Just as Jackie Chan reintroduced many of us to Edwin Starr’s classic anthem, Emily Hanford did something remarkably similar last month with education research. Her hard-hitting report on our national resignation to childhood illiteracy was one of the best pieces of education journalism in recent memory. If you were one of the few who missed it, the upshot of Hanford’s stellar radio documentary was that many teachers today are still in the dark when it comes to the sizable research base on effective reading pedagogy.
It’s unsettling to think that educators in 2018 wouldn’t know about (or worse, actively resist) the remunerative power of explicit and systematic phonics instruction, but the research described in Hanford’s piece was neither novel nor surprising. In fact, her sources have been readily available since the disco era. I used this same information to launch one of the nation’s first no-excuses charter elementary schools nearly fifteen years ago. What made Hanford’s piece stand out was the explanatory tack she took in spotlighting the bizarre fallout of the now defunct reading wars that persist to this day.
Back in the early aughts, the no-excuses model was primarily a middle school one. The standout sites like Amistad, North Star, and KIPP were approaching ten years in operation, and had taken the sector by storm in defying conventional wisdom about what low-income black and brown middle schoolers were capable of. Yet the leaders of this nascent movement also realized it might behoove them to pre-empt the yawning achievement gaps with which their fifth graders arrived. The question was how and whether their model would translate to the elementary grades. The school I started, Elm City College Prep, was determined to find out.
A high-quality, research-based curriculum provided the foundation for our effort, as the goal was to not only prevent students from falling behind, but to help them get ahead. This was especially important for reading, which along with character development would be the school’s top priority. Because of Project Follow Through, the National Reading Panel, and Reading First, we chose Reading Mastery/Direct Instruction (DI). It was an obvious selection given the program’s track record of success.
For those who may be unfamiliar with DI, Robert Pondiscio wrote an instructive piece on the program earlier this year. DI also has some claim to fame in our nation’s history and popular culture. President George W. Bush was reading from a DI story in a Florida classroom on the morning of September 11, 2001. I don’t have the data for that school, but I imagine it might have been comparable to the district surrounding mine, where only a quarter of Kindergartners were reading on level.
Thanks in no small part to faithful DI implementation, my school produced some stunning results. Though our students started off on par with their district counterparts, by year’s end nearly all of them were on grade level. More than half were at least a year above grade level. One of those students was Ebony, a bright-eyed first grader who, like most of her classmates, had attended a low-performing school prior to coming over to mine. I took this picture of Ebony (top half) when she was in third grade, and she’s now an eloquent college student at Franklin and Marshall. Ebony’s story is just one of many shining examples of what’s possible when kids are provided a solid foundation in reading.
To be sure, decoding is only one piece of the larger puzzle. Many of my first graders could read at the fifth grade level with beautifully emotive fluency, but could not follow what was happening due to gaps in both vocabulary and background knowledge. But given the district-wide difficulties in reading, it was a good problem to have. Among other strategies, we leveraged the Core Knowledge curriculum to help address some of these deficiencies, but cracking the social-capital code remains challenging for many low-income students of color.
Unfortunately, as Hanford pointed out in her piece, part of the problem is that there’s a tacit acceptance of low-income students not reading well because of—among other excuses—poverty. In addition, counter to popular belief, learning to read is not natural. It requires explicit teaching of phonemic awareness, phonics, and decoding. Instead, students are too often provided ineffectual strategies (the equating of “pony” and “horse” from Hanford’s story was particularly outrageous) because ideology and other smokescreens are placed ahead of the science—especially in schools of education. Until we prove what’s possible on a larger scale, stories like Ebony’s and those from Bethlehem, PA, the site of Hanford’s report, will continue to be the exception rather than the norm.
Hanford’s documentary was a needed wake-up call, but obliviousness or outright scorn of education research isn’t limited to reading instruction. As much as we lament the research-to-policy divide, the distance between research and practice is that much more formidable. Through no fault of their own, too many teachers continue to hold incorrect beliefs about reading acquisition. It follows then that student performance in reading has been stuck in neutral for the last thirty years, and that all of the data and evidence in the world are little match against our values and belief systems.
