Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 6
February 11, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
"Turnaround" by any other name would be just as...sour
By Andy Smarick
Say good-"Bayou" to the status quo
What goes up must come down
2009 State Teacher Policy Yearbook
Andy Smarick / February 11, 2010
Here’s what we know about previous attempts to fix America’s most persistently failing schools. Turnarounds in other fields seldom work. Turnarounds in education have even lower success rates. Despite decades of effort, we still don’t have a reliable playbook for turning a very low-performing school into a good school, much less a great school. Even if we did have a playbook, no one believes we have sufficient human capital currently available to drastically improve a large number of schools.
Given this, it’s hard to conceive of an area less suited for an unprecedented amount of funding that must be spent quickly with grand expectations for swift results.
Nevertheless, we have the federal government’s behemoth School Improvement Fund.
Early in his tenure, Secretary Duncan’s rhetoric got ahead of the evidence, and he charged the nation with turning around 5,000 failing schools within five years. Falling into the same trap that had ensnarled countless previous reformers, the administration contended that generations of failed turnaround efforts were the consequence of insufficient funding and the wrong strategies.
They moved to solve the first problem by allocating an astonishing amount of federal money to the cause. Combined, the stimulus and the 2009 budget appropriated more than $3.5 billion to turnarounds through the SIF, which had once been a relatively modest Title I carve-out. That figure deserves lingering attention; it’s in the same atmospheric level as the ubiquitous and more closely scrutinized Race to the Top (RTTT).
February 11, 2010
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal wants to cut the red tape keeping local schools and districts from achieving greater student success with his new four-year waiver proposal--but he’s attaching one big string. Under his plan, basically any state law or regulation that does not concern federal requirements, student safety, accountability, or graduation rules is on the table. The twist? Failing schools or districts that a) choose not to apply for a waiver or b) do get a waiver, but fail to make significant gains in student achievement, will be taken over by the state. This means they will be added to the state-run Recovery School District, which currently controls most of New Orleans’ schools and a handful of others across the state, including thirty such strugglers that have already been given to RSD; another twenty-four have agreements with RSD pending achievement improvement. Sounds like the rumors that the RSD was here to stay were true. Can’t say we’re disappointed. In fact, with RSD’s track record, it sounds like a win-win situation for schools looking to try something new.
“Jindal Proposes Waivers From Education Laws,” The Associated Press, February 5, 2010
“Governor Jindal Announces Red Tape Reduction Act to Empower Educational Leaders to Improve Performance in Schools,” Press Release, Office of the Governor of Louisiana, February 4, 2010
February 11, 2010
Here’s a piece of unsurprising news: More students are failing Advanced Placement exams. We could have told you this last spring, when we surveyed AP teachers about the push to offer the program’s rigorous content to more students. Many of the students being encouraged to take AP classes are not ready to do so, they told us. According to this USA Today analysis, 41.5 percent of students failed their AP exams (i.e., getting a score of 1 or 2 on a 5-point scale) in 2009. That’s 5 percentage points higher than in 1999. Failure rates for students in the South have risen 7 percent to 48.4 percent. Much of this is predictable; after all, now that access to the AP program has been democratized, weaker students are enrolling, and you would expect them to perform worse on the tests. (In a similar manner, SAT scores declined once a broader group of students started sitting for the exam.) The big unanswered question is whether the expansion of AP to the masses is hurting the nation’s most talented students, who now sit in class with under-prepared peers. And because the College Board is refusing to let researchers take a peek at its data, that’s a question that will remain unanswered for now.
“Failure rate of AP tests climbing,” by Greg Toppo and Jack Gillum, USA Today, February 6, 2010
February 11, 2010
When 17-year-old Brandon Frost wore his Indianapolis Colts jersey last Friday to support his hometown football team, his school’s principal was less than receptive. See, Frost had moved three years ago from Indiana to rural Louisiana, where Maurepas High School principal Steve Vampran had relaxed the student dress code for Black-and-Gold Day in honor of the New Orleans Saints. Except Frost supported the opposing team in Sunday’s Superbowl match-up. After being send to the principal’s office during his first period class, Frost was told he could either remove the offending jersey or go home. “If you like Indiana so much, why don’t you go back?” Vampran is reported to have queried. (Clearly the “self-esteem” movement hasn’t made it yet to this corner of Louisiana.) Frost’s frustrated father called the ACLU, which promptly wrote a strongly worded letter to Principal-cum-Saints-fan Vampran. Sunday declared the Saints victorious; let’s let this young Colts fan lick his wounds in peace.
