Nearly ten years ago, Congress established the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF). A total $1.8 billion has been disbursed since then by the U.S. Department of Education to districts to accomplish four tasks: overhaul their teacher evaluation systems, create merit pay bonuses based on them, give educators opportunities to take on additional responsibility for more money, and offer professional development to support teachers in their efforts to hit these higher marks.

Under the TIF program, bonuses are supposed to be “substantial, differentiated, challenging to earn, and based solely on educators’ effectiveness.” Since this evaluation shows that 60 percent of teachers received a bonus in a subgroup of districts studied, it’s fair to wonder just how challenging to earn they really were. Moreover, understanding of the program still seems sub-optimal. In the second year of implementation, more teachers understood their eligibility for bonuses and how they were being evaluated than in the first year. “Yet more than one-third [38 percent] of teachers still did not understand they were eligible for a bonus,” the report notes. “And teachers continued to underestimate the potential size of the bonuses, believing that the largest bonuses were only about two-fifths the size of the actual maximum bonuses...

There’s a classic puzzle that requires connecting a square of nine dots with four lines; the problem appears impossible until the solver realizes that she can extend the lines outside the box. Ted Kolderie does just that in his new book arguing for a bevy of bold yet sensible reforms that would upend today’s education model.

Some suggestions are not so revelatory, such as increasing student motivation and personalized learning. But as Kolderie continues, he makes his way to recommendations that would shake up everything from age-based student grouping to how we think about achievement and teacher leadership. To be sure, none of his ideas are meant for every district in every state. “‘America’ does not have schools…Massachusetts has schools, Texas has schools, California has schools,” Kolderie writes. Each state, he believes, should adopt and its own reforms to fit its unique needs.

Kolderie’s most compelling argument is that U.S. schools require too many years of attendance. Some young people are ready for responsibility sooner than our system allows. So by requiring everyone to stay in school until age eighteen, we’re preventing millions of people from reaching their full potential. “The restrictions built into the institution of adolescence have made...

In Eastern Ohio and elsewhere across the nation, fracking has had a profound effect on economic activity and labor markets. But has it had an impact on education? According to a new study by Dartmouth economists, the answer is yes: The proliferation of fracking has increased high-school dropout rates— among adolescent males specifically, and not surprisingly. They estimate that each percentage-point increase in local oil and gas employment—an indicator of fracking intensity—increased the dropout rates of teenage males by 1.5–2.5 percentage points.

The analysts identify 553 local labor markets—“commuter zones,” or CZs—in states with fracking activity, including Ohio. For each CZ, they overlay Census data spanning from 2000 to 2013 on employment and high-school dropouts (i.e., 15–18 year olds not enrolled and without a diploma). The study then exploits the “shock” of fracking—it picked up significantly in 2006—while also analyzing the trend in dropouts. Prior to 2006, dropout rates were falling for both males and females; post-2006, dropout rates for males shot up in CZs with greater fracking activity. (Female dropout rates continued to decline.) Using statistical analyses, the researchers tie the increase in male dropout rates directly to the fracking boom.

This study raises important issues about the...

A great problem in U.S. education is that gifted students are rarely pushed to achieve their full potential. It is no secret that American students overall lag their international peers. Among the thirty-four countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development whose students took the PISA exams in 2012, the United States ranked seventeenth in reading, twentieth in science, and twenty-seventh in math.

Less well known is how few young Americans—particularly the poor and minorities—reach the top ranks on such measures. The PISA test breaks students into six levels of math literacy, and only 9 percent of American fifteen-year-olds reached the top two tiers. Compare that with 16 percent in Canada, 17 percent in Germany, and 40 percent in Singapore.

Among the handful of American high-achievers, eight times as many kids come from the top socioeconomic quartile as from the bottom. That ratio is four to one in Canada, five to one in Australia, and three to one in Singapore.

What has gone wrong? Thanks to No Child Left Behind and its antecedents, U.S. education policy for decades has focused on boosting weak students to minimum proficiency while neglecting the children who have already cleared that low bar. When...

TNTP’s new report, “The Mirage,” is essential reading for anyone interested in educator effectiveness. It’s smartly researched and delivers an uppercut of a conclusion: Today's professional development doesn’t work.

There’s just one small problem. I’m not sure I believe it.

To trust its findings would mean admitting that we’ve wasted hundreds of billions of dollars. It would mean we’ve misled millions of educators and families about improving the profession. It would mean a load-bearing wall of the Race-to-the-Top and ESEA-waiver talent architecture is made of sand. All of this would be hard to swallow, but I suppose it’s possible.

But to accept and act on these findings would mean putting our full faith in today’s approach to evaluating educator effectiveness. It would mean believing generations of schools, school systems, PD providers, institutions of higher education, and parents were wrong when it comes to assessing and improving teacher performance. For me, this is a bridge too far.

