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Dear Deborah,

Thanks for inviting me to join you on your blog. Even though we disagree on many issues, I have great respect for you and the work you've done in your career.

As I write this, I'm returning from the Education Writers Association annual conference, held this year at Stanford. I spoke on a panel about the "opportunity gap" with professors Sean Reardon and Prudence Carter. Reardon, as you know, recently published a fascinating but sobering study about the growing income achievement gap. (ASCD's Educational Leadership has an accessible version of the study available online.) And Carter co-edited the new volume, Closing the Opportunity Gap.

What Professor Reardon's research shows is that, over the last 60 years, the achievement gap between the nation's poorest and richest students has widened dramatically. That's true of both test scores and college attainment.

Opportunity gap
It's not that poor children are falling behind the middle class. It's that the richest students are breaking away from everybody else.
Photo by John-Morgan

This finding is not surprising for people who have been paying attention, but what is surprising is where the gap lies. It's not that poor children are falling behind the middle class—they're not. It's that the richest students are breaking away from everybody else.

Why is this happening? Here...

I’m thrilled to announce that next week, I’m launching a new feature called “By the Company It Keeps,” here on Fordham’s family of blogs.

It’ll be a weekly interview series spotlighting the work of some of our field’s most interesting and valuable contributors.  Generally, each week’s Q&A will be based on a recent event, like the publication of a noteworthy study, a significant personnel move, or the announcement of a major initiative.

In short, you’ll get from-the-horse’s-mouth facts on a timely story.

But we’ll quickly veer into other areas. You might see reflections on the subject’s career, a funny revelation, or personal goals. Or something completely different.

One of my objectives—and I suppose this goes for all interviewers—is to straddle the line between informative and entertaining.  We should learn some stuff while smiling along the way.

But I have another purpose, and it’s suggested by the title of this series.

Years ago, at what I believe was the first or second Yale SOM Education Leadership Conference, I was asked to moderate a panel. I was struggling mightily to come up with some clever or, at very least, amusing icebreaker.

You see, it was all very intimidating. It was Yale, for goodness sake. The audience was chock-full of sophisticates wearing tweed and scowls. My panel was charged with holding forth on some heady topic, the conference organizers were looking on, and—hand to God, this is true—the sharp, take-no-prisoners politico-journalist Alexander Russo was crouched near a wall, hands...

Interval training for ed-policy wonks

Mike and Dara chat about the open-source school district, mayoral hopeful Quinn’s G&T proposal, and teacher equivocation on Common Core preparedness. Amber’s got some bad news about the nation’s community colleges.

Amber's Research Minute

What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? The Mathematics and English Literacy Required of First Year Community College Students by National Center on Education and the Economy, (Washington, D.C.: National Center on Education and the Economy, May 2013)

Should Everyone Go To College?With backpacks full of student debt and too few job opportunities to go around, things are looking bleaker for today’s college graduates. So what to tell the next generation? According to this brief from the Brookings Institution (and some notable others), although college graduates still make more money over their lifetimes than their peers with only a high school diploma, one important fact receives far too little attention: Not all college degrees or graduates are equal. The authors look at variations in monetary returns to education along three dimensions: school selectivity, field of study and career, and graduation rates. The findings? First, selectivity matters; highly selective private schools have high returns on investment (ROIs). But among the less-selective options, public schools are the wiser call (because they are cheaper). Second, the authors highlight the earnings disparities between career tracks, noting that STEM majors far and away outpace others in terms of earnings potential. One telling example: The lifetime earnings of education or arts majors in the service sector are lower than the average earnings of a high school graduate. (Of course, that’s also a sorry commentary on teacher pay.) Third, students who stop along the way and fail to procure a degree incur costs without payoffs. Fewer than 60 percent of those who enter four-year schools end up...

GadflyOur Gadfly readers won’t be surprised that in India, where a quarter or more public school teachers are absent at any given time, the demand for quality education among the poor has created a thriving market of private schools. Some think tanks, such as the Economist-profiled Centre for Civil Society, and provincial governments are running voucher experiments—with encouraging results. But as the Economist points out, the Indian government, which has proven to be innovative in some areas like health care, remains mulish in its opposition to private schools, designing rules apparently aimed at their eradication. For the sake of their nation’s children, we urge them to reevaluate.

A new NCTQ study finds that during the Great Recession, forty of the fifty largest school districts froze or cut teacher pay at least once between 2007 and 2012. Still and all, teacher pay did rise, if only slightly, over that five year period. The trends were “on par with almost all of the comparable professions” they assessed. Fascinatingly, Chicago clocked in with the highest pay raises (6.5 percent).

Christine Quinn, a front-runner for mayor of the Big Apple, has proposed addressing inequities in that city’s excellent but far too small gifted-and-talented program by creating 8,700 new spots over nine years. Additionally, she suggested allowing students from disadvantaged backgrounds to seek admission by way of teacher recommendations, rather than...

