Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 12, Number 17
May 3, 2012
Opinion + Analysis
When Washington focuses on schools
A look at Uncle Sam's role in American education
Is there anything “common” left in Common Core?
Where the wonks and the educators disagree
Taking care of Florida’s high flyers
Fast-tracking the future in the Sunshine State
Billboards don’t make good policy
Smarter Budgets, Smarter Schools: How to Survive and Thrive in Tight Times
As close to a win-win as budget cuts get
Investing in America’s Future: A Blueprint for Transforming Career and Technical Education
Putting “career” back in “college and career”
A Progress Report on Common Core’s Implementation
And miles to go before 2014
The State of Preschool 2011
The what and who, but not the how (much)
The Accountability Plateau
yes Mark Schneider / December 15, 2011
After more than ten years under NCLB, that law’s legacy continues to be fiercely contested. This analysis of NAEP scores—focusing on Texas and on the entire nation—by former NCES commissioner Mark Schneider finds that solid gains in math achievement coincided with the advent of "consequential accountability," first in the trailblazing Lone Star State and a few other pioneer states, then across the land with the implementation of NCLB. But Schneider warns that the recent plateau in Texas math scores may foreshadow a coming stagnation in the country’s performance. Has the testing-and-accountability movement as we know it run out of steam? How else might we rekindle our nation’s education progress?
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 3, 2012
With trivial exceptions, Washington does not run schools, employ teachers, buy textbooks, write curriculum, hand out diplomas, or decide who gets promoted to 5th grade. Historically, it has contributed less than 10 percent of national K-12 spending. So its influence on what happens in U.S. schools is indirect and limited. Yet that influence can be profound, albeit not always in a helpful way.
Uncle Sam is dreadful at micromanaging what actually happens in schools and classrooms. What he's best at is setting agendas and driving priorities. Through a combination of jawboning, incentivizing, regulating, mandating, forbidding, spotlighting, and subsidizing, he can significantly influence the overall direction of the K-12 system and catalyze profound changes in it (though the system is so loosely coupled that these changes occur gradually and incompletely).
Washington's influence on U.S. schools is indirect and limited—but it can also be profound, albeit not always in a helpful way.
Photo by Joe Portnoy.
It's just as well that such big directional shifts don't happen very often, because the change, however gradual, can be wrenching. And it isn't apt to happen much more often in the future, either, because the "federal government" is no single entity. It is, at minimum, three branches, two political parties, 535 members of Congress, innumerable judges, the White
Kathleen Porter-Magee / April 30, 2012
USA Today ran a story Saturday entitled, “Common Core Standards Driving a Wedge in Education Circles.” The article comes after a week of exceptionally bad press for standards- and accountability-driven reform, capped off by the tale of a talking pineapple and his apparently cannibalistic friends.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, it was just two short years ago that a remarkably broad and bipartisan coalition that united union leaders and market reformers helped secure passage of the new standards.
What a difference a couple years makes.
What’s interesting, though, is that, with some limited exceptions, the debate over the Common Core standards has very little to do with the standards themselves. In fact, on all sides of the ed reform aisle, people seem to agree that these particular standards are rigorous, clear, and better than the vast majority of the state standards that were in place previously.
Instead, the debate over the Common Core is now caught up in a larger fight about the merits of education reform writ large. In this increasingly toxic environment, Common Core has become one more conspiracy to uncover, one more grand scheme for the fringe on the right and left to fight against.
Every day brings a new line of attack, each less comprehensible than the last. Some believe the standards are part of a giant corporate plot, the main goal of which is to pad the pockets of testing companies. Others believe they’re
Adam Emerson / May 3, 2012
This week, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill that guarantees high-achieving students a number of accelerated learning opportunities—such as skipping a grade—while making sure parents and kids know how they can take advantage of such possibilities. The measure was championed by State Representative John Legg, who feared that talented students were going through school unchallenged while principals focused on bringing low achievers to proficiency. While other initiatives, such as Advanced Placement programs and dual-enrollment efforts, provide valuable options to top students, studies have shown acceleration to be particularly effective. Yet many educators resist such policies because of (mostly unfounded) fears of negative social consequences for students. Without being overly prescriptive, the new Florida law requires school districts to, at minimum, offer whole-grade and mid-year promotion for eligible students as well as early graduation options. We’re always queasy when states create mandates around schools’ instructional policies, but this might be a case in which a little nudge from above will prod districts to do right by their high-achieving students.
“Fast-Track Academic Path Approved in Florida,” Sean Cavanagh, Education Week Charters & Choice blog, April 30, 2012.
The Education Gadfly / May 3, 2012
Designer Kenneth Cole dipped his toe into the education reform fray recently with a New York City billboard that framed “teachers’ rights vs. students’ rights” as an issue in his foundation’s “Where Do You Stand?” campaign. The offending sign was quickly scrapped amidst the ensuing Internet furor, but its very existence should give reformers pause: Education reform is an increasingly mainstream cause, but one that will bring plenty of headaches if billboard rhetoric replaces serious discourse.
