03-01-07 NAEP Studies

There was important news on the national student achievement front recently. The results of the 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (“NAEP”), otherwise known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” are in. It’s not a pretty picture. The average reading score was the lowest since 1992, and not significantly different from 2002. In mathematics, only 23 percent scored at or above the Proficient level. (The mathematics test was new, so it cannot be compared to previous tests.)

Overall, the percentage of 12th grade students performing at or above the Basic level in reading has fallen from 80 percent to 73 percent since 1992, with the percentage performing at or above Proficient declining from 40 to 35 percent during the same time. In 2005, 61 percent of high school seniors performed at or above Basic in math, and 23 percent performed at or above Proficient.

Sadly, previously released scores in science showed a similar trend for 12th graders, with average scores decreasing since 1996 but not significantly different from results in 2000.

The NAEP is a national test that is one of the few ways we can look at academic achievement nationwide. Care is taken to make the sample of test takers representative of students throughout the country, including students from urban, rural, and suburban environments, all regions, and public and private schools. You can see lots of sample questions at all grade levels, and learn more about all the NAEP tests at:


As usual, I encourage you to try some sample questions and see for yourself whether you think they are fair assessments of what we might want kids to know.

At the same time as the Department of Education released the 12th grade NAEP results, it released a new study of high school transcripts. Paradoxically, the transcript study showed that 68 percent of 2005 high school graduates completed at least a standard curriculum, up from 59 percent in 2000, and that the overall grade point average was about one-third of a letter grade higher than in 1990.

Transcripts were collected from about 640 public schools and 80 private schools. These transcripts constituted a nationally representative sample of 26,000 high school graduates, representing approximately 2.7 million 2005 high school graduates. The 2005 results are compared to the results of earlier transcript studies, and differences among graduates by race/ethnicity, gender, and parent education are included in the study. To see more, go here:


The NAEP chairman had this to say: “On the surface, these results provide little comfort and seem to confirm the general concern about the performance of America’s high school students. The findings also suggest that we need to know much more about the level of rigor associated with the courses that high school students are taking.”

As a citizen, as a mother of two high school students, and as someone who cares about what happens for kids, these results alarm me. We’ve made significant progress nationally in increasing student achievement in the lower grades. Now we have to figure out a way to improve student achievement in our high schools.

02-15-07 Fair Student Funding

This Weekly Reader is about Fair Student Funding—an important Children First reform. I have written in the past about where the money for the DOE as a whole comes from. Fair Student Funding concerns how that money gets allocated to schools.

School districts have typically allocated resources to schools, rather than dollars. For example, based on the number of students a school has, a school might get, say, x number of teachers, x number of counselors and other staff, and this or that particular program. Decisions often have been based on immediate concerns rather than on a set formula. Over time, these kinds of allocations can result in some schools getting significantly bigger dollar budgets than others. Here at the DOE, for example, we have an example of one high poverty school receiving almost twice as much per student as another school with a similar poverty level.

Many school districts are now moving away from this type of school funding to a way of allocating money to schools that is perceived as much more fair and transparent. In our system, the Chancellor calls it “Fair Student Funding.” Some also call this type of system “weighted student funding.” Under Fair Student Funding, money for a school is based on the needs of its students. Each student has a weighted funding allocation, based on his or her educational needs. Schools that have higher need students, such as a high percentage of English language learners, get higher allocations. Schools with similar types of students are thus treated alike. There is a great explanation of our Fair Student Funding initiative at:


I think one section from that document is especially important. One of the biggest challenges in implementing Fair Student Funding is how to treat teacher salaries. Here’s a description of how the DOE will approach that difficult issue:

Most of Fair Student Funding concerns the way we allocate money to schools, but there also is one issue about the way we charge schools for staff. The issue is whether schools should be charged the actual costs for their teachers or should be charged only an average cost. Teacher salaries vary widely, from a starting salary around $45,000 to a top salary more than twice that amount excluding fringe benefits). Although our current method of charging schools for teachers is very complicated, for the most part, we now charge schools an average cost. This means that schools get a fixed number of teachers, whatever those teachers cost. Two schools are allocated 20 teachers, for example, and they get enough money to pay those teachers, regardless of the teachers’ salaries. (There are some exceptions, including the treatment of teachers paid with categorical dollars.)

