In just twenty-five short years—it’s scarcely older than most of its current recruits—Teach For America has gone from a grassroots edu-insurgency to the largest teacher pipeline in the country and a dominant voice in reform debates. How’d they do it? In this new white paper, Bellwether analysts Sara Mead, Carolyn Chuong, and Caroline Goodson use internal TFA documents and interviews with key past and present staff members to tease out how the organization was able to maintain high quality while scaling up for the last fifteen years. Turns out it’s not rocket science, just hard work. TFA relied on regular measurement of applicants, corps members, and students. They’ve been equally diligent in expansion planning, taking care to evaluate each new region’s need for teachers, potential funding base, and local politics—as well as TFA’s ability to attract talent to live and teach in a given area. Rigorous quality-control mechanisms during new-site development and deepening ties in the places they already serve have fueled an expansion from 1260 corps members in fifteen regions in 2000 to 10,500 in fifty regions in 2013. And much of this has been successful due to TFA’s operational agnosticism (there’s not a lot of, “We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way” in TFA) and commitment to continuous improvement. Particularly in a sector where so many actors elevate intentions over impact, the organization’s aversion to preciousness is both refreshing and instructive. There’s plenty for other nonprofits and ed organizations to learn from here....

High schools hoping to increase student success in college have often turned to an innovative solution: allow students to take college-level coursework before they graduate. The hope is that by exposing teenagers to college courses earlier, they will be more likely to think they are “college material,” earn a bit of college credit for free (or nearly free), and get acclimated to college-level rigor. (Most of these courses are taught on high school campuses by high school teachers.) A new report from the Education Commission of the States (ECS), however, questions just how strong some of these courses are and examines state strategies to ensure rigor.

The ECS analysts found that states generally follow one of four approaches to ensure quality in “dual enrollment” courses: 1) Some states, including Colorado, leave decisions about whether courses are worthy of credit up to post-secondary institutions; 2) others, such as Delaware, require post-secondary institutions and high schools to reach agreements, but do not prescribe the nature of those agreements; 3) eight states have adopted the guidelines of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP), which are designed to ensure quality and cover topics including curricula, faculty, students, assessments, and evaluations; and 4) six others require or encourage actual NACEP accreditation.

States and districts working to encourage the completion of truly college-level coursework in high school should, as ECS recommends, ensure that educators are prepared to teach such rigorous work. They should also ensure high schools are being honest with students so they...

An abundance of choice in Milwaukee has led to families leaving the district for charter and private schools. A new study by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) examines the facility challenge the city now faces as a result. The analysis estimates the “utilization rates” of every public school in the city for the 2013–14 year. This is determined by dividing a school’s enrollment by its maximum capacity, defined as twenty-seven students in each regular classroom.

A few key findings:

  • Out of 123 buildings, twenty-seven are operating at below 60 percent capacity; thirteen of those are below 50 percent capacity. Many of these schools are the lowest-performing, most at-risk schools in the city, with declining enrollments and questionable safety. (For instance, they have twice as many 9-1-1 phone calls per student than other public schools.)
  • At least seventeen Milwaukee Public School buildings are vacant, costing taxpayers over $1.6 million since 2012 in utilities alone. They have been empty, on average, for seven years.
  • Eighty percent of the underutilized schools—twenty-two buildings in total—received either an F or a D on their most recent state report card. Moreover, a severe shortage of quality public schools exists in the vicinity of the underutilized schools. Out of the fifty-two closest schools, only seven scored a C or better on the state report card.

The authors—not surprisingly—recommend that private schools in the choice program, public charter schools, and traditional public schools be allowed to expand into the unused and underutilized MPS buildings. They’d...

A couple weeks ago, I created a graphic to help explain the contours of the debate about federal accountability in the ESEA reauthorization process. My immediate purpose was to show that the blanket term “accountability” actually includes four dimensions, each of which includes a range of possible policies. I organized each of the four along a continuum, with “minimum” and “maximum” federal accountability representing the two ends.

