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One of the most important developments in urban education over the last two decades has been the rapid expansion of school choice.

To some, this represents the happy, if unexpected, marriage of public education and free enterprise thinking—diversification of providers, growth of school options, and empowerment of parents.

But an underappreciated and counterintuitive contributor to this progress has been the reform-oriented technocrat. Indeed, in the years to come, if civil society and families are to make more decisions and the government is to make fewer, policymakers have a critical role to play.

For a century, we relied on the district system to deliver urban public education. There was a single government provider, it controlled all aspects of its schools, and students’ school assignments were based on home addresses. Countless policies and practices (related to facilities, transportation, accountability, and much more) evolved with that particular system in mind.

But as that system is slowly replaced by one marked by an array of nongovernmental school providers, parental choice, and the “portfolio management” mindset, new policies (undergirded by a new understanding of the government’s role in public schooling) are needed. That requires new government activity, much like the transition from a state-controlled to a private enterprise economy requires new rules related to property rights, lending, contracts, and currency.

Though the excellent new CRPE report “How Parents Experience Public School Choice” focuses on how families navigate choice-based systems, the new role of government is front and center.

Four examples are illustrative. First,...

Florida—home to Disney World, sunny skies, and bizarre crimes—is probably best known for its sizable elderly population. Yet a new report from the state’s Foundation for Excellence in Education warns that we are all Florida, or will be soon enough. Dr. Matthew Ladner, who pens the report, predicts that by 2030, the demographics in most of the country will mirror those in today’s geriatric Sunshine State. And that doesn’t bode well for our nation’s fiscal health.

Seventy-six million Baby Boomers will soon leave the workforce. Growing along with this cohort—albeit at a lesser rate—is the school-aged population. As a result, the total percentage of young and old Americans dependent on government-financed education, healthcare, and Social Security will jump from 59 percent in 2010 to 76 percent in 2030.

Fortunately, just as readers might consider panicked calls to parents begging them to reconsider retirement, the report offers some hope. The future workers of America are in school at this very moment. Providing them with an excellent education is the best step towards building a large base of wage-earning, tax-paying citizens. According to Ladner, one of the most cost-effective ways to do this is to expand school choice. Charter and private school programs would provide the necessary additional space for the growing school-age population while demanding fewer district dollars and producing higher-achieving students than their traditional public school counterparts.

More importantly, this could also improve achievement. Despite having one of the most expensive public school systems in the world, 64 percent...

There is no shortage of theories to explain how learning works and how teachers, as purveyors of knowledge, should disseminate that knowledge to students (though there tends to be a shortage of supporting evidence for any of them). In The Teaching Brain, doctoral candidate and former New York City schoolteacher Vanessa Rodriguez proposes yet another: Forget learning styles and multiple intelligences; teaching is all about “awarenesses”—of learners as individuals, of teaching practices, contexts, and interactions, and of one’s “self as a teacher.” 

She casts off older theories as antiquated, instinctive, and too student-centered, arguing that they’ve hindered educational innovation and stifled educators’ professional development. How students learn ought not be our only concern, she says. Instead, the book introduces “system-centered teaching,” which aims to infuse instruction with awareness of both how students’ brains work when they learn (“the learning brain”) and also how teachers’ brains work when they teach (the so-called “teaching brain”).

Because this is somewhat uncharted territory, a large portion of the book purports to examine the minds of expert educators. Rodriguez concludes that the brains of teachers differ considerably, which means that one-size-fits-all approaches to instruction are bound to fail. What may work for one teacher might not work for another. Instead, every educator has a unique optimal style of instruction, and each must work hard to unveil it.

Rodriguez infuses this section with an awful lot of new-age jargon, like “synergy” and “shared energy.” To find his or her best-fit teaching brain, a teacher needs to...

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the Moynihan Report. The great tootling racket now bursting your eardrums is the trumpet blast of memorials, think-pieces, and reflections commemorating the occasion.

The report, which kicked up a generations-long debate on race and culture far afield from its technocratic origins, primarily concerned itself with the vanishing of two-parent families in the black community. That phenomenon is also the subject of this counterintuitive Education Next study. Its authors, however, have no need to limit their focus on a particular racial category, since single parenthood is now commonplace across multiple demographics. The proportion of white children raised by a single parent today (22 percent) is precisely the same as for black children in 1965. Meanwhile, the proportion of black children living in the same circumstances has continued to rise astonishingly, to 55 percent.

Contriving to measure the educational influence of these developments, the study analyzes data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), a broad-ranging sample of roughly 6,000 children who came of age between the late-1970s and the late-2000s. Their conclusion is both surprising and noteworthy: Measured against a number of other factors, including the age of the mother at the time of birth, number of siblings, and the mother’s educational attainment, the effects of having only one parent are by no means the most consequential.

Over the course of three decades, children who spent 1.2 years with a single parent between the ages of fourteen...

This article is part of a new Education Next series on the state of the American family that marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 release of the Moynihan Report.

This may seem like a ridiculous question: How can schools possibly persuade more adults to marry—and not have children out of wedlock? Fifty years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan himself decided it was inadvisable to offer solutions to problems afflicting minority families. Since then, our familial challenges have only grown deeper and wider, with four in ten American babies now born to unwed mothers. That includes a majority of all children born to women in their twenties and almost one-third of white babies. There are no obvious or easy prescriptions for reversing these trends.

And why put this on the schools? One could argue that reducing teenage pregnancy is a reasonable job for our education system—and that if we could encourage girls to wait until they were in their twenties, and educated, to have babies, they might also wait for marriage. Well, teenage pregnancy rates are down 50 percent from their peak in 1990. High school graduation rates are up from 65 percent in the early 1990s to 80 percent today. Yet out-of-wedlock birth rates are as high as ever—we merely pushed early childbearing from the late teens to the early twenties. Now the young adults having babies before marriage haven’t had any contact with the K–12 system for two years or more.

