June 9, 2014

Wash Post On Gates & Common Core, 5 Reactions – Updated w/ Pushback From Gene Wilhoit

If my email is any indication, the one story people are most interested in today is Lyndsey Layton’s long look at the Gates Foundation and Common Core in yesterday’s Washington Post. Reactions range from, ‘see, this is being forced on schools by corporate interests,’ from a Common Core foe, to ‘I’ve seen some dancing at the 10-yard line in my day, but man, does the Gates WaPo piece ever take the cake’ from a Common Core supporter and Democratic politico.

Seems to me a good and important story – and a solid unpacking of events to date. But, a couple of reactions:

1) There is money on all sides of this. Pro-and con.  The opposition did start out pretty diffuse and unorganized but that’s not the case now. I doubt there is parity between the pro-and anti-Common Core factions but this isn’t David and Goliath either.

2) In education there is very little change absent an infusion of marginal dollars and outside pressure. It’s not for nothing that we call them “Carnegie” units. That’s not a pro-Gates point or an anti-Gates point, it’s merely context about change in education. Related, Gates has spent a great deal on Common Core, but some context on all the other philanthropic dollars flowing into education would be useful, too.  The lion’s share, mostly from much smaller and localized foundations mostly buttresses the status quo. Philanthropic dollars aimed at leveraging broader changes have increased over the past decade but are still not the dominant force in overall education philanthropy.

3) The Tom Loveless reference in the story may be the most important part. Standards alone are not the ballgame. Implementation and support for schools and teachers is key – and still lacking. Common Core isn’t a curriculum, the political reasons for that are obvious, but that may end up being its biggest liability. Forget the back and forth with the teachers unions on this point – that’s politics. The broader lesson is the one Loveless points to – standards alone are not enough. It takes a system.

That’s why from where I sit the real promise of common standards is, as Layton puts it,

[Coleman and Wilhoit] also argued that a fragmented education system stifled innovation because textbook publishers and software developers were catering to a large number of small markets instead of exploring breakthrough products. That seemed to resonate with the man who led the creation of the world’s dominant computer operating system.

A lot of people talk about this issue but it doesn’t get the ink that international comparisons do. But it’s arguably the longer term promise here.

4) Layton talks about the efforts to keep the words “Common Core” out of Obama Administration policy documents. And that commitment, despite some early miscues, seems real. States that have rejected Common Core have been granted No Child Left Behind waivers that contain a requirement for college and career ready standards. She doesn’t mention what was arguably the bigger misstep: The inclusion of Common Core in the 2012 Democratic platform as an Obama accomplishment. It seems like a picayune thing, but only the zealots read platforms. No one read that and said, ‘Yes!, Now I’m going to support that guy instead of Mitt Romney.’ But plenty of activists did read it and being circulating it as proof that Common Core was “Obamacore.” That was a victory lap best saved for later.  It also didn’t help that White House rhetoric about the standards and the President’s role varied. Again, not a big deal to most but catnip for the activists who parse every word and circulate via social media.

5) In my experience – and I’ve worked with both the Gates Foundation and Microsoft – the firewalls between the two are quite real.  This is one of those you can’t prove a negative type of things. But senior foundation officials working on ed innovation are largely unknown to key Microsoft personnel. In any event, like or dislike the Common Core it’s absurd to argue Gates is doing this to enrich himself given the state of the education sector (and you may have noticed he apparently has some money already). The words wasted on that would be better spent on analysis of why, despite all the money spent, Common Core is still facing such implementation and political challenges.

That shows the limits of what money can accomplish in our fragmented education system, which is far more interesting isn’t it?

Update: Here’s Gene Wilhoit’s statement on the article. 


June 5, 2014

Vergara Suit Contest – Guess The Timing

Both sides in the Vergara suit in California expect a decision in the next few days. They’re filling email boxes with prebuttals.  So here’s a contest:

Whomever comes closest to the exact time the actual decision is announced wins their choice of a vintage “Patrick Riccards for School Board” button, an authentic RealClearEducation shot glass, or a 2013 Harvard Education Press released book. Tiebreaker is whether the judge rules for the plaintiffs or the defendants/intervenors so make that call, too.

Put guesses below or email me or tweet them to @arotherham.


Edujobs @ Bellwether

Bellwether is growing and hiring for a range of roles in operations and on the Policy & Thought Leadership and Strategic Advising teams.  More here about how you can do impactful work with us.


Brandeis And Unions – Lessons For Today

The teachers unions could do a lot worse than get their Brandeis on.

That’s from today’s RealClearEducation morning newsletter. The email version highlights some of the content on the RealClearEducation page but the website is updated throughout the day. You can get it in your email box weekday mornings here.

There are also sponsorship and advertising opportunities available for later this year on RealClearEducation, contact me for more details.


