By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
I know nobody who denies that high school education in America sorely needs an overhaul. Achievement scores are flat—whether one looks at NAEP, PISA, TIMSS, SAT, or the ACT. Graduation rates are up—but incidents of padding, cheating, and fraud are appearing more and more often. Scads of kids enter college ill prepared to succeed there. Scads of others enter the workforce without the skills to succeed there, either, at least not without lots of repair work. The military is rejecting many who would like to enlist. Upward mobility is more or less stagnant. And there are abundant signs of social and personal dysfunction among young people during and after high school. And that’s without even getting to the most heinous stuff like shootings.
Yet it turns out to be extremely hard to formulate any sort of coherent plan for reform at the high school level, and harder still to implement it. We’ve tried so many different things: small high schools, virtual high schools, charter high schools, girls’ high schools, early college high schools, thematic high schools, more Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate and dual enrollment, (a few) more selective-admission high schools, end-of-course exams, statewide graduation tests, personalized learning, alternatives to transcripts, multiple pathways…I really could go on. Each one of these made sense at various times and places—and all of them are underway in various places today. But it’s sort of a big mess, a Tower of Babel or Noah’s Ark of reforms. And in the big picture, it’s not doing very much good.
Why is this proving so hard—so much harder than the relatively coherent array of elementary and middle school reforms that have actually done some good, albeit not enough lately? On reflection, I can spot at least ten underlying problems, dilemmas, or unresolved principles that get in the way of major progress. Taken together, they comprise a sort of Gordian knot that has thus far proven impossible to untangle and that nobody has the power to simply cut through.
- Confusion and dissension over the end product. The phrase “college and career ready” trips off many a tongue nowadays, but it doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Self-respecting liberals—and most educators—want everyone to go to college, or simply can’t imagine anything else, yet not everybody belongs in college or even wants to go. College readiness and career readiness aren’t really the same thing, anyway, except at a high level of abstraction. And while our best high schools are doing a solid job of prepping sizable fractions of their mostly-privileged students for mostly-traditional colleges, they’re neglecting other kids. Our worst high schools aren’t preparing anyone for anything.
- High schools have essentially no say over the preparation of their entering students. Some can select among applicants, but most must take whomever and whatever the middle schools send their way, regardless of how much or how little they possess by way of skills and knowledge. When you have no control over what comes in and you lack clarity about what you’re trying to produce—well, you sort of have a right to be muddled and ineffectual.
- We’re in the midst of a savage confusion between the traditional metrics of course credits and “Carnegie units” on the one hand and “standards and competencies” on the other. Which is the right way to gauge students’ progress, success, and readiness to graduate? Most states and districts today are trying to have it both ways. Another fundamental muddle.
- We’re afraid of denying kids diplomas. It’s well and good to want all young people to earn diplomas—documents that matter in our society and in the future lives of individuals. But it’s quite another thing to conclude, whether for humanitarian or political reasons (or both), that almost everybody must receive them, earned or not.
- Hence our policies focus overmuch on raising graduation rates, which—as with every high-stakes metric in the history of education and probably every other field—leads to all manner of finagling, fudging, hedging, and downright cheating.
- For historical, political, and civil rights reasons, we’re allergic to “tracking” at the secondary level, even the sophisticated, flexible, and non-discriminatory kinds that they do in other advanced countries.
- Which has caused us also to kill off “vocational education.” While there are many worthy efforts underway to revive it—retitled “career and technical education”—deep down most educators still see it as inferior to what, back in the days of tracking, was usually called “college prep.”
- For millions of kids, high school—at least the academic part—is too damn boring and pointless. Why are they being told to study calculus? Why is history so dull? What does chemistry or third-year French have to do with their lives? “Sure, they say it’s important for my future,” says a not untypical student, “but there are so many other things that actually engage my interest at this point in my life.” Keep in mind, too, Amanda Ripley’s insight: Kids in other countries go to high school to learn stuff, while a great many young Americans see high school as a venue for sports, socializing, and such.
- In so many schools, the considerable counseling that kids at this age need and ought to be getting is instead minimal to useless, generally boiled down to course scheduling and college applications. As families falter, this void worsens. Too many students are left to ask, “Who is there—who that I trust and can confide in—to help me with the big questions about my life?”
