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 study in the scientific journal Brain and Language examines how the brain responds when presented with two different methods of reading instruction. It examines a small sample—sixteen adults (with an average age of twenty-two) who are native English speakers and do not face reading disabilities.

Participants took two days to undergo training, whereby they learn an invented language based on hieroglyphics. Each participant was taught two ways to associate a set of words read aloud to a corresponding set of visual characters (or “glyphs”). The first was a phonics-based approach focusing on letter-sound relationships; the second was a whole-word approach relying on memorization. After training, the participants took part in testing sessions during which they were hooked up to an EEG machine that monitored their brain response. They were then instructed to approach their “reading” using one strategy or the other.

Scientists found that the phonics approach activated the left side of the brain—which is where the visual and language regions lie, and which has been shown in prior studies to support later word recognition. Thus, activating this part of the brain helps to spur on beginning readers. This approach also enabled participants to decode “words” they had...

There are no grand revelations, but this new report about New York’s robust charter sector from the city’s Independent Budget Office offers useful data on a range of hotly debated topics, including student demographics, attrition, and “backfilling” seats left by departing students.

For starters, it’s good to be reminded just how small that sector is, in spite of its rapid growth. Gotham boasts some of the nation’s highest-profile and most closely watched charters, including Success Academy, KIPP, and Achievement First, but only seventy-two thousand of the city’s 1.1 million school-aged children attend a charter school. And those major players are a fraction of the New York’s charter school scene, which is almost evenly split between network-run schools and independents. Some New York City neighborhoods are particularly charter-rich (Harlem, for instance, enrolls 37 percent of its students in charters as of 2013–2014), but charters remain relatively rare in the boroughs of Queens and Staten Island. The sector also serves an overwhelmingly black and Hispanic population. Charter students are more likely to be poor than traditional Department of Education (DOE) schools, though charters serve smaller concentrations of English language learners and special education students.

Another fascinating bit of data: The controversial practice of...

Shortly before ten o’clock on a recent warm summer morning, the grand old Apollo Theater on Harlem's 125th Street filled up with the friends and families of the members of Democracy Prep Charter High School's third-ever graduating class. The soon-to-be graduates milled about in the lobby, hugging each other and taking selfies in their bright golden robes and mortarboards before filing in, grinning, for their moment of glory.

I got to know each of these sixty-one students in my senior seminar class this year. It was a deeply satisfying year for the school and an extraordinary one for the students, each of Latino and African descent, and nearly all of modest means. Come September, every single one of them will attending colleges, including several institutions that would be the envy of parents and students at the elite private schools just a few blocks south of here. Ashlynn and Chris will be heading to Dartmouth; Hawa turned down Stanford to attend Yale; Tyisha will join the freshman class at Princeton. Other members of Democracy Prep's Class of 2019 are bound for Emory, Smith, SUNY Albany, Boston College, and Brown, among many others.

Class of 2019 is not a typo. It...

You don’t have to be a diehard liberal to believe that it’s nuts to wait until kids—especially poor kids—are five years old to start their formal education. We know that many children arrive in kindergarten with major gaps in knowledge, vocabulary, and social skills. We know that first-rate preschools can make a big difference on the readiness front. And we know from the work of Richard Wenning and others that even those K–12 schools that are helping poor kids make significant progress aren’t fully catching them up to their more affluent peers. Six hours a day spread over thirteen years isn’t enough. Indeed, as our colleague Chester Finn calculated years ago, that amount of schooling adds up to just 9 percent of a person’s life on this planet by the age of eighteen. We need to start earlier and go faster.

But the challenge in pre-K, as in K–12 education, is one of quality at scale. As much as preschool education makes sense—as much as it should help kids get off to an even start, if not a “head start”—the actual experience has been consistently disappointing. Quality is uneven....

In a new study released today from Fordham, authors Sara Mead and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel examine thirty-six jurisdictions that have both charter schools and state-funded pre-K programs to determine where charters can provide state-funded pre-K. Among the findings:

  • Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have both state-funded pre-K and charter laws. Of those, thirty-two have at least one charter school serving preschoolers.
  • Charter schools in all but four states face at least one significant barrier to offering state pre-K. Nine have statutory or policy barriers that preclude charter schools from offering state-funded pre-K; twenty-three other states technically permit charters to offer state-funded pre-K but have created practical barriers that significantly limit their ability to do so in practice.

The most common practical barriers include low funding levels, small pre-K programs, barriers to kindergarten enrollment, and local district monopolies on pre-K funds.

Download the report to see individual profiles of thirty-five states and the District of Columbia, as well as policy recommendations for federal and state policymakers and other critical stakeholders.

