Digital Learning

Dear Deborah,

A healthy debate we've started indeed! I'm not sure we've bridged many differences, though; maybe we should change the blog's name to Bigging Differences.

In that spirit, let me float another provocative but commonsensical idea: We need to do everything we can—in our schools and in our larger social policies—to empower individuals who are working hard to climb the ladder to success. In other words, we need to spur on the strivers.

Let me explain some of my assumptions.

  1. As we've been discussing, I still believe in the promise of upward mobility. I don't buy into the dystopia of some on the left that pictures a future with an eviscerated middle class, opportunities only for the elite, and a vast dependent population. Times are tough now, but economic growth and jobs will return; the American Dream will be back.
  2. But I'm no utopian. Not all children born into poverty are going to make it out by adulthood. Most face powerful disadvantages—dysfunctional families, substance abuse, crime, segregation, broken economies, bad schools, etc.—and not everyone will be able to overcome them. Surely, though, we can do better than our current track record, which is to lift roughly half of all poor children into the working or middle class by the age of 25.
  3. Climbing the ladder of opportunity takes effort—by individuals and by their families. And it often requires help. I'm not arguing for a pure "bootstraps" approach to fighting poverty—poor children need all manner of supports in order to make it—but no one is going to succeed unless they want to go after the prize themselves.

A good many of our policies and programs, then, should be designed to help people with the drive, work ethic, tenacity, and motivation to rise. We should clear any obstacles in their path. We should empower them with opportunities. And, at all costs, we should avoid undercutting their efforts. In short, we should bring an ethos of meritocracy back to our anti-poverty efforts—the same ethos that still works relatively well at the top of our social structures and could work equally well at the bottom.

What would that mean, exactly? Here are some suggestions focused on education.

  1. Schools must be orderly, safe, high-expectations havens. There's a movement today to make it harder to suspend or expel disruptive children or to chide charter schools that enforce strict norms of behavior. That's a big mistake. To be sure, we should use discipline programs that are effective, and sky-high expulsion rates are often the sign of a poorly run school. But we should be at least as concerned—if not more concerned—about the students who are trying to learn and follow the rules as we are about their disruptive peers. If suspending (or relocating) one student means giving 25 others a better chance to learn, let's do it.
  2. High achievers must be challenged and rewarded. As Tom Loveless has shown, the anti-tracking craze that swept through our schools in the 80s and 90s left many suburban schools untouched but wreaked havoc in our poorest urban communities. While the impulse might have stemmed from concerns over "equity," the result was that high-achieving poor kids forfeited the opportunity to be in "gifted-and-talented" classes, honors tracks, or fast-moving Advanced Placement courses. As all of these programs were democratized or washed away, needy high achievers were forced into classrooms with lower-performing peers, which almost surely slowed their achievement and immersed them in a culture in which being smart wasn't cool. These policies, too, need to be reversed, particularly in high-poverty schools. While no one should be placed irrevocably in a dead-end "low-level" track, we absolutely need classrooms—or whole schools—where needy, bright, motivated youngsters can be challenged and can learn side by side with others who share their thirst for knowledge.
  3. The strivers should get their fair share of the resources. A common mistake in education policy is to think that equity demands a near-exclusive focus on the very most disadvantaged students, the toughest cases, the absolutely lowest performing pupils. Surely they deserve help, and No Child Left Behind appropriately shined a spotlight on their needs. But let's not overlook their slightly less disadvantaged peers—the boys and girls who come from low-income but perhaps not as dysfunctional homes and who aspire to graduate from college and enter the middle class. How could we help them? In higher education, for example, we should set academic standards for receiving Pell Grants. Only young people who are ready for college-level work—or perhaps just a notch below—should be eligible. And they should get grants that are much higher than what we offer today, along with all manner of supports. But we should also be willing to tell other students who are far below college-readiness levels—say, those reading or doing math at an eighth-grade level or lower—that college isn't for them. Instead, we spend billions of Pell Grant dollars on young people who toil in remedial education and almost inevitably drop out.