There are good reasons to take the actual costs of teachers into account in school budgeting. For one thing, it’s more accurate. If school budgets are going to show the real investments in each school, they need to show the cost of the teachers in those schools. More important, it’s fairer. Today, less experienced teachers are more likely to teach at the highest-poverty schools. Because these teachers earn less, these schools can have lower budgets. That means they have less money to spend on meeting the needs of kids who need help most — whether by providing more after-school help, reducing class size, or providing additional training to (generally more junior) teachers in that school. If the high-poverty school were charged actual teacher salaries, it would have additional resources left over to meet its students’ needs.

Although these are powerful arguments, we also recognize that charging schools for actual teachers right away would be disruptive for schools with high proportions of senior teachers. One of our core principles is to maintain stability and bring gradual change that preserves critical programs for all our students. So we reject the extremes: either ignoring the actual costs of teachers or charging schools for actual salaries immediately. Instead, we propose a solution in the middle ground, along these lines: When it comes to Fair Student Funding, schools should not be asked to pay the actual costs of teachers who are already on their budgets. However, when hiring teachers into their schools for the first time, principals should be asked to pay actual costs. An approach of this kind builds on the current treatment of teachers paid for with categorical dollars. It will protect schools that already have many high-cost teachers and will also encourage greater fairness and transparency over time.

As in most educational matters, reasonable people differ. Here’s a good blog entry that sets forth some arguments for and against weighted student funding.


I think Fair Student Funding, accompanied by a phase-in period for teacher salaries, is a fair and reasonable way to address resource disparities. As with most difficult resource allocation issues, there is no easy answer. The way I see it, if this were easy, we’d have figured it out a long time ago.

02-07-07 More on a Culture of Performance

I thought I would write a little more this week about the contrast between a culture of compliance and a culture of performance. Last week I talked about the concept of “enabling bureaucracy,” and how an enabling bureaucracy can create a culture of performance, even in a highly regulated setting. For those of you who are interested in the idea, here’s a link to a scholarly article that summarizes how coercive bureaucracies differ from enabling bureaucracies in public agencies:


There are several books I really like that talk about how you can live in a very rule-intensive world and still have a strong culture of performance. In Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity, authors Weick and Sutcliffe studied “high reliability organizations,” such as nuclear reactor operators and aircraft carrier crews—essentially, organizations that cannot afford to mess up. The organizations they examined were very bureaucratic in many respects, with formal hierarchies and strict rules, regulations, and procedures. They identified five processes that all these bureaucratic organizations relied on to drive high performance:

· Preoccupation with failures rather than successes (constant brainstorming about what could go wrong and intense examination of breakdowns)
· Reluctance to simplify interpretations (rejecting simple answers; recognizing the complexity of the environment and consistently digging for deep understanding)
· Sensitivity to operations (understanding that every step in implementation had to be completely thought through, committing talent and resources to excellent operational systems, and listening to operational experts)
· Commitment to resilience (building backup systems and developing personal and team resilience in the face of daunting challenges)
· Deference to expertise (seeking out experts for solutions no matter where they resided in the hierarchy)

They called these five processes, taken as a whole, mindfulness, which they defined as “an underlying style of mental functioning . . . distinguished by continuous updating and deepening of increasingly plausible interpretations of what the context is, what problems define it, and what remedies it contains.” I think this is fabulous, and easy to apply to the kinds of things that we are up to at the DOE—which is probably no less complex in many ways than your average aircraft carrier.

