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 ESEA reauthorization conferees delivered some good news for America’s high-achieving students last week. Absent further amending, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will include a necessary and long-overdue section provision that allows states to use computer-adaptive tests to assess students on content above their current grade level. That’s truly excellent news for kids who are “above grade level”—and for their parents, teachers, and schools.

Here’s the language, with emphasis added: 

The quality of state assessments matters enormously to children of all ability levels, but today’s tests do a grave disservice to high-achievers. Most current assessments do a lousy job of measuring academic growth by pupils who are well above grade level because they don’t contain enough “hard” questions to allow reliable measurement of achievement growth at the high end.

Doing that with paper-and-pencil tests would mean really long testing periods. But a major culprit is an NCLB provision requiring all students to take the “same tests” and (at least as interpreted during both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies) barring material from those tests that’s significantly above or below the students’ formal grade levels. Though the intentions behind this decision were honorable—to...

Gary Kaplan

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education wisely decided this week to tack between the Scylla of MCAS and the Charybdis of PARCC. Following Commissioner Mitchell Chester’s recommendation, they chose to adopt MCAS 2.0, a yet-to-be-developed hybrid of the two options. Their adroit navigation calms the troubled waters for the time being. But choosing a test is only the beginning of the voyage. Strong and sustained tailwinds will be needed to swell the sails of student achievement.

A test is a measuring instrument. It shows where a student needs to improve, but it doesn’t provide instructional strategies and tools to achieve that improvement. Even without a new test, current state, local, and national assessments already generate more data than anyone can digest.   

Assessment data should directly drive instruction, and the instruction should be individualized to the student. This is the intent. But data-driven, individualized instruction can only take place online. Teachers can’t cut and paste textbooks—but software can be customized with a keystroke. Still, very few schools have the computers and software to support individualized online instruction.

MCAS 2.0 can be an effective driver of instruction if the state invests in a computer for every student (along with the...

A new Social Science Research study examines racial differences in how teachers perceive students’ overall literacy skills. It asks whether there are differences in these perceptions and to what extent they might be a reflection of a difference in actual abilities. In other words: Are teacher perceptions accurate?

The study uses data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, specifically those students enrolled in first grade during spring 2000 who had literacy test scores from kindergarten and first grade (ECLS-K administers a literacy test). Teachers were also asked to evaluate students’ overall ability relative to other first-grade students on a scale that ranges from “far below average” to “far above average.” The analyst controls for a host of student, teacher, and classroom variables in the regression analysis, including parental income and education, teacher race, percentage of poor students in the school, and more.

The study finds that, per the average performers, teachers were mostly accurate in labeling them so; there are no statistically significant racial differences in teacher ratings here. But among lower performers, teachers tend to rate minorities (Asian, non-white Latino, and black students) more positively than their performance suggests, while low-performing white students were rated more negatively than their...

Welders, as Marco Rubio recently reminded us, sometimes earn more than philosophers. But neither of them earn as much as students who receive degrees in STEM subjects. So perhaps the most encouraging bit of data to emerge from the ACT’s “The Condition of STEM 2015” report is this: Of the nearly two million high school graduates who took the ACT in 2015, 49 percent had an interest in STEM.

Interest, however, does not necessarily translate into aptitude. For the first time this year, ACT has added a new “STEM score” to their report—an acknowledgement of recent research indicating that college success in science, technology, engineering, and math classes requires a higher level of preparedness than ACT’s previous benchmarks in math and science alone seemed to predict.

Based on this enhanced measure, a paltry 20 percent of the 2015 ACT test takers were deemed ready for first-year STEM college courses. For reference, readiness is defined as either 1) a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher or 2) a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher in freshman courses like calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics. Among students who say that they are interested in STEM majors or...

The Achilles’ heel of the West, I read not long ago, is that many people struggle to find spiritual meaning in our secular, affluent society. How can we compete with the messianic messages streaming from the Islamic State and other purveyors of dystopian religious fundamentalism?

It made me reflect on my own life. How do I find meaning? Largely from my role as a father, a role I cherish and for which I feel deep gratitude. But ever since I lost faith in the Roman Catholic Church of my upbringing—not long after I nearly succumbed to cancer at age eighteen—much of my life’s meaning has come from my view of myself as an education reformer.

