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The Education Gadfly The Ohio
A Bi-weekly Bulletin of News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 4, Number 24. September 15, 2010
In This Edition

New From Fordham: Why the sudden boom in charter schools (40 new ones opened this year) should raise a red flag when it comes to quality;
pros and cons of a potential small district merger; Ohio's stagnant e-school performance; why Youngstown's academic recovery plan will be wasteful, and more.


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Quality must trump quantity when it comes to new charter schools

Front the Frontlines

Arcadia and Vanlue discuss school district merger


Short Reviews

Performance-Based Compensation: Design and Implementation at Six Teacher Incentive Fund Sites

Rabble Rousers Revisited: A guide for launching state-based education reform advocacy organizations

Capital Matters

Bright spots in urban education: 16 high-performing schools

Also running in place -- Ohio's e-school performance

News & Analysis

Youngstown needs to think outside the box

Fordham is lots of things, but hypocrite is not one of them


Editor's Extras

If you're still debating on whether "I love mom" tattoo is a good idea...


New book and upcoming Ohio event on Stretching the School Dollar

Fordham's updated charter school sponsorship application now available


Quality must trump quantity when it comes to new charter schools
By Terry Ryan and Kathryn Mullen Upton

With more than 300 charter schools serving nearly 100,000 children, Ohio is known for its significant school choice market. Two of its cities (Dayton and Youngstown) are in the top ten cities nationally in terms of charter-school market share. This week the Columbus Dispatch reported that 40 new charters are opening this year, twice the average number that opened their doors at the outset of previous school years.

In other words, it’s another year of rapid charter expansion in Ohio. You might think we'd be applauding. Alas, no. Ohio has had a big problem from day one with the balance between quantity and quality when it comes to charter schools. First it grew too many too fast – and too many of those turned out to be weak performers. Then it clumsily cracked down on quantity growth without doing much on the quality front – not even cracking down on authorizers so that THEY would do something about quality. Then the state began to make exceptions to its clumsy caps. Then the legislature enacted a "death penalty" for persistently bad charter schools – schools that stayed that way at least partly because of irresponsible authorizing.  

We chronicled most of this in our recent book Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the frontlines.  We showed how irresponsible growth and inattention to quality have fueled much political animus directed toward Ohio’s charters – the good and the bad alike.

Because of these quality issues, lawmakers (in 2006) forged an “operator provision” in state law that determines which charter operators are allowed to open new schools in Ohio. This is supposed to help ensure that only those schools with a high probability of succeeding actually open their doors in the Buckeye State.

But when one looks at the 40 new schools opening this year, it seems that this well-intended provision could stand some further tweaking.

Some of the schools opening this year do indeed have strong academic track records and are worthy candidates for replication. Included here are several being launched by Constellation Schools and Concept Schools. Both organizations run some of the highest performing urban schools in the state and any fair-minded observer would surely agree that they deserve the opportunity to launch more schools to help serve more children in need of better schools than they're attending today.

On the flip-side, however, are eight new schools called “drop back in” academies, alternative high schools aimed at high-school dropouts to be run by EdisonLearning. The authorizer of these new schools is Educational Resource Consultants of Ohio, Inc. (ERCO). We have first-hand experience with both groups.

Our experience with ERCO goes back to 2006 when one of the troubled schools we authorized jumped ship to ERCO because Fordham was making demands about improving its performance that school leaders either felt they couldn’t meet or didn't care about meeting. (This school subsequently faced a state attorney general’s lawsuit that made national news.)

We at Fordham currently authorize two Edison-operated schools in Dayton. Both have been in operation more than a decade so we, and the public, know plenty about their performance. In recent years, one of them has made steady academic gains and was rated “Continuous Improvement” (a C) by the state this past year. It also showed greater-than-expected gains on the state’s value-added measure and, based on our intimate knowledge of it, as well as the judgment of expert outside consultants that we hired to evaluate it a few months back, we can attest that the school is well-run and moving in the right direction.

The second Edison school in Dayton, however, has struggled academically for the last four years. It was rated Academic Emergency this year (an F) after three years of being rated Academic Watch (D) by the state. Its results have been so weak that we provided the school’s board with only a one-year contract for 2010-11 (we normally issue 5-year contracts) and a few weeks back the school was warned by the state department of education that it's on death row – with its execution dependent on this year’s academic performance. In sum, this school has failed to deliver for hundreds of kids and now faces closure if it doesn’t show dramatic improvement.

