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.

Editor's note: This post is the final entry of a three-part series on Race to the Top's legacy and the federal role in education. You can read the first two entries here and here.

In two recent posts about Race to the Top (RTTT), I expressed skepticism about a sunny assessment of the program’s influence and critiqued the mindset behind federal efforts to remake complex education systems.

But my M.O. is not to disparage all federal K–12 activity. From Brownthe National Defense Education Act, and Title I to the charter school grant program, NCLB’s disaggregated data, and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, Uncle Sam has done some serious good for our schools. So I believe that there should be a federal K–12 agenda (for instance), and I hope both parties’ presidential candidates start articulating one.

What I’m interested in is fashioning some rules of the road. The agnosticism/nihilism of insisting on no federal activity ever would’ve amounted to a “Road Closed” sign to high-return investments like NAEP and seed funding for charters. The progressive hubris of believing that the feds can solve everything, on the other hand, is the on-ramp to P.J. O’Rourke’s bon mot about government-induced pileups. I think the...

Success for All specializes in whole-school turnaround for struggling elementary schools. Its 2010 proposal for an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant called for the program, whose primary goal is to ensure that every child learns to read well in elementary school, to grow from one thousand schools to more than two thousand. The Baltimore-based organization was one of only four to grab the shiniest brass ring in the i3 competition—a five-year, $50 million “scale-up” grant. Teach For America, KIPP, and the Reading Recovery program snared the other three.

This third and final report from MDRC looks at SFA’s impacts between kindergarten and second grade in five school districts over a three-year period covered under the i3 grant. A total of thirty-seven schools across five school districts were part of the study—nineteen randomly chosen to implement SFA, along with eighteen control schools that either stuck with their existing reading programs or choose new ones other than SFA.

The report finds that SFA is “an effective vehicle for teaching phonics,” showing statistically significant effects for second graders who were in SFA for all three years. SFA students also performed better than the average in reading fluency and comprehension, though not significantly. The...

Earlier this year, the RAND Corporation surveyed the 3,338 principals with current Teach For America (TFA) corps members at their schools. These principals are, on average, slightly less experienced and more racially diverse than American principals at large—and far more likely to run a charter school (27 percent work at charters).

In general, the survey’s results suggest that most principals who work with TFA corps members view them positively. Eighty percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the corps members at their schools; 86 percent said they would be willing to hire another corps member; and 66 percent would “definitely recommend” doing so. Moreover, a majority of respondents said corps members were at least as proficient as other novice teachers across a range of skills, including developing positive relationships with colleagues and administrators, having high expectations for students, and improving student performance. And 87 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the support TFA provides, which three-quarters agreed complemented their school’s induction or training.

Despite these generally positive findings, the survey identified two areas of concern: First, half of the respondents identified weak classroom management as a reason not to hire additional TFA corps members. Second, 57 percent...

In spite of some well-publicized controversies, performance-based teacher evaluations have maintained a strong presence in most states. A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) examines the policy landscape of teacher and principal evaluations, as well as various states’ successes in using evaluations to inform teacher practice and administrative decisions.

As of 2015, twenty-seven states require annual evaluations for all teachers, and forty-five require annual evaluations for all new, probationary teachers. Forty-three states require objective measures of student achievement to be included in teacher evaluations; seventeen use student growth as the “preponderant” criterion for evaluations; and an additional eighteen count growth measures as “significant” criteria.

Despite these new policies, however, a “troubling pattern” lingers on from the evaluation systems of yesteryear: The overwhelming majority of teachers are still labeled as “effective” or “highly effective.” NCTQ notes this could be the result of several factors, including the fact that few states utilize multiple observations and multiple observers—which is problematic because many principals are either unable or unwilling to “make distinctions about teacher skills” when conducting observations. In addition, Student Learning Objectives (SLOs)—which are required or allowed by twenty-two states—fail to effectively differentiate teacher performance. According to...

As a young child, Adrian was quick to anger and often acted out in class, sometimes physically. In fourth grade, his school classified him as having emotional problems and assigned him a personal aide. After a few years, the aide was phased out; his behavior improved, but the disciplinary consequences got worse. "If he lost his temper, he was generally suspended," recalls his mother, who asked not to be identified. "I had meetings upon meetings with the vice principals, but they would say, 'This is what we do; we have no money for things like detention or supervision for in-school suspension.'"

The barrage of disciplinary actions against Adrian (not his actual name) began to feel like harassment. "Countless suspensions for countless issues," his mother recalls. Before a six-month suspension, a lawyer told her that the school was "essentially a dictatorship" and that she had no real recourse. Frustrated and increasingly embittered, the family withdrew Adrian, moved away, and enrolled him in a public school where minor misbehaviors were punished with detention, not suspensions. "The school got rid of him by excessive penalties and suspensions," she concludes.

