Tennessee, D.C. lead ed reform

Tennessee and District of Columbia schools are making the fastest reading and math gains in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) , writes Richard Whitmire in a USA Today column.

A few years ago, Tennessee students were acing state tests but failing the high bar set by NAEP, writes Whitmire. Washington D.C. “was regarded as one of the worst urban school districts in the country.”

Both adopted education reforms that remain very controversial.

In Tennessee, a third of the district school superintendents along with the teachers unions in Memphis and Nashville just signed no-confidence letters condemning State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

. . . The Washington reforms are famously controversial, designed by former chancellor Michelle Rhee (Huffman’s ex-wife), who was forced from office in part because of the political turmoil created by those school changes. Current Chancellor Kaya Henderson was able to preserve and improve those reforms partly because she is considerably less inflammatory than Rhee.

Tennessee and D.C. raised their standards, then switched to Common Core.

Both got serious about evaluating teachers.

In Washington, D.C., teachers routinely won rave reviews despite abysmal outcomes by their students — a contradiction routinely explained away by poverty (despite higher-poverty school districts with better outcomes). That changed dramatically with its groundbreaking 2009 IMPACT teacher evaluation. At the time, national union leaders dubbed it outrageous. Last month, a national study dubbed it effective. Overall, the better teachers stayed and tried harder, encouraged by the prospect of being rewarded. The “minimally effective” teachers tended to look for other lines of work.

Forty percent of D.C. students now attend charter schools, which tend to have higher test scores than district-run schools. That may be a factor in the rising scores.

Education Consumers Foundation lists Tennessee’s reforms.

Successes are fragile, Whitmire warns. There’s always push back.

The author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes On the Nation’s Worst School District, he is writing a book about high-performing charter schools, On the Rocketship.

Maryland tops the NAEP dishonor roll by excluding most special-education students and English Language Learners, reports Dropout Nation.

Study: Evaluation works in DC

The District of Columbia’s teacher evaluation system — with rewards for the best and firing for the worst — is working, according to a a new study.  “Teachers on the cusp of dismissal under D.C.’s IMPACT evaluation system improved their performance by statistically significant margins, as did those on the cusp of winning a large financial bonus,” reports Ed Week.

 D.C.’s IMPACT evaluation system relies on a complex mix of factors to score each teacher, including both multiple observations and measures of student achievement. Teachers deemed ineffective under the system can be dismissed, while those scoring at the “minimally effective” level, the second lowest, get one year to improve. Those teachers who earn the “highly effective” rating are eligible for bonuses of up to $25,000. Earning successive “highly effective” ratings also permits teachers to skip ahead several steps on the salary scale.

Since its rollout, IMPACT has led to the dismissal of several hundred teachers.

The much-reviled Michelle Rhee started IMPACT when she was chancellor, jump-starting the evaluation program with foundation grants.

Are D.C. students learning more? The study didn’t look at student achievement.

How to measure preschool quality

Advocates for preschool always say they want “high-quality” preschool. Preschool quality can be measured, but not the way states are trying to do it, writes Daniel Willingham. Most have adopted Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRISs) that measure inputs, such as class size and teachers’ education, rather than looking at what children are learning.

QRIS scores don’t predict student learning, concludes a new study published in Science.

It takes a trained observer in the classroom to evaluate quality, writes Willingham. That costs a lot more than counting inputs. The Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), which evaluates interactions between teacher and child, is a good — but not cheap — measure of quality, he writes. (It’s labeled “interactions” in this graph.)


Sara Mead has more on the problems with QRIS and the need to observe what’s actually going on in preschool classrooms.

Washington D.C. charter preschools and pre-K programs will be evaluated on reading and math scores, writes Sam Chaltain.

Just to clarify: we’re talking about three-, four-, and five-year-olds. Being Tested. In Reading and Math. With High Stakes attached for the schools that care for them.

Universal preschool is nearly a reality in D.C., where 88 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children are enrolled in preschool programs and at an expense of nearly $15,000 per child.

