By Lisa Keegan
I think we all understand John McCain best when we understand his passionate love for this country and her ideals. He always told us that he only really fell in love with her when he was deprived of her freedom and aspiration during his five-plus years in captivity in Hanoi. He came home and, as you know, immediately said that he believed the greatest responsibility of his life beyond his family would be to serve the country that he loved, and to seek the benefits of her freedom for all who live here, and for those abroad.
He did that. John McCain defined an American patriot.
In the work that we shared for education, his deepest passion was for the idea that families whose children were denied access to quality schools would be able to choose their school. In his speech to the NAACP in 2008, he said the following:
Over the years, Americans have heard a lot of “tired rhetoric” about education. We've heard it in the endless excuses of people who seem more concerned about their own position than about our children. We've heard it from politicians who accept the status quo rather than stand up for real change in our public schools. Parents ask only for schools that are safe, teachers who are competent, and diplomas that open doors of opportunity. When a public system fails, repeatedly, to meet these minimal objectives, parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children. Some parents may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private school. Many will choose a charter school. No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity.
What interested him most was trying to liberate our school system from tired policies that denied access to great schools for the most challenged among us, but also removing the constraints around teaching that kept our best teachers and school leaders from bringing what they knew best about how to teach children to scale. You sense the same commitment to personal freedom of action in these education issues that he brought to all of his work.
One of my fondest memories of Senator McCain was that he accepted my invitation for him to join an event in D.C. the day before President-elect Obama’s inauguration. The event was one that Reverend Al Sharpton and Joel Klein had originally organized as part of the Education Equality campaign. Everybody from Newt Gingrich, to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to the performing artist Common came to speak about what was needed for students as the new administration took office. Imagine walking into that event being the guy who wasn’t being inaugurated the next day, and this is how you choose to allocate your time. These issues mattered enormously to him.
John was my mentor and my friend, my role model and hero. I learned from him that it was really okay to be audacious and seek what you truly believed was right, in spite of what people told you was possible. I learned it was actually okay to say “I was wrong” and seek to improve—right out loud in public. He had little patience for less than total commitment, and really got teed off when he thought I or anybody else was not giving our all and for the right reasons.
He was funny and amazingly thoughtful. After I decided to run for state school superintendent against an already announced Republican, I assumed he could not be supportive and would not have asked him to pick a side. But he called me and asked if I had a chairman, to which I said “No.” He said “Well you do now… Don’t lose!”
John McCain was our guide-star, and you can hear in everybody’s voice that we knew we would lose this giant. But we are grateful beyond imagination that we had him in the first place, and could share in even a small part of what he was.
Lisa Keegan is the CEO of the Arizona Chamber Foundation and a former Arizona State Superintendent of Schools.
I’ve been away on vacation, and you probably have, too. Here’s my attempt to catch up on several issues of educational importance. Dig in!
Senator John McCain’s passing. I’ve been heartened by the outpouring of appreciation for this great American hero, one of a dwindling tribe of Reaganesque City-on-a-Hill Republicans. A lot of ink has and will be spilled about our schools’ role in the political crisis we find ourselves in—the partisan rage, the acrimony, the “narrowcasting” and “fake news,” the flirtations with authoritarianism on the right and socialism on the left. Everyone seems to agree that civics education is broken, but even defining that challenge is ideologically fraught. Here’s a modest proposal: Can we get serious about teaching little kids about American heroes again? The complexity and cynicism can come later. But when boys and girls are five or six or seven, let’s introduce them to inspirational role models, people whose lives embodied service, gratitude, and excellence. This list of fifty heroes is good start; John McCain should make it fifty-one.
Improving academic standards: Doable but hard. While I was away, my Fordham colleagues released The State of State Standards Post-Common Core. Our major finding was that most of the dozen or so states that either made major changes to the Common Core (“un-adopting” them) or avoided them altogether ending up botching the job. Missouri’s, for example, don’t include an expectation that Kindergarteners be able to print or write. Virginia’s lack any examples of specific works of outstanding literature or culturally important informational texts that students should read. And Pennsylvania’s math benchmarks fail to specific each grade level’s main foci and learning goals. The lesson isn’t that the Common Core standards are perfect—they aren’t, and weren’t brought down from Mount Sinai by David Coleman and Jason Zimba. But they are well-crafted, represent a good faith effort to distill what we know from research about effective math, writing, and literacy instruction, and remain, in our reviewers’ eyes, best in class. They can be improved upon, though. California reorganized its high school math standards to be more concise and user-friendly, for instance. Massachusetts added numerous examples in both subjects, making its standards easier to implement. And Texas wrote very good math standards without ever marrying the Common Core. Still, as state leaders prepare to update their math and ELA standards (and all will need to do so eventually, as we learn more from research and experience on the ground), they should proceed with caution. Start with the Common Core—or maybe Texas’s standards in math—and tweak from there. Remember, too, that while teacher and parent input is important, the best standards aren’t written by vast committees of “stakeholders.”
