A Bi-Weekly Bulletin of News and
Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 4, Number 8. April 7, 2010
News & Analysis
Rick Hess sets Gadfly straight
Frederick M. Hess is an educator, political scientist and author who studies K-12 and higher education issues. In addition to his Education Week blog Rick Hess Straight Up, he is the author of many influential books on education including Education Unbound, Common Sense School Reform, Revolution at the Margins, and Spinning Wheels. A former high school social studies teacher, he has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University, and Harvard University. Hess visited Ohio recently to discuss education policy with Ohio educators, community and business leaders, and lawmakers. The Ohio Education Gadfly caught up with him between meetings.
Q . You've been critical of Race to the Top. Why?
A. The aspiration is a good one. I think doing it through a competitive grant makes sense but I think the sum is large, the program is so novel, and the opportunities for getting it wrong are so great that it's important to be incredibly thoughtful to get it right and I'm worried we've fallen short on that count.
Q. How so?
A. We've done an insufficient job of buffering it from political officials. I think too much of the scoring is based on hot fads of the moment and buzz words rather than knocking down outdated policies and anachronistic practices. I think the criteria for judging were insufficiently spelled out. It's been too dependent on personalities and has featured too little attention on institutionalization and establishing clear, credible routines. The guidelines for spending and applications have been too ambiguous.
Q. A lot of education reform ideas have been around for a long time but they have never been adopted in a meaningful way. What's the likelihood that real reform will actually be adopted?
A . I'm generally a pessimist, especially concerning whether school districts are going to do these things to re-engineer themselves. I'm modestly optimistic that if we allow educators room to use the tools and create the conditions, that they'll flourish. And, I'm modestly optimistic that we will start to see these tools used to scale.
Q. What will it take to reform?
A. We have this habit of rather than standing back and understanding the system's design flaws and creating room for people to build new systems, we keep trying to slap on duct tape and bandages. So we push a new reading program or new system for teacher quality and push it into the same old system. The fiscal crisis we're seeing could create the opportunity to create new models of teaching and learning just because our traditional mode may seem unaffordable. Those models and programs could encourage people to create opportunity and policies and get resources to create a positive feedback. I think we're starting to get that cycle rolling.
Q. How do you scale up reform ideas?
A. This depends less on teachers than on people building education organizations. Some is technology -- the ability to beam a teacher into a classroom across the world, to tutor a child from 10 miles away -- but it's also having a pool of educated adults much larger than 50 years ago looking for different kinds of work and different skills that we can utilize in classrooms. The Citizen Schools in Boston recruits people in the community to teach. The Boston schools are tapping into this. It's a way to leverage talent in the community. There are techniques now that schools could tap into if they chose to. Near-term we'll see things that help districts do their jobs and fit more comfortably in the familiar model. On the other hand, simply giving a voucher or allowing a student and family to choose a charter school does not yield any of that.
Q. You call for educational entrepreneurship. How does that relate to school administrators?
A. It's alien to the way we think about education. But we've always had entrepreneurs in education. If you go to Cleveland or Dayton you will find administrators who find talented staff and get resources. But they do it by staying under the radar, having connections in the central office. Instead of expecting that these guys should hide like rats in the wall, we should recognize and honor them and figure out how to make it easier to use these same wiles to serve more kids more effectively.
Q. What do you think when you hear the term "best practices?"
A. I get nauseous. On the face of it, good practices make good sense. If you tell me there are good ways to take attendance and drill a kid in reading, I buy it. Or there are certain ways a high-performing school wants its teachers to instruct. Okay, but what's a best practice in one organization isn't necessarily a best practice in another. The reason it might work at the school across town is that the faculty is invested in it. That's different from trying to import it and impose it on faculty who may not feel the same investment in that particular practice.
Q. Teacher colleges still turn out teachers who know all about pedagogy but don't know how to teach. Where do you break the teacher training cycle?
A. Go to High Tech High in San Diego -- the only place where you can train as a teacher in a high school rather than a college. Teachers there are in residency. High Tech has enough graduates that it can now staff its own schools from the people it has trained. That's hard to do but KIPP runs many schools and there are others that operate enough schools that they could train their own. If we try to get the traditional teaching schools to buy in, this probably won't work but a school district could do this. You start to only work with people who are comfortable with the way you want teachers to teach. And rather than imagine every teacher has to have equal weight, focus on the veteran teachers. Invest deeply in them. They buy into it. Give them the most important grades to teach and provide role modeling and supervision.
