High Achievers

A recent study examined whether gifted programs benefit students at the margin: those who barely “made the cut” for admission into a program and those who barely missed it. The study found that students in both subsets performed approximately equally on standardized tests a couple years after demarcation.

Obviously, this study says nothing about those students who easily “made the cut”—those who are the most gifted. (Other research indicates that these highest achievers do benefit from being around similarly gifted peers.) Instead, the research only looked at whether gifted programs are beneficial to students at the margin. And the answer is actually a somewhat-counterintuitive maybe: gifted programs might be beneficial for students on both sides of the margin. (I explain this below.)

Subsequently, a couple news outlets reported that the findings of this study proved that gifted education programs were ineffective:

“If the gifted and talented programs are effective, then the marginal students should end up with higher test scores than the marginal students in regular classes. If they’re not effective, then both sets of students would have around the same scores.” The Atlantic

“A new...

Nearly three decades ago, 320 students below the age of thirteen took the SAT math or verbal test and placed in the top 1 in 10,000 for their math- or verbal-reasoning ability (some called them “scary smart”). This article details a twenty-year follow up that analyzes their accomplishments by age 38, with the purpose of determining whether they went on to make outstanding contributions to society. And no surprise, they did. Of the total, 63 percent held advanced degrees, 44 percent of which were doctorates—that’s compared to barely 2 percent of the general population who hold PhDs. These students made an average of 20.6 fine-arts accomplishments (music productions, paintings, sculptures), produced 6.6 STEM-related publications, and were responsible for seven software developments and/or patents per individual. The average amount in grant dollars brought in by each was roughly $826,000 (thirty-one of them had received more than $25 million in grants).  Many were employed by Fortune 500 companies, renowned medical hospitals, and Research I universities. Finally, analysts found that students who uber-excelled in math tended to work in computer and informational sciences and engineering, while those who uber-excelled in verbal ability tended towards the social sciences. This was all the more...

Wednesday marked the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the “War on Poverty.” To mark the milestone, National Review Online published an online symposium with a variety of conservative views about that War’s success and failures—and how best to fight a new War on Poverty going forward. Here are three contributions—by Fordham’s Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael J. Petrilli, and the Center of the American Experiment’s Mitchell B. Pearlstein—that focus on education’s role in alleviating poverty.

The "war on poverty" and me

By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Forgive an aging education-reformer’s reminiscences, but LBJ’s declaration of war on poverty shaped the next fifty years of my life.

I was a Harvard undergraduate at the time, dabbling in social reform and social action via a slew of student-volunteer programs in schools, settlement houses, public-housing projects, and hospitals; not studying very hard; and expected by my family to join my father and grandfather in their Dayton law firm.

Then two things happened.

Professor Edward Banfield brought into his course on “urban problems” a young assistant secretary of labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose enthusiastic explanation of the nascent “war” fired my imagination—and introduced the man who would later become my doctoral adviser, chief mentor, and source of three riveting jobs.

And Lyndon Johnson’s oft-stated conviction that education was the surest route to vanquishing poverty engaged both the do-gooder inclinations of a twenty-year-old and reflected what I was seeing among children in poor neighborhoods of Cambridge and Boston and the miserable schools they attended.

Between LBJ and Pat Moynihan, I now had a sense of mission. So I applied to the ed school instead of the law school. And on it went from there.

In retrospect, I have no career regrets, but I’ve also learned a ton about the limits of formal education (which makes up a relatively small part of a person’s life); about the difficulty of changing our major institutions; about the hazards of inflating what Uncle Sam, in particular, can do to bring about such changes; about the predilection of our politics to place adult interests ahead of children’s; and about poverty’s dogged capacity to defeat just about every intervention that a free society can devise.

In short, I became both an education reformer and a neoconservative (back in the days when that honorable term had more to do with domestic than foreign policy).

Older. Wiser (or at least chastened). Less confident—but still determined.

