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The waiver of No Child Left Behind is good, but there’s a bigger story than that

The U.S. Department of Education granted the State of New Hampshire its “flexibility waiver” Wednesday, enabling our schools to replace the destructive No Child Left Behind requirements with a new school improvement plan. (Here is the Union Leader story.)

You could say this is big deal because the waiver gets us out from under an arbitrary No Child Left Behind school rating system that provided unjustified fodder for those who wanted to bash our schools and teachers. Some will say we accomplished that by sacrificing local control of our school systems to the federal government. Did we?

We didn’t. And that’s the really big deal. It took 10 months of negotiating, but we seem to have given up nothing in for the flexibility waiver.

What did happen is that New Hampshire has replaced No Child Left Behind with its own education strategy. That required a long term vision by our department of education and the support of a bewildering number of players, including two governors, the Legislature, teachers, superintendents and school board leadership throughout the state. But now there’s a real next generation plan in place for managing New Hampshire public education. Here are the key pieces:

Statewide standards

Most school districts are well into the process of rolling out the Common Core State Standards for math and English in their classrooms. This is not a capitulation to the federal department of education. These are standards have become controversial in the media, but not in New Hampshire classrooms. Teachers who have implemented them seem to like it. Here’s one example.

Beyond the Common Core standards, New Hampshire’s overall system of standards is getting put into a more coherent and usable form.

And the move toward competency based learning has begun. (This legislation, currently in committee, would be part of the next step if it passes.)


A new and improved annual student test, Smarter Balanced, will be used starting in 2015. This could lead to fewer total tests, and better designed test, for each student each year. In spite of what you hear, there will be no more student data shared than in the past and costs will not go up.

School Improvement

Instead of the flawed No Child Left Behind scheme, we will now have a new, regionally-based, system for working with schools that need help, either because they have low student achievement or some groups of students are falling behind. This needed legislation that passed yesterday.

Teaching Evaluation

A model teaching evaluation system, developed by New Hampshire educators, is available to guide all New Hampshire schools. Most RTTT states have built punitive evaluation systems that mandate that 50% of the evaluation is based on student testing. In New Hampshire, the 224 schools that receive federal Title I schools will be required to make student growth (not necessarily measured by tests) at least 20% of their teaching evaluation systems, a lower percentage than the federal education department appears to have required in any other state. For the remaining 244 schools, districts must develop a system “with the involvement of teachers and principals,” (legislation just passed) but are free to use the state model or another approach, including student testing or not.

The New Hampshire Department of Education seems to have fit these and other pieces together into a next generation of New Hampshire public education, negotiating with educators and legislators back home while protecting New Hampshire from the federal government’s punitive education reform agenda.

That’s what should be seen as a big deal.

Schooling Ourselves in an Unequal America – NYTimes

Here is a very useful NYT Opinionator post summarizing American education issues in a global context – in a balanced and accurate way.  For some reason, it goes off the rails into never-never land when it describes current federal education policy, but the rest is still useful.  The post itself is based on this analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations.  Here’s the good part:

Averages can be misleading. The familiar, one-dimensional story told about American education is that it was once the best system in the world but that now it’s headed down the drain, with piles of money thrown down after it.

The truth is that there are two very different education stories in America. The children of the wealthiest 10 percent or so do receive some of the best education in the world, and the quality keeps getting better. For most everyone else, this is not the case. America’s average standing in global education rankings has tumbled not because everyone is falling, but because of the country’s deep, still-widening achievement gap between socioeconomic groups.

And while America does spend plenty on education, it funnels a disproportionate share into educating wealthier students, worsening that gap. The majority of other advanced countries do things differently, at least at the K-12 level, tilting resources in favor of poorer students.

Historically, the role of the federal government, which takes a back seat to the states in education, has been to try to close achievement gaps, but they have continued to widen. Several changes in federal education policy under President Obama have actually increased the flow of scarce federal dollars toward those students who need it less, reinforcing inequities and further weakening overall educational performance. Reversing America’s slide in international education rankings will require turning that record on its head.


We do a lot good in American education but why is opportunity to learn determined by where you live?

