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Bill Bennett on the state of American education
Dr. Bennett recently spoke at the Fordham Institute on the state of American education.
Photo by Gage Skidmore

William J. Bennett, former U.S. education secretary (and former NEH chairman, drug czar, widely published author, radio host, and political commentator) recently spoke at the Fordham Institute on the state of American education.

On the thirtieth anniversary of A Nation at Risk (watch our video retrospective on the paper here), Dr. Bennett talked about where we’ve come with NAEP scores and other indicators—with real gains in fourth grade, modest improvement in eighth, and none whatsoever in twelfth. (That’s true of other high school indicators, too.)

Bennett noted, too, that school choice has made great strides, technology is playing a promising (but as yet unfulfilled) role in education, and Americans now know the difference between teachers and teachers unions. Mostly good news—but not all. Our worst subject, he made clear, is history (U.S. history in particular), as well as civics—and offered the excellent work of E.D. Hirsch and the Core Knowledge Foundation as at least a partial solution to this acute problem.

When moderator Chester Finn asked whether the Common Core standards are good for the country (despite some federal entanglement), Bennett answered in the affirmative: “If the standards are good,...

Education Next

Michelle Rhee is, without a doubt, America’s best known education reformer. Her new autobiography, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, chronicles her upbringing as the daughter of Korean immigrants, her career trajectory from Teach For America corps member to Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, and now as founder and CEO of the political advocacy group Students First.

In this installment of the Education Next book club, host Mike Petrilli talks with Michelle Rhee about becoming Michelle Rhee, what she’s learned over these last tumultuous years, and what she thinks the future holds for education reform in America.

Additional installments of the Ed Next Book Club podcast can be heard here.

This post originally appeared on the Education Next blog.


A Nation At Risk: 30 Years Later

A Nation At Risk: 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago, A Nation at Risk was released to a surprised country. Suddenly, Americans woke up to learn that SAT scores were plummeting and children were learning a lot less than before. This report became a turning point in modern U.S. education history and marked the beginning of a new focus on excellence, achievement, and results.

Due in large part to this report, we now judge a school by whether its students are learning rather than how much money is going into it, what its programs look like, or its earnest intentions. Education reform today is serious about standards, quality, assessment, accountability and benchmarking—by school, district, state and nation. This is new since 1983 and it’s very important.

Yet we still have many miles to traverse before we sleep. Our students still need to learn far more and our schools need to become far more effective.

To recall the impact of A Nation at Risk these past three decades and to reflect on what lies ahead, watch this short retrospective developed by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Enterprise Institute: A Nation at Risk: Thirty Years Later.

Wisdom from the land of ten thousand slushy lakes

Mike and MinnCAN’s Daniel Sellers talk Pearson, Common Core dustups, and the President’s pre-K proposal. Amber highlights funding disparities between district and charter schools.

Amber's Research Minute

Education’s Fiscal Cliff, Real or Perceived? by Larry Maloney, Meagan Batdorff, Jay May, and Michelle Terrell (University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, April 2013)

This new report from the “Broader/Bolder” coalition seeks to topple support for education reform—but, instead, collapses upon itself with straw-man arguments. Authors Elaine Weiss and Don Long lead their sundry mob of anti-reformers against the recent reforms in three urban centers: D.C., NYC, and Chicago. At nearly a hundred pages long and packed with all of the pitchforks and torches it could find, three main points stood out. First, they attack reforms for being more expensive than maintaining the status quo—which is akin to saying a new roof costs more than a leaky roof. Of course it does. Second, the authors try to use NAEP scores to prove that the reforms have been ineffective, reformers’ promises “unfulfilled.” The problem they can’t quite get around, however, is that in many cases, scores have gone up, including both math and reading scores in New York City and Chicago and math scores in D.C. And when scores didn’t go up, they stayed the same. Finally, the authors claim that reforms are bad because they’re “disruptive.” For example, they attack teacher accountability measures for increasing teacher turnover—which, when districts raise expectations, will clearly happen and is, in fact, the point (particularly if the right teachers decide to go elsewhere). The authors’ relentless aversion to disruption, in fact, seems to belie their organization’s purported taste for “boldness”—just as their call for more “patient” reforms contradicts their eagerness to point out reformers’ “unfulfilled promises.” The Broader/Bolder crowd once made a splash by arguing for school reform...