Can't buy me love

By Michael J. Petrilli

The so-called War on Poverty has been fantastically successful at eradicating poverty among the old and devastatingly miserable at eradicating poverty among the young. It’s not hard to see why. It’s easy to reduce or eliminate poverty among people, such as seniors, who are not expected to work: Give them money and free services, like Social Security and Medicare. Voilà, problem solved. What our young people require, however, is so much more. And it’s nothing a government program can provide.

What they need, first and foremost, are parents with the emotional stability, resources, and commitment to do their most important job well. That means making good decisions every day about what they will or won’t expect of their kids; the time they will or won’t spend with them; the books they will or won’t read to them; the experiences they will or won’t provide. It shouldn’t be controversial to say, then, that many poor parents struggle to make these good decisions, often because they themselves are still growing up and are trying to do the job alone.

If we want to reduce intergenerational poverty—the real social scourge in America—we need an all-out effort to encourage everyone to follow a simple rule: Don’t have kids until you are ready to provide for them, emotionally and financially.

That means taking children who are growing up today in dysfunctional families and dysfunctional communities, and often attending dysfunctional schools, and transporting them into environments that can, as President George W. Bush would say, “touch their hearts.” The most promising among these are schools of choice that prepare students academically and vocationally—so that they might see a future for themselves beyond the walls of poverty—but also emotionally, socially, and spiritually. These are schools of character and conviction, schools with a clear sense of moral purpose, that aren’t bashful about shaping kids’ characters and compasses.

Such schools should be measured by the degree to which their graduates are college- and career-ready, yes, but also fatherhood-ready and motherhood-ready. The true measure of the impact of education reform—or any other campaign in the War on Poverty—is whether it produces self-sufficient citizens who can build strong and healthy families for the next generation.

Reviving marriage to end poverty

By Mitchell B. Pearlstein

A long time ago now, the late syndicated columnist William Raspberry was in the Twin Cities for some kind of program and a woman asked a modest question: “How do you fix poverty?” Raspberry, who was a gracious Pulitzer Prize winner, said something about how poverty was a very big problem, and as such, one could jump in just about anywhere and make a contribution. But if he had to choose just one place, he said, he would start with the boys, which is exactly where I start, principally because boys become the men whom women don’t want to marry, and usually for very good reasons.

Or more precisely, I start where I do because unless we somehow revive marriage in America, particularly in inner cities, there isn’t a chance in the world of making more than tiny dents in poverty. Which leads to another modest question: How to bring marriage back in communities where it’s nearly dead?

Claiming that getting a good education is ultimately the best strategy might sound elementary to the point of trite. But what more promising route is out there, especially for millions of boys (and girls) who have a hole in their heart where their father (and sometimes their mother) should be? What type of education might work best at filling such gaps?

The adjectives that come quickest to mind are “paternalistic” and “nurturing.” “Paternalistic” suggests tough-loving charter schools in the “sweat the small stuff” spirit of KIPP academies, and “nurturing” suggests schools in which religious belief animates much.

I certainly don’t contend that a parochial school is a right option for everyone. But might such a school work well, sometimes wonderfully, for many? No question. Not only is the case for such schools strong in terms of academics, but vouchers to provide access to them are more promising than any other strategy I know for making measurable dents in poverty.

Mitch Pearlstein is the founder and president of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. His most recent book is From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation.

These pieces originally appeared in a National Reveiw Online symposium entitled "The War on Poverty at 50" and on Fordham's Flypaper blog.

Chad Aldeman

Cities and states faced with rising pension costs have begun to search for the most effective way to balance retirement promises made to workers with the need for fiscal sustainability and employer flexibility. Most prominently, a federal judge ruled last month that the city of Detroit could declare bankruptcy, opening the door for it to cancel or revise contracts such as those for retiree pensions. In Illinois, another state with a constitutional protection for government-worker pensions, the governor recently signed legislation that would raise the retirement age for mid-career workers and reduce cost-of-living adjustments for all workers who have not yet retired. Unions there immediately challenged the constitutionality of the legislation.

