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Over the past few years, much has been made of students’ “time in learning” (both more time on task while in class and more time in school each day or more days in school each year). Yet little attention has been paid to chronic absenteeism—missing more than 10 percent of a year’s school days—mainly because few states track these data. (Instead, they report average daily attendance, which can mask high levels of chronic absenteeism.) This exploratory study parses attendance data from six states (FL, GA, MD, NE, OR, and RI) and finds chronic absenteeism averaging 14 percent of students. (If this rate holds nationally, the U.S. has lots more students chronically absent—about seven million—than attend charter schools.) The report offers further data, bleak but not altogether surprising: Low-income students are most likely to miss a lot of school, as are the youngest and oldest students. High-poverty urban areas see up to a third of their students miss 10 percent of their courses each year (though the problem is seen in rural poor locations as well). But neither gender nor ethnicity appears to play a role in chronic absenteeism. Policymakers thinking through extended school days and years would be prudent to internalize this study’s message. More learning time will only be productive if the students are in class to take advantage of it.

Robert Balfantz and Vaughn Byrnes, The Importance of Being...

As Old Farmer has his almanac and Britannica his encyclopedia, the National Center for Education Statistics has the Condition of Education. This annual report offers a comprehensive look at trends in American education, reporting longitudinal data on forty-nine discrete indicators, ranging from pre-Kindergarten enrollment to high school extra-curricular participation to post-secondary faculty make-up. Last year’s headlines related to school choice (and the mushrooming charter sector). The latest edition again shows increased public-school choice—but this time on the digital-learning front (or “distance education,” as they say at NCES). In 2009-10, over 1.3 million high schoolers—across 53 percent of districts—enrolled in a distance-ed course. (This up from 0.3 million five years prior.) Much of the report contains simple factoids, but more than a few indicators will help drive policy conversations on topics as diverse as school finance and instruction. For example, total expenditures per student rose 46 percent (in constant dollars) between 1988-89 and 2008-09, with school-debt interest spending seeing the highest percentage increase, followed by capital outlay and then employee benefits—which subsume close to 20 percent of per pupil costs. On other pages, we learn that enrollment in high school math and science courses just about doubled in the last two decades, while the number of high school pupils holding jobs has halved. This review just scratches the surface of the report: There’s much more worthwhile content within its many pages.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2012 (Washington, D.C.: United States...

The Gadfly’s "grand swap"

Mike and Rick analyze Senator Alexander’s ed-for-Medicaid trade and critique America’s private-public schools. Amber delves into a startling SIG success story.

Amber's Research Minute

School Turnarounds: Evidence from the 2009 Stimulus

The College Board has grown somnolent and secretive in recent years, raking in huge sums (though it's officially nonprofit) from fees paid to take its well-known tests (APs and SATs above all, as well as sundry other services, such as an online system for matching kids with colleges), while neglecting its social mission, playing little role in the ed-reform wars, and blocking outside researchers from its trove of valuable data. (It much prefers to spin the test results itself.) Enter David Coleman, one of the brighter (and younger) stars in the ed-reform firmament, a major author (and booster) of the Common Core standards, and a passionate, energetic, strong-willed, and persuasive fellow. In October, he'll take the helm of the College Board and, because he can be counted upon to do what he says he's going to do, we can anticipate that "over the next few years, the main thing on the College Board’s agenda is to deliver its social mission. The College Board is not just about measuring and testing, but designing high-quality curriculum.” A worthy change, a smart and timely move, a swell use of the College Board's vast resources, and, potentially, a hefty boost to America's quest to see that its educators have the wherewithal to teach things worth learning. The College Board already contains the means of determining whether the kids have learned it—and considerable capacity to incentivize them to do so.

Backer of Common Core School Curriculum Is Chosen to Lead College Board,” by...

Where are the wild things?

Checker joins Mike on the podcast to recount his recent investigation of Asian gifted education and predict the outcome of California’s waiver gambit, while Amber has some issues with a recent report on the Common Core’s potential.

