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This report by Stanford’s Martin Carnoy and the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein offers a catchy press-release headline: The U.S. Fares Better on International Assessments than Previously Thought. But that isn't actually true. Analyzing PISA data, Carnoy and Rothstein argue that the U.S. educates its disadvantaged students about as well as similar nations—and, for that, America should be praised. But the problems with the study are myriad. First, the authors use a “very approximate” index—the number of books in a student’s home—to determine social class. Others have explained the methodological flaws with this approach. Second, the authors engage in some dangerous statistical gymnastics to prove their point: Based on the assumption that students of low “social class” bring down average U.S. scores, Carnoy and Rothstein re-estimate PISA attainment (by using the books-in-the-home index) to norm the proportion of students in each class. They find that, if the U.S. had the same proportion of students in lower social classes as other nations, then it would rank fourth in reading (instead of fourteenth) and tenth in math (instead of twenty-fifth). The conclusions of this report only affirm the very significant education problem that it’s trying to downplay: We have a greater proportion—and a significantly greater number—of low-scoring and low-income students than other OECD countries. Carnoy’s and Rothstein’s flawed analysis and misleading primary conclusion is at best a diversionary ploy.

SOURCE:Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein, What do International Tests Really Show About U.S. Student Performance? (Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, January 15, 2013).


Diverse Schools Dilemma

Mike’s new book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools, continues to garner attention. Here are some recent articles and interviews worth checking out. (And if you haven’t yet, buy the book now!)

  • Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of All Together Now, reviewed Mike’s book in the Washington Monthly: “… This book may be a significant—and hopeful—harbinger that the center-right school reform community, battered down by the humbling experience of trying to make separate schools for rich and poor work, may be willing to take a new look at how to reinvent Brown v. Board of Education for the twenty-first century.” (1/13–2/13)
  • In Education Next, Michael Thomas Duffy called Diverse Schools “nifty” and unflinchingly honest: “The strength of The Diverse Schools Dilemma as a handbook for urban middle-class parents is borne of Petrilli’s willingness to steer clear of cant. No pious lectures from him, and once he finishes making the case for enrolling in a multi-racial public school containing large numbers of poor kids, he turns around and makes equally strong counter arguments: schools serving affluent students are safer; the disruptive students found in greater numbers in low-income urban schools slow the pace at which lessons are delivered and learning happens; plus, what’s
  • ...
Education Next

This week, Ed Next’s Mike Petrilli was a guest on "What’s the Big Idea?," a podcast hosted by Josh Starr, superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Starr has been in the limelight because he has criticized the amount of standardized testing taking place in schools, arguing that there should be a three-year moratorium on testing while we put the new Common Core standards in place. Montgomery County is currently rolling out a new curriculum that is aligned with the Common Core standards.

Some parents in Montgomery County are unhappy that the county is hoping to limit tracking under the new curriculum. In the past, many students in the wealthy county were offered accelerated instruction in math, but Starr believes that because the new curriculum is more challenging, it should not be necessary to accelerate so many students. He also suggested (in the podcast) that some parents push for their children to receive accelerated math instruction for the wrong reasons.

In the podcast, Petrilli challenged Starr’s claim that students with a wide range of abilities (in math in particular) will be able to be taught effectively in the same classroom using the new curriculum. (The issue of how to ensure that all students are challenged in diverse classrooms is a focus of Petrilli’s new book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma.) Petrilli described his visit to an elementary school in Montgomery County (which was the subject of an Education Next article) that has been praised for its...

There is a chasm between research and practice.
Photo by g|e.

The Gates Foundation’s MET study was a grand success in K–12 research. But what happens next is what matters.

The very good news is that there is reason to believe that the report’s results might change behavior in meaningful and lasting ways.

The problem is that this is far from guaranteed. The Foundation itself will need to take the lead in translating this research into activity, and that will be its toughest role to date.

We should begin by acknowledging that the gap between policy and practice is huge. Mandating something and having it actually happen as envisioned are two entirely different things. We can see that in the struggles to implement high-minded, well-intentioned initiatives like NCLB choice and Common Core.

But there’s an even bigger chasm between research and practice. Very little makes it from one side to the other.

There are countless examples of powerful K–12 research findings that never get the traction deserved; consider Hanushek’s work on funding or Hoxby’s on choice. But the nearest cognate to MET is Chubb and Moe’s outstanding Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. With the possible exception of the Coleman Report, it’s all but impossible to find a study of K–12 schooling with a more powerful combination...


Mike and emerging scholar Morgan Polikoff discuss accusations of discrimination in gifted-and-talented programs, Quality Counts, and lightning rod/tiger mom Michelle Rhee. Amber contemplates whether multiple-choice tests lead students to learn or forget.