Another battle is playing out in California. In June 2012, San Jose mayor Chuck Reed convinced a seventy-to-thirty majority of his city’s voters to endorse changes to pension and retiree health care plans for city workers. The municipal unions filed a lawsuit the next day, and in late December 2013 a judge ruled that the pension changes violated the state constitution. Under what’s known as the “California Rule,” the Golden State’s constitution protects the right of workers, from their first day on the job, to accrue future benefits. (A dozen other states also use the California Rule as the legal protection for government pensions.) In other words, if a teacher is hired on January 1, 2014, her pension-benefit formula can never go down for the rest of her working career and into retirement, even if, for example, she lives until the year 2074.

While the California Rule protects pension benefits in perpetuity, it doesn’t protect the employee’s salary, health care, or the job itself. It’s easier to fire someone than to change her pension formula.

This results in a set of twisted ironies. First, it’s alright for employers to lower employee salaries but not to raise their retirement contributions. This doesn’t make any sense. If I ask you to take a 1 percent pay cut or require you to pay 1 percent more into your retirement plan, these two actions should have the same financial impact—yet the law treats them differently. Second, employers can change the components of benefit formulas but not the formula itself. Pensions are based on a formula where the benefit equals some multiplier (in California, it’s 2 percent) times salary (in California, it’s the highest twelve months of salary for workers who have at least twenty-five years of experience) times years of service. Employers can change an employee’s salary, and they can fire the employee (thereby ending their years of service). These things would obviously reduce an employee’s pension benefit, but the California Rule only protects the benefit formula, not the actual benefit.

Mayor Reed is among a coalition of California municipal leaders now leading a bigger fight. He’s sponsoring a ballot initiative that would change the state constitution and allow state and city governments to make proactive changes to retiree benefits. The initiative would protect any benefits that an employee has already accrued but would no longer guarantee employees the right to accrue the same level of benefits forever into the future. The attorney general recently gave the initiative a title and a short, one-hundred-word description. The first two sentences summarize that it

Eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree healthcare benefits for current public employees, including teachers, nurses, and peace officers, for future work performed. Permits government employers to reduce employee benefits and increase employee contributions for future work if retirement plans are substantially underfunded or government employer declares fiscal emergency.

Reed and his backers must now decide whether that language adequately captures the proposal and if it’s worth proceeding to a statewide vote. The initiative requires the signature of 8 percent of all registered California voters—that’s 807,615 people—in order to be on the ballot this coming November.

Ultimately, nonsensical pension protections such as these must come to an end. They’ve forced state and local governments to pay out ever-higher proportions of compensation in the form of retirement benefits instead of salaries. Such protections also act as an intergenerational wealth transfer from younger to older workers. Because they lock in benefits for existing workers, the only way for state and local governments to address funding problems is to target new workers. Nearly every state has created less generous plans for new workers, plans that will require them to pay more money up front, remain in their jobs longer before “vesting” into the system and qualifying for even a minimum benefit, and work longer before they retire with full benefits. This situation can’t last forever. We should protect the benefits that individuals have already accrued, especially those of present retirees and those nearing retirement, but we shouldn’t tie the hands of state and local governments decades into the future.

Chad Aldeman is an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, which recently launched Teacherpensions.org.

Earlier this week, AFT president Randi Weingarten came out against the use of value-added measures in teacher evaluations, citing recent VAM shortcomings in D.C. and Pittsburgh and launching the catchy slogan, “VAM is a sham.” VAM certainly is not perfect. But as Dara Zeehandelaar reminds us in this week’s Education Gadfly Show, teachers decades ago were concerned about being capriciously fired by principals who didn’t like them, which in turn led to the movement for a more structured and quantifiable teacher-evaluation system. Does Randi want to go back to favoritism? Or simply no accountability at all?