Jane S. Shaw

Michael Petrilli is absolutely right that many Pell grant recipients aren’t ready for college and would be better off doing something else. One sign of poor preparation is the need to take remedial classes in college, and Petrilli recommends that students enrolled in such courses not be given Pell money.

The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (which I head) offers a somewhat different solution to the same problem. We believe that the federal government should inject an element of merit into the selection of Pell grantees. Thus, in a paper on Pell grants, Jenna Ashley Robinson and Duke Cheston recommend that Pell-grant recipients have SAT scores of at least 850 (verbal and math) and a high school GPA of at least 2.5 (between a C and a B).

“Not only would this save taxpayer money, it would provide a positive incentive for students to do better in school,” they write. “Students with very low high school academic performance are unlikely to graduate from college regardless of financial aid.”

The two solutions are similar, of course. As we see it, the advantage of our proposal is that it’s an objective standard that would be easy to enforce. Under Petrilli’s proposal, I would worry (as he does) about colleges renaming remedial courses as “regular” courses, something that may already be happening.

The SAT score we recommend, 850, isn’t high. According to the College Board, in order to have a 65 percent chance of...

Philly’s Schools Phuture?

During the research for my book, one of the most interesting and depressing tidbits I uncovered was that the handful of high-performing, high-poverty traditional public schools described in No Excuses had not been grown by their districts. The central recommendation of my book is that the “four principles of chartering” should be applied across all three sectors; that includes growing great schools of all types (charter, private, and district). Charter growth has been happening via CMOs for more than a decade now, but the Philadelphia Schools Partnership has found a number of district schools to expand. Interesting development.

Addressing Non-urban Poverty

It appears that, slowly but surely, the education-reform community is paying more and more attention to the needs of low-income kids in rural areas (more on this from Bellwether soon). For years now, the primary focus has been on America’s cities. Maybe it should come as no surprise that Teach for America is stepping forward; TFA has long had a number of non-urban outposts. Its new program is designed to train TFA alum for school leadership positions in rural America. This is a tiny program, at least initially, but it’s a start.  Good luck, and well done.

Impervious to Competition?

Probably the bitterest pill I’ve had to swallow as a conservative ed reformer is that competition (from charters and choice programs) has had a positive but negligible influence on urban school districts. Ten years...

Pause, maybe, but no moratorium

Checker and Kathleen consider Randi Weingarten’s call to suspend testing, pre-K finance jitters, and the fate of the testing consortia. Amber worries about wayward sons.

Amber's Research Minute

Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education by David Autor and Melanie Wasserman (Washington, D.C.: Third Way)

Everyone from President Barack Obama to U.S. Representative Paul Ryan to Bill Gates seems to have a plan for improving the Federal Pell Grant Program for higher education.

A huge proportion Pell investment goes to unprepared students
Less than 10 percent of students who start in remedial education graduate from community college within three years
Image by MyTudut.

Worthy though some of these efforts may be, none get to the crux of the problem: A huge proportion of this $40 billion annual federal investment is flowing to people who simply aren’t prepared to do college-level work. And this is perverting higher education’s mission, suppressing completion rates, and warping the country’s K–12 system.

About two-thirds of low-income community-college students—and one-third of poor students at four-year colleges—need remedial (a.k.a. “developmental”) education, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit group. But it’s not working: Less than 10 percent of low-income students who start in remedial education graduate from community college within three years, and just 35 percent of such students earn a four-year degree within six years.

What if the government decreed that, starting three years hence, students would only be eligible for Pell aid if enrolled in credit-bearing college courses, thus disqualifying remedial education for support?

One could foresee various possible outcomes. Let’s start with the positive. Ambitious, low-income high school...

Though few Americans have ever heard of the “Common Core,” it’s causing a ruckus in education circles and turmoil in the Republican Party. Prompted by tea-party activists, a couple of talk-radio hosts and bloggers, a handful of disgruntled academics, and several conservative think tanks, the Republican National Committee recently adopted a resolution blasting the Common Core as “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.” Several red states that previously adopted it for their schools are on the verge of backing out. Indiana is struggling over exit strategies.

Conservatives and the Common Core
Public education is indisputably the responsibility of states—but that doesn't mean states can't work together
Image by beX out loud.

What, you ask, is this all about?

Thirty years after a blue-ribbon panel declared the United States to be “a nation at risk” due to the weak performance and shoddy results of our public education system, one of the two great reforms to have enveloped that system is the setting of explicit academic standards in core subjects, standards that make clear what math youngsters should know by the end of fifth grade, what reading-and-writing skills they must acquire by tenth grade, and so on. (The other great reform: widespread...

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