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.

  • There are no fearsome beasts or rings of fire, but Marc Tucker’s newest jeremiad for Education Week is an apocalyptic prophecy worthy of a revival tent. Speculating on the origins of our collapsed standards, Tucker settles on four horsemen of academic mediocrity: grade inflation, the eroding prestige of the teaching profession, a standards movement hijacked by the accountability movement, and the consumer transformation of colleges and universities. Taken together, he claims, these factors have produced four decades of educational stagnation and a climate in which colleges teach high school math—and high schools teach grade grubbing. As Fordham’s own Chester Finn reminds us, we’ve been dumbing down our expectations for decades, and the results justify some doom saying.
  • Like the rose that grew from concrete, the inimitable Dan Willingham has taken his talents over to the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog for a five-part series on reading. His terrific posts, of which three have been published so far, advance arguments from his new book. They will also raise points familiar to fans of Fordham’s own literacy guru, Robert Pondiscio. In the first, Willingham mounts a defense of the Common Core standards as a powerful catalyst for early literacy.
  • ...

Nine years ago, Sir Ken Robinson gave a much-viewed TED-talk about how modern schools are the product of industrialism and, as such, squander children’s natural creativity by manufacturing compliant, disengaged students. His newest book continues this feel-good crusade, insisting that education should instead nurture individual interests, divergent thinking, and natural abilities.

To get from the current model to his own, Robinson proposes multiple systemic changes. First, he would do away with national standards—which allegedly limit the subjects students are exposed to and minimize all forms of play and creativity—and replace them with other “high standards” (though he doesn’t specify who would create them or what their characteristics would be). He also advocates scrapping standardized tests, claiming that they fail to accurately measure students’ strengths and potential and provide teachers with vague data. In Sir Ken’s schools, assessments would be uncompetitive and comprise peer reviews, portfolios, and open-ended essays. Finally, he takes issue with the grade-based separation of students, who should be grouped by ability, he argues, and move through the system at their own pace.

Unfortunately, Robinson doesn’t pair his grand, radical vision with practical advice. He relies instead on anecdotal evidence and leaves countless questions unanswered. How, for...

A February study from the Center for Education Data and Research aims to determine if National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) are more effective than their non-certified counterparts. Established in 1987, National Board Certification is a voluntary professional credential designed for experienced teachers in twenty-five content areas. Certification is awarded through a rigorous portfolio assessment process consisting of four components: content knowledge; differentiation in instruction; teaching practice and classroom environment; and effective and reflective practices. These components are analyzed via teacher “artifacts,” including videos of classroom lessons, student work, and reflective essays. Across the country, more than 100,000 teachers, or roughly 3 percent of the teacher workforce, are National Board Certified.

This study examines data out of Washington State, which boasts the fourth-highest number of NBCTs in the country. Washington provides financial incentives for teachers to earn board certification, including bonuses of up to $5,000 for teachers working in high-need schools. The study finds that, compared to average teachers with similar experience, NBCTs produce additional student learning gains on state exams that correspond to about 1–2 additional weeks of middle school reading instruction. In middle school math, the results indicate a whopping five weeks of additional learning compared to...

Education technology in general—and digital games specifically—can be easily dismissed as yet another Next Big Thing that’s doomed to disappoint. If your standard prescription for schools and teaching is high standards, rigorous instruction, and rich curriculum, you might be tempted to roll your eyes at Greg Toppo’s new book on the potential of digital games to change K–12 education, The Game Believes in You. Toppo is no pie-eyed fanboy nattering on about digital natives, paradigm shifts, innovation, and disruption. The national education reporter for USA Today and a former classroom teacher, Toppo makes a compelling case for games as not merely engaging, (the default setting for mere enthusiasts and marketers) but cognitively demanding. A well-designed game is fun, but it’s rigorous fun.

Toppo makes a convincing case that savvy teachers have always used games to involve kids in learning. He’s at his best describing games like DragonBox, a “lovely, mysterious, and a bit off-center” diversion that seems unusually good at getting pre-schoolers—yes, pre-schoolers—to think algebraically. Likewise, what is a multi-level game if not an adaptive assessment that kids want to participate in? But the most compelling argument running through the book is the infinite malleability of well-designed games. If differentiated...

Aside from generalized fretting over “curricular narrowing,” educators and education policy types have been so consumed in recent years by the crises of the moment—the fracases over Common Core, the new assessments (and their opt-outers), the worrying achievement reports that may follow in the autumn, and how all that does or doesn’t intersect with NCLB reauthorization—that practically nobody has focused on “social studies” courses like history, geography, and civics. (Yes, there have been pot-shots aplenty at the AP framework for U.S. history, but little or no attention to what’s happening in earlier grades.)

