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.


Intel’s recent announcement that it will cease sponsoring and underwriting the prestigious Science Talent Search, which it took over from Westinghouse in 1998, is another nail in the coffin of gifted education in the United States.

Unlike many European and Asian countries, which are awash in academic competitions, Olympiads, and other status-laden contests that bright students vie to win, American K‒12 education has relatively few that anyone notices. There is, of course, the National Spelling Bee, which Scripps has valiantly stuck with since 1941. But spelling bees are for middle schoolers. The big deal for high schoolers, especially those with a bent toward STEM subjects, has long been the Science Talent Search, which President George H. W. Bush called the “Super Bowl of science.”

Intel’s turnabout surprised former CEO Craig Barrett and disheartened many of us who care about both STEM and gifted education. It’s another sign of America’s inattention to its high-ability learners, especially those from disadvantaged circumstances. That neglect is what triggered the publication of our new book, Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students. All sorts of data—from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, from research studies like the 2011 Fordham...

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...