It's not that we don't think Edison should have the opportunity to open new schools in Ohio at some point, but based on the firm's mixed performance in Dayton, is it in the state's best interest to okay eight new schools this year?

So we were more than a wee bit surprised to read in the paper that EdisonLearning was working with ERCO to launch eight new schools in 2010-11.

It’s not that we don’t think Edison should have the opportunity to open new schools in Ohio at some point, but based on the firm's mixed performance in Dayton, is it in the state’s best interest to okay eight new schools this year? Have they earned the right, based on their performance in Ohio, to go from two schools (one decent and one failing) to 10? (In fairness, Edison runs some swell schools in other states, though nowhere is its track record perfect.) Has ERCO made a responsible decision as authorizer and has the state department made a responsible decision in allowing this?

These are tough questions, but just the sort that need to be asked and answered if Ohio is ever to get beyond its troubled and tempestuous charter history. Quality must accompany quantity – a lesson that is apparently still unlearned by too many in the Buckeye State.



From the Frontlines

Arcadia and Vanlue discuss school district merger
By Mike Lafferty

In November, voters in two tiny Hancock County communities will go to the polls and decide if they want to investigate the possibility of merging their equally small school districts.

Voters in Arcadia and Vanlue, about 100 miles northwest of Columbus, face the decision of whether they want to gather the facts and weigh the pros and cons of a merger. The Arcadia schools serve roughly 575 students, nearly 100 of which are students who reside outside the district but are schooled in Arcadia under open enrollment, according to district officials. Vanlue school district serves about 230 students.

“This issue [of merger] has been going on for 40 years. The last vote was in the eighties and we missed talking about it by 10 votes from the Vanlue side,” said Mike Recker, Arcadia’s co-chair on the proposed study commission. Recker expects significant savings by reducing duplicated services such as transportation and administrative expenses. Arcadia, for example, employs two principals and one superintendent. But exactly how much might be saved won’t be known until the commission completes its work – assuming voters give the go-ahead for its completion. Even then, voters still must formally approve a merger in another vote.

Reducing the cost of education, especially now, with nearly every school district facing budget pressures, is giving school-district mergers fresh impetus. Administrative costs in particular are driving the conversations.

Districts are trying to balance budgets by cutting non-instructional costs and asking taxpayers for more money to try and avoid layoffs of teachers, even though classroom personnel are, by far, the greatest expense facing schools. Two Wayne County districts have taken cost-cutting a step further, without actually merging. The districts in Rittman and Orrville have consolidated several top administrative positions, including the superintendent and treasurer, to save money. But such efforts are so rare as to be mostly non-existent and the question remains whether Ohio needs – and state tax dollars ought to be used to maintain – 600+ school districts for its 1.8 million students.

In February, a study by the Brookings Institution and the Greater Ohio Policy Center said Ohio ought to eliminate one-third of its 614 school districts.  Some mergers seem like no-brainers. The North Bass Island school district at Lake Erie has only two students and both go to school at Put-in-Bay on nearby South Bass Island. Middle Bass Island school district has four students who also go to school at Put-in-Bay.

The Brookings-Greater Ohio study recommended merging districts smaller than somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 students, which would leave about 400 districts.

According to Brookings-Greater Ohio, Ohio’s administrative costs are almost 50 percent higher than the national average, while the state ranks 47th in spending in the classroom. The average in administrative costs, statewide, is 21 cents for each dollar spent, although districts vary from 11 cents in Lakewood, near Cleveland, to 68 cents in Jefferson Township in Montgomery County.

Looking at it another way, earlier this year, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute analyzed district pupil-administrator ratios and found the state average is 150.2 pupils per administrator, with the most top-heavy district (Bettsville Local) at 37.4 and the leanest, New Albany-Plain Local, at 308.6. The analysis found, not surprisingly, that the smallest districts had fewer students per administrator than the largest districts.

A recent analysis by the Columbus Dispatch made similar findings.  The newspaper compared administrative spending by the Westerville City Schools with that of eight smaller districts in Tuscarawas County that together serve about the same number of students as Westerville.  Westerville spent $3.3 million on central-office staff, compared with $5.7 million among the Tuscarawas districts; and Westerville employed fewer than half the central-office staff as those districts combined.

