Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 12, Number 15
April 19, 2012
Opinion + Analysis
Stretching the school-district dollar
Some budget cuts are better than others
Why school principals need more authority
School heads can’t be both CEOs and middle managers
Will changing Texas math standards be subtraction by addition?
The Lone Star State needn’t go it alone anymore
All eyes are on Indiana
School Turnarounds: The Essential Role of Districts
SIG isn’t the only option
Review of Special Education in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
A useful primer on the special ed capital of the world
Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core
E.D. Hirsch gets a new ally
Streeeeetching the school dollar
Mike and Adam talk space shuttles, vouchers, and how districts can make the most of tight budgets on this week’s podcast, while Amber explains what special ed looks like in the Bay State.
How School Districts Can Stretch the School Dollar
yes Michael J. Petrilli / April 18, 2012
The "new normal" of tougher budget times is here to stay for American K-12 education. So how can local officials cope? This policy brief, by Mike Petrilli, provides a useful tool for navigating the financial challenges of the current school-funding climate, complete with clear dos and don'ts for anyone involved in or concerned with local education budgets.
Michael J. Petrilli / April 19, 2012
Despite some signs of economic recovery, school districts nationwide continue to struggle mightily. The combination of a depressed property tax base and built-in cost escalators produces recurring gaps that demand budget cuts every year just to keep doing the same old thing… and the long-term outlook isn’t much brighter.
Make no mistake: The “new normal” of tougher budget times—as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls it—is here to stay for American K-12 education.
Tight budgets should encourage districts to spend smartly and stretch funds, rather than harm education with shortsighted cuts.
Photo by blognd
While that presents plenty of hardships, it also offers local officials a golden opportunity to rethink the way we run schools and to boost productivity and efficiency, a point I make in my new policy brief, “How School Districts Can Stretch the School Dollar.”
Let’s start with a few key principles to keep in mind when weighing cuts:
Solving our budget crisis shouldn’t come at the expense of children. We should do everything we can to protect students’ learning opportunities and boost their achievement.
Nor can it come from teachers’ sacrifice alone. Suppressing teacher salaries forever isn’t a recipe for recruiting bright young people into education—or retaining the excellent teachers we have now.
Quick fixes aren’t a
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / April 4, 2012
A venerable maxim of successful organizational management declares that an executive's authority should be commensurate with his or her responsibility. In plain English, if you are held to account for producing certain results, you need to be in charge of the essential means of production.
There's a serious imbalance between a principal's accountability and authority.
Photo by Kat.
In American public education today, however, that equation is sorely unbalanced. A school principal in 2012 is accountable for student achievement, for discipline, for curriculum and instruction, and for leading (and supervising) the staff team, not to mention attracting students, satisfying parents, and collaborating with innumerable other agencies and organizations.
Yet that same principal controls only a tiny part of his school's budget, has scant say over who teaches there, practically no authority when it comes to calendar or schedule, and minimal leverage over the curriculum itself. Instead of deploying all available school assets in ways that would do the most good for the most kids, the principal is required to follow dozens or hundreds of rules, program requirements, spending procedures, discipline codes, contract clauses, and regulations emanating from at least three levels of government—none of which strives to coordinate with any of the others.
In short, we give our school heads
Kathleen Porter-Magee / April 19, 2012
As the Texas Board of Education weighs revisions to the state's math standards this week, it must also consider strong criticism from the business community and the media over the proposed changes. Fordham's new review of the draft math standards, by W. Stephen Wilson, adds another reason for the board to think twice before approving the changes. As Wilson writes,
The new standards are an improvement. Some content that was previously missing from the [existing] standards has been included, the standards remain clear and well organized, and the high school content remains strong.
Unfortunately, Texas has overcorrected its minimalist problem by adding too many standards—many of which descend inappropriately into pedagogy—and including a lot of unnecessary repetition. Worse, the new draft standards overemphasize process, and arithmetic is not given suitable priority.
While the proposed changes are an improvement on the status quo in the Lone Star State, they’re far from stellar—and pale in comparison with the CCSS alternative. By going it alone, Texas had hoped to do better than the Common Core. Unfortunately, it missed the mark. Now it’s high time for its Board of Education to recognize that going from lousy to ok just isn’t good enough.
A slightly different version of this analysis was originally published as a post on the Common Core Watch blog.
