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,...


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.
  • ...

The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the OarWhen Fordham released The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar, which argued that smaller is better when it comes to state education agencies, the education community took note. Andy Smarick, a coauthor of the report, is in violent agreement with the folks over at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, and even state chiefs are open to these ideas. Here’s some of the best commentary about the white paper (so far):

Paul Hill, founder of CRPE, writes,

Slogans are useful, but they can mislead. We can’t just “blow up” the old governance system, we also have to build a new one. We need superintendents and board members to “relinquish” old regulatory functions, but we must also design new agencies that delegate, not abdicate, their responsibility to kids, parents, and communities.

Also from CRPE, research analyst Ashley Jochim notes political pitfalls:

Today, chiefs’ ability to weather their time at the helm depends greatly on their political skill, fortitude, and good luck. Transformation of SEAs will require a serious effort to convince governors and legislators that states can play a more constructive role, and that doing so will lead to real benefits for children. Reformers are starting to make that case intellectually but have barely begun addressing it politically, saying why elected officials should support state actions


I keep up on Common Core news religiously. In the last few weeks, I’ve amassed a stack of 30 articles and reports, trying to come up with a clever, cogent argument for what they mean when considered together.

With so many tangled veins in the debate—and with so much venom coursing through each—I almost gave up. But this morning, while reading a new account of supposedly mounting state-level opposition, it hit me: at least for the moment, the common element of recent Common Core news is the resilience of the standards themselves.

When I looked across all of the news, I was struck by the cacophony of political sound and fury amounting, in the end, to almost nothing. The coverage reminded me of the well-orchestrated pre-fight hype of a heavyweight championship bout—a match ultimately memorable not for the dramatic or unexpected outcome but for the staged antics at the weigh-in or the endless jawboning from both camps.

My allusion to debate qua entertainment isn’t metaphor. One of the moment’s top CCSS critics is, well, a professional entertainer. Some public supporters haven’t exactly elevated the debate either, resorting to name-calling; see this piece referring to opposition as “incredibly stupid” and the normally levelheaded David Brooks accusing opponents of partaking in a political circus.

Major news outlets have predictably picked up the mano a mano motif. The New York Times ran a front-page story on the GOP’s internecine battle. Time magazine covered...


Among the many problems facing American K–12 education, we don’t have enough highly effective, minority, or male teachers.

Two recent reports from the Center for American Progress (CAP) underscore the first and second of these three shortfalls. As for gender, you can take a look at the NCES data—or just take my word that there are more than three female teachers in U.S. public schools for every male teacher.

If you had to choose, would you rather have your child taught by a highly effective teacher or one who shares his or her race and/or gender?

Of course you’d prefer all of the above, but you may have to face the reality that not many families can have it. I’m reminded of the timeworn conundrum presented to impatient, parsimonious, quality-minded customers by any number of prospective vendors and contractors: “Yes, we can do it better, faster, or cheaper—but we cannot do all three at once. Pick no more than two.”

In a perfect world, you might want your child to be taught by someone who “looks like” him or her and is also highly effective in the classroom. But effective teachers of any race are hard to come by. There just aren’t enough of them, especially in schools serving poor kids. And the pay isn’t good enough to lure huge numbers of others away from more lucrative opportunities. For decades now, American public education has invested its ever-growing budgets in more teachers...


My colleague Julie Squire and I recently published a report on reforming state departments of education. We argue most state-level reforms ought to be driven by entities other than the SEA, which should focus on a narrower, but still important set of responsibilities.

Our report was intended to challenge the dominant view (i.e., state reform requires a more muscular SEA) and explain how a new approach might be implemented.

We recognized that our take was sufficiently different so as to require not just a strong theoretical base and plenty of evidence but also measured recommendations and explicit cautions. We aimed to produce a sober assessment of current conditions and guarded optimism about a new tack. This is why we dedicate an entire section to the problem and another to the risks of our argument.