If some of these policies sound familiar, it's because once upon a time we embraced them—and they worked. Have you read the new book by Alison Stewart called First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School? In a new Education Next book review, AEI's Michael McShane explains that D.C.'s Dunbar, circa 1920,

  1. Was selective of the students that it allowed in—Dunbar required passage of an 8th grade exit exam or a high school placement test for students from outside the district;
  2. Had an unbelievably strict discipline system—The student handbook covered topics ranging from grooming requirements (daily baths and thrice daily tooth brushing) to recommending types of friends that students should have. ("Girls and boys who fail in lessons, who are unsatisfactory in deportments or careless in their habits, should not be chosen as companions.") The handbook told students how to walk down the street and reviewed proper dancing protocols ("Boys, after dancing thank your partner and escort her back to her seat") and how to sit, walk, and function within the school.
  3. Set an "astronomically" high academic standard for its students—For example, the Board of Education had to intervene to lower the amount of homework to one hour per subject per night.
  4. Flunked out a large number of students—Stewart quotes a report from the 1920s that stated "thirty-seven left the first semester, the majority of these being self-supporting pupils who lacked the courage and finance to continue the work"
  5. Tracked its students into different academic levels—Taking it a step farther, it even tracked students into the more vocationally oriented Cardozo High if they couldn't cut it at Dunbar.

And the results?

Though relegated to second-class status and stifled at every turn, Dunbar produced a coterie of graduates that the most elite schools in the country would envy.  Doctors, lawyers, Ivy League professors, generals, and titans of business all graced and were graced by Dunbar's faculty and community.

And this, of course, was in the Jim Crow era.

Dunbar later became a regular, de-tracked, "comprehensive" high school—and started its long slide. Would anyone argue that Washington, D.C., is better off as a result?

Our message to young people, especially those growing up in poverty, should be clear: If you're willing to do the work, we'll clear your path to the middle class.

Deal?

Mike

This article originally appeared on Education Week’s Bridging Differences blog, where Mike Petrilli is debating Deborah Meier.

As waves of reforms and would-be reforms have washed over American public education these past three decades, high schools have mostly stayed dry. Although test scores have risen slightly in the early grades, especially in math, National Assessment results for twelfth-graders have been flat or down a bit. SAT scores are also flat, and ACT averages much the same.

ACT, the organization that administers the college-entrance test of the same name, judges only one-quarter of its test-takers to be fully ready for college-level academics, and the College Board is not much cheerier. In releasing SAT results for the 1.6 million members of the high school class of 2013 who took the test, the board estimated that just 43 percent met its benchmark for college and career readiness—a score of 1550 or better (out of 2400), which translates to a 65 percent chance of having a B-minus (or better) GPA during the freshman year in college.

And that’s among those who stick it out and graduate from high school. Millions of young people drop out. School discipline remains appalling, with gangs, metal detectors, and violence the norm in many places.

The basic institutional structures for high school that former Harvard president James B. Conant described and recommended in an influential 1959 book remain pretty much unchanged a half-century later. The rest of the world has not been idle, however. Our competitors, rivals, and allies have all upped their games—graduating more of their young people, sending more to universities, and boosting their scores on various international measures. On the OECD’s PISA test, for instance, which compares a careful statistical sampling of students from around the world, twenty-two countries surpassed the U.S. in 2009 in the percentage of fifteen-year-olds reaching the “proficiency” level in math. (The test is administered every three years; results for 2012 will be out in early December.)

And while once upon a time American high schools had the world’s highest graduation (and college-going) rate, that’s no longer true. Writes Harvard education economist Richard Murnane, “Between 1970 and 2000, the high school graduation rate in the United States stagnated. In contrast, the secondary school graduation rate in many other OECD countries increased markedly during this period. A consequence is that, in 2000, the high school graduation rate in the United States ranked thirteenth among nineteen OECD countries.” Although the U.S. rate rose during the next decade, “graduation rates in other OECD countries also increased…As a result, the U.S. high school graduation rate in 2010 was still below the OECD average.”

Other countries’ high schools are different, too. Amanda Ripley’s acclaimed new book The Smartest Kids in the World recounts the experiences of three American teens who spent an exchange year overseas—in Finland, South Korea, and Poland—and were surprised and challenged by what they found: not a lot of bells and whistles—few computers, for example—but a culture of serious study and hard work. In her words,

[H]igh school in Finland, Korea, and Poland had a purpose, just like high-school football practice in America. There was a big, important contest at the end, and the score counted. Their teachers were more serious, too: highly educated, well-trained, and carefully chosen. They had enough autonomy to do serious work…The students had independence, too, which made school more bearable and cultivated more driven, self-sufficient, high school graduates.