Math and reading will count for 60 to 80 percent of a school’s rating. If schools “opt-in” to adding a measure of social and emotional growth, it will count for 15 percent of the score for preschool and pre-K and 10 percent for kindergarten.

Charters already are using these assessments, responds Scott Pearson, who chairs the D.C. Public Charters School Board. “Many school leaders are reluctant to have significant portions of an evaluation of their school be based on an assessment of their students’ social and emotional development” because valid measures haven’t been well-established, he writes.

Early childhood programs routinely assess children without them realizing it’s a “test,” Chaltain writes. But these assessments have high stakes attached. Charters need a high ranking to raise money, acquire facilities and recruit families. They’ll be pressured to concentrate on raising reading and math scores.

D.C. plans ‘9th-grade academies’

District of Columbia plans “ninth-grade academies” to separate new ninth-graders from repeaters with bad attitudes, reports the Washington Post. First-time high school students will get extra support in small schools within the school while repeaters may go to after-school “twilight academies,” evening credit-recovery programs or alternative schools.

(Chancellor Kaya) Henderson  says she will be more aggressive about removing overage, credit-short students from neighborhood schools and assigning them to programs, such as the city’s two STAY schools for adult learners, that can provide a different and perhaps more successful path to graduation.

In short, triage.

D.C. elementary and middle schools promote students who lack grade-level skills in reading and math, reports the Post. Then they hit high school: 40 percent of first-time ninth graders have to repeat the grade because they’ve failed English, algebra or more.

The result is a history of freshman classes that bulge with challenged students. There were nearly 4,000 ninth-graders in the city’s traditional schools in fall 2012, compared with just 2,200 eighth-graders and fewer than 2,600 10th-graders.

Dunbar High used a grant to lengthen the school day by an hour and a half for freshmen.  Ninth-grade teachers work with a counselor and social workers to help struggling students. The promotion rate for first-time ninth-graders jumped from 47 percent in 2011 to 71 percent in 2012 and could hit 90 percent this year. Truancies and suspensions are down too.

Repeaters go to a four-hour “twilight” (afternoon) program. They can’t return to day classes till they make up their missing credits. Dunbar officials couldn’t give the Post information on how many caught up, dropped out or transferred.

Ninth grade is a make-or-break year for many students, reports Ed Week. Many districts are trying academies or other ways to focus attention and support on new high school students.

Creating ninth-grade academies proved to be a challenge in Florida’s Broward County, according to an MRDC study. Only 3 of 18 schools implemented the program strongly, MRDC concluded.

In a 2005 study, MDRC found “significant and substantial academic and attendance gains during students’ first year of high school,” reports Ed Week.

Public school spending falls for the first time

U.S. public-education spending per student fell in 2011 for the first time since 1977, reports the Census Bureau. Public schools spent $10,560 per student, a drop of 0.4 percent from the year before. Adjusted for inflation, spending per pupil dropped once in 1995, according to the Wall Street Journal. In real dollars, spending per pupil was down 4 percent in 2011 from the peak in 2009.

New York spent the most per pupil at $19,076, followed by Washington, D.C. at $18,475. Utah spent the least, $6,212 per student, followed by Idaho at $6,824. (Both low-spending states have lots of Mormons, which means large families and fewer social problems.)

Thirty states increased per pupil funding: New Hampshire is spending 6.8 percent more.  Twenty states and the District of Columbia spent less. Illinois cut spending by 7.4 percent.

In the future, more education spending will go to teacher pensions and health benefits, leaving less for instruction, predicts Kim Rueben, a senior fellow with the Tax Policy Center and an expert on the economics of education.

Charters get $4,000 less per student

Charter schools received one third less per-pupil funding — about $4,000 less per student — than district-run schools in Denver, Milwaukee, Newark, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles in 2007 to 2011, according to a University of Arkansas study commissioned by the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation. “In the large, urban school districts evaluated, traditional public schools receive substantially more local, state and federal funds than public charter schools,” said lead researcher Larry Maloney.

