Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: A Sputnik moment for U.S. education
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Fifty-three years after Sputnik caused an earthquake in American education by giving us reason to believe that the Soviet Union had surpassed us, China has delivered another shock. On math, reading, and science tests given to 15-year-olds in sixty-five countries last year, Shanghai's teenagers topped every other jurisdiction in all three subjects--by a sweeping margin. What's more, Hong Kong ranked in the top four on all three assessments.
||If China can produce top PISA scorers in one city in 2009--keep in mind that Shanghai's population of 20 million is larger than many countries--it can do this in ten cities in 2019 and fifty in 2029. Or maybe faster.
Though Hong Kong took part in earlier rounds of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the 2009 test marked the first time that youngsters anywhere in China proper participated. To be sure, it was only Shanghai--the country's flagship city on which Beijing has lavished much investment and attention, many favorable policies, and (for China) a relatively high degree of freedom. But Americans would be making a big mistake to suppose that this Shanghai result is some sort of aberration.
If China can produce top PISA scorers in one city in 2009--keep in mind that Shanghai's population of 20 million is larger than many countries--it can do this in ten cities in 2019 and fifty in 2029. Or maybe faster.
I have misgivings about PISA--about how it defines knowledge, what it tests, and how it tries to divorce itself from school curriculum. But its international rankings are widely trusted as a reliable barometer of how young people in different countries compare on core academic subjects.
How did Shanghai accomplish this? The OECD folks offer some explanations, terming Shanghai a "leader in reform." They specifically cite the city's near universal education system, its competitiveness (measured by students' admission to universities and to the best secondary schools), a very high level of student engagement, a modernized assessment system, an ambitious curriculum, and a program of intervening in weak schools.
Right now most cities and towns in China don't have these resources. But tomorrow is apt to be a very different story.
Also near the top on PISA were five countries that should come as no surprise: Singapore, Taipei (called Chinese Taiwan in PISA nomenclature), Finland, Korea, and Japan. In reading, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the Netherlands also did well. The United States was, once again, in the middle of the pack in reading and science and a bit below the international average in math. So we're not getting worse. Mostly we're flat and our very modest gains were trumped by many other countries.
Plenty of experts have been pointing out this trend for a long time now. But until this week we could at least pretend that China wasn't one of those countries that was a threat. We could treat Hong Kong as a special case--the British legacy, combined with prosperity. We could allow ourselves to believe that China was only interested in acquiring African minerals, buying up our currency, making fake Prada bags, underselling everybody else, and coating our kids' toys with toxic paint, while neglecting its education system.
Yes, we knew they were exporting Chinese teachers to teach Mandarin (and who knows what else) in our schools while importing native English speakers to instruct their children in our language. But we could comfort ourselves that their curriculum emphasized discipline and rote learning, not analysis or creativity.
Today that comfort has been stripped away. We must face the fact that China is bent on surpassing us, and everyone else, in education, and acknowledge what the consequences of this may be.
Will this news be the wake-up call that America needs to get serious about educational achievement? Will it get us beyond excuse-making, bickering over who should do what, and prioritizing adults over children?
I sure hope so. You should, too.
This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) in the Wall Street Journal.
Opinion: Higher expectations, leaner rations
By Terry Ryan
Checker's piece on the recent "Sputnik moment" for American education sent my mind reeling and my heart racing. According to the recent PISA findings, the U.S. is running in place educationally as other countries (e.g., China) accelerate improvements to their education systems. The United States faces becoming a second-class nation if we can't figure out how to significantly lift student achievement. Having lived in Poland (one of the world's fastest improving countries according to PISA data) for two and half years in the 1990s and being fortunate enough to travel to other parts of the world in the years since, I accept the reality that we are in a race with other countries to have the best educated and most innovative citizens in the world. The future will be dominated by the countries with the smartest people. As a parent of two young daughters, this fact both excites and scares me.
