Additional Topics

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...

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...

Always a bridesmaid edition

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.

Amber's Research Minute

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

Want to turn TV time into learning time? As I explain in greater detail below, free streaming videos from services like Netflix and Amazon are a boon to parents committed to a well-rounded education for their children—and not opposed to a little screen time on occasion.

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For the past several months I’ve been curating the best kid-friendly movies and shows available on major educational topics. Check them out and let me know what you think. (If there’s no link, it means that topic is still coming.)


  1. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals
  2. Fish and other aquatic animals
  3. Insects
  4. Frogs and other amphibians
  5. Reptiles
  6. Birds
  7. Mammals
  8. Human evolution
  9. Earthquakes and volcanos
  10. Outer space
  11. Systems of the human body


  1. Classic children's books (movie adaptations)
  2. American folk heroes

U.S. History

  1. Native American cultures
  2. Age of exploration and discovery of America
  3. Colonial America and the revolutionary war
  4. George Washington and other founders
  5. Lewis & Clark and westward expansion
  6. Civil War and reconstruction
  7. Immigration and citizenship

World History

  1. Early Asian civilizations
  2. Early American civilizations
  3. Ancient Egypt
  4. Ancient Greece
  5. Roman Empire

My Rationale

Skeptics of educational technology like to quote mid-century...

If you’re itching for some edu-reading over the long weekend (what else would you do while grilling?), here are some suggestions.

I admire my Fordham colleagues because they have a way of coming up with the most interesting subjects to study, and they often come up with unintuitive findings. Such is the case with their latest report, What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-offs. You really ought to give this a read. There’s big overlap among parents’ interests, but not surprisingly different types of parents have different interests. TBFI was able to flesh out some market niches—parents who prioritized preferences that other parents found less important. If you’re a parent of a school-aged child or plan to be some day, you’ll almost certainly find the study illuminating (my wife and I took the quiz to make sure we’re aligned…whew, yes!). One big takeaway for me is that our longstanding system of residence-based school assignments just doesn’t make sense. If we want to address the interests and needs of students and their families, we need a system of schools where parents can choose from an array of options.

If you care about systemic reform in urban schooling, you have to read New Orleans-Style Education Reform: A Guide for Cities, Lessons Learned 2004–2010.  Published in 2012, this report, produced by NSNO’s Neerav Kingsland and the good folks at Public Impact as part of the dissemination requirement of the former’s federal i3 grant, recounts the evolution of NOLA’s brilliant post-Katrina...

Preschool policy is a fragmented hodgepodge, writes Andrew Karch, as he traces early-education policy since the 1970s. He starts with President Nixon’s veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Act—for some, a missed opportunity; for others, the beginning of the private and public program-mix we have today. Karch doesn’t focus on the effectiveness of this patchwork system (for that, read Reroute the PreSchool Juggernaut), but he’s not surprised that policymakers remain dissatisfied. The current system is the result of stakeholders protecting their entrenched interests and the status quo. True, they support tweaks—just as long as their own policy sphere is not changed; so most reforms efforts—a la President Obama—run amuck and we are left with the stasis we have today. (This more-than-obvious explanation could be used to describe any policy debate underway in Congress and many of our state houses.) Still, readers interested in early education or public-policy development at large would be wise to peruse this book for its insight into how we got the policies we have today and why we see so much paralysis in attempts to reform them.

SOURCE: Andrew Karch, Early Start: Preschool Politics in the United States (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, April 2013).

The fight for civil rights and empowerment didn’t happen overnight, but rather one lunch counter at a time, reminds reverend H.K. Matthews in an editorial supporting the new Alabama Accountability Act.

The Justice System petitioned a judge to stop Louisiana’s voucher program in thirty-plus districts operating under federal desegregation orders. This move is folly—and could have major implications for other modes of choice, including charter schools.

Original recipe?  The newly created Kentucky Charter Schools Association, along with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Democrats for Education Reform, the Black Alliance for Education Options and senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul are teaming up to bring charter schools to the Bluegrass State.

The teachers union in Mexico has “wreaked chaos” in the nation’s capital, “blockading roads and setting up a tent city in the city's colossal main square” to protest recent education reforms, writes the Wall Street Journal.

Former Chicago public schools chief J.C. Brizard is making headlines in Chicago again—this time for a By the Company It Keeps interview with Andy Smarick, where Brizard says he underestimated the power of the teachers union and calls Rahm Emanuel a micromanager.

The Onion takes on Teacher For America and asks for real teachers who have “an honest-to-God degree in education and not a twentysomething English graduate trying to bolster a middling GPA and a sparse law school application.” Required reading for The Onion staff includes NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review 2013....

The Miley Cyrus-Britney Spears showdown

Can Common Core and school choice coexist? What’s the deal with Teach For America? Mike and Dara discuss what parents want, while Amber disses QRIS (and preps for the big day).

Amber's Research Minute

Can Rating Pre-K Programs Predict Children's Learning? by T. J. Sabol1, S. L. Soliday Hong, R. C. Pianta, and M. R. Burchina


I’m a big admirer of Joanne Weiss. She recently left the U.S. Department of Education after a tremendously consequential tenure. Working behind the scenes—never seeking the limelight for herself—she had a hand in the most important federal education decisions over the last five years.

Joanne Weiss

Joanne joined the Obama Administration’s Department of Education early and earned great respect for her expert management of the gigantic Race to the Top competition. Such were her accomplishments that Secretary Duncan elevated her to the most important—and underappreciated—staff position in the Department: chief of staff (COS).

Nothing of import happens in a cabinet agency without involvement by the COS. I suspect that many days, Joanne was the first person in the morning and last person in the evening that Secretary Duncan spoke to.

More than that, though, the job is as brutally difficult and high-anxiety as you could imagine. You have to manage the flow of information to the boss so he isn’t overwhelmed. You have to tee up tough issues for final decisions—that means bringing not just problems but also a series of possible solutions. You have to deal with all of the internal challenges of a massive political bureaucracy. You have to work with the White House, OMB, Congress, and other agencies. And when an angry call comes in from a member of Congress, a state chief, or a governor, it gets routed to the COS.

And while...

Jean-Claude Brizard

I met Jean-Claude Brizard almost four years ago when he was leading the school district of Rochester. After talking to him for about an hour, I was so impressed that I became convinced he was destined for even bigger things.

Born in Haiti and reared in New York City, Brizard is a career educator. He was a student in the Big Apple’s public schools and eventually became a teacher, principal, and district executive in that same system. He graduated from the Broad Superintendents Academy, Class of 2007, was recruited to Rochester, and then, in 2011, was scooped up by incoming Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to become CEO of the Windy City’s school district, the third largest in the nation. Brizard is now a senior advisor at College Board, working with an extraordinary leadership team alongside David Coleman, an author and ardent advocate for the Common Core State Standards.

Jean-Claude knows the ins and outs of urban districts as well as anyone around today, and those experiences have left him skeptical about the century-old institutional arrangements in place in virtually all American cities. He has endured some of the toughest political episodes with unmatched dignity. What struck me most during my initial conversations with Jean-Claude—and since—was on full public display during his most challenging times in Rochester and Chicago. He has that magical combination of utter confidence and genuine humility that produces an approachable posture and a near Zen-like calm....