Additional Topics

We all love teachers but do we all love ed reformers?

Mike and Kathleen wonder why education can’t stay out of the debates and pick the top edu-initiatives on the ballot. Amber describes the spectacular growth in non-teaching staff.

Amber's Research Minute

The School Staffing Surge: Decades of Employment Growth in America’s Public Schools by Benjamin Scafidi (Indianapolis, IN: The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, October 2012). - Download PDF

There’s been much twittering, tweeting, debating, and general obsessing in education-land about this year’s presidential election and what difference it will make whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney occupies the Oval Office after January 20, 2013.

In reality, however, while the outcome of this hard-fought contest matters greatly to the nation in many crucial realms, it doesn’t really make much difference for K-12 education. Nor do the parallel races to control Congress.

Ballot Box Close-up
The presidential election isn't the education race that matters most this fall. 
Photo by Joe Hall.

There are, to be sure, nontrivial differences between the candidates regarding future federal education policy, programs, regulations, and budget levels, and they have occasionally tried to underscore these during the campaign (not including Monday evening’s smarmy cries from both that “I love teachers!”). Yet even if those differences are substantial, it still won’t really matter much. Because federal policy, beloved though it is by those inside the Beltway and associated echo chambers, doesn’t really determine much about the conduct of our primary-secondary education system.

Even with his recently enlarged appetite for spending on education and attempts to call more of the shots, Uncle Sam kicks in only about ten percent of the money and has...

For much of the 1970 and 80s, the educational future for black students looked bright: The gap between white and black students’ graduation rates was closing rapidly, dropping from 9.2 to 4.4 percentage points over nineteen years (and due mostly to a rise in black attainment). Had this rate of convergence continued, the black graduation rate would have been level with that of whites by the mid-1990s. But everything changed in 1986. Why? Authors of this recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper blame the “stalled progress” on one social phenomenon: the proliferation of crack-cocaine markets. The authors examine the impact of crack-cocaine markets in fifty-seven metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) on the black-white achievement gap, with a specific focus on the male achievement gap. Crack markets, the authors find, account for between 40 and 73 percent of the decline in achievement among black males by catalyzing a higher murder rate, a greater chance of incarceration, and more opportunities for employment outside of the “formal” sector (reducing the value of their education). Why, then, have achievement gains among black males not rebounded after the decline in crack cocaine-related violence in the early 2000s? The authors speculate that there may now exist a perverse relationship between prison-intake rates and lower educational attainment: while the former originally caused the latter, the latter could now be driving the former by pushing students to crime due to lack of opportunity. Heady research, fodder for much debate, and another example of the social constraints that...

Intelligence, curiosity, and grit: important traits for success in school and life. But so is popularity, argues this working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Tapping Wisconsin Longitudinal Study data for 4,300 males from 1957 (the year they graduated high school) through 2005, authors evaluate characteristics associated with “popularity” and the effects of being well-liked on lifetime incomes. To gauge one’s popularity, authors tallied “friendship nominations,” both the number of friends a student lists and the number of times he is listed by his peers. Overall, authors found that students who are older than their grade-mates and have higher IQs are more popular. (Strong maternal and sibling relationships are also closely connected to social status; so is exposure to larger peer groups, as experienced by increased extracurricular activities.) But one’s family income had no effect on popularity. Linking these findings to one’s own lifetime income data, the analysts report that men in the top quartile of high school popularity have a 10 percent earnings premium over those in the bottom quartile. Moreover, increased social skills (by one decile, based on author calculations) are associated with a 2 percent wage advantage thirty-five years later—roughly 40 percent the return accrued from an additional year of schooling. The authors speculate why: High school “social interaction…provides the bridge to the adult world as [students] train individual personalities to be socially adequate.” There’s much to unpack in this short paper—including its dense methodology. But it does provide a boost for the benefits of...

Last week, Fordham and the ESC of Central Ohio welcomed Nate Levenson to the Buckeye State for a series of conversations with district and Educational Service Center superintendents, state policymakers, and education organizations that represent both traditional districts and charter schools. Levenson spoke about his ideas for making special education more efficient and of greater quality, which are laid out in his recent report Applying Systems Thinking to Improve Special Education in Ohio.

Throughout his time in Ohio, Levenson emphasized the following points:

1. The compliance-driven culture of special education needs to change. Compliance is ingrained deeply into the culture of special education. Because compliance is so worrisome for special education directors, it leads to perverse incentives; for example, the incentive to “over-identify” students as special needs and the incentive for special education training and professional development to focus on compliance rather than pedagogy and actual student learning.

