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In the era of No Child Left Behind—and at a time of growing concern about income inequality—virtually every school system in the country claims to be working to narrow its student achievement gaps. But are they putting their money where their mouth is?

The data in our brand new D.C. Metro Area School Spending Explorer website allow us to answer this question for school districts inside the Beltway. Specifically, we can determine whether and to what degree they are spending additional dollars on their neediest schools.

To be sure, ever since the Coleman Report, it’s been hard to find a direct relationship between school spending and educational outcomes. Still, basic fairness requires that systems spend at least as much on educating poor students as affluent ones, and investments that might make a difference in narrowing achievement gaps (such as hiring more effective, experienced teachers and providing intensive tutoring to struggling students) do require big bucks.

There are lots of wonky ways to compute the fairness of education spending, but we’re going to use a measure that makes sense to us. Namely: How much extra does a district spend on each low-income student a school serves? Compared to what districts spend on behalf of non-poor students? Ten percent? Twenty percent? Fifty percent?

Read the methodology section below for details on how we got to these numbers (they are estimates, and apply only to elementary schools), but here are our conclusions.

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School System

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BIGGER IS BETTER
new study highlights the importance of even earlier early education, finding that having a higher birth weight leads to higher cognitive development. “Weight, of course, may partly be an indicator of broader fetal health, but it seems to be a meaningful one: The chunkier the baby, the better it does on average, all the way up to almost 10 pounds.” But birth weight is not the be-all and end-all: Researcher David Figlio was 5 pounds, 15 ounces at birth.

DUELING BANJOS ON THE HELP COMMITTEE
Which senator played the washboard with a spoon in a banjo band? It's a question the Politics K–12 duo asks in a quiz of (useful) facts about the likely heads of the next Senate HELP Committee. The primer matters to wonks because, “[n]o matter which party comes out ahead on Election Day, the Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will have a new leader.”

COMMON CORE AND GRADUATION REQUIREMENTS
Three states are plowing ahead on tying graduation requirements and Common Core-aligned assessments, “a natural part of the transition from the adoption phase of Common Core to actually implementing the standards in a meaningful way.”

THE COMPLACENCY GAP
Sick of hearing about the achievement gap? Fordham's own Chester E. Finn, Jr. wants you to consider the complacency gap. When it comes to education...

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PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
The New York Times's Motoko Rich reports that some public charter school systems are implementing a new model of teacher preparation: residencies, similar to those in the medical field. The programs focus on practice over theory and match veteran educators with aspiring teachers in a structured mentorship. The piece offers a great look into the anxieties of new teachers and the critical importance of feedback from veteran mentors.

TENNESSEE MULLING COMMON CORE
In a recent interview with Chalkbeat, the Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, Beth Harwell, suggested that the state might be on its way to dropping Common Core. However, her spokesperson’s claim that “Tennessee—and not the federal government—knows what is best for Tennesseans” would seem to suggest that the Speaker isn’t aware of what the standards actually do. 

THE DANGERS OF BIAS
At Education Week, Darius D. Prier asks how educators can address stereotypes and ensure safety and equality for students inside and outside of schools. Prier recommends that schools incorporate current-day race issues into the curriculum, along with other ideas for preventing hip-hop culture from being conflated with criminality.

DROPPING OUT IS HARD TO DO
This weekend, the Wall Street Journal examined the American undergraduate dropout rate and uncovered a startling truth: According to data compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, almost one-third of the students who matriculated in a U.S. college in 2012 did not return the following year. Lots of steps...

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At his confirmation hearing in 2009, Senator Lamar Alexander famously told Arne Duncan that “President-elect Obama has made several distinguished cabinet appointments, but in my view of it all, I think you are the best.” Duncan had already made statements indicating a willingness to embrace charter schools and break with the unions over teacher evaluations—sentiments not typically expressed by Democratic secretaries of education. And on many issues, Secretary Duncan has not disappointed, regularly pushing a pro-education-reform line, especially via his bully pulpit.