- Finally, we encounter the usual grown-up bickering over control, power, jobs, and budgets. Is high schooling really the exclusive property of K–12 districts? Why isn’t it—and the resources and decision-making that come with it—shared with employers, union-based apprenticeship programs, community colleges, and more? Why not with many more independent and charter schools? If we’re serious about career and technical education, how do we divide budgets and control between college-prep schools and CTE providers? And as some boundaries blur—dual credit and early college being prime examples—how do we apportion responsibility and keep taxpayers from paying twice?
A Gordian knot indeed. Accolades and blessings to any who can find the thread and unsnarl it, or simply sharpen their blades and slice through.
With the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 just days away, it felt right to explore another race that featured rip-roaring speed and heart-pounding momentum. In my last post, I called out a few variables that contributed to Indiana’s robust education policy landscape at the beginning of this decade. As I shared in that piece, a confluence of events led to an alignment of the stars, one that’s unlikely to be repeated anytime in the near future. Under the leadership of Governor Mitch Daniels and State Superintendent Tony Bennett, we proposed and enacted sweeping legislative changes that affected teacher quality, collective bargaining, and school choice (charters and vouchers).
During this period, Indiana was unafraid of education innovation, and had some good results to show for it—a testament to the many educators across the state who embraced these changes, as well as gutsy policymakers. Although we accomplished most of what we initially set out to do, there was plenty more that needed to be done when our efforts were abruptly halted by politics. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but the greatest pain is not knowing what might have been. It’s purely conjecture, but I believe Indiana today would be a national leader à la Tennessee or Massachusetts if we had been able to see our reforms through.
Last month’s NAEP results raise further anxiety. It appears that achievement progress has stalled in the Hoosier State; the question is what happened and why. Notwithstanding what we got done between 2009 and 2012, what’s transpired since should serve as a cautionary tale. Specifically, there were three repercussions from the 2012 election that trickled down and adversely influenced schools and districts across Indiana. This is not to say that there are not good people in the state who have been (and continue to be) committed to the direction we had initially set out. Rather, these three pieces made their work much more difficult.
1. Tumult at the top
In 2012, then Congressman, now Vice President Mike Pence was elected as the fiftieth Governor of Indiana and was immediately at odds with the former teachers union president, who was sworn in as the new state superintendent after she upset reform champion Tony Bennett. Overnight, the state went from having a unified vision for education to two diametrically opposing views—with the pro-reform old guard (myself included) on one side, and the anti-reform new supe and her attendants on the other. I didn’t stick around long enough for the prolonged aftermath, but by many accounts it was like watching a car crash in slow motion. The mixed messages coming from the state sowed confusion and frustration in many schools and classrooms.
There’s been a lot handwringing over what Governor Pence did or didn’t do to defend the reforms we had put in place (e.g., Common Core), but I give the current vice president high marks for quickly establishing a new agency early on in his administration to act as a stopgap against those who wanted to unravel the accomplishments of the previous four years. Created by executive order, the Center for Education and Career Innovation helped fill the vacuum in state-level policy leadership following the election. With all of the squabbles and finger pointing, it’s tough to say how much forward progress was made (the agency was abolished a year later), but I shudder to think what would have happened if the agency hadn’t been there initially to provide some stability. It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but the state was in uncharted waters and it took courage to make a move that was necessary, but unpopular with some.
2. An exodus of talent
It comes with the territory, but the change in state leadership meant that a lot of talented people with a great deal of institutional knowledge also packed their bags. The new state superintendent completely dissolved the Innovation and Improvement division, which I led. And the key leaders on educator quality, policy, and accountability, who had been working hand in glove with school district leaders to implement the new laws, departed.
Nor were there smooth transitions. Ours might not have been as messy as the one on Pennsylvania Avenue, but many beats were missed during the handoff. For example, I was never asked to summarize or share my division’s organization and performance goals, even though my team was the tip of the spear on our reforms. As it stands, state education agencies already have a difficult enough time attracting and retaining talent. Capacity is a perennial issue, and it was tough to see all of the hard work around recruitment and retention washed away in one fell swoop.
3. Politics trumps policy
There’s no need to mince words: The 2012 state superintendent election in Indiana was a brass-knuckled affair. Many families that went to parent-teacher conferences that fall received both their child’s report card and a bumper sticker. And giving credit where credit is due: The opposition utilized a creative ground game—albeit of suspect legality—to paint Tony Bennett as a caricature of the heroic leader and steadfast reformer that I know him to be. For example, a social media post went viral the weekend before the election claiming that Tony was aiming to dismantle music education across the state. It was an absurd claim about a change that we neither had the authority nor the inclination to implement, but it typifies the fighting style we were up against. Our opponents effectively pioneered the trafficking of alternative facts and fake news years before it became popular. I guess you could say they were ahead of their time.
