Education reform’s future

It’s not quite the lion lying down the lamb, but Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute and Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford ed professor who served on Obama’s transition team, have co-written a New York Times op-ed, How to Rescue Education Reform.  They disagree on some key issues, but agree that the federal government should stick to what it alone can do and avoid trying to micromanage schools.

The first federal role is transparency:  No Child Left Behind required states to measure and report achievement, so parents, voters and taxpayers could “hold schools and public officials accountable.” However, states were allowed to set their own, low standards.

Instead of the vague mandate of “adequate yearly progress,” federal financing should be conditioned on truth in advertising — on reliably describing achievement (or lack thereof) and spending. To track achievement, states should be required to link their assessments to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or to adopt a similar multistate assessment). To shed light on equity and cost-effectiveness, states should be required to report school- and district-level spending; the resources students receive should be disclosed, not only their achievement.

The second federal role is “enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring that dollars intended for low-income students and students with disabilities are spent accordingly.”

Third is supporting basic research in fields such as “brain science, language acquisition or the impact of computer-assisted tutoring.”

Competitive federal grants can support innovation, they conclude. However, the “Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition . . .  ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate.”

The feds should stop trying to improve schools by order from above, write Hess and Darling-Hammond. “The federal government can make states, localities and schools do things — but not necessarily do them well.”

Schizophrenic, responds RiShawn Biddle.

The odd couple call adequate yearly progress a “vague mandate,” but elsewhere  complain it’s too prescriptive, writes Andrew Rotherham.  The left and right are uniting to kill education reform, he adds in Time.


When reform touches teachers

When reform touches teachers features a civil discussion — no talk of crypto-fascists clubbing baby harp seals — between Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Frederick M. Hess, education policy director at the American Enterprise Institute. Fordham’s Michael Petrilli moderates.

Yesterday’s discussion was earth-shaking, writes Hess in Ed Week.

We agreed on the failure of principals to do their job when it comes to teacher evaluation, the need to overhaul today’s industrial era model of schooling, the limits of trying to drive evaluation primarily off of today’s crude value-added scores on state reading and math assessments, and the value of engaging teachers in decisions regarding instruction and content (though Randi thinks it’d be a good idea to do that via collective bargaining and I couldn’t disagree more).

Randi argued teachers feel like they’re under attack. As I argued in the New York Times this spring, it’s perfectly reasonable for teachers to feel angry that policymakers are looking to dial back their pensions and health care entitlements. But that doesn’t amount to disrespect or an “attack.”

GOP leaders who’ve “pushed to dial back benefits and collective bargaining” have used “respectful language,” Hess writes. Union advocates “have compared them to Nazis.” Gov. Scott Walker was equated with Hitler and Mubarak.

Gates’ money is everywhere

Bill Gates is putting his billions into education advocacy, writes the New York Times. That includes “financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, ” creating new advocacy groups and “bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations.”

“We’ve learned that school-level investments aren’t enough to drive systemic changes,” said Allan C. Golston, the president of the foundation’s United States program. “The importance of advocacy has gotten clearer and clearer.”

The foundation spent $373 million on education in 2009, the latest year for which its tax returns are available, and devoted $78 million to advocacy — quadruple the amount spent on advocacy in 2005. Over the next five or six years, Mr. Golston said, the foundation expects to pour $3.5 billion more into education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy.

“It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” Berkeley Education Prof. Bruce Fuller tells the Times.

Researchers are careful about criticizing big-spending foundations, says Rick Hess. “Everybody’s implicated.”

The Gates Foundation funds the Education Equality Project, Education Trust, Education Week and public radio and television stations that cover education policies, the Times notes. (And a whole lot more.)

Harvard, for instance, got $3.5 million to place “strategic data fellows” who could act as “entrepreneurial change agents” in school districts in Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere. The foundation has given to the two national teachers’ unions — as well to groups whose mission seems to be to criticize them.

