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2014 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?Since 2000, the Brown Center has released an annual report taking on three important issues in education policy. In this thirteenth installment, author Tom Loveless presents analysis on the PISA-Shanghai controversy (in brief: by failing to take Shanghai’s Hukou laws into account, the test significantly overstates the city’s performance), Common Core implementation to date (Loveless finds that early-adopter states are showing bigger gains on NAEP, though we believe that it is far too early to draw conclusions), and homework in American schools (an update of a 2003 report on the same topic). The homework issue is particularly thorny, as anti-homework crusades—while in and out of the media spotlight—have maintained for the last decade that kids are being buried in piles of burdensome and ineffective homework. To discover if this is true, Loveless employs three methods. First, he looks at NAEP data from 1984–2012—specifically, at a survey question that asks nine-, thirteen-, and seventeen-year-olds how much time they spent on homework the day...

The Common Core drama continues in Florida: after much coquetry, the Sunshine State has officially opted to abandon PARCC in favor of commissioning a new exam aligned to its new (Common Core-heavy) state standards. The contract went to American Institutes for Research (AIR), beating out overtures from the likes of ACT, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill. We’re all for a competitive assessment marketplace, but we’re also skeptical that anyone but PARCC and Smarter Balanced has had the time and resources to develop a truly Common Core-aligned test.

In an amendment to the state’s education budget, Wyoming became the first state to officially block adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards—ostensibly because the NGSS teach climate change. In our state-by-state analysis of the NGSS, we found that these new “national”  standards for science are not superior to enough states’ existing science standards to warrant full-throated support. However, they are certainly of higher quality than Wyoming’s existing science standards. The Cowboy State is shooting itself in the foot. (If they don’t like NGSS, they should Xerox California’s or D.C.’s science standards.)...

It’s an article of faith in the school-reform community that we should be striving to prepare all students for success in college—if not a four-year degree, then some other recognized and reputable post-secondary credential. The rationale is clear and generally compelling; as a recent Pew study reiterated, people who graduate from college earn significantly more than those who do not. Other research indicates that low-income students in particular benefit from college completion, becoming nearly three times more likely to make it into the middle class than their peers who earn some (or no) college credits. And it’s not just about money: College graduates are also healthier, more involved in their communities, and happier in their jobs.

Thus, in the reformers’ bible, the greatest sin is to look a student in the eye and say, “Kid, I’m sorry, but you’re just not college material.”

But what if such a cautionary sermon is exactly what some teenagers need? What if encouraging students to take a shot at the college track—despite very long odds of crossing its finish line—does them more harm than good? What if our own hyper-credentialed life experiences and ideologies...

Fordham goes mad for March Madness

Mike and Brickman consider whether “college for all” is the right goal, whether a competitive assessment marketplace will be good for Common Core implementation in the long run, and whether Wyoming is better off without the Next Generation Science Standards. Amber drops a line about online learning.

Amber's Research Minute

"The Relative Benefits of Live versus Online Delivery: Evidence from Virtual Algebra I in North Carolina," by Jennifer Heissel, Working Paper, Association for Education Finance and Policy. (Please email us for the link:

In recent years, pre-Kindergarten has become a rather popular idea among policymakers and the public. The latest cases in point include the Columbus mayor’s announcement of a new $5 million initiative to provide quality pre-K. Meanwhile, just last week, Cleveland-area entities announced a massive $35 million, two-year plan to expand access to quality pre-K. Yet, as Ohio’s policymakers enthusiastically tout pre-K, they should understand that it isn’t necessarily an educational slam dunk. Consider Grover “Russ” Whitehurst’s excellent summary of the research.[1] Whitehurst analyzes thirteen pre-K studies from the 1960s to the present, grading the quality of the research and reporting the impact of the program. Whitehurst begins with a look at two widely cited studies from the 1960s and 1970s, Perry Preschool and Abecedarian, both of which found positive, long-term impacts for participants. So far so good, but Whitehurst reminds us that Perry and Abecedarian studies were evaluations of small single-site programs. (Perry, for example, had just fifty-eight participants.) This limits the ability to infer that large-scale pre-K programs would confer similar benefits. As he moves into studies from recent years, Whitehurst reports less positive findings on large-scale pre-K programs. In his view,...

Breakthrough Schools’ head honcho Alan Rosskamm testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C. last week. The hearing was titled “Raising the Bar: The Role of Charter Schools in K–12 Education,” and Rosskamm knows a thing or two about doing just that.

