While working for the New Jersey Department of Education, I consistently struggled with a basic problem. My organization wasn’t designed to do the things that our leadership team prioritized.

The converse was also true: The things that the organization was designed to do weren’t at the top of our list.

This second point was particularly troublesome, because those things—like sending teams out to do monitoring visits or pestering districts to send in reports—were required by federal laws.

We did our very best to deal with the hand we were dealt. We reorganized the department, made clear what our goals were, and repurposed funding and positions (to the extent permitted).

I think this is what responsible leaders of public-sector organizations do: They don’t bellyache about the problems and constrains of government agencies—they deal with them.

Throughout my career, I’ve bounced between the nonprofit and public sectors. I read, think, and write about issues for a while, and then I go into the system and spend whatever intellectual capital I’ve accumulated. Because of the “writing” part of this formula, I generally enter government service with a bit of, shall we say, baggage.

For example, there was (to be diplomatic) some concern that I had written extensively about the bad-ideaness of massive school-turnaround efforts and then, in my official capacity as state deputy education commissioner, had a hand in our state’s SIG grant.

I never saw a problem with this. My view was simple: When I work for the government, I deal...


We laughed. We cried. We wondered how in the world his proposals wouldn’t increase our deficit “by a single dime.” President Obama’s fifth State of the Union delivered an aggressive call to expand pre-Kindergarten opportunities to all four-year-olds (the overall cost of which remains decidedly murky), to create a Race to the Top offshoot focused on pressing high schools to better prepare students for high-tech jobs, and to hold colleges accountable for keeping tuitions affordable—a classic liberal wish list to be funded via voodoo economics and shell-game fiscal policies.

Maryland told nine of its counties—including smug Montgomery, whose teacher-evaluation proposal the state rejected earlier this month—that the Maryland School Assessment must comprise at least 20 percent of their teacher- and principal-evaluation models. “My team and I are fully prepared to make visits to your district to provide clarification and to assist you in reaching approved status,” Dave Volrath of the state education department offered helpfully to Montgomery County. Yeah. We’re sure it’s all just a big misunderstanding.

Since 2007, hundreds of California school districts and community colleges have used $7 billion in “capital-appreciation” bonds to finance school-construction projects. The catch? Capital-appreciation bonds can balloon to more than ten times the amount borrowed over as much as forty years. For scale, compare this to a typical thirty-year home mortgage, which will wind up costing two to three times the amount borrowed. We are speechless. We thought pensions were the most vivid example...

Most of Obama's education-policy wishlist can't be done successfully in Washington—but can be done in a well-led state.
Photo from Policymic

Maybe Barack Obama should follow the Pope’s example and resign—but then he should run for governor, presumably in Illinois (where he would definitely be an improvement on the last dozen or so)

Because, at least when it comes to education policy, just about everything he wants the federal government to do involves things that can’t be done successfully from Washington but that well-led states can and should do: raise academic standards, evaluate teachers, give kids choices, and more.

His latest passion in this realm is “quality early childhood education for all.” And as post–State of the Union specifics seep from the White House, we see more clearly what he has in mind: a multi-pronged endeavor, including home visits by nurses, programs for poor kids from birth to age three (“Early Head Start”), more Head Start (mostly for three-year-olds), lots more state-sponsored preschool for four-year-olds (subsidized up to twice the poverty line), and full-day Kindergarten for all.

All are plausible undertakings by states. Only one, however, could be satisfactorily carried out by Uncle Sam: a thorough and much-needed makeover of the five-decade-old Head Start program. But that isn’t likely to happen. The retrograde Head Start lobby is too strong, and the...


While working at the New Jersey Department of Education, I found our work on improving educator evaluations to be our most technically and politically challenging initiative. It required close work with schools, districts, labor organizations, the state board, and various internal offices and deep knowledge of state law and regulation and the growing national research base.

That’s why I was so impressed with (and proud of) the recent memo sent out by my former colleagues.

I’ve said many times before that educator evaluation policy got far ahead of the practice. This memo shows that the NJDOE has been assiduous in trying to bridge that gap.

Do your job thoughtfully and well, and take pride in that—but know that the aspects likeliest to be covered will be those that generate the most heat, not the most light.

The graphic on page 3 shows how they’ve used multiple sources to continuously inform their work. The timeline on the final page shows how they’ve choreographed the various activities over a long stretch of time to ensure that the work progresses—but prudently.

The heart of the memo is a summary of what they’ve learned from these various sources to date and how the department is responding to the lessons.

I may be biased, but this is—in my opinion—top-notch, grown-up policymaking by a state department of education: Take a broad policy directive, start a pilot, develop multiple external assessors, integrate this work with mid-stream RTTT-3 funds and a new tenure law, make course...

Wheelchair Basketball
Ambiguous government writing sparked a debate over disabled students' "right" to sports.
Photo by Canadian Paralympic Committee

Two weeks ago I kicked up some dust when I wrote that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had apparently created a right to wheelchair basketball via its new guidance about athletics and students with disabilities. Nor was I the only one to read it that way—the disability rights community saw it as a “landmark moment” too, akin to the passage of Title IX.

