Flypaper

Officials at the Department of Education have requested public comments by January 21 about areas in the new Every Student Succeeds Act where regulation might be “helpful or necessary.” My recommendation to the feds: Tread very lightly.

That’s not an ideological plea (though I am ideologically disposed to a limited federal role). It’s because there’s no one best system for school accountability, and there never will be. Uncle Sam has to be damn sure not to smother good ideas that the states might develop, now or in the future.

That’s not to say that anything goes. ESSA established “guardrails,” in D.C. parlance, to ensure that states don’t eviscerate results-based accountability. They cannot decide to judge schools by nothing but student engagement, or teacher happiness, or the number of hugs a kid receives each day.

But Congress did give the green light to the states to come up with new approaches to rating school quality. It’s critical that John King and his colleagues don’t put on the red light before the process even begins.

Let me offer a few examples of novel approaches that deserve to be permissible, and even embraced, under the law—but that the micromanagers at...

Let’s just stop pussyfooting around and say it out loud: The “historic” peak in the country’s high school graduation rate is bullshit.

According to federal data released late last year, and dutifully trumpeted ever since (including in last night’s State of the Union address), the nation’s high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high, with 82 percent of the Class of 2014 earning a diploma. “As a result, many more students will have a better chance of going to college, getting a good job, owning their own home, and supporting a family,” crowed then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

In fact, Secretary Duncan might be right for now. Confidence and good will are baked into a high school diploma. It is an academic promissory note that signals to college admissions staffers, employers, and others that the holder has achieved some reasonable level of academic proficiency. But it’s also a faith-based system. It only works if people believe it stands for something tangible.

Regarding the recent spike in graduation rates, good luck figuring out what it stands for. Not improved student proficiency, certainly. There has been no equally dramatic spike in SAT scores. Don’t look for a parallel uptick...

Leslie Kan

This week, teachers’ unions continued their battle over mandatory “agency fees” in the Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California. Union dues cover the costs of lobbying and collective bargaining and are crucial to advocating for employee benefits, including teacher pensions. Add these fees on top of a teacher’s mandatory state pension contributions, though, and it becomes apparent that teachers are spending a substantial chunk of their paychecks on pensions—without receiving much in return.

Take for example, a California teacher’s paycheck. California teachers are required to pay a mandatory state pension contribution of 8.15 percent, soon to rise to either 9.205 or 10.25 percent in the next few years depending on a teacher’s hire date. Alongside pension contributions, teachers contribute a portion of their salary toward union dues. About a third (the amount varies depending on the school district) goes toward political and legislative advocacy. (In 2013, the California Teachers’ Association spent a year of political and legislative action preventing harsher cuts from a recent pension reform law.) The remaining two-thirds of dues, or the mandatory agency fee, covers the cost of collective bargaining. Collective bargaining indirectly impacts pension benefits through negotiations like late-career salary raises that can spike pension benefits for certain teachers. California’s mandatory agency fees make...

In a recent blog post, Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute attributes the apparently troubling results of a recent study on Louisiana’s private school voucher program to the theory that “[r]egulations intended to guarantee quality might well have had the opposite effect. The high level of private school regulation appears to have driven away better schools.”

As the head of the regulatory agency for traditional public, charter public, and non-public schools in Louisiana, I think it’s important to discuss the facts behind the study, as they raise questions about the conclusions reached by both the researchers and Mr. Bedrick.

More important, however, is the larger implication I take from Mr. Bedrick’s thesis: that private school choice advocates in America, Mr. Bedrick among them, have failed to establish a coherent, prevailing belief system about the role of private schools in providing an education of measured quality, at scale, for the nation’s most disadvantaged youth. I’ll spend most of this post on that subject.

First, the facts.

Mr. Bedrick is right that a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed very low performance among students in Louisiana’s voucher program compared to the performance of students not offered a voucher (who...

Tomorrow in Columbia, South Carolina, the Jack Kemp Foundation will receive a coterie of scholars, policy mavens, and politicos at its Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity. The event is hosted by House Speaker Paul Ryan and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott—two rising GOP stars, both notably focused on policy solutions to America’s inequality crisis—and holds great potential as a podium for presidential candidates to exchange ideas. In the midst of a conspicuously policy-light 2016 campaign (especially when it comes to the issue of K–12 schooling, where vowing to eradicate the Department of Education counts as some candidates’ most probing insight), it will be healthy for participants to lay out their opportunity agendas in an important early primary state.

The host organization is just as fitting as the venue. Its namesake, congressman and cabinet secretary (and quarterback!) Jack Kemp, was one of the most energetic policy entrepreneurs of the Reagan era. He was a self-styled “bleeding-heart conservative” who championed novel schemes to conquer poverty through tax and housing policy. His nomination as the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1996 was a credit to the party, and conservative voices are now trumpeting the “Kemp model” as an example for future Republican...

