High Achievers

America’s approach to the education of children with disabilities is antiquated, costly, and ineffective. “Special education” as we know it is broken—and repainting the surface won’t repair it. It cries out for a radical overhaul. Far too many children emerge from our special-ed system without the skills, knowledge, and competencies that they need for a successful life that fully capitalizes on their abilities. This ineffectual system is also very, very expensive. Yet for a host of reasons—inertia, timidity, political gridlock, fear of litigation, fear of interest groups, ignorance, lack of imagination, and so on—neither our education leaders nor our policy...

I’m halfway through an ambitious research project, in which I examine how other countries educate their high-ability kids in the hope that we might pick up tips that would prove useful in improving the woeful state of “gifted education” in the U.S. (In case you’ve forgotten what’s woeful about it, look here, here, and here.)

So far, I’ve checked out eight lands worth taking seriously, all of which have done pretty well over the years on PISA, TIMSS, and similar measures and all of which are fairly termed “competitors” in the planetary economy. (I’m...

Occam’s Razor is the well-known principle that “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Keep that in mind as various pundits hypothesize about why the U.S. scored below the international average in the 2012 PISA assessment in math, and at the average in reading and science, and why we don’t seem to be making any gains over time on these much-watched gauges. Dennis Van Roekel offers the poverty hypothesis as an explanation. I’m not unsympathetic to the argument (though America’s child-poverty rate is not as unusual as many people think), but let’s consider...

For a decade, the nonprofit Institute for Innovation in Public Choice (IIPSC) has helped the cities of New York, Boston, Denver, and New Orleans bring order to the Wild West of school choice, using the one-two punch of economic theory and custom software. To match students with seats in public schools—either district or charter—the IIPSC builds algorithms that employ three kinds of data: the schools that families want their kids to attend, the number of available seats in every grade at each school, and each schools’ admissions rules. Newly flush with a $1.2 million grant from the Dell...

“Fewer, clearer, higher”: These were the words that guided the crafting of the Common Core State Standards. In concise and clear-eyed prose, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Robert Rothman lays out exactly how the new standards could change current instructional practices—and aims to speak directly to educators, whose efforts will determine whether or not these changes will occur. After providing a brief history of the Common Core (which he covered at length in his previous book), Rothman describes nine facets of the standards that mark a significant change from current practice, four of which pertain to math instruction...

When the Department of Education began offering No Child Left Behind waivers in 2011, states beat down the doors of 400 Maryland Avenue to obtain one. But did allowing states flexibility steer them towards better accountability systems? To answer this question, researchers Morgan Polikoff, Andrew McEachin, Stephani Wrabel, and Matthew Duque painstakingly reviewed and coded each waiver, looking, for instance, at whether they moved accountability systems toward “growth models” and away from “status models.”  Their findings? Let’s let Matthew di Carlo of the Shanker Institute give the sobering news. Out of forty-two states with accepted waiver applications,

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Michelle, freshly returned from a trip to Madrid and Prague (with an extra piece of jewelry on her hand), chats with Mike about special education, career and technical education, and pension reform. Amber reviews an obscure cross-sectional Dutch analysis on the multicollinearity inherent in the study of the learning habits of three- to five-year-old children of blacksmiths—just kidding! It’s PISA week, baby.

READ "How School Districts Can Stretch the School Dollar"

Despite some signs of economic recovery, school districts nationwide continue to struggle mightily. Nobody expects economic growth—or education spending—to rebound to 2008 levels over the next five years, and the long-term outlook isn't much brighter.

In short, the "new normal" of tougher budget times is here to stay for American K-12 education. So how can local officials cope?

In my new policy brief, I argue that the current crunch may actually present an opportunity to increase the efficiency and productivity of our education system if decision makers keep a few things in mind:

First and foremost, solving our budget crisis shouldn't come at the expense of children. Nor can if come from teachers' sacrifice alone. Depressing teachers' salaries forever isn't a recipe for recruiting bright young people into education—or retaining the excellent teachers we have. Finally, quick fixes aren't a good answer; we need fundamental changes that enhance productivity.

So how can school districts dramatically increase productivity and stretch the school dollar?