The ultimate purpose of the graphic was to serve as a tool for assessing various proposals and, hopefully, revealing where a final compromise might be found.

Since then, I’ve read all the major proposals, speeches, press releases, and news accounts I could find. In this post, I focus only on what I’ve learned about testing.

I’ve plotted on the continuum the highest-profile proposals. Bear in mind that this is not an exact science. Apart from the congressional bills, the proposals are somewhat vague, and trying to turn words into images involves some artistic license. These caveats notwithstanding, three major lessons were revealed.

1. Emerging Consensus

In the middle-right, you’ll see a group of proposals with a blue bracket. All of these either explicitly embrace the NCLB suite of tests or strongly imply that this is their preference. The left/right orientation of the bracketed proposals doesn’t convey additional meaning; all of these proposals are virtually the same on this dimension. I’ve listed them above the bracket...

Last week, writer Laura McKenna took to the Atlantic to try to understand why some suburban moms (yes, many of them white) have turned against the Common Core. She settles on misinformation as a driving force, which is certainly a factor. For example, if these parents understood that their own local schools still have complete control over curriculum and textbooks, perhaps they wouldn’t be so frustrated with standards set so far away.

But this is still an unsatisfactory answer. My own sense from watching this debate play out is that many of the “white suburban moms” who oppose Common Core also share a romantic, progressive view of education that is at odds with traditional schooling in general. We will never convince them of Common Core’s value, nor should we expect to. Instead, we should allow them to opt their kids out of traditional public schools and into schools (including charters) that are proudly progressive.

This conclusion is informed by a groundbreaking study we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published in 2013, What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-Offs. Its major (and surprising) finding was that most parents actually want pretty much the same things from their schools: a solid core curriculum in reading and math, an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, and the development in students of good study habits, strong critical thinking skills, and excellent verbal and written communication skills. That list matches up pretty darn well with the Common...

For advocates of evidence-based urban education policy, a recent New York Times profile of New York City Schools’ Chancellor Carmen Fariña should offer serious cause for concern. That Fariña has worked to dismantle several of the promising Bloomberg-era education reforms is not the main offending issue. (The former is unfortunate, but hardly unexpected from the current administration.) As Robert Pondiscio has previously pointed out in this space, far more worrisome is Fariña’s apparent view of the proper role of research in education policy—one seemingly rooted in the bad old days when high-quality empirical research was dismissed or ignored.

Chancellor Fariña plainly nurtures none of the previous administration’s fondness for data, preferring a more “holistic” approach. Nor, for that matter, does she even require test scores to know which schools are performing well. The chancellor, perhaps with Spidey-sense, knows a good school when she sees it.

To be fair, I’m open to the claim that perhaps some of the Bloomberg reforms were too technocratic. And no one could have reasonably expected Chancellor Fariña to be an empirical data junkie. But her recent statements reveal a remarkable disdain for science’s role in formulating education policy. The following New York Times passage is particularly startling:

Asked recently, for example, about a multiyear study showing that students who attended the small high schools started by the Bloomberg administration were more likely to graduate and attend college than their peers at larger schools, [Chancellor Fariña] dismissed its conclusions. “It’s one view of things,” she...

Politico’s extensive investigation of publishing giant Pearson has unearthed the company’s questionable money-making practices at the expense of American students and taxpayers. For years, lax accountability measures have allowed Pearson to rake in the profits even when its programs and products failed. Schools and state legislatures are realizing the need to more closely scrutinize textbook companies before handing over their multi-million dollar reform dreams.

Elsewhere in Pearson news, the Wall Street Journal chronicles the slow decline of the GED. Working in partnership with the nonprofit that administers the test, Pearson has dropped a huge sum developing a new, more complex assessment geared to today’s students and standards. But, as Fordham’s Chester Finn has argued, high school graduation exams shouldn't be set at the college-ready level. And neither should the GED. Not everyone who graduates from high school will—or should—go on to college.

