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 report by a Harlem-based parent advocacy group calls on New York City charter schools to reduce their long waiting lists by “backfilling,” or admitting new students whenever current ones leave. The report from Democracy Builders estimates that there are 2,500 empty seats in New York City charter schools this year as a result of students leaving and not being replaced the following year.

It’s a deeply divisive issue within the charter sector. When transient students (those most likely to be low-performing) leave charter schools and are not replaced, it potentially makes some charters look good on paper through attrition and simple math: Strugglers leave, high performers stay, and the ratio of proficient students rises, creating an illusion of excellence that is not fully deserved. Charters should not be rewarded, the backfillers argue, merely for culling their rolls of the hardest to teach or taking advantage of natural attrition patterns.

Fair enough, although there’s a distasteful, internecine-warfare quality to all of this: Charters that backfill resent the praise and glory heaped upon those who do not, and seek to cut them down to size. Traditional schools hate...

  • Because she couldn’t bear to keep Martin O’Malley in suspense any longer, Hillary Clinton revealed this weekend that she would be running for president in 2016. Her well-executed video ginned up an endless amount of free press, but few commentators picked up on a strangely off-key segment: Early on, one participant expresses excitement at the prospect of moving to a new neighborhood so that their child will have access to a decent school. Situated discordantly between announcements of weddings and new business ventures, the line perfectly illustrates the lack of choice most parents face when trying to educate their kids. Several prominent liberal writers have already voiced their frustration with the message. “Having to move in order to enroll in a ‘better" school,’ wrote Jonathan Chait in New York, is “a very strange value system for the left to embrace.”
  • If you haven’t spent the last few months in a cave, you’re probably aware that this spring marks the debut of Common Core-aligned tests in dozens of states across the country. Those tests, expected to be far tougher than those that preceded them, have stirred up enough national controversy to keep education writers busy until
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As part of its College Match Program, MDRC has released an application guide for “counselors, teachers, and advisers who work with high school students from low-income families and students who are the first in their families to pursue a college education.”

A “match” school embodies two important qualities: It is academically suited for the student, and it meets her financial, social, and personal needs. Unfortunately, “undermatching”—enrolling in schools for which one is academically overqualified or not applying to college at all—is all too common for low-income kids, driving down their college completion rates. Myriad factors at the student, secondary, and post-secondary levels can lead to this phenomenon, including lack of information, concerns about leaving home, minimal training for adults working with students, and limited college recruitment practices.

MDRC’s solution is the College Match Program. Between 2010 and 2014, it placed “near-peer” advisers, who are recent college graduates with training in college advising, in low-income high schools (eight in Chicago and two in New York City) to support students as they navigated the school-selection and financial aid application process. Approximately 1,200 students were served. Researchers conclude that students are willing to apply to selective colleges when they (1) have an...

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, best known for its scholarship programs for low-income gifted students in high school and college, has entered into the policy realm by beating the drum on an important issue—closing the excellence gap. Gifted-education expert Jonathan Plucker and his coauthors grade states on how they educate an oft-forgotten class of learners: high-performing, low-income students. (We at Fordham often refer to high-achieving students as high flyers.)

The report assesses states on inputs, which include requiring the identification of gifted students, providing services for them, and establishing pro-acceleration policies. Predictably, but still dishearteningly, not one state earned an A for providing needed support for their low-income high-flyers. On average, states only implement three of nine desirable policies, and no state implements more than six. Only two states require gifted education coursework in teacher or administrator training. The best grade, a B-, went to Minnesota, in part because it requires gifted students to be identified and given services.

Helpfully, the report also grades states on outputs. It reports the number of their students who reached “Advanced” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments or scored a three or higher on Advanced Placement exams (not necessarily...

Today, the Senate HELP Committee is considering the bipartisan ESEA reauthorization bill crafted by Senators Alexander and Murray.

This legislation represents a very smart compromise on the key issue of accountability. What happens in committee, on the floor, and beyond is anyone’s guess. But the current language is, in my view, the best proposal we’ve seen for solving the problem that’s held up ESEA reauthorization for ages.

In February, I created a graphic showing how the various proposals on the table handled the various elements of accountability. The major plans followed one of three approaches. The middle path (between a beefed-up federal role and an emaciated one) was staked out by state-oriented groups including CCSSO, NGA, and NCSL. I called this “Accountability for Results.”

The Alexander-Murray bill is in this mold, though with a couple of notable adjustments.