One, we should aim for a leaner, more productive, better paid workforce. Let's ask classroom teachers to take on additional responsibility in return for greater pay, eliminate some ancillary positions, and redesign our approach to special education.

Two, we should pay for productivity. A redesigned compensation system would include a more aggressive salary schedule, more pay for more work and better results, and prioritization of salaries over benefits.

Three, we must integrate technology thoughtfully. Online and "blended" school models are coming to K-12 education. They can be catalysts for greater pupil engagement, individualization, and achievement and, if organized right, they can also be opportunities for cost-cutting.

Many districts continue to face budget challenges of historic proportions. Rather than slashing budgets in ways that erode schooling, let's rethink who we hire, what they do, how we pay them, and how to incorporate technology—that's where the big payoff is.

I’m halfway through an ambitious research project, in which I examine how other countries educate their high-ability kids in the hope that we might pick up tips that would prove useful in improving the woeful state of “gifted education” in the U.S. (In case you’ve forgotten what’s woeful about it, look here, here, and here.)

So far, I’ve checked out eight lands worth taking seriously, all of which have done pretty well over the years on PISA, TIMSS, and similar measures and all of which are fairly termed “competitors” in the planetary economy. (I’m talking about Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Western Australia, England, Finland, and Hungary.) I will soon have more observations from Canada and countries in Europe. Here are a dozen early impressions:

  • Nobody has blown me away with a perfect approach. Singapore probably comes closest. As one might expect, they take human-capital development seriously at every level—but at present, their full-on gifted-ed program is limited to 1 percent of the population, which seems skimpy. (It’s under review and may be expanded.)
  • There’s scant coordination between what passes for gifted education in the early and middle grades and what happens at the high-school level. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Finland, and Hungary, for example, all have some ultra-selective high schools that end up giving some smart kids an impressive education, but these are preceded by thin supplemental programs (a couple of hours a week) in the earlier grades or, in Japan’s case, essentially nothing. Japanese
  • ...

Here’s a simple thought experiment:

Sam and Ben are eight-year-old identical twins. Like most identical twins, they are the same in almost every way. They do, however, differ in two important respects: Sam is smarter than Ben, but Ben is naturally a harder worker. So here’s my question: All other things being equal (in this case, quite literally), which twin is likely to be a more successful adult?

The answer is Ben, the harder worker. Ben has a far greater chance of achieving success than does Sam. And this is an unacceptable consequence of our country’s inadequate education system, particularly its ineffective education of higher-ability students.

Hard work is a more learned characteristic than is intelligence. Circumstances can easily lead someone to work harder; intelligence is a more fixed attribute (if not fixed entirely). But BOTH of these attributes—hard work and ability—are vital for success.

Let’s look at two possible outcomes for the stars of our story. In this instance, Sam and Ben are in the same math class learning long division. They have four days to learn it before they’re tested. Sam can learn long division in two days; Ben can grasp the same concept in four.

Outcome 1: Sam only wanted to work for one day; Ben toiled for all four. Regardless of ability, Sam is now behind Ben.

Outcome 2: Both twins put in the required time to learn long division. And both do well on the test. BUT Sam’s time was wasted for two days


For almost a year now, many states have been engulfed in a raucous debate about the Common Core State Standards. Mostly the to-and-fro isn’t about the standards themselves, but related issues: The Obama Administration’s role in their adoption, concerns about data privacy, pushback on teacher evaluation reform—the list goes on.

In our view, these issues are distractions from the serious work at hand: implementing solid standards that, by our lights, are better than those they replaced in...

Throughout much of 2013, a colleague and I worked on a project related to America’s highest-potential boys and girls, students colloquially known as “gifted.” Though I learned a great deal, it was mostly a discouraging enterprise.

In short, this country gives the impression that it doesn’t much care about such kids. We have an astonishingly under-resourced, deprioritized, and inchoate system of school supports for kids on the right side of the academic distribution.

Though the project was designed to identify what’s...

