Flypaper

As 2015 was coming to a close, I compiled a list of my fifty favorite reads of the year. You can find them all here.

Though most are article- or report-length, the subjects are all over the map. In total, they offer a glimpse of the big happenings of 2015 and—though this wasn’t my initial intention—show where my mind was during this eventful year. Here’s a smattering.

The end of the year was dominated by ESSA. The New York Times captured the historical importance of the new law. Rick Hess explained why it was a major conservative victory, and Politics K–12 detailed how it undermined Arne Duncan’s legacyChad Aldeman and Conor Williams wrote separately about why the Left should be unhappy. (I’ll have a follow-up piece shortly focused exclusively on ESSA reporting and analysis.)

But 2015 also had lots of great non-ESSA edu-writing. Marty West penned a smart piece on Uncle Sam’s role in innovation, and Joanne Weiss looked back on Race to the Top. Sara Mead explained early-childhood education in New Orleans, Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote about the Catholic-school reawakening, and The Economist reported on the heartening story of private-schools outside of the US serving low-income kids.

There were...

Spending time with nieces and nephews this holiday season—teenagers who are making decisions about where to go to college, what to study, and which vocations to pursue—has reminded me of just how lucky I am to have one of the best jobs in the world. On top of working with an amazingly talented, committed, and kind group of colleagues at the Fordham Institute, and in the larger world of education reform, I get paid to do what I love: write about big ideas. I am truly blessed.

As I look back on 2015, these are the blog posts, essays, and editorials that I think (hope?) will stand the test of time. Some of them are topical (the ones about ESEA reauthorization especially), but my favorites go after the tough, overarching issues: How can we stimulate upward mobility? How do we raise the college completion rate? Why are America’s test scores so mediocre?

For sure, I’ve made my share of mistakes this year. Here’s hoping I also got a few things right.

Happy New Year!

  1. The case against federal accountability mandates in education (January 26)
  2. Backfilling charter seats: A backhanded way to kill school autonomy (February 3)
  3. How Can Schools Address
  4. ...

This year has been one of the most consequential for education reform in quite some time. We addressed the honesty gap, giving students and families an accurate assessment of whether they’re on track for college and career success. We learned that turnaround districts really can achieve progress when the right system and leadership are in place (we’re looking at you, New Orleans). And in the final stretch of 2015, we saw accountability handed back to the states as a result of the remarkably bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act.

It has certainly been a big year for Fordham as well, especially with regard to our on-the-ground efforts in Ohio. After a decade of failed attempts, the Buckeye State finally passed a long-overdue charter school reform bill. We now move swiftly into 2016—and into election season—and will continue our work to improve K–12 education through high standards, school choice, and smart policies backed by rigorous research.

But before we usher in a promising new year for education reform, let’s take a look at our most read blog posts for 2015 and the stories that captured the attention of thousands of readers.

Unsurprisingly, Common Core stole the show again this year,...

In its 2015 state policy analysis, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) found that fourteen states have seen positive charter policy changes since the organization’s inaugural report last year. These wide-ranging improvements demonstrate the value of sizing up a state’s legal framework, diagnosing its structural problems, comparing it to peers, and using that information to press policymakers for change. In other words, rankings like this—and other seemingly wonky law and policy reviews—may actually pave the way for real improvements.

NACSA analyzed and ranked every state with a charter law (forty-three, plus the District of Columbia) against eight policy recommendations meant to ensure a baseline of authorizer quality and charter school accountability: 1) Can schools select from at least two authorizers? 2) Does the state require authorizers to meet endorsed standards (like NACSA’s)? 3) Does the state evaluate its authorizers? 4) Do poor authorizers face sanctions? 5) Do authorizers publish annual performance reports on schools? 6) Is every charter bound by a contract that outlines performance expectations? 7) Are there strong non-renewal standards, and can authorizers effectively close poor performers? 8) Does the state have an automatic closure law on the books?

Additionally, the report offers...

Fifty years ago, Catholic schools educated 5.6 million children in thirteen thousand schools across America. Perhaps the most depressing passage of Catholic School Renaissance—a new book by Andy Smarick and Kelly Robson aimed at philanthropists—is found on pages twelve and thirteen, which present inglorious charts detailing the deterioration of Catholic schools and their enrollment. Though that decline is not presently as drastic as it was during the 60s and 70s, it’s easy to despair over the state of one of most successful learning mechanisms in U.S. history.

Luckily, the next hundred pages explain what ought to be done to save these national assets. Smarick and Robson believe that our growing national acceptance of school choice provides a climate ripe for a Catholic comeback—and donors have the biggest role to play in bringing about the renaissance. “The question is no longer whether Catholic schools should be run differently; it’s about how,” they argue. The book explains how promising models should be scaled and offers a few viable solutions to the biggest problems plaguing the sector (teacher recruitment and retention chief among them). In a useful appendix, it lists dozens of opportunities for donors to shape systems via marketing, data reporting, and...

