Common Core Watch

Today marks the first class in a yearlong seminar in civics and citizenship I teach at Democracy Prep Charter High School in Harlem. My goal is for students to see America as their own, a country worthy of their dreams and ambitions. I will assign readings and papers, lead discussions, and design tests. I should take them all to see Hamilton on Broadway as well.

More than just an inventive musical or a hip hop history lesson, Hamilton accomplishes in two and a half hours what I will spend a year attempting to do in class, and what K–12 education barely even bothers to attempt anymore: It transfers ownership of America’s ideals and ambitions from one generation to the next.

The show’s star and creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, read the story of one of the nation’s most brilliant and volatile founders and saw echoes of Jay Z, Eminem, and Biggie Smalls. “I recognized the arc of a hip-hop narrative in Hamilton’s life,” he said in a recent interview. If the parallels are not obvious to you in the biography of the author of many Federalist Papers and America’s first treasury secretary—and they certainly weren’t to me—perhaps that’s the point.

“Lin is telling the story of...

Natalie Wexler

Standardized tests are commonly blamed for narrowing the school curriculum to reading and math. That’s one reason Congress is considering changes in the law that could lead states to put less emphasis on test scores. But even if we abolished standardized tests tomorrow, a majority of elementary schools would continue to pay scant attention to subjects like history and science.

Consider this: In 1977, twenty-five years before No Child Left Behind ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, elementary school teachers spent only about fifty minutes each day on science and social studies combined. True, in 2012, they spent even less time on those subjects—but only by about ten minutes.

The root cause of today’s narrow elementary curriculum isn’t testing, although that has exacerbated the trend. It’s a longstanding pedagogical notion that the best way to teach kids reading comprehension is by giving them skills—strategies like “finding the main idea”—rather than instilling knowledge about things like the Civil War or human biology.

Many elementary students spend hours practicing skills-based strategies, reading a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next.

That’s a problem for all students:...

Education policy is rarely a top issue in presidential campaigns. In the main, that's fine; most of the action takes place at the state and local levels. Still, last week's education policy summit hosted in New Hampshire by the education news website the Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children gave six of the seventy GOP presidential contenders the chance to burnish their K–12 credentials. (A second summit featuring Democratic candidates is slated for October in Iowa.)

To help the candidates hone their stump speeches, those of us at the Fordham Institute spent some time recently brainstorming campaign themes we'd like to see candidates from either party embrace. Here's what we came up with:

Education reform is working. It's by no means unanimous or uncontroversial, but Americans are generally supportive of the education reform agenda, broadly defined. An Education Next poll released last week shows solid (if softening) support for reform staples like charter schools, testing and accountability, merit pay for teachers, and tax credits to fund scholarships for low-income children. Voters even like higher standards—as long as you don't use the words "Common Core." And while...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at InsideSources.

The United States is blessed to have many excellent schools. That includes hundreds of fantastic high schools, such as those that recently received recognition from Newsweek. And our high schools as a whole deserve credit for helping to push America’s graduation rate to all-time highs.

However, there is still an enormous gap between the aspirations of America’s students and the education our public school system is equipped to provide. Put simply, almost all young people today want to go to college (including technical colleges), but only about one-third are graduating with the adequate reading and math skills to be successful once on campus.

Not all of the blame for that chasm can be placed at the doors of our high schools. Too many students are reaching ninth grade who are barely literate and numerate. Yet at a time when student achievement is rising at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, but not in twelfth grade, it’s fair to ask whether high schools are doing all they can to help teenagers make real academic progress while under their care.

Part of the problem is that most of our cities continue to house huge,...

On Wednesday, the American Federation for Children sponsored and cohosted with the Seventy Four a first-of-its-kind summit at which six Republican presidential candidates talked about American education. They discussed hot-button K–12 education issues—Common Core, teachers’ unions, school choice—but struggled to name the exact role a president should play in that arena.

“A president can do many things; it doesn’t mean it should,” former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said.

Most candidates questioned the purpose of the Department of Education and favored state control of schools. Fiorina said the amount of money flowing through Washington does not correlate with student improvements.

“The federal government is the last place in the world I want holding states and local school districts accountable,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. But when pressed by Seventy Four editor-in-chief and summit host Campbell Brown, candidates agreed that presidential influence is the most useful tool for a president to move the needle on education.