In Ohio, where I now live, lawmakers are girding themselves and their constituents for cuts of up to $8 billion out of a $50 billion state budget. As K-12 education comprises about 40 percent of that budget, it will face serious cuts in the next two years, with schools losing as much as 20 percent of the sums to which they've grown accustomed. Not only are we entering a new competitive global era but we're doing so at a time of leaner rations. And not just in the Buckeye State.
This is no short-term challenge either. Education has to get dramatically better while it competes evermore fiercely for public dollars. In Ohio, for example, Medicaid spending now consumes about 26 percent of the state budget and enrollment trends look like a shuttle launch (see chart below). In 2008, for the first time in Ohio history, there were more enrollees in Medicaid than students in K-12 public schools.
Growth in Ohio's Medicaid Enrollment vs. K-12 Public School Student Enrollment (2001-2009)
K-12 enrollment data is from the Ohio Department of Education's website;
Medicaid enrollment data is from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation's website.
There is also much justified concern about unfunded pension liabilities and the burden these are placing on state budgets. The PEW Center on the States documents a half trillion dollar gap between long-term liabilities and current funding levels. Ohio's State Teachers Retirement System, for example, faces a $38.8 billion unfunded liability and the state's four other public pension programs face similar chasms. But the challenge doesn't stop there. By 2025, senior citizens are likely to outnumber the nation's school age population for the first time in our history and, as James Guthrie and Arthur Peng point out in Stretching the School Dollar, "The U.S. needs to pay interest on and reduce its $13.7 trillion national debt; pay social security and fund the health-care needs of an aging population."
Are you feeling the palpitations yet? Despite these serious challenges, I am optimistic about the future for the simple reason that a growing number of lawmakers, reformers, and innovators seems to genuinely understand that this our moment to tackle these challenges once and for all. As Sputnik showed, nothing focuses a nation's energy like an existential threat to its future and that of its children. This is our time.
This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham's blog, Flypaper.
News Analysis: Rhee-sons to cheer
After a few weeks of relative seclusion, Michelle Rhee has jumped whole-hog back into the limelight, using an eloquent four-page Newsweek essay both to announce her new student advocacy organization, Students First, and to clear some of the air (and get some things off her chest) about her departure from D.C. Public Schools. As she boldly states in the piece, "I know people say I wasn't good enough at building consensus, but I don't think consensus can be the goal." Instead of chipping away at the status quo through collaboration, Rhee is attacking the inherent "hostility to excellence that pervades our education system" through Students First. This will be a 501(c)4 "civic league" organization (think AARP or NAACP) that will support reform-minded candidates of either party. The goal is to push a critical mass of anti-establishment (she never directly says anti-union) candidates through to their respective political seats. Toward this end, Rhee is aiming for a billion dollars in donations (not a typo!) before the organization's first anniversary. Groups like Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children have already proven the merit of such initiatives--though at a much smaller scale. The addition of Students First signals a profound shift away from the traditional "research and education" agenda of foundation-supported nonprofit groups working on school reform--with their polite op-eds and their innumerable studies, reports, and conferences--toward political hardball: cash contributions to campaigns, outright advocacy of this candidate and denunciation of the other one, the shrewd use of paid lobbyists, influence-peddlers, campaign consultants, marketing experts, and public relations firms. If there had been a Students First working in D.C. during the 2010 mayoral campaign, the future of the District's schools might look a lot different.
"What I've Learned," by Michelle Rhee, Newsweek, December 6, 2010.
"Taking off the gloves," by Chester E. Finn, Jr., Flypaper blog, December 7, 2010.
"Teachers' union target Michelle Rhee to raise $1 billion for education reform," by Amanda Paulson, Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 2010.
