High Achievers

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.



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 three-fourths of the states, and more-or-less on par with the rest.

In an effort to nudge the conversation back to the standards and (yes, we know this is crazy!) teaching and learning—and as part of a years-long research effort to track implementation—we’re pleased to present a new Fordham study: Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments.

This report presents the findings of a survey of English language arts (ELA) teachers from Common Core states, asking them to answer questions about the texts their students read and the instructional techniques they use in the classroom. This year’s data are meant to serve as a baseline that shows where we were in the very early stages of CCSS implementation. We plan to do a follow-up study in 2015, whereupon we will comment on whether the instructional shifts have taken hold.

But first, let’s define those instructional shifts—ways in which the Common Core standards expect practice to differ significantly from what’s been the norm in most American classrooms:

  1. Build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and informational texts
  2. Focus student work on reading and writing grounded in evidence from text
  3. Encourage regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary

These shifts have profound implications for ELA curriculum and instruction. The Common Core State Standards are among the first standards to stress the crucial link between knowledge and reading comprehension—something that will, if faithfully implemented, force many teachers to rethink whether their preferred reading programs meet the content and rigor demands of the CCSS. And this important shift serves to correct the fact that, for too many years, students have had little access to the kinds of literary nonfiction and informational texts they need to prepare them for the rigor of advanced coursework in college and beyond.

The Common Core unambiguously expects “regular practice” with suitably complex texts. In the past, state ELA standards tacitly called for students to be able to read and understand grade-appropriate text by year’s end. The Common Core, by contrast, recognizes that the only way to achieve that goal is to expose students to complex texts throughout the year.

What’s more, the Common Core emphasizes reading (and writing) “grounded in evidence from the text.” Whereas students in the past may have read something, then moved immediately to write personal responses and narratives, the Common Core pushes them and their teachers to stay with the text—to use the author’s words and other evidence within the text to answer questions and to support analysis. This is precisely the kind of close reading and analytical practice that students need to push comprehension and deepen “critical thinking” skills.

But will these shifts make their way into American classrooms? That is the question we sought to examine through the present study.

Even today, at this early phase, we found some hopeful signs. Most teachers believe that the new standards promise better learning for their students, and a majority say that their schools have already made progress toward implementing the standards, including relevant curriculum changes and professional development. Some teachers say that they are already teaching with grade-level-appropriate texts, and that they already include at least some informational texts in their English language arts curriculum.

But findings from this survey also showed that the heavy lifting of aligning curriculum and instruction to the rigor of the CCSS mostly still lies ahead:

  • The CCSS emphasize the centrality of text in the English language arts curriculum. Yet the majority of teachers still say their lessons are dominated by skills; they are more likely to try to fit texts to skills than to ground their skills instruction in what is appropriate to the texts they are teaching. Indeed, an astonishing 73 percent of elementary and 56 percent of middle school teachers place greater emphasis on reading skills than the text; high school teachers are more divided, with roughly equal portions prioritizing either skills or texts.
  • The Common Core asks teachers to assign texts that provide language complexity appropriate to the grade level, but significant proportions of teachers—particularly in the elementary grades—are still assigning texts based on students’ present reading prowess. Specifically, the majority of elementary teachers (64 percent) choose to match students with books presumed to align with their instructional reading levels. This happens less often in middle and high school, with approximately two in five middle school teachers selecting texts this way. This means that many youngsters are not yet working with appropriately complex language in their schoolbooks.
  • The CCSS call for students to have substantial experience reading informational texts (including literary nonfiction such as speeches and essays). Despite some public controversy over this, teachers indicated that they are already devoting significant proportions of time to teaching such texts in their classrooms. Nevertheless, many English language arts teachers (including 56 percent at the middle school level) assign none of the literary or informational texts listed in the survey, which represented both CCSS exemplars and other high-quality texts.

The vast majority of teachers appear cautiously optimistic about the Common Core. Most (62 percent) indicated that, when surveyed in 2012, they thought the standards would have at least some positive learning benefits for their students (from a little bit to a great deal), while 11 percent thought that no learning gains would result and 18 percent said it was “too soon to tell.” These responses were consistent across the grades; elementary, middle school, and high school teachers characterized the standards similarly.

