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.

The digital revolution is sweeping across Ohio. This year, twenty-six e-schools, twelve of which serve students throughout the state, will educate 40,000 or so youngsters. Countless more students will learn in a “blended” classroom or take an online course at their brick-and-mortar school.

One emerging use of technology is to help secondary students recover credit.  At first glance, the flexibility of online learning seems to be tailor-made for students who, for whatever reason, are in dire need of credit recovery. But in her recent Education Next article, journalist Sarah Carr documents a few of the flies in the ointment when it comes to this nascent, computer-based approach to credit recovery.

First, the data and research about online credit-recovery are simply far “too incomplete.” According to an AIR analyst with whom Carr spoke, “Even basic questions are unanswered, like the size of the business [i.e., online learning providers] and the size of the need.” Second, she finds that there is practically no way to determine the quality of an online course provider. In fact, Carr described a New Orleans school where the principal ditched one provider because its courses failed to engage her students and the quizzes were mostly recycled until the student passed them. Lacking an external quality-control authority, the vetting of online courses remains the duty of local educators. Third, Carr provides a few examples of how credit-recovery can be misused and abused. She cites a New York City incident in which administrators pushed failing...


The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the OarWhen Fordham released The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar, which argued that smaller is better when it comes to state education agencies, the education community took note. Andy Smarick, a coauthor of the report, is in violent agreement with the folks over at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, and even state chiefs are open to these ideas. Here’s some of the best commentary about the white paper (so far):

Paul Hill, founder of CRPE, writes,

Slogans are useful, but they can mislead. We can’t just “blow up” the old governance system, we also have to build a new one. We need superintendents and board members to “relinquish” old regulatory functions, but we must also design new agencies that delegate, not abdicate, their responsibility to kids, parents, and communities.

Also from CRPE, research analyst Ashley Jochim notes political pitfalls:

Today, chiefs’ ability to weather their time at the helm depends greatly on their political skill, fortitude, and good luck. Transformation of SEAs will require a serious effort to convince governors and legislators that states can play a more constructive role, and that doing so will lead to real benefits for children. Reformers are starting to make that case intellectually but have barely begun addressing it politically, saying why elected officials should support state actions


New research from the Consortium on Chicago School Research provides a relatively easy to-do list for district leaders who want to see more students progress toward graduation. Melissa Roderick and company use real-time data to identify and monitor pupil performance at one intervention point: the ninth-grade transition. By looking at the on-track rate for ninth graders—a student is “on track” when he has enough credits to move to tenth grade and has no more than one F per semester in a core course—researchers found that between 2007 and 2013, the on-track rate rose 25 percentage points—from 57 to 82 percent. (That’s nearly 7,000 additional students who finish ninth grade and move onto tenth grade.) On-track rates improved for students across race and gender lines, too: African American males benefited the most, with an on-track rate increase from 43 percent to 71 percent. In public schools that showed large on-track increases as early as 2008 or 2009, the graduation rate three years later increased by at least eight percentage points. One school saw its graduation-rate increase by twenty percentage points. Chicago Public Schools school administrators and teachers monitored student performance and identified students at risk of falling behind the on-track rate for ninth graders. School leaders were flexible in how they used the data to intervene with students at risk of falling behind (but researchers don’t specify how school leaders intervened with students). Three cheers for research that shows significant results and provides education leaders with strategies that can help students...


Today brought the eagerly awaited release of the 2013 NAEP results for 12th grade math and reading, which include scores for the nation as a whole as well as eleven pilot states. (NAEP has not traditionally reported state-level data for 12th grade.) There’s no report visible at this time, but the data can be found on a workable online database. Frankly, the results are depressing. In both math and reading, scores remained unchanged from their dismal 2009 levels. That means a mere 26 percent of students are proficient in math, and a slightly-better-but-still-bleak 38 percent are proficient in reading—two percentage points lower than in 1992. Moreover, those scoring below basic levels in math and reading are 35 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Worse yet, achievement gaps between ethnic groups didn’t narrow. To cheer you up just a bit, however, four of the eleven pilot states saw gains in math scores, and two saw reading gains. Of course, that means the others didn’t. Bottom line: whatever good recent reforms may be doing in the earlier grades, they’re not yet paying off at the end of high school—especially for African American and Latino students. And that, obviously, is just for the kids who even make it to the end.

National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation's Report Card Grade 12: Reading and Mathematics 2012 (Washington, D.C.: National Assessment of Educational Progress, May 2014)....


Among the many problems facing American K–12 education, we don’t have enough highly effective, minority, or male teachers.

Two recent reports from the Center for American Progress (CAP) underscore the first and second of these three shortfalls. As for gender, you can take a look at the NCES data—or just take my word that there are more than three female teachers in U.S. public schools for every male teacher.

If you had to choose, would you rather have your child taught by a highly effective teacher or one who shares his or her race and/or gender?

Of course you’d prefer all of the above, but you may have to face the reality that not many families can have it. I’m reminded of the timeworn conundrum presented to impatient, parsimonious, quality-minded customers by any number of prospective vendors and contractors: “Yes, we can do it better, faster, or cheaper—but we cannot do all three at once. Pick no more than two.”

In a perfect world, you might want your child to be taught by someone who “looks like” him or her and is also highly effective in the classroom. But effective teachers of any race are hard to come by. There just aren’t enough of them, especially in schools serving poor kids. And the pay isn’t good enough to lure huge numbers of others away from more lucrative opportunities. For decades now, American public education has invested its ever-growing budgets in more teachers...


My colleague Julie Squire and I recently published a report on reforming state departments of education. We argue most state-level reforms ought to be driven by entities other than the SEA, which should focus on a narrower, but still important set of responsibilities.

