Kim Davis, the Rowan (Kentucky) County clerk, is in the spotlight this week for ignoring a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples seeking to wed. She claims that doing so would violate her Christian faith and her religious liberties. On Tuesday, she added that she was acting “under God’s authority.”

You don’t have to be a Constitutional scholar to know that her legal argument has no merit. As a public official, she took an oath to follow the rule of law. If she believes that doing so would conflict with her religious beliefs, then she should do the honorable thing and resign.

This episode goes far beyond the gay marriage debate, though. It brings to mind another class of public employees: educators. Must they always follow the rule of law—even when it conflicts with their personal beliefs, religious or otherwise? In a system that is overly rule-bound, bureaucratic, and politicized, where is the line between “cage busting” and law breaking? And does it matter that they are government employees instead of elected officials?

Sometimes the answers are clear and straightforward. For instance: Public school science teachers should teach what’s in...

In the CRPE debate between Paul Hill and Robin Lake on the issue of charter back-fill, Paul's right. Robin, as always, makes excellent points and raises legitimate concerns. But in the grand trade-off they're debating—whether "high-output" charters should be able to be choosy about which kids they retain and what they do with vacancies that arise during the year—Paul makes the more persuasive argument, at least when judged by what's good for the kids who stand to benefit most from these schools. If we keep their interests squarely in front of us, we must wind up agreeing with Paul: "When drawing from a highly at-risk population, it is not easy to identify kids who will do the work a priori. It’s one thing for a student and family to promise daily attendance and completion of all assignments, but quite another to deliver. A high-output school has to let those kids who won’t fulfill their obligations go elsewhere, unless it is willing to abandon requirements that it considers essential to full college preparation. It should be free to fill seats that become vacant with kids who have a good chance of succeeding in the school, but shouldn’t be forced to fill vacancies."...

In most states, only math and reading teachers in grades 4–8 receive evaluations based on value-added test results. For all other teachers, it’s on to Plan B. To evaluate these teachers, many districts are using alternative measures of student growth, which include vendor assessments (commercial, non-state exams) and student learning objectives (SLOs, or teacher-designed goals for learning). But how are these alternative measures being administered? What are their pros and cons? The research on this issue is terribly thin, but a new study from the Institute of Education Sciences casts an intriguing ray of light. Through in-depth interviews, the researchers elicited information on how eight mid-Atlantic districts (unnamed) are implementing alternative measures.

Here are the study’s four key takeaways: First, educators considered vendor assessments (with results analyzed through a form of value-added modelling) to be a fairer and more rigorous evaluation method than SLOs. Second, both alternative measures yielded greater variation in teacher performance than observational methods alone. Third, implementing SLOs in a consistent and rigorous manner was extremely difficult. In fact, the authors write, “All types of stakeholders expressed concern about the potential for some teachers to ‘game the system’ by setting easily attainable goals.” Fourth,...

Here’s a line that deserves to be committed to memory by all who would seek to improve literacy outcomes for children. Maybe it should be tattooed onto our flesh: 

“One striking fact is that the complex world of education—unlike defense, health care, or industrial production—does not rest on a strong research base. In no other field are personal experience and ideology so frequently relied on to make policy choices.”

That excellent observation, from a 1999 National Research Council paper, is quoted in this report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, The Next Chapter: Supporting Literacy Within ESEA. Author Mariana Haynes laments that literacy instruction in our schools “is not grounded in the science of reading development and learning.”  Another “striking fact” is that the Alliance’s report itself overlooks a great, glaring chunk of that science itself in making an otherwise unimpeachable case for research-based reading instruction. Writing in the Core Knowledge Blog, Lisa Hansel rightly observed that the report ignores the need for building broad academic knowledge across the curriculum as a means of raising reading achievement. “Like almost all discussions of literacy, the focus is on literacy instruction and reading and writing skills,” Hansel lamented. “If...

A new study by economists at the Center for Household Financial Stability disseminates research on family savings and debt and finds that the attainment of a college education does not appear to “protect” the wealth of all American families equally.

This is a descriptive study that examines the income and wealth of different families and the stability (or lack thereof) of each. Analysts use survey data from the 2013 edition of the Survey of Consumer Finances.

First, the researchers found that college-educated families—meaning those in which the head of the household has a four-year college degree—earn significantly higher incomes than those headed by someone without a college degree (no surprise there). The median income among all families headed by a college graduate is 2.4 times greater than the median income among families headed by a non-college-graduate.

Second, the median wealth (the value of real estate and other assets) of all families headed by college graduates declined by 24 percent between 2007 and 2013 as a result of the prolonged recession; the decline among families without college degrees was much higher at 48 percent.