Q. How will budget constraints in Ohio and elsewhere affect the reform effort?
A. Across the country most superintendents have turned down thermostats, delayed textbook purchases, and rejiggered bus routes. No one has been creative about virtual instruction, using new providers, or reevaluating their cost structure. A lot of easy stuff has been done. The key is for reformers to get away from vague rhetoric of "choice" and "accountability" and to talk concretely about what the state or district might do and how various innovations can generate big cost savings.
Q. You've met with Ohio lawmakers. What have they wanted to know?
A. They've been very interested in ways to address the budget situation. There's particular interest in how the state can start recognizing and rewarding districts that are cost effective. There's a question about how we do better when it comes to teacher quality and helping districts get enough good teachers and there's thinking about how to use accountability to support improvement in terms of academic achievement and cost effectiveness.
Q. Ohio lawmakers will have to make some very serious budget decisions in the next biennium. Can we have better schools if we have to cut billions from state education spending?
A. We don't know. My gut instinct is yes. You can take it out and wind up with schools as good as or better. No one has ever tried. If you leave the entire infrastructure in place and you try to do it for 75 cents on the dollar, then you're going to do worse. But if taking 25 cents off the table prompts people to think, "OK, we have to rethink the whole shebang," then it's an open question of doing better for less.
Q. What should parents and students bring to the "perfect" school?
A. I'm an old high school teacher. I just wanted to be in a school where the families were supportive of the instructional mission, where the kids are disciplined and engaged, where the leadership is supportive, and where teachers can focus on instruction. I don't think we can get there in our current system.
by Mike Lafferty
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News & Analysis
Ohio's path to Race to the Top success
Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the winners of the federal Race to the Top education sweepstakes. Delaware took home $100 million and Tennessee was awarded $500 million. Ohio placed 10th among 16 finalists with a score of 419 out of 500, beating Louisiana by a hair and falling just below Rhode Island and Kentucky.
The fact that Delaware and Tennessee, states with high levels of district and union buy-in, snagged first round awards has set off a flurry of speculation about the extent to which stakeholder participation is critical for Race to the Top phase two. On the surface, their wins may seem attributable to the fact that "these two states were touching every single child" (i.e., broad district participation) and had widespread support from teachers unions. And Ohio would certainly be better off if it could "include more people and interests across the political spectrum in writing the application," as the Columbus Dispatch recently argued.
Gov. Strickland was spot on when he said that nonparticipating districts should explain to taxpayers why they rejected the chance to win Race to the Top dollars, especially since nearly half (49 percent) opted out (we took a similar stance when the Dayton Education Association, despite the district facing a $5 million budget deficit, refused to sign on).
But lack of stakeholder involvement is not the primary reason Ohio lost in the competition. Ohio's application's scores, and the feedback from reviewers, show that the state had several major weaknesses in its proposal.
Ohio lost significant points in the section, "Great Teachers and Leaders," with even the most generous reviewer (who gave Ohio a score as high as Delaware's) docking points for the state's inability to ensure equitable distribution of teachers in hard-to-staff subjects, specialty areas, or in high-poverty or high-minority schools. Ohio lost a total of 35.2 points in this area -- seven percent of the total application, and ranked second to last in this section (ahead of only Massachusetts).
Reviewers noted that in Ohio "processes to remove ineffective educators are not provided" and "Only half of the LEAs committed to using evaluations to inform compensation and promotions." Ohio also got dinged for failing to close achievement gaps between poor students and their wealthier peers (a loss of 12.4 points), inadequate data systems to support instruction (8.4 points), failing to turnaround the lowest-performing schools (7.2 points), and not ensuring successful conditions for charter schools (6 points).
In comparison, failing to secure LEA commitment to Ohio's reform agenda and translating this into statewide impact lost the state only 6.4 points. Worthwhile changes in the areas of teacher and principal quality, school turnarounds, and data could garner a significant amount of points for Ohio's application in the next round, whether the unions sign on or not.