I suspect that I am not alone. We are drawn as humans to heroic quests, and those of us in education reform like to believe that we are engaged in one. We’re not just trying to improve the institution known as the American school; we see ourselves as literally saving lives, rescuing the American Dream, writing the next chapter of the civil rights movement.

When people speak of Arne Duncan with tears in their eyes—explaining earnestly that he has always put kids first—it...

John Chubb was not only a fine scholar, tireless education reformer, and creative innovator. He was also my friend and colleague for more than two decades. I first came upon him in 1990, when he (then at Brookings) and Terry Moe published their blockbuster school choice book, Politics, Markets and America’s Schools. Two years later, we found ourselves working together at the outset of Chris Whittle’s ambitious Edison Project. We both also served as founding members of the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K–12 Education, which led to much collaboration over more than fifteen years, as well as more terrific books, articles, and reports written or edited by John. (A good collection can be found here.)

While he was still with Edison (where he lasted a lot longer than I did), we had many dealings over that firm’s stewardship of a pair of charter schools that Fordham authorized in Dayton. He and I also found ourselves together at umpteen conferences, workshops, and board meetings. Quite recently, John surprised many of us by taking the helm of the National Association of Independent Schools. He was off to a terrific start there, fully grasping the challenges of that corner of...

Editor's note: Politics K-12 reports that House and Senate negotiators have reached a preliminary compromise on reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Many details have yet to emerge, but it sounds like the Senate bill prevailed, with a few key changes. 

We'll have more analysis when the complete bill is released, but preliminary thoughts from Mike and Checker are below.

Mike says:

As the contours of an ESEA deal become clear, the country has much to celebrate. This bill, if enacted, will finally turn the page on the No Child Left Behind act, a law with the right impulses and some clear impacts, but one that badly needed an overhaul. This compromise delivers it.

The bill will turn significant authority back to the states, where, under our Constitution, it belongs. This will take the federal boogeyman off the backs of education reformers nationwide, and will put governors and state legislators back in the driver's seat on accountability, teacher policy, and much else.

Yet the bill also maintains important transparency provisions, especially the requirement for annual testing in grades three through eight, so that parents and the public can continue to get key performance information by which...

Ever since the birth of the modern reform movement, the GOP has faced a dilemma on federal education policy: Should it focus on the party’s federalist principles and push for a limited federal role in the nation’s schools, or use Washington’s authority to empower parents and shake up the system?

That tension was on full display this week as Republican candidates Marco Rubio and Ben Carson sat down with the Seventy Four’s Campbell Brown. The two want everything and nothing to do with education reform, expressing simultaneous desires to be the “education president” (hmm, where have we heard that before?) while also seeking to curtail federal involvement in a system that they maintain can only be redeemed through local efforts.

The discussions offered a rare glimpse at how candidates view the president’s role in American education, a topic that continually fails to surface during primary debates.

The K–12 system fails so many students growing up in poverty, and Carson was almost one of them. But thanks to the heroic intervention of his mother, he learned to read and developed a passion for science. He also took charge of his own schooling by seeking out after-school help when disruptive students prevented teachers from...

Any baseball team finding itself down 3-0 in a seven-game series points to the 2004 Boston Red Sox. Despite the longest of odds—they hadn’t won a World Series in eighty-six years! Their Bronx nemeses had them down!—they staged a miraculous comeback, winning four games straight.

Now, any on-the-brink team getting peppered by reporters’ questions can point to the Sox. “Yes, we’re down big,” they can say. “Sure, things haven’t gone as we wanted. But it can be done! Just give it time! The Red Sox did it!”

Of course, what these teams fail to mention is that the thirty-two other times an MLB team went down 3-0, that team lost the series. Worse, in the 110 instances in which an NBA team went down 3-0, that team always lost the series.

In other words, past poor performance predicts prospective performance.

But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is undaunted. True to the administration’s messianic approach to policymaking, he sought yesterday to defy history. Presumably wearing a Johnny Damon jersey under his suit, the secretary traveled to the home of the Red Sox to rally-cap the legacy of his signature initiatives.

I tip my own cap to his PR team. The choice of Boston for this...