In a fascinating exposé of the Common Core opposition movement, Politico’s Stephanie Simon describes how a sophisticated group of strategists took a grassroots campaign, mainly populated by “a handful of angry moms,” and is milking it for political gain. With everyone’s questionable motivations out in the open, Gadfly would like to see the debate return to whether the standards are right for kids.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Eric Cantor named school choice as the best hope for the poor to escape cyclical poverty. He took special aim at New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, for planning a moratorium on charter school co-locations in the Big Apple, arguing that this could “devastate the growth of education opportunity in such a competitive real estate market.” Cantor went on to chastise President Obama for (again) refusing to fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a successful initiative that has “received more than 11,000 applications with over 1,600 students receiving aid to attend a school of their choice in the past year alone.” Hear hear.

A new survey from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice delivers a thorough look at how the public views an array of school-choice issues. The results could surprise even some seasoned policymakers and wonks. After a useful literature review summarizing decades of opinion research on school choice, the author digs into the results of his nationally representative survey: First, respondents were asked whether they support or oppose various forms of school choice, and he found greater public enthusiasm for tax credits and savings accounts than for vouchers. Second, respondents were asked a series of questions to determine whether arguments favoring school choice were more persuasive if they invoked ideals of freedom, competition, or equality. Freedom prevailed.  Third, as is often the case, respondents felt that reducing class sizes would be quite effective in improving our education system relative to the other ideas offered. Among the reform ideas tested, support for “vouchers is in the middle of the pack, with smaller class sizes, technology, and accountability perceived as more efficacious and reducing teachers’ unions’ influence, merit pay, and longer school days as less efficacious.” This all would seem to indicate the need for school-choice supporters to go big with their proposals to reach as many kids as possible. Logically, support may dwindle to the extent the public feels a given policy does not affect them. In addition, policies should be designed to ensure options are broad-based, diverse, high quality, technologically current, and—most of all—student centered.

SOURCE: Dick M. Carpenter II, School Choice Signals: Research Review and Survey Experiments (Indianapolis, IN: Friedman Foundation for Educational Excellence, January 2014).

This year, Education Week’s Quality Counts report tells a story of districts facing formidable pressures, both external (such as budgetary and performance woes) and internal (demographic shifts), as well as a maturing market of expanded school options—and how this competitive environment is leading to governance change. Ed Week overhauled its long-running State of the States comparisons, paring its sets of indicators down to three: the (still-questionable) Chance-for-Success Index; the K–12 Achievement Index; and school finance. (No longer do they include standards, assessment, and accountability; the teaching profession; or transitions and alignment.) For the rundown of states at the top and bottom of the class, be sure to check out the results online—and a nifty interactive report card, which allows readers to recalculate grades using their own weights. But of particular interest is a survey analysis of the increasingly complex district governance landscapes—thanks to the rise of educational management and charter organizations and with the use of portfolio strategies in cities like Denver. Almost 80 percent of the national sample of district administrators queried agreed with the statement that “accountability pressures and technology shifts have led them to consider changes,” while 54 percent agreed that school systems need to make significant governance or structural changes. When asked about whether they think merging high- and low-poverty districts or implementing a state-led turnaround (or turnaround school district) strategy would work, the respondents seemed more optimistic about the former.

SOURCE: Education Week, Quality Counts 2014: District Disruption & Revival (Bethesda, MD: Editorial Projects in Education, January 9, 2014).

Nearly three decades ago, 320 students below the age of thirteen took the SAT math or verbal test and placed in the top 1 in 10,000 for their math- or verbal-reasoning ability (some called them “scary smart”). This article details a twenty-year follow up that analyzes their accomplishments by age 38, with the purpose of determining whether they went on to make outstanding contributions to society. And no surprise, they did. Of the total, 63 percent held advanced degrees, 44 percent of which were doctorates—that’s compared to barely 2 percent of the general population who hold PhDs. These students made an average of 20.6 fine-arts accomplishments (music productions, paintings, sculptures), produced 6.6 STEM-related publications, and were responsible for seven software developments and/or patents per individual. The average amount in grant dollars brought in by each was roughly $826,000 (thirty-one of them had received more than $25 million in grants).  Many were employed by Fortune 500 companies, renowned medical hospitals, and Research I universities. Finally, analysts found that students who uber-excelled in math tended to work in computer and informational sciences and engineering, while those who uber-excelled in verbal ability tended towards the social sciences. This was all the more interesting since the lesser of their two scores still put 94 percent of them in the top 1 percent of ability, meaning they still gravitated to their relatively higher strength even if they were very strong in both math and verbal ability. Analysts conclude by saying that atypical individuals like these require atypical learning opportunities for optimal growth—and we agree.