Fordham has previously pointed out that consolidating just a couple of the top administrative roles in the state’s smallest districts (about half the total) could yield as much as $40 million annually in near-term savings.

District mergers and consolidations are being discussed not only in Ohio but in Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, and elsewhere. In Michigan, a Michigan State University study, paid for by the Booth newspaper chain and released in August, predicted that district mergers in that state could save $612 million annually after three years.

But it’s not a one-sided debate. A study by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said there have been no proven savings for district consolidations in that state and that student achievement has been damaged by the efforts.

“The issue seems more simplistic than it really is. Schools have always had the option to consolidate,” said Scott Ebright, deputy director of communications services for the Ohio School Boards Association. “If consolidation is such a good idea why haven’t we done it all over the state recently?”

He also questioned whether Ohio administrative costs are as skewed as the Brookings-Greater Ohio report suggests.

Ebright said that when two districts merge, the new board can choose to tax the merged district at whichever of the tax rates of the old districts was higher. And, while there may be savings from consolidating back office and administrative staff, salaries of teachers can be higher.

“In most cases taxes go up in the ‘losing’ district,” Ebright said.

Ebright thinks the goal of merger proponents is to have one county-wide district in each of Ohio’s 88 counties. He used Licking County, a rural-suburban district east of Columbus of about 160,000 residents with 10 public school districts, including Granville, an upscale community with good schools and a high tax rate.

“If everyone in Licking County wanted what Granville has, it’s going to take dollars to do it,” he said. The last voluntary mergers were in 1988 (three) and 1989 (one), but the trend more recently has been for districts to split, Ebright said.

Bitterness around forced consolidations has been given as a reason for why levies fail in some newly consolidated districts. “People don’t forget,” Ebright notes.

Americans have always been fond of their local schools. They not only educate young people but also serve as community centers and important points of community identification. Just about the first thing pioneers did in a new territory was to erect a school and every little hamlet across the country had one. By 1937 that added up to 119,000 separate school districts in the United States. By the end of the 20th century, however, the number of districts in the United States had shrunk dramatically to about 15,000 and to about 14,000 by 2005.

Ohio has seen similar consolidations. In 1915, the state had 2,674 school districts, according to the Ohio School Boards Association. By 1936, financial fallout from the Great Depression and encouragement from the state had reduced the number of districts to about 2,000. Another push for consolidation came in the 1950s. By 1960, the number of districts had been halved to 984. By 1974, there were 617 school districts operating in Ohio.

How low can we go? Well, Florida and Maryland are notable examples of states with county-wide school districts. Florida has 67 districts serving about 2.6 million children and Maryland has 24 districts serving around 840,000 children. Hawaii has one state-wide district serving its 179,500 children.

It does not appear that the Buckeye State is on the cusp of another great purging, especially one that would reduce Ohio to 88 county school districts. But how far the current interest in consolidation goes depends on how seriously state lawmakers, traditionally gun shy at upsetting voters on the touchy issue of local control of schools, embrace it and how vehemently local residents in love with their districts and their sports teams rise against it.

How far the current interest in consolidation goes depends on how seriously state lawmakers... embrace it and how vehemently local residents in love with their districts... rise against it.

In Ohio, Arcadia and Vanlue certainly meet the Brookings-Greater Ohio study’s merger criteria. Value is the second-smallest and Arcadia the 23rd smallest district in the state. Even after they merged, the combined district still would be well under the 2,000-student lower limit in the Brookings-Greater Ohio study.

“Merger makes a whole lot of sense, at least on the Vanlue side. Vanlue is limited to resources that are available and what it can offer educationally to our students. (The district does) a decent job but we’re doing our students a disservice by maintaining the direction were headed,” said Charles Wagner, Vanlue co-chair of the study commission.

“Since we’ve been in the district, enrollment has steadily decreased. There comes a point in time when you’re limited in what you can do because of your size,” Wagner said.

The proposal to study a merger must be approved by voters in both districts and Recker and Wagner think that will happen.

“A lot of people want answers to the questions,” Wagner said.

While merger seems popular in Arcadia, the Arcadia board has taken a hands-off approach.  In Vanlue, where residents seem more apathetic, the school board has appropriated funds to pay for an attorney to draft ballot language.

Arcadia and Vanlue are about 11 miles apart. Vanlue’s district borders cover about 48 square miles of territory while Arcadia includes about 61 square miles. The combined district would be large – 109 square miles, although Recker said area residents don’t think twice about driving 10 miles anywhere. (The average district in Ohio is 67 square miles in size.)