Most intriguing about Secretary Duncan—from my perspective at least—was his early embrace of the theory of “tight-loose” federalism. As he put it in 2012,“ the federal government should be tight on goals,” but state and local leaders should decide how to attain them. “Local leaders, not us, know their children and communities best—to try to micromanage 100,000 schools from Washington would be the height of arrogance,” he said.

Indeed it would be. But trying to micromanage 100,000 schools from Washington is precisely what Duncan has been doing.

In fact, Duncan’s greatest failure—on par with politicizing the Common Core and trying to kill D.C.’s school voucher program—has been his unwillingness to follow through on the “loose” part of his “tight-loose” promise. It feels like there’s been no problem too big or too small for his Department of Education to tackle. This is particularly the case for his Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which has been a prime example of executive overreach and federal interference run amok for almost six...

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I’m writing this now in hopes I won’t have to write a future piece that starts: “Alas, a bad idea whose time has come…”

The bad idea is ending annual testing in grades 3–8, which may emerge as a consensus response to concerns about the state of standards, assessments, and accountability.

Clearly, testing is under fire generally. AFT head Randi Weingarten wants to do away with the federal requirement that students take annual assessments. Anti-testing groups are hailing state-based “victories” in rolling back an array of assessments and accountability provisions. Even Secretary Duncan recently expressed misgivings about the amount of time being dedicated to testing.

But the specific idea of returning—regressing—to “grade-span” testing might be gaining steam. Former President Bill Clinton recently said, “I think doing one in elementary school, one in the end of middle school and one before the end of high school is quite enough if you do it right.” At least two bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives to retreat to grade-span testing: One got public support from the NEA, and the other was saluted by the AFT.

What might be even more notable is the lack of vocal defense being mustered for annual testing by long-time advocates for strong accountability. Checker Finn took to National Review Online arguing for an “accountability reboot.”

Among other things, he wrote, “It’s probably time for education reformers and policymakers to admit that just pushing harder on test-driven accountability...

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EIGHTY PERCENT OF LIFE IS JUST SHOWING UP
Chronic absenteeism is a huge and often overlooked problem in America's schools. A new Education Week op-ed finds that students who miss four or more days in their first month are unlikely to keep up with grade-level achievement standards. In one study, only 17 percent of chronically absent kindergartners and first graders achieved reading proficiency by third grade. 

DECLINING TEACHER PREP IN CALIFORNIA
Teacher preparation programs in California have seen a downturn in enrollment recently, particularly in high-need areas such as math and science. Figures released for the 2012–13 school year highlight a decline of nearly three-quarters from a peak of 77,000 in 200102. On the bright side, a growing number of ethnically diverse applicants are entering the profession. 

EDUCATION SNAPSHOT
Teachers in Waukegan, Illinois, are on strike for the seventh day, with no likely end in sight. The work stoppage has shuttered two dozens schools in the cityhometown of science-fiction great Ray Bradbury—which sits on Lake Michigan roughly forty miles north of Chicago. Federal mediators have been participating in the negotiations.

MUST READ
On the heels of Nick Confessore's epic treatment of the federal school lunch program, Chalkbeat has an incredible photo essay chronicling the food offerings at six Colorado charter schools. As the story explains, charters with larger populations eligible for free- or discounted-meals will often rely on district food sources; others emphasize locally sourced meat...

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The Education Trust has a proud and distinguished history. When the group got its start in the mid-1990s, achievement for poor and minority children was lagging, and the education policy community largely ignored their needs. Ed Trust changed all that with a single-minded focus on equity, hitched to the relatively new notion of school-level accountability.

By the late 1990s, achievement for poor, minority, and low-performing students started a meteoric rise, particularly in the states first to embrace accountability; by 2001, Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind act, a law Ed Trust largely designed. And in the early 2000s, achievement continued to climb for the children who had been “left behind,” especially in the late-adopter states. (This history is unpacked skillfully by Mark Schneider in this Fordham Institute report.) Low-income, low-achieving, and minority children are now reading and doing math two to three grade levels higher than they were in the mid-1990s, and Ed Trust deserves a ton of credit for that incredible progress.

