Flypaper

The next batch of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is due on October 28. Pundits of all persuasions are gearing up to jump on the news and promote their spin. But that’s for amateurs, I say. Why wait for regular old mis-NAEP-ery when you can practice pre-NAEP-ery?

Rumors abound that the news is going to be bad, with scores down nationally and in a bunch of states. That will be used as fodder to attack Common Core, teacher evaluations, charter schools, or whatever else you happen not to like that’s prominent in today’s education policy conversation.

But let me suggest that journalists and editorialists consider the most likely explanation: It’s the economy, stupid. While those of us in education reform are working hard to make sure that demography does not equal destiny, we must also acknowledge the strong link between students’ socioeconomic status and their academic achievement (a link that some amazing schools are weakening).

In fact, the last time we saw national declines in NAEP scores was in the aftermath of the 1990 recession. That was particularly the case for reading. It makes sense—when families are hurting financially, it’s harder for students to...

Editor's note: This post is the first entry of a three-part series on Race to the Top's legacy and the federal role in education. You can read the final two entries here and here.

Secretary Duncan’s resignation announcement produced less commentary on Race to the Top (RTTT) than I expected. I was hoping for more.

Though they’re now out of vogue, I’m still open to federal competitive grant programs, and I’m trying to decide when they’re appropriate and what form they should take. I also have some personal interest in the program. In 2009–10, I spent an inordinate amount of time analyzing applications and writing about the competition. As a state official in 2010–12, I worked on a RTTT grant.

This gigantic program—and the era with which it’s associated—deserves scrutiny. We ought to ask ourselves how this experience should inform future federal policy making.

William Howell’s Education Next article “Results of President Obama’s Race to the Top” is a good place to start. Howell marshals new evidence, showing the overlap of the program’s lifespan with an era of lively state-level policy change.

But I think Howell overstates RTTT’s influence. The analysis gives the federal government more credit than it deserves and, more...

For viewers eager to hear the Democratic presidential candidates’ stances on K–12 education policy, the Tuesday’s primary debate was a disappointment. However, the two front-runners, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, did speak at length about the necessity of college affordability and their plans for tuition-free campuses.

“A college degree today is the equivalent of what a high school degree was fifty years ago,” Sanders said. “And what we said fifty years ago and one hundred years ago is that every kid in this country should be able to get a high school education regardless of the income of their family. I think we have to say that is true for everybody going to college.”

Clinton had previously criticized the senator’s proposal, saying that it would force taxpayers to pick up the tab for children of billionaires like Donald Trump. Sanders remarked that under his policies, billionaires would pay significantly more in taxes.

Clinton supports free college tuition, but said that students should work at least ten hours a week while in school to attain it. She also said that she wants to give the forty million Americans carrying student debt the opportunity to refinance...

In this study, authors Jonathan Smith (of the College Board) and Kevin Stange (University of Michigan) use PSAT scores from 2004 and 2005 and enrollment and completion data from the National Student Clearinghouse to estimate the contribution of “peer effects” to community college outcomes and to the documented gap between the bachelor’s degree completion rates of students who enroll at two-year versus four-year institutions.

Interestingly, they find considerable overlap between average PSAT scores at two- and four-year colleges (though the study doesn’t include older students or those attending for-profit institutions), suggesting that many students choose the former for financial reasons rather than academic ones. This is unfortunate, because they also find that students are thirty percentage points less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree if they enroll at a two-year college—even after their academic abilities and those of their peers are taken into account. This means that our current policy of making two-year colleges cheaper than their four-year counterparts may inadvertently lower some students’ odds of earning a bachelor’s degree.

According to the authors, roughly 40 percent of the degree attainment gap can be explained by average peer quality (which is lower at two-year schools); the rest is attributable to...

A new study out by the National Center for Education Statistics uses data from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress to examine the black-white achievement gap. Authors use the eighth-grade math assessment and evaluate how the size of the gap corresponds to a school’s percentage of black students (what they term “density”).

They find that on average, white students attended schools that were 9 percent black, and black students attended schools that were 48 percent black. The highest-density schools were mostly in cities and Southern states; low-density schools were mostly in rural areas. Seventy-seven percent of public schools qualify as “lowest-density” (0–20 percent black students), while 10 percent are designated “highest-density” (60–100 percent black).

After controlling for various school, teacher, and student characteristics, the authors found that only white and black male achievement was affected by black student density; black male outcomes were worse in the highest-density schools than the lowest. Interestingly, the average achievement for white males in moderate density schools (40–60 percent black) was higher than the average achievement of their peers in lowest-density schools. In the end, the black-white achievement gap for males is greatest in the highest-density schools; for females (regardless of race), the gap...