Neither district has much commercial or business real estate but both have vast amounts of farmland that is covered under the state’s agriculture land valuation formula. This limits tax collections so the districts are land-rich but tax-poor.

In Arcadia, Recker said, the district’s income from the large number of open-enrollment students is keeping the district afloat. Trying to attract more students from outside the district, however, would not seem to be a viable long-term financial option, he said.



Capital Matters

Bright spots in urban education: 16 high-performing schools

Each year, we analyze the academic performance of schools in Ohio’s Big 8 cities.  We examine things like the number of kids in schools rated A, B, C, D, or F by the Ohio Department of Education, the number who attend schools that meet (or fail to) value-added gains, academic performance over time, etc.

And while we lamented recently that achievement is stagnant in Ohio’s Big 8, there are at least a handful of schools in those cities that are both high-achieving and high-performing and worthy of recognition.

Table 1. High-performing urban schools

Source: Ohio’s interactive Local Report Card.
Note: These schools are listed in alphabetical order, not by ranking.

Kudos to these schools for serving their students well, and for reminding us that quality urban schools do exist and are making a difference in the lives of thousands of children and their families.



Also running in place - Ohio's e-school performance
By Emmy Partin

We’ve written about the stagnant academic achievement in reading and math of Ohio’s urban schools, both district and charter.  Proficiency rates in the state’s major cities haven’t improved in the past five years, despite heaps of money and effort aimed at improvements. It seems the same is true among Ohio’s e-schools (the state has 27 virtual schools that serve about 29,000 students).

Figures 1 and 2 show the proficiency rates in math and reading for Ohio’s e-schools over the last three years, compared to the statewide proficiency rate for all Ohio students. 

Figure 1: Average math proficiency among large & small e-schools, compared to state (2007-09)

Source: Ohio's interactive Local Report Card

Figure 2: Average reading proficiency among large & small e-schools, compared to state (2007-09)

Source: Ohio's interactive Local Report Card

Among large e-schools – those that serve more than 500 students and are operated, with a couple exceptions, by big-name, online learning companies – proficiency rates have moved up just a percentage point or two over the past three years. Among small e-schools – which serve as few as 26 students each and are, for the most part, operated by local school districts – proficiency rates shot up between 2008-09 to 2009-10. But it appears that the leap in performance simply makes up for a significant drop in achievement the previous year.

The e-school data raise two policy issues for the state. 

First, if e-school performance isn’t improving over time and if just a handful of e-schools receive outstanding ratings from the state (among rated e-schools, three were rated A or B, 12 C, and eight D or F), why do we continue to prohibit new and potentially better performing virtual school providers from opening new schools here? Why lock in mediocrity?

It’s clear that there is a demand for e-schools in the Buckeye State – nearly a third of all Ohio charter school students now attend one, and if e-school students represented a single school district it would be the 4th largest in the state. Yet the moratorium on new e-schools limits these students and families to choosing among a fairly mediocre set of schools – of the three e-schools rated A or B by the state, just one (Ohio Connections Academy, rated A) is open to students statewide.

Second, with the rapid and promising developments taking place in the areas of online learning and instructional technology, why should we be content to easily sort all 3,600+ Ohio public schools into two groups: traditional, brick-and-mortar schools (district and charter) or full-time virtual schools. Why are there no hybrid or blended model schools?  And further, why do state laws and funding policies make the creation of such schools so difficult? 

Caprice Young, one of the foremost thinkers in online learning (and a Fordham board member), recently told the Los Angeles Daily Newswhen that city opened its first e-school:

"Online learning isn’t just about isolating a student with a computer. It’s about integrating a student’s learning experience with the vast community of online learners and doing it in the context of a public school environment…the main thing is our public schools have to be preparing students for the work they are going to do when they graduate. Fully online is great, but the push needs to be in creating a more blended learning model."

It seems increasingly clear that she’s right, and that this virtual school performance plateau is justification at least for trying new things and opening the doors to more reforms in the Buckeye State. 



News & Analysis

Youngstown needs to think outside the box
By Jamie Davies O’Leary

Among Ohioans, Youngstown is known as much for its appallingly low academic achievement as it is for being part of the blighted “Steel Valley” that’s lost so many jobs in recent decades. Kudos to the city’s civic leaders for trying hard to find ways for its revitalization, but the city’s public schools needs more than good intentions and nostalgia, especially as it’s the only district in the Buckeye State rated F by the state.