A completely different approach to developing a culture of performance can be found in one of my favorite leadership books: The Art of Possibility, by Benjamin and Rosamund Zander. Ben Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, an all-volunteer orchestra. For 25 years, he has motivated a group of volunteer musicians to make extraordinary music, and to perform at the level of the greatest professional orchestras in the country. It’s hard for me to imagine a stricter and more confining set of rules than an orchestral score. Yet Zander’s orchestra is known for its impassioned and surprising performances. In The Art of Possibility, Zander describes how he discovered the importance of encouraging every single member of the orchestra to “lead from every chair.” Zander believes that each musician has the capability to be a leader, no matter how small the part they play. He asks each musician to see him or herself as leading from whatever chair they occupy during the performance. He also allows each musician, at each rehearsal, to contribute insights on how the piece and the conducting can be improved. Zander’s musical advisor describes his rehearsals as “impassioned quests, in which each player in the orchestra joins him in his attempt to find the most truthful and direct path to the meaning of every moment of the music.” I can see why people want to play for him, and why they produce great music. Imagine if we could all approach our jobs with that sort of intensity and focus on extraordinary outcomes. Everyone I recommend this book to loves it, by the way.

Check out the Chancellor’s letter to the editor today in the New York Sun, in which he says, yet again, “I reject the notion that program-driven, incremental reform will ever get us where we need to be.”


You might be able to regulate your way to incremental reform. I’m pretty sure that you can only inspire your way to breakthrough results.

02-01-07 Culture: Compliance vs. Performance

This week’s topic is organizational culture: specifically, the difference between an organizational culture of compliance and an organizational culture of performance. This is a subject dear to the Chancellor’s heart, and one that makes its way into many of his speeches. In many ways, though, I don’t think it’s an easy distinction, especially when you work in an environment like education, which is highly regulated, subject to countless rules and regulations, and bound by complex collective bargaining agreements. How, for pete’s sake, can we move away from a culture of compliance in a world like this? We are clearly not going to stop complying with all our legal, regulatory, and contractual mandates. So what does this really mean?

I think it’s about a difference in the way we approach problems. As a graduate student, I did some research on a concept called “enabling bureaucracy” in schools. (Enabling bureaucracy is a term used in organizational effectiveness research.) What I found was that schools that had enabling bureaucracies had better academic achievement than those that didn’t. Schools with enabling bureaucracies created structures, rules, practices, and attitudes designed to make it easier for teachers to work effectively. There was no lack of organization, clarity, or discipline. There might even be lots of structure and very well-defined processes. But the consistent design principle was to make it easier for teachers to be effective. Principals who created enabling bureaucracies in their schools created clear lines of authority, organized school schedules to support teaching and learning, developed and communicated priorities, did away with (or ignored) needless paperwork, and made sure the school’s procedures were designed so that they did not interfere with teaching priorities.

I suspect that the longer an organization has existed, the more rules and paperwork it often has. This makes sense; we’re much better at creating rules and paperwork than we are at killing them. Most rules and forms just die a slow death from disuse, as the canny operators figure out what they can ignore. Humans are wired to make rules. Have you noticed that whenever something goes wrong, our first inclination is to say: gotta have a rule against this! After a hundred years or so, you’ve got a pretty big rule book. We also like to design our processes so that we’re sure the things we are personally accountable for won’t go wrong (or at least if they do we won’t be blamed)---making sure everybody else out there acts right and doesn’t mess up our stuff (or at least leaves a clear evidentiary trail if they do). I think these are the dynamics that ultimately bring down large organizations.

This is the challenge I see for us: developing and maintaining structures, rules, systems and processes that do good things like provide for clear, timely decisions with all necessary input; capture important organizational knowledge so that it can be shared; give people helpful support and information; encourage consistency and quality; and prevent unacceptable system risks; while keeping student learning as our top design priority. Principals need to be leading schools for student achievement, and teachers need to be fully engaged in creating effective teaching. Everything we do has to be done in a way that keeps these goals paramount. When we can do that, I think we’ll have a culture of performance.