July 24, 2014

10 Questions To Ask Anyone Proposing to Block Grant Head Start

Proposals to block grant Head Start are much like Lamar Alexander’s long-running “Pell Grants for Kids” proposal—a perennial conservative education policy idea that can be used year after year because it never goes anywhere politically. The idea of giving states a greater role in Head Start is not without merit—after all, states are responsible for K-12 education and have significantly ramped up their role in early childhood education over the past 20 years. But block granting is only one—highly simplistic—approach to doing this—and one that’s nowhere near as simple as it sounds. Here are a few key questions that any policymaker who supports block granting Head Start should carefully think through—and that journalists should ask any legislator offering a proposal to shift Head Start to the states.

  1. Why? This may sound like a flippant question, but it’s not. There are a variety of reasons one might want to give states a greater role in running Head Start. For example, one possible reason to increase the state role in Head Start might be to enhance collaboration and coordination between state-administered childcare and preschool programs and Head Start, or between Head Start and the K-12 education system, which is the responsibility of states. Another reason might be to allow states to combine funds from Head Start, childcare, state preschool, and other early childhood funding streams to create a more integrated system, improve quality, or serve more children. Another reason might be a belief that 1,400 Head Start grantees are too many for the federal government to oversee, and that shifting responsibility to the states would lead to better oversight of Head Start. Yet each of these potential reasons for shifting more responsibility for Head Start to the states has its own, distinct policy implications—some of which are in conflict. And it would be possible to design a Head Start block grant policy that would address none of these issues. So, if someone wants to block grant Head Start, they need to be able to first explain what they hope to accomplish by doing so.
  2. How would you ensure that states use Head Start funds to improve early learning rather than supplant existing funds?  Perhaps the greatest objection to block granting Head Start is the concern that states, given control of Head Start funds, would use them to reduce their own investments in early learning rather than better serving kids. Given many states’ track records of under-investing in early childhood education, and of cutting early childhood funds dramatically whenever fiscal times get tough—as happened in many states during the most recent recession—this concern seems well-founded. There are ways to design federal policies to reduce the risk that states would use Head Start funds to reduce, rather than supplement, their own resources, but designing effective policies here is challenging. Any one proposing to block grant Head Start needs to outline a clear policy to prevent states from using federal Head Start funds to reduce their own.
  3. What kind of flexibility would states have to set their own performance standards?  Head Start is a famously bureaucratic program: the Head Start Performance Standards include some 2,400 distinct requirements grantees must meet. Reducing these burdensome requirements should be a policy goal. But that doesn’t mean that states should be left entirely to their own devices to set Head Start standards—many states have set standard for preschool teacher credentials and other key quality factors that are lower than those in Head Start, and research suggests that the average quality in state-funded pre-k is somewhat lower than the typical Head Start classroom. Policymakers who propose transitioning Head Start to states need to be clear about what elements of the program standards states will need to maintain, and where they will have flexibility. In addition, states should be prevented from imposing their own sets of burdensome additional requirements on Head Start grantees.
  4. What about comprehensive services? In addition to quality standards for early learning, the performance standards also include requirements for Head Start grantees to offer services—such as health, nutrition, and family supports—that address the comprehensive needs of poor families. Typical state pre-k programs do not provide all these services. Would state-administered Head Start programs still be required to ensure Head Start-eligible children received these comprehensive services? Would states simply be accountable to ensure that children received comprehensive services through existing state health, mental health, nutrition and other programs (but not necessarily through their preschool program)? Or would comprehensive services cease to be part of Head Start?
  5. How would the federal government hold states accountable? If the federal government were to transfer Head Start to the states, it would need a mechanism to monitor how effectively states were administering Head Start funds and to hold them accountable for how they served young children. Head Start has an existing monitoring system, but that system is designed for grantees, not entire states. Two factors would make federal monitoring of state use of Head Start funds particularly challenging: First, one of the major reasons to provide states greater control of Head Start funds would be to enable them to combine these funds with other state funding streams to serve more kids, lengthen the day, or improve quality. But states were to combine funds in this way, it would create a question about  who the feds should hold states accountable for: just children served with Head Start funds? Just Head Start eligible children? All children served with state or federal early childhood funds? The overall quality of early learning in the state? Second, measuring outcomes in early childhood education is more challenging in K-12 education, which would make accountability more challenging, and potentially require the use of other, harder to assess, measures such as classroom instructional or environmental quality.
  6. How would the transition work? Block granting Head Start would create an enormous logistical challenge. Head Start isn’t simply a program or a funding stream: it’s a network and system of providers and centers. Block granting Head Start would require terminating the contracts of existing grantees, transferring their funds and other real assets (such as buildings and buses, which in many cases were purchased with federal funds and may be federal property) to the state, reallocating those funds and assets from the state to providers, and maintaining services for eligible children over the course of this transition. Currently, this process happens in microcosm whenever a current Head Start grantee is terminated or loses its grant to another organization in designation renewal—and it’s hugely complicated and painful for the providers, educators, and families involved. Now multiply that times 1,400. Explain how you’d do it.
  7. Who would be the providers in state-administered programs? The really crazy thing about the transition process outlined above is that, in many cases, existing Head Start grantees would continue to be the providers serving children in a state administered program. Many current state pre-k programs rely on existing Head Start grantees as pre-k providers, and this would continue to be the case if states gained control of Head Start funds. Even if states wanted to engage new providers, the supply of high-quality early childhood providers is limited, and other providers might not exist in many places. Ultimately, the quality of early learning services children receive is far more depend on the quality of the provider than whether it’s under state or federal oversight, so the onus is on block grant proponents to explain what change would occur at the provider level as a result of their proposals—and, if it’s not much, why such massive disruption is necessary at all?
  8. How will we learn from inter-state variations? One of the major arguments for decentralizing social services to the states is the opportunity for the states to serve as “laboratories of innovation,” who, by taking a variety of approaches, enable the field as a whole to learn what works, what doesn’t and to replicate different practices. If Washington were to delegate control of Head Start to states, and give them greater flexibility in how they run the program, how would federal policymakers ensure that we capture the lessons of states’ varied experience in order to identify effective and ineffective approaches, replicate what works, stop doing what doesn’t, and improve overall knowledge and quality?
  9. Which states do you expect will do the best job? Proponents of block granting Head Start should be able to offer at least one example of a state that they believe would use greater control of Head Start funds well, and to explain what that state would do/change if it had control of Head Start funds, and how those changes would result in better early learning outcomes for more kids. If they can’t offer an example, why should anyone believe this is a good idea?
  10. What do you think is the appropriate federal role in early childhood education generally? Currently, the federal government provides about 10% of funding for K-12 education, but a much larger percentage of public funding for early childhood (as well as postsecondary) education, due to federal funding for Head Start, as well as the fact that the federal government provides the majority of funding for state childcare subsidies. Ultimately, any case for block granting Head Start should be part of a larger, coherent narrative about the appropriate federal, state, local, nonprofit sector, and family roles in early learning, and how/why those roles should be different from or similar to the roles in K-12 and postsecondary education.