Amber's Research Minute

Genna Angello, Elizabeth Bjork, Robert Bjork, and Jeri Little, “Multiple-Choice Tests Exonerated, At Least Some of the Charges: Forgetting Test-Induced Learning and Avoiding Test-Induced Forgetting,”

Kids reading
Should we trust the judgment of pre-adolescents to decide for themselves what makes educational sense?
Photo by slightly everything

While visiting a local high school as a liaison between my department at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and the high school’s Advanced Credit program, I had occasion to speak with its young principal—a newly minted doctor of education. I told him about a challenge facing those of us who teach in K–16 education: the difficulty of getting students to summon the patience, stamina, and will to read dense text, particularly book-length writings, in an age of instant gratification, sound-bites, jazzy graphics, and condensed versions of knowledge. In short, I asked him, do students still have the capacity for deep reading, followed by deliberation and reflection? Can they conduct serious discourse? The principal’s response struck me: “Today’s students are actually smarter and better than students of yesteryear, since students today get to choose their own readings.” Really? I immediately wondered whether we should trust the judgment of adolescents, much less pre-adolescents, to decide for themselves what makes educational sense. And for that matter, since when has the mere act of “choice” been a measure of intellect?

Bizarre as this principal’s comment seemed at the time, it was grounded in mainstream progressive thinking—the student-centered, active, discovery-learning paradigm—that goes back to Rousseau, Dewey, and Piaget...

On Wednesday afternoon, President Obama recommended a package of national reforms aimed at preventing tragedies like last month’s in Newtown, Connecticut. Amidst the high-profile ban on assault weapons and mandatory background checks on all gun buyers, he included a slew of proposals designed to help schools prepare for and respond to violent threats and improve access to quality mental-health services, including new money for new school counselors and training in identifying students with mental disabilities. And the President’s approval ratings leaped in response.

In the least surprising news since the New York Times told us that SAT scores correlate with family incomes, Arne Duncan has announced he will stay on as Secretary of Education during President Obama’s second term. (We can also blame the New York Times for tantalizing us with the faint hope that he would take on a much more surprising role.)

A new study found that students who struggle on college-readiness tests use different brain processes for simple problems than do high-achievers. Researchers asked forty-three students to perform basic arithmetic while having their brains scanned via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). It turns out that low-performing students’ brains seemed to be performing calculations to solve the basic problems, while high-performing students appeared to solve the equations by rote memory. To our eye, this research buttresses the Common Core’s call for “automaticity” of math facts in the early grades.

A group of professors at Columbia University’s Teachers College...

Judgment time for ed reform

Mike and StudentsFirst's Eric Lerum chat about StudentsFirst’s new policy report card, the fight in NJ over blended learning, and charter school expulsions in D.C.

Amber's Research Minute

Thomas Kane, et al., Measurements in Effective Teaching: Final Reports (Seattle, WA: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, January 2013).

Achieve released the second draft of the Next Generation Science Standards this week. Project-leader Stephen told Education Week that the new draft is quite different from the old one. Here’s hoping that’s true. Stay tuned for a review from our own science experts.

In a study released at last weekend’s American Economics Association conference, researchers argue that mandatory vaccination programs—in addition to reducing morbidity rates from the relevant childhood diseases—effectively increase students’ likelihood of graduating from high school, possibly because of the weeks of school that ailing kids would miss. Interestingly, this effect was twice as strong among minority students.

The tiff over teacher evaluations in New York City turned into an all-out brawl after Mayor Bloomberg likened the United Federation of Teachers to the NRA in his weekly radio show last Friday. The timing of this particular analogy may have been unfortunate. Still and all, the overarching point he sought to make was valid: Teacher-union leaders, like those of some other interest groups, might be out of sync with their membership. Bloomberg seems to have fallen victim to an old political landmine: Telling the truth.

Last week, the Atlantic ran a moving story by the mother of an autistic child whose public school teachers, despite the best of intentions, were largely unequipped to help him. In the end, the best option for her child was homeschooling—what she describes as a tough,...

Finland—the tiny land of reindeer, snow, and saunas—burst onto the American education scene in the past decade as the unlikely poster child for the anti-reform movement. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t implore reformers to learn from this nation with low poverty, high achievement, and virtually no standardized tests—and abandon our support for standards- and accountability-driven reform. After all, Finland’s education system today is characterized by few top-down regulations, broad teacher autonomy, and virtually no centralized accountability. Given its success on international assessments, it must follow that U.S. schools would do better if we copied the Finland model.

Finnish reindeer
 Finland: Land of reindeer, snow, and a world-famous education system.
Photo from


Not exactly.

First, there has been some recent evidence that Finland’s successes may not be as miraculous as once thought (it slipped on the recent TIMSS math test). But more than that, to understand what is going on in Finland, a good place to start is with a November 2010 McKinsey study entitled, “How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.”

As part of their research, the McKinsey team studied twenty school systems around the world that had seen “significant, sustained, and widespread gains in student outcomes as measured by international and national assessments.” Among the most...