Our report was intended to challenge the dominant view (i.e., state reform requires a more muscular SEA) and explain how a new approach might be implemented.

We recognized that our take was sufficiently different so as to require not just a strong theoretical base and plenty of evidence but also measured recommendations and explicit cautions. We aimed to produce a sober assessment of current conditions and guarded optimism about a new tack. This is why we dedicate an entire section to the problem and another to the risks of our argument.

We’re fortunate our paper has been taken seriously by a number of serious people, including those who largely agree, those open to a discussion, and those with reservations.

In the last category fall two sharp observers who’ve produced responses warranting attention. Not coincidentally, both are affiliated with CRPE, which has studied systemic reform for ages and dedicated significant recent bandwidth to SEA reform. To cut to the chase, I enthusiastically agree with most of what both have written.

The first is a smart piece by Paul Hill, CRPE’s founder and a researcher who’s thought deeply about the theory underpinning our piece and that theory’s application to...


On the surface, the story of the US Department of Education’s recent letter to Indiana about its ESEA-waiver noncompliance writes itself. According to the feds, the Hoosier state promised a bunch of stuff, isn’t delivering, and deserves to be called into the principal’s office.

But I encourage you to read the letter—my gut tells me this is the K–12-policy version of a Rorschach test.

In short, the Department has placed conditions on IN’s flexibility request and is requiring the state to submit a plan for how it will implement high-quality standards and assessments in the next school year.

On the first score, ED determined the state hadn’t implemented sufficient interventions for troubled schools and wasn’t adequately monitoring implementation of content standards and educator evaluations.

On the second, ED is seriously holding IN’s feet to the fire regarding its recent legislative action related to Common Core and PARCC. Both were part of the state’s waiver request, and now both have been put aside via state law. Given this, Uncle Sam is demanding a new plan for how the state intends to meet the standards-and-assessments conditions of ESEA flexibility.

I bet lots of folks will read ED’s letter, and think, “Hooray! The Department is serious about its new accountability rules!” Indeed, the ESEA waiver application had clear requirements, and the state made promises, got the flexibility, isn’t meeting its obligations, and is now being held accountable. (Fans of Common Core and PARCC specifically, and tough standards...


This AEI policy brief investigates whether involved fathers impact their kids’ chances of success in college—and finds that they surely do. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a 1994–95 study of a nationally representative sample of children in grades 7–12, the author found that children whose fathers are involved in their lives (measured by adolescent-reported data on such activities as receiving homework help, playing a sport, or discussing personal issues) while they attend high school are far more likely to graduate from college—98 percent more likely, in fact. Perhaps the most important (if not surprising) takeaway is that young adults in college-educated homes are more likely to be raised in an intact family with an involved father and are therefore more advantaged than their counterparts in non-college-educated homes. Since this means that most young adults from poor or working-class families are far less likely to receive a college education, a question arises: how can we tackle the fatherhood divide between children from educated and less-educated families? This ultimately highlights a very important problem without an easy solution—and serves as a reminder that it’s never too early to celebrate Father’s Day.

W. Bradford Wilcox, “Dad and the diploma: The difference fathers make for college graduation,” The Home Economics Project (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, April 22, 2014).


There’s much interest in how schools can develop students’ non-cognitive skills, such as persistence and interpersonal skills, not just their academic prowess. In this study, Marty West and six other researchers examine the potential of schools to impact the development of four types of non-cognitive qualities: conscientiousness, self-control, grit (persisting through to a long-term goal), and growth mindset (the extent to which a child believes his academic ability can improve with effort, rather than being fixed). Analysts link self-reported survey data from nearly 1,400 eighth-grade students who attended Boston public schools in the spring of 2010–11 to student-level demographic and test-score data. Three key findings emerge: First, they find that all four measures of non-cognitive skills are positively correlated at the student level with achievement gains on standardized tests and with attendance and behavior. For the most part, however, those positive correlations disappear at the school level (the “paradox”). Second, students in overprescribed charter schools who typically post large test-score gains report lower-than-average levels on measures of conscientiousness, self-control, and grit. Analysts hypothesize that this is because many of these charter schools are academically and behaviorally demanding—and thus, these students are apt to rate themselves more critically given the context in which they are educated. Third, the authors find that students’ views on whether their academic ability is malleable or fixed is less likely to be influenced by their surroundings—perhaps because such notions are based on internal beliefs. Analysts close with a smart caution in the end:  “In the rush...


It looks to me as if one of the most acclaimed reforms of today’s education profession—not just in the U.S. but also all over the planet—is one of the least examined in terms of actual implementation and effectiveness. How often and how well do instructors, whose administrators and gurus revere the concept of differentiated instruction, actually carry it out? How well does it work and for which kids under what circumstances? So far as I can tell, nobody really knows.

I’ve been roaming the globe in search of effective strategies for educating high-ability youngsters, particularly kids from disadvantaged circumstances who rarely have parents with the knowledge and means to steer them through the education maze and obtain the kind of schooling (and/or supplementation or acceleration) that will make the most of their above-average capacity to learn.

As expected, I’ve found a wide array of programs and policies intended for “gifted education,” “talent development,” and so forth, each with pluses and minuses.

But almost everywhere, I’ve also encountered some version of this assertion: “We don’t really need to provide special programs, classrooms, or schools for gifted children because we expect every school and teacher to differentiate their instruction so as to meet the unique educational needs of all children within an inclusive, heterogeneous classroom.”

A thoroughly laudable goal, say I, but how realistic is it? How well is it being done? And does it really meet...