As my recent paper on Head Start argues, there are good reasons to think about increasing the state role in Head Start, but block granting Head Start is not the only—and probably not the best—way to do that. Unfortunately, the specter of poorly thought through calls to block grant Head Start has made it difficult to have any kind of thoughtful conversation  about how federal policies might more productively and effectively engage states in Head Start.

–Sara Mead

Americans Stink at Math (But We’re Much Better Now)

Elizabeth Green’s story for Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” is a must-read. Green illustrates our national struggles with math in numerous and at-times painful ways–in particular, read about how customers preferred McDonald’s 1/4-pound hamburger over A&W’s 1/3-pound patty because they thought it had more meat. Her piece is entertaining and seamlessly brings in education topics like teacher preparation, the structure of the school day, poorly aligned textbooks, Common Core, etc. It’s easy to forget she’s writing about math.

But for all the time Green spends documenting the ways Americans stink at math, she never mentions that we’ve gotten much better. That’s unfortunate, because the math results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are one of the brightest spots in education. Between 1973 and 2012, the long-term trend scores of 9-year-olds rose 25 points. Due to Simpson’s Paradox, where the size of the group can mask aggregated data, the scores of white students, black students, and Hispanic students all gained more than the national average. Scores improved across all performance levels and achievement gaps narrowed. The same trends hold true for 13-year-olds. Across both ages and all groups of students, math achievement in 2012 was higher than it had ever been.

It’s worth noting that the scores for 17-year-olds have been flat overall, although the scores of white, black, and Hispanic students have all risen and achievement gaps have narrowed over time.  Still, the results of 9- and 13-year-olds would have been the most relevant for Green to include because her article mainly focuses on the basic math skills students learn in elementary grades.

No one knows for sure why math achievement has risen so rapidly, but it’s likely some combination of standards-based reforms, rising education expenditures, and falling class sizes. It may also be due to the curricular and instructional changes Green documents; I just wish she’d done a little more math.

–Chad Aldeman


July 23, 2014

Shortchanging Teachers

Shortchanged, a TNTP report released last week, takes a harsh look at current “lockstep” teacher pay systems, which reward teachers for time in the classroom and advanced degrees rather than actual performance. The report argues that these practices pushes out high performers and incentivize poor performers to stay in the classroom—with costly consequences: TNTP estimates that last year alone, districts spent $250 million on automatic pay increases for ineffective teachers.

TNTP proposes new teacher compensation systems that focus less on years of experience and master’s degrees and instead focus on actual teacher performance. Research on teacher quality peaks offers other reasons to support this argument.

Research shows that teachers develop the most in their first few years of teaching. After three to five years, though, most teachers peak. So to a certain extent, schools can predict early on how effective a teacher is going to be for the rest of his or her career. Yet under current policies schools must continue paying ineffective teachers the same automatic raises as highly effective teachers, year after year. This creates an incentive for poor performers to stay and for high performers to leave – which they do. TNTP’s own research shows that 40 percent of teachers with more than seven years’ experience are not as effective as the average brand new teacher.

Compensation structures in most other professions are designed to reward employees for logarithmic growth – they assume that employees will make large gains in the beginning of their career then taper off later on. Doctors and lawyers, for example, quickly ascend to peak earnings in the first ten years of their career, then plateau at that salary level for the next ten to 25 years. With teaching, it’s the opposite. Teachers’ growth is ignored when they’re actually improving, and they’re rewarded after they’ve plateaued. As TNTP points out, that creates a whole host of problems.

–Ashley Libetti Mitchel

Renewing Head Start’s Promise

Today, Bellwether and Results for America are releasing a new paper I wrote on Head Start. The paper looks at the results of the reforms made to Head Start in the 2007 reauthorization–specifically the designation renewal process that requires underperforming grantees to compete to retain their grants, and the use of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System as a quality measure for Head Start grantees. I find that, while there has been real progress, and there are also places where the 2007 reforms have come up short. This isn’t primarily an indictment of the 2007 reforms, however, but a reflection of more fundamental issues in Head Start–such as a lack of clear goals and over-focus on compliance rather than performance. The paper offers recommendations both to increase the effectiveness of the 2007 reforms, and to address the more fundamental challenges facing Head Start. Check it out here.

