Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Re-imagining local control
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Writing earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, my friend and long-time former co-author, Diane Ravitch, challenged resurgent Congressional Republicans to return K-12 education to “local control” and to repudiate and reverse the nationalizing/federalizing tendencies of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core standards, etc. Appealing to the GOP’s history as “the party of local control,” she urged the re-empowerment of local school boards and teachers-as-professionals as the proper remedies for what ails American education.
As in her much-discussed book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane has it half right. She pinpoints genuine shortcomings in NCLB and failings in a number of other federal education programs, and correctly observes that many of the school-reform efforts and innovations of recent years have not yielded the desired achievement gains.
But she’s wrong about the remedy for these failures and about the course that Republicans (and, for that matter, reform-minded Democrats) should follow in the days ahead.
The weak and generally stagnant academic performance of most American school kids, our scandalous achievement gaps, the country’s sagging performance vis-à-vis other countries, the skimpy preparation of many teachers and principals, the shoddy curricula, the fat and junky textbooks, the innovation-shackling union contracts, the large expenditures with meager returns—these are not the result of an overweening federal government. They are, in fact, almost entirely the product of state and local control of public education—as it has traditionally been defined and structured in the United States. They are the product of failed governance, bureaucratic mismanagement, and the capture of the K-12 system by powerful organizations of adults who assign lower priority to kids’ needs than to their own interests. They are maladies caused by, and worsened under, the aegis of the very system that Diane trusts to cure them.
It’s never smart to expect those who cause, or even those who tolerate, problems to be any good at solving them. Blithely consigning America’s education fate to the traditional structures of “state and local control” won’t work any better tomorrow than it did yesterday, and Republicans (and Democrats, too) should spurn such advice.
What they should do instead is re-imagine local control, clear out the dysfunctional bureaucratic underbrush, disentangle the responsibilities of different levels of government, make everyone accountable for their performance (as gauged primarily by student learning gains), quit throwing good money after bad, and unshackle education innovators and entrepreneurs so they can give their all to solving problems and creating alternatives.
Local control, properly re-imagined, is vested in individual schools—“mom and pop” charters are examples—that control their own personnel, budgets, schedules, and curricula, that are voluntarily attended by children whose families choose them, that are fully funded and freed from nearly all regulatory and collective-bargaining shackles, but that are absolutely transparent and accountable with regard to what they do, how they spend their money, what goods and services they buy from where, and, above all, how well their pupils do (or don’t) achieve.
Local control, properly re-imagined, is vested in parents free to choose among—and fully-informed about—a wide array of quality schools (and other education delivery systems, including virtual education), and in financing systems that vary the per-pupil amounts according to kids’ differing needs but then send every single dollar to the schools they actually attend, instead of allowing that money to get caught up in bloated central offices and unnecessary bureaucracy.
Local control, properly imagined, abolishes the quasi-monopolies of “school systems,” “central offices,” and system-wide collective-bargaining contracts. It treats every successful school as an independent, self-propelled entity, accountable for its governance to those who work in and attend it but accountable for its results to state-level performance-monitoring systems with authority and wherewithal to pull the plug on bad schools. Those state-level systems, in turn, are united—at least those that wish to be are—by voluntary national academic standards and high-quality tests, the results of which can be compared from school to school and state to state, and communicated to teachers and parents. Other unifying forces—and reasons to discard traditional districts—include well-run CMO’s and the burgeoning “virtual” options that leap across municipal and state borders.
Yes, Uncle Sam’s future role in all this is far less intrusive than today. Washington supplies additional funds to underwrite the education of disadvantaged and special-needs kids, it pays for innovation through competitive-grant programs, it conducts research and supplies a wealth of assessment and other data, and it safeguards individuals from violations of their civil rights. That’s about it.