Better teachers. A clear focus on learning. Higher expectations—and higher stakes for kids. Such basic alterations would reform U.S. high schools more surely than a dozen elaborate policies and government programs. But obstacles to such changes abound, rooted in present-day politics, the weak preparation of many students in the middle grades, and widespread complacency.

Because it’s so difficult to launch a frontal attack on structures and practices as deeply ingrained as those of the American high school—where often the biggest policy debate is about starting the day later so teenagers can stay in bed longer—the most promising path to change is working around the system. New institutional forms are emerging as alternatives to Conant’s “comprehensive” model (which envisioned an enrollment of at least one thousand students of varying abilities, receiving instruction in a wide range of subjects distributed among several “tracks”). Specialized “early-college” high schools enable motivated students to speed up, earn as much as two years’ worth of college credits, and improve what would otherwise be a boring senior year. Dual-enrollment programs also allow high school students to earn university credits, and access to Advanced Placement courses is increasing. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) schools appeal to young people with a keen interest in those fields, while career/technical schools (sometimes in league with community colleges) help others prepare for gainful employment after graduation.

Virtual schools—often in the charter sector—make it possible to take courses anytime, anyplace, which is especially valuable for those who are homebound, already working, burdened with family responsibilities, or keen to study subjects not available in their local high school. “Drop-out-recovery” schools—again, often charters—and “credit-recovery” options (which may also be online) create options for those who quit or flunk, then think better of it.

The steady advance of school choice at the state and local level—via vouchers, charters, virtual options, home schooling, and diverse forms of public-sector choice—has helped liberate young people from neighborhood schools that are unsatisfactory for a host of reasons. Indeed, choice works best at the high school level, because teens are more mobile and independent than their younger siblings and are also beginning to specialize. There’s a powerful civic and cultural argument for having everyone learn essentially the same things in elementary and middle school, but people naturally head in different directions during high school.

In New York City, for example, every eighth-grader—some 90,000 a year—must rank up to a dozen preferences among the city’s 400-plus high schools and programs. A computerized “matching” system, like the one used for medical residencies, then sorts them out. Though an applicant may put the closest school to his home at the top of his list, nobody is stuck in the neighborhood high school for lack of alternatives. (Whether the next mayor will keep this and other Bloomberg-era education innovations is doubtful. Front-runner Bill de Blasio is likely to follow the lead of Gotham’s powerful teacher union, which is no friend of school choice or most other innovations.)

Other changes underway in U.S. public education are likely, over time, to spread their effects to high schools. The Common Core academic standards for English and math, though controversial, are rigorous and substantive. If properly implemented—and attached to a bona fide accountability system—they’ll yield more high school graduates who are prepared for college-level work (and modern jobs) and fewer who need costly, discouraging “remediation.” That’s essentially what has been done in Massachusetts, the one state with high school graduates who can fairly be termed “internationally competitive.”

Also inspiring hope is a slow but steady move toward viewing education and the institutions that provide it as a continuum from Kindergarten (or earlier) at least through twelfth grade, and often through college, rather than a series of disconnected institutions that follow different rules and norms. The Common Core standards, for example, are carefully sequenced and cumulative from K–12. Our most celebrated charter schools—the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which now has well over a hundred schools across nearly half the states—began with the middle grades but came to realize that, particularly for disadvantaged youngsters, they had to start younger and stick with the kids longer. Visit Houston today and you will find twenty KIPP schools spanning the grades from pre-K through 12, plus an earnest new effort (“KIPP Through College”) to continue advising and encouraging these young people after they graduate. Meanwhile, in Ohio, KIPP Columbus (a non-profit organization) is constructing a five-school campus on a former golf course. KIPP and other feisty charter organizations are truly circumventing the traditional system—not just its high schools—and creating full-fledged alternative paths to a quality education for kids who need it, most of them in urban America.

That’s harder to do in communities that don’t know they need it and are content with what they’ve already got, even though they shouldn’t be. But there’s a glimmer of hope there, too: Individual high schools can now take part in the PISA-exam system, which gauges the reading, science, and math abilities of fifteen-year-olds and can thereby compare their students’ performance with that of their peers around the developed world. (Individual schools’ voluntary participation is not included in the national averages that were discussed above.) When the well-regarded high schools of Fairfax County, VA, got their PISA results from a 2012 pilot run, for instance, it turned out that students in plenty of other countries had higher scores.