–Sara Mead

July 22, 2014

Ain’t No Party Like a Common Core Party But a Common Core Party May Stop

K-12 education is planning a Common Party (Theme: College- and Career-Ready Standards.) The party’s been planned for years. States, districts, schools, teachers, and parents have spent countless hours and billions of dollars on the planning committee. The RSVP’s are mostly in (although Indiana, Louisiana, and others are getting cold feet). There’s even a punchbowl in the corner.

But what if the guest of honor, colleges and universities, don’t come? Colleges have said they’re interested—who doesn’t like parties or high standards in the abstract?—but they won’t make any promises. Without their admissions or remediation policies, the party won’t be the same.

As Lindsey Tepe writes in a fantastic report from New America, we’re at a real risk of exactly this scenario playing out. Although higher education leaders participated in the drafting of the Common Core State Standards and have expressed support for them generally, they have so far stopped short of adopting policies to ensure that a student deemed “proficient” at the K-12 level qualifies for college-level coursework. The awkward truth is that colleges determine what “college-ready” means. Read Tepe’s report for the implications.

–Chad Aldeman

Five Reasons Education Reformers Should Care About Head Start

On Wednesday, Bellwether and Results for America are going to publish a new paper I’ve written on how to renew Head Start’s promise for disadvantaged preschoolers. Head Start doesn’t get a lot of press or public attention, and it’s also largely overlooked by education reformers. This is a huge mistake. Here’s why:

1. It’s a big program that serves a lot of kids. Head Start serves more than 903,000 students–roughly 40 percent as many children as all children served in charter schools nationally.

2. It focuses on the most disadvantaged children. By law, Head Start focuses on children living below the poverty line (programs may serve some children with family incomes up to 130% of poverty). In enrolling children, Head Start programs must prioritize those with the greatest need factors. Thus, Head Start focuses on the very population of poor children about whom education reformers care most.

3. It’s a dysfunctional, entrenched system in need of reform. Education reformers have focused on tackling the dysfunction and entrenched interests of large urban school systems. Head Start faces many of the same challenges–extensive and burdensome regulatory requirements; a focus on compliance over performance; entrenched providers of mediocre quality (but also some really exemplary Head Start providers doing awesome things for kids!)–that education reformers have tackled in the K-12 space. Moreover, because Head Start already spends some $8 billion a year in federal education funds, this is one place in early childhood education where there’s potential to drive improved outcomes by improving the effectiveness with which existing funds are used.

4. It’s one place in education where federal policy changes can make a huge difference. Because Head Start is a direct federal to local program, governed by federal policies, its one of the areas in education where federal policy changes can make a big difference. In K-12 education, federal policies must trickle down by placing requirements on states, that in turn place requirements on districts, that in turn eventually impact schools and classrooms. Recent federal policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have simultaneously pushed the boundaries of federal authority in education and illustrated its severe limitations as a driver of real change at the school level. In Head Start, by contrast, the 2007 federal reauthorization led to significant changes–such as mandating use of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System as a measure of teaching quality–that were felt across all Head Start programs nationally. Federal executive branch officials have the regulatory authority to rewrite the Head Start Performance Standards without requiring Congressional action.

5. Effective early learning can change the trajectory of kids’ lives. This is the biggest reason that education reformers should care about Head Start. Research shows that achievement gaps begin well before children enter the schoolhouse door. It also shows that high-quality pre-k programs can significantly narrow those gaps, enabling disadvantaged children to start school on an even footing with their peers. On average, Head Start programs aren’t producing those kinds of results right now, but the examples of high-performing providers, both in Head Start and other publicly funded early childhood programs, suggest it’s possible.

By ignoring Head Start, education reformers are missing a huge opportunity to change the trajectory of millions of children’s lives and to fundamentally change the game for K-12 schools seeking to put disadvantaged kids on track for success in college and careers.

–Sara Mead

July 21, 2014

The “Test and Punish” Trap

An old theme of education debates has grown increasingly incessant in recent months, most recently in a resolution at the annual AFT convention: Rather than a “test-and-punish” approach to education reform, we need “support and improve” approach that shifts focus from testing, labeling, and punishing  schools and educators to providing them with support to improve.

This argument seems designed to infuriate supporters of standards-based reform. The primary cause of this fury is inaccuracy: As the New America Foundation’s Anne Hyslop eloquently noted in a recent column,

the “punish” part of “test-and-punish” doesn’t exist. At least not right now. Thanks to the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers, there don’t have to be stakes, for anyone, on upcoming state tests. None.”

Yet for all of the explanations that NCLB hasn’t resulted in large scale “punishment” of educators and schools; that NCLB includes no financial penalties for low-performing schools but in fact gives them additional money; that the number of teachers who’ve lost their jobs as a result of NCLB ranges from precious few to nil—I can’t help but thinking of this paragraph from Nixonland:

“Nixon himself had voted exactly as [liberal Congressman] Marcantonio had in the triple digits himself. Douglas tried to point this out. It didn’t matter. The explanations were complicated. The smear was simple.….This was not the time for nuance.” (emphasis and link added)

Supporters of standards-based reform can argue until they’re blue in the face that the “punish” aspect of “test-and-punish” is largely a myth. But they can’t win the argument when a significant subject of the audience believes that “testing” inherently means “punishment.” In the screwed up dynamics of our current education reform debate, the very act of trying to objectively measure student learning is seen as penalizing students and teachers.

