Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 11, Number 6
February 10, 2011
Opinion + Analysis
The anachronism of school boards
Well-meaning caretakers are not what our education system needs
The leadership illusion
You can?t spell turnaround without ?effective school leader?
An a-OK form of edu-governance
Oklahoma to axe the state board of education
Pushing away from CBAs
States hit the heart of the issue: collective-bargaining rights
The 2010 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?
America has never topped the international charts
A Measured Approach to Improving Teacher Preparation
A new cookie jar for the hand of Uncle Sam
Value-Added Measures in Education: What Every Educator Needs to Know
A balanced VAM primer?and some recs to boot
The State of Charter School Authorizing: A Report on NACSA???s Authorizer Survey
When it comes to authorizers, bigger is better
Mike slashes bad ideas
With vocal deftness, Mike and Rick?Amber, too?discuss leadership in school turnaround efforts, collective-bargaining rights, and the need (or lack thereof) for state boards of education. Daniela channels Tom Loveless, noting that the U.S. has never been on top in international tests, and Chris reminds us that schools shouldn?t be like Santa Claus.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / February 10, 2011
“The local school board, especially the elected kind, is an anachronism and an outrage. We can no longer pretend it’s working well or hide behind the mantra of ‘local control of education.’ We need to steel ourselves to put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery and move on to something that will work for children.”
With that statement on the record, we’re doubly admiring of Anne Bryant and her colleagues at the National School Boards Association (NSBA) for welcoming us into their recent project—“School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era”—a survey of roughly 900 school board members. We went into it willing to have our previous impressions of local school boards overturned. For the most part, that hasn’t happened.
Because we’re serious about America’s need for bold school reform, we came away from the survey data dismayed that so many board members appear hostile to some of the most urgently needed reforms—and accepting of timeworn (and for the most part unsuccessful) tweaks to the current system. Substantial numbers view charter schools, intra-district choice among schools, and year-round calendars as “not at all important” to improving student learning. They’re cool toward teachers entering classrooms from “nontraditional” directions. Yet they’re warm-to-hot when asked about the value of such primordial yet unreliable “reforms” as smaller classes and more professional development. And they’re more agitated about school inputs—funding above all—than about academic achievement.
Putting it bluntly, would public education come
February 10, 2011
Gadfly has long harbored doubts about school turnarounds. The inertia of low-performing schools is great, and the middling reform efforts meant to alter their trajectories never go far enough. But at least, he surmised, even the softest districts almost always replace the leaders of their failing schools, right? Nope. According to a recent New York Times analysis (based on data from eight states), 44 percent of schools receiving federal turnaround money retained their principals. In Michigan, that figure spikes to 68 percent. The Times concludes that there simply aren’t enough high-quality principals available to lead these efforts. (If there were, we probably wouldn’t have quite so many failing schools.) But that doesn’t have to be the case; surely the outdated, onerous licensure requirements for principals are keeping many talented leaders (including corporate-style turnaround artists) out of the labor pool. So before we conclude that we’re facing a real “human capital” shortage, let’s tear down the wall keeping lots of good people out of our schools.
“U.S. Plan to Replace Principals Hits Snag: Who Will Step In?,” by Sam Dillon, New York Times, February 7, 2011.
February 10, 2011
When it comes to rethinking education governance, Oklahoma is stepping it up. Big time. The recently elected, majority Republican, state senate is set to pass a bill that would eliminate the state board of education. (To our knowledge, OK would be just the third state to go sans-state board, joining MN and WI.) Instead, legislators would shift responsibility of the Oklahoma Department of Education over to the Sooner State’s elected superintendent. The move came after new state supe Janet Barresi, also a Republican, found it hard to get her policy initiatives approved by the Democratic-leaning state board (whose members were mostly appointed by the previous governor). Defenders of state boards of education (and frankly, we’re not sure who they are) might claim that these bodies are essential guardians of the public trust. But, as with local boards, they strike us more as anachronistic features of a system perfectly designed to maintain the status quo.
“Oklahoma Legislators Push to Take Away State Education Board’s Power,” by The Associated Press, Huffington Post, February 6, 2011.
“Oklahoma Senate Will Begin State Department of Education Reform Monday,” by Staff, The State Column, February 8, 2011.
February 10, 2011
Reform-minded legislators in a number of states have begun to challenge teacher evaluation and tenure practices, and some aren’t stopping there. Lawmakers in Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, and Tennessee have all recently introduced bills that would either limit the scope of collective bargaining to wages and benefits or ban the practice altogether. Proponents argue that eliminating the ability to bargain—particularly over policies such as class size and schedules and hours—will allow school leaders more freedom to set policies best fitted for their schools. In doing so, schools will be able to spend money in a more efficient and targeted manner. Teacher unions, not surprisingly, are none too keen on the idea of losing their right to be at the table. But any lawmakers who think they can ease the grip of teacher unions simply by eliminating collective bargaining should think again. As veteran analysts of the education politics of Right to Work states can attest, teachers groups simply get protections written into state law. While collective-bargaining agreements no doubt add to the restrictions under which most schools and school systems operate, they’re just one piece of a larger puzzle.
