Flypaper

The following is a response to Gary Rubinstein’s post, “Open Letters To ‘B-List’ Reformers I Know. Part 3: Michael Petrilli

Dear Gary,

I don’t mind you calling me a wonk you know if you don’t mind me calling you a teacher I know. For all of its bombast, social media has helped to put me in touch with real teachers like you in real classrooms in the real world. Becoming disconnected from the daily work of education is a significant risk for those of us who long ago crossed into policy analysis. We’re lucky at the Fordham Institute that our Ohio team gets down and dirty with real schools in Dayton and elsewhere, but I’m willing to say it: thank goodness for Twitter.

Now, what I’m not so happy about is your calling me a “B-list” reformer!

But I digress.

I appreciate your comments about my various blog posts. We take our role as “Education Gadfly” very seriously at Fordham. We are fortunate—thanks to our mission, our fantastic board, and our endowment, which gives us a measure of independence—that we can feel uninhibited to raise the red flag when we see reforms going awry. I would be bored to death if I had to stick to talking points.

Thankfully, we’re not the only ones willing to speak honestly about problems as they arise. I think a fair-minded observer would see that the vast majority of...

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Note: This post is part of our series, "Netflix Academy: The best educational videos available for streaming." Be sure to check out our previous Netflix Academy posts on Ancient Asian Culturesearly American civilizations; Ancient GreeceAncient RomeNative American culturesChristopher Columbus and the Age of DiscoveryColonial America and the Revolutionary War; the American foundersmovie adaptations of classic children’s booksAmerican folk heroesdinosaursaquatic lifeinsectsfrogs and other amphibiansreptilesbirdsmammalshuman evolution; and earthquakes and volcanoes.

As spring leans toward summer, many of us start dreaming of vacations to come, perhaps adventures into the wilderness or expeditions out West. It’s fitting, then, to remember one of the most famous expeditions of all: that led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, launched in the middle of May 1804. There’s so much for boys and girls of all ages to love about this epic journey: the strong characters (Lewis and Clark, of course, but also Sacagawea and Thomas Jefferson, among others), the rugged terrain, the stories of heroism and near-death, the tense interactions between the explorers and the Native Americans, and more. Plus, the story opens to door to many other important topics and concepts: the Louisiana Purchase, Westward Expansion, and Manifest Destiny, to name a few. (Can you tell I love this subject? Maybe because I grew up in St. Louis.) Someday, I hope to take my boys to retrace Lewis...

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In creating a new Course and Exam Description for the revamped Advanced Placement US History test (coming in the 2014–15 academic year), the College Board’s writers faced a notable challenge. On the one hand, any such guide must seek to specify essential knowledge and concepts that will be covered on the AP exam. On the other, it needs to be compatible with any and all state standards (from the ludicrously vague to the solidly specific), any local guidelines, and teachers’ own individual plans. The College Board explicitly denies any intention of imposing detailed course standards or curricula. Yet the AP exam is uniform across the nation and must judge all students against a single assessment standard; the Board must, therefore, lay out the core material for which all tested students are responsible. Such a document straddles a difficult line: specifying core content without dictating curricula.

How do you help teachers prepare students for the AP exam, while recognizing that you can’t specify curriculum in the process and that the very best teachers, the ones you most want teaching AP classes, do not want to be told exactly what to teach? The key mission of the document is to make clear to such teachers what areas may appear on the test, coordinating a single national exam with variable state standards and myriad individual classes. But how do you lay out the areas for which students will be responsible without laying out the key specifics that such questions may depend upon?...

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For families seeking more than what their child’s assigned school offers, “school choice” has long been a cherished solution. And it’s made strong headway on the U.S. education-policy front. Millions of girls and boys now enjoy access to a range of educational options thanks to innovative school-choice policies.

Sometimes, however, changing schools isn’t the optimal solution—perhaps because no better options are available within a reasonable commute, because the state doesn’t have a viable choice policy, or because the student’s present school is satisfactory in all but a couple of areas. Enter “course choice,” a strategy for widening the education options available to youngsters. As a new white paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argues, it has the potential to dramatically expand access to high-quality courses for many more children from many more backgrounds and locales than we have thus far managed.

Rather than asking kids in need of a better shake to change homes, forsake their friends, or take long bus rides, course choice enables them to learn from the best teachers in the state or nation while staying in their neighborhood schools. It grants them access to an array of course offerings that no one school can realistically gather under its roof, while offering a new revenue opportunity for schools and additional income for public-school teachers. How many Sal Khans are in our schools today just waiting for an opportunity to expand their...

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Last week was National Charter School Week and, to celebrate, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act.” This was an exciting occasion for us Washington-based policy wonks, starved as we are for any legislative action on education. But it also offered a window into the thinking of charter opponents, especially the teacher unions.

Note in particular this amendment offered by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee:

The State entity will ensure that charter schools and local educational agencies serving charter schools post on their websites materials with respect to charter school student recruitment, student orientation, enrollment criteria, student discipline policies, behavior codes, and parent contract requirements, including any financial obligations (such as fees for tutoring or extracurricular activity).

The amendment failed 179–220, on a mostly party-line vote. Randi Weingarten expressed disappointment in an AFT press release:

There are still major gaps in the bill, such as on enrollment criteria that traditional public schools always follow. Several representatives, including Sheila Jackson Lee, Kathy Castor and Gwen Moore, pushed for additional measures to level the playing field based on their own or their constituents' charter school experiences. But for some reason, these amendments were rejected—presumably because some prefer to give preferential treatment to charter schools. We want preferential treatment for all our children.

