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Much research contributes to the education-policy debate by adding insights on a particular topic. This latest from the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center, on the other hand, is interesting for what it doesn’t say: notably, that compulsory school attendance (CSA) has any bearing on graduation rates. Authors compared states with a CSA age of eighteen to those with a CSA age of sixteen or seventeen. Overall, the latter group boasts a graduation rate 1 to 2 percentage points higher than the former—findings that hold when controlling for demographic factors as well. What’s more this slight advantage tracks over time as well: Between 1994-95 and 2008-09, states with a CSA age of sixteen or seventeen moved their graduation rates by 3 percentage points. Their counterparts with a CSA age of eighteen saw no improvement in grad rate. (Remember, these are correlated data: They don’t factor in exit-exam difficulty, graduation requirements, etc.) Further, from a policy perspective, the authors find that few states are able to ensure compliance with mandated changes to CSAs. Which makes one wonder: If compulsory school attendance doesn’t move the needle on graduation rates (and, in fact, is associated with states with lower rates of high school completion) and it isn’t feasibly enforced, why have policymakers—President Obama included—made it such a focal issue?

SOURCE: Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst and Sarah Whitfield, Compulsory School Attendance: What Research Says and What It Means for State Policy (Washington, D.C.: Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, August 2012)....


Almost anyone in the field of education can tell you improving the quality of life for children is a multi-faceted endeavor. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual KIDS COUNT Data Book is testament to that fact. It explores four dimensions of child well-being at the national and state level: economic, education, health, and family and community. This year’s data book methodology expands last year’s, and divides it into the four dimensions to allow a closer look at education and family and community factors.

In the aftermath of “the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression,” the authors provide some interesting discoveries about our nation’s children. Overall national trends suggest that despite the impact of difficult economic times on children in the United States, things are slowly improving. Both child health and education have seen overall improvement. For child health, the number of children without health insurance has decreased by 20%. In education, areas such as 4th and 8th grade proficiency and on-time high school graduation have improved in recent years at the national level. 

Expectedly, economic well-being decreased for children after the recession, but initiatives like Race to the Top’s (RTTT) Early Learning Challenge and local programs that support children are attempting to curb the damage in my opinion. Specifically, Ohio’s $70 million RTTT initiative focuses primarily on kindergarten readiness and high quality, accountable programming. The Data Book ranked Ohio 18 of 50 states in its education factors; an encouraging point for our recent wave of policy changes. However,...


The U.S.A. is having another great Olympics, with ninety medals so far, thirty-nine of them gold—best in the world in both categories. Only curmudgeons and cynics shrink from feeling pride and patriotism when watching so many young Americans on the podium, singing along to the Star-Spangled Banner.

At the same time, the comparison to America’s lackluster academic performance is almost irresistible—witness Michelle Rhee’s cheeky TV ad or Bob Wise’s coverage from London and Singapore (or, yes, Fordham’s own “Education Olympics” stunt from four years ago).

But there’s a flaw of logic in such comparisons. It’s not exactly fair to contrast the performance of our elite athletes—the .0001 percent—with the performance of our students as a whole (the 100 percent). We should either compare elite athletes to elite students, or our average athletes to our average students.

I’m not sure how you’d do the latter (though I find it hard to believe that Americans in general would do well in an international ranking of physical fitness). But here’s a crack at the former.

First let’s show the Olympic medal count:

Source: ESPN

And now let’s show international rankings for the percentage of students scoring at the most advanced level of the PISA. (This is from Fordham’s 2011 report, American Achievement in International Perspective.)

So there you have it: As suspected, America’s elite athletes are among the world’s best, and our elite students are...


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....