Flypaper

The title of this slim, engaging book of essays tees up a question about which there is very little disagreement. Of course character matters. “Character skills matter at least as much as cognitive skills,” writes Nobel laureate James Heckman in the lead essay, summarizing the literature. “If anything, character matters more.” Since cognitive and non-cognitive skills can be shaped and changed, particularly in early childhood, he writes, “this suggests new and productive avenues for public policy.” It may indeed. But the journey from good idea to good policy is a minefield for both parties, as Third Way policy analyst Lanae Erickson Hatalsky notes in her essay. If Democrats talk about character, “it runs the risk of sounding like apostasy, blaming poor children for their own situation in life and chiding them to simply have more grit and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” (Likewise, the Left dares not invoke the miasma of family structure.) Character talk may feel more at home in Republican talking points, but it carries the risk of foot-in-mouth disease, “setting the stage for politicians to inadvertently say something that sounds patronizing to the poor, demeaning to single women, or offensive to African Americans (or all three).”...

As I’ve previously written too many times to recall, for all its iconic status, the Head Start program has grave shortcomings. Although generously financed and decently targeted at needy, low-income preschoolers, it’s failed dismally at early childhood education. Additionally, because it’s run directly from Washington, it’s all but impossible for states to integrate into their own preschool and K–12 programs.

I could go on at length (and often do.) But you should also check out these earlier critiques, both by me and by the likes of Brookings’s Russ Whitehurst and AEI’s Katherine Stevens.

The reason this topic is again timely is because the Department of Health and Human Services recently released a massive set of proposed regulations designed to overhaul Head Start. These are summarized by Sara Mead, with her own distinctive spin.

What to make of them? Yin and yang.

On the upside: A mere seven years after Congress mandated this kind of rethinking, HHS is finally taking seriously the need to put educational content into the country’s largest early childhood program. These regulations would clap actual academic standards and curricular obligations onto the hundreds of Head Start...

As you’ve probably heard by now, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Friedrichs vs. California case next year, giving it a chance to strike down union “agency fees” as unconstitutional abridgements of teachers’ First Amendment rights. (Read up on the case with some great posts from Joshua DunnMike AntonucciStephen Sawchuk, and Andy Rotherham.)

In a nutshell, teachers already have the right not to join their local unions, even in non-“right-to-work” states like California and New York. But in such states, even if teachers are not union members (and therefore do not pay union dues), the local union can automatically deduct “agency fees” from their paychecks. The fees, which are often substantial, are supposed to support non-political activities, including the costs of collective bargaining. The unions levy these fees to avoid the free-rider problem; without them, teachers could get all sorts of benefits from the unions without paying for them.
 
Legally, agency fees from public employee unions cannot be used to financially support “matters of public concern” (a.k.a. political activities) because non-members can’t be coerced to support political speech with which they disagree. The fees can only be used for “representational activities” such as collective bargaining, arbitration of...

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

For decades, conservatives have generally followed two principles when it comes to federal K–12 education policy: Respect state and local control of schools, and demand improved academic achievement in exchange for federal funds. Because of the Obama administration’s seven-year education overreach, the Right has correctly emphasized the first of those principles during the current debate over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation’s main K–12 law. (It’s also known as “No Child Left Behind,” the title of its last reauthorization.)

But we’ve paid too little attention to accountability. This lapse could jeopardize the hard-won progress made by previous leaders, including many conservatives, and turn the fifty-year old law back into a directionless stream of federal funds with dubious influence on student learning.

Count me among the conservatives who are riled up that the Obama administration has dramatically expanded the federal role in schools. The long-held belief that local and state officials should lead on K–12 education has been replaced by Secretary Arne Duncan’s faith in a bold federal agenda backed by a federal “sense of urgency.” As a result, we’ve had a bossy...

It’s finally here: Our best chance to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since its passage shortly after 9/11.  A whole generation of students has come and gone, yet our nation’s key education law remains the same. There’s absolutely no good reason to delay reauthorization any longer. To the contrary; it’s sorely overdue. And despite the heated rhetoric—from the civil rights groups on the Left to Heritage Action on the Right—the remaining areas of disagreement are small and mostly symbolic. It’s time for all of us to act like grownups and help get a recognizable version of the Alexander-Murray bill across the finish line. (At least into conference with the House!)

Why should conservatives support a bipartisan compromise bill like this? That’s easy: It’s sharply to the right of current law (ESEA circa 2001) and current policy (Arne Duncan’s “waivers”). It hands significant authority back to the states on all the issues that matter: the content of academic standards and related assessments, the design of school accountability systems, and interventions in low-performing schools. It scraps ESEA’s misguided “highly qualified teachers” provision and Duncan’s teacher evaluation mandate. And it holds the line on spending.