The promise and potential of standards- and accountability-driven reform is that, by setting clear and rigorous expectations for what students should know and be able to do, teachers can better prepare students for the more advanced work that they will be asked to do in later grades, in college, and beyond. In order for standards to have any impact, however, they must change classroom practice. In Common Core states, the shifts that these new expectations demand are based on the best research and information we have about how to boost students’ reading comprehension and analysis and thereby prepare them more successfully for college and careers. Whether those shifts will truly transform classroom practice, however, remains to be seen. Please stay tuned.

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 tyranny but the Platonic idea of “philosopher-kings”—persons groomed from youth, told they are crafted from precious metals, and guided into positions of power and lives of advantage.

As a still-mostly-meritocratic country, we seem to respect what people become, but we reserve our reverence for the process of rising, Horatio Alger style. As for those blessed with advantages from the get-go, well, we have no intention of holding them back. But we are inclined to just let them be. In all of our research, what we heard most frequently was that people believe major efforts aimed at high-performing students aren’t all that important because these kids will do fine without any additional “favors” from the rest of us.

In Closing America’s High-achievement Gap, recently published by the Philanthropy Roundtable, I argue that the “let-them-be” approach is deeply flawed and that public education policy and practice pay far too little attention to helping gifted students reach their full potential. 

First, this form of benign neglect is based on a false assumption. Most of America’s ostensibly “self-made” leaders enjoyed all sorts of essential support along their paths to greatness. Frederick Douglass received surreptitious reading lessons during his childhood. Thomas Edison was home-schooled by an attentive mother. Robert Goddard was given a telescope, microscope, and subscription to Scientific American. America’s position on the global stage would look markedly different today if generations of political, industrial, and scientific leaders had not been cultivated and nurtured by the adults in their lives.

Unfortunately for today’s gifted students, however, when a Fordham Institute survey recently asked teachers which students were most likely to get one-on-one attention, 81 percent said struggling students and only 5 percent said advanced students. Some knowledgeable, insistent, well-resourced parents can deflect some of these problems by finding special schools, hiring tutors, and so on. But the talented, low-income child often pays the price, depending as she does on whatever supports her neighborhood school has to offer.

Second, leaving them alone overlooks the opportunity costs—both to individual students and to society—when a gifted child does not reach her potential. For low-income and minority students, this gap has negative implications for the cause of social justice and civil rights. But for all high-potential kids who get too little attention, the child, her community, and the nation all pay a large price. A natural resource was squandered—great accomplishments never came to be. The damage inflicted can last far beyond the year (or years) she was under-challenged. She will have missed the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge but also invaluable attributes like grit and perseverance, which will be essential when she faces difficulties in higher education or the workforce.

In fact, a 2011 Fordham Institute study found that somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of early-grade “high-flyers” descend and no longer achieve at the most advanced levels. A similar study in the United Kingdom found the same result. This adds up to lots of kids and lots of lost potential. In the best of cases, a high-potential student will have a fine personal and professional life, but the delta between what is and what could have been will be significant in terms of both her personal sense of fulfillment and her contributions to society.

Third, benign neglect assumes that raising the floor is the best and fastest route toward equity. Over the last two decades, policymakers, compelled by the demands of equal opportunity and aghast at widening achievement gaps—particularly for poor and minority youngsters—have focused resources on the neediest kids. The “achievement gap,” the difference between the proficiency rates of different groups of students, appears to be closing slowly. This is invaluable.

However, the “excellence gap,” the difference in performance at the “advanced level,” is large and growing. Low-income, minority, and English-language-learning students are terribly under-represented at the highest levels of achievement.

Our short book offers lots of suggestions. For example, new accountability systems should pay more attention to “advanced” and less to “proficient,” or they should calculate the “value-added” gains of gifted children (as Ohio’s does). We should create more specialty schools for high-potential kids (like those identified in Finn and Hockett’s superb Exam Schools). We need to do a much better job of identifying gifted kids and developing policies requiring that they receive attention. We need more out-of-school supplements, such as distance-learning opportunities and university-based programs. And we need to seriously reconsider how we recruit, train, certify, and compensate those who teach gifted kids. These boys and girls desperately need very, very smart educators.

But leaving possible solutions aside, I’d like to return to the fundamental problem—that we seem not to care very much about these boys and girls. If you doubt this, ask yourself: What is my organization doing for the highest-potential students? What is our reform movement doing for them?