“The bully pulpit needs to be used,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said. “This is crisis. Hundreds of thousands of kids can’t get jobs because of the skills gap….This has got to be the highest priority for the next president of...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at U.S. News & World Report

Karoline Reyes dropped out of high school after the death of her mother. "I was in a really bad place," says the South Bronx nineteen-year-old. "It was hard to get school work done." Two years later, she enrolled at Bronx Haven High School, a "transfer high school" designed for kids who have dropped out or fallen behind in credits. She pulled away a second time, but Bronx Haven kept calling, encouraging her to sign up for classes. Her second-chance school wanted to give her another second chance.

Bronx Haven allowed Reyes to earn three credits via online classes. Two years of summer school meant four more credits, in addition to her already accelerated classes, which helped her make up for lost time. "I was two years behind and I didn't want to be in school forever," she says. Back on track, Reyes graduated in June, works at Montefiore Medical Center, and will start community college this fall. She plans to transfer to New York City's Hunter College for her bachelor's degree and credits Bronx Haven for not letting her...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at U.S. News & World Report

Karoline Reyes dropped out of high school after the death of her mother. "I was in a really bad place," says the South Bronx nineteen-year-old. "It was hard to get school work done." Two years later, she enrolled at Bronx Haven High School, a "transfer high school" designed for kids who have dropped out or fallen behind in credits. She pulled away a second time, but Bronx Haven kept calling, encouraging her to sign up for classes. Her second-chance school wanted to give her another second chance.

Bronx Haven allowed Reyes to earn three credits via online classes. Two years of summer school meant four more credits, in addition to her already accelerated classes, which helped her make up for lost time. "I was two years behind and I didn't want to be in school forever," she says. Back on track, Reyes graduated in June, works at Montefiore Medical Center, and will start community college this fall. She plans to transfer to New York City's Hunter College for her bachelor's degree and credits Bronx Haven for not letting her...

 

kathon_lanang/iStock/Thinkstock

The poll results that Education Next released yesterday carry mildly glum news for just about every education reformer in the land, as public support has diminished at least a bit for most initiatives on their agendas: merit pay, charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits, Common Core, and even ending teacher tenure. That dimming enthusiasm for change is apt to dominate coverage of the survey findings and the debates that follow.

Yet two other big-picture tendencies are also visible in these data, and it strikes me that they matter more over the long run than any one year’s blips around particular reform ideas.

First, when it comes to fundamental principles and practices regarding K–12 education, the American public is generally pretty sensible and steadfast. More on this below.

Second, when it comes to important basic facts regarding that very same K–12 education system, the American public is stunningly ignorant. This is especially true on the fiscal side. Poll respondents underestimated by half how much money is spent per pupil in their local schools. They’re...

Though it might be hard to believe, the first primary of the 2016 election season is still six months away. But the “ideas primary” is in full swing. Here’s what we hope to hear from candidates on both sides of the aisle. (Note to campaigns: These ideas and the related infographics are all open-source. Please steal them!)

Thank you for the opportunity to speak about the number-one domestic issue facing our country today: How to improve our schools so that every child has an opportunity to use their God-given talents to the max, contribute to society, and live the American Dream.

In a few minutes, I’m going to talk about what’s wrong with our education system. That’s appropriate, because bad schools continue to steal opportunities away from too many of our young people.

But before we get to that, how about some good news for a change? American schools, on the whole, are getting better. A lot better. Test scores are up—especially in math, and especially for our lowest-performing, low-income, and minority children. Graduation rates are at all-time highs. The college completion rate is inching upward. Things are heading in the right direction.

...

On Wednesday, Campbell Brown and the American Federation for Children will host an education policy summit in New Hampshire with six of the seventeen GOP presidential contenders. (A similar forum among Democratic candidates is scheduled for October in Iowa.) Here we present six education policy themes—and associated infographics—that we hope the candidates embrace. We've also written a speech that we encourage contenders to emulate. All of these are open-source. Please steal them!

1. Education reform is working. Don’t stop now.

 

2. College is not the only ticket to upward mobility in America.

 

3. School choice is growing—and changing lives.

 

4. America’s best and brightest need attention too.

 

5. School discipline is under attack—that’s shortsighted and foolish.

 

6. Preparing children for citizenship is an important goal of schools. Let’s restore civic education. 

 ...

Pages