The Gates Foundation is not Dr. Evil, responds Rick Hess, who says his “implicated” quote referred to all education foundations, not just Gates.  He’s written in the past that few researchers bite the hand that feeds them — or might feed them in the future.

“Academics, activists, and the policy community live in a world where philanthropists are royalty–where philanthropic support is often the ticket to tackling big projects, making a difference, and maintaining one’s livelihood. Even individuals and organizations who also receive financial support from government grants, tuition, endowment, or interest groups are eager to be on good terms with the philanthropic community.”

The Gates Foundation’s efforts to influence public policy through research and advocacy resembles “the Ford Foundation’s decades-long effort to change educational finance policy through the far less democratic approach of litigation or Ford’s current giant investment in promoting a very particular equity agenda,” Hess writes.

I’ve been writing Community College Spotlight for a year now. I’m paid by the Hechinger Institute for Education and the Media at Teachers’ College of Columbia, which uses grants from, among others, the Gates Foundation. Many of the initiatives to improve community college graduation rates, redesign remediation, offer dual-enrollment opportunities for high school students and improve college readiness are funded, in part or full, by the Gates Foundation. I’m dubious about dual enrollment for struggling students: If  they can’t handle high school classes, how they can handle college classes? Nobody’s told me to cheer for every Gates idea. On the whole, I think the foundation is investing intelligently in the search for solutions to the most critical problems in education.

BTW, a recent comment accused “billionaire education reformers” of trying to push all students to a bachelor’s degree, regardless of their academic preparation or motivation.  This is not true of Gates. The foundation is heavily invested in improving community college programs that lead to a vocational certificate or associate degree.

The Gates Foundation is very, very influential in education because it puts lots of money behind the programs and policies that its people think are going to improve education. They’re not infallible. But what’s the alternative? Give billions to do the same thing only with laptops for the kiddies? That’s not going to happen.

Enter your edu-combination code

I meant to post something much earlier today but have been wrapped up in final edits of my book manuscript (before it goes to copyediting), final preparations for a presentation tomorrow, and final gazes at the trees and rooftops out my window before I move back to Brooklyn on Saturday.

I am so wrapped up in these things that I’m not sure what’s going on in education at the present hour. I gather there have been premieres of a new film, American Teacher, by Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari. I gather Mark Zuckerberg wants kids under 13 to have Facebook access for education purposes. But I don’t know enough about either of these things to write about them.

Then an op-ed by Rick Hess caught my eye: “Common Core: Giving Happy Lie to the ‘Reform Consensus.'” Hess states that many “reformy types” assume a consensus that just isn’t there, and that the small-government conservatives are finally speaking up and making this clear.

For several years now, would-be reformers have gotten away with claiming that there’s a goopy, groupthink “reform consensus.” They depict the edu-debates as a simple-minded morality play between a “reform” phalanx and “adult interests.” This line has been sold most assiduously by Democrat for Ed Reform-types and NCLB enthusiasts who think conservatives are supposed to quietly, cheerfully sign on to the grand schemes crafted by their betters.

I’m not in a position to evaluate Hess’s larger argument. But the imagined “goopy, groupthink ‘reform consensus'” has bugged me, no matter where it comes from. Many people have combinations of views that don’t align with a particular platform. And hooray for that. Without such variation, there would be no reason for an education discussion at all. You would have a set of views, you’d fight those holding the opposite views, and that would be that.

One thing that keeps me interested in education policy is the perplexing nature of almost every issue. If it weren’t perplexing, it would be just something to get done. Instead, it’s something to think about, fight for, learn more about, question oneself about, and so on. Yes, one needs to get things done at the same time; one can’t just dwell in perplexity. But the doing of the things also casts them in new perspective, as do reading, thinking, and discussion.

One doesn’t necessarily feel perplexed about everything in education; one may be sure about many things. But a hundred years ago, or a hundred days ago, one might have taken a different stance, even an opposite one. These matters change in meaning over time.

