By Jonathan Plucker, Ph.D.
As I travel the country, working with educators and policymakers on improving services for gifted students, I’m usually struck by two themes, one encouraging and the other worrisome. On the positive side, people are starting to understand that advanced achievement matters and have become passionate about addressing excellence gaps—the yawning divides in advanced achievement between various racial and socioeconomic groups. But on the negative side, I’m routinely disappointed by how often that enthusiasm fades when we start talking about solutions. The conversation goes something like this:
Ability grouping? “Not in our district, people don’t believe in it.” Universal screening? “Too expensive.” Use of local norms? “Politically tricky. Pass.” Teacher and administrator training? “Preparation programs will never do it, and we don’t have the bandwidth at the district level.” And the kicker, which is so common that I’ve become numb to it: “This is an important topic, but my urban/rural district doesn’t have any bright kids” (a comment I’ve heard from principals, superintendents, and even a state school chief).
So although we have research-based strategies that shrink excellence gaps and raise overall levels of excellence, we rarely see a district tackle this problem.
This phenomenon has grown so frustrating for me that, in response to a reporter’s question about how to close excellence gaps, I recently replied, “Be overly enthusiastic and supportive if you see someone trying to address these gaps. They’re swimming upstream and need our support.”
In this spirit, the recent plan from the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland deserves attention. Rather than continue to offer a gifted program that serves primarily upper-middle-class white and Asian-American students, the district has produced a comprehensive plan that appears likely to address both excellence and equity goals. I encourage you to read the details, but the district essentially calls for a combination of improved frontloading in the early grades (i.e., raising rigor throughout the K–12 system to better prepare students for academic challenge later in their schooling), universal screening (having every student go through any identification process rather than rely on teacher nominations), removal of the parent opt-in (which can advantage more knowledgeable parents), use of local or group norms for identification (providing services to the most talented students in each school rather than the most talented students across the district), and more program opportunities throughout the district (helping to lower opportunity gaps and facilitate frontloading). These are exactly the strategies that my colleague Scott Peters and I call for in our recent book on this topic.
Of course, change is not easy, and changes related to talent development in schools are particularly fraught with political consequences. I am already hearing grumbling that the Montgomery County changes will “water down” the district’s advanced offerings. That’s a pretty common complaint when a district decides to tackle excellence gaps, but I have yet to see evidence that such lowering of standards occurs when the district frontloads effectively (which Montgomery County intends to do).
If you’re an advocate for creating educational excellence and removing excellence gaps, you should support educators and policymakers who are going out on a limb to make these things happen. If you’re in Montgomery County, lend your support to Superintendent Jack Smith; if you’re in San Antonio, Texas, support the impressive and comprehensive approach to excellence being implemented by Superintendent Pedro Martinez and his team; if you live in Colorado or Alabama, let your policymakers know that their support for universal screening will pay dividends for years into the future.
Excellence is neither accidental nor easy, and the American education system has a long way to go before truly and comprehensively achieving it. But a good first step is to support those schools, districts, and states that are willing to take the necessary, difficult first steps.
Jonathan A. Plucker is the Julian C. Stanley Professor of Talent Development in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.
Editor’s note: A version of this essay was originally published by the 74.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Linda Darling-Hammond, smart as she is, doubtless has many fresh thoughts and insights. In her new book series on “empowered educators,” however, after bringing in a sizable body of information on how other countries go about it, she and a number of colleagues recycle many of their sturdiest old thoughts and insights. Subtitled “how high-performing systems shape teaching quality around the world,” they—under the aegis of a Stanford policy center and Marc Tucker’s National Center on Education and the Economy—describe in depth (via a 280-page overview treatise and multiple supplemental volumes) “how seven international educational systems create a coherent set of policies designed to ensure quality teaching in all communities.”
Intrepid, they journey to some of American educators’ favorite locations—Shanghai, Singapore, Finland, and various parts of Canada and Australia—and do a swell job of describing the ways that teaching in those places is more professional, more respected, better compensated, more highly trained, more sensibly structured as a career, and overall more effective than in the United States. If you’ve followed Linda’s and Marc’s previous work, nothing here will surprise you—though you may yet learn plenty—and there’s no reason to doubt the accuracy of their accounts and explanations.
The issue for U.S. education reformers and policymakers, however, now as always, is whether we might draw workable lessons from such analyses for possible application in our own K–12 and higher ed systems.
