A Reform-Driven System

Via this ambitious strand of work, we seek to deepen and strengthen the K–12 system’s capacity to deliver quality education to every child, based on rigorous standards and ample choices, by ensuring that it possesses the requisite talent, technology, policies, practices, structures, and nimble governance arrangements to promote efficiency as well as effectiveness.

New York State education officials raised a ruckus two weeks ago when they announced that annual statewide reading and math tests, administered in grades 3–8, would no longer be timed. The New York Post quickly blasted the move as “lunacy” in an editorial. “Nowhere in the world do standardized exams come without time limits,” the paper thundered. “Without time limits, they’re a far less accurate measure.” Eva S. Moskowitz, founder of the Success Academy charter schools had a similar reaction. “I don’t even know how you administer a test like that,” she told the New York Times

I’ll confess that my initial reaction was not very different. Intuitively, testing conditions would seem to have a direct impact on validity. If you test Usain Bolt and me on our ability to run one hundred meters, I might finish faster if I’m on flat ground and the world record holder is forced to run up a very steep incline. But that doesn’t make me Usain Bolt’s equal. By abolishing time limits, it seemed New York was seeking to game the results, giving every student a “special education accommodation” with extended time for testing. 

But after reading the research and talking to leading psychometricians, I’ve concluded that both...

  • The best coaches are, at heart, excellent teachers. They have to impart tactics and skills to their players, along with universal values like teamwork, leadership, and effort. The U.S. Soccer Federation acknowledged the necessity of sound teaching when it contacted superstar educator Doug Lemov to help train its youth league coaches. The former teacher and administrator (and college soccer walk-on) gained fame for his meticulous research into the methods of successful instructors, which he has explored in a series of bestselling manuals. Now he’s helping professionals construct drills and improve communication with their young charges. Lemov has written about his fascination with the game before (check out his notes on a practice conducted by European juggernaut Bayern Munich), and we can only hope that his contributions help lift young American athletes higher. Because seriously, there’s something humiliating about losing to Belgium—whether on test scores or the beautiful game.
  • Even if they’re stupefied by the content, history teachers probably long for the inarguable authority of mathematical theories and proofs. With a few exceptions, math and science teachers seldom have to bat away charges of imperialism or cultural misrepresentation. In California, where educators are mulling a newly issued framework for
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Detroit Public Schools recently made national headlines for the heartbreaking conditions of its school facilities and a widespread teacher “sick-out.” For Detroit, these are sadly just the latest hurdles to overcome: The public school system has been in dire financial straits for many years, while national testing data indicate that the district’s students are among the lowest-achieving in the nation.

A report from the Lincoln Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on land use and tax policy, provides a fascinating angle on the Detroit situation. It highlights the massive problems that the Motor City encounters when trying to finance public services, including education, through its local property tax system. Consider just a few bleak statistics reported in this paper: 1) The property tax delinquency rate was a staggering 54 percent in 2014; 2) roughly eighty thousand housing units are vacant—23 percent of Detroit’s housing stock; 3) and 36 percent and 22 percent of commercial and industrial property, respectively, sat vacant.

The report also highlights ways that property tax policies exacerbate the school system’s revenue woes. First, property tax abatements—tax breaks aimed at spurring re-investment—have reduced or exempted the tax liabilities of more than ten thousand properties. Whether the benefit of these reductions outweighs...

Most of today’s K–12 accountability systems are, themselves, persistently underperforming. One of the big problems is that they lean so heavily on student scores from reading and math tests. Even if the system uses growth measures in addition to proficiency, those growth scores are also typically based on reading and math tests.

Though basic literacy and numeracy are invaluable, schools provide boys and girls with so much more. When those other things—citizenship, the arts, non-cognitive skills, and so on—aren’t part of the system, all kinds of unfortunate stuff can happen. Curriculum can narrow, teachers feel constrained, the goals of schooling feel less fulsome, and kids’ opportunities can be limited.

There’s also the problem known as Campbell’s Law, which states that "the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."

The idea is that people and organizations feel compelled to change behavior, often in regrettable ways, to hit targets. So by focusing so specifically on reading and math tests, our accountability systems can actually diminish the value of reading and...

A new study out by Tom Dee and his colleagues follows on the heels of a prior evaluation of District of Columbia Public Schools' (DCPS) IMPACT teacher evaluation system, which found largely positive outcomes for the system. This time around, they examined the effects of teacher turnover on student achievement. The new focus is presumably prompted by IMPACT, a multifaceted evaluation system that measures student growth, classroom practice (via observations), and teacher professionalism. Teachers receive scores that range from “ineffective” to “highly effective”; the former are “separated” from the district, while the latter are eligible for one-time bonuses of up to $25,000 and a permanent increase in base pay of up to $27,000 per year.