What’s this all about? Charter opponents are trying to make hay with allegations that some charter schools are “cream-skimming,” either by discouraging certain kids from enrolling...

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After twenty years of expanding school-choice options, state leaders, educators, and families have a new tool: course choice, a strategy for students to learn from unconventional providers that might range from top-tier universities or innovative community colleges to local employers, labs, or hospitals.

In Expanding the Education Universe: A Fifty-State Strategy for Course Choice, Fordham’s Michael Brickman outlines policy questions and options to weigh when designing course-choice programs, including issues of student eligibility, course providers, funding, quality control, and accountability.

Spotlight: Course Choice in Louisiana

Louisiana is not the only state with a course-choice program (others include Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin), but it is the farthest along in making such options widely accessible—and the way it has handled any challenges posed by these programs make it an ideal exemplar. Read about barriers that State Superintendent John White and other leaders have had to overcome in designing and implementing course choice.

Download the report: Expanding the Education Universe: A Fifty-State Strategy for Course Choice

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It’s true that many conservatives (and liberals, too!) have employed pretty outlandish rhetoric in their effort to discredit the Common Core. It’s also true that many of the things these opponents say are either factually untrue or unrelated to the standards themselves. But the Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent attempt to push back against some of this rhetoric is done in an unnecessarily divisive way.

I sympathize with some Common Core opponents, especially parents who feel that the Common Core standards are the reason their children are not getting the education they deserve. Moreover, there are certainly principled skeptics at places like Cato or AEI on the Right or education-establishment groups on the Left who justifiably worry about a sometimes-flawed process or fret that all this work on standards isn’t necessarily going to make a whole heck of a lot of difference when it comes to student achievement. My view has always been that if you are going to spend a ton of public money on education, there should be some expectation that students will actually learn something. And if you’re going to have such expectations, they should be meaningfully high and aligned with the expectations of employers and colleges.

Distinct from this reasonable opposition, though, are people and groups who cynically stir up opposition to further unrelated political goals. These groups are intentionally misdirecting righteous anger about textbooks, pedagogy, and the general state of our education system.

Yet another small but extremely vocal group of Common...

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Note: This post is part of our series, "Netflix Academy: The best educational videos available for streaming." Be sure to check out our previous Netflix Academy posts on Ancient Asian Culturesearly American civilizations; Ancient GreeceAncient RomeNative American culturesChristopher Columbus and the Age of DiscoveryColonial America and the Revolutionary War; the American founders; movie adaptations of classic children’s booksAmerican folk heroesdinosaursaquatic lifeinsectsfrogs and other amphibiansreptiles; birds; mammals; and human evolution.

OK folks, we’ve wrapped up our posts on biology, and we’re on to earth science. As with science topics writ large, Netflix and Amazon have a wealth of educational resources that won’t bore you or your kids. Not that it would be easy to make earthquakes and volcanoes boring, what with their massive power and pyrotechnics. Why just read about them when you and watch and hear earthquakes and volcanoes in action? As always, please...

Something unsavory is underway at the Department of Education and in the world of pre-school zealotry.

They seem to be merging—and in so doing they risk the integrity of our education-data system.

My longtime mentor, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was renowned for declaring (among other things) that, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

Well, in the matter of pre-school statistics, it appears you’re not going to be able to tell the difference.

Worse, you’re going to begin to wonder whether you can trust the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to obtain its data from impartial sources of facts rather than hotbeds of passionate advocacy.

This was an issue a dozen years back when economist Michael Podgursky (and others) pointed out that NCES was getting its teacher-salary data from the unions—and publishing those numbers as reliable facts, which they may or may not have been. (Podgursky noted, for example, that they certainly didn’t take account of many non-cash benefits that teachers also derive from their employment, such as shorter work years.)

NCES has since gathered its own data on teacher compensation (or relied on trustworthy government agencies, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics), as it should.

But in the pre-school realm, NCES has done something worse than it did with the salary data. Not only has it outsourced the number-gathering to a prominent interest group in the field, it has allowed that interest group to add its own spin,...

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One of the great unanswered questions in American education policy is why the major gains we’ve seen on the Nation’s Report Card in the fourth and eighth grades evaporate once students reach the twelfth grade. The 2013 results, released yesterday, demonstrated this phenomenon yet again.

As with all NAEP results, nobody really knows why the scores are up, down, or flat. But when it comes to explaining the lack of meaningful progress at the high school level, here are the leading guesses:

  • It’s because of our changing demographics. Schools are getting better, but they are facing the headwinds of an increasingly diverse student body. (As Hispanic students replace white students, their generally lower scores weigh down national averages.) That appears to be the case for math scores since 2005, where gains for whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians (all four percentage points or better) outstripped the more meager national average gain of three percentage points. This, however, was not the case for reading, where all subgroup scores are flat or, in the case of African Americans, down since 1992.
     
  • It’s because of our increasing graduation rates. It’s true that our graduation rates have risen significantly in recent years, and it’s almost surely the case that the students who would have dropped out a decade ago but are now sticking it out to get their diplomas are among the lowest performing kids. They may be dragging down our scores.
     
  • It’s because twelfth graders don’t try hard.
  • ...
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