Marc Tucker has written recent columns, one of them reprinted in The Education Gadfly Weekly, that make a very important point: Public education systems developed back in the Industrial Era are not well suited to today’s world. He argues that other countries, which started building their mass education systems much later than we did, have been able to mold them with modern realities in mind. Unfortunately, he adds, the adults who benefit from our outdated public education systems have held us back from emulating these countries because they fight to preserve the old ways.
Tucker would have us emulate Singapore and Shanghai:
In both cases, a great effort is made to place first-rate teachers and administrators in the schools serving the most disadvantaged. The expectations for students are set very high for all students and the students are given a curriculum that is matched to those standards. But the teachers are given much more time to work with each other to develop highly effective lessons and effective teaching techniques so the students can reach those higher standards. Their approach to formative evaluation provides teachers with the skills needed to figure out whether every student in the class understands the material as it is being taught, so no one falls behind. If a student does fall behind, a team of teachers is formed to figure out why and fix the problem, whatever it is, in school or out. If a whole group of students is falling behind, the core curriculum is stretched out and enriched for them and the students get much more support, whether that means before school, during the school day, on Saturdays or during the summer, in small groups, one-on-one, whatever it takes. More time, more support, but not lower standards.
In this system, students do not routinely arrive at middle school from elementary school two or even three years behind. It simply does not happen. Nor does it happen at the transition from middle school to high school. The teachers take collective responsibility for the students, monitor them closely and work together in real time to address problems in performance as they arise, not after they have accumulated for years. They are given the time, support, training and leadership they need do that.
If one of our states set up a system like this, it could reasonably expect to cut the proportion of its students not ready for college dramatically in ten years and, no less important, greatly increase the probability that any given child from a poor family will do well enough to get into a highly selective college.
We don’t have a state system like this, but I have seen exactly what Tucker is describing in several cities, where charter authorizers have created high-performing charter sectors. The fastest improving city in the nation has been New Orleans, since Hurricane Katrina, for exactly this reason. It now has roughly eighty public charter schools and only two traditional public schools, which will both convert to charters in the next year or two. The practices Tucker describes are not seen in all of these schools, but they are common in many. And New Orleans has indeed “cut the proportion of its students not ready for college dramatically.”
The second fastest improving city over the past decade, according to NAEP scores, has been Washington, D.C. There, 47 percent of public school students were in charters last year, which operate under the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which enforces high standards and closes or replaces schools that don’t meet them. Chicago was also moving in this direction under Arne Duncan, with Renaissance 2010, but its academic progress has largely stalled since Mayor Emanuel effectively froze charter growth in 2013.
Denver is the other big city whose students are mostly low-income that has improved the most rapidly. This happened in part because the school district embraced charters a decade ago and now educates almost a quarter of its students in them. In addition, Denver Public Schools has tried to treat many of its district-operated schools, called “innovation schools,” more like charters. The district has also worked hard to import charter practices into all of its district-run schools. Like New Orleans, both Denver and D.C. have dramatically increased the percentage of students ready for college.
This kind of progress is also taking place in the charter sectors of cities with strong authorizers, such as Boston, New York, Newark, and Camden. In some cities, including D.C., Denver, Boston, and Newark, traditional public schools are learning from charters and embracing similar practices.
The magic is not in the word charter. The magic is in giving schools significant autonomy, holding them accountable, replacing the weakest with the strongest and encouraging the strongest to open more schools, encouraging schools to differentiate their learning models to help kids with different needs, and letting families choose between these models. Some places, like Indianapolis, are beginning to do this without calling it chartering, and it's working. Indianapolis Public Schools calls its model Innovation Network Schools.
These reforms give schools both the autonomy they need to do what Tucker advocates and the urgency required to go to such lengths.
As Tucker concludes, “There is no reason why schooling cannot once again be the gateway to opportunity in the United States that it once was.” To get there, however, we must create more of these new systems. That is not easy, for precisely the reason Tucker points out: Those who benefit from the old ways fight hard to hold on to what they have. But if we care about all children, we must overcome the political obstacles. We must grow these new systems within the remains of the old.
