Secretary of Education Arne Duncan deserves the many plaudits he received on Friday from President Obama and his friends in the reform community—and even from his sometime-foes in the teachers’ unions. As everyone remarked, he’s a good and decent man, a fighter for disadvantaged kids who’s passionate about his work and loyal to his team. That was certainly my personal experience with him; he was more gracious toward me than I probably deserved, considering the many swipes I’ve taken at his policy decisions over the years.

So please bear with me one more time: Even at this moment of celebration, congratulation, and reflection regarding Arne’s time at the helm, the Obama administration can’t seem to help itself. It almost seems determined to poison the well with Congress and play to the stereotype of a government unwilling to abide by constitutional limits.

I’m referring, of course, to the decision to appoint John King (another smart, committed reformer and all-around great guy) as “acting” education secretary for an entire year rather than putting him through the Senate confirmation process.

It’s certainly true that the confirmation process has slowed to an agonizing pace over the past few decades. And the Bush 43 administration also opted...

I thought I’d left Roseburg behind three months ago, at milepost 125 on Interstate Five. After spending the past year as the county’s education reporter, I was eager for a new city, a new coast, and new opportunities to write about education. I packed my car and drove away in June, watching the red-tailed hawks disappear for the last time in my rearview mirror.

Or so I thought. Today, Roseburg is all I can think about.

When my coworker first announced the news of a shooting at Umpqua Community College yesterday, I was confused. The school, to say nothing of the small county it resides in, just isn’t the stuff that national media events are made of. The massacre that killed at least ten students and injured seven others wasn’t supposed to happen there; some other city, maybe, but not there.

This isn’t to say that nothing of note happens in Douglas County. Community journalism was a whirlwind tutorial in the small-bore forces and events that shape people’s lives—especially when it comes to education. Schools countywide were battling for funds to bring iPads into classrooms so that students from special education classes and kindergarten reading groups could reap the...

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the average American lived to be about 50 years old. One hundred years later, nearly three decades have been added to that lifespan, due in no small part to advances in public health: immunization and control of infectious disease, safer and healthier food, motor vehicle safety, fluoridation of drinking water, and recognizing the dangers of tobacco use.

Public health's watershed advances occur in part because public policy and awareness are intertwined with medical practice and research, mutually reinforcing one another. Research teaches us about the ill effects of smoking; doctors discourage their patients from smoking; policymakers raise taxes on cigarettes, pass laws curtailing who can buy and sell them and where people are allowed to light up. Eventually the combined forces become overwhelming. The habit is seen as dangerous, expensive, and socially unacceptable. Fewer Americans purchase cigarettes, and even those who do become reluctant to expose their children to tobacco smoke. Behavior changes. Quality of life improves.

American education has enjoyed no such golden era, largely because education force multipliers too seldom act in concert. Those who work in education research, policy, and practice frequently fail to communicate with one another, and when...

Dan Weisberg

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on the TNTP Blog.

Yesterday on Flypaper, our friend Andy Smarick shared some reflections on “The Mirage,” our recent report on teacher improvement. Our finding that the enormous investment school systems make in teacher improvement isn’t actually helping most teachers improve tends to send people into something resembling the five stages of grief. We experienced it ourselves. Andy readily admits that he’s still stuck on denial, and from there he raises a big question that we’ve heard in other critiques of the report: Can we really trust the measures of teacher performance we used to reach our conclusions about professional development?

Andy knows the ins and outs of teacher evaluation as well as anyone, so we respect his healthy skepticism on this front. Before I address his specific concerns, though, it’s worth pointing out that our findings about professional development aren’t as dire as he and others have made them out to be. In our research, we found thousands of teachers who improved from year to year. Clearly, some kinds of professional development are helping individual teachers. The problem is that at the systemic level, these teachers are the exception...

Terry Ryan

Wikipedia defines judicial activism as “judicial rulings suspected of being based on personal or political considerations rather than on existing law.” The Washington State Supreme Court has veered into the judicial activism fast-lane when it comes to public education in the Evergreen State.

Exhibit one is the recent 6-3 decision by the court declaring the state’s nascent charter school program “unconstitutional.” That decision overrode the will of a majority of the electorate that had voted in 2012 to allow Washington State to open forty charter schools in five years. If it stands, the court’s decision would toss some 1,300 students out of their chosen schools. Many of these children are low income, English language learners, or students with disabilities.

The court’s argument for declaring charters illegal hinged on a 1909 decision as to what constitutes a “common school.” Specifically, the court held that charter schools violate the uniformity clause of the state’s constitution because charters are not common schools controlled by local school boards. And, the court maintained, they unconstitutionally divert funds from common schools. This decision broke with legal precedents set in other states. An analysis by the law firm Jones Day showed, “Washington’s constitution shares many similarities...

