At a time when the national conversation is focused on lagging upward mobility and yawning income inequality, it is no surprise that many educators point to poverty as the explanation for American students’ mediocre test scores compared to their peers in other countries. If teachers in struggling U.S. schools taught in Finland, says Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, they would flourish—in part because of “support from homes unchallenged by poverty.” Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff at Columbia University’s Teachers College argue that middling test scores reflect a “poverty crisis” in the United States, not an “education crisis.” Adding union muscle to the argument, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten calls poverty “the elephant in the room” that accounts for poor student performance.

But does this explanation hold water?

It’s an important question. If critics of education reform are correct that our schools are doing as well as can be expected given the economic challenges that their students face, they could also be right in saying that school reform is beside the point, misguided, or even doing more harm than good.

So what does the evidence show? To prove that poverty is the major factor driving America’s meager academic achievement, at...


During a high-visibility Supreme Court hearing last week on the Fisher v. University of Texas admissions case, Justice Scalia made some ill-considered comments on race in higher education: "There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well." Then, referencing a case filing, he added, “One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don't come from schools like the University of Texas,” he said. “They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they're being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”

Myriad commentators went after him. Others came to his defense. And still others landed somewhere in-between. We don’t view Scalia as a racist, but there’s no denying that his statements can be interpreted as suggesting that black kids are inescapably destined for the slow track. It’s not surprising that people are offended.

It ought to go without saying, but of course there is nothing inherently inferior about poor and minority...

Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice. But if you’re pressed for time and want to end all intelligent life quickly, nothing beats a task force.

In New York last week, a task force chosen by Governor Andrew Cuomo issued its report on Common Core. In a model of stunning governmental efficiency, the group managed to “listen” to 2,100 New York students, teachers, parents, and various other stakeholders. They then retreated to their chambers to write, edit, and publish a fifty-one-page report a mere ten weeks after they were impaneled. But clearly that was time enough for these solons to learn and thoughtfully consider what the Empire State needs: to adopt “new, locally driven New York State standards in a transparent and open process.” The report has twenty recommendations on how to bring this about.

It should be noted (speaking of governmental efficiency) that God himself was content with a mere ten modest suggestions to govern all known human activity. Cuomo’s task force has double that number—just for Common Core in a single state. But God acted alone. On a task force, every voice must be heard, every grievance aired. And they were, in all their...

Here at Fordham, you can usually find us gleefully dinging New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on his education policies. When he was first pushing his universal pre-K initiative a few years back, we argued that he should have tailored the program more narrowly to the kids who needed it most. And please don’t get us started on hizzoner’s ill-advised tussle with Eva Moskowitz and high-performing charters. But that’s the duty of a gadfly: to have fun critiquing powerful figures when they veer off course.

Now I’m doing the opposite by unhappily conceding that de Blasio is absolutely correct, at least on one issue. It doesn’t particularly grieve me to find myself in agreement with the mayor personally; I’m just deflated about the issue of our concurrence—namely school safety. The mayor is obviously and tragically right that private and religious schools should be afforded public funds to pay for security personnel. The city council made the right decision in passing a bill that would make $20 million available for that purpose, and de Blasio deserves credit for lending it his support.

In an ideal world, education commentators—to say nothing of the students whose interests we try to promote—would be able to...

Morgan Polikoff

On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of visiting Success Academy Harlem 1 and hearing from Eva Moskowitz and the SA staff about their model. I’m not going to venture into the thorny stuff about SA here. What I will say is that their results on state tests are clearly impressive, and I doubt that they’re fully (or even largely) explained by the practices that cause controversy. (Luckily, we’ll soon have excellent empirical evidence to answer that question.)

Instead, what I’m going to talk about are the fascinating details I saw and heard about curriculum and instruction in SA schools. Right now, of course, it is impossible to know what’s driving their performance, but these are some of the things that I think are likely to contribute. (I’d initially forgotten that Charles Sahm wrote many of these same things in a post this summer. His is more detailed and based on more visits than mine. Read it!)

Here's what I saw in my tour of about a half-dozen classrooms at SA 1:

  • The first thing that I observed in each classroom was the intense focus on student discourse and explanation. In each classroom, students are constantly pressed to explain their reasoning, and other students respond constructively
  • ...