As he is obliged to do, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended the Obama Administration’s education track record this week, describing “transformational change” that is “beginning to fundamentally improve the lives of students.” While not everyone shares Arne’s rosy assessment, it’s worth reviewing in case Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney decides to run as the “education candidate” in 2012.
Attorney (and dogged special-ed reformer) Miriam Kurtzig Freedman provided four sound ideas for updating this entire realm in a recent essay for TheAtlantic.com, wherein she outlines outlining a less bureaucratic, less litigious, and more commonsensical approach. Here’s hoping lawmakers give Freedman a read.
Chris Tessone / May 3, 2012
For school administrators and board members lost in the forest of books, reports, and briefs written on “doing more with less,” this outstanding volume provides a compass, map, and sturdy walking stick. Finance guru (and former superintendent of Arlington [MA] Public Schools) Nathan Levenson offers rational, honest, and tangible ways for cash-strapped district leaders to shed budget heft without compromising student learning. Guided by four principles—embrace “crazy” ideas, analyze details to make informed decisions, spend on what works, and align interests—Levenson explains how to manage even the most sacrosanct of education-budget items (all without the need for legislative changes or union approval). For example, district leaders should base funding on academic return on investment (A-ROI) determinations—cutting ineffective programs and beefing up those that see results. Take early investment in reading: In an average-sized elementary school (about 400 students), early reading intervention costs about $2,500 per child (and takes about three years to get struggling students up to grade level). Compare this with special-education referral and placement—which costs an additional $5,000 per year (for mild to moderately disabled students) and likely will last throughout the student’s K-12 career. This need to look beyond singular budget line-items manifests in staffing costs as well. Superintendents must think about fully loaded costs (salary plus benefits) when planning for personnel shifts—and must be willing to think creatively about how to fill certain
Tyson Eberhardt / May 3, 2012
The bullish economy that greeted high school and college graduates in 2006, when the feds last revamped career and technical education (CTE) programs, looks like ancient history six years later. Gone are many easy entrance points into steady careers, especially for “classically” trained liberal-arts majors. Yet despite high unemployment rates, firms complain of too few qualified applicants for their technical and blue-collar positions—making smart implementation of strong CTE policies all the more important. The Obama Administration’s recently released blueprint for overhauling the Perkins Act (which will dole out $1.14 billion in FY 2012) offers a thoughtful way forward. It looks to bridge the divide between employers’ needs and potential workers’ skills through four core principles: alignment (between CTE programs and labor market needs), collaboration (among secondary, postsecondary, and industry partners), accountability (based on common definitions and clear metrics), and innovation (supported by systemic reform). Accountability will prove the trickiest: CTE must shed the stigma that it’s a watered-down track for disruptive, lazy, or low-performing kids, meaning programs bearing this label must be held accountable for actually producing graduates who are well prepared for available jobs. Still, the blueprint offers an interesting solution: Create intra-state competitions to distribute funds, allowing these jurisdictions more autonomy to be responsive to regional market needs. This focus on working with employers to ensure excellent CTE education opportunities for all marks a promising
Layla Bonnot / May 3, 2012
Education Week’s latest report provides readers with an overview of the concerns and challenges—and a few of the early successes—surrounding implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). This compilation of six articles offers anecdotal information on a number of “early adopter” districts—including specifics on how the Common Core may affect classroom instruction and content delivery. According to the report, most early adopters are phasing in the CCSS, initially for Kindergarteners and first graders only; a number of them are collaborating on curriculum development and training materials—all available via open-source online portals. Still more are incorporating the special-education teaching tactics of “universal design for learning” (UDL) and “response to intervention” (RTI)—which promote flexible classroom materials and help individualize instruction—into general-education learning. Some promising initiatives are afoot—but Ed Week’s anecdotes (as well as its inattention to how states are preparing for Common Core assessments and linked accountability systems) do little to assuage fears that CCSS implementation is moving too slowly.
Education Week, Math, Literacy, & Common Standards (Bethesda, MD: Editorial Projects in Education, April 2012).
John Horton / May 3, 2012
Pre-Kindergarten funding is in a precarious position. Over the last two years, more than $90 million has been trimmed from pre-K programs. And, as ARRA wells run dry, more cuts to this $5.5 billion enterprise are on the way. This while enrollment continues to creep up. That’s the news from this tenth yearbook by the National Institute for Early Education Research which, despite its name, must be counted as an advocacy outfit. The briefing is chockablock with statistics on enrollment, length of school day, class-size requirements, and more. But it tells us little about quality or efficiency, such as just how much bang are we getting for our preschool buck? (While the report does comment on pre-K quality, the metrics it uses are wholly input based; states that spend more on pre-K programming rank higher in quality.) As resources become ever scarcer throughout our education system, a rethink of how we fund preschool—and how we measure its quality and gauge its efficacy—is long past due.
W. Steven Barnett, Megan E. Carolan, Jen Fitzgerald, and James H. Squires, The State of Preschool 2011 (Newark, NJ: National Institute of Early Education Research, April 2012).