About those poll results. Back-to-school season means it’s time for the annual Education Next and PDK opinion polls, and both came chock-full of interesting findings this year. Support for teacher raises led the news coverage, and unsurprisingly so, given the wave of walkouts this past spring. And advocates of every stripe found something to celebrate. Americans love public schools! Americans love private school choice! Americans don’t really hate testing! That’s all well and good, but I’m feeling a bit dubious about the value of public opinion polls right now, given how malleable public sentiment turns out to be. I’m referring, of course, to the complete reversal among Republicans on bed-rock principles like free trade and our relationship with Russia. This might be the Trump Effect, but it indicates that opinions are not as strongly held as we might suspect.
Wouldn’t the same be true—probably truer—about the arcana of education policy? We can see hints within the polls themselves. When told how much teachers actually make—way more than most people think—support for raises drops. When using the v-word, support for school choice drops. Same with “Common Core” and the notion of uniform standards. The cynical view is that most public opinions are now more closely tied to tribal identities than firmly held positions; progressives oppose “vouchers” because they are supposed to; same with conservatives and the Common Core. My optimistic take on this is that opinions are not firmly held, so leadership matters. If and when we are blessed with a leader—a president probably, or maybe an education secretary—who can find common cause with folks on the left, right, and center and paint a picture of a better education system, and how to build it, I suspect most Americans will be happy to follow. That’s not likely to happen at the national level any time soon, but after November we can hope that some governors get back to serious education work and take up the baton of leadership.
Ability grouping in elementary schools. EdWeek’s Sarah Sparks turned in a characteristically strong article about the research on reading groups, but her editors spoiled it with a bad headline (“Are Classroom Reading Groups the Best Way to Teach Reading? Maybe Not.”) It’s true, as she points out, that ability-grouping won’t magically erase the achievement gap, and can exacerbate it if teachers don’t hold high expectations for, and demand rapid progress from, kids in the lowest-ability groups. But we learn at the end of the article that the best recent research on small-group instruction—a randomized control study at that—found that “students who participated in the targeted reading groups over three years performed significantly higher than students in a control group that used standard reading classes. Though 45 percent of the students in the targeted reading groups came from a low-income background, by third grade, all of them had higher reading scores than the national average for their grade, and none had scores below the expectations for their grade level.”
So long as kids come into Kindergarten with widely differing levels of readiness, which is nearly inevitable, teachers are going to need to group them by current ability for at least part of the day—because keeping them all together would be hugely inefficient and frustrating for students and teachers alike. Technologists dream of a day when “personalized learning” will mean ability groups of one. Still, even with the extensive use of digital instruction, I suspect that ability groups are here to stay. The question, then, is how to make them as effective as possible for everyone.
I hope this buffet gave you some sustenance for the new school year; now go and hit the books.
Thanks to the widespread adoption of the Common Core, our nation’s English language arts (ELA) standards are stronger today than they were a decade ago. That’s one of the key findings of our latest report, The State of State Standards Post-Common Core. Yet even though the Common Core benchmarks are not perfect, most states that chose to revise them made their ELA standards worse in the process. As other states take up the red pen in the years to come, they should learn from these mistakes.
Below is a summary of the six “persistent failings” that our expert ELA reviewers found in reviewing state ELA standards in 2018.
1. A marked retreat from rigorous quantitative and qualitative expectations for reading and text complexity
Studies show that large percentages of graduating seniors in the United States are unable to read the types of texts that they will encounter in college and the workplace. So it’s a serious problem if standards are vague when it comes to the types and levels of texts that students should be able to navigate.
In light of these concerns, many states have adopted standards that specify the text levels at which students should be able to read—yet others have not. In fact, one of the broadest and most alarming trends that we observed is a marked retreat from such expectations in states that initially adopted the Common Core.
For instance, states such as New York and South Carolina expect students to read “grade-level” texts, but do not specify the quantitative or qualitative criteria that texts must satisfy to be considered grade-level texts. And still other states (such as Kansas and Pennsylvania) don’t set clear text complexity expectations within their standards documents, choosing instead to include resources on text complexity measures elsewhere on their website. Though better than no guidance, such information would be much more helpful if included in or linked directly from the standards.
There are multiple ways that states can make text complexity requirements specific, including adopting quantitative measures of readability. Absent that, they might provide a list of exemplar texts that demonstrate the level of complexity students should be able to handle. Yet not many states are doing that either (see #4).