Like many other plans, it keeps NCLB’s suite of tests. But it makes a very important, very interesting, and very compelling amendment to NCLB’s aspirational target of all students reaching proficiency in each grade by...

Everyone is right to laud the impressive work of Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray in producing a strong bipartisan bill to update the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). But it has a significant flaw that needs mending before it becomes law, and it might be up to House Republicans to do the fixing.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that it puts enormous pressure on the states to set utopian goals. That, in turn, will result in most schools being declared failures (and/or create pressure for states to water down their standards), which is exactly what happened under NCLB.

At issue is a true dilemma for policymakers: There seems to be an irresistible urge in education to set aspirational goals. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se—stirring, “shoot for the moon” rhetoric can be motivational and galvanize action. But as Rick Hess and Checker Finn have explained, when it’s time to create accountability systems, policymakers must sober up. If they set unrealistic, unreachable goals, the people working in the system will grow cynical and disillusioned—the opposite of motivated.

Senator Alexander’s discussion draft bill got this balance right. (So does the...

I’m back from a week’s vacation and pleased to find that ESEA reauthorization is still (if just barely) alive. The release of a compromise bill from Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray gives me an excuse to bring back my beloved color-coded ESEA table.

The last time we checked, when Chairman Alexander published his discussion draft, it looked like this:

After negotiating with Senator Murray, it now looks like this (items that moved are in bold):

(* These were in the Alexander discussion draft too; I had them in the wrong column last time. My apologies.
** The School Improvement Grants program is officially gone, though the bill [like Alexander’s discussion draft] does include a large state set-aside for school “interventions and supports.”
)

So what’s the big news? First, federally mandated teacher evaluations are dead as a doorknob, as are requirements that states adopt a particular type of standard (read: Common Core). That’s good news on both fronts, as Uncle Sam has become a monkey on the...

The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, unveiled a few days back by Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray and scheduled for HELP Committee mark-up on April 14, is a remarkable piece of work. The mere fact that it’s bipartisan is remarkable enough, given the polarized state of Capitol Hill nowadays. But it’s also a reasonable, forward-looking compromise among strongly divergent views of the federal role in K–12 education—and between the overreach (and attendant backlash) of NCLB and some people’s conviction that NCLB didn’t reach far enough.

The draft has received much applause—some of it muted, some tentative—from many quarters (including the Obama administration). Indeed, some Washington wags have remarked that if so many different factions are saying nice things about it, either they haven’t actually read it or there must be something wrong with it! I like most of it myself, though I (as with perhaps everyone else who has said anything positive) hope that the refinements to be offered in committee and on the floor will yield something that I like even better.

I’m mindful, though, that the amending process in the Senate alone is where...

In a 2011 Education Next article called “The Middle School Mess,” Peter Meyer equated middle school with bungee jumping: a place of academic and social freefall that loses kids the way the Bermuda triangle loses ships. Experts have long cited concerns about drops in students’ achievement, interest in school, and self-confidence when they arrive in middle school. Teachers have discussed why teaching middle school is different—and arguably harder—than teaching other grades. There’s even a book called Middle School Stinks

In an attempt to solve the middle school problem, many cities are transitioning to schools with wider grade spans. Instead of buildings for grades K–5, 6–8, and 9–12 (or any other combination that has a separate middle school), districts are housing students at levels ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade on one campus. To determine if a switch to K–8 grade span buildings is in the best interest of Ohio districts, I took a look at the research, benefits, and drawbacks surrounding the model.

Research

A 2009 study examined data from New York City to determine if student performance is affected by two measures: the grade spans of previously attended schools, and transitions between elementary and...

  • The New York Times pulled off a coup with its recent profile of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter network. Students at the astonishingly high-performing schools have routinely achieved fantastic scores on state tests—a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that most come from low-income black and Latino families. So what’s their secret? Emphasizing a stringent focus on test preparation, the piece gives plenty of ammunition both to the schools’ boosters and their critics. On the one hand, most readers will wince at accounts of students wetting themselves during practice tests rather than sacrificing time to go the lavatory. On the other, vast demand for admission—this year, more than 22,000 applications were filed for fewer than 3,000 seats—speaks for itself.
  • Of course, Moskowitz is never one to shy away from controversy—or a fight. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, she goes after a new behavioral code for New York City schools instituted by her current nemesis, Mayor Bill de Blasio. Skewering the novel use of so-called “restorative circles,” she touts those huge Success Academy application numbers (undiminished by the network’s reputation for stringent discipline). Moskowitz is right that persistently disruptive behavior is antithetical
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