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What if federal aid for college students were focused exclusively on those who are truly ready for college? What if we stopped subsidizing remedial courses on campuses and insisted that students pursuing higher learning be prepared for college-level courses (none too strenuous nowadays in many places)? And what if those courses were also made available to young people even before they matriculated to a four-year program?

That would be a revelation and a revolution. But it might also do more to get young Americans and their schools serious about college readiness than anything we’ve dreamed up previously. It would save money. And it would end a great fraud that causes many college students to drop out—usually with heavy loan debts to either repay or default on—when they realize that they’ve been sorely misled as to their true preparedness for advanced-level academics.

Consider the irony: Today, federal financial support is available for eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds to study high school math and English after they reach a college campus (a vast percentage of them are required to take these remedial classes); yet such aid is unavailable to academically aggressive sixteen- and seventeen-year olds from low-income households, who could accelerate their academic progress by taking...

A new study by the NAEP Validity Studies Panel analyzes the alignment of the assessment’s 2015 Math Items (the actual test questions) for grades four and eight to the math Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

To do so, the panel enlisted as reviewers eighteen mathematicians, teachers, math educators, and supervisors who have familiarity with Common Core. This group classified all 150 items in the 2015 NAEP math pool for each grade as either matching a CCSS standard or not.

The reviewers determined that the Common Core and NAEP were reasonably aligned at both grade levels— not surprising, since CCSS writers had the NAEP frameworks at their disposal. Further, NAEP is by design broader than the CCSS and is supposed to maintain a degree of independence relative to the “current fashions in instruction and curriculum.”

Panelists found that 79 percent of NAEP items were matched to the content that appears in the CCSS at or below grade 4. The overall alignment of NAEP to CCSS standards at or below grade eight is even closer, 87 percent.

There is, however, variation in matches across content areas. In fourth grade, the least aligned content area was data analysis, statistics,...

Although the charter sector has grown rapidly in both size and quality in recent years, there are still myriad issues holding it back from substantially improving public education. Most worrisome is the way charters have begun to resemble the district schools they were designed to differ from. In this new paper, the Mind Trust teams up with Public Impact to shine a light on how the sector can embrace its innovative roots in order to improve. The report outlines three key ideas: The sector must get better (slightly edging out traditional public schools isn’t good enough); the sector must get broader (underserved groups like at-risk students, special education students, English language learners, and students in rural communities still aren’t served effectively by charters); and bigger (approximately one million students are currently on charter waiting lists nationwide). The authors emphasize that creative thinking and innovation are the only ways forward in accomplishing these goals. Trying the same old things on new student groups, working harder instead of smarter, and failing to find more effective and sustainable ways to operate won’t expand the impact of charters. Instead, they will only deepen their similarity to traditional schools.

To achieve break-the-mold results,...

OK, everyone, back away from the ledge. With the release of NAEP data this week, the predictable deluge of commentary is well underway—mainly of the gnashing-of-teeth, rending-of-garments variety. NAEP may be the nation’s report card, but it is also the nation’s Rorschach test. Perception is in the eye of the beholder, and many see darkness and misery: “A Decade of Academic Progress Halts,” says the Los Angeles Times. “Student Score in Reading and Math Drop,” says U.S. News & World Report.

One of the frequent criticisms of NAEP punditry is “misNAEPery”—the sin of attributing fluctuations to particular policies, for example. One particularly virulent form of this fallacy—failure to account demographic changes in states over time—has become slightly less tenable this week, courtesy of this illuminating analysis by Matthew Chingos of the Urban Institute.

Not every state is the same. States with higher concentrations of black and Hispanic children, low-income families, and English language learners (ELLs) have a harder time rising to the top because they have more students mired at the bottom. But when you adjust for these demographic realities, a different NAEP emerges. There’s Massachusetts, still sitting pretty atop the tables. But Texas and...

Over the weekend, President Barack Obama received high praise from parents and teachers for acknowledging that testing is taking too much time away from teaching, learning and fostering creativity in schools, and recommending that standardized tests take up no more than 2 percent of total school instructional time. Frankly, this is arrant nonsense.

From time to time, I'm asked to give a talk about education. If I look at how I spend my time over the course of a year, giving presentations and speeches is a very small part of my job—less than 2 percent. However, if my effectiveness were to be judged on the audience response to the handful of talks I give each year, I'd spend a lot more time writing and practicing speeches. I'd fret endlessly over my PowerPoint slides and leave-behinds. I'd sprinkle in more jokes to be entertaining; I'd probably say whatever I thought would get audiences to like me more, rather than challenging my listeners. I'd definitely spend a lot more on suits and dry cleaning than I do now.

But most critically, I'd spend far less time on all the other things I do—writing, reading,...