2. The absence of disciplinary literacy standards
Each academic discipline—from biology to anthropology—uses language in particular ways to create, disseminate, and evaluate knowledge. For example, the conventions and expectations of scientific journals are different from those of a literary magazine. Yet although many states mention literacy in disciplines or content areas other than language arts, few detail the specific textual features or reading and writing approaches that students must master to read or write sophisticated texts that are appropriate to other disciplines. For example, although students in Kansas are expected to write “for a range of discipline-specific tasks” starting in third grade and to attend to “norms and conventions of the discipline” starting in high school, no other guidance or expectations are provided.
By failing to show how reading, writing, language, and speaking/listening extend beyond the English classroom, some states’ standards leave students ill-prepared to master the advanced literacy skills they will need in college and the workplace, which become increasingly specialized over time.
3. A lack of clear skill progressions between grade levels and/or a lack of strong College and Career Ready standards to anchor skills progressions
In many states, a lack of clear skill progressions between grade levels is a serious issue, especially at the high school level. More specifically, these states (and the Common Core) band their ninth- and tenth-grade and eleventh- and twelfth-grade standards together (thus reducing four years of secondary expectations to two levels). This redundancy across grade bands makes it unclear how and when students should be exposed to progressively more rigorous content.
In addition to such redundancies, many states fail to include strong college- and career-readiness (CCR) standards that “anchor” their K–12 standards by defining the skill level expected of graduates who are (as the term implies) college- and career-ready. For example, although Pennsylvania’s standards claim to “focus on college- and career-readiness,” such capstone standards are never articulated. And Nebraska has just four broad and unhelpfully vague CCR standards, including “students will learn and apply writing skills to communicate.”
4. A lack of guidance on specific types of literary and informational texts and genres/subgenres
Strong ELA standards address both literary and informational reading (e.g., literary nonfiction). However, many states’ academic standards continue to treat literary reading in a general manner, with scant attention paid to the reading and writing of different genres, subgenres, and types of text. And when states do specify the genres that students need to be able to comprehend (e.g., fiction, poetry, drama), they usually offer insufficient guidance on subgenres (e.g., epic poems, satires, parodies). This weakness is also evident in standards on informational text (e.g., speeches, literary criticism). For example, Missouri’s standards do not specify subgenre requirements in the elementary grades or genre reading requirements in grades 6–12 for informational texts.
In many state standards, a lack of exemplar texts compounds the sparse detail imparted to genres and subgenres. Suggested texts should be offered for all literary, informational, and other discipline-specific materials at all grades. Yet states such as Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, New York, and Virginia do not specify that students be familiar with any particular works of literature, authors, or historical documents—exemplary or otherwise. Although states often stress that these omissions are intended to leave curricular choices to local schools, this lack of guidance makes it harder for teachers to choose grade-level texts.
5. Vague and/or process-writing standards that are not measurable
Many ELA standards still suffer from vague or confusing writing standards that focus on activities, processes (e.g., “brainstorming”), or experiences, as opposed to measurable learning outcomes. For example, Nebraska’s standards note only that writing tasks should be “of increasing length and complexity” starting with third grade.
And the preponderance of Texas’s Composing and Research standards focus on writing processes (e.g., plan a first draft, develop drafts, develop an engaging idea, revise drafts, edit drafts). While such standards ensure that students have certain writing experiences, they fail to specify how well students should be able to write. In contrast, the Common Core’s ten writing standards are primarily dedicated to outcomes rather than writing processes.
6. A lack of critical supporting documents to aid implementation
Most of the issues above are compounded by a lack of ancillary guidance for teachers and students. The need for such supplementary documents varies by state. For example, some states want students to develop grade-level phonological awareness and decoding skills in the primary grades, but do not specify which of these skills should be developed when. Similarly, most states need more information about the determination of text complexity, or to provide lists of exemplar texts representing various genres and disciplines that are appropriate for a given grade level. For states that already provide these resources in an appendix or elsewhere, cross-referencing or otherwise internally referring to them is critical.
States have come a long way since the pre-Common-Core era in adopting rigorous ELA standards. For those states to which these weaknesses apply, fixing them would take them that much farther.
For more, read our latest report, The State of State Standards Post-Common Core.
At a time when reformers are pushing for more classroom time while districts are reducing the number of school days, the question of whether more instructional time makes a difference for student outcomes couldn’t be more relevant.
A new study from Northwestern University’s David Figlio and his co-authors at the American Institutes for Research presents new evidence that increased instruction time improves reading skills. The study assesses the impacts of Florida’s “Extended School Day” (ESD) program, which requires (and funds) the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools to provide an additional hour of instruction each day. This additional instruction is targeted at improving student literacy, and the program requires schools employ teachers rated as “effective,” teach phonics and reading comprehension, adapt instruction to student ability, and use texts from social studies, science, and math classes. The intervention is not cheap, running around $800 per student, and previous evaluations of the program’s implementation and impact have been mixed, calling into question whether the program is worth the cost.
