Flypaper

A smart alternative to one-size-fits-all teacher prep.
Dominique Coote

New study meets old opinions about TFA.
Robert Pondiscio

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of personal reflections on the current state of education reform and contemporary conservatism by Andy Smarick, a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The previous posts in this series can be seen hereherehereherehere, here, and here.

Many reformers work to ensure that every child has access to great schools. Similar universal aspirations have inspired countless others—the recognition of unalienable rights, the elimination of poverty, the fair distribution of resources.

Indeed, the question of how to define and realize “justice” has consumed philosophers for centuries. A key lesson from this Everest of scholarship is that all approaches require tradeoffs.

Unfortunately, our field doesn’t talk much about tradeoffs, and we certainly don’t talk about philosophy. You’ll not find in your conference program, “Plato, Aquinas, and Nietzsche: The Metaphysics of Annual Testing.”

But this is not to say that reform is philosophy-free. Conservatives led this movement twenty-five years ago; their skepticism of government monopolies and public sector unions and commitment to empowering parents and diversifying options owed much to Smith, Mill, and Friedman. 

Today, progressives dominate education reform, and progressivism is stirred by calls for “social justice” and transfixed by economic inequality. Accordingly, the word “equity” is ubiquitous in our world.

TNTP recommended an “equity fund.” TFA launched Leadership for Educational Equity. The administration’s recently released its vision for educator “equity plans.”

The late philosopher John Rawls is this era’s muse. His A Theory of Justice (namely its “Maximin” principle) requires maximizing the condition of the least advantaged; policies are only just when the “prospects of the least fortunate are as great as they can be.” This principle is being applied across our policies and practices, and it’s contributing...

Not meeting high standards ≠ “failing.”
Michael J. Petrilli

This post has been updated with the full text of "Shifting from learning to read to reading to learn."

Spring means high-stakes tests in America’s schools, and this year’s test season is already proving to be a particularly contentious one. The number of parents choosing to “opt out” of tests remains small but appears to be growing. Anti-testing sentiment will likely sharpen as rigorous tests associated with Common Core are rolled out in earnest this year. Parents who have been lulled into complacency by their children’s scores on low-bar state tests may not react well when their children are measured against higher standards.

Testing—who should be tested, how often, and in which subjects – is also one of the most contentious issues in the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the most recent iteration of which is better known as No Child Left Behind). At present, the feds require states to test every student every year in math and reading from grades 3–8. However, if we are serious about improving reading—and education outcomes for children at large—we might be better off if we stopped testing reading in third grade rather than started it.

There are two big problems with existing test-driven accountability schemes in reading. First, the high-stakes reading tests our kids take in elementary and middle school really don’t test what we think they do. Even worse, by the time those tests diagnose reading difficulties in third grade, it’s incredibly hard for schools and teachers to help pull kids out of the spiral of reading failure that began years ago—often before kids came to school for the first time. To understand these problems, it’s helpful to address some common misconceptions about reading.

If you’re like most literate people, you probably think of reading as a skill like riding a bike....

This letter appeared in the 2014 Thomas B. Fordham Institute Annual Report. To learn more, download the report.

Fordham friends,

Closing the books on the year that just passed has special resonance this time around—both for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and for the education-reform movement at large. For us, 2014 marked the first leadership transition in our organization’s history, with founding president Chester E. (“Checker”) Finn, Jr. moving into his new role as senior distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus and with our board of trustees electing me to succeed him. Almost six months into this challenge, I remain honored by the faith they placed in me and appreciative of Checker’s pitch-perfect management of the transition process.
 

For the education-reform movement, 2014 was more of a mixed bag. It was famously the year when America was supposed to, but did not, achieve “universal proficiency”—a goal set by the No Child Left Behind Act back in 2002. That nearly thirteen years have now passed without a much-needed ESEA reauthorization gives us one clue as to what went awry: gridlock in Congress and an administration incapable or unwilling to move lawmakers to act. It’s hard to make improvements in policy when the policymaking machine grinds to a halt. Unilateral—and, arguably, unconstitutional—action by the executive branch is not a durable solution.

Yet that dysfunction also offers lessons worth heeding. If statutory updates are to materialize as often as the thirteen-year cicada, we should make sure that laws are written in a way that allows states and districts the room to make tweaks along the way. Likewise, we should be careful about locking in prescriptions or mandates, because we might have...

Rating school choice in the country’s biggest districts.
Aaron Churchill

Embrace career and technical education, teach “performance character,” and don’t forget the extracurriculars.
Michael J. Petrilli

On Sunday, Mike spoke to the New York State Council of School Superintendents. These were his remarks as prepared for delivery.

Thank you for the kind invitation to speak to you today. I know that some of you are wondering what the folks at the Council were thinking in inviting me. Certainly there are a lot of angry people on Twitter wondering that. I hope that by the end of my talk, it might make a little more sense.

The title of my talk is “How to End the Education Reform Wars.” But as I’ve thought more about it, I’ve decided that this isn’t exactly the right title. That’s because you, as superintendents, don’t have it within your control to end this war. That’s because it’s not really about you. Especially here in New York, it seems clear to me that it’s a war between the governor and the unions, as well as between the reformers and the unions. It’s also a fight between the governor and Mayor de Blasio.

So the real question is how you can navigate these wars. A better title for my speech might be, “How to Survive the Education Reform Wars.” And how can you do so in a way that allows you to do good work for kids?

With all due respect, let me suggest three principles that might guide your advocacy work—to stand up for what’s right for kids while distancing yourself from the worst instincts of the unions:

  1. Be the voice of the sane, sensible center.
  2. Grab the ball—and run with it.
  3. Demand charter-like freedoms

1. Be the voice of the sane, sensible center

Like so many debates in our politics today, we are witnessing a battle between two extreme ideological views. On the one side are the unions and some...

Ever since I published my article in the special Education Next issue marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Moynihan Report, “How can schools address America’s marriage crisis?,” I’ve been hearing from friends—most of them liberal education reformers—questioning why I’d want to wade into such treacherous waters. It’s made me think that perhaps many of us on the Left and Right are talking past one another. Allow me to take another crack at explaining my intent.

First, let me clear: no purpose can be served by shaming single parents. There are millions of amazing single moms and dads out there, doing an incredible job raising their children.

Nor should we provide an excuse for schools—to help unions and others explain away the low performance of many children who come from one-parent families.

My concern isn’t with people who have already gone down the road to single parenthood. By all means, we should support them and cheer them on as they do the hard work of parenting. My concern is for the young people whose family formation decisions still lie ahead of them—those who might, in Isabel Sawhill’s memorable phrase, tend to “drift into parenthood.” My argument is that educators and reformers should worry as much about the future parenting decisions of their charges as they do about their future educational choices. That’s because the evidence is quite clear that single parenthood, in general, is related to diminished academic attainment and achievement. It is both one cause of America’s growing inequality and a result of it.

One grand goal of education is to interrupt intergenerational poverty. Surely one measure of success is whether the children of low-income families are armed to climb the ladder to the middle class by adulthood. One high-profile strategy championed by schools like KIPP, Success Academies,...

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