Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 12, Number 16
April 26, 2012
Opinion + Analysis
Overcoming the obstacles to digital learning
From potential to reality
The pineapple, the eggplant, and the missed moral
In case anyone forgot, the tests matter
Radical changes in Philadelphia
The City of Brotherly Love goes big
Meet Mickey Mouse and R2D2, ed reformers
Off the Clock: Moving Education from Time to Competency
Anytime, anyplace, anyhow, any pace
Funding a Better Education: Conclusions From the First Three Years of Student-Based Budgeting in Hartford
Into the weighted-student-funding looking glass
Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools
Housing policy is education policy
Education Reform for the Digital Era
Can we be smarter about taking high-quality online and blended schools to scale—and to educational success? Yes, says this volume, as it addresses such thorny policy issues as quality control, staffing, funding, and governance for the digital sector. Read on to learn more.
Digital learning is more than the latest addition to education reformers’ to-do lists, filed along with teacher evaluations, charter schools, tenure reform, academic standards, and the like. It’s fundamentally different: For digital learning to fulfill its enormous potential, a wholesale reshaping of the reform agenda itself is required, particularly in the realms of school finance and governance. But just as online education needs those reforms if it is to flourish, so does major education reform need digital learning, which can provide valuable solutions to some of the greatest challenges in this territory—beginning with the basic obsolescence of public education’s familiar delivery system.
Today, American education has the potential to be rebooted and accelerated by digital learning. Indeed, truly boosting student achievement—as well as individualizing instruction and creating high-quality options for children and families among, within, and beyond schools—will depend to a considerable extent on how deftly we exploit this potential, both in its pure form (full-time online instruction) and in various “blended” combinations of digital and flesh-and-blood instruction.
Serious obstacles block the road to realizing digital learning's potential.
Photo by Brad Folkens
Making the most of these remarkable opportunities, however, hinges on our willingness—and capacity—to alter a host of ingrained practices. Fordham’s new volume, Education Reform for the Digital Era, offers a
Kathleen Porter-Magee / April 20, 2012
Leonie Haimson—a vocal ed-reform critic—helped generate a media firestorm about testing recently when she posted about an absurd passage that was included on this year’s New York State eighth grade ELA test. The post itself generated more than 2,000 hits in its first few hours and led to a New York Daily News article entitled “Talking pineapple question on state exam stumps ... everyone!”
The citrus fruit that rocked education reform.
Photo by Richard North.
The passage on the exam needs to be read in full to be believed. It’s a perfect storm of bad writing, poor structure, and inexplicable questions. If you haven’t read it—and you should—it’s enough to know that the moral of the story—included in bold at the end—is this:
Moral of the story: Pineapples don't have sleeves.
Haimson and her fellow testing foes are right to call out this passage as ridiculous. And critics of accountability can and should play this role, helping surface problems and draw attention to the need for change.
But the real outrage among those of us who care deeply about accountability is why these problems aren’t being caught earlier. For too long, we have been focusing our attention on expanding the use of tests to more grades and more subject areas and
Chris Tessone / April 26, 2012
"This plan is aggressive," warned School District of Philadelphia Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon at a Tuesday press conference announcing a massive reform of the city’s K-12 education. Good. Changes are desperately needed: Philly's public schools face massive deficits, declining enrollment, and rank among the worst of large urban school districts. Unfortunately, aggressive plans often entail mindless slashing of schools and headcount so that "business as usual" can continue elsewhere. To their credit, Philadelphia’s policy leaders—embodied in a board jointly appointed by the governor and mayor—are mostly resisting that fatal temptation. While forty of the district’s 249 schools would be closed by next fall, the goal is to bolster parental choice, prizing the development of "high-performing seats" wherever they can be found over protecting the legacy school district. Encouragingly, the district also plans to restructure employee benefits, saving $156 million of the projected $218 million deficit for next fiscal year. A proposed 7 percent reduction in per-pupil payments to charters is worrying, though. Still and all, the School Reform Commission deserves credit for making smart structural changes to the way Philly will operate in the future.
“Phila. School District plan includes restructing and school closings," by Kristen A. Graham, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 24, 2012.
The Education Gadfly / April 26, 2012
A recent Hewlett Foundation study made the surprising discovery that computers are "capable of producing scores similar to human scores" when grading student essays. While no one's calling for R2D2 to teach freshman composition (even supporters acknowledge that computers can't evaluate high-level writing skills), Common Core English standards include an increased emphasis on persuasive writing that could drown teachers in essays that are time-consuming and costly to score. While critics are quick to dismiss the idea, educators should be eager to refine and advance technology that frees them to spend more time on other aspects of teaching.