A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research examines how Louisiana’s statewide voucher program affects student achievement. The Pelican State expanded its program statewide in 2012; by 2014, twelve thousand students had applied for more than six thousand slots to attend 126 private schools. Because the program was oversubscribed, the vouchers were randomly assigned such that some kids were offered vouchers and some weren’t. This study focuses on roughly 1,400 grade students in grades 3–8 who applied in fall 2012—the first application cohort after the program expanded.

The primary (and surprising) finding is that attending a voucher-eligible private school reduces voucher students’ test scores in math, ELA, science, and social studies (though ELA is not significantly lower). Math scores go down by 0.4 standard deviation one year after the lottery, and for other subjects, the drop is between one-quarter and one-third of a standard deviation. Voucher use also reduces the probability of being promoted to the next grade and shifts students into lower state performance categories. The outcomes are even bleaker for younger children.

In short, this is all very bad news. But remember that these are first-year outcomes, and first-year evaluations of anything ought to be...

I encountered a bit of advice this week that my dear mother would have welcomed during her brief and inglorious career as my pre-Algebra tutor: When it comes to assisting kids with their math assignments, parents can afford to do less.

After struggling to help her first grader with some unfamiliar addition and subtraction formats, the Hechinger Report’s Kathleen Lucadamo sought advice from teachers and parents on how to cope with changing curricular materials and methods. The group recommendation was basically to act as the highway patrol rather than a chauffeur—that is, be on the lookout for breakdowns and give directions when necessary, but don’t pick the route and do the driving yourself. In the words of Jason Zimba, a physicist and the lead writer of the Common Core math standards, “The math instruction on the part of parents should be low. The teacher is there to explain the curriculum.”

This consensus is more than just a remedy for the brain-melting feuds erupting at American kitchen tables over the spiffiest way to factor a polynomial. It also offers a shortcut around one of the least enlightening discourses of modern education politics, which is the squabble over why none of us can...

This study compares “diverse” and “non-diverse” charter schools in Washington, D.C., focusing on three areas: academic proficiency, academic growth, and suspensions. It focuses particularly on the eighty-seven D.C. charter schools (out of 112 total) where more than twenty-five students took the DC CAS test between 2011 and 2014, of which twenty-seven are “diverse”—defined as having a student population that is less than 80 percent African American. (No other race accounts for more than 80 percent of the student body at any school in the study, though a few schools that were excluded for technical reasons are more than 80 percent Hispanic.)

Overall, the study finds no statistically significant differences between diverse and non-diverse schools when it comes to proficiency and growth. When the results are broken down by subgroup, however, some interesting differences emerge. For example, African American and at-risk students have higher proficiency rates and lower suspension rates at diverse schools, but they exhibit no differences in growth; on the other hand, there are no significant differences for Hispanic students in any of these areas. (Unfortunately, there are too few white students at non-diverse schools to make any comparisons.)

A secondary analysis that restricts the sample to diverse schools...

A fascinating new study in Education Finance and Policy examines discretionary layoff policies in Charlotte Mecklenburg. In general, there are two non-discretionary, mechanical approaches to reducing the number of school employees. One is seniority-based layoffs: last in, first out (LIFO). There is also an approach known as “inverse student performance”: those with the worst value-added scores are the first to be fired. Neither of these is particularly desirable. In LIFO’s case, the reasons are obvious and legion. And using only value added might result in teachers focusing solely on test scores or in the loss of instructors who fill organizational needs (e.g., teaching specific grade levels or subjects) or otherwise contribute to a school’s educational priorities.

In contrast, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools use a discretionary policy. Candidates for layoffs are identified using a variety of factors, including the lack of formal job qualifications, length of service, and performance as determined by principal evaluations, plus the particular needs and goals of the school. Student test scores are not part of the process. Between 2008 and 2010, the district laid off over a thousand teachers because of the recession. The study’s author, Brown University’s Matthew Kraft, asked two questions: Which teachers actually...

Civics is at or very close to the top of my education priority list. I’ve often lamented how far we’ve strayed from the founding ideals of public education, which had more to do with preparing young people for effective self-government than college and career readiness. NAEP results reinforce just how badly starved for oxygen civics and history are in our schools. If reading and math proficiency are at crisis levels, civics and history have reached a state of advanced decay. Fewer than one in four eighth graders score “proficient” in civics; in history, it’s even worse—just 18 percent at or above proficient. We don’t even bother to test in twelfth grade anymore. Perhaps we just don’t want to know.

From the Education Commission of the States comes a new brief, “Youth Voting: State and city approaches to early civic engagement.” The report notes that opportunities for youth participation in city and state elections “are becoming part of the policymakers’ toolkit to create engaged citizens and lifelong voters.” Specific initiatives—preregistration to vote of individuals as young as sixteen in twelve states and the District of Columbia; allowing seventeen-year-olds to vote in primaries, municipal races, and school...

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