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.

The case for character education hardly needs to be made. Have a glance at the motivational posters lining school hallways everywhere. “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration,” Thomas Edison counsels our kids. “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” adds NBA star Kevin Durant. Perhaps Brookings will issue a classroom poster with Richard Reeves’s face and his conclusion from this paper: “Smarts matter, but so does character.” We get it. Among the least surprising findings in social science research is that people who have certain character strengths (this paper focuses on “drive” and “prudence”) do better in life. Whether our children have great or modest gifts, we hope they will work hard, delay gratification, and persist when things don’t come easy. Still it’s easy to get nervous when Reeves suggests “too little attention is paid by policymakers to the cultivation and distribution of these character skills.” What exactly would such attention look like? Demanding that schools making AYP in grit and prudence? Character value-added measures? Likewise, eyebrows may rightfully be raised when Reeves suggests that “character skills may count for a lot – as much, perhaps, as cognitive skills – in terms of important life outcomes.” That so? A figure in the report is headlined “Drive and Prudence Matter as Much as Book Smarts for HS Graduation” (“Book Smarts?” Seriously, Brookings?), but the bar graph clearly shows “high reading skills” matter a lot more. Therein lies the mischief. It’s a lot easier to discern and...

This new study asks a question that is receiving increasing attention: How does teacher preparation affect student achievement? To answer it, the authors gathered data from about 22,078 North Carolina educators, including how teachers were prepared and characteristics of the schools where they teach. This was combined with five years of test score data from 1.18 million students. The study is more robust than similar research, owing to its comprehensive data set and the way that it grouped teachers: Instead of lumping teachers into two broad groups—traditional or alternative certification—it creates much more nuanced groups of teachers by the way they were prepared, as well as by grade and subject taught. The first comparison is between teachers who were traditionally prepared to those who received alternative certification (meaning they didn’t have a full credential when they began teaching), excluding teachers prepared by Teach For America. Alternative entry teachers are significantly less effective (as determined by value-added measures) than traditionally prepared teachers in middle school math and high school math and science. There was no difference in the other grade levels and subjects. Second, compared to traditionally-prepared teachers, TFA teachers are more effective in six of the eight categories: elementary math and reading, middle school math, and high school math, science, and English. Third, teachers prepared out of state are less effective than those prepared in state in elementary math and reading and high school math. Fourth, teachers who began teaching with a graduate degree are less effective in middle school math and reading, but...

For the first time this year, the College Board released the annual test results of its three programs—AP, SAT, and PSAT/NMSQT—in one report. The news is mixed. On the upside, an unprecedented number of students, including a large increase in minority and low-income students, participated and succeeded. Of the 1.67 million students who took the SAT, nearly half were minorities and nearly a fourth were low-income students. And the number of high school students who succeeded on at least one AP exam (earning at least a 3 out of 5) doubled in the past year. On the other hand, the results reveal at least three problem areas. First, too many students are missing out on opportunities. Thirty-nine percent of the 684,577 students who showed AP potential (indicated by high PSAT/NMSQT scores) didn’t enroll for a single AP class. Likewise, for SAT takers, 9 percent were close to achieving the college and career readiness benchmark and might have succeeded with less than a year of additional instruction. The SAT Benchmark is a combined score of 1550 and indicates a 65 percent likelihood of achieving a B- average or higher during the first year of a four-year college. Second, using this same SAT figure, the majority of high schoolers still aren’t prepared for college or career; and the proportion who are, 42.6 percent, hasn’t increased in the last year. Third, achievement gaps abound. Only 15.8 percent of African American, 23.4 percent of Hispanic, and 33.5 percent of Native American SAT takers will...

Jonathan Schleifer

Countries with high school exit exams appear to have higher levels of student achievement, as indicated by PISA and some positive evidence from other countries that have used graduation exams. But have they worked in the United States? A recent Education Next forum failed to ask this essential question.

When fourteen public school teachers came together as part of Educators 4 Excellence-New York Teacher Policy Team on how to improve the use of testing in schools, they were taken aback by the depth of research showing the harmful effects of exit exams, which twenty-six states have adopted in one form or another.

