Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 13
April 8, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
The "buy-in" paradox
Substance over form
Race to the Test hits the ground running
Testing Crist, too
Mike and Andy the Duke and Butler of ed policy
Rick skips town to attend the NCAA finals in Indianapolis. (It's ok to be jealous.) So this week bitter two-point rivals Mike and Andy discuss the RTTT winners, Minnesota's changes for charter authorizers, whether virtual schools are the next silver bullet, and whose forthcoming book will make the New York Times bestseller list. Then Research Intern Daniela sits in for Amber "I'm on jury duty" Winkler on the Research Minute; she reports on a new study from Northwestern that finds NCLB does affect achievement?when tied to high standards and rigorous accountability. And finally Rate that Reform throws a Tea Party for the elderly.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / April 8, 2010
The most dangerous word in the education-reform lexicon is “stakeholder” and the most problematic among the infinite theories that reformers espouse is that widespread “stakeholder buy-in” is essential if anything is actually to change.
My own experience these past zillion years is that demanding lots of buy-in is a reliable way to ensure that nothing much changes, at least nothing beyond enlarging the total pie so that every “stakeholder” gets a bigger slice.
The problem, of course, is that the “stakeholders” in K-12 education always turn out to be producers, not consumers. They are the grown-ups who earn their livings (or their members’ or shareholders’ livings) from the money spent by the education system. Remember that about three-fourths of the typical school-system budget goes for salaries and benefits—for grown-ups. And nearly all the rest goes to buy things that grown-ups benefit from selling, such as textbooks, teacher-education, in-service training, computers, football uniforms, building maintenance services, school buses, etc.
Those self-interested grown-ups turn out to be the “stakeholders.” It’s never kids, parents or taxpayers. And those stakeholders are vigilant, to say the least, in defending their interests. They hire lobbyists, campaign for candidates, appear at school board meetings and legislative hearings, and “bargain” not only for pay and benefits but also for hours, guaranteed free time, you name it. Hence a meeting of stakeholders in K-12 education typically produces a room full of teacher-union representatives, ed-school deans, state bureaucrats, textbook publishers, agents of the
Andy Smarick / April 8, 2010
So why did Tennessee and Delaware win in the first round of Race to the Top? The growing consensus is that the crucial factor was “stakeholder support” (buy-in from unions, districts, etc.). Each was able to get all of its districts and virtually all of its unions (Tennessee got 93 percent) to sign on to the state’s proposal.
This interpretation is not wholly unwarranted. There are a significant number of RTTT points tied directly to stakeholder support, and some peer reviewers downgraded applications in other states for insufficient buy-in. Moreover, in his earliest comments on announcement day, Secretary Duncan emphasized Tennessee’s and Delaware’s respective ability to craft statewide plans that earned the unions’ benediction. (In fact, the administration seemed to back away from this line of argument only when observers noted that elevating stakeholder support has a dangerous consequence: It gives them a virtual veto over state plans.)
But the story is more complicated than “anti-reform stakeholders triumph.” As I noted immediately after the awards were announced, support isn’t everything. A number of states with 100 percent buy-in from unions and districts didn’t win because their proposals were weak on substance. Likewise, a number of states with little buy-in did quite well because they promised major reforms.
So on the whole, which is more important? Substance.
Yes, Tennessee and Delaware scored highly in the “state success factors” category (where stakeholder support is embedded), besting frontrunners Florida, Louisiana, and Rhode Island,
Stafford Palmieri / April 8, 2010
With the ink still damp on Race to the Top’s first round winners’ checks, the Education Department has launched its next stimulus-funded competition: $350 million to “consortia” of states to develop “common assessments” in alignment with “common standards.” These funds are a portion of Duncan’s discretionary kitty, which he announced in February he would set aside for such a test-development contest.
Back then, we mused that the competition might lock in some incredibly consequential decisions about the future of national testing in the United States. And sure enough, one likely outcome is already clear: There will probably be two sets of national tests for elementary and middle school students, and maybe another one at the high school level, at least if the three known “consortia” of states all succeed in winning pieces of the testing pie:
- A group led by Achieve and nicknamed the “Florida” consortium;
- A new consortium of consortia, joining three previously separate groups under the leadership of Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond; and
- An assembly headed by the National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE) that’s focusing on a $30 million subset of the $350 million reserved for new high-school tests.
The groups are still fluid and many states have signed on to more than one of them. Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz reports that “Florida” has thirty members, Darling-Hammond’s coalition, forty, and NCEE eight.