Nearly ten years ago, Congress established the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF). A total $1.8 billion has been disbursed since then by the U.S. Department of Education to districts to accomplish four tasks: overhaul their teacher evaluation systems, create merit pay bonuses based on them, give educators opportunities to take on additional responsibility for more money, and offer professional development to support teachers in their efforts to hit these higher marks.

Under the TIF program, bonuses are supposed to be “substantial, differentiated, challenging to earn, and based solely on educators’ effectiveness.” Since this evaluation shows that 60 percent of teachers received a bonus in a subgroup of districts studied, it’s fair to wonder just how challenging to earn they really were. Moreover, understanding of the program still seems sub-optimal. In the second year of implementation, more teachers understood their eligibility for bonuses and how they were being evaluated than in the first year. “Yet more than one-third [38 percent] of teachers still did not understand they were eligible for a bonus,” the report notes. “And teachers continued to underestimate the potential size of the bonuses, believing that the largest bonuses were only about two-fifths the size of the actual maximum bonuses...

There’s a classic puzzle that requires connecting a square of nine dots with four lines; the problem appears impossible until the solver realizes that she can extend the lines outside the box. Ted Kolderie does just that in his new book arguing for a bevy of bold yet sensible reforms that would upend today’s education model.

Some suggestions are not so revelatory, such as increasing student motivation and personalized learning. But as Kolderie continues, he makes his way to recommendations that would shake up everything from age-based student grouping to how we think about achievement and teacher leadership. To be sure, none of his ideas are meant for every district in every state. “‘America’ does not have schools…Massachusetts has schools, Texas has schools, California has schools,” Kolderie writes. Each state, he believes, should adopt and its own reforms to fit its unique needs.

Kolderie’s most compelling argument is that U.S. schools require too many years of attendance. Some young people are ready for responsibility sooner than our system allows. So by requiring everyone to stay in school until age eighteen, we’re preventing millions of people from reaching their full potential. “The restrictions built into the institution of adolescence have made...

In Eastern Ohio and elsewhere across the nation, fracking has had a profound effect on economic activity and labor markets. But has it had an impact on education? According to a new study by Dartmouth economists, the answer is yes: The proliferation of fracking has increased high-school dropout rates— among adolescent males specifically, and not surprisingly. They estimate that each percentage-point increase in local oil and gas employment—an indicator of fracking intensity—increased the dropout rates of teenage males by 1.5–2.5 percentage points.

The analysts identify 553 local labor markets—“commuter zones,” or CZs—in states with fracking activity, including Ohio. For each CZ, they overlay Census data spanning from 2000 to 2013 on employment and high-school dropouts (i.e., 15–18 year olds not enrolled and without a diploma). The study then exploits the “shock” of fracking—it picked up significantly in 2006—while also analyzing the trend in dropouts. Prior to 2006, dropout rates were falling for both males and females; post-2006, dropout rates for males shot up in CZs with greater fracking activity. (Female dropout rates continued to decline.) Using statistical analyses, the researchers tie the increase in male dropout rates directly to the fracking boom.

This study raises important issues about the...

A great problem in U.S. education is that gifted students are rarely pushed to achieve their full potential. It is no secret that American students overall lag their international peers. Among the thirty-four countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development whose students took the PISA exams in 2012, the United States ranked seventeenth in reading, twentieth in science, and twenty-seventh in math.

Less well known is how few young Americans—particularly the poor and minorities—reach the top ranks on such measures. The PISA test breaks students into six levels of math literacy, and only 9 percent of American fifteen-year-olds reached the top two tiers. Compare that with 16 percent in Canada, 17 percent in Germany, and 40 percent in Singapore.

Among the handful of American high-achievers, eight times as many kids come from the top socioeconomic quartile as from the bottom. That ratio is four to one in Canada, five to one in Australia, and three to one in Singapore.

What has gone wrong? Thanks to No Child Left Behind and its antecedents, U.S. education policy for decades has focused on boosting weak students to minimum proficiency while neglecting the children who have already cleared that low bar. When...

TNTP’s new report, “The Mirage,” is essential reading for anyone interested in educator effectiveness. It’s smartly researched and delivers an uppercut of a conclusion: Today's professional development doesn’t work.

There’s just one small problem. I’m not sure I believe it.

To trust its findings would mean admitting that we’ve wasted hundreds of billions of dollars. It would mean we’ve misled millions of educators and families about improving the profession. It would mean a load-bearing wall of the Race-to-the-Top and ESEA-waiver talent architecture is made of sand. All of this would be hard to swallow, but I suppose it’s possible.

But to accept and act on these findings would mean putting our full faith in today’s approach to evaluating educator effectiveness. It would mean believing generations of schools, school systems, PD providers, institutions of higher education, and parents were wrong when it comes to assessing and improving teacher performance. For me, this is a bridge too far.

The study encompassed four large school operators and surveyed thousands of educators. It used multiple measures to assess teacher effectiveness and tried to find variables that influenced whether a teacher improved (things like “growth mindset,” school culture, and access to different types of...