There are two relevant research questions: Do exit exams have beneficial effects on students in terms of achievement or labor-market outcomes? And do exit exams have negative consequences, particularly on historically disadvantaged populations of students? The answers are no and yes, respectively. Here’s a representative, though not comprehensive, review:

Studies that find no benefit

  • In 2008, researchers examined a nationally representative sample of students and found no impact on achievement of high school graduation exams for any subpopulation of students, including low achievers.
  • A 2010 study of California’s exit exams used a regression discontinuity analysis to examine students who had just narrowly failed a tenth-grade exam. The results were disappointing: “The analyses show no evidence of any significant or sizeable effect of failing the exam on high school course-taking, achievement, persistence, or graduation for students with test scores near the exit exam
  • ...

SECOND ACT
Nevada and Missouri are the most recent states to contract with the SAT and ACT to ensure that every eleventh grader has access to a college entry exam. While we can all agree that increasing access to these tests is a good thing, there are also concerns about adding another test to the pile. Some wonder if the test could serve the dual purposes of college admittance and school assessment.

ELECTION SPOTLIGHT: KANSAS
Funding for schools has landed on the political map in Kansas, where Democrat Paul Davis stands an excellent chance of upsetting Republican incumbent Governor Sam Brownback. Democrats claim that Brownback’s primary fiscal agenda item, a series of tax cuts, has led to a revenue shortfall that endangers public education. The governor’s supporters point to nonpartisan analysis indicating that per-pupil funding has, in fact, increased over the last several years.

POLLING ALERT
New numbers are out on Common Core’s approval among teachers. According to today’s Gallup poll, 41 percent view the standards positively and 44 percent negatively. Beyond the top-line polling, there were interesting implications for the initiative’s continuing popularity: Among teachers employed by schools in which the standards have been fully implemented, over 60 percent took a favorable view.

SECURITY FOR STUDENT-ATHLETES
On the heels of UNC’s mushrooming “shadow curriculum” scandal, which has led to NCAA critics demanding changes to...

What happens when policymakers create statewide school districts to turn around their worst-performing public schools? In Louisiana and Tennessee, Recovery School Districts (RSDs) have made modest-to-strong progress for kids and serve as national models for what the future of education governance might hold.

In the Great Lakes State, the story is more complicated.

In Redefining the School District in Michigan, Nelson Smith, senior advisor to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, examines the progress of the Education Achievement Authority. Unlike the larger RSDs, Michigan’s is a smaller effort with just fifteen schools, all in Detroit, and a big focus on competency-based learning.

As the policy brief attests, the EAA model—direct-run schools with limited reliance on chartering and a high-tech approach—is far from the catastrophe that some critics claim. Yet its detractors aren’t all wrong. There have been many hurdles. The EAA was rolled out on a tight timeline and a shoestring budget, amid urban decline in Detroit. It would have taken a miracle for this to work out well. (Which is something policymakers might have considered before pursuing this path.) Further, its governance arrangement is a Rube Goldberg invention of epic proportions.

The reality of the EAA is not as disastrous as you may have heard. But it’s also not a success like the RSD or ASD—both of which are improving outcomes, albeit slowly, for kids. Which might make its cautionary lessons that much more important for other states thinking of going down this route.

The key takeaway from...

HOSTILE TAKEOVER
Students, teachers, and community members in Memphis protested the takeover of local schools by Tennessee’s state-run Achievement School District, which contracts the administration of failing schools out to charter providers. Students chanted in protest while brandishing signs reading, “We’re not going down without a fight." For the full story on the ASD and other reform measures in Tennessee, drop everything and turn to Nelson Smith’s classic 2013 report for Fordham.

BLOOMBERG PUSHES LOW-INCOME KIDS TO COLLEGE
As has been widely reported, dropping out of college can exact a dreadful toll on job prospects and future income. Today, just one-third of all top-performing high school students from the bottom half of the income scale attend a college with a six-year graduation rate above 70 percent. To address the problem, Bloomberg Philanthrophies has started an initiative to boost that portion to one-half, the New York Times reports.