Uri Treisman is widely respected professor of mathematics and of public affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the founder and executive director of the University’s Charles A. Dana Center.  On April 19, 2013, he addressed the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics on equity in American education.  He called his talk “Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize,” and called on his fellow math educators to work toward an education system in which students, regardless of ethnicity, family income or location in the country, have an equal opportunity to learn mathematics and thus gain access to good jobs and incomes. (more…)

You’ve heard how US schools aren’t getting any better but, really….they are.

Prof. Michael Marder of the University of Texas at Austin shows in a simple way (but with a lot of behind-the-scenes work) how American education has been steadily improving.  The chart below shows the state-by-state improvement in 8th grade math scores.  New Hampshire (blue, 8 points between 2003 and 2009) and Massachusetts (green, 21 points between 2000 and 2009) improvements are highlighted.  Click on the graph for a little video explaining what you are seeing.


Front page for Marder movie on school improvement over time

But, even more impressive, here is the live version of the chart.  You can manipulate it in any way you want in order to review a variety of types of state-by-state education data over the period from 2000 to 2009.

Updated 5/27/12, 9:40am to make the degree of improvement clearer.

The unions make public schools bad, right? Actually, that’s not what the data shows.

Michael Marder is physics prof at the University of Texas at Austin, and Co-Director of UTeach (“We prepare teachers.  They change the world.”).  He’s a scientist who has found communicative ways to visualize his research data.  Sometimes he applies that skill to education issues to see what’s really going on.  Here is his look at the role unions play in student achievement (taken from page 8, here).

The view that unions are an obstacle to educational progress is the almost universally shared premise among education reform proponents in the U.S., whether the proposed reform is punitive teacher evaluations, the charterization of public education or state-funded private school vouchers.  Prof. Marder lets Steve Jobs (2007) serve as the voice of conventional wisdom on this issue:

I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way….This unionization
and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.

But then he displays simple data that tells a different story.  Each disk is a state.  The red disks are “right to work” states, which he characterizes as “weaker union” states.  The blue disks are “stronger union” states.

Marder union graphs 1

Here’s what Prof. Marder observes in his dispassionate way:

States with and without strong unions are intermingled. Well-off students in wealthy states with strong unions have the highest outcomes. For low-income students the states with highest outcomes have weak unions. Differences in state performance that might be attributed to unions are small compared with effects of poverty.

As an additional note, here is an interesting study by the conservative Fordham Institute that ranks the states by the strength of their teachers’ unions.

What if Finland’s great teachers taught in New Hampshire?

Valerie Strauss (The Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post) had widely respected Finnish education strategist Pasi Sahlberg write a guest column.  It’s great fun to get these thoughts unconstrained by the limits of our current American education debate.  Key points:


In the United States, for example, there are more than 1,500 different teacher-preparation programs. The range in quality is wide. In Singapore and Finland only one academically rigorous teacher education program is available for those who desire to become teachers. Likewise, neither Canada nor South Korea has fast-track options into teaching, such as Teach for America or Teach First in Europe. Teacher quality in high-performing countries is a result of careful quality control at entry into teaching rather than measuring teacher effectiveness in service.


In the United States today, 23 percent of children live in poor homes. In Finland, the same way to calculate child poverty would show that figure to be almost five times smaller. The United States ranked in the bottom four in the recent United Nations review on child well-being. Among 29 wealthy countries, the United States landed second from the last in child poverty and held a similarly poor position in “child life satisfaction.” Teachers alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools everyday.


The fantasies driving school reform: A primer for education graduates – graduation address by Richard Rothstein

Valerie Strauss has provided (here on her blog, The Answer Sheet) a transcript of a graduation speech by Richard Rothstein,  a deeply knowledgeable and trustworthy education commentator.  Here are some key quotes, but you should read the whole thing here:

Politicians of both parties, leading educators, and philanthropists like Bill Gates who increasingly influence education policy, repeat incessantly that our schools are failing, especially for disadvantaged children. Past efforts at improvement, and vast increases in spending, have accomplished little or nothing, they say. Achievement gaps between disadvantaged and middle class students have narrowed little, so as the proportion of white children declines, this failure of our schools weakens our nation, rendering it unable to compete internationally.