Indifferent social-studies pupils, beware! Utah may soon join its neighboring state of Arizona in requiring students to pass a citizenship test before graduating high school. Students would need to correctly pass seventy out of one hundred questions, a more difficult task than the six out of ten required to gain citizenship. The bill needs a final vote in the state Senate before advancing to the House.

Arkansas is the latest state to initiate a school-district takeover, and some worry that the new ESEA reauthorization will mean...

Ethan Gray

Education reformers live in a world of data, accountability, policy, and percentiles. We are most comfortable debating ideas, writing papers, and talking to each other. But when it comes to telling powerful stories to inspire change, we have a lot to learn from one public school student in New York City.

Thirteen-year-old Vidal Chastanet was stopped and asked by Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton, “Who is the most influential person in your life?” With his answer—Nadia Lopez, principal at Mott Hall Bridges Academy (MHBA)—Vidal reached the hearts of millions of people.

“When we get in trouble, she doesn't suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

Vidal’s answer went viral on Facebook, leading him to The Ellen DeGeneres Show and the White House last week. A fundraising campaign set up to help MHBA send students on a trip to Harvard over the summer raised $1.2 million.

Vidal’s story transcended mediums, inspired thousands, and raised millions because it went directly to people’s hearts. It is universal, human, and real.

At Education Cities, a national network of city-based organizations committed to improving public education, we challenge our network members, and ourselves, to reach for...

The biography of teacher evaluation’s time in federal policy might be titled Portentous, Polarizing, and Passing. It had gigantic ripple effects in the states—man, did it cause fights—and, with its all-but-certain termination via ESEA reauthorization, it stayed with us ever so briefly.

Some advocates are demoralized, worried that progress will at best stall and at worst be rolled back. Though I’m a little down that we’re unlikely to see many more states reform educator evaluation systems in the years ahead, I think the feds’ exit makes sense.

This has nothing to do with my general antipathy for this administration or my belief that its Department of Education deserves to have its meddling hands rapped. And while I think Tenth Amendment challenges are justified, I have a different primary motivation.

In short, I think the work of teaching is so extraordinarily complex and teachers are so tightly woven into the fabric of school communities that any attempt by faraway federal officials to tinker with evaluation systems is a fool’s errand. I think we may eventually come to view the Race-to-the-Top and ESEA-flexibility requirements related to assessing teachers as the apotheosis of federal K–12 technocracy.

If you’ve never dug into the details of evaluation-reform implementation, you're probably thinking I’m exaggerating. Just bear with me for the next five hundred words. I think you’ll quickly appreciate just how daunting this work is and, as a consequence, how poorly federal diktats fit the bill.

I had a hand in New Jersey’s early-stage implementation, so I...

Student learning gains ought to be a component of teacher evaluations. Measures such as value added are a useful and important complement to classroom observations. But not all models are created equal, as illustrated by a new lawsuit in Tennessee that reveals a rather preposterous policy.

Last week, the Volunteer State’s largest teacher union sued the state in federal court over a law that ties student test scores to evaluations of educators who teach such non-core subjects as art, French, and gym. Teachers in Tennessee receive annual scores between one and five, with five being best. Those scores determine all manner of high-stakes administrative decisions affecting teachers, including bonuses, termination, and tenure. Approximately half of the metric is based on classroom observations, the rest on student test scores. For a teacher in a core subject such as math, and in a grade in which students are tested, this model makes sense. The bulk of the test-based portion of her rating is based on how well her students do on the math portions of the state’s standardized tests. That’s rational. A smaller portion, 15 percent, is based on “school-wide” performance—how well all the schools’ students do in all subjects tested. That also makes at least some sense as a strategy for encouraging teacher collaboration.

Yet for non-core instructors—the focus of the lawsuit—the law becomes rather absurd. Aside from a few questionable alternative assessments that aren’t widely used in Tennessee, no standardized assessment data exist for the subjects and pupils...