Will information lightning bolts such as that, plus mounting demands from employers, outrageous and costly remediation rates in college, and all sorts of new organizational and technological options for getting a better education, turn all of us into more demanding consumers of education? That’s the surest way to break through the mediocrity of far too many of our high schools.

This article originally appeared in the October 28, 2013, issue of the National Review.

The introduction of the Common Core standards is shaking up the $7 billion textbook industry, according to this great piece by Sarah Garland. Traditionally monopolized by a few very large publishing Goliaths, such as Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the standards shift now favors small start-ups, which are nimbler and more eager to embrace change. Gadfly cheers the possibility that the Common Core could break up the behemoths’ oligopoly and pave the way for the little-but-fierce Davids, like Core Knowledge.

For the last few months, Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett has steadfastly refused to release $45 million of federal funds earmarked for the Philly schools until the teacher union agreed to major concessions, including a pay cut. But on Wednesday afternoon—with the union unwavering and civil-rights groups beginning to circle (and after the tragic death of young girl from asthma at a school that, due to budget cuts, did not have a nurse)—Corbett relented, arguing that he was satisfied with the other reforms made by the district. Which was probably the right call.

We know this much: Moody’s investment analysts don’t much care for parental choice, but they are concerned about the credit-worthiness of school districts. The latest Moody’s report shows that as charter schools gain public school market share in cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., they’re putting financial stress on their local school systems, which have ended up with a negative credit outlook due to the students they’ve lost. But are charters really to blame? Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says many of these cities were distressed long before charters arrived. She’s right. What’s more, though, putting financial stress on districts is part of the whole idea: If districts can win back their customers to their own schools, they’d be doing fine financially. Maybe Moody’s analysts would feel differently if they had to send their own children to Detroit Public Schools. 

An even-handed New York Times editorial urged Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio to think rationally about the city’s charter school sector. The Grey Lady makes two main points: First, New York has “one of the nation’s most successful charter school systems.” Second, the next mayor can make the system even better by shutting down poor-quality schools, allowing only groups with proven track records to open new charters, and ensuring that colocations only occur in buildings large enough for all students to fit comfortably. We hope de Blasio takes the Times’s advice, if no one else’s.

Common Sense Media, an advocacy outfit that rates children’s videos and apps for age appropriateness, has issued a challenge to the educational-technology world: Come up with a national safeguard for students’ personal data. Ed tech, from assessment software to learning apps, has the potential to transform education fundamentally, but parents’ concerns for their children’s privacy are also well founded. Now is the time for red lines to be drawn with regards to student data.

The Star-Ledger ran a two-month investigation into New Jersey private schools that specialize in serving severely disabled children using public dollars (via so-called “private placement”). The laundry list of questionable financial practices—from blatant nepotism to the purchasing of expensive cars—while not an uncommon story in government contracting, particularly in the Garden State, was surprisingly widespread and quite sobering. But the question of how to improve these services is thorny. It is telling that the investigation did not even attempt to address whether the children are being provided quality services; while it may not be a stretch to guess that they are not, the issue remains that quality in the SpEd world is a tricky thing to measure. 

It’s well known that graduating from high school is generally insufficient preparation to be competitive in today’s economy. Reformers hope, however, that higher standards through the Common Core might, in time, improve the value of the diploma. But what about those who don’t even graduate? As a new radio documentary, Yesterday’s Dropouts, from D.C.’s WAMU radio station shows, a GED is far from sufficient to get America’s thirty million high school dropouts back on track. In fact, the piece cites research by James Heckman and Tim Kautz that found that only 1 percent of GED earners went on to complete a bachelor’s degree within six years! The piece is at its best when reminding us just how dire a situation we face, as students continue to drop out of high school and into an economy that simply isn’t creating good-paying jobs for low-skilled workers. Kavitha Cardoza does a fine job narrating the piece and provides some thought-provoking insights into Washington State’s I-BEST program, which helps adult learners earn job skills and is now being emulated elsewhere. Overall, though, the piece borders on outright advocacy at times—and while it is presented as a neutral exploration of the issue, it sure seems to have started with the “right answer” in mind and worked backwards. Still, workforce-development efforts for high school dropouts are vitally important, and the idea of moving to a more diverse set of credentials for these workers is certainly worth the in-depth treatment.

SOURCE: Kavitha Cardoza (host), Breaking Ground: Yesterday’s Dropouts (Washington, D.C.: WAMU, 2013).