In truth, this conventional view relies upon imaginary facts.


In education, money counts: NH’s top schools often have the lowest amounts of poverty – Nashua Telegraph

This piece is interesting.  Danielle Curtis, the Telegraph’s education reporter, made the headlined observation, that our top ranked schools are in our wealthiest communities, as she was scanning the US News and Newsweek rankings.  She called me and others to talk it over and you can see the well crafted and accurate result here, on the Telegraph site.  This is a large and complex topic but she found a good thread through the issue.

Money isn’t everything.

It’s a phrase that applies to many situations in life, whether it’s a parent explaining why they won’t be buying those brand-name jeans, or a mentor encouraging a new worker to take that entry-level job they’d love.

But when it comes to education, does the saying hold true?

It’s a question that has been tossed around for years, by lawmakers trying to create a balanced budget and by educators lobbying for more funding for schools.

Take a look at the annual rankings of the nation’s top high schools, and other similar awards, and you’ll see that money is, at least, important.

“When you’re in a budget debate, the first statement is always, ‘Schools don’t get better by throwing money at them,’ ” said Bill Duncan, of Advancing New Hampshire Public Education. “But they do, actually, they really do.”

Duncan said that while money is by no means the only factor that plays into a school’s success, the financial support a district receives from its taxpayers and the socioeconomic situation of a school’s students factor into the test scores they see, the number of college-bound students they graduate and resources they can use to aid struggling students.


The Secret To Fixing Bad Schools (NYT OpEd)

Statewide, our New Hampshire schools are great.  But some, in a number of our cities and rural areas, face great challenges.  The great improvements in Hillsboro provide an inspiring example of how to meet those challenges in the old fashioned way, with strong leadership and good teaching.

An oped in today’s New York Times tells the story of a 25 year improvement under tough conditions in Union City, NJ.

Public schools in such communities have often operated as factories for failure. This used to be true in Union City, where the schools were once so wretched that state officials almost seized control of them. How things have changed. From third grade through high school, students’ achievement scores now approximate the statewide average. What’s more, in 2011, Union City boasted a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent — roughly 10 percentage points higher than the national average. Last year, 75 percent of Union City graduates enrolled in college, with top students winning scholarships to the Ivies.

As someone who has worked on education policy for four decades, I’ve never seen the likes of this. After spending a year in Union City working on a book, I believe its transformation offers a nationwide strategy.

via The Secret To Fixing Bad Schools –

Union City, Hillsboro and other New Hampshire communities provide a practical and inspiring alternative to the corporate education reform and privatization proposals we see around us.  We should tell more of those stories.

Education reform in Colorado – not such a clear result

Our last post highlighted apparently successful reform efforts in Cincinnati, achieved by making demands of the teachers, giving them the training the need and tracking everything with meaningful data.  Here, from Gary Rubenstein’s blog, is a discussion of the results achieved the other way, by corporate-style education reform.  Gary is a reliable observer.  He compares Bill Gates’ statement in the Wall Street Journal about the achievements in Eagle County, Colorado with what he finds by looking at publicly available data about the school.  Here is an excerpt from Gates’ Wall Street Journal statement.

In October, Melinda and I sat among two dozen 12th-graders at Eagle Valley High School near Vail, Colo. Mary Ann Stavney, a language-arts teacher, was leading a lesson on how to write narrative nonfiction pieces. She engaged her students, walking among them and eliciting great participation. We could see why Mary Ann is a master teacher, a distinction given to the school’s best teachers and an important component of a teacher-evaluation system in Eagle County.

Ms. Stavney’s work as a master teacher is informed by a three-year project our foundation funded to better understand how to build an evaluation and feedback system for educators. Drawing input from 3,000 classroom teachers, the project highlighted several measures that schools should use to assess teacher performance, including test data, student surveys and assessments by trained evaluators. Over the course of a school year, each of Eagle County’s 470 teachers is evaluated three times and is observed in class at least nine times by master teachers, their principal and peers called mentor teachers.