Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 11, Number 48
December 15, 2011
Opinion + Analysis
The accountability plateau
Have we maxed out accountability’s gains?
In praise of performance pay—for online-learning companies
Who’s ready to give it a try?
It's not voodoo
The next generation of state takeovers
The monolith shifts
All Over the Map: Comparing States’ Expectations for Student Performance in Science
The Proficiency Illusion, science edition
"Multiplication is for White People": Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children
Let’s discuss the elephant in the room
Creating a New Public Pension System
Intro to Pension Reform, with Professor McGee
Wanna make a bet?
Mike and Daniela go edu-meta, asking whether the accountability era has run its course, what the role of for-profits are in digital education, and how state-run districts and schools may reshape governance. Amber investigates the science “proficiency illusion” and Chris channels the Grinch.
“Consequential accountability,” à la No Child Left Behind and the high-stakes state testing systems that preceded it, corresponded with a significant one-time boost in student achievement, particularly in primary and middle school math. Like the meteor that led to the decline of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals, results-based accountability appears to have shocked the education system. But its effect seems to be fading now, as earlier gains are maintained but not built upon. If we are to get another big jump in academic achievement, we’re going to need another shock to the system—another meteor from somewhere beyond our familiar solar system.
So argues Mark Schneider, a scholar, analyst, and friend whom we once affectionately (and appropriately) named “Stat stud.” Schneider, a political scientist, served as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics from 2005 to 2008, and is now affiliated with the American Institutes for Research and the American Enterprise Institute. In a Fordham-commissioned analysis released today, he digs into twenty years of trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), aka the “Nation’s Report Card.”
We originally asked Schneider to investigate the achievement record of the great state of Texas. At the time—it feels like just yesterday—Rick Perry was riding high in the polls, making an issue of education, and taking flak from Secretary Arne Duncan for running an inadequate school system. We wondered: Was Duncan right to feel “very, very badly” for the children of Texas? Had the state’s schools—once darlings of
Michael J. Petrilli / December 15, 2011
Whether you consider this week’s New York Times article on K12.com a “hit piece” (Tom Vander Ark) or a “blockbuster” (Dana Goldstein), there’s little doubt that it (and the recent crop of other pieces like it) will have a long-term impact on the debate around digital learning. Polls show that the public in general and parents in particular are leery of cyber schools, and this kind of media attention (sure to be mimicked in local papers) will only make them more so.
But just as these criticisms aren’t going away, neither is online learning. That genie is out of the bottle. So how can we go about drafting policies that will push digital learning in the direction of quality?
This is something we at Fordham are busy pondering. To that end, we’ve published three papers (so far) in our series Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning: Rick Hess on quality control; Paul Hill on funding; and Bryan and Emily Hassel on teachers. And in January, we’ll publish an analysis by the Parthenon Group of what high-quality fulltime online learning really costs.
Set aside for a moment the Times’s extremely selective use of data, expert opinion, and evidence. Where the article landed a punch, in my view, was around the perverse incentives at play today. Clearly K12, and its well-paid CEO, Ron Packard, face strong incentives to boost enrollment at their schools. Unfortunately, states haven’t figured out a way to create similar
December 15, 2011
2005’s hurricane catalyzed one of the largest governance experiments in American education to date, as Louisiana implemented its Recovery School District law under which it took responsibility for the worst schools in the Big Easy (and a few others throughout the Bayou State). While other state-takeover initiatives have seen mixed results, Louisiana’s push has yielded big upticks in student-test scores. Two reasons why Louisiana’s initiative has fared well: It doesn’t get bogged down in the schools’ day-to-day operations. (It offloads that responsibility onto school leaders—where it belongs.) And it scraps the current edu-governance system (no more school boards, locally elected or otherwise), giving site management over to charter networks and other external providers. The idea has some converts: Michigan (with its Education Achievement System) and Tennessee both recently announced the creation of their own “recovery school districts” (though both remain in the pilot stage). This slowly widening movement holds much promise: States can offer management know-how and dedicated resources and can skirt district contracts that stymie creative school models—without getting bogged down in local politics or bureaucracy. Successful state takeovers of failing districts are elusive—often written off (including by us) as a lost cause. But this 2.0 model sure is promising.
|Click to listen to commentary on this science "proficiency illusion" from the Education
Laura Johnson / December 15, 2011
In this book, MacArthur “genius” Lisa Delpit offers an interesting follow-up to her acclaimed Other People’s Children, tackling the continuing challenge of boosting minority student achievement. Using innumerous anecdotes and the occasional data point, Delpit weaves through the complexities of race, class, and culture in America’s schools—and society. In the end, she finds a racial “expectation gap” that pervades our present system. To counter it, educators must develop a “no excuses” attitude (though not necessarily the KIPP-like model of how to implement it), and fight the “responses to oppression” that foster chronic underachievement. The read is quick and enjoyable, and she covers a number of issues, from malnutrition myths to stereotyping to the squishy meaning of “basic skills.” While we don’t always agree on the means of reaching the end, we can definitely get behind Delpit when she says “There is no simple recipe, and the only real solution is for humans who care…to confer, collaborate, argue, ponder, and act to fashion a space for real dialogue and understanding.” Educators and reformers alike would be wise to give this book a look (it’s now available on pre-order)—Delpit adds grounding, and some color, to a discussion that is often arid and unproductive.
Lisa Delpit, “Multiplication is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, (New York, NY: The New Press, March 2012).
Few issues as serious as the pension crunch are equally as dull. Addressing unfunded liabilities and implementing defined-contribution plans simply aren’t compelling calls to arms, despite the widening consensus that the balance sheets of public-sector retirement-benefit systems pose grave threats to state budgets. That’s why the clarity and concision found in this recent “solution paper,” penned by Josh McGee for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, are so valuable. The piece may be light on detail, but that’s part of the point: It doesn’t aspire to wonky analysis. Instead, it aims right at policymakers and the public in explaining why the set payouts of the traditional defined-benefit (DB) retirement-benefit structure are unsustainable. McGee efficiently makes the case that irresponsible pols inevitably underfund DBs, explains the challenges in projecting their costs, and lays out how they incentivize expensive (and counterproductive) employee behaviors. He then outlines the major cost-saving alternatives on the table—including defined contributions, cash-balance plans, and “stacked hybrids.” (OK, it’s just a little wonky.) There’s far more to this complex topic than McGee includes in this brief paper (case in point: Fordham’s recent study of successful pension reforms), but as an accessible introduction to a vital issue, it’s hard to beat.
Josh B. McGee, Creating a New Public Pension System (Houston, TX: Laura and John Arnold Foundation, 2011).