SOURCE: Harrison J. Kell, David Lubinski, and Camilla P. Benbow, “Who Rises to the Top? Early Indicators,” Psychological Science 24 (2013), 2013: 648–59.

Invigorated by the weather, Mike and Dara give cold shoulders to anti-Common Core strategists, California’s constitution, and Randi Weingarten’s “VAM sham.” Amber gets gifted.

Dara Zeehandelaar, author of The Big Squeeze: Retirement Costs and School District Budgets, explains teachers pensions and the difference between defined benefits and defined contribution plans that states offer teachers.

The appointment of former educator and experienced administrator Carmen Fariña as the new chancellor of New York City’s one-million-student public school system has been met with cautious optimism from several fronts, spanning from those who hope she will soften de Blasio’s stance against charter schools to those who hope the opposite. Gadfly, however, is deeply concerned about her recent comments—specifically, her contention that facts are learned “maybe to take tests, but we learn thinking to get on in life. As anyone who understands the past thirty years of cognitive science knows, that’s as false a dichotomy as they come. Gaining knowledge and learning to think critically, rather than being mutually exclusive, are in fact dependent upon one another. Gotham’s students need more knowledge, not less.

Call it a Christmas present to value-added haters: Over the holiday season, news broke that an error in the District of Columbia’s Mathematica-designed value-added model—specifically, the calculation of teachers’ “individual value-added” score, which constitutes 35 percent of teachers’ score under the city’s IMPACT evaluation system—led to mistaken job evaluations for forty-four teachers, one of whom lost their...

Proficiency versus Progress

Mike and Andy keep it civil while discussing gifted education, and Andy humors Mike’s enthusiasm for driverless cars—but the gloves come off when they get down to TUDA. Amber also wants to talk TUDA, and admonishes Mike and Andy for stealing her thunder.

Amber's Research Minute

The Nation’s Report Card: A First Look: 2013 Mathematics and Reading Trial Urban District Assessment, by National Center for Education Statistics, NCES 2013-466 (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, December 2013).

Earlier this week, the New York Times featured an editorial on gifted education, noting that even our best students were in the middle of the pack in the recent PISA results. (Mike Petrilli pointed this out two weeks earlier.) The Times went on to discuss how our younger students generally fare better on global tests than our older students, indicative of our failure to nurture high flyers as they progress in education, and made four recommendations for improving gifted education: increasing government funding, expanding accelerated learning (including the possibility of online and video learning in rural areas), early college admission, and psychological coaching (citing research that suggests gifted kids should receive mentorship in order to learn how to handle stress, setbacks, and criticism). Stay tuned for additional lessons on how our international peers educate their high-ability youngsters.

Large school districts in California worry that they will lose out on state funding because of a new rule about verifying students’ poverty status. Part of California’s revamped school-funding system significantly weighted by income, this particular rule requires parents to turn in documentation on their own income status that...

Checker Finn, chagrined at the lack of attention to gifted education in the U.S., has decided to study what other nations do. His initial assessment is that we’re not the only one giving high-ability kids minimal thought. Such a strange, unfortunate phenomenon.

With the failure of SIG, we need a Plan B ASAP for kids in failing schools. I’ve long argued for a massive new schools strategy. (More on this to come in an upcoming blog post.) If you’re likeminded or intrigued by the idea of the starting-fresh approach, check out the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ ESEA-reauthorization recommendations. This is a blueprint for Plan B.