Nor does the lack of “consensus” preclude alliances of various kinds. But they are stronger if they make room for differences among the members, as long as the differences don’t render the alliance meaningless. For instance, two people working together on a curriculum may have very different ideas about school governance, but as long as school governance doesn’t figure large in their work together, they can disagree cordially and keep the work going.

There may be education groups and organizations whose members agree on most points. That has its place too. Many fine schools have a very cohesive staff who agree on the school’s goals and curriculum. The danger occurs only when the agreement gets smug–when those outside the circle are written off automatically or put under pressure to conform.

In-fighting and squabbling are sad things. Imaginary consensus is just as sad, if not sadder. What, then, is left? Hearty agreement, hearty disagreement, without shame or scorn. That, and the recognition that even the most well-considered views are approximations and that anyone can be wrong.

Unbundling the schoolhouse

It’s time to “unbundle” the schoolhouse, writes Rick Hess in Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform, edited by Hess and Bruno Manno. Without necessarily “reforming” the whole school, it should be possible to provide high-quality services, such as algebra instruction, virtual tutoring or parent engagement, Hess and Manno argue.

The “whole-school” assumption that every school must find ways to serve every academic need of every individual student has overburdened educators and institutions. As a result, they have trouble doing anything especially well.

Specialized providers of tutoring, language instruction, art and music classes, etc. shouldn’t be limited to serving only affluent parents — or starting their own charter school — Hess and Manno writes.

Also in the book: Chris Whittle on the emergence of transnational school providers; Checker Finn and Eric Osberg on “educational savings accounts” which permit parents to customize services; Joe Williams on empowering parents to make smart choices; Doug Lynch and Michael Gottfried on informing parents about the quality of specialized education services; Jon Fullerton on data systems that support choice andBurck Smith on introducing cost sensitivity into K-12 schooling. Ted Kolderie and Curtis Johnson discuss the policy implications.

Hess blogs: It's not 'for the kids'

Now blogging on Education Week as Rick Hess Straight Up, the ed researcher calls for banishing the phrase, “It’s for the kids” (IFTK).

(Harvard’s Dick) Elmore bracingly terms “We’re in it for the kids” a “monument to self-deception.” He argues, “Public schools, and the institutions that surround them, surely rank among the most self-interested institutions in American society”–with school boards “training beds” for would-be politicians, superintendents sketching grandiose visions and then fleeing for cushier positions, and unions sacrificing student interests in the name of teacher job security.

IFTK can turn policy disagreements “into name-calling and questions of motive,” Hess writes. It’s hard to work out solutions when one side thinks it’s “for the kids” and the other side is not.

Also, he writes, motive doesn’t matter. “If someone is in it for the kids, for the adoring news coverage, or for a buck, all I really care about is whether they deliver.”

In his introductory post, Hess wins my heart by quoting P.G. Wodehouse’s characterization of Jeeves: “If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” Hess promises healthy cynicism.

. . . I find K-12 schooling to be one of the few places in life where we suffer a shortage of cynics and skeptics. The cost is a dearth of observers willing to deliver some bitter medicine to a sector gorged on saccharine sentiment. For better or worse, I’ve always found myself well-suited to be the guy with the castor oil.

I know the conventional wisdom is we can deliver great schools if we just care more, come together, and focus on “the children.” It undoubtedly says something about what a terrible person I am, but my instinct has always been–as soon as folks start telling me how much they love children–to pat my rear pocket to make sure my wallet is still there.

I know it’s not a popular view, but I’ve long thought our greatest problem is not a failure to care enough; it’s the reverse. It’s our inclination to allow good intentions (or proclamations of good intentions–I’m looking at you, NEA) to excuse lazy thinking, willful naiveté, and a refusal to make tough choices. We allow the mantra of “best practices,” vapid assertions of our love for kids, and the search for consensus to stand in for honest debate or critical analysis.

