Proposing a New High School Way

High school reimagined (and we mean truly reimagined) was the title of the winning entry in the Fordham Institute’s annual policy Wonkathon (asking this time whether graduation requirements need to change). Here is that powerful article (with a nod to Indiana) from two leaders of K12 Inc, an online learning provider:

So what is the purpose of high school in America? We think most agree that it is to train our students up to be responsible and productive citizens. But how exactly do we measure that? Research over the years has shown the numerous benefits of high school completion, how it improves the likelihood of higher wages and decreases the likelihood of being arrested for a crime, for example. This type of research led to a focus on graduation as the ultimate measurement. It’s as though we believed that something magical happened by simply pushing all students to get across the graduation stage in four years.

In turn, while the national graduation rate has soared to record highs from 2005 to 2015, the value of a high school diploma, as measured by median annual earnings, has taken a significant dip over that same time period. The value of the diploma has decreased, even as more students have crossed the stage. Would we say that 84.1 percent of our students, all those who graduated in 2016, are leaving high school prepared for successful lives? Ask ten people and we bet you won’t get a single “yes.” Therein lies the problem we are faced with today.

Where did we go wrong and how do we fix it? First, it’s important to change how we measure success. If we want high schools to ultimately turn out responsible and productive citizens and we agree that not every graduate in America today fits that criteria, then let’s not use graduation rate as our ultimate measure of success. Let’s instead measure the outcomes we wish to see after high school; things like employment rates, median annual wages, job satisfaction, and postsecondary educational program enrollment and completion rates. Are these metrics as easy to calculate and report out for every school and district as the four-year cohort graduation rate? No. Should that prevent us from doing it? No (but it often does).

With our focus firmly planted on student outcomes after high school, we can now begin to reimagine the experience itself. The solution – personalized learning, the educational buzz word that has every school across the nation attempting to better serve each student’s unique needs and goals. All the while the system in which these schools operate has continued its one-size-fits-all model. The right hand is saying, “Every child is unique, has different strengths and weakness and dreams, and should have ownership and agency over his/her learning,” yet the left hand is simultaneously shouting, “But don’t forget you need to ensure he/she masters every single rigorous standard, passes every standardized test, and graduates college-and-career ready in four years.” It’s time we take the hands and align the left with the right (and no, that isn’t a political joke).

To build a personalized learning model that effectively graduates students prepared to successfully contribute to society, let’s do three things:

  • Embrace cross-curricular competency-based learning
  • Personalize graduation paths
  • Realign learning across the preschool to higher education/career continuum

Cross-curricular competency-based learning

Across the country at this very minute, there are thousands of students sitting in classes they could have aced on the very first day of school. An even larger population of students are being dragged along to more advanced concepts before they are ready simply because the teacher needs to cover all of the course objects in the allotted amount of days for the semester.

Our current system based entirely on the accrual of seat time and credits in individual subject areas is incredibly outdated. Instead, our high school “graduation plan” should be a cross-curricular checklist of knowledge and skills that students should master in order to graduate. Education Reimagined is partnering with schools nationwide to make learner-centered education like this a reality. The beauty of this model is that it not only allows a student to advance at his/her own pace, but it opens up a wide range of pathways by which a student can demonstrate mastery, which leads us to our next recommendation.

Personalized graduation paths

It’s time we truly acknowledge that every student is unique and in turn provide fully personalized graduation paths. Career and technical education (CTE) and college preparation programs should be seen as equals, preparing students for the next step they choose to take. For example, if the graduation checklist requires students to be able to write a research paper, let’s give them an option to fulfill that in any course whether that is advanced English Literature or a welding course.

A 2016 CTE Study from the Fordham Institute shows many benefits to a quality CTE program, including an increased likelihood that the student will graduate from high school, enroll in a two-year college, and be employed with a higher wage after graduation. Every student should be given control to create a path toward graduation that uses his/her interests and future plans as a foundation upon which to add relevant coursework, internships, and life skills training. Indiana seems to be leading the way in this area with recently-approved Graduation Pathways.

Realignment across the learning continuum

Embracing the above two recommendations means a shift in American high schools as we know them. Knowing that, it is important that our last recommendation be to reimagine learning across the entire preschool to higher education/career continuum. Instead of moving students in primary grades with age cohorts, let’s focus on competency-based mastery. Give students who need extra time the time that they need to gain understanding and allow those who are ready to move on the chance to advance.

