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Although the latest glum international-education data weren’t even released until this week, last week brought a pair of provocative and contrasting speeches about the state of American education in 2013, both of which repay close attention—in part so that you can consider the differences between them.

On September 30, U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan spoke at the National Press Club. The following day, Louisiana state superintendent John White spoke at AEI.

Both men are very smart, very experienced, and very committed to a radically better education system for young Americans. Both were taking stock of the reform movement, education politics, Washington’s role, and much else. They shared several common themes. But they also differed in big ways.

Commonalities first.

  • Both deplored political polarization, paralysis, and Washington gridlock.
  • Both noted that on-the-ground realities found outside Washington include some remarkably positive education developments that Beltway-based politicos and media seldom even notice. (Duncan referred multiple times to Washington’s “alternative universe,” inhabited also by non-Washingtonian “armchair pundits” who favor “blogs, books, and tweets” that transmit their biases rather than reality.)
  • Both took heated umbrage at the view—they didn’t name Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, the Education Policy Institute, or
  • ...

The OECD, much loved by education-data wonks for its yearly Education at a Glance report, has launched its latest international-data nerd-bible: the Survey of Adult Skills, run by the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (or PIACC), which measures proficiency in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving among adults aged sixteen through sixty-five. In this debut edition, researchers surveyed roughly 166,000 adults in twenty-four countries, almost all of which are OECD members, meaning they have “advanced” economies. The bottom line: The U.S. performed below the international average on most measures. The researchers also found that proficiency worldwide is closely associated with age, reaching a peak around age 30 and declining steadily, with the oldest age groups displaying lower levels of proficiency than the youngest. (This decline is likely related both to differences in the amount and quality of education and training opportunities and to the effects of getting older.) Older Americans fared better than younger in literacy: 12 percent of Americans aged 55–65 scored at the highest proficiency level versus just 5 percent of the full international sample of that age cohort. In every other age group, though, the U.S. lagged behind. Finland and Japan stood out, with...

The hacker edition

In this week’s podcast, Mike and Brickman talk tablet woes (and praise teenage hackers for their healthy disrespect for authority), charter support in NYC, and the research on voucher effectiveness. Amber tells us about PISA for geezers.

Amber's Research Minute

OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills by OECD (OECD Publishing, 2013).

J.B. Schramm is the founder of College Summit and has served as its leader for two decades. He has built his organization into one of the most influential and valuable entities in the K–12 sector. After this highly successful tenure, J.B. is moving on to a new venture, teaming with a number of the field’s leading groups to further advance the cause of preparing students for success in high school, higher education, and beyond.

Like other BTCIK guests, J.B. has an astonishing compilation of accomplishments—he’s received recognition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Regis University, and Yale, among others, and President Obama gave a portion of his Nobel Prize award money to College Summit!

But like his BTCIK colleagues, he’s also a modest, unassuming, contemplative, and endlessly decent person. I treasure the time he and I have spent together—sharing reflections on some text we’ve read, discussing some policy issue, or picking his brain about fatherhood.

And like Nelson Smith, J.B. is one heck of...

In this research brief, economist Joel Elvery asks whether any of Ohio’s metro areas could be considered a “brain hub.” He identifies such cities as those with a high ratio of “knowledge” to manufacturing jobs. Cities with a higher ratio have recently tended to display stronger economic growth (e.g., San Francisco, New York, D.C.). Elvery found that, of the eight major cities in Ohio, only Columbus could be considered a “brain hub.” Its knowledge to manufacturing job ratio was a robust 3.7 to 1.0 (the national average was 2.4). Cincinnati ranked second among Ohio’s cities (2.3 to 1.0), but Toledo, Youngstown, and Canton had virtually one-to-one knowledge to manufacturing job ratios (1.2, 1.1, and 0.9 respectively). The data indicate that, with the exceptions of Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio’s cities are behind and losing ground. Can they catch up, or has time passed by these blue-collar towns? Perhaps, it is simply too late. But if Ohio’s cities are to have any chance to compete in a knowledge-based economy, a world-class K-12 education will undergird city-wide transformation. In her remarks at a September College Now Greater Cleveland event, Cleveland Fed president Sandra Pianalto said: “[I]f we want to improve...