Yet for educators and education policymakers to...

I remember reading an interview with a successful business leader once. It went something like this:

Reporter: What’s the secret of your success?

CEO: Good decisions.

Reporter: How do you make good decisions?

CEO: Good judgment.

Reporter: How did you get good judgment?

CEO: Bad decisions.

I bring this up because yesterday I made a bad decision. May it please lead me to better judgment in the future.

It started on Monday, when I sent a tweet to advertise tomorrow’s Fordham Institute/Hoover Institution/Education Next conference marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Moynihan Report: 

This provoked a response from Chris Stewart, a.k.a. @citizenstewart, an African American education reformer. He and I went back and forth on whether the issue of single-parent families was a reasonable topic for discussion among education reformers—especially those of us who are not people of color.

I should have stopped there, and I’m sorry I didn’t.

But Tuesday morning, Education Next published its special Moynihan Report anniversary issue, along with the cover art.

I first saw the cover about a week ago, when a hard copy landed in my inbox. I knew right away that it would be controversial and wondered out loud to some friends and colleagues whether it crossed the line. (More...

Scott Pearson

When we talk about high standards, accountability, and school choice, one essential element is often overlooked: giving parents and education leaders information they can actually use. It’s one thing to produce data, but quite another to make it useful—easily understood, comparable, and actionable.

The District of Columbia has reaffirmed its commitment to making good data available in its second annual publication of Equity Reports. These reports provide unprecedented levels of information on how well each public and public charter school in the District of Columbia serves all students. By providing apples-to-apples comparisons of schools and presenting the results in a format that is easy to understand, the reports signal potential problems, help school leaders focus on areas where schools need to improve, and guide parents as they make decisions about their child’s education.

This is an important step in addressing some of the most critical issues about equity in public education: How successfully are we closing the achievement gap between black and white students, and between low-income and more affluent students? Are we suspending children of color at higher rates than white students? How well are we serving students with disabilities? These data will lead to tough and important conversations at schools and around the District as we dig into the underlying causes of the results we now are able to see.

Moreover, our Equity Reports tackle perennial charter school pain points head-on: Do charter schools push students out mid-year? Do they accept students all year, in all grades?...

The sudden departure of Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, caught many by surprise—including Starr. That’s a depressing sign of a dysfunctional school board, one whose members failed to signal serious concerns with their superintendent, even as recently as last fall’s school board elections.

If the board has any hope of recruiting a talented new leader for MCPS, among the largest districts in the country with more than 153,000 students, it needs to be crystal-clear about the direction it wants the system to take. As an MCPS parent and incorrigible education reformer, let me offer a few suggestions.

First, MCPS needs to recommit to its core mission: dramatically raising student achievement. As Starr’s struggles with the board burst into public view, he made a last-ditch effort to convince its members, and MCPS’s many ardent constituents, of his commitment to narrowing the achievement gaps between poor and minority students and white and Asian students. I don’t doubt his sincerity. But the achievement gap is measured primarily by test scores, and Starr made his name by speaking out against tests. At the least, he sent a mixed message about his commitment to academic achievement.

It’s not entirely fair to blame him for that. Starr was hired in part because he represented a change in style...

Peter Sipe

I’ve always liked Fridays as much as the next guy, but this year I especially like them. The reason is that every Friday, my students and I read an obituary together. If that sounds morbid, let me tell you what I tell the kids: An obituary is the story of a life; death is just the detail that gets it printed.

How do I select the weekly life story we read? I don’t. I have other people do it for me. I’ve been asking folks around town—elected officials, businesspeople, civic leaders, colleagues, and friends—this question: If you could pick one person from the past whom you wish kids would learn about in school, who would it be?

With their introductions, we’ve made the acquaintance of Phyllis Jen, a beloved family doctor, Ruth Batson, a civil rights activist who helped desegregate our schools, and Tom White, a businessman who gave away his riches to the poor. In upcoming weeks, we’ll be reading about a firefighter, a judge, and a rowing coach. And I’ve got lots more in my pile, all marvelously interesting—and inspiring. It’s embarrassing to admit that I’d never heard of most of these people before, but I’m glad to have finally met them. And I’m very pleased to introduce them to my students.

For a teacher, obituaries are useful classroom texts. They offer short history lessons, excellent vocabulary (for example, “ephemeral” and “posterity”), and align well with the new Common Core standards. But the greatest value of the obituaries...

Regular followers of Fordham know that, over the past few years, I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about “education for upward mobility,” starting with a series of posts on Deborah Meier’s Bridging Differences blog and culminating in last December’s conference on the subject. Now I’ve got a new essay in Education Next, “How Can Schools Address America’s Marriage Crisis?,” which touches on many of the issues that I’m afraid education reformers have tended (or opted) to overlook.

A consistent theme throughout this work is that we’re too myopically focused on college (and generally on the traditional four-year college degree) as the only route to upward mobility for America’s poor children. I’m ready to concede that it is a pretty darn good pathway, at least for students who actually complete a postsecondary credential. And many of you have helped me to understand that colleges don’t simply “bestow a credential on those most likely to succeed,” as I argued a week ago. There’s some pretty compelling evidence that the college experience itself adds real value, which partly explains the stronger life outcomes for graduates.

What I’m not ready to concede is the larger point: Our focus on college is still too narrow because it overlooks other critically important steps on the ladder to the middle class.

As I explain in Education Next, a more holistic approach would also take seriously what Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution call the...

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