model that’s worth examining. Each featured program attacks what we have dubbed the “crisis in leadership” head-on, through selective recruiting, on-the-job training, and support to their alumni in the field. Principals emerge from such programs better able to utilize data, offer ongoing feedback to teachers, create curriculum and student support programs, and manage staff and its development. Most importantly, they’re able to shift school cultures. Infusing the system with this new brand of school leader is just one part of the equation, though. They also need enough autonomy to be effective.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast:Mike pleads: Publish my book!
Mike and Rick wax political, and then dig deep on Maryland’s Race to the Top grant, online credit recovery programs, and the downward slope of American educational attainment. Amber dazzles with a review of education-related census data and Chris disproves the old adage that quality trumps quantity.
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: Mixed signals on quality for preschoolers
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
A couple of fine new studies attest to the importance of quality instruction for preschoolers—and the dizzying (“stunning” says one research team) range of bad-to-excellent offerings in today’s early childhood programs and centers. “There is no evidence whatsoever,” we read, “that the average preschool program produces benefits in line with what the beset programs produce.” The problem is that the input-based measures long used as proxies for quality by the early-childhood community—teacher credentials, child-teacher ratios, etc.—do not explain much of the variance….
Flypaper's Finest: Disturbing trend: Reformers as compliance police
By Michael Petrilli
Once upon a time, centrist school reform had a single, overriding theme: accountability for results. This was apparent in the standards movement, with its focus on delineating clear expectations for all students, the achievement of which was to be measured by rigorous tests and linked to real consequences for adults. And it was apparent in the charter school movement, with its famous trade-off between autonomy and accountability….
Briefly Noted: I would walk 400 miles
- This Veterans Day sees the first field reports on the effectiveness of the new GI Bill, effective since August 2009. According to the American Council on Education, over 300,000 vets took advantage of the expanded program last year.
- (Well-off) parents struggling to balance work, home, and child-rearing can now hire homework helpers. Like tutors without subject-matter expertise, often their main task is simply keeping John Jr. away from the Wii until he finishes his homework.
- Credit recovery programs have once again made headlines, with the focus this time on their online variety. While there’s much praise-worthy about programs that shepherd students across the K-12 finish line, there are also reasons to be skeptical.
- One perturbed professor hit the streets in protest of NCLB this summer—literally. Jesse Turner walked 400 miles from New Brunswick, CT to Washington, D.C. contra the “failed education policy.”
Announcement: Intern candidates: Step into our office
Such exciting times! Fordham has D.C.-based internship opportunities available in both our research and new media departments. We’re looking for those who want to engage in thoughtful research in a fast-paced, high-energy office and those who wish to spread the education reform word through online networking, blogging, and video. Learn more and apply here.
Announcement: Are ed schools beyond repair?
Or are they more amenable to change than conventional wisdom suggests? We’ll be discussing these very questions on December 2 from 3:30 to 5:00 PM, and we’d be pleased if you’d care to join us. Learn more or RSVP here.
Announcement: Must-see TV
Missed our recent event “Cost-Cutting Strategies for Schools and Districts”? Turn that frown upside down. The event video is now available on our website. Watch it here.
Announcement: Lots to see and do at AEI
The American Enterprise Institute will host two major education events in the upcoming weeks. On November 17 at 10:30 AM, Secretary Arne Duncan takes the floor, explaining how districts can get more bang for their school buck. Learn more here. And on November 30 at 5:30 PM, the organization will tackle education in the 21st century, in conjunction with the release of The Same Thing Over and Over, Rick Hess’s important new book. The details are here.
Fordham's featured publications:
This Fordham Institute publication--co-authored by President Chester E. Finn Jr. and VP Michael J. Petrilli--pushes folks to think about what comes next in the journey to common education standards and tests.
This national survey of education school professors finds that, even as the U.S. grows more practical and demanding when it comes to K-12 education, most of the professoriate simply isn't there.
Since No Child Left Behind, principals are increasingly held accountable for student performance. But are teacher labor agreements giving them enough flexibility to manage effectively? This report answers this question and others.