The study encompassed four large school operators and surveyed thousands of educators. It used multiple measures to assess teacher effectiveness and tried to find variables that influenced whether a teacher improved (things like “growth mindset,” school culture, and access to different types of...

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. – John Dewey

The intuitive appeal of this oft-quoted maxim is obvious. It speaks to the conviction that all of the children in a community or a country are “our kids” and that we should want the very best for them just as we do for our own flesh and blood.

Taken literally, however, it is also problematic, for it equates “sameness” with “equity.” That’s an error in part because what “the best and wisest parents” want varies—some seek traditional schools, others favor progressive ones, etc.

But it’s also a mistake because children’s needs vary. Kids growing up in poverty and fragile families, and dysfunctional communities need a whole lot more than kids living with affluence and stability. And when it comes to their schools, poor kids may need something a whole lot different. That’s why I’m a big fan of No Excuses charter schools, which are showing great promise for low-income children—even if they might not be a good fit for many of their upper-middle class peers.


In the age of charter schools, Common Core, test-based teacher evaluations, and other hot-button education reform issues, Catholic schools have largely taken a backseat in our public conversations. When we do read about them in the media, it is often bad news: financial struggles, declining enrollment, closures. As recently as last week, headlines have spoken of the “demise” of urban Catholic schools.

As the superintendent of Partnership Schools, a network of six Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx, I know the challenges our schools face. But the mood of gloom and doom misses the bigger story—an unprecedented partnership among parents, teachers, church leaders, and philanthropists that is setting the stage for an urban Catholic school revival.

This week, between his Pope Francis’s visit with world leaders at the United Nations and his audience with tens of thousands at Madison Square Garden, he has chosen to make a quiet stop to visit with students and families at one of the schools in our network, Our Lady Queen of Angels.

This is the first time a pope has ever visited an American parochial school, and his timing couldn’t be better. Francis brings with him a renewed focus on the service and social...

Hannah Putman

When trying to improve educational outcomes, it is hard not to feel the need for urgency. We want to figure out what works now and implement changes immediately—because if we wait, kids who are in schools now will miss out. Unfortunately, this pressure to act quickly may be fundamentally at odds with the ability to measure what really works, since meaningful changes in the trajectory of student achievement are not always apparent until years later. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University provides a compelling example of exactly this conundrum.
Schanzenbach’s thesis is that too often, education research only assesses an intervention’s immediate or intermediate outcomes without capturing its long-term benefits. This may be particularly relevant, she asserts, when judging the impact of early childhood investments.
Schanzenbach offers the example of two studies (both of which she co-authored) on the famous 1990s Project STAR class size experiment in Tennessee. That well-known experiment assigned students randomly to either regularly sized classes or smaller ones. Researchers behind both papers (the first from Dynarski, Hyman, and Schanzenbach and the second from Chetty, Friedman, Hilger, Saez, Schanzenbach, and Yagan) found that the smaller kindergarten classes yielded an immediate bump in student test scores for that year; but both papers report...

In the fall of 1996, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) implemented a new accountability system that placed 20 percent of its schools on “probation.” Poor reading test scores made up the sole criterion for censure, and those scarlet-lettered schools were plastered on the front page of both Chicago newspapers. A new study by Peter Rich and Jennifer Jennings of NYU takes a look at enrollment changes in these “probation schools,” both before and after the imposition of the new accountability system. The authors attempt to determine if the addition of new information (“This school is not performing up to par”) motivated more or different school change decisions among families.

1996 may seem like ancient history to education reformers, but the study illustrates the perennial power of information to motivate school choice decisions. In 1996, CPS had (as it still does) an open enrollment policy that allows any family to choose any school in the district other than their assigned one, provided there is space available. Since the district provided no transportation to students either before or after the policy was imposed, that issue was moot. The number of schools and seats within the district also stayed the same. In other...

Since 2003, Florida has required that schools retain third graders who fail to demonstrate proficiency on the state reading test. A new study by Martin West and colleagues examines the impact of this policy by rigorously comparing the results from students who are just above or below the cutoff for retention. The first cohort to be affected by the new policy entered the third grade in 2002, and West et al. track it through high school graduation. They also track five additional cohorts, the last of which entered third grade in 2008.

Unsurprisingly, they find that the policy increased the number of third graders retained. It started with 4,800 kids in the year prior to the policy introduction (2002) and jumped to nearly twenty-two thousand the next year. The numbers retained have fallen steadily over time, however, as more students have cleared the hurdle. The study’s key finding is that third-grade retention substantially improves students’ reading and math achievement in the short run. Specifically, reading achievement improves for retained students by 23 percent of a standard deviation after one year—and by as much as 47 percent of a standard deviation after two years—when compared to students of the same age....