On the margins, of course, a bold state, district or charter-school network might make important changes a la (say) New South Wales—a foresighted university could do likewise in teacher- and administrator-prep programs—and such changes would likely do some good in the place where implemented. If they did enough measurable good in a big enough place, others would doubtless take notice and perhaps follow suit.
But the obstacles are immense and the likelihood of these insights being applied on a large scale in the United States anytime soon are lamentably tiny. So much that’s so deeply rooted would first have to be overturned. Five big things in particular—and this isn’t the first time I’ve pointed them out, either, so déjà vu may set in if you persevere.
First, at least since World War II, school-teaching in the United States has evolved as a mass occupation rather than a respected profession. As we near 4,000,000 teachers—yes, that’s four million!—it’s become the largest single occupation in the American workforce (not quite matched by nursing and 2.5 times the size of the military), and we haven’t a prayer of reaching numbers like that with our “best and brightest.” There just aren’t enough of them, especially when you consider the other opportunities now available to talented women and minorities. Teaching also behaves like a mass occupation because we’ve organized K–12 schooling into huge government bureaucracies, because school principals by and large are middle managers rather than full-fledged institutional leaders, and because the teacher unions have demanded and not deviated far from an industrial model in which everyone is treated alike.
Second, we’ve opted as a society for at least the last half-century to channel the tens of billions of additional dollars that have flowed into public education toward hiring more teachers rather than better ones. The crude ratio of students to teachers in American K–12 education when I was a kid was 27 to 1. Today it’s 14 to 1. (Look it up!) Everyone—parents and teachers alike—wanted smaller classes. Ed schools wanted more students. Teacher unions wanted more dues-paying members. Everyone’s interests seemed to be served in the short run by expanding the teaching ranks rather than concentrating the new money on better teachers, better prepared teachers, career ladders for teachers, more prep-and-collaboration time for teachers, etc.
Third, unlike the other countries in Linda’s sample, our public schools also employ an enormous number of non-teachers—on the order of half their total workforce. Some of those folks are necessary, of course, and many of them ease the burden on teachers, but the upshot is that a giant chunk of the education budget pays people who aren’t in the classroom teaching kids. At $12,000 per child, a classroom of twenty-three kids is “worth” 276,000 taxpayer dollars. Ask yourself how much of that sum goes into the pocket and benefits of the main classroom teacher.
Fourth, our universities notoriously treat their colleges of education as cash cows, not as elite places that are hard to get into and harder to graduate from. Our teacher prep programs are famously oblivious to what hard research has shown about key things like learning to read, and they’re careless about the practical experiences they arrange for future teachers. None of which is helped by idiotic state certification requirements that have been shown to have no bearing on classroom effectiveness.
Fifth and finally, we’re in love with technology, experimenting with all manner of blended and personalized learning plans, and it seems certain that any large future changes in the work of U.S. teachers is going to incorporate technology in major ways. Yet if the countries profiled in these books have made technology a significant part of empowering and professionalizing their educators, I’m not learning about it from Linda and her team and the themes they focus on.
I’d welcome the empowerment of American educators, teachers and principals alike. And yes, I admire what Finland, Ontario, and Singapore have pulled off—and appreciate the insights and reminders in these books. But the U.S. has some awfully steep slopes to scale before we reach similar heights. Who’s volunteering to climb? And can you carry enough oxygen?
A recent Fordham Institute study, Three Signs That a Proposed Charter School Is at Risk of Failing, compared the details of charter school applications to the performance of the resulting schools. According to authors Anna Nicotera and David Stuit, schools trying to implement “child-centered” models were more likely to struggle academically than schools pursuing other models.
There weren’t many such schools in the study, so it’s a better prompt for discussions about their issues than “proof” of anything. That said, I wasn’t surprised by its results. They echoed my experience as an authorizer and a researcher.
It’s important to first note that what makes a school “child-centered” is not rigidly defined, and some schools from every model have been more successful than others. Several well-known versions, like Montessori and Waldorf, primarily serve younger kids. Other models, like the Big Picture and Expeditionary Learning, serve older students. The details of these programs vary depending on the grades they serve and their founders’ philosophies. Generally, however, their students are actively working to direct their own learning, and teachers guide or facilitate this experience, rather than being responsible for delivering pre-established content. Child-centered schools, whatever they do, tend to avoid a single, structured, and sequential curriculum.
These schools are also quite popular. They already constitute a significant part of the charter sector, and their market share is likely to increase in years to come. In Washington, D.C., for example, child-centered models receive three applications for every available seat.