This has created a major liability for proponents of standards-based reform. Yet it also demonstrates the bankruptcy of arguments for “support and improve” as an alternative to “test and punish.”

Proponents of “support and improve” may claim that they are simply calling for fairer ways of measuring school performance, for increased support for educators, and for more comprehensive responses to the range of challenges that face children living in poverty. Yet the subtext of their rhetoric, and the underlying sentiment within their base of support, is that objectively measuring school performance constitutes punishing educators.

And this is dangerous.

The belief that it is possible to objectively measure the results of actions, to make judgments, and to adjust future behavior based on that measurement, is the foundation of modern scientific progress. To be sure, education is far more complex than many areas of human endeavor and inquiry. Yet when we mistake this complexity for immeasurability, we are in trouble.

Whatever the faults—and they are real—of current systems of standards and assessment, they provide a common frame of reference for understanding what it happening in education, and useful tools for improvement. Commonly understood, objective measures allow us to identify gaps and areas in need of improvement, to make informed decisions about where and how to focus our efforts, to gauge progress over time, and to identify successful models from which to learn.

Without some objective measures to frame our understanding, and provide a common ground for discussion and action, we are left with the subjective forces of emotion, sentiment, and affinity to guide our judgments and decisions.  This why the narrative of “test and punish” has gained the force of fact despite the objective reality that few educators or schools have actually been “punished” under current accountability regimes. When subjective perception and experience become the sole arbiter of truth, the objective reality of punishment (or lack thereof) matters less than individuals’ subjective perceptions that they are being persecuted.  Until supporters of standards-based accountability fully confront this narrative—not just by noting the lack of punishment, but by engaging the emotional realities at play and offering viable counter-narratives—they will be on the losing end of this debate.

–Sara Mead

July 18, 2014

5 Thoughts on the New Yorker Cheating Story

This week’s New Yorker has a piece from Rachel Aviv taking an in-depth look at the Atlanta cheating scandal. I had five thoughts as I read it:

1. It’s a very well-written story about cheating. Aviv identies compelling characters, weaves a coherent narrative, and includes some incredible details, like how exactly teachers and the school principal at Parks Middle School in Atlanta were able to successfully pull off a years-long cheating scheme. Those “high” scores at Parks earned plaudits from local business leaders, Superintendent Beverly Hall (who Aviv paints as willfully blind to cheating), the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

2. It’s a very well-written story about cheating at one Atlanta middle schoolAviv attempts to expand the story to other places by quoting education scholars like David Berliner, Jennifer Jennings, and John Ewing, a former executive director of the American Mathematical Society;  throwing in a reference to Campbell’s Law; and mentioning cheating scandals in other cities, but ultimately her story is limited in scope. That’s not to diminish it at all–her colorful reporting is wonderful to read–it just doesn’t provide any new evidence on how widespread cheating is across the country.

3. Where’s the context? Buried in the midst of a 9,000-word story about cheating in Atlanta, Aviv includes one sentence telling us that, “On the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which is less susceptible to tampering, Atlanta’s reading scores rose more rapidly than those of the other nine cities where students took the test.” It’s a much more complicated story when you remember that Atlanta’s poor and black students made real progress throughout the same period.

4. Even The New Yorker’s fact-checkers can’t get NCLB right. Aviv writes that Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) was “a nearly utopian statute that required all public-school students to become proficient in math and reading by 2014.” While NCLB did set 100 percent proficiency in math and reading as a goal, that’s not what it requires in practice. Because of a provision known as safe harbor, schools and subgroups can sufficiently demonstrate progress far below 100 percent proficiency (see here for an example of how this works for an actual school).

5. It’s more complicated than “it’s NCLB’s fault.” Aviv writes that under NCLB, “Schools that didn’t progress at an appropriate pace…received a series of escalating sanctions, including state monitoring, a revised curriculum, replacement of staff, and restructuring or closure of the school.” These interventions are preceded by things like offering students after-school tutoring or the option of transferring to a new school. Importantly, Aviv fails to mention that the school-based interventions are merely optional. NCLB requires low-performing schools to pick “one of the following” from a list of interventions. Using the last year of data available for the entire state of Georgia, here’s a complete list of what persistently low-performing schools actually did because of NCLB:

  • Required implementation of a new research-based curriculum or instructional program (60 schools)
  • Other major restructuring of the school governance (32 schools)

And here’s a complete list of things Georgia public schools did NOT do as a result of NCLB:

  • Extension of the school year or school day
  • Replacement of staff members relevant to the school’s low performance
  • Significant decrease in management authority at the school level
  • Replacement of the principal
  • Restructuring the internal organization of the school
  • Appointment of an outside expert to advise the school
  • Replacement of all or most of the school staff (which may include the principal)
  • Reopening the school as a public charter school
  • Entering into a contract with a private entity to operate the school
  • Takeover the school by the State

In other words, NCLB consequences and the ways in which district leaders might have chosen to put pressure on principals (and principals on their staffs) are actually two different things. Just because Atlanta principals and teachers felt real pressure to improve, the sources of that pressure and the threat behind it are more complex than NCLB alone. Schools and districts had choices under NCLB, and they almost always chose the least-painful option.

–Chad Aldeman

July 17, 2014

Challenges in American Indian Education

50,000 American Indian students (approximately 7 percent of all American Indian students) attend 183 Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools across the country—about the same size as the Atlanta Public School system. These students scored significantly below American Indian students attending public schools on the 2011 NAEP: fourth graders scored 22 points lower in reading and 14 points lower in math. In comparison to the 18 cities participating in NAEP’s 2011 Trial Urban District Assessment, BIE schools as a whole underperformed all except Detroit.

