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The Public School Insights Blog

Recent calls for stronger regulation of charter schools have raised the ire of some charter school movement True Believers. Their over-the-top response says more about the limits of their ideology than it does about the dangers of regulation.

Secretary Duncan, hardly an enemy of the charter movement, called for measures to hold low-performing charter schools accountable for their performance. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools followed suit with recommendations to strengthen oversight of new charter schools.

“Blasphemy!” cried the True Believers.

Free marketeer John Stossel tarred the Charter Alliance people as “bureaucrats” for even entertaining the idea:

National Alliance bureaucrats weeding out bad schools will fail as government bureaucrats failed….

Sure, some charter schools are lousy. But failure is part of innovation. Parents will quickly figure out if their kids’ school is lousy, and if they are allowed other choices, they’ll pull their kids out. The weak schools will die from lack of customers. The best schools will grow, and help more kids.

Of course, Stossel has long cherished sublime free market theories untainted by supporting evidence. He's not so concerned about recent findings that traditional public schools perform as well as or better than 83 percent of ...


While the national debate rages over the benefits of early childhood education, an innovative, district-wide early childhood education initiative is bearing fruit in Bremerton, Washington. Since the initiative's founding, the percentage of Bremerton children entering Kindergarten knowing their letters has shot from 4% to over 50%. The percentage of Kindergarteners needing specialized education services has plummeted from 12% to 2%. And the share of first graders reading on grade level has risen from 52% to 73%.

Last week, I spoke with a woman at the center of the program: Linda Sullivan-Dudzic, the district's Director of Special programs. She described some keys to the program's success. The district:

  • Aligns existing school and community resources
  • Raises the quality of existing preschools rather than creating new ones
  • Focuses on literacy and numeracy
  • Heeds the research, and
  • Holds all providers to high standards of quality


Read extensive highlights from our interview with Sullivan-Dudzic:

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What are the major goals of Early Childhood Care and Education Group, and what do you believe you've accomplished in striving towards those goals?

SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: We have two goals. [The first is] to increase the number of children entering kindergarten with early literacy skills--and now we've added early math foundation skills. And the second goal is to decrease the number of children, students, with learning disabilities or learning differences associated with reading.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: And do you feel like you've made headway in reaching your goals?

SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: Yes. In literacy definitely. We're just starting in math. We have decreasing numbers of kids qualifying as learning disabled, and we have increasing numbers of kids entering kindergarten with early reading foundation skills.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: So you have all kinds of community partners?

SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: Sure. I started 29 years ago with Head Start, as a ...

A Las Vegas Sun article about Nevada's use of stimulus funds highlights the challenges many states and districts feel as they balance the desire for innovation against the need to fill budget holes:

Although state lawmakers increased basic support to schools by $38 per student — bringing the statewide average to $5,251 for the upcoming fiscal year — local districts will actually see a slight drop in funding over the biennium because of lower-than-expected local property and vehicle registration taxes.

The real difference over the next two years will be that a greater share of the state’s higher education funding will come from Washington, rather than from locally generated taxes. That in turn will mean the state will likely have enough money to meet the K-12 budget obligations.

And although local districts are grateful for the federal help in staunching the bleeding, there is also frustration that the dollars are needed to keep basic services in place, rather than to revive popular programs killed during the early-round budget cuts or to launch new initiatives. ...

Eagle-eyed Alexander Russo spotted the following news item about the Chicago Public Schools: Cash-for-Good-Grades Project Likely Done. Yes, it seems that financial challenges will force CPS to stop paying students for grades. There’s a lesson here about the fragility of incentive-based reforms.

The more successful cash-for-performance projects are, the more expensive they become. When they rely on unreliable funding sources such as foundations or wealthy donors, they live on borrowed time. ...

Do recent NAEP results showing arts education holding steady in eighth grade suggest that No Child Left Behind has not narrowed the curriculum? Not really.

Most evidence points to a decline in arts education at the elementary level, which the NAEP results don't directly address. (See, for example, the Center on Education Policy's 2008 study on the matter.) ...