David Osborne is the author of Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System and directs the education work of the Progressive Policy Institute.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
From the outside, Heather’s daughter was doing just fine at her suburban district school. “Teagan picked up concepts quickly and was one of her teachers’ favorite students,” said Heather. It was no surprise then, that she was identified as gifted.
While Teagan was excelling academically, she was having other challenges. “The older she got, the more anxiety she had about school,” said Heather. Teagan loved the academic side of school but found herself becoming increasingly isolated, especially at lunch and recess. Still, she found a close group of friends and was managing her way through elementary school, even if she was not being challenged to her full potential.
Things were very different for her younger brother, Cael. Even in preschool, it was clear that he was profoundly gifted. “When he got excited by a topic, he went really deep into it. Way beyond what you would see in a typical four-year- old,” said Heather. Given his love of learning, he was looking forward to Kindergarten, but school was a struggle for him from day one.
Cael was well above grade level in the subjects he found interesting. Yet it was nearly impossible to engage him in other subjects, and he struggled to connect with his teachers and classmates. “When Cael gets frustrated, he can just shut down,” said Heather, “and it takes a long time to get him back.” Like many gifted students, Cael experienced asynchronous development: He excelled well beyond his peers in certain areas but lagged behind in others.
Heather spent countless hours working with Cael’s teachers and district officials to make accommodations for him, but even the most experienced educators started to run out of ideas. “Cael is a square peg, and they kept trying to pound him into a round hole.” By his first-grade year, Cael’s anxiety around school had become a major roadblock. “He had grown to loathe school and began making any excuse to stay home.” It was clear to Heather that he needed a better option.
Heather’s mother, a lifelong educator with a Ph.D. in child development, saw her daughter and grandchildren struggling in a traditional school.
She knew Teagan wasn’t happy and was especially worried for Cael. She encouraged Heather to look into moving the kids from their suburban district into a Cleveland charter public school that had been specifically designed to meet the needs of gifted learners. Menlo Park Academy proved to be just the kind of school Teagan needed to thrive. For Cael, Heather calls it “a life saver.”
Menlo Park Academy was formed by a group of parents in 2008 who worked to take over the charter of the recently shuttered Lorain School for the Gifted. It opened with only thirty-eight students, but as word quickly spread among the tight-knit gifted community, enrollment grew to sixty students by the end of its first year. Enrollment continued to swell as the school moved into a series of former Catholic school buildings located on the outskirts of Cleveland. By 2015, Menlo Park had 400 students and a long waitlist. Some school leaders might have been satisfied, but Menlo Park’s leadership wanted to do more for Cleveland’s gifted students.
“We knew there was a huge need, especially in the city,” said founder and current board chair of Menlo Park Academy Teri Harrison, “and we wanted to meet that need.” That vision drove Menlo Park’s board to purchase and renovate the Joseph & Feiss building, which provided the school with a new, larger location that brought new opportunity to Menlo Park Academy. Its leaders entered into a formal partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, as part of The Cleveland Plan. Some critics had questioned the district partnering with a school they saw as too small and serving students from communities outside of the city. Yet their move closer to downtown and nearly doubling in size over the coming years “gives Menlo the chance to help close the opportunity gap for hundreds of gifted learners in Cleveland,” says Teri. Less than a year after moving to their new location, Cleveland’s need for a school like Menlo Park Academy became even more pronounced as the district considered merging its only gifted school into a traditional neighborhood school.
On a recent visit to Menlo Park Academy, Rachel Mabe’s fourth grade class is digging into a challenge they’d been working on all year: a zombie apocalypse. Integrating social studies, math, science, and language arts, Rachel has created an engaging “zombie-based curriculum.” During this visit, her students play a life-sized board game that combines lessons on teamwork, entrepreneurship, product development, pricing, marketing, economic systems, and equity—all while trying to survive the zombies.