Welcome to the blogosphere!

Slow down 'race to the top'

Learn from No Child Left Behind’s mistakes, Frederick Hess advises the Obama administration. You can’t force states to “race to the top,” he writes on Education Gadfly.

It appears increasingly likely that President Obama and Secretary Duncan are at risk of doing to charter schooling, merit pay, and school “turnarounds” what the Bush administration did to educational accountability. That’s not meant as a compliment.

The Bush team took the sensible and broadly-supported notion of holding schools accountable for their returns and then pursued a vision that is so prescriptive, so overwrought, and so divorced from a coherent rendering of what the feds can actually do that they managed to largely unravel a solid bipartisan commitment in support of the underlying idea.  As a result, most of the country wants to see NCLB overhauled or dumped outright.

Hess predicts states will make promises to get RTT money and then “go through the motions of reforming.”

First, good ideas will be executed poorly, undermining support and engendering skepticism. Second, such an approach will fuel backlash.

It will take longer than four or even eight years to develop “reform-minded political leaders and educators at the state and local levels, and to foster the efforts of entrepreneurs who are solving problems related to teacher quality, assessment, and charter schooling.”

Race to the Top will have only a few winners, predicts Patrick Riccards of Eduflack.

Those in the know seem certain that only a select group of states are going to be bestowed the title of Race to the Top states.  The betting odds are 10 to 15 states will earn the RttT seal.
It’s not clear whether the winners will be states with the greatest need or “low-hanging fruit states where a couple of billion dollars in education funding can make the difference,” he writes. Everyone’s talking innovation now, but the RTT losers are likely to lose their motivation once the dollars are allocated.

Community colleges step into spotlight

President Obama wants to spend $12 billion on community colleges to produce 5 million new graduates by 2020. That would fund construction, online courses and $9 billion for “challenge grants” to encourage innovation.

Smart move, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. America can’t regain its “human capital advantage” without low-cost, accessible, second-chance institutions. But two-year colleges have been ignored because “most people in government, think tanks and the news media didn’t go to community college, and they don’t send their children to them.”

Obama’s initiative will help community colleges get more students to a vocational certificate or two-year degree, Brooks believes.

Most schools have poor accountability systems and inadequately track student outcomes. They have little information about what works. They have trouble engaging students on campus. Many remedial classes (60 percent of students need them) are a joke, often because expectations are too low.

The Obama initiative is designed to go right at these deeper problems. It sets up a significant innovation fund, which, if administered properly, could set in motion a spiral of change. It has specific provisions for remedial education, outcome tracking and online education. It links public sector training with specific private sector employers.

No, the $12 billion will subsidize the status quo, writes Rick Hess on The American. Community colleges “may not provide the optimal platform for 21st-century job training.”

After all, community colleges maintain networks of campuses opened when the Internet was a science fiction conceit, when distance learning entailed mail correspondence, and when private providers like the University of Phoenix were a curiosity. These are teaching institutions that prefer to pay a premium to hire Ph.D.’s — even though the Ph.D. is a research degree that doesn’t have much to do with community college instruction.

Community colleges offer hope to a wildly diverse group of students, writes Donald Douglas, who teaches political science at Long Beach Community College.

Sadly, many students come to my classes unable to read. My second year teaching I had a young woman . . . who could not write a single paragraph on a page. . . . I sat her down in all seriousness and indicated that she was nowhere near college reading and writing ability. I made sure she was in touch with the appropriate staff on campus, so she’d have the remedial resources to help her succeed.

“It’s really an honor to work with such a population,” Douglas writes.

Community colleges, for all their faults, are much more flexible than four-year colleges. They’re more attuned to the local job market and more responsive to the needs of older students. We’ll get more gain for the buck at community colleges than at four-year institutions.

The teachers we want

In Getting the teachers we want in Education Next, Rick Hess laments the U.S. tendency to hire ever more teachers, dipping deeper into the talent pool, rather than paying more to the best candidates.