This data is from the “Blueprint for Reform,” released by the BIE last week. The Blueprint is the product of a Study Group that Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell formed to identify challenges and make recommendations for improving BIE schools.

Some of the challenges identified in the Blueprint are familiar. For instance, “principals and teachers feel unprepared for implementation of the Common Core State Standards.” We’ve heard that before. Others, as the team at Bellwether has learned through our work on rural education, are common to schools operating in remote regions of the country. Many rural and BIE schools struggle to recruit and retain teachers, and their efforts are often confounded by a lack of adequate housing.

BIE schools also face unique obstacles. The BIE and American Indian communities must overcome a history in which the federal government pursued a policy of assimilation, sending American Indian youth to boarding schools far from their communities. BIE schools are also funded and overseen by a confusing amalgam of agencies: the BIE, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Indian Affairs’ Deputy Assistant Secretary for Management. Each agency has its own hierarchy. See here, here, and here for their respective organizational charts. School principals who met with the Study Group consistently called the bureaucracy “disorganized and inefficient” and complained that they “routinely had to respond to duplicative data calls from different offices.”

One of the Blueprint’s major recommendations is for the BIE to transition “from a direct education provider to an expert service and support provider.” The BIE currently operates 57 of the 183 BIE schools; the remaining schools are operated directly by tribes. The BIE would then focus on supporting schools on things like Common Core implementation and teacher recruitment.

Transitioning away from school operations makes sense—as Andy Smarick and I have argued, big government agencies are more adept at setting long-term goals and creating the policy conditions for change than responding to the dynamic challenges of day-to-day school operations. However, repurposing an agency that Secretary Jewell has called an “embarrassment” into a support provider sounds a bit like a consolation prize for the BIE and a potential barrier between BIE schools and support providers with more promising track records.

While the majority of school reform conversations revolve around urban education, rural and BIE schools also face knotty challenges that deserve our attention and resources. I’ll be watching to see how the Blueprint plays out and hope you will, too.

-Juliet Squire

July 16, 2014

Wisdom from Nixonland

Per my earlier post about Rick Perlstein’s great book Nixonland, here’s a quote I found particularly striking and relevant to current education reform debates:

“It is a lesson of the sixties: liberals get in the biggest political trouble–whether instituting open housing, civilian complaint review boards, or sex education programs–when they presume that a reform is an inevitable concomitant of progress. It is then that they are most likely to establish their reforms by top-down bureaucratic means. A blindsiding backlash often ensues.” –Rick Perlstein, Nixonland, Chapter 24, “Purity”

July 15, 2014

An Exit Ramp for Exit Exams?

Accountability policies in education often suffer from trying to satisfy two competing desires. Accountability hawks want tough policies that establish minimal standards to ensure that a student’s education means something in the real world. Opportunity advocates want to ensure that all students are given sufficient chances and point to data suggesting that societies are better off with a more educated citizenry. Both of these are reasonable positions, but combined together they can lead to indecipherable mush.

High school exit exams offer one example of how these impulses collide. Designed to be a tough, rigorous bar for completion, exit exams have failed to boost student achievement or certify students as prepared for college or career success. On the lower end, despite states enacting policies allowing numerous re-takes or alternative routes to passing, exit exams slightly reduce the likelihood that disadvantaged students will finish high school at all. My go-to example of this conundrum is Maryland, where, in the first two years of implementing its new high school exit exams, 0.06 percent of its seniors were denied a high school diploma because of the new, “stronger” graduation requirements. Even in 2013, Maryland’s exit exams ultimately prevented only 13 (!) 12th graders in the entire state from graduating, an unlucky baker’s dozen of students who failed to pass the High School Assessments, complete an alternate route called a “Bridge Plan,” or receive a state waiver.

Today’s report from New America’s Anne Hyslop looks at the history of high school exit exams (sometimes called “minimum competency exams” or “graduation exams”) and the tensions between high standards and high attainment. Most importantly, she outlines a path forward for states with existing exams (24 as of last year) as they navigate new tests aligned to the Common Core, concerns about over-testing, and demands for students to leave high school ready for college-level work. Read it here.

–Chad Aldeman

Recommended Reading: Nixonland

This summer I’ve been reading Rick Perlstein’s excellent book Nixonland. The book is about not just Richard Nixon, but the evolution of American political culture from 1965 to 1972 (which reshaped the political landscape in ways that continue to define American political culture today) as well as the forces, events ,and personalities that contributed that contributed to that evolution. It’s must reading for anyone who wants to understand our current political climate. It’s also an incredibly well-written and engaging read. I particularly recommend it for anyone engaged in education policy and politics today: Perlstein describes how a 1964 “liberal consensus” on civil rights and domestic policy issues rapidly disintegrated in the following years, in large part because liberal reform proponents were too convinced of both their own obvious moral rightness and the inevitable progress of their policy goals to recognize or engage the emotions and interests that might lead their fellow citizens to resist such “progress.” Both the attitudes of 1960s-era liberal reformers and the results of those attitudes offer a sobering cautionary tale to contemporary education reformers who frequently evidence similar tendencies—and have been similarly blindsided by recent backlash against their agenda. Studying the history of this tumultuous period in American political life may help today’s reform advocates—not just in education but a range of policy issues—not only avoid mistakes of their predecessors but also chart a wiser course forward.