I think single-purpose chartering bodies are the future. In fact, I think all public schools (and all private schools participating in voucher or tax-credit programs) should have performance contracts with them (more on this in an upcoming AEI paper). NACSA has a terrific short policy brief on such independent chartering boards. Check it out.

If you follow the increasing use of Value-Added Measures (VAMs) and Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs) in state-, district-, school-, and teacher-accountability systems, read this very good new ...

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 leaders have shown any inclination to modernize it. Instead, they settle for “paint jobs”—waivers and the like.

Federal policy is responsible for much of this failure. Even though the education world has changed around it—as have technology, mobility, fiscal conditions, demographics, and so much more—it remains essentially stuck where it was in 1975 when the first major national law in this realm (now known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) was passed.

It was much needed at the time. Many children with disabilities (in those days they were called “handicapped”) had been denied education or given versions of it wholly unsuited to their needs and unlikely to do them much good. Some adults believed that such kids could not learn. Schools in many cases did not know how to educate them well. And few states or districts had focused on the problem.

So Congress did—and President Ford signed the bill, albeit with misgivings. (His “signing statement” presciently declared that “[T]his bill promises more than the federal government can deliver, and its good intentions could be thwarted by the many unwise provisions it contains.”)

The federal program is input-driven, rule-bound, compliance-obsessed, and inattentive to learning outcomes. It is sorely out of touch with an era oriented to academic standards and achievement, to giving families quality choices among good schools, to intervening in unsuccessful schools, and to individualizing every student’s education, often with the help of technology. It is also essentially limitless when it comes to the costs to be incurred by states and districts following this law.

Yes, it cries out for a radical overhaul. And yet it does not prevent states from putting into place some practices and strategies that work better than others. Bear in mind that states and districts account for the lion’s share of special-education funding and that this part of their education budgets has ballooned in recent decades, both because the special-ed pupil rolls have swelled and because costs in this realm are exceptionally difficult to keep within bounds (in part because of federal “cost-may-not-be-considered” and “maintenance-of-effort” rules).

Adding to the costs and further complicating the picture is the subset of disabled students who need very extensive services, sometimes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for each such pupil. Without appropriate planning, meeting their needs can over-stretch district budgets, especially in smaller jurisdictions (and free-standing schools such as charters), putting pressure on the education of other children, causing fiscal distress, and giving rise to political discord.

A new paper from Fordham’s Daniela Fairchild and Matt Richmond, Financing the Education of High-Need Students, does not purport to revamp national special-education policy or to solve all of its financial problems. Instead, it focuses on three specific challenges that are often encountered when districts, especially small districts, grapple with the costs of their highest-need special-education students, and it makes three recommendations that districts and states could put into practice today, without waiting for reforms or help from Washington, as they seek ways to mitigate those problems:

  1. District Cooperatives: Many districts—including charter schools, which often comprise their own mini-districts—do not have the requisite size and capacity to serve high-need students effectively and affordably. Multi-district co-ops allow for both economies of scale and better service delivery for these children.
  2. Student Funding Based on Multiple Weights: Special-ed funding systems based on average student needs may be easily administered, but they can also lead to inefficient and ineffective resource allocations. Weighted student funding is a tiered system of resource allocation that allows for a more rational and efficacious distribution of funds, enabling districts with more high-need pupils (or pupils who require more dollars to pay for their IEP-mandated services) to receive more money while jurisdictions that need less receive less. Basing those weights on services needed by children rather than disability diagnoses significantly improves the accuracy of this system.
  3. Exceptional-Need Funds: Districts (especially small ones) sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the high cost of educating one or two particularly needy children. This type of fund, managed and predominantly financed by the state, acts as an insurance mechanism for districts that can’t cover the full cost of educating high-need pupils along with all others under their purview.

Let’s say it again: Special education is in need of a top-to-bottom makeover that nobody seems willing or able to undertake. But some worthy repairs can be made around the periphery of current policy—and the three set forth in our new paper are well worth undertaking by states and districts across the land. 

