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.

A new National Bureau of Economic Research paper examines the impact of access to Sesame Street on various short- and long-term academic and labor market outcomes. Analysts focus on cohorts of children born from 1959 to 1968. These subjects would have entered first grade between 1965 and 1974, around the time of Sesame Street’s birth in 1969.

The researchers examine the progress of students who would have been at least six years old and already in elementary school at the time of the first airing, as well as those five years of age and below (who would have been exposed to the program during their preschool years). They make use of the natural variation in exposure to the program by calculating, by county, the share of television-owning households that were able to receive a signal over which Sesame Street was broadcast. Two-thirds of the population is estimated to have lived in areas where Sesame Street could be received on their televisions.

Using U.S. Census data as their primary measure, the analysts find that kids with access to the program were more likely to proceed through school in the grade appropriate for their age; in other words, they were not held...

It wasn’t that long ago when you could go from one end of your K–12 education to the other without even laying eyes a student with a disability. “In the early 1970s, these youths were marginalized both in school and in life, with only one-fifth of children with disabilities even enrolled in public schools,” notes Education Week, whose tenth annual Diplomas Count report focuses this year on students with disabilities. Today, nearly six million such students are enrolled in U.S. public schools, with the vast majority studying alongside non-disabled peers. They are “coming of age at a time when they, like all high school students, are increasingly expected to perform to high academic standards and to prepare for further education or training and a productive role in the workplace,” the authors observe.

How are they doing? Eighty-one percent of our public high schools students can now expect to march across stage and be handed a diploma within four years; that’s both a historic high and the headline finding of Diplomas Count 2015. However, the graduation rate among students with disabilities is 62 percent—a figure that masks wild (and somewhat suspicious) variations from state to state: from a low of 23...

For decades, policymakers have piled regulations onto public schools. This top-down, input-driven approach made sense back in an era when too many students weren’t receiving even a rudimentary education and nobody was as fussy about academic results. As Netflix’s Reed Hastings once said, the only thing worse than a regulated monopoly is an unregulated monopoly.

But times have changed. We now realize that students need strong minds, not just strong backs, to compete for jobs in a competitive and knowledge-based economy. Rigorous academic expectations are the coin of the realm in contemporary education policy, but there is also near-universal consensus that youngsters deserve schooling experiences tailored to their individual needs, gifts, and interests. And parental choice is no longer a distant dream of Milton Friedman’s; it’s a reality in most urban communities in America.

These powerful forces demand a radically different approach to public education—and especially to the old regulatory regime that ruled it. States must demand that schools raise their academic performance to prepare all students for success in college or a career. In return, educators should have the autonomy to design instruction aimed at achieving these ambitious goals and to customize their approaches to accord with their pupils’...

Years into America’s quest to fix its failing schools, everyone agrees that it is extraordinarily hard work to turn them around. But that hasn’t stopped us from trying.

Indeed, the federal government has spent over $5.7 billion on school improvement grants (SIG) to date and has very little to show for it. Data from 2013 indicated that roughly two-thirds of schools that received SIG funds saw incremental gains in student proficiency—in line with the performance trend for all U.S. schools, including those that didn’t get SIG dollars. Even more disappointingly, one-third of SIG schools did worse after receiving the funding. (A small percentage stayed the same.)

A May 2015 study helped to explain these sobering results. It found that most states lack the expertise to turn around persistently failing schools. In fact, 80 percent of state officials reported “significant gaps” in this realm.

Even when we stumble upon promising strategies, the old familiar barriers make implementation difficult. In 2012, for example, the Center on Education Policy found that a majority of state officials believed that replacing the principal or staff of low-performing schools was a key element in improving student achievement there. Yet many also reported that...

Lindsey M. Burke

This is the eighth entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael GoldsteinSeth RauMatthew LadnerJonathan ButcherTracey WeinsteinAndy Smarick, and Neerav Kingsland.

Recently in Florida, an eleven-year-old boy was taken by Child Protective Services for playing basketball in his own back yard without parent supervision. More than 150,000 parents opted their children out of state tests in New York this past school year. Police in Texas shut down a lemonade stand set up by two little girls who were hoping to earn a few dollars to buy their dad a Father’s Day present. And there are more children being diagnosed with Youthful Tendency Disorder than ever before.