Across the pond, education wonks plug away at solving problems and enacting reforms that will sound both familiar and not to our U.S. readers. Not least among these English reformers is Andrew Adonis: former Minister of Schools, advisor in the No. 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair, and the well-known architect of the country’s burgeoning “academy” sector (what we would call “conversion charters”), built in reaction to high failure rates among non-selective public schools (over 50 percent were deemed to be failing in the 1990s). By the time Adonis left office in 2008, 133 academies were open and another 300 were in the pipeline. The book offers up both a history of England’s recent education-reform movement and a compelling personal account—followed by the author’s “Manifesto for Change,” a twelve-point plan for continued ed reform. Among these is a call for every underperforming public school to be replaced by an academy and for programs such as Teach First (the British counterpart of Teach For America) to be expanded.

SOURCE: Andrew Adonis, Education, Education, Education: Reforming England's Schools (London: Biteback, 2012).

Mirroring their favored baseball teams, Mike and Dara duke it out over Philly school reform,  “private placement” in special education, and the pros and cons of tracking. Amber makes old news fresh.

What (ed-reformer) parents want. Read What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-offs and take the quiz to see if you fall into one of our parent categories.

The introduction of the Common Core standards is shaking up the $7 billion textbook industry, according to this great piece by Sarah Garland. Traditionally monopolized by a few very large publishing Goliaths, such as Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the standards shift now favors small start-ups, which are nimbler and more eager to embrace change. Gadfly cheers the possibility that the Common Core could break up the behemoths’ oligopoly and pave the way for the little-but-fierce Davids, like Core Knowledge.

For the last few months, Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett has steadfastly refused to release $45 million of federal funds earmarked for the Philly schools until the teacher union agreed to major concessions, including a pay cut. But on Wednesday afternoon—with the union unwavering and civil-rights groups beginning to circle (and after the tragic death of young girl from asthma at a school that, due to budget cuts, did not have a nurse)—Corbett relented, arguing that he was satisfied with the other reforms made by the district. Which was probably the right call.

We know this much: Moody’s investment analysts don’t much care for parental...

Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City, is no friend of charter schools. He’s been clear, for instance, that if he steps foot in City Hall, Bloomberg’s policy of not charging them rent would be stopped and frisked. In response, 17,000 parents, students, and teachers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on Tuesday in support of charter schools and Bloomberg’s education policies. For a particularly good summary of the issue, take a look at Daniel Henninger’s piece in the Wall Street Journal. For our analysis, check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast.

North Carolina and Los Angeles have both encountered problems with their high-profile tablets-for-students programs. In North Carolina, around 10 percent of the 15,000 devices distributed have reportedly been defective, leading the state to suspend the program. And in L.A., some enterprising students managed to hack the tablets’ security filters (score for teenage resourcefulness—send them all to programming class!), leading officials to disallow taking the tablets off-campus—and boding ill for the program’s future after the school board reviews it later this month....

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).

Like many, I first became aware of Sal Khan and his Khan Academy when I watched his 2011 TED Talk and was blown away. I immediately jumped onto the site to begin trying practice problems and watching videos in mathematics, the financial crisis, and history. What wowed me most about the site, however, were not Sal's video lessons. Many of those are good and quite informative and instructionally sound as far as they go, but they are also sometimes kind of rudimentary and not always super engaging.

What I loved more was how the site tracked and encouraged student growth and then allowed teachers to monitor that progress. The potential seemed huge for use in traditional or flipped classrooms, yet Khan Academy was offering it all for free.

Since 2011, Khan Academy has grown by leaps and bounds—and seems to have gotten better, too. It's expanded its badging features (more on badges here) to reward students not only for mastering specific knowledge or progressing through lessons but also for being persistent or helpful to others through the site's rich coaching tools. The site also recently added a version in Spanish. Khan’s lessons are now part of multiple pilot...

If you were surfing the web in mid-2004, you were almost certainly using Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser to do it. Despite frequent concerns over its security, stability, and speed, this single tool for viewing content online was then used by more than 95 percent of Americans using the internet.

Shortly thereafter, and with the help of a crowd-funded, full-page ad in the New York Times, a small non-profit named Mozilla quickly began to erode Microsoft's market share with its new, open-source Firefox browser. Today, even though Internet Explorer remains the default software on the still-ubiquitous Windows operating system for personal computers, only about one in four web users browse with it, while many millions now use Firefox along with Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome.