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 culture prefers to act as if nobody is smarter than anybody else. This means parents who have kids they hope are smart, or just kids they want to get into high-status high schools, resort to private after-school programs known as “juku”—which only works, of course, if they have the financial wherewithal to pay the fees. (Finland is culturally similar in this way but has no juku.)
  • This lack of synchrony leads to bizarre situations, such as an arts-keen kid finding a program that’s right for him at one level but only in science, or maybe nothing, at the next level and youngsters welcomed into “gifted” program as late as ninth grade who find no openings in suitable high schools starting in tenth.
  • Total enrollments are declining almost everywhere I went (not in Western Australia, but few people live there!), which you’d think would make access to selective gifted-ed programs easier. But budgets are also tight and—as will sound familiar—smart kids aren’t seen as very “needy.”
  • On the other hand, particularly when it comes to selective high schools, the resourcing can be lavish, albeit not available to many students. I’ve been in (public) schools where the pupil/teacher ratio is just four to one and the equipment and facilities verge on awesome.
  • I’m finding real ambivalence as to whether the rationale for gifted education is “every child deserves the education that works best for him/her” or “the country’s future depends on developing potential inventors, scientists, and leaders.” Educators tend toward the former view, big-picture policymakers toward the latter. (In my eyes, both arguments have merit.)
  • Science and math are in the ascendancy wherever there’s gifted education in Asia, partly because that’s what parents want for their kids and partly because countries are worked up about “STEM” (or STEAM). In Europe, on the other hand, the arts—music especially—are very big deals. This is associated with the predictable gender imbalance, with boys tending to predominate in the science-gifted programs and schools and girls in those oriented toward the arts.
  • Save for some tracking and ability grouping within heterogeneous classrooms, nobody is doing gifted education, at least the publicly financed kind, in the early grades. Fourth grade (i.e., nine- or ten-year-olds) seems to be the starting point for both supplemental and “pull-out” programs.
  • Nobody is compensating well for the absence of pushy, prosperous, influential parents. That is to say, disadvantaged kids, however able they may be, are indeed at a disadvantage in terms of accessing gifted programs, supplemental activities, and selective schools. This is apt to turn out to be toughest nut, and we may find no really good way for public policy to crack it. (I’m still hunting and hoping. Hungary is trying hard.) Moreover, a lot of gifted-ed programs and schools, even in the public sector, carry costs that parents must bear, ranging from ambitious field trips to summer camps to basic transportation.
  • Though many parents seem content to cram knowledge and higher test scores into their kids as rapidly as possible, educators and policymakers in the “gifted” world are paying more attention to nurturing qualities like “creativity” and “independent research” in high-ability youngsters.
  • The gifted-ed world is so far making feeble use of online opportunities to enrich and extend student learning, either in school or out. Thinly populated Western Australia is making some headway here—for kids who live “in the country,” as they say—but mostly it’s via real-time online classes taught by regular teachers sitting in regular schools.
  • How to get into a gifted program or school? This varies enormously, from old-fashioned IQ testing to teacher observation/recommendation to student applications and interviews (and sometimes all of the above and more). This is related to the fact that, as in the U.S., there’s widespread uncertainty as to what exactly constitutes giftedness and how best to identify it. How much, for example, takes the form of innate intellect and how much is the product of “developed skills”? (Francois Gagne’s “model” is taken seriously in many places.)

That’s it, so far, but please stay tuned.

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 all of the assumptions that one must make to support it.

First, one must assume that math is somehow more related to students’ family backgrounds than are reading and science, since we do worse in the former. That’s quite a stretch, especially because of much other evidence showing that reading is more strongly linked to socioeconomic class. It’s well known that affluent toddlers hear millions more words from their parents than do their low-income peers. Initial reading gaps in Kindergarten are enormous. And in the absence of a coherent, content-rich curriculum, schools have struggled to boost reading scores for kids coming from low-income families. Yet many U.S. schools have succeeded in boosting the math achievement of their low-income students. In fact, the U.S. has shown tremendous progress on NAEP in raising the math scores of poor fourth and eighth graders. (Van Roekel, a former math teacher, should appreciate that.)