President Obama met the 2012 National Teacher of the Year on Tuesday, and the White House highlighted all the State Teachers of the Year in an accompanying press release. These fine educators certainly deserve the spotlight—and the case of Massachusetts teacher champ Jason Breslow deserves particular attention. Only two weeks after learning of his award, Mr. Breslow, who taught math at a South Boston high school, lost his job because of his lack of seniority. As much as Mr. Breslow and his fellow honorees merit praise, the system they work in has earned much worse.
Three hundred U.S. school districts have turned to Disney over the last two years, not to book senior trips to Disney World, but for help running their schools. School districts have proven to
Layla Bonnot / April 26, 2012
States experimenting with online learning—and struggling with how this new delivery system will alter such familiar practices as seat-time requirements—would be wise to check out recent doings in the Granite State. This book offers a tutorial. Since 2008-09, New Hampshire high school students have been able to work with educators to create personalized learning plans—with course credit awarded for mastery, not time in class. Such credits can be earned year round through internships, online courses, overseas travel, or brick-and-mortar classes. Mentor educators set course-competency guidelines (based on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge levels), track progress, and conduct final assessments. Authors Fred Bramante (former New Hampshire Board of Education chair) and Rose Colby (former principal) offer a deep dive into the NH model—explaining the expected benefits to this policy change, including cost savings, increased curricular offerings, and a lower drop-out rate. (Remarkably, New Hampshire has seen an almost 20 percentage-point decrease in its dropout rate since 2008.) Still, there are a few gaps. Notably, the authors don’t duly justify the rigor of their quality-control metrics for ensuring true mastery—the lynchpin for ensuring that New Hampshire’s program hasn’t, and doesn’t, devolve into a weak-kneed credit-recovery program rather than a bona fide competency model. Policymakers and educators in the Granite State are still honing their system; let’s hope they place this keystone soon.
Fred Bramante and Rose Colby, "Off the Clock:
Funding a Better Education: Conclusions From the First Three Years of Student-Based Budgeting in Hartford
Lisa Gibes / April 26, 2012
Flashback to 2006: The struggling Hartford School District sheltered vast discrepancies in per-pupil spending from school to school due to its rigid funding structure. (Like most districts, Hartford funded schools based on inputs, like staff positions and materials.) In an effort to close such gaps (and improve accountability), in 2008 the district established a student-based budget (SBB) model—think weighted-student funding, which funds schools based on actual enrollments and pupils’ specific needs. This report from Public Impact evaluates the efficacy of this shift, based on school-budget data from 2004 to 2011 and principal interviews. Not only did SBB mean that schools received similar funding for similar students (the obvious goal), but principals also felt a greater sense of accountability and reported heightened transparency around school funding. (The redistributed dollars meant that 69 percent of schools received more funding under the new system, potentially coloring responses.) The results from Hartford’s SBB implementation have been mostly positive (in terms of redistribution of funds to needy students and upped accountability and transparency—Public Impact didn’t evaluate effects on student achievement). Still, drawbacks also exist: Hold harmless clauses, for example, keep schools with declining enrollment afloat; schools with fewer than 260 students remained eligible for an extra $265,000 annually. And about 30 percent of the budget consists of “special funding”—meaning that select schools (like magnets) get gobs more dollars. This report
Adam Emerson / April 26, 2012
Before the real-estate bubble burst, there was a growing literature on the link between government regulation of housing and home prices. Tougher zoning restrictions, it seemed, drove up the cost of housing. This Brookings Institution report builds off this notion: Restrictive zoning regulations—such as those that limit the construction of high-rise apartments or other multi-family units in certain neighborhoods—not surprisingly create cities that are segregated by income and race. And that, in turn, produces unequal access to quality schools. By loosening or even eliminating restrictive zoning, cities may see housing-cost gaps narrow by as much as 63 percentage points and see school-achievement gaps narrow as a result, Rothwell writes. (In other words, less zoning results in less segregated neighborhoods, and less segregated schools.) In the meantime, district-choice plans, charter schools, and school vouchers can help offset the effects of zoning, the author argues. Unfortunately, in these tough economic times, districts are too often restricting school choice—by drawing tighter attendance zones around specialty schools or by denying bus service to them. That’s a poor way to save money. And if Rothwell teaches us anything, it’s that quality choices are still largely available only to those who can afford them—especially in cities with restrictive zoning.
Jonathan Rothwell, Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, April 2012).