Today, Mozilla is undertaking a new challenge that, along with other recent technology-driven trends, has the potential to radically transform how Americans get educated and find work. The project is called Open Badges, and it might someday replace the résumé, the job search, and even education as we know it.

Classrooms are but one of many settings in which learning occurs, but demonstrating the sum total of what you know and what you can do on a college...

Note: This post is part of our Netflix Academy series. See background, and links to other educational videos worth streaming, here.

I love the dinosaur stage. Love, love, love. And when your child is ready to graduate from Dinosaur Train and take in some lifelike depictions of prehistoric monsters, this is where to start.

Walking with Dinosaurs is hard to beat, as are its cousins, Walking with Monsters (pre-dinosaur animals) and Walking with Beasts (post-dinosaur). The entire Walking series has a great narrative and is dominated by lifelike scenes of animals in action. The rest of these shows focus more on modern-day paleontologists—a great window into science but a tougher sell for short attention spans.

If I’ve missed something good that’s on Netflix or Amazon Prime, please let me know in the comments section.

Best dinosaur videos available for streaming

1. Walking with Dinosaurs

Walking with Dinosaurs

Using cutting-edge computer-generated imagery, this Emmy Award–winning series brings to life the Cretaceous, Triassic, and Jurassic periods, focusing on individual dinosaurs, or dinosaur families, to show the ever-changing Earth through their eyes.

Length:...

The rapid gentrification of many large American cities represents a triumph and an opportunity for Republicans—a triumph because it was mainly Republican ideas (welfare reform, aggressive crime-fighting tactics, pro-growth policies) that set the trend in motion, and an opportunity because the wealthier and (frankly) whiter new residents are more likely to vote for the GOP.

Cities are for strivers

Yet a natural Republican constituency—parents with children—continues to exit cities once their kids reach school age. This is bad for Republicans, to be sure, but it’s also bad for cities, as much capital—human, social, and financial—decamps for the suburbs and beyond.

So why are twenty-something, single city-dwellers turning into thirty- and forty-something, suburban moms and dads? It’s education, stupid: the paucity of high-quality urban public schools.

Some hope that current education-reform efforts—raising standards, holding teachers accountable, and creating more charter schools—could help persuade these parents to keep the faith with big cities. And they might, at the margins. But most of these efforts don’t address the fundamental challenge that urban schools face: the diversity of their student population.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean racial or ethnic diversity, which is a huge plus for everybody—the students, the parents, and society at large. Nor is it exactly socioeconomic diversity. The big challenge is academic diversity: Students are coming into school with vastly different levels of academic preparation. Finding a way to make sure that everyone gets what they need—including affluent children, who will tend to come in far ahead of their peers—is no easy trick. If you’re a Kindergarten teacher and some of your students are already reading Harry Potter while others don’t even know their letters, how on earth do you handle that?

Yet the typical liberal response to perplexed professional parents who worry about whether their children will be challenged? “Tough luck.” They sneer at “gifted-and-talented” programs, which they view as inherently elitist and inequitable; they deplore “selective-admissions” schools, like Stuyvesant; and they pore over charter school data for any signs of “skimming” the best and brightest.

The left’s leveling impulses, then, practically beg parents of means to choose private schools or pack their bags for the ‘burbs. But this approach is also problematic for the poor—in particular, “striving” families and their children who want to defy the odds and use academic excellence as a springboard to the middle class. Note the derision shown to the Success Academies, for instance—a non-profit network of Gotham charter schools that’s getting remarkable results with a mostly low-income student population. Rather than applauding Eva Moskowitz’s plans to expand to one hundred schools citywide, they work at every turn to slow her down.

The urban left’s brand of “equity” is perverse. It focuses on equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity. It rejects the notion that fairness demands every child to be challenged, to learn something new each day, to fulfill his or her own potential. And it pretends that pushing ambitious students to the suburbs is somehow a more equitable outcome than providing city schools that serve their needs.

All of this offers an opening for the right, and for Republicans, who should become the Party of Strivers, as David Brooks argues. Brooks wrote in another column that we should figure out “what exactly does it take these days to rise? What exactly happens to the ambitious kid in Akron at each stage of life in this new economy? What are the best ways to rouse ambition and open fields of opportunity?”

Here’s what: Republicans in general, and urban Republicans in particular, should call for the expansion of gifted-and-talented programs while maintaining tough, but fair, entrance requirements; charter schools that embrace a college-prep, high-expectations, no-excuses culture; selective-admission magnet schools that allow our most academically prepared students to push one another; and merit-based scholarships at flagship public universities.