Politico On Data Privacy

Important Stephanie Simon Politico article about data privacy. Highlights both some legitimate concerns and some hysterical ones.

One line that sums up the situation now:

“People took for granted that parents would understand [the benefits], that it was self-evident,” said Michael Horn, a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, an education think tank.

But, Simon is a cheap date if she sees this all as an amateur grassroots uprising. It makes a compelling storyline but the reality is that there is paid activity on all sides.  And the not so hidden issue here is accountability and the role of data in that.


June 4, 2014

Edujob @ WestEd: Director, Assessment and Standards Development Services

You may have heard that there are a few things happening on the assessment front in education. This edujob at WestEd will put you in the middle of it: Director, Assessment and Standards Development Services. More here and the position description is here.


June 3, 2014

Chicago, DC, & Charter Financial Accountability

From RealClearEducation, charter advocates ought to take heed of the news out of Chicago and D.C. yesterday:

Charter school proponents are quick to point out that there is plenty of financial malfeasance, self-dealing, and nepotism in the traditional public school sector. And that’s obviously the case. But the promise of charter schools wasn’t “graft on par with the status quo” or “same kleptocracy, but now with the educational benefits of decentralization.” Rather, it was flexibility in exchange for heightened accountability and results.

So this week’s problems should be kept in perspective and the legal process should run its course. But, the specifics of these two episodes aside, charter school advocates are kidding themselves if they don’t think there are problems here they should get in front of. The flexibility part of the charter school bargain opens the door for illegality absent sufficient oversight or for ethically dubious practices even within the purview of good oversight. There is too much of that sort of thing going on and it really doesn’t matter if people within the traditional public school system do it, too.

None of this is a reason to abandon charter schools, of course. The vast majority operate ethically, the high-fliers are changing how we think about education, and overall the academic performance of the sector is improving. But unless charter advocates want to keep explaining headlines like the ones today and dealing with the political headwinds they generate, it’s time for some leadership to clean up this aspect of the sector. It’s also the right thing to do. Governance best practices, which funders should insist on, along with some legal and regulatory changes, would help rein in the problems and maintain an appropriate and effective balance between autonomy and accountability.


Department Of Two Things Are True At Once – Charter Schools & Skimming

There is an ongoing debate about public charter schools and skimming that goes something like this:

“Studies such as CREDO and other high-quality analyses show that charter schools in some cities are substantially outpacing other public schools.”

“Well of course they are, they’re skimming the most motivated families. It’s not the schools.”

This back and forth is usually reported in the media as two distinct takes on the same issue. In fact, both these things are true at the same time.

Let’s start with the “skimming.” Most charter schools don’t skim their students (in fact they’re not allowed to, it’s traditional public magnets and theme schools that are able to use selective admissions standards) and many charters focus on the lowest-income students. But, there are certainly cases where signals are sent, especially in regard to special education students, and many charters have distinct themes or norms that do not appeal to all parents. (As charter schools grow in many cities addressing issues like special education will become unavoidable. We don’t expect each public school to educate every student, districts do this by aggregating resources, but we should expect the charter sector as a whole to equitably serve the most challenging students once that sector reaches a certain size). Some students also struggle once they enroll in a specific charter.

But more to the point, in an environment where assigned schools and choice schools operate side-by-side it’s not surprising that it’s more motivated parents exercising choice right now. So the schools are not “skimming” but there is almost certainly some selection effect.

But that’s where it gets interesting. Because there are more parents who want to enroll their students in charters than there are seats available researchers have been able to compare students to applied to over-subscribed charters and didn’t get in through the random admissions lottery with those who did get a seat. In other words, the scarcity of seats in the most in-demand charters creates a natural experimental and control group of students. And the results show that even among these students, with similarly motivated parents and only the luck of the draw separating them, high-performing charter schools outperform. Other research, for instance the methods used by CREDO, bolster this finding. So the good schools are doing something that matters – in some cases a lot –  on top of any advantage they might gain from the students who come their way.

So put plainly, yes selection and skimming matters, but despite that, the evidence shows that some charters have a substantial positive effect that is something educators and policymakers should seek to learn about and replicate rather than dismiss out of hand based on a misunderstanding of what’s happening.

What makes for a good sector of charter schools? Fordham is hosting a forum on different ideas about that.

Update: Below commenter David B. makes an important point about how generalizable the results from over-subscribed (and often “no excuses”) charters are. He’s right and there is a lot to learn about the broader implications. But unfortunately, rather than a thoughtful conversation about how to improve customization within public education and figure out how to provide better options for all students, the charter debate has turned into a team sport where each side just has a rooting interest.


June 2, 2014

Edujobs – Two Roles @ Achievement First

Achievement First is a high-peforming multi-state network of public charter schools in the northeast. They are hiring for two key roles:

Director, Greenfield Design Job Description (pdf).