Unfortunately, the rumors, predictions, and surmises were correct: Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are mostly down or flat. The worst news came in eighth-grade math, where twenty-two states saw declines. One of the only bright spots is fourth-grade reading, where ten states (as well as Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland) posted gains.

Why this happened will be combed over and argued. So far, it feels like anyone’s guess (more on that below). But there’s no denying that it’s bad news. It had come to seem like NAEP scores would always go up, at least over the long term, just like it had come to seem like murder rates would always go down. Now the real world has intervened to remind us that social progress is not inevitable. Let’s not sugarcoat it: This is deeply disheartening for our country, our K–12 system, and especially our kids.

As our friends in the research community like to remind us, it’s impossible to draw causal connections from changes in NAEP data; doing so is “misNAEPery.” Yet we can’t help but search for explanations. And we can certainly float hypotheses about the trends—educated guesses that can then be tested using...

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan deserve credit for acknowledging this weekend that there’s too much testing in our schools today and that “the administration bears some of the responsibility.”

Indeed it does. That’s because its decision to condition ESEA flexibility on state adoption of teacher evaluation systems has not only raised the stakes of reading and math tests (making them less popular and potentially more damaging to the educational enterprise). It’s also led to a proliferation of tests in “non-tested subjects”—everything from P.E. to social studies and beyond—for the sole purpose of collecting data to judge teachers’ effectiveness.

Yet, as Matt Barnum argues persuasively at the Seventy Four, the feds aren't willing to actually fix this problem:

The new report did not capture a precise measure on what proportion of tests were required by teacher evaluation, but it does point out that many states have put in place new assessments “to satisfy state regulations and laws for teacher and principal evaluation driven by and approved by U.S. Department of Education policies.”

But an initial reading of the department’s guidance suggests it is sticking to these policies: “The Department will work with states...

Nearly everyone agrees that high-quality pre-kindergarten is a worthy investment. Calls to expand it at public expense stem from a handful of well-known (and very costly) intensive models that appeared to deliver long-term positive effects for poor children: improved school readiness, increased graduation rates, and even the mitigation of risk factors like teen pregnancy and incarceration. These oft-cited outcomes are compelling. So is the urge to level the playing field for children who arrive at school with a thirty million word gap. But an actionable definition of “high quality” remains elusive, and studies of large, scaled-up pre-K programs have shown mixed results.

This study from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute adds valuable evidence to the discussion of whether, when, and how pre-kindergarten is a worthy investment. In 2009, in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Education, the institute launched a rigorous study of the state’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program (TN-VPK). It’s a full-day program that targets exceptionally at-risk four-year-olds; researchers tracked two cohorts of children through the end of their third-grade years. Oversubscribed programs enabled a random design whereby children enrolled in TN-VPK were the treatment group and those waitlisted (and ultimately not admitted) became the control...

The relationship between teacher experience and quality has been widely studied, as has the relationship between teacher experience and salary. The relationship between experience and total compensation—which includes both salary and retirement benefits—is often overlooked. In a new report, researchers from the Manhattan Institute have thrown open the curtains by calculating the total compensation for teachers with master’s degrees and varying years of experience in the country’s ten largest public school systems. They explain that, although the preponderance of research demonstrates that quality differences between teachers based upon experience tend to plateau after 5–7 years, most public school teachers still earn salaries according to fixed schedules that are based entirely on years of experience and advanced degrees. Retirement benefits are distributed in a similar way. Approximately 89 percent of public school teachers earn retirement benefits under final-average-salary-defined benefit (FAS-DB) pension plans, meaning that teachers earn a lifetime annuity available only after they reach their respective plans’ thresholds. These thresholds, like a salary schedule, are based on a combination of age and years of service. As a result, FAS-DB plans often backload retirement benefits.

The scale of backloading varies across plans. In New York City, for example, a teacher earns...

The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously posited that whether or not one believes in God, it behooves us to behave as if he exists. What have you got to lose? If you’re right, you wind up heaven and spare yourself eternal punishment in hell. And if not, well, what did it cost you apart from a few earthly pleasures here and there? Pascal’s Wager basically suggests that your upside is infinite, while your downside is relatively small. So do the right thing.

We need a Pascal’s Wager of curriculum. Schools are going to teach something, so it behooves us to ensure that the textbooks, workbooks, and software we put in front of students are coherent and of high quality. As this report from the Center for American Progress shows, crappy curriculum costs every bit as much as the good stuff. The authors found “little relationship” between the cost and quality of instructional products. And switching to a more rigorous math curriculum, for example, can deliver far greater returns on investment than other reforms. “The average cost-effectiveness ratio of switching curriculum was almost forty times that of class-size reduction in a well known randomized experiment,” the report notes.

Every...

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