This research was made possible through the generous support of the Joyce Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), and our sister...

Yesterday, the Senate debated an amendment proposed by Mike Lee (R-UT) that would have required states to allow parents to opt-out of federally-mandated tests without penalizing their schools or districts. After Senate HELP committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) voiced his opposition, it failed 32 to 64. However, a similar amendment succeeded last week in the House, so is now included in the Student Success Act that was approved along party lines.

Senator Alexander’s floor speech on the Lee amendment, as printed in the Congressional Record, follows.

Mr. President, I thank the senator from Utah for his comments. We will be voting on the senator’s amendment this afternoon at 4 o’clock, and I want to just make a couple of comments about it. I have a little different view of what his proposal is. He talks about our being opposed to Washington’s heavy-handed approach. The way I understand his proposal, it is even more of a heavy-handed approach than the bill we are voting on today, and this is why.

His proposal is that Washington tells Utah or Oklahoma or Tennessee or Washington State what to do about whether parents may opt out of these federally required tests. Now, they are not...

I have been and continue to be a strong supporter of parental choice. I joined this fight over twenty-five years ago because I believe it can help address the systemic inequities so many poor students face. In my mind, the primary purpose of parental choice is to provide those who do not currently have high-quality educational options with access to those options. So while I believe that every student deserves an excellent education in the school that best meets his needs, I also believe that parental choice should be used principally as a tool to empower communities that face systemic barriers to greater educational and economic opportunities. I did not join this movement to subsidize families like mine—which may not be rich, but which have resources and options. I joined the late Polly Williams in 1989 in her courageous fight to make sure that poor families were afforded some opportunity to choose schools in the private sector for their children.

Since then, I have fought alongside many others for parental choice for low-income and working class families throughout the nation. From the beginning, some critics of the parental choice movement have claimed that Republican lawmakers and other conservatives who have...

Scott Walker announced today that he’s running for president. The governor of Wisconsin is the fifteenth Republican candidate and the twentieth overall. He’s also the latest subject of our Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Walker has been involved in state politics for over twenty-two years. He was a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1993 to 2002, when he was elected executive of Milwaukee County. After serving in that office for eight years, he took the helm as governor in 2011. During his tenure, Walker has focused heavily on education reform—and hasn’t shied away from controversial decisions. Here’s a sampling of his stances:

1. Teacher tenure and pay: “In 2011, we changed that broken system in Wisconsin. Today, the requirements for seniority and tenure are gone. Schools can hire based on merit and pay based on performance. That means they can keep the best and the brightest in the classroom.” June 2015.

2. School choice: “[W]e increased the number of quality education choices all over Wisconsin. Over the past four years, we expanded the number of charter schools, lifted the limits on virtual schools, and provided more help for families choosing to...

In a National Review piece last month, Mike Petrilli raised the important issue of how schools can build on the existing social capital in low-income neighborhoods. Yet he was unduly skeptical about the social-capital-building potential of a “typical Head Start center.” In fact, building social capital is the exact purpose that Head Start programs are designed to fill, and many of them do an outstanding job of it. In this regard, they are models for the public school system.

Head Start programs are expected to partner with communities and feature dedicated capacity and strategies for engagement that build on existing assets and networks. Their functions often take these shapes:

  • A social services hub. Many of the children in struggling neighborhoods will enter with a wide range of needs. Head Start programs address them by partnering with existing, trusted service providers that both serve students directly and educate teachers and school leaders about common warning signs. If schools did the same—instead of just trying to provide those services on their own—they could better attend to their students’ comprehensive needs. 
  • A family support hub. Parents in low-income communities often lack social capital, and research shows that building it up through social assistance
  • ...

The Ohio Education Research Center (OERC) recently reported the teacher evaluation results from 2013–14, the first year of widespread implementation of the state’s new evaluation policy. The report should serve as an early warning sign while also raising a host of thorny questions about how those evaluations are being conducted in the field.

The study’s main finding is that the overwhelming majority of Ohio teachers received high ratings. In fact, a remarkable 90 percent of teachers were rated “skilled” or “accomplished”—the two highest ratings. By contrast, a mere 1 percent of Buckeye teachers were rated “ineffective”—the lowest of the four possible ratings. These results are implausible; teaching is like other occupations, and worker productivity should vary widely. Yet Ohio’s teacher evaluation system shows little variation between teachers. It’s also evident that the evaluation is quite lenient on teacher performance. But there’s more. Let’s take a look at a few other data points reported by OERC that merit discussion.

1.   Most teachers are not part of the value-added system

Given the controversy around value added in teacher evaluation, it may surprise you that most Buckeye teachers don’t receive an evaluation based on value-added results. (Value added refers...