Dear Deborah,

Earlier this week you wrote that you were “stunned” that I’d suggest a simple rule for our young people: “Don’t have babies until you can afford them.” Stunned was a much kinder word than many commenters used to describe their reaction–or their thoughts about me!

But let me admit to being stunned by your statement, “The odds that young women in poverty will find ways out of poverty are not great (above all in today’s economy and wage scale).”

This strikes me as incredibly defeatist and fatalistic, not to mention depressing. But it also strikes me as incorrect.

Let’s do the math.

Today the federal income poverty threshold for a single person is $11,490. If that person works a minimum-wage job for 40 hours a week and for 50 weeks a year, she earns $14,500 per year. Ergo, she’s not poor, at least according to the official definition. (To be sure, she’s not living the high life either–and is almost surely sharing a home with family or friends to make ends meet.)

What if this worker has a baby? Now things get much more challenging. The poverty threshold for a family of two is $15,510; a...

Note: This post is part of our series, "Netflix Academy: The best educational videos available for streaming." Be sure to check out our previous Netflix Academy posts on dinosaurs; the American founders; aquatic life; and the Maya, Inca, and Aztec. Thanks to research interns Melissa Reynolds and Singer Crawford for their help in compiling these lists.

Welcome to Week Two of our Columbus Day unit. Last week we tackled the ancient American civilizations of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec. Next week, we’ll do the Age of Discovery (including Mr. Columbus himself). This week, it’s Native Americans in the spotlight.

There’s no lack of content on Native Americans online; we’ve selected a mix of documentaries, fictionalized stories, and animated shows that do a great job introducing elementary school students to this essential part of U.S. history. As with any videos (or books) for young children, it’s essential that parents participate in the learning process, especially to help explain, in age-appropriate ways, the more tragic aspects of Native American history.

As always, if you find other videos worth watching, please share them in the comments section below.


Kalman R. Hettleman

Rumors are flying that Andres A. Alonso, until last June CEO of the Baltimore schools, is the frontrunner to become NYC chancellor if Democrat Bill de Blasio, as seems likely, wins the mayoralty in November. I have known and observed Dr. Alonso closely over the last six years, first as a member of the Baltimore school board that hired him and second as a policy analyst and writer on urban school reform. And it’s hard to imagine a better choice for New Yorkers.

That is, unless you are a business-as-usual administrator or principal. If so: beware. When the Baltimore school board hired him in 2007, our risky vision was to recruit a game-changer who would surpass the then-heralded superintendents in New York (Joel Klein, for whom Dr. Alonso served as a deputy chancellor), Chicago (Arne Duncan) and D.C. (Michelle Rhee). What we sought was what we got—and then some.

In his first year in Baltimore, he absorbed a large budget shortfall in large part by eliminating over 300 central-office jobs, devolving school budgets, giving principals all-but-complete autonomy, starting many non-conventional high...

Dear Deborah,

We've been writing about the democratic control of education (or the lack thereof), but let me shift the conversation back to the education of democratic citizens. I strongly agree with those who argue that our current fascination with “college and career readiness” overlooks a third, probably more important, c-word: citizenship. That's public education's raison d'etre, right? To prepare our young people to take their rightful place as voters, jurors, taxpayers, and leaders—to become “the people” that gives our government its legitimacy?

Many people are doing good work on this challenge; let me recommend that you check out the new group ...

As a Relinquisher, I’m weary of broad government mandates. I believe educators should run schools, parents should choose amongst these schools, and government should hold schools accountable for performance and equity.

So what to make of the Common Core—which will be the broadest combination of federal- or state-initiated regulatory overhaul that we’ve seen in decades?

