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The American Dream in Crisis: A conversation with Robert Putnam

The American Dream in Crisis: A conversation with Robert Putnam

The promise of upward mobility is central to education reform. Parents, educators, and researchers hope that if we can prepare low-income students for college and career, they will have the tools they need to enter the middle class as adults. But Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, argues that a growing opportunity gap is making such hopes look naïve.
 
As Putnam contends, the cycle of poverty is stronger than ever. What aspects of our current education system are contributing to this trend? And more importantly, what reforms are needed?
 
Robert Putnam discusses his new book and how education reform can help to restore the American dream for our kids.
 
Follow the conversation on twitter with @educationgadfly at #OurKids.
  • With the hue and cry surrounding big policy issues like testing, school choice, accountability, and labor, too little bandwidth remains for district- and building-level ideas that can spark energy in new directions. In the pages of Education Next, Fordham Senior Visiting Fellow Peter Meyer tells the tangled story of one such innovation: New York City’s small high schools. An early fixation of philanthreformers like Walter Annenberg and Bill Gates, the broader movement away from colossal public schools and toward more manageable, specialized academies was for years widely viewed as a failed effort; students could be sorted into the redesigned schools, but curriculum and instruction always seemed to lag. New York’s effort, the brainchild of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein, changed all that by providing institutional backing behind the initiative. Rather than scattering isolated seeds throughout an otherwise unaltered system, the city’s leaders directly engaged educators to develop a broad and resilient base of some two hundred schools. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that breaking up crowded behemoths into fun-sized institutions of learning increases graduation rates for low-income kids, but this tactic is an avenue to academic success that hasn’t been given the recognition it’s due. Thankfully,
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This book, an updated edition of Stanford professor Jo Boaler’s seminal 2008 work of the same name, tackles an important if familiar issue: The United States has a mathematics problem. On the 2012 iteration of PISA, the international test administered by the OECD, we ranked thirty-sixth out of sixty-five countries in math performance—and twenty-seventh out of thirty-four among OECD members. More ominously, 70 percent of students attending two-year colleges require remedial math courses—which only one in ten successfully passes.

Boaler argues that American math education is ineffective for three reasons: First, classroom learning is too passive, with teachers lecturing from the blackboard instead of actively interacting with their students. Second, instruction doesn’t emphasize understanding and critical thought, leaning instead on memorization and regurgitation. And third, the contexts in which content is taught don’t reflect the way math is used in everyday life. Take for example the following textbook question: “A pizza is divided into fifths for five friends at a party. Three of the friends eat their slices, but then four more friends arrive. What fractions should the remaining two slices be divided into?” When, in real life, would you need this, when you could just order more pizza?...

On May 13, Fordham President Michael J. Petrilli delivered testimony before a Pennsylvania State Senate committee. These were his remarks.

Chairman Smucker, Minority Chairman Dinniman, members of the committee: It’s an honor to be with you. My name is Mike Petrilli. I’m the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education policy think tank based in Washington that also does on-the-ground school reform work in the great state of Ohio. I was honored to serve in the George W. Bush administration; our founder and president emeritus, Chester Finn, served in the Reagan administration.

As a strong conservative and a strong supporter of education reform, I am pleased to speak in favor of Senate Bill 6 and its intent to create an Achievement School District for Pennsylvania. Turnaround school districts are among the most promising reforms in American education today.

Over four years ago, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, along with our friends at the Center for American Progress, began a multi-year initiative designed to draw attention to the elephant in the ed-reform living room: governance. Given its ability to trample any promising education improvement—or clear the way for its implementation—it was high time to put governance...

  1. Here’s a tale of two districts for you. High-flying Amherst Schools is pretty bent out of shape over the D grade they received in their very first K-3 Literacy Improvement Measure report. Meanwhile, Lorain Schools – currently being overseen by an Academic Distress Commission – is thrilled with their grade of C on the same measure. (Northern Ohio Morning Journal, 5/10/15)
     
  2. Just to up the ante, here’s a tale of THREE districts. A subdivision of 23 homes in central Ohio is geographically situated in Columbus, but due to fallout from the 1970s annexing boom around here, the school district assignment zone for them is not the local district but South-Western City Schools. There are 10 school age children currently in the neighborhood. None of them attend South-Western, but the district treasurer knows just how much property tax these houses generate for his district. That is, exactly how much property tax his district would lose if residents are successful in their efforts to get themselves rezoned for tony Upper Arlington City Schools. Which, one assumes, they WILL attend if they are successful. The residents appear to have the support of the State Board of Education in their efforts
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  1. Here’s a pretty up-to-date status report on standardized testing in Ohio. Sure, parts of the story are given “juice” by the use of some loaded terms (“controversial”, “scrap”, “confusing”, “a mess”), but let’s not quibble over questions of authorial intent. Let’s just be glad of all the attention being paid to testing. For the sake of student achievement, because that’s what all of the interview subjects have as their bottom line interest. Right? (Cincinnati Enquirer, 5/8/15)
     