Since Florida assigns the 100 worst-performing schools to the program based on an arbitrary cutoff on the pre-program reading assessments, the new study exploits this method of program assignment to implement a regression discontinuity research design, a method which essentially compares schools just a little bit below and just a little bit above that cutoff. (The program has been scaled up to the 300 worst-performing schools in more recent years.) The idea is that if schools slightly below the cutoff receive the program and then outperform the schools that are slightly above the cutoff, this is strong evidence that the program is effective.
In fact, this is exactly what the researchers find: Students in the schools that implemented the extended school day outperformed similar schools that didn’t by the equivalent of about one month of learning (0.05 standard deviations) on the end-of-year state literacy assessment. Still, the positive impacts aren’t equal for all types of students. Most troublingly, students who scored in the bottom category of the five-level pre-program literacy test saw the least growth, and the positive effects for these students weren’t even statistically significant. In contrast, it was students in the next two categories—the “2s” and “3s” on a scale of one to five—who experienced the most growth as a result of the program. These students saw even more than a month of additional learning per year from having the extended school day. Students who were already strong readers before the program started at their school—the “4s” and “5s”—also saw statistically significant increases in literacy as a result of the longer school day.
Although the schools in the study are overwhelmingly high-poverty, students from poorer families (as measured by free or reduced-price lunch eligibility) experienced double the growth (0.60 standard deviations) that the few students who didn’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunch experienced (0.30 standard deviations).
The study is not able to address the broader question of the efficacy of extending the school day for schools in general, since the methods they use yield clear effects only for schools near the reading performance cutoff, and these are only the most troubled schools. If students from high-poverty schools tend to have less educationally enriching experiences when they’re out of school than other students, extending the school day may help these students the most, although this study found some positive results for students who were from less impoverished families, as well. Overall, while it is impossible to say whether the extended school day is worth the cost without evaluating alternative policies as well, this study suggests that a longer school day can indeed lead to students learning more.
SOURCE: David Figlio, Kristian Holden, and Umut Ozek, “Do Students Benefit from Longer School Days? Regression Discontinuity Evidence from Florida's Additional Hour of Literacy Instruction?” CALDER (August 2018).
Across the nation, urban public charter schools are posting impressive student achievement gains. Under pressure to achieve similar results, many traditional public districts have chosen to follow in charter schools’ footsteps and grant some of their schools more autonomy. These hybrid schools are still operated and supported by district officials but are permitted to opt out of certain district policies and practices in staffing, learning models, curriculum, budgeting, school calendar and schedule, and professional development.
But does giving traditional public schools more autonomy actually raise student achievement? A new report from the Progressive Policy Institute answers this question by analyzing state standardized test scores in four districts that operate autonomous schools: Boston, Memphis, Denver, and Los Angeles. The authors control for race and ethnicity, language proficiency, socio-economic status, and special education status.
The data show that a positive relationship exists between school autonomy and student achievement. Students at some autonomous schools in Boston and Los Angeles were more likely to be proficient than their counterparts in traditional public schools, but independent charters outperformed all autonomous school models in Boston, Los Angeles, and Denver.
Memphis was the only exception. In 2010, the state of Tennessee created the Achievement School District (ASD), a state-run turnaround district made up of schools that scored in the bottom 5 percent on state exams. The same legislation that created the ASD permitted districts to create innovation zones, or iZones, for other low-performing schools that would remain under district control but be given increased flexibility and support in exchange for greater accountability. Results indicate that students at independent charters and Memphis’s iZone schools did as well as students at traditional public schools, and better than those at ASD charters. The authors suggest that these unique results may be due to an influx of funding, support, and talent at iZone schools.
To close the report, the authors offer five possible explanations for the findings, including that charters have true autonomy, are schools of choice, and are held accountable for student performance via closure or replacement, unlike their district counterparts. The report also offers recommendations for districts interested in implementing autonomous schools.
SOURCE: David Osborne and Emily Langhorne, “Can urban districts get charter-like performance with charter-lite schools?” Progressive Policy Institute (August 2018).
On this week's podcast, Adam Peshek, a managing director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss whether new IRS regulations will harm tax credit scholarship programs. On the Research Minute, Adam Tyner examines the academic effects of longer school days.
Amber’s Research Minute
David Figlio et al., “Do Students Benefit from Longer School Days? Regression Discontinuity Evidence from Florida's Additional Hour of Literacy Instruction,” Calder (August 2018).