Even after we lost, they continued their attacks. The ongoing barrage sucked all of the oxygen out of the room. With no new policy ideas to offer, political games and name-calling dominated the day, and the relationship between the new superintendent and the new governor descended into dysfunction. The supe and her aides kept up their antics in an effort to distract and disorient. The net result was that policy innovation came to a standstill.
Suffice it to say, 2013–16 was a difficult chapter for education policy in Indiana. The anti-reform forces that rose to power did everything they could to throttle and sabotage forward progress, from teacher evaluation and school turnaround to accountability and school choice. Watching all of this happen from the sidelines wasn’t easy. Fortunately, the voters came to their senses and recognized that the interminable tension and pointed clashes weren’t in the best interest of anyone. (The governor’s ascendancy to the vice presidency surely had an effect too.) It also turned out to be the last straw for state legislators, as they made the office of state superintendent an appointed one, instead of elected, for the first time in the office’s 167 years history. Given that more than half of the state’s budget is dedicated to education, there’s something to be said for providing the executive branch greater latitude over this position.
As vitriolic, unrelenting, and opposed to reform as our opponents were, I believe their shortsightedness will be looked back upon as simply a minor setback. The positive effects of the reforms we installed will continue to emerge in the coming years. Enshrined into Indiana law, there was a limit to how much damage the opposition could do. To their chagrin, many have become sustained changes that touch the lives of every student in the state. It’s a legacy that all Hoosiers should be proud of. And although I no longer count myself as a resident, I raise a bottle of cold milk to all of my friends there who continue the good fight on behalf of Indiana’s children.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Turning around low-performing schools is hard. Most strategies financed by federal dollars have long shown disappointing results, and states have avoided fundamental reforms, instead hiring specialists and retraining school staff.
But states have the opportunity to do something different under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which allows them to try creative strategies for fixing their worst schools, and education leaders ought to take advantage of it. As Nelson Smith and I argue in a recent article in NASBE’s The Standard, one promising option is charter school expansion, wherein struggling schools are replaced by charters.
Under ESSA, states must identify and take action on two types of troubled schools: those requiring comprehensive support and improvement (the lowest achieving 5 percent of Title I schools, plus high schools with low graduation rates) and those that need targeted improvement because they routinely fail a particular group such as low-income, minority, or special education students.
ESSA is intentionally silent on what states should do about such schools—even when they require “rigorous intervention” because more timid correctives have not worked. This deference is a major change from the No Child Left Behind Act, as is ESSA’s scrapping of NCLB’s School Improvement Grants. States are instead required to set aside 7 percent of their Title I funds to turn around low-performing schools using “evidence-based improvements” of their choosing. The 2018 appropriations bill signed in March provides $15.8 billion for Title I, meaning $1.1 billion is available for these efforts in the current fiscal year.
All fifty states and the District of Columbia have now submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Education to meet these and other ESSA obligations. The agency did not ask for many specifics on how states would handle turnarounds, however, so most avoided tipping their hands. And every state’s new budget, superintendent contract negotiations, and annual list of education board priorities is an opportunity for leaders to review progress and fill gaps.
There are at least two persuasive reasons charter school expansion is a turnaround strategy worth pursuing. The first is that charters have long shown promising results for disadvantaged students trapped in struggling schools. CREDO’s massive 2015 study of urban charter schools, for example, which reviewed forty-one regions, concluded that “[U]rban charter students [are] receiving the equivalent of roughly forty days of additional learning per year in math and twenty-eight additional days of learning per year in reading” compared to their peers in traditional public schools. The study revealed particularly strong charter performance for “black, Hispanic, low-income, and special-education students in both math and reading.” Of the regions studied, “regions with larger learning gains in charter schools outnumber those with smaller learning gains two-to-one.”
Second, as Fordham’s recent report, Charter School Deserts, finds, there are more than 450 areas across the country ripe for just this sort of charter school creation. The report defined “charter school deserts” as areas of three or more contiguous census tracts with moderate or high poverty and no charter elementary schools. It finds that thirty-nine of forty-two charter states have at least one desert each—and the average number of deserts per state is a worrying 10.8. That’s a lot of deserts. And because schools with higher levels of poverty are more likely to be low performing, that’s a lot of opportunities for states to use charter school expansion as a way to improve the plight of students attending struggling schools.
