Curriculum & Instruction

What if federal aid for college students were focused exclusively on those who are truly ready for college? What if we stopped subsidizing remedial courses on campuses and insisted that students pursuing higher learning be prepared for college-level courses (none too strenuous nowadays in many places)? And what if those courses were also made available to young people even before they matriculated to a four-year program?

That would be a revelation and a revolution. But it might also do more to get young Americans and their schools serious about college readiness than anything we’ve dreamed up previously. It would save money. And it would end a great fraud that causes many college students to drop out—usually with heavy loan debts to either repay or default on—when they realize that they’ve been sorely misled as to their true preparedness for advanced-level academics.

Consider the irony: Today, federal financial support is available for eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds to study high school math and English after they reach a college campus (a vast percentage of them are required to take these remedial classes); yet such aid is unavailable to academically aggressive sixteen- and seventeen-year olds from low-income households, who could accelerate their academic progress by taking...

Over the weekend, President Barack Obama received high praise from parents and teachers for acknowledging that testing is taking too much time away from teaching, learning and fostering creativity in schools, and recommending that standardized tests take up no more than 2 percent of total school instructional time. Frankly, this is arrant nonsense.

From time to time, I'm asked to give a talk about education. If I look at how I spend my time over the course of a year, giving presentations and speeches is a very small part of my job—less than 2 percent. However, if my effectiveness were to be judged on the audience response to the handful of talks I give each year, I'd spend a lot more time writing and practicing speeches. I'd fret endlessly over my PowerPoint slides and leave-behinds. I'd sprinkle in more jokes to be entertaining; I'd probably say whatever I thought would get audiences to like me more, rather than challenging my listeners. I'd definitely spend a lot more on suits and dry cleaning than I do now.

But most critically, I'd spend far less time on all the other things I do—writing, reading,...

The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously posited that whether or not one believes in God, it behooves us to behave as if he exists. What have you got to lose? If you’re right, you wind up heaven and spare yourself eternal punishment in hell. And if not, well, what did it cost you apart from a few earthly pleasures here and there? Pascal’s Wager basically suggests that your upside is infinite, while your downside is relatively small. So do the right thing.

We need a Pascal’s Wager of curriculum. Schools are going to teach something, so it behooves us to ensure that the textbooks, workbooks, and software we put in front of students are coherent and of high quality. As this report from the Center for American Progress shows, crappy curriculum costs every bit as much as the good stuff. The authors found “little relationship” between the cost and quality of instructional products. And switching to a more rigorous math curriculum, for example, can deliver far greater returns on investment than other reforms. “The average cost-effectiveness ratio of switching curriculum was almost forty times that of class-size reduction in a well known randomized experiment,” the report notes.


  • When the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to fire fifth-grade teacher Rafe Esquith last week over allegations of sexual misconduct, its members were doubtless aware of the potential for blowback. Esquith, whose myriad awards and world-renowned classroom productions of Shakespeare have made him the district’s most recognizable employee, can count influential friends both inside and outside the school system. And the circumstances of his termination—decided by a closed-door tribunal following an extensive investigation into his private life—do not argue in its favor. Now Esquith’s attorneys have filed a $1 billion class-action lawsuit against the district on behalf of thousands of teachers, claiming that they were targeted for dismissal because of their age and pending retirement windfalls. The accusations lodged against Esquith are ill defined, but serious. If accurate, they are surely serious enough to merit public examination of his record and methods. But if, as some prominent supporters claim, the investigation was a panicked overcorrection in response to earlier scandals, this story could become more bizarre and tragic than it has already. Either way, this is a disciplinary process in dire need of greater transparency.
  • The saddest and most illuminating thing you’ll read all
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Intel’s recent announcement that it will cease sponsoring and underwriting the prestigious Science Talent Search, which it took over from Westinghouse in 1998, is another nail in the coffin of gifted education in the United States.

Unlike many European and Asian countries, which are awash in academic competitions, Olympiads, and other status-laden contests that bright students vie to win, American K‒12 education has relatively few that anyone notices. There is, of course, the National Spelling Bee, which Scripps has valiantly stuck with since 1941. But spelling bees are for middle schoolers. The big deal for high schoolers, especially those with a bent toward STEM subjects, has long been the Science Talent Search, which President George H. W. Bush called the “Super Bowl of science.”

Intel’s turnabout surprised former CEO Craig Barrett and disheartened many of us who care about both STEM and gifted education. It’s another sign of America’s inattention to its high-ability learners, especially those from disadvantaged circumstances. That neglect is what triggered the publication of our new book, Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students. All sorts of data—from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, from research studies like the 2011 Fordham...

A reader recently posed this question:

The Atlantic just published an article about the mistake American educators make by teaching reading in kindergarten. Shouldn’t we do what the Finns do: let kids learn to read when they want to and end up with high achievement?