Parents of high-achieving students—whether they be rich or poor, newcomers or old-timers—deserve schools that will challenge their children. If they don’t find them in the city, they will move. It’s up to Republicans to offer another alternative.

This piece originally appeared in slightly different form on the Manhattan Institute’s Public Sector Inc.

The Washington Post (and many others) roundly decried the Department of Justice’s petition to disallow Louisiana from awarding vouchers to students in public schools under federal desegregation orders. Surely it’s folly to block students (mainly black and all poor) from escaping failing schools to which they would otherwise be condemned—and it’s outrageous to claim that this is good for civil rights. As 90 percent of the kids benefiting from Louisiana’s voucher program are African American, Gadfly cannot help but suspect political motives. We join the chorus: Shame on the Department of Justice for standing between disadvantaged children and their education dreams.

Massachusetts, with the nation’s highest-performing school system, models the power of comprehensive standards-based reform. As noted by the New York Times, the Bay State’s standards—like the Common Core—refrain from prescribing curriculum and pedagogy, meaning that teachers decide how to get their pupils across the finish line. There’s far more to the Massachusetts story, of course, including a higher bar, more money, charter schools, individual student-level accountability and tougher requirements to enter teaching. But it’s a story worth telling and retelling.

As the time draws closer for Congress to focus on reauthorizing the federal Institute of Education Sciences, the New York Times did a decent job of profiling the difference that it has made, particularly its emphasis on randomized studies—i.e. research based on clinical trials that test, for example, whether particular education textbooks or technologies are more effective than others. One disappointment? Most educators have no idea the data exist.

Amanda Ripley delivers a familiar admonishment to a new generation of Americans: The (mediocre) schools we have are the schools we deserve. In her first—and quite excellent—book on education, Ripley skillfully communicates this message through the experiences of teenaged U.S. exchange students inserted into three countries—Finland, South Korea, and Poland—for one year. All three countries have made recent leaps and bounds in educational achievement, and all three approach education in different ways: Finland’s “Utopia” model relies on highly trained, autonomous teachers and effective school choice. South Korea’s “Pressure Cooker” approach demands hard work in an ultra-competitive environment. And Poland’s “Metamorphosis,” which began in the late 1990s, focuses on rigor; accountability; high expectations; and district, school, and classroom autonomy. So with her veteran-journalist cap firmly in place, the author visits each of the three students in their host countries to compare their experiences—and perhaps gain insight as to why American students have lost ground. According to Ripley, American culture is a root cause of our education failings, including what parents want in a school, what kids learn at home, or officials’ unwillingness (or inability) to change teacher training, accountability systems, and curriculum. For instance, unlike the Finnish, we shield our children from failure and we don’t train our teachers like we train doctors, with ultra-selective schools, challenging graduate programs, and commensurate pay. And unlike all three of the nations featured, we lack a sense of urgency and the conviction that effective, rigorous education is the only thing that can prevent us from falling further behind in the global economy. Ripley’s message may not be new, but she imparts it with uncommon freshness, objectivity, and verve.

SOURCE: Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2013).

The future is competency-based learning, according to this new, almost hour-long audio documentary from American RadioWorks—and that future is upon us. For generations, wealthy parents in the U.S. and abroad have employed private tutors to deliver individualized instruction to their children, thus recognizing and acting upon a truth long ignored by our school system: Not all children learn at the same pace or in the same way. In the past, tutoring has proved difficult to scale. But the creators of this documentary hail the Carpe Diem campus in Indianapolis and Moorseville Middle School in Moorseville, NC, for cracking the code with the use of modern education technology. Moorseville has a well-implemented “one-to-one” laptop initiative that seems to have played a role in the district’s complete elimination of a sizable gap in the high school graduation rates of its white and black students. The Carpe Diem schools have found a formula for student success in a more radical shift, largely replacing traditional classroom learning with computer labs and project-based group learning. Both Carpe Diem and Moorseville traded larger class sizes for fewer, more committed teachers, empowered to focus on individual students rather than providing basic instruction or grading simple assignments—most of which is done by technology, which also tracks student progress and allows students to learn at their own pace. The documentary makers remind us that technology is only as good as its utilization. The same might be said of competency-based learning. Nevertheless, a system that allows teachers to teach and students to work at their own levels of ability and prior achievement is surely promising.