The results of New York’s hard-fought, revamped, and supposedly tougher teacher-evaluation system are in: 91.5 percent of teachers were rated either highly effective or effective, 4.4 percent were rated “developing,” and just 1 percent were rated “ineffective.” This appears to be a continuation of a trend: After a huge push for rigorous teacher evaluations tied to achievement, the results are mostly the same. These outcomes are especially interesting when juxtaposed with those from the recently lauded D.C. IMPACT system [link to SR]. Mike Petrilli, unsurprised, notes that the natural local response to top-down mandates is to...

IMPACT—the District of Columbia’s controversial teacher-evaluation system, ushered in by former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee—offers robust incentives and sanctions for teachers and links them to multiple measures of performance, such as test scores, classroom observations, and collaboration with colleagues. And according to this new study, it is working. Analysts studied teacher-level administrative and demographic data for DCPS’s general-education teachers in grades K–12, and their students, over the first three years of IMPACT (2009–10 through 2011–12), including their scores on IMPACT, which placed them into four categories of effectiveness ranging from highly effective to ineffective. Teachers in the latter...

Drawing on classroom visits, teacher training observations, and interviews with multiple education stakeholders, this special reporting project by the Hechinger Report and the Education Writers Association succeeds in bringing lofty notions of Common Core implementation down to an easily consumable level. In-depth profiles of seven states—New York, Tennessee, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California, and Florida—illustrate key successes and challenges that educators are experiencing, teacher perspectives on the standards themselves, and mounting political pushback at the state level as Common Core–implementation efforts accelerate. In addition to the profiles, the report includes a piece on the rationale behind Common Core, a discussion of...

With Common Core implementation in full swing, states are, for the most part, reaching for the same academic achievement goals. Yet according to this new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), the accountability structures being developed in state and local jurisdictions continue to be disparate in scope and quality. Must this be the case? Policymakers, private funders, charter authorizers, or others might create a national system that “could offer the primary advantage of providing a consistent and comprehensive measure of charter school quality to inform parent choice and authorizer decisions,” argue the authors. Looking for inspiration,...

Are states making progress towards implementing the Common Core ELA standards? Did New York waste its time revamping its teacher-evaluation system? Is Teach For America getting too big for its britches? And what exactly is the anti-blob? Mike and Michelle ponder these questions, while Amber lays out the impact of IMPACT.

Does three times four equal eleven? Will "fuzzy math" leave our students two years behind other countries? Will literature vanish from the English class? Is gifted-and-talented education dying? A barrel of rumors and myths about curriculum has made its way into discussions of the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts. Experts will tackle these fears and claims at Fordham on October 23, 2013. Hear from Jason Zimba on math myths, Tim Shanahan on the texts that teachers may assign, and a panel of practicing K--12 educators for an early look at Common Core implementation in their states and districts.
Common Core math myths: A conversation with Jason Zimba
Are teachers assigning Common Core aligned texts? A conversation with Tim Shanahan
An early look at Common Core implementation: A panel discussion
Moderated by Michael Petrilli

Throughout much of 2013, a colleague and I worked on a project related to America’s highest-potential boys and girls, students colloquially known as “gifted.” Though I learned a great deal, it was mostly a discouraging enterprise.

In short, this country gives the impression that it doesn’t much care about such kids. We have an astonishingly under-resourced, deprioritized, and inchoate system of school supports for kids on the right side of the academic distribution.

Though the project was designed to identify what’s happening in this field, I spent much of my time studying the dog that seldom barks—trying to figure out why there is so little activity in this field. I’m now of the mind that American-ness might be at the heart of the problem.

There is something quintessentially American about beating the odds, bootstrapping your way to success. Think of the waves of penniless immigrants who came to our shores and made their marks, the hardy souls who crossed the plains and mountains to realize their destinies. This is the stuff of The American Dream.

But something important seems to go hand-in-hand with our rooting for the underdog—what might be described as the chip on our collective shoulder, a bit of disdain for those seen as undeservingly advantaged. Our Founders cast off the crown, the nobility, and the haughty pretentions that go along with class privilege. We rebel against not only...

Lottery systems are too common in education. And while it’s the fairest way to allocate a limited number of seats at, say, an oversubscribed, high-performing charter school, it’s not the way forward when it comes to Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

Unfortunately, that’s the direction some California school districts may be heading.

Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times reported last week that as some schools move to open access for AP courses, it allows students unprepared for the college-level rigor to sign up. And by enrolling students via lottery—because there aren’t enough AP seats to go around—schools may be shutting out high-achieving students entirely.

"While expanding access is generally a good thing, we need to make sure we're not watering down the experience for the high achievers," said Michael Petrilli in the story.

Mike reiterated that sentiment yesterday when he spoke to Larry Mantle of KPCC’s AirTalk, noting the unintended consequences of expanding AP courses.

Everyone agrees that more access to advanced-level work is a good thing for our students, but the evidence is mixed on whether students who don’t (or can’t) pass the AP exam actually benefit from taking these courses.

There’s also a question of peers. Will teachers spend too much class time working with students who are struggling? It seems likely. AP courses should have standards of entry so that our...

Today’s whiz kids are those most apt to become tomorrow’s leaders. Our ablest students will hatch ideas for products that satisfy the needs and wants of future generations. They’ll be the engineers, investors, teachers, lawyers, and civic leaders that form the backbone of a strong 21st century economy.

Columbus’ public school system, however, by and large neglects its gifted students. This jeopardizes the city and region’s future prosperity and the diversity of its workforce.

First, the neglect of gifted youngsters isn’t such a problem in suburban communities. In fact, parents there are more likely to be accused of “pushing” their kids too hard not too little. Many upper-middle-class parents make sure their children play, for example, violin (for Pete’s sake, first chair), star in a sport (if not three), join the Key Club (why not become president), and of course do well in school (straight A’s in at least three AP courses).

It is not the well-heeled students who win spelling bees and ace their standardized exams with which I’m concerned. On the whole, suburban parents—and schools when coaxed by parents—give their girls and boys ample opportunity to excel academically.

But what happens to talented youngsters who don’t have a pushy parent around, or when their parents don’t have the wherewithal to push very hard? Indeed, what about high-potential students who are born and raised in Columbus’ poorer urban communities? Communities where a child is more likely to grow up in a single-parent home and where household incomes are low?...

Big Ideas Edition

With Mike beaching it in an undisclosed location, Dara and Daniela take on some big topics: If affirmative action were to end, how could colleges maintain diversity? Do teachers need convincing to use technology? All things considered, is college worth it? Amber charts a course to charter quality.

Amber's Research Minute

National Charter School Study 2013,” by Center for Research on Education Outcomes (Stanford, CA: Center for Research on Education Outcomes, June 2013).

The missed opportunity in the education of gifted students runs up and down the system, including into and beyond the college gate. Last December, Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery showed that there are far more high-achieving, low-income students than previously thought—but that these young people, unaware of their options, often do not even apply to selective colleges. Now, Hoxby and Sarah Turner report on a well-crafted intervention aimed at closing the information gap. It’s called the Expanding College Opportunities (ECO) Project. After sending and emailing customized informational packets (which consisted of college-specific information and application fee waivers, alongside guidance on how to apply to selective colleges, on the net cost of college, and on colleges’ varying graduation rates—all at $6 a pop) to high-achieving seniors (10,000 of them in 2010–11, with a control group of 2,500, and 15,000 in 2011–12, with a control group of 3,000), the authors saw positive results: Compared to the control group, recipient students were 20 percent more likely to apply to public and private schools with similarly high-achieving students. And in this Hamilton Project paper, the authors outline ways to bring this initiative to scale: First, in order to scale up the number of students reached, the ECO project will need to team up with credible, established institutions, such as the College Board and ACT. Second, because the Census recently stopped gathering data on incomes, housing values, occupations, and adults’ education, the authors propose that the federal government allow them access to other sources...

In which Terry celebrates cheating (sort of)

Terry livens up the airwaves, bantering with Mike about NCTQ’s blockbuster report, the Blaine Amendment, and Philly’s budget woes. Amber waltzes through the dance of the lemons.

Amber's Research Minute

Strategic Involuntary Teacher Transfers and Teacher Performance: Examining Equity and Efficiency,” by Jason A. Grissom, Susanna Loeb, and Nathaniel Nakashima, NBER Working Paper No. 19108 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2013).