What do such structural recommendations have to do with the successful teaching and learning that must be at the core of any well-functioning education system? First, they remove all sorts of obstacles and constraints. Second, they concentrate the resources and decision-making authority where they belong (as close as possible to the kids—Diane has that part right). Third, they clarify expectations and make everyone’s performance transparent. Admittedly, in the near term that doesn’t prevent a foolish teacher or ill-run school from selecting a bad reading program or substituting silly social studies for real history. It doesn’t ensure brilliant lesson planning or inspired instruction—but it does allow for tailored instruction and flexible teaching models. In the medium term, however, it frees principals to make changes and liberates parents to exit. And in the long run it makes the school’s very existence hinge on whether it delivers the goods.
That ought to be an approach for tomorrow that Republicans (and reform-minded Democrats) can embrace. But it’s a very, very different model than “restoring” the failed systems of yesterday.
Opinion: Republicans, quote this schools speech
By Frederick M. Hess and Michael J. Petrilli
For about two years now, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have been co-opting much of the GOP playbook on education. They support charter schools. They endorse merit pay. They decry teacher tenure and seniority. On alternate Thursdays, they bracingly challenge the teacher unions.
But on one key issue—spending—they have acted like traditional borrow-and-spend Democrats, only more so. The 2009 stimulus bill included over $100 billion for schools, most of it designed to simply save teachers' positions. A 2010 "edujobs" bill showered another $10 billion in bailout bucks on K-12 systems to forestall hard choices. And Duncan's insistence last summer that school districts had already cut "through, you know, fat, through flesh, and into bone," only served to pull the rug out from under those state and local leaders inclined to swing the budget ax, by making their tough medicine seem mean-spirited—and unnecessary.
Well. We're not sure if the Secretary of Education had a conversion experience, had a secret plan to woo the ed establishment and then hit it with tough love, or is simply reading the Tea Party leaves, but what a difference a couple months can make! The week before Thanksgiving, Secretary Duncan sang the praises of productivity in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute titled "The New Normal: Doing More With Less."
It was a humdinger. Duncan opened: "For the next several years, preschool, K-12, and postsecondary educators are likely to face the challenge of doing more with less... [This] can, and should be, embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements... It's time to stop
treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat-your-broccoli exercise. It's time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress."
We couldn't agree more. Throughout the federal spending spree of the past two years, we've worried about the pernicious effects of dumping so much cash on our already-bloated schools. All this did, we argued, was prop up an unsustainable system whose revenues grew by one-third since 1995, thanks to the dot-com bubble and then the housing bubble. After three generations of steady growth in per pupil spending, education is going to have to face its day of reckoning and schools are going to have to start spending dollars smarter.
Duncan’s was a speech unlike any we have heard from a U.S. Secretary of Education-Republican or Democrat. He said resources are limited, embraced the need to make tough choices, urged states and districts to contemplate boosting some class sizes and consolidating schools, and didn't spend much time trying to throw bones to the status quo.
Duncan called for wide-ranging reforms in the name of cost-effectiveness. He said, "The legacy of the factory model of schooling is that tens of billions of dollars are tied up in unproductive use of time and technology, in underused school buildings, in antiquated compensation systems, and in inefficient school finance systems." He rightly argued that schooling had to abandon the notion that reform is always bought and paid for with new dollars and argued that it's essential to think of technology as a "force multiplier" rather than a pleasing add-on. His to-do list was comprehensive and spot on. He said, "Rethinking policies around seat-time requirements, class
size, compensating teachers based on their educational credentials, the use of technology in the classroom, inequitable school financing, the over placement of students in special education—almost all of these potentially transformative productivity gains are primarily state and local issues that have to be grappled with."
In one speech, this (Democratic) Secretary of Education came out swinging against last hired, first fired, seniority-based pay raises, smaller class sizes, seat time, pay bonuses for master's degrees, and over-bloated special education budgets. Which means he declared war on the teachers unions, parents groups, education schools, and special education lobby. Not a bad day's work!