  • Ahead of the testimony, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) released a statement lauding Rosskamm and the Breakthrough teachers for their work in providing high-quality education for their students.
  • The Cleveland Plain Dealer also previewed Rosskamm’s testimony ahead of time, noting the strength of the partnership between Breakthrough and Cleveland Metropolitan School District, which has—to the benefit of students and families—helped to break down the long-standing barriers between charters and district schools.

Vocational education is also in the news:

Here are some of the best edu-reads I’ve come across recently.

Think the teacher-pension issue is only for green-eyeshade types? Think again! My colleagues at Bellwether, Chad Aldeman and Andy Rotherham, have written an informative—and worrisome—report on the current state of play of educator retirement benefits and its implications for the profession and taxpayers. Get this: about half of all public schoolteachers won’t qualify for even a minimal pension. How in the world is that possible? Read the report.

You may also think that “school productivity”—how to get the biggest bang for our education buck—is only for accountants and actuaries. But Paul Hill has written a very good piece for the George W. Bush Institute on how smart governance changes can both make the most of our scarce resources and improve student learning. The report isn’t spreadsheets and pivot tables; it’s an interesting argument for changes in mindset, policy, and practice.

The always-excellent Center for Reinventing Public Education has produced a terrific short white paper on common enrollment systems, namely how to facilitate choice across a city with multiple school sectors. The brief describes how such systems are working in Denver and New Orleans, including the tough...

Research has repeatedly found that being a firstborn can come with advantages—they tend to be natural leaders, have higher IQ’s, and are often chosen to portray James Bond. They also perform better in school. This new NBER study sheds light on why this is so, testing the conventional wisdom that earlier-born siblings put more effort in school and perform better than their later-born siblings partly because their parents are more strict with them. Using the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (which includes data from parent surveys), they track outcomes for children as they transition between the ages of 10 and 14. Three key findings: First, there is a clear association between school performance and birth order. For example, 34 percent of firstborns are viewed by their mothers as “one of the best in the class,” versus 27 percent of those coming fourth in birth order. Likewise, just 7 percent of firstborns are considered below the middle or at the bottom of the class, compared to 11 percent of fourth-borns. (The analysts use GPAs on school transcripts to validate the moms’ self-reported data regarding how their children perform in school.) Early birth order is...

Perhaps New York mayor Bill de Blasio is starting to see that attacking charter schools is a better Democratic-primary strategy than governing philosophy. This turn of events can be illustrated by his appearance earlier this week on MSNBC’s Morning Joe show, where he encountered a surprisingly sharp round of questioning from the roundtable of (left-leaning) hosts on the matter. The New York Times notes that de Blasio is softening his rhetoric and reaching out to charter groups “more sympathetic” to his administration. With his approval rating already down to 39 percent—just ten weeks after taking office—here’s hoping Hizzoner will stop antagonizing charter schools altogether.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled on an important school funding case this week, finding that the state’s legislature does, in fact, have the authority to make budgetary decisions—but that it also must maintain an educational system that meets constitutional requirements. In Education Next, Eric Hanushek contends that the court got it right. Unlike previous rulings in the state, the court indicated that the “total spending is not the touchstone for determining adequacy”; rather, the skills of students ought to be so.

In a new Huffington Post article, Diane...

The SXSWedu portion of the famously cool SXSW festival is the oddball segment, as evidenced by the early start and the attendees actually wearing suits. Besides the un-SXSW vibe of SXSWedu, there were a ton of takeaways for policy wonks. Here are four key ones:

  1. Wendy Kopp, founder of Teacher For America and Teach For All, not only takes tough questions from the audience (including many former TFA corps members), she took the no-silver-bullets route—that no one policy is the answer for our education crisis. She identified teacher-preparation reform as the 2013–14 flavor of the school year: fix the teachers and you’ll fix the schools. But most impressively, she told a tech-savvy audience that putting a tablet into every child’s hands isn’t going to do squat for improving our schools.
  2. A marriage between school choice and non-cognitive skills has a lot of potential. Many are reluctant to open their arms to teaching the “touchy-feely” stuff in our schools, especially as we continue to underperform academically. But non-cognitive skills matter. Bryan Contreras from KIPP Houston described the network’s home visits, summer camps, and mentoring programs. Contreras convinced me that these efforts at “social and emotional learning” are clear-headed parts of
  3. ...