The Education Gadfly / April 19, 2012
The Indianapolis Public Schools struck back this week, countering The Mind Trust’s plan for reforming education in Indy with a school reform report of its own. While it was sad to see the district defend its bureaucracy by blaming poverty and the media, it was a useful reminder that those who govern education can’t be trusted to reform education governance all on their own.
Observers within and without the Hoosier State are closely watching Indiana’s ambitious attempt at tying teacher compensation to performance. While the research on merit pay tied to test scores is far from settled, Indiana’s willingness to innovate merits attention.
Two years after winning their shares of four billion dollars in Race to the Top money, the eleven lucky states (and D.C.) have spent only 14 percent of the loot. While it’s certainly preferable to blowing the cash with little to show for it, it’s also clear (and unfortunate) that states see this as more of a stroll than a sprint.
Lisa Gibes / April 19, 2012
The federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) program—created in 2002 and ramped up in 2009 thanks to ARRA dollars—has enjoyed celebrity status in the education-reform conversation over the past few months. (See here, here, and here for examples of recent research.) This book by Heather Zavadsky (known for her deep dives into urban-district effectiveness) offers a fresh perspective on this widely discussed topic. The upshot: School-based turnarounds require significant district involvement to be effective; the culture, funding, size, and collective-bargaining agreement of the district directly affect the changes that can be effected at the school level—and vary dramatically among districts. Zavasdsky profiles the turnaround efforts of five urban school districts, showcasing how each uses its economy of scale to execute school-improvement programs effectively. For example, Boston created a teacher-residency program (a reform unavailable to single-school turnaround efforts), thus enlarging its human-capital pipeline. And Garden Grove implemented a large-scale data system, tracking student progress quarterly. Many actionable ideas and engaging anecdotes dot this text. District leaders—particularly those of large urban locales—looking to bolster low-performing schools would be wise to have a look.
Heather Zavadsky, School Turnarounds: The Essential Role of Districts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2012).
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / April 19, 2012
This study by Harvard researchers Tom Hehir and colleagues cracks the lid on special education in Massachusetts—which holds the distinction (perhaps dubious) of the second-highest identification rate in the U.S, with more than 17 percent of students eligible for special education services. Analysts examined both demographic and test-score data at the district, school, and student levels in roughly 300 Bay State districts and offer gobs of interesting findings—each well presented and nicely summarized. For example: Categories with the most subjective diagnoses (specific learning disabilities and communication or other health impairments) are by far the most prevalent (and are likely overdiagnosed). What’s more, low-income students are more frequently identified as having these “high incidence” disabilities than wealthier youngsters. This is particularly true for low-income pupils in high-income districts. More blacks and Latinos than whites are eligible for special-education services, but these differences mostly disappear when analysts control for socioeconomic status and other demographic characteristics. Student achievement for the Bay State’s special-needs population is better than the national NAEP average for such kids, though much of this effect can likely be attributed to MA’s high identification rates—meaning students with less severe disabilities are classified as students with disabilities. But the report mostly ignores the financial consequences of its findings, aside from the obligatory budgets-are-tight statements. Special education has long enjoyed near sacrosanct status among education-policy researchers—with few focusing on its
Daniela Fairchild / April 19, 2012
This latest missive from Brookings’s Brown Center on Education Policy hits hard from paragraph one: It questions the priorities of education policymakers and offers sharp, actionable recommendations for how to realign them. According to authors Matt Chingos and Russ Whitehurst, “There is strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning—effects that rival in size those that are associated with differences in teacher effectiveness.” But few focus adequately on strengthening and evaluating instructional materials, instead dispensing far too much energy on the “context” of education (including governance arrangements, collective-bargaining agreements, and teacher-evaluation systems). This omission is even more onerous in the Common Core era: Without rigorous instructional materials linked to those new standards, they will not likely lead to noteworthy student improvement. To remedy this, Chingos and Whitehurst offer sound recommendations geared to various stakeholders: First, state education agencies should collect and report data on their districts’ instructional materials. To make this happen, national foundations should provide seed funding, the National Center for Education Statistics should offer guidance, and the Data Quality Campaign should act as watchdog. Second, the National Governors Association and the Council for Chief State School Officers—both highly invested in seeing the Common Core succeed—should collect data on best CCSS-aligned instructional materials. Kudos to the Brown Center for once again airing a contrarian—and spot-on—concern. Even Kate Walsh agrees.