To be sure, Duncan has control over almost none of this. Still, this is classic bully-pulpit stuff, and we expect it will resonate big-time in state capitols all over the country. When the unions start busing in kids, parents, and teachers to rally against increases in class size or pay freezes, expect a lot of Republican governors to start quoting their good friend Arne Duncan.
This piece originally appeared in a slightly different format in the National Review Online.
News Analysis: The great compromise of 2010
High drama in NYC: Cathie Black got her waiver from State Commissioner David Steiner on the condition that she team up with Shael Polakow-Suransky. Wait, who? Black’s new number two is a former Gotham teacher and principal currently employed by the NYC Department of Education’s central office, as well as an alum of the Broad Superintendents Academy. Polakow-Suransky may not be a household name. But, he’s well-respected by many an education reformer (including Deborah Gist and Tom Vander Ark). Time will tell whether this shotgun marriage can yield a happy relationship and workable structure. (Having two people more or less jointly in charge often does not.) But the appointment fiasco highlights a major issue with superintendent certification regulations, in New York and elsewhere. By and large, they’re arcane, archaic, and unrelated to school effectiveness. This lock-step licensure process not only keeps terrific people out of public education who would readily lead if it wasn’t so costly—in terms of dollars, time, and hassle—to get approved, but it has no bearing on an administrator’s leadership prowess or a school system’s academic achievement. None. So well done, David Steiner, within the silly limits that state law has placed upon you. A smart (yes, diplomatic) decision—but one you shouldn’t have had to make it to begin with.
News Analysis: To infinity, and beyond!
Over the past decade, digital learning at the K-12 level has exploded—from a national enrollment of 40,000-50,000 in 2000 to an estimated 3 million in 2010. And this trend line is sure to get steeper, way steeper, in coming years. But what sort of policy environment will greet this development, which cannot be stopped but can surely be bungled? This week, the Digital Learning Council (chaired by former governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise—and shepherded by Tom Vander Ark) released policy recommendations for the future of virtual and hybrid education in America’s K-12 classrooms, in conjunction with the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s high-profile, well-attended and generally first-rate national summit. This manifesto highlights ten elements of high-quality digital learning that every state should put into place. These non-negotiables include access to digital learning from multiple, high-quality providers and customizable content for all students. Although it stays at the 30,000 foot level, the paper’s release at the FEE summit has quickly put it in the hands of governors, state education secretaries, school superintendents, and a myriad of other folks in attendance—including Secretary Duncan. And the Council (and FEE) will be back in October with a scorecard on how states are doing in relation to these recommendations. Up, up, and away!
News Analysis: Special education, back in the spotlight
The special-education system has long been a thicket of politics, social obligations, massive spending, and (mis)diagnoses. Yet a backdoor benefit of strained district budgets and NCLB’s looming proficiency deadline is that this clunky and oft-untouchable system is seeing increased state-based reform moves. Florida, Georgia, and Utah offer vouchers to parents unhappy with the public schooling of their special-needs children (Ohio offers a voucher program limited to autistic students). A new-fangled data system that would provide an “electronic portfolio” of student achievement is being developed at the University of Kansas—with fourteen states set to pilot it in 2014-15. And in New Jersey, one public school district has trimmed SPED costs by partnering with a private service provider: The district provides facilities in exchange for a learning program for autistic students. Interestingly, these reforms aren’t just coming from cash-strapped districts or states wary of their federal proficiency designations. Disability-rights groups are also heeding the call for reform. One New Jersey advocacy group is pushing the state for a system-wide cost-benefit analysis of special education (they’d do well to reference chapter seven of our Stretching the School Dollar book)—something that hasn’t been done in fourteen years. Flowers of change are blossoming; we say let them bloom.