As of 2011, the charter funding gap ranged from $2,684 in Denver to nearly $13,000 in Washington D.C.

Denver—$11,139; $2,684 less than regular public schools
Los Angeles—$8,780; $4,666 less than regular public schools
Milwaukee—$10,298; $4,720 less than regular public schools
Newark—$15,973; $10,214 less than regular public schools
District of Columbia—$16,361; $12,784 less than regular public schools

The research will appear in the September issue of The Journal of School Choice.

A 2010 Ball State study of charter school funding in 24 states and the District of Columbia found that charter school students received 19.2 percent (or $2,247) less per-pupil funding than students in regular public schools.

Tiger Rhee

In Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, Michelle Rhee touts her skills at firing people — and buying them off — writes Naomi Schaefer Riley in a Wall Street Journal review of the book.


To get union approval for performance pay and a new teacher evaluation system, Rhee raised millions of dollars from foundations.

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty backed Rhee — and lost his bid for re-election. Rhee resigned from the chancellorship and founded StudentsFirst to lobby for school reform.

The daughter of Korean immigrants, Rhee “was urged by her Tiger Mom to go to law school,” writes Riley. Instead, she volunteered for Teach for America.  She almost quit after her first year at a tough Baltimore school, but her father told her to finish what she’d started. In her second year, she asked for advice from the best teachers and found new ways to “push her students harder and keep them interested.”

As chancellor in D.C., Rhee “became livid” when she learned a sign at a Washington school that read: “Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do,” Riley writes. As a Tiger Reformer, Rhee thinks effort always pays off.

When she was a child, Rhee attended school in Seoul, South Korea for several months, she writes in Radical. Every child in her class of 70 was ranked, publicly. “Rather than damaging the souls of the less accomplished, the rankings focused every family on moving their children up the ladder.”

D.C. debates growth of charter schools

The majority of public school students in Washington D.C. could be attending charter schools in a few years, reports the Washington Post.

Rocketship Education, a California nonprofit group that blends online and teacher-directed learning, wants to open eight D.C. charter schools that would enroll more than 5,000 students by 2019. Rocketship’s model has worked well for low-income and minority students in San Jose.

Rocketship’s charter application — which is the largest ever to come before District officials, and which might win approval this month — arrives on the heels of Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s decision to close 15 half-empty city schools, highlighting an intense debate about the future of public education in the nation’s capital.

. . . “Maybe we need an entire school system full of charters,” said Virginia Spatz, who co-hosts a community-radio talk show on D.C. education. “But we need to have that after public conversation, not by accident.”

Reading and math scores rose significantly in Washington, D.C. from 2005 to 2011, note Aaron Churchill and Mike Petrilli in a Flypaper post that asks: Do demographic shifts explain cities’ test-score changes? Median household income also is on the rise in D.C. (Your tax dollars at work!) 

School choice pays off in D.C.

Washington D.C’s federally funded school vouchers produced $2.62 in benefits for every dollar spent, concludes a study in Education Finance and Policy by Patrick Wolf and Michael Q. McShane.

More than 60 private schools in D.C. accept students with Opportunity Scholarships, which are awarded by lottery to low-income students. Students who won a scholarship were 12 percent more likely to graduate from high school compared to the control group of lottery losers, a U.S. Education Department study found. That increased graduation rate will generate large returns, Wolf and McShane write.

After the program’s five-year pilot run ended in 2009, Congress and President Obama cut funding and closed it to new students. President Obama agreed to reauthorize the scholarships as part of the 2011 budget compromise.

If Congress had “redirected money from the bloated and ineffectual DCPS for the Opportunity Scholarship Program, then the cost of the program would have been nothing, and the benefits substantial,” writes Matthew Ladner on Jay Greene’s Blog.

Rhee’s D.C. legacy

The Education of Michelle Rhee will run on PBS’ Frontline tonight.

Rhee’s group, Students First, gave low grades to states on education reform: No state got an A and 11 failed. The two highest-ranking states, Florida and Louisiana, received B-minus grades.