About ten minutes in, Rachel stops the game: “I just had an argument with this group over here, and I want to share it with the rest of the class because it was really good.” It turns out Rachel designed the game to be intentionally vague: “Real life doesn’t come with a rule book.” The class has a quick conversation on how students could adjust their strategies to be more successful. The students enthusiastically dive back into the game. Talking with Rachel after class, she explains her rationale. “The best way to engage gifted kids is to challenge them, let them fail a little and push them to come up with their own answers.”
One student noticeably absent from the game is Cael. He sits in a corner with his head down for most of the class, only looking up once or twice. Rachel explains, “Cael’s having a tough day, so we’re giving him his space.” He may not be engaging with the class, but Rachel knows from experience that he’s taking it all in. “Cael has a different learning style, and he keeps us on our toes, but we’re figuring out when we need to push him and when we need to support him.”
Cael’s mom Heather couldn’t be happier with the way Menlo approaches these challenges. “Menlo is used to kids who are just different.” She appreciates that the teachers and leaders at Menlo Park Academy maintain a supportive environment, frequently making accommodations or finding alternative ways for their gifted student to demonstrate mastery. “I feel really well supported,” says Heather. “We’re all working together to help Cael, and I really appreciate that they are constantly willing to meet him halfway.”
As for her daughter Teagan, while she initially struggled with the higher-level content when she changed schools, she’s thriving at Menlo. “At my old school, I got bored easily, so I stopped engaging,” she says. But at Menlo, that isn’t an option. “Menlo encourages creative liberty and open thinking with a lot of interactive projects; it’s completely different.” Teagan especially loves this year’s bright, open, and fluid new learning space. “It’s a lot more comfortable and breathable,” says Teagan. “They brought the whole idea of Menlo and what it means to be a gifted learner to light.”
Menlo Park Academy families often say, “We don’t know what we would do without Menlo.” For Teagan, Menlo offers her the challenge and freedom to fully develop her abilities and love of learning. For her brother Cael, his teachers’ flexibility and experience ensure his amazing gifts do not derail him academically. Over the coming years, Menlo Park Academy will grow to provide these same opportunities to more than 800 gifted students each school year. As Ohio’s only K–8 gifted and talented school, Menlo Park Academy will be many gifted children’s best hope for reaching their true potential.
Lyman Millard is a partner at the Bloomwell Group, and he authored the report from which this essay is excerpted, Pathway to Success: Menlo Park Academy gives gifted children a unique space where they can thrive, which the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published in September 2018.
The demand side of voucher programs is often studied, as are student outcomes. Far less analyzed is the supply side of the equation—why private schools do or don’t participate in publicly funded voucher programs. A recent analysis released by the Cato Institute looks to redress that balance. Unfortunately, the effort founders due to the limitations of the study design.
Researchers Corey DeAngelis and Blake Hoarty sensibly theorize that when the costs of participation (increased regulation imposed on schools by the state) outweigh the benefits of greater enrollment and more revenue, private schools will opt not to participate. That is, they’ll refuse to accept voucher students. The researchers further theorize that lower-quality schools will have more incentive to participate due to the need for funding and will more readily accept regulation in order to gain the additional funding. If true, this would tend to reduce access to high quality educational options rather than expanding access.
DeAngelis and Hoarty reviewed two voucher programs: the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) and Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program (EdChoice). These were chosen because they are two of three such programs with the highest regulatory burden upon them, according to a Fordham-sponsored report published in 2013. To test the school-quality theory, DeAngelis and Hoarty used four data sources—tuition rate, enrollment, and two different online review scores—as proxies for school quality. The higher the tuition, enrollment, and customer scores on Google and GreatSchools, the better the school was determined to be and the less likely the school should be to participate in the voucher program.
The researchers found that a $1,000 increase in tuition was associated with a 3 percent lower likelihood of participation in MPCP and a 3.8 percent lower likelihood of participation in EdChoice. However, school enrollment level was not found to significantly affect likelihood of participation in either program. Likewise, while a one-point increase in a GreatSchools review score was associated with a 14.8 percent reduction in the likelihood of participation in MPCP and a 17.8 percent reduction in the likelihood of participation in EdChoice, Google review scores were not found to significantly affect likelihood of participation in either program. From these findings, DeAngelis and Hoarty conclude that their theory—that lower-quality schools are more willing to put up with the regulatory burden in exchange for access to additional money—is “the strongest theory currently available” that fits the correlational connection in the data.