Youngstown City Schools’ achievement data makes the district the most blighted house on the street as 2009-10 performance results place it well below any of Ohio’s other Big 8 cities. A mere six percent of charter and district students in the city attend a school rated Excellent or Effective (A or B), while 12 times as many (72 percent) attend a school rated D or F. Youngstown’s woeful academic performance led the state to take it over via its “Academic Distress Commission,” a group charged with creating a $3.2 million recovery plan to guide the district’s overhaul.

The district is in the midst of a new superintendent search. The Youngstown Vindicator reported last month that it was “encouraging” to see so many candidates with doctoral degrees in education applying for the position. This credential, of course, doesn’t necessarily equate with the leadership skills necessary to pull the state’s most dysfunctional schools out of its academic funk. Further, the paper reported that it was encouraged by one candidate who shared the belief that “you can’t teach a kid if you don’t care about him first.” (To be fair, this candidate also noted that “it’s all about student achievement” – a sentiment we agree with.)

The point is that neither the local newspaper nor even the state commission charged with rescuing Youngstown students seem to appreciate the gravity of the problem, or realize that simply dumping more money and more of the same into a broken system will lead to little improvement.

A quick glance at Youngstown’s academic recovery plan illustrates this mentality. The plan lays out several goals (with a 2015 deadline), including:

  • Moving the district from Academic Emergency to Continuous Improvement;
  • Having all subgroups meeting Adequate Yearly Progress in reading and math and achieving a Performance  Index of at least 80;
  • Having all subgroups meet value-added and graduation targets
  • Increasing enrollment by at least 300 students; and
  • Decreasing the number of students identified for special education by five percent (from 20 to 15).

These are all worthwhile goals. But the strategies named for accomplishing these are broad and unfocused, expensive, and misdirected. The most egregious such initiatives are:

  • Reducing student-teacher ratios even further for grades K-1 to 15:1 ($2 million by itself);
  • Deploying a “comprehensive system of outreach and support for families and non-academic experiences for students” which includes creating a “community asset map” and other strategies to engage parents; and
  • Creating leadership teams at every level – district, building, and grade – whose sole purpose is to foster “collaboration, trust; and communication.”

(There are a mere two strategies that seem worthwhile: recruiting highly-qualified preschool teachers and intervening with struggling readers and writers.)

The level of vagueness and wishful thinking in the plan is staggering. The district will deploy millions of dollars to reduce class-sizes, yet it doesn’t acknowledge the preeminence of teacher quality in lifting student achievement. Youngstown has no strategy for recruiting highly effective teachers, identifying or developing those that aren’t effective, or retaining those who are. The solution is to simply put more teachers into classrooms without a plan for improving their quality. This is akin to throwing ingredients in a bowl, closing your eyes, and hoping when you open them that a delicious cake will appear. Somewhere during that process you need to tap into the talent of a chef.

The pie-in-the-sky language around building outreach, bolstering engagement, and fostering collaboration is rivaled only by similar-sounding reforms embedded in Ohio’s evidence-based model. Besides not being able to decipher what this actually means in practice, it’s offensive to spend money on because there is little evidence that these new inputs actually have a tangible impact on student achievement.

Lots of districts around the nation (including Cleveland) have written much bolder plans of action that include reforms such as overhauling the way we think about seniority-based hiring, transfers, and layoffs; reforming teacher evaluations to take into consideration student growth; building better partnerships with charter schools or innovative alternative models; shuttering or relocating under-enrolled buildings; extending the learning day; devolving more autonomy to schools in exchange for accountability, and so on. 

Youngstown is the worst-performing district in the state and should be handled with urgency, boldness, and a rigorous turnaround mindset, not with kid gloves. When a district is the most battered and blighted in the state, it needs true renovation and not just window-dressing. Youngstown kids need real reforms.



Fordham is lots of things, but hypocrite is not one of them
By Jamie Davies O’Leary

Dayton Daily News
ran two articles over the weekend illustrating a frustrating dichotomy when it comes to charter school quality in Ohio. The first lifted up the good news that eight of the top ten public schools in Dayton are charters (a fact that Fordham noticed in its annual analysis of Ohio’s achievement results). If Dayton’s high-flying charter schools are Dr. Jekyl, then the second DDN article explored the charter movement’s Mr. Hyde –charters represent not only some of the best but also the worst public schools in that city. The article discussed Ohio’s “death penalty” for poor performers, a law that shuttered five charter schools this year and threatens another 19 next year.