Despite their popularity, however, effectively implementing “child-centered” school models can be difficult because of at least three challenges: superficial understanding of the model; underestimating the importance and complexity of implementation; and disagreements over what constitutes “student success.” Authorizers should therefore probe applicants’ knowledge and expertise to determine just how well a new charter school is likely to address these challenges.
An old anecdote illustrates the first challenge of superficial understanding. In the mid-90s, I studied the missions of the nation’s first one hundred charter schools. Several planned to pursue the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) model. The CES model is a highly student-centered approach to high school that reduces the scope of the curriculum and redefines students as agents of their learning who are supported by teachers serving as coaches. I discussed my findings with Ted Sizer, who created the model based on his experience as a principal and extensive research about American high schools. I told Sizer about one of the schools I reviewed that sought to combine the CES approach with a very different model—E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Program. Hirsch’s model stood in stark contrast to Sizer’s model by emphasizing a structured and sequential curriculum. Sizer was incredulous and said something like, “That’s silly. You can’t do that. They must not even know what it means to be a Coalition school!” Ted’s skepticism underscores the risk of people proposing schools with only a superficial understanding of their model. Keep in mind that many founding teams are groups of parents.
Second, child-centered schools also have myriad implementation challenges. In their own unique ways, each of these schools redefines teachers’ and students’ roles. This requires impressive teacher skills, including the ability to evaluate student progress, manage classrooms, track data, help students with potentially unknown material, and more. It also requires that schools adopt effective systems and procedures for staffing patterns, scheduling, and use of space and material—all of which support students and make teachers’ work more sustainable.
Finally, authorizers of child-centered schools must consider what it means to be successful—and it ought to be about more than test scores. Indeed, many child-centered schools may perform below average academically, yet still deliver other highly valued outcomes for students and families. My wife and I, for example, chose a district-run Montessori school for our own children over a higher-performing and dramatically less-diverse neighborhood school. As parents, we were comfortable with our choice. But as both an authorizer and as a parent, I wouldn’t be if a school’s results were terrible.
Despite these challenges, however, charter authorizers mustn’t shy away from child-centered schools. Instead, they should put in the extra work it takes to ask smart, tailored questions that inform the rigorous decisions that these models require. The following seven are a good start:
- Why did they choose this model? And how does it fit with the community?
- What experience do they have with the model? Who is trained in the model?
- What is the proposed school leader’s experience with the model?
- What is the plan for recruiting, selecting, training, and supporting staff in the model?
- What is the plan for community outreach, recruitment, and engagement?
- Have they established partnerships with the groups that help schools implement this model?
- Are there aspects of the model they intend to adjust or change for their proposed school, and if so why and how?
Alex Medler is a senior director at Safal Partners.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week's podcast, Mike Petrilli, Jason Crye, and Alyssa Schwenk discuss how to win charter supporters over to the cause of school vouchers. During the Research Minute, David Griffith examines how No Child Left Behind influenced student behavior.
Amber’s Research Minute
John B. Holbein and Helen F. Ladd, “Accountability pressure: Regression discontinuity estimates of how No Child Left Behind influenced student behavior,” Economics of Education Review (March 2017).
Almost seven years after the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were originally developed and adopted, inquiring minds want to know: Have they improved educational outcomes for students? Dr. Morgan Polikoff explores this very question in a recently published article, “Is Common Core “Working?” And where does Common Core Research Go from Here?.” It’s part of a broader AERA Open special topic on Common Core.
Polikoff’s article summarizes existing research in two key areas: how well Common Core has been implemented to date; and how it has affected student results. Neither question, it turns out, is especially easy to answer.
While measuring implementation at scale is challenging, research suggests that Common Core has increased states’ sharing of instructional resources and opportunities, such as professional development offerings. Polikoff also cites several informative teacher surveys conducted by organizations such as RAND and the Center on Education Policy that assess whether content and instruction is truly Common Core-aligned. In sum, these surveys reveal that, as recently as 2015, “large proportions” of math and English language arts and literacy teachers still had misconceptions about Common Core, “suggesting that their instruction is likely to be questionably aligned at best.” (Fordham came to similar conclusions in our surveys of math and ELA teachers.) Yet most of these surveys are self-reported. To better assess implementation fidelity, Polikoff suggests that classroom observations may provide another insightful lens into teachers’ instructional practices, albeit a time-consuming and expensive one.