And herein lies the limitation of this analysis: the existence of strong yet untestable alternative theories.
DeAngelis and Hoarty note that the average private school in the samples from both Google and GreatSchools were less than one point away from the maximum possible rating, indicating that most schools—whether voucher participants or not—are clustered at or near the top of the scale. While the lowest-rated schools may be the most likely to participate, these are largely outliers. Another strong theory would posit that, since all such ratings systems are subjective, ratings could be dragged down or up based on a host of non-academic criteria, such as lunch programs, extracurricular activities, neighborhood location, and bus transportation. Additionally, the researchers note that such open source ratings could suffer from bias introduced by ratings from non-customers. However, a far more in-depth analysis would be required to test this theory. Meanwhile, school enrollment level—not susceptible to such bias and likely a more robust marker of school quality in states with robust school choice environments—is shown not to significantly affect participation decisions. We accept the testable over the non-testable theory at our peril.
The notion of regulation of private schools within voucher programs is similarly problematic. Despite ranking first and third on the Fordham report’s overall scale of “regulatory burden,” MPCP and EdChoice varied greatly in the various domains classified as burdens. Indeed, of the seven specific areas of regulation listed for MPCP by DeAngelis and Hoarty, EdChoice shares only two of them. Private schools in Ohio have a long history of state support. Since the 1960s, students attending private school have been provided state funded transportation, or parental payment in lieu of transportation, followed in the 1970s by assistance to schools to purchase secular textbooks and curricular materials, and in the 1980s by reimbursements for hiring psychologists and therapists, among many other administrative expenses. In exchange for this largesse, amounting to over $206 million in 2016, or more than $1,000 per pupil, private schools in Ohio have voluntarily agreed to more oversight by the state than is typical elsewhere. The increased regulatory “burden” upon Ohio’s private schools for accepting students with vouchers is negligible and is part and parcel of the strong relationship between the state and those schools, which long predates EdChoice and includes private school voucher participants and non-participants alike.
Additionally, the topic of student eligibility is treated too generally in the analysis. It makes sense to assume that most private schools in Milwaukee would be within reasonable travel distance for all eligible students—pegged at 69 percent of the student body. However, there are parts of Ohio in which the eligibility rate is 100 percent and other parts in which the eligibility rate is zero. If there are no eligible students within reasonable travel distance of a highly-rated private school, it will be a non-participant whether or not the leadership wants to participate. The supply of eligible students is a direct determining factor in private schools’ choice to participate not accounted for in the Ohio analysis. That is not tested here, although it could have been.
Finally, the one variable that would likely have the most direct effect on a private school’s participation decision is the amount of money voucher bring in. It is not analyzed here because there is no experimental comparison to be made. The average voucher funding amount for MPCP is $7,503 per student, approximately 65 percent of the average public school per pupil funding level in Milwaukee. The average voucher funding amount for EdChoice is a mere $4,705, approximately 37 percent of the average public school per pupil funding level in Ohio. These are paltry amounts compared to average tuition costs and once again call into question whether private schools are really in the voucher game for the money. What would be the effect of raising voucher amounts by increments of $1,000 on school participation? Impossible to tell without a state doing just that, but there is clearly room for Wisconsin and Ohio to raise voucher amounts while still maintaining a net savings for education spending in each state. In Ohio, the lowest-performing school districts—where a majority of voucher-eligible students live—typically receive per-pupil funding well in excess of the state average, leaving even more room for voucher funding levels to rise. That would be an experiment worth doing.
In the end, DeAngelis and Hoarty are right only in their basic assumption: that participation decisions for private schools are based on a balance of benefits versus costs. While they assert that excessive regulation is the “strongest theory currently available” to explain the observed levels of private school participation in MPCP and EdChoice, real world details are too lacking on both the benefits and the costs to truly rule out any of a number of other theories.
SOURCE: Corey A. DeAngelis and Blake Hoarty, “Who Participates? An Analysis of School Participation Decisions in Two Voucher Programs in the United States,” CATO Institute (September, 2018).