“States Aim to Curb Collective Bargaining,” by Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week, February 9, 2011.
“Indiana panel OKs bill limiting teacher bargaining,” by Deanna Martin, Boston Globe, January 27, 2011.
Marena Perkins / February 10, 2011
Despite a slightly tardy release, the 2010 report from Brookings’s Brown Center does a lot in a little space; PISA, NAEP, Race to the Top, and the Common Core all appear. Yet one key thesis emerges through the report’s tripartite analysis: Test scores aren’t always what they seem. Part I tackles international assessments, with author Tom Loveless convincingly debunking two “myths”: first, that U.S. performance on international assessments has declined over time, and, second, that Finland is alpha on international rankings, with China and India quickly rising. To disprove the former, Loveless tracks U.S. results and progress on international math assessments dating back to 1964. During the First International Math Study (FIMS), the U.S. ranked eleventh out of twelve participating countries. Compared to those same eleven FIMS countries, the U.S. now scores close to average, marking an upward trend in student achievement. The second myth he counters by decoupling Finnish scores on PISA from those of TIMSS and other more content-oriented tests. While Finland’s students excel when tested on their PISA-like “literacy” learning, they fall to the middle of the pack on more traditional tests of math and science prowess such as TIMSS. As for China and India, Loveless reminds us that neither country has ever participated in an international assessment. (Shanghai, he asserts, doesn’t count.) The other two parts of the report, one cross-tabulating NAEP gains to Race to the Top winner status (part II) and one comparing NAEP assessments to the Common Core frameworks (part III),
Gerilyn Slicker / February 10, 2011
Teacher preparation programs are pumping out 300,000 teachers a year, many of whom enter classrooms ill-prepared and ineffective. This Education Sector policy brief outlines the major criticisms of the current teacher-prep system: It doesn’t heed the labor needs of states and districts, nor does it offer sufficient focus on practical skills or rigor in selecting candidates and conferring degrees. The brief then outlines a three-part strategy to improve teacher preparation—with each of the recommendations pointed directly to the federal government. While the authors readily admit that the “legal and political capacity of the U.S. Department of Education to force all 50 states to simultaneously build strong accountability systems…has been limited,” they believe their outlined “new paradigm” will extricate federal policy from its current muddle. First, create a new federal framework for evaluating and enhancing teacher preparation programs. Second, establish a revised set of competitive grants to encourage states to assess and revamp their programs by building off the Teacher Quality Partnership Grants and School Improvement Grants programs. And third, streamline financial aid programs to improve quality of the teacher workforce. While the authors’ push for outcomes-based accountability requirements and their recommendations for collecting and using data are admirable, their naive faith in Uncle Sam’s ability to cause these policy changes to occur is disheartening, to say the least.
Chris Irvine / February 10, 2011
“Hold people accountable for what they can control”—a simple, yet foundational premise in Douglas N. Harris’s comprehensive new book on value-added measurement (VAM). With the AFT’s Randi Weingarten authoring the foreword, Harris remains impressively neutral in explaining the benefits and drawbacks of this controversial new teacher evaluation tool. The book attempts to “clear away the fog” surrounding VAM, which is no simple task. In three sections, it offers a detailed explanation and contextualization of VAM (including an overview of its potential value when done right), a description of the challenges that arise in applying VAM in the real world, and potential solutions to these problems. Empirical analyses that support Harris’s points are intertwined throughout; the book’s stated goal—to translate this multi-faceted and contentious system into comprehensible language—is handled admirably. Harris concludes with recommendations for using VAM appropriately and effectively, as well as ways to create and report these evaluation metrics. This book serves as a worthy users’ manual for value-added and is a welcome addition to the teacher-measurement debate.
Kathryn Mullen Upton / February 10, 2011
This third annual survey of charter authorizers from the National Association for Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) is its largest to date—and replete with interesting findings. For instance, the survey found that charter agreements with lengthier terms—ten years, say, versus five—led to more weak schools remaining open, since authorizers tend not to close schools mid-charter. We also learn that large authorizers (in charge of ten or more schools) are likelier to implement best practices than their smaller counterparts. And with roughly 700 authorizers overseeing only one or two schools each, questions of authorizer efficacy and resource adequacy abound. Perhaps the most consequential finding—and one that deserves additional study—is that authorizer oversight of charters run by management companies (both nonprofit and for-profit) remains weak. This is a key issue, especially in situations where incapacity at the school-governance level renders the management company more powerful than the body accountable for a school’s success.