Even states with high academic performance, like Massachusetts, scored poorly in the "Great Teachers and Leaders" section. A recent report from The New Teacher Project calls it a "myth" that states cannot win round two funding without full buy in from districts and unions and points instead to bold teacher-related reforms as a strategy for states to become more competitive. For example, Delaware passed a state law that prevents educators from being rated "effective" if their students don't show satisfactory academic growth. Tennessee also passed legislation allowing value-added data to be used for teacher and principal evaluations, and for state intervention in the lowest-performing schools.
Any reforms related to the teaching profession will face tough resistance from the teachers unions. But if Ohio hopes to win round two funding -- and more importantly, improve student achievement in the long-term -- it will have to take seriously the way it evaluates, rewards, retains, and distributes teachers and school leaders.
by Jamie Davies O'Leary
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Needle in a haystack: Citizens' Academy
Though it serves the same challenged population as many urban schools, Citizens' Academy in Cleveland boasts an outstanding academic track record. Check out our video to learn what the school's teachers and leaders believe are the keys to the school's extraordinary success.
Citizens' Academy and seven other schools will be featured in Needles in a Haystack: Lessons from Ohio's high-performing, high-need urban schools, due May 2010 from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Produced by Eric Ulas
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Weak links to student achievement in school funding model
Members of Ohio's School Funding Advisory Council have expressed concerns about the efficacy of the state's new evidence-based model (EBM) of school funding. As Ohio heads into the next biennium with a staggering $8 billion deficit, tough questions about the expensive mandates imposed by the EBM aren't just partisan drivel; they are part of a necessary public policy debate. It's a reasonable expectation to want to know that the state can actually afford.
The co-creator of the EBM himself -- Lawrence Picus, a researcher from the University of Southern California -- attended the council's March 25 meeting in Columbus and had a chance to answer council members' burning questions. How do other states implementing the EBM perform academically? Does Ohio have to adhere exactly to the EBM, as designed by Drs. Picus and Odden -- or can it deviate? How much will it cost to fully implement Ohio's EBM? Will effective Buckeye State districts have to modify their current policies, and who will pay for it?
Unfortunately, Dr. Picus's responses to these critical questions were usually contradictory or incomplete. His presentation of evidence behind the original EBM wasn't reassuring either, as his list of educational best practices from which the funding model is derived appears to have no discernible connection to the costly mandates with which Ohio leaders are now struggling.
Dr. Picus presented "10 steps" that can "double student performance," arguing that these serve as the common thread among all high-achieving schools:
Dr. Picus provided no explanation as to how these "steps" correlate with the actual mandates imposed by the EBM. For example, how did "focusing class time more efficiently" or "creating professional learning communities" get translated into prescriptions for health and wellness coordinators and mandated student-teacher ratios for Limited English Proficient students? From what "step" is the mandate for family and community "liaisons" derived, for set numbers of building managers and secretaries, or for per pupil funding levels for "extracurriculars?"
For the Buckeye State, this debate matters greatly. The salary costs alone of hiring new teachers as a result of the EBM's reduced K-3 class sizes will be nearly $800 million annually. Why stipulate so many requirements for schools already facing severe budget pains -- unless, of course, we have very strong evidence that the EBM will definitively raise student achievement?
But it's here that Ohio has reason to worry. The "evidence" from Wyoming and Arkansas -- the two states that have employed the EBM the longest -- is bleak. Consider the flatness of their NAEP reading and math scores in the graphs below, or the fact that Ohio seems to be on pace with the national average (and performing even higher at some junctures) without the EBM. Picus had little to say when council members questioned Wyoming's and Arkansas's test scores, despite admitting that "the test [of the EBM) is whether or not children are learning."
Lawmakers and council members must realize that just because Ohio has officially adopted the EBM doesn't mean we should ignore countervailing evidence that it isn't working elsewhere and that our state may very well not be able to afford it.
by Jamie Davies O'Leary
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Columbus district leadership defends transportation costs of school choice
The Columbus City Schools could potentially save millions in transportation expenses, which make up 8 percent of the district's budget, by requiring students to attend schools close to their homes, according to a report presented to the school board last week. However, leadership quickly refuted the recommendation to reduce educational options and defended the district's open enrollment policy.
