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.

I liked Grant Wiggins more than just about anyone with whom I disagreed so much. On several occasions, he’d write something about teaching or curriculum I vehemently disagreed with, or vice versa. A sharply worded blog comment or tweet would follow. Then, invariably, there would be an email. Often lots of them. Nothing remarkable there; arguments begun in one venue often spill over into others. But what I came to value about those exchanges with Wiggins, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last week at age 64, is that they weren’t an attempt to win an argument or a convert. If you disagreed with him—if you looked at the same evidence and came to a different conclusion—he had to know why. 

Wiggins, the author of the influential curriculum planning guide Understanding by Design, held to his beliefs tightly and argued them passionately. He would never have embraced the label of education reformer—far from it—but he resisted the facile view of the education world as an “us versus them” proposition. He was adamant that instructional practices he railed against—dry lectures; activities divorced from big ideas and important skills; dutiful marches through content to be covered—were not a product of “reform,” but...

At the heart of Robert Putnam’s important new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, is a paradox. As Putnam so effectively and compassionately illustrates, the fundamental reality of life for many children growing up in poverty in America today is the extremely low level of “social capital” of their families, communities, and schools. One or both of their parents are absent; church attendance is down; opportunities to participate in sports teams or scout troops or youth groups are few and far between. Put simply, these kids—“our kids”—feel all alone, living “troubled, isolated, hopeless lives.”

The solution, then—the way to help poor children climb the ladder to the middle class and achieve the American Dream—must involve rebuilding this social capital, right? Yet that’s not what Putnam proposes; instead, he calls for more investments in government services and transfer payments. He wants to replace social capital with financial capital.

Why? It’s probably because, like the rest of us, he doesn’t know how to rebuild social capital. Once it’s lost, it may be gone forever.

And that’s the paradox: Social capital is essential to keeping families and communities spiritually and materially prosperous. But once a family or a community experiences...

Lindsey Graham, the senior senator from South Carolina, joined the presidential race this week. He’s currently competing against eight other Republicans for the party’s nomination—a number that promises to grow as the year goes on. He’s also the subject of the thirteenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Graham has served in the Senate since 2003. Before that, he was a four-term representative in the House and served one term in the state legislature. This, however, is his first time running for the White House. Over his long political tenure, he’s said much about education. Here are some of his views:

1. Common Core (2014): “The Obama administration has effectively bribed and coerced states into adopting Common Core....Blanket education standards should not be a prerequisite for federal funding. In order to have a competitive application for some federal grants and flexibility waivers, states have to adopt Common Core. This is simply not the way the Obama administration should be handling education policy.” February 2014.

2. Common Core (2013): “What's Common Core?...I'll address it. I don't know what it is. Sounds like a bad idea. I'll tell my staff, and I'll try...

Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, announced over the weekend that he’ll be running for president. He’s only the third Democrat to announce, joining Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in a comparatively shallow race (the Republicans, on the other hand, already have nine confirmed candidates). He’s also the subject of the twelfth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

O’Malley has been in politics most of his adult life. He helped on campaigns in his twenties, ran for state senate, got elected to the Baltimore City Council, served as the mayor of Baltimore for two terms, and was the Old Line State’s governor for eight years. During that time, he’s made education a priority—so much so that, according to his gubernatorial staff, he was “widely considered to be the ‘education governor.’” Here’re some quotes:

1. Common Core: “Our goal moving forward is to build the best public school system in not just America, but in the world. That's why we're choosing to adopt the Common Core standards, new curricula that will prepare our kids to be winners in a global economy, which is growing more knowledge-based by the day.” August...

George Pataki, the former three-term governor of New York, announced today that he’s running for president. He’s the eighth Republican to do so and the second in two days (Rick Santorum declared yesterday). He’s also the subject of the eleventh installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Pataki defeated Mario Cuomo back in 1994 to win the governorship of the Empire State, an office he held until 2006. In fact, he’s never lost an election. In 1982, he won the mayoral seat in Peekskill, NY. He was elected to the state assembly two years later, and to the state senate in 1992. He’s had a long, successful career—so long that if he wins in 2016, he’ll be the oldest American president in history. And during that time, he’s formed some strong opinions about education:

1. Common Core: “I oppose Common Core. I think it's a terrible idea.”...

  • Like raucous pep rallies, autumn school-supply binges, and despising every page of Ethan Frome, there’s something comfortingly banal about multiple choice tests. But there have always been doubts about the benefits of having kids choose between four potential antonyms for “circumscribe.” As a corrective, the Common Core-aligned PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests feature sections devoted to “performance tasks”—longer, in-depth assignments designed to evaluate strategic and critical thinking. The new approach combines a short classroom activity with complex individual components, such as argumentative essays or multi-step math problems. While advocates claim that the exercises give a fuller picture of students’ mastery over the material, some teachers lament lost instructional time and fret about the difficulties of implementation. We’ll know which side was right later this year, when Fordham releases its review of the next-generation assessments; until then, it’s usually safe to fill in “All of the above.”
  • In life, unlike in multiple choice exams, the correct answer isn’t always presented as part of a menu of options. You either know the quadratic formula or you don’t; either you can make a persuasive argument or you can’t. It is therefore critical to teach kids valuable skills for their future lives, and
  • ...

In the age of college- and career-ready standards, the education reform community is finally jumping on the career and technical education (CTE) bandwagon—and with good reason. As Mike Petrilli recently noted, “The best CTE programs, like Career Academies, tend to do a better job with both career skills and academic skills, and create a glide path for students into postsecondary education of the technical variety. Long-term outcomes are very promising, especially for low-income students and African American boys.” But what makes a good CTE program, and how can we ensure that students are benefiting from them?

Reading Visher and Stern’s policy brief is a good place to start. The authors meticulously describe existing CTE programs across the country, focusing on two approaches to CTE: systemic approaches and discrete programs. The former are usually state-driven, less rigid, partner-focused (typically with colleges and communities), and reach a large number of students. Examples are Linked Learning and California Partnership Academies. The latter are usually school-based, such as Career Academies and small schools of choice in New York City

CTE has the benefit of being the “both/and” of education reform: It can be for both college and career, and for all students....

Rick Santorum announced his second presidential bid on Wednesday. He joined six other candidates in the crowded GOP field—which sits in stark contrast to the Hillary Clinton-dominated Democratic race. He’s also the subject of the tenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Santorum is a seasoned politician. He began his career in 1991 as a two-term congressman and went on to serve two terms in the Senate. In 2012, he ran for president for the first time and finished as the runner-up in the Republican primaries. He has homeschooled six of his children and voiced strong opinions about education. Here are some of them:

1. Common Core: “We need Common Sense not Common Core....From its beginning, the Common Core State Standards initiative has flown under the radar. Its funding, its implementation, and the substance of the standards it proposes have received little public attention, but all of them are wrong for families, wrong for...

In 2012, Denver and New Orleans became the first two cities in the country to utilize a common enrollment system that included both district-run and charter schools. A new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) takes a look at the benefits, limitations, and implications of these common enrollment systems. Both cities are widely regarded as leaders in developing well-functioning school marketplaces; for example, a recent Brookings institution report awarded New Orleans top marks in its “education choice and competition index” (Denver was rated sixth-best out of more than one hundred metropolitan areas).

In both cities, the enrollment systems were designed to make choosing a school a clearer and fairer process for all families. They employ a single application with a single deadline that parents use to apply for any and all schools within the city.  But the systems themselves are different: In New Orleans, students have no assigned school; instead, every family must use the OneApp to apply for schools. In Denver, however, choice is voluntary—students receive a default assignment, but the SchoolChoice application allows families (if they want) to apply to any public school in the city.

Despite these differences, both...

Robert D. Putnam

The following is an excerpt from Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert D. Putnam (Simon & Schuster, 2015), reprinted with permission. Watch the video of last week’s Fordham event with Professor Putnam here.

America once had a vigorous system of vocational education, apprenticeship, and workforce training, both in and out of schools. Other countries, like Germany, still do, but over recent decades we have disinvested in such programs. Part of the reason is the rise of the “college for all” mantra, reflecting the belief that a college degree is the ticket to success in the contemporary economy. While it is true that the “college premium” is high, it is also true that very few kids from disadvantaged backgrounds now obtain college degrees. Efforts to improve access and completion rates for poor kids in four-year institutions are worthwhile, and those efforts must begin well before college looms, since the challenges that poor kids face are daunting even before they enter elementary school.

Nonetheless, the “college for all” motto has tended to undercut public and private support for secondary and postsecondary education in vocational skills. A notable example of the potential for contemporary vocational education is provided by Career Academies,...