Director, Greenfield Technology Job Description (pdf).

As you can see from the postings AF is looking to innovate in some interesting ways – and has engaged IDEO to help support on this work. So a tremendous opportunity to do high-impact education design work in the education sector.


Edujob – Summer Internships @ Student Achievement Partners

Student Achievement Partners is seeking – paid – summer interns.  You can learn more about the internship here (pdf).  You can learn more about their organization here. And here is one taste of their views on current policy via Eduwonk.


Getting Our P.T. Barnum On

The promoter and politician loved a good show. But do we have too much of that in education? RCE Today has more.


May 30, 2014

Joan Ganz Cooney

Nice tribute to Joan Ganz Cooney by Michael Levine pegged to the acknowledgement of her tremendous work at Sesame Workshop’s* annual dinner.

*BW client.


Proof Points Day

Today is Proof Points Day, recognizing first in family college completion – learn more and participate here.


May 27, 2014

Who Is Education’s Rachel Carson?

Rachel Carson was born on this date in 1907. Silent Spring galvanized a lot of action with less resources than are spent on education advocacy today. Why?


May 22, 2014

Testing Map From RealClearEducation

Over at RealClearEducation Emmeline Zhao has compiled an interactive map showing what states are planning to do on student assessment and where incumbent players are now.  Not surprisingly Pearson leads the pack with 16 states, but 13 states have RFP’s out now.  You might be surprised what a significant player AIR is.  Also show’s what’s happening with the consortia. Check it out here.  The interactive map is here.


Bellwether Blogging Seminar

On August 10-11 Bellwether is hosting another blogging seminar. Featuring leading journalistic and social media professionals this full-day training will dramatically improve a blogger’s ability to write effectively and market their content effectively and build readership. Participants consistently cite positive impact on their work as a result of the experience.

You can learn more about how to apply and commitment here.  Applications are considered on a rolling basis until the training is full or June 15th. The event consistently sells out so if you are interested in applying we suggest you do so early.


Student Surveys: Asking Those In The Know

A new Bellwether paper takes a look at the state of play and potential around student surveys as an evaluation and climate tool for schools (pdf). Despite all the noise about observations (which are noisy) and value-added (which is limited in it reach and what it tells evaluators), student surveys may offer a rich and reliable path forward for schools.


May 21, 2014

Edujob @ Hope Street Group

Hope Street Group, a nonprofit focused on expanding economic opportunity (with a big focus on education) is hiring an Education Program, Research and Practice Director (pdf). Deadline of June 8 to apply.


Fast Times

The film is more than 30 years old but Fast Times at Ridgemont High still stands up. What can it tell us about high school reform?


May 20, 2014

First Generation

There is a screening of the new film First Generation tonight in D.C., followed by a discussion. Key figures from the film on hand. More info and how to RSVP here.


May 19, 2014

The Dual Challenge Of Fixing Teacher Pensions

In Sunday’s Washington Post Chad Aldeman and I take a look at the teacher pension issue. There are really two distinct issues here. One is the funding problem, that gets a lot of attention and there is plenty of blame to go around for the sorry state of affairs in too many states. But there is also a design issue, even properly funded the traditional pension system is not a good fit for today’s workforce.

Americans are struggling to save for retirement at a time of still-high unemployment rates, rising college costs and stagnant wages. For many workers, individual circumstances lead to inadequate savings. But for public school teachers, poorly structured retirement policies hinder their future security…

…This story doesn’t fit with the popular perception of teacher pensions as more generous than private-sector retirement benefits. That’s because the real story of teacher pensions today involves a small number of relatively big winners and a much larger group of losers…

…In contrast, 17 states, including Maryland, Illinois, Michigan and New York, withhold all employer contributions for teachers until 10 years of service. “Vesting” is an important milestone, but it guarantees only a minimum pension in retirement. The largest rewards go to those who remain in the system for 30 or more years, something few workers do today…

…Long vesting periods help state legislators and governors who have failed to properly fund their state’s pension plans. Extending the amount of time it takes for a teacher to qualify for a pension reduces the number of teachers who will qualify. During the recent recession, 12 states lengthened their vesting period to help address funding shortfalls. It saves money, yes, but it does not help teachers…

…Except among ideologues, there’s no ideal solution to these problems, and every remedy carries trade-offs. Well-designed 401(k)-style plans, hybrid plans that combine traditional pension plans with a 401(k)-like component or alternative models called cash-balance plans, which guarantee a moderate interest rate, could provide sufficient savings and give teachers greater job flexibility. At a minimum, states should ensure that teachers can take with them their own contributions, a share of the interest those contributions accrued and some share of the employer contributions made on their behalf…

The entire op-ed is here.  More background including state by state analysis of the percent of teachers who vest and those that reach normal retirement age in this paper (pdf).