Columbus has magnet schools that offer special curricula or educational programming, and students enter a lottery to gain admission. The district also allows district-wide open enrollment so that children can attend a school other than their neighborhood school if a slot exists. The district buses students to the school they select.
Additionally, state law requires districts to provide the same transportation services to private-school and charter-school students as its own students. Other states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, have similar laws making the school district responsible for busing all students.
While the prevalence of school choice may be smart from an educational perspective, it is no doubt costly. The district transports nearly 40,000 students daily this school year, but the Columbus Dispatch reported that the district needed 75 more buses than it had two years ago to transport just 263 more students because of difficulty in routing buses around the city in sync with school schedules.
In response to the report, school board member W. Shawna Gibbs told the Dispatch that the instructional impact of choice deserves a review separate from the impact on transportation. Superintendent Gene Harris agreed but acknowledged that one of her goals is to entice parents to return their kids to their neighborhood schools.
by Emmy L. PartinComment
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Should federal dollars be used to turn around failing charters?
Charter schools are different from traditional district schools in that they are free of many regulations and operating constraints, but in return for their freedoms they are held accountable for their results. Those charter schools that fail to deliver results over time are closed, the theory holds. Yet, strict charter accountability in the form of closure collides with the efforts of states like Ohio to use federal school improvement dollars to turn around troubled charter schools.
President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Duncan are pushing the school turnaround concept hard through the Race to the Top competition and School Improvement Grants. Fordham's Andy Smarick has written extensively about the many challenges that face turnaround efforts, and has mustered much evidence against the cause.
Despite his strong case against all turnarounds, I have argued that there are times when the turnaround strategy may have merit for school districts. Of course, we should take on turnarounds with a healthy dose of skepticism and with the understanding that most will fail. But, in cities like Fordham's hometown of Dayton, half of the community's schools perennially receive an F or D on the state's academic report card.
Why would we want to place an ironclad "no" on a reform-minded superintendent who might seek a portfolio of reforms, including the strategic use of turnarounds? Dayton has been in a perpetual state of reform for 15 years, including launching one of the largest charter sectors in the country, and still most children attend a poorly rated school. Limiting reform efforts here makes no sense.
Still, some question whether it is good public policy to use federal school improvement dollars to try to turn around troubled charters, especially as this contradicts the notion that charters are supposed to be closed for perpetually poor performance. About half of Ohio's 55 "persistently lowest achieving schools" (Tier 1 School Improvement Grant schools) are charters. As charters in Ohio are independent Local Education Agencies (LEAs) they are eligible for "federal school improvement dollars." They can use these dollars to try to turn themselves around and many will surely do so.
It's worth asking, even among ardent charter supporters and school reformers, whether federal dollars should be used to try to turnaround failing charters, or should these schools simply be closed? Might charter supporters be smart to refuse money for turnarounds while urging new dollars to help replicate successful schools or open new schools that have better odds of success?
A version of this article originally appeared on Fordham's Flypaper blog.
by Terry Ryan
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Treating Different Teachers Differently: How State Policy Should Act on Differences in Teacher Performance to Improve Teacher Effectiveness and Equity
Center for American Progress
By Robin Chait and Raegen Miller
Robust data systems, performance-based professional standards, and rigorous evaluation systems are three components Ohio can use to create better "infrastructure" to support recruiting, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers. That's the latest from Center for American Progress's Treating Different Teachers Differently, a report calling for state and local policymakers to reconsider how to:
Ohio's teacher policies were a major reason the state didn't win first round Race to the Top funding, but there room for hope. Ohio was recently lauded by Education Week for last year's budget bill that pushed teacher tenure until after the seventh year of employment. Gov. Strickland also introduced an innovative plan for teacher residencies, though the devil is in the details and it remains to be seen how useful they will be for improving teacher effectiveness. The Buckeye State can go further by rethinking the frequency and substance of teacher evaluations and by including some form of student performance metrics in evaluations.
Treating Different Teachers Differently doesn't mask the complexity of these issues. Opponents of performance pay make good points about whether a test can capture a teacher's (and student's) entire performance. In a recent Ohio Gadfly guest editorial, researcher Doug Clay explained flaws within Ohio's value-added system and cautioned how it should be used.