2. Schools could become more efficient and provide higher-quality services by subcontracting special education services. Ohio’s Educational Service Centers, social service agencies, and non-profit and for-profit companies could provide a “dream team” of special education specialists that districts could bid for. Districts would therefore reduce the in-house cost of providing special education services by contracting these services to other partners.

3. Identifying kids as special needs doesn’t necessarily translate to better outcomes. When students are unnecessarily identified as special needs, it lowers expectations and may lead to educational complications, in the long-term. One example...

It is hard to argue against a group of disparate organizations working together to solve a longstanding problem. It suggests a collection of positive behaviors: joint identification of a challenge, consensus that it must be solved, a willingness to sublimate parochial interests for a greater good, and cooperation for the sake of others. Most importantly, it might actually increase the likelihood of success.

It is hard to argue against a group of disparate organizations working together to solve a longstanding problem.

This is the feel-good stuff of “collective impact,” a popular and growing approach to our most formidable and tangled societal puzzles. John Kania and Mark Kramer, both of consulting firm FSG, provide a clear definition and tight and persuasive argument for it in a recent article.

It is more than a consortium or a coalition. The lanes are narrower and the bonds are stronger. They write:

Collective impact (is) the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. Collaboration is nothing new. The social sector is filled with examples of partnerships, networks, and other types of joint efforts. But collective impact initiatives are distinctly different. Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.

The lion’s share of their article is dedicated to describing the elements of that last sentence, which...

After Chicago: The future of teacher unions

After Chicago: The future of teacher unions

The membership of the Chicago Teachers Union approved a new contract last week but the legacy of the rancorous strike is far from settled. Did the experience prove Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker right? Will unions continue to impede reform—and add to costs—so long as state law gives them expansive collective bargaining and striking rights?

It’s all French to me

Rick and Mike pick apart an egregious example of Continental Achievement-Gap mania and take on differing proficiency goals based on student race and ethnicity. Amber asks if we’d be better off spending our edu-dollars in very different ways.

Amber's Research Minute

How Do Public Investments in Children Vary with Age? A Kids' Share Analysis of Expenditures in 2008 and 2011 by Age Group by The Urban Institute - Download PDF

A recent article in The Atlantic hit close to home, and it’s worth a little meditation from those of us who trade in the world of ideas, particularly in the online marketplace.

When we share, it’s actually self-serving.

The Selfish Meme reports on recent research that suggests that humans get a “neurochemical reward from sharing information, and a significantly bigger reward from disclosing their own thoughts and feelings than from reporting someone else’s.”

The part of the brain long known to respond to food, sex, and money also lights up when we, well, talk about ourselves and our views on the world.

The troubling paradox, of course, is that when we share (ostensibly a magnanimous act), it’s actually self-serving. I think I’m helping you, but I’m actually the one benefiting.

Interestingly, we talk about ourselves more when on online—via Facebook or Twitter, for example—than when we’re face-to-face. As one researcher pointed out, when we’re with someone, we can receive social cues (eye rolling, ending eye contact) telling us to cut it out, stop focusing on ourselves. But when you’re on a computer program that allows you to be on “transmit” instead of “receive,” you can publicly look inward with impunity.

The article ends with another unexpected paradox, that this mirror-gazing behavior might actually have both social and evolutionary utility. Yes, demonstrating naked self-fascination is personally pleasurable, but it also helps strengthen interpersonal bonds and enables others to learn information they might not come across otherwise.


Two Fordham Institute authors have new books out this fall and a pair of recent articles provided previews of these page-turners.

The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools

Diverse Schools Dilemma

Should middle-class families “flee to the homogenous suburbs for excellent schools or stay urban for diverse but often struggling schools?” That’s the “Diverse Schools Dilemma” at the heart of Mike Petrilli’s new book, profiled in today’s Washington Post. Mike argues that gentrification provides a unique opportunity to integrate America’s inner-city schools as families that once might have moved to the suburbs look to stay in the city when their children reach school-age. The article describes how Mike’s expertise as an education analyst and personal experience as a D.C.-area parent led him to grapple with the dilemma through the book, now available on Amazon.

Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools

Exam Schools

The Wall Street Journal reviewed Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Jessica Hockett’s introduction to America’s “exam schools,” the 165 academically selective public high schools that enroll more than 100,000 of...