We should care about all boys and girls. Morally, it’s the right thing to do. Politically, too: If we want education reform to be sustainable, we have to broaden our base. But we should also help high-achievers for the sake of our nation. Our brightest kids have the potential to become our future presidents, judges, diplomats, business leaders, scientists, and artists. If we’re to remain competitive internationally and prosperous and free domestically, we must start investing more in high-talent kids. It’ll pay big dividends, and future generations will thank us for patriotically leaving them this nest egg.

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 resist.

A thoughtful article in National Review Online profiled the battle against “progressive education” over the last half century and, in particular, the contributions of E.D. Hirsch Jr. to the cause. It is a must-read for anyone those who wish to understand more clearly the philosophical underpinnings of the education-reform movement.

New York Times op-ed columnist Bill Keller highlighted the move to reform teacher preparation, noting in particular the calls for greater selectivity in admissions (a key point in Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World), better training in content knowledge (as quoted in the article, researcher William Schmidt reckoned that about 60 percent of America’s future middle school math teachers were being trained at “Botswana-level teacher programs”), and the introduction of “sustained, intense classroom experience” into prep programs.

Seven states—Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington—will participate in a two-year pilot program aimed at improving teacher preparation and licensure. The reforms will increase selectivity in teacher-prep programs, make licensure provisional upon whether or not candidates can demonstrate specific skills, and revamp the process by which programs are approved. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which created the program, will provide technical and financial assistance to the participating states. This is a worthy, and necessary, undertaking.

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 category were immediately dismissed, while those in the next lowest category (called minimally effective) were subject to a dismissal threat—meaning they could be fired the following year if their rating did not improve. On the other hand, those who were rated as highly effective were eligible for a one-time bonus of up to $25,000, as well as increases in their base pay if they scored at the highest rating for at least two consecutive years. When comparing these two “threshold” groups, the low-performers (whose ratings placed them near the threshold of a dismissal threat) and the high performers (whose rating placed them near the threshold for the big pay bump), the analysts found that the threat of dismissal increased the voluntary attrition of low-performing teachers by 11 percentage points (or more than 50 percent) and improved the performance of teachers who remained by 0.27 of a standard deviation. They also found that the financial incentives further improved the performance of high-performing teachers; specifically, teachers who originally scored at or above the highest rating in the first year scored roughly 10 percentage points higher in the second year. Commentary on these results abounds in the blogosphere, essentially boiling down to one point: IMPACT is a unique program with a lot of factors—political, geographical, and so on—that converged to make it successful, meaning it is not easily replicated.

SOURCE: Thomas Dee and James Wyckoff, “Incentives, Selection, and Teacher Performance: Evidence from IMPACT,” NBER Working Paper No. 19529 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2013).

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 how the CCSS compare to international standards, an overview of Common Core math and ELA content and controversies, a video in which David Coleman highlights key instructional shifts, and a state-by-state synopsis of how seven states are navigating the transition to Common Core (whew!). Embedded throughout the profiles and articles is information clarifying frequent misconceptions about Common Core. For example, the report stresses that “the Common Core lays out overarching education principles and specific skills students should master in different grade levels,” but is not a federal or state takeover of curriculum decisions. (For more on Common Core controversies, watch the video of our event on the topic this past week.) This is not to say the report presents its observations of Common Core implementation through overly rosy glasses; rather, it offers a realistic view of educator frustrations and hurdles alongside widespread feelings of optimism and the belief that rigorous, higher standards are the right thing for our students. At the end of the day, as one eighth-grade math teacher in Nashville concludes, “It is about setting high expectations and believing that [the students] can do it.”

SOURCE: The Hechinger Report and Education Writers Association, National Reporting Project on the Common Core (The Hechinger Report, October 2013).

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, the analysts study state and local accountability systems as well as private ones, such as the high school rankings provided by U.S. News and World Report. They found that each used different reporting formats and a variety of means to measure student achievement, growth, college and career readiness, and subgroup performance. Logistics, costs, and our fears of federal intervention in education will likely ensure that a multi-state evaluation system does not move much beyond the kind offered by U.S. News. Nevertheless, the report calls for better data and offers a number of steps that states could take to make their results more comparable, such as including student-growth measures or using simplified reporting formats.

SOURCE: Lyria Boast and Tim Field, Quality School Ratings: Trends in Evaluating School Academic Quality (Washington, D.C.: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, October 2013).

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...

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...