But we all know that this progress came with some serious unintended consequences: Teaching to the test, narrowing of the curriculum, and benign neglect for children at the middle and top of the performance spectrum. One can argue that those trade-offs were worth it, but it’s hard to dismiss their existence. (As Schneider shows, it’s also clear that the payoff from NCLB-style accountability was dissipating by the late 2000s.)

One of the worst repercussions, in my view, was that this approach to accountability was incredibly...

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START SPREADING THE NEWS
Great news for students at underperforming district schools in New York City: On Wednesday, the Empire State approved seventeen new charter schools throughout the city, including fourteen within the Success Academy network. Time will tell if the move leads to a rematch of the de Blasio-Moskowitz title bout from this spring.

CHARTER GROWTH IN D.C.
Elsewhere in the Chartersphere, recently released figures from the D.C. Public Charter School Board indicate a 3 percent increase in the number of children enrolled in Washington, D.C. charters. Overall, 44 percent of D.C. students attend charter schools.

TEACHING TEENS
In an interview at the Mindshift blog, Temple University's brilliant Laurence Steinberg explains the theories behind his new book, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. Steinberg discusses peer pressure, the structure of the academic year, and the plasticity of the human brain as it enters adulthood. For more information (as well as the dulcet voice of Fordham's own Mike Petrilli), listen to Steinberg break it down at the Education Next Book Club.

HISTORY BOYS
Colorado Democrats are seeking to take advantage of the recent curriculum controversy in Jefferson County. The party's state-senate campaign fund is running an ad saddling local Republicans with responsibility for the county school board's efforts to change...

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NEW PRESIDENT FOR STUDENTSFIRST
Jim Blew of the Walton Foundation will take over the helm of the advocacy group StudentsFirst after the resignation of founder Michelle Rhee, who announced she was stepping down two months ago.

NEVER TOO YOUNG
Early childhood teachers in North Carolina are adopting hands-on formative assessments to evaluate student development. The innovative, "holistic" assessments are designed to track the learning progress of students too young to take paper-and-pencil tests, and have been allotted roughly $10 million in grants from the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. 

PICK UP THE PACE
Education Week's Catherine Gewertz reports that school districts are falling behind in their efforts to implement Common Core. Still, many district officials have greeted the standards with open arms. “When the Common Core was adopted in Illinois in 2010, there was almost a sense of relief among the instructional leaders in our district," Gewertz quotes one curriculum director as saying. "[T]hey were more in line with what we already believed.”

EDUCATION SNAPSHOT
Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran a terrific profile of Paymon Rouhanifard, the superintendent of the state-operated school system in Camden, New Jersey. Rouhanifard, a 33-year-old Teach for America veteran, is the twelfth district superintendent in the last twenty years. For a great wide-angle examination of the troubled city and its efforts to reform, read the incomparable Andy Smarick's piece from this January....

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John Kraman

In a recent EdNext column, Checker Finn proposed what he expected to be a controversial solution to the problem of low levels of college readiness among our high school graduates: namely, “different ways of completing—and being credentialed for completing—one’s primary and secondary education.”

In case Checker is holding his breath, I would like to raise a (quiet) howl of protest—just not for the reason Checker expected. The reality is that differentiated credentials are already here; they are common, diverse and wide-spread. New York State did retire the “Local Diploma” option a few years back for non-special-education students, requiring all students to earn at least a Regents diploma. I say “at least” because there are many different kinds of Regent diplomas (see here for detailed look at the array of designations and endorsements in NYS).

New York is not alone. A decade ago, Achieve reported that twenty states had multi-tiered diplomas, with designations such as “honors,” “advanced academic” and “advanced technical.” To earn a higher diploma, states may require students to earn additional course credits or complete more advanced courses, especially in mathematics, science, foreign languages and/or technical programs. Others may require students to pass more state assessments, pass state assessments at a higher performance level, or pass AP or IB exams. According to the experts at Achieve who continue to track graduation requirements, the level of complexity has only grown since 2004.

Beyond these K–12 policies, the University of California System established “A–G” requirements for high school graduates applying to their...

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