Instead of labeling a student as a “failure” for not having graduated from high school in four years, set the expectation that students may master all of the competencies required in anywhere from three to seven years. Connect that high school graduation checklist with expectations of colleges, universities, career training programs, and jobs in order to ensure that when students do graduate they are truly prepared to embrace the next step, whatever that is for them.

So with three simple recommendations we have successfully turned the entire high school system on its head.

Classroom Competition a Good Thing

Contrary to the rhetoric that education choice proponents are out to harm traditional public schools, one of the clearly stated goals is for additional options to spark improvement in the public system. Whether the competition is public or private, the prospect of losing students should be an incentive to change — and improve.

The Cato Institute looks at Ohio’s EdChoice program and whether it has had that desired effect. The Fordham Institute, active in Ohio as a charter school organizer, reviews the Cato report below. The lengthy report from Cato focuses on data.

Rigorous school-voucher studies abound, with most research measuring the achievement effects of vouchers for students who use them. This study by CATO’s Matthew Carr — the first of its kind to investigate Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship program — takes a different tack. It examines whether traditional public schools are spurred to improve in the face of a threat of losing students to private schools—if competition itself “creates incentives for systemic improvements.”

To test this, Carr analyzed fourth- and sixth-grade reading and math achievement data on low-performing EdChoice-eligible schools over three academic years (2005-06, 2006-07, and 2007-08). The results were mixed. While fourth-grade math and sixth-grade math and reading scores remained the same, Carr found the voucher threat correlated with significant achievement gains in fourth-grade reading (the equivalent of 2,200 extra students reaching proficiency). What’s most significant about this finding is that Carr’s analysis controls for (among other things) the “scarlet letter” effect—i.e., did schools improve not because of the voucher threat but rather because of the stigma associated with receiving a highly publicized poor rating from the state? 

Further, while fourth-grade reading gains were significant, they didn’t come from the “bubble kids” — those just below the proficiency cut-off; rather, students in the lowest and highest performing categories made gains. Though its findings don’t constitute a grand slam for voucher proponents, the report is welcome — especially as EdChoice adds another 15,000 students to its eligible roster. 

Education Event to Rank ‘Reformiest’ State

For those paying attention in Indiana, you know that "education reform" has been one of the most popular phrases of 2011. But the Thomas B. Fordham Institute is apparently not sure if Hoosier K-12 changes rank as the best in the Midwest.

On August 11, Fordham is hosting Education Reform Idol: The Reformiest State 2011. Indiana will be vying against neighbors Ohio and Illinois, nearby Wisconsin and oft-cited reform leader Florida. The 90-minute Washington, D.C. event will have a representative from each state (Tony Bennett does the honors for Indiana) making its case, with a prestigious three-person panel selecting the "winner."

Fordham is billing it as the "education policy event of the summer." Interested persons can watch a live webcast.

Having interviewed Bennett several times and heard him speak on numerous other occasions, the other panelists best beware. The superintendent of public instruction’s passion seems made for this type of event.

Making Education Dollars Go Farther

Fifteen things you need to know as a policymaker — or someone who cares about education in your community and state.

1.End “last hired, first fired” practices.
2.Remove class-size mandates.
3.Eliminate mandatory salary schedules.
4.Eliminate state mandates regarding work rules and terms of employment.
5.Remove “seat time” requirements.
6.Merge categorical programs and ease onerous reporting requirements.
7.Create a rigorous teacher evaluation system.
8.Pool health-care benefits.
9.Tackle the fiscal viability of teacher pensions.
10.Move toward weighted student funding.
11.Eliminate excess spending on small schools and small districts.
12.Allocate spending for learning-disabled students as a percent of population.
13.Limit the length of time that students can be identified as English Language Learners.
14.Offer waivers of non-productive state requirements.
15.Create bankruptcy-like loan provisions.

These are Stretching the School Dollar recommendations contained in a brief released yesterday by the Fordham Institute. Sounds like a lot of common sense. Sounds like a lot of topics that are going to be discussed at the Indiana Statehouse in the coming months.

Read the full brief and stay tuned to see what happens.

Leaders Say Schools Need to Adjust Financial Plans

The good news is that education reform has been high on the agenda for a pair with the power to help do something about it. The bad news is that the duo has, at least in some respects, adopted the "throw more money at the problem" approach.