Not so fast, says the Department in a new Education Week article:

Seth M. Galanter, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, said that the guidance neither breaks new ground nor mandates new policy for the states that did not previously exist. During an interview, he pointed to a footnote in the guidance that says it is not adding requirements to applicable law.
Mr. Galanter also said that while the bulk of the guidance document offers examples of where the civil rights office would or would not find violations, the portion that talks about offering different or separate activities does not prescribe any penalties.
"The guidance does not say that there is a right to separate or parallel sports programs," Mr. Galanter said. Instead, the guidance urges—but does not require—that when...

Operating in the DarkAfter years of focus on lifting teacher quality, attention is—slowly—turning to the need to do the same for school leaders. This new report from the George W. Bush Institute (GWBI) adds to this freshening conversation: It offers recommendations for how states can take charge to improve the quality of school leadership. Drawing on survey responses from education departments in all fifty states and D.C., the report identifies four areas of focus: principal prep-program accreditation, licensure requirements, principal-effectiveness standards, and collection and dissemination of job-performance data. On all, states are lacking. For example, nineteen states couldn’t report how many principals are trained annually within their borders, and twenty-eight don’t collect job performance data. Further, only six require current principals to demonstrate effectiveness before renewing their licenses (typically done every five years or so). Two overarching policy recommendations arise. First, each state must clearly define what it means to be “effective” and regulate preparation and licensure programs accordingly. Second, states must develop data-collection systems that track principals from preparation to licensure to job placement, and use these data to close ineffective prep programs and revoke the licenses of incapable principals. Though the report is jargon-laden at times, its advice is sound.

SOURCE: Kerri Briggs, Gretchen Rhines Cheney, Jacquelyn Davis, and Kerry Moll, Operating in the Dark: What Outdated State Policies and Data...

The issue left behind
The more Republicans talk about education, the better they do with voters. But the party seems oblivious.
Photo by Photomatt28

As the Republican Party searches its soul and its ranks for policies, strategies, and leaders that can restore it to fighting strength at the national level, few expect education reform to loom large among the issues needing close attention. Yet it’s hard to get very far on such central challenges as economic growth and international competitiveness without paying close heed to the capacity of America’s workforce in the medium term​—​and to the prowess of our scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs over the long haul.

Keep this in mind, too, as any pollster will tell you: The more Republicans talk about education, the better they do with voters. 

A number of GOP governors, past and present, have figured this out, among them Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Rick Snyder. And plenty of education reform is underway at the state and, sometimes, local levels.

The national party, however, appears somewhere between oblivious and brain-dead on this topic. Observe, for example, a Congress that’s many years overdue in revamping and reauthorizing such core federal education programs as No Child Left Behind and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

No, it’s not just a GOP problem. Gridlock...

  • Kilgour School in Mount Lookout is creating an after-school app development class for their elementary school students, giving the students one more reason to ask their parents for a smartphone.
  • Governor Kasich unveiled his education reform plan, detailing new funding schemes to distribute state dollars and initiatives that incentivize innovation. Superintendents seem optimistic toward the new plan but eagerly await the specific details for their districts.
  • Analysts say that introducing income-based eligibility to the voucher program will allow 1.8 million elementary and secondary students to qualify for tax-funded tuition to private schools.
  • In an effort to improve academics ahead of the new Ohio standards, Cincinnati Public Schools will expand all of its high schools to teach 7th-12th graders. In this new model, students will be able to start taking pre-algebra as early as seventh grade.

Ohio’s charter law remains mediocre despite numerous reform efforts over the last decade. According to the latest “Measuring Up to the Model: A Ranking of the State Charter School Laws” produced by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) the Buckeye State’s charter school law ranks 27 out of 43 states and the District of Columbia.

NAPCS ranks state laws based on two primary factors: 1) the freedoms and flexibilities state laws provide charter operators; and 2) the quality of accountability provisions for both charter school operators and authorizers. There are 20 Essential Components of the NAPCS rankings and these range from freedoms such as “No Caps on Charters,” “Automatic Collective Bargaining Exemptions,” and “Equitable Operational Funding” to accountability measures such as “Authorizer and Overall Program Accountability” and “Clear Processes for Renewal, Nonrenewal and Revocation Decisions.”

Ohio has made some progress – and this is reflected in the NAPCS state rating of Ohio inching up from #28 last year to #27 this year. But, other states are making progress faster. Big charter states, those that have at least 4.5 percent of their students enrolled in public charter schools, that have made steady progress and improvements to their laws in recent years include number one ranked Minnesota (with 4.7 percent of students in charters), number four Colorado (with 9.8 percent of students in charters), number five Florida (with 6.8 percent of students in charters), number six Louisiana (with 6.4 percent of students in charters) and number seven California (with...