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News Analysis: L.A. layoffs
The L.A. Times's muckrakers offered up another doozey this week--now targeting the practice of last hired, first fired. In L.A., hundreds of promising new instructors were forced out by the one-two punch of budget cuts and seniority protections. According to the Times, 190 of them ranked in the top fifth in raising scores. Four hundred ranked in the top 40 percent. Not only did this quality-blind policy cause LAUSD to evict some of its most promising talent, but it also disproportionately forced out teachers in poorer areas of the district, who are often younger and less experienced. At Liechty Middle School in Westlake, for example, more than half of the teaching staff was initially let go. (Some were later hired back, but in the end, about a quarter of the school's teachers lost their jobs.) Lietchy wasn't alone on this. The Times analysis shows that sixteen schools lost at least a quarter of their teachers, all but one of them in South or Central Los Angeles. Further extrapolating, the Times also finds that far fewer teachers would have lost their jobs if the district had based its firings on performance instead of years in the classroom. (Veteran teachers have higher salaries, irrespective of their contributions to the classroom. So, fewer would have to be let-go to reach the budget quota.) Luckily, seniority-based layoffs in L.A. took a hit of its own recently. Championed by the ACLU, a court agreement now limits seniority-based protections in firing by capping the number of teachers who can be dismissed at each school.
Review: A First Look at the Common Core and College and Career Readiness
By Janie Scull
Though previous work has shown that, in a majority of states, the new Common Core state standards are a vast improvement over current academic standards, no one has yet measured how today's students may fare when the switch is flipped. Enter this ACT report, which purports to align the Common Core standards to the ACT tests in English, mathematics, reading, science, and writing to estimate current student competency in light of these higher standards. The report matches ACT test questions with related Common Core standards and finds that, as expected, alarmingly few students are college- and career-ready according to Core expectations. Overall, only 40 and 34 percent of them are proficient in reading and math, respectively. The analysis delves further into the standards and finds equally discouraging data--only 31 percent of 11th graders comprehend reading materials on grade-level. For science materials, this percentage drops to twenty-four. Thirty-three percent are sufficient in the categories of "creating equations" and "geometry." While these results are mere estimates--aligning ACT test items to the standards is by no means an exact science, as few states administer the ACT to all of their students and as yet we have no "cut scores" or definitions of proficiency attached to the Common Core--they are a sobering reminder of the pain that lies ahead as the country moves to higher expectations.
Review: On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Casey Carter made a splash, as well as a valuable contribution to the field, with his earlier (2000) book, No Excuses, showing how inner-city schools can succeed academically despite the challenges in their students' lives. Now he's back with a dozen case studies of extraordinary public schools (including charters) that not only succeed academically but also do well at infusing strong personal character traits into their students. The schools differ in myriad ways but have some defining traits in common. They all hold a strong belief that culture determines outcomes and so provide a nurturing but demanding environment, committed to student success. The book (jointly published with the Center for Education Reform) is inspiring, invigorating, and hopeful--not least because it ends with reasonably concrete advice to states and communities that would like to develop more successful schools.
Review: 2010 Report Card on the Effectiveness of Teacher Training Programs
By Amber M. Winkler
Add Tennessee's newly released report card--required by state statute--to the growing number of studies that bring into question the efficacy of teacher training programs provided by education schools. While this is the third such report issued by the Volunteer State, it marks the first time there have been sufficient data to include some of the state's alternative training programs. Since many other influences come into play once teachers get far removed from their training experience, the study is limited to teachers with one to three years of experience who teach math, ELA, science, or social studies. Analysts examined teacher effects relative to average district gains for a fairer measure. They focused only on teachers ranked in the highest and lowest quintiles relative to the statewide distribution (not the middle) to determine which institutions produce the most and least effective teachers. The results are another gold star sticker for Teach For America. Of the forty-two programs examined, TFA was the only one to consistently produce highly effective teachers in reading, science, and social studies based on student performance data. Vanderbilt University was the only education school to consistently produce highly effective teachers--but only in math. Tennessee State produced some of the least effective teachers in both math and reading. Even when compared to veteran teachers (used as a comparison group), TFA alums outperformed in reading. (Vandy's outperformed in math.) Of course, TFAers are culled from some of the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities (and Vanderbilt is no slouch). So these results are likely due to teacher selectivity at the front end. Here's hoping education schools take a cue from their TFA brethren and raise admission standards.