You might assume this is yet another tale out of Eva Moskowitz's network of...

I spent a few hours digging into the recently released 2015 NAEP TUDA data. The results didn’t get much media coverage. That’s a shame because these are the best assessments for understanding student performance in (and comparing the results of) America’s biggest urban districts.

It’s a treasure trove of information, and it tells hundreds of stories. I encourage you to get into the numbers and see what pops for you.

I tried to condense my big takeaways into six headlines and images.

1. We’ve been trying to improve urban districts for half a century. These are the results. No district is able to get even one in five black kids up to proficiency in eighth-grade math or reading.

2. Across the participating districts, there has been meager progress in both subjects and both grades for more than a decade.

3. A few districts, however, have made gains over time, most notably Atlanta, Chicago, D.C., and Los Angeles. They deserve credit.

4. Instances of progress deserve attention because progress is not guaranteed. For example,...

This report, recently released by the Education Commission of the States (ECS), explores how states can better prepare students for successful careers by reviewing policies in thirteen states related to career and technical education (CTE). Specifically, its authors look at whether each state has: (1) facilitated collaboration between education and employer communities to promote CTE and close job gaps; and (2) created CTE learning opportunities and credentials that provide students with multiple pathways to gainful employment in high-skill industries.

Nine of these states do both, often by designating or creating groups responsible for providing these services. Some (such as Colorado) rely on state-level actors. Others opt for regional- and local-level institutions. Louisiana offers “Jump Start CTE programs” that are developed by “regional teams consisting of LEAs, technical and community colleges, business and industry leaders, and economic and workforce development experts.”

Ohio has taken a more interesting approach. In the Buckeye State, OhioMeansJobs disseminates workforce-demand data through the K–12 system. Schools then use this information to apprise the students of career opportunities via the Ohio Career Counselling Pilot Program.

Unfortunately, several states in the report fall short. Kentucky has no system in place for schools to collaborate with businesses in need...

Teachers affect student academic achievement more than any other school-based factor. As a result, states and school districts have experimented with incentive pay programs as a twofold strategy to both attract high-quality teachers and boost student performance. Evidence on the effectiveness of this tactic is mixed, but the policies can differ greatly in structure, and little is known about how the design of incentive plans might impact their effectiveness.

Enter a new National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study that examines the structure of Houston’s recently implemented incentive pay system, as well as its effect on student achievement.

The researchers analyzed data from grades 3–8 from the Houston Independent School District’s (HISD) merit pay system, ASPIRE (“Accelerating Student Progress, Increasing Results and Expectations”). ASPIRE is designed as a “rank-order tournament,” which rewards top-performing math, reading, language arts, science, and social studies teachers based on their value-added scores (estimates of the effect individual teachers have on student learning over a school year). Under ASPIRE, teachers receive a $3,870 bonus if their students receive value-added scores above the fiftieth percentile; scores above the seventy-fifth percentile result in even larger bumps—up to $7,700 per teacher.

The authors initially hypothesized that teachers who...

  • Getting teenagers to think ahead is basically impossible—just try to persuade your favorite adolescent to file his college applications before the night they’re due, or to quit doing donuts in the school parking lot before he gets a free trip to the ER. So we should be immensely encouraged by the fact that 1.4 million high school students took college courses for credit in 2014–2015. To promote this development, the Department of Education has helpfully pledged to offer some $20 million in Pell grants for low-income students to enroll in college courses while still attending high school. Dual enrollment programs like these are probably the best possible use of Pell grants; right now, as Fordham’s own Checker Finn has observed, such funds are too often used to subsidize remedial education in college for kids who didn’t learn everything they needed to in the thirteen years of K–12. Isn’t it smarter to pay for academically gifted sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to take college courses early, rather than picking up the bill for undereducated college freshmen to finally learn the stuff they were supposed to be taught in high school?
  • Nevada’s move this year to establish $5,000 education savings accounts has
  • ...

Low-income strivers—impoverished families who work hard to climb the ladder to the middle class—may be the most underserved population in America today.

In few realms is that more evident than in education reform. For twenty years, national policies have focused largely on the lowest-performing students, often to the detriment of their higher-achieving, low-income peers. Many cities—including Chicago, Philadelphia, and Syracuse—have recently made a goal of reducing the number of school suspensions and other tough-love approaches to school discipline, with little concern for the impact on the kids who come to school ready to follow the rules. These efforts have received vocal support from the Department of Education. Policymakers and educators say they that are doing this in the name of equity. But when everyone in a school is harmed by some students' unruly behavior, it’s a strange notion of fairness.

Imagine that we wanted to prioritize the needs of low-income students who demonstrated a willingness to work hard and the aptitude to achieve at high levels—the kids with the best shot to use a solid education to put poverty behind them. What might we do?

First, we would put in place “universal screening” tests to look for gifted students in elementary...