Admittedly, it took me a while to sort through my competing impulses. But here’s the path I followed:

Skepticism: The research on standards

1.    There’s very little evidence that higher standards lead to higher achievement. As Tom Loveless notes, states with better...

The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), which gives public dollars to low-income students to escape low-performing schools for private schools of their choosing, has come under fire from the Department of Justice for “imped[ing] the desegregation processes” of two dozen school districts. Not so, says this new study in Education Next. In fact, the University of Arkansas authors find that the transfers resulting from the voucher program “overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools students leave (the sending schools), bringing the racial composition of the schools closer to that of the broader communities in which...

The University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has emerged as the leading voice of reason on the vexing overlap between charter school policy and special education policy. In this new report, CRPE turned to Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters to examine data from New York’s charter and traditional public schools to help explain why it is that charters enroll fewer special-education (SpEd) students. Just as CRPE previously argued, diagnosing and addressing this gap (around 4 percent, according to earlier estimates) requires nuance—and New York State lawmakers made a serious mistake by rushing enrollment quotas into law...

As part of the AEI Teacher Quality 2.0 series, the authors of this paper take on the delicate issue of school-staffing design. In the first two pages, they rip apart arguments others have spent years carefully constructing: Teacher pay may be too low, but, they counter, across-the-board raises are impossibly expensive for even profligate spenders ($16 billion per year, or roughly the entire Title I budget for just a $5,000 per teacher raise, according to their calculations). Professional development is also important, but won’t do much good when teachers have so little adult interaction and feedback. And of course we...

In this week’s podcast, Mike and Michelle debate whether to teach family planning in schools, whether an extreme love of sports hinders academic achievement, and whether Michigan’s “count day” is a great way to distribute state education dollars (hint: it’s not). Amber asks us not to mind the charter-district SPED gap.

The Common Core State Standards will soon be driving instruction in forty-five states and the District of Columbia.

While the standards are high quality, getting their implementation right is a real challenge—and it won't be free, a serious concern given the tight budgets of many districts and states.
But while critics have warned of a hefty price tag, the reality is more complicated.

Yes, some states may end up spending a lot of money. But there are also opportunities for significant savings if states, districts and schools use this occasion to rethink their approach to test administration, instructional materials and training for teachers. The key is that states have options, and implementation doesn't need to look (or cost) the same everywhere.

States could approach implementation in myriad ways. Here are three:

• One, stick to "Business as usual" and use traditional tools like textbooks, paper tests, and in-person training. These tools are very familiar in today's education system, but they can come with reasonably high price tags.
• Two, go with only the "bare bones" of what's necessary: Experiment with open-source materials, computerized assessments, and online professional development in ways that provide the bare bones of more traditional, in-person approaches. This could save major coin, but could require more technology investment and capacity for some states.
• Or, three, find a middle ground through "balanced implementation" of both strategies, which offers some of the benefits—and downsides—of each model.

But how much money are we talking? Take Florida: 

If Florida sticks to business as usual, it could spend $780 million implementing the Common Core. Under the bare bones approach, the tab could be only $183 million. A blend of the two? $318 million.

But that's the total cost; don't forget states are already spending billions of dollars each year on textbooks, tests, curricula, and other expenses. Look at it that way and the sticker shock wears off: The estimated net cost of putting the Common Core in place in the Sunshine State, for example, ranges from $530 million to roughly $67 million less than what we estimate that they are spending now. 

Each implementation approach has its merits—and drawbacks—but states and districts do have options for smartly adopting the Common Core without breaking the bank. Further, they could use this opportunity to create efficiencies via cross-state collaborations and other innovations.

To learn more, download "Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost?"

Shut it down!

In this week’s podcast, Mike and Michelle debate whether to teach family planning in schools, whether an extreme love of sports hinders academic achievement, and whether Michigan’s “count day” is a great way to distribute state education dollars (hint: it’s not). Amber asks us not to mind the charter-district SPED gap.

Amber's Research Minute

Why the Gap? Special Education and New York City Charter Schools,” by Marcus Winters, Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington, September 2013.