This evaluation, using data from 2009–10 to 2012–13, covers 103 schools between grades four and eight. It examines achievement at the school level, and then the grade level, for particular years. Analysts examine whether teacher effectiveness and achievement are higher or lower as a result of teachers exiting and entering the system.

The evaluation is a well-designed, quasi-experimental study, so it’s not causal in nature. But like any good analysts, the authors subject their data to a number of checks for “robustness” to rule out...

Full disclosure: I worked briefly (and happily) for Ed Boland, the author of The Battle for Room 314, after leaving my South Bronx classroom. He is a longtime senior executive with Prep for Prep, a heralded nonprofit that seeks out talented students of color in New York City’s public school system, grooms them for placement in elite private schools, and shepherds them into the best colleges in the nation. It’s the closest thing in education to finding a life-changing golden ticket in a Wonka bar.

Beset by a “nagging feeling that the program, as worthy as it was, just wasn’t reaching enough kids or the ones who needed the most help,” Boland starts to wonder if he’d missed his true calling. Raised in a Catholic family of teachers and do-gooders, he sets his mind (and resets his household budget) on becoming a New York City public school teacher. First he works nights and weekends to get his teaching degree. Then he quits his job hobnobbing with the city’s elite and trades his “comfy bourgeois life,” for a job teaching ninth-grade history at “Union Street School.”

To say it didn’t go well would be an understatement. Chantay climbs on her desk and...

  • If you ask a thoughtful question, you may be pleased to receive a smart and germane answer. If you post that question in your widely read newspaper column on education, you’ll sometimes be greeted with such a torrent of spontaneous engagement that you have to write a second column. That’s what happened to the Washington Post’s Jay Matthews, who asked his readers in December to email him their impressions of Common Core and its innovations for math: Was it baffling them, or their kids, when they sat down to tackle an assignment together? He revealed some of the responses last week, and the thrust was definitively in support of the new standards. “My first reaction to a Common Core worksheet was repulsion,” one mother wrote of her first grader’s homework. “I set that aside and learned how to do what [my son] was doing. And something magical happened: I started doing math better in my head.” The testimonials are an illuminating contribution to what has become a sticky subject over the last few months. Common Core advocates would be well advised to let parents know that their kids’ wonky-looking problem sets can be conquered after all.
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report last month from the “Making Caring Common” project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education calls on elite colleges and universities to “send different messages” to high school students and parents about what matters—and, more importantly, what will gain admission—to America’s most hallowed higher education institutions. “Today’s culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good,” laments the report, entitled Turning the Tide. To combat this rising swell of student stress and self-regard, the college admissions process should motivate high schoolers to “contribute to others and their communities in more authentic and meaningful ways.”

Top admissions and financial aid officials at several dozen elite American colleges and universities have eagerly endorsed the report’s recommendations, which include encouraging “collective action that takes on community challenges” and looking for evidence of “authentic, meaningful experiences with diversity” when admissions decisions are made. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni praised the report, which he claims “nails the way in which society in general—and children in particular—are badly served by the status quo.”

It’s a bit much, frankly. I’m not quite convinced by the sudden alarm over the “undue academic performance pressure” placed on our children, nor am...

M. René Islas

On January 23, the Economist sent a clear warning to world leaders about the ways that “governments are systematically preventing [youth] from reaching their potential.” In the article “Young, gifted and held back,” authors point to many policies, practices, and traditions that limit the ability of individuals under the age of thirty to excel in their adulthood and even lead their communities to prosperity. The piece briefly mentions the importance of investing in education, but I would like to call our attention to an aspect of education that is constricting human and economic flourishing—the neglect of children with extraordinary gifts and talents with high potential for excellence and productivity.

According to the last available data from the OECD PISA in 2012, school systems across the globe only produced 12.6 percent of students that could perform at the highest levels on mathematics. Results are far worse in the United States, where only 8.8 percent of American students achieved at the highest levels. If the Pareto Principle still stands, the U.S. is short 11.2 percent of the 20 percent of the population needed to lead the nation to continued prosperity. Put simply, an education system that values mediocrity over excellence...

One of the big themes in the Star Wars series is the battle between technology and tradition: the Empire with its Death Star, Imperial Starfleet, and other modern marvels versus the Jedi with their ascetic lifestyles and primitive Force.

famous scene in Episode IV captures it perfectly:

Admiral Motti: This station is now the ultimate power in the universe! I suggest we use it! 

Darth Vader: Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force. 

Admiral Motti: Don't try to frighten us with your sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the rebels' hidden fort... 

(Vader makes a pinching motion; Motti starts choking.) 

Darth Vader: I find your lack of faith disturbing.

Han Solo, condescending to the lightsaber-wielding Luke, later scoffs, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” 

The gist is that the advocates of modernity...

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