Perlstein has a new book, The Invisible Bridge: the Rise of Nixon and the Fall of Ronald Reagan, coming out in August. I’m looking forward to reading it.

–Sara Mead

July 14, 2014

Learning from D.C.–and What D.C. Can Learn From Other Places?

Richard Whitmire, writing in the Washington Post, hails Washington, D.C. as one of the nation’s “education hotspots.” As someone who’s been deeply engaged in D.C. education for the past five years, my first response is “duh.”

Seriously, though, it’s great to see Whitmire helping a broader audience to understand how improvements in both charter school quality and DCPS over the past seven years are paying off in improved student learning outcomes and options for families in the District (particularly appreciate the shout out to the work of D.C.’s authorizer, the Public Charter School Board, on which I serve). I think that Whitmire may be offering an overly rosy picture of the potential for charter-DCPS collaboration, though. To be clear, I’d like nothing better than to see the charter sector and DCPS work together more closely and collaboratively to provide a seamless and easily accessible range of quality school options for all D.C. children and their families. Recent developments like the MySchoolDC Common Lottery and joint equity reports on DCPS and charter schools illustrate the progress being made on DCPS-charter collaboration. But there are also real practical challenges and conflicting interests here, as well as some deep tensions around balancing greater coordination with respect for charter autonomy. Ignoring these tensions doesn’t make them go away, and efforts for more robust collaboration must engage them. Whitmire also neglects the potential fragility of D.C.’s progress to date in the face of upcoming political changes. While a great deal has been accomplished, decisions by the next mayor or council leaders could undermine some of that progress. That said, the ideas Whitmire puts forward are intriguing, including a provocative suggestion that current progress could ultimately threaten some of the District’s tony private schools by creating options that appeal to middle class and affluent parents, as well as low-income families.

–Sara Mead

BW Team Blogging This Week

Happy Monday! As Andy mentioned last week, the Bellwether team is going to be taking over Eduwonk for the next three weeks. So be on the look out for post from Bellwether team members Chad Aldeman, Julie Squire, Kelly Robson, Ashley Mitchel, Ellie Craig, Carolyn Chuong, Leslie Kan, Sara Mead, and maybe a few other folks as well. We’re looking forward to sharing some of our analysis and perspectives with you, and think you’ll enjoy getting to know more of the folks on our team. You can learn more about these folks and other Bellwether team members here.

–Sara Mead

July 11, 2014

Friday Fish Porn


In the spirit of the summer, let’s get to some fish pics!

Suzanne Tachney leads PIE Network, a coalition of state education advocacy organizations.  She’s a former state board of education member in California among other education roles.  And her son is a fisherman and interested in education. He’s finishing an MBA at Berkley and caught this off the coast of Mexico.

Kevin Kosar is an education policy expert at the Congressional Research Service, and also a nationally recognized expert on the history and production of whiskey (the latter helps with the former).   Here’s his son with a catfish from the Potomac River and there’s Kevin with a monster shad of his own.

CAM01493 Shad Fishing 05-10-2014c

All past fish porn pictures – eight years – can be found via this link.

July 9, 2014

Coming Attractions

I have some upcoming time off and work travel so for the next three weeks you will be educated, entertained, entranced, and excited by different people from the Bellwether team who will turn this into a group blog through the end of the month. It’s a preview of a forthcoming Bellwether blog that will feature multiple voices and perspectives from our team. That blog launches later this year.


Bellwether Is Growing

Check it out here.

July 7, 2014

Two On Balanced Literacy Debate

Last week RealClearEducation columnist Dan Willingham took a look at the “balanced literacy” issue in NYC.  Now [former] New York teacher Alexander Nazaryan takes to the NYT op-ed page to discuss the same. Must-read.

…The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it. It plays well in brownstone Brooklyn, where children have enrichment coming out of their noses, and may be more “ready” for balanced literacy than children without such advantages.

My concern is for the nearly 40 percent of New York City schoolchildren who won’t graduate from high school, the majority of whom are black and brown and indigent. Their educations should never be a joyless grind. But asking them to become subjects in an experiment in progressive education is an injustice they don’t deserve.

July 3, 2014

Guestblogger: Elizabeth Evans On Vergara

Vergara v. California: An Edu-Wars Red Herring

By Elizabeth Evans

In Vergara v. California the court once again reprimanded us for the still inexorable inequity in our public education system. But, like Brown v. Board of Education, if we don’t pay attention to the fix instead of the fight, we’re going to end up wasting the occasion the court is giving us to do something to alter the opportunity gap our children still face.

Here’s the thing: what’s a bad teacher? We can answer that question and we should.  But that alone isn’t going to close the opportunity gap. I applaud Bill & Melinda Gates for asking the question: How do we know what effective teaching looks like and how do we support it? This question spawned the groundbreaking Measures of Effective Teachers, which changed the game on how to evaluate teaching.

Translating this research into practice is no small task. I’ve heard from thousands of teachers who have a lot to say about how this process goes. And, I’ve partnered with a number of visionary public administrators who are seeking input from those teachers. This kind of research-based, experience-informed dialogue is a better approach to turning policy into practice.  We can avoid dictated edicts from the top and still have strong accountability for instructional excellence.

We need to ask those working with students to design a system that helps them be good teachers and does a better job at giving all public school students a good teacher. I am encouraged that the National Education Association (NEA) is taking the challenge of Vergara and turning it into an opportunity. NEA is launching VIVA Idea Exchange, at its annual meeting in Denver this week, to get teacher input in all the factors — financial, fairness (for teachers and students), reliability, and accuracy, among others — that affect professional standards and evaluations in public schools.