Third, higher education appears to protect wealth during rocky economic times, but mostly just among white and...

Education policy is rarely a top issue in presidential campaigns. In the main, that's fine; most of the action takes place at the state and local levels. Still, last week's education policy summit hosted in New Hampshire by the education news website the Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children gave six of the seventy GOP presidential contenders the chance to burnish their K–12 credentials. (A second summit featuring Democratic candidates is slated for October in Iowa.)

To help the candidates hone their stump speeches, those of us at the Fordham Institute spent some time recently brainstorming campaign themes we'd like to see candidates from either party embrace. Here's what we came up with:

Education reform is working. It's by no means unanimous or uncontroversial, but Americans are generally supportive of the education reform agenda, broadly defined. An Education Next poll released last week shows solid (if softening) support for reform staples like charter schools, testing and accountability, merit pay for teachers, and tax credits to fund scholarships for low-income children. Voters even like higher standards—as long as you don't use the words "Common Core." And while...

Anyone who has spent serious time within the U.S. public education system would likely agree that there are too many chefs in the school governance kitchen. Not only that, some of them are terrible cooks. Which means that great governance is scarce, consensus is hard to achieve, and significant change is rare. Yet our education governance system, lamented and disparaged as it often is, is one of the least understood aspects of American K–12 schooling.  So while it’s easy to agree that “bad” governance gets in the way of doing what’s best for kids, it’s harder to pinpoint just what exactly is so dysfunctional when it comes to running schools. 

To shine a flashlight into this murk, we must first define the governance “system” that we’re talking about. Who exactly makes which kinds of education decisions? State or local? Who has the power? Is that power dispersed or centralized? To what degree can the wider public—not just insiders—participate in policymaking? These are some of the gnarly questions that characterize governance; but because they’re also humdrum and wonky, not many people bother trying to ask them.

Some of this apathy (or is it despair?) arises from the reality...

Ashley Jochim

The push to raise standards and boost outcomes for students has placed states at the center of efforts to improve public education. But as many have observed, few are well positioned to deliver on these aims.

The challenges of advancing reform from the statehouse have led many education reformers to turn to governance. Education governance both determines which institutions have the authority to make education decisions and also shapes how those decisions are made.

In a new report from the Fordham Institute, Dara Zeehandelaar and David Griffith tackle the thorny challenge of depicting the range of governance arrangements that structure state education policy. The authors create a taxonomy classifying the ways that states differ on three dimensions: concentration of decision-making authority at the state versus the local level; distribution of authority among many institutions versus consolidation of authority in only a few; and the degree to which the public can participate in making particular decisions. They combine these dimensions into eight governance types.

The authors reserve judgment on how governance shapes the ability of states to meet their constitutional obligations to students. But they provide some illustrative examples of how governance structures can limit the actions available to states and localities....

Chad Aldeman and Kirsten Schmitz

In the midst of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s controversial 2011 budget bill, many warned that the state’s public employees, including teachers, would retire in droves. The bill, commonly known as Act 10, limited public workers’ ability to collectively bargain on any topics other than base wages, increased their contributions to public pensions, and raised their insurance premiums.* The pension and health care increases immediately cut the take-home pay of public workers, combining with hostility toward Governor Walker to contribute to a wave of public worker retirements. 

But the story didn’t end in 2011. After an initial 80 percent surge, the number of workers retiring fell back in line with long-term trends. Wages and staffing levels also appear roughly in line with historical trends. The initial retirement figures were large, but when put in context relative to the state’s total public sector workforce, the numbers weren’t as remarkable.

Let’s start with the historical data on retirements. Tracking retirement numbers back twenty years, the number of Wisconsin state employees retiring each year has climbed steadily, in line with growing numbers of state employees across the state. The graph below shows what this looks...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at InsideSources.

The United States is blessed to have many excellent schools. That includes hundreds of fantastic high schools, such as those that recently received recognition from Newsweek. And our high schools as a whole deserve credit for helping to push America’s graduation rate to all-time highs.

However, there is still an enormous gap between the aspirations of America’s students and the education our public school system is equipped to provide. Put simply, almost all young people today want to go to college (including technical colleges), but only about one-third are graduating with the adequate reading and math skills to be successful once on campus.

Not all of the blame for that chasm can be placed at the doors of our high schools. Too many students are reaching ninth grade who are barely literate and numerate. Yet at a time when student achievement is rising at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, but not in twelfth grade, it’s fair to ask whether high schools are doing all they can to help teenagers make real academic progress while under their care.

Part of the problem is that most of our cities continue to house huge,...