Cities are for strivers

The rapid gentrification of many large American cities represents a triumph and an opportunity for Republicans—a triumph because it was mainly Republican ideas (welfare reform, aggressive crime-fighting tactics, pro-growth policies) that set the trend in motion, and an opportunity because the wealthier and (frankly) whiter new residents are more likely to vote for the GOP.

Cities are for strivers

Yet a natural Republican constituency—parents with children—continues to exit cities once their kids reach school age. This is bad for Republicans, to be sure, but it’s also bad for cities, as much capital—human, social, and financial—decamps for the suburbs and beyond.

So why are twenty-something, single city-dwellers turning into thirty- and forty-something, suburban moms and dads? It’s education, stupid: the paucity of high-quality urban public schools.

Some hope that current education-reform efforts—raising standards, holding teachers accountable, and creating more charter schools—could help persuade these parents to keep the faith with big cities. And they might, at the margins. But most of these efforts don’t address the fundamental challenge that urban schools face: the diversity of their student population.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean racial or ethnic diversity, which is a huge plus for everybody—the students, the parents, and society at large. Nor is it exactly socioeconomic diversity. The big challenge is academic diversity: Students are coming into school with vastly different levels of academic preparation. Finding a way to make sure that everyone gets what they need—including affluent children, who will tend to come in far ahead of their peers—is no easy trick. If you’re a Kindergarten teacher and some of your students are already reading Harry Potter while others don’t even know their letters, how on earth do you handle that?

Yet the typical liberal response to perplexed professional parents who worry about whether their children will be challenged? “Tough luck.” They sneer at “gifted-and-talented” programs, which they view as inherently elitist and inequitable; they deplore “selective-admissions” schools, like Stuyvesant; and they pore over charter school data for any signs of “skimming” the best and brightest.

The left’s leveling impulses, then, practically beg parents of means to choose private schools or pack their bags for the ‘burbs. But this approach is also problematic for the poor—in particular, “striving” families and their children who want to defy the odds and use academic excellence as a springboard to the middle class. Note the derision shown to the Success Academies, for instance—a non-profit network of Gotham charter schools that’s getting remarkable results with a mostly low-income student population. Rather than applauding Eva Moskowitz’s plans to expand to one hundred schools citywide, they work at every turn to slow her down.

The urban left’s brand of “equity” is perverse. It focuses on equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity. It rejects the notion that fairness demands every child to be challenged, to learn something new each day, to fulfill his or her own potential. And it pretends that pushing ambitious students to the suburbs is somehow a more equitable outcome than providing city schools that serve their needs.

All of this offers an opening for the right, and for Republicans, who should become the Party of Strivers, as David Brooks argues. Brooks wrote in another column that we should figure out “what exactly does it take these days to rise? What exactly happens to the ambitious kid in Akron at each stage of life in this new economy? What are the best ways to rouse ambition and open fields of opportunity?”

Here’s what: Republicans in general, and urban Republicans in particular, should call for the expansion of gifted-and-talented programs while maintaining tough, but fair, entrance requirements; charter schools that embrace a college-prep, high-expectations, no-excuses culture; selective-admission magnet schools that allow our most academically prepared students to push one another; and merit-based scholarships at flagship public universities.

Parents of high-achieving students—whether they be rich or poor, newcomers or old-timers—deserve schools that will challenge their children. If they don’t find them in the city, they will move. It’s up to Republicans to offer another alternative.

This piece originally appeared in slightly different form on the Manhattan Institute’s Public Sector Inc.

The Washington Post (and many others) roundly decried the Department of Justice’s petition to disallow Louisiana from awarding vouchers to students in public schools under federal desegregation orders. Surely it’s folly to block students (mainly black and all poor) from escaping failing schools to which they would otherwise be condemned—and it’s outrageous to claim that this is good for civil rights. As 90 percent of the kids benefiting from Louisiana’s voucher program are African American, Gadfly cannot help but suspect political motives. We join the chorus: Shame on the Department of Justice for standing between disadvantaged children and their education dreams.

Massachusetts, with the nation’s highest-performing school system, models the power of comprehensive standards-based reform. As noted by the New York Times, the Bay State’s standards—like the Common Core—refrain from prescribing curriculum and pedagogy, meaning that teachers decide how to get their pupils across the finish line. There’s far more to the Massachusetts story, of course, including a higher bar, more money, charter schools, individual student-level accountability and tougher requirements to enter teaching. But it’s a story worth telling and retelling.

As the time draws closer for Congress to focus on reauthorizing the federal Institute of Education Sciences, the New York Times did a decent job of profiling the difference that it has made, particularly its emphasis on randomized studies—i.e. research based on clinical trials that test, for example, whether particular education textbooks or technologies are more effective than others. One disappointment? Most educators have no idea the data exist.