SOURCE: Emily Hanford and Stephen Smith, “One Child at a Time,” American RadioWorks, American Public Media, August 2013.

When it comes time to pick a career path, young Americans certainly don’t perceive teaching to be the fairest of them all—in any sense of the term. This new report from the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership emphasizes how pension systems are especially unfair toward young teachers and examines the effects of two cost-neutral pension reforms on teacher compensation for the ten largest U.S. public school districts. The first reform is switching from the traditional defined-benefit (DB) pension system, under which teachers accumulate little retirement wealth until later in their careers, to a “cash-balance” plan, which allows employees to accrue retirement compensation smoothly over their careers. The second reform—the “cost-equivalent” reform—decreases the share of teachers’ salaries devoted to retirement savings so that it matches the private-sector average, moving the difference into take-home salary. The authors concede that traditional DB pension systems do offer teachers the possibility of more retirement money. In most districts, however, that higher amount for a few comes at a cost to a great majority: The loss to teachers who choose to leave the profession after less than three decades exceeds the gains to those who remain. Indeed, the system is constructed on the assumption that many will drop out prior to receiving full benefits. That’s clearly off-putting to smart young folks considering taking up teaching, which means it’s also bad for teacher quality. The report’s recommendations do not address the elephant in the room—namely the huge unfunded pension liabilities that already face most school systems (and their states). But the recommendations are sound and provocative as far as they go. Modeling the teacher-compensation system after private-sector compensation systems is common sensical—and fairer overall.

SOURCE: Josh McGee and Marcus A. Winters, Better Pay, Fairer Pensions: Reforming Teacher Compensation, Center for State and Local Leadership, Civic Report No. 79 (New York, NY: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, September 2013).

Mike and Michelle join the WaPo in decrying the DOJ’s anti-voucher antics and debate who’s worse: private school parents or those who settle for failing schools. With Amber off saying “I do,” Dara takes over the research minute with a tale of unfair teacher-pension policies.

Growing numbers of parents, educators, and school administrators are calling for a local "opt-out" from state tests and accountability systems.

Is this opt-out a cop-out? Or would students benefit from a system that their own teachers and principals devised? Should all schools be offered an opt-out alternative, one in which they propose to be held accountable to a different set of measures? What about opt-outs for high-achieving schools or schools with good reason to be different? Would such a system move us toward or away from the goals of the Common Core? As for charter schools, must they continue to be tethered to uniform statewide accountability systems? Or should we rekindle the concept of customizing each school's charter and performance expectations?

The future is competency-based learning, according to this new, almost hour-long audio documentary from American RadioWorks—and that future is upon us. For generations, wealthy parents in the U.S. and abroad have employed private tutors to deliver individualized instruction to their children, thus recognizing and acting upon a truth long ignored by our school system: Not all children learn at the same pace or in the same way. In the past, tutoring has proved difficult to scale. But the creators of this documentary hail the Carpe Diem campus in Indianapolis and Moorseville Middle School in Moorseville, NC, for cracking the code with the use of modern education technology. Moorseville has a well-implemented “one-to-one” laptop initiative that seems to have played a role in the district’s complete elimination of a sizable gap in the high school graduation rates of its white and black students. The Carpe Diem schools have found a formula for student success in a more radical shift, largely replacing traditional classroom learning with computer labs and project-based group learning. Both Carpe Diem and Moorseville traded larger class sizes for fewer, more committed teachers, empowered to focus on individual students rather than providing basic instruction or grading simple...

Want to turn TV time into learning time? As I explain in greater detail below, free streaming videos from services like Netflix and Amazon are a boon to parents committed to a well-rounded education for their children—and not opposed to a little screen time on occasion.

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For the past several months I’ve been curating the best kid-friendly movies and shows available on major educational topics. Check them out and let me know what you think. (If there’s no link, it means that topic is still coming.)

Science

  1. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals
  2. Fish and other aquatic animals
  3. Insects
  4. Frogs and other amphibians
  5. Reptiles
  6. Birds
  7. Mammals
  8. Human evolution
  9. Earthquakes and volcanos
  10. Outer space
  11. Systems of the human body

Literature

  1. Classic children's books (movie adaptations)
  2. American folk heroes

U.S. History

  1. Native American cultures
  2. Age of exploration and discovery of America
  3. Colonial America and the revolutionary war
  4. George Washington and other founders
  5. Lewis &
  6. ...

Pages