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Anyone who knows a teenager understands how hard it is to get into a good college these days. We’ve all heard of some bright eighteen-year-old with a stellar GPA, sky-high SAT scores, fives on a half-dozen AP courses, and a service record like Mother Theresa’s who still couldn’t manage to get into her university of choice. (Colleges mail acceptance letters this week.) What gives?

It’s particularly mysterious since national and international exams keep telling us that American high schoolers aren’t, by and large, making any significant achievement gains. Yet when it comes time to apply to college, the crème-de-la-crème appear to be rising further to the top. As proof, see this chart below. It shows, for the nation’s fifty most selective institutions,*  the SAT scores that put one at the 25th percentile of the freshman class (in other words, toward the lower range of what it takes to get into these schools).

One possible explanation for this phenomenon is simple supply and demand. The demographic bulge known as the Baby Boom Echo has made its way through our high schools and into college in recent years. The supply of seats at elite colleges hasn’t increased (much to these schools’ discredit), yet demand for those seats—from well-prepared students—has gone up significantly. And that’s because there are simply more students to begin with (about a million more students per class than when I graduated high school in 1991).

To test that hypothesis, I charted...

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I usually keep two books going at once. I like to find the connections and divergences between seemingly unrelated texts.

Recently, I’ve been making my way through a biography of Catherine the Great and the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.

Going in, I figured the brain-candy thread tying the two together would be the dissimilarities between their nearly contemporary lives: Douglass (1818–95) born into American slavery, eventually escaping, becoming a leading abolitionist and statesman; Catherine (1729–96) born into German nobility, marrying into Russian royalty, ruling for more than 30 years.

But as it turns out, the stories of these historical giants have three associations particularly relevant to our work.

Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great tried to end serfdom—but eventually grew acclimated to power.
Photo from the Wikimedia Commons

First, though she was spectacularly wealthy—casually distributing estates, amassing the largest art collection in Europe’s history—Catherine tried to end the abomination of serfdom. As the book recounts, “The conditions of Russian serfs resembled that of black slaves in America.”

It is striking how two people from such disparate backgrounds could be compelled to advocate for the same moral cause. Douglass lived the horror: He had no knowledge of his age and was separated from mother in infancy. He was often awakened in morning by “the most heartrending shrieks” of slaves...

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The All-Girl Edition

Dara and Kathleen put on their thinking caps to discuss Common Core implementation, ability grouping, and pre-K absenteeism. Amber joins in for some March Madness dishing—and some tough love for eighth-grade Algebra.

Amber's Research Minute

The 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning? by Tom Loveless (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, March 2013)

A useful new report from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation underscores the painful divide between parents and education reformers on the crucial topic of what to do about bad schools.

School hallway
Schools play many roles in communities, and the prospect of closing one undermines most of those.
Photo by hundrednorth

In a nutshell, if the neighborhood school is crummy, parents want it fixed. So do community leaders. Ed reformers are far more apt to want to close it and give families alternatives such as charter schools.

As Andy Smarick has perceptively written, schools play multiple roles in communities, and the prospect of closing one undermines most of those. Hence, shuttering a school affects more than the convenience of keeping one’s own kids in a familiar (and generally close-at-hand) facility, maybe even with that nice Ms. Greensleeves who teaches fourth grade there. As Jean Johnson writes on behalf of Public Agenda, based on a recent series of focus groups (as well as much other research), “Most parents see local public schools as important community institutions and viscerally reject the idea that closing schools—even those that are persistently low-performing—is a good way to improve accountability in education.”

On the reform side, however, Johnson writes, “In many communities, school leaders are closing or drastically reorganizing low-performing schools. Many districts are turning to...

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GadflyIn the latest dust-up over the Common Core, the inclusion of some (arguably) violent, war-themed picture books in New York City’s third-grade English curriculum has some whining that the recommended texts were not vetted properly—and, predictably, claiming that implementation is moving too fast. For straight talk, check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast.

A national database called inBloom that warehouses millions of students’ personal information for school districts has a slightly unfortunate side business: selling realistic-but-fake student data to application developers. According to inBloom, the two sides of its operation are strictly separate—but that hasn’t stopped parent listservs from exploding with the rage of a thousand mothers.

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal found that more than 10 percent of New York City’s principals did not issue a single teacher an “unsatisfactory” grade (the city uses a pass/fail system for reviewing job performance). While this may seem like bad news, flip that number around and notice that nearly 90 percent did. For comparison, consider that, according to Education Week, 98 percent of Michigan’s teachers and 97 percent of Florida’s were rated effective or better—and those are states that recently revamped their evaluation systems. New York City is a cage-busting leader in ferreting out bad teachers. Note, too, that if and when personnel decisions are truly devolved to school principals,...