Amanda Ripley delivers a familiar admonishment to a new generation of Americans: The (mediocre) schools we have are the schools we deserve. In her first—and quite excellent—book on education, Ripley skillfully communicates this message through the experiences of teenaged U.S. exchange students inserted into three countries—Finland, South Korea, and Poland—for one year. All three countries have made recent leaps and bounds in educational achievement, and all three approach education in different ways: Finland’s “Utopia” model relies on highly trained, autonomous teachers and effective school choice. South Korea’s “Pressure Cooker” approach demands hard work in an ultra-competitive environment. And Poland’s “Metamorphosis,” which began in the late 1990s, focuses on rigor; accountability; high expectations; and district, school, and classroom autonomy. So with her veteran-journalist cap firmly in place, the author visits each of the three students in their host countries to compare their experiences—and perhaps gain insight as to why American students have lost ground. According to Ripley, American culture is a root cause of our education failings, including what parents want in a school, what kids learn at home, or officials’ unwillingness (or inability) to change teacher training, accountability systems, and curriculum. For instance, unlike the Finnish, we shield our children from failure and we don’t train our teachers like we train doctors, with ultra-selective schools, challenging graduate programs, and commensurate pay. And unlike all three of the nations featured, we lack a sense of urgency and the conviction that effective, rigorous education is the only thing that can prevent us from falling further behind in the global economy. Ripley’s message may not be new, but she imparts it with uncommon freshness, objectivity, and verve.

SOURCE: Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2013).

The future is competency-based learning, according to this new, almost hour-long audio documentary from American RadioWorks—and that future is upon us. For generations, wealthy parents in the U.S. and abroad have employed private tutors to deliver individualized instruction to their children, thus recognizing and acting upon a truth long ignored by our school system: Not all children learn at the same pace or in the same way. In the past, tutoring has proved difficult to scale. But the creators of this documentary hail the Carpe Diem campus in Indianapolis and Moorseville Middle School in Moorseville, NC, for cracking the code with the use of modern education technology. Moorseville has a well-implemented “one-to-one” laptop initiative that seems to have played a role in the district’s complete elimination of a sizable gap in the high school graduation rates of its white and black students. The Carpe Diem schools have found a formula for student success in a more radical shift, largely replacing traditional classroom learning with computer labs and project-based group learning. Both Carpe Diem and Moorseville traded larger class sizes for fewer, more committed teachers, empowered to focus on individual students rather than providing basic instruction or grading simple assignments—most of which is done by technology, which also tracks student progress and allows students to learn at their own pace. The documentary makers remind us that technology is only as good as its utilization. The same might be said of competency-based learning. Nevertheless, a system that allows teachers to teach and students to work at their own levels of ability and prior achievement is surely promising.

SOURCE: Emily Hanford and Stephen Smith, “One Child at a Time,” American RadioWorks, American Public Media, August 2013.

When it comes time to pick a career path, young Americans certainly don’t perceive teaching to be the fairest of them all—in any sense of the term. This new report from the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership emphasizes how pension systems are especially unfair toward young teachers and examines the effects of two cost-neutral pension reforms on teacher compensation for the ten largest U.S. public school districts. The first reform is switching from the traditional defined-benefit (DB) pension system, under which teachers accumulate little retirement wealth until later in their careers, to a “cash-balance” plan, which allows employees to accrue retirement compensation smoothly over their careers. The second reform—the “cost-equivalent” reform—decreases the share of teachers’ salaries devoted to retirement savings so that it matches the private-sector average, moving the difference into take-home salary. The authors concede that traditional DB pension systems do offer teachers the possibility of more retirement money. In most districts, however, that higher amount for a few comes at a cost to a great majority: The loss to teachers who choose to leave the profession after less than three decades exceeds the gains to those who remain. Indeed, the system is constructed on the assumption that many will drop out prior to receiving full benefits. That’s clearly off-putting to smart young folks considering taking up teaching, which means it’s also bad for teacher quality. The report’s recommendations do not address the elephant in the room—namely the huge unfunded pension liabilities that already face most school systems (and their states). But the recommendations are sound and provocative as far as they go. Modeling the teacher-compensation system after private-sector compensation systems is common sensical—and fairer overall.

SOURCE: Josh McGee and Marcus A. Winters, Better Pay, Fairer Pensions: Reforming Teacher Compensation, Center for State and Local Leadership, Civic Report No. 79 (New York, NY: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, September 2013).

Mike and Michelle join the WaPo in decrying the DOJ’s anti-voucher antics and debate who’s worse: private school parents or those who settle for failing schools. With Amber off saying “I do,” Dara takes over the research minute with a tale of unfair teacher-pension policies.

Growing numbers of parents, educators, and school administrators are calling for a local "opt-out" from state tests and accountability systems.

Is this opt-out a cop-out? Or would students benefit from a system that their own teachers and principals devised? Should all schools be offered an opt-out alternative, one in which they propose to be held accountable to a different set of measures? What about opt-outs for high-achieving schools or schools with good reason to be different? Would such a system move us toward or away from the goals of the Common Core? As for charter schools, must they continue to be tethered to uniform statewide accountability systems? Or should we rekindle the concept of customizing each school's charter and performance expectations?