High-quality curriculum is among the most cost-effective tools available to school districts to boost student achievement. Investing in it sounds like a no-brainer, but as a new study from the Center for American Progress demonstrates, school districts still struggle to do so. Authors Lisette Partelow and Sarah Shapiro discovered that only a handful of the nation’s thirty largest school districts are using high quality materials in most of their classrooms.
Partelow and Shapiro scoured the websites of each of these thirty school districts, which collectively enroll more than six million students, to determine which math and English language arts (ELA) curriculums they use at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. They emailed each district to verify and round out the information, ending with twenty-six full profiles. To evaluate the quality of each curriculum, the researchers used two respected rating systems: EdReports and Louisiana’s annotated reviews of curricular resources. EdReports evaluates a curriculum by its usability and its alignment to college-ready standards, while the Louisiana Department of Education reviews materials for their alignment to the Louisiana Student Standards. Each has its own three-level grading system—Green, Yellow, and Red for EdReports, and Tiers I–III for Louisiana. There is significant overlap in their methodologies, although Louisiana’s rating system is somewhat more selective because it has a handful of automatic-fail provisions. The combined results show the somewhat-concerning state of curriculum selection in some of our largest school districts.
The authors find that only four of these twenty-six districts are using high-quality curriculum in nearly every subject. Even then, only two—Wake County Public School System in North Carolina and Duval County Public Schools in Florida—manage to avoid using any low-rated materials. That means the other twenty-four districts are using at least one math or ELA curriculum with a low rating. In fact, eleven districts are not using any highly-rated curriculums. Looking at the results in aggregate shows that only about one-third of all the materials included in this study earn a Green ranking from EdReports, and less than 20 percent achieve Louisiana’s Tier I status.
Adopting high quality curriculum is clearly difficult. Partelow and Shapiro highlight some implementation best practices in four large districts. Take the Wake County Public School System, which includes Raleigh, NC. After a 50 percent textbook budget cut, the district discovered—unsurprisingly—that teachers were under-resourced and creating their own materials. District leaders identified a handful of highly-rated curriculum options and worked with teachers and the community to make a final selection. They chose all online open educational resources (OERs). Thanks to these free and easily-accessible curriculums, the remaining budget cushion could be diverted into professional development for teachers, and parents can more easily see and understand what their children are learning.
The authors identify a few limitations in their research. Aside from a widespread lack of details about each curriculum, like the edition used or the year of publication (ratings can vary from version to version), the rating systems examine curriculums on standards-alignment, not on outcomes. As Partelow and Shapiro point out, very little research exists yet on how these high-quality materials affect student achievement. More importantly, there is no guarantee teachers are actively using the selected curriculums. According to a report from the Brookings Institution earlier this year, teachers often say they see district-mandated materials as just “one resource among many.” Without a picture of day-to-day learning inside classrooms throughout a district, evaluating the quality of the required curriculum will only take us so far in understanding the expectations to which students are held.
Partelow and Shapiro end their report with a series of recommendations for better implementation of high-quality curriculums. Among them is developing clear frameworks for curriculum selection instead of relying on “the most intriguing sales pitch.” They also emphasize transparency throughout the process, especially with parents. And districts should be more open to online options, as OERs continue to increase in quantity and quality. Underlying all these recommendations is the need for more data, especially about outcomes. Hopefully this “preliminary dip” is just one of the first in an ongoing exploration of how to improve curriculums across the country.
SOURCE: Lisette Partelow and Sarah Shapiro, “Curriculum Reform in the Nation’s Largest School Districts.” Center for American Progress (August 2018).
On this week’s podcast, Seth Gershenson, associate professor at American University, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss the Fordham study he recently authored on high school grade inflation. On the Research Minute, Adam Tyner examines the impact of principal effectiveness on teacher turnover.
Amber’s Research Minute
Jason A. Grissom and Brendan Bartanen, “Strategic Retention: Principal Effectiveness and Teacher Turnover in Multiple-Measure Teacher Evaluation Systems,” American Educational Research Journal (September 2018).