(Sorry, that last one was an Onion headline.)

Although these headlines appear unrelated, they’re actually representative of the same phenomenon: Regardless of the merits of the policy (e.g., state testing requirements), there is a growing perception that accountability has morphed into overregulation.

In order for Nevada’s ESA option to flourish, it cannot die a death by...

This is the seventh entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael GoldsteinSeth RauMatthew LadnerJonathan ButcherTracey Weinstein, and Andy Smarick.

Depending on their income level, a family in Nevada will soon receive between $5,100 and $5,700 to spend on education services.

This is a lot of power over a relatively low amount of money. Due to this low level of funding, an otherwise innovative regulatory policy will face significant quality and equity challenges.

In an ideal world, the government would set the price of an educational savings account by pricing the account for general education students at or near the median market price for private school tuition, as well as by instituting weights for at-risk students. This pricing mechanism utilizes the non-governmental education market to determine what families and schools believe to be the cost of educating a child. Using the median price instead of the average would prevent status-driven elite private schools from skewing the amount too high....

This is the sixth entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael GoldsteinSeth RauMatthew LadnerJonathan Butcher, and Tracey Weinstein.

I’m excited about Nevada’s new education savings accounts, though not without concern. What I want most is for everyone to appreciate just how momentous this new program is and to understand its promise and risks.

Nevada’s ESAs could precipitate the largest and swiftest expansion of school choice in this movement’s history. Every single family with a school-aged child will have the opportunity to use a per-pupil allotment of state funds to help cover a wide array of educational expenses. This includes private school tuition, tutoring, online learning programs, special education services, and much more.

In the best of circumstances, this will enable families to craft personalized educational programs for their children. ESAs should also energize the “supply side,” spurring the development of new schools and programs to meet the varied needs of Nevada’s students.

So if everything goes according to...

Tracey Weinstein, Ph.D.

This is the fifth entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael GoldsteinSeth RauMatthew Ladner, and Jonathan Butcher.

When SB302 passed in Nevada, introducing the country to its first and only universal choice program, the laudatory blogs and editorials—followed by a few hedged headlines—started pouring in. Many celebrated a landmark moment for the choice movement, while others wondered about the long-term implications of this new frontier.

But as I read through each piece, I couldn’t help but think of the words penned a few months back by the CEO and founder of 50CAN, Marc Porter Magee, when reflecting on the advocacy process. He wrote: “There is nothing worse than ‘winning’ in your advocacy campaign only to find out that the policies you helped enact actually do little to address the underlying problem you are so passionate about solving.”

In full disclosure, while StudentsFirst is active in Nevada and helped Governor Sandoval and legislators enact several major school choice and accountability reforms this session, we...

Jonathan Butcher

This is the fourth entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael GoldsteinSeth Rau, and Matthew Ladner.

Nevada lawmakers just created education savings accounts, a flexible way for parents to find a high-quality education for their children. Parents and students have many options with these accounts, and lawmakers may feel a strong temptation to regulate them out of a fear of the unknown. 

Historically, the number of regulations lawmakers have enacted is as worrisome as whether the government’s responses fit the intended purpose. An instructive example comes from Australia. In 1935, the nation had a problem with beetles eating the nation’s sugar cane. As a remedy, lawmakers introduced cane toads to the continent to eat the bugs.

The toads took care of the pests, only to become pests themselves. Now the nation has 200 million cane toads and admits “eradication (except locally) is not practicable.” A government’s proposed solution to a problem became a problem in itself, complete with more regulation.

Like cane toads...

Matthew Ladner

This is the third entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael Goldstein and Seth Rau.

The public education system as we knew it in the mid-twentieth century had academic transparency that fell somewhere on the non-existent-to-scant spectrum. Academics were aware of achievement gaps in national data, for instance, but state- and (especially) campus-level academic or financial data were in short supply. Realtors served as the de facto information brokers of the public education system I enrolled into, in the Texas of the early 1970s, and they based their expert opinions on gossip and perhaps the ethnicity of the kids they saw running around on the playground.

We’ve come a long way, baby, but our notions of accountability must continue to evolve with the times. The statewide ESA program in Nevada poses a number of unique challenges that can be tackled with fresh thinking and thoughtful balances.

Our friends at Fordham posed the question thusly: “As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account...

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