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February 19, 2015

A matter of principal

After a conversation with CPE’s senior policy analyst Jim Hull last week in which Jim helped explain to issues of accountability, the conversation segued onto the topic of school principals and the powerful role they play in public education. Apparently, Jim is not the only one who believes that principals are key players in student success.

In a recent piece by Real Clear Education, graduate training programs designed for principals should foster a more practical skillset. The report goes on to suggest that incorporating disciplines such as business administration, could provide principals with the training for activities that are actually practiced on the job. A caveat however, the report also makes it very clear that they are not advocating for schools to be run like automated businesses either. That being said, there are still numerous leadership skills taught within an MBA program that fall directly within (or should) the purview of a principal, such as budgeting, data analysis, talent and quality management, organizational change, and leadership.

One thing is clear; good principals are essential for school success. As mirrored in a report by CPE, The Principal Perspective, high-quality principal leadership can facilitate numerous beneficial school outcomes, such as increasing student achievement, reducing both student and teacher absences, and reducing the turnover of high-quality teachers. Additionally, principals can be the linchpins in school turnaround. When a new principal is introduced into a school challenged by low student achievement, one of the first tasks an effective leader would undertake would be to assess the quality of the teachers, in an attempt to replace the lowest-quality teachers and retain the highest-quality teachers. These recruitment skills could be fostered through training in talent management, whereas retainment skills are taught through quality management, both skillsets that are central in an MBA program. Furthermore, our report found that principals were most effective at the earlier grades (i.e., elementary school), with an effect that diminishes across middle and high school. A plausible rationale for this decreasing effect is that as the structure of the school expands, it becomes more difficult to organize and govern. One way to address this downfall however, could be to incorporate leadership into principal training so that principals are better prepared to handle larger systems producing just as strong effects as elementary leaders.

In summary, the pieces by Real Clear Education and CPE share a common theme: principals matter. Although individual principals are not making broad changes at the state or federal level, they are poised to have (and sustain) incredible impact locally. It is because of their unique position that they play such an important role in increasing school outcomes. Thus, ensuring that principals are provided with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in effective school leadership certainly seems like a good principle.

September 6, 2013

The public and public schools in four charts

It’s September and that can only mean one thing: it’s time for competing polls about what Americans think about public education.  True to form, with all the asking — and in some cases, prodding — anyone can sift through the results and find support for their own agendas.  Like charter schools? We’ve got that covered. Don’t want school choice? We have that, too.  Here is my attempt to dig a little deeper into recent polls to uncover what the public is really telling us underneath the numbers.

I relied primarily on three national polls published over the last three months: Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup (PDK/Gallup, September 2013), Associated Press-NORC (AP/NORC, August 2013) and the American Federation of Teachers/Hart Research Associates (AFT/Hart, July 2013).  PDK and AFT are associations representing educators. Their reports should therefore be read with that lens in mind. Nonetheless, all three are associated with reputable pollsters giving them a level of credibility lacking in some other surveys conducted by interest groups. The PDK/Gallup has the longest history. Their recent poll was the partnership’s 45th release.

One of the most powerful findings comes from the AFT/Hart poll of public school parents. By a large margin, these parents look to public schools as the most vital institution contributing to the nation’s and their community’s future — far more than religious institutions, businesses, military or law enforcement (Chart 1). This shows that parents don’t just count on local schools to educate their own child. They want to see all public schools succeed in order to assure there is a healthy, vibrant society waiting when their child graduates and enters adult life.


This leads to the question, how well do public schools live up to these expectations? All three polls asked some version of “What do you think of American public schools?”  PDK/Gallup has asked this for several years, and the results have consistently shown that Americans are of two, contradictory minds. That is, the public reports a low opinion of public schools overall, but believes their local schools do a good job.  Obviously, both cannot be true.

The 2013 polls show the same ambivalence. When asked by PDK/Gallup to grade the nation’s schools, only 18 percent of the general public gave them an A or B. In contrast, 53 percent thought their local schools deserved these high grades. Interestingly, this represents a 6 percentage point increase since 1993. Public school parents were even more admiring; 71 percent gave their child’s school an A or B.

These findings are reflected in the AP/NORC poll of parents: only 38 percent rated U.S. public schools “excellent or good” compared to 64 percent who thought the same of their local elementary public schools (54 percent viewed local public secondary schools this highly). Note that the AP/NORC poll includes parents of both private and public school children.  About two-thirds of public school parents told the AFT/Hart pollsters they were very or fairly satisfied (see Chart 2).


Despite lingering doubts about the quality of public education nationally, these polls show that to know local public schools is to love them.  In addition to rating them highly, parents think that their child’s schooling is more rigorous than the education they had received (see Chart 3).