"STUDENT"-ATHLETES
The Hechinger Report’s Joseph Rauch has an excellent, searing take on the academic scandal haunting the University of North Carolina. Though it’s easy to feign shock over a decades-long fraud, the university’s bogus “shadow curriculum” is actually just one episode in a long history of the exploitation of NCAA student-athletes. “Helping students cheat,” he writes, “is just one of many methods that educational institutions use to maintain this status quo where students allow them to rake in money without...

THANKS OBAMA
Many observers found Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent admonishment of testing to be a puzzling change of direction. However, it now appears that his motivation may have been executive in nature. Alyson Klein writes that President Obama’s new position on testing likely influenced Secretary Duncan. What has made the President rethink the issue is not as clear.

MO' MONEY, REFRESHINGLY FEWER PROBLEMS
A new study from Mathematica Policy Research lends credence to a somewhat intuitive notion: If you pay teachers more, educational outcomes will improve. The case in question is that of Manhattan’s Equity Project, a mostly Hispanic charter school in Washington Heights that pays its teachers roughly $125,000 annually. Eighth graders at the school have experienced gains in math performance comparable to an extra year and a half of instruction at a district school.

HERO AMIDST TRAGEDY
Details continue to emerge surrounding Friday morning’s deadly school shooting at Washington’s Marysville-Pilchuck High School. While the fourteen-year-old shooter’s motives and state of mind remain a mystery, the New York Times reports that a heroic member of the school’s faculty may have saved countless lives by intervening during the crisis.

RUSH FOR PRESCHOOL GRANT MONEY
Thirty-six states have applied to compete for some $250 million in preschool program grants made available by the Department of Education, Politics K–12 reports. The list includes five states...

MORE ON INSTITUTIONAL FAILURE AT UNC
Continuing their terrific coverage of the unfolding academic scandal at the University of North Carolina, the Washington Post weighs in with an important finding: Of the over 3,000 students who enrolled in academically deficient classes in the school’s African and Afro-American studies department, a narrow majority were not athletes. Some weren’t aware that the coursework—including Swahili classes that evidently required no knowledge of the language—was bogus, but most seemed to have knowingly used the shadow curriculum for an easy A. 

AND THE WINNER IS...
The superintendent of the Houston Independent School District received the Urban Educator of the Year award at the CGCS conference yesterday. While the rising graduation rate and narrowing achievement gap were cited as reasons for the decision, winner Terry Grier admitted that Houston is still a work in progress, saying “We’re that close to being a breakout urban district, and we’re not going to stop until we make that happen.” 

DEPARTMENT OF GOOD NEWS
A bit of good news in Mississippi, home to a public school system that has long been considered one of the nation’s worst: According to an index compiled by Opportunity Nation, more students in the state are graduating high school and headed to college, narrowing the so-called “opportunity gap.” The four-year high school graduation rate has crept up 4 percent over the last few years....

SIZE MATTERS
Tom Vander Ark at Real Clear Education weighs in on new research showing that smaller high schools may yield serious educational rewards. Among other positive effects, the new MDRC study concludes that New York’s small high schools have helped boost graduation rates among low-income students over the past decade. For the last word on the costs and benefits of small schools of choice, read Fordham’s own Amber Northern, who reviewed the study for this week’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE
First he ran an ad touting his efforts to slow down the progress of Common Core in New York. Now Governor Andrew Cuomo—a center-left Democrat in a comfortably blue state, with a healthy lead over his election opponent—has completed his long-rumored transformation into a besuited chicken, protesting that he had “nothing to do with Common Core” in last night’s gubernatorial debate.

IF ONLY SAM COOKE WERE ALIVE TODAY
In the first installment of a new series celebrating the classroom totems of yesteryear, NPR has put together a quick read that finally explains what a slide rule is for.

TARHEELED AND FEATHERED
An extensive investigation into academic practices at the University of North Carolina has uncovered nearly two decades of academic fraud, the Washington Post reports. From 1994 to 2011, over 3,000 students, including a significant portion of student-athletes, took part in a so-called “shadow curriculum” that inflated grades and lowered standards for...

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