The two articles also illustrate Fordham’s unique role in the Buckeye State – juxtaposing the fact that we are simultaneously advocates of choice but also strict believers in quality. Indeed, we are no ideologues when it comes to choice for choice’s sake. We want good charters to thrive and the bad ones to be closed – even when Ohio’s new closure law (which doesn’t apply to equally low-performing traditional district schools) hits close to home.

Dayton Daily highlights one Fordham-sponsored school in Dayton that is eligible for closure next year, if it remains in Academic Emergency, noting that:
"Ironically, the school’s sponsor, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, pushed hard for the language in the law to shut down failing charter schools based on poor performance."

Fordham’s Terry Ryan is quoted in the article – and in usual fashion minces no words:
"Now the language has come around to impact a school we authorize…  We think it’s good language and we support it."

After analyzing academic performance in the Buckeye State for seven years, it’s fair to say that even with our own schools there’s no room to wear rose-colored glasses. We’ve come to terms with the fact that while eight of Dayton’s top ten schools in 2009-10 were charters, four of the five shuttered schools (statewide) were also in the Gem City. We’ll continue to celebrate the successes of the charter sector and push hard for policies and reforms to help more of them thrive. But we’ll also stand true to our belief that bad schools be shut.



Short Reviews

Performance -Based Compensation: Design and Implementation at Six Teacher Incentive Fund Sites
By Bianca Speranza

In 2006 the federal government enacted the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), a program intended to support efforts to create performance-based teacher and principal compensation systems in high-need schools. Thirty-three TIF grants are currently being used in a variety of different ways across the country, including the Teacher Advancement Program in Cincinnati and Columbus Schools, though the Ohio sites are not evaluated in this report.  Instead, this report analyzes performance-pay programs in North Carolina, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas.  Through the use of interviews, focus groups, data analysis, and site visits, researchers were able to put in to words the importance of performance based pay and the key elements behind it. While the designs of these programs all differ, common themes exist.  This report spells out six themes that are necessary for any successful pay-for-performance program.  The most interesting are:

  • To be most effective, a pay-for-performance program must be a collaborative approach between teachers and principals.  Professional development and vigorous evaluations are essential to this goal. 
  • The selection of strong leaders is fundamental.  Choosing strong principals that can work closely with teachers to help them improve is absolutely necessary if a pay for performance program is going to work. 
  • Financial incentives must be directly tied to the core of an organization’s purpose.  In the case of education, financial bonuses must be tied to teacher improvement and student growth.

The above themes as well as some others in the report serve as the foundation for some very successful performance programs.  Consider Project EXCELL in Arizona’s Amphitheater Unified.  School district Project EXCELL combined teacher, principal, and district leaders’ inputs to create a system that focused on student growth, professional development, and increasing teacher retention rates.  This system led to a 9 percent value added increase at the classroom level and a 9.3 percent increase at the school level. 
Overall, this study of six TIF sites suggests that thoughtful and well-implemented performance pay programs can lead to real tangible results in the classroom.  Teacher quality has a tremendous impact on student achievement.  Schools around the country and in Ohio must figure out a method that allows for principals to identify and support effective teachers in the hope of improving student learning. 


Performance-Based Compensation: Design and Implementation at Six Teacher Incentive Fund Sites
Jonathan Eckert
August 2010


Rabble Rousers Revisited: A guide for launching state-based education reform advocacy organizations

This report from the Policy Innovators in Education Network (PIE) is a field guide for anyone wishing to develop an effective state advocacy organization to move education reform forward on his/her home terrain. The second of its kind (the original Rabble Rousers came out in 2006), it includes case studies that highlight advocates in various states (Kentucky’s Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, Washington’s Partnership for Learning, Advance Illinois, and the Texas Institute for Education Reforms, to name a few.) The report lays out the “nuts and bolts” of creating an effective advocacy organization (hint: it says that talent, not funding, is the most important ingredient at the outset) and even provides a “top ten” list of recommendations for advocates seeking to do something similar to what PIE Network organizations are currently doing on the ground in their states. 

Check it out here.