Review: Inside School Turnarounds: Urgent Hopes, Unfolding Stories
By Amanda Olberg
This new book takes a case-study approach to school turnaround efforts, weaving a "narrative web" as it profiles schools nationwide that have seen large improvements in student outcomes. (Taft Information Technology High School in Cincinnati, for example, brought its graduation rate up from 25 percent to 95 percent over a seven year period). The author investigates turnarounds from all angles and finds, unsurprisingly, that there is no one model for school improvement and large-scale change isn't likely to come quickly. We find in these pages an honest look at a handful of success stories, a few failures, and the people involved in both. The book addresses the policy context for turnarounds; the moral, political, and social forces at play; the disparate approaches that leaders take; and the critical role that teachers play. The text is accessible and engaging. Regrettably, success stories in this realm are like needles in a haystack. (Check back next week for the latest study from Fordham, which will offer some hard data on this topic--and, unfortunately, a more depressing message.)
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Mike the Twitter sports fan
With Rick back in the saddle, he and Mike commend Michelle Rhee, lament Shanghai, and dissect last hired, first fired by the numbers. Amber sings Dixie--and sings praises for TFA--while Chris posts a YouTube video of a school brawl.
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
(This week's podcast will be available at 7:00 PM on December 9, 2010.)
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Flypaper's Finest: What did Klein learn? Not much, apparently
By Michael Petrilli
I love Joel Klein. He made New York City a magnet for reform-minded entrepreneurs, sent forth more than a few excellent leaders to other big city school systems, and is never afraid to speak his truth. But his Wall Street Journal op-ed [was] really lame....
Flypaper's Finest: The Chinese delegation to … Ohio?
By Nick Joch
China's Hubei Bureau of Education Deputy Director Huang Jian has been visiting Ohio, specifically our schools, as part of the U.S.-China Administrator Shadowing Project. Earlier this week at a State Board of Education meeting, he presented his observations--a collection of vague, generally feel-good platitudes that probably revealed few of his true sentiments about our education system. A delegation from Ohio will visit Hubei next year, and although their report to the local school board is likely to be similarly vague and pleasant, I imagine a first-hand visit to China's schools will generate some interesting behind-closed-doors comments....
Briefly Noted: Speech! Speech!
- For anyone who missed the Foundation for Excellence in Education's Education in Action summit last week (a.k.a. "Jebfest"), videos of some key speeches are now available online. We particularly recommend New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's to you.
- In the recent edition of Modern Age, Lucien Ellington provides a hard look at the education-school establishment, detailing its history and the biographies of the minds that have shaped its ideas.
- It's official. The Gates-led district-charter collaboration initiative is off and running in cities like Baltimore, Denver, New Orleans, and Nashville. If only Dayton, Columbus, or another Ohio city were on their list.
- Rubber rooms are bouncing back into action in NYC--they're just called something different: "work."
- In the Big Easy, the Recovery School District is proposing to hand off governance of schools that have proven themselves effective. The kicker is that these schools get to choose their next oversight body--whether it be their old district, a charter authorizer, or RSD itself. To which we say: Beware the perverse incentives of a "market" in charter authorizing.
- Beginning teachers who need to develop their classroom skills quickly at one Chicago school have got a bug in their ear--literally. New teachers at the Bradwell School of Excellence have receivers in their ears through which observing veteran teachers provide real-time guidance on lesson delivery and classroom management. NFL, meet teacher training.
Announcement: Video's up!
Chomp at the bit no longer. The video from our event, Are Education Schools Amenable to Reform?, is now available. Watch it here.
Announcement: Meet me at the MET webcast
Interested in peering into the black box of teacher quality? Analysts from the Gates Foundation's large-scale teacher-effectiveness initiative, Measures in Effective Teaching, will share preliminary findings via a webcast tomorrow, December 10 from 9:00 AM to 12:30 PM. Access the webcast here.
Fordham's featured publication:
International Lessons about National Standards
With four out of five states having adopted the Common Core, America has something akin to national standards. For guidance in how these standards might work, this Fordham report looks beyond our borders. How have other countries navigated these turbid waters? What do their systems look like? What can we learn from them? Expert analysts examined national standards and testing in Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore and, South Korea.