How about the Left? Civil rights...

Bobby Jindal recently announced that he’s running for president. The two-term governor of Louisiana is one of fourteen hopefuls in the increasingly crowded race for the GOP primary. He’s also the subject of the eighteenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

A lifelong Louisianian, Jindal has been involved in politics since the mid-nineties, when he worked for Governor Murphy Foster. He went on to represent the Bayou State’s First Congressional District for two terms in the House of Representatives, after which he returned to state politics to take Louisiana’s helm. In his long career, he’s had a lot to say about education. Here’s a sampling:

1. Common Core: “We want out of Common Core....We won't let the federal government take over Louisiana's education standards. We're very alarmed about choice and local control of curriculum being taken away from our parents and educators....Common Core's become a one-size-fits-all model that simply doesn't make sense for our state.” June 2014.

2. High Standards: “High standards for our students? Count me in. My dad was not happy with straight As. If my brother or I got a 95 percent, he wanted to know what happened on...

John Dickinson, probably our nation’s most underappreciated founder, argued at the Constitutional Convention, “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”

This can be particularly helpful when thinking about education policy. It gets us away from reasoning primarily through abstractions. Theories can sparkle on the page, but—like exquisite battle plans that perish at first enemy contact—the real world lacks the good manners to blithely approve celebrated ideas.

Education is also prone to fads cooked up by the best and brightest of the moment. The current generation always seems to fancy itself the wisest, the most courageous, the long-awaited possessor of The Answer. But schools have been around forever. There are mountains of accumulated wisdom to study if we’re willing to look up from our Twitter feeds.

A terrific new article by two of our field’s éminences grises shows what experience has to offer above and beyond ideas, ideology, and innovation. In “A Progress Report on Charter Schools,” Checker Finn and Bruno Manno reflect on lessons learned since the publication of their 2000 book Charter Schools in Action.

Finn and...

Last week, Chris Christie announced his candidacy for president. The current governor of New Jersey in one of fourteen Republicans running for the White House—a group that vastly outnumbers the five Democrats in the race. He’s also the subject of the seventeenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Christie has been at New Jersey’s helm since 2010. A lawyer by trade, he’s been a lobbyist, practiced law in private firms, and served as the U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey from 2002 to 2008. In his five years leading the Garden State, he’s made a number of changes to the state’s education system, including expanding charter schools and reforming teacher tenure and evaluation. Here are some of his recent stances on education:

1. Common Core: “It's now been five years since Common Core was adopted, and the truth is that it's simply not working....It has brought only confusion and frustration to our parents and has brought distance between our teachers and the communities where they work....Instead of solving problems in our classrooms, it is creating new ones.” May 2015.

2. School choice: “Students in struggling districts should have...

The intriguing new book This Idea Must Die argues that we’re beset by beliefs that have outlived their usefulness. Some of them pollute our everyday lives (think old wives’ tales). But academic disciplines like physics and medicine are susceptible as well (like the false left/right brain dichotomy).

The book (podcast via Freakonomics) says that a major culprit is the lack of routines for cleaning out our attics. Fields develop by accumulating knowledge. We acquire an accretion of ideas from our predecessors but seldom go back to pressure-test them. The result can be faulty conventional wisdom. In fact, a classic on the history of science (and one of my favorite books), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, explains how orthodoxies sustain via this “development by accumulation.”

Both books demonstrate convincingly how the normal course of learning can perpetuate flawed ideas. But I think both are too charitable in explaining the forces at play and too optimistic about our ability to fix things. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, for example, argues that a revolutionary idea causes the necessary “paradigm shift” (e.g., Copernicus overturning Ptolemy).

In my experience, there’s often a darker reason behind the preservation of bad ideas: fear. Current experts are afraid to fall out of favor...

Perhaps you’ve been on vacation or caught up in the historic events of recent weeks, but over the past ten days, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosted our second annual Wonkathon. Last year’s was about charter school quality; this year’s focused on how to implement the brand-new (and groundbreaking) Nevada education savings account program. (Congratulations to Seth Rau of Nevada Succeeds, the winner of the Wonkathon, who both seized his home field advantage and proved that when it comes to using similes, you’d better go big or go home.)

As Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute rightly concluded, our blogfest demonstrated remarkable consensus, at least among the scholars, policy analysts, and practitioners who participated. Nobody wants Nevada to micromanage the program; everyone understands—and wants regulators to address—the risk of financial malfeasance. Most agreed that making educational providers assess their results with a nationally norm-referenced test was a reasonable approach.

Yet lurking behind the apparent consensus is an unspoken question: What’s this reform trying to accomplish? The law itself says it wants to increase student achievement and parental satisfaction. But go back and read the fourteen posts and you’ll find that the ones most enthusiastic...

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