"Colts Jersey Causes Clash at La. School," by Janet McConnaughey, Associated Press, February 5, 2010
Daniela Fairchild / February 11, 2010
This third edition of the NCTQ Yearbook takes another well-deserved look at the teaching profession, boasting a revamped set of goals and indicators even more rigorous than last year’s. The headline? States are floundering in all areas. Whereas the highest grade in 2008 was a B+ (North Carolina), this year’s front runner clocks in with only a C (Florida). The comparisons stop there, however, as NCTQ President Kate Walsh explains, because the metrics were significantly overhauled--and to our eyes, for the better. There are now five focus areas (up from three): teacher training, recruitment (in particular, expanding the pool), identifying effective teachers, retaining effective teachers, and dismissing ineffective ones. Overall, the country earned a D. States (plus the District of Columbia) did particularly poorly in the identification of effective teachers, earning an average grade of D-. Further, evaluation and tenure policies don’t take into account the one thing that they should: classroom effectiveness. To wit, just four states prioritize student learning in teacher evaluations and only sixteen require any objective measures of student learning at all. Only four take into account teacher effectiveness when rewarding tenure; in the other forty-seven, tenure is basically awarded automatically. But all this doom-and-gloom is mediated in the final pages, as the report offers practical and cost-neutral solutions, based when applicable on best practices already in place. There’s much more to comb through. Find the report here and see how your state fared
February 11, 2010
The pointy-headed analysts over at SRI International, working under the auspices of the Dept of Ed, have released an interesting survey of data systems in twelve nationally-representative school districts. The message: goaded by NCLB and the broad pro-data consensus among policymakers and district leaders, school districts are undeniably collecting more information about their students and staff than before. But they are not, on the whole, doing really interesting or innovative things with the new data at their fingertips--at least, not yet. (DQC agrees.) The study finds that while 99 percent of districts maintain some form of “student data warehouse” on attendance, test scores, and grades, only 38 percent of them can link student performance to teacher characteristics like experience and degree attainment. Only 42 percent of districts can determine which curricular programs and strategies are most or least effective at boosting performance within a given grade and course. And only seven of the thirty-six case-study schools used student performance to evaluate teachers. This report would see data “dashboards” customized for the user (teacher, administrator, etc.), integrated, and accompanied by better training sessions. And of course, the data need to be more timely so as to remain relevant and useful. Maybe this Dept-sponsored push will make it happen. Read it here.
Barbara Means, Christine Padilla, and Larry Gallagher
Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development
U.S. Department of Education
Bitter Pill, Better Formula: To a Single, Fair and Equitable Formula for ESEA Title I, Part A; Spoonful of Sugar: An Equity Fund to Facilitate a Single, Fair and Equitable ESEA Title I-A
Daniela Fairchild / February 11, 2010
This pair of policy papers tackles the untouchable: the much despised, but politically sacrosanct, Title I formula. As it currently stands, Title I, Part A disburses funds through four funding formulae that are not only terribly complex (see CAP’s “plain English” explanation in August 2009’s “Secret Recipes Revealed”), but do not accurately reflect the purpose and mission of the Title--to aid districts in the education of low-income students. The main problem is that the four formulae unduly privilege wealthier states and bigger districts. A smaller district with more low-income students might receive fewer Title I-A funds than its larger more affluent neighbor. On an even more local level, a school in one state might see their Title I-A per-pupil allocation increase or decrease precipitously if teleported to another state. CAP’s solution is laid out in “Bitter Pill, Better Formula.” Miller and Brown compute funding allocation changes from FY 2009 to a hypothetical FY 2010 if their new single formula were employed. It makes improvements over ESEA’s current formulation in three important ways: It recognizes within-state variations is cost of living, it more fairly takes into account state’s fiscal effort, i.e., how the state leverages its own resources to support schools, and it recalculates concentrations of poor students in a way that does not favor wealthier districts. Mississippi would win biggest; Hawaii lose the most. (See how our home state of Ohio does here.) But how to get Congress