We have a real opportunity to shift our resources to support effective teaching and improve teacher practices. We also have the opportunity to screen out the chronic under performers and those who lack the skills or drive to succeed in the teaching profession. If we take the findings in Vergara to use professional evaluation mostly to screen out the worst teachers, we will miss the chance to give more students good teachers.

Of the thousands of teachers who have participated in a VIVA Idea Exchange, I cannot think of one who believes there’s any defense for the obviously poor performance of a colleague. I’m certain most teachers would gladly support principals who got rid of ineffective teachers. But, they also want their principals to spend equal time supporting them in becoming better teachers, in a profession that can take five to 10 years to fully master.

If more leaders, union and administration, actually stopped to engage teachers in creating these standards, the matter of tenure would become an important quality control, not the sparring tactic between untrusting actors that it currently is.

Elizabeth Evans is Founder and CEO of New Voice Strategies.

July 1, 2014

Edujob – Director Of Teacher Residency @ Aspire Public Schools

Aspire Public Schools – a successful and high-performing network of charter public schools in California and Tennessee – is seeking a leader for its teacher residency program. Great role designing, coordinating, and leading this initiative.  More via the link.

June 30, 2014

Willingham On NYC Literacy Debate

Dan Willingham has a must-read column in RealClearEducation this morning about the NYC literacy decision.  “This is why we can’t have nice things…”

June 26, 2014

What’s The Deal On RealClearEducation?

A few questions the last few weeks suggest that a quick primer on RealClearEducation would be useful.

The RealClearEducation website is a daily curated set of links to key news, analysis, and reports in the education world. Each day an editor scours the internet and media outlets for what’s important and what’s hot so that you don’t have to. In addition to the main links there are sidebars focused on key issues and parts of the sector with additional information. Links are posted by 8am ET in the morning and again in the mid afternoon each weekday. Why do all that work when someone is doing it for you – for free.

There is also a morning newsletter, RealClearEducation Today on weekdays. It’s free and sent right to your email box if you sign up here. The email highlights any original content on the RealClearEducation site and a few of the top news stories, commentaries, and reports being featured. But it’s not a comprehensive run-down of all the links and content you will find on the site each day,  you have to visit the site for that. The newsletters also feature a look at history on a particular day, sometimes with a connection to contemporary education issues. Today’s looks at Coney Island’s Cyclone. Others include the U2 incident, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Amelia Earhart, Ken Mattingly and Apollo 16, Pet Sounds, or Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Of the Fast Times piece Judge Reinhold, who played Brad Hamilton in the now-legendary film, said it was ” the finest and most accurate commentary on Fast Times I’ve read.”

There is also some original reporting and commentary. UVA’s Dan Willingham is a RealClearEducation columnist. Senators and members of the House of Representatives as well as a number of key education figures have written commentary pieces. And, of course, Changing Lanes - Education guests include Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and DC schools chancellor Kaya Henderson.

RealClearEducation is supported by sponsorships and advertising. Contact me if you’d like more information about those opportunities.

Thanks for reading!

June 25, 2014

Whiteboard Advisors’ Education Insider Survey

New data out today including the usual tracking questions plus higher ed, charter schools, TFA, and data privacy (pdf).

Edujob – AppleTree

AppleTree is a DC-based nonprofit that operates outstanding pre-K programs. They’re hiring for several roles but in particular a Grants Manager. The role involves generating grant proposals and managing all aspects of a grants management program. Important position at a high-impact organization. Learn more here.

June 24, 2014

Geese, Gander, And Charter Schools

Wayne Barrett (The Nation, Village Voice) writing in the New York Daily News:

…Democrats like [Howard] Dean and others have seen through the “privatization” trashing of charters by [Diane] Ravitch and the union, recognizing that there’s no structural difference between the non-profits that run public school charters and the ones that operate Head Start, day care and pre-K programs.

For his part, [New York Mayor] de Blasio has never explained what distinguishes maligned charter non-profits from the ones that will run 60% of his celebrated new pre-K classrooms.

The only difference, in fact, is that most charters, unlike other nonprofit education providers, opt out of contracts like the UFT’s 200-page straitjacket that micromanages the school day and imposes an assembly-line mentality on schools – one that charters have exposed as dysfunctional.

Some on the left are, like the union, deliberately conflating “privatization” and contract-free schools in the Frank Luntz “words-that-work” tradition of bogus branding. Charter opposition is now reflexively used in New York City as a progressive barometer, regardless of the overwhelming evidence of their benefits to mostly black children, with 63% of the schools here outperforming traditional schools in math, for example…

Playbook For Personalized Learning

Bellwether has a new report out today – it’s a playbook for how to expand personalized learning and address quality and accountability. Lots of ideas for policymakers. More here (pdf).

June 17, 2014

Teacher Prep Review

NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review is out. Expanded this year, its second year. It’s a trove of data and worth reading (pdf). Alternative certification programs included this time, too.

It’s All Happening!

Richard Whitmire book signing in California and a Vergara plaintiff shows up:

daniela martinez

Edujob – Deputy Executive Director For Advocacy @ PIE Network

PIE Network – a national network of 49 state education advocacy organizations working in 31 states is seeking a Deputy Executive Director For Advocacy (pdf). If political strategy and education are your thing it’s going to be hard to beat this job.  Details and how to apply through the link.