It’s difficult to get your arms around the idea of suspending a three- or four-year-old from preschool. For most of us (if we’re even able to remember back that far), pre-K discipline basically meant quiet time in the corner, miserably sulking while our friends laughed and colored. Sending a child away from class, whether for a few hours or a few days, just seems disproportionate to the level of mischief we’d expect from one so young. That cognitive dissonance perhaps accounts the tone of disbelief in Melinda Anderson’s recent Atlantic article on the subject. Tallying a spate of seemingly frivolous dismissals for offenses like potty accidents and inconsolable crying—fairly common occurrences among the juicebox set, we can probably agree—she warns that “toddlers are racking up punishments that leave many parents and child experts bewildered.”

She’s not wrong. More and more commentators are wondering what transgression could possibly warrant suspension for pupils still sporting pull-ups. The key evidence in Anderson’s own piece is the story of Tunette Powell, a mother of two sons who were suspended from their preschool a combined eight times. Powell originally wrote about her experiences in a widely discussed Washington Post piece  touching on some of the same issues that have colored the discipline...

Sandi Jacobs

Upon the release of our first comprehensive Yearbook that included state grades in 2009, the headline read: “Taken as a whole, state teacher policies are broken, outdated and inflexible.”

After six more annual encyclopedic reviews of just about every policy states have on their books that impact the teaching profession, the 2015 State Teacher Policy Yearbook reaches a decidedly more positive conclusion. In fact, we think 2015 may just be a tipping point year for teacher effectiveness policy in the United States.

Across the nation, the average state teacher policy grade for 2015 is now a C–. Thirteen states earned grades in the B- to B+ range. Not a single state earned higher than a C in 2009.

While the C- average is a mark that is still far too low to ensure teacher effectiveness nationwide, it is a very real improvement over the D average earned by the states in 2009.  If an increase from a D to a C- doesn’t strike you as overly impressive, bear in mind that we continue to raise the bar on certain topics as we see states exceeding our original expectations.  This year, we scored for the first time states’ alignment...

It’s not difficult to see what parents find so appealing about religious schools. Some put stock in the inherent academic superiority of private academies, but many others prioritize what they see as their character-building edge over traditional district schools: tighter discipline, a unitary culture, and strong ideological foundations. Of the many virtues imparted to students by religious education, though, few would have guessed that one would be religious tolerance. This new white paper suggests that Americans who have attended some form of religious school are less likely to harbor anti-Semitic animus as adults.

The study cleverly combines multiple strands of inquiry from the Understanding America Study, a nationally representative sample of 1,300 American adults conducted by the University of Southern California’s Center for Economic and Social Research. That survey’s administrators queried their subjects on the variety of their K–12 schooling experiences—but also asked them to respond to a series of eleven anti-Semitic stereotypes, which were selected from the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100 analysis of anti-Semitic attitudes around the world. After striking from the sample those participants who had been homeschooled or received the bulk of their education abroad, the authors were left with a healthy data set of adults...

In light of Hillary Clinton’s charge that charter schools “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids,” as well the lambasting of one of the nation’s highest-performing charter networks for its discipline practices, this report from the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools is especially timely. It reveals that the worst of the recent allegations fall flat (at least when it comes to students with disabilities). Charter schools do have slightly lower percentages of students with disabilities compared to traditional public schools (we should note that the discrepancy is nothing like the gap that some charter opponents allege), but they also tend to provide more inclusive educational settings for those students. Suspension rates in the two sectors are roughly the same.

The study’s authors investigate whether anecdotes about charter schools failing to serve students with disabilities align with the actual data. They examine enrollment, service provision, and discipline statistics, made possible through a secondary analysis of data from the Department of Education’s biennial Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2011–12 school year (the most recent one for which data is available). Nationwide, students who receive special education support and services made up 10.4 percent of total enrollment...

Based on a national sample of thirty-seven thousand public school teachers, this report from the National Center for Education Statistics’s School and Staffing Survey (SASS) looks at teacher autonomy in the classroom during the 2003–04, 2007–08, and 2011–12 school years. The news in brief: Teachers are somewhat less likely to feel that they have a great deal of autonomy than they have been in the past. But they still report a degree of professional freedom that most of us would surely envy.

To measure autonomy, researchers asked teachers how much “actual control” they have in their classrooms over six areas of planning and teaching: selecting textbooks and other classroom materials; content, topics, and skills to be taught; teaching techniques; evaluating and grading students; disciplining students; and determining the amount of homework to be assigned. Teacher autonomy is “positively associated with teachers’ job satisfaction and teacher retention,” the report notes. Those who perceive that they have less autonomy are “more likely to leave their positions, either by moving from one school to another or leaving the profession altogether.”

With nearly three out of four teachers still reporting a “great deal” of autonomy (down from 82 percent in 2003–04), it hardly seems...