Today’s hot-off-the-presses NAEP results should refocus us, at least briefly, because they’re anything but hot. In truth, they’re chilling.

NAEP tested eighth graders in all three subjects last year, and the reports are just out. The bottom line: “In 2014, eighteen percent of eighth graders performed at or above the Proficient level in U.S. history, 27 percent performed at or above the Proficient level in geography, and 23 percent performed at or above the Proficient level in civics.”

Which is to say that three quarters of the kids are less than proficient, a worse showing than in reading and math (both now around 36 percent...

Bad schools rarely die. This was the conclusion of Fordham’s 2010 report Are Bad Schools Immortal?, which discovered that out of two thousand low-performing schools across ten states, only 10 percent actually closed over a five-year period. On reflection, the finding was not too surprising: Shuttering schools nearly always sets off a torrent of political backlash, as authorities in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other urban districts have learned in recent years. And the reasons are understandable: Schools are integral parts of communities. They’re built into families’ routines and expectations, and closing them inevitably causes pain, disruption, and sadness, even when it’s best for students.

However, we also recognize that closing schools is sometimes necessary. In the charter sector, in particular, closure is an essential part of the model: Schools are supposed to perform or lose their contracts. That’s the bargain. And in the district sector, experience has taught us that some schools have been so dysfunctional, for so long, that efforts to “turn them around” are virtually destined to fail.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to put bad schools out of their misery. Part of the difficulty is political, but it’s also a genuine moral dilemma: Are we sure that...

Intra-district choice has long been a type of school choice supported by many people who don’t really like school choice. Since neither students nor funding leave their boundaries, district officials have fewer problems allowing families to choose their schools. But intra-district choice is also complicated. A lack of quality information about available schools, the absence of a simple system-wide method of applying to those schools, and the added burden of transportation challenges can bring the potential of intra-district choice to a screeching halt. However, there are school districts that have taken these issues head-on and offered valuable, innovative solutions. Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) is a shining example.

During the 2013–14 school year, CPS made the transition to high schools that serve students between the seventh and twelfth grades. CPS offers some compelling academic reasons for the switch, but they also utilized the transition to create high schools of choice. Instead of assigning sixth graders to a high school based on their home addresses, CPS permits students to choose their high school. Each high school offers a variety of programs, classes, extracurriculars, and services that represent unique learning environments and opportunities. All schools offer college preparatory curriculum aligned to Ohio’s...

This is the third installment in our Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling the declared presidential candidates’ stances on today’s biggest education issues. I began with editions for Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio. Next up is Ted Cruz, the junior U.S. senator from Texas.

With a midnight tweet on Monday, March 23, Cruz was the first to officially announce his candidacy. He followed that up a few hours later with a half-hour speech at Liberty University. His campaign has emphasized “restoring” America, which includes education. Here’s what he’s said:

1. Education as a foundation: “Education is foundational to every other challenge you've got. If you're looking at issues of crime or poverty or healthcare, if you have education, if you get the foundation of an education, all of those problems by and large can take care of themselves.” March 2014.

2. The Department of Education: “We need to abolish the U.S. Department of Education.” March 2013...

This is the second in a series of Eduwatch 2016 posts that will chronicle presidential candidates’ stances on today’s biggest education issues. Last week’s inaugural post revealed Hillary Clinton’s views on everything from Common Core to charter schools. Next up is the junior senator from the Sunshine State, Marco Rubio.

Rubio’s been active in his role as a legislator, especially when it comes to school choice. In 2013, for example, he introduced the Educational Opportunities Act—a bill designed to support choice through tax credits—and co-sponsored a bill that would allow billions of Title I dollars to follow kids to whichever school they attend. But those are just pieces of senatorial legislation, and unsuccessful ones at that. Rubio’s dreaming bigger; he wants to jump from lawmaker to leader of the free world, which means a whole lot of talking between now and November 2016. So let’s see what he’s had to say about education:

1. The Department of Education: “If I was president of the United States, I would not have a Department of Education, perhaps at all….We don’t need...

When the history of this era’s urban-education reform movement is written, four big policy innovations are sure to get attention: the nation’s first voucher program, first charter law, first mayor-controlled charter authorizer, and first “extraordinary authority” unit (the RSD).

The people mostly responsible for these have two important things in common.

First, unless you’re an old hand in this business, you may not know of them.

Second—Polly Williams, Ember Reichgott Junge, Teresa Lubbers, Leslie Jacobs—they’re all women.

Unfortunately, those two facts are probably related.

Much has been written recently about the social forces pushing women below the radar in professional settings. In an excellent NYT piece, “Speaking While Female,” Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) and Adam Grant (a Wharton professor) argue that “speaking up” at work generally helps men but not women.

“When a woman speaks in a professional setting,” they write, “she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s...

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