Amber's Research Minute

William Schmidt Common Core State Standards Math: The Relationship Between High Standards, Systemic Implementation and Student Achievement - Download the Powerpoint

Boarding my plane from Singapore after a fascinating, whirlwind reacquaintance with that small nation’s remarkable education system, I encountered this Wall Street Journal headline: “Education Slows in U.S., Threatening Prosperity.” Reading on, I learned that Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have performed a provocative—and seemingly alarming—set of calculations to answer the question: How much more education are Americans getting than their parents did?

There’s still an increment, it turns out, but it’s been shrinking: from two years more schooling (by age thirty) for those born in 1955 down to just eight months more for those born in 1980. The implication, quoth the Journal reporters: “Without better educated Americans, economists say, the U.S. won’t be able to maintain high-wage jobs and rising living standards in a competitive global economy.”

America's tendency to supersize may not be a good recipe for education.
 Photo by velkr0.

This isn’t exactly news. Nor is the Goldin-Katz analysis the first time we have observed that the U.S. is no longer leading the planet when it comes to the quantity of education that its population receives. But is more education—more hours and days, more years and degrees—the cure for what ails us? Or are we already pigging out on the educational equivalent of fast food—fattening but not nutritious—and will supersizing our portions just make matters...

One of the bravest, most astute, and honest scholar/journalists in the land is Naomi Schaefer Riley, who has written brilliantly about such touchy but crucial topics as the harm wrought by professorial tenure and the peculiar world of seriously religious universities. Ms. Riley has just been fired from her "brainstorm blogger" role by the Chronicle of Higher Education because she wrote the truth about another touchy topic, namely what passes for post-graduate scholarship in "black studies" departments on U.S. campuses. You can get some of the flavor of this squalid episode by reading her posts (here and here) and some of the hundreds of comments thereon. You can also read an account of the controversy here and can glimpse a sample of the vitriol heaped on Ms. Riley here. You can read the Chronicle's obsequious apologia on its blog. The editors obviously yielded to the (dare I use this phrase?) mau-mauing they received from commenters and "on-line petitioners." This is a truly reprehensible episode in the annals of American journalism, the more so for an influential and widely read publication that's been around since I was a graduate student myself and that boasts of its "vibrant discussion forums." Wrong. Vibrancy, it seems, has been replaced by political correctness and intimidation....

The Gadfly’s spring line is out!

Janie and Daniela debate designer Kenneth Cole’s foray into education reform and the Department of Education’s CTE overhaul, while Amber examines turnover among charter school principals.

Amber's Research Minute

The State of the NYC Charter School Sector by New York City Charter School Center

With trivial exceptions, Washington does not run schools, employ teachers, buy textbooks, write curriculum, hand out diplomas, or decide who gets promoted to 5th grade. Historically, it has contributed less than 10 percent of national K-12 spending. So its influence on what happens in U.S. schools is indirect and limited. Yet that influence can be profound, albeit not always in a helpful way.

Uncle Sam is dreadful at micromanaging what actually happens in schools and classrooms. What he's best at is setting agendas and driving priorities. Through a combination of jawboning, incentivizing, regulating, mandating, forbidding, spotlighting, and subsidizing, he can significantly influence the overall direction of the K-12 system and catalyze profound changes in it (though the system is so loosely coupled that these changes occur gradually and incompletely).

The Capitol
Washington's influence on U.S. schools is indirect and limited—but it can also be profound, albeit not always in a helpful way.
 Photo by Joe Portnoy.

It's just as well that such big directional shifts don't happen very often, because the change, however gradual, can be wrenching. And it isn't apt to happen much more often in the future, either, because the "federal government" is no single entity. It is, at minimum, three branches, two political parties, 535 members of Congress, innumerable judges, the White House, the Office of Management and Budget,...

The pineapple and the gadfly

Standardized testing, school closures, and a pineapple: Rick and Janie cover it all this week, while Amber wonders whether weighted-student funding made a difference in Hartford after all.

Amber's Research Minute

Funding a Better Education: conclusions from the first three years of student-based budgeting in hartford