May 17, 2014

Who Gets To Graduate?

If you read just one article this weekend, make it this one by Paul Tough about disadvantaged students and college success from Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. 


May 16, 2014

Edujobs @TNTP

TNTP is hiring for three high-impact roles:

Communications Manager – Publications (will work with our Director of Publications and staff across TNTP to develop and refine publications content, including for the TNTP Blog).

Director of Marketing Communications

Communications Manager – Marketing

The latter two require marketing experience. Pound for pound TNTP is as effective a policy organization as anyone in the sector so good opportunity to be a part of that.


Pet Sounds

It was 48 years ago on this date that The Beach Boys released “Pet Sounds.” More on that and education here.


May 15, 2014

Are School Districts Asked To Do Too Much?

Does ESPN offer a lesson for how we think about school districts?


What’s Up With MOOCs? (And Also Teacher Quality?)

Weren’t MOOCs supposed to save us? Or is that hopelessly 2013 thinking? In a new analysis from Bellwether Andrew Kelly takes a look at MOOCs, what they have and haven’t accomplished and the promise and limitations based on the experience to date (pdf). Includes recommendations for policy leaders.

Earlier this week we released a paper taking a look at what’s happening on teacher quality and ideas for policy leaders (pdf). 


May 14, 2014

Pension Primer – Four Things To Keep In Mind

The dissonance between the facts of the teacher pension issue and the way it’s discussed seem to grow by the day. Here’s a primer on four important aspects to keep in mind:

  1. States vary. States have done better or worse jobs meeting their obligations to retirees and future retirees. Some states have pension systems that are well-funded and stable. Others are basket cases. Overall there is at least a $390 billion shortfall between what states have and what’s owed, but that gap is not evenly distributed among the states and municipal pension systems. The data in this paper is old but it describes the trends and variance. States also vary in the quality of their plans. In some it’s hard to vest and see any of the employer-side contribution to your retirement, in others vesting periods are shorter. In “Friends Without Benefits” (pdf) you can see vesting timelines and data on what percent of teachers vest and reach normal retirement age for each state.
  2. The problems are fiscal but also about design. Just addressing the fiscal problems still leaves the question of whether a retirement system that benefits few teachers at the expense of many is really a good fit for the more mobile educational labor force today. The savings penalties the current system puts on teachers are substantial and a broader retirement security problem considering the numberer of teachers in the United States. In other words, the idea that pensions work well for teachers now is not supported by the evidence. They work well for a small group of teachers and adversely impact most. It’s hard to see how a system where few workers can achieve its maximum intended benefit is a really good retirement system.
  3. The choice facing policymakers is not simply 401K-style plans versus today’s defined benefit pensions. Increasingly the debate about pensions is being pitched (deliberately by those trying to shut it down) as a battle over today’s pensions versus giving people a 401K and leaving them on their own. In fact, there are a range of options policymakers can consider, including hybrid models that blend pensions with defined-contribution savings plans, options like cash-balance plans, or 401K-type plans or traditional pensions with different design features. The key issues are about how plans are designed, for instance how portable are they without penalty, how much employers contribute and how workers can access those contributions more than the particular legal structure. In other words, it’s possible to design a 401K plan that is generous or stingy or a pension plan that works well for workers or penalizes most.
  4. Social Security plays a role here. Teachers should be in Social Security in addition to a retirement plan. Forty percent are not and it costs them.

RTT And Common Core: Coercion Or Catalyst?

An ongoing debate in the education world right now is whether the Obama Administration coerced states to adopt Common Core.  There are strong feelings on all sides, particularly among those who see Common Core as national overreach. But the stridency masks some nuance in how states are approaching Common Core and why behind the scenes there is bipartisan hope that the standards can weather the current storm (and also why despite the noise states are not jumping).

Maybe to understand what’s going on it’s one where you have you keep two things in mind at once. In September 2010 we asked the Whiteboard Education Insiders survey two questions about this very issue. First we asked, would the number of states adopting Common Core be as high absent Race to the Top? Seventy-six percent of Insiders said it would not have been. But we then asked if the Common Core adoption would be sustained after federal dollars linked to it stopped flowing? Seventy-nine percent said it would.

So perhaps both sides are right to some extent, but it was more of a jump start than outright coercion.


May 13, 2014

New Education Insider Survey From Whiteboard

New Whiteboard Advisors Education Insider survey out this morning (pdf). Higher ed, Common Core, and just how effective at influencing policy are all those ed tech companies?


May 12, 2014

Edujob – Paid Internships @Whiteboard Advisors

Whiteboard Advisors is seeking interns – good chance to work on a variety of ed policy and practice issues. Fast-paced, DC-based, and compensated. More information and how to apply here.