Flypaper

While it is likely true that those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them, those who are not tested on the subject in school may be doomed not to have learned much history in the first place.

“Advanced Civics for U.S. History Teachers,” a smart new white paper from Massachusetts’s Pioneer Institute, counsels civics and history advocates to show “persistence and unity” in order to restore history to “its rightful place as a treasured academic discipline and a fundamental educational priority.” The paper was issued in the weeks before ESEA was reauthorized and signed, but its primary recommendation—that states mandate a statewide assessment in U.S. history—is astute and timely now that states largely control their own testing and accountability destinies.

Pioneer also recommends “strong funding streams for professional development” and highlights several outstanding programs with national reputations that “buck the trends and afford teachers and students the possibilities of teaching and learning history in a rich, engaging and rigorous manner”: The Center for the Study of the Constitution; the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution; the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University; and the outstanding “We the People” program. (One recommendation the report...

The best compliment I can pay a fellow education blogger is to confess professional jealousy. So I’d like to close out 2015 by saluting the education blogs and columns that made me green with envy.

I’m a fan of Tim Shanahan and devour every word he writes. My favorite Shanahan post in 2015 was his evisceration of a silly piece in the Atlantic on the “joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland” that—cliché alert—depicted the typical American kindergarten as a worksheet-happy hothouse. “The silly dichotomy between play and academic instruction was made up by U.S. psychologists in the 1890s,” he wrote. “It hangs on today among those who have never taught a child to read in their lives.” He singled out Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early childhood professor, who is happy to tell anyone with a microphone that there’s no solid evidence in favor of teaching reading in kindergarten. “You can make that claim,” Shanahan concluded, “as long as you don’t know the research.”

I get jealous when somebody makes a smart observation about something hidden in plain sight, like Andy Rotherham did with his March column in U.S. News & World Report (where I’m also a contributor) pointing out that education reform is “dominated by people who...

The Apple App Store and Google Play are chocked-full of educational apps for your kids, some excellent and some schlock. Separating the wheat from the chaff is no small task; thankfully Graphite (a spin-off from Common Sense Media) does an excellent job highlighting and reviewing the better ones. This list from Education Next is super-helpful too.

But in both cases, the focus is overwhelmingly on apps that teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. Maybe because that’s what schools are most focused on, or maybe those subjects present fewer design challenges for app builders.

But that leaves a gaping hole: The teaching of history, geography, science, art, and music, what you might otherwise call “content knowledge.”

This is a big problem for three reasons:

  1. Those subjects are important in their own right;
  2. They are treated as after-thoughts by most elementary schools, making them even more critical to cover in out-of-school time;
  3. They are essential if kids are going to actually learn how to read.

That last point is worth lingering on. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has argued for thirty years—and cognitive scientists have since proven in the research lab—teaching content is essential to teaching reading. While it’s important for...

The effort to improve educational outcomes for African American students can fairly be described as the animating impulse behind the education reform movement broadly. Hence, it’s downright depressing to repeat some of the figures in this report: “On the 2015 NAEP, only 18 percent of African American fourth graders were found to be proficient in reading, and only 19 percent scored proficient in math,” the authors note. “The eighth-grade numbers were even worse, with only 16 percent of African American students rated proficient in reading and only 13 percent rated proficient in math.” College and career readiness? Not so much. Quick: In how many states did more than 5 percent of African American students graduate having passed at least one AP exam in a STEM subject? (Three: Colorado, Massachusetts, and Hawaii.) How many states with five hundred or more African American ACT test-takers had 17 percent or more score as college-ready on all four tested subjects? Not one.

Depressed yet?

Still there are some examples of significant progress: Twenty-five years ago, only 1 percent of Washington, D.C.’s eighth-grade African American students were proficient in math; today it’s 13 percent. High school graduation rates for black students are on the rise—as...

Perhaps it’s because, as a nation, we’ve come around on teacher quality. Or perhaps it’s because so many of the policy prescriptions that contribute to improving the teacher corps are so dry, technical, and largely beneath the hurly-burly of public debate. Either way, NCTQ’s 2015 Policy Yearbook is notable for the substantial amount of positive change it documents, with states “continuing down a reform path focused on teacher effectiveness” and “fewer states out of step with the prevailing trend each passing year.” What the report fails to note is that NCTQ itself can claim substantial credit for creating this tipping point, amassing a substantial record of effectiveness in a very short amount of time.

Getting religion on teacher quality is one thing. Ending our sinful ways is a very different matter. The average state teacher policy grade for 2015 is a C-minus, a mark that is “still far too low to ensure teacher effectiveness nationwide,” NCTQ notes. Yet just six years ago, in the 2009 yearbook, the average was a D. The pews are beginning to fill up.

Better evidence of improvement can be seen state-by-state. In 2015, thirteen states earned grades between B-minus and B-plus (six years ago, no...

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...

OPINION

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
  • ...

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