Review: How the World’s Most Improved Systems Keep Getting Better
By Daniela Fairchild
A follow-up to their 2007 study, How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top, this mixed-methods analysis from the folks at McKinsey looks at twenty of the world’s school systems—from U.S. districts like Long Beach and Boston to the German state of Saxony to countries like Poland and Singapore. They even analyze some up-and-comers like Armenia, Ghana, and India’s Madhya Pradesh. The systems differ in a hundred ways, yet they also turn out to share some key features. All have been improving. All place priority on strong academic standards, adequate teacher pay, professional development, student assessment, and the use of data. They have sustained leadership (the average leader tenure in these systems is six years for political leaders and seven years for technical leaders, compared to 2.8 years for U.S. urban supes). And these leaders engage with stakeholders, install capable and like-minded individuals in critical positions, and explicitly determine which interventions are non-negotiable. They differ in focus and strategy, however, depending on how far along the improvement continuum each system is. Those climbing from poor to fair focus on improving basic skills while systems going from fair to good become increasingly data-driven. The shift from good to great is characterized by a professionalization of teachers and school leaders, and a (rare) jump from great to excellent is correlated with a decentralization of responsibility and authority combined with firm accountability. A first-rate piece of work, well worth exploring in detail yourself. And, for those who are more tech-savvy, they also offered a worldwide webinar, still accessible online.
Review: Evaluating Teachers: The Important Role of Value-Added
By Janie Scull
This task-group paper from Brookings tackles four conventional arguments against the use of value-added calculations and show that each is misguided—and that none disproves the overall worth of such data. First, the authors address critics who decry value-added measures (because they fear public release of such data—think: L.A. Times). Glazerman et al. acknowledge that value-added measurement isn’t perfect, but assert that uncertainties surrounding this personnel policy shouldn’t dismiss the metric. Next, they take on naysayers who contend that value-added systems are imprecise and may harm teachers by labeling some good ones as bad (a false negative, statistically speaking). The authors admit this possibility, but argue two points. First, it is not about the teachers, but the students. And second, the relative infrequency of these false negatives compared to the current evaluation system which keeps ineffective teachers in classrooms at alarming rates would yield a much better outcome for students. Switching gears, the authors then explain that evaluation systems in other industries—such as college applications, investment firm comparisons, and baseball batting averages—all incorporate similar levels of imprecision but are well accepted as objective and fair nonetheless. They conclude that value-added teacher evaluations may not be perfect, and mustn’t be used uniquely, but are better predictors of teacher success than any other evaluation metric employed in schools today. Pretty persuasive, say we.
Review: Children First and Student Outcomes: 2003-2010
By Chris Irvine
What was the true effect on student outcomes of New York’s sweeping education reform initiatives—collectively known as Children First—during Joel Klein’s regime? This paper by James J. Kemple tackles that timely question in a statistically rigorous way. It compares NYC school students to those in the state’s other “Big Four” (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers), as well as the rest of the Empire State and finds that the Children First reforms had a positive effect on ELA and math proficiency rates in grades 4 and 8, and on graduation rates between 2003 and 2009. Moreover, “the evidence suggests that the effects on proficiency rates extend both to general education students and to students with disabilities, with especially large effects for the latter.” These powerful findings are mitigated, however, by some of Kemple’s other observations. First, raising the proficiency bar on state tests (which happened in 2009-10) decreased the efficacy of the Children First reforms. Second, drawing conclusions about the impact of Children First on NAEP scores still isn’t statistically possible; and third, the reforms haven’t narrowed the gap between high- and low-poverty schools. Despite these lingering questions the analysis offers rigorous proof of the positive effects of the reforms undertaken by Klein et al. Interested in learning more? This is just one in a series of papers assessing these reforms (and Joel Klein’s legacy) from the New York City Reform Retrospective Project.