  2. As if Patrick O’Donnell’s series on his visit to a Pearson testing facility in Westerville couldn’t get any more interesting, he concluded by answering some specific reader queries on the how’s and why’s of grading standardized tests without a computer. Honestly, the questions folks wanted answered were almost more interesting than the answers themselves. There’s so much to unpack in a question like “How many breaks are they given to get refreshed since each score means so much to each student?”. Still no answer to my puzzler: “What kinds of snacks are provided for said refreshment, since #brainfood?” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 5/9/15)
     
  3. Meanwhile, in the oldies-but-goodies department, editors in Columbus opined yesterday on the vital need for students to
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Cohabitation continues between the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). And they don't appear to be practicing birth control, because every year brings one or two new joint products. NIEER's hot-off-the-presses report—the tenth in its series of annual "state of preschool" data-and-advocacy scorecards—was again paid for via a multi-year sole-source contract from the National Center for Education Statistics, and was released at an event featuring none other than Arne Duncan.

Nobody is making any effort to conceal this romance (which is just as well if you believe in governmental transparency).

Its progeny, however, all seem to look alike. This report is more of the same: a celebration of various increases in state-funded early childhood programs, strong recommendations for yet more increases, sundry state-by-state comparisons, and individual state profiles. The only difference between it and the most recent one published by the Education Department itself is that NIEER's policy advocacy is naked while the federal versions at least wear diapers.

Aside from the question of whether Uncle Sam should be paying for this, my biggest issue continues to be NIEER's woeful definition of preschool "quality." At least eight of their ten "national...

Rand Paul, the junior U.S. senator from Kentucky, is one of at least six Republicans hoping to be president. He’s officially up against Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina—and more likely candidates, like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, are waiting in the wings. He’s also the subject of the eighth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling candidates’ stances on education issues.

Paul, who is both a standing U.S. senator and a practicing ophthalmologist, has been around national politics most of his life. His father Ron was an on-again, off-again congressman between 1976 and 2013, ran for president twice, and first held office when Rand was thirteen years old. So although Rand has only been in office for four years, he isn’t exactly a novice—nor is he treated like one. Here are his views on education:

1. Common...

  1. Our own Aaron Churchill was on the radio in Columbus yesterday, talking about our new report School Closures and Student Achievement. Big thanks to host Joel Riley for having us. (WTVN-AM, Columbus, 5/7/15)
     
  2. Blast from the past. Former Fordhamite Terry Ryan spoke to statewide public radio this week, discussing the history of charter schools in Ohio. With audio link in case you miss Terry’s dulcet tones. Nice. (StateImpact Ohio, 5/6/15)
     
  3. Fast-forward to today, when editors in Columbus opine (again) in favor of charter law reform in Ohio. Now. (Columbus Dispatch, 5/8/15)
     
  4. Reference is made in that Dispatch op-ed to bills being debated in the Ohio General Assembly on charter school law reform. No less than three bills contain vital elements of reform. On Wednesday, Bellwether Partners’ Andy Smarick testified before a Senate subcommittee on one of those bills. But, honestly, he could have been speaking of them all: “If they can implement the law well and hold their sponsors accountable, evidence from other states suggests this will put Ohio on the right track.” You can check out coverage of all the testimony from that session – which included not only Smarick but also representatives
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  1. Here’s some of the most exciting news to hit Ohio in a while: the Cincinnati Accelerator project. That is, a public-private partnership meant to boost the number of high-quality schools open to Cincinnati's poorest students. Partners include the Cincinnati Business and Cincinnati Regional Business committees, and the Farmer Family, Haile U.S. Bank and KnowledgeWorks foundations. It also involves leaders from Cincinnati Public Schools, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and local charter schools. Whew! In five years, the goal is to double the number of seats available at high-performing schools in Cincinnati, from about 5,000 to 10,000. And in ten years, 20,000 high-quality seats. We wish them the very best in this endeavor, on behalf of children and families in Cincinnati. It is to be hoped that no further campouts will be required to access these seats. (Cincinnati Enquirer, 5/6/15)
     
  2. Anyone else interested in an update on the status of the so-called “education deregulation” bill currently being heard in the House Education Committee? Me too! And here it is. (Gongwer Ohio, 5/5/15)
     
  3. Since when does a local newspaper care about the minutiae involved in a charter school changing management companies? When the school is in Youngstown and
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