Wealthy districts in California are beginning to levy so-called "parcel taxes," or flat fees on property, to offset big budget shortfalls. Meanwhile, poorer districts have few or no options for raising extra money, and so the gap between rich and poor grows at the worst possible time.

I don't mean to begrudge the wealthier districts their will to shore up school budgets in lean times. As one school board member in a wealthy district told the Wall Street Journal, "We're very, very fortunate that our community is supportive of our schools."

Still, the growing disparity reminds us that the poorest schools are often most vulnerable to economic shocks. They receive a double blow. Rising homelessness, hunger and student mobility intensify students' needs. Poverty limits schools' ability to address those needs. ...

If you're willing to read subtitles, this may be worth two and a half minutes of your time:


Grover (Russ) Whitehurst was the founding director of the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences. He currently directs the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

On June 4th, we praised him for questioning some education reformers' blind approval of innovation for innovation’s sake. (See his compelling essay, “Innovation, Motherhood and Apple Pie.”)

Whitehurst recently joined us by telephone to describe his concerns in greater detail.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Thanks for joining us.

WHITEHURST: I'm pleased to be here.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Let me begin with an incantation that I think you wrote. It runs, "Full moon and candles/magic times three/we summon the power of innovation/to be.” Can you explain that?

WHITEHURST: As I have talked to people in education about innovation, which seems to be the new buzzword, I have with some frequency asked them to give me an example of what they mean: an innovation that they think is on the horizon that is going to transform the delivery of education in this country. The typical response is, we don't know what that would be.

So it seems to me that in many cases innovation is being invoked almost as if it is magic. We don't know exactly what it is and we don't know what it looks like, but if we could only release it, it would fix all of our problems.

What I was trying to convey is that we should not believe, as adults, in Santa Claus or magic to solve our problems. If we're thinking about innovation, we need to get serious about what it is, what types we're interested in, and how we expect to use processes of innovation to advance education.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: This gets to your definition of innovation….

WHITEHURST: First, I think it's important to note that innovation is just introducing something new, and you hope it's going to make things better. So much of what any organization does as it tries to solve problems falls under the general category of innovation.

Within that broad category, it is important to differentiate innovations that work from those that don't—effective versus ineffective innovations. If an innovation is the introduction of something new with the intent to be useful -- reality and intent are often two different things -- we need procedures and processes in place to carefully evaluate innovations so that we can tell the difference between those that are actually improving the state affairs versus those that are just a hope and a wish. ...

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter lives in a world of delightful simplicity.

Here's his advice on how to spend the education stimulus money: "We know what works now and should just go ahead and fund it."

And here I was, thinking it's challenging to choose among many pressing spending needs. How silly of me.

And what works, according to Alter? He doesn't give us much insight here, but he does mention performance pay for teachers. OK--that's an important idea that deserves our attention, but where's the evidence that it "works"? The most thoughtful advocates of performance pay for teachers acknowledge that it has enormous logistical and statistical hurdles to clear before it can be a very stable foundation for teacher compensation decisions.

Unfortunately, we don't have ironclad knowledge about ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Testing the Tests

It’s great news that administration intends to improve the quality and relevance of education research. I hope they’ll also make good on their vow to improve the quality of assessments. After all, the two efforts are closely related.

The value of research on what works depends on the quality of assessments measuring school and student gains. Two recent items drive home the point:

First, a New York Daily News analysis questioning the steep rise in New York State test scores. After reviewing the state assessments, former Eduwonkette Jennifer Jennings determined that they had grown less challenging and more susceptible to test-prep manipulation. Critics of the New York City Department of Education point to this analysis as they accuse the Department of over-hyping the success of their reforms.

Second, a new Harvard study of charter schools examining the low cognitive demand placed on students in some high-performing charters:

The instructional emphasis frequently was on procedure, not on conceptual understanding. Students were not being asked to think for themselves, nor were they being asked to conjecture, evaluate, or assess. Why? Because the tests that hold these charter schools accountable do not measure higher-order ...

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