June 16, 2014

Vergara Fallout

Almost a week after the Vergara decision debate about what it means, doesn’t mean, and what should happen next continues.  You can group the reactions into a few buckets:

Salvation!/Armageddon!  For the salvation crowd this is the greatest decision by a court in education history – perhaps in all of history! Yes, it’s significant but it still must survive appeal, the legislature must satisfactorily fix the problems if it does, and in other states with less favorable constitutions advocates must still win case after case. Why? Because this case seems unlikely to unleash a political change.

Key piece of evidence? Almost no one thinks these laws make much sense. Even most legal scholars arguing it was wrongly decided still caveat their analysis by saying these laws are substantively awful before discussion the contested issues of constitutionality.

In addition, given the lack of capacity in the system around effective human resources and evaluation reformers should be sobered by the prospect of designing effective post-Vergara policies. The laws need to go but they also need to be replaced by something that works better.

The armageddon crowd is arguing about everything (billionaires, privatization, corporations, respect for teachers, etc…) except what was actually at issue in the courtroom. The press releases are comical in their disconnect from the legal issues.

The legal analysts: These people are worth paying attention to because the legal issues are complicated and unsettled.  Noah Feldman and Ben Riley offer two of the best cautions (by the way, to beat a dead horse, when teachers’ union flacks are pointing to Feldman’s piece as a strong defense it shows how bankrupt these laws are, he quickly distances himself from defending the laws on their merits in the first grew grafs). It’s still possible that this could end with a ruling holding that these are dreadful policies, but not unconstitutional ones. Constitutionality is a high bar, many other equity issues would be in the realm of the courts if it wasn’t. So pay attention.

The ‘it’s not a silver bullet’ crowd: Many of the same people who have spent a decade or more chiding reformers for championing silver bullets are now cautioning against Vergara because it won’t solve every problem.

For instance Dana Goldstein makes some good points in Slate about the contextual issues here and challenges of staffing low-performing schools (but she fails to note that there is ample evidence that school district hiring timelines and work rules (including aspects of what was at issue in Vergara) cause high-poverty districts to lose teachers to surrounding area). Still, you have to start somewhere.

Rick Kahlenberg says that Vergara misses the mark because it doesn’t address school segregation (Crazy idea: Both school segregation and the polices at issue in Vergara are problems).

Comprehensiveness is the wrong standard here. Pretty much everyone agrees a host of changes and supports are necessary.  The standard is whether these California policies and their brothers and cousins elsewhere lead to more effective schools.

Theory meets practice: 

Diane Ravitch and others argue that absent these tenure provision teachers will be thrust into a Hobbesian work-enviroment. They seem not to be familiar with all the various employment protections workers in California enjoy thanks to federal and state laws. Workers everyone do not enjoy all of those protections – and opponents of current teacher tenure policies must engage with that reality. But California is not a strong test case for the idea that absent the current due process system school administrators suddenly behave like White Walkers.

There is also concern that absent tenure teachers will lose academic freedom. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of tenure in the K-12 sector. Teachers, by signing their contract, are under state control in terms of curriculum, standards, and so forth. It’s why a teacher can’t just  decide to teach creationism, for instance. What “tenure” really refers to in K-12 is due process protections. In Vergara the judge said these protections had evolved into uber due process. And that’s the crux of the tenure issue – what should due process look like not whether teachers should have it. The judge was clear on that point.

In The NY Times Jesse Rothstein – who under oath as a defense witness in Vergara ended up agreeing with key contentions of the plaintiffs during cross-examination - makes two interesting points. First he argues that tenure actually usefully ties school district hands and forces them to make consequential decisions or take a draw from the applicant pool for a new teacher. The problem with this argument is that tenure is not a meaningful bar – in California or elsewhere even where there are sufficient timelines to make a meaningful decision. There is a compelling argument to be made to make the tenure point professionally and financially meaningful for teachers — but with a longer timeline and a high-bar.  Yet Rothstein talks in terms of  ”attentive districts.” Unfortunately, they’re as common as snow leopards right now – The Widget Effect laid that out. It’s why there has been such emphasis on evaluation.

Second, he argues that “firing bad teachers actually makes it harder to recruit new good ones, since new teachers don’t know which type they will be.” That finding is based on a recent study. Yet Rothstein doesn’t tell readers it wasn’t a study based on actual behavior, it was based on a model he built with assumptions built in. Models are important social science tools but the assumptions matter. In this instance if you assume employees care most about job security and wages then those two issues will interact with each other a lot.

In practice, we don’t actually know the effects of all these policies and their interaction or all the intangible and should be humble about the limits of what we do know. We’re frequently wrong: In the 1990s education’s wise men and wise women were certain Teach For America could never grow beyond 1,000 corps members – the models showed it. It’s five times that now.  We keep hearing about how today’s policies will drive teachers from the field but there isn’t evidence that’s happening other than anecdotally.  We’re constantly told how this or that approach can’t work and yet there it is working in different places.

In this case, when you are hiring you don’t want hubris in a candidate but you do want confidence that they will be great at the job. Characteristics like that matter a great deal to success (TFA, which intentionally screens for certain attributes like tenacity and sense of agency, produces teachers who are modestly more effective than average).  In other words, the teachers that don’t think they know which type they will be may not be the ones who will succeed in a challenging job anyway. They might be ones you want to signal away rather than attract.

It’s a microcosm of the broader post-Vergara environment (assuming these suits spread as they seemed poised to). Pretty much everyone not paid to defend them thinks the current set of personnel laws is broken. How to fix them is a more complicated (and interesting) basket of problems. So beware hubris but also beware those who would keep states and districts from trying new ideas to learn what can work a lot better.