We’re talking about current U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan (he has the power of policy behind him) and that Microsoft guy named Bill Gates (using part of his personal fortune to help improve schools and educational opportunities for young people).

But many in the education world have been stressing that more dollars are not the answer. Economic realities have reinforced that point. Nationally, the Fordham Institute and the American Enterprise Institute combined on a report titled Stretching the School Dollar. They take pride in recent comments from Duncan and Gates.

For the past two years, as Congress dished out more money to education through the stimulus and Edujobs bills, Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, along with the Fordham Institute’s Chester E. Finn Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli, have been sounding the alarm on the need to improve school productivity and spend school dollars more wisely and efficiently. Recently, two powerful voices lent their support to this effort.

In a speech at AEI last week, Secretary Duncan said that, for the next several years, educators are likely to face a “new normal” of having to do more with less but that this challenge “can, and should, be embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements” to the productivity of the educational system. And on Friday, in a speech before the Council of Chief State School Officers, Gates said school leaders should rethink some basic assumptions that impact budgets, including class sizes and the way teacher pay is structured.
In their comments, both of these education superstars referenced the newest AEI-Fordham volume, which touches on many of these same themes. The book explains forcefully how school leaders can, and must, not only survive the current economic storm but also fundamentally restructure their schools to save money and improve efficiency.
“The bottom line is that, in the next five years, leaders seeking to make a difference will have to find the dollars they need from existing sources—they can no longer count on fresh infusions of funding to fuel their improvement efforts,” said Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at AEI and co-editor of Stretching the School Dollar. “Our school leaders will need political support in the challenges ahead. By stepping up to speak frankly and offer bold solutions, Secretary Duncan and Bill Gates are making it much easier for state and local leaders to make tough but necessary decisions.”
“Instead of tinkering around the edges, we need to fundamentally rethink the way we deliver education, compensate teachers, and organize our schools,” said Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president at the Fordham Institute. “We’re glad to hear these two powerful education leaders talking about these issues. We see great opportunity for change here, and we hope this is the start of a bold new era in education productivity.”

A Brave New Education World in Buckeye State

Public policy in Ohio (not unlike many other states) has not been kind to education innovation. But despite the roadblocks, online charters — or virtual schools — have experienced strong growth.

We’ll share some info from the Fordham Institute. While based in Washington, Fordham has its roots (as well as an office) in Ohio and is active as a charter school organizer and energetic advocate for students. It reports:

Despite a moratorium on new charter e-schools (installed five years ago) enrollment in online programs has risen by 46 percent, with 29,000 students now served by such programs.

Ohio must rethink how we use technology in education, and embrace nontraditional, non brick-and-mortar models.

Almost 30,000 students are served by a virtual charter school. Ohio’s credit flexibility plan allows students to earn credit for distance learning, internships, community service, and other educational experiences (and doesn’t require a standard amount of “seat time”).

While undoing seat-time requirements and exploring hybrid models represent uncharted territory for most Ohio educators, there was general consensus that it’s inevitable. This is the pathway down which education is headed – and it’s exciting. The possibilities for using online learning to improve student achievement are exponential, and we’re not taking full advantage of it (yet). Further, a proficiency or mastery-based model makes better sense for students and districts should introduce online learning as an intervention for those students having trouble mastering content. This is good for students, and the messaging is much more palatable than introducing technology in a manner that frightens teachers (they may fear it will take their jobs).

Lastly, online learning “unbundles” teachers’ skills and is more efficient than current learning models. For example, teachers who are adept at teaching AP physics or statistics can teach those courses traditionally and in an online format (and reach hundreds more students) rather than teaching AP courses along with basic courses or myriad subjects, etc. And since the online program presents the content (in various modalities suited to kids), virtual teachers spend less time presenting content and more time explaining, trouble-shooting, and interacting one-on-one with students. Isn’t this what parents and educators want more of?

Sing a Song, Save a School (and Students)

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett would admit he has more in common with his namesake who is the new basketball coach at Virginia (Washington State through the 2008–2009 season) than the 82-year-old crooner who is among the most admired entertainers of our time.

After all, Indiana’s Tony B. served the dual role of principal and basketball coach while at Scottsburg High School. But now education is his full-time game and he’s stirring things up with these radical notions of improving schools and ultimately the futures of our young people.