Still, this shouldn't stand in the way of figuring out how performance-based data can serve as one of several metrics in decisions around retaining, rewarding, or dismissing teachers. Data on student and teacher performance isn't about rooting out those pesky teachers who won't teach to the test. Accurate data can actually help teachers determine which of their methods are most effective, rather than punishing them for ones that aren't. Read it here.
by Tim Hoffine
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No Child Left Behind: An Interim Evaluation of Its Effects on Learning
Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University
Manyee Wong, Thomas D. Cook, & Peter Steiner
This report uses fourth and eighth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results from 1990-2009 to determine whether No Child Left Behind's (NCLB) accountability mandates have improved student achievement. The researchers compared national NAEP scores of students in public schools and private schools, and contrasted NAEP scores in states with varying levels of rigor in their student proficiency requirements (and thus with varying degrees of likelihood that schools will fall below Adequate Yearly Progress and be subject to NCLB's sanctions). Both comparisons serve to analyze the scores of students at NCLB-reformed schools against the scores of students in schools who were not subject to NCLB reforms.
The results, as Debra Viadero at Education Week suggests, are not an "epitaph" for NCLB. From 2002-onward (post NCLB), fourth and eighth grade math scores improved at a higher pace in schools subject to NCLB-mandated reforms than at schools not subject to the law. Reading scores also improved, though less dramatically, as a result of both NCLB reforms and higher state proficiency standards. While the authors are quick to caution that this is not a comprehensive study of NCLB, their findings are significant as they illustrate that the law's accountability framework--as well as rigorous academic standards in some states -- may be at least partially responsible for increases in student achievement.
This research is especially pertinent as reauthorization of NCLB (aka the Elementary and Secondary Education Act orESEA) is underway, and as many states will soon be adopting common academic standards, which according to a recent Fordham review are more rigorous than what many states currently have.
This is all the more reason for Ohio (a state ranked by this report in the "medium" category for its state standards, and receiving a "D" and a "C" in Fordham's last analysis of state standards) to be enthusiastic about adopting Common Core standards. It also offers reason to be cautiously optimistic that accountability mechanisms found in the next iteration of ESEA could boost student achievement nationally and in the Buckeye State. Read the report here.
by Dan Woolf
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State Test Score Trends Through 2007-2008, Part 5: Are There Differences in Achievement Between Boys and Girls?
Naomi and Victor Chudowsky
Center on Education Policy
This new report from CEP brings good news and bad. The good: According to state assessments, there is no consistent gender gap between boys and girls in math in elementary, middle, or high school. The bad: Boys continue to lag behind girls in reading at all three levels. The report analyzes state-level 2007-08 test data in all 50 states for grades 4, 8, and high school (grade 10 or 11, depending on the year tested) and then compares those scores to 2002. In 2007-08, roughly even amounts of boys and girls scored proficient in math, and no state had a gap larger than ten percentage points. In reading, on the other hand, boys clock in behind girls at every grade level and in every state with measurable data (forty-five of the fifty qualified), with some gaps as large as or larger than ten points. Good news for the Buckeye State -- Ohio's largest gap was six percent, in 10th grade reading.
Unfortunately, this doesn't tell us much, because the proficiency bar is so low in some, nay many, states that the higher-achieving group is already mostly above the bar. Thus, any improvements by the lower-achieving group will "close" the gap. Furthermore, gap comparisons don't tell how well students are actually learning. A better metric is to look at average scores, which the report does briefly. It finds that gaps have actually increased in some states; in other words, more boys are reaching "proficiency," while their female classmates are outpacing them at higher and higher levels. An even better way to calculate these comparisons is with NAEP data. Luckily, the NAEP reading scores were just released, allowing us to do just that. The results are somewhat different. Between 2002 and 2009, the fourth-grade gender gap in reading remained the same--because average scores for both groups went up. And though the gap also stayed steady in eighth grade over the same period, it has actually narrowed since 1992. You can read CEP's report here.
by Janie Scull
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Ohio starts getting its ACT together
by Tim Hoffine and Dan Woolf
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B. Fordham Institute, along with its sister organization the Thomas
B. Fordham Foundation, strives to close America's vexing achievement gaps
by raising standards, strengthening accountability, and expanding high-quality
education options for parents and families. As a charter-school sponsor in Ohio,
the Foundation joins with schools to affirm a relentless commitment to high
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