One of the biggest debates raging in education policy today is whether schools of choice are serving their fair share of the hardest-to-educate students or abandoning them to traditional public schools.

I have been more willing than most education reformers to acknowledge that some degree of selection bias is inevitable in a system of choice. The parents who seek out options for their children are, by their very nature, different than parents who do not, and this will likely have an impact on the academic performance of their children.

Furthermore, I have been happy to defend some degree of selectivity, both explicit and implicit. I support exam schools, for example. High-achieving students, especially those growing up in poverty, have not been well served by our traditional public school system, and I believe they deserve a place to go to school where they can learn to their full potential.

Still, wherever you stand on these debates, it’s certainly worth knowing whether the demographics of schools of choice match those of the larger community. This has driven many rigorous analyses of charter school populations, such as the proportion of their students ...

In a few months, education reformers will begin celebrating the twenty-fifth birthday of Minnesota’s groundbreaking charter school legislation, which passed in 1991 and inspired a wave of similar laws across the country. The charter movement can now vote, drink, and carry a concealed weapon. (But hey, maybe not all at once.)

The millennial era has been a time of rapid growth in the sector: Over six thousand charter schools now serve almost three million kids across the country. And all those ribbon-cutting ceremonies have given rise to a simultaneous flowering of research into the effects of charters. This meta-analysis from Columbia University’s National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education set out to comb through the existing data to identify the specific impact of “no-excuses” charters on math and reading. Offering a brisk tour through the mission and methods of no-excuses schools, it should make handy reading for a public audience that still trips over some of the details even at the quarter-century mark.

After wading into an ocean of some five thousand initial titles, the authors finally ended up weighing the results of sixty-eight relevant studies published on schools that generally fit the no-excuses model...

Lisa Hansel

“Programmatic series of studies”—that’s how one of my psychology professors described research on learning and memory around twenty years ago. Do a study, tweak it, try again. Persist.

I was reminded of that while reading this new volume by Tony Bryk and colleagues. After thirty years of constant reform and little improvement, it’s clear that there’s a fundamental flaw in how the education field goes about effecting change. Quick fixes, sweeping transformations, and mandates aren’t working. Ongoing professional development isn’t working either.

What might work much better is a sustained, systemic commitment to improvement—and a willingness to start with a series of small pilots instead of leaping into large-scale implementation. Guided by “improvement science” pioneered in the medical field, Learning to Improve shows how education could finally stop its reform churn. As Bryk et al. write:

All activity in improvement science is disciplined by three deceptively simple questions:

  1. What specifically are we trying to accomplish?

  2. What change might we introduce and why?

  3. How will we know that a change is actually an improvement?...

A set of general principles guides the approach: (1) wherever possible, learn quickly and cheaply;...

A new study in the Journal of School Choice explores whether charter schools open in “high-demand” areas of New York City. In particular, the authors ask whether they situate themselves in high-density areas with lots of children, near schools with low academic performance, or in neighborhoods where parental satisfaction is low.

The study examines fifty-six new elementary charter schools that opened between 2009 and 2013, along with 571 traditional elementary schools. Data sources include parental satisfaction survey data from the New York City Department of Education (with 2008 as the base year for the traditional public schools), school proficiency rates on math (because math scores are more school-dependent than reading scores), and Census data on poverty and population.

The analysts compare parents’ dissatisfaction with their children’s current schools (relative to the number of charter openings in the area) and that area’s poverty rate. They find pockets of parental dissatisfaction scattered throughout southwest Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. Yet charter schools didn’t open in these areas. They tended to locate instead in clusters around central Brooklyn and along a stretch in western Manhattan, where parent satisfaction varied but was generally moderate or high.

Next, they detect a modest but imperfect relationship...

Last Friday, in a 6-3 decision, the Washington State Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the state’s voter-approved charter school law, threatening the future of nine new schools with more than 1,200 students.

The ruling was not based on the merits of the law (one of the strongest in the country on accountability). Nor was it based on the words of the state constitution. Instead, the majority cut off all funding from charter schools (the specifics on when and how to be determined by a lower court) by relying on an obscure 1909 judicial interpretation of the words “common schools.” These words are found in the state constitution, but aren’t defined. The majority held that under this century-old definition, the charter school law did not subject those schools to enough “local control,” and therefore is unconstitutional.

The holding hinged on this idea of control—despite the fact that these charters are subject to more accountability than the state’s traditional public schools. Parents choose whether their children will attend. Charters performing in the bottom quartile of all public schools must be closed if they continue to fail. And local school boards are free to sponsor charters. (In...

The latest SAT scores are out today, and as I remarked to Nick Anderson at the Washington Post, education reform appears to be hitting a wall in high school.