Nevertheless, the Fordham Institute, in its weekly Education Gadfly newsletter, put together an entertaining collection of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" Tony Bennett songs to go with education proposals from Bennett that it fully endorses.

Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett is crooning an aggressive school reform tune these days. Alas, he may not have the much-loved silken voice and silver hair of our favorite "King of Broken Hearts," but he certainly has plans to take Indiana schools and students from the "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" to the "Good Life." For starters, he wants to transition to value-added student assessment, something that’s sure making us "Smile." Bennett explains: "If a child enters fifth grade and is reading at second-grade level and that fifth-grade teacher gets that child to read at fourth-grade level, I don’t think it’s fair to call anyone a failure." He hopes to turn districts from "Rags to Riches" with his plans to update the teacher seniority system and end the practice of last hired-first fired; when district leaders wonder "Who Can I Turn To?" [sic], the answer will be talented, not tenured, teachers. He also wants to enforce 180 full-day instructional time requirements, which means no more shortening school days "Time after Time" for teacher conferences and professional development. Plus, he’s a fan of charters and improving the teacher preparation programs at his state’s universities. Props to Bennett; we need strong leaders who aren’t afraid to say no to "Anything Goes." In fact, he might be "Just in Time."

Bennett outlines his recent thoughts in a Lafayette Journal & Courier story; earlier this year, just prior to taking office, he participated in a Q&A with Chamber members (captured here in BizVoice magazine).

Obama Speaks on Education: Will the Actions Match the Words?

President Obama marked his 50th day in office Tuesday with his first major address on education. To the surprise of some, and the relief of many who fall in the reform camp, Obama offered the following:

  • Support for performance pay: "too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroon."
  • Removing underperforming educators: "if a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences."
  • Strong support for charter schools (urging states to remove charter caps) and calling for longer school days and school years.

Not all the words were welcome. There was no real mention of standards and there were hints at additional programs and spending, not necessarily solutions.

The real question: What’s next? How will the education community react? Will this generate momentum or cause reform opponents to dig in deeper?

The Fordham Institute offers some quick analysis. The Chamber’s current BizVoice magazine provides a look at K-12 education closer to home with an interview with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and a roundtable discussion on the key topics of the day.

Words to Cherish: ‘Aren’t Radical Enough’

In now nearly 11 years at the Indiana Chamber, one of several consistent battles that has taken place on the policy stage is the fight for education reform. A number of other local and state players have come and gone, but the Chamber has been there with research, advocacy, pilot programs and much more.

Many of our board members are passionate about the issue. They rightfully realize that today’s education is critical to assembling tomorrow’s workforce — one that will not only be competitive but hopefully world class.

There have been victories along the way for sure, but also more than a few setbacks. The "let’s not rock the status quo" mentality that we see far too often is frustrating. But for those interested in true reform, it doesn’t stop them from fighting the fight.

This is all a prelude to a noteworthy Fordham Institute analysis about charter schools, vouchers and comments by new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The quick take: Duncan isn’t sure vouchers are the answer in D.C. because they "aren’t radical enough."

Wow! Hope is renewed. Read the full story.

Innovation in Education Gone Awry

An oft-used unofficial definition of insanity: doing things the same way over and over and expecting different results. Some say that applies to education improvement efforts.

The following qualifies as "doing it differently" but falls way short of positive innovation. We’re talking about the initiative to pay students who show up for school, behave and do better on their test scores. The lineup of opponents to this ill-conceived strategy is long and vocal.

Stafford Palmieri of the Fordham Institute writes: "Higher standards, better teachers, and more tests are not the solution here. We need to teach our children that pulling an all nighter may be worth the temporary discomfort or that missing an episode of Project Runway is worth it to finish their math homework. That starts with parents. So here’s another great question: How are we going to get parents to start teaching their children to respect education?"

Diane Ravitch offers a Forbes op-ed here that closes with the following: "Interesting, isn’t it, that while students in other countries are paying $1,500 a year for the chance to learn more, many American students will be paid that same amount just to do what they ought to be doing in their own self-interest?

Does the future belong to those who struggle to better themselves, make sacrifices to do so and work hard? Or to those who must be cajoled and bribed to learn anything at all?"

Go Stafford and Diane. Where do you fall on paying kids to do what they’re supposed to be doing away?