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Regular readers know that I’m a father of two young boys—and that my adventures in parenthood have changed more than a few of my views on education reform. (This appears to be a common experience among policy wonks.) Well, here’s another shift: I used to agree with George Will and other small-government conservatives that Uncle Sam has no business subsidizing children’s television on PBS. But no longer. If anything, I’ve come to believe that is a sweet spot for federal involvement in education.

Nick Jr. and Disney Jr. offer mostly burgers and fries; PBS provides a tasty spinach salad.

Will’s argument is straightforward: The market is more than capable of providing children’s programming on its own—just look at Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. But there’s the rub: Stack those commercial stations up against PBS Kids and there’s no contest when it comes to academic content and quality. Nick Jr. and Disney Jr. offer mostly burgers and fries; PBS provides a tasty spinach salad.

The best PBS shows in my view—and my elder son’s!—actually teach something. Not something vague like “reasoning skills” but something concrete like science! Yes, his favorite shows are Sid the Science Kid and Wild Kratts, a very clever program about wildlife. At four and a half, he can’t read yet, but he can learn a ton about our world—and with his curiosity on overdrive, he’s eager to learn and learn and learn.

Other PBS shows are strong on content knowledge too, especially Dinosaur Trains...


When Jesus said (according to Matthew), “the poor you will always have with you,” he might have added, “and so too the debate about whether schools can educate them.” Paul Peterson has written one of the better essays on the seemingly interminable battle between those who believe that you have to cure the poor before you can educate them and those who believe that educating the poor will help cure poverty.

But there is some good news to report: The pendulum might be swinging, ever-so-slightly, toward the believers (in school).

The pendulum might be swinging, ever-so-slightly, toward the believers (in school).

First, Del Stover reports that a summer session of the Council on Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) concluded that “[t]ending to children’s social, emotional needs [is an] important part of delivering education.” It’s the “part of” part that is encouraging; the source of the problem of educating the poor may be outside the schools, but the solution is inside the schools. The CUBE seminar, according to Stover, included a presentation by Barbara Cavallo, head of Partnership with Children, a New York City social services agency. Cavallo described the many challenges (to learning, to life, to everything) faced by poor children—and what schools could do to overcome them. Cavallo’s counselors, according to Stover, “work with teachers and principals to develop a school-wide plan to create a safe and supportive school climate.”

And, according to Stover, the training is paying the kind of dividends that school reformers have...


Winning the gold for gab

Mike and Rick ponder public perceptions of education spending and whether it’s Rick—not teachers—who needs a dress code. Amber explains why penalty pay works.

Amber's Research Minute

Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives through Loss Aversion: A Field Experiment by Roland G. Fryer, Jr., Steven D. Levitt, John List, and Sally Sadoff - Download the PDF

“Research-based,” “brain-based,” “best practices,” “studies show”: Research is used to inform, defend, or rationalize sundry decisions in education policy and practice. But what if the research is no good? This immensely readable book from rock-star cognitive scientist Dan Willingham offers a guide to parsing and filtering sound education research—or research of any sort, for that matter. As examples, he explains the history, statistics, and psychology behind the “learning-styles” and “whole-language” theories. And then debunks both. He flags specific issues in methodology to look for, some more obvious than others, but all necessary for a keen appraisal of edu-research. Finally, he offers four steps to winnowing grain from chaff: First, identify the principal assertion or claim, extracting from it all emotion, framing, and peripheral cues (what Willingham dubs “strip it and flip it”). Second, “trace it.” Who makes the claim—and are they legitimate? Third, “analyze it.” Does the evidence back the claim? And finally ask, “Should I do it?” Does the research offer enough practical persuasion to adopt a new program, policy, or opinion? Playful analogies, humorous pop-culture references, and lucid tables dot the text and help the reader through the abstract. In sum, Willingham provides helpful guidance for those looking to brave the edu-research morass—but he also avers that regular consumers of education should not need to scrutinize scientific journals. Instead, he calls specifically on teacher unions to debunk reforms du jour such as twenty-first century skills...


The other day I noted that an expert panel had decided, according to Education Week, that “the skills considered necessary for the 21st-century workplace” were “critical thinking and analytic reasoning,” “teamwork and complex communications,” and “resiliency and conscientiousness.” I was skeptical, not because those aren’t important skills, but because they didn’t have much to do with the twenty-first century. 

Ben Franklin
Who better to speak to contemporary American youth than one of the nation's most prolific inventors and entrepreneurs?
Photo by Andrew Malone.