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Seventy Four; that one also lambasted Arkansas for backpedaling on its cut scores. Since then, Arkansas acknowledged that it had erred in how it described the state’s performance levels and clarified that it would use the rigorous standards suggested by PARCC.

Way back in 2007, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published a landmark study with experts from the Northwest Evaluation Association: The Proficiency Illusion. It found that state definitions for reading and math “proficiency” were all over the map—and shockingly subpar almost everywhere. In Wisconsin, for instance, eighth graders could be reading at the fourteenth percentile nationally and still be considered proficient.

This was a big problem—not just the inconsistency, though that surely made it harder to compare schools across state lines. Mostly, we worried about the signals that low proficiency standards sent to parents: the false positives indicating that their kids were on track for success when they actually weren’t. How were parents in Madison or Duluth supposed to know that their “proficient” son was really far below grade level, not to mention way off track for success in...

In December 2014, Ohio Governor John Kasich promised wholesale charter school reform in the new year. “We are going to fix the lack of regulation on charter schools,” Kasich remarked. Now, thanks to the fearless leadership of the governor and members of the legislature, Ohio has revamped its charter law. Most impressively, the charter legislation that overwhelmingly passed last week drew bipartisan support and praise from editorial boards across the state.

It’s been a long road to comprehensive charter reform in Ohio. When the Buckeye State enacted its charter law in 1997, it became a national pioneer in charter quantity. Disappointingly, it has not been a leader on quality. To be sure, there are examples of phenomenal charter schools. Yet too many have struggled, and a surprising number of Ohio charters have failed altogether. The predictable result is that on average, Ohio charter school students have fallen behind academically. A 2014 study by CREDO found Buckeye charter students losing forty-three days of learning in math and fourteen days of learning in reading relative to their district peers.

As regular Gadfly readers know, we at Fordham have consistently voiced concerns about our home state’s ailing charter sector. In our view, many of these...

A reader recently posed this question:

The Atlantic just published an article about the mistake American educators make by teaching reading in kindergarten. Shouldn’t we do what the Finns do: let kids learn to read when they want to and end up with high achievement?

This article is from the “Whistle a Happy Tune” School of Philosophy. It links one cultural input with one achievement output and assumes both a causal connection (not teaching reading in kindergarten will result in higher achievement) and that if this cultural input were adopted elsewhere, the same outcome would result there as well. This is the third or fourth such article that I have read about Finland in the Atlantic, and the tone of the pieces has been pretty consistent—they’re feel-good fantasies to help us ward off the blues as the days grow shorter and the verdant earth seems to die yet again. It sure is fun to think about how easily we could remake our society.

The problem with this dream, however, is that cultural change doesn’t work that way.

America, unlike Finland, is not a relatively simple society, small in population and low in diversity. Of...

The Asian American Achievement Paradox, a new book by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, prompted New York Times columnist Nick Kristof to pen a provocative column on Sunday. Kristof agreed that “the success of Asian-Americans is a tribute to hard work, strong families and passion for education,” but went on to caution that “because one group can access the American dream does not mean that all groups can.”

I’m not that bleak. Though nobody’s education system can completely compensate for heedless parents, slothful ways, and an apathetic attitude, the truth is that policy does matter. Schools can do more than Kristof seems to think to help more kids climb the ladder toward the American dream.

My new book with Brandon Wright, Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students, looks closely at why American public education has been doing such a lackluster job helping smart children reach their full potential; how this failure of will, policy, and program is particularly devastating to high-ability youngsters from disadvantaged circumstances; and how a number of other countries do better than us.

The Asian nations in our study (Singapore, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan) do all of this especially well. And yes, family...

Matt Barnum

In a series of blog posts (IIIIIIIV), Jay Greene argues against the “high-regulation approach” to school choice. I’m going to focus on the final two posts, in which Greene argues that student achievement tests are poor proxies for school quality and that they’re not correlated with other measures of quality.

I think Greene is right to a large extent. But he undersells the value of tests.

It’s pretty clear that the ability of a school or teacher to increase students’ standardized test scores is associated with long-run outcomes. Let’s dig in to some evidence:

  • The well-known Chetty study used a rigorous quasi-experiment to show that teachers with high value-added scores (which are based on standardized tests) produced higher income, greater college attendance, and lower teen pregnancy among students. (In the comments of his post, Greene acknowledges this study but describes the effects as small. I disagree, considering we are describing the effects of a single teacher at a single grade level.)
  • A different Chetty study reports that “students who were randomly assigned to higher-quality classrooms in grades K–3—as measured by classmates' end-of-class test scores—have higher earnings, college attendance rates, and other outcomes.”
  • Hanushek finds that international academic achievement
  • ...

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