So the second assumption must be that “poverty” has a bigger impact on math performance for fifteen-year-olds than for younger students. But I can’t imagine why. If anything, it should have less of an impact, because our school system has had more time to erase the initial disadvantages that students bring with them into Kindergarten. (Bruce Baker argues that the “cumulative effects of poverty” might be too much for schools to overcome.) Furthermore, American performance isn’t just weak among our poorest, lowest-performing students. Our affluent students are mediocre, too. And despite our great wealth, our rate of production of high achievers is barely half that of several other countries. How does “poverty” explain that? One must assume that poverty is diminishing the performance of students who aren’t poor. Hmm.


So what’s an alternative hypothesis for the lackluster math performance of our fifteen-year-olds? One in line with Occam’s Razor?

Maybe we’re just not very good at teaching math, especially in high school.


An earlier version of this piece appeared on the Flypaper blog on December 3, 2013.

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 Foundation, the IIPSC plans to expand into Philadelphia, Washington, and possibly Detroit. Hat tip!

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education released proposed priorities for a new competitive grant program for charter school support organizations, to come from the annual “national activities fund.” These priorities highlight what the Department deems to be the “key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale,” and they include gaining efficiency through economies of scale, improving accountability, providing quality education to students with disabilities an English language learners, and supporting personalized technology-enabled learning. While these are important policies at the surface level, it is unclear what the long-term implications and unintended consequences may be of focusing grant making solely on the bigger charter entities and whether smaller, unaffiliated charter schools will realize any benefits.

On Wednesday, President Obama delivered a big speech on inequality, in which he brought up education as a driver of opportunity. Aside from his usual talking points—expanding early-childhood education, boosting education spending—he specifically mentioned career and technical education through apprenticeships (check out this New York Times piece for an interesting profile of a German company implementing such a program in South Carolina). This is an idea that could realistically gather bipartisan support. But where would one obtain the funds for such a program, you ask? Mike Petrilli has an idea—and it rhymes with Dell. (And starts with a P.)

There was big news on the pensions front this week. A judge ruled that Detroit’s municipal pension plans were fair game in the bankruptcy case. While Detroit teachers’ pensions will not be affected, as they are part of a state-administered system, the Economist predicts that the case will have aftershocks in other municipalities and states grappling with public-pension quandaries. And over in Illinois, lawmakers finally passed a huge bill to shore up the state’s debt-riddled pension system—currently $100 billion in arrears, solidifying the state’s worst-in-the-nation credit rating. Could this be the turning of the tide?

“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 and five to English language arts. In one math-related example, Rothman discusses the “math wars,” a long-standing battle over whether math instruction should emphasize procedural fluency, conceptual understanding, or problem-solving abilities, and how the Common Core—by emphasizing all three—seeks to find peace. Rothman concludes with a look at the road ahead and impending challenges—like funding, politics, and implementation in the years to come. Still, Rothman remains hopeful—as do we.

SOURCE: Robert Rothman, Fewer, Clearer, Higher: How the Common Core State Standards Can Change Classroom Practice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013).

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,

17 exclusively use some version of proficiency or other cutpoint-based rates to identify priority schools. Another 23 employ a composite index consisting of different measures, but in most of these indexes, proficiency still plays the dominant role….So, put simply, the vast majority of states that have had their waiver applications accepted are still relying predominantly or completely on absolute performance, most commonly proficiency rates, to identify low-performing schools.

As Mike explained earlier this week, that’s a problem. And a missed opportunity.

SOURCE: Morgan S. Polikoff et al., “The Waive of the Future? School Accountability in the Waiver Era,” in press at Educational Researcher, 2013.

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.

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
  • ...

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.