To be sure, there’s no magic in the word “charter.” Getting the best out of this model requires vigilant authorizers, adequate resources, and diligent management. But charters can achieve powerful results by innovating in talent, professional development, curriculum, school structure, schedules, and beyond. And they seem to have the strongest comparative advantage in the distressed areas where the needs for a fresh start are greatest.
Efforts in Texas and Florida provide possible templates. Back in March, the U.S. Department of Education approved Texas’s ESSA plan. And as my colleague Mike Petrilli wrote, this was a “big, big deal.” That’s because the state included provisions in its plan describing how it intends to use its Title I set aside money for, among other things, “Closing the identified school and consolidating the students into a higher performing or new school, whether charter or district managed,” and “creating new schools, whether district or charter, to provide students in identified schools with new and better education options....” In short, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told Texas that it can use these federal funds to start new schools, including charters, and close low-performing ones, rather than just work to turn them around. Some had argued that the money couldn’t be used in this way under ESSA. The Education Department didn’t agree, and now any state can follow in Texas’s footsteps.
Florida’s “Schools of Hope” legislation presents another template. Passed in 2017, the law provides incentives for high-quality nonprofit charters to locate within five miles of low-performing schools as Hope Operators. The state board of education approved rules earlier this year requiring that applicants must already have cleared some high bar—either being awarded a replication grant by the federal Department of Education, or by the Charter School Growth Fund, or being chosen by the local district as a turnaround operator.
Decades of turnaround efforts have done little to transform America’s lowest performing schools. Under ESSA, states have the novel opportunity to try a new strategy: charter expansion. These schools have long been a blessing for the country’s most disadvantaged kids, many of whom are trapped in failing district schools because they don’t have access to other options, like charters. States can now change that. And they should.
On this week’s podcast, Dale Chu, education consultant and Indiana’s former assistant superintendent for innovation and improvement, joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss what went wrong with Hoosier State school reform. On the Research Minute, David Griffith examines how school improvement grants in Ohio affected achievement and school administration.
Amber’s Research Minute
Deven Carlson and Stéphane Lavertu, “School Improvement Grants in Ohio: Effects on Student Achievement and School Administration,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (March 2018).
Virtually every state has moved, incrementally or fully, from administering standardized assessments on paper to online, so there’s been plenty of discussion about whether taking a test on a computer or tablet, versus with paper and pencil, affects student performance. (Recall that the same issue was raised when NAEP scores were released in April, with Louisiana voicing particular concerns.) In other words, is it true that “mode effects”—meaning the physical medium by which one takes a test—can depress scores in ways that have much to do with the medium and little to do with what students know and can do?
Enter Ben Backes and James Cowan from CALDER who examine, first, whether students who take Massachusetts’s state test online score systematically lower than if they had taken the same test on paper; and second, whether there are any differences across subgroups of students.
Recall that Massachusetts in 2015 and 2016 administered the PARCC test both on paper and online. And in 2015 districts could chose between MCAS (the old state test) or the new PARCC test. During this period of flux, state officials agreed to a hold-harmless provision for all schools administering the PARCC in either year, whether on paper or online—meaning that no school’s accountability rating could fall as a result of their PARCC scores. Descriptive findings show that 72 percent of elementary and middle schools switched to PARCC in either 2015 or 2016. Of those, 57 percent administered the test online at least once.
The CALDER study examines schools that administered PARCC in both years, which includes about half of Massachusetts students enrolled in grades 3–8 between 2011 and 2016 and 88 percent of students in schools administering PARCC in 2015 and 2016. Backes and Cowan use two analytic approaches: a linear regression (OLS or ordinary least squares) and a differences-in-differences design that compares the differential effect of the mode on both the treatment and control group over time. They use the MCAS paper assessments as control variables in both approaches.
They find “test mode effects” of about 0.10 standard deviations (SD) in math and 0.25 SD in English language arts (ELA). These effects equate to about 5.4 months of learning in math and eleven months of learning in ELA in a nine-month school year—obviously both substantial. They find similar results across both models. They also perform a number of robustness checks to ensure, for instance, that preexisting trends in school outcomes aren’t driving their results, and they determine that is not what’s occurring.