Rabble Rousers Revisited: A guide for launching state-based education reform advocacy organizations
Pie Network
September 2010


Editor's Extras

If you're still debating on whether "I love mom" tattoo is a good idea...
By Bianca Speranza

  • Apparently if you’re a college professor with a tattoo there’s a good chance that you’ll be loved by your students.  According to a recent psychological study – as featured on the NYTimes’ Freakonomics blog, students believe that professors with tattoos are better educators and motivators and are preferred over their non-inked peers. 
  • Several schools districts around the country are strapped for cash and trying to think of any way possible to save money.  A school district in Massachusetts is contemplating charging for bus service for students who live within a two-mile radius of the school.   If this ideas flies, parents could have to pay up to $500 to get their children to school. 
  • Recent SAT scores for the class of 2010 remain unchanged from last year.  Students averaged 1,509 out of the possible 2,400 points, the same score as last year’ test takers.  Nearly 1.6 million students took the test, a record number. In Ohio, black students scored 96 points lower in reading and 114 points in math compared with their white counterparts, a disheartening fact. 
  • A recent article by Education Week points out that schools are missing out on important attendance tracking information that could make a difference in a child’s education.  Did you know that one in ten kindergartners misses at least a month of school every year?  Check out more interesting facts about student attendance here
  • Last week the U.S. Department of Education and Arne Duncan announced this year’s National Blue Ribbon Schools; 254 public and 50 private schools were given the top honor based on their high performance.  This year 18 schools in Ohio were given the award.  Check out the complete list of winners here.




New book and upcoming Ohio event on Stretching the School Dollar

Last week, Harvard Education Press released Stretching the School Dollar: How Schools and Districts Can Save Money While Serving Students Best. The book is the culmination of a joint Fordham-AEI project, a volume co-edited by Rick Hess and Eric Osberg. Its main attractions are the ten chapters penned by a varied set of authors, each of whom brings a unique perspective to the question of how schools can be successful in tough economic times.

James Guthrie and Arthur Peng set the stage, arguing quite simply that “A 100-year era of perpetual per-pupil fiscal growth will soon slow or stop. The causes of this situation are far more fundamental than the current recession. Schools should start buckling their seat belts now.” Rick has made a similar argument, that over the coming years schools will face increasing fiscal pressures—pressures that are unlikely to diminish the expectations the public, parents, and politicians have for academic results.

So what can be done? Several authors focus on the ways schools and districts can operate more efficiently today. Michael Casserly of the Great City Schools shows how large school districts have shared information to fine tune their operations and save millions, and Marguerite Roza explains how careful analysis can uncover enormous waste. Stacey Childress highlights three districts that have taken a strategic approach to their budgets, aligning spending with their core priorities, and a team from the Boston Consulting Group reveals lessons learned in helping districts streamline. Lastly in this section, Nate Levenson provides a former superintendent’s perspectives on which reforms are possible—and perhaps which are not—when a leader is financially savvy.

A second set of authors focuses on what to do tomorrow. John Chubb shows the cost-saving potential of technology—as both a complement and, at times, a substitute for traditional models of schooling. Steven Wilson shows that rethinking the teaching profession offers perhaps the greatest potential to conserve resources while improving schools—in part through the smart use of technology, but also by tackling salary scales, teacher benefits, merit pay, and more. He goes so far as to argue that many teachers could be paid more—and better supported through professional development—in ways that would save money overall and improve the quality of schools.

Hess and Osberg provide some context and try to tie it all together. It’s a provocative book—whether you’re a policy wonk, school leader, or simply a taxpayer, and well worth checking out.

You can learn more about the book and how Ohio might smartly rethink school spending at our September 27 event in Columbus, “Stretching the School Dollar: Insights for the Buckeye State.”  Marguerite Roza, Steven Wilson, and Eric Osberg will serve as panelists.  The event is free but space is limited.  Register by Friday at or 614-223-1580.


Fordham’s updated charter school sponsorship application now available

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation sponsors (aka authorizes) seven charter schools in Ohio and is seeking to add new schools to our portfolio. Individuals or organizations with the capacity to start and sustain academically high-performing schools in underserved communities are encouraged to apply. For the updated application, see our sponsorship page here.



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Nationally and in Ohio, the Thomas 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 expectations for all children, accountability for academic results, and transparency and organizational integrity, while freeing the schools to operate with minimal red tape. The Foundation and Institute are neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.

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