The picture gets more complicated when the topic turns to charter schools. But even here, one sees support for public schools. PDK/Gallup and AFT/Hart included several questions specifically about charters and choice. The PDK/Gallup was the most straightforward (see Chart 4). When asked if they favor or oppose charter schools, the general public favored charters by a ratio of 68 to 29 percent. A similar proportion said they would support opening charter schools in their district. A slight majority (52 percent) further thought public charter schools provided a better education.

AFT/Hart took another approach by presenting the questions as either/or propositions. Perhaps for this reason, the responses were more subtle. Public school parents were asked what they wanted more: good neighborhood schools or more choices of schools for their children. They overwhelmingly preferred neighborhood schools, 68 to 24 percent. They were also asked which approach would be a better way to improve education more generally: ensuring access to a good public school in the community, or opening more charter schools and providing more vouchers. Again, the local school won out, 77 to 20 percent.

It’s worth noting that the response to the last question was likely influenced by including vouchers — an idea that the public rejected by large margins in the PDK/Gallup poll. Even so, given the choice for themselves, it seems as though the public, and particularly parents, will prefer the neighborhood public school.


There is more reason to believe that what parents really want are good neighborhood schools. Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation recently conducted focus groups of parents to better understand their views of accountability and reform policies. The report, Will it be on the test?, explores a range of strategies, including parents’ views on charter schools and choice. While the authors, like PDK/Gallup, found general support for charters and choice, they also sensed frustration among parents who would prefer to see the same energy go toward improving traditional schools. They write:

[M]any parents seem to see sending their children to better schools elsewhere as a fallback solution, rather than their first choice. The better solution, any of them seem to say, would be to improve the quality of the neighborhood public schools in their own communities.

We agree.  We think charter schools can be effective laboratories for innovation, and would like to see the lessons of high-performing charters transfer to traditional schools. On the other hand, charter schools are not a reform strategy. Research shows that the high performers are the exception, not the rule. More, then, is no guarantee of better.

We also know that parents aren’t clamoring for more charter schools. These latest polls show that while the American public supports the idea of choice in principle, when it comes to their child and their community, their preferred choice is still the neighborhood school.


December 24, 2012

Up, up and away

The staff (that’s a total of three) at the Center for Public Education are taking a much deserved break to spend time with friends and family and hope you do the same. We know it will be tough, but the Edifier will be on hiatus for the rest of the year and will resume the week of January 7, ready to dig into the next mound of data. Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays

Filed under: CPE — Tags: , — NDillon @ 11:00 am

December 11, 2012

The value of a college degree

Last week, the Center for Public Education released a comparative study of international college attainment rates, which reinforced what other research has found: a smaller proportion of America’s twenty and thirty-somethings are getting college degrees than other countries and their own parents. There are myriad reasons behind this decline— we were at one point, the top producer of college graduates in the world— and one of the most cited barriers to earning a college degree is the rising cost of tuition.

While few dispute the necessity of postsecondary education in the pursuit of a well-paying job, more and more are questioning whether traditional four year degrees are still worth it. The Economist approached the subject in a provocative piece last week that declared American universities represented declining value. Meanwhile, Academic Earth presents this nifty infograph that keeps the comparisons of return on investment within the U.S., looking instead to the salary differences of private and public university graduates.

who earns more public-vs-private college graduates

Watch free online classes at Academic Earth.

December 4, 2012

5 states put time on their side

Five states have entered into a pilot project to add 300 hours of instructional time to the school year.  The participating states — Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee — had each made more school time part of their approved ESEA waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. The Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time and Learning are providing technical assistance and support for the pilot, which is expected to reach about 20,000 students in 40 schools.

According to an AP story, the overarching goals for adding time are to raise student performance and to also provide a well-rounded curriculum including the arts and other subjects that sometimes take a backseat to reading and math.

There’s a common-sense appeal to the idea that extending time for learning will produce more learning.  A CPE review of research on school time found that to be generally true— with some caveats.

Number one is that the impact of extra time depends how it’s is used. Merely stretching 45 minutes of typical instruction into a bigger slot isn’t likely to make much difference. That’s why it will be important to give teachers their own time for planning.

Last year, CPE’s Jim Hull and Mandy Newport analyzed the amount of time students are required to be in school in different countries (cited in the AP story). They found that contrary to many reports, the U.S. requires about as much or more time than many of our economic competitors. They also found little relationship between time required and outcomes. Just consider the case of high-scoring Finland which requires the least hours compared to low-scoring Italy which requires the most. Note that time required doesn’t necessarily represent the actual instructional time students receive. Nonetheless, this underscores how vital it is to use the time effectively.

The pilot has a three-year timeframe. We’ll be watching to see how much impact it has on student learning and how it compares to investments in teacher professional development, curriculum or other strategies to raise achievement.  As budget conscious school leaders know, time in the school schedule truly is money. Hopefully, these five states will have lessons for schools across the country to make sure time is on our side.

Read more about the TIME Collaborative here.

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