Next, Backes and Cowen look to see if there are mode effects in the next year, to check whether this was a one-time phenomenon. But they still find differences that can be attributed to mode—though for second-time test takers the effects are about one-third as large as the first year in math, and about half as large in ELA. Additional analyses also suggest that student familiarity with the tests is what’s driving the reduced mode effect seen in year two. Finally, relative to subgroups, they find little variation by subgroup, except that mode effects are more pronounced in ELA for students scoring at the bottom of the distribution.
When scores were first released for all PARCC states, testing officials explained that mode effects were an issue, but that it would be up to individual state and district leaders to determine the scope of the problem, as well as what to do about it. Backes and Cowan take that advice one step further, recommending that states take test mode effects into account when using assessment scores for accountability purposes.
In 2017, Massachusetts started to use statistical adjustments to correct for mode effects—at least during the transition from paper to online. Given officials’ propensity in that state to make wise decisions and witness subsequent success, other states should do their homework and perhaps follow suit.
SOURCE: Ben Backes and James Cowan, “Is the Pen Mightier Than the Keyboard? The Effect of Online Testing on Measured Student Achievement,” Calder (April 2018).
Teacher quality is acknowledged, nearly universally, as one of the most important contributors to student learning. Debate revolves around how to best train, hire, improve, support, and retain teachers. This last point is especially relevant to a large urban school district like District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), which sees 8 percent of its “effective” and “highly effective” teachers leave every year. This is a significant loss—financially and in human capital. A recent report from Bellwether Education Partners presents results of a DCPS-administered exit survey and extracts recommendations for it and other urban school districts about how to retain quality educators.
The survey was administered to 1,626 teachers departing the district between February 2015 and January 2018 and asked their reasons for leaving, their next career moves, and how DCPS might have kept them. Researchers disregarded answers from teachers who were retiring and moving, and from teachers who said no change would have retained them. Of the remaining respondents, 772 self-reported their last rating according to the district’s teacher evaluation system: 69 identified themselves as minimally effective, 220 as developing (these two categories comprise “low performers”), 319 as effective, and 164 as highly effective (these two comprise “high performers”). Researchers Kaitlin Pennington and Alexander Brand disaggregate responses by performance band to focus on the reasons effective and highly effective teachers gave for leaving.
One notable finding is that work-life balance was the most common reason for leaving given by high performers: 40 percent cited it among their top three, and 28 percent rated it as their number one reason. Pennington and Brand note that one-fifth of the latter group, mostly teachers in their early thirties, listed schedule flexibility as a retention tool that might have kept them, and about half of those mentioned wanting to spend more time with family, particularly young children.
School leadership was another frequently cited issue, reported by 34 percent of high performers. Those who gave it as their number one reason for leaving listed recognition, behavioral support, and instructional support from school leaders as the top three retention efforts that might have kept them in the classroom.
Results of the survey indicate that teachers are interested in leadership opportunities of their own, with 12 percent of high performers headed to a leadership opportunity in their next role. Interest in leadership stood out as a factor among high performers of color, 19 percent of whom listed more leadership opportunities as the number one effort that would have retained them.
The report has some limitations, mostly created by the survey itself. Sample sizes are small, and results group all schools together, which makes it harder to note whether some issues are district-wide or are specific to grade bands, locations, or even individual campuses. For example, the 163 high performers who listed school leadership in their top three reasons for leaving might come from only a handful of DCPS’s 115 schools.
Nevertheless, the survey’s outcomes suggest potential areas of focus for DCPS and other urban districts. Retaining those who want to spend more time with family is a challenge; teaching, which is built around rigid routines and schedules, is especially resistant to the kind of flexibility new parents might want. But districts might, for instance, try job sharing for middle and high school teachers, in which two teachers both work half-days in one position, or offer extended multi-year unpaid leave and allow parents to return to the classroom after the hiatus. And teachers who depart because of lack of leadership opportunities might stay if offered supplemental school-level leadership roles or entry into a strong leadership pipeline.
Although DCPS already retains 92 percent of its high performers, efforts to keep more of the other 8 percent—investing in supportive principals, leadership opportunities, and sustainable workloads—would benefit the whole district. And the more we know about high performers through surveys such as this one, the better DCPS and other districts can craft strategies that both improve schools and keep strong teachers in the classroom.
SOURCE: Kaitlin Pennington and Alexander Brand, “Retaining High Performers: Insights from DC Public Schools’ Teacher Exit Survey,” Bellwether Education Partners (May 2018).