If policymakers had maintained the same overall teacher-to-student ratio since the 1970s, we would need 1 million fewer teachers, training could be focused on a smaller and more able population, and average teacher pay would be close to $75,000 per year.

It’s time to rethink teaching, Hess writes. We can’t hire 200,000 smart 22-year-olds every year and expect them to teach for 30 or 40 years.

There are smarter, better ways to approach the challenge at hand: expand the hiring pool beyond recent college graduates; staff schools in ways that squeeze more value out of talented teachers; and use technology to make it easier for teachers to be highly effective.

Schools fail to take advantage of teachers’ talents, he writes. The fourth-grade teacher who’s great at teaching reading should spend her time teaching reading; a math specialist should focus on math.  An aide might handle administrative tasks. Only 68 percent of classroom time is spent on instruction, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The challenge, in short, is to find ways to “squeeze more juice from the orange” by using support staff, instructional specialization, and technology to ensure that effective educators are devoting more of their time to educating students.

Specialization has worked in other professions, Hess argues. Surgeons don’t spend time negotiating with insurance companies; “not even junior attorneys are expected to file their own paperwork, compile their billing reports, or type letters to clients.”

Technology can reduce teachers’ administrative load and bring tutors and teachers to students in places where it’s hard to attract talent.

All this will require a new way of paying teachers, Hess writes.

Don’t expect to hire superstar teachers, writes Checker Finn on Education Gadfly.

. . . every time we find ourselves slipping into a “best and brightest” reverie, we should pinch ourselves. It’s folly to suppose that any occupation numbering more than four million people–and consuming one tenth of the educated workforce–is going to be staffed predominantly by superstars. Nor is it going to command superstar pay.

With “mere mortals” dominating the teaching force, “that calls for greater attention to structured curricula (including the scripted kind), to technology, to proven school designs, and to organizing the K-12 delivery system in ways that get the greatest possible bang from its relative handful of superstars.”

Recruitment incentives attract smart people to tough schools, according to a new paper on California’s $20,000 Governor’s Teaching Fellowship. The goal was to “get academically talented grads to teach in the state’s neediest schools and keep them there for four years,”  reports NCTQ’s bulletin. Quitters had to repay the state $5,000 for each unfulfilled year.

More time on task — or just more time?

Extend the school day to improve learning, argues Christopher Gabrieli in U.S. News. He points to Massachusetts, which pays 15 percent more to 26 schools for 30 percent more time.

At Edwards Middle School in Boston, where about 90 percent of students are poor and most school days are 7:20 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., achievement has soared. The eighth-grade gap with the state average has been narrowed by more than half in English and almost 80 percent in math in two years of expanded learning time. The school boasts an outstanding music and arts programs, the only middle school football team in Boston, and an apprenticeship program for every sixth grader.

More than 75 percent of parents of students in the first 10 schools to adopt expanded learning time in Massachusetts indicated the longer day had a positive effect. Teachers report large gains in the ability to reach every student and cover all of the material in depth.

First, learn to use time well, counters Rick Hess.  High-performing schools, such as KIPP,  don’t just lengthen the school day.  They provide “talented and impassioned faculty, firm discipline, a powerful school cultur” and teach “students who have chosen to be there.”

Unfortunately, the “more time” crowd focuses only on the most expensive part of that recipe, apparently hoping the other ingredients will sort themselves out if kids sit in classes longer. In fact, research is more mixed than advocates usually acknowledge.

A 2003 Review of Educational Research analysis tallied dozens of studies and found no systematic evidence that additional time raised student achievement. Some studies, including the 1994 National Education Commission on Time and Learning report, have found increased instructional time modestly linked with higher achievement—but that argues for making good use of time before seeking more.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, teachers spend two-thirds of classtime on instruction, he writes. “The rest is consumed by everything from paperwork to assemblies.”