Flypaper

In Redefining the School District in America, Nelson Smith reexamines existing recovery school districts (RSDs)—entities in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan charged with running and turning around their states’ worst schools—and assembles the most comprehensive catalog of similar initiatives underway and under consideration elsewhere.

Among more than twenty recommendations gleaned from both failed and successful attempts to create and implement RSDs, Smith recommends that those who go down the turnaround path should:

  • Call your lawyer. A close reading of the state constitution is essential. Some states are so wedded to traditional forms of “local control” that setting up a state district will require fancy legal footwork, if not a constitutional amendment.
  • Decide the endgame—for both schools and the turnaround district. Apart from setting goals for school performance, other decisions must be addressed—and the earlier, the better.
  • Expect course corrections. Running a statewide district is a huge, complex undertaking full of political, financial, and logistical challenges—not to mention the myriad crises and complications that always arise in institutions serving real children. Sometimes even turnaround efforts need to turn around.
  • Give the locals a chance. After taking over failing schools, reformers sent by the state may want to clean house and start fresh with
  • ...

In this research brief, Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania and David Scott Yeager of the University of Texas compare three measures of students’ non-cognitive skills: student surveys (in which students self-report on their non-cognitive skills), teacher surveys (in which the teacher provides his or her assessment of a student’s skills), and so-called “performance tasks” (such as the famous "marshmallow test"). After comparing these measures, the authors discuss their suitability for various purposes, including individual diagnosis, improved practice, program evaluation, and accountability.

According to the authors, each measure has advantages and disadvantages. For example, although student and teacher surveys are cheap and reliable, they suffer from “reference bias,” which occurs when individuals or groups use different frames of reference in making a judgment. Consequently, schools that are best at promoting non-cognitive skills may score lowest on a survey measuring such skills.

Unlike surveys, performance tasks don’t rely on the subjective judgments of students or teachers. Yet they too have drawbacks. To be a valid measure of a non-cognitive skill, a performance task must be administered under carefully controlled conditions, which may be difficult to achieve at some schools. They are also expensive and time-consuming, with a single task taking...

Those of us who have hoped Common Core would hasten the demise of dry and deleterious skills-driven literacy practices at the elementary level can only be heartened by Education Week’s recent in-depth report on building early literacy skills. The package is deeply practice-based and will cheer those who have championed the cause of content knowledge and vocabulary development as a means of raising proficiency—particularly among low-income kids, for whom early reading success (or lack thereof) establishes a trajectory that is devilishly hard to alter.

Highlights include Catherine Gewertz’s first-rate dispatch on the transformation of early-grade read-alouds: Teachers increasingly ask “text-dependent” questions that can only be answered with “detailed understanding of the material, rather than from students’ own experience.” She focuses on a collaborative effort of more than three hundred teachers called the Read-Aloud Project, which was launched by the Council of Great City Schools and Student Achievement Partners.

One of the most important pieces in the package ever-so-slightly misses its mark. Liana Heiten’s report on vocabulary development correctly notes—heavens be praised—the limits of direct vocabulary instruction. (Do the math: there’s not enough time to grow the fifty-thousand-word vocabulary of a literate adult by memorization or word study...

Regular Flypaper readers know that I’ve been skeptical of the “college for all” movement, but I’m 200 percent behind the “college for more” movement. Among other reasons, that’s because completing college brings a strong economic payoff, particularly for young people growing up in poverty. According to Pew’s Pursuing the American Dream, such individuals are almost five times likelier to escape the lowest income quintile as adults if they obtain a bachelor’s degree.

And that’s not just because of the selection effect—the fact that colleges attract relatively able and motivated young people who do well regardless of the path they follow. There’s strong evidence that college adds real value in terms of students’ skills, knowledge, and career preparation, value that translates into higher earnings. Nor is money the only payoff; we’re all familiar with the “scissors charts,” popularized by Robert Putnam, which show the relationship between college attainment, the formation of two-parent families, and other positive life outcomes, including health and even happiness.

So it’s understandable why government and foundation officials have started giving the higher education system the “reform treatment” that was once reserved for our K12 system; if it’s blocking opportunities for young people—especially low-income...

Last week, Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, announced that he’s running for president. He is the tenth Republican to join the crowded race—a group that still doesn’t officially include poll-toppers Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. He’s also the subject of the fourteenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Perry has been involved in Texas politics since 1985. He started out as a state representative and went on to become commissioner of agriculture, lieutenant governor under George W. Bush, and governor, a role he assumed when Bush was himself elected president. This will be Perry’s second run for the White House, having also tried back in 2012. He’s said much on education. Here’s a sampling:

1. Common Core: “It’s a Tenth Amendment issue. If you want Washington, if you want to implement their standards, that’s your call....We certainly had higher standards than [Common Core], so it was a very easy decision for Texans, myself and the legislature included, to basically say we still believe that Texans know how to best run Texas.” August 2014.