Then along came an email from Dee Selvaggi, a former member of a New Jersey school board and a contributor to The BEV Challenge, recommending “a very interesting book,” Benjamin Franklin on Education (edited by John Hardin Best, Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1962). Wrote Dee, Franklin’s “concern [was] about the content presented to youth so they could function well in the new contemporary America.”

Who better to speak to contemporary American youth than one of the nation’s most prolific inventors and entrepreneurs? According to Franklin

The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by wise Men in all Ages, as the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Commonwealths. Almost all Governments have therefore made it a principal Object of their Attention, to...

Sophomoric videos are our thing

Mike and Adam dissect StudentsFirst’s take on the Olympics and debate whether the parent trigger is overhyped. Amber wonders what Maryland and Delaware are doing right when it comes to education.

Amber's Research Minute

Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance - Download the PDF

Despite lackluster achievement on the latest rounds of PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS exams—and despite Fordham’s own premonitions of a new “Sputnik moment” for U.S. education—much complacency still surrounds American pupils’ academic prowess. One oft-cited source of false comfort is the gradual uptick in NAEP math and science scores over the past few years. This latest report from the international-education trifecta of Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludgar Woessmann argues for renewed sobriety. It tracks student-achievement growth in forty-nine countries (1995-2009) and forty-one states (1992-2011). Overall, increases in U.S. student achievement are middling, with twenty-four countries making greater gains. Over the fourteen years analyzed, U.S. students advanced about one year of learning, which is less than half of the achievement gains registered in more than twenty nations (including Hong Kong, Germany, the United Kingdom, Poland, and top-improvers Latvia, Chile, and Brazil). What’s most interesting about the report, though, is the analysis of state improvement over time. Maryland made the most progress, with Florida, Delaware, and Massachusetts following closely behind. Iowa, Maine, and Oklahoma, meanwhile, found themselves at the bottom of the pile. If the U.S. as a whole had equaled the progress made by its top-improving states, we would be on par with Germany and the U.K.—and would find ourselves among the top advancers worldwide. There’s much thought-provoking data to cull here and still more trends and patterns to ponder....


Given that bipartisan agreement went extinct sometime in the previous decade, the fact that conservatives and liberals have both concluded that our country suffers from a troubling lack of social mobility might be reason enough to celebrate. The problem, as I wrote yesterday, is that few commentators on either side of the political spectrum have recognized the obvious: This problem begins with our schools. And it could potentially end there, as well. In my experience with public schools and the culture that surrounds them, we won’t close the social mobility gap unless we recognize three facts:

1. Our schools don’t value merit

The idea of merit implies the idea of non-merit; we can’t all be winners.

As we know, the idea of merit implies the idea of non-merit; we can’t all be winners. Yet, that is exactly the kind of talk I hear in schools all the time: We are all winners. As Thomas Edsall wrote in his Times essay,In the business sector, particularly, other less benign qualities emerge as essential to meritocratic success: aggressiveness, ruthlessness, dominance-seeking, victimizing behavior, acquisitiveness and the disciplined pursuit of self-interest.” How do we possibly reconile the hard-edged reality of merit in the real world with the "all winners" ethos of our public schools? We don't. We have to get real at school and start rewarding merit there. It need not be cut-throat, but it needs to be something better than giving everyone a blue ribbon.

2. Our schools don’t value knowledge



Move to the head of the class

Mike and Rick reunite to talk social mobility, the NEA’s membership woes, and what sequestration would actually mean for schools. Amber explains where parents stand on digital learning.

Amber's Research Minute

Learning in the 21st Century: A 5 Year Retrospective on the Growth in Online Learning - Project Tomorrow

Mike seems to have touched off a flurry of discussion (or at least landed in the middle of it) about meritocracy with his “Can schools spur social mobility?” essay from last week, which was prompted by a recent appearance at Fordham by Charles Murray, to talk about his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Simultaneously, Chris Hayes was getting attention for his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. There followed two pieces by David Brooks (“Why Our Elites Stink” and “The Opportunity Gap”), a report from the Pew Foundation (“American Dream”), Jason DeParle’s page-one story in last Sunday’s Times (“Two Classes, Divided by `I Do’”), followed by some good piling on by journalism professor Thomas Edsall, also in the Times, who takes out after Mitt Romney for suggesting we have a “merit-based society.”

Shake It, Start Over

I’m sure there was more, but the gist of the current hand-wringing is the news that the nation is no longer the equal opportunity society it once was. The social mobility gap is growing while our faith in boot-strap capitalism, where hard work (i.e., merit) can get you a spot at the table of the elite, is waning. My concern, at least with...