In truth, we already knew this. The SATs aren’t even the best gauge—not all students take them, and those who do are hardly representative.

But a variety of sources show much the same thing. Twelfth-grade NAEP: Flat. Long-term NAEP for seventeen-year-olds: Flat. ACT scores: Flat. Percentage of college-ready graduates: Flat.

What makes this so disappointing is that NAEP shows respectable gains for younger students, especially in fourth grade and particularly in math. Yet these early gains seem to evaporate as kids get older.

Here’s what that looks like using data from the long-term trend NAEP for three recent student cohorts. Progress at ages nine and thirteen hasn’t translated into progress at age seventeen.

*Note: This shows, for example, that when members of the graduating high school class of 2004 were nine years old (in 1996), they scored 231 on the long-term trend NAEP. Since there was no testing in 2000, I...

A new analysis from Matthew A. Kraft at Brown University links the characteristics of laid-off teachers to changes in student achievement. The analysis was conducted in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), which laid off just over a thousand teachers as a result of the Great Recession in 2009 and 2010. Since North Carolina is one of five states where collective bargaining is illegal, a discretionary layoff policy was used rather than the more common “last-hired, first-fired” (sometimes referred to as LIFO—last in, first out) method. CMS identified candidates for layoffs based on five general criteria: duplicative positions, enrollment trends, job performance, job qualifications, and length of service.

Kraft estimates the effects of these layoffs on student achievement by using both principal observation scores (which directly informed layoffs) and value-added scores (which were not used to make layoff decisions). This enabled him to compare the impact of a teacher layoff based on subjective and objective measures of effectiveness. The good news for CMS students is that, overall, laid-off teachers received lower observation scores from principals and had lower value-added scores in math and reading compared to their counterparts who weren’t laid off. Kraft found that math achievement in grades that lost an...

A new working paper by American University public policy professor Seth Gershenson examines whether a “match” of students and teachers by race has any effect on teacher expectations of students. What is the result, for example, of white instructors teaching black students versus white students? What about other racial combinations?

Gershenson used nationally representative survey data from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS) for U.S. students who were in tenth grade in 2002. There were over sixteen thousand student-teacher matches, which included various demographic data about the students and teachers. And each student’s tenth-grade math and English teachers reported their expectations for that student’s educational attainment, with possible responses ranging from those not finishing high school to those completing a four-year degree.

To ensure that any differences were systematic rather than random—which would suggest that teacher beliefs are at least partly explained by student demographics—Gershenon designed his study carefully. For example, he made use of various demographic variables to rule out systematic sorting (whereby, for instance, low-ability math students may be routinely assigned to white math teachers). The ELS administration was also set up so that a student’s two teachers offer their assessments at the same point in time....

Most of the sturm und drang over Common Core has centered on the politics of the standards’ creation and adoption. The bigger problem—much bigger—was always going to be implementation. This new brief from the Education Trust offers a glimpse of how it’s going. Alas, the answer is not very well.

An analysis of middle school classroom assignments finds that most “do not reflect the high-level goals” set by Common Core. This, the report suggests, demonstrates where teachers are in their understanding of the higher standards. Among the sobering data points: A mere 6 percent of the assignment fell into the high range of Education Trust’s analysis framework, and fewer than 40 percent of assignments were aligned with grade-appropriate standards at all. “It’s time for an honest conversation about where we are in implementing the standards,” the report concludes.

Hear, hear—but some important caveats must be noted. The study was conducted at six middle schools spread across two urban districts in two states. Given Education Trust’s focus on equity and the achievement gap, this is not surprising; however, it may not be representative of K–12 education at large. It’s also interesting that more than half of the assignments reviewed came from...

A school district should never go broke. But unfortunately, they can, and do. Take Pennsylvania’s beleaguered Chester Upland School District. Teachers will once again work for free as the district faces a $22 million deficit, which the Washington Post reports could grow to $46 million. The district of approximately three thousand students was first tagged as “financially distressed” in 1994, and since then, its enrollment has declined by nearly 60 percent even as special education costs have risen substantially. Neither of these developments came as a surprise. Yet the district still overspent its coffers by $45 million between 2003 and 2012, despite millions in few-strings-attached bailouts by the state over the same period. In 2012, Chester Upland ran out of money completely and the teachers agreed to work without pay; that same year, the state finally enacted legislation to do something other than hand out more cash. Under Act 141, the state could declare small districts in financial distress, allow them to apply for loans, and appoint a chief recovery officer (CRO) to oversee finances.

Since 2010, Chester Upland has received $75 million (an enormous sum, considering that its yearly budget is...