Review: You’re Leaving? Succession and Sustainability in Charter Schools
By Kathryn Mullen Upton
Kudos to the Center on Reinventing Public Education for its new report, which sheds much needed light on a critical yet rarely addressed element of charter schools’ sustainability: school leader succession planning. Leader turnover in charters is high—71 percent over five years. Yet less than a quarter of schools surveyed here had substantive succession plans in place—a necessity for allaying potential leadership crises. While the author acknowledges that many charters face myriad daily issues that stretch their leaders in multiple directions, the uniqueness of each school’s mission necessitates finding a qualified, like-minded leader. When formulating succession plans, charter school boards should address the school’s mission, strengths, and weaknesses and account for emergency and longer term circumstances. Most importantly, though, all stakeholders, from the school leader to the authorizer, should be engaged in honest discussion and held responsible for their share of the process. This report is a must read for charter practitioners of every sort.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Rick, Rick, where art thou, Rick?
Mike and Janie discuss David Steiner’s decision, opine about differentiated instruction, and attend a Tea Party. Amber goes global and Chris gives soccer the silent treatment.
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: Extra! Extra! Read all about it! (Now drop it.)
By Jamie Davies O’Leary
Listen up, Ohio, especially all you Debbie Downers/Negative Nancys/Chicken Littles who have paid rapt attention to the ongoing public drama between outgoing Governor Strickland, and well … Governor Strickland’s office telephone….
Flypaper's Finest: Field notes: Through the special ed looking glass
By Peter Meyer
While Mike was reporting that special education spending was “heading toward one-third” of all school outlays, I was listening to a report from our school district’s special education director who said she didn’t really know how much it cost.
That’s not reassuring.…
Gadfly Studios: Webcast: Are Education Schools Amenable to Reform?
Virtually join Fordham—and an inspired group of panelists—today from 3:30 to 5:00 PM for our event “Are Education Schools Amenable to Reform?”
Briefly Noted: Prepping for New Years resolutions
- Some much-needed good news: Since 2001, high school graduation rates have been on the rise, according to a recent America’s Promise Alliance report. But don’t break out the bubbly just yet—the rate moved up just four points to 75 percent.
- State education leaders announced the formation of their “Chiefs for Change” group at the Excellence in Action summit. So far, it’s a small but rock star cast of players: Tony Bennett, Eric Smith, Paul Pastorek, Deborah Gist, and Gerard Robinson. Take note as this initiative develops.
- Arne Duncan heads back to the bully-pulpit, writing in Foreign Affairs that education should foster international collaboration, not competition.
- The Department of Education is set to review its competitive grant programs (RTTT and i3, yes, but others too, like the Promise Neighborhoods and SIGs). These reviews, say ED, will help increase confidence in the overall competitive grant process. A sign of things to come?
- Loudoun County, VA teachers and school staff gave extra thanks to the edujobs bill last week. The county used part of its $9.4 million chunk of the stimulus money to pay teachers for their two furlough days before Thanksgiving break.
- In case you missed it, the Baltimore Teachers Union went ahead and ratified the previously rejected proposed teacher contract. Virtually no changes had been made to the document from the last iteration.
- Not to be left behind by Arne Duncan’s rocking New Normal speech, Bill Gates offered his own thoughts on doing more with less to the CCSSO on November 19. Much more reserved, but still in the right direction.
Announcement: Edujobs in the Diamond States
In Race to the Top winning Delaware, there’s plenty of job potential. There, TFA is seeking a senior managing director, while the DOE searches for a deputy officer for its Teacher Leadership Effectiveness Unit, and the statewide Visions Network hunts for an executive director.
Announcement: Less of Washington, more of ourselves
If you’re free tomorrow, Friday, December 3, 2010 from noon to 2:00 PM, head over to the Hudson Institute for a redux on Lamar Alexander’s and Chester E. Finn, Jr.’s The New Promise of American Life, first published in 1995. RSVP here, or watch the webcast here.
Fordham's featured publication:
Cracks in the Ivory Tower? The Views of Education Professors Circa 2010
Our 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. Though they support some reforms, they oppose others; many see themselves more as philosophers than as master craftsmen sharing a trade.