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From Resegregation to ReintegrationThat segregation in public schools is on the rise, threatening the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, has been a point of disquiet among academics and policymakers and a mainstay of the education-research narrative. But according to this new study of 350 metropolitan areas, it’s time to refresh our datasets—and our mindsets: While a measure of “resegregation” did occur in 1990s, that trend has largely reversed in the twenty-first century. The level of racial segregation (measured by comparing each school’s racial/ethnic composition to the overall composition in the surrounding area) increased 2.3 percent between 1993 and 1998—but declined 12.6 percent by 2009. There do, however, exist caveats: Metropolitan areas that experienced rapid increases in minority students have seen smaller decreases in segregation since 1998 than their more stable peers. And while black-white segregation across the land fell by 6.4 percent in the years studied, in the formerly de jure segregated South, the statistic has actually risen by 1.1 percent. Still and all, the national trend-line is far more positive than previously thought.

SOURCE: Kori J. Stroub, and Meredith P. Richards, "From Resegregation to Reintegration: Trends in the Racial/Ethnic Segregation of Metropolitan Public Schools, 1993–2009," American Educational Research Journal (March 2013)....

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The 2013 Brown Center Report on American EducationThe Brown Center’s annual report always takes on three big issues in education policy—and always delivers the goods. Thank you, Brookings! This year’s edition is no exception, broaching the topics of ability grouping in elementary schools (which it finds is on the rise), whether teaching Algebra in eighth grade improves NAEP math scores (it doesn’t), and how American students compare with their international peers (one of report author Tom Loveless's favorite topics). In service of the latter, the report firmly discredits the notion that the U.S. must copy and paste the instructional practices of so-called “A+ countries” (the six that scored at the top of the TIMSS charts in 1995). Rather, since 1995, the U.S. has gained seventeen points in eighth-grade mathematics—an achievement exceeded by only one A+ nation, Korea, and matched by one other, Hong Kong. Moreover, though Finland’s PISA scores have earned them near-worship in many U.S. education circles, that country’s performance on the TIMSS was statistically indistinguishable from ours. Be sure to read Kathleen Porter-Magee’s nuanced perspective on the “Finnish miracle” for real lessons we can learn from our friends across the pond.

SOURCE: Tom Loveless, The 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning? (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, March 2013)....

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Alabama Governor Robert Bentley today signed into law his state’s first private school choice program—a K–12 tuition tax credit—avoiding what was perhaps the most ridiculous attempt yet to thwart efforts to enact a voucher or tax-credit plan anywhere.

Bentley put his signature on the Alabama Accountability Act one day after the state’s Supreme Court lifted a restraining order that prevented him from even getting the bill, which passed two weeks ago along party lines. The Alabama Education Association had convinced a state judge last week to block legislative staffers from sending the bill to the governor, arguing that too many Republican lawmakers privately discussed rewriting a separate measure to include the tax credit without calling a public meeting.

The Alabama Supreme Court sensibly determined that the restraining order issued by Judge Charles Price was “premature.” The bill hadn’t even become law, and according to the top justices, there was no “existing case or controversy” that needed adjudicating.

In other words, there was no one harmed. As political scientist Joshua Dunn noted, courts don’t typically intrude in the internal workings of a state legislature, as a matter of separation of powers. The notion that the teacher union might have suffered “irreparable harm” without the restraining order (Judge Price’s words) was ludicrous.

Now that the bill is law, Bentley and others who supported the tax credit can expect a lawsuit. And families whose children are zoned to a failing public school and who are hoping for the private school...

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Assessing the President's Preschool Plan

Assessing the President's Preschool Plan

In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for making preschool available to every child in America. But questions abound: Is universal preschool politically and fiscally feasible—or even educationally necessary? Should we be expending federal resources on universal pre-K or targeting true Kindergarten-readiness programs for the neediest kids? How robust is the evidence of lasting impacts? And what exactly is the president proposing?

White smoke over Fordham

Wondering what Congress should be doing about pre-K, why Boston has switched to a new school-assignment system, or why an Alabama judge doesn’t seem to care about the separation of powers? Mike and Daniela are, too! Amber talks tenure reform—and Mike has a great new show to pitch Donald Trump.

Amber's Research Minute

Do First Impressions Matter?Improvement in Early Career Teacher Effectiveness” by Allison Atteberry, Susanna Loeb, and James Wyckoff (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, February 2013)

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