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The first time I drove through Camden, New Jersey, I was shell-shocked.

I was the state’s deputy commissioner of education and was on my way to one of the city’s schools, where Governor Christie was hosting a bill-signing event. I had previously visited one of Camden’s alternative schools, but I had been ferried by a local who, I later figured out, knew the roads inside and out.

I had heard countless stories about Camden’s sad state but hadn’t truly witnessed it during that trip. But the online map provider I used for my first solo journey showed that it knew less about the city than I did. It generated a route that took me on a tour I will never forget.

To that point, the two most tragic cities I’d seen were Detroit and Cleveland. Yes, both have areas that still give the appearance of vibrancy, but venture a bit further out and you see countless deserted buildings and decaying neighborhoods.

Then you see kids.

The cruelty these environs inflict on boys and girls is unspeakable. It’s why I do this work.

But what I saw in Camden was even worse....

We know that student mobility negatively impacts achievement and increases the likelihood of dropping out, not to mention the spillover effects on non-movers in high-churn schools. But can schools really do anything to curtail mobility among students? This study, conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Rice University, seeks to answer that question by randomly assigning an intervention designed to build relationships among families and between families and school personnel. Parents are recruited into a program comprising eight weeks of gatherings after school that last two to three hours, followed by two years of monthly parent-led meetings where parents, students, and school staff have meals together, play bonding games, and engage in other family rituals. Fifty-two elementary schools in Phoenix and San Antonio—all with high proportions of Hispanic and poor children—were randomly assigned to the treatment, with half receiving the intervention and half serving as the control group. Data were collected during the students’ first- through third-grade years. In the treatment schools, 73 percent of families attended at least one gathering and half attended multiple sessions. Of those who attended at all, a third completed the full program. Analysts found that on average, attending a school with the intervention did not reduce...

The appointment of former educator and experienced administrator Carmen Fariña as the new chancellor of New York City’s one-million-student public school system has been met with cautious optimism from several fronts, spanning from those who hope she will soften de Blasio’s stance against charter schools to those who hope the opposite. Gadfly, however, is deeply concerned about her recent comments—specifically, her contention that facts are learned “maybe to take tests, but we learn thinking to get on in life. As anyone who understands the past thirty years of cognitive science knows, that’s as false a dichotomy as they come. Gaining knowledge and learning to think critically, rather than being mutually exclusive, are in fact dependent upon one another. Gotham’s students need more knowledge, not less.

Call it a Christmas present to value-added haters: Over the holiday season, news broke that an error in the District of Columbia’s Mathematica-designed value-added model—specifically, the calculation of teachers’ “individual value-added” score, which constitutes 35 percent of teachers’ score under the city’s IMPACT evaluation system—led to mistaken job evaluations for forty-four teachers, one of whom lost their...

Amber loses her marbles

In the first podcast of the year, Mike and Brickman discuss NCLB’s goal of universal proficiency, an error in D.C.’s IMPACT evaluation scores, and the correct pronunciation of Fariña. Amber is no good with marbles—but great at educating us about student mobility.

Amber's Research Minute

Reducing School Mobility: A Randomized Trial of a Relationship-Building Intervention,” by Jeremy E. Fiel, Anna R. Haskins and Ruth N. López Turley, American Educational Research Journal 50 (2013): 1188–1218.

It’s that time of year when we guilt ourselves into better behavior—vowing to lead a more abstemious lifestyle, go to the gym more often, improve personal finances...

Way too hard.

Here’s a New Year’s resolution you can follow through on: five good edu-reads to start the year off right!

If you care about accountability systems, you really must read the new report by New America’s Anne Hyslop, “It’s All Relative.” The study shows the major difference between the NCLB era and the waiver era in 16 states. There are way too many lessons to be captured in this short blurb—each table and figure deserves a paragraph—but the overarching takeaway is that states with waivers are addressing struggling schools very differently than they had over the previous decade. That might not turn out to be a good thing.

The KIPP Foundation’s CEO posted a blog on seven exciting developments for the nation’s largest CMO during 2013. The highlights: they now have 141 schools serving 50,000 kids; they continue to serve high-need students and get great results; more than 4,500 alumni are in college; and the organization is making strides to make school leadership more sustainable.

Check out...

Tomorrow morning, some of you are going to feel bad about yourselves for tonight’s debauch. Not much I can do for headaches and queasy stomachs, but I can help you insulate your self-esteem: Read these five things before the festivities. You’ll head into the evening knowing you smartened yourself up. And tomorrow, when someone looks at your haggard visage and says, “Last year went out with a bang, huh?” you can say, “Yes, indeed. I did some high-quality edu-reading.”

  • Those who reflexively oppose school closures think they are doing communities a favor. Putting aside for a moment the issue of shuttering persistently failing schools, we must come to grips with the consequences of opposing closures when an urban district’s enrollment plummets. This short editorial from the Chicago Tribune explains it perfectly. It’s not just taxpayers who lose; it’s also teachers. Adamant closure opponents aren’t doing us any favors.
  • Though the top of this short article from the Atlantic Cities is about the concentration of wealth in the Northeast, the second and third maps show why ed reformers needs to look beyond our cities. The poorest areas are in Appalachia, the Southeast, the Mississippi Delta, south Texas,
  • ...

This year, readers beat a trail to our blogs for Common Core content; six out of ten of Fordham’s top ten blog posts in 2013 were from Common Core Watch, moderated by Kathleen Porter-Magee. These included posts on real lessons we can learn from Finland, calling out Pearson’s conflicts of interest in New York, four fundamental misunderstandings associated with the anti-testing movement, the case for why conservatives should support the Common Core, the false promise of leveled literacy programs, and why criticisms of the Common Core mathematics standards don’t add up.

Mike Petrilli’s point-by-point rebuttal of an anti–Common Core Wall Street Journal op-ed also made the cut, as did Andy Smarick’s controversial interview with former CEO of Chicago Public Schools Jean-Claude Brizard and a roundtable reaction to the Tony Bennett flap. But the number-one spot went to none of these contentious education-policy topics; instead, the Fordham Institute’s most read blog entry was a list of Mike Petrilli’s top-ten television shows for young children. Go figure.

The following, for your enjoyment, are our ten most read blog posts of 2013. Happy holidays...

Happy holidays from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute!

For more Gadfly shenanigans…

To learn more about what the Gadfly really says, check out the most recent issue of the Education Gadfly Weekly. And have a happy New Year!...

The Gadfly (What Does Gadfly Say?)

What Does Gadfly Say?

Mike makes a funding pitch to Eli Broad.

From NYC Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s pledge to provide universal preschool to bipartisan legislation proposing federally funded preschool grants, we have witnessed in 2013 new momentum toward expanding access to early-childhood programs. Yet this evaluation of Tennessee’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program (TN-VPK)—the second in a series conducted by Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute and the Tennessee Department of Education—may cause some second thoughts. TN-VPK is a full-day, one-year, voluntary preschool program aimed at improving the school readiness of the state’s most disadvantaged four-year-olds. The initial evaluation found that the program succeeds in that mission: by the end of the preschool year, participating students made significant cognitive achievement gains when compared to eligible students who applied to TN-VPK but were not accepted (due to space limitations). The new study, however, which sought to evaluate the program’s long-term effects in both cognitive and non-cognitive domains, found that achievement gains made in preschool essentially disappeared when measured at the end of Kindergarten and again at the end of first grade. Though surely disappointing, these findings accord with many earlier studies of preschool effects (most conspicuously a raft of HeadStart evaluations), most of which indicate that cognitive gains made by disadvantaged preschool...

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