How Common Core is affecting student outcomes is even more difficult to answer. First, deciding which outcomes to measure is itself challenging, given that not all states administer the SAT or ACT, that CCSS is not perfectly aligned to NAEP, and that measuring “career readiness” is harder still. Polikoff also outlines many research hurdles to determining whether Common Core is “working” or not. For starters, Common Core was not randomly assigned to states, making it nearly impossible to determine a direct, causal relationship between CCSS and student outcomes. Second, while the standards were developed in 2010, individual states adopted and implemented Common Core on very different schedules, with many states gradually rolling out implementation over several years, making it very difficult to pinpoint precisely when implementation actually “started.” It is also challenging to compare outcomes for adopter and non-adopter states, given that “states that adopted the standards certainly differed from those that did not”—and many adopters have since made revisions to the standards or dropped them entirely, further muddying the waters. And since research indicates Common Core isn’t always being implemented with fidelity in classrooms, it makes it even more challenging to assess the standards’ impact on students.
Seven years into Common Core, it’s clear there’s still much we don’t know. Yet given that the majority of states today are still using the Common Core standards, or a very close variant, it’s critical to understand how well the standards are being implemented in classrooms today, and what effect they’re having on students. As Polikoff stresses, ongoing implementation research is needed to document variation and statewide trends. Researchers should continue to address the impact question through quasi-experimental studies, and explore new and better ways to assess “college and career readiness.” More research must also be done on how district and school leaders can better support implementation and how effects vary by student demographics, and it must be both timely and accessible to policymakers and practitioners.
SOURCE: Morgan Polikoff, Ph.D., “Is Common Core “Working”? And Where Does Common Core Research Go From Here?,” AERA Open (January–March 2017).
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was intended to improve student health and reduce childhood obesity by increasing the minimum nutritional standards that schools must meet. Despite its good intentions, the changes mandated by this act were met with immediate backlash. In response to the criticism and as part of its commitment to repeal a host of Obama-era regulations, the Trump administration recently put a stop to some of the new standards.
But could returning to the days of anything-goes in school cafeterias negatively impact student achievement? The results from a recent NBER study suggest it’s possible. In the past, analyses of school meals have been limited to examinations of whether providing meals can increase test scores (it does). This study is unique because it investigates whether the nutritional quality of meals can boost test scores.
The researchers examined a dataset of California public elementary, middle, and high schools that report state test results. From there, they determined whether these schools had a contract with a private meal provider. In total, approximately 143 districts overseeing 1,188 schools—12 percent of California’s public schools—did so, contracting with a total of forty-five different vendors. The remaining 88 percent of California’s public schools utilized “in-house” staff to prepare meals.
Next, trained nutritionists from the Nutrition Policy Institute determined the quality of vendors’ school lunches by using a modified version of the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), a measure of diet quality that’s used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine relationships between diet and health-related outcomes. Vendors with an HEI score above the median vendor score were labeled healthy vendors, while those with below median HEI scores were labeled standard vendors.
For student achievement data, researchers used California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) assessment, which was the statewide test until 2013-14. STAR was administered to all students in grades two through eleven each spring, and covered the four core subject areas as well as a set of end-of-course high school exams. Researchers used these data to create a single composite test score for each year and each school grade.
After controlling for various factors, results show that contracting with a healthy vendor increased student test scores by .03 to .04 standard deviations on average relative to in-school meal preparation. In laymen’s terms, that's a boost of about 4 percentile points. The findings also show modest evidence of larger effects for economically disadvantaged students than for non-disadvantaged students. Healthy cafeteria vendors did not cost dramatically more than in-house preparation. Researchers also found that switching from in-house meal prep to a healthy lunch vendor would raise a student’s test score by 0.1 standard deviations for only $258 per year. By comparison, the Tennessee STAR experiment—which reduced class size in grades K-3—cost $1,368 per year to raise a student’s test score by the same amount.
Aside from increased student achievement and low cost, the report offers a few additional data points. First, it found no evidence that hiring a vendor to serve healthier meals led to a change in the number of lunches sold. Second, healthy meal vendors did not reduce the percentage of students who are overweight, although the researchers note that “a longer time period may be necessary to observe improvements in health.” For schools looking to increase student achievement without spending a fortune, investing in healthy meals seems like a cost-effective solution.
SOURCE: Michael L. Anderson, Justin Gallagher, Elizabeth Ramirez Ritchie, “School Lunch Quality and Academic Performance,” National Bureau of Economic Research (April 2017).