We’re fortunate our paper has been taken seriously by a number of serious people, including those who largely agree, those open to a discussion, and those with reservations.

In the last category fall two sharp observers who’ve produced responses warranting attention. Not coincidentally, both are affiliated with CRPE, which has studied systemic reform for ages and dedicated significant recent bandwidth to SEA reform. To cut to the chase, I enthusiastically agree with most of what both have written.

The first is a smart piece by Paul Hill, CRPE’s founder and a researcher who’s thought deeply about the theory underpinning our piece and that theory’s application to...


On the surface, the story of the US Department of Education’s recent letter to Indiana about its ESEA-waiver noncompliance writes itself. According to the feds, the Hoosier state promised a bunch of stuff, isn’t delivering, and deserves to be called into the principal’s office.

But I encourage you to read the letter—my gut tells me this is the K–12-policy version of a Rorschach test.

In short, the Department has placed conditions on IN’s flexibility request and is requiring the state to submit a plan for how it will implement high-quality standards and assessments in the next school year.

On the first score, ED determined the state hadn’t implemented sufficient interventions for troubled schools and wasn’t adequately monitoring implementation of content standards and educator evaluations.

On the second, ED is seriously holding IN’s feet to the fire regarding its recent legislative action related to Common Core and PARCC. Both were part of the state’s waiver request, and now both have been put aside via state law. Given this, Uncle Sam is demanding a new plan for how the state intends to meet the standards-and-assessments conditions of ESEA flexibility.

I bet lots of folks will read ED’s letter, and think, “Hooray! The Department is serious about its new accountability rules!” Indeed, the ESEA waiver application had clear requirements, and the state made promises, got the flexibility, isn’t meeting its obligations, and is now being held accountable. (Fans of Common Core and PARCC specifically, and tough standards...


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 Cultures; the early American civilizations; Ancient Greece; Ancient RomeNative American culturesChristopher Columbus and the Age of DiscoveryColonial America and the Revolutionary Warthe American founders;  movie adaptations of classic children’s booksAmerican folk heroesdinosaursaquatic lifeinsectsfrogs and other amphibiansreptilesbirds; and mammals.

We’ve made it this far into our Netflix Academy series without much controversy, save for a few folks on Twitter who had some choice words for Christopher Columbus. Something tells me that the topic of “human evolution” will put that lucky streak to an end. Nonetheless, it’s a crucial part of any curriculum, as it’s a cornerstone of modern biology. Plus, in my humble opinion, it’s totally fascinating. I’m particularly enamored with the BBC’s “Walking with Cavemen” production, which just might be my favorite educational video on Netflix. Creationists will surely disagree. Everyone else: enjoy!

Special thanks to research interns Andrew McDonnell, Elisabeth Hoyson, and Liz McInerney for helping to compile these lists.

Best videos on human evolution

1. Walking with Cavemen

Walking with Cavemen


Apart from Pulitzer Prizes and such, reporters seldom get much credit.

In general, those they cover in a positive light still think the journalist didn’t tell the full story. Of course, those on the receiving end of a tough article, forever accuse the reporter of all types of malfeasance. And then there are those of us in the chattering class who always seem to think the reporter should’ve taken a different approach, ferreted out other issues, and included other voices (typically ours).

I guess this is the price journalists pay for having such significant power (and, in the eyes of detractors, too little accountability). As Mark Twain said, never pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrel (yes, it’s dated, but you get the gist!).

I like the work of lots of education reporters, and I should probably praise some of them more. But it always feels a bit icky to say nice things about folks who might want to use you as a source. Reporters’ credibility could be challenged if they rely on those who butter them up.

But I’d like to take this chance to express my appreciation for the great work over many years by Michele McNeil of Education Week and Politics K–12. Michele has covered some of the most interesting issues, and she’s always done it smartly and thoroughly.

Some ambitious journalists view it as their duty to comfort the afflicted...