This article is from the “Whistle a Happy Tune” School of Philosophy. It links one cultural input with one achievement output and assumes both a causal connection (not teaching reading in kindergarten will result in higher achievement) and that if this cultural input were adopted elsewhere, the same outcome would result there as well. This is the third or fourth such article that I have read about Finland in the Atlantic, and the tone of the pieces has been pretty consistent—they’re feel-good fantasies to help us ward off the blues as the days grow shorter and the verdant earth seems to die yet again. It sure is fun to think about how easily we could remake our society.

The problem with this dream, however, is that cultural change doesn’t work that way.

America, unlike Finland, is not a relatively simple society, small in population and low in diversity. Of...

Writing in his always-entertaining blog a few weeks ago, Whitney Tilson gave a nice nod to Dan Willingham’s New York Times op-ed addressing the sorry state of American teacher preparation. Amid effusive praise of the piece, Whitney writes, “I think morphemes and phonemes matter too but maybe not as much as Willingham does.”  
This gently stated but dismissive view of the importance of reading instruction troubles me because I think it captures a viewpoint widely shared by many education reformers.
I don’t think it’s because there are many education reformers who reject the science here (unlike many in teacher preparation). Researchers long ago identified the reading methods that would reduce the current deplorable rate of reading failure from 30 percent to somewhere well south of 10 percent, if only schools would take that step. Teacher preparation programs that fail to impress upon elementary teacher candidates the integral connection between spoken sounds and written words are essentially committing malpractice.
Instead, I think the issue for some education reformers is that other reforms seem much more important. I can’t figure out why there are still perfectly reasonable, rational people who aren’t willing to embrace the 2 + 2...

There’s a classic puzzle that requires connecting a square of nine dots with four lines; the problem appears impossible until the solver realizes that she can extend the lines outside the box. Ted Kolderie does just that in his new book arguing for a bevy of bold yet sensible reforms that would upend today’s education model.

Some suggestions are not so revelatory, such as increasing student motivation and personalized learning. But as Kolderie continues, he makes his way to recommendations that would shake up everything from age-based student grouping to how we think about achievement and teacher leadership. To be sure, none of his ideas are meant for every district in every state. “‘America’ does not have schools…Massachusetts has schools, Texas has schools, California has schools,” Kolderie writes. Each state, he believes, should adopt and its own reforms to fit its unique needs.

Kolderie’s most compelling argument is that U.S. schools require too many years of attendance. Some young people are ready for responsibility sooner than our system allows. So by requiring everyone to stay in school until age eighteen, we’re preventing millions of people from reaching their full potential. “The restrictions built into the institution of adolescence have made...

A great problem in U.S. education is that gifted students are rarely pushed to achieve their full potential. It is no secret that American students overall lag their international peers. Among the thirty-four countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development whose students took the PISA exams in 2012, the United States ranked seventeenth in reading, twentieth in science, and twenty-seventh in math.

Less well known is how few young Americans—particularly the poor and minorities—reach the top ranks on such measures. The PISA test breaks students into six levels of math literacy, and only 9 percent of American fifteen-year-olds reached the top two tiers. Compare that with 16 percent in Canada, 17 percent in Germany, and 40 percent in Singapore.

Among the handful of American high-achievers, eight times as many kids come from the top socioeconomic quartile as from the bottom. That ratio is four to one in Canada, five to one in Australia, and three to one in Singapore.

What has gone wrong? Thanks to No Child Left Behind and its antecedents, U.S. education policy for decades has focused on boosting weak students to minimum proficiency while neglecting the children who have already cleared that low bar. When...

Hannah Putman

When trying to improve educational outcomes, it is hard not to feel the need for urgency. We want to figure out what works now and implement changes immediately—because if we wait, kids who are in schools now will miss out. Unfortunately, this pressure to act quickly may be fundamentally at odds with the ability to measure what really works, since meaningful changes in the trajectory of student achievement are not always apparent until years later. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University provides a compelling example of exactly this conundrum.
Schanzenbach’s thesis is that too often, education research only assesses an intervention’s immediate or intermediate outcomes without capturing its long-term benefits. This may be particularly relevant, she asserts, when judging the impact of early childhood investments.
Schanzenbach offers the example of two studies (both of which she co-authored) on the famous 1990s Project STAR class size experiment in Tennessee. That well-known experiment assigned students randomly to either regularly sized classes or smaller ones. Researchers behind both papers (the first from Dynarski, Hyman, and Schanzenbach and the second from Chetty, Friedman, Hilger, Saez, Schanzenbach, and Yagan) found that the smaller kindergarten classes yielded an immediate bump in student test scores for that year; but both papers report...