While it is likely true that those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them, those who are not tested on the subject in school may be doomed not to have learned much history in the first place.

“Advanced Civics for U.S. History Teachers,” a smart new white paper from Massachusetts’s Pioneer Institute, counsels civics and history advocates to show “persistence and unity” in order to restore history to “its rightful place as a treasured academic discipline and a fundamental educational priority.” The paper was issued in the weeks before ESEA was reauthorized and signed, but its primary recommendation—that states mandate a statewide assessment in U.S. history—is astute and timely now that states largely control their own testing and accountability destinies.

Pioneer also recommends “strong funding streams for professional development” and highlights several outstanding programs with national reputations that “buck the trends and afford teachers and students the possibilities of teaching and learning history in a rich, engaging and rigorous manner”: The Center for the Study of the Constitution; the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution; the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University; and the outstanding “We the People” program. (One recommendation the report...

The best compliment I can pay a fellow education blogger is to confess professional jealousy. So I’d like to close out 2015 by saluting the education blogs and columns that made me green with envy.

I’m a fan of Tim Shanahan and devour every word he writes. My favorite Shanahan post in 2015 was his evisceration of a silly piece in the Atlantic on the “joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland” that—cliché alert—depicted the typical American kindergarten as a worksheet-happy hothouse. “The silly dichotomy between play and academic instruction was made up by U.S. psychologists in the 1890s,” he wrote. “It hangs on today among those who have never taught a child to read in their lives.” He singled out Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early childhood professor, who is happy to tell anyone with a microphone that there’s no solid evidence in favor of teaching reading in kindergarten. “You can make that claim,” Shanahan concluded, “as long as you don’t know the research.”

I get jealous when somebody makes a smart observation about something hidden in plain sight, like Andy Rotherham did with his March column in U.S. News & World Report (where I’m also a contributor) pointing out that education reform is “dominated by people who...

The Apple App Store and Google Play are chocked-full of educational apps for your kids, some excellent and some schlock. Separating the wheat from the chaff is no small task; thankfully Graphite (a spin-off from Common Sense Media) does an excellent job highlighting and reviewing the better ones. This list from Education Next is super-helpful too.

But in both cases, the focus is overwhelmingly on apps that teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. Maybe because that’s what schools are most focused on, or maybe those subjects present fewer design challenges for app builders.

But that leaves a gaping hole: The teaching of history, geography, science, art, and music, what you might otherwise call “content knowledge.”

This is a big problem for three reasons:

  1. Those subjects are important in their own right;
  2. They are treated as after-thoughts by most elementary schools, making them even more critical to cover in out-of-school time;
  3. They are essential if kids are going to actually learn how to read.

That last point is worth lingering on. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has argued for thirty years—and cognitive scientists have since proven in the research lab—teaching content is essential to teaching reading. While it’s important for...

The effort to improve educational outcomes for African American students can fairly be described as the animating impulse behind the education reform movement broadly. Hence, it’s downright depressing to repeat some of the figures in this report: “On the 2015 NAEP, only 18 percent of African American fourth graders were found to be proficient in reading, and only 19 percent scored proficient in math,” the authors note. “The eighth-grade numbers were even worse, with only 16 percent of African American students rated proficient in reading and only 13 percent rated proficient in math.” College and career readiness? Not so much. Quick: In how many states did more than 5 percent of African American students graduate having passed at least one AP exam in a STEM subject? (Three: Colorado, Massachusetts, and Hawaii.) How many states with five hundred or more African American ACT test-takers had 17 percent or more score as college-ready on all four tested subjects? Not one.

Depressed yet?

Still there are some examples of significant progress: Twenty-five years ago, only 1 percent of Washington, D.C.’s eighth-grade African American students were proficient in math; today it’s 13 percent. High school graduation rates for black students are on the rise—as...

Perhaps it’s because, as a nation, we’ve come around on teacher quality. Or perhaps it’s because so many of the policy prescriptions that contribute to improving the teacher corps are so dry, technical, and largely beneath the hurly-burly of public debate. Either way, NCTQ’s 2015 Policy Yearbook is notable for the substantial amount of positive change it documents, with states “continuing down a reform path focused on teacher effectiveness” and “fewer states out of step with the prevailing trend each passing year.” What the report fails to note is that NCTQ itself can claim substantial credit for creating this tipping point, amassing a substantial record of effectiveness in a very short amount of time.

Getting religion on teacher quality is one thing. Ending our sinful ways is a very different matter. The average state teacher policy grade for 2015 is a C-minus, a mark that is “still far too low to ensure teacher effectiveness nationwide,” NCTQ notes. Yet just six years ago, in the 2009 yearbook, the average was a D. The pews are beginning to fill up.

Better evidence of improvement can be seen state-by-state. In 2015, thirteen states earned grades between B-minus and B-plus (six years ago, no...

Pages