Over the last few weeks, we've witnessed the spectacle of “outrage” at learning that two major figures in the school reform wars (Leonie Haimson and Michelle Rhee) send their children to private schools.

I'm not interested in rehashing all of the usual debates. I do want to point out that there's public, and then there's “public.” In other words, some of the people expressing indignation, I suspect, may send their children to “public” schools that are much more “private” than most private schools. And starting in September, I will be one of those parents (as anyone who has read my book knows already).

Yes, it's true: Wood Acres Elementary, in Bethesda, Maryland, is a “private public school”—a term that Janie Scull and I coined in a 2010 report for the Fordham Institute. These are “public” schools that serve virtually no poor students. They are open to anyone—anyone who can afford to live in their catchment zones, that is. 

We found 2,800 such schools in America back then; I suspect the numbers haven't changed much since.

But here's what you might want to consider: New York City, where Haimson lives, has exactly zero such schools. Nashville, Tennessee, where Rhee's daughters live, has exactly zero. The greater Washington, D.C., area, where many of us policy wonks live, has about seventy. 

So before we “public school parents” cast the first stone, let's get serious. Public schools can be just as exclusive—often more exclusive—than private schools. Government funding does not bestow...


Clearing the air

Dara and Daniela fume over the RNC’s Common Core action, consider the implications of Alabama’s move to the ACT, and clear the air over Florida’s teacher-evaluation mess. Amber probes Caroline Hoxby’s plan to close the college-admissions information gap facing high-achieving, low-income youngsters.

Amber's Research Minute

Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner (Stanford, CA: Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, 2013).

Federal due-process requirements for special ed are far more onerous, costly, and stressful than they need to be. That’s the gist of this paper from the American Association of School Administrators (the first in what the AASA promises to be a series on retooling special-ed). After surveying 200 superintendents, the group found that every due-process complaint costs the district an average $10,500 in legal fees—and that many districts end up consenting to parental requests that they consider “unreasonable” or inconsistent with IDEA. The resulting recommendations are straightforward: Bring in third-party facilitators to guide any IEP meetings that are going poorly (in North Carolina, which utilizes facilitators in this way, fewer than 20 percent of facilitated IEP meetings end in adjudication) and, if IEP facilitation and optional mediation fail, hire an independent expert to evaluate students and act as an IEP-creator-of-last-resort. These are sensible proposals that will have significant effect in lawsuit-crazy cities like D.C. and NYC. Congress should consider AASA’s recommendations: IDEA needs an overhaul, and this is a good start.

SOURCE: Sasha Pudelski, Rethinking Special Education Due Process (Alexandria, VA: American Association of School Administrators, April 2013).


Despite sterling academic records and substantial financial-aid opportunities, high-achievers from poor families rarely even apply to America’s elite colleges and universities. In a previous study, researchers Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery attributed this to an information deficit: These kids (the researchers excluded kids who attend “feeder” schools) tend to reside in small towns located far from selective colleges and attend high schools with overworked, ill-prepared counselors and student bodies less attuned to selective college admissions. This follow-up study, conducted by Hoxby and Sarah Turner, examines one potential solution: thoughtful, tailored information about selective college admissions that is delivered to students’ doorsteps. In 2009, Hoxby and Turner established the Expanding College Opportunities (ECO) program, which randomly mailed college informational packets to thousands of high-ability seniors (12,000 of them in 2011–12). The main finding: Sending students informational materials—especially materials that offered clear financial-aid information—caused these youngsters to apply to and matriculate at colleges of greater selectivity at greater rates. Even more noteworthy, the packets cost just six bucks a pop to produce and mail. The upshot: Instead of languishing in (or dropping out of) a college beneath their abilities, they’ll seek out a campus suited to their gifts. If, as the authors suggest, ECO (or a kindred program) is scaled to reach all of the nation’s high-flying, low-income kids, it could seriously shrink the college-opportunity gap; here’s hoping.

SOURCE: Susanna Loeb and Matthew Kasman, “Principals’ perceptions of competition for students in Milwaukee...