Flypaper

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of personal reflections on the current state of education reform and contemporary conservatism by Andy Smarick, a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The previous posts in this series can be seen hereherehereherehere, here, and here.

Many reformers work to ensure that every child has access to great schools. Similar universal aspirations have inspired countless others—the recognition of unalienable rights, the elimination of poverty, the fair distribution of resources.

Indeed, the question of how to define and realize “justice” has consumed philosophers for centuries. A key lesson from this Everest of scholarship is that all approaches require tradeoffs.

Unfortunately, our field doesn’t talk much about tradeoffs, and we certainly don’t talk about philosophy. You’ll not find in your conference program, “Plato, Aquinas, and Nietzsche: The Metaphysics of Annual Testing.”

But this is not to say that reform is philosophy-free. Conservatives led this movement twenty-five years ago; their skepticism of government monopolies and public sector unions and commitment to empowering parents and diversifying options owed much to Smith, Mill, and Friedman. 

Today, progressives dominate education reform, and progressivism is stirred...

In the pre-Common Core era, we had a big problem. Most state tests measured minimal competency in reading and math. But we failed to communicate that to parents, so they reasonably thought a passing grade meant their child was pretty much where they needed to be. Little did they know that their kid could earn a mark of “proficiency” and be reading or doing math at the twentieth or thirtieth percentile nationally. Frankly, we lied to the parents of too many children who were well below average and not at all on a trajectory for success in college or a well-paying career.

Playing games with proficiency cut scores provided much of the impetus behind Common Core. States raised standards and started building tests pitched at a much higher level. Most states are giving those tests for the first time right now, though New York and Kentucky made the transition two years ago. As of 2013, New York’s tests were the toughest in the country, according to a new analysis by Paul Peterson and Matthew Ackerman in Education Next, matching—if not exceeding—the performance standards of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  

That may solve the “proficiency illusion”...

This post has been updated with the full text of "Shifting from learning to read to reading to learn."

Spring means high-stakes tests in America’s schools, and this year’s test season is already proving to be a particularly contentious one. The number of parents choosing to “opt out” of tests remains small but appears to be growing. Anti-testing sentiment will likely sharpen as rigorous tests associated with Common Core are rolled out in earnest this year. Parents who have been lulled into complacency by their children’s scores on low-bar state tests may not react well when their children are measured against higher standards.

Testing—who should be tested, how often, and in which subjects – is also one of the most contentious issues in the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the most recent iteration of which is better known as No Child Left Behind). At present, the feds require states to test every student every year in math and reading from grades 3–8. However, if we are serious about improving reading—and education outcomes for children at large—we might be better off if we stopped testing reading in third grade rather than started it.

There are two big problems with existing test-driven...

This letter appeared in the 2014 Thomas B. Fordham Institute Annual Report. To learn more, download the report.

Fordham friends,

Closing the books on the year that just passed has special resonance this time around—both for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and for the education-reform movement at large. For us, 2014 marked the first leadership transition in our organization’s history, with founding president Chester E. (“Checker”) Finn, Jr. moving into his new role as senior distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus and with our board of trustees electing me to succeed him. Almost six months into this challenge, I remain honored by the faith they placed in me and appreciative of Checker’s pitch-perfect management of the transition process.
 

For the education-reform movement, 2014 was more of a mixed bag. It was famously the year when America was supposed to, but did not, achieve “universal proficiency”—a goal set by the No Child Left Behind Act back in 2002. That nearly thirteen years have now passed without a much-needed ESEA reauthorization gives us one clue as to what went awry:...

Across the nation, the monopoly of traditional school districts over public education is slowly eroding. Trust-busting policies like public charter schools and vouchers have given parents and students more options than ever before. But how vibrant are school marketplaces in America’s largest districts?

Now in its fourth year, the Education Choice and Competition Index is one of the best examinations of educational markets, rating the hundred most populous districts along four key dimensions: (1) access to school options; (2) processes that align student preferences with schools (e.g., common applications, clear information on schools); (3) policies that favor the growth of popular schools, such as funds following students; and (4) subsidies for poor families.

The top-rated district, you ask? The Recovery School District in New Orleans won top marks in 2014, as it has in the two prior years. New York City and Newark, New Jersey, are close behind the Big Easy. The study commends these cities for their ample supply of school options—and just as importantly, for policies that support quality choice. For instance, this trio of cities (along with Denver) has adopted an algorithm that optimally matches student preferences with school assignments. Impressive stuff from which...

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. We are reprinting it here in two installments; the first was published in last week’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

Last week, I argued that single parenthood is a major impediment to upward mobility for low-income youth, especially when parenthood starts in one’s teens or early twenties. Furthermore, I concluded that the most important “intervention” is hope: a realistic plan for a life trajectory that is more compelling than early motherhood and fatherhood. This means, among other things, having meaningful opportunities for higher education and interesting, decently paid work. How, then, can schools boost the education and employment prospects of disadvantaged children?

One way is to get many more young people—especially those from challenging backgrounds—“to and through” four-year college degrees. This well-meaning strategy is the primary focus of education reform. There’s little doubt that, when it’s successful, this will encourage many more young people to delay childbearing, which increases their odds of getting married before starting a family.

But it need...

On Sunday, Mike spoke to the New York State Council of School Superintendents. These were his remarks as prepared for delivery.

Thank you for the kind invitation to speak to you today. I know that some of you are wondering what the folks at the Council were thinking in inviting me. Certainly there are a lot of angry people on Twitter wondering that. I hope that by the end of my talk, it might make a little more sense.

The title of my talk is “How to End the Education Reform Wars.” But as I’ve thought more about it, I’ve decided that this isn’t exactly the right title. That’s because you, as superintendents, don’t have it within your control to end this war. That’s because it’s not really about you. Especially here in New York, it seems clear to me that it’s a war between the governor and the unions, as well as between the reformers and the unions. It’s also a fight between the governor and Mayor de Blasio.

So the real question is how you can navigate these wars. A better title for my speech might be, “How to Survive the Education Reform Wars.” And how can you...

Ever since I published my article in the special Education Next issue marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Moynihan Report, “How can schools address America’s marriage crisis?,” I’ve been hearing from friends—most of them liberal education reformers—questioning why I’d want to wade into such treacherous waters. It’s made me think that perhaps many of us on the Left and Right are talking past one another. Allow me to take another crack at explaining my intent.

First, let me clear: no purpose can be served by shaming single parents. There are millions of amazing single moms and dads out there, doing an incredible job raising their children.

Nor should we provide an excuse for schools—to help unions and others explain away the low performance of many children who come from one-parent families.

My concern isn’t with people who have already gone down the road to single parenthood. By all means, we should support them and cheer them on as they do the hard work of parenting. My concern is for the young people whose family formation decisions still lie ahead of them—those who might, in Isabel Sawhill’s memorable phrase, tend to “drift into parenthood.” My argument is that educators and...

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...

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...

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