With applications due in June and awards to be made in September, much is at stake and many
April 8, 2010
The Florida education-reform spotlight is about to shift from the legislature to the governor's office, where Charlie Crist is probably going to have to decide, perhaps as early as tonight, whether to sign or veto the major "teacher reform" bill. (The state House is expected to pass it later today in the same form that already cleared the state Senate.) That measure would overhaul the Sunshine State's teacher compensation system, one key area in which Florida lost RTTT points in round one. Though it is bitterly opposed by the unions and their fellow travelers, the bill will certainly make Florida's education system stronger. It would, among other things, base half of teacher evaluations on student performance, eliminate automatic salary increases for graduate degrees or extra credentials, and drop teacher tenure altogether in favor of annual contracts. Yet Crist has lately hinted that he may put the kibosh on all of this. Could it be a result of the media firestorm surrounding the reforms, ignited and fanned by the predictable detractors? "Shame on any public servant who doesn't listen to the people," Crist told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. But which people? Is he listening only to adult interest groups or to the kids and parents crying out for excellent teachers? Gadfly profoundly hopes the governor doesn't wimp out on this test of his education-reform mettle.
“Crist hints he’ll veto teacher merit pay bill,” by Josh Hafenbeck, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, April 7, 2010
April 8, 2010
The land of 10,000 lakes is not keen on letting 1,000 flowers bloom. Nearly a year ago, the Minnesota legislature decided to ramp up expectations for charter school authorizers. It put in place a more rigorous process to qualify as an authorizer and required more direct contact between authorizer and school. The changes responded to a state audit that revealed major problems, the most egregious of which was the fact that a few authorizers had little to no interaction with their schools after initially sponsoring them. But now that the new rules are going into effect, some authorizers want out. Half of the fourteen districts that currently serve as authorizers, as well as the state department of education itself, are thinking of jumping ship, i.e. getting out of sponsorship altogether. (Minnesota presently has fifty-two separate authorizing bodies.) They claim they don’t have the resources or manpower to handle authorization under the new rules. Some charter supporters are worried, fretting over a possible shortage of authorizers, and concerned that some schools mind not find new sponsors in time to stay open. We’re more sanguine. As we know from direct experience in Ohio, authorizing schools is hard work; only organizations committed to doing it right should be in the game—and it’s altogether possible for a state to have too many sponsors.
“Minnesota districts cutting ties to charter schools,” by Gregory A. Patterson, Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 28, 2010
Janie Scull / April 8, 2010
Paul E. Peterson
The Belknap Press, Harvard University Press
In these 300 pages, Harvard’s Paul Peterson retells the history of American public education through the lives of six influential leaders. He argues that Horace Mann, John Dewey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Shanker, William Bennett, and James Coleman all tried yet ultimately failed to achieve their respective goals, many of which included customizing education to the individual child. What happened instead was an unintended march toward ever-greater centralization. But where they failed, Peterson insists, virtual education may yet succeed. He poses a new leader: Julie Young of the Florida Virtual School, a state-wide virtual charter that points toward a new form of “mass customization”. The book is provocative, for sure, though some readers may question whether “customization” was really yesterday’s goal—and whether virtual education is powerful enough to produce it at scale tomorrow, particularly in the face of claims that a strong democracy needs the “common” school more than the individualized kind. You can buy a copy here.
April 8, 2010
Mary Cullinane and Frederick M. Hess, eds.
Harvard Education Press
Even though it hasn’t graduated its first class of seniors, the School of the Future in Philadelphia—a Microsoft-supported, high-tech, high school serving mainly low-income kids—has become one of today’s most-studied living test tubes for whole-school reform. This insightful book is full of some important and sobering lessons on its promise and perils. Its chapters include contributions from SOF teachers and administrators as well as policy analysts and scholars (including Fordham’s Finn). One bothersome question arches over all of them: How much do we care about “scalability”? The editors write in their introduction that “SOF is particularly noteworthy because of its declared intent to craft a reproducible and scalable design.”Indeed, the school’s founders explicitly decided not to make it a charter school to prove that transformation could come even to regular public schools operating within district regulations. In so doing, however, they subjected their venture to untold risks and restrictions, even as they built a very intricate curriculum from scratch and invested an enormous amount of time customizing technology. Whether this heavily studied test-tube school ever leaves the lab remains to be seen. Buy it here.
No Child Left Behind: An Interim Evaluation of Its Effects on Learning Using Two Interrupted Time Series Each With Its Own Non-Equivalent Comparison Series, DRAFT
Daniela Fairchild / April 8, 2010
Manyee Wong, Thomas D. Cook, and Peter M. Steiner
Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University
The density of this paper’s title is a good indication of what you’ll find inside, but it's still worth your attention. It tells us that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has improved pupil achievement in math (and maybe also in grade 4 reading), and, even more importantly, that standards and tests matter when they are attached to consequences. Using (main and trend) NAEP data from 1990 to 2009, it tests the relationship between student achievement and pre- and post- NCLB sanctions. As control groups, it uses Catholic and secular private schools, largely untouched by NCLB. The authors found a statistically-significant increase in math achievement for students in public schools during the NCLB era under one of two conditions: either the state had additional sanctions on top of NCLB’s and/or it had high proficiency standards (as measured by its cut scores). In states where one or both of these conditions was met, students gained six to seven months of math in grade 4 and a full twelve months of math in grade 8. Reading results were weaker and less certain, seen only in states with both conditions and only in grade 4. But the lesson is tantalizing (and surely comforting to supporters of NCLB and kindred state accountability regimes): Sanctions can work when tied to meaningful metrics. Check it out here.