2. Charter schools: “Not every child learns for the same purpose, not every child thrives in the...

Yesterday, former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee announced that he’s running for president. He became the fourth Democrat in the race for the party’s nomination—a group that’s doubled in size in the last week. He’s also the subject of the thirteenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Chafee entered politics back in 1992, when we was elected as the (and this isn’t a typo) Republican mayor of Warwick, Rhode Island. In 2000, he became a one-term U.S. senator—after which he left the Republican Party and won the 2010 Rhode Island gubernatorial election as an independent. In 2013, two years into his governorship, he switched parties and became a Democrat. He didn’t run for reelection, deciding instead to try for the White House. He hasn’t said an awful lot about education, including where he stands on the Common Core. But here’s a sampling:

1. National standardized testing: “Nationally, I do think it’s a good idea to have some kind of standard testing—some parameters to see how everyone’s doing at various grade levels.” September 2006.

2. Charter schools: “The debate is ongoing on whether charter schools are in the best interest of...

Classroom discipline is, let’s face facts, a fraught subject. It frequently occurs at the uncomfortable vector between schooling and race, where seemingly all useful reform conversations end up turning poisonous and accusatory. If you argue in favor of curbing suspensions and expulsions for black students, you’re privileging the rights of reprobates over the studious kids trying to learn in an unruly environment. Advance a case for stricter measures, however, and you’ll find “disparate impacts” and the “school-to-prison pipeline” hung around your neck. Few areas of education discourse are more in need of illuminating research.

This new study, conducted by Stanford researchers specializing in the investigation of implicit psychological bias, provides exactly that. Through the use of two separate experiments, it exposes a tendency in K–12 teachers (predominantly white females in the middle of their careers, but including members of both sexes and multiple races) to detect patterns of misbehavior in black students more so than white. In the first experiment, the authors provided participants with disciplinary records for students with either stereotypical white or black names, each detailing two episodes of petty insubordination. They then asked the teachers to describe how “troubled” they felt (a composite measure indicating their degree...

A new study from MDRC evaluates the impact, over three years, of a support program for low-income community college students in New York who are taking remedial courses. Developed by the City University of New York, the program is called the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (or ASAP) and includes several components. Among these is a requirement to enroll full-time and participate in tutoring; comprehensive and dedicated student advising; a non-credit seminar that covers academic planning and goal setting; and career and employment services. Participants enjoy tuition waivers, free transportation vouchers, and free textbooks. Eligible students had to meet income eligibility requirements and take one to two remedial courses, among other conditions.

Three of CUNY’s largest community colleges participated, and roughly nine hundred students were randomly assigned either to a control group that received the usual college services or the treatment group, which had the opportunity to participate in ASAP (a study design that actually met the What Works Clearinghouse design standards without reservations).

Now for the results: ASAP students earned, on average, nine more credits than the control group. Moreover, the program nearly doubled the graduation rate, with 40 percent of the ASAP group receiving a degree compared to...

Maryland’s demanding new Kindergarten Readiness Assessment was administered statewide for the first time this year. Its results are revealing and sobering, to put it mildly. Many states don’t even check in any systematic way on their children’s readiness for kindergarten, and in previous years, Maryland used metrics based on modest expectations, outdated standards, and feel-good politics.

With the leadership of State Superintendent Lillian Lowery and Assistant Superintendent Rolf Grafwallner, Maryland has brought a new sense of reality to the skills that five-year-olds ought to possess if they’re truly prepared to succeed in kindergarten and the early grades. These span four domains, two of them cognitive (language, math), plus physical wellbeing (motor development, hygiene, etc.) and what they term “social foundations” (self-control, for example).

The assessment is individually administered by kindergarten teachers and was given this year to all of the Old Line State’s sixty-seven thousand kindergartners. The results are sorted into three bands, politely labeled “demonstrating readiness,” “developing readiness,” and “emerging readiness.” But only the first of these means actually ready to succeed in kindergarten—and slightly fewer than half of Maryland’s entering kindergartners met that standard.

Which is to say that more than half are not ready. This report candidly...

At the heart of Robert Putnam’s important new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, is a paradox. As Putnam so effectively and compassionately illustrates, the fundamental reality of life for many children growing up in poverty in America today is the extremely low level of “social capital” of their families, communities, and schools. One or both of their parents are absent; church attendance is down; opportunities to participate in sports teams or scout troops or youth groups are few and far between. Put simply, these kids—“our kids”—feel all alone, living “troubled, isolated, hopeless lives.”

The solution, then—the way to help poor children climb the ladder to the middle class and achieve the American Dream—must involve rebuilding this social capital, right? Yet that’s not what Putnam proposes; instead, he calls for more investments in government services and transfer payments. He wants to replace social capital with financial capital.

Why? It’s probably because, like the rest of us, he doesn’t know how to rebuild social capital. Once it’s lost, it may be gone forever.

And that’s the paradox: Social capital is essential to keeping families and communities spiritually and materially prosperous. But once a family or a community experiences...

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